WORSHIP THIS WEEK: “It’s not fair!” We’ve all said it. We’ve all heard it. This Sunday, September 24, we hear a story that reminds us how incredibly unfair God’s grace is – and how we depend on that unfairness every day. 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/pyQW0rXruqM?si=4Y9usDoGoO4q87Bv
November 6, 2022
In earlier eras, a bell would be sounded immediately after someone died.[i] One purpose of the bell was to let the community know who had passed away. So tolling the bell was a kind of telling – a telling of the news of death. The system varied from region to region, but it was often common for two strikes of the bell to indicate a woman had died; three strikes signaled that a man had died. Tenor bells, ones that sounded a lower note, indicated an adult’s death. Higher treble bells were used when a child died. Then, after a pause, there would be one stroke of the bell for every year of the person’s age.
This practice of sounding the bells continued in some parts of the country well into the 1900’s, especially in places where telephones and other modern forms of communication were slower to arrive.
Amanda Held Opelt, in her book that explores historic rituals for death and grieving, quotes someone from Cades Cove, Tennessee, who describes a moment when the death knell was sounded. The person writes:
You can feel the silence pass over the community as all activity is stopped and the number of rings is counted. One, two, three—it must be the Myer’s baby that has the fever. No, it’s still tolling—four, five, six. There is another pause at twenty—could that be Molly Shields? Her baby is due at any time now—no, it’s still tolling. Will it never stop? Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, another pause—who? It couldn’t be Ben; he was here just yesterday; said he was feeling fit as a fiddle—no, it’s starting again. Seventy, seventy-one, seventy-two. Silence. You listen, but there is no sound—only silence. Isaac Tipton. He has been ailing for two weeks now. It must be Isaac.
You can see how this system only works when people know each other. The community has to be small enough that people know each other’s names and ages, know when someone has been sick, know how to look out for each other in times of grief.
We will ring the bell later this morning as we read the names of the saints who have gone to be with God. And though we didn’t know all of them personally, we can look around this morning and know that all of us carry some kind of grief. We can hear that bell as a summons to be tender with each other. That’s part of what it means to be community together.
Jesus tells us something about living as a community in today’s gospel. As he talks to those who are gathered for what’s often called The Sermon on the Plain, it seems at first as if he’s sorting people into two categories. Over here are the lucky people. They’re the ones who, in spite of being poor or hungry or sad, are blessed. They’re going to receive what they need – food, laughter, a place in the kingdom of God. And over here, Jesus seems to say, are the people who might seem like they’ve got it good now, but later they’re going to be hungry and sad.
The word for “blessed” – makarios in the Greek – doesn’t really mean “unrelentingly happy.” It means more like “unburdened” or “satisfied.”[ii] And the word for “woe” doesn’t mean “cursed” or “unhappy.” It’s more like the word “yikes.” Jesus is calling the comfortable to pay attention. Jesus is at once promising those facing difficulty that their challenges will not break them and warning those whose life is easier to “look out,” to make sure that they don’t get complacent about their situation or that of their struggling neighbors.
I suspect that Jesus knows that most of us will confront both blessings and woes in our lives. There are times when we are hungry and broke, times when we’re almost crushed by grief. There are times when we’re scared about what the next week will bring, and we wonder how we’re going to make it. And there are times when things are good, when we have all that we really need, and laughter comes easily. And because life is what it is, those times can be jumbled up together. So part of what Jesus is calling us to do is to pay attention to what we are feeling – to recognize that life is rarely pure joy or unrelenting sorrow. It’s an odd mixture of both.
Given the often-strange emotional landscape of our lives, Jesus then tells us how to be community for and with each other. In a life that includes both blessings and woes, delights and dilemmas, happiness and hardship, how do we live like the flawed saints that we are?
This is where it gets hard. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us. To share what we have, offering both coat and shirt to those in need. To do to others as we would have them do to us.
Jesus is, quite simply, telling us to take care of each other. If we have enough food, enough influence, enough happiness in a given moment, then we can be the way that someone else is blessed by receiving what they need. I met a woman recently whose son Nathan died tragically decades ago. She thinks about him all the time and she said this: “Time has given me more land on the other side of Nathan’s death on which to stand.” She makes a point of being with other people whose children have died, not to assume that their anguish will look exactly like hers, but to help them know that they are not alone.
Jesus is well-aware of the things that separate us, from the isolation of grief to the conflicts that we’re so good at creating. We are sometimes better at creating adversaries than making friends. Jesus’ reminder to love our enemies is a good thing to remember as we head into this election week. We remember that we are all part of the same human family, that no matter how much we’re inclined to see others as enemies, we are all just people. People who cry and laugh, people who can savor a good meal and hunger for what we don’t have, people who cheer for our favorite teams and are crushed when the game doesn’t turn out the way we hoped, people who tuck our children in at night and dream of a better world for them, people who want to love and be loved.
We live in community. A communion of saints, created by God and blessed by God so that we in turn can be a blessing to each other.
I attended the opening night of the Dodge Poetry Festival a couple of weeks ago, which involved about 25 poets reading one or two poems each. Poet Patricia Smith read near the end, and before she started, she gestured to her colleagues, all the poets who had read that night and who are sitting together near the stage. She said: “This is the community of witnesses. Some of us boldly love each other. Some of us reluctantly love each other. Some of us don’t know we love each other. But we love each other.”
We can say the same about the family of God: “This is the community of witnesses – witnesses to what God has done and continues to do. Some of us boldly love each other. Some of us reluctantly love each other. Some of us don’t yet know we love each other. But we love each other.” Thanks be to God for that. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Opelt, Amanda Held. A Hole in the World (pp. 149-151). Worthy. Kindle Edition.
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
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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