WORSHIP THIS WEEK: This Sunday: May 28, we celebrate Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit turned a bunch of tentative, scared disciples into powerful preachers and teachers.  How might the Holy Spirit be transforming us today?  Wear some red, and join us for worship at 10:00 on Sunday, either at 300 Shunpike Road or in our digital sanctuary here: https://www.youtube.com/live/MCArzukvPgI?feature=share


October 16, 2022

Am I good enough?  It’s a question we so often ask ourselves. School makes us ask this question all the time.  Am I good enough to pass this physics test?  Am I good enough to make the soccer team?  Some of you are in the challenging season of wondering “Am I good enough to get into that college?”

I wish I could tell you that there was some magic moment when you stop asking yourself that question.  But it shows up other places too.  Am I good enough to do well at this new job?  Am I good enough spouse or partner?  Am I good enough friend? Am I a good enough parent?  Am I a good enough caretaker for my aging parent?

And the ultimate question: Am I good enough in God’s eyes?

The next time you ask some version of that question, I want you to think about Jacob.  Jacob from today’s first reading.  If anyone had reason to wonder if he was good enough, it was Jacob.  Let’s recall some of Jacob’s backstory.  Jacob was primed for a fight even before he was born.  Earlier in the book of Genesis we hear that Jacob and his twin brother Esau struggled together in utero.  The Lord told their mother Rebekah before she gave birth that two different nations were in her womb.  Esau was born first, hairy and tough.  Jacob came out second, holding on to Esau’s heel; Jacob was softer, quieter.  Esau became a hunter.  Jacob preferred to stay inside the tents, often preparing delicious food.  As parents sometimes do, their parents Isaac and Rebekah played favorites.  Isaac preferred the rugged Esau, while Rebekah preferred the gentle Jacob.

According to ancient practice, Esau had a certain birthright – particular benefits that fell to the firstborn son.  One day Esau comes inside from a day of hunting.  He’s famished, and Jacob has cooked up a delicious stew.  Jacob tells his brother he can have some food to eat if Esau sells Jacob his birthright.  Esau is either so famished that he can’t think straight or he’s a terrible negotiator – because he agrees.  So now Jacob has a double inheritance, and Esau is left out.

Later, when father Isaac is old and losing his eyesight, mother Rebekah conspires to help Jacob steal a blessing intended for Esau.  While Esau is out hunting, Rebekah helps Jacob cover himself in some of Esau’s clothes so he would feel and smell like his brother.  Rebekah cooks up some of Isaac’s favorite dishes.  So Jacob goes into his ailing father, manages an ancient version of identity theft, and receives the blessing that Isaac means to give Esau.  At one point Isaac says to the disguised Jacob, “Are you really my son Esau?”  Jacob answered, “I am.”  That’s some pretty straightforward deception.

Esau is understandably furious, and so Jacob runs away to live with his uncle Laban over in a place called Haran.  There he spends several years, marries two women and fathers many children with multiple women (which sounds shady to us, but to be fair, that was common in the ancient world).  There’s a whole other soap opera we won’t get into, but Jacob manages to make his uncle angry too and eventually packs up his large family and all his flocks to head back toward home.

Who do you think he’s most afraid to see when he gets home?  Esau.  Jacob only knows how to wheel and deal, so he sends some servants ahead with a whole bunch of gifts for Esau.  We’re talking 220 goats, 220 sheep, some camels, some cows, some donkeys. 

By the time we find Jacob in today’s reading right there by the river Jabbok, he’s all alone.  He’s sent his wives, his children, his servants, his animals ahead of him to smooth things over.  I don’t know what Jacob expected might happen, but the judgmental part of me wants to call him a coward in this moment.  He’s going to let his children and his goats try to make amends for a lifetime of deceit?

But it turns out that Jacob is not alone.  He ends up in a wrestling match with a man he does not know, thrashing throughout the night, his hip thrown out of joint.  When the sun begins to rise, Jacob demands and receives a blessing.  He comes to understand that he has been wrestling with God, that this night has been a holy one for him, a place of transformation.

Jacob walks away changed…limping, but blessed.

If we were to ask, “Did Jacob deserve a blessing?” the answer is an emphatic no.  His very name, “Jacob” means “Deceiver” in Hebrew.  He’s a hustler, a swindler, motivated by self-interest at every turn.  But he is given a new name – Israel – which means “wrestles with God.”  He gets a new start, regardless of what has happened before.

What Jacob discovers there by the streams of water is that it isn’t at all about his merit.  It’s about God’s mercy.  God could have easily won that wrestling match, but instead God stays present with Jacob in the struggle.  God does not leave Jacob in the same place God finds him.

Today we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism for Hayley.  Baptism is God’s ultimate answer to the question “Am I good enough?”  God tells us that it’s not at all about being good enough.  It’s about receiving the gift of grace carried in these waters, held fast by God’s promises of love and forgiveness for the rest of our days.

Baptism doesn’t mean there won’t be hard things.  There will be times of wrestling – with God, with ourselves, with other people in our life.  But even in the moments of deepest struggle, God holds us fast and does not let us go.

Jacob eventually catches up to his family, and there he sees Esau coming in the distance with four hundred men. Even in this moment, he slips into his old self-serving habits.  He puts his wives and children in front of him and stands behind them, afraid of what Esau will do.

And here’s what happens next: “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).  Having been held by God throughout the night, Jacob is now held by his brother.  Instead of receiving what he really deserves, Jacob receives forgiveness.  Mercy over merit.

After their reunion Esau says something to Jacob that echoes what God says to each of us – in baptism, in the struggles of the night, in the dawn of each new day.  God says it to us this morning, and we can say it to each other:

Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.  Amen.  (Genesis 33:12)

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


October 9, 2022

Have you ever watched a little kid walking along a curb or some other kind of ledge – or maybe a slightly older kid walking along a low wall that separates two places?  They hold out their arms and try to balance, sometimes tipping this way or that?  There’s a slight element of danger, but there’s also a sense of being in a place that’s not here or there – somewhere that’s a space of its own.  An in-between space.

We find Jesus today going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.[i]  It’s an in-between kind of place for Jesus in more ways than one.  He’s not exactly in Jewish territory, but he’s not completely outside of it either. Remember that the relationship between Jews and Samaritans is difficult at best and hostile at worst. Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, when they were rejected by a Samaritan village back in the 9th chapter of Luke had really wanted to command fire to come down from heaven and consume the Samaritans there.  Jesus mercifully put an end to that nonsense.  But the fact that the disciples’ impulse for destruction outweighed their impulse for diplomacy tells us a lot about the tensions in this region.

So Jesus is moving along a boundary here, one that is fraught with conflict.  While on this journey, he encounters ten people who know a lot about living in an in-between place.  The ten lepers are, by the nature of their disease, on the outside of society.  They’re kept at a distance from friends and family and community, isolated by the lesions on their skin and the deformities of their bodies.  Their skin made them look like walking corpses, so they are, in a sense, living in between life and death.  It was a lonely, awful existence.

The lepers recognize Jesus.  He enters this in-between geography and meets them in their in-between condition. “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” they cry.

And how does Jesus respond?  He doesn’t try to categorize them or judge them.  He doesn’t treat them like a threat.  He simply opens a pathway to healing.  He makes sure that they are made well and, by sending them to the priests, Jesus makes sure that they will be restored to community.

That’s what Jesus is so good at doing.  Jesus disrupts those boundaries that we like to invent.  Jesus makes healing happen in those in-between places.  He knows that his subversive boundary-navigating is part of his mission, but he’s known from the beginning that it isn’t popular.  Early in Luke’s gospel, in Chapter 4, Jesus preaches in his hometown, and he reminds the people there that God’s family is much bigger and more inclusive than they had imagined.  He even refers to the story we heard in today’s first reading, about another “outsider,” another “foreigner” – Naaman the army commander – whose leprosy is also cured.  Recalling that story almost gets Jesus tossed off a cliff by the hometown crowd.  That’s how upset people get when our lines of separation are threatened.

Did you notice that the one who bothers to say thank you is a Samaritan?  He knows what it is to be doubly reviled – for his diseased skin and for who he is.  His skin is now healed, but he’s still a Samaritan.  I bet he’s worried about who will come after him for that.

If we tried this morning to list all of the ways that we as human beings draw lines and separate ourselves into tribes, we would be here all day.  Democrats and Republicans, wealthy and poor, urban and rural, healthy and sick, different languages, different loyalties, different families, different faiths.  We sort ourselves out by race and class and religion and gender identity and a hundred other categories, and heaven help the people who try to disrupt those divisions in any way.  But Jesus is always there, crossing all the boundaries that we have so carefully constructed, moving in an in-between space that leaves no one out.

We are living in a particular kind of in-between space right now – what some have called a liminal space.  Liminal space marks a transitional period: sometimes physically, like a passageway between two buildings, but often emotionally or spiritually.  Any experience that divides our lives into a “before” and an “after” can create a liminal space – a divorce, a death, a pandemic.  These spaces challenge us to let go of what we have known and anticipate what might be possible, even if we can’t yet imagine it.

I have a theory that in these liminal spaces, our anxiety sometimes makes us more impatient with each other, more inclined to hunker down with the members of our tribe and go on the attack against people who embody a different identity or belief.  We can feel it at every level – our families, our communities, our country.  The anxiety and antagonism that reverberates in these times can lead us to believe the worst about each other.  It makes us ignore any common ground, even though most of us have children we love.  Most of us want the world to be safe.  Most of us enjoy laughing over a good meal with friends.  All of this means that liminal spaces are also beautiful spaces for healing to take place.  For surprising relationships to emerge.  For unexpected gifts and equally unexpected gratitude.

John Wright of Austin, Texas, writes about a trip he took with his 11-year-old grandson out west to visit some national parks.[ii]  When they arrived at Arches, their last visit of the trip, it was 107 degrees, and so they waited until 7:00 pm to start their hike.  Even so, they were exhausted and sweaty.  Having just turned 70, Jack wondered if he had the stamina to make it.  Jack kept encouraging him: “You can do it, Granddaddy!” holding out his hand to pull John along.

The last part of the trail was a narrow ledge. A wrong step would send them falling 30 feet below.  Both John and Jack were afraid of heights, so they were almost paralyzed with fear.  But soon, right there at the edge of a precipice, was Delicate Arch – magnificent and mysterious, a breathtaking sight that they stared at together in silence or a while.  In his words:

Here was liminality staring the two of us straight in the face—that discombobulating disorientation one feels when going through the metamorphosis of a major life passage…My grandson…was about to enter the sometimes scary wonderland of adolescence. In my case, I had just begun to roll down the frightening slope of old age…

As we contemplated the arch, I commented, “You and I are like Janus, you know.”

“Janus?” His brow furrowed.

“The Roman god of thresholds. He has two faces. His old face looks backward into the past. His young face looks forward into the future. More and more, I’m going to need your young eyes to help me see future possibilities.”

Jack…quickly added, “And I will need your old eyes to help me see the lessons of the past.”

The first stars would soon appear through the arch’s opening…I told Jack, “I want you to go beyond seeing things only as they are and lamenting, ‘Why?’ to dreaming of things that are not yet and demanding, ‘Why not?’” He said nothing, but this boy on the edge of young adulthood put his head on my shoulder.

That story is a beautiful picture of what’s possible in the liminal spaces.  Our differences become places for connection.  Our common challenges give us shared understanding.  We can hold space for what other people are facing.

Jesus invites us into these in-between places.  He summons us to be those who disrupt the lines and the categories and the foolish divisions, to be people who create a whole new way of living with each other.

And when we have followed Jesus into the unknown, when we have experienced the healing that only he can give, we can turn and say thank you.  Amen.

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

[i] Thank you to my friend Audrey West for her wise reflections on this passage: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-3/commentary-on-luke-1711-19-2  Thank you also to Dennis Sanders for this commentary: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/lectionary/october-13-ordinary-28c-luke-1711-19

[ii] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/readers-write/threshold-essays-readers

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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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