WORSHIP THIS WEEK: “Increase our faith!” That’s the cry of the disciples in this week’s gospel – and perhaps our cry too. Where might we plant small seeds that God can grow into something beautiful? Join us this Sunday, October 2, at 10:00, in person or via livestream here: https://youtu.be/P916MfOl2c8.
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September 4, 2022
On Friday night I was delighted to see the latest production of Into the Woods on Broadway. As you may know, the show jumbles together all kinds of fairy tale characters so that their stories intersect in some wild ways. There’s Cinderella, Rapunzel, a couple of princes, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack of the famous beanstalk, and (of course) a witch. A few new characters are thrown in to make things really complicated – a baker and his wife, who long to have a child but have been cursed by the aforementioned witch. Each character is dealing with some kind of problem, or disappointment, or longing. The first and the final words of the entire show are “I wish.”
I learned that high school productions of this show often end after the first act, where almost all the problems are resolved, and it appears that most characters have gotten the things they wished for. They’ve had to go into the woods and face some challenges in order to get to a happily ever after, but that’s what we expect of fairy tales, right?
There is, however, a second act. In Act II the happily-ever-afters are upended, and things go off the rails a bit. The characters have to face death and disillusionment and grief and the reality that getting what you wish for doesn’t make your life perfect. Plus there’s a giant to contend with. And she is angry.
Things don’t turn out how any of them expect. For a while the characters blame each other rather than owning the consequences of their own terrible choices. It’s all conflict and chaos until the characters begin to realize that they have to rely on each other. Instead of pointing fingers, they learn to stand together as they face the grief and the disappointment that they have all shared. Near the end of the show comes one of its best songs, titled “No One Is Alone.”
The characters sing about how people lose their way. People make mistakes. Sometimes people leave us halfway through the woods. But no one is alone. No one is alone when we walk alongside each other and allow our story to be part of other people’s stories.
Into the Woods was written in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Its first revival appeared not long after September 11. And this most recent revival comes to us after well over a million people in the U.S. have died of COVID. It would seem that this musical reappears when we need to be reminded how much our lives are intertwined, how much we truly need each other.
I think this is part of what Jesus is getting at in today’s gospel. It doesn’t seem so at first, and as I read it, you were probably thinking, “I sure am glad I came to church on this holiday weekend to be told to hate my family.”
I don’t want to work too hard to make excuses for Jesus when he tells us hard things because sometimes we need to hear hard things. But I also think there are times when Jesus exaggerates to make a point. He can really lean in to saying the hard thing so that we pay attention. I don’t think, for example, that Jesus actually wants us to hate our family members. I do think he wants us to understand two things: (1) That living our faith means realigning our priorities; and (2) That our understanding of family is bigger than the people to whom we are directly related.
We talked about that second one not too long ago when we recalled that in the eighth chapter of Luke, Jesus redefines family not just as those who are related to him, but as those “who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). Today he seems to be circling back to that idea again. He reminds us that following him brings some consequences. There will be danger and sacrifice. I always wonder what his listeners thought when he invited them to “carry the cross” given that he hadn’t yet ended up on one, but he’s clearly telling them that the path of discipleship will not be an easy one.
Jesus talks about giving up our possessions too, something that most of us aren’t likely to do entirely. But maybe we can hear him pushing us to consider what we value the most. The characters in Into the Woods spend a lot of time wishing for what they don’t have instead of appreciating what they do. Their constant refrain of “I wish…I wish…I wish” gets them into trouble. At times it makes them self-absorbed and more likely to hurt the people around them.
Our first reading from Deuteronomy reminds us how easily we turn away from what is life-giving and instead worship other gods – things that are temporary and sometimes possess us more than we possess them. You can name for yourself what those things are in your life. I certainly recognize them in mine.
God is a God who instead offers life – love and life and blessings, a kind of abundant mercy that doesn’t mean life will be perfect, but reminds us that we are not alone when we face what is imperfect. No one is alone, God says to us. God invites us to build a community that is not so much about making all our wishes come true but is instead about turning toward each other. And then God nudges us to turn together, to see who needs some company while walking through the woods – the woods of grief and illness and hunger and struggle.
Jesus can tell all the stories about building towers and going to battle that he likes, but in the end this is what he wants us to know: Discipleship asks something of us. It asks us to rearrange our priorities so that we look out for each other, not just for ourselves.
I’ve thought about that a lot this past week as I dusted off my French horn to play with the quartet this morning. I love making music, but I’ll confess that it’s a little daunting to return to an instrument that I used to be pretty good at playing a long, long time ago. It wasn’t by accident that I could play well when I was 20. I had wonderful teachers and band directors, and I practiced a lot, sometimes on my own but also with groups – orchestras and bands and quintets. I needed guidance, and I needed community to bring out the best version of my musical self.
I’m grateful to Tim and John and Owen for being willing to play some music together. They helped me get over my fear of being exactly as rusty as I am. They made it fun. They covered what I didn’t know or messed up along the way. We did that for each other. The result is not perfect, and that’s OK. It’s better than if we had refused to try.
That’s how it is with following Jesus. None of us will get it all right. We will make mistakes and have things to learn along the way, and most of the time, it helps to learn them in the company of others. We practice receiving the gift of God’s grace together. And that grace never runs out.
I like that our first hymn this morning described what we’re called to do in terms of “us” – not “me” or “you,” but “us.”
Let us enter in to the heart of a world that is broken.
Let us enter in to the start of a hope we can share.
Let us enter in to the part where we call one another
sister and brother. Let us enter in.
That’s our churchy way of saying: No one is alone. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
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