Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dostoevsky on Consumerism

A recent post from my "Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society" journal:

I've been thinking a bunch this week about whether the contemporary "consumer culture" we find ourselves in is really any different than what has come before. Given what my Lutheran theology says about us all being sinners and saints, haven't folks had the same level of desire to consume things, feelings and experiences throughout human history? Last night while reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (I'm a big nerd and reading classic literature is one of my favorite things to do on a Saturday night, for better or worse), I came across a passage that would seem to indicate much of what we are experiencing is nothing new. This quote comes from a portion of the book that as written as the final notes and memoirs of a recently deceased saintly monk, Father Zossima, who serves as the main protagonist's mentor:
Look at the worldly and all who set themselves up above the people of God, has not God's image and His truth been distorted in them? They have science; but in science there is nothing but what is the object of sense. The spiritual world, the higher part of man's being is rejected altogether, dismissed with a sort of triumph, even with hatred. The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what doe we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says:
"You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires." That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air.
Alas, put no faith in such a bond of union. Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation... For how can a man shake off his habits, what can become of him if he is in such bondage to the habit of satisfying the innumerable desires he has created for himself? He is isolated, and what concern has he with the rest of humanity? They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less (Dostoevsky 288 - 289).
Is our experience as Christians any different than Father Zossima's (and Dostoevsky's) nearly 150 years ago? I honestly doubt it at this point. If there is any difference however, it seems like it might be a positive. Father Zossima laments that his wider society has rejected the spiritual world entirely in favor of the material. As we've talked a great deal about in our course already however, in our contemporary world, we're often sold or pursue material in order to fulfill emotional or spiritual needs. Perhaps, at least, we have the right desires, but just simply don't know the right way to move toward fulfilling them.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Lutheran Seminarian's Thoughts about Syria on the Anniversary of 9/11

As I watched that second plane crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center twelve years ago as a sophomore in high school, and everything that happen thereafter in the coming days, I certainly felt a sense of horror, confusion and anger, much like everyone else around me. I lived far enough north in Connecticut that I don't remember anyone having directly lost a parent or close relative that day, but the indirect connections were numerous and pretty hard to deal with. It was when first I arrived in church that Sunday (and worked hard to not cause trouble on such a serious day, as I usually did every Sunday), and saw the sanctuary packed like never before that I remember feeling odd but strong sense of optimism. I thought as horrible as the events of 9/11 were, that perhaps such a tragedy could change things, that people in a long term way could come together for something I vaguely thought of as a greater good. Even more importantly, it seemed like the United States had more goodwill from folks in nations around the world than they had since at least the time of the Marshall Plan. Perhaps, I thought, if this chance could be correctly utilized, some really good things could come out of such a tragedy.

Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened. Domestic goodwill was squandered by an administration that told us just as long as we kept buying things, paid attention to a color-coded fear index and sealed our windows with duct tape, we'd probably be fine. The Bush administration quickly overreached with the Patriot Act as well. On the foreign policy front, goodwill towards America was squandered in even a more drastic manner. In Afghanistan, a war that probably needed to be fought was mismanaged. In Iraq, our nation and our allies were lead into battle under a premise build upon lies. A US foreign policy of fear and vengeance, where everything was either black or white, where you were either with us or against quickly dissipated goodwill toward the United States of America. Empathy towards us frequently turned to impassioned hate, or at best, annoyance. An amazing opportunity was quickly squandered.

Now, twelve years later, in my final year of seminary studying to be a Lutheran pastor, I know idealistic notions of world peace or universal progress are rarely met. Could the goodwill following 9/11 have ushered in some new global golden age as I once thought as a young teenager?  Probably not... human sin, or from a secular perspective, human imperfection negates such a possibility. Yet, I also know human progress can be made, that as The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once paraphrased, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." With God's help, things can be bettered in this world, perhaps minutely and unevenly, but they can be bettered, if only we can discern, at least some of the time, how to work together.

So where are we now? How does the lesson of 9/11 and its aftermath apply to the current crisis in Syria? Well, amidst such immense tragedy going on there, amidst the deaths of over 100,000 Syrians, 2 million refugees and countless more internally displaced persons, there is at least some semblance of good news, however meager. The Obama administration has certainly bungled up the US response to Syria crisis. Perhaps most notably, the over-reach of the Western allies in Libya turned away Russia and China away from even the possibility of supporting some sort of early intervention in the UN Security Council. There's definitely been too much loose talk by administration officials following the recent massive use of chemical weapons in Syria as well. That all said, at very least, the Obama administration, as we saw last night, has allowed for nuance, has allowed for the possibility of shades of gray and hasn't inappropriately painted this crisis as some sort of cosmic battle between good and evil, as was done over a decade ago. President Obama's speech last night was widely panned in the press as incoherent, but I strongly disagree with such accusations. Our president was simply portraying a complicated situation as what it is, complicated. Perhaps, at least, there is some good news in the fact that our society has moved past such a black and white of thinking about foreign policy.

Yaman Al Qadri
Even more encouraging has been the immense call for peace amidst the drums of war. More informed and more interconnected than ever before, our nation and our and global community has less to fear, and therefore can react more rationally. Thousands fasted this past Saturday along with Pope Francis, praying for peace. Despite my initial reaction to the contrary, my own heart was moved against a US militarily intervention in Syria once I heard from people of faith on the ground, including Rt. Rev. Munib A. Younan, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and from folks at a well attended webinar yesterday organized by Presbyterian World Mission. Such technologies and connections were not nearly as strong twelve years ago, and I firmly believe the Spirit is working through such connections. The idea of Russia, a former enemy of the United States, perhaps being able to broker a deal that at least could take chemical weapons out of the Syrian conflict is profoundly good news and perhaps, an answer to many folks' prayers around the world. It's also important to note, because it's not nearly often enough discussed, the role that women, particularly the young Yaman Al Qadri, have bravely taken in working for peace in Syria, also provides the world with great hope.

On this day, as we look back upon 9/11 and all the lessons learned since then, let us continue to pray for peace in Syria. Even if chemical weapons are taken off the battlefield, there's still such immense suffering. Another rarely noted fact is that sexual violence has become commonplace in the conflict, to the point that rape is primary reason families are fleeing Syria. Let us also however, give thanks that our political leaders allow for nuance, for the possibility of partnering with former enemies to lessen the conflict, and for the immense power of the Spirit working throughout the world to bring peace.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society

So here's the dilliyo (using that word makes me pretty hip right?) This semester at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where I'm currently a Senior in their Masters of Divinity program, I'm taking an ethics course entitled "Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society" with Professor John Hoffmeyer. The 'Hoff is fantastic, as is the course so far... we've talked a lot about how in our modern consumer society (it hasn't always been this way), we don't really practice "materialism" in the strict sense at all... while we keep buying way more than we need, we're primarily doing so to purchase the emotions and experiences we desire. This fact definitely has implications for those going into ordained ministry, as a central part of our job is helping folks discover, learn and experience God's love in loving communities.

One assignment we have throughout the semester is maintaining a journal where we jot down advertisements we encounter, insights we have about consumerism, and the like. I figured why not make this journal public, with the hope that it might spark some further conversation both with my fellow Christians and folks currently outside faith communities as well. So throughout the semester, I'll be posting random snippets, commercials and the like in a chronological blog style on a new journal page, which you can find here or by using the "Site Navigation" box on the right of your browser screen. More detailed insights will be posted as normal blogposts as well. You'll find the first longer post below, where I write about how much I crave "pumpkin everything" each autumn. Thanks so much, and I'd love to hear what you think!

Monday, September 9: It's Pumpkin Season!
It's been pretty hard for me to figure out what to write in here... I'm very self-righteous anti-consumerism sort of fellow, or at least I'd like to think I am, so I at least like to pretend I'm not very susceptible to most advertising. A couple days back though when I headed over to the local Wawa for my morning coffee, it hit me that there's one advertising scheme at least that really pulls me in... I love pumpkin everything!

At Wawa for the first time this year, I saw pumpkin flavored coffee, and I absolutely had to have it. While it does taste pretty good, as does most things that are pumpkin (pumpkin beer, pumpkin cream cheese, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, etc.), I'm of course not really into pumpkin everything because of what it tastes like or what it's made of. I crave pumpkin everything each fall because of the feelings, memories and emotions the taste, smell and imagery remind me of... Trips to the local cider mill as a young kid with my dad, great-uncle and brother, where they had all you can drink sweet cider for free... holding a date close under the stars on a cool October night as we rode a haunted hayride in high school... trying to carve an awesome jack o lantern with my mom and messing up but know she could fix it... that's the sort of thing I'm craving when I buy pumpkin everything.

Pumpkin everything is particularly strong pull for me because I so closely associate it with autumn in New England. Having been exiled away from my beloved region for so long, for undergrad and seminary with only a brief respite in between, pumpkin draws me through idealized images of childhood, and even more importantly, a general feeling of home. In reality, I'm mostly spending money trying to return to place that no longer really exists for me, particularly after my mom passed away in 2008, if it ever did. This sense of denial I feel about 'having a home' fits in with the marketing strategy many companies employ of denying folks pumpkin everything throughout a large portion of the year. But anyway, as a Starbucks spokeswoman in this CNBC article states, "This is a time all its own: Winter, spring, summer and pumpkin spice latte season." Even with all this analysis, it doesn't mean I'm going to buy any less pumpkin everything this autumn.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Preaching on Syria and a New Seminary Year at LTSP

What follows is the manuscript for a sermon I gave earlier today at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.  The sermon is centered around Matthew 10: 34 - 42 and discusses the Syria conflict, as well as the uncertainty of a new academic year.  Please let me know what you think.

My sisters and brothers, I confess that I come to you this day with a near overwhelming sense of having no idea what the heck is going on... it feels like we’re living amidst times of great uncertainty, and I imagine there many of you here today who feel much the same way. For seniors like me nearing the end of our seminary education, we’re looking to graduation with excitement... we’re pumped, we are ready to go and “preach the damn gospel,” as someone once described it, although I can’t remember who. On the other hand, we’re worrying about being approved for ordination, or getting new jobs and worrying about where in this very large country we’ll be first called and most importantly, we’re worrying about how as a new generation of leaders we’ll be able reinvigorate a Church in seeming decline and share the good news with population that has for many reasons, both good and bad, largely turned away from organized religion. Middlers, at least from what I remember, you’re probably starting already to worry about internship placement and why there are so many darn papers to write. Juniors, now after almost two weeks of figuring each other out, settling in and socially establishing yourselves over beers and board games, you might be worrying about what the heck you got into by starting this whole seminary thing, and you might feel a little homesick too. Our wonderful faculty and staff, amidst what you’re continually hearing about this declining Church, you might be worrying about the future of seminary education, or maybe even whether or not you’ll have a job five years from now.

Inundated by these concerns as a seminary community, and whatever may be going on in our own personal lives, in recent days we’ve also been hit by a truly major crisis, a life and death crisis in fact, as a nation and a world. When I first saw those pictures of rows upon rows of deathly white pale bodies, many of whom were children, and heard reports of over 1500 Syrians being gassed to death by their own government, my first reaction was that the United States and our partners in the international community needed to militarily intervene. Those rows of pale bodies reminded me way too much of that haunting pile of victim’s shoes at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Those rows and rows of pale bodies reminded me way too much of the horrifying stories I’ve heard from folks roughly my age who were young children, both Hutus and Tutsis, during the Rwandan genocide. Those rows of pale, deathly white bodies reminded me way too much that after every hard rain, human bones still decades later wash up out of the ground in the killing fields of Cambodia, crying out for some sort of justice. Reminded of the hell of human sin in our previous century, despite my typically peacenik tendencies and hopefully Christian values, my first reaction was that we need to act, to militarily intervene, to somehow halt absolute evil.

My sisters and brothers, our current situation is by no means the same as the run-up to the Iraq War a decade ago. This is not a crisis built on lies, its very real, and there are legitimate arguments for meeting the large-scale use of weapons of mass destruction with a strong military response. Yet, there are other voices, some of folks actually on the ground in Syria and the surrounding region of Western Asia, arguing for a radically different response. The Right Reverend Munib A. Younan, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, recently wrote, “The only ones who will benefit from Western military intervention in Syria will be extremists on all sides. The violent ambitions of extremists within all traditions in the Middle East— Muslims, Christians, and Jews, among others—will be stoked by the fuel of even greater military destruction. As an Arab Christian, I am concerned for the effects this violence will have on every community in Syria, whether they are Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Druze, or Christian.” The Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Reverend Mark Hanson, has also echoed these sentiments, as have countless other leaders of many faiths and denominations across America. I also see the pleas for peace of a close friend from my early childhood, the only Syrian I personally know, coming across my Facebook Newsfeed on now a nearly daily basis. She makes strong arguments that the situation is much more complicated than our media portrays, and that the Syrian government in fact still has a great deal of popular support within her country. And, plenty of experts also fear an even modest US military intervention would only exacerbate the cycle of violence in Western Asia, dragging Iran, Israel and other countries into a wider regional war. Following the initial shock, upon further prayerful discernment, it appears as if a peaceful, diplomatic approach to the Syrian crisis is the best of two difficult options. And, I humbly invite you to contact President Obama and your leaders in Congress to advocate for such an approach.

But besides that, what shall we say, what shall we do? Even more importantly, what good news does a God who proclaims He comes not to bring peace, but rather with a sword, have to share with us this day, as we live amongst such great anxiety in our community, in our Church and our world? Well, first of all, we have to recognize and rest in the profoundly good news that no matter what uncertainties we may face, what’s really important is not what you, or me, or frankly any of us are doing at all. What’s truly important is the amazing things God is doing, and has always done, to bring about reconciliation, to bring about peace and to bring about liberation in Christ. If you look at the earlier verses of Matthew 10, the saints Jesus is talking to are initially named the twelve disciples... in other words, they’re students of Christ first, learning the way of the Cross as they grow in their faith. As I’m sure all the professors here will affirm, as students, we’re ain’t expected to be perfect... we’ll all make mistakes, and we won’t always have the right answer, or sometimes, any answer at all. It’s only in a later verse, after the evangelist establishes them as ongoing learners of the way of the Cross, that the status of the twelve as apostles, as doers, as proclaimers, is affirmed.

Furthermore, if you really look at the text, the fact that our God comes not with peace but the with the sword is profoundly good news. Jesus isn’t portraying himself as a barbaric warrior, a violent judge or destroyer of families... no! Jesus proclaims to the twelve, and to us in this city, on this campus, in this most uncertain of times that God is a God of movement, not of stagnation. Yes, our God promises us She is a God of change. For our God promises us She is a God of a sometimes chaotic creation, but a new, life-giving creation nonetheless. For God is always at work, dancing through your life and your life and all our lives, lovingly strengthening and comforting us when we doubt why we’re here or what lies ahead. God is always at work, rebirthing the Church, the body of Her Son in this world anew, whether it be through a new Pope washing the feet of a Muslim girl or a new Lutheran Presiding Bishop proclaiming the good news on MSNBC or the grassroots work of missional faith communities across this land serving their neighbors in Christian freedom. And even amidst a difficult global crisis, even as calls to war once again sound across this country, God is and will always be at work, guiding us and our leaders, bearing peace amongst the hell of human sin and in fact freeing us to reach out in mutual comfort and consolation like never before in human history to our sisters and brothers half a world away. In Christ, God promises to be a God of movement, of change, of life, of new creation, of liberating love that is always at work. And, God is a God who keep Her promises. Amen.

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

"Don't Worry Father, I'm not a Sodomite," NYC Bath Houses, Khalil Gibran and Feeding God's Sheep

So I'm in the midst of writing my "approval essay," which means I'm desperately trying to finish the essay I have to write before going to a final interview with folks in New England where we'll discern whether or not I should be a pastor.

This year's prompt for the essay are questions about "missional leadership." In less churchy language, this means leadership that inspires folks in churches to get out in the world, spread the gospel and help other folks out rather than sitting around arguing about what new furniture to buy, etc. Luckily, the prompt also states, "this theme is motivated by a desire for a deep and rich conversation about the church and its participation in God's mission." So, I figure it'd be pretty darn missional of me to share my writings thus far, in order to spark wider conversation outside of just the folks I'll be meeting with a couple months from now.  What follows is the third part of a three-part essay, specifically about a sermon I've previously preached on missional leadership.  You can watch a video of the sermon here.  I'd love to hear what you think!

What follows is a sermon I preached on April 14, 2013 primarily on the appointed Gospel message for the day, Saint John 21: 1- 29 at Saint Peter’s Church in Midtown Manhattan where I served this past year as Vicar. It highlights the way I approach talking about missional leadership while still proclaiming the Gospel:

Alleluia! Christ is risen! I want to begin tonight with a story… a story that’s a bit humorous and a bit sad, but also filled with amazingly Good News. This is a story about an experience I had about month ago – it was a Saturday evening and I had just finished up an immigration advocacy workshop here at Saint Peter’s. I was absolutely on top of the world… my committee and I had been planning the workshop for months, and it had gone off perfectly. I was also excited because of where I was heading next… for weeks I had wanted to attend the weekly prayer vigil for marriage equality at Saint John’s Lutheran Church down in the Village and this was the first Saturday evening I could make it. So I hopped on the subway, still wearing my clergy collar, and I quickly realized this was going to be a very interesting trip… it was not only a Saturday night, but in fact the weekend of Saint Patrick’s Day, a commemoration day which is apparently celebrated quite heavily here in the City of New York. My subway car was jammed full with college kids and other folks, decked out in all sorts of light-up shamrocks, leprechaun gear, green t-shirts, etc. yelling and slurring their words… even though it was only around 7pm many of them had clearly been drinking for hours.

For time first time in awhile I felt self-conscious in my clergy collar, knowing that it would make me a sort of target in such a situation and sure enough, not long after we got moving, a young man stumbled up to me and exclaimed loud enough for much of the subway car to hear, “Don’t worry about me Father… I’m not a Sodomite!” I was of course immediately offended, and wanted to respond angrily about how insensitive the young man had been, etc. but I was able to hold back while I composed myself. After recognizing that I had probably said similarly dumb things on similar nights throughout my own college years, I was able to somewhat see the humor in the situation and instead clumsily blurted out, "I would prefer we use different language, but I'm a Lutheran, and many of the folks in my church are actually quite down with the sodomites... I'm on my way to a prayer vigil for marriage equality right now." Now a couple folks in the subway car actually cheered, others breathed a sigh of relief, but the young frat bro responded back to me a in a truly awesome way. He said something like, "Oh wow, I was just joking, I'm sorry... but knowing that is actually pretty cool. I've never heard about Lutherans before... tell me a bit about your church." We ended up having a great conversation and I left him with a handshake and my business card.

The sad part about this story of course is that when that fellow saw me in my collar, when he identified me as a Christian; his first thoughts weren’t about God’s love, or forgiveness, or liberation or even worshipping God… his first thoughts were “Oh, that’s someone who doesn’t like gay people… who doesn’t like people that are different.” And honestly of course, who could blame him… For far too long, perhaps even for much of our Christian history, it’s unfortunately sad but true that a large portion of the Church has not stood for love, forgiveness or liberation… it’s instead inadvertently stood for intolerance, backward thinking, perhaps even bigotry. So then, where is the Good News in this story?

Well quite simply… it’s that in even a situation where so large a portion of our society, particularly open-minded young people, have been so absolutely alienated by the Church, the Gospel still proves irresistible. Sure, the young man I met that night on the subway still might never step through a sanctuary door, but the simple Good News I goofily conveyed that there are communities that believe God loves everyone, that there are communities that see all people as precious children of God, made him get immensely excited… Such Good News perhaps even made him stop and think about how he himself was a child of God too. Yes my sisters and brothers, even in this day, in this age, in this city, the Gospel still proves irresistible because it reminds us of who we truly are… children of God, loved and called to share that love with others… loved and called to feed God’s sheep.

Feeding God’s sheep, sharing the good news… the big fancy word for it in the Church is evangelism, and it often can seem pretty scary. And all too often it is pretty scary, as too many Christians have taken Jesus’ command to “feed my sheep” to instead mean “tell everyone else that they’re wrong… that they’re going to hell or something like that.” Let me be absolutely clear - by no means is that what Jesus really wants us to do… its simply not what evangelism truly is. And luckily, in today’s Gospel story, Jesus provides us with a better model. He isn’t telling Peter about his many faults; about how goofy it was of him to be fishing naked only to put on his clothes before diving in the sea… even though that certainly is pretty goofy. Instead, Jesus simply invites Peter to the table, welcomes him to sit by that charcoal fire, breaks bread, eats with him and affirms who he is as child of God, no matter how goofy Peter acts or what Peter might do.

That’s because true evangelism, truly feeding God’s sheep is not really about what Peter is doing, or what I’m doing, or what you’re doing at all… its about what God is doing through Christ. For when we know God’s love and are affirmed through bread and wine, through water and words and the consolation of others in our communities, we simply can’t help but share that love and affirmation right? Simply put, we can’t help it, the Gospel is irresistible. So when Jesus commands us to feed his sheep, what he’s really saying is that you are loved, that you are okay no matter how goofy or messed up you think you are, that you are welcome at God’s table. And in knowing that amazingly Good News, by golly we can’t help but share it with others. Alleluia! Christ is risen!


I fully realize portions of this sermon could not be preached at many congregations across the ELCA. At Saint Peter’s Church however, such a message proved not only welcomed but pastorally necessary. It is a uniquely amazing place, a progressive parish where all are truly welcome, a place where you can see a trans-sexual parishioner joyfully walking through the narthex wearing a bikini top on the way to the Pride Parade and a place where an elderly, homeless man and recovering alcoholic can become an essential community leader. The folks at Saint Peter’s, like everyone in the Northeast, had been through a tumultuous year. Many parishioners were directly affected by Superstorm Sandy, only to go through a trying presidential election season and the horrific shootings only an hour north in Newtown, CT. Given the large population of LGBT folks and Catholics in the congregation, the recent election of Pope Francis and the upcoming Supreme Court rulings on marriage equality were sources of hope but also additional stress. Only two Sundays after a joyous Easter Vigil, it was a time that called for humor but also for the creation of space to mourn the difficulties the Church, the Body of Christ has faced over human sexuality.

The Biblical claims and theological convictions of the text were timely, as Saint Peter’s was celebrating its 150th Anniversary while in the midst of drafting a new mission statement. Despite its consistently increasing membership, some folks worried the parish was in decline after making a difficult decision earlier in the year to decrease the pastoral staff due to financial concerns. Finally, I was preaching at Jazz Vespers, the Saint Peter’s liturgy that particularly attracts new members. Jesus’ message to feed his sheep and follow Him could not have arrived at a better time. The text puts forward two theological lessons and also an essential model for evangelism: While Jesus indicates the Gospel is for everyone and we’re called to share it, the earlier failed attempt of the disciples to fish shows we can’t do it on our own... we need Jesus! The evangelism model Jesus’ illustrates for us is a powerful one, much different than previous models of destroying foreign cultures or beating folks into submission. Rather, Jesus goes out to the disciples and meets them where they are, fishing naked on The Sea of Tiberias. He does NOT just sit at home waiting to welcome them in. After reaching out, Jesus simply prepares a meal, invites the disciples to join Him, and has a conversation. Evangelism has become such a negative word in our culture, and largely for good reason. In this sermon, I tried to proclaim to the people of Saint Peter’s that with a little effort to follow Jesus’ model and the work of the Spirit, we could reconstruct evangelism in the positive light of Christian hospitality and liberation.

The way I prepared this sermon was pretty typical, although perhaps unconventional. Early in my internship year, a close friend introduced me to a place called the Wall Street Bath in Lower Manhattan. A Russian-Turkish sauna/ bathhouse, it’s probably my favorite place in all of New York City and oasis from all the craziness outside. When I was initially told about the place, I was concerned it was one of the hook-up spots in similar establishments that New York City is supposedly well known for, but its very strictly not one of those at all. Instead, its populated by an odd mix of Wall Street bankers, immigrants from various Eastern European countries of all ages and orthodox Jews. There’s even the Buddhist equivalent of a pastor from a temple next door who frequents the establishment, and we had a bunch of great conversations over the year.

At any rate, whenever I was scheduled to preach, I made sure I had at least a half-day to get out of my office at the United Nations (I strongly dislike offices, and could never manage to write a sermon there) and would head down to the Wall Street Bath, with a bathing suit, a Bible and a bunch of books. After initially reading the lectionary passages through a couple times, I’d usually go into the saunas to either meditatively pray or engage folks in conversation about the main themes of the text... people were almost always interested in talking, and even more intriguing once I told them I was preparing a sermon. After doing that for awhile, I’d watch the news and reflect long and hard about what issues the parish was currently facing, only to then go back and do a closer read of the texts and their surrounding passages. Finally, I’d start to consult the other books I brought with me, and by the end of the day, I’d at very least have an outline of my sermon ready to go.

While my sermon writing process always allowed plenty of space for God to speak to me both through sacred silence and conversation with a diverse group of individuals, on the day I wrote the particular sermon above, I believe God really spoke to me through the following passage from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. While it’s pretty long and I’m running out of space, it’s also simply too awesome not to include in it’s entirety:

And an old priest said, “Speak to us of Religion.” And [the Prophet] said: “Have I spoke this day of aught else? Is not religion all deeds and all reflection, and that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise ever springing in the soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend the loom? Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations? Who can spread his hours before him, saying, ‘This for God and this for myself; This for my soul, and this other for my body?’ All your hours are wings that beat through space from self to self. He who wears his morality but as his best garment were better naked. The wind and the sun will tear no holes in his skin. And he who defines his conduct by ethics imprisons his song-bird in a cage.

The freest song comes not through bars and wires. And he to whom worshipping is a window, to open but also to shut, has not yet visited the house of his soul whose windows are from dawn to dawn. Your daily life is your temple and your religion. Whenever you enter into it take with you your all. Take the plough and the forge and the mallet and the lute, the things you have fashioned in necessity or for delight. For in revery you cannot rise above your achievements nor fall lower than your failures. And take with you all men: For in adoration you cannot fly higher than their hopes nor humble yourself lower than despair.

And if you would know God be not therefore a solver of riddles. Rather look about you and you shall see Him playing with your children. And look into space; you shall see Him walking in the cloud, outstretching His arms in the lightning and descending in rain. You shall see Him smiling in the flowers, then rising and waving His hands in trees.

Okay, so everything Gibran writes above doesn’t stick to Lutheran theology, but given that he was a somewhat Maronite, fully Lebanese-American writing in the 1920s, he comes pretty close. I could have done a better job conveying some the key missional aspects of the text from Saint John, the conversations I held at the Wall Street Bath that day, and the way the Spirit spoke to me through Gibran’s writings; primarily, I should have added some concrete examples of what Christian evangelism and mission could like at Saint Peter’s, rather than just using the generality of inviting folks to a meal.

On the whole though, the sermon worked well, and I received extremely positive feedback. I proclaimed the Gospel that God loves all Her children in a humorous yet serious way, especially to all those LGBT folks and allies troubled by the constant barrage of hate coming from our conservative sisters and brothers in Christ. Additionally, I proclaimed that God liberates our whole selves through Christ: we are freed to live out our whole lives and respond to God’s love in all we say and do, not just what we do at church or what we do on a Sunday morning. I conveyed that our whole lives are our temple and our religion. Finally, I reaffirmed that not only does God welcome all folks into His loving embrace, but that we should always be ready and willing to tell our story, to invite all of humanity in its rich diversity into God’s loving arms with us.

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.

Bishop-elect Eaton on Morning Joe, The Dave Matthews Band and Liberating Love

So as many folks I speak regularly with know, I'm in the midst of writing my "approval essay," which means I'm desperately trying to finish the really long assignment (roughly twenty pages) that I have to write before going to a final interview with folks in New England where we'll discern whether or not I should be a pastor.

This year's prompts for the approval essay are all questions about "missional leadership." In less churchy language, this means leadership that inspires folks in churches to get out in the world, spread the gospel and help other folks out rather than sitting around arguing about what new furniture to buy, etc. Luckily, the prompt also states, "this theme is motivated by a desire for a deep and rich conversation about the church and its participation in God's mission." So, I figure it'd be pretty darn missional of me to share my writings thus far, in order to spark wider conversation outside of just the folks I'll be meeting with a couple months from now.  What follows is the second part of a three-part essay, and it's specifically about my core theological commitments and missional leadership.  I'd love to hear what you think!

The Gospel, the good news of God’s act of liberating love in Christ, is a free gift of God for everyone. The Gospel is a free gift of God for everyone, and thanks be to God for this core tenet of Lutheran theology! Yet, we must humbly admit that in many congregations, such a beautiful theological foundation simply doesn’t play out in Lutheran practice. I’m painfully reminded of this problem when I all too frequently see “Camp Calumet” listed as the religion of friends or former campers on Facebook rather than “Christianity.” Why is that our young people in New England seem to relate primarily to a place in the woods hours away from home rather than their local faith community (if they have one at all)? This isn’t just a problem with young folks either, of course... most of my friends a few years older than me, many of whom are now starting families, don’t really feel a need to go to Church or even baptize their newborn children.

Even before starting seminary really, but especially since witnessing a “Conversation with the Nones” (folks unaffiliated with an organized faith community), a forum which Bishop Jim Hazelwood organized at the New England Synod Assembly this past spring, I’ve been thinking deeply about these issues. While I’ve certainly not come to any definitive conclusions, I have a hunch the problem is not primarily the way we worship or that we’re not progressive enough or even that we’re not welcoming to visitors on a Sunday morning. No, my sisters and brothers, our problem is deeper than such concerns: guided by the Spirit, we must discern how to boldly proclaim the good news of the ever-moving Triune God in a 21st century world profoundly hungry for such good news. To put it another way, the Gospel has not changed, and neither has the unique insights of our Lutheran theological heritage, but folks are understandably asking different questions than their ancestors were five hundred years ago, we must address these questions.

For example, what follows is the concluding paragraph of a paper I wrote for a Lutheran Confessions course during my first year of seminary:
The gospel is important to Lutherans because faith proceeds from the gospel and it is through faith that we receive the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ. Brought to contrition by the law we are in turn compelled to the promise of the gospel. This promise is known through the Holy Spirit working in spoken Word and visible Word, the sacraments. The promise of the gospel brings comfort to the conscience, and therefore allows for faith. Through faith we are brought into union with Christ, who exchanges righteousness for our sins, justifying us before God. Justification frees our hearts to do good works out of love for God instead of fear, serving our neighbor freely as the part of the body of Christ.
From a theological perspective, I think did pretty well here... not to be overly suggestive, but its a paragraph a Candidacy Committee could be proud of! Yet, while I still absolutely, positively confess everything written in the paragraph above, I don’t think it would mean much to the folks unaffiliated with a faith community at synod assembly, and it sure isn’t a missional way of proclaiming the good news. Folks like those on stage at synod assembly, and in fact most people I know, seem a lot more interested in being part of a strong community, in having the space to grow and explore their relationship with the Divine without judgement, and simply trying to put food on the table while sending their kids to college.

So then, what’s the answer? How can we boldly proclaim the Gospel to folks in a way that speaks to their contemporary context while staying true to our Lutheran tradition? Interestingly enough, just this morning, on the MSNBC show Morning Joe, Bishop-elect Elizabeth Eaton laid it out extremely well:

“... and I really do hope to be a voice for the good news of the gospel... this business about grace that we’re loved and deeply cared for by a God who loves us. And because of that, that sets us free to love the world and be in service to the world.”

In only four minutes and twenty-two seconds, Bishop-elect Eaton boldly proclaimed the Gospel to folks across the country as they were watching Morning Joe, eating breakfast and starting their day. Furthermore, due the immense communicative power of what I like to think of as “printing press 2.0,” or social media, Bishop-elect Eaton’s interview went viral, proclaiming the Gospel to folks around the world. A number of my friends who have very little connection to the Lutheran church were even discussing the interview on Facebook and Twitter, and even more importantly in offline conversations, building community around the Gospel. In fact, two days after the airing of Bishop-elect Eaton’s interview (I’m now writing two days after I wrote the beginning of this paragraph), the clip is still the most watched video on the Morning Joe website.

This is absolutely amazing! What then about Bishop-elect Eaton’s message proved so powerful and resonated so strongly with our fellow Americans? If you look closely at the quote above, she paired two key concepts: love and freedom. The love of God in Christ frees us from our everyday, mundane lives into communion with the Holy Community and with one another, thereby allowing us to look upon our lives (and serve our neighbors through our given vocations) through the eyes of grace. The free gift of God in Christ, my sisters and brothers, is Christian freedom, a concept at the heart of the Lutheran theological tradition:
... a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor. Yet he always remains in God and in his love, as Christ says in John I [:51], “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man." (Luther, Freedom of a Christian)
Not only is Christian freedom a central Lutheran message, but its also a message our world is profoundly hungry for. All too many Americans (if they’re lucky) have to get up morning after morning, sit in a long commute, only to then sit in a cubicle in front of a computer all day, all in order to barely put food on the table. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, not only in America but around the world, an increasing number of folk face even greater oppression, whether it be from a corrupt government, disease, poverty, hunger, addiction, war or the bloat of their own extravagant wealth. At the same time, folks are more connected than ever before in one global, digital community; when we are inspired and when we are informed, we now have the ability to increasingly help bear each others burdens. Just talking about a loving God that cares for us and forgives us in such a unique situation is great, but it is not quite enough... we’ve been doing that in many churches for a while now.

We cannot just proclaim the love of God in Christ as some sort of warm fuzzy feeling we experience for an hour every Sunday morning that temporarily takes our pain away before we socialize over burned coffee. No! In doing so, we’re just ravaging God’s creation and wasting resources to heat, cool and maintain huge, comfortable but empty buildings where we deal out Marx’s “opiate of the masses,” (a drug we increasingly get paid less and less for). Such work is simply not sustainable, and even more importantly, its a waste of time. God’s love literally does something to us, it liberates us, it free us from the weight of whatever may oppress us into a new existence of discipleship in Christ:
The disciple is dragged out of his relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus), from a life which is observable and calculable (it is, in fact, quite incalculable) into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous (that is, into one which is necessary and calculable), out of the realm of finite (which is in truth the infinite) into the realm of infinite possibilities (which is the one liberating reality). (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)
The life of discipleship is the one liberating reality, a realm of infinite possibilities, and this is profoundly good news! In this liberating reality, we’re freed to not just welcome in but in fact go out to folks like artists, activists, the LGBT community, singles and young people that the Church has turned away for far too long. In this liberating reality, we’re freed to discern with disciples how they can creatively engage with people of other faiths and with secular institutions to better serve their neighbors living in an increasingly pluralistic society. In this liberating reality, we’re freed to carefully and prayerfully move past our continued hangups around human sexuality while still being good stewards of the bodies and relationships that the Triune God has given us. In this liberating reality, we’re freed to embrace our theology of the cross and recognize that we don’t always have the answers. And in this liberating reality, we’re freed to actually step foot outside our church doors to boldly engage in Christian mission to our local communities and in our everyday lives.

How do we proclaim the good news of God’s act of liberating love in Christ to a world that’s so hungry for it yet increasingly doesn’t know what the heck we’re talking about? We simply follow Saint Paul’s example:
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us (Acts 17: 22 - 27, NRSV).
Part of the reason Camp Calumet is so good at cultivating Christian community is that its counselors teach about the Triune God through the culturally sensitive lens of “an unknown god.” Almost everyone I meet, Christians, folks who are “spiritual,” and even most atheists, seem to think there’s something outside themselves, something that they usually wish they could connect with better, even if its just the human spirit. The Athenians, despite all their idols of silver and stone, knew there was something else, something they really couldn’t put their finger on, and it was through the “unknown God” that Paul teaches them of Christ.

We’re all searching and struggling, groping for at very least this “unknown God,” and even the most anti-church campers at Calumet (and there’s plenty of them) feel much the same way. The counselors then don’t use gimmicky Christian rappers or acoustic guitar songs about kissing boyfriend Jesus, but rather teach of Christ through things native to the campers’ culture, using the near-universal yearning for the “unknown God” as an entry point. Perhaps my most cherished example of sharing the good news in this manner is through evening devotionals or “devos,” where the counselor usually plays a song or shares a story, leads brief discussion and ends with Bible verse and prayer. One of my favorite songs I used to play for devos is “Don’t Feed the Pig” by Dave Matthews Band:

Through its eloquent talk of the power of liberating love and the wonder of being grounded in the present moment, “Pig” profoundly speaks to the universal yearning for the “unknown God” inside each and everyone one of us. While I certainly was not nearly as theologically versed back when I was a camp counselor, I’d usually play the song and explain how for me, Christ was that source of liberating love Dave Matthews was talking about. It led to some truly amazing conversations (I mostly worked with teenage campers), and it did so while proclaiming the Gospel in a missional way that strongly reflected our Lutheran theological tradition.