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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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March 14, 2021

Our nostalgia for the past is a powerful force, but let’s be honest.  That nostalgia can be both selective and a little fuzzy around the edges.

I remember my college years fondly.  I remember staying up late talking with new friends and debating everything under the sun.  I remember going to concerts and performing in concerts.  I remember tossing snowballs on those perfect winter days and tossing the frisbee on those perfect spring days.  I remember parties and dances and picnics.  I remember giving tours to prospective students and tutoring adorable kids in local elementary schools.  I remember learning how to think and to read and to write in deeper and more complex ways.

I have conveniently forgotten other things, things that don’t really show up in the scrapbooks.  I’ve forgotten the intense homesickness of those first few weeks.  I’ve forgotten the misery of that semester I got mono.  I’ve forgotten the stress of exams and final papers.

Memory can be selective.  Perhaps even more so when it comes to our relationship with God.

The Israelites survive Pharaoh’s oppression (whom God defeats with a series of plagues) They are freed by God from lives of slavery in Egypt.  They cross the Red Sea, which God makes possible by parting the waters and then drowning the Egyptian army that comes after them.  But the sounds of Miriam’s celebratory tambourine have barely faded before the Israelites enter the wilderness and start complaining.  At first they can’t find any water.  Then they find some water at Marah, but they decide it’s too bitter, so they complain to Moses that they can’t drink the bitter water.

What does God do?  God provides a piece of wood for Moses to throw into the water, and the water then becomes sweet.  Not long after that, they come to Elim, where there is water in abundance.  They set up camp there for a while.

Then the Israelites start to complain about the food.  “If only we had died in Egypt…” they say.  “There we ate our fill of bread.”  Never mind the slavery in Egypt.  Never mind the brutality.  They accuse Moses of bringing them out to the wilderness to kill them with hunger.

What does God do?  God rains bread from heaven.  There is always enough bread for each day.  Every morning bread – manna – literally covers the ground.  And every evening there are quails all over camp.  So there is plenty of both bread and meat for them to eat (Exodus 16).

They keep going.  The Israelites make it to Rephidim, where once again the problem is thirst.   They demand that Moses provide some water: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children with thirst?”

What does God do?  God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and lo and behold, water comes out of that rock.

I share these details because I think they’re an important backdrop to what happens in today’s first reading from the book of Numbers.  The complaining begins again: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

The story reports that the Lord sent poisonous snakes to bite the people, and some of those people die.  And at that point the people realize that they’ve been sinful and ungrateful.

I don’t think we know for sure whether God sent those snakes.  What we do know for sure is that the person who recorded the story believes that God sent the snakes.

What feels most true is that God’s people are unfailingly human.  We can idealize the past.  We can be unsatisfied with the present.  It’s true of the Israelites, and it’s true of us, and it breaks God’s heart.

Those of you who are parents know this breaking point all too well.  You understand what it means for God to be fed up with another round of complaining.  Imagine your teenager complaining that you won’t buy them the latest whatever it is that everyone else supposedly has – clothes, video games, gadgets.  And you’re thinking: I love you. I feed you.  I make sure you have a place to live.  I changed your diapers all those years.  And this is the thanks I get?  I’m accused of being a terrible parent?

On this, the one-year anniversary of the beginning of our pandemic lockdown, I wonder if we have a fuzzy kind of nostalgia for the way things were before the pandemic.  It has been a difficult year in countless ways – our own version of wilderness – but the pre-pandemic time is probably a little like our Egypt.  We forget that we were often held captive to frantic schedules, family members running in all kinds of directions with no time to be together, much less to talk and connect.  We sometimes spent more time with our commutes than with our children.  Even school schedules were packed from dawn to dusk.

Let me be clear.  I don’t believe God sent this pandemic to punish us.  The pandemic is the result of a virus that is very good at doing what viruses do and a whole lot of human error that allowed it to flourish and spread.

And I don’t at all mean to downplay the sacrifices and griefs of the last year.  It has been unimaginably hard.

In our first reading, healing comes when the Israelites look at the bronze serpent that Moses makes.  In other words, when they look directly at what had been killing them, they are able to live and to keep going.

I wonder if that’s what we can do this morning on this difficult anniversary.  Look directly at what has been killing us long before the virus – the stress, the broken relationships, the disconnectedness, the many ways that we dismiss and diminish human dignity.

In today’s gospel we hear those familiar words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

We look to the cross the way the Israelites looked at the serpent on that pole.  An instrument of death transformed into a promise of life.  We look not just to the cross, but to the empty tomb, to Jesus’ own ascension to the right hand of God.

We keep breaking the world.  We let sin run rampant.  We divide people into categories and make sure people in some of those categories have more power, more resources, more belonging, more everything than other people.  That’s why people of color have died at much higher rates from COVID.

But Jesus shows up to expose that sin in all its forms, to reveal it all with his penetrating, searching light.  And then to redeem us with his love, to show us another way. A way of hope.

Jesus comes to embody a love that we cannot comprehend and do not deserve.  Jesus embodies a love that will be lifted up on the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world – to challenge the power of empires and to show us that forces of death and destruction will not ultimately win.

I recently read the notes from a sermon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave on this text.  (They’re archived online by Stanford University.)  In September of 1954 Dr. King had moved to Montgomery to serve as the full-time pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  For his first sermon he preached on John 3:16.

God is love. God’s love is not a single act, but is the abiding state of God’s heart…God’s love [has] no beginning and will have no ending. God always has loved and always will love. Civilizations might rise and fall, but God[‘s] love will be here. Empires might crumble and perish, but God’s love will be here…Man’s love might waver and even dry up, but God’s love will be here. God’s love is eternal.

Dr. King goes on to say:

God’s love is [too] broad to be limited to a particular race…It is [too] great to be encompassed by any single nation. God is a universal God.

That’s the gift that we remember and celebrate this morning.  A divine love that has no beginning and no end.  A love that has no limits.  A love we can trust and share without holding back.  Amen.

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

March 7, 2021

When the Mars rover named Perseverance touched down on the red planet’s surface on February 18, it brought joy to my space nerd heart.  The pictures of the rover’s descent, the images it sent back from the planet’s surface – all of it was thrilling.  This week the rover took its first test drive on the surface of Mars.[i]  In 33 minutes it moved forward 13 feet, turned 150 degrees to the left, and then backed up eight feet into its new parking spot.  It was a major step in the mission – and opened up all kinds of possibilities that are fun to imagine.

I was equally delighted by the news this week that NASA memorialized the spot where Perseverance first landed by naming it after science fiction author Octavia Butler.  Butler was a brilliant writer – and she was eerily prescient about the future.  Her book Parable of the Sower was published in 1993 but in it Butler imagines the world of the 2020’s in which civilization has essentially collapsed due to a combination of climate change and growing inequality between the rich and the poor.  The main character is a young woman named Lauren, who, when her own home is destroyed in an attack, sets out with a group of other survivors to find a new place to live.  Lauren eventually hopes that humans will find a way to live on other planets.  In the meantime she develops her own ideas about how people might live peacefully together in community.

We see in Octavia Butler’s imagined version of our time what happens when the rules of society break down.  Scarcity and poverty cause people to act in violent ways.  Religious and ethnic minorities become the targets of attacks.  When no one agrees on what is right, no one is safe.  The travelers in Lauren’s group have to learn to trust each other and to make their own rules just to stay alive.

I thought a lot about that book this week, not only because of the news from Mars, but also because I knew the Ten Commandments would be our first reading this morning from the Book of Exodus.  As we make our way through the 40 days of Lent, we are meant to remember the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness.  Remember that they have come into this wilderness after a time of being enslaved by the Egyptians.  They’ve spent years having their every move dictated to them, so the freedom of the wilderness is both welcome and confusing.

That’s why the commandments begin in relationship – a relationship with God, who has guided the Israelites to this freedom.  God says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”  Having no other gods would make the Israelites unusual in an ancient world where most people had many gods.  Think of all those Greek gods and Roman gods you probably studied in school.  Their stories mostly involved those multiple gods running around doing terribly human things and getting into all sorts of squabbles.  God says that the relationship between God and the people of God will be different.  It will be deeper and more reciprocal and focused on the well-being of the community – how we treat each other and support each other.

The Ten Commandments are really more about living with freedom than they are about following a rigid set of rules. God is about leading us to freedom.  The commandments show us, for example, that God wants us to be free from assessing our worth based on perpetual productivity.  That’s why God tells us to take sabbath time – to rest our minds and bodies and souls.

God wants us to be free from longing for what other people have.  That’s why we’re told not to covet – not to long for – what belongs to someone else, whether that’s a house, a spouse, an animal, or anything else.  When we’re free from coveting, we can focus on gratitude for what we already have.  And that gratitude in turn inspires us to be generous in caring for others.

In so many ways the commandments are completely countercultural – in the ancient world and in our own time.  Our world wants us to see everything as a competition, and that the only way to win the competition for who has the most things is to work and work and work and work some more.  God says: Hold up.  What are you losing when you never stop to rest?  What are you losing when you get eaten up with jealousy for what someone else has?

As if the original commandments weren’t countercultural enough, our friend Martin Luther came along in the 1500’s and wrote something called the Small Catechism in which he offered his own explanations of each commandment.  He adds some extra depth to the commandments by describing not only what we shouldn’t do, but what we should.

Take, for example, the Fifth Commandment – you shall not murder.  At first glance that seems like a fairly easy one to keep.  But Luther explains that it’s about more than not killing someone.  He writes: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help them in all their physical needs.”  So it’s not just about not killing the people around us.  It’s about making sure that others are safe and have what they need to live.

The one I find most challenging given Luther’s explanation is the eighth commandment – You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  On the surface it means that we don’t tell lies about other people, which we can agree is a good start.  But here’s what Luther says: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain their actions in the kindest way.”  Listen to that last part again.  Defend them.  Speak well of them.  Explain their actions in the kindest way. 

Think about the person who most antagonizes you.  The person who gets on your last nerve, the person who seems uniquely designed to drive you crazy on a regular basis.  Rather than gossiping about that person or spreading misinformation about them, we are challenged to give them the benefit of the doubt.  Beyond that, to find ways to speak well of them.  To consider their actions with compassion.  And here’s the reality – most people who behave in difficult ways do so for a reason.  There’s something in their story or their history that has wounded them.  We may never know what that is, but we can, with God’s urging, respond with empathy.

Through these commandments God calls us into a deeper sense of community and a more powerful kind of relationship with God and with each other.  We understand that whatever is good and precious in our relationships with one another flows from the love and mercy that God has first given us.  God entrusts us with the gift of freedom that we so often misuse, and when we do misuse it, God forgives us and helps us return to a more faithful path.

Octavia Butler wrote in the Parable of the Sower that “Freedom is dangerous but it’s precious too.  You can’t just throw it away or let it slip away.  You can’t sell it for bread and pottage.”

Butler is right. The gift of freedom can be used to harm or to help.  It can be squandered or held sacred.  It can destroy or it can repair.

People of God, may we use the gift of freedom this week in holy ways.  May we use our freedom to share God’s love and mercy.  May we use our freedom to set others free.  Amen.

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


[i] https://www.npr.org/2021/03/06/974386021/in-first-test-drive-on-mars-perseverance-rover-makes-a-short-but-significant-tri

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