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.

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