Sunday, August 24, 2014

Looking Back to Move Forward in the Aftermath of Ferguson

Hey friends,

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

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Canaanite Woman & Challenging God

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

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Elijah's Story & God in the Ordinary

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

God's peace,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Jesus is a Goofy Sort of Gardener!

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

- Dustin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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