WORSHIP THIS WEEK: “Increase our faith!”  That’s the cry of the disciples in this week’s gospel – and perhaps our cry too.  Where might we plant small seeds that God can grow into something beautiful?  Join us this Sunday, October 2, at 10:00, in person or via livestream here: https://youtu.be/P916MfOl2c8.

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

September 25, 2022

I spent some time early Monday morning watching Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.  I find these kinds of elaborate services kind of fascinating – probably because I’m not the one having to prepare them, preside over them, or preach for them.  I’ve often watched the services at the National Cathedral in Washington when a major dignitary from our own country dies.  The liturgy, the music, the ceremony of it all can be quite impressive.

There was certainly a lot of pageantry for Queen Elizabeth’s service.  Bagpipes and angelic choruses of choir boys and trumpet fanfares and pages of prayers and a homily by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  It was beautiful. And yet I couldn’t help but think that, no matter how much pomp and circumstance was unfolding, the Queen was just as dead as all those who had died in obscurity.  None of the dramatic touches made her any less dead.

I don’t say this to be disrespectful or morbid.  It’s just the truth.  A reminder of what we heard in our second reading: We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.

Sometimes we harbor the illusion that wealth is a sign of great goodness or a measure of success when it’s often not either of those things.  And whatever it is, money doesn’t keep people from suffering.  It doesn’t keep them from dying.

This morning Jesus tells us another story that has to do with wealth.  It’s not quite as baffling as last week’s (thankfully), but it’s also not completely straightforward.

It helps to remind ourselves what we actually know from the text and what we don’t.

We know that the rich man is rich.  He’s the dress-in-designer-clothes kind of rich.  He’s the throw-lavish-dinner-parties kind of rich.

And we know that Lazarus is poor.  Lazarus spends his days beside the entrance to the rich man’s estate.  He’s always hungry and would settle for some scraps but no one seems to notice him except the neighborhood dogs, who come to lick his sores.

What we don’t know is what kind of interactions, if any, these two men had while they were alive. Presumably the rich man occasionally enters and leaves through his gate, and presumably Lazarus would have been right there. But we have no evidence that the rich man is ever intentionally cruel to Lazarus; the suggestion is more that he ignored Lazarus.  Nor do we have any evidence that Lazarus is a better human being than other people.  We don’t know what kind of person he is at all, other than someone who is so poor that he has to beg for scraps.

But we want the consequences to make sense, right? In stories and in life?  We want it to work so that people get what they deserve, so that their status reflects their character.  We want the moral people to get rewarded and the “bad” people to get punished.  We want to believe that people who have wealth “deserve” it.  We struggle when a person on the street asks for money because we wonder if giving money is the best way to help or if the money is going to end up being spent on drugs.  We try to turn all kinds of things about the rich and the poor into a morality play.

But then Jesus comes along and tells this story about how everything gets flipped in the afterlife.  When he dies, Lazarus ends up hanging out with the great patriarch Abraham, but when the rich man dies, he ends up in eternal torment.  The rich guy does come off as pretty entitled when he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some water.  But it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for him.  After all, he’s a man who’s used to having everything he needs.  He’s not used to hearing no.  And, again – Jesus doesn’t point to some particular wickedness on the part of the rich man.  Just cluelessness.  The rich man hasn’t seen people like Lazarus.

We talked last week about the Torah’s insistence that God’s people should care for the poor and welcome the stranger.  When Abraham tells the rich man that his family “has Moses and the prophets,” that’s what he means.  They have all the direction they need to do what is right.  Jesus is equally consistent in his message to feed and welcome.  Again and again he spends time with the poor, feeds the hungry, and reminds everyone not to worship money.  Just minutes before today’s story, Jesus told those stories of lost things – lost sheep, lost coins, the lost son who is welcomed home after squandering his inheritance.  Jesus tells us to seek the lost, to welcome them – which means we have to be willing to see them in the first place.

We forget to pay attention.  We forget to see people as people and not just as something to distract or annoy us.  We sometimes get embarrassed by seeing people’s needs because they remind us of our own – or they make us worry that the needs are too great for us to be of any help.

About a month ago I was with a friend in the city, and we couldn’t resist the lure of the big shiny Krispy Kreme doughnut place there in Midtown.  We each got a couple of doughnuts from the walk-up window and then moved over to a small area set up near that window for people to eat their doughnuts while they’re fresh.  As we approached, we witnessed a tense moment between a Krispy Kreme employee and a man who appeared to be having a pretty hard time.  It looked like the man was approaching customers one after another, and the Krispy Kreme employee was trying to get him to move along somewhere else.  Both got increasingly agitated; they started yelling at each other.  And look, the Krispy Kreme guy is not a villain.  He was just trying to protect the customers from being bothered.  But neither is the other guy, who was just having a hard time.

The man finally started to leave, pausing beside where we stood, having just opened our doughnut boxes.  The man looked at us and said, “I just wanted a doughnut.”  My friend, without any hesitation, handed the guy one of his doughnuts.  The guy took it and shuffled away, instantly calm.  He said again, softly: “I just wanted a doughnut.”

There’s a great chasm, Abraham says in the story.

There is a chasm. There’s a chasm in a world where a man wants a doughnut and can’t afford to buy one as he stands beside an entire building filled with hundreds of doughnuts in the middle of a city filled with vast amounts of wealth.

And there’s a chasm in our attention.  We can easily see the bright light of the “Hot Now” sign in the window, but we don’t want to see the man right in front of us asking for a doughnut.  We want him to go away.

But Jesus steps into that chasm.  In his living, in his dying, and in his rising, Jesus flips the script one more time, so that no one is beyond saving.  He connects all of us, one to another, binding us into a community where it’s possible to see each other’s needs and to respond.

And so, when we breathe our last, when we return to earth and our thoughts perish, our hope is in the Lord, who gives justice to those who are oppressed and food to those who hunger [Psalm 146:4-7].  May we trust in that hope to help us see what is right in front of us this week.  Amen.

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

September 18, 2022

We’ve talked about Wordle before, the game where each day you try to guess a five-letter word.  You get six guesses, with some hints along the way about which letters you’ve gotten right or wrong.  I had a pretty good streak going – until Friday morning.  After two guesses I had all but one letter figured out, but I kept guessing the wrong word – again and again until I was out of guesses.  The word was “parer” – as in a knife you use to peel things, I guess?  I guessed everything but the right answer – pager, paver, paler, pacer.  So that was that.  Streak broken. 

I was bummed about it at first, but I soon discovered that I was not alone.  Everyone started sharing their Wordle despair online, and suddenly friends and family from all over the country were reporting their own failure to figure it out. I later learned that only 41% of Wordle players that day had solved it in six tries.  The usual percentage is close to 99%.

I couldn’t figure out, but I was not the only one.  Most of us couldn’t figure it out, and I found that comforting.

As it turns out, that’s a helpful parallel for our approach to this morning’s gospel.  No one really seems to understand this story of the dishonest manager.  My colleagues and I struggled in our weekly Bible study to make sense of it.  The scholarly commentaries on which I often rely to inspire some wisdom mostly said, “We don’t really understand it either.”  There were some educated theories among them, but I’m not sure any of them were that enlightening.

It was comforting to know I was not alone in being tied up in interpretive knots.  So let’s give ourselves permission not to understand the story with utmost precision and instead to wonder about it, to try out some reflections, and to let the story be as strange as it is.

The so-called dishonest manager ends up in his predicament by being bad at his job. He squanders the rich man’s wealth, and when the boss demands an audit, the manager realizes that he’s about to be fired.  Give the manager bonus points for self-awareness, though.  He knows that he’s too weak to do hard labor and too ashamed to ask for help.  So he starts wheeling and dealing.  He makes some bargains with the people who owe his boss money: “You owe the master 100? Let’s make it 50…You over here…you owe 100?  Let’s say 80 and call it even.”

It’s hard to know his exact motivation, but there’s a good chance he’s doing all this to curry favor with his neighbors.  That way, when he’s out of a job, they might invite him to dinner or let him crash on their couches.  His manipulations seem self-serving in this way.  He’s cultivating relationships not because he feels a genuine sense of connection with these folks, but because they might prove useful to him later.

There are so many unanswered questions about this story.  Why does the rich man commend the manager for apparently reducing the man’s profits?  Why does the rich man celebrate the manager’s “shrewdness”?  Why does Jesus appear to recommend this practice of manipulating others with “dishonest wealth”?

The short answer: I don’t know.  I don’t know for sure.  I’ve wondered this week if Jesus is using this story to highlight the way the world works.  If you want to get by in the world’s terms, you better wheel and deal.  You better look out for yourself, and that means cultivating relationships that are self-serving.  People are only as valuable as the favors they owe you.  Maybe Jesus is deliberately setting up a contrast between the world’s economy and God’s economy.

In this regard our first reading is a little more straightforward.  The first reading comes from the Hebrew scriptures, from a prophet named Amos.  Amos lived somewhere around 760 BCE during the reign of Jeroboam II over Israel.  Amos did not grow up with wealth but was called by God our of a humble life of tending the flocks into a life of telling the people some hard truths about their corrupt values.[i]

The time in which Amos lived was one of relative peace and prosperity in Israel.  Neighboring empires weren’t strong enough to invade, and things seemed to be going well.  But a lot of that prosperity came directly at the expense of the poor.  We can hear Amos’ outrage: The wealthy are “trampling on the needy” and “bringing ruin to the poor.”  These abuses are not accidental.  The merchants are deliberately defrauding those with whom they do business.  They’re manipulating the scales and measures so that the poor always come out on the bad end of the bargaining.  Basically, the wealthy are selling smaller amounts of grain for far more than they’re actually worth, lining their own pockets while others struggle and starve.  Amos is clear that God despises this behavior.

The business people don’t even want to observe the sabbath, even though the sabbath is a central practice of Jewish law.  It annoys them to have to suspend their wheeling and dealing even for a day.  So it comes as no surprise that they also want to ignore the Jewish laws about ethical business practices – the mandates we hear in other parts of the Torah to use honest weights and measures and to maintain honest balances (Leviticus 19:36; see also Deuteronomy 25:13-16).

Amos is calling the people back to a faithful observance of Jewish law, which reflects the will of God.  Everyone, God says, deserves a sabbath rest – from the wealthiest landowner to the poorest worker in the field.  Everyone deserves to be treated fairly rather than being exploited for someone else’s profit.  One of the most consistent refrains in the Torah is care for the poor and welcome for the foreigner. Because the Israelites know what it means to struggle as strangers in a strange land, they are obligated to make sure that others don’t suffer in the way they have.

Let’s be clear.  Being a business person in not wrong.  Being wealthy is not wrong.  But building wealth by exploiting others is wrong.  Ignoring the needs of others when we have the capacity to help is wrong.  What the dishonest manager in our gospel does is manipulative, to be sure.  But it ultimately helps out the people who owe a lot of money, even if it helps himself too.

I wonder sometimes if we might be more shrewd about the profound challenges that face us in our country and in our world.  We all know our immigration system is broken – deeply broken.  Leaders of both parties have failed to reform that system.  If we want a system with biblical foundations, those of us who call ourselves Christian hope to build a safe and sustainable way to provide welcome to those who are fleeing unimaginable dangers in their home countries.  I don’t say this as a political statement.  I say it as a theological statement – it’s one of the most fundamental truths throughout the Bible: love your neighbor, welcome the stranger.

What we saw this week, where asylum seekers were flown from Texas to Massachusetts with promises of housing and work – only to find that they had been lied to – it broke my heart.  These folks had already been threatened by drug cartels, had watched many of their fellow travelers die in the muck and mud of the journey, had been robbed and abused.  And then, after being processed in Texas and given times for their immigration hearings, they were lured on to a plane with assurances that they would receive what they need. They soon discovered that they had been deceived.  In the immediate crisis, it was church people who gave them shelter.  I’m willing to bet that those church people represented a variety of political beliefs, but they shared a belief in the Savior who teaches us the greatest commandment – love God and love neighbor.

I hear the voice of Amos imploring us not to trample on the needy.  I hear the voice of Jesus reminding us that he gave himself as a ransom for all – all of us, rich and poor, those with power and those without it, long-time citizens and new arrivals.  All of us.

For all the confusion about that shrewd manager, Jesus makes things fairly simple in the end: How we live does reflect what we value.  Our faith is embodied in the choices we make, day in and day out.  Think about where you are invested, Jesus is saying.  Not your stock portfolio, but your heart.  Think about how you can give your heart and your treasure to the places that need them the most.  Build relationships that matter, not to your bottom line but to your capacity to love and be loved.  Build communities and countries based on that love and compassion, and soon you find yourself in a world where everyone can thrive.

Maybe it’s not so confusing after all.  Amen.

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

[i]      https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25-3/commentary-on-amos-84-7-5

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