Sunday, January 18, 2015

Let's Talk about Fornication!

Hi everyone,

Wow... the lectionary provided us with some pretty choice passages this Sunday. What follows is my take on 1 Corinthians 6: 11-20. If you'd like to see video of the sermon, you can check it out soon on my congregation's website, Messiah Lutheran Church.

Wow, the geniuses who came up with the lectionary really served us up a doozy this week. We have two stories in 1 Samuel and the Gospel of Saint John about God calling disciples… and neither of which is particularly uplifting. The Samuel story is really problematic because it ends with God being pretty mean to poor old Eli. The story from John isn’t too bad, but it’s just kind of dry, no? But then, we got one really coming at us out of left field with the epistle reading… it’s Saint Paul writing to those bothersome Corinthians all about the loaded topic of fornicating! While I firmly believe there’s good news in all these readings my sisters and brothers, they definitely all take a great deal of unpacking to get there, and given that we probably need a little something to warm us up on such a cold winter’s morning, let’s just talk about the fornicating! I figure it’s probably been a couple months since I’ve gotten too controversial in one of my sermons, so why not give it a whirl.

Has anyone here ever heard of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai? Although I had heard a bit about Hillel cause most Jewish student centers on college campuses are named after him, I hadn’t really heard the full story myself about Hillel and Shammai until I got to seminary either, so don’t worry about it. That said though, it might be a little bit too history-nerdish, but try to remember about Hillel and Shammai, because their story can definitely go a long way in helping us figure out difficult ethical issues and sort through difficult Biblical passages as Christians. This is a bit of an oversimplification of their story, but essentially Hillel and Shammai were two competing Jewish sages who lived not long before the time of Christ. Now when these sages disagreed about important matters of Torah or Jewish law, they and their respective followers tended to hold two competing schools of thought. The Shammai folks generally tried to stick more to letter of the law, to do things exactly by the book, while the Hillel folks tended to spend a bit more time thinking about context, how a particular piece of Torah would be applied, the sort of spirit and intent behind what was written in the Scriptures.

The most famous practical example of these two ways of thinking was in a bit of an argument the Hillel and Shammai folks got into over white lies. Now according to the last part of Leviticus 19:11, you’re not supposed to lie: “you shall not lie to one another.” But what happens (and this is the exact example Hillel and Shammai got in an argument about by the way)… what happens if on her wedding day, a not particularly attractive bride asks you if she looks beautiful? Should you lie, be nice, and say she’s beautiful, or should follow the law exactly, and truthfully say, “have a blessed wedding day darling, but no, you are ugly!” Now the right course of action I think seems obvious to all of us, but the Shammai folks would disagree… tell her she’s ugly they’d say, stick to the law! Now the Hillel folks wouldn’t say the law isn’t helpful in this matter, not at all! In fact, in order to give proper respect to the law, think about it a little, what Leviticus 19:11 trying to get at, what’s the intent? What’s the Spirit of the law? In the end, Hillel famously said, “every bride is beautiful on her wedding day.”

During Christ’s time actually, the Shammai folks were more popular. As opposition to Roman domination grew, the more hardline approach of the Shammai folks was more appealing. Eventually though, taking the Shammai approach to foreign policy with the Roman Empire is partially what led to Jerusalem and especially the temple being destroyed around 70 CE. As Jewish leaders reconstituted themselves in the succeeding years, Shammai’s way of looking at things was largely thrown out… you must take one’s context into account when interpreting the law. The spirit of the law is what truly matters! In the end, the Hillel approach largely triumphed, and it grew into majorly influencing the beautiful faith of Judaism we know today (and Christianity too by the way).
So when you see these controversial, difficult Bible passages my sisters and brothers, whether they be in the Old or New Testament, remember this whole Hillel/ Shammai thing… prayerfully try to discern the spirit of the author’s writing, and indeed how the Holy Spirit is currently at work in the author’s writing, right now, in this day in age, in twenty-first century Schenectady or wherever you might find yourselves.

Now when thinking about all this fornicating business, and indeed all the other various types of sexually-related sins listed around it in 1 Corinthians, let’s keep our context in mind. As Christians we’re all members of a religious movement that hasn’t always gotten matters of gender and sexuality exactly right over the years. All the women who were kept out of the pulpit simply because of their gender. All the folks told to stay in horribly abusive marriages by their local priest. All the recent divorcees, who in the midst of crisis, at the time they needed the support of their faith communities the most, were shamed out of churches. Now I imagine we may have some different views in the congregation related to marriage equality, LGBT issues and the like, but wow, I’d hope we could all agree that things like what happened this past week, when a church in Colorado decided to cancel a young woman’s funeral fifteen minutes after it was supposed to begin because she was gay, I’d hope we could agree that things like that are well, far less than ideal and certainly not reflective of Christian love.

Unfortunately, although many of the congregations in our denomination and others have been improving in recent years, it’s our history as Christians and notable news stories like the one out of Colorado this past week that have made so many folks, and not just people of my generation, associate Christianity not with God or love or Jesus but with being uppity and mean about matters of sexuality. I’ve seen it with my own eyes a bunch of times… Christians talking all about how their “pure” but in the end pretty much just putting themselves over someone else by shaming people who wouldn’t fit their standards of “purity.” These sort of actions, this sort of shaming that takes place far too often in Christian circles in matters related to human sexuality, is in the end complete hogwash, and needs to be called out as such, for at least two reasons.

First, when we put ourselves over and above someone else, whether or not what that other person is doing is actually sinful, it’s all too easy for us to forget about our own things that need improvement. Second though, and even more importantly, we end up just looking silly like Shammai, calling someone ugly on their wedding day. Paul wrote all this business about not fornicating to a church in the first century that was rife with conflict. The text seems to suggest people were committing all sorts of sexual craziness because they thought they were freed by forgiveness in Christ to do whatever they pleased, and as would obviously happen, the Corinthians just ended up hurting each other. They were messing up their relationships with God and with one another. If you take the Hillel approach, and look at the spirit of what Paul is trying to say to the Corinthians, here’s where you start to find the good news! In our day and age, in a time when the church has screwed up issues related to sex for so long and so many people feel so unwelcome in Christian communities because of it, it’s not as much the sexuality that’s getting in the way of being in relationship with God and one another, it’s this over-zealous judgement and shaming that’s the real problem. That’s not to say we should go out and be like the Corinthians doing whatever we want, not at all, misusing the gift of sexual intimacy can really hurt people, but wow, in our context, that over-zealous judgement and shaming is what's really hurt people and truly getting in the way of far too many folks knowing the joy of Christian community.

When you look at the spirit of what Paul’s trying to say with all this fornicating stuff, in the end, he’s saying take Christ seriously. Take Christ seriously! Outside of gathering to hear the Scriptures publicly read, being baptized and celebrating communion (all actions which involve other people, by the way), the best way we can know Christ in this world is simply by seeing Him in the face of other people, oftentimes in the face of people where you would not expect Christ to be. Christ is breaking into your life each and every day! Take that seriously! If you’re part of a community where sexuality is getting in the way of seeing Christ in one another like in first century Corinth, sure, chill out a bit with the sexuality. If you’re part of a community where judgement and shaming is getting in the way of seeing Christ in one another, as it certainly is in many of today’s churches, chill out a bit with the judgement and shaming! Christ, my sisters and brothers, is constantly trying to break into our lives, to heal us, to save us, to liberate us, to make sure that we know we our loved, no matter what. Christ is trying to teach us something too by sometimes showing up in the faces of those we’d least expect it. And indeed, Christ has promised to do these things. And yes, our God in Christ 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.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Jesus is Not the "Reason for the Season"


What follows is a rough manuscript of the sermon I preached this past Christmas Eve at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, New York, a Spirit-filled church where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It's on the Saint Luke's nativity story, Luke 2: 1 - 14. Finally, you can find video of the sermon at Messiah's brand new website!

God's peace,
Pastor Dustin

So, is anyone here a fan of Saturday Night Live? Until a few months ago when I started spending most of my Saturday evenings writing the sermons which I tend to procrastinate about finishing throughout the week, I definitely watched the show pretty frequently… its pretty funny. I still occasionally get to see a few of the skits posted online though, and there was one a couple weeks ago that went pretty viral… you might have caught it. The skit was simply called “Church,” and it was a spoof commercial advertising how your annual trip to church on Christmas Eve to make your parents’ happy was going to be really different this year, because the local church, this place called Saint Joseph’s was planning on “going full throttle with their one night only Christmas Mass Spectacular!” That’s right… Saint Joseph’s Christmas Mass Spectacular! As the commercial begins to explain over the sound of blaring electric guitars, the main reason for Saint Joseph’s Christmas Mass Spectacular being so rocking this year is due to the presence of “all your church favorites,” all the folks who make Christmas Eve at Saint Joseph’s extra special.

Most of the rest of the skit goes on to showcase all those church favorites, the epic cast of characters who make Saint Joseph’s an especially rocking place to be. There’s Mr. Drubbler of course, who enthusiastically wants to shake your hand while sharing the peace, despite having the most incredibly sweaty hands possible. Then there’s teen soloist Bethany Opsal, who’s up in the choir loft singing it out for the Lord with soulful passion, “thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path! Huh!” Now if that’s not enough to get you excited, there’s Saint Joseph’s pair of exhilarating liturgical readers: twelve year old Ryan Welty who stands up in the pulpit in the hot, itchy Christmas sweater his mom made him wear and starts proclaiming the Word despite clearly not wanting to at all… “and lo, the angel Gabriel appeared unto Mary murmur murmur murmur” and forty-four year old Colleen Chapin who in a bright red festive suit jacket with lots of Christmas flair really, really does want to read this year… “This is reading. From Paul. To the Corinthians!” And whoa, my sisters and brothers, I might be a bit partial, but if you really want to have your mind blown, there’s good ol’ Pastor Pat. Now Pastor Pat might half fall asleep during worship, and he might chant really off-key and at constantly changing speeds… you know something like “all glory be to God the Father all mighty, for everrrr and everrrr,” but, he’s always got at least one incredibly soft sermon joke up his sleeve, to which the congregation of course will politely respond with an incredibly soft chuckle. And finally, after being awed by Saint Joseph’s Christmas Mass Spectacular, you might even have a chance to sneak a peak into Pastor Pat’s house, and see that he’s even got a table in there, just like everyone else has a table in their house! Whoa!!! Radical!!!

Now, of course, this SNL skit was an absolutely hilarious exaggeration of what church on Christmas Eve looks like, but there are some a couple really important truths in there too. For the many folks who only make it out to worship on Christmas Eve, and its awesome to have some of you here tonight with us by the way, this SNL skit probably serves as a legitimate indictment of what many churches have become in recent decades… these sort of antiquated, backward thinking communities, where goofy people do goofy things each and every Sunday that are hard to understand and then in turn often don’t embrace folks who might look or act or love in a different sort of way. On Christmas Eve, it might feel nice to go to church, or at least it’ll make Grandma happy, but otherwise, why would one ever want to wake up early on a Sunday morning or miss watching the big game for something like that? This, my sisters and brothers, is a legitimate point, a while I don’t think it at all describes our Spirit filled congregation, its a common concern that all faiths communities in our day and age definitely need to take seriously.

The even more important truth that the SNL skit perhaps inadvertently emphasizes though is also one that is at the heart of Saint Luke’s message for us tonight, in this place, in twenty-first century Schenectady. Every year, in a bid to turn folks away from all the gift buying and over consumption of the holiday season, you always hear folks exclaim, “Jesus is the reason for the season!” Who here’s heard folks say that before? Yeah, quite a few of us. Well, my sisters and brothers, I want to humbly submit to you this holy night that those folks, though certainly having good intentions, are completely wrong. Those folks are completely wrong. Jesus is certainly at the center of what Christmas is all about, absolutely, but no, Jesus is not the reason for the season. The good news God proclaims to us tonight through Saint Luke’s words is that the reason for this season that celebrates Christ’s continual birth into the world, and the reason for church, and the reason for all the hymns and rituals and prayers and coffee hours and potlucks and confirmation classes and service projects is people, the reason for the season is people, all people. The reason for the season, the reason for God’s continual, constant breaking into this world through Christ, is that guy with the really sweaty hands and the kid with the itchy sweater and the overly enthusiastic choir member and even the pastor who isn’t that funny and always chants off key. The reason for the season, the reason for Christ’s constant birth into this world, is you. The reason for the season is you, whether you’ve shown up here at Messiah every week for decades, or whether this is your first time and you’re looking for a new faith community to call home or whether you only show up once a year to make Grandma happy. The reason for the season is you! The reason for the season is you! The reason for the season, and Christ’s constant birth into this world to be with us is you and you and you!

We always tend to talk about Mary and Joseph tonight, but let’s focus elsewhere in the story… just look at what that angel says to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The “good news for all people” the angel’s going on about is a much bigger deal than a Savior being born to Joseph and Mary. It isn’t that a Savior is born to the people of Israel. It isn’t even that a Savior has been born to God as the Father. While all those things are indeed true, the good news for all the people that the angel proclaims to the shepherds and to all of us, this holy night, my sisters and brothers, is that a Savior is born unto you! A Savior is born unto you! This holy night, and indeed every night, whether celebrating with family after a phenomenal year or battling with anxiety and depression, A Savior is born unto you! Whether all the talk about birthing and babies that happens around this time of the year brings up hard memories of struggling to conceive or whether you’re the proudest, happiest parent in the world, a Savior is born unto you! Whether you’re missing a loved one or have been looking for love in all the wrong places or are surrounded by family this evening without a care in the world, a Savior is born unto you! A Savior is born unto to you, to me, to all of us, to save us, to free us, to bring new meaning to our lives. Indeed, you are the reason for the season, you are the reason God is breaking into our lives, tonight, and each and every night, in liberating love. You are the reason for the season. Merry Christmas, and 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.