Monday, December 01, 2014

"Why Have You Hidden Your Face from Us?"

Hey everyone!

What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached yesterday at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York, a Spirit-filled church where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's primarily on the appointed Hebrew Bible passage for this past Sunday, Isaiah 64: 1 - 9. Furthermore, its the first of a four part sermons series I'll be preaching throughout Advent called "God with Us." Here's what I'll be covering in the coming weeks:

- Advent 1: God with Us in the Face of the Stranger
- Advent 2: God with Us in Rotterdam
- Advent 3: God with Us at Work
- Advent 4: God with Us in Family

Thanks so much, stay tuned for future installments, and I hope you find this helpful!

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

So a couple years back in the very late hours of Christmas Eve or early hours of Christmas Day I found myself sitting on a couch three stories up above Midtown Manhattan, staring out at these stark and lonesome, but also beautifully and atypically still city streets, just sort of taking stock of my life and wrestling with God. You see, I was in the middle of my internship year Saint Peter’s Church, where the final Christmas Eve service gets out quite late and a hot breakfast is served to homeless members of the community early every Tuesday morning, even if that particular Tuesday is Christmas Day. With this in mind, instead of taking the subway back to my tiny apartment in Queens after helping out with the Christmas Eve services, I headed up to the third floor of the church where there was an amazing conference space with massive panel windows on two sides and also an amazingly comfortable couch that I always took naps on Sunday afternoons between services. My plan was to spend the night at Saint Peter’s, wake up early, help with preparing and serving breakfast, assist in a short Christmas morning liturgy and then take off for a few l expected to be melancholy days with folks up in New England. I reasoned that especially on Christmas morning, there wouldn’t be many volunteers to help serve breakfast, or perhaps that our guests would be in need of pastoral care, so staying all night at church seemed like the both logical and upright, Christian thing to do.

The truth I didn’t want to admit to myself or to God however that night was that the reason I was trying to sleep on that couch perched high over Lexington Avenue wasn’t because I was a super good intern or fulfilling my Christian duties at all… Rather, I was burdened with the constantly dull but overpowering ache of depression, sadly anticipating the anniversary of my mother’s death, drowning amidst the chaos of a failed relationship, experiencing incredibly loneliness I what I viewed as a way too big city and feeling like I really had nowhere else to go. I could have easily gotten the holiday itself off, but going back home to Connecticut would only bring up more hard feelings about my mom and doing what I considered to at least be burdening a friend’s family with my presence didn’t seem like a good option either. And worst of all, much like the speaker in today’s first lesson from Isaiah, I felt like God had entirely hidden from me. Trying to sort out where God still was in the middle of all the garbage going on in my life, especially at Christmastime, was completely proving impossible, and as you might imagine, I didn’t sleep a wink that night.

That morning, our God of surprises definitely showed up. A former member of Saint Peter’s and pastor at another nearby congregation that didn’t have an early service on Christmas Day, showed up to lead what turned out to be a huge group a volunteers, one giant extended family with no previous connection to Saint Peter’s who had simply decided to spend Christmas morning helping folks out. I honestly wasn’t need at all… there were more than enough volunteers, and frankly just by hanging out with me, our homeless guests probably did more to provide me with pastoral care than the other way around. We engaged in a bunch of great conversations, especially about our guests’ service in our armed forces. Although this number has improved in recent years, as of 2013 still around 53% of America’s homeless population are veterans (according to HUD's "Annual Homeless Assessment Report" ). I got to hang out and laugh with the family who was volunteering too, and community was fostered on Christmas morning… our God of surprises definitely showed up.

Now don’t get me wrong, God definitely showed up in the face of the stranger that Christmas morning, but it wasn’t necessarily in this big, beautiful, idyllic sort of way… it’s not like Scrooge running around giving folks money and ham dinner in a Christmas Carol! Although this isn’t typical, we had to serve an unused catered fish dinner from a giant law firm a couple stories up that morning for breakfast, which thus made for a really stinky breakfast! We often romanticize poverty in our society, especially around this time of the year, but there were definitely a few guests, although not a lot, who showed up drunk or high on who knows what. I even remember banging my elbow like really, really hard and cursing pretty loud for being in a church building. My depression wasn’t cured overnight, the messy parts of my life weren’t immediately fixed, the rest of my year in New York while incredibly rewarding still turned out pretty darn lonely, sure, but our God of surprises definitely showed up. That sense of not joy, but stubborn, resolute peacefulness, community and most importantly hope that God freely gives us when Christ shows up, especially in the face of the stranger, was definitely present.

So two closing thoughts as we enter into a new liturgical year, into the season of hopefully longing that is Advent here at our Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ. First, especially in the midst of the holiday season when we’re constantly told again and again in holiday movies, in commercials and even by family and friends that we should be especially joyful, know that in Christ it is absolutely okay to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. Check out verse five of our reading from Isaiah, where the prophet cries out to God, “because you hid yourself we transgressed.” I mean, Isaiah is at least partially blaming God for his people’s sinful behavior!! The prophet’s really discouraged by God seemingly not showing up as in days of old! And I mean, if the guy or woman who wrote that part of Isaiah, one of the most central books of the Christian Scriptures, can take anger and disappointment to God, I think God in Christ certainly gives us permission to do the same. If you are indeed feeling joyful and jolly this holiday season, that is awesome, rock on, but if you’re not, you have absolutely no reason at all to feel guilty about it.

Second, and relatedly, as Jesus cries out to us RIGHT NOW in twenty-first century Schenectady through today’s gospel, KEEP AWAKE! Yes, while God is present in our church, in our families, in all the places we normally experience Jesus, God in Christ is especially present in the face of the stranger! Last night I had a chance to rewatch Jill’s awesome sermon from last week, and the way she proclaimed the good news about serving our neighbors was amazing. Perhaps the best part of serving our neighbors, whether they be people who are homeless, or hungry, or a family where there isn’t enough money to buy the kids Christmas presents, isn’t about what we’re doing, but rather what God is doing to us in Christ. We know in faith that Jesus especially comes to us in the face of the stranger. I took a break from the news while I was on vacation last week, with the exception of course of watching the aftermath on the grand jury ruling in Ferguson, which outside of that city were not entirely but largely peaceful. Whether or not justice was specifically done in Ferguson isn't my specialty, but I couldn’t help but think when looking at the faces of all those peaceful protestors that from one perspective they were simply proclaiming God is present in the face of our African-American sisters and brothers. Yes, Christ is present in their lives and the lives of all who are crying out against a wider societal system where the sin of racial injustice is still certainly weighing down our country.

After everything the prophet Isaiah cries out to God in today’s lesson, there’s a turn near the end, did you catch it? Check out verse eight: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” I’ll read it one more time, “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Wow, despite things certainly being far from perfect in the prophet’s situation, that stubborn, resolute peacefulness, sense of community and most importantly hope that God freely gives us when Christ shows up is definitely present in Isaiah’s words. It may not always be joyful, it might not even always feel good, but God in Christ is certainly at work in your life and life, your life and your life and indeed all our lives, carefully crafting us, forming us, shaping us, showing up in all sorts of places, especially in the face of the stranger. Indeed, God has promised us in Christ that this is the sort of God who God is, and yes, as always my sisters and brothers our God is 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, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

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