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

December 5, 2021

Be prepared.  I learned it as a Girl Scout.  In the 1947 Girl Scout Handbook, the motto was explained this way: “A Girl Scout is ready to help out wherever she is needed. Willingness to serve is not enough; you must know how to do the job well, even in an emergency.”  Those are some high standards! I’ve had many teachers and other people along the way remind me: “Fail to plan, and you plan to fail.”  Just getting through a day requires all kinds of preparation – prepare your breakfast, prepare your wardrobe, prepare for whatever appointments you have.  If you’re a student, you prepare for tests, prepare for the discussion of the assigned reading, prepare for the group project.  Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Preparing isn’t bad.  It’s necessary.  But I realized this Advent that the word “prepare” has become a word that makes me flinch.  I understand what that 1947 Girl Scout handbook was saying, but sometimes – especially in emergencies – it’s hard to know what doing the job well looks like.  I have made so many plans in the last two years.  We all have.  And almost every time I planned and prepared, I had to change those plans. Or toss them out altogether and start over.  It was about this time last year that I had to make the difficult decision not to travel to SC to be with family after Christmas.  My preparations had to change.

Into all of my anxiety about being prepared enters John the Baptist. He always shows up, like clockwork, on the second Sunday in Advent. There he is stomping around in the wilderness to announce: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” 

And that’s when it hits me.  I might be doing all kinds of preparing – preparing for Advent, preparing for Christmas, preparing at home, preparing at church.  But am I really preparing the way of the Lord?  Am I preparing the way of the Lord, or am I just preparing for how I think this time is “supposed” to look?

There are a couple of things we can learn from John the Baptist as we prepare for this season.  The first of those is how to say what’s important in the midst of a lot of noise.

John is doing his thing out there in the wilderness while a long list of rulers are making their power and presence known: Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas.  As my friend Audrey points out, it’s a veritable “A-list of Earthly Powers: an emperor, a governor, three tetrarchs, and two high priests.” These are the rulers of the known world, those who hold the religious, political, and economic power in Jerusalem.

But the word of God doesn’t come to those rulers.  It comes to John, way outside the city limits, looking a little crazy-eyed as he paces back and forth.  It’s John who speaks the truth that the Lord is coming, and we need to get ready.  It’s John who calls the people to repentance, summons them to the promises of the salvation that only God can offer.  John doesn’t let the political noise of his time overwhelm his mission: to tell people about Jesus.

John ignores the political machinations of his time, but he also defies some family expectations.  John the Baptist is from a family of priests.  Both of his parents come from priestly families, in fact.  His mother Elizabeth descends from a line of priests that go all the back to Moses’ brother Aaron.  His father Zechariah is a priest whose role brings him regularly to the Temple.  If we expect John to pursue the family business, and that would have been the expectation, then we would find John in the Temple too, attending to the rituals and responsibilities of being a religious leader in the holy place of Jerusalem where God was believed to dwell.  But that’s not where John is hanging out.  He’s out in the wilderness, far beyond the city limits.

Those verses from the Gospel of Luke that we read together as today’s psalm are the words of John’s father Zechariah. When an angel shows up to tell Zechariah that in spite of his old age and Elizabeth’s old age, they were indeed going to have a son who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” Zechariah had the audacity to ask some questions about how this would be possible.  The angel doesn’t appreciate his questions, and so the angel silences him, making it impossible for Zechariah to speak until John is born.  In today’s modern Zoom parlance, the angel put Zechariah on mute.

Zechariah’s story as a backdrop to John’s story makes me wonder how I might spend more time in silence, listening for God’s will rather than imposing my own.  Preparation might in this season look less like the frenzy I make of it and more like sitting still and attending to God’s voice.

When John is born, Zechariah’s time of forced silence ends.  Then he speaks this beautiful truth: “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who swell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  That’s what I need the most – tender compassion in response to my anxiety, light in the midst of death’s shadow, guidance toward the ways of peace.

All of this is to say that John does what no one expects.  He heads out beyond the city limits in defiance of the powers of his day and the expectations of his family, and he calls people to get ready for what Jesus is about to do.

Maybe this year God’s plans ask us to dislodge ourselves from what is most familiar, to set aside the expectations of others and do a bit of wandering. Maybe we need to prepare not to prepare as much on our own terms and ask what God might be preparing in this new season.  Maybe, like Zechariah, we need to spend some time being quiet for a while.  Maybe, like John, we need to close our ears to the political noise.

John tells us: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

All of things that feel out of whack, the mountains of stress that I have constructed all on my very own, the crooked imbalances of the powerful getting more powerful while the vulnerable struggle, the rough ways that just seem to keep appearing – all of that is going to be straightened out, smoothed out, worked out, leveled out.  Maybe not in the time or the way that I would prefer, but God’s going to get it done.

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I read many post-apocalyptic novels during the last two years.  Several of them, though published before 2020, seem eerily prescient. My favorite of this genre is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.  Although she published the book in 1993, Butler paints a picture of the early 2020’s that sounds all too familiar: violent tensions among economic classes, a pharmaceutical industry fueling epidemics of addiction, and widespread water shortages, among other challenges.

Early in the novel the protagonist Lauren decides she must leave her small community and set out for a new place.  (She, like John the Baptist, is a pastor’s kid.)  She has been preparing for the journey by assembling a small survival pack.  She’s included a hatchet, a couple of light metal pots for cooking, some money, matches, water, a change of clothing, non-perishable food, other necessities.  She also packs seeds so that she can grow food when she arrives someplace safer.

It’s the inclusion of the seeds in Lauren’s go-pack that moves me the most.  In a world that has become chaotic and violent, she has enough hope left to carry those seeds and envision future growth that could nourish others.  She is preparing a way that is rooted in the possible.

What if this year we asked God to prepare us for something so much bigger than we have imagined before?  What if we acted as though we truly believed that all flesh might see the salvation of God?  What seeds of hope might we carry as we commit to those preparations?

Maybe our notion of preparation is too small.  Maybe it’s time to prepare for something more – prepare to receive the Word of God breaking into our lives, so that we, like John, might carry the good news into a world that longs for the rough way to be made smooth.

Prepare the way.  And prepare to be surprised.  Amen.

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

November 14, 2021

I still can’t believe that it’s gone.  My grandparents’ house has been torn down.  It was a necessary thing to do, for many reasons.  But I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that it’s not there anymore.  The place where we had all of those Sunday dinners and games of canasta and Old Maid, the epic hide-and-seek adventures with my sisters and cousins, the sleepovers and the good snacks.

Of course, my grandparents are no longer here either.  I like to imagine what they’re up to in eternal life, my grandfather telling stories with his signature philosophy – “Don’t mess up a good story with the facts” – and my grandmother admonishing him gently to maybe pay a little bit of attention to the facts.

It’s difficult to accept that buildings don’t last forever, especially the ones that are important to us.  Even when they appear strong and immovable, they will eventually come down. It’s even more difficult to accept that people don’t last forever, at least not in this life.  We grieve for so many who have left us.

The impermanence of everything is what makes the perpetual upkeep of a building and its property so daunting.  Just ask John and Tim and Rich and Elaine and Dana and Jen and others who have been working so hard to take care of the property here while floor tiles insist on buckling and stairs keep crumbling.  There’s an endless list of things that need attention, and we’re so grateful for the people who give so generously of their time to attend to those things.

Will this building be here 500 years from now?  Who knows?  If it is, it might look quite different.  Maybe the flying cars won’t need parking lot stripes?

In today’s gospel one of Jesus’ disciples gestures to the temple with admiration: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and large buildings!”  The Temple was a point of pride, the center of worship life for the Jewish people, the place where they knew they could encounter God in various ways.

The first century historian Josephus was among those to document the wonder of the temple in Jerusalem during Jesus’ day.[i]  Herod the Great had made sure the retaining walls were made of stones that were forty feet long.  The temple’s footprint was twice as big as the Roman Forum and four times as large as the Athenian Acropolis.  Herod had also covered the outside walls with gold so they would shine brightly for all to see.

So the disciple’s awe as he gazes on the temple makes sense.  What doesn’t make sense, at least to his listeners, is how Jesus responds: “Do you see these great buildings?” he says. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”  These words were so shocking to those who heard them that they would later be used against Jesus when he is arrested and put on trial.  How dare he say such ridiculous things!  And if talking about the temple disappearing weren’t bad enough, Jesus goes on to describe false prophets, wars and divisions, earthquakes and famines.

Now is a good time to review what we have to remember about all biblical texts.  Each biblical passage or story has a relationship to at least three different time periods.

The first is the world in the text.  In this case that’s the world of Jesus spending time with his disciples as he knows his death is drawing ever closer.  He speaks to them about dramatic events that will happen at some undesignated time in the future.  And as we often hear in the gospel of Mark, the disciples don’t fully understand what he means.  Peter, James, John, and Andrew approach him later in private to ask some follow-up questions, like “When will all this crazy stuff happen?”

That’s the world in the text.  But there’s also the world behind the text.  The gospel of Mark wasn’t written down until decades after the time of Jesus, probably sometime in the midst of the war between the Jews and Rome, a war that took place from the year 66 to the year 74.  The Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70.  So you can imagine that those traumatic events unfolding as the gospel is being recorded might have made their way into the text.  By the time Mark is being written down, it’s not hypothetical that the Temple will be reduced to rubble. It’s quite real.

Finally, there’s the world in front of the text.  That’s our world.  We read these stories through the lens of our own time, our own experiences.  I don’t have to work that hard to imagine dramatic events now that could correspond to what Jesus is describing.  There’s plenty of chaos in our world. A global pandemic, political divisions wreaking havoc everywhere, the worsening manifestations of climate change – storms, wildfires, floods, tornadoes.  We’ve had most of those here in New Jersey just in the last six months.

I’m not suggesting we should be apocalypse alarmists, looking for signs everywhere that the world is about to end.  But I do think it’s worth asking what we might be called to do as people of faith in the midst of chaos.

Remember what Jesus says at the end of today’s gospel: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  He’s saying that there’s probably more pain coming, but it’s part of a birth process.  Something new is being born.  We don’t yet know what it will look like, but we can trust that God is with us in the labor. It’s one of the reasons I love that line in our Prayer of the Day: “Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.”  The chaos might swirl around us, but we can be rooted in God’s faithful presence.  We can be steadfast because God has shown us steadfast love from generation to generation.

We hear some additional wisdom in our second reading from Hebrews, which reminds us that Jesus has made the ultimate sacrifice for our sake and for the sake of the world.  Jesus has opened to us “a new and living way.”  And so what does the author of Hebrews say we ought to do in response?  To hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, to consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.

What might that look like, that provoking each other to good deeds?  How will we find ways to care for the earth so that our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren have a viable place to live?  How will we care for each other, encouraging each other when it feels like we just can’t keep going?  How will we care for the poor and the struggling, those who experience a disproportionate amount of harm when the world is in chaos?

No matter how mighty the building, it will eventually crumble.  No matter how powerful the person, they will eventually die.  Nothing lasts forever.  We could hear that news and turn inward, indulging our most selfish impulses until our own time comes.  Or we could turn toward each other.  We could turn toward the needs of the world.

Today Jesus reminds us that death and destruction are not the final chapter in the story of the people of God.  As my dear friend Audrey West wrote yesterday, “Just as stones can be thrown down from a building to reveal an ending, so, too, can they be rolled away from a tomb to reveal a new beginning.”[ii]

We’re just a few steps into a new beginning in our time.  We have no idea what lies ahead, but we know that we are held up by the strength of God and called to bear God’s life-giving hope to a world in need.

As we take those steps, however tentatively, we sing and we pray.  We’re about to sing the old hymn “Built on a Rock,” a hymn that imagines how the church in its truest sense will stand even when buildings crumble and fall.  Among my favorite lines in that hymn are these: “Yet God who dwells in heav’n above deigns to abide with us in love, making our bodies his temple.”

Making our bodies God’s temple.  What we carry out into the world, what we embody with our hands and hearts and voices…that is the truest version of church.  May God grant us the faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world.  Amen.

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

[i] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2010-not-one-stone

[ii] Thank you to Audrey for her Facebook post on November 13, 2021: “On tomorrow’s apocalyptic lectionary text:  No matter how powerful the person or how mighty the building, it cannot last forever. However, God’s own Messiah assures his followers that death and the destruction of the Temple do not represent the final chapter in the story of the people of God. Just as stones can be thrown down from a building to reveal an ending, so, too, can they be rolled away from a tomb to reveal a new beginning.”

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Join the fun this summer as we experience the ride of a lifetime with God!

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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