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

Mark 6:1-13

If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  Mark 6:11

Frank commutes to work every day on the New York subway.[i]  Most days it’s not an easy journey, as those of you who do it regularly know best. Frazzled people crammed into small spaces tend not to be on their best behavior.  One morning as Frank went through the turnstile, he realized he was already in a bad mood.  He’d had a fight with his girlfriend that morning.  He was headed toward a meeting at work that he was dreading.  The morning news had been terrible – again. And his lower back was hurting – again.

After three trains had passed his station without stopping, he found himself feeling angry that he would be late to work.  When a train finally did stop, he realized it was packed with a group of middle-schoolers on a field trip.  They were loud and boisterous, which didn’t help Frank’s mood.

At the next stop a woman boarded the train holding two heavy bags in one hand and her little girl’s hand in the other.  She pushed her way toward the pole where Frank was standing and proceeded to berate him because, according to her, he was taking up too much space, and his big hand was blocking too much of the pole. How was her little girl supposed to get a grip on it?  Frank resisted the impulse to argue with her.  She was literally weighed down, he thought.  And she would probably be later to work than he would be because she had to drop off her kid at school or child care.  So he said, “You know, you’re right,” and he moved his hand higher. “Sorry about that,” he added.

About that time one of the middle school students bumped into Frank from behind.  He hit Frank right where his back hurt.  Frank turned around ready to yell at the kid.  But he saw the boy’s face, full of genuine concern, and instead Frank said, “Hey, buddy, slow down.  This train is crowded.”  And then he had a conversation with the kid.

It’s risky to venture out into the world.  The world is not always a warm and welcoming place. It’s crowded, and there are days when we seem to bump into everyone around us.  Sometimes our patience runs out before the day does.

Jesus knows this reality firsthand.  In the Gospel of Mark he’s had a pretty good run of it up until now.  As he’s wandered through the world, he’s healed many people, including a paralytic, a leper, a man with a withered hand, people possessed by demons, and the woman with the hemorrhage.  He’s done some good preaching too, including a lot of stories about seeds and how they get scattered.  He’s calmed a storm and brought a dead girl back to life.

But along the way Jesus has also encountered people who question his motives and challenge his actions.  His astounding acts of healing are seldom met with universal acclaim.  People are intrigued, sure, but they’re also suspicious. And that’s never more true than when he comes back home for a visit.  His hometown preaching seems to go OK at first, but soon he’s met with skepticism.  Who does this guy think he is, the crowds ask. They refer to him as “the son of Mary,” which is not a neutral description.  It brings up all that old gossip about who the father of Jesus really was.  Do we even know?  Some people still loved to question his parentage. Eventually the hometown crowd takes offense at him.

Jesus knows that the good word that he brings always gets met with resistance.  One way or another, people are going to push back.  They might not be ready to hear what Jesus has to say.  His words might be too challenging.  His inclusive message of God’s love for all people is just too scandalous for some folks to accept.  The justice that he seeks is not good news for the people who profit from oppression.  Jesus probably wasn’t named “Most Popular” in high school, and I’m guessing they didn’t have a superlative for “Most Likely to be Executed by the State.”  He would have won that one hands down.

Notice that this rejection isn’t limited to Jesus. When he sends out his disciples, he prepares them for it: “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  Jesus knows that for every time his followers are met with hospitality, there will also be a time they’re met with hostility.

That goes for us too.  When we go out and live as followers of Jesus, when we speak and act as people who try to embody that same message of inclusive love, we should not expect to be met with cheers and celebration.  When we seek the justice to which Jesus calls us, people will not throw us a parade.

So what do we do?  I can tell you what we don’t do.  We don’t just stay home and hide out.  There’s a reason that our four-part worship service ends with a Sending.  We are blessed each and every week to go out into the world and live our faith.  We heard a lot of fantastic speakers at the Youth Gathering in Houston.  One of the best was Bryan Stevenson, the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and an attorney who works as an advocate for the poor and the incarcerated.  Bryan talked to us about the “power of proximity.”  He argues that justice work is best done in proximity to the people we are trying to help.  When we move closer to people, when we encounter them in a real way, we’re able to hear their stories and better serve their needs.  When we stay at arm’s length, when we refuse to get close, it’s much easier to judge and dismiss people.

We have evidence that the disciples experienced that power of proximity.  When they are sent out with Jesus’s authority, they find themselves able to cast out demons and cure the sick.  But first they had to meet the people who were possessed and in pain.  So when they encounter rejection, they do not let it stop them. At Jesus’ direction, they shake the dust off their feet and move on. The power of proximity demands perseverance.

Do you remember Frank on the subway?  Do you wonder what helped him have a patient and compassionate response to the mother who yelled at him and the kid who pushed him? He happened to be reading a book about kindness.  In writing about how we can be kinder to each other, the author says this:

“Few people are powerful enough, persuasive, persistent, consistent, and charismatic enough to change the world all at once, but everyone has the ability to affect the three feet around them by behaving more ethically, honestly, and compassionately toward those they meet. Just picture it: If more people acted from this space of love, there would be more and more terrain covered.”[ii]

Think about that.  Think about the three feet around you, which you carry with you wherever you go – from subway to school to soccer field to dinner table to conference room to carpool.  What if each of us goes out into the world and draws closer to people from all kinds of places and people in all kinds of need?  And what if we try to make the three feet around us a space of compassion and honesty – a space where we seek to live as Jesus has called us to live, a space where we empower others to live fully as who God has made them to be? Just imagine it.  All of those spaces intersecting until the world is transformed.

Perhaps the most important part of Jesus’s instruction to his disciples – both then and now – is that we do not go out alone.  He sends his disciples out two at a time, a clear signal that we must stand with each other as we live as Christ-followers in a world that often has no use for the Christ we follow.  When we travel together, we can cover more ground and survive the setbacks.  And we are never, ever without the One who sends us, the One who gives us the power of proximity, the One who, again and again, gives us the grace to sustain us.

Whatever we do with those three feet of space around us, Jesus is always there beside us, behind us, within and around us.  May we follow his lead, wherever it takes us. Amen.

 

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

 

[i]https://onbeing.org/blog/sharon-salzberg-your-three-feet-of-influence/

[ii]https://onbeing.org/blog/sharon-salzberg-your-three-feet-of-influence/

 

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Luke 1:57-80

Immediately Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.”  Luke 1:64

You might be wondering why John the Baptist has shown up in June.  We’re used to meeting up with him during Advent, that season leading up to Christmas in which we usually find him shouting about preparing the way for his cousin Jesus.  He comes back to us each January when we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, where John does the honors in the Jordan River.  We remember John as a colorful figure – dressed in camel’s hair, dining on locusts and wild honey, and yelling at anyone who would listen.

The images of adult John are so dramatic that it’s easy to forget he was once a baby.  And like all babies, there’s a story surrounding his birth.

To get us ready for John’s origin story, I want you think back to a time when you lost your voice – from a cold, from laryngitis, from yelling too loudly for your favorite team.   It’s frustrating not to be able to speak, isn’t it?  I remember a Sunday morning here when I had no voice. I could basically only squeak out the words of institution during Holy Communion and had to delegate the rest. Poor Bill Fallon was the Assisting Minister and had to read my sermon.  (Thank you again, Bill!)  I remember how frustrating it felt not to be able to use my voice. On every other Sunday I had taken my voice for granted.

John’s parents are Zechariah and Elizabeth.  We learn much earlier in the first chapter of Luke that Zechariah was a priest.  Elizabeth also came from a priestly family and was a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were quite old, and they had given up any hope of having a child. But one day Zechariah is chosen as the priest who will enter a special part of the temple and offer incense to the Lord.  He does so faithfully, but while he’s there, an angel appears to Zechariah to announce that he and Elizabeth will soon have a son, a son who will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will point many people to the Lord.  Zechariah is (understandably) terrified and overwhelmed. He asks some questions about this surprising news, and in return he loses his voice.  He’s told that his voice will return only when the angel’s words have been fulfilled.

So one thing that we learn from the story of John’s birth is that sometimes being forced into silence can help us listen more deeply.  Zechariah had a long time to ponder the predictions of that angel, to wonder what God had in store for the baby boy he still couldn’t quite believe was on its way, to prepare for the role of father – a role he never expected to have.

Sometimes silence makes space for someone else’s story to emerge.  When I think of anything that I’ve truly come to understand in a different way, the times I have changed my mind about something important – those times were always shaped by the stories of people whose lives and experiences were completely different from mine.  I needed to stop talking long enough to hear them.

Fast forward nine months or so, and we find ourselves picking up with today’s gospel.  The baby arrives, much to the delight of his parents and all their friends and relatives.  Eight days later they take him to the temple for his circumcision, fully intending to name the baby after his father.  But Zechariah, still mute, grabs a tablet and writes, “His name is John.”

At that moment Zechariah is suddenly able to speak, which generates both fear and curiosity among the neighbors.  What will this child become? they wonder.

Once Zechariah starts talking, he doesn’t hold back. He speaks of God’s story of salvation, the story of a God who keeps promises, including the promise to send a savior to rescue the people from despair and death.  Listen to the power of his words: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Zechariah knows his baby boy will grow up to be a part of that story, pointing people toward the promised arrival of the Savior. Maybe all parents imagine that their children will grow up to do amazing things. In this case Zechariah was absolutely right.

Silence has its power, but so does speech.  The force of Zechariah’s words pushes me to consider how often I hold back when something needs to be said.  We’ve all done it.  We hesitate to tell people we’re Christian because we know the assumptions people will make about us.  We see or hear something awful, but we choose not to challenge it because we fear the conflict that might result.  We forget that God gives us both the gift of silence and the gift of words.  Both can be used to bear witness to our faith.

Most of us won’t have the opportunity to deliver a barn-burner of a speech the way Zechariah does.  But there will be many smaller moments that are just as powerful. Maybe your kid asks you a question at bedtime, and you’re not sure how to answer, but you try anyway.  Maybe a friend or family member is trying to make sense of what’s going on in the world.  Listen to their struggles, and share your own – including the challenges of approaching this crazy life as a follower of Jesus.  These ways of using our voices may not seem significant, but they are.  They are the holy ground on which we stand as we continue to grow and to learn.

One of my favorite podcasts has a weekly feature in which listeners call in to share the best thing that happened to them all week.

In this week’s episode, for example, listeners shared the following good news[i]:

  • My husband and I found out that we’re expecting our first child.
  • United Airlines found the Kindle that I left on a plane last month and sent it back to me.
  • I was able to celebrate my father’s 89thbirthday in Cleveland, Ohio with all three of my brothers who are scattered all over the country.
  • I found the first black raspberry of the season.
  • My dad came home from the hospital with a brand new lung after transplant surgery.

A couple of weeks ago I was delighted to hear on the podcast the voice of my friend Savitha, who lives in California.  She called in to share this experience[ii]:

The best thing that happened to me this week was taking my 2½ year old on a bus ride. It was so much fun to sit beside him on the bus and have him sit up top and look at all the things below and get excited at everything he saw. Ooh. Mail truck!  Ooh!  Another bus! Ooh!  A dog!…It was just so much fun to spend a few minutes seeing the world through his eyes, and it reminded me that I need to do it more often.

Hearing about Savitha’s time with her little boy made me smile.  And this week it made me wonder why we’re so hesitant to talk about our faith.  We often refer to the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the good news.  But it’s not just the good news.  It’s the best news.  It’s the best thing that’s happened to us this week and every week.  And yet we hold back, we hesitate, we get scared.

Savitha’s little boy pointed her attention toward things she probably wouldn’t have noticed that day.  John grew up and pointed people’s attention toward Jesus, begging them not to overlook this Savior who was right there with them.

Does our salvation depend upon pointing others to Jesus? No.  That salvation has already been accomplished by Jesus.  But we can still introduce people to Jesus.

May we, like Zechariah, find our mouths opened and our tongues freed to share this good news, this best news, this light that comes to those who sit in darkness and guides our feet into the way of peace. Amen.

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

[i]https://www.npr.org/2018/06/22/622669600/weekly-wrap-game-of-chicken

 

[ii]https://www.npr.org/2018/06/08/618296817/weekly-wrap-look-over-there

 

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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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