Monday, September 29, 2014

God Is at Work in You!

Hi friends,

What follows is the manuscript for a sermon I preached yesterday at Messiah Lutheran Church, the amazing, spirit-filled faith community following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York where I'm blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on one of the appointed texts for the Sunday, Philippians 2:1-13. It'd love to hear some feedback and thanks for reading!

In line with the style of this week’s children's sermon, this sermon will be a bit participatory adventure as well… So if you could take out your bulletin, open it, and focus on the right inside panel, where it has all the announcements and those sort of things. Now look near the bottom of the page in the box that says Messiah Lutheran Church and lists our contact info. Who here could read for me that first sentence below our wonderful sexton Nicole’s name? Just the first sentence… Thank you! Now there’s a bit of a typo there, but it’s pretty close… Our mission is “to be a spirit filled church following Jesus Christ.” So if you wouldn’t mind, repeat after me… Our mission is “to be a spirit filled church following Jesus Christ.” Our mission is “to be a spirit filled church following Jesus Christ.” Alright, awesome!!! Now say it one more time so you can keep it in you head while we chat for a few more minutes… “Our mission is to be a spirit filled church following Jesus Christ.”

Members of our busy kitchen crew last night @ Messiah.
So as you all know, it’s been a pretty busy time in the life our faith community, and frankly in my own life as well this past week. There was a lot of time spent preparing for the roughly one hundred folks showing up later this afternoon for a beautiful evening vespers, to celebrate all the amazing stuff we’ve achieved together over the past couple months, followed by an equally celebratory, awesome and I’m sure to be delicious ham dinner organized by our very own Kitchen Committee. Some of my family members are of course coming up to Rotterdam in a couple hours for the festivities, most of them for the first time, so I had a whole lot of house cleaning to do, which my increasingly mischievous pup Willy Bear has been making pretty difficult. Our new bishop in the Upstate NY Synod, Rev. John Malcholz, visited Messiah for the first time this past Thursday as well… he loved the new paint job in my office by the way. And on top of all that, you might be aware that I got engaged this past weekend to the beautiful Ms. Jessie Morton. Two of her closest friends, Ms. Brooke and Ms. Hailey, who are joining us this morning in what I think is both of their first Lutheran services, even flew up to spend this special weekend with us.

So given all this, I gotta confess I was pretty much running on fumes all week, not really on my “A game,” a fact that became most apparent when it occurred to me about ten minutes before I was scheduled to lead our first adult education class this past Wednesday evening that I had completely forgotten to plan anything, not even the briefest devotion, for the class at all. Given that I’m the pastor and all here I felt pretty irresponsible, kinda angry and really disappointed with myself, and definitely frustrated about how nuts things have been lately at Messiah, even though all that craziness has stemmed from pretty much all good, and in fact amazing things… new faces and returning old faces joining us during Sunday worship, a new girl scout troop and Home Bureau group using our building, new classes and programs galore… even plans for creating a whole new youth room in the works. We’ve indeed experienced growth in every way over the last couple months here at Messiah, and you’ve all contributed so much to this process, and on top of all that I was just about to celebrate some truly amazing moments in my own life, but no matter, I really upset and even angry about how busy and worn out I was feeling.

Our wonderful volunteer servers last night @ Messiah.
Luckily I had a copy of this week’s bulletin on me, as I was starting to think about today’s sermon, and that’s when I first spied that powerful mission statement of yours… our mission is “to be a spirit filled church following Jesus Christ.” Now mission statements are something folks usually argue over in various committees every five years or so and then promptly forget about, but I figured, hey, that sounds like a pretty good one to describe the mission of folks here at Messiah, so let’s talk a little bit about it and your accompanying dove symbol at the beginning of our adult education class. And guess what folks, we ended up having a fabulous conversation… we spoke about how when first coming here as prospective members looking for a new faith community, it was apparent how the Spirit was truly moving amongst the people of Messiah. We reflected a bit deeper about the how Holy Spirit works as well, about how we experience the Spirit in passion, in emotion, in movement, in making things happen, yet how the Holy Spirit’s presence is also one of indescribable stillness of the soul, and yes, of peace.

And it’s just that sort of thing, the presence of the Holy Spirit, that odd combination of making things happen, of passion yet peaceful stillness amidst it all that Paul’s referring to in today’s passage from the Epistle to the Philippians. Now a couple weeks back we were talking about those troublesome Corinthians… the new rich, people always trying to one up each other and that sort of thing, but the Philippians were a different crew entirely. Acts tells us they were Paul’s first church in Europe, some of the closest supporters of his ministry, and indeed, some of Paul’s closest friends. Paul writes them from what’s probably a Roman prison, in what was probably an extremely difficult situation, and writes predominately to share in the joy of Christian community with his friends and companions in sharing the Good News that is Jesus. And what he write’s them is truly awesome… first he quotes what was probably one of the earliest hymns about Jesus in order to urge the Philippians to be of the same mind as Jesus…
whom though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God the Father.
And wow, it sounds like a pretty heavy deal… Paul’s urging the Philippians, and indeed us, to become obedient, even to the point of death, even to the point of death on a cross. We’re to empty ourselves? Just like me nearly panicking amidst the busyness of life this past week or just like us as community scrambling to feed a hundred folks ham dinner from our humble little kitchen and working through the growth happening all around us, or all of us while we’re dealing with all types of difficult challenges in our individual lives, when we hear stuff like that, to be obedient, to empty ourselves, we can’t help but throw our hands up in the air sometimes and yell wow God, how the heck do you think I can do something like that?

Yet all times, and especially in those moments, my sisters and brothers, when we have no idea at all what we’re gonna do, we also need to look at what Paul says to his dear friends the Philippians next… we need to look at what Paul indeed proclaims to us next here at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York across the millennia… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. For it is God who is at work in you! It is God, my sisters and brothers, who is at work in all of us, every single day, no matter how imperfect or overworked or worn out we feel like we are… working through that odd combination of passion, of making things happen, and that still sort of peace that is the Holy Spirit. Although it at times may feel like an incredible burden, it’s an incredible promise… God is at work in all our lives, both in what we do here at Messiah and in our wider lives, whether you’re doing big things or seemingly inconsequential things… maybe you’re trimming the bushes outside, or visiting folks who can’t make it out to church anymore or making an emergency repair to the sink in the girls bathroom or volunteering as bartender’s at Proctors or caring for your grandchildren or helping your parents prepare dinner… God is at work in you!

Our Messiah community during Sunday worship.
Whether you’re getting ready to teach a Sunday School lesson or researching the prices of haunted hayride trips for confirmation class or sending out press releases or serving as ushers in worship or struggling to care for your aging parents… God is at work in you! Whether you’re keeping track of church finances or coaching your daughter’s softball team or cooking ham dinner or leading Messiah’s children in singing songs about God or journeying across the country to support a sick loved one, God is at work in you! Whether you’re being silly up in the choir loft or sewing together shopping bags for needy individuals at the SICM food pantry or dropping you kids off at a sporting event or learning more about prayer at our new God Talk series, God is at work in you! In our Spirit filled church following Jesus Christ, and indeed in all aspects of our lives, God is at work in all our lives, moving through that odd combination of making things happen and peace that is the Holy Spirit. In Christ my sisters and brothers, our God has promised to be at work in all our lives no matter who we are, and yes, 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 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.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

How Then Can We Live?

Hey friends,

What follows is a manuscript of the sermon I preached this Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Schenectady, NY as part of our congregation's annual Rally Sunday. I focused mostly on the first appointed lesson for the day, Ezekiel 33:7-11. Thanks so much for reading, and I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

So we’re here on a beautiful early fall morning, worshiping outside, rallying at the start of a new year of Sunday School, choir and bunch of other exciting things at Messiah, probably hoping I’ll finish up my sermon early so we can get to the barbecue and that sort of thing, and we’re confronted by a bunch of real choice texts for what’s supposed to be a happy, joyful Sunday… I mean, when I read the texts earlier this week from what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary, this standardized list of Bible texts used each Sunday by most churches in a number of different denominations, I literally had like face in my palm, rolled my eyes… all the folks who came up with the list of texts really dealt us an interesting hand today for our Rally Sunday… In our Hebrew Bible reading Ezekiel is calling out the wickedness of his fellow folks from Judah, talking about how God has appointed him as a sentinel… in our reading from the Epistles, Paul’s writing to the Romans about how there’s no debauchery and reveling allowed… and in the Gospel of Matthew even Jesus gets in on happy fest… talking all about how if people in your faith community sin against you, there’s this long process you have to go through to either reconcile with them, or maybe kick them out… wowzers. Now, it’s not that there’s not wisdom in these texts, I don’t want to make light of them at all in that sort of way, but, to be fair, for a Sunday that’s supposed to be so fun and happy and about all the joys of Christian community, our texts today upon first read seem to be well, a bit of a bummer.

There’s no denying these aren’t the most joyful of texts, but that’s mostly because the speakers in all three texts are taking their prophetic role quite seriously, guarding against the specific sins of their time and local community. In all of three of today’s texts though, it’s not just all fire and brimstone sort of stuff by any means, because every passage proclaims hope in some way as well. Ezekiel explicitly states it this way, but both Paul and Jesus reflect the same message… when the community asks “how then can we live?” Ezekiel quite simply proclaims out, “God lives, so how could you die? God lives, so how could you possible have anything to worry about? God lives!” And to boil it down, that’s pretty much what prophets do right? They analyze the human situation specific to their time and place, figure out what folks are generally worrying about and then proclaim to folks how God is constantly breaking into their lives to show how those worries are complete hogwash. Whether its a people saying no, we can’t live under exile in a foreign land, as the people of Judah were in Ezekiel’s time, or a small, emerging faith community in Paul and Jesus’s time saying no, we can’t get along with one another, no we can’t figure out how to be a church, in both these and I believe in all human situations, there’s always some sort of “no” folks are coming up with. And often in quite simple ways, prophets pretty just proclaim how God is the eternal “yes” to all those “no’s” us human beings keep coming up with, whatever they are.

Just to reiterate, because I’m a bit more discombobulated than usual, I’ve made two points so far… 1) its easy to see that the prophets in our texts today took their jobs quite seriously, and 2) we can pretty much boil down the job of a prophet to show how God is the eternal “yes” to whatever specific “no’s” folks are coming up with in their specific time and place. So, here’s a third point for you to consider my sisters and brother… we’re all called to be prophets. Think about it… remember Jesus’ whole “great commission” thing? “Go and make disciples of all nations?” As Christians, we’re all called to be prophets. We’re all called to be prophets… to look at our specific time and place, figure out what “no’s” people are coming up with, and then show how God is the eternal “yes” to all those no’s and doubts… Just Ezekiel, and Paul and Jesus, we’re called to discern how folks are asking “How then can we live?” and then be able to proclaim, “Hey, like chill out, God lives!! God lives, so how could you possibly die?” We’re called to be prophets, to proclaim the good news of God’s liberating love in Christ to a world absolutely overflowing with all sorts of human hogwash… all sorts of “no’s.”

So what “no’s” then are folks coming up with today in our time and place, in postmodern twenty-first century Schenectady? What “no’s” are we called to answer with the good news of the eternal “yes” of God? There’s certainly a bunch of possibilities, a bunch of “no’s” floating around out there in the societal ether, but after thinking about it a great deal over the past week and having conversations with many of you, I believe two of the most popular “no’s” in our time and place are as follows: “No, I don’t think my life has a whole lot of meaning” and “No, I don’t really feel part of a community.” Think about it… things are changing more rapidly than ever. From government to religion to the market there no longer seems like any institutions we can trust. And there’s so many things to fear… terrorism, disease, loneliness and financial uncertainty are just a few of those things. And there’s just so much to do… most of us, and perhaps especially our kids, are way too over-programed… mounds of homework, twenty different sports teams… it’s an odd sort of paradox, actually. Despite being busier than ever, many of us feel more lonely than ever. And amidst the daily grind of all that busyness and fear and change, wow, we can’t help but often feel like there isn’t much of a point to the whole thing.

How then can we live like this? How then can we live without a life of meaning? How then can we live without a deep, fulfilling connection with community? How then can we live? We’re asking these questions… our neighbors are asking these questions… in our human imperfection, we’re all asking these questions, the specific “no’s” of our postmodern age. And my sisters and brothers, after hanging out here at Messiah for over a month now, after having conversations with most of you over meals or in committee meetings or while feeding hungry kids lunch, I feel more confident than ever that you’re just the prophetic sort of folks God’s calling to proclaim the eternal “yes” amidst so many human “no’s.” You’re just the prophetic sort of folks to answer those human questions “how then can we live?” with the only answer that’s ever really mattered, “God lives.” I mean look around at each other… seriously, nearly everyone here is deeply involved in the life of this congregation in one way or another. In most congregations you get maybe twenty, thirty percent of folks who do more than just come to church on a Sunday morning. Here at Messiah though, on an average week I’d say I see or speak with at least three quarters of you outside of Sunday morning. It’s absolutely amazing! It’s easy to see that in a society starved for meaning, in a society starved for community, you all can’t help but find meaning, you can’t help but find community here in Christ.

There’s a lot to rally about this Sunday, on this beautiful early fall morning, on Rally Sunday… you might not believe it, but just in the way you live out your life in Christ together, its plainly apparent to me how prophetic you’re all called to be. In a world desperately crying out “how then can we live without meaning?” and “how then can we live without community?” you’re just the sort of prophetic folks called to answer those specific questions with the eternal yes of God by being exactly who you are, by doing the simple things… by living out a life of meaning in Christian community and going out to welcome others in to gather with us around bread and wine, to sing together, pray together, share meals together and play together and raise our children together. God lives. God lives. God lives. And in such a time as this, that eternal yes, that good news that God lives is more important than ever. So, on this Rally Sunday, let’s indeed rally. Let’s sing and play and joyfully proclaim it at the top of our lungs my sisters and brothers, God lives!!!

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.