WORSHIP THIS WEEK: This Sunday, February 25, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, to take up the cross, and follow him.  That’s a daunting prospect, but we do not do it alone.  We’ll reflect together on what it means to live with sacrificial love.  Join us in our physical sanctuary at 300 Shunpike Road or in our digital sanctuary here: https://www.youtube.com/live/w70xbyn23Io?si=YZj7fxvVniJ1nrcW

extravagant love

My grandfather was a frugal man.  Careful with his resources.  He and my grandmother were children of the Depression.  He remembered how his parents had to start over after the national economy crashed, how they had to build the family business from scratch.

But as a grandfather, when it came to dispensing stories and snacks, my grandfather was anything but frugal. My favorites were those chocolate-covered graham crackers.  In the wonderful mathematics of grandparenting, if two cookies were good, then four were even better.  And if you played your cards right, you could persuade him to put another two (or four) on your napkin when you were done.  Those cookies taste like love to me.

The scene that we witness in today’s gospel is also about an abundant kind of love.  We find Jesus with some of his closest friends, among them Lazarus, whom he has brought back from the dead not that long ago.  That astounding moment has made many people angry.  And so the animosity toward Jesus is building.  The authorities are plotting to have Jesus arrested – because, after all, someone who can raise the dead is a bigger threat than they had even imagined.

We find Jesus having a dinner party with close friends – Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, some other disciples.  Mary does a strange thing.  She takes this expensive perfume, pours it over Jesus’ feet, and wipes his feet with her hair.  It is lavish and intimate.  I wonder if Mary remembers the last time she knelt at Jesus’ feet, just after her brother died, when she hurled accusations at Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Our tempers grow short when we are grieving.  We sometimes say things that we later regret.

I believe that Mary fully understands where this moment sits.  It’s not just any dinner party.  She knows that her brother’s return to life has caused trouble.  And she suspects, I feel sure, that Jesus is about to die.  So, with death behind her and death in front of her, she can be forgiven for doing something strange.  Jesus says as much when he says that she has anticipated his burial, the time when a body would have typically been anointed with perfumes.

In the face of death there is a temptation to intellectualize things.  We ask questions –hard questions.  Why did God let this happen?  Why wouldn’t God stop it?  Why won’t God take away this pain?  Those questions are important, and we have to sit with them, however difficult it can be.  But there’s also a part of grief that is visceral, embodied.

When Mary kneels to anoint Jesus’ feet, she is embodying both the love she feels now and the grief she will soon come to know.  She knows death is looming, and yet she loves extravagantly, with her whole self.  She pours a pound of perfume over Jesus’ feet.  She wipes his feet with her very own hair.  The fragrance fills the room.  Nothing held back.  Her love seeps into every corner of that space, and it makes people like Judas uncomfortable.

We are people who live in the midst of death too.  Yesterday we laid to rest our friend Jim, whose last years have been difficult in a way that is profoundly unfair.  This week the Chatham community has been shaken by the death of a 51-year-old father of four, Michael Pacchia, in a car accident just up the street.  It is impossible to understand how this happened, how a family is left to grieve so deeply.

Many of our young people know the Pacchia family and are really hurting for their friends and classmates who have lost their father.  When we gathered for confirmation on Tuesday, we wrestled with the questions we have for God in impossibly hard moments.  I suspect their questions reflect some of your own.  They said:

  • Our world is a beautiful place. Why can’t everyone enjoy it?
  • Why do people hurt [us] without knowing?
  • Why do families fight?
  • Why do people become sick?
  • Why do I make bad decisions?
  • If you always have a plan for us, why do you let tragedies happen?
  • Why do terrible things happen to innocent people?  How will they recover?
  • Is there anything I can do to help?  How do I help them move forward?
  • Why does grief hit at certain times?

There are no easy answers to the questions of why, but I believe that Mary teaches us one way to respond in the midst of grief.  When we live with death behind us and death in front of us, when we realize that in reality every single person we encounter is in the process of dying, then what can we do but love extravagantly?  Pour out our care and compassion for one another as lavishly as we can so that each of us is sure that, no matter what happens, we are held and we are loved.  Mary is anointing Jesus, whose death and resurrection mean that the tragedies of this life do not ultimately win, but Mary knows all too well that they are painful in the meantime.  She knows that pain.  She knows that grief.  And yet she still pours out all that perfume.

We’ve also been learning about prayer in confirmation, about what it means to talk to God about anything, whether or not we have the exact right words for what we’re trying to say.  We have practiced naming our own concerns to God, and we’ve also been practicing what the church calls intercessory prayer – praying on behalf of other people.  Intercessory prayer is powerful in many ways, including the way it pushes us to consider other people’s needs, to hold those needs in our hearts even as we lift them up to God.

I want to close this morning’s sermon with a prayer in the words of the confirmands.  May their words and their longings as they speak to God open the way for our own prayers this day.  May they help us love each other extravagantly even in the midst of death.

Let us pray.

Loving God,

Thank you for hearing our questions.

I ask for your forgiveness and ask you to help others who have been affected by my own decisions and the decisions of others.

I ask you to help the homeless people in the world and help them to get back on their feet.

Protect President Zelensky and make sure he is safe.

Be with my friend C.  Take her mind off the negatives and help her focus on the good memories.

Help my friend M. with his family life.

Be with my friend’s grandparents.  Make sure they can recover from their sickness and continue to live happily.

Be with my grandpa on the trip he is taking.  Be by his side and keep him safe.

Make sure I don’t hold myself back from doing what I love.

Help the Pacchia family.  Give them your prayers while mourning the loss of their loved one; help them throughout their grief and bring some sort of joy to them; help them get settled in their new life.

God, you have a huge role in people’s lives, so do the best you can to send prayers toward all of us.  Guide me and others to make good choices and be compassionate.

Help me, O God, when I face things I do not understand:

  • To spread love to the people I know
  • To stay strong and trustworthy
  • To give hugs when they’re needed
  • To write and share memories of people who have died.
  • To help people through these tough times
  • To stay strong for people who need it
  • To let people know I’m there for them
  • To listen better and just be there for people
  • To forgive myself and others

Hear our prayers, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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

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June 6, 2021

‘Tis the season.  The season of proms and graduations and confirmations and end-of-the-school-year milestones that flood us with memories of when the kids we know were much smaller, able to fit right in the crook of our arms.  One day they’re reaching for your hand to hang on tight.  You blink, and the next day they’re reaching for a diploma.

Radio host Scott Simon recently shared a piece reflecting on his daughters, for whom his family celebrated two graduations this year – one from eighth grade, the other from high school.  He and his wife have been looking through photos from when the girls were much smaller, marveling at how quickly it all went.  He says this:

Parents have special eyesight. We watch our children get smarter and taller and stronger, and we dream they may someday dazzle the world. But some part of our eyes and hearts will always see them as infants we once held; children whose small hands once reached up for ours; the charmers who smiled into our faces with the power of sunlight.

We dream that someday they may dazzle the world.  I wonder if that’s how Mary felt as she watched Jesus go about those early months of his ministry.  Her child who had been born in unusual circumstances is now all grown up and doing what he was born to do.  It should come as no surprise that the kid whose earliest visitors had included both shepherds and wise men would now attract a crowd filled with all kinds of people.  It should also come as no surprise that Mary is worried about the attention that Jesus is attracting.  Mothers have instincts about these things. They know when trouble is on the horizon.

Notice that we’re only in chapter 3 of Mark’s gospel, but a lot has happened so far.  Jesus has been baptized, spent forty days in the wilderness resisting the temptations of Satan, cobbled together his group of disciples, and done some preaching.  But mostly what he’s done has been healing – cleansing a leper, healing a paralytic.  You know, just your typical day at the office.

But Jesus has also been doing some exorcisms, casting out demons in those who had been afflicted with evil spirits.  Our modern sensibilities can come up with all kinds of theories about what was going on with those who had been possessed, but the important part is that Jesus restores them to a new kind of life.  And in doing so, he restores them to a new kind of relationship with their families and communities.  He also earns himself a reputation as having power over evil.

Mary has shown up (with reinforcements) to persuade Jesus to tone it down a little.  She’s heard the rumors.  She knows that people are saying that Jesus is himself an agent of evil.  How else, they wonder, could he cast out these evil spirits?  Mary knows enough to understand that these situations usually don’t end well.  I can only imagine how much she’s worried about what will happen to her son.

The religious leaders have arrived from Jerusalem, and they waste no time in fueling the narrative that Jesus is not just out of his mind, but a ruler of demons.  There’s a little back and forth here, in which Jesus points out some flaws in their logic.  It would be pretty silly for the ruler of demons to go around doing exorcisms – a house divided against itself cannot stand, after all.  The back and forth ends – for now – with Jesus warning them that it is unforgivable to look at the healing work of God and call it evil.

As an aside, that verse about blaspheming against the Holy Spirit has created a lot of angst over the centuries for church people who have feared committing an unforgivable sin.  I tend to believe that Jesus is exaggerating a little in this moment for persuasive effect.  He wants them to see how wrong it is to try to impede this healing work that he has been sent by God to do.  As so often happens, church folks have taken a verse like that and too often weaponized it against people whose behavior they didn’t like.

What always stands out to me about this story is not the back and forth with the religious leaders, although that’s important.  What really hits me is what Jesus says about family.  He dismisses his own family’s concerns for him.  And remember: their worries are real and valid.  If Jesus had listened to them and gone back home to live out a quiet life in the countryside, he would not have ended up on a cross. But he doesn’t let his family talk him into that safer life.

Instead Jesus redefines family: “’Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

Whoever does the will of God is my family, Jesus says.  Whoever joins in the work of healing and hope and justice and peace – those are my family.  And family stands with each other in doing those things that are both necessary and hard.

Jesus introduces us here to a more expansive idea of family, one that is not just about being blood relatives or having grown up in the same household.  And while the families into which we are born can be sources of love and support, for many people they can be sources of pain and rejection.

I have seen it so many times as a hospital chaplain, including my time in San Francisco, especially among those who are LGBTQ.  I met people who came to the city from all over the country because their families had cast them out simply for being who they are.  They show up alone and scared.  And then some unfortunate event – an accident, an injury, a difficult diagnosis – lands them in the hospital.  Hospitals can feel pretty lonely no matter who you are, but imagine if you are all alone in a city far from where you grew up.

Time and time again I’ve witnessed a new kind of family show up in those hospital rooms.  A chosen family.  Mothers whose children have grown up and moved away show up to mother folks whose own mothers won’t speak to them.  Children show up with pictures they’ve drawn for their chosen aunts and uncles. Other people show up as adopted siblings, bringing a cozy blanket, a set of headphones, and some jokes that make the patient laugh and are just dirty enough to make the chaplain blush a little.  Mostly people bring their presence.  They sit and wait and listen so that the person in the hospital bed feels not loneliness, but love.  Love all around.

This is what church is called to be… a community of God’s extravagant love in the midst of forces that fight against that love at every turn.

In a society that’s more interested in hurling insults and stirring up conflict, it’s rather revolutionary to say, “We are bound together by something stronger than all of that nonsense.  We have all gone swimming in the waters of baptism because we all needed the same amount of God’s grace – and we keep needing it, again and again.  We are all raised to new life in Jesus, who keeps reminding us that it’s not about creating divisions, but is instead about the One who holds us all and refuses to let us go.”

May we hold fast that promise, which makes us family.  Amen.

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

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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:

VBS – Registration Form _18

 

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Chatham, NJ 07928-1659
(973) 635-5889

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