“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Luke 12:32
I spent the week in Milwaukee at the Churchwide Assembly of our Lutheran denomination – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The days were very full. We had lots of decisions to make, which I look forward to sharing with you in greater detail. Perhaps my favorite part of the assembly was the worship. It was a joy to gather each day with hundreds of Lutherans from all 65 synods of the ELCA to sing and to pray and to clap and to hear powerful preaching and to receive Holy Communion.
On Tuesday the preacher was my colleague from South Carolina, Deacon Sarah Bowers.[i] Sarah and her husband have a 17-month-old, and Sarah says that shortly after little Romney Ann was born, she felt a deep need to apologize to her parents. She was totally overwhelmed by how much she loved her daughter, and it made her realize in a different way how much her own parents must love her. And also how much some of her words and actions when she was growing up must have hurt them.
When Romney Ann was just a few hours old, Sarah found herself in the hospital room with her own mother, and she told her mom how sorry she was for things she had done that had been hurtful.
Her mom replied: “It’s OK. One day Romney Ann will say something mean and hurtful, and she will tell you NO, but it won’t change how much you love her at all.”
Sarah sarcastically said: “I’m sorry, but I’m certain she will never tell me no. Can you not see how perfect she is?”
Her mom replied, “You keep living in that fantasy world.”
Sarah was kidding, of course, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before Romney Ann was saying no in her own way. They would tell her not to touch something, and she would give them a dimpled smile and head straight for it. She hasn’t yet learned the actual word “no,” but that day is coming soon.
What I loved is that Sarah then admitted that she hopes her daughter does learn to say no. In Sarah’s words: “[To say] no when it comes to comments and actions and systems that hurt her neighbor and cause death – because we know that’s not the way of the empty tomb. That’s not the way of the resurrection.”
I kept thinking about what Sarah said throughout the week as I looked forward to Grace’s baptism this morning. Grace isn’t yet saying the word “no,” but she’s already practicing how to use her voice. And it won’t be long before she says that word defiantly.
What I hope Grace will learn – and what I hope we will show her how to do – is to say no. No to greed, no to violence, no to racism, no to all the other isms, no to conflict, to exploitation, to evil.
In our baptismal rite, we do say “no.” We did it just a few minutes ago: “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?…Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?….Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?” Each time we answered “I renounce them.” That’s one way of saying “no.” No to anything that harms others. No to all that makes us selfish and small. No to what moves the world farther away from God’s vision for it.
We declare this “no,” but living it is much harder. Most of us probably don’t believe in a two-horned devil who wields a pitchfork and runs around wreaking havoc in the world. But there is no denying that evil is on the loose. How do we say no to that evil?
We start by remembering that we do not do it by our own strength. We rely on a God who has said “no” first. No to exclusion. No to all the death-dealing forces that leave trauma and suffering in their wake. No to death itself.
God also says “no” to the idea that we must be good enough to be worth saving. We want to believe it’s up to us, but it’s not.
Jesus reminds us this morning: It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. God gives us all we need. It is not a reward for good behavior. It is not because we live perfect lives. It is not because we are free of sin. God knows us well – our gifts and our temptations – and still God chooses to give us the kingdom.
God does not give us these gifts of life and hope begrudgingly. God gives them freely, with good pleasure, in the hope that we in turn will know the good pleasure of being God’s own children. We call that grace. For her entire life baby Grace will carry in her name the reminder that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. And anything that tries to stand between us and God will hear a resounding “no.”
Grace Marie Beadle, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Forever. What is true for Grace is true for each of us. Marked and made whole. Sealed and sent out.
And so, having been sealed by the Spirit and marked by the cross, we’re equipped to do some things. Not required, but equipped. Jesus tells us to be ready: “Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit.” He later uses the example of a break-in to remind us to stay ready for the unexpected. That example might seem a tad dramatic, but it’s not a bad comparison. When God’s kingdom breaks into the world, it summons us to act on behalf of our neighbors who are being violated and traumatized. We cannot predict when we will be in a position to stand up and say “no” to what is at war with God’s will for the world.
Maybe it’s speaking up when someone tells a joke that demeans another person or a group of people. Maybe it’s intervening when we know someone is being harassed. Maybe it’s getting so frustrated about a particular justice issue that we get involved with that issue personally. Maybe it’s the way we use our financial resources, knowing that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. Maybe it’s learning more about something – or someone – we don’t understand.
We won’t all say “no” to evil in the same way, but we do say “no” in the name of the same God.
I hope that Grace will always carry with her the power of her name. I hope we will show her how to receive that grace again and again. I hope we will surround her with our prayers and with our love and with examples of how to say no.
But most of all, I hope Grace always knows that the God who says “no” to sin and death looks at her with love beyond measure and says, “Yes, yes, yes!”
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]You can watch Deacon Sarah’s beautiful sermon in its entirety at the following link (starting at 21:50): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2DlrkkKGCs&fbclid=IwAR3ur3OymggRI7olBGFRfxXX3BrbWKv9GIHOyOQUOw2Co_JeRPHSHb222FA
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15
For the past seven months I’ve experienced something rather strange. Back in January I downloaded an app called WeCroak.[i] The app is inspired by a Bhutanese folk saying – that to be a happy person, one must contemplate death five times daily. So at five random times each day I get a notification on my phone that says, “Reminder: Don’t forget you’re going to die.” And when I open that notification, I find some wise words from a poet, a philosopher, or another kind of writer or thinker. Here are a few examples, all of which happen to be from novelists:
From Christopher Isherwood: “We must remember that nothing in this world really belongs to us. At best, we are merely borrowers.”
From Doris Lessing: “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
From George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”
It sounds a little morbid, I know. But I’ve found the app curiously helpful. The reminders never come at the same times from one day to the next, but I’ve been surprised by how often they’ve arrived at a moment when I’m spinning out about something that doesn’t really matter at all. That reminder of death – and the small reflection on larger truths – often refocuses me on what matters most.
As you know, Jesus is fond of telling these instructive stories called parables as a way to interrupt his listeners’ assumptions and surprise us into a new way of thinking. Perhaps more accurately, Jesus wants to help us see the world as God sees the world. Some of these parables are so mysterious that we can hear them again and again and still not be sure what they mean. But this one seems pretty straightforward.
A rich man has a good run of luck. His fields yield an abundant harvest year after year. He ends up with more crops than he knows what to do with. So he plans to tear down the barns he has, build some larger ones, store his grain, and take an early retirement. You might be thinking, “Well, that sounds pretty good. What’s the problem here?”
The problem here is not that the man is rich. The problem is not that he’s planning for his future. The problem is how he views his wealth. Listen to how his thought process is described:
“What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”
In just a couple of verses, there it is: I…I…I…I…I…I. He uses the pronoun “I” six times. My…my…my…my. Four times. He believes even his soul belongs entirely to him. Me first. Me only. There’s no sense that anyone other than this man has played a role in his success. And there are no plans to share it with anyone other than himself, not even with family or close friends. That seems quite sad…and lonely.
The man never acknowledges God’s generosity, the One who created the soil and the sunshine in which those crops grew, the One who filled his lungs with life and breath day after day so he could manage his fields. And that reluctance to see God’s generosity makes the man stingier, turning him inward and closing him off to other possibilities.
And, as we see from the dramatic turn in the story, all those barns, all those crops, all that wealth does not protect the man from death. Being rich does have many benefits in this life, to be sure. But it does not keep anyone from experiencing pain or grief or heartbreak. It certainly doesn’t keep anyone from death.
What might have happened if, instead of building bigger barns, the rich man had shared what he had with his neighbors? What if he had gathered people around tables filled with good food? What if those people had shared stories with each other and laughed together late into the night and then went away with full stomachs and full hearts? And what if those people all decided to throw dinner parties of their own, inviting still more people to gather and eat and share and laugh? Think of the relationships that might have deepened. Think of the joy, the connections, the mutual support, the love that would have been possible.
Be on guard against greed, Jesus says. Jesus knows how greed makes us turn inward, how it makes us hold fast to things we don’t really need because we think they will bring us security. Jesus goes on to say that life does not consist in an abundance of possessions. Those possessions might bring a kind of temporary excitement, the thrill of acquisition, the delight of having the latest and greatest “thing.” But those possessions don’t bring any sustained joy. You know that. We all know that. It’s just that the “buy now” button is so reliable, and relationships are – well, they’re much harder, messier.
I find it interesting that Jesus tells this story in the first place because a guy comes to Jesus with a complaint about an inheritance. This guy wants his brother to share an inheritance with him more fairly. It’s probably true that the inheritance laws of the ancient world favored one son over another, so this aggrieved brother may have had a case. But inheritance is tricky, isn’t it? Nobody “deserves” an inheritance, really. It’s something that a person receives because that person happens to be born into a particular family. The person doesn’t create that wealth or earn it in any way.
Each time we worship is a good opportunity to remember that we have a much greater inheritance – the gift of love, the gift of hope, the gift of eternal life that we receive from God. We do not create those gifts ourselves, nor do we do anything to earn or deserve them. They are pure gift, given to us because we are children of God, heirs of God’s everlasting promises.
One of the quotations that popped up on my WeCroak app a few weeks ago was from a Buddhist teacher named Frank Ostaseski who specializes in end-of-life care. He has said: “As people come closer to death, I have found that only two questions really matter to them: ‘Am I loved?’ and ‘Did I love well?’”
Am I loved? Did I love well?
Am I loved? Because of God’s generosity, we can all say “yes” to that question, even when we don’t feel sure.
Did I love well?
The answer to that question is still being written. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]For more information, see https://www.wecroak.com