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

May 29, 2022

Ten years ago when Sandy Hook happened, I was in my last year of seminary.  I remember thinking then: What would I say to a congregation after such a horrible thing?  What words are even possible?

In the last nine years I’ve asked those questions again and again as it keeps happening – in churches and synagogues, at concerts and nightclubs, in schools and workplaces.  Just two weeks ago we grieved the deaths of elderly black people killed while getting their groceries.  And we have faced the additional horror of the number of times that the perpetrators of this violence, as in Charleston and Buffalo, are young men who have been radicalized online.  They have been persuaded that anyone who is different is a threat.

And here we are again – brokenhearted, angry, scared.  19 children.  Two teachers.  Many others wounded.  An entire community that will never, ever be the same.

I don’t have any magic words that will make any of it make sense.  All I have is a deep conviction that we cannot give in to despair, that as Easter people we look for some kind of light from the empty tomb to guide our way.  I believe that there is a way forward, and it will take every bit of faith that God has given us.

Last week when little Teddy was baptized, for the first time in a long time we did those renunciations of evil that we do during each baptism service.  I kept thinking about those this week: Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?… Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?… Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

Each time we say “I renounce them,” and we mean it.  But a part of us might also think, “Renounce the devil?  Really?  That seems a little…strange.”

It seems a little strange until we encounter the events of this week.  None of us blames a cartoonish figure with horns and pitchfork for what happened in Uvalde.  But what happened there is the result of many forces that defy God, the convergence of many powers of this world that rebel against God.

The powers of this world are always invested in keeping power, no matter what the cost.  We see it in our first reading from Acts.  The owners of the slave girl exert power over her.  They exploit her.  When Paul frees her from that spirit, she can no longer make them money.  They are furious about it.

They’re so furious that they turn to the first weapon that power often seizes when it feels threatened.  They turn to violence.  They grab Paul and Silas, provoke the crowd to attack them, have the magistrates strip Paul and Silas of their clothing and then have them beaten.

As if the power of violence weren’t enough, they make it even worse by exerting the power of control.  Paul and Silas are hauled off to prison, their feet placed in the stocks.  All because a slave girl could no longer be exploited to make these guys money.

These forms of power – the exploitation, the violence, the thirst for control – that’s exactly what had killed Jesus.  That kind of power was quite familiar to the early Christians.  Even though Jesus had died, had risen, had ascended to heaven, that kind of awful power threatened to come after his followers at every turn.

The distortion of many kinds of power in our own time allows mass shootings to happen again and again.  The power of money holds many of our political leaders hostage to the NRA.  The thirst for violence and control, coupled with dangerous conspiracy theories, leads far too many people to stockpile ammunition and weapons of war.  We’re not talking about a harmless hobby that occasionally takes you to the shooting range.  We’re not talking about going hunting for deer.  I know people who do both of those things, and they would be the first to tell you they don’t need an arsenal.  We have more guns than people in this country.  There’s no way that’s not dangerous.

And of course it’s not just mass shootings that are stealing the lives of so many beloved people.  Firearm-related injuries are now the leading cause of death for children and adolescents in the United States.[i]  The leading cause.  Some of those are accidental shootings.  Some of them are deaths by suicide.  And some are the result of domestic violence.  Many are preventable.

We are in a prison of our own making.

But notice that the Acts story does not end in a jail cell.  A different kind of power shows up in that prison.  First, there’s an earthquake, shaking the very foundations of a structure that’s designed to control and confine.  As it turns out, what looks like an immovable institution isn’t as immovable as we might think.  The doors open, the chains fall away, and before the jailer can enact violence on himself, Paul steps in to say, “Don’t harm yourself! It’s OK.  We’re still here with you.”

This turn of events is so surprising to the jailer that he asks a powerful question: “What must I do to be saved?”

Notice how things turn then from violence and control to tenderness and connection.  Paul and Silas go home with the jailer.  They share the story of Jesus.  The jailer washes their wounds.  The jailer’s family is baptized.  They all eat together, and the entire household rejoices.

The power of God is there to challenge the powers of the world, and the result is vulnerability and community where before there had been violence and intimidation.

What must we do to be saved from the epidemic of violence in our time?

We have to get honest about the institutions that need to be shaken up, perhaps in ways that are the equivalent of an earthquake.  No institution is perfect.  All of them can be held accountable for doing better.  That includes both our government and our church.

As many people have said this week, now is not the time for moments of silence.  It’s time to get loud, to speak up.  Paul and Silas don’t go silent in that prison cell.  They pray, and they sing.  Let’s keep praying, keep singing, keep writing letters and e-mails, keep calling our elected representatives, keep marching, keep having hard conversations, keep working for a world in which our children can go to school and our elders can go to the grocery store and we can all go to the church or to the movies or to work without facing a violent death.

Most of all, let’s not give in to despair.  Lament? Yes.  Those beautiful children and their teachers deserve our lament.  Cry out in righteous anger? Yes.  That’s holy too.  But don’t let despair lead us to numbness or resignation.  This is not the way the world has to be.  There’s a different kind of power, a power that wants to wash away our pain and gather us around tables.

It will be difficult, important work.  But as baptized children of God, we know that we have already been given the gift of salvation.  We’re free from having to worry about that.  And we are then set free to work on making all the spaces of the world safe for everyone, most especially for our children.

Last Sunday we promised Becky and Dan that we would help them teach Teddy how to proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.  What might that work look like in response to gun violence?  

Maybe it’s time to shake things up.  Amen.

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

[i] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2201761

May 22, 2022

What do we often say when someone sneezes?  We say “Bless you!” or “God bless you!”  In ancient times, people believed that sneezing would allow evil spirits to enter your body, and saying “God bless you” kept out those evil spirits.[i]

Sneezes were also thought historically to be a warning from the gods.  For European Christians, in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great believed that a sneeze was an early warning sign that someone had been infected with the plague, so he ordered Christians to respond to a sneeze with a  blessing.[ii]

Today it’s probably more of a reflex.  We say it, often without thinking.  And not just to friends or family.  We say it to the person in the grocery store.  The stranger on the train.  Maybe even to the dog.

Words of blessing have been powerful parts of faith communities for centuries.  I learned this week that the oldest scraps of the Bible that archeologists have ever found are small scrolls of hammered-out silver with these words from the Book of Numbers, Chapter 6: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up the Lord’s countenance upon you, and give you peace.”[iii]  Those fragments date back to the 7th or 8th century BCE.  The largest piece is about 3.5 inches by one inch, and we have no idea what their function might have been.  Were they worn like a necklace?  Given a special place in someone’s home?  Carried in a pouch during a dangerous journey?  We don’t know.

God promises to bless many people throughout the Bible – and does. God blesses Abraham and promises that Abraham will have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky and that through Abraham all nations will be blessed.  We hear that grand and glorious vision echoed in the middle of today’s psalm: Let all the peoples praise you, O God.  Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you…guide all the nations on earth.

God’s blessing is not a private possession held exclusively by any one of us alone, nor is it limited to one country or one part of the world.  Did you notice that this psalm begins with a slightly different version of that old blessing from Numbers?  The psalmist writes: May God be merciful to us and bless us; may the light of God’s face shine upon us.

The blessing is for more than an individual “you.”  It’s for an “us.”  An “us” that includes everyone – the people across the street and the people across the globe, the people we can’t live without and the people we can’t stand, the people who challenge us and the people who change us.  All the peoples, all the nations, held together in God’s loving embrace.

The psalmist uses that “us,” that plural language, much in the same way that we begin the Lord’s Prayer with Our Father…The “our” reminds us that we don’t possess God. We share a belonging in God’s kingdom together, and we pray together, especially when there is too much to pray for alone – which seems true all the time these days.

The “us” also includes Lydia and the other women we hear about in the book of Acts, sitting down by the river.  They’re outside the gate, which suggests that they do not have a place in the centers of power within the city.  The women may be outside those halls of traditional power in the ancient world, but they gather beside the water to pray.  The early church is still figuring out what to do with the people who don’t fit its expected categories, but Lydia becomes a follower of the faith, and in doing so, she expands the meaning of “us.”  Lydia and her household are baptized, and then she extends hospitality to others, welcoming them into her home.  The “us” keeps getting bigger as people gather and pray and eat together.

This morning Teddy becomes part of that “us” – the “us” that is the family of God.  It’s a family that includes the people gathered here today, the people of this congregation from the youngest to the oldest.  It’s a family that includes the followers of Jesus around the world, each with unique ways of sharing the love of Jesus in word and deed.  It’s a family that encompasses all generations, including those beloved people who have died and whom we miss this morning. 

Today God blesses Teddy, says to him You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  There is nothing that Teddy has to do in order to hold on to that blessing throughout his life. That blessing does not depend on the grades he makes, the sports he plays, or the way he dresses.  Teddy doesn’t have to do anything to be loved and claimed by God.  He is already loved and claimed by God.  Nothing – nothing – can change that.

We also rejoice as we imagine all the ways that Teddy will share the love of Jesus in his life. He already has.  When John presented the baptismal candle, he said those words we always say from the Gospel of Matthew: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  We don’t shine our lights in the world because it’s a condition of receiving God’s blessing.  We shine our lights in the world because we have already received that blessing and can’t imagine keeping it to ourselves.

Today we remember that we all carry God’s blessings with us.  We commit to helping Teddy discover and share his own special ways of blessing the world.

We ask God to continue to bless us and keep us in the trials and tumults of this life.

May God be merciful to us and bless us; may the light of God’s face shine upon us.  Amen.

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

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/well/mind/sneezing-sneezes-god-bless-you-manners-etiquette.html

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] I am indebted to The Rev. James Howell for his commentary on Psalm 67, found here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-psalm-67-5

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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.

Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm

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