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

Freedom

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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October 31, 2021

On Friday night I saw the Broadway musical “Jagged Little Pill,” which is based on Alanis Morrisette’s 1995 album of the same name.  Many of you know that one of our music scholar alums, Adi, has a key role in the musical. It was wonderful to see him bring his character to life so beautifully.  At the heart of the show is the Healey family. The mother, Mary Jane, works hard to present the family’s life as perfect.  The annual Christmas letter, her Instagram feed, her interactions with other moms – they’re all designed to highlight their family’s success, like son Chris’ recent admission to Harvard.  But all of the bright and shiny pictures hide the true story, which is much more complicated.  It includes Mary Jane’s own addiction to opioids, which become the jagged little pills of the show’s title.  We learn more as the musical unfolds about why Mary Jane has turned to drugs, but to avoid spoilers, I’ll simply say that Mary Jane’s story happens far more often than we realize.

It’s a pointed reminder that we don’t just wear masks on Halloween.  Most of us have some kind of mask that we present to the world, especially when what’s going on inside feels too painful to admit.  We don’t want others to see that pain, whether it’s been inflicted upon us or is of our own making.  We’d prefer to be seen as having it together, being on top of everything.  We’d rather people envy us than pity us.

On this Reformation Sunday we remember how desperately people worried about their souls in Martin Luther’s time.  The people then had their own worries about whether they were measuring up.  Were they good enough to achieve eternal life?  The church of the time tried to sell them salvation in the form of something called indulgences.  Pay a certain price, and you could be guaranteed freedom from the fiery pits of hell.  Pay a little more, and you could liberate your dead relatives too.

What troubled Luther most about this approach was that the church was selling people something that they had already received for free.  He’d studied the Bible carefully; he was a professor of the Bible and had taught it for years.  His reading of the book of Romans, including the passage we heard a few minutes ago, convinced him that it is not about earning, deserving, or buying our way to salvation.  It is faith alone that sets us free from the punishment we would otherwise deserve – faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we hear in Romans.  All.  Every last one of us.  So if it’s about deserving a reward, then we’re all in trouble.  But that verse continues: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

Justified – made right and whole – by God’s grace as a gift.  There is no striving, scrambling, buying, earning, selling, bargaining, or negotiating necessary.  The saving love of God requires nothing from us other than to trust that it is with us.

This is what Jesus is talking about in the gospel when he says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  Jesus is not talking about some abstract truth, something so conceptual that it has no real meaning.  Nor is he talking about an individualistic kind of truth that we mean when we say that someone is “speaking their truth.”  Later in the Gospel of John Jesus will say “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  Jesus himself is the truth. It’s his way of saying, “I have come to set you free from having to measure up.  I love you no matter what, and I want you to live with the freedom to love and care for others – not because you have to, but because you can’t help it.”

There’s a dramatic moment just a few verses before today’s gospel.  A woman has been caught in adultery, and the religious leaders bring her to Jesus.  There are people all around, so it feels like a deliberate attempt to shame the woman and to trap Jesus into saying something that will get him in trouble.  They remind Jesus that the law says the woman must be stoned to death.  They want to know what Jesus says they should do.

Jesus does something strange in that moment.  He bends down and writes something on the ground.  We don’t know exactly what he writes.  I’ve sometimes wondered if he was stalling while he figured out what to say.  But I also wonder what words he might have written there in the dirt.  Grace…truth…freedom.

Eventually Jesus stands up and says to the religious leaders and to everyone gathered there: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  One by one the people go away until it’s just Jesus and the woman.  Jesus says to her: “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”  She replies, “No one, sir.”  He says: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

The people who had gathered, stones in hand, ready to punish this woman – they knew the truth.  The truth that we are all captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  That’s why it’s so easy to get caught up in judgment – because it turns us away from the harm we have done and fixates on the sin of others.  In that moment Jesus reminds them that we all stand in need of that mercy that only God can give.

What if we really lived into the freedom that Jesus promises?  What if we could set aside our judgments – of ourselves and of each other – and replace those judgments with the assurance that God is with us?  When we rest in the promises of God’s forgiveness and love, it makes us more forgiving and loving – which is something that world needs so much right now.  We need hands that reach out in mercy more than fingers that point in judgment.

Jesus promises that each and every time we celebrate Holy Communion, he is here with us.  He is in the bread and wine, under the bread and wine, with the bread and wine so that we can be sure he is truly present.

In First Communion class we’ve talked about how receiving the love of Jesus is a gift.  It does not depend on what we’ve done that week.  We don’t have to have gotten good grades or scored a goal or been the best version of ourselves in order to receive the sacrament.  We don’t have to wear a mask or pretend that everything is OK.  We simply come forward and receive this gift of grace just as we are.

And then, having received such a gift, we go out carrying Jesus in us.  We pray that the presence of Jesus will give us eyes of compassion with which to see ourselves and others, hearts to love the world, and hands to serve those in need.

We pray this prayer from Martin Luther:

Dearest God and Lord,
strengthen and uphold us
in your pure, precious Word
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
and help us to show and live our thanks
with our fruits of faith
to your praise and thanks[i]
forever.
Amen.

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


[i] Martin Luther, translated for A Collection of Prayers from Die Gebete Luthers#195 as found here: https://acollectionofprayers.com/tag/martin-luther/page/2/

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