Sunday, October 19, 2014

Wake Up!


What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached this Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, NY where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on the appointed gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 22: 15-22. I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,

So I got this buddy Pete… the only person I’ve ever became best friends with twice… You see, Pete and I became friends in pre-school when I was four years old, but given that you don’t have much control over your social life at that age we lost touch with each other. Fast forward a decade to when I was an awkward, goofy freshman in high school, and Pete and I became best friends all over again, despite only making the connection well into high school that we had originally been friends as preschoolers. While we had a bunch of friends in common, shared similar senses of humor, and all the rest, the reason I especially liked Pete though was that he’d drag me kicking and screaming into all sorts of adventures. And by adventures, I really mean adventures… one time shortly after we had gotten back to school from summer break, Pete suggested that we head out to this spot he heard about along the Connecticut river and go cliff jumping… jumping off the remains of some old foundation, a big rusty metal and concrete sort of thing and plunging through the air about thirty or forty feet down into the water. At first I did not think this was a good idea, especially as I really wanted to take a nap after school that day. Pete kept on me though, telling me it would be an awesome time, and eventually I caved. Now after trekking through about half a mile of tick infested tall grass (I always call this adventure the tick safari), we got to the cliffs, and Pete almost immediately jumped off that big ol’ rusty pile of metal and concrete. I timidly followed him, plunging down thirty or forty feet, and after painfully smacking the water, I realized I was having the time of my life! Pete and I must have jumped off that cliff at least ten more times each that day.

Circa 2006.
And ever since that point, I sort of knew to always trust Pete, that despite all my reservations, that whatever he suggested would be awesome adventure, one from which we’d get out from relatively unscathed. There was another time, probably the following spring when he suggested in early April that we should go off this rope swing and swim halfway across a reservoir to explore this island. Now granted, this reservoir probably still had ice in it only a few weeks earlier, and once again I argued that I wanted to go home and take a nap after school, but he persisted and after I eventually followed him off that rope swing, we somehow made it out to the island and hung out there for hours, having great conversation about girls, about growing up and whatever else teenage bros talk about. After swimming back later in the evening, I’m positive we got mild hypothermia, but no matter, it was an awesome adventure and I didn’t regret it a bit. Fast forward a few years, and despite going to colleges many hours apart from each other, Pete and I remained good friends. There was one year when I was suffering from a fairly major bout of anxiety and depression, it was spring break, and I wanted to do nothing but go home and waste the week away sleeping and watching TV. Pete had other plans though… he eventually convinced me to join his college outing club in a rock climbing and white water rafting trip. After experiencing yet another new adventure, meeting new people and just having some great conversation by the campfire with my best buddy Pete, things started turning around for me, and I always mark that weekend as the turning point of my recovery.

The last time I saw Pete was actually on his wedding day. He’d been dating an amazing girl for a number of years (who he met on the rafting trip actually), and after not hearing from him for quite a while, he called me up two summers ago to ask if I could preside at his wedding, which true to form, he and his fiancee had decided would take place in about a week’s time. I, like usual, was apprehensive at first… I was by no means allowed to preside at weddings before being ordained, I was supposed to do all that marriage counseling stuff beforehand, and not to mention Pete’s a sort of atheist or at least not a big fan of organized religion and that I’d have no idea what to say… you get the picture. But of course, like always, I found myself a week later, standing under a tent in Pete’s backyard, wearing flip-flops, rolled up jeans and a ripped flannel shirt, saying “by the power not vested in me by the State of Connecticut, I now declare you husband and wife.” And of course, that day will be a memory I cherish for the rest of my life… sharing a part of one of my best friend’s greatest adventures.

So, on top of being mortified about some of the situations your new pastor has found himself in over the years, you’re probably all wondering at this point about what Pete and I’s friendship has to do with today’s gospel message… what our adventures featuring a tick safari, hypothermia, a rafting trip and a last minute wedding unsanctioned by the proper ecclesiastical authorities have to do with one of Jesus’s most famous, most debated and yet most misunderstood teachings: Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s… Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. You’ve probably heard all sorts of interpretations… that this passage is about contributing more money at to your church, or giving more of your time to God, or maybe even that it’s about how your faith should or shouldn’t relate to what you think about public policy. Well, I’ll be honest on this one, I don’t know for sure, but I have a pretty strong inkling that while yes, Jesus’ message about giving to God the things that are God’s has some ramifications about how we should think about stewardship and public policy as Christians, that in the end, Jesus’ message is about something much bigger, and much more important than all of that… Jesus’ message to the Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees and to us, in this time and place in twenty-first century Rotterdam, New York is about trust. And perhaps on even a deeper level yet, Jesus’ message to us today is also about hope.

Ya see, when I was younger I was a shy, awkward kid, who definitely had big dreams but struggled in figuring out how to work toward them. And there were other factors too of course as I grew up, but I think a big part of my go get ‘em attitude today stems from my friendship with Pete. Sometimes he’d just shake me up and say Dustin, dude, trust me, you don’t want to sleep the day away! There’s a big beautiful world out there! Dustin, trust me, things might be tough for you right now, but joy is still possible! New things are still possible! Dustin, trust me, sure you might be breaking the rules, but help me celebrate my wedding day. And in Pete’s unique ability to instill trust in me while shaking me awake at the same time, I discovered there were so many possibilities, I was reminded what was truly important, and in turn, I was drawn into the sort of free and merry spirit brought only by a deep, down to the core sense of hope for the future. Now Pete’s a great guy, trust me, but I mean, he’s also just a guy… Jesus has similar, even more profoundly good news for us in today’s gospel message.

When you read the whole narrative of this part of the gospel, beginning with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (ya know the story we celebrate every Palm Sunday), when he casts out the money changers from the Temple, and then all his difficult parables that we’ve all been struggling with over the last month or so… when you read all that, today’s message sort of pops out at you as unique. Jesus often condemns the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sadducees, and all those sort of religious officials for leading their people astray, but that’s not really who Jesus is talking to in this passage if you look at it closely… the Pharisees plot to entrap Jesus, but then they sort of send in their B Squad to do their dirty work… they send in their disciples, young Pharisee padwans you might characterize them as if you’ve ever seen Star Wars. The story reads like the disciples of the Pharisees go collect some low level supporters of Herod, or in other words some pro-Roman folks, and then simply do what their teachers have told them… they try to publicly entrap Jesus with a difficult question about taxes.

Jesus, in famously answering, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” doesn’t really seem to be speaking a word of condemnation to the young Pharisees in training, or to us for that matter… he’s speaks a message of trust, and on even a deeper level, of hope. Much like how my buddy Pete had that unique ability to instill trust in me while really shaking me awake at the same time, Jesus is saying to these Pharisees in training, “Sure pay the tax, whatever, but that’s not what’s important you silly people! Give to God the things that are God’s, which by the way is everything! Quit it with all this trying to publicly entrapping me nonsense! Your teachers are leading you astray! Wake up! Wake up to what’s truly important, to the truly amazing ways God is breaking into your world!” Any Pharisee in training having gone through Torah 101 would have known the first chapters of Genesis… God created the whole world, and it was good! Give to God the things that are God’s, because hey, everything is God’s? Yes, while this statement necessarily leads one to ask how to give everything to God, and that’s an important question, it’s not the central point. In the end, Jesus is simply saying to these impressionable Pharisees in training and the Herodians alongside them… wake up! Trust me! Stop being silly and wake up to what’s truly possible in God! Wake up to all the absolutely amazing things God is doing in your life!

And so, my sisters and brothers, Jesus confronts us with the same powerful message today, right here in twenty-first century Rotterdam, New York in our spirit-filled church seeking to follow Him. Jesus confronts us in that unique sort of way, just like my buddy Pete did for me, that begs our trust while at the same time shakes up awake. Sure, there’s are truly difficult things going on in most if not all of your lives… those Pharisees in training would have hated being reminded about the Roman occupation themselves… there’s truly difficult things going on in many of our lives… the loss of loved ones, illnesses, a rapidly changing and at times dangerous society, the ebola epidemic, economic inequality, yet another war in the Middle East and even concerns and worries too hard to put into words. So many of us are in profound need of comfort, of healing, of strength and it seems like we have nothing left. Yet the living Christ, my sisters and brothers, confronts us with just the sort of message we need. He shakes us up… saying wake up! This whole world is my Father’s, all is God’s and truly amazing things are still possible in a world were God is indeed in charge! Wake up, sure, there will be difficult things, you might have to “deal with the emperor,” but wake up! You are loved. Wake up! You are saved. Wake up! You are not alone. Wake up! Your life still has deep, profound meaning in me! Wake up! Wake up into the love of a God who has promised to walk with you no matter who are or what you’ve done or what you’ve faced in life. And yes, my sisters and brothers, wake up to the love of a God who keeps promises. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ 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 his fiancĂ©e Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Chief Priests, Pharisees and Professional "Perfect People"


What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached this Sunday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, NY where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on the appointed gospel passage for this Sunday, Matthew 21: 33-46. I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,

So wow, upon first read this is a pretty tough gospel message, one that does not seem to have much good news at all… I’ll provide some context and also do just a bit of recap for those of you who, like I sometimes do, have a hard time staying focused on whatever’s being read up front in church. While I haven't been preaching a whole lot on ‘em over the past few weeks, this Sunday’s gospel passage is yet another one of Jesus’ “vineyard” parables, where the vineyard typically is meant to symbolize the kingdom of God. In this one, which follows right after our gospel message from last week in the Bible, Jesus is speaking to the chief priests, Pharisees, the professional “perfect people” in other words, who throughout history have often been found leading various religious institutions. A landowner sets up a vineyard, essentially builds a fort around it, and then perhaps goes on holiday. He sends over his slaves though at harvest time to collect his portion from the tenants left in charge of the vineyard, and then the tenants promptly decide to kill the slaves. This same thing happens a second time… even more slaves are thrown into the mix, who the tenants once again kill. Finally, in what seems like an oddly cruel decision, the landowner decides to send his son over, who is promptly killed as well.

Jesus then of course traps the chief priests, the Pharisees, the professional “perfect people,” by asking them what the owner will do with those no good tenants. “The tenant will puts those wretches to a miserable death,” the professional “perfect people” reply back, only later to figure out Jesus was talking about them. Jesus, seemingly confirms this, by in fact directly quotes Psalm 118, which is a song of victory: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” He then goes on, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Now jeesh, this parable seems like quite the bummer! If we place God as landowner in the parable, first we have to deal with God being okay with having slaves, and then we have to be okay with God sending his slaves AND his Son to a certain death, and then worst of all we have to deal with the idea that we’ll be crushed by God if we mess up like those no good tenants. There’s another difficulty with the text as well, particularly since we’re reading it the day after Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Texts, and these like it, have throughout much of Christian history been used to the support the foolhardy notion that God rejected the Jewish people with the coming of Christ.

So let me be pretty blunt here… by no means at all is Jesus saying to the chief priests and Pharisees that God has rejected the Jewish people or Judaism. Absolutely, positively, not at all. Jesus was learned Jew… he shows that much by quoting the Psalms in today’s gospel passage. Just a few verses before this passage, Jesus is welcomed with opens arms into Jerusalem, in the scene we experience every Palm Sunday. Let me be pretty blunt here… Jesus was and is completely cool with Jewish people. One thing Jesus is saying to the chief priests and Pharisees however is that God was in fact pretty darn upset with the religious elite of Judaism at the time, the professional “perfect people” who while pretending to act all zealous and holy, were simply leading all their followers astray. Now, anyone who’s spent much time at church over the last fifty odd years knows this phenomenon of professional “perfect people” at the head of religious institutions isn’t something relegated to first century Judaism… many Christians, and especially Christian clergy, haven’t done a particularly good job heeding Jesus’ warning as of late.

Whether its the more old fashioned fire and brimstone preaching or the more popular nowadays picture of the perfectly happy Christian family wearing inoffensive polos standing alongside the handsome young pastor in a really nice necktie, either way, for whatever reason, us Christians, and perhaps especially us clergy folks all too often like to portray ourselves and our families as perfect or at very least quite pious to the folks in our congregations, and of course, to the general public as well. And now after decades of church decline, partially as a result of having these “perfect people” as visible leaders in our congregations, we’re in a pretty dire situation. So many of the folks my age, a majority of my non-seminary friends probably, seeing church as a place full of judgement and backward thinking rather than a place full of the good news. And it’s not just young people who feel this way about church of course… all sorts of folks have been made to feel less than worthy of God’s love in many Christian congregations… folks who have gone through a divorce, folks who don’t fit inside heterosexual norms and folks who can’t afford a nice set of dress clothes are just a few of the groups who often are made to feel they don’t measure up to the “perfect people” in Christian congregations.

Now, upon first hearing it, today’s gospel message seems like one that solely condemns… you will be cast off by God, you will be crushed if you act like those no-good vineyard tenants! Now on one level, it does condemn. It especially condemns us folks who try acting like we’re perfect, who try acting like they have everything together, and especially us clergy folks, the professional “perfect people” found all too often as leaders of religious institutions, myself included. On one level, today’s passage from Matthew does condemn, but on such a more important level, my sisters and brothers, it holds a message of incredible promise. Remember, when Jesus is doing all that condemning, he’s quoting Psalm 118, which is a song of victory… “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” And just listen to what comes after the verse he cites in Psalm 118… 
“this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light! Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever!”
Wow, now why do you think Jesus would quote a psalm like that if He wasn’t preaching good news?

On one level, God does expect a lot out of us. Jesus does shortly following the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 famously say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect,” after all. We should do the best we can do as Christians, out of love for all the amazing blessings God gives us everyday. The funny thing though, and the thing the chief priests and Pharisees and far too many Christians, myself included, can’t always seem to remember, is that doing the best you can do for other folks and for your community usually means not being “perfect” at all! Indeed, in our human imperfection, in our human sinfulness, at least in terms of day to day stuff, it often hard to agree on what “perfect” would mean anyway. And in being “real,” in making ourselves vulnerable to one another, to be okay with bearing witness to our scars and flaws, that in turn creates space for our friends and family and neighbors to be themselves as well. And here’s the best part, and the most important part, that those professional “perfect people” couldn’t seem to get… in trying to be perfect, we make things all about ourselves, which in turn simply distracts us from the new and exciting things God is doing again and again and again in our lives and in the lives of our communities.

In today’s gospel message, my sisters and brothers, Jesus is saying geesh, get over yourself, get outside of your own head for a bit, but he’s not saying that in the end as a message of judgement! Not at all! Christ is instead calling us again and again and again to look at all the amazing ways God is constantly breaking into our lives, doing new things, making new possibilities no matter who we are, how we feel or what we’ve done. God is constantly breaking into our lives, making new and surprising things happen… the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone! So, my sisters and brothers, as we move into this month of hoping and thanksgiving together, know that everyday is a day the Lord has made, where in Christ new dreams are possible and new hopes will be stirred up in our hearts. Everyday is a day the Lord has made, everyday is a day where stones that have seemingly been rejected have become the cornerstones of new and exciting things in Christ. 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.