WORSHIP THIS WEEK: This Sunday, August 7, we consider what it means to trust God, even when we have no idea where our lives are leading us or what God has in mind. Join us this Sunday at 10:00, in person or via livestream here: https://youtu.be/XXZvrphSwdg

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

by Dana Stokes, July 31, 2022

I remember reading a memoir once where two sisters are fighting after their mother passes away, constantly bickering, about inheritance, about a multitude of decisions. They even argue about what to do with their mom’s ashes. Ultimately, the author is at her home and the doorbell rings. It’s a package. She opens up the box pulls out a small but heavy, sooty bag with a note that says – “Mom, one half.”

Conflicts. A conflict between two brothers about inheritance is what starts the conversation in the Gospel of Luke and leads Jesus to tell the parable of the rich fool. Conflicts surrounding inheritance – or one’s ashes – are not new. It’s not a modern problem.

If you look at today’s gospel, Jesus says in verse 15: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Guarding against greed… An abundance of possessions… Sounds like even in the first century keeping up with the Joneses was an issue. Assigning value to possessions, maybe even hording, was an issue. It’s human.

This parable of the rich fool is found in the Gospel of Luke. The four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are four accounts that share a great deal of overlap in their stories. But each gospel also has a uniqueness of its own. For example, Matthew spends a lot of time on lineage. Jesus has come from the line of Abraham and King David. He is the Promised Messiah. There’s a lot of focus on Jesus teaching in Matthew. Of the four Gospels, it’s Luke that seems to emphasize Jesus’ role as the Savior for All people. Luke’s gospel is filled with parables. While it shares many parables with the other Gospels – having the faith of a mustard seed, the widow’s mite, the woman who washes Jesus’ feet – there are some that are unique only to Luke. The Good Samaritan. The Prodigal Son. And this one, the Parable of the Rich Fool. Luke likes to remind us that it’s not about who you are or where you’ve been, where you grew up or what you’ve done. It’s about whose you are. We are worthy to Jesus because He has come to be in relationship with us.

At the beginning of today’s gospel, Jesus is surrounded by a huge crowd of people when someone calls to him to help with a dispute and attempts to embroil him in a family squabble regarding inheritance. But Jesus declines this man and then warns all in the crowd to be on guard against greed. He recognizes this universal human problem. Then he tells them the parable of the rich fool.

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones and there I will store all my grain and all my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

He’s giving himself a very self-satisfied pep talk. There are a lot of I’s and me’s and my’s in this speech. In his mind he’s done this all by himself and for himself. Planting, tearing down barns, building barns. Maybe he needs to think about this again? How might he think about it instead?

He’s pretty proud of himself. And that’s human. He’s worked hard. It doesn’t appear that  he was dishonest. It doesn’t say that he cheated anyone or mistreated anyone. No shady ventures. He’s worked. He’s fortunate and now he’s ready to take it easy. He believes that he has secured his future. We can all be that way. We think, “When I have more possessions or more power or more success,…when the house is finally paid off, or I get that promotion, that new job, or when the kids are finally out of college,… then I will have what I need to be secure.” We assume we have things handled because we measure with certain traditional markers of success. But we can still come up feeling empty. Like the farmer whose barns are no longer big enough to hold all his grain. And we also know that wealth doesn’t keep the bad things from happening. This farmer believes his wealth has secured his future. He believes his possessions define how well he is doing, but Jesus relates that he is a foolish man. For this very night his life will end. And the things he has prepared, whose will they be? What is truly ours?

Those who lay up treasures for themselves but forget about God are not rich. God doesn’t look at the possessions one has. God looks at our hearts. We are both broken and beloved. Jesus is reminding us not to identify our worth with the value of our possessions. We are worthy because Jesus has come to be in relationship with us. All of us. Everyone listening right now can think of a reason that they might not feel worthy of God’s love and grace. That’s not how Jesus sees it. How Jesus sees us should shape our worth, how we believe and ultimately act.

In telling this parable of the rich fool, Jesus is inviting us to see this abundant life differently. What can we do differently? How can we live differently?

First of all, God is the source of our blessings. God has been rich toward us. Let’s acknowledge God’s generosity. Thank you, God.

How do we live in response to that generosity? We can choose to be grateful. We can live generously toward other people. We can do good works – not to receive God’s love – but as a response to God’s love. The work we do is not our effort but our thanks for God’s unending love, grace and mercy.

Let’s expand what being rich toward God that looks like. There’s a quote from a book by Rachel Held Evans titled Searching for Sunday. She writes,“Christianity isn’t simply meant to be believed. It is meant to be shared, eaten, spoken and enacted in the presence of other people.”  We can be present for someone. Because sometimes showing up and sitting with someone can be more important than having all the right answers. We are rich when we spend time together. We are rich when we show compassion. We are rich when we read to our children. We are rich toward God when we share meals; when we offer even mustard seed-sized actions: I see you. I hear you.

Some may see faith as an insurance policy for later. Car insurance for a car accident. Faith as some sort of death insurance? Our faith is for now. It’s for every day. It’s for this moment.

In the book Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund, he talks about us clinging to Christ with the grip of a two-year-old. He tells this story: “When my two-year-old Benjamin begins to wade into the gentle slope of the zero-entry swimming pool near our home, he instinctively grabs hold of my hand. He holds on tight as the water gradually gets deeper. But a two-year-old’s grip is not very strong. Before long it is not he holding on to me but me holding on to him. Left to his own strength he’ll certainly slip out of my hand. But if I have determined that he will not fall out of my grasp, he is secure. He can’t get away from me if he tried. So with Christ. We cling to him, to be sure. But our grip is that of a two-year-old amid the stormy waves of life. God’s sure grasp never falters.” God is holding us too. God’s grasp never falters.

We depend on the love and grace of God. When we live richly we reflect that love and grace to others. Christianity is connection. It’s community. It’s reflecting God’s love toward others. God has been so generous. Let us live richly towards God.

July 3, 2022

I have a dear friend whose husband had a stroke last November.  He’s a really healthy guy in his 50’s, and he has no medical conditions that might make him vulnerable to a stroke.  He spent some time in the hospital and had tons of tests, and eventually his brain just kind of healed itself.  It felt like a miracle.

Even after her husband was safely home and completely recovered, my friend noticed that she went through a period of time when she worried about worst possible outcomes – not just about his health, but about everything. If she got into her car, she worried she would get into an accident.  If her daughter went out with friends, she worried that her daughter would be attacked.  When my friend cooked in her kitchen, something she loves to do, she worried she might set the house on fire.

Eventually a friend who is also a psychiatrist explained the phenomenon of hypervigilance.  When we’ve experienced something sudden and scary like a spouse having a stroke, the brain starts to think that any trauma can happen.  It’s like a curtain has been pulled back, and all we can see are the many terrible things that could happen at any moment.  So the brain tries to protect us by staying on “high alert.”  It feels like we’re constantly scanning the horizon for danger.

If I were one of Jesus’ earliest followers, and certainly if I were among these seventy people he sent out ahead of him to every town and place, I think hypervigilance would have been my default state – especially after hearing his “pep talk.”  Jesus tells them right up front that there will be dangers: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”  Yikes.

Jesus goes on to say that they will be completely dependent on the hospitality of others– for food, for shelter, for any of the ordinary comforts that we need in daily life.  That alone would be enough to send me running back toward home.  I like to pack my own snacks, thank you very much.

And then, as if being sent out with no luggage into the midst of wolves wasn’t terrifying enough, Jesus reminds them that they will be rejected by many of the people they encounter.  Sometimes people will be flat-out hostile about it, but at the very least, they will not give you food or a place to sleep.  They will send you on down the road, hungry and exhausted.

I’m glad that in the year 2022 Jesus doesn’t seem to be asking me to hit the road without even a carry-on bag, but the part about going out like lambs into the midst of wolves rings true.  The world feels more dangerous for all of us, so a certain amount of vigilance is necessary.  I don’t like feeling on “high alert,” but I often am – when moving through a parking lot, when visiting an unfamiliar place, when my doorbell rings unexpectedly.  And just yesterday there were white supremacists marching through the streets of Boston, so imagine what it’s like to move through the world as a person of color.

Lately I think a lot about the risks of wearing identifiers of my faith – a cross necklace, a t-shirt with a Bible verse on it, my clergy collar.  I do it anyway, but I know from experience that hostility can come from many directions, from people who (often with good reason) are suspicious of Christianity and also from people who want to let me know that “pretending” to be a pastor will surely land me in hell.  And, by the way, all of you are being led astray because I am a heretic.

I get where some of the hostility comes from. So much of what the general public associates with Christianity right now is terrible – judgment, exclusion of LGBTQIA+ people, the silencing and subjugation of women, the protection of sexual predators.

Even when we say, “But we’re not THAT kind of Christian!” how is a person supposed to distinguish among all of the different denominations?  And all of our denominations have things we need to deal with in our history and in our practice.

The result?  We often stay quiet, hidden, under the radar.  And then the story of what we understand Jesus to be about gets overshadowed by a different story.  When we stay quiet, then there are fewer voices telling about his mercy, his healing, his welcome for all people.

If we need some encouragement these days to live our faith more boldly, notice what Jesus tells the folks he sends out into the danger zone.

He tells them to focus on the mission – cure the sick, teach people about God.  That’s the primary purpose, and a lot of the other stuff is just a distraction.

Jesus also reminds them that living our faith is about relationships.  It’s not about pressuring people to see things our way.  It’s about conversation, sharing what you have come to understand and listening to the other person’s story.  Jesus tells his followers to remain in the same house for while.  To eat and drink with the people who live there.  Conversations around tables are beautiful places for relationships to grow.  And notice that Jesus does not send his people out one by one.  He sends them out in pairs.  When things are hard – and they will be hard sometimes – they can support each other.

The other important reminder that Jesus gives is not to waste time on the people who reject you outright.  Shake the dust off your feet.  Move on.

And I’m struck by the fact that Jesus tells his followers to say BOTH to the people who welcome them hospitably AND to the people who reject them: “The kingdom of God has come near.”  So there’s this word of blessing about how they have encountered the presence of God, even if they choose to dismiss that gift.

I kept thinking this week about what Jesus might say to us now, with all of our own fears about the risks of witnessing to our faith.  I think he would tell us several things:

First, he would tell us to go out with good courage.  Yes, there are dangers out there.  But the world doesn’t get better when we all play it safe.

Jesus would also remind us not to waste time on petty arguments.  As someone once said, we don’t have to attend every fight to which we’re invited.  If someone isn’t able to have a reasonable conversation, don’t waste energy on a screaming match or on dueling comments on a Facebook post.  Move on.  Shake the dust off.

Most of all, nurture relationships.  Look for opportunities to have mature, grounded conversations about things that matter – ideally over good food.  Remember that we do not travel alone.  We have this community, and we have the unfailing presence of God, who walks before us and behind us and beside us.

And ask God to bless those who welcome us AND those who reject us, praying for them by name.

Given all that we have experienced in recent years, given all that we are experiencing now, some hypervigilance is understandable.  We continue to live with the effects of the collective trauma we have survived.

Duke professor Kate Bowler, whom I’ve quoted before, reminded us in the spring of 2020 to stay connected and to stay honest.  It’s a reminder worth hearing again now as we think about what it means to live our faith more openly.  She writes:

“When we are afraid, our culture tells us that if we say it out loud that we are just being ‘negative.’…I can tell you frankly that that is absolutely not true.  Tell the truth. Fear is real for all of us and one of our strongest tools to combat it is communication.  Let’s not make honesty the enemy.  We have each other. And we can handle a little reality with a lot of love.”[i]

Kate is right about that.  We can handle what’s in front of us with a lot of love.  So, people of God, it’s time to hit the road.  Be bold, be kind, and stick together.  Amen.

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

[i] From Kate Bowler’s March 17, 2020 Facebook post.

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