This Sunday, September 19, our readings provide a stark contrast between our human love of status and Jesus’ call to humility and a concern for the most vulnerable. Join us for worship, in person or via livestream, at 10:00 this Sunday on our YouTube page: https://youtu.be/7u87fAuapN8
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Each life we remember today has a story. A story made up of many stories. Stories of being born, taking first steps, learning to ride a bike. Going to school. First crushes and lasting love. Broken arms and broken hearts. Inside jokes with friends. Halloween candy and Christmas ornaments. Favorite foods and favorite songs turned up on the radio.
Each life filled with what we might call ordinary blessings – conversations and moments that don’t seem all that special, but as they accumulate over time, they make up a life we might dare to call blessed.
“Blessed” is such a tricky word. A scroll through social media nudges us to believe that those who are blessed are the perfect families with the perfect teeth and the coordinating Halloween costumes and an endless supply of funny anecdotes. Except there are no perfect families. And perfect smiles often hide deep pain.
Jesus gives us a different understanding of being blessed today. Blessed are those who mourn, he says. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – for justice. Blessed are the reviled and persecuted. Not the arrogant, but the meek, the humble, the kind. Not the warmongers, but the peacemakers. Not the vengeful, but the merciful. Jesus flips everything upside down. Jesus sees blessing as something other than how we see it. Maybe, he tells us, blessing isn’t about the fruits of our striving or about being lucky or accomplished. Maybe blessing is a source of hope in the midst of struggle.
This year more than ever I need to hear that those who mourn will be comforted. The numbers are too easy to blur into something abstract – the 1.2 million deaths worldwide or the 230,000 deaths here in the U.S. But each number is a person, a life now missing in the lives of those who loved them. Each number is an epicenter of new grief.
And in a larger sense we are all mourning, mourning the people who have died this year, whether from COVID or something else, mourning the loss of so many routines and plans and hopes, mourning the thousands of disruptions in these long, anxious months. If you are feeling overwhelmed by grief these days, you are not alone. It’s one of many reasons that we have these days built into the church year, so that we remind ourselves that grief is a part of life. There is nothing shameful about naming it and feeling it. It helps know that we are not alone.
I recently heard an interview by Kate Bowler with Jan Richardson, an author who is known for writing beautiful blessings for all kinds of circumstances.[i] Jan and her husband Gary got married in the spring of 2010 after a long time of being together and building a life together. Three years later Gary died following complications from surgery to remove a brain aneurysm. The grief consumed Jan for a long while. It’s still with her, though it has taken different forms over time.
In this interview Jan acknowledges that we too often think of blessings as a way of counting up how much Jesus likes us. Because, in our way of thinking, if Jesus likes us, then surely we will experience good and happy things. Except that’s not really how blessings work in scripture, where they more often come as the result of difficulty or wrestling or even despair. Blessings in the Bible have both a beauty and a toughness, Jan points out. She says: “There is no kind of situation, there is nothing in the circle of…our lived human experience that lies outside God’s desire for blessing for us, which translates to God’s desire…for us to have whole hearts, even when they’re shattered.” Jan goes on to say that a good blessing invites us into a space that doesn’t try to make sense of what has happened but to know that God is somehow present there.
As we hear the words of Jesus this morning…Blessed are the poor in spirit…blessed are those who mourn…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…we also hear the promises that Jesus offers. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They will be comforted. They will be filled. For every struggle there is a promise of hope. For every wound there is a promise of healing.
The beautiful thing about this notion of blessing is that it makes for authentic community. It means that we don’t have to come together as perfect, posturing people in order to be the body of Christ. As the body of Christ, we are bound together in one holy community, not just in spite of our struggles, but because of them. It’s what we mean when we say that we are a part of the communion of saints – that we are part of a community that brings together the hopes and heartaches of every generation. In that kind of community we can provide mutual support and consolation. And we can also provide mutual accountability for living the way that Jesus calls us to live – as people of humility, people of mercy, people of peace.
I recently stumbled across a video of a speech by Mr. Rogers.[ii] He was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 Emmys, and he offered words that seem fitting for today’s observance of All Saints. Let’s listen to those words and accept his invitation. He said:
All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take along with me ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. Ten seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time. [Pauses while looking at his watch] Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made.
As you hold in your heart and in your memory those people who have loved you into being, let’s close today with words from Jan Richardson:
For Those Who Walked With Us
who walked with us,
this is a prayer.
who have gone ahead,
this is a blessing.
who touched and tended us,
who lingered with us
while they lived,
this is a thanksgiving.
who journey still with us
in the shadows of awareness,
in the crevices of memory,
in the landscape of our dreams,
this is a benediction. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
September 12, 2021
I spend some time each year watching the remembrance ceremony held at the 9/11 Memorial. I have to watch for a while and then step away, returning and leaving several times throughout the hours it takes to read the names. The grief is so palpable. You can see it in those who read the names of their beloveds – in their tears, in the movement of their hands, in their postures. They carry that grief in their bodies.
As many of them say, it feels like it was yesterday. On this 20th anniversary so much is right there at the surface – memory, grief, heartache, hope.
But I also hear these family members bearing witness to love – giving voice to the ways that they see their loved ones reflected in the lives of children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, in the acts of compassion carried out in memory of those who were lost. The small moments that tell them their loved one is still present in some way – a song that plays on the radio, a butterfly that lands on a shoulder, a bit of sun peeking through the clouds on a graduation day. I watched a special about the babies who were born in the months following 9/11, the ones whose fathers had died that day. Several of them have followed in their father’s footsteps by becoming fire fighters or police officers. To see their faces now, at almost 20 years old, juxtaposed with pictures of their fathers – it took my breath away how much several of them look like their dads.
We’ve learned a lot in recent years about how we carry trauma in our bodies and how it can resurface at unexpected times. People experience that embodied trauma in different ways: a racing heart, extreme fatigue, a feeling of being jumpy or on edge, difficulty concentrating.
Perhaps what’s most unsettling is how that trauma that lives in our bodies can be reactivated by another stressor, even one that doesn’t bear direct resemblance to the original wound and takes place years later. So, for example, the stress of being isolated during a global pandemic can bring back the trauma response of the days following September 11. The same is true of other traumas – assaults or abuse or accidents. We hold on to those even when we’re not thinking about them consciously.
The person whose voice we heard in our First Reading from Isaiah knows something about the trauma we carry in our bodies. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting, this person says. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard. This person speaks as one who has been hurt by forces he could not control. He carries the wounds of those violent encounters.
And yet this speaker also acknowledges that God has used his body for good: God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. He describes how God has wakened his ear to listen more carefully. God’s help frees this person to continue doing the work to which he has been called. He is able to say with confidence: I will not be put to shame…Let us stand up together.
The same is true of Jesus, who inhabits a human body that will be traumatized in unimaginable ways – beaten, bloodied, nailed to a cross. That outcome was not at all what people of his day expected of a messiah.[i] Saviors aren’t supposed to suffer and die. Ancient writings had dreamed about a powerful, perfect ruler who would judge the wicked and stand up for the righteous people of Israel. Then along comes Jesus, who says, “I am going to suffer and die. And look over there. There’s your cross. Pick it up, and join me.”
Peter’s resistance to Jesus’ talk of suffering and death makes sense to me. Who wants a leader who says, “Hey, in order to follow me, you’re going to have to be prepared for the worst possible challenges. You are going to have to put your life on the line. You will meet resistance and rejection. You might even die. But that’s what it means to take up the cross in my name.”
Peter can’t understand at this point that the crucified body of Jesus would also become the risen body of Jesus. Jesus does mention it: “And after three days [I will] rise again,” but Peter can be forgiven for not being able to wrap his head around that statement. Peter could not have imagined the ways that God can bring life out of death, how God refuses to let suffering have the last word.
We, however, live on the other side of that empty tomb, and because we do, we can take up that cross and follow Jesus with a sense of freedom. Whatever difficulty we might encounter will never be able to take us away from God’s abiding love. We can head out into a world that will still try to hurt us, but we can channel those words from Isaiah. We don’t have to hide our face from insults and spitting because the Lord God helps us and therefore we will not be disgraced. I shall not be put to shame; the one who vindicates me is near…Let us stand up together.
I hope this next month of service in the name of “God’s Work. Our Hands.” will give us a chance to experience that freedom in God’s name. We can be intentional about looking for opportunities to put our bodies on the line in service to others. You might think that sending a card or sharing some cookies or sweeping someone’s porch or donating some diapers doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice. But I can promise you that it means the world to the person who receives your gift of service. I promise you that God can use you as an instrument of grace and love and compassion in ways that will totally surprise you.
As you begin to think about how you might choose to serve in the coming weeks, remember that God gives each of our bodies a new story to carry – a story of hope and healing in the face of grief and anxiety. Rest in the promise of that hope as you enter each new day, with eyes and ears opened to the opportunities God might put before you.
As you prepare to go out into the world to serve, I invite you to receive this blessing, which I have borrowed from a 2019 service of remembrance at the Harvard chapel[ii]:
May our lives honor the lives of all who have been lost,
all who have suffered in the wake of that terrible day.
May we honor them with our eagerness
to work for a world in which our lives are not swallowed up in violence,
but in which we are set free to be the people God means us to be.
God has not placed us at each other’s mercy,
but in each other’s care.
May the spirit of God enlighten us, transform us, and lead us into life.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
September 5, 2021
Last weekend I learned about Zalmay Niazy.[i] His friends and neighbors in Iowa Falls just call him “Zee.” You might think that Iowa Falls is a strange place for a devout Muslim to end up, especially given that pork, which observant Muslims don’t eat, is big business in Iowa Falls. And there isn’t a mosque anywhere in sight. Iowa Falls is a long way from Zee’s native Afghanistan.
Zee came to the United States after serving as an interpreter for American and Allied forces in the eastern part of Afghanistan. It was dangerous work, and it made him a target of the Taliban. He’s got the scars to show for it. He’s taken a bullet to the arm, nearly lost his eye to shrapnel, and he almost lost his leg when the bus he was riding in was hit by a roadside bomb.
Zee never planned to live in Iowa Falls. In 2014 a U.S. contractor that had hired him flew him from Kabul to Washington, D.C. for business. Almost as soon as he landed, his parents found a warning from the Taliban nailed to their front door. It wasn’t the first, but this one said that if their son came home, he’d be dead – and the Taliban would kill his family too. Zee was forced to apply for political asylum to save both his family and himself.
When he arrived in Iowa Falls, he had nothing except the clothes he was wearing. People helped him out, starting with Mike Ingebritson and his wife. Mike is 6’10” tall, so he’s a bit imposing. But in Mike’s words: “Oh, you get a kid that’s, let’s say, 10,000 miles away from home, three-time wounded veteran, and he says, ‘Can you help me?’ You don’t turn him down; you do the right thing.” Mike loaned Zee some money to buy a house and helped him get it fixed up.
Zee’s friends and neighbors can’t say enough nice things about him. They talk about how he would do anything to help anyone in the community – and often has. He’s become a local handyman, started his own business. They love him so much that when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration was threatening to deport Zee, the town raised $40,000 to hire him an immigration lawyer, and they wrote letter after letter in support of Zee’s asylum case. The problem was based on something that had happened when Zee was nine years old and had been forced at gunpoint to give the Taliban some bread. That situation was viewed as aiding the enemy, engaging in terrorist activity. His attorney was recently told that Immigration Services is reconsidering his case. The government won’t say why, but I like to think it’s at least in part because his neighbors have stood by him and advocated on his behalf.
I’ve thought a lot about Zee’s story in conversation with our readings this morning. Zee moved across borders to save his family. He pursued an unknown path, unsure of the consequences, and thankfully he found himself surrounded by people who helped him out. The Syrophoenician woman we hear about this morning also moves across borders – borders of ethnicity and religion and gender. She crosses those borders to save her daughter. But she doesn’t find immediate support. She encounters something quite different.
We don’t know much about this woman. We know that Jesus has entered her Gentile community in the region of Tyre. It’s an ethnically and economically diverse place, with all of the suspicions, prejudices, and tensions that you might expect across different religious, economic, and cultural groups. We don’t know whether this woman is rich or poor, if she is a powerful member of the community or someone relatively unknown. We don’t know if she’s a widow or if there’s some other reason she enters the story without a husband.
We do know this: Jesus has entered a house in the area and wants to keep a low profile. He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s there. Meanwhile, this woman goes waltzing right into that house as if she belongs there. She has decided that Jesus is the one who can help her daughter, who is possessed by a demon.
We also know this: Jesus is not nice to her. He’s kind of a jerk. We’ve talked about this story before, sometimes the version from the gospel of Matthew, and each time we end up scratching our heads. Why is Jesus so dismissive of her?
She asks that her daughter be healed. It’s a request that any of you would make if your kid were suffering. Jesus doesn’t say, “I’m so sorry your daughter is struggling.” He doesn’t ask how long this has been going on. He doesn’t seem to care at all. Jesus instead says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It sounds like he’s saying that the Jewish people get the best of what he has to offer, and the Gentiles are no better than dogs.
We don’t have time this morning for me to tell you all the ways that some scholars and preachers have tried to excuse what Jesus says here. But as I heard one seminary professor say this week, “You can’t save Jesus from this one.”[ii]
I continue to struggle with what Jesus says here, and this morning I’m focused on the reality that Jesus is human. He’s holy and divine and all of that. But he’s also human. I think we’re seeing him at his most human in this moment, dismissive of the Syrophoenician woman for some reason that we can’t name but instinctively know is wrong.
But the woman does not give up. She stands her ground. She persists. She talks back. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” You can almost hear her thinking: Aren’t you the guy who feeds people? Aren’t you the one who heals?
This woman is smart and determined. She’s one of only a couple of women in the gospel of Mark who get to say something out loud. This woman takes the insult from Jesus and does a bit of word play. OK, you might think I’m a dog, but don’t the dogs deserve something?
And it works. Jesus changes his mind. He heals the woman’s daughter. And he acknowledges this mother’s determination: “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
We don’t know what Jesus might have pondered as he continued on his journey, but the next time we see him, he healing a man with a speech impediment, getting right up close to the man, putting his own fingers into the man’s ears. I like the think that his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman has shifted something in Jesus, has opened him to possibilities that he is only now considering.
It isn’t easy to hear how Jesus treats this woman, but I find his humanity to be an encouragement to my own. I think about all the times I’ve said or done something I regret. I think of how I have hurt other people, often without meaning to. I think of the times I’ve dismissed people. I watch Jesus change his response to this woman, and I think about what assumptions I need to shake loose. How might I be open to something shifting in me? How might I turn in a new direction?
The end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan means that there are now thousands of Afghan refugees, people forced to flee because their lives are now in danger. Many of them, like Zee, have provided invaluable assistance over the years to American troops. I have heard many veterans this week pleading with the United States to do everything we can to resettle these friends and allies. Our own Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service organization has called for the same, highlighting the urgency of the situation. LIRS has decades of experience resettling refugees. You can learn more about their work at lirs.org. The commitment of Lutherans to that work makes sense not only because of our call to help those in need, but also because the earliest Lutherans in this country were immigrants and refugees themselves.
There are already voices saying that we should not help these refugees. That we should turn them away, refuse to see their desperation. Those voices will only get louder. I pray that we will ignore those voices and instead heed the biblical mandate to care for those who must find a new home. I pray that we will live out the words we heard from the book of James: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself…If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s that simple. And, as Jesus reminds us, it’s also that difficult.
May we be willing to help, willing to love, willing to change. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii] Thank you to Professor Karoline Lewis for adding this comment to the conversation on the Sermon Brainwave podcast episode for September 5, 2021.