Sunday, October 09, 2016

We Have a Lot of Work to Do


A rough manuscript of my sermon this Sunday on Luke 17: 11-19.

Sisters and brothers, we have a lot of work to do, that’s for sure. We have a lot of work to do. This past Friday evening, as I was waiting to board a plane home from a conference in Chicago, I felt sick to my stomach upon hearing the words of one of our presidential candidates objectifying women to an unspeakable degree, joking about sexual assault and bragging about how through wealth celebrity and power, he could easily get away with such behavior. My mind pretty quickly went especially to the women and girls of our congregation, about how such words must make you all feel, and also the fathers as well who’ll have to explain this stuff to their kids, to make sure their sons know that such talk is simply not okay. For putting you all in such a horrible position, for putting my own family and friends in such a horrible situation, I was absolutely furious with Donald Trump as I boarded that flight.

Through some really helpful conversations with the woman sitting next to me over the following couple hours, I was reminded that the horrible words on that tape reflect something much bigger than any one candidate or even the state of our politics as a whole. Indeed, no matter which candidate you decide to vote for (I’ve had conversations with great folks in our congregation on both sides of that debate, by the way), no matter which candidate you decide to vote for is less important than the much wider, insidious issue of collective sin at hand: the way our society treats women and girls. Or to put it in even a broader context, the issue of collective sin we must address is our society's seeming complete inability to listen to the concerns of one another, especially the concerns of populations who have historically been marginalized and oppressed. So yes, my sisters and brothers, we have a lot of work to do.

We have a lot of work to do. For you see, right here in America, statistically one in three women will be the victim of some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Right now, in what we consider the greatest country in the world, one in five women have survived an attempted or completed rape. On our college campuses that number narrows to something closer to one in four. One in three women have been victims of some form of physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner in their lifetime and boys who witness their fathers being violent are ten times more likely to abuse their spouses later in life. The way we treat women and girls in our society is an insidious type of collective sin, to be sure, and it’s the type of collective sin that affects each and every single one of us.

When I think about my own life experiences as a young adult, and particularly my time as a college student, the words used by Mr. Trump are more extreme than most, but they honestly don’t surprise me. I lived for three years in a fraternity house and horrible jokes were made on a regular basis. Women were objectified on a regular basis. And because I had a natural aversion to being politically correct as a young, dumb kid and I’ve always liked being the center of attention, I was definitely a major player in all that dumb talk and I was wrong. And my fraternity brothers and I were known as some of the better guys on campus, right, who may have said dumb things but always treated women with respect. Yet, words do matter… how did our jokes make the vast majority of women of hadn’t been treated with respect sometime in their life feel? Moving right up to the present, how did years of seemingly innocent locker room talk change our perspectives in sinful, insidious, ways? Thanks be for Christ, because the work of reconciliation, the work of always trying to improve how us men hear and honor the perspectives of women will never end. Even though that was all close to a decade ago now, I hear from folks younger than me that things have gotten even worse on our college campuses as well. In short, my sisters and brothers, we have a lot of work to.

Yes, we have a lot of work to do, but luckily, as our gospel message teaches us this Sunday, Christ is there at work with us, present in every part of our lives and the life of our community. Even more amazing is the good news that God most often speaks from the perspective of those we least expect Her to be speaking from. Just look at today’s gospel message… it’s a simple yet profound story. Jesus is traveling through the borderlands between Samaria and the Galilee in route to Jerusalem, when he stops in a small village. Ten folks are suffering from leprosy there, a disease that still afflicts thousands in many parts of the world. And well, our God in Christ does what God does best. Jesus sends the lepers off to the priests and amazingly, all are healed! All are washed clean, liberated from their disease by Christ’s love! Yet even then, it’s only of ten lepers who turns back… it’s only one of the ten who recognizes what God’s up to, and it’s the one people of Jesus’ time would have least expected to know much about God at all… a Samaritan, a despised foreigner! And this, my sisters and brothers, is the incredibly good news that confronts us today. God more often than not speaks to us from the people we’d least expect, the Samaritans of our day, the people we're taught to think don’t matter, the people we're taught by our society to ignore. We have a lot of work to do, but luckily, Christ comes to us in the faces of people we’d least expect to make that work possible.

We have a lot of work to do. How can we listen to those voices as we build and strengthen a community that teaches its children that all women and girls, and all people of color and all folks in the LGBT community and all people of different abilities, need to be cherished, loved and affirmed as children of God? I just heard a story from one parishioner this morning talking about how she’s gotten in trouble at work for begin absent to take care of her sick children. How can we help build a local community where the contributions of mothers and fathers are valued, where parents don’t need to decide between their families and their careers? How can we build a community where our boys grow up knowing that objectification of women and abuse of women and sexual assault of women or anyone else for that matter is not okay? In a few minutes Jim Miller will be talking about one of our congregation’s priorities for the year ahead, to build a spirit of brotherhood and service amongst the men of our congregation. How can we include all those fathers in this important work that God calls us to embark upon? Perhaps all won’t want to show up at a church on Sunday morning, but how else can they contribute to the amazing things God is making happen here? How can we hear from their perspectives?

Sisters and brothers, this has been a hard weekend for our nation, indeed for our wider society. We have a lot of work to do. And thank you all for the work you already do, by the way. Whether you’re filling in this Sunday for our church musician so he can spend time with his family or if your acolyte for the first time or helping to balance our budget or walking with me on Tuesday for equitable funding for our schools, you are part of God’s work here, to build a community where all voices our welcome, all voices are cherished. And thanks be to God for the fact that She especially likes to show up in the very voices and places we’d least expect her to. Thanks be to God for Her promise to show up in our own lives in the times we need it the most, in those hardest and least expected of times. Our God in Christ has promised to show up, to make things happen, to bring us joy, to stand with us in solidarity against the worst of human sin, to bear us in the hard work of preaching the good news of liberation and reconciliation to our community. And thanks be to God for that.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit filled church following Jesus Christ in Schenectady, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

We're All Created in the Image of God!!!

What follows is a manuscript of the message I delivered earlier today at the State Capitol while standing in solidarity with local clergy in a nonpartisan way condemning all attacks on one's religious convictions, including the recent attacks on State Senate Candidate Sara Niccoli. You can read more about the issue here. I was happy to see a spokesperson for the Amedore campaign disavowed the attacks this afternoon.

Activists, members of the press and all people of goodwill, thank you so much for joining us today. My name is Rev. Dustin G. Wright, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, called to serve at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, and I give thanks to God for the opportunity to join with clergy from across the Capitol Region as we rally in support of religious freedom.

So just this past Sunday morning, as members of my Spirit filled congregation gathered for worship thinking about patriotism, freedom and quite frankly yearning for the delicious barbeques that awaited us throughout the rest of the long weekend, we joyfully celebrated and gave thanks for America’s great tradition of religious freedom. We also however spoke about how in a time when especially our Muslim sisters and brothers are increasingly being vilified, that most sacred tradition is under assault. So, when I heard about the hateful rhetoric being anonymously leveled at Sara Niccoli, a candidate for the State Senate, because of her religious observances, and furthermore that this irresponsible rhetoric was leading to Sara receiving death threats, I was deeply saddened and disappointed.

Let me be abundantly clear here, we as clergy are not standing together in support of one candidate or another today, that’s not our role. We are however standing in solidarity, urging, pleading all members of our community to not only tolerate religious differences, but indeed, to celebrate them. Not only is celebrating our religious differences what true freedom and true patriotism looks like, but it’s also something we hold in common as one of the best teachings of all our faiths. I’ll close by citing a Talmudic teaching I recently learned from a local rabbi as we stood in support of the LGBTQ community after a Pride Flag was burned on the premises of First Lutheran Church here in Albany:

Right at the beginning of Genesis, the Bible talks about how God has created each and every one of us, indeed all of humanity, in the Divine Image. Now when we humans create something in our image, every image looks exactly the same… every penny with Abraham Lincoln’s image on it looks exactly the same right? But in such wonderful mystery and diversity, when God creates humanity in the Divine Image, we all look different! Gay, straight, black, white, Quaker, Lutheran, Muslim, Catholic and Jewish, liberal and conservative folks who identify across the rich spectrum that is human gender and sexuality, God has created each and every single one of us in the Divine Image! So when we attack folks because of their religious beliefs, or because of their God given-identity, it not only goes against the best ideals of American patriotism. It not only represents an attack on all our freedom. When we attack folks because of their religious beliefs, we deny the Image of God is reflected in those persons and thereby deny the Image of God is reflected in ourselves. Indeed, when we attack someone because of their religious beliefs, we deny a critical, essential part of ourselves as human beings. And that is why I stand here today, in solidarity with clergy from across the Capital Region, everyone in our community no matter their political affiliation, including George Amedore, to disavow in the strongest possible terms all attacks on one’s religious observances and convictions. Thank you.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit filled church following Jesus Christ in Schenectady, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Crooked System that Keeps Us All Uriahs

Hey all,
It's been a while but I'm hoping to get back to posting sermons and other reflections here more often. Below is a sermon manuscript I preached this Sunday on 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15 at Messiah Lutheran Church. Would love to hear your thoughts!
God's peace,

Dustin
One day, while strolling around his palace, King David spots a beautiful woman named Bathsheba bathing way off in the distance, and well, he's uh, ya know, pretty interested. King David, a sort of Barney Stinson of ancient Israel it seems, has a problem though because Bathsheba is married to a fellow named Uriah the Hittite, one of the king’s warriors and a man of great honor. Blinded by his own wealth and power as king, David disregards this "minor roadblock" however and decides to invite Bathsheba over for a night at the palace anyway. As can often happen in these situations, the suave King David gets Bathsheba pregnant, but no worries, to cover up his infidelities, the king asks Uriah to take a break from battle and go home to have some "family leave" with his wife. Uriah however, as a warrior of great honor, refuses, not wanting to leave his fellow soldiers on the field of battle.

Now here’s where the story gets a bit more dangerous, where King David’s actions descend into greater sin… not knowing what else to do, and once again blinded by his immense wealth and power, King David writes a letter to his commanders to send Uriah to the place of fiercest fighting, and essentially commanding the murder of Uriah through the hand of the invading Amorites. Bathsheba, now a widow, is free to marry King David, and that's exactly what happens. As punishment for King David’s sin, this baby dies shortly after birth but eventually Bathsheba ends up giving birth to Solomon, who was both a much bigger womanizer even than his ol’ dad and also the next King of Israel.

Now you might be wondering, what does this sort of ancient Jerry Springer story have to do with us today, right here, right now in twenty-first century Schenectady… what might a story like this teach us about how God is breaking into our lives in liberating love? In short, my sisters and brothers, we should consider the story of Bathsheba and David with great seriousness, because really, at least in a round about sort of way, it’s the story of the times we are living in as well. The story of Bathsheba and David is the story of times we are living in as well. And no, I don’t mean to infer that all of us are out there being all promiscuous or whatever… let me explain. For almost forty years now, power and especially wealth has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few elite individuals and families, both here in America and around the world. In fact, the level of income inequality in America is at its highest levels since the Roaring Twenties. Not to get too technical, but “income” is sort of the annual flow of money a household receives every year, but if you look at wealth, the amount of assets a household has saved up over a lifetime, it’s even a scarier story… at this point the richest 3% of Americans hold over half of our country’s wealth. That’s right, the richest 3% of Americans now hold over half of our country’s wealth.

Given these sort of statistics, and even more importantly the horrible stories of suffering and despair behind these statistics, it makes a lot of sense that ordinary folks like you and me are angry, really angry… I occasionally stop by Mark’s Bar and Grill right over here on Curry Road, a very working class sort of place right? and the frustration and anger there is easy to see. The fact of the matter is, in this day and age, the vast majority of us are Uriahs, ordinary folks struggling just to survive and not even knowing who those elites really are that are sending us off to die. Living as Uriahs, with little wealth and diminished power, we’re angry, really angry and that anger is indeed justifiable, but let me make this abundantly clear, that anger is coming out in ways that are both dangerous and misdirected. Living with such unnecessary inequality, living with such unnecessary struggle, ordinary folks like you and I, modern day Uriahs, are angry, and justifiably so, but wow, that anger is coming out in ways that are both dangerous and misdirected.

After being away at a wedding in New Hampshire and then at synod assembly in Rochester over the past week, I hadn’t been paying attention to the everyday news cycle ya know, I was out of it for a while, so after getting back I was immediately struck by the disgusting state of our politics. We actually have candidates who have made blatant racism, sexism and xenophobia central pillars of their campaign, but on the other hand, as we saw this past week in San Jose, the folks protesting that sort of thing are themselves getting physically violent. Yes, we’re all Uriahs and are anger is justifiable, but such anger is both dangerous and misdirected… immigrants, transgender folks, people of color, religious minorities or whatever other favorite targets of the far right aren’t the people who have caused extreme income inequality in our country, not at all, but on the other hand, individual wealthy folks or individuals with different political views didn't really cause it either, at least not directly.

Look once again at our reading from Second Samuel… the main problem that led to Uriah's unjust murder was not that King David was generally this lustful, covetous, horrible person! King David is remembered as the greatest king of Israel, a man held in the highest regard by Judaism and Christianity, a man considered by Muslims to be a prophet. David did make a huge mistake here, but while it's not an excuse for his actions, David also lived within a system where an extreme imbalance of power in his favor blinded him towards the true ramifications of his actions. Once again, while it’s not an excuse for his actions, King David lived within a system where an extreme imbalance of power in his favor blinded him towards the true ramifications of his actions. Indeed, as you heard today, once the prophet Nathan engaged David in true conversation, by helping him understand through the parable of the rich man and the poor man’s lamb, King David repented and saw the evil of his ways.

While individuals can indeed mess up and make sinful mistakes, or maybe even do evil on purpose, as people we all mess up, while we’re all saints we’re also all sinners, right? In the end, the problem in our own time, as it was in King David’s time, is not individuals, whether they be poor immigrants or wealthy crooks on Wall Street. In the end, the real problem is the system we live in, a system where great inequality allows for the mistakes of a few to disproportionately affect the lives of us all. The real problem is the system we live in, where great inequality allows for the mistakes of a few to disproportionately affect the lives of us all. Thus, if we direct our anger towards an individual, no matter what that person's identity might be, our anger while perhaps justifiable is misguided and probably won't fix much of anything at all. It’s not a coincidence I think that the great increase in inequality over the past forty years took place alongside the degradation of our American social structures… union membership has greatly declined, folks don’t go to the PTA or Elks Club like they used to, folks don’t visit each other in their neighborhoods, people don’t go to church. I deeply believe my sisters and brothers, that the renewal of those social structures is the only thing that can equalize our crooked system that’s keeps all of Uriahs, that resigns us and our families to grinding inequality.

So, how is God work in all of this, how is God breaking into such an unequal system, delivering us in liberating love? Well first of all, as people of God we are called to listen to one another, to build our capacity to have the hard conversations necessary to change our current system of sinfully high imbalance from the the ground up. For far too long church has been a place where folks go to be superficially nice to one another over an unhealthy but delicious potluck but not really talk about anything of real importance. Over the past year especially at Messiah we’ve been working to change that trend… hosting many conversations about racism and religious diversity. We’ll be hosting another conversation about creating more diverse communities in just a couple weeks at an event cosponsored by WELCA.

Additionally, though, and perhaps even more importantly, God is calling us to remain centered on what’s important. There’s been a lot of growth and change here at Messiah in recent months, mostly from positive things, but I know that’s also put some stress on our system but know that despite any minor issues we might face, God is breaking into your life and mine, and indeed into the life of our community… God especially likes to show up in face of others. And in the world we live in, with so much inequality, so much anger, so much hate, the fact that God is at work, building up and strengthening communities like ours, well nothing, and I mean nothing, could be more important. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit filled church following Jesus Christ in Schenectady, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Confession & Thanksgiving as We Celebrate MLK



Earlier today I was blessed with the opportunity to give the opening invocation of the Schenectady County Human Right's Commission's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration at Mount Olivet Missionary Baptist Church. What follows my manuscript for that invocation.

Good afternoon everyone,

When Ms. Morris called me up a few days before Christmas and asked me to open today’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. with a word of prayer, I felt incredibly honored, but honestly a bit distraught as well. You see, us Lutherans aren’t necessarily known for our rousing, inspiring praying… we certainly pray, quite a bit actually, but we tend to just like politely reading something out of a book and then going off to the fellowship hall to enjoy a nice potluck. And furthermore, I mean not everyone here’s Christian I imagine, so I thought offering prayerful words in such a situation might not be entirely inclusive. Eventually, and frankly not till pretty early this morning, I realized it was far better to offer up something from my tradition that we all in a sense could take part in no matter one’s faith: confession and thanksgiving. You see, from a Lutheran and indeed many Christian perspectives, confession isn’t about feeling all guilty, bummed out or down on one’s self like it’s often portrayed… not at all! Indeed, when we confess things, we’re simply naming the things that ail us, we’re simply naming what’s really going on, and in doing so, we are thereby freed to see and celebrate the many incredible things we should be thankful for. So, with that said, instead of opening with a word of prayer, I’d ask that we open with a word of confession and thanksgiving.

First of all, as Dr. Jacqui Williams stated this past Thursday at the Pre-Celebration Community Forum, let us confess that if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were here today, he would cry, fall to his knees, and pray, “What did I do wrong?” That’s because, while it’s certainly not Dr. King’s fault, we must also confess that Jim Crow is indeed alive and well not just in the South but throughout America in the form of a criminal justice system run amok, a system which now imprisons a higher percentage of the black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. Let us confess, that as the political strategist Lee Atwater admitted to decades ago, fear of the criminal, fear of the drug addict, fear of the welfare recipient was created and stoked in the minds of America’s white population simply to garner votes. And more importantly, let all my fellow white folks in the room today confess that far too many of us fell for such tactics, and continue to fall for these harmful manipulations. Let us confess that not only has Reagan’s so called “War on Drugs” been a miserable failure, but also that due to racial profiling, certainly not rates of drug use, the “War on Drugs” has often become a war on communities of color. Let us confess that when we say we’re in a post-racial society, or that we live in an age of colorblindness, all we’re really saying is that we’re simply blind to what’s really going. Let us confess that when we respond to the refrain “black lives matter” with “all lives matter,” we simply do not understand the issue at hand.

To all those who are Christians in the room, both black and white, let us confess that far too many of our houses of worship have become houses of complacency, houses of polite superficialities and houses of creature comforts rather than places where we learn what the gospel is really about… faith, hope and liberating love. Let us confess far too many of us lift Dr. King up as a universally beloved saint, rather than the controversial, radical, justice-seeker he was. Finally, let us confess that we all have failed to care for one another, and as Michelle Alexander states in her book The New Jim Crow, “It is this failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and the very racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.

However, having confessed such things, let us also turn forward this day and give joyful thanksgiving as we the celebrate the immense possibilities of a bright future. Let us lift up words of thanksgiving that in the tradition of Isaiah, Micah, Elijah and indeed of Jesus Christ, any true faith must seek justice and therefore any true faith must be in a sense political. Let us give thanks that our houses of worship are well poised to provide safe and comfortable spaces for our community to have incredibly uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Let us give thanks for the rich, beautiful diversity of creation in all its forms… for diversity of race and culture and creed and for humanity’s full spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations. Let us give thanks for a new generation of civil rights activists who refuse to be silenced, those who have aptly been called the #blacklivesmatter generation. Let us give thanks for the lives of those beloved martyrs of gun violence and police violence, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and all the others whose lives have once again brought issues of race and justice to the forefront of our national conversation. Most importantly, let us give thanks for the real Dr. King, a man who was a “troublemaker,” a man who was a “radical,” a man who necessarily made people feel uncomfortable, but as Cornell West puts its, also a man who taught us to be love-struck with each other rather than colorblind toward each other. Thanks be to God for these things, and thank you for joining us in today’s celebration.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Turn Towards Hope

Hi all,

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached earlier this morning at Messiah Lutheran Church in Schenectady, New York where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It was my best attempt to proclaim a message of hope as we begin the season of Advent while focusing on the first reading for this Sunday, Jeremiah 33: 14 - 16. Please, let me know what you think!

God's peace,
Dustin

Sisters and brothers,

It’s so heartening for me to be back with you, despite having had an awesome week away visiting loved ones and hiking in all sorts of beautiful places with Willy Bear all around New England. It was a great week for sure, filled with some much needed rest time, hours spent reading and reflecting about the past year and of course multiple courses of eating way too much turkey. That all said, both the best and most thought provoking parts of my week were the conversations I had with folks of a wide variety ages and backgrounds. I was blessed with the opportunity to hear what was going on in the life of my beloved Grandma Tinie for instance, who still cooked the most delicious Thanksgiving meal despite being in her late eighties. I also learned about the joys and challenges a close childhood friend of mine is facing as her and her husband begin their careers with a second child on the way. It was fantastic to talk with a high school student about how things were going with the hometown cross country team in my hometown of Manchester, Connecticut before the annual Thanksgiving Day Road Race. Now to the best of my understanding, there seemed to be one common thread though that bubbled up in a nearly all these conversations no matter what else was being talked about, a common thread that really informs what I’d like to speak to today… given everything going on in the world over especially the past year, wow, there is a huge amount of fear in our society, and worse yet, there is even more apathy about the possibility of things improving. There is a great amount of fear in our society, and worse yet, there is even more apathy about the possibility of things improving.

The reasons for this collective sense of fear and apathy are both incredibly complicated yet probably quite familiar to most of you. First of all, on a societal level, change, even when it’s mostly positive change, creates uncertainty, which in turns often instigates us to react in fear. And while it’s been increasingly a trend for a while now, over the past year especially we’ve heard stories about “the rise of the millennial generation,” folks roughly my age and bit younger, who as we’re at least often characterized have radically different views than the last few few generations of Americans. We’re increasingly interconnected on our iPhones, we greatly value racial and ethnic diversity, and comfortable with what some would consider nontraditional family structures, whether it be championing marriage equality, choosing to live with a partner before marriage or putting off having children until later in life. We also aren’t typically as interested in organized religion, although we are just about as spiritual as any other generation. While in my opinion most of these trends are quite positive and have been in the works for the at least the last fifty years anyway, the fact that we’re rapidly moving away from a “Leave It to Beaver” sort of society is understandably scary for many individuals.

On top of a rapidly changing society, we’ve been absolutely inundated over the past year with all sorts of horrific headlines that tend to breed nothing but fear and apathy… folks twisting the beautiful teachings of Islam into something that leads to beheadings and civil war and the despicable terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut a couple weeks ago. Every week it seems we hear news of another mass shooting, most recently this past Friday outside a women’s health clinic in Colorado. Affirming that black lives matter while also supporting the women and men who have sworn to keep us safe is a near daily task. With NATO allied Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter jet on Turkish/ Syrian border this past week, international tensions in some ways haven’t been this high since the end of the Cold War. And not to mention of course all the difficulties going on in our own lives… from talking to many of you privately in the week before I left for vacation, wow, there is a lot of tough stuff going on for many of us hear at Messiah… all sorts of things that might make us fearful, or lead us to apathetically believe things will never improve.

Today however my sisters and brothers, during the shortest days of the year, the prophet Jeremiah has a word for us that is not just of incredible, but in fact is audaciously good news amidst all that darkness, fear and apathy, as we begin a new church year and liturgical season this first Sunday of Advent… a message quite simply, of hope. I’ll read some of Jeremiah’s words for us again… The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. You see, Jeremiah wrote in some truly horrific times… right in the middle of the Siege of Jerusalem between 589-587 BCE by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar II. The elites of the city were being carted off to exile in Babylon, the city itself was burned and most importantly, the First Temple, the dwelling place of God on Earth was completely destroyed. I can’t stress more highly how this was a truly world shattering event for Jeremiah and his peers… to the point that most of Hebrew Bible we know today was compiled shortly thereafter in an attempt to figure out what to do next. Despite the horrors surrounding him, Jeremiah proclaims “the days are surely coming” where justice and righteousness will once again reign in the land. In other words, Jeremiah proclaimed a message of hope in the darkest, scariest, most apathetic of times… not just incredible but in fact audaciously good news that deeply reflects the sense of hope that our God calls us towards in Christ.

So, what can we learn from Jeremiah’s message as we begin this Advent amidst the darkest season of the year, amidst of overwhelming sense of apathy and fear? Quite simply, turn away from such things towards hope. In the end, that’s what Jesus is all about, the only reason Jesus needed to be born at all, to turn us towards hope. Turn towards hope in Christ, and proclaim that message to everyone you know through word and deed, that in the end, the powers of darkness, and fear and apathy can never win next to the power of God’s love. Now what does an abstract phrase like “turn towards hope” mean for us practically in this time, this place, in twenty-first century Rotterdam? I have three distinct suggestions amongst many other possibilities. First, let us consider what and who we want to stand for as Christians. A couple weeks back, you might have heard the silliness coming out of some Christian quarters complaining about what those red holiday Starbucks cups look like… they no longer had a Santa or nativity or whatever other Christmas scene whatever… is that what’s truly important? Red coffee cups? Is that what it means to be Christian? Or can we radically take up the Biblical call to welcome in the stranger, the alien, the migrant and stand up for those well mean Syrian families seeking asylum in our country as refugees. What’s more important? Being fearful about our seemingly less Christian culture and complaining about red coffee cups or turning towards the hope that we can make the lives of a small number of Syrian refugees just a bit easier.

Second, do we want focus on our fears about the changing values of our young people? Only a couple weeks back I heard an ELCA Lutheran pastor referred to millennials as a “heathen generation,” I kid you not. Really? Or should turn towards hope in Christ? For example, did you know for the past few years, on the first day of every month thousands of young Lutherans around the world fast have fasted for justice ahead of a major climate change conference that will begin tomorrow in Paris? Lutheran young people are putting their into action all around the world and advocating that our leaders finally take action on what may be the defining issue of our time, and it’s acceptable to call us a heathen generation? Rather than reacting out of fear about changing and perhaps improving values, we can turn towards hope in Christ.

Finally, on a more personal and less global scale, should we continue to apathetically focus on old divisions and arguments with friends, family and members of our congregation, especially during this stressful time of the year or can we turns towards hope in Christ that reconciliation is possible? Can we turn towards hope in Christ that we can move forward together into a bright future as closely knit families, communities and as a congregation? Quite simply my sisters and brothers, through Jeremiah’s proclamation of the good news amidst the darkest of times over 2500 years ago, and through Christ coming into the world and triumphing over the worst of human sin a few hundred years later, we can turn away from all the darkness and fear and apathy towards hope. In the end, that’s what Jesus is all about, the only reason Jesus needed to be born at all, to turn us towards hope. Turn towards hope in Christ, and proclaim that message to everyone you know through word and deed, that in the end, the powers of darkness, and fear and apathy can never win next to the power of God’s love. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Confession from the Storm

Hi all,

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached earlier this morning at Messiah Lutheran Church in Schenectady, New York where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It was simply my best attempt to speak to horrific act of racially fueled terrorism that took place in Charleston this past week and brings in the gospel message for this Sunday as well, Mark 4:35-41. Please, let me know what you think!

God's peace,
Dustin

I’d like to start out today with a couple of confessions… First, while I had finished my sermon early for once this past week, all excited to talk about how Jesus shows up in positive masculinity for our first ever Father’s Day Eucharist, I knew immediately upon reading the news on Facebook late Wednesday evening about the massacre of those nine black saints at prayer and studying the Scriptures down in Charleston, that it was essential to preach something different. Yet, despite having three days to prepare, I have to confess that I still couldn’t come up with much… as I speak to you this morning my heart aches. As pastor here at Messiah, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the powerful, life-giving sessions many of us spent together learning about our Creator on Wednesday evenings this past Lent for instance, and what a horrific sin it was to so violently cut short a quite similar gathering last Wednesday at Emanuel AME Church. On top of being sad, just really sad, about what transpired, I can’t help but be infuriated either, especially at the perpetrator of that violence, who it was just found out was in fact a member of an ELCA Lutheran congregation, but also at the folks who over the last few days quite publicly stated this act of domestic terrorism had nothing to do with race, or that the perpetrator’s actions were not representative of wider issues of racial injustice, a sin, indeed America’s original sin, a storm of sorts that still rages across our entire country.

So, while I’ve tried to find some good news in all this, and I promise, we’ll definitely get there, I thought I’d first ground our conversation today in a few more personal confessions as well, stories that I imagine may prove demonstrative of the wider situation we find ourselves in regarding the current way the storm of racism rages in America. One of my first memories of thinking I could have done better regarding race was when I was about ten years old. Growing up living in a two family house owned by my great, great uncle, an amazingly compassionate and highly decorating veteran of the Second World War, after making friends with one of the black families who lived a couple blocks away and playing army in our front yard, my uncle told me, and I quote, “there was only only one colored boy in the yard at a time,” and he thought he was being generous. I mean yeah, I was only ten, but I knew my beloved uncle was wrong, and I should have done something more than simply shrugging him off as a product of his time. I think back to one night in middle school, when I use to make a few extra dollars shoveling the walk in front of the club/ bar place my father was a member of, located in the primarily African American neighborhood my family lived in. An incredibly intelligent buddy of mine from the middle school basketball team, a fellow named Byron was with a few of his friends and saw me shoveling alone from a distance. Wanting to make a point he put his hoodie up before walking towards me and once he got up close, and I could see who it was, he asked if I had been more afraid because he was a black guy. I said no of course, but still deeply taught by our society to make assumptions about folks that looked like he did, I should have probably said maybe.

In college, especially with the idea that I was just sarcastically making fun of folks who were overtly hateful or perhaps because I was a poorer kid around wealth for the first time and I wanted to attack political correctness as just this sort of uppity rich people thing, or maybe just because I was a loud, big personality trying to get attention, I definitely made more than enough stupid jokes about race, religion and ethnicity. As I’ve preached on before, it wasn’t really until the required anti-racism training I took at seminary, where the organizers aptly were able to help the white folks in the room understand racial oppression through the lens of various other types of oppression we had in fact lived through, that I truly was able to understand how thinking we could laugh about our differences was simply not taking the sin of racism seriously enough.

I confess these things, my sisters and brothers, not to throw my own guilt on you this morning or to make you feel uncomfortable, not at all, but rather to demonstrate how the storm of racism rages on today, in our own lives. I mean I had the benefit of growing up in fully integrated schools with roughly a third African-American population in the most progressive part of the country. I prided myself in getting the nickname “Brother Dus” for a bit of my senior year of high school because I was the only white kid taking the African-American History elective. A few years later, at pretty much the same exact time I was making those stupid jokes back in college, I was volunteering with the Obama campaign in four or five different state primaries, so incredibly enthusiastic about what it would mean to have an African-American president. It would have been hard for me to grow up exposed to much more diversity and cross-racial understanding, but coming from that blind place called white privilege, America’s original sin still became my own. And despite my best intentions to learn, to listen and to grow, overcoming the sin of racism is something I know I could always improve upon.

Now while your own stories and experiences may take different forms, and frankly you’re all probably much better people than I am, just because of who we are and the legacy we’ve been born into, whether it was in the 1930s or 1960s or 1990s, in a yes improving but still significant way, the storm of American racism continues to rage in all our lives. Whether it’s letting a relative’s inappropriate joke pass without comment or simply living in a society where you’re less likely to get pulled over because of the color of your skin and not doing much about it, we all have room to improve. And, my sisters and brothers, that’s where the good news starts… You see, recognizing our shortcomings isn’t about being on a guilt trip or being down on ourselves, but rather the exact opposite. Being vulnerable about our shortcomings is about being in turn completely torn open by Christ, about being shown how God is present in all the storms of our lives, working to improve us and thereby equip us to go out and serve our neighbors. Confession is simply saying what’s really going on… that we live in a country where folks are more likely to be arrested and are less likely to get jobs and can even still be murdered simply because of the color of their skin and that as predominately white folks, as people who are on the periphery of but are still negatively affected by and oftentimes passively complicit with the particularly heinous storm that is racism in America, we can always learn more from our black sisters and brothers who are in the middle of those choppy seas each and every day.

No matter though how much we have or haven’t contributed to racial injustice, the incredibly good news is that as we heard into today’s gospel message, Jesus is in the storm. Jesus is in the storm. Jesus is with us in all the storms we face, particularly as we work to grow beyond America’s original sin of racism. Jesus is in the storm, even when we mess up, misspeak or misunderstand. Jesus is in the storm of black lives as well, whether it be while they confront the institutional violence of an unjust criminal justice system or the individual violence of a racist young man shooting up a church meeting. And while most of us will never entirely know what it’s like to face the storm of racism in such a way, we can know Christ is there with our black sisters and brothers, there in the storm, calling us to listen, to learn, to accompany our fellow children of God as allies in the cause of justice, of peace, of freedom, of the highest ideals of both our country and even more importantly our faith. Jesus is in the storm. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why Did Jesus Need to Die?

Hi everyone,

In addition to posting sermon videos on my congregation's website, I decided to start putting 'em here as well to hopefully increase viewership. The sermon below was preached today on the gospel message for the day, John 3:14-21, specifically exploring the question, "why did Jesus have to die?" Thanks for watching, and I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,
Dustin



Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Let's Talk about Fornication!

Hi everyone,

Wow... the lectionary provided us with some pretty choice passages this Sunday. What follows is my take on 1 Corinthians 6: 11-20. If you'd like to see video of the sermon, you can check it out soon on my congregation's website, Messiah Lutheran Church.


Wow, the geniuses who came up with the lectionary really served us up a doozy this week. We have two stories in 1 Samuel and the Gospel of Saint John about God calling disciples… and neither of which is particularly uplifting. The Samuel story is really problematic because it ends with God being pretty mean to poor old Eli. The story from John isn’t too bad, but it’s just kind of dry, no? But then, we got one really coming at us out of left field with the epistle reading… it’s Saint Paul writing to those bothersome Corinthians all about the loaded topic of fornicating! While I firmly believe there’s good news in all these readings my sisters and brothers, they definitely all take a great deal of unpacking to get there, and given that we probably need a little something to warm us up on such a cold winter’s morning, let’s just talk about the fornicating! I figure it’s probably been a couple months since I’ve gotten too controversial in one of my sermons, so why not give it a whirl.

Has anyone here ever heard of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai? Although I had heard a bit about Hillel cause most Jewish student centers on college campuses are named after him, I hadn’t really heard the full story myself about Hillel and Shammai until I got to seminary either, so don’t worry about it. That said though, it might be a little bit too history-nerdish, but try to remember about Hillel and Shammai, because their story can definitely go a long way in helping us figure out difficult ethical issues and sort through difficult Biblical passages as Christians. This is a bit of an oversimplification of their story, but essentially Hillel and Shammai were two competing Jewish sages who lived not long before the time of Christ. Now when these sages disagreed about important matters of Torah or Jewish law, they and their respective followers tended to hold two competing schools of thought. The Shammai folks generally tried to stick more to letter of the law, to do things exactly by the book, while the Hillel folks tended to spend a bit more time thinking about context, how a particular piece of Torah would be applied, the sort of spirit and intent behind what was written in the Scriptures.

The most famous practical example of these two ways of thinking was in a bit of an argument the Hillel and Shammai folks got into over white lies. Now according to the last part of Leviticus 19:11, you’re not supposed to lie: “you shall not lie to one another.” But what happens (and this is the exact example Hillel and Shammai got in an argument about by the way)… what happens if on her wedding day, a not particularly attractive bride asks you if she looks beautiful? Should you lie, be nice, and say she’s beautiful, or should follow the law exactly, and truthfully say, “have a blessed wedding day darling, but no, you are ugly!” Now the right course of action I think seems obvious to all of us, but the Shammai folks would disagree… tell her she’s ugly they’d say, stick to the law! Now the Hillel folks wouldn’t say the law isn’t helpful in this matter, not at all! In fact, in order to give proper respect to the law, think about it a little, what Leviticus 19:11 trying to get at, what’s the intent? What’s the Spirit of the law? In the end, Hillel famously said, “every bride is beautiful on her wedding day.”

During Christ’s time actually, the Shammai folks were more popular. As opposition to Roman domination grew, the more hardline approach of the Shammai folks was more appealing. Eventually though, taking the Shammai approach to foreign policy with the Roman Empire is partially what led to Jerusalem and especially the temple being destroyed around 70 CE. As Jewish leaders reconstituted themselves in the succeeding years, Shammai’s way of looking at things was largely thrown out… you must take one’s context into account when interpreting the law. The spirit of the law is what truly matters! In the end, the Hillel approach largely triumphed, and it grew into majorly influencing the beautiful faith of Judaism we know today (and Christianity too by the way).
So when you see these controversial, difficult Bible passages my sisters and brothers, whether they be in the Old or New Testament, remember this whole Hillel/ Shammai thing… prayerfully try to discern the spirit of the author’s writing, and indeed how the Holy Spirit is currently at work in the author’s writing, right now, in this day in age, in twenty-first century Schenectady or wherever you might find yourselves.

Now when thinking about all this fornicating business, and indeed all the other various types of sexually-related sins listed around it in 1 Corinthians, let’s keep our context in mind. As Christians we’re all members of a religious movement that hasn’t always gotten matters of gender and sexuality exactly right over the years. All the women who were kept out of the pulpit simply because of their gender. All the folks told to stay in horribly abusive marriages by their local priest. All the recent divorcees, who in the midst of crisis, at the time they needed the support of their faith communities the most, were shamed out of churches. Now I imagine we may have some different views in the congregation related to marriage equality, LGBT issues and the like, but wow, I’d hope we could all agree that things like what happened this past week, when a church in Colorado decided to cancel a young woman’s funeral fifteen minutes after it was supposed to begin because she was gay, I’d hope we could agree that things like that are well, far less than ideal and certainly not reflective of Christian love.

Unfortunately, although many of the congregations in our denomination and others have been improving in recent years, it’s our history as Christians and notable news stories like the one out of Colorado this past week that have made so many folks, and not just people of my generation, associate Christianity not with God or love or Jesus but with being uppity and mean about matters of sexuality. I’ve seen it with my own eyes a bunch of times… Christians talking all about how their “pure” but in the end pretty much just putting themselves over someone else by shaming people who wouldn’t fit their standards of “purity.” These sort of actions, this sort of shaming that takes place far too often in Christian circles in matters related to human sexuality, is in the end complete hogwash, and needs to be called out as such, for at least two reasons.

First, when we put ourselves over and above someone else, whether or not what that other person is doing is actually sinful, it’s all too easy for us to forget about our own things that need improvement. Second though, and even more importantly, we end up just looking silly like Shammai, calling someone ugly on their wedding day. Paul wrote all this business about not fornicating to a church in the first century that was rife with conflict. The text seems to suggest people were committing all sorts of sexual craziness because they thought they were freed by forgiveness in Christ to do whatever they pleased, and as would obviously happen, the Corinthians just ended up hurting each other. They were messing up their relationships with God and with one another. If you take the Hillel approach, and look at the spirit of what Paul is trying to say to the Corinthians, here’s where you start to find the good news! In our day and age, in a time when the church has screwed up issues related to sex for so long and so many people feel so unwelcome in Christian communities because of it, it’s not as much the sexuality that’s getting in the way of being in relationship with God and one another, it’s this over-zealous judgement and shaming that’s the real problem. That’s not to say we should go out and be like the Corinthians doing whatever we want, not at all, misusing the gift of sexual intimacy can really hurt people, but wow, in our context, that over-zealous judgement and shaming is what's really hurt people and truly getting in the way of far too many folks knowing the joy of Christian community.

When you look at the spirit of what Paul’s trying to say with all this fornicating stuff, in the end, he’s saying take Christ seriously. Take Christ seriously! Outside of gathering to hear the Scriptures publicly read, being baptized and celebrating communion (all actions which involve other people, by the way), the best way we can know Christ in this world is simply by seeing Him in the face of other people, oftentimes in the face of people where you would not expect Christ to be. Christ is breaking into your life each and every day! Take that seriously! If you’re part of a community where sexuality is getting in the way of seeing Christ in one another like in first century Corinth, sure, chill out a bit with the sexuality. If you’re part of a community where judgement and shaming is getting in the way of seeing Christ in one another, as it certainly is in many of today’s churches, chill out a bit with the judgement and shaming! Christ, my sisters and brothers, is constantly trying to break into our lives, to heal us, to save us, to liberate us, to make sure that we know we our loved, no matter what. Christ is trying to teach us something too by sometimes showing up in the faces of those we’d least expect it. And indeed, Christ has promised to do these things. And yes, our God in Christ is a God who keeps promises. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.