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.

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