WORSHIP THIS WEEK: We often want to look back instead of looking forward.  This Sunday, June 26, Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship that asks us to move forward with the courage that only God can give.  We’ll also ask God to bless our graduates, we’ll enjoy a time of fellowship outside after worship, and we’ll gather again in the evening for Open Mic Night.   Join us this Sunday at 10:00, in person or via livestream here: https://youtu.be/WBEHQgFA2Ag

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

June 5, 2022

Today’s sermon, as is our tradition, is addressed to the confirmands.  I invite all of you to listen in and find a word for your life as well.

Dear Ellie, Peyton, Alex, Gabriela, and Anika,

It’s been a wild and winding path to this day, hasn’t it?  Your confirmation group has had the most number of adjustments to make along the way.  We started our classes outside.  For a while we met in the narthex with the doors and the windows open and our chairs really spread out.  We eventually made our way to the Fellowship Hall, masking and putting our chairs in all kinds of weird configurations.  We masked until fairly recently.  I think there were a few Zoom sessions thrown in there.  You have had to be flexible, ready to try something different at a moment’s notice.  You have found your way through all of that with generosity and kindness, and I thank you for that.

In today’s world you know how tricky communication can be.  Misunderstandings among friends can create all kinds of drama.  And each generation, including yours, comes up with its own new language.  The language of texting isn’t all that new anymore, and it’s changing all the time, but I remember a story in which a particular abbreviation created confusion between a high school student and her mom.  The teenager would send a text to her mom about something important, like “Freaking out about math test” or “I feel really sick.”  Her mom would often text back LOL.  This young woman finally asked her mom why in the world she would be laughing out loud about these situations, and that’s when they both realized that the mom thought LOL meant “love you lots.”

That’s a funny example, but oh my goodness, there are so many times we just don’t understand each other because we aren’t communicating clearly.  Poor communication is at least partially to blame for most of the fights that happen in relationships.  It can even lead to larger conflicts like wars.

That’s one of the things I love most about this Pentecost story from Acts.  We have these scared disciples who aren’t really sure what to do now that Jesus has returned to heaven.  Jesus had promised them that this Spirit, this Advocate, would show up, but I don’t think they ever could have imagined how that would happen.  And then the Holy Spirit comes rushing in, empowering the disciples to speak in front of all of these people from all of these different places.  The disciples really couldn’t have imagined that all of those people from all of those places would be able to understand the disciples in the people’s own languages.   It’s bonkers.

I love how God is bringing people together in this story, connecting people across all kinds of differences in geography and identity.  Notice that God doesn’t ask any of those people in the crowd to give up their identities or languages, but instead makes it possible for them to communicate and build community in the midst of that diversity.

As you know, I appreciate the people in the crowd who ask the question: “What does this mean?”  That’s a more helpful response than just saying “These guys are drunk!”  I hope we can all stay in that place of curiosity, especially when it comes to understanding people who are different from us.  What does this mean?  What does this person mean?  What does their story mean?  What does this mean for my own learning and growth?  What does this mean for how I can show up in the world?

That same Holy Spirit is at work in our own time, helping us connect with people who are different than we are and giving us power to do things we never imagined.  The Holy Spirit works to build diverse communities of peace and purpose even when some people try to stir up conflict and division.

The Holy Spirit is there with each of you when you are worried about all kinds of thing: doing well in school or being a good person or treating other people with kindness or supporting your family’s well-being or meeting other people’s expectations.

The Holy Spirit is there with you when you are dreaming dreams about joining the military or going to college or finding something that makes you happy or helping others who need it or playing the sports that you love.

The Holy Spirit has already given you powerful visions for our world and for our church.  These are visions we all need to hear.  You have named visions for an end to war and violence, for an equal world for everyone, for good communication that leads to peace everywhere.  You want our church to be a place where we can come together to help people who need help, to give back to our community, and to spread the word of God.

I love your dreams and visions.  God loves your dreams and visions.

Remember that as you pursue your dreams and visions, you are not alone.  That same Holy Spirit was there when you were baptized.  The Spirit has been there with you as you took your first steps and started school and started to discover your gifts and passions.  That Holy Spirit has surrounded you with people who love you and support you.  That Spirit is with you on the stage, in the art room, or out there playing baseball or soccer or lacrosse.  That Spirit follows you as you begin high school and all the adventures that await you there.

But there will be times when you will feel overwhelmed.  You’ll be stressed – by the expectations that you feel from others and by the expectations you place on yourself.  I want you to remember in those moments most of all that God loves you even when you fall short of all those expectations.  When you feel broken or anxious, when you feel like giving up, when you think no one understands you, know that God is with you.  God loves you no matter what, and nothing – nothing – can change that.

Notice, as we heard in today’s gospel, what Jesus says to his disciples as he faces his own death.  He wishes them peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”  He reminds them that his peace is not like the world’s peace.  Jesus knows that the world’s peace often comes with conditions.  The world wants to make us earn that peace, hustle for it.  The world sometimes wants us to buy that peace with the lastest app or TikTok trend.

Jesus offers peace, like so much of what he offers, as a gift.  Simply a gift.  One that we can receive and share without having to “deserve” it.  A peace that we can’t even understand.  A gift of peace that moves within and among us, connecting us with each other and reminding us that we are held by God in every moment of every day.

As we celebrate your Confirmation today, I pray that you will be filled with that peace – and that you will carry it out into the world to share peace wherever you go.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

May 29, 2022

Ten years ago when Sandy Hook happened, I was in my last year of seminary.  I remember thinking then: What would I say to a congregation after such a horrible thing?  What words are even possible?

In the last nine years I’ve asked those questions again and again as it keeps happening – in churches and synagogues, at concerts and nightclubs, in schools and workplaces.  Just two weeks ago we grieved the deaths of elderly black people killed while getting their groceries.  And we have faced the additional horror of the number of times that the perpetrators of this violence, as in Charleston and Buffalo, are young men who have been radicalized online.  They have been persuaded that anyone who is different is a threat.

And here we are again – brokenhearted, angry, scared.  19 children.  Two teachers.  Many others wounded.  An entire community that will never, ever be the same.

I don’t have any magic words that will make any of it make sense.  All I have is a deep conviction that we cannot give in to despair, that as Easter people we look for some kind of light from the empty tomb to guide our way.  I believe that there is a way forward, and it will take every bit of faith that God has given us.

Last week when little Teddy was baptized, for the first time in a long time we did those renunciations of evil that we do during each baptism service.  I kept thinking about those this week: Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?… Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?… Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

Each time we say “I renounce them,” and we mean it.  But a part of us might also think, “Renounce the devil?  Really?  That seems a little…strange.”

It seems a little strange until we encounter the events of this week.  None of us blames a cartoonish figure with horns and pitchfork for what happened in Uvalde.  But what happened there is the result of many forces that defy God, the convergence of many powers of this world that rebel against God.

The powers of this world are always invested in keeping power, no matter what the cost.  We see it in our first reading from Acts.  The owners of the slave girl exert power over her.  They exploit her.  When Paul frees her from that spirit, she can no longer make them money.  They are furious about it.

They’re so furious that they turn to the first weapon that power often seizes when it feels threatened.  They turn to violence.  They grab Paul and Silas, provoke the crowd to attack them, have the magistrates strip Paul and Silas of their clothing and then have them beaten.

As if the power of violence weren’t enough, they make it even worse by exerting the power of control.  Paul and Silas are hauled off to prison, their feet placed in the stocks.  All because a slave girl could no longer be exploited to make these guys money.

These forms of power – the exploitation, the violence, the thirst for control – that’s exactly what had killed Jesus.  That kind of power was quite familiar to the early Christians.  Even though Jesus had died, had risen, had ascended to heaven, that kind of awful power threatened to come after his followers at every turn.

The distortion of many kinds of power in our own time allows mass shootings to happen again and again.  The power of money holds many of our political leaders hostage to the NRA.  The thirst for violence and control, coupled with dangerous conspiracy theories, leads far too many people to stockpile ammunition and weapons of war.  We’re not talking about a harmless hobby that occasionally takes you to the shooting range.  We’re not talking about going hunting for deer.  I know people who do both of those things, and they would be the first to tell you they don’t need an arsenal.  We have more guns than people in this country.  There’s no way that’s not dangerous.

And of course it’s not just mass shootings that are stealing the lives of so many beloved people.  Firearm-related injuries are now the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in the United States.[i]  The leading cause.  Some of those are accidental shootings.  Some of them are deaths by suicide.  And some are the result of domestic violence.  Many are preventable.

We are in a prison of our own making.

But notice that the Acts story does not end in a jail cell.  A different kind of power shows up in that prison.  First, there’s an earthquake, shaking the very foundations of a structure that’s designed to control and confine.  As it turns out, what looks like an immovable institution isn’t as immovable as we might think.  The doors open, the chains fall away, and before the jailer can enact violence on himself, Paul steps in to say, “Don’t harm yourself! It’s OK.  We’re still here with you.”

This turn of events is so surprising to the jailer that he asks a powerful question: “What must I do to be saved?”

Notice how things turn then from violence and control to tenderness and connection.  Paul and Silas go home with the jailer.  They share the story of Jesus.  The jailer washes their wounds.  The jailer’s family is baptized.  They all eat together, and the entire household rejoices.

The power of God is there to challenge the powers of the world, and the result is vulnerability and community where before there had been violence and intimidation.

What must we do to be saved from the epidemic of violence in our time?

We have to get honest about the institutions that need to be shaken up, perhaps in ways that are the equivalent of an earthquake.  No institution is perfect.  All of them can be held accountable for doing better.  That includes both our government and our church.

As many people have said this week, now is not the time for moments of silence.  It’s time to get loud, to speak up.  Paul and Silas don’t go silent in that prison cell.  They pray, and they sing.  Let’s keep praying, keep singing, keep writing letters and e-mails, keep calling our elected representatives, keep marching, keep having hard conversations, keep working for a world in which our children can go to school and our elders can go to the grocery store and we can all go to the church or to the movies or to work without facing a violent death.

Most of all, let’s not give in to despair.  Lament? Yes.  Those beautiful children and their teachers deserve our lament.  Cry out in righteous anger? Yes.  That’s holy too.  But don’t let despair lead us to numbness or resignation.  This is not the way the world has to be.  There’s a different kind of power, a power that wants to wash away our pain and gather us around tables.

It will be difficult, important work.  But as baptized children of God, we know that we have already been given the gift of salvation.  We’re free from having to worry about that.  And we are then set free to work on making all the spaces of the world safe for everyone, most especially for our children.

Last Sunday we promised Becky and Dan that we would help them teach Teddy how to proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.  What might that work look like in response to gun violence?  

Maybe it’s time to shake things up.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

[i] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2201761

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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.

Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm

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