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.


  1. I liked your sermon, many good points. I think we must remember as Christians that we are called to be color blind, and if we deal with each individual with respect, we can improve race relations one person at a time. We still experience ethnic and racial, as well as religious conflicts, and this will never change, but God judges us by our individual hearts and thoughts, and the most Christian thing is to want the very best for people...namely salvation through Christ. As we understand this desire, we are not passive and cowardly, and we know that evil lurks in the hearts of some who would take advantage of our kindness and tolerance, perceive it as weakness, and seek to kill is seen in groups like ISIS and others prone to ruthless predatory acts of violence. For those of this type, the concept of the just war of defense is often necessary.

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