Sunday, November 29, 2015

Turn Towards Hope

Hi all,

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached earlier this morning at Messiah Lutheran Church in Schenectady, New York where I'm incredibly blessed to serve as pastor. It was my best attempt to proclaim a message of hope as we begin the season of Advent while focusing on the first reading for this Sunday, Jeremiah 33: 14 - 16. Please, let me know what you think!

God's peace,

Sisters and brothers,

It’s so heartening for me to be back with you, despite having had an awesome week away visiting loved ones and hiking in all sorts of beautiful places with Willy Bear all around New England. It was a great week for sure, filled with some much needed rest time, hours spent reading and reflecting about the past year and of course multiple courses of eating way too much turkey. That all said, both the best and most thought provoking parts of my week were the conversations I had with folks of a wide variety ages and backgrounds. I was blessed with the opportunity to hear what was going on in the life of my beloved Grandma Tinie for instance, who still cooked the most delicious Thanksgiving meal despite being in her late eighties. I also learned about the joys and challenges a close childhood friend of mine is facing as her and her husband begin their careers with a second child on the way. It was fantastic to talk with a high school student about how things were going with the hometown cross country team in my hometown of Manchester, Connecticut before the annual Thanksgiving Day Road Race. Now to the best of my understanding, there seemed to be one common thread though that bubbled up in a nearly all these conversations no matter what else was being talked about, a common thread that really informs what I’d like to speak to today… given everything going on in the world over especially the past year, wow, there is a huge amount of fear in our society, and worse yet, there is even more apathy about the possibility of things improving. There is a great amount of fear in our society, and worse yet, there is even more apathy about the possibility of things improving.

The reasons for this collective sense of fear and apathy are both incredibly complicated yet probably quite familiar to most of you. First of all, on a societal level, change, even when it’s mostly positive change, creates uncertainty, which in turns often instigates us to react in fear. And while it’s been increasingly a trend for a while now, over the past year especially we’ve heard stories about “the rise of the millennial generation,” folks roughly my age and bit younger, who as we’re at least often characterized have radically different views than the last few few generations of Americans. We’re increasingly interconnected on our iPhones, we greatly value racial and ethnic diversity, and comfortable with what some would consider nontraditional family structures, whether it be championing marriage equality, choosing to live with a partner before marriage or putting off having children until later in life. We also aren’t typically as interested in organized religion, although we are just about as spiritual as any other generation. While in my opinion most of these trends are quite positive and have been in the works for the at least the last fifty years anyway, the fact that we’re rapidly moving away from a “Leave It to Beaver” sort of society is understandably scary for many individuals.

On top of a rapidly changing society, we’ve been absolutely inundated over the past year with all sorts of horrific headlines that tend to breed nothing but fear and apathy… folks twisting the beautiful teachings of Islam into something that leads to beheadings and civil war and the despicable terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut a couple weeks ago. Every week it seems we hear news of another mass shooting, most recently this past Friday outside a women’s health clinic in Colorado. Affirming that black lives matter while also supporting the women and men who have sworn to keep us safe is a near daily task. With NATO allied Turkey shooting down a Russian fighter jet on Turkish/ Syrian border this past week, international tensions in some ways haven’t been this high since the end of the Cold War. And not to mention of course all the difficulties going on in our own lives… from talking to many of you privately in the week before I left for vacation, wow, there is a lot of tough stuff going on for many of us hear at Messiah… all sorts of things that might make us fearful, or lead us to apathetically believe things will never improve.

Today however my sisters and brothers, during the shortest days of the year, the prophet Jeremiah has a word for us that is not just of incredible, but in fact is audaciously good news amidst all that darkness, fear and apathy, as we begin a new church year and liturgical season this first Sunday of Advent… a message quite simply, of hope. I’ll read some of Jeremiah’s words for us again… The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. You see, Jeremiah wrote in some truly horrific times… right in the middle of the Siege of Jerusalem between 589-587 BCE by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar II. The elites of the city were being carted off to exile in Babylon, the city itself was burned and most importantly, the First Temple, the dwelling place of God on Earth was completely destroyed. I can’t stress more highly how this was a truly world shattering event for Jeremiah and his peers… to the point that most of Hebrew Bible we know today was compiled shortly thereafter in an attempt to figure out what to do next. Despite the horrors surrounding him, Jeremiah proclaims “the days are surely coming” where justice and righteousness will once again reign in the land. In other words, Jeremiah proclaimed a message of hope in the darkest, scariest, most apathetic of times… not just incredible but in fact audaciously good news that deeply reflects the sense of hope that our God calls us towards in Christ.

So, what can we learn from Jeremiah’s message as we begin this Advent amidst the darkest season of the year, amidst of overwhelming sense of apathy and fear? Quite simply, turn away from such things towards hope. In the end, that’s what Jesus is all about, the only reason Jesus needed to be born at all, to turn us towards hope. Turn towards hope in Christ, and proclaim that message to everyone you know through word and deed, that in the end, the powers of darkness, and fear and apathy can never win next to the power of God’s love. Now what does an abstract phrase like “turn towards hope” mean for us practically in this time, this place, in twenty-first century Rotterdam? I have three distinct suggestions amongst many other possibilities. First, let us consider what and who we want to stand for as Christians. A couple weeks back, you might have heard the silliness coming out of some Christian quarters complaining about what those red holiday Starbucks cups look like… they no longer had a Santa or nativity or whatever other Christmas scene whatever… is that what’s truly important? Red coffee cups? Is that what it means to be Christian? Or can we radically take up the Biblical call to welcome in the stranger, the alien, the migrant and stand up for those well mean Syrian families seeking asylum in our country as refugees. What’s more important? Being fearful about our seemingly less Christian culture and complaining about red coffee cups or turning towards the hope that we can make the lives of a small number of Syrian refugees just a bit easier.

Second, do we want focus on our fears about the changing values of our young people? Only a couple weeks back I heard an ELCA Lutheran pastor referred to millennials as a “heathen generation,” I kid you not. Really? Or should turn towards hope in Christ? For example, did you know for the past few years, on the first day of every month thousands of young Lutherans around the world fast have fasted for justice ahead of a major climate change conference that will begin tomorrow in Paris? Lutheran young people are putting their into action all around the world and advocating that our leaders finally take action on what may be the defining issue of our time, and it’s acceptable to call us a heathen generation? Rather than reacting out of fear about changing and perhaps improving values, we can turn towards hope in Christ.

Finally, on a more personal and less global scale, should we continue to apathetically focus on old divisions and arguments with friends, family and members of our congregation, especially during this stressful time of the year or can we turns towards hope in Christ that reconciliation is possible? Can we turn towards hope in Christ that we can move forward together into a bright future as closely knit families, communities and as a congregation? Quite simply my sisters and brothers, through Jeremiah’s proclamation of the good news amidst the darkest of times over 2500 years ago, and through Christ coming into the world and triumphing over the worst of human sin a few hundred years later, we can turn away from all the darkness and fear and apathy towards hope. In the end, that’s what Jesus is all about, the only reason Jesus needed to be born at all, to turn us towards hope. Turn towards hope in Christ, and proclaim that message to everyone you know through word and deed, that in the end, the powers of darkness, and fear and apathy can never win next to the power of God’s love. 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 amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.

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