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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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Matthew 5:1-12

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


For those
who walked with us,
this is a prayer.

For those
who have gone ahead,
this is a blessing.

For those
who touched and tended us,
who lingered with us
while they lived,
this is a thanksgiving.

For those
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


[i] https://katebowler.com/podcasts/jan-richardson-stubborn-hope/

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Upm9LnuCBUM

April 18, 202

I recently had a conversation with a friend about whether or not we believe in ghosts.  My friend lives in a really old house and has had several mysterious experiences that might be explained by some kind of supernatural presence.  I’ve certainly known people who have seen or felt the presence of loved ones who have died, often when those people were near death themselves.  We didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but we both agreed that the veil between this world and the next is probably more thin than we like to admit.

If we were willing to entertain these ideas with all of our 21st century sophistication and sensibilities, imagine what ghostly ideas people accepted in the ancient world.  In fact, one of the questions on the minds of the disciples in today’s gospel is “How can we be sure the risen Jesus isn’t a ghost?”

Much like last Sunday, this morning we get another story about Jesus appearing to some of his followers after his resurrection.  Notice that in these stories no one ever calmly says, “Hey, Jesus!  Good to see you.  I see that you’ve come back from the dead just like you said you would.”  Instead Jesus usually finds them hiding out somewhere filled with all kinds of emotions – surprise, fear, joy, doubt, wonder.  He starts by saying “Peace be with you,” but they feel anything but peaceful.  And I can’t say that I blame them.

In today’s account from the gospel of Luke we hear this detail: “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”

So how does Jesus persuade them that he’s not, in fact, a ghost?  First, he invites them to touch him, to see that he has flesh and bones just like a real person.  He shows them his hands and feet, still bearing the wounds of his crucified body.  And then he asks for something to eat.  They give him a piece of broiled fish, which he devours right there in front of them.

These disciples had experienced a profound trauma, and I wonder if part of what Jesus is telling them is to remember that we all inhabit bodies.  By inviting them to notice that he is a flesh and blood resurrected body, by showing them his hands and feet, perhaps he wants them to be more aware of their own bodies, their own flesh and bones, their own strength and their own fragility.

Jesus also says, “Let’s eat something.”  Some people have claimed that he eats that fish just to prove that he’s not a ghost, and while that may be true, I think it’s something more.  I think Jesus eats that fish because, quite simply, he loves to eat.  He especially loves to eat with other people.  Why would he miss an opportunity to do that again after his resurrection, especially when food shared in community can be so healing?

I think everything Jesus does in this gospel is about more than debunking a ghost story. 

By proving that he is in a flesh and bones body, Jesus reminds us that all bodies are holy, and all bodies deserve our care.  Jesus shows up as someone whose body has been unjustly wounded by the powerful people of his time. That’s especially important to remember in our own time when there are so many assaults on bodies.  Jesus in his risen body points us to all the other unjustly wounded bodies to whom we are joined in his name.  Everything in his life, in his ministry, in his death, and in his resurrection points us to work for the well-being of the most vulnerable bodies.

Think about bodies killed by gun violence, which happens so often that we can barely comprehend it.  147 mass shootings so far this year, each with at least four injuries or deaths.  Indianapolis.  Rock Hill, SC.  Allen, TX.  Orange, CA.  Essex, MD.  Boulder.  Atlanta.  Indianapolis again – twice.

Or black bodies killed by the police, including 13-year-old Adam Toledo this week in Chicago and Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota – while we await the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis.

Or transgender bodies from whom legislatures are trying to take away health care and other rights.

Or Asian bodies assaulted by those filled with hate; a 65-year-old Filipino woman attacked in broad daylight in New York and left lying in the street while security guards in a nearby apartment building closed the doors and refused to help her.

Jesus must weep when he sees how little we seem to care for bodies.  He must wonder why his own body was nailed to a cross if we are going to cling to these particular sins so stubbornly.

Notice that after he’s invited them to touch him and after he’s eaten that fish, Jesus then opens the minds of his disciples to understand the scriptures, to see that there is a new purpose that awaits them.  The next step of the journey will be the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.

He’s telling them: Remember for yourselves that it’s not too late to turn in a new direction, to confess and name the ways that you have broken the world and hurt each other.  To remember that God’s forgiveness is there for all who repent, all who make that turn.  And having remembered that for yourselves, make sure everybody else knows that too.  Everybody.  From here in Jerusalem to everyone throughout the world.

You are witnesses of these things, he says to us too – witnesses of new ways of living, of new possibilities, of the power of repentance and forgiveness. Bear witness in what you say and how you live.  Bear witness in what you do to make this world safe for every single body that inhabits it.

The work of protecting bodies in this world is not easy work.  Problems like racism and gun violence do not have easy solutions.  Because it all seems so daunting, it can be easy to hide under the covers and hope it will all go away on its own.

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of Ralph Abernathy, a Baptist minister, a civil rights activist, and a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Among other things, Dr. Abernathy collaborated with Dr. King to launch the Montgomery bus boycott, and he co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to work for justice.  Yesterday was also the day I learned what is on Dr. Abernathy’s tombstone.  It’s very simple.  It has his name, the years of his life (1926-1990), and this simple inscription: “I tried.”

I tried.  How might we live so that we can say the same at the end of our lives?  I tried.

The hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes is a new one to us [“Touch That Soothes and Heals,” All Creation Sings 939].  Listen to the refrain:

     “See my hands and feet,” said Jesus,

      love arisen from the grave.

     “Be my hands and feet,” said Jesus,

     “live as ones I died to save.”

We are witnesses of these things.  So let’s keep trying – keep trying to keep all bodies safe, keep trying to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins, keep trying to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.  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

to overflowing,

and now you carry

the knowledge

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

you stand.

So why do you linger?

You have seen,

and so you are

already blessed.

You have been seen,

and so you are

the blessing.

There is no other word

you need.

There is simply

to go

and tell.

There is simply

to begin.

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

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