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June 26, 2022

I’m going to begin this morning with an incredibly obvious statement.  It is hard to watch the news these days.  I was pretty disconnected from the news while I was on vacation, other than the occasional headline that drifted by on social media.  And I honestly think that was a big part of why I felt so relaxed.

I’m not arguing for intentional ignorance.  We need to be informed.  But lately it has felt like an unrelenting assault of bad news, made worse by the conflict and division that swirls around each emerging story.  Even if you don’t feel particularly upset about what’s going on, I guarantee you someone in your life does – probably someone you care about deeply.

I’m not proud to admit this next part, but I will anyway.  Sometimes the news leaves me feeling vengeful.  When I see people abusing their power in ways that harm others, I want those people to experience some pain themselves.  I don’t even know what that would look like.  A punch?  A bout of food poisoning?  Hives?

It’s probably best that I can’t do any of that.  But it explains why, when I read this morning’s gospel, I sympathize with James and John.

I understand what James and John are after when they want to rain down a little fire on that Samaritan village that had rejected them.  Jesus and his friends just needed a little hospitality as they traveled along, and instead they got doors slammed in their faces.  I’d be mad too.  I’d be itching for some payback.

In James and John’s defense, there is some precedent in scripture for an aggressive use of fire.  There’s a weird little story in the Hebrew scriptures that involves Elijah, the elder prophet who passes the torch to young Elisha in today’s first reading.  Elijah once took himself to the top of a hill to hang out for a while.[i]  Meanwhile, the local king gets himself injured and wants Elijah to tell him whether he will recover, so he sends a messenger to summon Elijah.  The messenger comes back with the bad news that Elijah says the king is going to die.  Unsatisfied with that answer, the king sends a captain with fifty men to confront Elijah, who find him still sitting on that hill.  The captain commands Elijah to come down, at which point Elijah summons fire from heaven to consume the captain and his small army.

The king makes the mistake of sending a second captain with fifty more men, and – I’m sorry to say – Elijah summons fire to consume them too.

A third captain shows up with a third army, only this time he knows the drill and begs Elijah to have mercy on them.  Elijah relents and goes with him, only to tell the king in person the very same message he had initially delivered: you’re going to die.

All of that drama for the same outcome.  So much loss of life.  And a reminder that the people who suffer the most in these showdowns are not usually the people who start them.  But this story might explain why James and John thought there would be some spectacular perks to following Jesus – some useful pyrotechnics with which to impress friends and destroy enemies.

Scholars will tell you that some of the conflict between Jews and Samaritans came from disagreements about where worship should be centered.  The Samaritans thought it should be a place called Mt. Gerizim, whereas the Jewish people believed it was Jerusalem.  The gospel suggests that the Samaritans rejected Jesus and his friends because they were headed to Jerusalem.  But I’m not convinced that it’s anything more than human pettiness.  Age-old conflicts among factions that rival any middle-school cafeteria.  The same knee-jerk reactions that make us snap at each other or lean on the horn or post the angry comment without thinking it through.

Jesus rebukes James and John for their fiery idea, and they move on to the next village.  He reminds them that a life of following him, a life of pursuing love and justice means courageously looking forward instead of backwards.  It means knowing that we will encounter hostility along the way, but that the hostility does not demand our revenge.  Energy spent on vengeance is energy that could be better spent proclaiming the healing and hope of the kingdom of God – and reminding people that this hope is for everyone.

At this point Jesus has begun his journey to Jerusalem, fully aware that what awaits him there is the cross – a cross on which he refuses to rain down fire in his own defense, in spite of his executioners taunting him to do so.  Even in the moment of his agonizing death, Jesus does not choose vengeance.  He says then, as he is dying: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  He chooses forgiveness.

I wonder if this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote that letter to the Galatians and said “For freedom Christ has set us free.”  Paul reminds us not to use our freedom for self-indulgence but rather for neighbor-love, the kind of love seeks the well-being even of those people with whom we disagree.  In Christ we are free to turn outward with love instead of inward with resentment.

In Paul’s list of things to avoid, anger might be the trickiest.  There are plenty of examples of righteous anger in the Bible.  Jesus gets angry himself, especially when he sees the poor and marginalized being treated unjustly.  So our motives matter.  Turning our anger toward petty revenge fantasies isn’t going to accomplish much. On the other hand, channeling our anger in the pursuit of justice can be a powerful way of loving the neighbor, especially our neighbors who are oppressed.

What Jesus is telling us this morning is not to get stuck, not to wear our difficult emotions like an anchor.  To focus on revenge is to focus on the past, to stay mired in old wrongs, old wounds, old grudges.  Jesus calls us to look forward, to set our faces to the future, to ask what we can do now to seek freedom and healing and hope for all people.

Remember that the Holy Spirit is often depicted as fire – a cleansing, clarifying fire.  A fire that does not destroy but instead inspires and enlightens us to do the work that God has called us to do.

My colleague Matt Laney offers this one-sentence prayer, one that I will carry with me in the days ahead.  I invite you to do the same.  He writes: “Holy Fire, when I’m lit up with fear and anger, bring down fire from heaven to incinerate my ego and leave only love behind.  Amen.”

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


[i] See 2 Kings 1.

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

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