Sunday, October 09, 2016

We Have a Lot of Work to Do

A rough manuscript of my sermon this Sunday on Luke 17: 11-19.

Sisters and brothers, we have a lot of work to do, that’s for sure. We have a lot of work to do. This past Friday evening, as I was waiting to board a plane home from a conference in Chicago, I felt sick to my stomach upon hearing the words of one of our presidential candidates objectifying women to an unspeakable degree, joking about sexual assault and bragging about how through wealth celebrity and power, he could easily get away with such behavior. My mind pretty quickly went especially to the women and girls of our congregation, about how such words must make you all feel, and also the fathers as well who’ll have to explain this stuff to their kids, to make sure their sons know that such talk is simply not okay. For putting you all in such a horrible position, for putting my own family and friends in such a horrible situation, I was absolutely furious with Donald Trump as I boarded that flight.

Through some really helpful conversations with the woman sitting next to me over the following couple hours, I was reminded that the horrible words on that tape reflect something much bigger than any one candidate or even the state of our politics as a whole. Indeed, no matter which candidate you decide to vote for (I’ve had conversations with great folks in our congregation on both sides of that debate, by the way), no matter which candidate you decide to vote for is less important than the much wider, insidious issue of collective sin at hand: the way our society treats women and girls. Or to put it in even a broader context, the issue of collective sin we must address is our society's seeming complete inability to listen to the concerns of one another, especially the concerns of populations who have historically been marginalized and oppressed. So yes, my sisters and brothers, we have a lot of work to do.

We have a lot of work to do. For you see, right here in America, statistically one in three women will be the victim of some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Right now, in what we consider the greatest country in the world, one in five women have survived an attempted or completed rape. On our college campuses that number narrows to something closer to one in four. One in three women have been victims of some form of physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner in their lifetime and boys who witness their fathers being violent are ten times more likely to abuse their spouses later in life. The way we treat women and girls in our society is an insidious type of collective sin, to be sure, and it’s the type of collective sin that affects each and every single one of us.

When I think about my own life experiences as a young adult, and particularly my time as a college student, the words used by Mr. Trump are more extreme than most, but they honestly don’t surprise me. I lived for three years in a fraternity house and horrible jokes were made on a regular basis. Women were objectified on a regular basis. And because I had a natural aversion to being politically correct as a young, dumb kid and I’ve always liked being the center of attention, I was definitely a major player in all that dumb talk and I was wrong. And my fraternity brothers and I were known as some of the better guys on campus, right, who may have said dumb things but always treated women with respect. Yet, words do matter… how did our jokes make the vast majority of women of hadn’t been treated with respect sometime in their life feel? Moving right up to the present, how did years of seemingly innocent locker room talk change our perspectives in sinful, insidious, ways? Thanks be for Christ, because the work of reconciliation, the work of always trying to improve how us men hear and honor the perspectives of women will never end. Even though that was all close to a decade ago now, I hear from folks younger than me that things have gotten even worse on our college campuses as well. In short, my sisters and brothers, we have a lot of work to.

Yes, we have a lot of work to do, but luckily, as our gospel message teaches us this Sunday, Christ is there at work with us, present in every part of our lives and the life of our community. Even more amazing is the good news that God most often speaks from the perspective of those we least expect Her to be speaking from. Just look at today’s gospel message… it’s a simple yet profound story. Jesus is traveling through the borderlands between Samaria and the Galilee in route to Jerusalem, when he stops in a small village. Ten folks are suffering from leprosy there, a disease that still afflicts thousands in many parts of the world. And well, our God in Christ does what God does best. Jesus sends the lepers off to the priests and amazingly, all are healed! All are washed clean, liberated from their disease by Christ’s love! Yet even then, it’s only of ten lepers who turns back… it’s only one of the ten who recognizes what God’s up to, and it’s the one people of Jesus’ time would have least expected to know much about God at all… a Samaritan, a despised foreigner! And this, my sisters and brothers, is the incredibly good news that confronts us today. God more often than not speaks to us from the people we’d least expect, the Samaritans of our day, the people we're taught to think don’t matter, the people we're taught by our society to ignore. We have a lot of work to do, but luckily, Christ comes to us in the faces of people we’d least expect to make that work possible.

We have a lot of work to do. How can we listen to those voices as we build and strengthen a community that teaches its children that all women and girls, and all people of color and all folks in the LGBT community and all people of different abilities, need to be cherished, loved and affirmed as children of God? I just heard a story from one parishioner this morning talking about how she’s gotten in trouble at work for begin absent to take care of her sick children. How can we help build a local community where the contributions of mothers and fathers are valued, where parents don’t need to decide between their families and their careers? How can we build a community where our boys grow up knowing that objectification of women and abuse of women and sexual assault of women or anyone else for that matter is not okay? In a few minutes Jim Miller will be talking about one of our congregation’s priorities for the year ahead, to build a spirit of brotherhood and service amongst the men of our congregation. How can we include all those fathers in this important work that God calls us to embark upon? Perhaps all won’t want to show up at a church on Sunday morning, but how else can they contribute to the amazing things God is making happen here? How can we hear from their perspectives?

Sisters and brothers, this has been a hard weekend for our nation, indeed for our wider society. We have a lot of work to do. And thank you all for the work you already do, by the way. Whether you’re filling in this Sunday for our church musician so he can spend time with his family or if your acolyte for the first time or helping to balance our budget or walking with me on Tuesday for equitable funding for our schools, you are part of God’s work here, to build a community where all voices our welcome, all voices are cherished. And thanks be to God for the fact that She especially likes to show up in the very voices and places we’d least expect her to. Thanks be to God for Her promise to show up in our own lives in the times we need it the most, in those hardest and least expected of times. Our God in Christ has promised to show up, to make things happen, to bring us joy, to stand with us in solidarity against the worst of human sin, to bear us in the hard work of preaching the good news of liberation and reconciliation to our community. And thanks be to God for that.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit filled church following Jesus Christ in Schenectady, 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.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

We're All Created in the Image of God!!!

What follows is a manuscript of the message I delivered earlier today at the State Capitol while standing in solidarity with local clergy in a nonpartisan way condemning all attacks on one's religious convictions, including the recent attacks on State Senate Candidate Sara Niccoli. You can read more about the issue here. I was happy to see a spokesperson for the Amedore campaign disavowed the attacks this afternoon.

Activists, members of the press and all people of goodwill, thank you so much for joining us today. My name is Rev. Dustin G. Wright, an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, called to serve at Messiah Lutheran Church in Rotterdam, and I give thanks to God for the opportunity to join with clergy from across the Capitol Region as we rally in support of religious freedom.

So just this past Sunday morning, as members of my Spirit filled congregation gathered for worship thinking about patriotism, freedom and quite frankly yearning for the delicious barbeques that awaited us throughout the rest of the long weekend, we joyfully celebrated and gave thanks for America’s great tradition of religious freedom. We also however spoke about how in a time when especially our Muslim sisters and brothers are increasingly being vilified, that most sacred tradition is under assault. So, when I heard about the hateful rhetoric being anonymously leveled at Sara Niccoli, a candidate for the State Senate, because of her religious observances, and furthermore that this irresponsible rhetoric was leading to Sara receiving death threats, I was deeply saddened and disappointed.

Let me be abundantly clear here, we as clergy are not standing together in support of one candidate or another today, that’s not our role. We are however standing in solidarity, urging, pleading all members of our community to not only tolerate religious differences, but indeed, to celebrate them. Not only is celebrating our religious differences what true freedom and true patriotism looks like, but it’s also something we hold in common as one of the best teachings of all our faiths. I’ll close by citing a Talmudic teaching I recently learned from a local rabbi as we stood in support of the LGBTQ community after a Pride Flag was burned on the premises of First Lutheran Church here in Albany:

Right at the beginning of Genesis, the Bible talks about how God has created each and every one of us, indeed all of humanity, in the Divine Image. Now when we humans create something in our image, every image looks exactly the same… every penny with Abraham Lincoln’s image on it looks exactly the same right? But in such wonderful mystery and diversity, when God creates humanity in the Divine Image, we all look different! Gay, straight, black, white, Quaker, Lutheran, Muslim, Catholic and Jewish, liberal and conservative folks who identify across the rich spectrum that is human gender and sexuality, God has created each and every single one of us in the Divine Image! So when we attack folks because of their religious beliefs, or because of their God given-identity, it not only goes against the best ideals of American patriotism. It not only represents an attack on all our freedom. When we attack folks because of their religious beliefs, we deny the Image of God is reflected in those persons and thereby deny the Image of God is reflected in ourselves. Indeed, when we attack someone because of their religious beliefs, we deny a critical, essential part of ourselves as human beings. And that is why I stand here today, in solidarity with clergy from across the Capital Region, everyone in our community no matter their political affiliation, including George Amedore, to disavow in the strongest possible terms all attacks on one’s religious observances and convictions. Thank you.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit filled church following Jesus Christ in Schenectady, 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.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Crooked System that Keeps Us All Uriahs

Hey all,
It's been a while but I'm hoping to get back to posting sermons and other reflections here more often. Below is a sermon manuscript I preached this Sunday on 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15 at Messiah Lutheran Church. Would love to hear your thoughts!
God's peace,

One day, while strolling around his palace, King David spots a beautiful woman named Bathsheba bathing way off in the distance, and well, he's uh, ya know, pretty interested. King David, a sort of Barney Stinson of ancient Israel it seems, has a problem though because Bathsheba is married to a fellow named Uriah the Hittite, one of the king’s warriors and a man of great honor. Blinded by his own wealth and power as king, David disregards this "minor roadblock" however and decides to invite Bathsheba over for a night at the palace anyway. As can often happen in these situations, the suave King David gets Bathsheba pregnant, but no worries, to cover up his infidelities, the king asks Uriah to take a break from battle and go home to have some "family leave" with his wife. Uriah however, as a warrior of great honor, refuses, not wanting to leave his fellow soldiers on the field of battle.

Now here’s where the story gets a bit more dangerous, where King David’s actions descend into greater sin… not knowing what else to do, and once again blinded by his immense wealth and power, King David writes a letter to his commanders to send Uriah to the place of fiercest fighting, and essentially commanding the murder of Uriah through the hand of the invading Amorites. Bathsheba, now a widow, is free to marry King David, and that's exactly what happens. As punishment for King David’s sin, this baby dies shortly after birth but eventually Bathsheba ends up giving birth to Solomon, who was both a much bigger womanizer even than his ol’ dad and also the next King of Israel.

Now you might be wondering, what does this sort of ancient Jerry Springer story have to do with us today, right here, right now in twenty-first century Schenectady… what might a story like this teach us about how God is breaking into our lives in liberating love? In short, my sisters and brothers, we should consider the story of Bathsheba and David with great seriousness, because really, at least in a round about sort of way, it’s the story of the times we are living in as well. The story of Bathsheba and David is the story of times we are living in as well. And no, I don’t mean to infer that all of us are out there being all promiscuous or whatever… let me explain. For almost forty years now, power and especially wealth has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few elite individuals and families, both here in America and around the world. In fact, the level of income inequality in America is at its highest levels since the Roaring Twenties. Not to get too technical, but “income” is sort of the annual flow of money a household receives every year, but if you look at wealth, the amount of assets a household has saved up over a lifetime, it’s even a scarier story… at this point the richest 3% of Americans hold over half of our country’s wealth. That’s right, the richest 3% of Americans now hold over half of our country’s wealth.

Given these sort of statistics, and even more importantly the horrible stories of suffering and despair behind these statistics, it makes a lot of sense that ordinary folks like you and me are angry, really angry… I occasionally stop by Mark’s Bar and Grill right over here on Curry Road, a very working class sort of place right? and the frustration and anger there is easy to see. The fact of the matter is, in this day and age, the vast majority of us are Uriahs, ordinary folks struggling just to survive and not even knowing who those elites really are that are sending us off to die. Living as Uriahs, with little wealth and diminished power, we’re angry, really angry and that anger is indeed justifiable, but let me make this abundantly clear, that anger is coming out in ways that are both dangerous and misdirected. Living with such unnecessary inequality, living with such unnecessary struggle, ordinary folks like you and I, modern day Uriahs, are angry, and justifiably so, but wow, that anger is coming out in ways that are both dangerous and misdirected.

After being away at a wedding in New Hampshire and then at synod assembly in Rochester over the past week, I hadn’t been paying attention to the everyday news cycle ya know, I was out of it for a while, so after getting back I was immediately struck by the disgusting state of our politics. We actually have candidates who have made blatant racism, sexism and xenophobia central pillars of their campaign, but on the other hand, as we saw this past week in San Jose, the folks protesting that sort of thing are themselves getting physically violent. Yes, we’re all Uriahs and are anger is justifiable, but such anger is both dangerous and misdirected… immigrants, transgender folks, people of color, religious minorities or whatever other favorite targets of the far right aren’t the people who have caused extreme income inequality in our country, not at all, but on the other hand, individual wealthy folks or individuals with different political views didn't really cause it either, at least not directly.

Look once again at our reading from Second Samuel… the main problem that led to Uriah's unjust murder was not that King David was generally this lustful, covetous, horrible person! King David is remembered as the greatest king of Israel, a man held in the highest regard by Judaism and Christianity, a man considered by Muslims to be a prophet. David did make a huge mistake here, but while it's not an excuse for his actions, David also lived within a system where an extreme imbalance of power in his favor blinded him towards the true ramifications of his actions. Once again, while it’s not an excuse for his actions, King David lived within a system where an extreme imbalance of power in his favor blinded him towards the true ramifications of his actions. Indeed, as you heard today, once the prophet Nathan engaged David in true conversation, by helping him understand through the parable of the rich man and the poor man’s lamb, King David repented and saw the evil of his ways.

While individuals can indeed mess up and make sinful mistakes, or maybe even do evil on purpose, as people we all mess up, while we’re all saints we’re also all sinners, right? In the end, the problem in our own time, as it was in King David’s time, is not individuals, whether they be poor immigrants or wealthy crooks on Wall Street. In the end, the real problem is the system we live in, a system where great inequality allows for the mistakes of a few to disproportionately affect the lives of us all. The real problem is the system we live in, where great inequality allows for the mistakes of a few to disproportionately affect the lives of us all. Thus, if we direct our anger towards an individual, no matter what that person's identity might be, our anger while perhaps justifiable is misguided and probably won't fix much of anything at all. It’s not a coincidence I think that the great increase in inequality over the past forty years took place alongside the degradation of our American social structures… union membership has greatly declined, folks don’t go to the PTA or Elks Club like they used to, folks don’t visit each other in their neighborhoods, people don’t go to church. I deeply believe my sisters and brothers, that the renewal of those social structures is the only thing that can equalize our crooked system that’s keeps all of Uriahs, that resigns us and our families to grinding inequality.

So, how is God work in all of this, how is God breaking into such an unequal system, delivering us in liberating love? Well first of all, as people of God we are called to listen to one another, to build our capacity to have the hard conversations necessary to change our current system of sinfully high imbalance from the the ground up. For far too long church has been a place where folks go to be superficially nice to one another over an unhealthy but delicious potluck but not really talk about anything of real importance. Over the past year especially at Messiah we’ve been working to change that trend… hosting many conversations about racism and religious diversity. We’ll be hosting another conversation about creating more diverse communities in just a couple weeks at an event cosponsored by WELCA.

Additionally, though, and perhaps even more importantly, God is calling us to remain centered on what’s important. There’s been a lot of growth and change here at Messiah in recent months, mostly from positive things, but I know that’s also put some stress on our system but know that despite any minor issues we might face, God is breaking into your life and mine, and indeed into the life of our community… God especially likes to show up in face of others. And in the world we live in, with so much inequality, so much anger, so much hate, the fact that God is at work, building up and strengthening communities like ours, well nothing, and I mean nothing, could be more important. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.

Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit filled church following Jesus Christ in Schenectady, 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.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Confession & Thanksgiving as We Celebrate MLK

Earlier today I was blessed with the opportunity to give the opening invocation of the Schenectady County Human Right's Commission's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration at Mount Olivet Missionary Baptist Church. What follows my manuscript for that invocation.

Good afternoon everyone,

When Ms. Morris called me up a few days before Christmas and asked me to open today’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. with a word of prayer, I felt incredibly honored, but honestly a bit distraught as well. You see, us Lutherans aren’t necessarily known for our rousing, inspiring praying… we certainly pray, quite a bit actually, but we tend to just like politely reading something out of a book and then going off to the fellowship hall to enjoy a nice potluck. And furthermore, I mean not everyone here’s Christian I imagine, so I thought offering prayerful words in such a situation might not be entirely inclusive. Eventually, and frankly not till pretty early this morning, I realized it was far better to offer up something from my tradition that we all in a sense could take part in no matter one’s faith: confession and thanksgiving. You see, from a Lutheran and indeed many Christian perspectives, confession isn’t about feeling all guilty, bummed out or down on one’s self like it’s often portrayed… not at all! Indeed, when we confess things, we’re simply naming the things that ail us, we’re simply naming what’s really going on, and in doing so, we are thereby freed to see and celebrate the many incredible things we should be thankful for. So, with that said, instead of opening with a word of prayer, I’d ask that we open with a word of confession and thanksgiving.

First of all, as Dr. Jacqui Williams stated this past Thursday at the Pre-Celebration Community Forum, let us confess that if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were here today, he would cry, fall to his knees, and pray, “What did I do wrong?” That’s because, while it’s certainly not Dr. King’s fault, we must also confess that Jim Crow is indeed alive and well not just in the South but throughout America in the form of a criminal justice system run amok, a system which now imprisons a higher percentage of the black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. Let us confess, that as the political strategist Lee Atwater admitted to decades ago, fear of the criminal, fear of the drug addict, fear of the welfare recipient was created and stoked in the minds of America’s white population simply to garner votes. And more importantly, let all my fellow white folks in the room today confess that far too many of us fell for such tactics, and continue to fall for these harmful manipulations. Let us confess that not only has Reagan’s so called “War on Drugs” been a miserable failure, but also that due to racial profiling, certainly not rates of drug use, the “War on Drugs” has often become a war on communities of color. Let us confess that when we say we’re in a post-racial society, or that we live in an age of colorblindness, all we’re really saying is that we’re simply blind to what’s really going. Let us confess that when we respond to the refrain “black lives matter” with “all lives matter,” we simply do not understand the issue at hand.

To all those who are Christians in the room, both black and white, let us confess that far too many of our houses of worship have become houses of complacency, houses of polite superficialities and houses of creature comforts rather than places where we learn what the gospel is really about… faith, hope and liberating love. Let us confess far too many of us lift Dr. King up as a universally beloved saint, rather than the controversial, radical, justice-seeker he was. Finally, let us confess that we all have failed to care for one another, and as Michelle Alexander states in her book The New Jim Crow, “It is this failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and the very racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.

However, having confessed such things, let us also turn forward this day and give joyful thanksgiving as we the celebrate the immense possibilities of a bright future. Let us lift up words of thanksgiving that in the tradition of Isaiah, Micah, Elijah and indeed of Jesus Christ, any true faith must seek justice and therefore any true faith must be in a sense political. Let us give thanks that our houses of worship are well poised to provide safe and comfortable spaces for our community to have incredibly uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Let us give thanks for the rich, beautiful diversity of creation in all its forms… for diversity of race and culture and creed and for humanity’s full spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations. Let us give thanks for a new generation of civil rights activists who refuse to be silenced, those who have aptly been called the #blacklivesmatter generation. Let us give thanks for the lives of those beloved martyrs of gun violence and police violence, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and all the others whose lives have once again brought issues of race and justice to the forefront of our national conversation. Most importantly, let us give thanks for the real Dr. King, a man who was a “troublemaker,” a man who was a “radical,” a man who necessarily made people feel uncomfortable, but as Cornell West puts its, also a man who taught us to be love-struck with each other rather than colorblind toward each other. Thanks be to God for these things, and thank you for joining us in today’s celebration.

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.