WORSHIP THIS WEEK
We continue to offer worship both in person and via livestream. Please join us in whatever way fits your comfort level and risk tolerance.  Masks are required inside the church building, and we urge you to use the livestream if you have any symptoms, even if you’ve had a negative test.  (Share the love of God, but don’t share whatever is causing those symptoms!)

This Sunday we encounter the aftermath of Jesus’ hometown sermon. (Spoiler alert: The locals are NOT happy.)  It’s a good time to consider how Jesus challenges us. When – and why - do the teachings of Jesus agitate us? If you are joining via livestream, tune in for the service here at 10:00 on Sunday: https://youtu.be/PfUlBifzA4o

January 9, 2021

I got curious recently about how New Year’s resolutions originated.  There’s conflicting information out there, but some historians trace their beginnings back to the Babylonian Empire.[i]  In 2000 BC the Babylonians celebrated the new year during a 12-day festival at the start of the farming season. They would plant crops, crown their king, and pay their debts.  People often resolved to return the farm equipment they had borrowed from their neighbors.

The Romans eventually adopted the practice of having new year’s rituals, shifting those to January 1 on their calendar.  January, a month named after Janus, the Roman god with two faces, one looking back for reflection and one looking forward to new beginnings.   Later, in the Middle Ages, medieval knights would take time at the dawn of a new year to renew their vow to chivalry by placing their hands on a peacock.

Resolutions in this country were often religious or spiritual in nature.  People in the early 1900’s sought to have a stronger moral character or to resist temptations to earthly pleasures. But in looking at a list of the most common resolutions from 1947 and from today, I noticed some commonalities.  At least three resolutions appeared on both top ten lists: Get healthier.  Lose weight.  Save more money.  Lose weight moved from the #10 resolution to the #1 slot.  Being more religious or going to church more often disappeared from the list altogether.

It’s worth asking what voices are shaping our resolutions.  I should no longer be surprised – and yet I am – by how the ads in my online feeds are flooded at this time of year with all kinds of products and programs that promise to help me lose weight, get organized, and change my life in countless other ways, usually as quickly and easily as possible. The suggestion seems to be that I am an absolute disaster in need of immediate intervention.  So many of these ads prey on our innate insecurities.  They whisper in our ears: “You are not good enough.  You are not a good person or partner or parent or student or friend.  Your body is definitely not good enough.” Those voices are insidious, and as much as we try to ignore them, they can often leave us feeling inadequate, unworthy, unloved.

Today’s gospel begins with telling us that the people were “filled with expectation,” in this case the expectation that their long-awaited messiah might finally have arrived.  They longed for the liberation that the messiah would bring, freedom from the various forms of oppression that they had long faced, an assurance of protection in the midst of danger.  They’re so eager for the fulfilment of these promises that they think John might be their guy.  But of course John points to Jesus, the true messiah, who shows up to begin his earthly ministry.

That ministry begins with baptism.  In Luke’s account we don’t get too many details about the baptism itself, which suggests to me that we often fixate too much on the logistics of baptism more than what is actually happening in that moment.  The Gospel of Luke focuses more on what happens just after the baptism – heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The same thing happened when you were baptized.  God said: “You are my child, and you are beloved.  Nothing can every change that.”  I wonder what would happen if we could hold on to that voice more clearly than all the voices telling us how we fall short.

I’m not saying that we should ignore opportunities to be healthier and happier.  If you are trying to repair a relationship that is broken, if you want to bring more energy to your daily life, if you seek some calm in the midst of the chaos, by all means set those goals and be intentional about pursuing them. But don’t believe for a second that you have to do any of those things in order to be more loved by God.

Our spiritual lives can be central to all of those pursuits.  Notice that Jesus hears that voice from heaven most clearly when he is praying.  He’s still dripping with the waters of his baptism, and as he prays, he is reassured: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Whenever Martin Luther felt emotionally or spiritually tormented (and that happened a lot), he would often say to himself: “Baptizatus sum”…I am baptized.”[ii]  He reminded his tortured heart that he was a beloved child of God, and it comforted him.

Professor and Pastor Henri Nouwen dedicated an entire book to reflecting on what it means to be beloved, using the story of Jesus’ baptism as his inspiration.  He addresses the book to a friend, and in it he observes that friendship is all about giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness.[iii]  Nouwen acknowledges how vital it is to take that voice that breaks into the world – “You are my Beloved” – and to hold it within us, even as the voices in the world shout at us and try to make us feel unworthy.

What might it look like if we lived so that our friendships and other relationships gave each other the gift of our belovedness?  What if we everything that we did and said honored the belovedness in each other, so much so that those other voices that are trying to sell us quick fixes are silenced?  They no longer get to drown out the truth that God loves each of us in an unshakeable way.

I want you to hear this morning the same words that Nouwen wrote to his friend, which are these: “All I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being— ‘You are the Beloved.’”  Amen.

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


[i] https://www.almanac.com/history-of-new-years-resolutions

[ii] https://www.ucc.org/daily-devotional/baptizatus-sum/

[iii] Nouwen, Henri J. M.. Life of the Beloved (pp. 30-31). The Crossroad Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

December 12, 2021

Several of my friends finally talked me into watching the HBO show “Succession.”  I’m catching up on three seasons worth of this drama about a rich and powerful media mogul’s family and all the schemings that take place within that family.  Neither the patriarch – Logan Roy – nor his four adult children are good people.  In fact, they’re quite terrible. They behave horribly – to other people and to each other. All they care about are money and power, and they will do whatever backstabbing, bribing, or blackmailing is necessary to get what they want.

One of my favorite images in the series comes from the character Gerri, who has worked as general counsel for this family’s company for a long time.  She knows where a lot of the bodies are buried.  She understands the loathsome way that these people operate.  She calls their family dynamic “snake linguine.”  Snake linguine.  Picture that for a minute.

I think John the Baptist would appreciate the term “snake linguine.”  After all, he calls his own listeners a “brood of vipers.”  It’s a vivid image, isn’t it?  A swirling mass of snakes, all hissing and threatening, tangled up together in a writhing mass of danger.  No one gets out of the snake pit unscathed.

Most of us are not part of a dysfunctional media mogul family, but we know something about what a snake linguine is like.  We’ve all been tangled in conflicts that happen when people lash out in mutual pain.  We know how it easy it is to get caught up in the hissing and the hurting and how difficult it is to extract ourselves once we’re there.  We see it almost every day, if not close to home, then certainly at the level of our national politics.  A social media post can become snake linguine faster than almost anything else.

And sometimes, as we know, the snake linguine is deep within ourselves – the tension between what we know we need to do and what we choose to do.  Those internal conflicts roil around within us until we are paralyzed.

Curiously, given John’s rantings, the Third Sunday in Advent is traditionally called Joy Sunday.  In some Christian churches, the whole season of Advent is more like Lent, a time to intensify one’s self-examination and lean hard into repentance.  So celebrating joy on the third Sunday of Advent is a way to take a break from all of that penitential work and feel lighter.  The colors of the church are usually changed from purple or blue to pink that day.  That’s why I wore a pink jacket this morning.

Today, in the midst of this talk about joy, John yells, “You brood of vipers!” and tells us to bear fruits worthy of repentance.  So let’s ask ourselves: What’s the connection between repentance and joy?

What is repentance?  The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means to change one’s mind or to turn in a new direction.  Repentance as a kind of antidote to the snake linguine.  Instead of devouring each other, repentance asks us to get untangled, to look outward, to do less hissing and more helping. 

Repentance is not easy. The directions in which we’re moving often have a kind of momentum, and it’s hard to redirect ourselves, much less turn in a completely different direction.  We spend more time developing reasons we don’t need to repent than doing the actual repenting.

John cuts off the people’s excuses before they even begin.  Your family connections won’t save you from the consequences of your wrongdoing, he says.  This is a time for truth-telling.  A time to be honest with ourselves about what we need to change.

I appreciate that John’s harsh words don’t send the crowds scurrying away.  They stay, willing to be curious about what John means.  And I love what happens next.  The people who are gathered out there in the wilderness, the people who have ventured out of their comfort zones to come and hear what John has to say – those people have an important question: “What then should we do?”

What a great question.  Confronted with the call to repentance, they ask: “What then should we do?”

John’s first answer could apply to most of us: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  When you have more than you need, share it with those who don’t.  That seems straightforward enough.

But notice how John’s next couple of answers are so specific to the people who are asking “What should we do?”  To the tax collectors – who have come to be baptized, by the way – John says: “Stop your corrupt practice of collecting more than the designated amount.  Stop taking advantage of your position to line your own pockets. Turn in a new direction.”

To the soldiers, who abuse their power by extorting money from the people they can intimidate, John says: “Stop threatening the people you’re supposed to protect.  Be satisfied with what you have.  Turn in a new direction.”

Think about the places you inhabit regularly.  Where and with whom do you spend your time?  In what ways might you try to be and to act differently in those places and in those relationships?  How might you turn in a new direction?

What then should we do? We might not all be tax collectors or soldiers, but in our own specific roles we have something we can share – a coat, some food, a contribution to people who are hungry or without homes or displaced by war.

We are all family members.  And friends.  And colleagues.  And citizens.  We work hard at something on a daily basis – in our offices or our schools or our homes.  How might we invite the Holy Spirit to transform the way that we speak and act in those places?  What needs to be renewed, refined, replaced? 

That’s the connection between repentance and joy.  With God’s help we find some new directions, we show up in particular ways in our lives, especially in the relationships with those around us.  This season is a good time to ask God to help us be present as joyfully as we can.

The apostle Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always.  It might help to know that Paul was writing those words from a prison cell without knowing whether he would live or die.  And still he can speak of the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.  That’s the key, I think.  To understand joy not as a product of our circumstances, but as a gift from God.

Joy isn’t superficial.  It’s rooted in the deep and abiding love that God has for us in all times and places – even when we are the worst versions of ourselves, even when we feel trapped in a pit of snakes.  We trust that God can set us free from those worst versions of human failure.  We can move in a different direction because we know that our salvation rests not in our hands, but in the Lord’s.

I read a blessing this week that I’d like to share with you.  I hope you will receive it and hold it in your heart this week[i]:

Be glad in the Lord always!

Focus your thoughts on all that is true,

all that is holy, all that is just,

all that is pure, all that is lovely,

and all that is worthy of praise.

And the peace of God—

peace that goes far beyond anything we can comprehend—

that peace will guard your hearts and minds 

as you live in Christ Jesus.

So go from here with confidence and joy,

to serve the Lord.

Amen.

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


[i] https://re-worship.blogspot.com/2011/09/benediction-philippians-4-1-9.html

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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.

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