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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 23, 2022
These last couple of weeks I have joined the craze. I’ve been playing Wordle. In case you’ve missed this latest internet obsession, Wordle is a game in which you get six chances to guess a five-letter word. With each guess, the game tells you which letters are correct letters that you have in the right spot (those turn green) and which ones are correct letters but in the wrong spots (those turn yellow).
So let’s say the correct word is TASTE, but you start by guessing TRAIN. That first “T” in “train” would light up green because the correct answer “taste” does start with a “t.” But the “A” in “train” would turn yellow because, while there IS an “a” in the correct word taste, that letter is in a different position than it is in “train.” So now you know that the word you’re trying to figure out starts with a T and that the second, fourth, or fifth letter is an “a.”
There’s only one puzzle released each day, so it keeps you from losing too much time. And you can share your success or your struggle on social media as a grid of colored blocks that don’t reveal what you guessed but show how many guesses it took you to get it right.
Wordle has reminded me that most people have some degree of willingness to play with language when it’s in the form of a game. Some of us prefer to try these things individually and keep our results to ourselves, while others of us savor the communal approach. We like to compare strategies, share results, and commiserate when the word is especially difficult.
I started thinking this week about how great it would be if we could bring that same spirit to the reading of the Bible. What if we approached God’s word with a spirit of experimentation – with a willingness to try to figure out what we find there? Sometimes we might engage with it on our own, and at other times we might compare approaches and interpretations with each other. What if we were willing to take some risks in our reading of God’s Word, knowing that we won’t always be on the right track but that we can be changed by what we find there?
That’s what I see happening in our First Reading. I see a community coming together around the Word and wrestling with it, letting it shape them as a people. And God does indeed bring about healing and transformation.
The book of Nehemiah takes place in the post-exilic period for the Jewish people. They had experienced something called the Babylonian captivity, which meant that they had been conquered and forced to leave their homeland, their lives completely disrupted as loved ones were separated from one another. Jerusalem had been destroyed, their temple had been reduced to rubble, and so for decades they no longer had a center for their worship life. Many died during that exile without ever seeing their home again.
This morning we catch up with the Jewish people as they are returning from exile.[i] Nehemiah, after whom this book is named, was a kind of governor of the region to which they have returned, a minor official in the court of the king of Persia. He had started to rebuild Jerusalem, which was not an easy project, and he had also succeeded in bringing the people back together. At this point in the book, the people have been gathered by the priest Ezra at a place called the Water Gate. They come with all of the trauma and the struggle of those years of exile, many familiar places around them still in ruins. Things are getting better, but the healing of their hearts and spirits will take longer.
Ezra brings the book of the law – the torah, their holy scriptures – and reads all the way through it. It takes hours. From morning to afternoon. Imagine if I stood up here this morning and said that as part of worship today, I was going to read through the entire New Testament. Most of you would be calculating how to sneak out of here before we’d made it to the end of the Gospel of Matthew. And I wouldn’t blame you.
But notice how the people in this account respond to the reading of their sacred texts:
- They stay and they listen, even though it lasts most of the day. Their ears are “attentive to the Word.”
- They approach the Word reverently. They listen, and they bow down and worship the Lord, and cry out “Amen, Amen!”
- In a verse we don’t hear, there are thirteen other people named in addition to Ezra who help the people make sense of the scripture. These priests and teachers act as interpreters, and as a result, the people understand what they are hearing.
- The people don’t just take in these holy words with their minds. They respond emotionally. They weep when they hear what is being read to them. It touches their hearts, still so full of grief from those years of exile.
- And they act. In the verses just after what we hear this morning, the people follow what their leaders urge them to do. They go out to eat and drink – and they share portions of what they have with those who need food and drink.
That’s a pretty robust way to experience and respond to the Word of the Lord. With body, mind, and spirit. With a full range of emotions. With hope and fear and worry and weeping, even as everything in their lives is in a state of confusion. And with an openness to being shaped and led by this Word. This Word from a God who had been with them in times of prosperity, had been with them in the years of exile, and who was with them now, transforming their grief into joy. They hear this encouragement from their leader: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
So what we have in our First Reading is a people who had been separated from each other coming back together, carrying their grief but trying to reclaim familiar rituals and rebuild their community. Does that sound familiar? And they begin by being rooted in the Word.
I don’t know what the future looks like for this congregation or for the church more broadly. It’s impossible to know, and if we’ve learned anything in these last two years of a kind of exile, it’s that anyone who says they are absolutely certain about the future is probably trying to sell us something.
I believe two things about our future. The first is that God is with us in it. Whatever the future looks like, whatever it holds, God is with us.
The second thing I believe is that our life together will be more rich, more faithful, and more transformational when we are rooted in the Word of God. It’s a gift that God has given all of us, and too often it’s a gift we leave sitting there wrapped up and unopened.
So let’s commit ourselves in this year to being immersed in the Word of God. Let’s find new ways and new times to read it – not just in church on Sunday morning. Let’s play with what it inspires. Let’s ask questions. Let’s wonder together about what it means for our lives. Let’s give ourselves permission not to understand everything about it. Let’s allow the Word to change our minds and our hearts. Let’s ponder how not just to see it and hear it and analyze it, but to take it into our bodies, feast on it, be sustained by it. Let’s ask how we can live it, how this Word is calling us to provide for those in need. Let’s talk about it and pray about it and sing about it.
By living in God’s Word in a deeper way, we will find a deeper kind of joy – the kind of joy that comes from knowing that we are part of a much larger story, the kind of joy that flows from God into each corner of our lives.
May we go out from this place filled with that Word, for the joy of the Lord is our strength. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] As is so often the case, I am indebted to Debie Thomas for her lectionary reflections: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=3299
I spent a lot of time yesterday following the awful story from Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three other congregants were taken hostage during their service, a crisis which lasted all day and into the night. One hostage was released in the early evening, and then – thank goodness – by the time I was climbing into bed, all of the hostages were free and safe. Physically safe, at least. That kind of trauma will be with them always.
I feel so helpless in these moments, daunted by the magnitude of the hate in the world and the ways it keeps finding new forms of violence with which to threaten people I care about. Yesterday I could only watch the news, pray for a peaceful resolution, and reach out to my Jewish friends and colleagues. What I could offer seemed so small in the face of what was happening.
What could my ordinary prayers and text messages possibly do to stem the tide of antisemitism?
In the face of extraordinary fear, the ordinary doesn’t seem like much.
This morning we find Jesus and his mother attending a wedding at which Jesus pulls off one of the best party tricks of all time. He turns six stone jars of water into wine – each jar holding 20 or 30 gallons. That isn’t a little bit of wine. That’s somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. What begins as a crisis of scarcity ends in a celebration of abundance.
At first glance it seems like an odd choice. Usually Jesus pulls off miracles like casting out demons or healing the sick. Keep in mind that in the Gospel of John the miracles of Jesus are not actually called miracles. They’re called signs. They’re called signs because they point to who Jesus is and reveal something about what he has come to do.
One of my favorite parts of this story is the way that Jesus seems to need his mother’s encouragement to carry out this sign. She’s the one who sets it all in motion merely by stating: “They have no wine.” At first Jesus shrugs it off, asking in what I imagine as a teasing tone of voice, basically “What’s it to us?” But he adds this other comment: “My hour has not yet come.” That sounds to me like a version of “It’s not time. I’m not quite ready to show all these people who I really am or what I am here to do.”
I always feel love for Jesus, but in moments like this one, I also really like him. I like to imagine him hanging out in a corner at the wedding reception, hoping against hope that no one busts out with the chicken dance, and wanting nothing more than to go unnoticed. And now his mother is nudging him to out himself as not-just-your-ordinary-wedding-guest.
But if you’re going to choose a first sign to point people toward your identity as the messiah, what could be better than changing water into wine? Enough wine for everyone at the wedding to have their fill with tons left over. Apparently it was good wine too, good enough that the steward in charge of the banquet comments on it.
If Jesus seems uncertain about doing this sign, this changing of water into wine, then I feel better about my own reluctance to act in much smaller ways.
I think a lot about what holds us back from living into the gifts and abilities that God has given us. Sometimes it’s self-doubt. We’re not sure our gifts are worth much. Sometimes we’re in settings where others might be threatened by our gifts, and we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves. Sometimes we’ve internalized criticisms from our past, so we carry around these voices that keep us silent and small. And sometimes we’re just plain scared or intimidated.
Sometimes it seems easier just to let the water stay water, to say, “Hey, it wasn’t my job to make sure there was enough wine at this wedding.”
And then we remember. We remember that, even though it might have taken some encouragement from mom, Jesus does not hold back. He does the work of transformation as only he can. He restores joy to the party, allowing people to dance and celebrate into the night. He does all of this with only water. Plain, ordinary water.
In John’s gospel the mother of Jesus only shows up in two places. The first is at this wedding. The second is at the foot of the cross. The cross where Jesus gives everything for our sake and for the sake of the world. The cross where he holds nothing back. When I think about the magnitude of that gift, I feel encouraged to offer my own, however ordinary my gifts can seem.
This weekend, as we reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, we are rightly in awe of his gifts of leadership and oratory that moved the cause of justice forward for African-American people in this country. But there are so many people whose names we don’t know, the ones who don’t end up in history books. The people who prepared food for those who were out there protesting. The people who prayed late into the night. The people who arranged transportation for friends and neighbors during the long months of the Montgomery bus boycott. The people who traveled the highways and byways to register every new voter they could find. Those were all ordinary people. Ordinary people who took what God had given them and put it to work for the sake of their friends, their neighbors, their communities, their country.
At the end of today’s service we’ll sing one of the songs at the heart of the Civil Rights movement. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first sung on February 12, 1900, by 500 schoolchildren at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, at a celebration of President Lincoln’s birthday.[i] The school’s principal, James Weldon Johnson, wrote the words, and his brother set them to music. The song spoke about courage and commitment in the face of danger, which was especially timely as the Ku Klux Klan was gaining power at the turn of the century.
Those simple gifts – a poet’s love of words, a brother’s flair for music, children’s voices joined in song – all came together to echo across the decades and became an anthem for all who seek justice.
The final stanza of “Life Every Voice and Sing” addresses the God of weary years, the God of silent tears, praying that God might keep us on the path toward the light. Keep us forever in that path, the song cries out, “lest,” it says, “lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee; lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.”
Isn’t that one of the dangers? That we will get drunk with the wine of the world and forget God altogether? That we will let ourselves be distracted or numb to the injustices in our time that cry out for our action.
May we instead drink from the wine of Jesus’ making, a wine that brings abundance where we thought there was none to be found. A wine of grace and mercy overflowing. A wine that fills us with the Holy Spirit and empowers us to share what we can and do what we can and then watch what God does to multiply it.
We might only be able to take baby steps, but a lot of people taking baby steps soon becomes a parade.
Let us march on ‘til victory is won. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
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