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justice

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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March 20, 2022

Why?  It’s a question we start asking at about the age of two or three. It’s a sign of curiosity.  It means that we want to know more about the world. If we’re lucky, we keep asking questions for the rest of our lives.

If you’ve been a kid or known a kid, you know that the questions can be about anything. Why can’t I see the sun at night?  Why do I have to brush my teeth?  Why are your hairs white?

Eventually kids move to questions of fairness.  Why does John get to stay up later than I do?  Why does Sara get more screen time?  Why can’t I stay out past midnight when everyone else does?  Kids of all ages have a keen sense of justice.

As we get older, that sense of justice brings us face to face with the question that does not have any easy answers.  Why do terrible things happen?  That’s the question that haunts us.

You may have seen this week the story of an awful head-on collision between a pick-up truck and a van that killed nine people in Texas, including the coach and six members of the men’s and women’s golf teams from the University of the Southwest.  When I first heard the news, I immediately thought of the families and friends left to deal with this tragedy, including the entire university community.  This kind of accident devastates so many people in an instant.

A few days later investigators reported that at the time of the accident a 13-year-old was driving the pick-up truck.  Both the 13-year-old and the 38-year-old passenger also died.  There was some kind of spare tire on the left front side of the vehicle, which failed and caused the truck to swerve in front of the van.  Investigators also reported that several passengers in the van appeared not to have been wearing seat belts at the time of the crash.

When I heard these reports, I immediately went into a series of why questions that were laced with judgment.  Why in the world was a 13-year-old driving that truck?  Why in the world would the 38-year-old let a kid take the wheel on a highway where the speed limit is 75 miles per hour?  Why weren’t those college students buckled in?

Those judgments came instantly.  I still felt compassion and heartbreak for everyone involved, but I wanted answers.  What I really wanted to be able to do is go back in time and interrupt whatever had happened to create this terrible moment.  Stop the flat tire.  Get a better spare.  Make sure everyone is buckled up.  Keep the kid out of the driver’s seat.

That’s the hardest part of tragedies.  Realizing that we cannot change what has happened.  We can only live with the aftermath.

Some people come to Jesus in today’s gospel with questions about why a terrible thing has happened.  Pontius Pilate, a local leader of the Roman government, has executed several Galileans.  He appears to have done this heinous thing when they were in the middle of some kind of sacrificial ritual, so that their blood mingled with the blood of the animals they had sacrificed.  In responding to those in the crowd who are struggling with this tragedy, Jesus makes reference to another one, an accident in which a tower fell over and killed eighteen people.  We can imagine that both events would have been the subject of much discussion among the friends and neighbors of those who had died.  They were trying to make sense of two awful tragedies – one at the hands of a brutal leader and the other a random occurrence.

Jesus does not give them satisfying answers.  He rejects any notion of tragedy as punishment.  In other words, he says, these people did not die because they were bad people.  They were certainly not worse people than any of you.  They died because terrible things happen, and today those terrible things have happened to them.

Jesus talks instead about repentance.  He’s telling them to turn their hearts and minds to God because none of us knows when the terrible thing might happen to us.  Our traditional notions of repentance in Christianity sometimes lead us to assume that we have to “get right with God” before we die.  But I don’t think Jesus is talking about putting on sackcloth and ashes and going to confession nine times a day. For starters, we are already “right with God” because God extends grace and mercy to us each and every day of our lives.  We are in relationship with God because of who God is, not because we get it all right.

But Jesus knows that we want to find a reason for the terrible things, and that in the process we often blame the people who have been harmed rather than the systems that have caused the harm.  We tell ourselves that people who are poor or people who are experiencing homelessness didn’t work hard enough or did something wrong along the way instead of admitting that we often don’t pay people a living wage or don’t provide enough access to affordable mental health care.  We focus on whether the woman who was sexually assaulted drank too much or wore the “wrong” thing or stayed out too late instead of focusing on dismantling sexist and predatory ways of viewing women.

Most of the time when we go down these pathways, we don’t do so maliciously.  In the deepest corners of our hearts, we feel compassion, but what we really want to know is this: Can I keep the terrible thing from happening to me or to someone I love?  If there is a logic, then maybe I can interrupt it.

The actual answer, says Jesus, is repentance.  This week I heard a definition of repentance that has really stayed with me.  Repentance is “coming to see things from God’s point of view.”  It means “having our mind reoriented in a way that sees God’s kingdom breaking in around the edges and our own place in that.”[i]  As we say in the Lord’s Prayer: Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus tells that story of the fig tree to help us understand how God sees us.  We do not always yield the fruit that God wants us to produce.  We fail to provide good health care for those who are sick or suffering.  We fail to protect those who are vulnerable because of their skin color or their gender identity or their economic conditions.  We get stuck in blaming and shaming each other rather than reforming the world.

But God, like that gardener, does not give up on us. God sees that we can do better.  We cannot prevent all of the terrible things that might happen, but we are all capable of growth, both individually and collectively.  God gives us what we need to do that growing, even if it sometimes looks like a big pile of manure.  God believes that we can, against all odds, bear fruit that will make life better for everyone.

May we look for ways to bear fruit this week.  After all, it is a season for growth and life and new possibilities.  We give thanks that God does not give up on us – not today, not ever.  Amen.

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


[i] From this week’s episode of the Sermon Brainwave podcast from Luther Seminary

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