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This Sunday, April 18, a risen, wounded Jesus appears to more of his disciples to wish them peace and give them some work to do. How might we act as witnesses to the risen Christ in our time and place, especially in response to the wounds that so many bodies carry? Worship will be livestreamed on our YouTube channel this Sunday at 10:00 here: https://youtu.be/eK-kTlsUtMU
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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
Sunday, April 4, 2021
The women were focused on practical matters. Buying the right combination of spices to anoint the body. Getting up early in the morning. Worrying about how to move a heavy stone.
That’s a kind of faith in and of itself – attending to what has to be done, even if you’re not sure how to remove the obstacles in your path. But you get up early in the morning and you do the next task that’s in front of you because it’s all you know to do. It’s all you cando.
We’ve done so much of that this past year. We’ve dealt with so many practical matters. We figured out Zoom. We learned to wear masks. We washed our hands again and again. We navigated grocery stores that were not built for social distancing. We figured out how to get a vaccine appointment. We did online school. Online work. Online worship. Online everything.
It’s what we do when we’re not sure what else to do. We focus on the practical matters.
There was a meme that circulated a lot early in the pandemic. I taped it to my wall for several weeks because I found it helpful. It sorted things into two categories: “Things I can control” and “Things I cannot control.” “Things I cannot control” included: the amount of toilet paper in the store, the actions of others, predicting what will happen, how long this will last. “Things I can control,” which the graphic encouraged me to focus on, included turning off the news, my own social distancing, finding things to do at home, and my kindness and grace.
I imagine a version of this diagram for the women who head to the tomb as the sun rises. They cannot control the violent death of their beloved friend and teacher. They cannot control their grief. They can control getting the spices, getting up early, getting to the graveyard to anoint the body.
And that’s when everything is thrown into turmoil. They show up, and nothing that they thought was in their control actually is. The big stone has been rolled away. But there’s nothing to anoint. No body. No sign of Jesus anywhere.
The young man dressed in the white robe says the right things – “Do not be alarmed. Jesus is not here. He has been raised.” But it’s so confusing.
And of course the one thing that in this strange moment is within their control to do – to go and tell the others – they don’t do. They’re afraid. They are filled with terror and amazement.
Other writers tried to add a more happy, more tidy conclusion to the Gospel of Mark. But scholars agree that the original ending is what we heard this morning. I’ve always loved this messy, open-ended ending, but I especially love it this year. This account of resurrection is so fitting for the time we are in. We understand what it feels like not to get the ending we expect. We know what it feels like to keep searching for hope in the midst of confusion.
The women feel both terror andamazement. And so do we.
We are many centuries beyond that moment in the empty tomb, and yet we feel that strange mix of emotions. Terror and amazement.
We’re terrified that things might never go back to normal.
We’re amazed at what we used to consider normal.
We’re terrified that we’ve forgotten how to be around people.
We’re amazed by the time we’ve had with our closest people.
We’re terrified that the variants of the virus will outpace the vaccine.
We’re amazed how quickly the vaccines have been developed.
We’re terrified that this year might change us forever.
We terrified that it won’t change us at all.
We’re amazed that we’ve been able to adapt.
We’re amazed that we’re still here.
We, like the women at the tomb, have come to realize that we can control much less than we thought we could.
We hold so many things swirling in our hearts that we don’t know how we can contain it all. Confusion and curiosity. Despair and hope. Grief and love. It’s all there, and it’s all messy, and it’s what makes us human. We can only hold it with and for one another and trust that God is with us as we live it.
Because when you can’t control much of anything, you have to focus on what you know.
What we know is that eventually the women told someone. That’s why we have this story at the heart of our faith.
We know that God is a God who brings life out of death…peace out of chaos…justice out of oppression…promise out of a pandemic.
We know that nothing can prevail against a God who makes resurrection possible.
We know that it’s our turn to add our part to the story, to go and tell what God has done…even if our voices are shaking with terror and amazement.
There’s an Easter blessing by Jan Richardson that I love. It seems to me to be addressed both to those women standing in the empty tomb and also addressed to us standing in the emptiness of this moment. So, as I read it, imagine it speaking to the women and speaking to you.
Seen: A Blessing for Easter Day by Jan Richardson
You had not imagined
that something so empty
could fill you
and now you carry
like an awful treasure
or like a child
that roots itself
beneath your heart:
how the emptiness
will bear forth
a new world
that you cannot fathom
but on whose edge
So why do you linger?
You have seen,
and so you are
You have been seen,
and so you are
There is no other word
There is simply
There is simply
She’s right. We stand on the edge of a new world, one we can’t yet fathom. What will be our story of this time? What will be our story of faith? How will we carry that blessing into the next season?
It’s time to go and tell. It’s time to begin. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
March 14, 2021
Our nostalgia for the past is a powerful force, but let’s be honest. That nostalgia can be both selective and a little fuzzy around the edges.
I remember my college years fondly. I remember staying up late talking with new friends and debating everything under the sun. I remember going to concerts and performing in concerts. I remember tossing snowballs on those perfect winter days and tossing the frisbee on those perfect spring days. I remember parties and dances and picnics. I remember giving tours to prospective students and tutoring adorable kids in local elementary schools. I remember learning how to think and to read and to write in deeper and more complex ways.
I have conveniently forgotten other things, things that don’t really show up in the scrapbooks. I’ve forgotten the intense homesickness of those first few weeks. I’ve forgotten the misery of that semester I got mono. I’ve forgotten the stress of exams and final papers.
Memory can be selective. Perhaps even more so when it comes to our relationship with God.
The Israelites survive Pharaoh’s oppression (whom God defeats with a series of plagues) They are freed by God from lives of slavery in Egypt. They cross the Red Sea, which God makes possible by parting the waters and then drowning the Egyptian army that comes after them. But the sounds of Miriam’s celebratory tambourine have barely faded before the Israelites enter the wilderness and start complaining. At first they can’t find any water. Then they find some water at Marah, but they decide it’s too bitter, so they complain to Moses that they can’t drink the bitter water.
What does God do? God provides a piece of wood for Moses to throw into the water, and the water then becomes sweet. Not long after that, they come to Elim, where there is water in abundance. They set up camp there for a while.
Then the Israelites start to complain about the food. “If only we had died in Egypt…” they say. “There we ate our fill of bread.” Never mind the slavery in Egypt. Never mind the brutality. They accuse Moses of bringing them out to the wilderness to kill them with hunger.
What does God do? God rains bread from heaven. There is always enough bread for each day. Every morning bread – manna – literally covers the ground. And every evening there are quails all over camp. So there is plenty of both bread and meat for them to eat (Exodus 16).
They keep going. The Israelites make it to Rephidim, where once again the problem is thirst. They demand that Moses provide some water: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children with thirst?”
What does God do? God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and lo and behold, water comes out of that rock.
I share these details because I think they’re an important backdrop to what happens in today’s first reading from the book of Numbers. The complaining begins again: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”
The story reports that the Lord sent poisonous snakes to bite the people, and some of those people die. And at that point the people realize that they’ve been sinful and ungrateful.
I don’t think we know for sure whether God sent those snakes. What we do know for sure is that the person who recorded the story believes that God sent the snakes.
What feels most true is that God’s people are unfailingly human. We can idealize the past. We can be unsatisfied with the present. It’s true of the Israelites, and it’s true of us, and it breaks God’s heart.
Those of you who are parents know this breaking point all too well. You understand what it means for God to be fed up with another round of complaining. Imagine your teenager complaining that you won’t buy them the latest whatever it is that everyone else supposedly has – clothes, video games, gadgets. And you’re thinking: I love you. I feed you. I make sure you have a place to live. I changed your diapers all those years. And this is the thanks I get? I’m accused of being a terrible parent?
On this, the one-year anniversary of the beginning of our pandemic lockdown, I wonder if we have a fuzzy kind of nostalgia for the way things were before the pandemic. It has been a difficult year in countless ways – our own version of wilderness – but the pre-pandemic time is probably a little like our Egypt. We forget that we were often held captive to frantic schedules, family members running in all kinds of directions with no time to be together, much less to talk and connect. We sometimes spent more time with our commutes than with our children. Even school schedules were packed from dawn to dusk.
Let me be clear. I don’t believe God sent this pandemic to punish us. The pandemic is the result of a virus that is very good at doing what viruses do and a whole lot of human error that allowed it to flourish and spread.
And I don’t at all mean to downplay the sacrifices and griefs of the last year. It has been unimaginably hard.
In our first reading, healing comes when the Israelites look at the bronze serpent that Moses makes. In other words, when they look directly at what had been killing them, they are able to live and to keep going.
I wonder if that’s what we can do this morning on this difficult anniversary. Look directly at what has been killing us long before the virus – the stress, the broken relationships, the disconnectedness, the many ways that we dismiss and diminish human dignity.
In today’s gospel we hear those familiar words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
We look to the cross the way the Israelites looked at the serpent on that pole. An instrument of death transformed into a promise of life. We look not just to the cross, but to the empty tomb, to Jesus’ own ascension to the right hand of God.
We keep breaking the world. We let sin run rampant. We divide people into categories and make sure people in some of those categories have more power, more resources, more belonging, more everything than other people. That’s why people of color have died at much higher rates from COVID.
But Jesus shows up to expose that sin in all its forms, to reveal it all with his penetrating, searching light. And then to redeem us with his love, to show us another way. A way of hope.
Jesus comes to embody a love that we cannot comprehend and do not deserve. Jesus embodies a love that will be lifted up on the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world – to challenge the power of empires and to show us that forces of death and destruction will not ultimately win.
I recently read the notes from a sermon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave on this text. (They’re archived online by Stanford University.) In September of 1954 Dr. King had moved to Montgomery to serve as the full-time pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. For his first sermon he preached on John 3:16.
God is love. God’s love is not a single act, but is the abiding state of God’s heart…God’s love [has] no beginning and will have no ending. God always has loved and always will love. Civilizations might rise and fall, but God[‘s] love will be here. Empires might crumble and perish, but God’s love will be here…Man’s love might waver and even dry up, but God’s love will be here. God’s love is eternal.
Dr. King goes on to say:
God’s love is [too] broad to be limited to a particular race…It is [too] great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God.
That’s the gift that we remember and celebrate this morning. A divine love that has no beginning and no end. A love that has no limits. A love we can trust and share without holding back. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ