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

Relationships

July 3, 2022

I have a dear friend whose husband had a stroke last November.  He’s a really healthy guy in his 50’s, and he has no medical conditions that might make him vulnerable to a stroke.  He spent some time in the hospital and had tons of tests, and eventually his brain just kind of healed itself.  It felt like a miracle.

Even after her husband was safely home and completely recovered, my friend noticed that she went through a period of time when she worried about worst possible outcomes – not just about his health, but about everything. If she got into her car, she worried she would get into an accident.  If her daughter went out with friends, she worried that her daughter would be attacked.  When my friend cooked in her kitchen, something she loves to do, she worried she might set the house on fire.

Eventually a friend who is also a psychiatrist explained the phenomenon of hypervigilance.  When we’ve experienced something sudden and scary like a spouse having a stroke, the brain starts to think that any trauma can happen.  It’s like a curtain has been pulled back, and all we can see are the many terrible things that could happen at any moment.  So the brain tries to protect us by staying on “high alert.”  It feels like we’re constantly scanning the horizon for danger.

If I were one of Jesus’ earliest followers, and certainly if I were among these seventy people he sent out ahead of him to every town and place, I think hypervigilance would have been my default state – especially after hearing his “pep talk.”  Jesus tells them right up front that there will be dangers: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”  Yikes.

Jesus goes on to say that they will be completely dependent on the hospitality of others– for food, for shelter, for any of the ordinary comforts that we need in daily life.  That alone would be enough to send me running back toward home.  I like to pack my own snacks, thank you very much.

And then, as if being sent out with no luggage into the midst of wolves wasn’t terrifying enough, Jesus reminds them that they will be rejected by many of the people they encounter.  Sometimes people will be flat-out hostile about it, but at the very least, they will not give you food or a place to sleep.  They will send you on down the road, hungry and exhausted.

I’m glad that in the year 2022 Jesus doesn’t seem to be asking me to hit the road without even a carry-on bag, but the part about going out like lambs into the midst of wolves rings true.  The world feels more dangerous for all of us, so a certain amount of vigilance is necessary.  I don’t like feeling on “high alert,” but I often am – when moving through a parking lot, when visiting an unfamiliar place, when my doorbell rings unexpectedly.  And just yesterday there were white supremacists marching through the streets of Boston, so imagine what it’s like to move through the world as a person of color.

Lately I think a lot about the risks of wearing identifiers of my faith – a cross necklace, a t-shirt with a Bible verse on it, my clergy collar.  I do it anyway, but I know from experience that hostility can come from many directions, from people who (often with good reason) are suspicious of Christianity and also from people who want to let me know that “pretending” to be a pastor will surely land me in hell.  And, by the way, all of you are being led astray because I am a heretic.

I get where some of the hostility comes from. So much of what the general public associates with Christianity right now is terrible – judgment, exclusion of LGBTQIA+ people, the silencing and subjugation of women, the protection of sexual predators.

Even when we say, “But we’re not THAT kind of Christian!” how is a person supposed to distinguish among all of the different denominations?  And all of our denominations have things we need to deal with in our history and in our practice.

The result?  We often stay quiet, hidden, under the radar.  And then the story of what we understand Jesus to be about gets overshadowed by a different story.  When we stay quiet, then there are fewer voices telling about his mercy, his healing, his welcome for all people.

If we need some encouragement these days to live our faith more boldly, notice what Jesus tells the folks he sends out into the danger zone.

He tells them to focus on the mission – cure the sick, teach people about God.  That’s the primary purpose, and a lot of the other stuff is just a distraction.

Jesus also reminds them that living our faith is about relationships.  It’s not about pressuring people to see things our way.  It’s about conversation, sharing what you have come to understand and listening to the other person’s story.  Jesus tells his followers to remain in the same house for while.  To eat and drink with the people who live there.  Conversations around tables are beautiful places for relationships to grow.  And notice that Jesus does not send his people out one by one.  He sends them out in pairs.  When things are hard – and they will be hard sometimes – they can support each other.

The other important reminder that Jesus gives is not to waste time on the people who reject you outright.  Shake the dust off your feet.  Move on.

And I’m struck by the fact that Jesus tells his followers to say BOTH to the people who welcome them hospitably AND to the people who reject them: “The kingdom of God has come near.”  So there’s this word of blessing about how they have encountered the presence of God, even if they choose to dismiss that gift.

I kept thinking this week about what Jesus might say to us now, with all of our own fears about the risks of witnessing to our faith.  I think he would tell us several things:

First, he would tell us to go out with good courage.  Yes, there are dangers out there.  But the world doesn’t get better when we all play it safe.

Jesus would also remind us not to waste time on petty arguments.  As someone once said, we don’t have to attend every fight to which we’re invited.  If someone isn’t able to have a reasonable conversation, don’t waste energy on a screaming match or on dueling comments on a Facebook post.  Move on.  Shake the dust off.

Most of all, nurture relationships.  Look for opportunities to have mature, grounded conversations about things that matter – ideally over good food.  Remember that we do not travel alone.  We have this community, and we have the unfailing presence of God, who walks before us and behind us and beside us.

And ask God to bless those who welcome us AND those who reject us, praying for them by name.

Given all that we have experienced in recent years, given all that we are experiencing now, some hypervigilance is understandable.  We continue to live with the effects of the collective trauma we have survived.

Duke professor Kate Bowler, whom I’ve quoted before, reminded us in the spring of 2020 to stay connected and to stay honest.  It’s a reminder worth hearing again now as we think about what it means to live our faith more openly.  She writes:

“When we are afraid, our culture tells us that if we say it out loud that we are just being ‘negative.’…I can tell you frankly that that is absolutely not true.  Tell the truth. Fear is real for all of us and one of our strongest tools to combat it is communication.  Let’s not make honesty the enemy.  We have each other. And we can handle a little reality with a lot of love.”[i]

Kate is right about that.  We can handle what’s in front of us with a lot of love.  So, people of God, it’s time to hit the road.  Be bold, be kind, and stick together.  Amen.

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


[i] From Kate Bowler’s March 17, 2020 Facebook post.

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January 31, 2021

This week in Confirmation we started our study of the Ten Commandments.  We’ve been following the people of Israel as they struggled under Pharaoh’s oppression in Egypt, as Moses and Pharaoh went back and forth, with Moses demanding the Israelites’ freedom and Pharaoh time after time refusing to give it.  We went through the plagues that God sent to persuade Pharaoh to let the people go, from turning the river to blood to unleashing all kinds of creatures, from frogs to locusts.  Even once they make their escape, the Israelites have to deal with another change of mind from Pharoah, who sends his army after them.  Then we have the parting of the Red Sea, which most of us picture in whatever way Hollywood has helped us imagine it.

It’s a wildly dramatic story, and whether or not you believe all of it literally happened in the way the book of Exodus describes, the prevailing theme seems pretty clear: God wants God’s people to be free.  Free from oppression, free from power-hungry rulers, free to head out into a new place and build community together.  God knows that they’ll need some help with that community-building, especially since freedom is so new to the Israelites, so that’s how we get the commandments.

Among them is this instruction found in Exodus 20.  God says to the people: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

The Israelites had lived for a long time among people who had many gods, many idols, many other entities to worship.  And they would be moving into lands with similar challenges.  But God was reminding them: “I have brought you into freedom.  Be careful how you use that freedom.  I’m the one God you have.  Don’t get distracted by other things that seem pretty or powerful or compelling.  Those other things will let you down.  I won’t.”

Our confirmation kids are smart, and they understand human nature, so even though we realized that no one we know today is looking to worship a statue of a golden calf like the Israelites did for a moment, we have plenty of our own idols to hold us captive in 2021.  They could name a whole list of things that distract us, that keep us focused on something other than where God is leading us.  There are a thousand potential idols on the internet, including social media.  There’s celebrity culture.  There are our deep fears and anxieties about how other people perceive us, about our social status or our physical appearance or the unrealistic expectations that we put on ourselves.  So often our idols are strangely seductive because they show up as things that in small amounts seem good.  We want to have friends and be healthy and work hard in school or in our jobs.  But when those things take on a life of their own and get attached to standards of perfection or prosperity that aren’t attainable – that’s when they take hold of us in ways that make them idols.

Which brings us to the people of Corinth, with whom you might not think we have much in common.  It was probably a bit confusing when John was reading that excerpt from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a few minutes ago.  He read it beautifully, but it sets out a situation that seems far from our experience.

Here’s some background. Corinth was a fairly pagan town, so the Christians who lived there found it hard to live in a way that was holy.  Temptations were all around them all the time.  There was no realistic way to live separately from that secular world.[i]

Paul recognizes some of those tensions, especially as Christians worshiped only one God while many of their Corinthian neighbors worshiped many.  And some of those pagan neighbors would sacrifice animals to their various gods, and then the meat would be available afterwards for sale.  So, then, was it OK for the Christians in Corinth to eat this meat that had been part of a ritual for these pagan gods?  Paul reminds those Christians that while there are many gods recognized by others, for them “there is one God…from whom are all things and for whom we exist.”

So, for people who are clear that there is only one God, it doesn’t really matter if they eat this sacrificial meat from the other rituals.  But Paul acknowledges that for some people whose faith might not be as deeply established, the eating of this meat might be confusing – or even detrimental to their faith.  It might send the wrong message – that these sacrifices to other gods are fine.  So, Paul suggests, maybe the Christians don’t eat the meat as a way of helping other Christians stay the course in their faithfulness to God.

In other words, Paul reminds us that our choices as members of a community matter.  We have freedom, but how we use that freedom matters.

Paul understands that freedom is one of the things that is easy to turn into an idol.  That’s what happens when we say “You can’t tell me what to do!” and insist on doing things our own way with no concern about the consequences for others.

And Paul also understands that in Christian community we become part of an interconnected set of relationships in which we value the interests of others as much as – and sometimes more than – our own.  We realize that the decisions we make affect others.

In a superficial way this might mean that even though you don’t love a particular hymn, you sing it every now and then because it’s someone else’s favorite.

In this ongoing time of COVID it has meant wearing masks and staying distanced and worshiping online.  Even when those experiences fall short of what we really want to do, we understand that these choices are better than putting other people in danger.  The sacrifice is worth it to preserve the life and health of our neighbors.

Consider how this way of thinking plays into addressing something like climate change.  The decisions and sacrifices we make now will have implications not just for our present community but also for the world that our children and grandchildren will inhabit.  We can use our freedom now in such a way that their freedom is not curtailed by more hurricanes, more wildfires, more rising water levels.

My favorite part of Paul’s plea is this.  He says: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  When knowledge is the focus, we try to present intellectual arguments that are more compelling than someone else’s intellectual argument.  We try to win.  Paul says: It’s not the head knowledge that matters; it’s the impulses of our hearts.  Are we oriented toward the common good or toward our own self-interest?  We can rationalize anything, but what will really serve and protect our neighbors?  Have we made an idol of what we want, or are we willing to focus on what others need?

Imagine how that way of living and loving might transform our churches…our communities…our country.  Just imagine.

God is here with us as God has always been – loving us and guiding us and saving us.  And yes, giving us the freedom to make both helpful and terrible choices.  I pray that we use this gift of freedom not as an idol that leads to selfishness, but as a privilege that builds communities in love and faith.  Amen.

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


[i] I appreciate this commentary from 2015 by Professor Valerie Nicolet-Anderson:

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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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