Sunday, September 07, 2014

How Then Can We Live?

Hey friends,

What follows is a manuscript of the sermon I preached this Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Schenectady, NY as part of our congregation's annual Rally Sunday. I focused mostly on the first appointed lesson for the day, Ezekiel 33:7-11. Thanks so much for reading, and I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

So we’re here on a beautiful early fall morning, worshiping outside, rallying at the start of a new year of Sunday School, choir and bunch of other exciting things at Messiah, probably hoping I’ll finish up my sermon early so we can get to the barbecue and that sort of thing, and we’re confronted by a bunch of real choice texts for what’s supposed to be a happy, joyful Sunday… I mean, when I read the texts earlier this week from what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary, this standardized list of Bible texts used each Sunday by most churches in a number of different denominations, I literally had like face in my palm, rolled my eyes… all the folks who came up with the list of texts really dealt us an interesting hand today for our Rally Sunday… In our Hebrew Bible reading Ezekiel is calling out the wickedness of his fellow folks from Judah, talking about how God has appointed him as a sentinel… in our reading from the Epistles, Paul’s writing to the Romans about how there’s no debauchery and reveling allowed… and in the Gospel of Matthew even Jesus gets in on happy fest… talking all about how if people in your faith community sin against you, there’s this long process you have to go through to either reconcile with them, or maybe kick them out… wowzers. Now, it’s not that there’s not wisdom in these texts, I don’t want to make light of them at all in that sort of way, but, to be fair, for a Sunday that’s supposed to be so fun and happy and about all the joys of Christian community, our texts today upon first read seem to be well, a bit of a bummer.

There’s no denying these aren’t the most joyful of texts, but that’s mostly because the speakers in all three texts are taking their prophetic role quite seriously, guarding against the specific sins of their time and local community. In all of three of today’s texts though, it’s not just all fire and brimstone sort of stuff by any means, because every passage proclaims hope in some way as well. Ezekiel explicitly states it this way, but both Paul and Jesus reflect the same message… when the community asks “how then can we live?” Ezekiel quite simply proclaims out, “God lives, so how could you die? God lives, so how could you possible have anything to worry about? God lives!” And to boil it down, that’s pretty much what prophets do right? They analyze the human situation specific to their time and place, figure out what folks are generally worrying about and then proclaim to folks how God is constantly breaking into their lives to show how those worries are complete hogwash. Whether its a people saying no, we can’t live under exile in a foreign land, as the people of Judah were in Ezekiel’s time, or a small, emerging faith community in Paul and Jesus’s time saying no, we can’t get along with one another, no we can’t figure out how to be a church, in both these and I believe in all human situations, there’s always some sort of “no” folks are coming up with. And often in quite simple ways, prophets pretty just proclaim how God is the eternal “yes” to all those “no’s” us human beings keep coming up with, whatever they are.

Just to reiterate, because I’m a bit more discombobulated than usual, I’ve made two points so far… 1) its easy to see that the prophets in our texts today took their jobs quite seriously, and 2) we can pretty much boil down the job of a prophet to show how God is the eternal “yes” to whatever specific “no’s” folks are coming up with in their specific time and place. So, here’s a third point for you to consider my sisters and brother… we’re all called to be prophets. Think about it… remember Jesus’ whole “great commission” thing? “Go and make disciples of all nations?” As Christians, we’re all called to be prophets. We’re all called to be prophets… to look at our specific time and place, figure out what “no’s” people are coming up with, and then show how God is the eternal “yes” to all those no’s and doubts… Just Ezekiel, and Paul and Jesus, we’re called to discern how folks are asking “How then can we live?” and then be able to proclaim, “Hey, like chill out, God lives!! God lives, so how could you possibly die?” We’re called to be prophets, to proclaim the good news of God’s liberating love in Christ to a world absolutely overflowing with all sorts of human hogwash… all sorts of “no’s.”

So what “no’s” then are folks coming up with today in our time and place, in postmodern twenty-first century Schenectady? What “no’s” are we called to answer with the good news of the eternal “yes” of God? There’s certainly a bunch of possibilities, a bunch of “no’s” floating around out there in the societal ether, but after thinking about it a great deal over the past week and having conversations with many of you, I believe two of the most popular “no’s” in our time and place are as follows: “No, I don’t think my life has a whole lot of meaning” and “No, I don’t really feel part of a community.” Think about it… things are changing more rapidly than ever. From government to religion to the market there no longer seems like any institutions we can trust. And there’s so many things to fear… terrorism, disease, loneliness and financial uncertainty are just a few of those things. And there’s just so much to do… most of us, and perhaps especially our kids, are way too over-programed… mounds of homework, twenty different sports teams… it’s an odd sort of paradox, actually. Despite being busier than ever, many of us feel more lonely than ever. And amidst the daily grind of all that busyness and fear and change, wow, we can’t help but often feel like there isn’t much of a point to the whole thing.

How then can we live like this? How then can we live without a life of meaning? How then can we live without a deep, fulfilling connection with community? How then can we live? We’re asking these questions… our neighbors are asking these questions… in our human imperfection, we’re all asking these questions, the specific “no’s” of our postmodern age. And my sisters and brothers, after hanging out here at Messiah for over a month now, after having conversations with most of you over meals or in committee meetings or while feeding hungry kids lunch, I feel more confident than ever that you’re just the prophetic sort of folks God’s calling to proclaim the eternal “yes” amidst so many human “no’s.” You’re just the prophetic sort of folks to answer those human questions “how then can we live?” with the only answer that’s ever really mattered, “God lives.” I mean look around at each other… seriously, nearly everyone here is deeply involved in the life of this congregation in one way or another. In most congregations you get maybe twenty, thirty percent of folks who do more than just come to church on a Sunday morning. Here at Messiah though, on an average week I’d say I see or speak with at least three quarters of you outside of Sunday morning. It’s absolutely amazing! It’s easy to see that in a society starved for meaning, in a society starved for community, you all can’t help but find meaning, you can’t help but find community here in Christ.

There’s a lot to rally about this Sunday, on this beautiful early fall morning, on Rally Sunday… you might not believe it, but just in the way you live out your life in Christ together, its plainly apparent to me how prophetic you’re all called to be. In a world desperately crying out “how then can we live without meaning?” and “how then can we live without community?” you’re just the sort of prophetic folks called to answer those specific questions with the eternal yes of God by being exactly who you are, by doing the simple things… by living out a life of meaning in Christian community and going out to welcome others in to gather with us around bread and wine, to sing together, pray together, share meals together and play together and raise our children together. God lives. God lives. God lives. And in such a time as this, that eternal yes, that good news that God lives is more important than ever. So, on this Rally Sunday, let’s indeed rally. Let’s sing and play and joyfully proclaim it at the top of our lungs my sisters and brothers, God lives!!!

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation ministering with the local community in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his profession time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Looking Back to Move Forward in the Aftermath of Ferguson

Hey friends,

What follows is a manuscript of the sermon I preached this Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Schenectady, NY. I focused mostly on the first appointed lesson for the day, Isaiah 51: 1 - 6 and related its teachings to race relations in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Although it does have a lot of things specifically about our own congregation here in Schenectady, I pray that there's some good news in there for everyone. As there were a lot of folks' stories mentioned in today's sermon, I've deleted last names to ensure a level of privacy. Let me express my sincere gratitude to Rev. Andrena Ingram's public witness last night, which I cited about halfway through. Thanks for reading, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

So as many of you know, I was engaged in a little bit of a research project this past week… in home visits and committee meetings, in phone conversations and on Facebook, I spent a bunch of time asking folks about their favorite memories at here Messiah. Now, my purposes in doing this were multi-fold. First of all, after my first few weeks here, with everything that comes with moving and ordination now behind me, I figured it was about time to start figuring out who this community is on a bit of a deeper level… to get some deeper answers about what you value, how you identify yourselves, why you all bother putting in all the effort to be a faith community at all. Second, in having conversations about your most cherished memories from the past of course, I was hoping to discern a bit more about where we could go, what we could do, how we could serve God together in the extremely uncertain times we find ourselves in. And finally, in asking you about your favorite memories at Messiah, I also wanted you consider the similarities between those extremely uncertain times we’re living through here in modern day Schenectady and the situation the author of Isaiah faced over two-thousand five hundred years ago.

Now to be fair, there are differences between our time and Isaiah’s, to be sure… we have the internet and supersonic jet planes, they had wheels, chariots maybe? The people of Isaiah’s time seemed to dig regular types of sacrifices to various gods, and folks nowadays generally only like going to church on Christmas and maybe Easter. So there are differences, but there’s also incredible similarities… The book of Isaiah is one of the largest and for many most important books of the Hebrew Bible… about two-thirds of the time Saint Paul’s quoting the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament, he’s quoting Isaiah. Despite its length and importance, many of us don’t know a whole lot about it, probably because unlike passages like Noah’s Ark, the Exodus, King David and that sort of thing, there’s not a whole lot of stories in this part of the Bible, at least at on the surface, and hence, its not the type of scripture that lends itself to memorable Sunday School lessons. When you put all the hard to understand prophecies of Isaiah next to the cute little animals going up on Noah’s Ark two by two, well, ya know what wins every time.

But Isaiah is incredibly important, it tells us so much about our Christian understanding that Wikipedia tells me many have called it the “fifth gospel.” Isaiah’s incredible important, and one key to understanding it and digging out the stories that are happening beneath the text is knowing there’s no one “Isaiah” writing the thing… understandings about this have changed a bit in recent years, but pretty much all Biblical scholars will says there’s a bunch of “Isaiahs,” writing at drastically different points in Israel’s history. Today’s passage comes to us from a prophet writing at quite a critical juncture, either right before or right as the people of Israel are returning from exile in Babylon. The Persians conquered Babylon a bit over 2500 years ago, and King Cyrus said whoever wanted to go home could… it’s a time of hope, yes, like wow, after over sixty years of captivity in Babylon, we finally get to go home and rebuild the Temple, but its mostly a time of incredible uncertainty… folks barely remember who they are anymore, with so many traditions lost during captivity, how could we possibly again be the people our God wants us to be?

Isaiah’s time was a time of promise overshadowed by immense uncertainty, just like ours. I mean wow, although I don’t usually bring my phone to worship, on a day to day basis I have the ability in the palm of my hand to with a little bit of effort get in contact with almost two thirds of the over 7 billion people in the world today. Now that’s absolutely amazing, and the possibilities of increased understanding and learning in our time are thus immense. Yet not since at least I was child, a young sophomore in high school probably, have we lived in even somewhat optimistic times… 9/11 happened, most notably, and right as it felt like we were maybe starting to get out of all the subsequent messes we found ourselves after that horrific day, the Great Recession happened. And right as maybe it felt like things were starting to improve in the last year, we hear of new things to be feared in Iraq and Syria, Russia and the Ukraine, Palestine and Israel, the Ebola virus… the list goes on. Despite all our advances, all our promise, we live in a more distrustful, uncertain time than ever, a whole lot like the times Isaiah found himself living through in today’s passage.

So what does Isaiah say, what instruction and good news does Isaiah have to proclaim to his fellow Israelites, as well to us in this time and place, here in modern day Schenectady? He tells us to look back, to remember the past, but in doing so don’t stay there… let the best of the past help you figure out how to move forward.  Look back, remember the past, but don’t stay there… let the best of the past help you figure out how to move forward. Look back, to move forward. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug,” proclaims Isaiah. “Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you!” Isaiah keeps pointing us to look back, but only to stay there long enough in order to move forward… “Listen to me, my people… lift up your eyes to the heavens…” And the reason Isaiah keeps pointing us to look back, in order to help us figure out how to move forward? Because even though God is constantly creating and doing new and amazing things, in one sense, God is doing the same old thing God always has… “the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats, but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” Things may change, but our salvation will be forever, our deliverance will never be ended.

So, now outside of actually mentioning some of the amazing stories I heard from you all this past week about your favorite memories at Messiah, I probably could have just ended my sermon there and called it a day… gave you all a shorter one for once. Honestly until last night that was the plan, but in an odd sort of way, events over the past couple weeks have granted us an opportunity to in a practical sense talk about how this might work, to look back at what God has done in our past in order to figure out how to move forward. Those of you who saw what I was posting up on Facebook last night probably know what I’m about to get at, the killing of an young, unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri and subsequent days of rage, protest, both peaceful and otherwise, police and government officials trying resolve the situation… what a mess, but also what an important reminder that race is still such a major issue in contemporary America.

I was really debating whether to bring this up, talking about controversial topics from the pulpit in your first few weeks in a congregation is usually not advised. But last night as I was reading various articles about everything that happened over the past two weeks, I came upon a letter signed by leaders of nearly all the major African-American church bodies in America, urging all clergy of goodwill, no matter the color of their skin, to talk to their parishioners about what happened in Ferguson. I got to thinking that many of you as you watched all those heartbreaking images going across your TV screens may have wondered, how does this sort of thing relate to my faith, how should I relate to these sort of heartbreaking events as a Christian. I still wasn’t sure if I’d bring up Ferguson and issues of race though until a read a post from a good friend of mine, an African American and ELCA pastor from Philadelphia, Rev. Andrena Ingram. She had by far better words than I could ever come up with on the subject, so I’ll just read some excerpts of them to you now:
I woke up with a headache, and it has "racism" written all over it. Here's the thing: racism exists. I have personally experienced it. My son has personally experienced it. Of course, not to the degree that my parents, grandparents and great-great-great- grandparents - beginning with my ancestor, Tarleton "Slave" Fleming. But -- we have experienced it personally as it continues to reach its icy-hot tentacles out from the abyss of yesterday, into today… what gives me this headache is those who refuse to hear, those who continue to deny, those who try and flip the script and make excuses. Those who continually try to tell us, that what we are experiencing is not what we know it to be. We have lived it. We are living it. It seems to be part of OUR DNA. What gives me this headache is that some folks don't even want to be still and just listen and learn. Just hush! You don't have to have a response every time we try and explain to you how it feels. When I am telling you I have a pain...I am not expecting you to be able to make it go away, pronto. What I do want you to know is that if you just be quiet and LISTEN, maybe you can begin to understand just how deep this issue runs and how afraid people are to even acknowledge it. Serenity Now! Divinity Now! Namaste, Shalom, Peace.
Now, my sisters and brothers, no matter your interpretation of what’s happened over the past couple weeks in Ferguson, we should recognize that Pastor Ingram is right in asking us as Christians to perhaps not entirely agree, but at least to listen. When hundreds of thousands of our black sisters and brothers in Christ are saying that race is still an issue in America, whenever that many people are saying something is a big problem for that matter, we at least need to listen, even if don’t entirely agree.

And the good news, my sisters and brothers, is that listening to each other, that creating space to be together despite sometimes difficult circumstances, is from what I can tell central to who we are as followers of Christ here at Messiah when we’re at our best. So with this particular example, with what’s gone on in Ferguson and the issue of race in America, let’s do exactly what the prophet Isaiah tells us to do in today’s passage: let’s briefly look back in order to figure out how to move forward… All week I was trying to figure out a common thread from the stories I was hearing from all of you, but it wasn’t until Jill sent me a post last night that I figured it out… she sent me this image that said “You might be Lutheran if you carry silverware in your pocket to church, just in case there’s a potluck.” You might be Lutheran if you carry silverware in your pocket to church, just in case there’s a potluck. I’m not sure if this was her intention, but it helped me realize what’s central to our identity here at Messiah… we create space for people, we create space to listen to each other, to share. I kept hearing all these things about sharing food all week from you all, and Bill has kept telling me from day one, we loved to eat. But why do we love to eat? It's not just because we like the taste of the food or whatever, although we certainly do like how food tastes around here. It’s because having a meal together creates space, for listening, for common understanding to take place.

And I heard similar things from other folks… Betty told me about being accepted here years ago despite her Catholic upbringing. Cheryl discussed her fond memories of confirmation class overnights at the church, and it wasn’t just because one of her classmates through a football through the window… she said she felt accepted and listened to her at Messiah, even if she didn’t always in school. Cheryl’s daughter Hannah told me about how she loved building a fort out back behind the church and spending time with her friends during community movie night last weekend. Ed mentioned enjoying some Property Committee work, like installing the second floor in the parsonage, and how good of time that was to share with other folks at Messiah. Lore and Dave told me about sharing time together with family and friends as they celebrated their wedding, the very first one to happen in the old sanctuary building decades ago… Judy mentioned sharing stories and celebrating her mother Dorothy’s life at the memorial held here… so that seems to be what we do as followers of Christ here at Messiah, at least when we’re at our best… we create space for folks, space where folks can share their stories and be listened to. Creating space, listening, that’s who and why we are. Creating space, listening… it lines up perfectly with what Pastor Ingram was asking for in her post last night, and its what we should do in the aftermath of Ferguson. So whether its in relation to what’s happened in Ferguson or to any of the many other difficulties and uncertainties we might face, I encourage you to do just as Isaiah has urged us to this day… look back to the best of the past, but just long enough to figure out how to move forward. Because we know that even though God is always is doing new things, in a way, God has and always will be doing the same old but amazing thing as well… “Things may change, but our salvation will be forever, our deliverance will never be ended.” In Christ, my sisters and brothers, God promises us our salvation will be forever, our deliverance will never be ended. And as always, our God is a God who keeps promises. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation ministering with the local community in Schenectady, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his profession time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Canaanite Woman & Challenging God

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday at Messiah Lutheran Church where I'm currently serving as pastor, primary on the appointed gospel text for the Sunday, Matthew 15: 21 - 28, the "Story of the Canaanite Woman." You can watch video of the sermon on our Facebook page as well. If you like what you read and hear, be sure to "like" us on Facebook, or feel free to stop by Messiah when you're in the area. You're welcome here, no matter who you are!

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

So last week we talked a bunch about how God more often than not shows up in the simple things, in everyday conversations with strangers and loved ones alike, in ordinary experiences where we’re reminded of God’s presence and love in our everyday lives. So this is awesome, and absolutely true… God is constantly showing up, and usually in the simple ordinary ways we least expect. Today’s gospel lesson though points us in almost the opposite direction though… it proclaims some profound truths about what happens when it seems like God isn’t showing up, when it feels like God isn’t helping us in the most difficult of experiences, when God feels cold and distant, despite our constant pleading and heartfelt prayers. And most of us have indeed had those experiences, or at least will in the future… when we’re confronted by disease, death, broken relationships, heartbreaking disappointment or profound fear… all the sort of modern day demons that most of us have or will face.

And what do us people of faith do in those situations, at least usually? We pray, we plead with God just like the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel passage. To be a fair, a pretty good percentage of folks who usually wouldn’t even consider themselves religious tend to pray when they’re confronted by desperate situations. Yet we also have to admit, we have to confess the fact that at least some of time when we’re surrounded by these sort of demons, it doesn’t feel like God is answering our prayers at all. No specifics needed, but who here has been in that sort of desperate situation, and has struggled with feeling like your prayers weren’t being answered by God? I don’t mean prayers like oh God, I wish I had a coffee, or oh God, I wish I could win the lottery… oh God, I wish mom would get me the latest Justin Bieber album for Christmas or something like that… when God doesn’t answer those prayers, it’s not really a big deal… but those other ones… the ones we can’t even fully describe with words, ones like a desperate mother’s cry for her suffering child, a cry that that in today’s story was initially only answered with silence by Jesus. The text says it plain… “Jesus did not answer her at all.” Jesus did not answer her at all… that’s almost worse than what happens next in a way, right? Jesus calls the woman a dog… and that’s pretty horrible, to be sure, but the silence… “Jesus did not answer her at all.” When it feels like God isn’t responding at all to our desperate pleas, in my experience at least, that’s the toughest our relationship with God can get.

And then how do we respond in these situations, when it feels like God answers our anguished cries with silence? For me at least, in my own experience with this sort of thing, I’ve tended to respond with anger… I’ve tended to become absolutely furious with God. I believe the folks who were on my call committee heard part of this story, and I honestly hesitate because its important I believe that a pastor doesn’t make a sermon about herself or himself, but I think its worth telling to illuminate today’s gospel message. At our Christmas Eve worship service of 2007, I was home in Connecticut from my final year of college in Washington, DC, and I was riding high… I knew I had a great political campaign finance job lined up after graduation, was in a great relationship, and was most importantly really enjoying family life… having just sort of grown out of a sometimes tumultuous relationship with my dad and especially my mom as a teenager, I felt overjoyed to be getting to know them all over again as a young adult, that sort of thing. So it’s Christmas Eve service, and many of you saw my childhood church of Emanuel yesterday at ordination… it’s a pretty big place… full of people, celebrating the coming of God into our world with all the usual Christmas fanfare, we were probably singing Joy to the World or something similar and I look around, see my smiling family, great girl standing next to me, and I just feel well, overjoyed.

I felt like I had it all, that I was ready to graduate from college, be a successful adult with a great family, doing the political campaign work I always dreamed about… everything was awesome. But unfortunately it didn’t stay that way… fast forward a few months to spring break, only a couple months before graduation… my parents had been acting kind of weird on the phone over the last few days, but when my dad picked me up at the airport, he looked absolutely dejected. After I repeatedly asked him what was up, he told me my mom had just been diagnosed with late stage-three lung cancer. There was a chance it could be operated on successfully, but not a very good one. Later that week, I went to the doctor myself after noticing a lump sort of thing in my throat, and the doctor told me there was a good chance it was thyroid cancer. That perfect life, that American dream sort of thing I had been thinking about at Christmas Eve just a few months earlier, was quickly beginning to unravel. Of course I prayed, but it never felt like God really answered. Just like the Canaanite woman experienced in today’s gospel message, it didn’t seem like Jesus would answer at all.

Right around that same time, my relationship was beginning to unravel, and I quickly realized that in trying to help care for my mom and to continue with all the various tests and treatments myself, I couldn’t do the long hours of that campaign finance job I had dreamed about for so many years… the folks over at Camp Calumet in New Hampshire were kind enough to give me flexible work, so that I could head home when needed, but to be honest being a camp counselor in your mid-twenties with a college degree is well, less than ideal. My mom went in to have an entire lung removed, and indeed almost died, but survived for the time being, and left the hospital only a couple days before I went in to have my entire thyroid removed. There was thankfully some good news that came out of that, as I myself had a false-positive cancer diagnosis, but unfortunately a few months later we found out my mother’s cancer had metastasized. My mother passed away only a few months later, a few days after Christmas of 2008.

Now fast forward to Christmas Eve service of 2009. I was in my same childhood church of Emanuel, with the same joyful music playing, a bunch of awesome brass instruments booming out Joy to the World, but it was otherwise nothing like Christmas Eve two years earlier. Instead of anticipating an awesome job and graduation from college, I was unemployed and living at home… although I worked with Thrivent for a year, I had since quit to find a job with less hours and figure out how to get to seminary, but of course at the height of the Great Recession, there wasn’t a whole lot of options. Most importantly though, I felt completely alone in that crowded, massive sanctuary at Emanuel… no girlfriend, no family… I had to go to Christmas Eve service alone that year… my dad and brother usually only went to make my mom happy, and well, approaching the first year anniversary of my mother’s death, they weren’t really in the Christmas mood anyway.

So Christmas Eve service happens, I pray and sing, completely miserable, but it still felt like no one answered. And then I get home, increasingly desperate, and in this intense, chaotic, almost rage I all of the sudden just start screaming at God, tears streaming down my face, barely making words out in between my cries. I looked back at that perfect, happy scene only two years earlier and let out this torrent, accusing God of being completely absent, doing absolutely nothing to help while my family and I were suffering so immensely. Not really thinking that God had done all these horrible things to my family and I, but rather, just like the Canaanite woman experienced at first in today’s gospel message, that God had seemingly answered my prayers with silence… “Jesus did not answer her at all.” Jesus did not answer her at all. Now in my case, that Christmas Eve was a turning point, things did indeed start getting better very soon after my night of struggling with God. Even then though, for years later, even up to perhaps only months ago, although our relationship certainly improved, I never felt like I could entirely forgive God for those two years of silence. But that, however, is a whole other story.

There is, in fact, good news in today’s gospel message my sisters and brothers, and its not some silly platitude like God only gives you what you can handle. And its not an answer to why bad things, and especially a lot of bad things at once, can happen to good people. I have absolutely no idea on that one, although I’d love to have something definitive to tell you, its just a mystery of faith. There is definitive good news we can know from today’s gospel message however, actually two huge portions absolutely amazing, crystal clear, easily defined good news that we can be absolutely certain of. First, God promises us, as shown by Jesus’ later reaction to the Canaanite woman and in a bunch of other instances, that a life of faith need not be one of constant praise. Ya know, for years I felt incredibly guilty that I was so angry with God, but as the Canaanite woman shows us, struggling with God at times is completely okay. God is bigger than our anger, and even more importantly recognizes that just because we’re struggling or even accusing God for a time does not mean we’re not being faithful followers of Christ. Remember, after her repeated challenges, Jesus says, “Woman, great is your faith!” “Woman, great is your faith!” My sisters and brothers, it is completely okay, completely acceptable, to struggle with God, especially when you’re going through the most difficult of circumstances.

Our second portion of absolutely amazing, crystal clear easily defined good news today is also a fairly unique one. Ya know, I’ve studied other major religions in some detail, and this is the one thing that Christianity has that the others don’t… our moral system is not unique, nor is the idea that God is love, but the part that is unique and that today’s gospel message emphasizes, it’s that God was human. And not just divine with a human mask, no! God was fully human. God was fully human in the person of Jesus Christ. Sometimes we don’t like to think about that part, that Jesus was fully human, it makes us feel uncomfortable… that in his humanness Jesus messed up in today’s gospel message by calling the brave Canaanite woman a dog and by at first insisting that he had only come to serve the children of Israel. There’s a few other of these Bible passages too, that emphasize Jesus’ humanness, when he cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” most notably.

Yet it’s true. God was fully human in Jesus Christ. And not only is it true that God was fully human, but it’s really, really important, and it’s incredibly good news. It’s incredibly good news because we know, we were in fact promised, that when we’re struggling with God and struggling with the world around us, with death, disease or all sorts of disasters, that not only is it okay to challenge God, but more importantly that God knows what we’re going through. And not in some divine, all knowing sort of way. God knows what we’re going through because God’s experienced it in a fully human way. In a fully fragile, limited, struggled human sort of way God has experienced our human struggles in Christ. How God did it, how it makes logical sense, I have no idea, but we have been promised in Christ that this is true. And thus, my sisters and brothers, while it may not be true that God will only give us we can handle, we have been promised, we have been crystal cleared been made a promise that God will only give us what God has handled in a fully human sort of way in the person of Jesus Christ. And as we know through Christ’s resurrection over the forces of sin, death and despair, none of those things have a chance against the awesome power of God’s love for us. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation ministering with the local community in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his profession time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Elijah's Story & God in the Ordinary

Friends, so what follows is the first sermon I preached last Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York as their pastor. I pretty much focused on the appointed Hebrew Bible reading for the Sunday, 1 Kings 19: 9 - 18, the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb. I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,

So one thing I regularly heard at seminary was to not ignore the “hard texts” when preaching… the texts that are either simply too confusing or seems too difficult to draw a good message out of. And given that I’m a relative newbie at this whole pastor thing, I figured I’d follow that advice, I really don’t know any better, and thus I proceeded to spend this whole week entirely puzzled about our reading from the Hebrew Bible this week, the story of God coming to Elijah in a “still, small voice” while he’s hanging out on a mountaintop. On the surface it seems easy… I thought maybe I could talk to you all about the beauty of stillness and silence in these busy, constantly loud, rapidly changing times we find ourselves living in. Or talk about how God comforts us and changes us whenever we need it… something like that. Those messages sound kind of nice… God in the silence, etc., but the problem is, if you read the passage in context with the rest of the wider Elijah story, these nice sounding messages simply aren’t there, and in fact, the whole story doesn’t make much sense at all.

I’ll give you all a quick refresher on the wider Elijah story to show you what I mean… Elijah is one of the real superhero prophets of the Hebrew Bible… he’s a really big deal. He calls down fire from the sky, he conducts the first recorded resurrection in the Bible, when he walks around in the wilderness, God constantly is sending ravens to feed him. He never dies, but instead ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot at the end of his ministry. Outside of Moses he’s the only other guy who shows up at Christ’s transfiguration on top of Mount Tabor. Elijah is a really big deal! He is also a constant thorn in the side of that “evil Ba’al worshiper Queen Jezebel” and her husband King Ahab, the ruler of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who pretty much does whatever Jezebel tells him. Elijah is a really big deal, really powerful, and keeps trying to call the people of Israel back to worshiping the one true God. Not long before today’s story, Elijah accomplishes perhaps his most startling feat… he challenges King Ahab to a “divine duel” on top of Mount Carmel to prove God is well, God, and that Ba’al is merely a human idol.

So now King Ahab really thinks he’s got Elijah whipped. All of the people of Israel, along with four hundred and fifty prophets of Ba’al and four hundred prophets of a goddess named Asherah gather for the big fight on Mount Carmel. And the big test is to see whose god can light a pile of sticks and a sacrificed bull on fire. Sweet contest, huh? Of course, no matter what the prophets of Ba’al do, they scream, dance, start whipping themselves, they can’t get Ba’al to magically light those sticks on fire! And then of course, right in front of everyone in Israel, Elijah builds an altar to God and has a bunch a folks repeatedly drench his pile of sticks and sacrificed bull meat with water. And of course, right after Elijah prays to God, his pile lights up like a well made campfire. So Elijah’s pretty much won, right? The Bible passage even says all the people of Israel fall to the ground and worship God! Elijah’s seemingly completed his mission of convincing everyone to turn away from the human idol Ba’al and turn towards the one true God. And then of course, he puts all of Ba’als’ four hundred and fifty prophets to death, for good measure.

Now nothing about Elijah’s story so far is atypical really, at least in the world of the Bible, right? A righteous prophet calls out the ruling authority, God miraculously wins a contest against false idols, the prophets of the false idols die, and so on, this sort of thing happens all the time, as a narrative at least, it makes sense. But as we start moving forward in the story to today’s passage, that’s when things get a little odd. Elijah is at the pinnacle of his career as a prophet, he’s just won the big game, and by the way, he’s really, really powerful. He can call down fire from the sky. He can end droughts, and oh yeah, he can resurrect the dead. Yet after one measly threat from that evil Ba’al worshipping Queen Jezebel, he gets scared and runs away into the wilderness. It doesn’t really make sense. And then he gets kind of dramatic… he prays for his own death, first of all, and then we eventually get to today’s scene on top of Mount Horeb… also called Mount Sinai, understood at the time as the mountain of God. Elijah seeks out God on a giant, divine, majestic mountain.

And when God does indeed shows up, God sounds kind of confused by Elijah’s actions… God simply says to Elijah, “What are you doing here?” And then Elijah goes into this long rant sort of thing… he says there’s no good prophets left except him (despite the other good prophets mentioned before and after this passage by name), he says no one in Israel will turn back toward God, despite absolutely all of Israel doing just that, at least temporarily, back on Mount Carmel after that “divine showdown” between Ba’al and God I mentioned earlier. God then tells Elijah to stand outside and watch God pass by the mountain, and we all know what happens… God’s not in the fire, or the intense wind, or the massive earthquake, but God does indeed show up in a “still, small voice.” In other words, God doesn’t show up with all this majesty or power, God doesn’t show up in the big sort of way you’d expect, no. God shows up in a plain, old ordinary whisper.

Now despite all this happening, and Elijah indeed experiences God in that still, small voice, the text confirms this, Elijah still doesn’t really change his tune. He doesn’t get out of his funk, at least not immediately… he ends up saying to God the same exact rant he said before all the wind, and earthquakes and fire and the whisper of God. God shows up, he supports Elijah consistently in big ways and simple ways, yet this doesn’t seem to make a huge difference in Elijah’s behavior. Elijah does indeed get back to work eventually, but even then, out of the three tasks God commands of him on Mount Horeb, Elijah is only able to complete one, to anoint his successor prophet, Elisha. God shows up, he supports Elijah consistently in big ways and simple ways, yet this doesn’t seem to make a huge difference in Elijah’s behavior. So wow, what sort of amazing, gospel filled message to share from all that here on my first official Sunday at Messiah?

I was really struggling to be honest, but as I was driving up to go hiking this weekend, heading up to the Adirondack High Peaks, I started thinking to myself, “Well hey Pastor Dustin, your first week on the job, where did you see God show up?” There were countless ways to be sure... But the place I where I saw God the most wasn’t in the big things… the first time I walked into my new office or the first time I got ready to lead worship, it was in the simple, little, ordinary things. As you may know, the pipes leading up to my shower in the parsonage don’t work that good, they’re a bit leaky. They’re less leaky now, because Ray’s come a bunch of times, Bill and Charlie have stopped by too. And the place where God showed up most for this past week? It was in the simple, small, short conversations well had over ripping down some drywall. And similar things… when I had some car problems, I felt so immensely welcomed to town by Keith at Adirondack Auto Tire. The simple things like that.

So what I realized is that the central message of today’s story is that alongside Elijah doing all these intense, miraculous, huge things, and the people only temporarily turn back from worshiping Ba’al, and alongside the powerful winds and earthquakes on the big mountain where God is supposed to live, what I came to realize is that not always, but usually, God does tend to show up in the simple, ordinary things, like that still, small voice. It’s a very simple message… in these simple little things, that’s just more often than not where God shows up… the conversation with our spouse before we go to bed, card games with friends, all these little conversations with folks. Last night when I was coming back from the mountains, and I was looking at this huge, beautiful summer moon. One of my favorite songs came on my iPod I hadn’t heard in a long time, and I just completely broke down, I cried, and I realized I am so blessed.

Now I had just been on a beautiful mountaintop before, I had just seen all these big, beautiful things, and I had experienced God there yeah, but it was while someone’s headlight was glaring in my rearview mirror while I was driving down the interstate, an absolutely ordinary moment, when God chose to most profoundly show up. And we need that as human beings… we need God to not only show up in the occasionally big thing, but more importantly in the everyday, in those ordinary moments. That’s because as human beings we can help but forget how powerful of a presence God has in our lives. And as we know through Christ, God promises to show in all those everyday, ordinary moments, no matter who we are or what we do. And yes, my sisters and brothers, we know through Christ that God keeps promises. Amen.
Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation ministering with the local community in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his profession time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Jesus is a Goofy Sort of Gardener!

Friends, so wow, it's been an amazing last couple weeks, but it's been pretty busy too, as I was recently called to serve as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York. I meant to post this sermon a while back, but am only getting to it tonight. I preached this a few Sundays back on Matthew 13:1-23, the Parable of the Sower. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

- Dustin

If there’s one thing that today’s gospel message tells us my sisters and brothers, its that Jesus is a really, really goofy sort of gardener. That’s right, Jesus is a really goofy gardener… He acts seemingly imprecise, laissez-faire, unconcerned, perhaps even foolhardy and wasteful with all those seeds of His. At least from our human perspective, Jesus is a really goofy gardener. Has anyone here done any gardening? Or spent some time on a farm or orchard? Perhaps you’re one of those folks who likes having really nice lawn? Even if gardening isn’t your thing, I imagine you pretty much have a basic idea of what it typically entails… you carefully choose and then cultivate your soil… you work in some fertilizer or compost, maybe test the pH levels, break it up or till the soil if that’s your practice… in short, it’s a very precise operation with a lot of choices that begin long before you even start sowing seed. And why is gardening such a precise operation? As human beings, we don’t want to waste our limited amount of resources, nor do we want to waste our limited amount of time or effort. There’s a pride element too of course… we want to have the sweetest lawn, the most vibrant flower garden, or have the biggest pumpkin at the county fair. And finally, let’s recognize there’s an altruistic element… we want to feed our families in a less costly, healthier manner than our supermarkets can provide. We want to grow the best zucchinis so we can make grandma’s famous zucchini bread recipe to share with friends and neighbors. As human beings, we have a whole lot riding on those seeds, and hence, we’re real careful about how we choose our soil.

From our human perspective then, Jesus’ manner of gardening is really goofy. If you Google “parable of the sower” you get all these images of a stern guy with a beard slowly placing seeds in carefully drawn rows. And that’s often what we tend to picture when we hear this well known parable too, but its simply not what’s going on in the text at all … Jesus is not being selective, but is rather rapidly dancing all over the place, tossing seeds just about everywhere. In thorns, on hard paths, on rocks, Jesus is making long bets with most of his seeds too, entirely against human logic, only throwing a few on what seems like good soil. While it’s not particularly clear in the parable, it strikes me that for Jesus this is largely a joyful process, not a stern, overly serious one like all those images would like to make us think… Jesus is planting and nurturing the bounty of God’s creation, which by the way, is immense. Historians have recently argued the largest harvest one could ever expect two thousand years ago in Palestine was fifteen times what one planted. This parable however tells us God’s yield in Christ is much larger than humanly possible… thirty, sixty, even one hundred times what is planted in the good soil alone. Jesus is a really goofy sort of gardener, whose manner completely goes against human logic to be sure, but He’s also amazingly amazingly successful, joyfully dancing about, celebrating in God’s immense abundance.

Ya know, throughout much of Christian history, right down to the present day, in our sinful human tendency to make things about ourselves we try all too often to spin this parable around. We spin this parable around… we simply can’t help it. We sometimes read ourselves into the story as the seeds, either worrying we’re not doing enough for God or at other times smug that we’re super-perfect Christians, reaping a huge bounty for our Creator. Either way, when we read ourselves as the seeds, we end up stressing the importance of our own work instead of God’s.We try turning ourselves into mini-gods in fact, something that while incredibly vain is also way too much responsibility for any of us to bear. Other times we get it partially right by seeing ourselves as the soil, but once again in our sinful human tendency to turn ourselves into the central character of God’s story, we start worrying about what kind of soil we are. Are we the thorny soil, too distracted by other worldly cares to see what God’s doing in our lives? Or are we the rocky soil, getting super excited about God’s work only to burn ourselves out? We worry about whether we’re saved, or one of the elect, these sort of things that turn God’s story in which we’re only minor characters into a story just about us.

The good news my sisters and brothers, is that we’re all every type of soil at once. We’re all sinful, we all get distracted from what God’s doing in our lives by other worldly cares. We all burn ourselves out at times too. You are all sinful people. You are bad soil! I’m a sinful person too, bad soil, no better or worse than anyone else here today. We’re all sinners. But we’re also all saints, we’re all good soil too! You are good soil! You are good soil! This congregation, Messiah Lutheran Church, is good soil. The town of Rotterdam, the city of Schenectady, indeed the whole Capitol District, is good soil. God has worked amazing things in all our lives, in the life of this congregation and in the life of our local community and will continue to do so, through the best of times and the most broken of times as well… It’s absolutely amazing, when you stop to think about it, the powerful works God can pull out of the most dire of circumstances.

It’s certainly good news, that we’re all every type of soil at once, but its not even the best part folks. It’s not even the best part! My sisters and brothers, the really good news that Jesus proclaims to us today through the parable of the sower has nothing to do with wondering about whether we’re chosen or elect or good or bad soil. The truly good news is that in the end, the parable of the sower is not really much about us at all. It’s about God in Christ. Our God in Christ is the main character in this parable, who by human standards might be a really goofy gardener, but who is also a God of abundance, immense care, and indeed, joy. Through this parable Jesus teaches us how God is constantly casting seeds everywhere, sometimes in the places we’d least expect it. Ya know over the past few days I’ve had amazing conversations with you folks here at Messiah Lutheran, and the part that got me excited the most was hearing about the dreams you have for this congregation. One person told me how Messiah should be a known resource here in the Rotterdam community, where neighbors no matter their religious affiliation know they can go if they need help. Another said really profoundly, I want my daughter to be just as excited about church when she grows up as she is now as a small child. Other dreams included doing more service projects, adding an adult education program, a youth group, perhaps a vacation Bible school in the summer for the kids and of course welcoming new members into the community here at Messiah.

Yesterday afternoon I was blessed to take a drive with Bill around town. He told me how GE outsourcing many of its jobs over the years really hurt the Schenectady area. He also told me though about how good planning and a revitalized Proctors Theatre downtown has really starting improving things. Even more importantly, Bill talked about growing up in Rotterdam, living in this very neighborhood, the town’s good schools, its friendly faces and how amazing the folks are here despite working through all sorts of changes and challenges. Whether its dreaming and praying for your daughter to grow up strong in her faith or whether its a city trying to figure out how to be a city again after decades of decline and struggling about the idea of a casino coming to town, these things are all seeds my sisters and brothers. Joys and challenges alike, they’re all seeds in God’s hands. Seeds, opportunities for us to do God’s work in our little corner of the world despite all our human imperfections. Seeds, opportunities God constantly presents us with every day of our lives, as individuals, congregations and wider communities, opportunities to do God’s work with our hands. Opportunities to put a smile on someone’s face, to strengthen someone’s faith, to make our community just a little bit stronger.

And remember, God in Christ is one goofy sort of gardener. Our parable today teaches us God ain’t sternly and slowly walking in neat little rows, plopping down seeds in only the most choice of soils. Our God in Christ is a joyfully gardener, a God of abundance, dancing about and scattering seeds everywhere, often in the most unlikely of places. We’re aren’t going to be able to take advantage of all the seeds God tosses us, by the way. To be fair, sometimes in our humanness we’ll be bad soil. Mostly though, its the shear fact that in God’s abundance, there’s simply too many seeds for us to plant. Our God is a God of abundance, a God who takes chances, and God who dances about joyfully making amazing things happen. In Jesus, God has promised us this is the sort of gardener God is, no matter how good or bad soil we think we are. And our God, my sisters and brothers, is a God who keeps promises. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a vibrant congregation ministering with the local community in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his profession time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Young Adult Pilgrimage to the Holy Land


So it's been a busy but amazing last month or so... I was blessed to help lead a youth mission trip to Oaks Indian Mission in Oaks, Oklahoma, followed by a great trip to Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park in Maine with Jessie, followed by visiting with the amazing folks at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, NY and being called as their pastor. While I plan on beginning at Messiah near the tail end of July or early August, in the meantime I plan on catching up on another ministry I've been involved with (as well as relaxing a bit), leading a young adult mission trip to the Holy Land. What follows is a little something I wrote up about the opportunity. If you're a young adult who might be interested, be sure to check out the contact info at the bottom of the post. If you're not a young adult but think you might know one who would be interested in attending, please help me spread the word!

Especially in recent weeks, we've constantly heard heartbreaking stories or seen horrific images coming out of the Holy Land. Most folks in America tend to think this is just yet another phase of a seemingly intractable conflict in a region of a world that's "always been violent." We often don't even feel certain about what's truly happening in the Holy Land, never mind having any idea what we can possibly do about the situation. As Christians we also ask, "how does our connection to the biblical Israel relate to how we should interact with the modern state of Israel?" Lutherans in are particularly sensitive to how the ongoing conflict might relate to our denomination's immense historic failings during the Holocaust as well. Finally, we're concerned about how our public stances might affect current interfaith relationships which have proved amazing blessings in the lives of our local congregations. Confronted with such difficult questions, challenges and complexities, it's so easy to just throw up our hands, pray for peace, but otherwise remain wholly detached from what's going on in the Holy Land.

At the same time, all sorts of folks like going to Israel, maybe to Palestine, see a bunch of historical or pseudo-historical sites, go for a swim in the Dead Sea and then come back home saying they walked in the footsteps of Jesus. What if you had the opportunity to not only walk where he walked, but walk how Jesus walked too, developing relationships with local Palestinians and Israelis and discovering new opportunities to do justice along the way? What if you had the opportunity to move past America's patriarchal obsession with creating our own "balanced" view of the conflict towards accompanying and the sharing the views of our Israeli and Palestinian sisters and brothers on the ground? What if you had the opportunity to go on such a trip with other social justice minded young adults, all the while discerning how God is calling you to walk in the way of Jesus back home? Now that would be a true pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and that's exactly the sort of trip I'll be co-leading from May 21 - 31, 2015, along with Trena Montgomery, a former Young Adult in Global Mission in the Holy Land who will soon return to work with Palestinian Lutherans.

Last January, Trena and I were part of a group of sixteen young adults from across the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) who journeyed to the Holy Land on a similar pilgrimage sponsored by the ELCA's Peace Not Walls initiative, while also training to lead future trips of our own. You can read our groups reflections here.

Does this sound like the sort of thing you're interested in? If you're from the Northeast US, between the ages of 18 - 30 and want to find out more, either check out our Facebook Page or email Trena and I at You can also directly apply here. Safety will be addressed through daily security updates from Lutheran World Federation personnel on the ground in East Jerusalem. Cost of the trip will be approximately $2000 - $2500 depending on the price of your flight, but we're more than willing to help with fundraising ideas. Thanks so much, and we hope you can join us for this exciting opportunity to walk in the way of Jesus!

God's peace,

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Crocker Mountain and Bushwhacking to Mount Redington in Maine

I got up to the Rangely area pretty early in the afternoon this past Tuesday in order to set up at Round Barn tentsite on nearby Flagstaff Lake, with the intention of just doing a long day hike the following day over the Crockers, Redington, and (maybe) all the way to Abraham if I could swing it, but I unfortunately found out at a nearby restaurant that the dirt road to the site was closed for repairs.

Without much of a better option, and nervous that Caribou Valley Road (CVR), another dirt road that crosses the Appalachian Trail (AT) about four miles down, would prove impassable with my Chevy Impala (boat car), I decided I'd drive down the CVR that evening, hike in on the AT about a mile and camp at Crocker Cirque. Some of the culverts under CVR were washed out, but after only bottoming my boat car out twice I managed to make it to the trailhead, hike up the AT and set-up camp. There was only on another tent at the site, and I never heard folks at all.

After a great night sleep, I woke up a bit late at 6:30a, packed up, stashed my pack a little bit off the trail, with the intention of bagging the two peaks of Crocker Mountain, Mount Redington, and then retracing my steps back to get my pack. If I had enough time I figured, I drop my pack at the car and then run up the AT another six miles in the other direction to bag Abraham. It was a bit ambitious, but with a fairly early start and a whole lot of June daylight, it was definitely achievable...

I bagged both peaks of Crocker pretty quickly and then returned to the South Crocker viewpoint to find an unofficial herdpath to Mount Redington (its one of only two 4000 foot peaks in New England to not have an official trail to the summit). There's an alternative unofficial way up to Redington as well, which involves taking a series of old logging roads. While its certainly easier, its longer as well. Being pretty new to having a smartphone, I had never really used a GPS program before, but given that I had read the herdpath is at times difficult to follow, I had pre-programmed in coordinates for the beginning of the herdpath, a point where it crosses an old logging road in the valley between South Crocker and Redington, as well as the coordinate of Redington's summit.

Well, I lost the herdpath pretty darn quick, and decided to just use the GPS program and compass on my phone for a bit until I could find where the path crossed the logging road. Here's where I made my big mistake... I once heard that putting your iPhone in airplane mode turned off the cell signal to conserve battery but didn't turn off the GPS signals... while it turns out they separate signals (and there are some ways to turn off one but not the other), I definitely heard wrong about airplane mode... I kept pushing through really thick pine scrub, trying to stick to game trails, but for whatever reason, I'd didn't seem like my location was changing much on the GPS program.

The iPhone compass does work correctly while in airplane mode, so I used that to pretty easily find the logging road... the problem however was that the GPS was still saying I was halfway up South Crocker, I thought I had hit a different unmapped logging road... dumb. Eventually, after walking a mile downhill, I realized what was going on with the GPS, turned around, hiking an extra mile up the logging road until I found the herdpath not too far away from where I came out of the woods... wow.

The portion of the herdpath heading up to Redington's summit was pretty easy to follow, and I quickly achieved the summit, although I couldn't seem to find its canister. After a bit of lunch, I felt determined I wouldn't lose the herdpath again back to South Crocker, head back down the AT, grab my bag, and hopefully still have time to bag Mount Abraham. Unfortunately this didn't pan out... the trail on the way down looked a bit wider than I remembered it, and once I hit the logging road again, I knew I made a mistake... I somehow made a wrong turn down the alternative route to Redington, the one that involved a bunch of different logging roads.

Pulling out my iPhone (with the battery rapidly depleting), I took a GPS reading and realized I
was once again about a mile away from the herdpath, this time in the opposite direction. At this point, I was pretty darn sick of that herdpath, and decided to try my luck with the logging roads. With my iPhone almost dead however, and without positively knowing what turns to make on the logging roads, I soon realized I'd need to bushwhack to a waypoint again, this time back to a mapped logging road I could eventually follow back to the AT. Boy oh boy, that scrub was thick (I'm still covered in scratches), but I safely made it to the logging road with about 2% battery to spare.

Eventually I walked the road back to where it crossed the AT, hiked a mile back up to retrieve my overnight pack, hiked back down, got in the car, knew I was too warn out to summit Mount Abraham, and immediately proceeded to have a really big hamburger for dinner at the closest restaurant/ bar to trailhead, Tufulio's (it was pretty darn good).

A few lessons learned... have a real compass with you, especially when headed off-trail, not just a smartphone/ GPS. I remember being told that in Boy Scouts, and wish I had listened. Also, it was a huge relief to me that I didn't summit Mount Abraham... those sort of reminders that you don't need to be perfect and can still have a lot of fun are awesome. Finally, when bushwhacking through Maine's dense forests, definitely wear pants... my lower legs are completely carved up.

Well, off to hike the northern Presidentials tomorrow morning, thanks for reading friends!

Bushwhack to Mount Redington

God's peace,

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

A Liturgy of the Oppressed


Whew, what a busy couple weeks! After getting to know folks at the annual assembly Upstate New York Synod of the ELCA where I'll hopefully be called as a pastor in a month or so, I've spent some time hiking in northern New England and also preparing to lead a youth mission trip to a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, which begins next week.

In the meantime, I'm still trying to post my work from my final semester at seminary. What follows is one of my favorite assignments throughout seminary, a paper and liturgy I created based off of Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed with inspiration from a faith community called Parables in Brooklyn. This formed the final assignment for an epic "Liturgy and Postcolonialism" course with Professor Cláudio Carvalhaes. The liturgy itself (at the bottom of the post) was written for a short half-hour Service of the Word service at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, but otherwise it would certainly include a collection and Eucharist. It's a bit "provocative" perhaps, but I'd love to hear what you think.

God's peace,

With only two weeks (and unfortunately around forty pages of writing) between me and graduation, I figure it’s about time to admit something that’s deeply troubled me throughout my seminary education: the majority of church services I’ve participated in throughout my life have been really, really boring! Perhaps it’s due to my overwhelming sense of entitlement as a North American millennial, or maybe it’s because I come from an overly individualistic culture, or maybe it’s just because I’m a good old fashioned heretic… I’m not entirely sure. What I do definitively know however, is that the majority of church services I’ve participated in throughout my life have been really, really boring, and they didn’t mean much. Now such a statement may quickly lead one to ask, “Why be a pastor, or even a Christian at all if you don’t find Christian worship meaningful?” From my perspective, the answer to such a question is quite easy—I’ve developed strong, lifelong relationships through the Church, I’ve experienced a profound sense of community and solidarity through the Church, and I’ve been supported in serving folks and advocating against systems of injustice through the Church. When my mother died from lung cancer at a relatively young age, the Church held me close and told me that life would go on, and it did. In short, I want to be a Christian pastor because I’ve experienced the presence of God in the Church like nowhere else.

Yet, and I say this with some notable exceptions in mind, most church services I’ve participated in throughout my life have been really, really boring. Here’s what my experience of a church service is all too often like (I put this purposefully in a pretty provocative way): I start off by sitting down in an uncomfortable seat, not being allowed to have coffee despite it being way too early in the morning, hearing some announcements and then watching the pastor walk to the back of the sanctuary only to walk forward again in various levels of pomp and circumstance. The folks up front pray some prayers for me and then I spend a whole lot of time trying not to space out while a bunch of long Bible passages are read. After hearing what is often a good sermon (to be fair), I get a brief reprieve by standing up and singing a song, only to have the folks up front once again pray for me, usually from some pretty sounding words they found on an internet resource. The first time I really feel like I get to do anything besides trying to stay awake is the collection, through which I genuinely feel connected to my faith community in mission. The Meal, as long as it is done in a way that is fully inclusive of all individuals, is an extremely profound experience. Shortly after that however, one of the folks up front (sometimes after walking to the back of the sanctuary), reads literally one sentence to say goodbye to me. Couldn’t she or he just look me in the eye and truly say goodbye, lovingly sending me out into the world to serve God and the folks in my community?

Interestingly enough, it is usually only after the official liturgy is completed that the true liturgy, the true λειτουργία, which translates as “work of the people” or even “public service” typically begins… coffee hour! Now that is a good time! I actually get to hear how my sisters and brothers in Christ are doing. I am blessed and honored to support them in their sorrows, laugh with them amidst great joy and simply hear how God is at work in their lives! I welcome in new guests along with the few folks who have good social skills, perhaps share a light meal and finally have a damn coffee! And after that, this is when things really get good… I either learn something about God in fellowship with others, go on some sort of fun outing, engage in meaningful service with my community or go back home and get to take a nap! What could possibly be better? What could possibly be more meaningful? Waking up way too early was kind of a pain, but wow, it was entirely worth it!

I cannot speak for everyone, or even my generation, but I do know I am not alone in these convictions. In my own tiny part of the global Christian community, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, membership in congregations is steadily declining, yet we can’t sign up folks (and especially young people) fast enough for many of our long-term service programs. Every summer for nearly a decade, I had the privilege of engaging in ministry as a camp counselor at a Lutheran summer camp. For many of the folks I worked with, summers at camp were the most meaningful experiences of their lives, experiences they often interpret as experiencing God’s work while ministering in community. Yet few, and I mean very few, probably ten percent or less, of these same folks go back home and regularly participate in the life of their local congregations. One could make the excuse that these sort of folks are too individualistic, do not have their priorities in order or apply their love of capitalistic choice to their faith life. One could also say (and this option seems quite popular in the Church as of late) that we simply do not educate these folks enough… if only we could teach them how the liturgy is meaningful, they would find the liturgy meaningful!

There is however, another option, one deeply informed by the related concepts of postcolonialism, liberation theology and even community organizing… take the data, take the voice of the people in your context (which includes people outside the church building) seriously! Saul Alinsky, often considered the father of modern community organizing in North America, states the following:
The actual projection of a completely particularized program by a few persons is a highly dictatorial action. It is not a democratic program but a monumental testament to lack of faith in the ability and intelligence of the masses of people to think their way through the successful solution of their problems. It is not a people’s program, and the people will have little to do with it. There should not be too much concern with specifics or details of a people’s program. The program items are not too significant when one considers the enormous importance of getting people interested and participating in a democratic way. After all, the real democratic program is a democratically minded people—a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people who, through their participation and interest, become informed, educated and above all develop faith in themselves, their fellow men, and the future.
Alinsky is of course coming from the predominately secular perspective of community organizing, but applied to liturgy one could easily change his last sentence to the following: “The real λειτουργία is the work of a democratically minded people—a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people who, through their participation and interest, become informed, educated and above all develop faith in themselves, their fellow human beings, and most of all, faith in their God.”

In the name of “unity,” or “equality” as a Church, we often hear that all assemblies should do similar things in their liturgies, and that all people should do similar things in a particular assembly, no matter the context. This idea of “unity in similarity” reaches to all levels of our liturgy, even to the level of what we are to wear on a Sunday:
Washed and bleached clean, this garment became one of the basic symbols of baptism… Leaders of the assembly wear it on behalf of us all, showing another way of festive clothing than either “Sunday best” or casual clothes. Indeed, our leaders can thereby step out of the ways in which our current clothing so inevitably communicates gender, sexual attraction, class and wealth, inviting us to another way of considering the human being.
This appeal to “unity in similarity” almost always has the best of intentions, and needs to be honored as such. Yet at the same time, the people are quite clearly crying out, “I don’t want to be bleached clean! I want to come to God’s table as I am, no matter my shape, size or color!” Such data, the voice of the people, must be taken quite seriously. Furthermore, as postcolonialism teaches us, the modernist appeal to universality almost always ends up looking or acting like the dominant culture:
[Universality is] the assumption that there are irreducible features of human life and experience that exist beyond the constitutive effects of local cultural conditions. Universalism offers a hegemonic view of existence by which the experiences, values and expectations of a dominant culture are held to be true for all humanity. For this reason, it is a crucial feature of imperial hegemony, because its assumption (or assertion) of a common humanity - underlies the promulgation of imperial discourse for the ‘advancement’ or ‘improvement’ of the colonized, goals that thus mask the extensive and multifaceted exploitation of the colony.
Baptism, the wider liturgy, and indeed the gospel itself doesn’t bleach us clean! The good news of God’s act of liberating love in Christ lets us to see the beauty of our own unique shade of “differentness” amidst the muck of our humanity, and thereby frees us to lovingly share in the beautifully unique differentness of our sisters and brothers as well. 

Our chief objective as we cultivate new spaces, communities and liturgies is not to achieve a perfectly objective equality. Although we should do our best to move toward this, such a thing is not humanly possible— there will always be inherent power dynamics involved in any social situation, at least until the Kingdom of God is fully with us. We should however do our prayerful best to acknowledge those inherent power dynamics. In doing so we can foster a spirit of hybridity where all can share of themselves, learn from each other and experience the Divine alongside one another as a communion of fellow pilgrims moving towards their unique destinations. Through celebrating the beautiful tapestry of differentness that is humanity, and the rich variety of means through which humanity experiences God, the λειτουργία, the work of the people, is focused exactly where it should be—on Christ, on the God who promises to show up where we would least expect Her and Him to be: “The presence of God and the Lamb—and the presence of the water of life and the tree of life that come from God—should be at the center of the assembly of the church.”

Now, the next question we must ask of course, is what would such a liturgy look like? We can say a liturgy should truly be the democratic work of the people, all God’s people, in all their beautifully unique differentness, but it has to look like something. One possibility stems from the largely secular work of Augusto Boal, the Brazilian director who developed a “theatre of the oppressed.” Reflecting on Aristotle’s Poetics, Boal discovered that throughout much of Western history the point of theatre was simply to produce a sense of catharsis, and thereby to subjugate the spectator:
… the poetics of Aristotle is the poetics of oppression: the world is known, perfect or about to be perfected, and all its values are imposed on the spectators, who passively delegate power to the characters to act and think in their place. In so doing the spectators purge themselves of their tragic flaw—that is, of something capable of changing society. A catharsis of the revolutionary impetus is produced! Dramatic action substitutes for real action.
Similar to Boal’s understanding of the theatre, the whole point of the gospel, the whole point of the good news of God’s act of liberating love in Christ is to free us from whatever may oppress us, whether it be dominant members of our society, from natural phenomenon like disease or disaster, and especially, from ourselves. We are all oppressed, even in a North American context, although it may look slightly different for us here at the center of the empire. Whether through hate, indifference or most often lack of self agency, many of us, myself included, simply cannot help but oppress our sisters and brother both known and unknown, and in turn, we oppress ourselves.

Amidst so much oppression and the guilt that goes along with it, why would we develop liturgies that are supposed to communicate liberation in Christ yet fail to help us recognize our full sense of self expression and self agency in Christ to change this situation? Augusto Boal, speaking through the secular language of theatre, provides us with another option:
“Spectator” is a bad word! The spectator is less than a man and it is necessary to humanize him, to restore to him his capacity of action in all its fullness. He too must be a subject, an actor on an equal plane with those generally accepted as actors, who must also be spectators. All these experiments of a people’s theater have the same objective—the liberation of the spectator, on whom the theater has imposed finished visions of the world… The poetics of the oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates power to the characters either to think or to act in his place. The spectator frees himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theater is action!
Theatre is not the same as liturgy, but they both are action, as they both indeed can be the work of the people! The way Augusto Boal blurred the line between spectator and actor was to develop a variety of “movement games” through which anyone could participate, even those with little theatrical training. Furthermore, whether it be a theatre or an assembly engaged in liturgy, communities need a facilitator in some sense. In a theatre of the oppressed, this person is not called the narrator or protagonist but the “joker.” The role of the joker is to float above the action, to allow for the greatest degree of self-expression possible, but also to descend into the action when needed. The role of the pastor in a “liturgy of the oppressed” is quite similar—she or he must prayerfully ensure the gospel is communicated, while allowing for the most democratically minded self expression possible.

A basic “liturgy of the oppressed” is attached as an appendix to this paper, one that hopefully proclaims the gospel while taking seriously the presence of Christ in the beautiful differentness of humanity. As this particularly liturgy was developed for a short weekday “Service of the Word” at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, the Meal is unfortunately excluded, although I would consider it central to any Sunday assembly. The traditional Lutheran ordo is followed for the sake of reflecting the liturgical movements of our ancestors but even more for reasons of hospitality, as creating familiar structure hopefully encourages greater self-expression within each individual movement of the liturgy. A “name and gesture” movement game acts as a sort of Kyrie, but a fully participatory “Remembrance of Baptism” rite could greatly strength the Gathering. As a volunteer moves the assembly forward with the “prayer of the day,” it may prove helpful to reflect the prayers of our ancestors through the day’s appointed collects.

The Word portion of the liturgy would look quite different depending on the text(s) used and the folks present in the assembly. If the text for the day is short, reading each phrase and having the assembly repeat seems to work quite well. For longer passages, Bibles should be provided. Although this is of course not a universal observation, I believe a “liturgy of the oppressed” should generally stay away from hymnals, as they often greatly limit self expression. Moving forward, the “columbian hypnosis” movement game then creates an environment for folks in the assembly to have fun, relate to each other and use their bodies in new ways while also exploring social power exchanges. There are a wide variety of more complicated movement games that could also be used, many of which allow for the exploration (and overcoming) of a societal injustice. Discussion then allows the assembly to process the experience, relate it back to the text and most importantly to God’s presence in their lives. The joker should prayerfully shape this discussion to ensure the gospel is communicated. The assembly then responds to the good news in song and prayer. If the liturgy does not include a Meal, the assembly is sent back out into the world with a message of peaceful liberation and community in Christ.

As it has been so aptly stated, “Lutheran worship at its deepest—and this is true of all Western and Eastern Christian worship, as well—is this: a participating and open assembly, served by its ministers, gathered around the bath, the word, the prayers, the table—the very matters which speak and sign Jesus Christ so that the nations may live.” A liturgy of the oppressed takes these central things of worship quite seriously, as they are the gifts Christ gave us to proclaim the gospel. At the same time however, a liturgy of the oppressed also takes seriously the data, the voice of the people, in its context. To say it in a less fancy way, in a liturgy of the oppressed, people matter! The people truly matter! Instead of appealing to the colonialist idea of “unity in similarity,” with everyone engaged in the same action or having “the folks up front” perform the action for them, a more democratic liturgy can develop in which difference is celebrated, not bleached away. Indeed, it is through celebrating the beautiful tapestry of differentness that is our humanity, and especially the innumerable amazing ways God continuously breaks into our lives, that the λειτουργία, the work of the people, is focused exactly where it should be—on Christ, on the God who promises to show up where we would least expect!

A Liturgy of the Oppressed

Greeting: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all! And also with you! 
Name and Gesture: The assembly stands in a circle. The joker begins by stating her first name followed by a physical gesture which is indicative of what feelings and/ or experiences she is bringing into the assembly that day. The whole group then repeats the joker’s name and gesture. This process works around the group until everyone has said their name and performed a gesture. The process is then repeated a second time but without names mentioned. Individuals may wish to step forward and briefly explain to the group why they decided upon their gesture as well. 
Prayer of the Day: The joker invites a volunteer to either pray extemporaneously or pray the appointed collects for the day.
Reading: A short Biblical passage, perhaps one appointed for the day by the Revised Common Lectionary, is read phrase by phrase by the joker, who also invites the assembly to repeat each phrase after it is read. 
Columbian Hypnosis and Discussion: The assembly divides into pairs - choosing role A and role B. A will “hypnotize” B with her or his hand - B must keep her face just a few inches from A’s hand at all times - always an equal distance. A should try to manipulate B into all sorts of positions, using forgotten muscles, liberating her to use the body in a different way than she is accustomed. A & B then switch roles.Remaining in pairs the assembly discusses their experience of being in complete power and without power. They may wish to reread the day’s Bible passage. How does power relate to the Biblical passage just read? How is Christ at work in exchanges of power and the everyday life of the assembly? The assembly then gathers back in a circle and those who wish may share their findings. The joker shapes the conversation as needed to ensure the gospel is communicated. One possible addition: The assembly divides into triads. A hypnotizes B & C using two hands, which may do entirely different movements at any time.A second possible addition: One person (A) stands in the center of the assembly. A hypnotizes two people (Bs) using two hands. Everyone else picks one of the B people to be hypnotized by. 
Hymn of the Day: The joker invites the assembly to proclaim liberation in Christ through a commonly known song for which anyone can call out individual verses. Examples include “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Are Marching in the Light of God.” Movement is encouraged as the assembly is able! 
Prayers of the People: The joker invites the assembly into prayer and then individuals go around the circle offering intercessions as they wish. The Lord’s Prayer is then sung or spoken by the assembly in unison.
Blessing: My sisters and brothers, let us go forth, liberated in Christ to love and serve the world! Thanks be to God! 
Peace: A sign of peace may be shared by all.
Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.