Sunday, April 28, 4:00 – 6:00 pm

“Faith in Community”

You are invited to a community interfaith dinner for youth and their families! Come participate in a sharing of faith traditions. There will be a Q&A session with youth from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. After the Q&A, stay for a potluck dinner that will include small-group, interfaith discussions about the value and role of faith communities in our lives.

Teens Ages 11-18 and their Families Welcome!

Bring a Dish to Share! (Vegetarian only)

$$$ FREE $$$

RSVP to Carolyn Dempsey at carolyn.dempsey@me.com

John 12:1-8

“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”  John 12:3

During one of the periods of time when I was serving as a chaplain, I was lucky enough to work in a hospital that employed someone called a musical thanatologist.[i]  Annie was a harpist, and she specialized in playing music for people who were near death. Her repertoire was vast – classical pieces, familiar hymns, spirituals, Gregorian chants – and she would do her best to have the music reflect the patient’s history and faith journey.  She would even adjust the tempo of the music to match the changing rhythms of the patient’s breathing.

More than once I had the privilege of sitting in a hospital room while Annie played at someone’s bedside.  I remember one particular patient – a woman who was quite old and very close to the end.  As far as we knew, she had no friends or family nearby – no one had visited – so we were keeping watch with her.  For a while Annie and I alternated – Annie would play a bit of music, and I would say a prayer.  Annie would play a bit more, and then I would pray again.  After a while words seemed unnecessary.  Annie just kept playing, and I held the woman’s hand.  The end, when it came, was peaceful.

When death draws near, at some point there are no words left to be said.  All you can do is rely on other senses – the lyrical sounds of the harp, the smell of the disinfectant used to clean the room, the touch of fragile skin in your hand.

What we have to remember about today’s gospel is that it happens right before Jesus’ own death.  Each of the four gospels has a version of this story, although the context in which it takes place and the identity of the woman changes in each one.  What I love about the Gospel of John’s telling of the story is that Mary is the one who anoints Jesus’ feet.  Mary, one of his dearest friends.  Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.  Mary, the one who loves to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him and talk with him, somehow knows that he is about to die.  I’m sure of it.

They have faced death together before, Mary and Jesus.  Remember that Lazarus – her brother, his friend – had been fully dead for three days. He was wrapped up in a burial cloth and sealed in a tomb.  Until Jesus arrives, and suddenly Lazarus is stumbling out of that tomb – fully alive.

Even now there is danger all around. Everyone in the house must sense it. The very next passage tells us that there are people who want to put Lazarus to death because his coming back to life has caused so many people to follow Jesus.

Mary knows that the end is near for Jesus.  And she does not flinch.  She does not retreat or look away.  She does something beautiful and extravagant.  She pours expensive perfume over his feet.  The scent of that perfume fills the entire house.  She makes sure his feet are soaked in it, and she wipes his feet with her hair.

Anointing with a special oil was usually done for one of two purposes.  Either you were preparing a king for a coronation or you were preparing a body for its burial.  I believe in Mary’s case she’s doing both.  She knows that Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one.  She also knows that he is about to die.

There will always be those who, in the face of death, will try to be practical – or will use the practical as an excuse to retreat from the realities of death.  Judas pretends to be this way, but he doesn’t really care about the poor.  All he understands are the cold and bitter transactions of the world.  He will betray Jesus for a few coins and a few minutes of feeling important.  But in this moment, he seizes the opportunity to criticize what Mary is doing – not because he feels compassion for those who are hungry, but because he can’t fathom Mary’s generosity.

In this moment Judas and the others are confronted by an act so tender and so lavish that it embarrasses them. Mary holds nothing back.

And let’s get something straight about what Jesus says about the poor: “The poor will always be with you.”  He’s not suggesting that we should be dismissive of the poor.  That would go against everything he has preached and taught and lived.  Many scholars believe that he is alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11, which says: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”[ii]  We are always called to care for the needs of those who are struggling.  But we are also called to care for the needs of the dying. Both can be true.

Another writer has suggested that the Greek could also be translated as “Keep the poor among you always.”  Keep their care at the forefront of your minds – Jesus might be saying – even when I’m gone.[iii]  That would also be in keeping with the Jesus’ mission and ministry.

What does this story summon us to do? Think about a person who drives you crazy, someone who presses all of your buttons.  Now imagine that you learned that person was dying.  How would you treat the person then?  Probably with more compassion, more patience.

Well, here’s the truth: That person is dying. We are all dying.  We don’t know how or when, but we are.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  And in our dying bodies we carry every experience we have had in this life – the beautiful and the terrible.  Sometimes we’ve been so hurt that we have lashed out like wounded animals, acting without any regard for the consequences.

I recently finished the latest book by my colleague, the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber.  In that book she talks about how we carry our histories with us.  She writes:[iv]

Everything that happens to us happens to our bodies.  Every act of love, every insult, every moment of pleasure, every interaction we have with other humans. Every hateful thing we have said or which has been said to us has happened to our bodies.  Every kindness, every sorrow.  Every ounce of laughter. We carry all of it with us within our skin. We are walking embodiments of our entire story.

We are walking embodiments of our entire story.  That’s what Mary knows down in her soul.  Whatever horrors await Jesus in the coming hours – and there will be many – she can help inscribe upon his body a moment of tender care.  He will go to his death knowing he is loved.  When he’s arrested, the scent of that perfume will still be in his nostrils.  His feet will be pierced, but first they will have been cherished.

That person who drives you crazy?  That person is dying too.  Probably not today.  Probably not tomorrow.  But we don’t know.  What would it be like to treat them with the compassion that we hold for the dying? To help them carry a story of love in their bones and in their skin?

That’s how God sees each of us – as dying, but not forsaken.  God pours out upon us the love and tenderness that we need to write a new story in our fragile bodies.  When we take our last breath, God pours out upon us the ultimate, extravagant gift of eternal life.  These are gifts we can never understand.  We can only receive them with grateful hearts.  Amen.

 

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

 

[i]https://www.thestate.com/news/business/health-care/article14441822.html

[ii]https://bishopmike.com/2019/03/31/lent-5c-april-7-2019/

[iii]https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3993

[iv]Shameless: A Sexual Reformationby Nadia Bolz-Weber, p. 152

Luke 15

Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Luke 15:6

I had breakfast at the Stirling Diner on Friday morning, and I’m not sure how, but I ended up chatting with the guy who runs the diner about the movie Jaws. He lived in Greece when the movie came out, and he remembers how there was a big outdoor showing of Jaws one night in his coastal town.  People came from everywhere to see it.  And there was no one on the beach the next day.

We talked about how effective the music is in that movie. All you have to hear are those two notes [Da-dum…Da-dum…], and you immediately react.  Those two familiar notes can spike your heartrate.

I think sometimes the most familiar stories in the Bible can be like those two notes in the Jaws soundtrack.  They are powerful, but as soon as we hear the first few words, we assume we know what’s coming.  We’ve heard the story before.  We know what it means.  We have a built-in response.

Today let’s see if we can immerse ourselves in this fifteenth chapter of Luke.  What is God saying to us on this new day with these old stories?

These are, of course, stories about being lost, prompted by the accusation that Jesus spends too much time welcoming sinners and – gasp– eating with them. With that accusation as the catalyst, Jesus tells some stories.

First we have the sheep.  I doubt the sheep had some grand scheme to run away.  The sheep probably just moved from one attractive eating spot to the next until he found himself in an unfamiliar place, disoriented and far from the flock.  All he can do is wait.  Wait for the shepherd to find him.

Then we have the coin, which definitely doesn’t choose to get lost.  Some careless bump of the table or unseen hole in a pocket, and the coin goes missing. All it can do is stay where it is. Wait for the woman to find it.

Things get more complicated when there’s a family involved.  (Don’t they always?)  This may say more about me than the story, but I find it easy to judge just about everyone here.  The father, who recklessly gives away his wealth.  The younger son, who squanders it all on foolish choices and tries to manipulate his way back in.  The older son, seething with resentment when his younger brother gets all the attention.

I tried this time to find some empathy for all of them. I can imagine how much a father would want his children to find their own path, even if meant making mistakes along the way.  I can sense the younger son’s longing for adventure, his desire to make a name for himself apart from his family.  I understand the older son’s need for affirmation, his yearning to be appreciated for staying the course and making responsible decisions.

When we put all three stories together, here’s the important thing: Everything and everyone eventually gets found.  The shepherd does not say, “It’s only one sheep. I’ve got 99 others.”  The shepherd goes searching through the brambles and the bushes until he hears the voice of that wandering sheep.  When he finds the sheep, he does not berate it for getting lost. He picks it up, places it on his shoulders, and carries the sheep home.

The woman does not say, “It’s only one coin.  I’ve got nine others.”  She turns on all the lights and pillages her house and keeps searching and searching until she finds where the coin has slipped through the crack in the floor.  She picks it up and brushes it off and holds it a little more tightly.

The father gives his kids – both of them – the freedom to find their own way. And he’s there waiting with open arms for both of his boys.  At the right moment he seeks each one of them out. He runs to the younger son as soon as he spots that familiar silhouette on the horizon.  And later, he steps away from the party to find his other son and reassure him that he is also loved deeply, even if he can’t see it at the moment.

One of the most powerful movies I saw last year was Ben is Back.  It depicts 24 hours in the life of one family whose oldest son Ben has shown up unexpectedly on Christmas Eve, having been away undergoing a residential treatment program for his drug addiction.  It’s not the first time he’s tried to get clean.  Much of the movie is about Ben’s mother Holly and her desperate efforts to keep him sober.  When the family dog is stolen by some people from Ben’s past, Holly literally has to chase Ben from one dangerous situation to another as he searches for their beloved pet and as she tries to keep him from being pulled back into his old life.

There’s a wrenching scene in which Ben looks at his mother and begs her to go home and leave him alone.  He says, “Mom, you don’t know what you’re doing…I’m not worth it. If you really knew me, you’d be done with me.”

I’m not worth it.  If you really knew me, you’d be done with me.

That fear is one we all feel at some point  – the fear that we’re not worth someone else’s extravagant, persistent love.  The fear that we will stay lost because we don’t deserve to be found. It’s a fear that often leads us to do dangerous things, to ourselves and to others.

What do all of these stories have in common? Rejoicing.  The shepherd calls together everyone he knows and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost!”  His friends and neighbors might have said, “Um. It’s just one sheep.”  But the shepherd says: Worth it.

The woman does the same.  She calls together everyone she knows, friends and neighbors, and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost!”  You know someone among her friends rolled their eyes behind her back.  I’m sure of it.  It was, after all, just one coin.  But the woman says: Worth it.

The father doesn’t hesitate to run down the road, to kill the fatted calf, to throw the party, to share all that he has.  I bet the neighbors whispered about how foolish he’d been, giving away the inheritance prematurely and indulging his younger son.  But the father only knows a love so generous that it holds nothing back.  The father says: Worth it.

God looks at each of us and says the same thing: Worth it.  You are worth it.  Worth being found.  Worth welcoming home.  Worth rejoicing over.

That’s how much God loves us – beyond reason, beyond what we deserve, beyond measure.  It is an extravagant love – a gift that cries out to be shared.  Amen.

 

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

 

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Meetings & Events

  • April 29 – Church Council, 7:30 pm
  • April 30 – Morris Music Men, 7:00 pm
  • May 7 – Morris Music Men, 7:00 pm
  • May 14 – Morris Music Men, 7:00 pm
  • May 14 – WELCA, 7:30 pm