Wednesday, December 18, at 7:30 pm
We are all carrying something that feels heavy. Even in a festive season like the time leading up to Christmas, we carry the weight of grief or worry or fear. Join us for a special worship service the week before Christmas that will provide a space of hope and healing for anyone who is grieving the death of a loved one, trying to make sense of a difficult relationship, or struggling to stay spiritually grounded in our crazy world. The service will include prayers, time for reflection, and music, including portions of the beautiful Holden Evening Prayer setting. There will be an optional opportunity for individual prayer and anointing with Pastor Christa at the end of the service.
5:00 pm – Worship with Youth Ensemble and Kids’ Choir
10:00 pm – Candlelight Service with Adult Choir and Violin
“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’” Luke 17:5
Maybe you’ve found yourself awake in the deepest, darkest part of the night because you are so worried about someone you love. They’re facing a health crisis, perhaps, or struggling with an addiction, and you have no idea how to make things better. You wish you had more faith so you could feel sure everything will be OK.
Maybe you’ve found yourself caught in the middle of a really contentious disagreement with a family member or a friend. The whole thing drains you of energy and you can’t figure out how to repair the relationship. You wish you had more faith so you could fix things with this person.
Maybe you’ve found yourself feeling anxious because of the news. Violence everywhere. You’re worried about where the next mass shooting might break out. Or you wish politics weren’t such an ugly business these days. You wish you had more faith so you would feel less scared and less angry.
All of us at one time or another can relate to the words of the prophet Habbakuk that we heard in our First Reading: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.” It’s the desperate plea of someone who has seen terrible things and longs for God to make it all stop.
So we understand why some of Jesus’ followers come to him with their own desperate plea: “Increase our faith!” We want a faith that is strong enough to stand up to all that life throws at us, and sometimes it feels like whatever we have just isn’t enough.
But here’s the challenge. Faith is not really quantifiable. How would we even measure it? I don’t have some sort of scale for you to stand on that will tell me how much faith you have so I can write it in your spiritual chart and compare this year’s number to next year’s when you come for your annual check-up. I’m not going to give you a faith report card, where we divide faith out into different categories and assess how you measure up. That’s not how it works.
Jesus responds to this request in a few ways that may not seem helpful. First he tells his followers that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could toss trees into the ocean. It’s a confusing image, but remember that mustard seeds are among the tiniest of seeds, and yet the bush that grows from them is big and bushy and grows in all directions. It looks more like a tree. His point might simply be to remind us that what feels like a little bit of faith, what feels like “not enough,” can actually do more than we realize.
Jesus then uses another comparison that is more difficult to hear with our modern sensibilities. He compares having faith to being a slave. We of course don’t understand Jesus to be endorsing slavery here; but keep in mind how widespread slavery was in the ancient world. Many of the people listening in on this conversation might have been slaves. Jesus is telling us not to turn the commitment to living our faith into a calculus problem. You know what faith involves, he says. You know the role. Just do it. Set the table. Get to work.
In verse 10, the last verse of today’s gospel passage, Jesus imagines these servant followers saying, “’We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Let me offer another translation that I think works better. “Worthless slaves” can also be translated as “unworthy slaves.”[i] That helps me change my thinking about living my faith. Being “unworthy” seems more truthful than being worthless. I know that I don’t really deserve what Jesus has done for me. If there were a way to quantify what Jesus has done (which there isn’t), I could never pay it back. So why not just live in gratitude for his sacrificial love, for his gift of life that does not demand that I am worthy in order to receive it? Why not just do the things that he invites me to do – be present with God, care for my neighbor, pray, worship, serve, forgive, love?
I think the disciples got something right with their request. They say: “Increase OUR faith…” I like the use of the plural pronoun “our.” Increase our faith. Faith is something that we practice in community. So, when we come together in worship, one person might be struggling to hold on to hope, but the rest of us can sing on that person’s behalf. Another person might find it hard right now to summon the words to pray, but the rest of can pray with and for that person. Our shared faith is stronger than any one individual’s could ever be.
I’m also reminded of that shared faith by part of our second reading. The author of this letter writes to Timothy: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” This speaks of a faith that is shared, passed down from one generation to another. It makes me think of the people in my life who shared their faith with me and helped me live my own faith. These words invite us to renew our commitment to sharing the faith with the youngest generations in our community. Just as they share their faith with us.
You have a bulletin insert that I really want you to take home and try using. Over the next several weeks the Weekly Word and the bulletin will include ideas for living our faith. In this first month we’ll focus on prayer. So by the end of October you’ll have four ways of praying to try as a household. Today’s, for example, outlines a simple way to share highs and lows as a family and then to incorporate those highs and lows into a prayer. If you live alone like I do, you can reflect on the ups and downs of the week and offer those to God in an individual prayer.
I know that life is busy. I know these things can sometimes feel a little strange. But I also believe it will make a difference in our lives to take time to talk to each other and talk to God.
So try these things out. See how they go. I hope you’ll discover which practices seem to connect for you or for your family. I hope you’ll let me know how they’re going, and I hope you’ll ask questions along the way.
That letter to Timothy goes on to say: “I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”
We already have what we need. God has given us what we need – a spirit of power and love. It lives in us. It is more than enough.
Now what will we do with it? Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Luke 16:31
I was in the city on Wednesday night to meet up with my cousin, who was visiting from down south – and to meet her newest baby. She was staying at a hotel about seven minutes from Penn Station, so I didn’t have far to go, but I was extremely aware of how many homeless people I saw in just a few short blocks. I say that I “saw” them, but I’m not sure that’s accurate. I struggle with this. I want to see them, really see them, but when I don’t have money to give, when I don’t have time to offer to buy food, I get paralyzed by guilt. And that guilt usually keeps me from making eye contact. Instead of smiling and at least offering a human connection by saying hello, I avert my eyes and scurry past the people sitting on the sidewalk.
Jesus tells us a story with some vivid details today. A rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, sores that the dogs would come and lick. A rich man who feasted sumptuously every day. Lazarus, who just wanted some scraps from the table but goes hungry instead.
Lazarus is sitting at the rich man’s gate, so it’s hard to believe that the rich man didn’t know Lazarus was there. I picture the rich man walking back and forth, out of his gate, into his gate, day after day, week after week – pretending not to see Lazarus. Pretending that Lazarus doesn’t exist.
And then both men die. That’s the thing about wealth. It doesn’t keep you from dying.
Both men die, and that’s when we hear the twist. The rich man ends up in torment in the afterlife, while Lazarus is cared for by one of the most beloved Jewish ancestors, Abraham.
This description of Hades doesn’t match some of the other depictions of the afterlife in scripture, so I encourage you not to get too hung up on trying to imagine a heaven or a hell based on this passage.
What Jesus wants us to see is the chasm. There was certainly a chasm between the rich man and Lazarus in life. The distance from the feast table to the ground outside the gate is far. Wearing a purple robe is a long way from dogs licking your open wounds.
But in this story there is a chasm in death too. And it’s not the one the rich man was expecting. He begs for mercy, but do you notice how he does it? “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” Send Lazarus.
The rich man, who in life did not bother to see Lazarus or help him, in death sees Lazarus as someone who is at his beck and call, someone who surely will serve him and alleviate his suffering. Needless to say, Abraham declines his request.
The rich man does not have a name in the story. I wonder if this is Jesus’ way of inviting us to see ourselves in that character. I know most of us don’t think of ourselves as rich, but if you have a safe place to sleep and know where your next meal is coming from, you are rich relative to much of the world.
In this country we are often tempted to view financial security or success as a sign of moral success. There are messages in our culture – and, I’m sorry to say, in some branches of Christianity – that see wealth as the reward for good faith. We know in our hearts that it’s not true. We all know faithful people who have struggled financially for reasons entirely beyond their control. And we certainly know people who are prosperous while also being corrupt or behaving immorally.
But because of those voices in our culture, we often try to assess whether someone in need is “worthy” of help. Are they just being lazy? Will they squander what we give them? Most of us don’t have unlimited resources. How do we make sure we’re not being exploited?
When someone seeks help from our church, I try to assess those needs with both compassion and integrity. I want to be a good steward of the resources we have to share.
But sometimes I wonder. Who am I to decide whether someone “deserves” help? Jesus does not place those limitations on his commandment to love others as he has loved us. He does not hold back. He gives it all – love, food, healing, conversation. He gives his life.
So I think back to the rich man, walking in and out of his gate without ever acknowledging Lazarus’ existence, much less his hunger. And I ask myself: How might we see our neighbors in need? Really see them. Not just see them as problems to be solved or discomforts to be avoided, but see them in their full humanity – as people who are loved and who love others, as people who long for the dignity of home and work and purpose, as people with stories and histories – histories that have more similarities with our own than we realize.
Abraham wonders whether the rich man’s family will be convinced to change their ways even if someone rises from the dead.
We do know One who has risen from the dead. Will we be changed by him? Will we be transformed by resurrection?
On the Saturday in August that I flew back from the Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee, my flight had been delayed, so I was pretty late getting to Newark. I got my suitcase and headed down the escalators to find the bus that would take me to my car. When I got to the level where I was going to exit, I saw a man wandering there, a little agitated and muttering to himself. I listened in, and I gathered that he had been kicked out of the main part of the terminal because he had been going through the trash cans looking for food. I hesitated. We were the only two people in that area. And then I approached him. I said, “I heard you talking about food. I have this salad that I didn’t eat on the plane. Would you like it?” He seemed startled, but he took it. I introduced myself, and he told me his name was Dane. He said he was a veteran, but he had been running into difficulty getting help from the VA. He’d been sleeping at a bus stop near the airport.
I wished him well, and as I waited for the shuttle bus to the parking lot, I saw that Dane was wandering up and down the sidewalk where folks were waiting for their rides. He was devouring the salad. He circled back to me and said (and I’m going to clean this up a little bit since we’re here in church), “Christa, I don’t know if this is chicken or turkey, but it is effing delicious.” I just said, “I’m glad you like it. I wish I could do more.” And he wandered away.
I’m not telling this story to say, “Hey, look at what I did.” To be honest, I was on alert during much of our conversation. I didn’t know if it was safe to approach him. He might have been offended at my offer of the salad. He might have gotten violent. On another night I might have decided to walk past him.
What struck me the most is how he saw me. He remembered my name. He shared some of his story with me. He offered me more trust than I had given him.
There are chasms in this life. Chasms that we do not want to cross. People that we do not want to see, truly see.
What helps us cross those chasms? Well, it’s the cross. The cross reaches across those chasms. It brings together what we want to hold separate. There is no division, no difference, no divide that the cross cannot bridge.
With Jesus as our guide, what chasms will we cross? What steps will we take this week toward someone else? May God open our eyes to see what – and who – is right in front of us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ