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Worship this Week
This Sunday’s worship will focus on another story of Jesus calling his disciples to follow him. What might Jesus mean when he says “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”? How are we called to share that good news now? Join us to find out. You can find this week’s service here at 10:00: https://youtu.be/cULgrnQuSKU
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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
January 24, 2021
If someone called or texted you right now and said “I have some good news!” what do you imagine that news would be? Your guess would depend on who the person is, I realize. If it’s a high school senior, you’d be ready to hear about a college acceptance letter or a unique work opportunity following graduation. If it’s a dear friend who’s been dealing with a serious illness, you would hope for news that the treatment seems to be working, the tumor is shrinking, the numbers are improving. If it’s your kid, maybe you will find out about a math test that went far better than expected.
Or maybe it’s something much less momentous but still exciting – a colleague saying a deadline has been extended, a friend letting you know that your favorite pandemic jogging pants are on sale, a sister telling you that your favorite television show has made its way to Netflix.
There’s a pretty broad range of what we put into the category of “good news,” but whatever it might be, good news is fun to share and fun to hear.
We’re back in the gospel of Mark this morning, the gospel that will be our primary focus during this church year. Do you know how the gospel of Mark begins? It says: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It’s like the author of Mark’s gospel is texting us to say, “Guess what! I have some good news!”
We jump ahead a few verses to today’s portion of the gospel, and we hear that Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.
The good news of God. It sounds – well, good. But what does it actually mean?
At first the circumstances don’t sound like good news. Jesus begins his preaching life after John was arrested. That’s John the Baptist, the one who had baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. I won’t go into the entire soap opera of it all, but John has angered one of the many petty kings named Herod, who had John thrown in prison. So Mark rather bluntly reminds us that good news sometimes emerges in circumstances that are both dangerous and unpredictable. But, Mark also reminds us, we tell the good news anyway.
“Good news” is a term that we throw around a lot in church. But what exactly is the good news that Jesus is talking about here? Jesus says: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Those words “good news” in Mark come from the Greek word euaggelion, from which we get our fancy church word evangelism. Too often we think of evangelism as a marketing campaign to get people to come to our specific church. But evangelism is really about telling a story, a story of what God has done and continues to do in our lives.
Jesus tells us that this good news means that God’s kingdom has come near. God’s reign – the scope of God’s power and promise – is not far away and disconnected from our lives. Jesus himself embodies that nearness of God. God is here in the midst of us. God is with us and among us always.
Repent and believe in the good news, Jesus says. Repent. Turn in a new direction. Leave your old ways behind, the ways that do harm to yourself and to others. Repent, and believe. Believe – not in a head sense, but in a heart sense. Believe as in trust. Trust that God cares what happens to you. Trust that God is there to guide you.
Jesus invites all of us to experience that closeness of God and to follow the pathways that God opens in our lives. In the next part of today’s gospel, he specifically invites four fishermen – Simon, Andrew, James, and John – to leave their nets behind and follow him. They do so with an immediacy that I always find remarkable. They’re willing to share a good news that they don’t yet fully understand.
I don’t know about you, but more often than not, when I feel God nudging me to do something, I take my time. I weigh the options. I worry about the potential consequences. I wonder what others will think.
When it comes to sharing the good news of what God has done and is doing, we let all kinds of things get in the way. We don’t want to offend people. We feel reluctant to bring up matters of faith, knowing how personal those can be. We don’t want to be seen as one of those crazy, over-the-top Christians. We hear Jesus say, “I will make you fish for people,” and we think “No thanks. That sounds weird.”
But here’s the thing. Jesus uses the language of fishing to speak to fishermen. He knows his audience, knows how to put things in terms that people understand.
Jesus probably wouldn’t tell you to fish for people. Jesus would describe ways of connecting with people and sharing the story that fit your particular talents and experiences. Quilting. Video games. Baseball. Baking. And, as one of my colleagues likes to say, it’s never been easier to share the good news. Right now all you have to do is share a link and invite people to click on it! And we have so many ways that we can communicate how our faith matters to us – in pictures and posts and prayers, in music and memories.
One of those ways is not just in what we say, but how we live. How do we embody that inclusive love that God has for all people?
I learned this week about a woman named Georgia Gilmore.[i] Georgia had a crucial role in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 56, one of the first large-scale protests against segregation. Her own personal boycott had started a couple of months earlier when a white bus driver had taken her fare and then berated her for using the front door. He made her get off the bus and then drove away, leaving her stranded. She decided right then that she was done with riding the bus.
As the plans for the larger boycott emerged following Rosa Parks’ arrest, Georgia Gilmore became a chief fundraiser for the effort. She organized an underground network of black women who sold pound cakes, sweet potato pies, plates of fried fish, and greens door-to-door. Many of these women worked for white families and couldn’t risk being seen as leaders in the movement. But they could cook. And their food brought in incredible amounts of money, enough to help pay for 381 days of cars, trucks, and wagons, along with the necessary gas, insurance, and repairs to carry protestors to and from their destinations without ever having to step on a bus.
This group of home cooks was called the Club from Nowhere. That way if the boycott organizers were ever asked where their money came from, they could truthfully answer: “Nowhere.”
Georgia Gilmore eventually transformed her home into an unofficial restaurant. Leaders of the civil rights movement, including Dr. King and the Rev. Al Dixon, gathered in her kitchen to strategize. She was outspoken and full of sass. No matter who you were, she might call you a whore or a heifer. But no matter who you were, you were welcome at her table.
What I love about Georgia Gilmore’s story is that she shared the good news of God’s love and justice in dangerous circumstances. What I love even more is that she did it in exactly the way that fit who she was. She was a funny, quick-witted, smart, stubborn, outspoken woman who could make fried chicken better than anybody. And she used all of those things to be a part of God’s kingdom coming near.
There’s someone in your life right now who needs to hear some good news, someone who is longing for a word of hope. You can provide that hope in a way that no one else can. So share some good news this week, and be ready to be surprised at what God will do. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
January 17, 2021
Here’s how our relationship with technology works much of the time. You check your e-mail, and an e-mail leads you to one of your favorite online shopping sites, where you browse around for a while. You might even order something, which takes you back to your e-mail to check the confirmation of your order, and another e-mail leads you to a blogpost from someone you enjoy reading, which then leads you to Instagram to follow that writer, where you discover that your favorite musician is doing an Instagram live performance. That musician gives a shout out to an upcoming movie project, and you check Twitter to see if the director has tweeted about the movie. She hasn’t, but you see a tweet about the latest series on Netflix that everyone is talking about, so you end up binging the first four episodes, and as you’re exiting Netflix, you catch a breaking news story on the television, which sends you down a rabbit hole on the internet trying to figure out the details of the story. While you’re there, you’d better check your e-mail one more time to see if any of your colleagues have responded to your message. They haven’t, but in the meantime your phone pings with a text message from the family group text, and there’s a fun back and forth for several minutes.
You may not do all of those things – or even most of them – but what’s true for almost all of us is that we are drowning in information. There are voices, images, sounds, text, and data coming at us constantly. It’s becoming harder to know what sources we can trust. And as people of faith, it’s becoming harder to know how to listen for God in the midst of all of that noise and distraction.
There’s a striking statement at the beginning of today’s First Reading: “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” It describes a time when people were not attuned to what God was saying to them. They did not pay attention to what God was revealing in the midst of their lives.
We meet Eli, an older priest and leader, whose vision has literally deteriorated – which is something of a metaphor here for Eli’s failed leadership. Eli has gone off the rails as a leader. A few years earlier a woman named Hannah had come to pray that she might have a child. She was praying faithfully, and Eli accused her of being drunk. Eli has also done little to control his sons, who (among other things) have stolen portions of the sacrifices that people brought for God and even worse, they have assaulted the women who served at the tent of meeting, the place where people gathered to worship. Because of Eli’s transgressions and those of his family, God has decided that it’s time for a change.
As it turns out, Hannah did have a child, and she named him Samuel. By the time of today’s reading, Samuel is being mentored by Eli, so Samuel is sleeping there in the meeting place of God. And God comes to Samuel, still just a boy, with this message: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”
One of the things I find so endearing about this story is how understandably confused Samuel is when God speaks to him. He naturally assumes it’s Eli calling to him in the middle of the night, and so Samuel dutifully runs to Eli, saying “Here I am!” Eli says “I didn’t say anything” and sends Samuel back to bed. After they repeat this scene a time or two, Eli finally realizes that God must be speaking to Samuel. In a rare moment of wisdom, Eli instructs Samuel to respond, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
God does not give Samuel an easy message. God tells Samuel that Eli’s time of leadership, Eli’s family’s time in power, is coming to an end. They will be punished for their years of wrongdoing. God entrusts a young boy with the responsibility of being a prophet. And that young boy says, “I’m listening.”
This story makes me wonder how well I am listening for God’s voice? How attuned am I to what God might be trying to show me or tell me?
It isn’t just the distractions that get in the way, although that’s a challenge. It can also be my own skepticism or resistance to hearing God. In today’s gospel, when Nathanael gets an invitation to follow Jesus, he dismisses it at first, saying “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
I suspect that’s about more than Nathanael’s cynicism. It’s probably mostly his fear, the daunting prospect of leaving his life behind to pursue this uncertain and risky path. But I love that his friend Philip says, simply, “Come and see.” Not “wait and come when you finally feel fully qualified to be a follower.” Not “come and engage in lengthy intellectual debates.” Just “come and see.” Come and witness what is happening. Come and experience what this person Jesus has to offer.
How might we practice paying attention to where God shows up in our lives? How might God be speaking to us, trying to get our attention? Will we dismiss it? Or will we, like young Samuel, say “Speak, for your servant is listening”?
This year during Advent I tried a little experiment. I wrote down one thing each day that I noticed – something beautiful, something striking, something that caught my attention. The lichen clinging to the maple tree in my front yard. The way people’s eyes change when they smile behind their masks. How the small needles on my dwarf white spruce pricked my hands. The slant of light across the snow. Early on I had to remind myself to be on the lookout for that day’s noticing. But over time it became more natural; it changed the way I was paying attention. And it often led to prayers of gratitude for the beauty or for the calm that came in the moments of noticing.
I’m going to try something similar for the rest of the Epiphany season. I’m going to name one place each day that God might be speaking to me. God’s voice might not come out loud in the middle of the night like it did for Samuel (although I don’t rule that out). Maybe it will come in a dream. Or in a conversation with another person. Or in something I am reading. Or in a song. Or in a text message from a friend. However God’s voice shows up, the important thing is to be expecting it.
How is it possible to see or hear where God might be showing up?
Because God sees us first. God sees Samuel trying to sleep and speaks to him. God sees Nathanael sitting under that fig tree even before he sends Philip to say “Come and see.” And God sees us. As our psalmist says to God, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me…You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all of my ways.”
God sees you – in all the places where you live and where you work and where you play and where you encounter situations and people through whom God might be speaking to you. Even with your mask on, God knows your face. God loves your face and loves what you bring to the world. God is ready to put you to work bringing life and love to others.
So, people of God, come and see what God is up to. Come and hear what God might be saying to you. Come and experience the goodness and grace that God gives you with every breath. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ