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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:


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February 28, 2021

When I was in middle school, I started to become fascinated by the popular kids.  I would watch them and wonder how they managed to be surrounded by people all the time, how they were able to influence so many of those people.  At the time I didn’t know any of the sociological concepts of status or power or influence, but I had my hunches about how those things worked.

Don’t worry.  As I made my way through high school and got more comfortable in my own nerdy skin, I had good friends and got involved in plenty of things I found fun, from marching band to math team.  From time to time I still wondered what gave those kids at the top of the high school food chain so much power.  What drew other people to them like moths to a flame?  Eventually I decided that those people who flocked to be near the popular kids wanted some kind of power-by-association. They longed for a portion of the status that those kids held so effortlessly.

Now I certainly don’t think Jesus was about power or status in the traditional sense, but I wonder if the disciples wanted that same kind of power-by-association.  They had certainly watched Jesus do some amazing things.  He had cast out demons and healed the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, and the sick with a touch or a word.  He had walked on water and calmed a storm and fed thousands.  His preaching and teaching attracted a crowd, and those crowds clamored after Jesus wherever he went.

Not long after today’s gospel the disciples will reveal just how much they long for some power and status of their own.  They’ll get caught by Jesus arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest (9:33-34).  James and John at one point will ask Jesus if they can be seated on his right and on his left when he comes into glory, and you better believe that ticked off the rest of the disciples (10:35-45).  Jesus keeps reminding them that he has come not to be served, but to serve – and that they are likewise called to be servants of all.  But they don’t always want to hear that part.

Sometimes the disciples seem to get it right.   Just minutes before today’s gospel, when Jesus had asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had nailed the right answer: “You are the Messiah.”  Peter understands that Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one sent by God to save the world.  But Peter also freaks out when Jesus tells his followers that he will suffer and be killed.  Peter does not want to hear that difficult truth, and Jesus has some harsh words for him. Peter probably is setting his mind on human things more than divine ones.  Peter understandably wants Jesus to use his power and his popularity to avoid the terrible fate that Jesus describes.  What’s the point of having that power if not to summon an army to one’s defense?

It’s not enough that Jesus refuses to use his power in the way that the disciples expect.  It’s that he also makes it clear that he wants them to follow in his path of service and sacrifice.  He says: “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  This hardly seems like a winning recruitment slogan.  Take up your cross. Remember that at this point the listeners know the cross only as an instrument of execution used by the Roman Empire to silence anyone who seemed like a political threat.

Jesus is essentially saying: “If you follow me, be prepared to give up what you really want.  Be prepared to give your whole life.  Be prepared to die.”

For most of us that would have been the moment when we said, “All right, Jesus.  It’s been fun.  I’ve enjoyed this a lot, but I’ll be going back home now.  Good luck to you!”

What does Jesus mean when he tells his followers to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, to lose their lives for his sake?  I don’t think he means that we should become doormats.  He certainly doesn’t mean that we must endure abuse or harassment in our relationships.  This passage has sometimes been used to justify that kind of suffering in the face of abuse, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about.

The life to which Jesus calls his disciples – the life to which he calls us – is one of sacrificial love.  It means getting up each day and looking for the ways that we can be of service to the people in our lives – family, friends, strangers, people in need near and far. And to offer that service as much as is possible with a loving heart.  Not resentfully.  Not by keeping score.  Simply giving all that we can, freely and graciously.

Some days we would rather not take up the cross in that way.  The cost feels too great.  It often means, as Jesus says, that we deny ourselves.  We set aside our own preferences and priorities for the sake of others.  And of course we sometimes long to bask in a little glory – to get some recognition for our labors – or maybe to wallow in our own martyrdom, certain that no one else has given as much as we have.  Jesus reminds us not to wait around for that kind of affirmation from the world.  That’s not what matters. 

Peter understandably gets upset when Jesus talks about suffering and dying.  But Peter seems to miss a really important detail.  Jesus says he will suffer and be killed and after three days rise again.  Maybe that’s too crazy for Peter to imagine, but it reveals an important truth.  Death is not the end of the story.  Suffering and sacrifice are not the end of the story. The cross is not the end of the story.  There is also an empty tomb.

It’s that triumph of life over death that holds us up as we seek to embody God’s own sacrificial love in our lives.  And there are so many ways to live that love.  Think about the places it shows up.  We take up the cross when we care for a baby, feeding and rocking and changing that little one in spite of the sleep and sanity we are losing.  We take up the cross when we care for aging parents and other older folks in our lives – calling and checking in and helping them get connected to a vaccine and – when possible to do safely – visiting in person.  Parents take up a cross when you allow your teenager another chance to have some freedom, even though it’s terrifying.  Teenagers, you take up a cross when you help a friend avoid doing something stupid and potentially life-threatening.  We take up a cross when we give from our resources of time and money to feed the hungry in our community.  We take up the cross when we speak out against the racism and violence that people of color experience every day, when we work to dismantle those forms of oppression.

In all the ways we take up the cross, we do so because love is a gift.  A gift that we have received from God beyond our deserving and can’t help but share.

Theologian Richard Lischer reminds us that when Martin Luther went searching for what kind of God we have, he realized that we can look at the cross. On the cross we see God’s truest self.  In a world where gracelessness is the norm and grace the exception, in a world where hate and greed and white supremacy attack the dignity of human beings, it’s important to tell the truth about Jesus – that Jesus gives himself to defy those forces of evil.[i]

And so we try to live with that same kind of love, overflowing with gratitude for what we have first been given.  In Lischer’s words: “For the best liberators are those who have been liberated. The best lovers are those who know what it is to be loved. The best forgivers are those whose sins have been forgiven.”

So, people of God, take up the cross this week.  Live as those who are liberated, loved, forgiven.  Because that is who you are. Amen.

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


February 21, 2021

Each year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear about Jesus heading out into the wilderness.  I say Jesus “headed out” into the wilderness, but that’s not really accurate.  We’re told the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.  The Greek means “threw him out,” as if the Holy Spirit hurled Jesus out there like a fastball thrown when the pitcher is really getting warmed up.

We get the feeling that this time in the wilderness is not going to be a spa retreat for Jesus.  And it isn’t.  He’s out there for 40 days, where he has the delightful experience of being tempted by Satan.  The other gospel accounts go into greater detail about what the specific temptations that Satan serves up, but the Gospel of Mark is brief and to the point, leaving us to imagine how Satan taunted Jesus throughout those long days.  What did Satan try to offer that would be better than being the Son of God?

This year I kept thinking about two details: that Jesus was out there in the wilderness with the wild beats, and that the angels waited on him.  What was it like for him to face – in addition to Satan – the snarls and pacing of those wild animals who might have looked at him like he was a juicy morsel served up exclusively for their dinner?  What was it like for Jesus, as he struggled with all kinds of dangers, to receive the tender mercies of the angels who cared for him?

When we read this story on the first Sunday in Lent each year, I always think about my internship in southern Arizona.  My own year in the high desert offers up some very particular images of wild beasts.  I think immediately of the javelina, those medium-sized animals that look like wild pigs.  They’re not technically pigs, but they have some sharp-looking teeth and always look at you as if they’d like to tear you to shreds.  And they usually travel in groups, so when you’re staring at eight to ten of them at the same time, they can be pretty intimidating.

Truth be told, the javelina aren’t really that dangerous.  They mostly eat plants – agave, mesquite beans, prickly pear.  While they have been known to go after dogs, that’s most likely a response to years of being hunted by coyotes.  Usually if a javelina gets aggressive, it’s because it thinks that someone or something is a threat to their young.  The same could be said for many of you.  So for all the time I spent worrying about the javelina, I probably should have been more worried about the rattlesnakes and the scorpions.

My angels that year were many.  A supervisor who spent countless hours showing me what it means to be a pastor.  All the parishioners who enthusiastically participated in the different endeavors I cooked up as an intern that year – and helped me figure out which ones worked and which ones didn’t.  The colleagues in town who shared their wisdom.  No matter how overwhelmed I felt or how impossible a situation seemed, there was someone – usually several someones – ready with a word of encouragement, a prayer, or a baked good.

That’s how the wilderness works, I think.  In the wilderness times we don’t have any expectation that life will be safe or easy.  We know from experience that it won’t.  Sometimes we feel the threats breathing down our necks, and at other times we feel a constant hum of anxiety like a low-grade fever.  It’s hard to feel calm and safe in the wilderness.

Each Lent we enter a figurative wilderness.  We commit to spending some time over these forty days really grappling with how much we need God – how much we need God’s sustenance in the difficult times, how much we need God’s forgiveness for all that we have done and left undone, how much we need God’s resurrection hope.

In many ways the Lenten wilderness doesn’t feel so figurative this year.  We’re coming up on a full year of pandemic disruption in our lives, and even though we technically finished the season of Lent last year, it kind of feels like we just stayed in it – stayed in that place of fear and vulnerability that is like gasping for water in the desert.

I want you to think about what your wild beasts are in the wilderness of this year.  What’s got you scared?  What’s scratching at your door?  What do you wish you could chase away so it would just leave you alone?  Or what feels like Satan whispering in your ear, trying to persuade you that you are not worthy of love just as you are?

Some of our wild beasts are like the javelina.  They look more threatening than they actually are.  But some of them are like a scorpion that hides in a shoe.  You don’t see them coming until the pain radiates through you.

When the pain comes, we need our angels.  So what about yours?  Who or what are your sources of support when you are feeling gripped by fear or worry or anger or despair?  To whom might you need to reach out right now to hear a word of encouragement?  To ask for a prayer?  To be heard without interruption?  The angels are all around.  They don’t all have wings, but they are waiting to care for us.  Sometimes receiving help from the angels can seem harder than fending off the wild beasts, but it is necessary for our survival. 

Remember what happens right before Jesus finds himself in the wilderness.  He is baptized.  He’s baptized by John right there in the river.  And then Jesus is hurled straight from that baptismal river into the desert.  There was barely a moment to catch his breath from being underwater before he finds himself surrounded by danger and desolation.

That’s how our baptism works too.  We should probably be more clear about that during the Service of Holy Baptism.  We might say: “Let your light so shine before others that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  And by the way, life is going to be wonderful and terrible.  It’s going to make you laugh until your sides hurt and then turn around and break your heart.  But you will be held by God in all of it.  You will never be alone.”

Baptism is what saves us from the wild beasts.  We can face them down with confidence because God has torn open the heavens to be with us and tells us again and again, “You are my beloved child.  With you I am well pleased. I have claimed your life, and no matter what happens, I will not let the wild beasts win.”

At University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, California, there are some words from a former pastor, the Rev. Gustav H. Schultz, inscribed on the window above the baptismal font.  Rev. Schultz said: “Baptism is intended to acquaint us with a ‘brush with death’ so that following baptism we know that we can live out the risk of being faithful.”[i]

I love that.  Baptism as a brush with death.  We can live out the risk of being faithful, not because we are extraordinarily brave, but because we are extraordinarily loved. Loved by a God who has also known wilderness and will not leave us to face the wild beasts alone.  Amen.

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

[i] Thank you to the Rev. Jeff Johnson for reminding me about that detail in “Preaching Helps” found in Currents in Theology and Mission 48:1 (January 2021)

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