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

Sermons

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July 3, 2022

I have a dear friend whose husband had a stroke last November.  He’s a really healthy guy in his 50’s, and he has no medical conditions that might make him vulnerable to a stroke.  He spent some time in the hospital and had tons of tests, and eventually his brain just kind of healed itself.  It felt like a miracle.

Even after her husband was safely home and completely recovered, my friend noticed that she went through a period of time when she worried about worst possible outcomes – not just about his health, but about everything. If she got into her car, she worried she would get into an accident.  If her daughter went out with friends, she worried that her daughter would be attacked.  When my friend cooked in her kitchen, something she loves to do, she worried she might set the house on fire.

Eventually a friend who is also a psychiatrist explained the phenomenon of hypervigilance.  When we’ve experienced something sudden and scary like a spouse having a stroke, the brain starts to think that any trauma can happen.  It’s like a curtain has been pulled back, and all we can see are the many terrible things that could happen at any moment.  So the brain tries to protect us by staying on “high alert.”  It feels like we’re constantly scanning the horizon for danger.

If I were one of Jesus’ earliest followers, and certainly if I were among these seventy people he sent out ahead of him to every town and place, I think hypervigilance would have been my default state – especially after hearing his “pep talk.”  Jesus tells them right up front that there will be dangers: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”  Yikes.

Jesus goes on to say that they will be completely dependent on the hospitality of others– for food, for shelter, for any of the ordinary comforts that we need in daily life.  That alone would be enough to send me running back toward home.  I like to pack my own snacks, thank you very much.

And then, as if being sent out with no luggage into the midst of wolves wasn’t terrifying enough, Jesus reminds them that they will be rejected by many of the people they encounter.  Sometimes people will be flat-out hostile about it, but at the very least, they will not give you food or a place to sleep.  They will send you on down the road, hungry and exhausted.

I’m glad that in the year 2022 Jesus doesn’t seem to be asking me to hit the road without even a carry-on bag, but the part about going out like lambs into the midst of wolves rings true.  The world feels more dangerous for all of us, so a certain amount of vigilance is necessary.  I don’t like feeling on “high alert,” but I often am – when moving through a parking lot, when visiting an unfamiliar place, when my doorbell rings unexpectedly.  And just yesterday there were white supremacists marching through the streets of Boston, so imagine what it’s like to move through the world as a person of color.

Lately I think a lot about the risks of wearing identifiers of my faith – a cross necklace, a t-shirt with a Bible verse on it, my clergy collar.  I do it anyway, but I know from experience that hostility can come from many directions, from people who (often with good reason) are suspicious of Christianity and also from people who want to let me know that “pretending” to be a pastor will surely land me in hell.  And, by the way, all of you are being led astray because I am a heretic.

I get where some of the hostility comes from. So much of what the general public associates with Christianity right now is terrible – judgment, exclusion of LGBTQIA+ people, the silencing and subjugation of women, the protection of sexual predators.

Even when we say, “But we’re not THAT kind of Christian!” how is a person supposed to distinguish among all of the different denominations?  And all of our denominations have things we need to deal with in our history and in our practice.

The result?  We often stay quiet, hidden, under the radar.  And then the story of what we understand Jesus to be about gets overshadowed by a different story.  When we stay quiet, then there are fewer voices telling about his mercy, his healing, his welcome for all people.

If we need some encouragement these days to live our faith more boldly, notice what Jesus tells the folks he sends out into the danger zone.

He tells them to focus on the mission – cure the sick, teach people about God.  That’s the primary purpose, and a lot of the other stuff is just a distraction.

Jesus also reminds them that living our faith is about relationships.  It’s not about pressuring people to see things our way.  It’s about conversation, sharing what you have come to understand and listening to the other person’s story.  Jesus tells his followers to remain in the same house for while.  To eat and drink with the people who live there.  Conversations around tables are beautiful places for relationships to grow.  And notice that Jesus does not send his people out one by one.  He sends them out in pairs.  When things are hard – and they will be hard sometimes – they can support each other.

The other important reminder that Jesus gives is not to waste time on the people who reject you outright.  Shake the dust off your feet.  Move on.

And I’m struck by the fact that Jesus tells his followers to say BOTH to the people who welcome them hospitably AND to the people who reject them: “The kingdom of God has come near.”  So there’s this word of blessing about how they have encountered the presence of God, even if they choose to dismiss that gift.

I kept thinking this week about what Jesus might say to us now, with all of our own fears about the risks of witnessing to our faith.  I think he would tell us several things:

First, he would tell us to go out with good courage.  Yes, there are dangers out there.  But the world doesn’t get better when we all play it safe.

Jesus would also remind us not to waste time on petty arguments.  As someone once said, we don’t have to attend every fight to which we’re invited.  If someone isn’t able to have a reasonable conversation, don’t waste energy on a screaming match or on dueling comments on a Facebook post.  Move on.  Shake the dust off.

Most of all, nurture relationships.  Look for opportunities to have mature, grounded conversations about things that matter – ideally over good food.  Remember that we do not travel alone.  We have this community, and we have the unfailing presence of God, who walks before us and behind us and beside us.

And ask God to bless those who welcome us AND those who reject us, praying for them by name.

Given all that we have experienced in recent years, given all that we are experiencing now, some hypervigilance is understandable.  We continue to live with the effects of the collective trauma we have survived.

Duke professor Kate Bowler, whom I’ve quoted before, reminded us in the spring of 2020 to stay connected and to stay honest.  It’s a reminder worth hearing again now as we think about what it means to live our faith more openly.  She writes:

“When we are afraid, our culture tells us that if we say it out loud that we are just being ‘negative.’…I can tell you frankly that that is absolutely not true.  Tell the truth. Fear is real for all of us and one of our strongest tools to combat it is communication.  Let’s not make honesty the enemy.  We have each other. And we can handle a little reality with a lot of love.”[i]

Kate is right about that.  We can handle what’s in front of us with a lot of love.  So, people of God, it’s time to hit the road.  Be bold, be kind, and stick together.  Amen.

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


[i] From Kate Bowler’s March 17, 2020 Facebook post.

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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.

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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

Click here for registration form:

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