Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (20 June 2021)

Mark 5.35-41

JoAnn A. Post

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

There is a lot wrong with this story. There are a lot more questions than answers in this story. There are a lot of evidentiary holes in this story. There is a lot about which to be concerned in this story. And Mark, the gospel writer, meant for it to be that way.

We come away from this story knowing a lot less than we did before we read it. And I think that’s the point.

Try these questions on for size:

Why would you go for a long sail at night?

What was waiting on the other side of the sea?

Who was in those “other boats” and did they nearly drown, as well?

What does it mean, they took Jesus “just as he was?”
If the storm was so immense, how could Jesus sleep?

I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee. It’s a stunning place, nestled in a ring of mountains and high hills, 12 miles long, 8 miles wide. The sea itself is 700 feet below sea level; the highest hill is 1400 feet above sea level. The sea lies in a basin, like milk at the bottom of a cereal bowl. On a still day, there is not enough wind to ruffle a Kleenex, let alone sail a ship. But on a whim, a cool wind blowing across the hills makes contact with the warm sea water, and ferocious storms erupt in a matter of minutes. Rocking side-to-side like, well like milk in a cereal bowl.

I’m sure that now, in the 21st century, it is possible to predict a shifting wind, and avoid the catastrophe that befell Jesus and his companions. But Tom Skilling hadn’t been born yet; there was no early morning pinpoint Doppler radar. Sailors on the Sea of Galilee were at the mercy of the wind and waves, which had minds of their own.

So, knowing all of this, the questions are more troubling. Why, after a long day of teaching on the beach, would Jesus pour himself into the stern of a boat and set sail for a foreign country, with a flotilla escorting him, no provisions, in the dark? If I didn’t know better, I would think Jesus was an adrenalin addict, itching for the next adventure, no matter the risk. But that is not the case.

In a few verses we will learn the reason for Jesus’ midnight cruise. But now, as Jesus snores and the disciples bail and the ships list dangerously port to starboard, we have to ask, “Jesus, what were you thinking?”

I imagine, if you have been following Jesus around as long as I have, you have asked that question before. “Jesus? Really? What were you thinking?”

Think of the storms in our own lives, in the world around us. The pandemic alone created enough storms to sink a whole navy’s worth of ships. Loss of every kind. Anxiety. Sleeplessness. Listlessness. Loneliness. Confusion. Anger. Sorrow. Fear. And that was just the first week.

If there had been a way to mutiny the Good Ship Coronavirus, we would have gladly done so. But we were forced, individually and collectively, to ride it to the other shore. This shore. This post-pandemic shore. Somehow, I had imagined it would be a relief to reach this distant, almost-virus-free beach, but instead I find as much anger and confusion and listlessness and loss on this side of the storm as before.

Maybe, as on the Sea of Galilee, there will always be storms in our lives, emerging suddenly and without warning. It might be that rather than seeking that illusory, always-calm sea, we need to befriend not only Jesus, but also the turbulence that accompanies him everywhere he goes.

Anyway. I digress. Where were we?

Oh, yes, rockin’ and rollin’ on the Sea of Galilee, while Jesus slept like a baby. And this must have been some storm. Remember, most of the disciples were professional fishers. They had been out in all kinds of weather on the Sea of Galilee, plying their trade. That they were afraid tells you something about the ferocity of the gale.

The ordinarily-rock solid, suddenly gelatinous disciples roused Jesus from his nap with an accusation, “You never loved us. You don’t care if we die.” To which Jesus opened first one droopy eye, then another, rolled them both and emerged from his nest.

Without even acknowledging his whiny, whimpering disciples, Jesus shouted at the sea, roared at the wind. “Stop! Shut up!” And they did. Like that. And what had been a roaring sea was suddenly a dead calm pond.

“Did you think I didn’t know what was happening to you,” Jesus asked. “Did you think I was going to let you drown?”

Casting a frustrated, judgmental eye all around, he plopped back down in the stern. He looked up at the torn sail and splintered mast, and said, “You got what you wanted. I stopped the storm. We would have gotten there faster if you had let the wind carry us. But no. You didn’t trust me. So, start rowing—it’s only another 10 miles or so.” And promptly went back to sleep.

Now we add another question to the list. Did Jesus know something they didn’t? Did Jesus know they would have gotten safely to the other side, in spite of, or perhaps because of the wind and waves? We’ll never know. Their fear precluded any other possible outcome.

As Jesus slept and the disciples rowed (we’re not talking about a canoe here, but a fishing vessel 30 feet long, 8 feet wide, solid cedar, with a shallow draft and low sides—it was an enormous floating bathtub), they realized their fear had been misplaced. It wasn’t wind and sea that threatened their lives, it was Jesus and his. The translators of this particular version of the story indicate that the disciples were “filled with great awe.” An earlier translation is more raw, “They were filled with abject terror.”

Of Jesus. Master of sea and storm. Ruler of life and death. Impatient with their misplaced fear. And ours.

Jesus, what were you thinking? And where are you taking us? And should we be afraid? Of you?

On the last day of second grade, as we were emptying our desks for the summer, suddenly, the tornado siren outside our school house window erupted with an ear-splitting wail. We were well-trained, always obedient farm kids, who always excelled at both fire and tornado drills. But even at that young age, we could tell a drill from the real thing. On drill days, our teachers would be watching the clock, keeping their desks tidy, giving us simple assignments, knowing that their lessons would be interrupted by a practice run out the back door or a practice duck under our desks.

But this time was different. This time my teacher, Mrs. Nelson, jumped as though she’d been shot. She looked out the window. She looked at us. She said, in a trembling voice, “Children, that’s the tornado siren. You know what to do.” But before we could duck under our desks, the principal came to our door and said, “Follow me.” Like trusting little ducks, we waddled down the hall, down the stairs, down more stairs, to a basement room I’d not seen before. It was filled with all the other students—grades kindergarten through 12. We had never had a drill like this before.

The room was filled with quiet chatter, muffled giggles, discussion among the seniors about graduation plans. And then we heard it. Overhead. Outside. All around. Wind like I’d never heard before.

And then the principal’s voice over the loud speaker, “Children. It’s just wind. There’s no reason to be afraid.” And that’s when the weeping really began.

We knew that we would not be told to be unafraid, if there was, in fact, nothing to fear. Who says, “Don’t be afraid,” when you’re about to get a pony for your birthday or win the lottery?

“Don’t be afraid.” Those words should strike fear in the heart of school children and adults everywhere.

It was true in Iowa five decades ago. It was true in a pandemic 15 months ago. It was true on the Sea of Galilee 2000 years ago. In fact, the gospel writers use the word “afraid” 34 times in their story-telling, and 30 times they use the word, “fear.” Clearly, there was, there is a lot of which to be afraid.

But, apparently, not the usual suspects. Apparently, there had been no reason to fear the surging sea and raging storm. After Jesus righted the ship and settled back into his seat, he didn’t say, “Don’t be afraid.” He said, “Why were you afraid?”

Jesus was honestly mystified that they were afraid of wind and wave. After all, he was in their boat.

And his confusion opened a whole new world of things to fear. Him. The disciples began to realize that Jesus was more than a healer, a preacher, a teacher, an exorcist—as if that isn’t enough. The disciples began to realize that Jesus was master of all creation—water below and sky above, earth and all its creatures, master of their lives. And their deaths.

A story that began with a lot of unanswered questions, ends in the same way.

What would have happened if the disciples had taken Jesus’ lead, and let out the sails, rode the wind, allowed themselves to be propelled by the waves?

What would have happened if the disciples had taken Jesus’ lead, and rested through the night, knowing that the next day, that distant shore would bring challenges of its own?

What would happen if we followed Jesus’ lead? What if, rather than sniping at each other, second-guessing our leaders, burnishing the past and fearing the future, putting the brakes on anything unfamiliar, we let out the sails? What if we rode the wind? What if we allowed the waves to throw us forward? What if we trusted Jesus to be more powerful than any force in our lives, in the world?

What would happen then?

One of my earliest questions had to do with what lay on the other side of the sea. What was the emergency, the urgency that had Jesus and his disciples out on the sea in the middle of the night in a storm? (Mark 5.1-20) A man. A single, solitary man. A single, solitary, demon-possessed man whom no one loved. It was for his sake that Jesus set sail. And once Jesus and the man met, once Jesus cast the demons out, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go home. I did what I came to do.”

For one person. Jesus risked all their lives for one nameless demon-possessed person. Jesus, what were you thinking?

You’re probably wondering what happened to second-grade me and my classmates. Clearly, I survived the storm.

Within minutes of the power going out and wind passing over, amid the sniffles of children and sobbing cries of “I want my Mom,” we experienced a dead calm. Like the calm on the Sea of Galilee, the wind ceased, the sun came out, the storm had passed. We stepped out of the school basement into a brilliant afternoon, branches and twigs strewn across the lawn and street, school buses parked on the curb ready to take us home one last time that school year. There had been no reason to fear. We were in good hands.

Like disciples of every age, in every era, whether on land or sea, Jesus’ disciples know that sometimes the fastest way to the other side is straight through the storm. And if it seems like Jesus is sleeping, we would be wrong. He is so confident of our safety, so bent on his mission there is nothing to fear.

So we let out the sails, buck the waves, ride the storm.

Jesus, what were you thinking?

That’s easy, he says. I’m thinking we have work to do. And no time to be afraid.

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (6 June 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

Mark 3.20-35

Jesus went home, and the crowd came together again, so that Jesus and the disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And Jesus called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “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.”

And they tried to restrain him.

If you have always thought your family was the one that put the “fun” in “dysfunctional,” Jesus’ family got there first. Already in only the third chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been baptized by the Spirit and tested by Satan. He booted demons, healed the sick, straightened twisted limbs, preached ovation-worthy sermons, offended religious authorities, and called 12 disciples to help manage the burgeoning workload.

Imagine, now, that you are Jesus’ mother. Though Mark, the gospel writer, doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ unlikely birth, Mary has known since before Jesus wiggled in her womb that he was special. More than special. He was holy.

Though Mark, the gospel writer, doesn’t include any cute baby pictures or toddler stories, provides no senior year book photos, Mary savored every moment of Jesus’ (unknown to us) childhood, this child of Joseph, child of God.

How proud she must have been! Jesus’ face was on the side of every bus in the city. His twitter feed was exploding. Offers for consulting gigs and book deals poured in. Mary must have walked around town with a t-shirt that said, “Jesus? He’s mine!”

After all, if you could lay claim to having birthed the Son of God, wouldn’t you brag a little?

That’s why when this morning’s gospel reading opens, we are pleased to learn that Jesus “went home.” How long had it been since he’d slept in his childhood bed, or put his feet under Mary’s kitchen table? How long had it been since the kids had played Scrabble on the living room floor, or teased each other in the way that only brothers and sisters can? Mary and Joseph’s siblings must have been ecstatic to learn that their favorite brother was coming home.

But, contrary to our expectations, Jesus’ family was horrified. Their welcome was limp as a used tea bag. They hid in the house while Jesus stood on the porch and gave interviews. They went so far as to interrupt him mid-sentence, trying to drag him back into the house, to stop the circus playing out on the front lawn. Mary had heard the rumors about Jesus. Mary had lost friends because of Jesus. Mary knew that, though she thought Jesus was all that, others thought he was nuts, delusional, completely beside himself. And it was humiliating to her.

Jesus, firstborn of Joseph and Mary, the only child of God, was a raging embarrassment to the family. Mark writes, “They tried to restrain him.”

But Jesus would not be restrained.

When his family’s efforts to muzzle him failed, the scribes who had carpooled down from Jerusalem for the occasion took up the task, shouting what others had been whispering. “You’re crazy! You’re nuts! You’re Satan! You’re demonic!”

Please forgive my use of those pejorative, demeaning characterizations too often used of persons who might live differently than do we. Those are not my word or my thoughts. Though we still have a long way to go to understand the workings of the mind, in the 1st century, any hint of difference had only one diagnosis. Difference was of the devil. And with that blunt instrument, they wrote off as crazy, nuts, scary, demonic, anything that didn’t conform to prevailing norms. It was a dark time for anyone who was different, in any way.

“Different.” To most of you, it’s a three-syllable word. But in my northern Iowa farm family, it has only two syllables. “Diffurnt.” We were a shockingly homogenous bunch—most of the people in my little town had immigrated from the same region of Germany. (In other words, we all looked alike.) Most of the people in my little town went to church. Most of the people in my little town were unassuming, hard-working, carefully-modulated and modest people. It was frowned upon to put yourself forward, to draw attention. And anyone who was unlike us—in speech, in demeanor, in ethnicity, in religion, in anything—was deemed “diffurnt.”

Though it may sound judgmental, “diffurnt” was, in fact, just a comment, an observation.

The neighbor bought a Massey-Ferguson rather than a John Deere combine. “That’s diffurnt.”

The pastor wore plaid pants on a Sunday morning. “Well, that’s diffurnt.”

“Diffurnt” was occasionally used to cover shock or dismay, but most often it was simply a “huh,” or a “you’ll have that.”

The only reason the scribes could concoct for Jesus’ unwillingness to seize the attention and authority which he could rightly claim at any moment, was that he was “off” somehow. “Diffurnt” in a scary way. And they masked their fear with name-calling and bullying.

I will make no attempt to make sense of the witty repartee that follows. Jesus’ response to their mocking criticism was almost as circuitous and confusing as was his response to Nicodemus last week (John 3).

“How can Satan cast out Satan? Why would a demon exorcise a demon? How can a divided house stand? How can a strong man be robbed?” He then dropped a theological bomb that continues to terrify, warning them of the dreaded “unforgiveable sin against the Holy Spirit.” What is that? Have I done that?

Jesus dazzled them with fancy foot work, left them speechless. But in his heart, was he disappointed that he had to stand out there all alone, while his family—the ones who should have been bursting with pride—cowered inside? We don’t know.

What was it that so terrified Jesus’ family, Jesus’ enemies, even some of his old friends? It’s that Jesus didn’t want the things they wanted. Jesus didn’t need the things they needed. More important, Jesus didn’t see things the way they saw them.

The poor weren’t lazy; they were just poor.

The sick weren’t demon-possessed; they were just sick.

The sinful weren’t evil; just sinful.

The hungry weren’t selfish; just hungry.

Jesus saw a world in need—in need of him. And the scribes hated him for it. They deemed him “diffurnt.” Diffurnt enough to, eventually, kill.

But first, they had to restrain him.

Well, this is diffurnt. After 15 months apart from one another, we are together, physically, for worship. Some of us, at least. Those of us who are in the building this morning are wearing masks; we’re sitting at a respectful distance; we will exchange the peace in a Winston Churchill kind of way. (V sign, no cigars.) There is a camera in the middle of the center aisle. (Only until our new sound and recording equipment gets delivered and installed.) There is no coffee brewing in fellowship hall; there are no children running down the halls; we hear none of the easy laughter that is so typical here. But after 15 months apart and with painful restraints easing, we can live with a little “diffurnt.”

But more has changed than just physical proximity, fabric face coverings, gray hair on the elderly and longer legs on the young. We are different. The world is different. And all our attempts to restrain the change have failed.

What happened in the world while we were apart? Demons were outed and named. Economic inequity. Rampant racism. Long-standing lies. Changes that we imagined would take a decade to accomplish (or avoid), have overtaken us like a speeding train.

Our own personal demons emerged, as well. Fears we thought we had laid to rest. Prejudices that offended even us. Latent addictions. Deep doubts. Sleepless nights and endless days blurred our faculties and muted our senses.

The last fifteen months have spawned demons without and within.

And Jesus, much to his family’s chagrin, has power over them all.

Star Trek fans will know what I mean when I say that “resistance is futile.” Jesus fans will know what I mean when I say “restraints will fail.”

We cannot silence the voices of the poor any longer, though many try.

We cannot return to our old patterns of power, though many try.

We cannot isolate ourselves from the world, though many try.

We cannot restrain Jesus, though many try.

In our post-pandemic, still-grieving, often-angry, completely unsettled lives, Jesus is unrestrained and unrestrainable. Healing the sick. Loving the unlovable. Forgiving the unforgiveable. Speaking truth to power—even when it is we who hold the power.

Though “diffurnt” in my little town was not intended to be a hurtful or judgmental claim, it was an adjective worth paying attention to. “Diffurnt” meant that we were uncomfortable.

Like Jesus’ family, who tried to restrain him.

Like scribes and Pharisees, who tried to retrain him.

Like those whose world view is threatened, who try to reframe him.

It won’t work.

Jesus was not crazy or demon-possessed, for tending to the world’s needs—he was just being Jesus. Jesus is “diffurnt” in a way that saves.

Imagine. They tried to restrain him.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday (30 May 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

JN 3.1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 

He came to Jesus by night and said to him,

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God;

  for no one can do these signs that you do

  apart from the presence of God.” 

Jesus answered him,

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God

  without being born from above.” 

Nicodemus said to him,

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?

Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Jesus answered,

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God

  without being born of water and Spirit. 

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 

Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it,

  but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 

Jesus answered him,

“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know

  and testify to what we have seen;

  yet you do not receive our testimony. 

If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe,

  how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven,

  the Son of Man. 

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,

  so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 

  that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

  so that everyone who believes in him may not perish

  but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,

  but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

I got an email from an old friend a few weeks ago, a friend who is very dear but with whom I correspond only occasionally, and see even less occasionally.  Old enough to be my father; familiar enough to be my brother. You know, one of those friends whom you might not see for years, but when you lay eyes on each other, it’s as though no time has passed. You know, one of those friends who still sees you as they first saw you, almost 40 years ago. “You haven’t changed a bit!” we cry to each other when we meet. (And, we mean it.) You know, one of those friends to whom you need explain nothing—all is understood, all is already forgiven.

I got an email from an old friend like THAT a few weeks ago.

He wrote after seeing an article I’d published recently, to say, “Good work! How are you? And Jim and the girls? And that adorable grandchild?” he wrote. “It’s been too long!”

If we were in person, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell him everything—about me, my family, my work, the triumphs, the failures, the toll the pandemic has taken, my wonderings about the future. If we were in person, time would not matter and our stories and laughter and tears and scotch and cigar ash would spill all over each other. But how do you put all that in an email?

So, to his simple question I wrote a simple answer, “We are well. You?”

It’s not that I don’t want to tell him more, I just wouldn’t know how to start. Or how to stop.

Trinity Sunday is the oddest of church festivals. There is no baby in the manger, no wise man on the doorstep, no body on a cross, no empty tomb, no miracle of language. There is nothing on this day but an idea, a wondering, a proposal. About God.

Since God first wondered about people, people have been wondering about God. And we have come up with all sorts of opinions and ideas about who God is and how God works. Too often we forget that we are made in God’s image, and try to make God in ours. Too often we impute our motives to God, put our words in God’s mouth, plant our biases in God’s heart, imagine God is like us, when it is supposed to be precisely the other way around.

It must be exhausting to be God, don’t you think? To put up with our nonsense. We are like ants crawling up God’s legs, or puppies nipping at their exhausted mother. Notice me! Notice me! What a lot of work we are.

Being God is a lot of work. And today, as we name God “Trinity” we add to the load. For us. God is Three. God is One. God is Distant. God is Intimate. God is Eternal. God is Now. What?

God suffers no identity crisis; God’s self-image is strong; it’s all on us. Who is God and how do we know? Welcome to “Trinity.”

We typically read this circuitous conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus as a gentle smack-down. Nicodemus, highly educated, deeply curious, comes to Jesus with a simple statement of fact: “we know you are from God because, unless you were, no one could do the things you do.” Nicodemus might have had a little crush—hard to say.

And to Nicodemus’ innocent assertion, Jesus opens the tail gate of the theological truck, and dumps it all on Nicodemus’ head. Jesus takes him in and out of the womb, through the trees, up to heaven, down to earth, puts snakes on poles. What?

Was Jesus mocking Nicodemus?

Was Jesus exasperated with Nicodemus?

Was Jesus sick to death of all our needy nonsense and Nicodemus just happened to be the unfortunate putz who crossed his path at the wrong time, with one too many questions?

Remember my old friend, whom I have known forever, with whom I can discuss anything, to whom I can say anything?

I’m wondering now, as I read the banter between Nicodemus and Jesus if I’ve been reading it all wrong all along. What if Jesus isn’t put out or dismissive, but grateful? What if Jesus sees in Nicodemus’ eyes, hears in Nicodemus’ voice, senses in Nicodemus’ manner a man in whom there is no guile, a conversation partner rather than a challenger. What if, for some reason, Jesus believes Nicodemus’ interest to be sincere, his wonderings honest?

After all, nobody does that. Everywhere Jesus went people wanted a piece of him. They wanted to be healed or fed or forgiven. They wanted to debate or dispute or deny. Jesus couldn’t get a break. I imagine he cringed a bit when Nicodemus stepped out of the shadows. Poor Jesus, he couldn’t even stop outside to check his voicemail without being stalked.

But we know that Nicodemus was different. We know that Nicodemus came only to admire. He asked nothing. He just wanted to breathe Jesus’ air for a few minutes, to be in his presence. And he couldn’t do it publicly because, after all, he was a Pharisee. And the Pharisees had nothing good to say about Jesus. For Nicodemus to approach Jesus in the light of day . . . well, it wouldn’t have been kosher. So, instead he came at night. When no one could see him. Just to say “hey.”

When I read this text this way, when I imagine Nicodemus as a relief for Jesus rather than just one more sycophant, I hear Jesus’ seemingly incoherent theological rambling not as theological rambling at all, but as relief. “Finally,” Jesus said to himself, “I don’t have to pretend.”

“Finally, I can just say what I’ve been thinking.”

Intelligent as Nicodemus most certainly was, he couldn’t keep up with Jesus for even a minute. So after a couple of fledgling attempts to engage Jesus in conversation, he stopped trying. He just let Jesus talk. Out there in the dark. Under a street light. Swatting mosquitoes. Like friends.

It’s as though once Jesus started, he couldn’t stop.

Though the gospel writer doesn’t tell us what happened next, we can surmise that eventually Nicodemus went home and Jesus stepped back inside whatever house he was staying in. It’s as though nothing had happened. Because, really nothing did happen. Just two friends, talking at the end of the day. Did Jesus sleep better that night, for having been heard? We don’t know.

And what did that intimacy, that intensity do to Nicodemus?

It changed him. It made him bold. A little at a time.

We will meet Nicodemus two more times in John’s gospel. And each time he will step a little bit closer to center stage, a little bit further from the shadows.

Four chapters from now, John will let us eavesdrop on the Pharisees’ inner chamber, the “teachers lounge” of the temple where they could let their hair down. (John 45ff) The Pharisees were enraged with the temple police for not just arresting Jesus and throwing him in a dark cell somewhere. Nicodemus wasn’t having it; he piped up. He challenged his professional colleagues, who, almost to a person, hated Jesus.

Nicodemus said, not so innocently, “Doesn’t our law require that a person be heard before being condemned?”

The other Pharisees turned their anger on him. “Don’t tell us you’ve drunk the Jesus Kool-Aid, too!”

That went well.

Nicodemus will step into full daylight at the end of the Jesus story. (John 19.38ff) As Jesus hung lifeless on the cross, a wealthy man named Joseph of Arimathea, himself a member of the religious council who heard Jesus’ case but had abstained, sent Pontius Pilate a text, asking permission to take Jesus’ body and give him a proper burial.

Joseph of Arimathea was then joined by our old friend, Nicodemus the Pharisee, who, with his own money, purchased 100 pounds of burial spices. It was these two men, prominent religious leaders, who, in caring for Jesus not only publicly admitted their devotion, but also committed professional suicide.

We never hear of either man again, though the Roman Catholic Church has assigned them a shared commemoration day, August 31, on which they are honored as teachers of the law, early believers in Jesus, and friend to those who grieve. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the Pharisee are the patron saints of funeral directors and pall bearers. Fitting, don’t you think?

But today, on Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus is not the point. Except that, for some reason, Jesus trusted him, inviting Nicodemus into his confidence. Even for just a few minutes.

Perhaps you have such a friend, a friend who listens without judgement, who cares about the things you care about, a friend who would crawl over broken glass for you. Such a friend is rare. And precious.

Such a friend is also a glimpse of the premise that lies behind this day.

God is not a statue—a cold, hard idol from whom we beg favors.

God is not a bully—punishing wrong-doers and holding eternal grudges.

God is not a fantasy—a fairy tale to placate the feeble minded.

God is a relationship. A relationship within God—the endless interplay of Father, Son and Spirit; the infinite interaction of time and space, matter and meaning.

And a relationship with God. We believe that God, in many guises and with endless compassion, both loves us and welcomes our love. As a parent who loves a child, and is, in turn, adored. As friends who take turns carrying the load. As conversation partners, who alternately speak and listen.

God is a relationship. Into which we have been welcomed.

That is why Nicodemus could come to Jesus by night. He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t needy. He didn’t even want anything. He just wanted to say, “I know that you come from God. I even wonder if you might be God. Can I just stand here with you for awhile?”

And in the dark, Jesus opened his heart out to this equally open-hearted Pharisee.

Trinity is an invitation to get back in touch with God. Because, as with an old friend whose name in your inbox sparks joy, God would love to hear from you. And whether you address God as “Holy! Holy! Holy!” as did the seraphim in today’s Isaiah reading (Isaiah 6.1-8), or intimately as “Abba. Poppa. Momma.” as in the reading from Romans (Romans 8.12-17), or as “Hey, can we talk?” as did Nicodemus, God is listening.

Always has. Always will. Because when God starts loving you, God doesn’t know how to stop.

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (16 May 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

John 17.6-19

Jesus prayed: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 

“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

“Do they have to be positive prayers?”

That question pretty well ended what had been a hopeful, though tenuous, clergy association in a previous parish. A handful of us “mainline” clergy had been meeting regularly to pray, learn and support one another. But that handful represented only a minority of the religious bodies present in our town. We were a predictable posse—Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, UCC. But we longed to expand the conversation, model an inclusive Christian witness, so we invited others—leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints, Evangelical Free Church, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Unitarian-Universalist Society, a Pentecostal congregation.

Though we knew such a group could never pray or worship together—some of them will pray and worship only with members of their own denomination—we thought we could have coffee, offer continuing education opportunities, get to know one another beyond the caricatures we had of one another.

For a while, it worked. Sort of. We all served the local hospital as chaplains, so we could talk about that. We all had students on the local university campus, so we could talk about that. Admittedly, the list of conversation topics was short, but at least we were talking.

Leave it to me to mess it up. I was president of the local clergy association, and, foolishly, proposed that we might pray for one another’s ministries—not together in the room at the same time or necessarily for the same thing. But what if, on a scheduled basis, all our congregations prayed for a specific congregation each Sunday morning during worship.  First Methodist Church and its ministry on the first Sunday of January, St. Augustine’s Catholic Church on the second Sunday of January. You get the gist.

What a gift this would be to our community; what a powerful witness—to know that each week, every church in town was praying for one of the other congregations, simultaneously. We would, together, weekly bombard heaven with our hopes for our partners in ministry.

What a gift? What a disaster.

Those of us who thought it was a great idea, immediately pulled out calendars and started planning a schedule. Those who were cool to it, were polite but silent. Those who were opposed were obviously so, sitting back in their chairs, arms across their chests, red anger creeping up their throats.

I was trying to read the room, trying to set everyone at ease. To no avail. Finally, one of those who attended our monthly gatherings only for fear of being publicly shamed if he did not, offered a seemingly innocent but barbed question: “If we pray for one another, do they have to be positive prayers?”

He was trying not to say that he would gladly pray the rest of us straight into hell.

His question unleashed others who were similarly reluctant. “Might we pray that those of you who ordain women, would see the error of your ways? Might we pray that those of you who support abortion, would be punished? Might we pray that our godless mayor might be voted out of office?”

That was the last time we talked about a Sunday prayer schedule. It was also the last time we met in that particular eclectic configuration.

“Do they have to be positive prayers?” That was a deal breaker.

I remember, though, having been inspired to offer this shared prayer idea at about this time of the lectionary year. Every Easter season, we end up reading a portion of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, the tedious, convoluted, logically-looping prayer Jesus offers on the night of his betrayal.

Whether it was this morning’s particular portion of the prayer, or another, I know that we would have read the same two themes: Jesus prays for us, and his prayer is that we might be “one.” Whatever that means.

Maybe the gospel writer John failed to capture the whole of Jesus’ prayer, and that what Jesus actually prayed was that “they might be one hot, sweaty, angry mess until I return.” If that was Jesus’ prayer, it has been answered.

But I’m trusting John at his word. Jesus’ only qualifier was that we would be one as he and the Father are one. Indivisible. Mutually supportive. Inextricable, one from another. That’s a tall order, a big ask, and as it turns out, utterly impossible.

So, though Jesus’ later followers—us and our generation—clearly imagine Jesus’ prayer to mean different things, some of us keep trying. We keep trying to bring Jesus’ prayer to life in our lives, in our congregations.

I wish I had been more prepared for my colleague’s question about “positive prayers.” But, honestly, I had not seen it coming. As is so often true, I come up with the best response about three hours after I need it. So, shocked as I was, I failed to remember that when Jesus prayed for his disciples on the night of his betrayal, he prayed for one in particular. One with whom he had a mighty disagreement.

Without naming names, Jesus prayed for the person who would be eternally implicated in his death. Jesus prayed for the disciple who, in this morning’s reading from Acts (Acts 1.15ff) was voted off the island by the eleven who remained after the resurrection. Jesus prayed for Judas. Judas—a name synonymous with deceit and selfishness.

Though, in the Acts reading, Peter has few words to say about Judas—“Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus,”—Peter didn’t throw Judas under the bus. Peter, like Jesus in today’s gospel reading, attributes Judas’ betrayal to scriptural necessity. In other words, the early church decided to soften their rhetoric about Judas. After all, he didn’t have a choice but to betray Jesus. It had to happen that way. Pity the fool; he couldn’t help himself.

What does Jesus say of Judas in his prayer? Exactly the same thing as Peter did in his sermon: “Father, I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.”

Though it was probably no comfort to Judas’ grieving mother, and though Judas is only one of two named in our historic creeds (him and Pontius Pilate), the biblical record is relatively kind to Judas. He was part of a plan; it could have been no other way.

So, did Jesus offer a “positive” prayer for Judas. Not exactly. But he certainly didn’t pray him any harm.

And in that way, Jesus models the way we are to pray—especially for those with whom we disagree, those who have harmed us, those who (left to our own devices) we would gladly draw and quarter.

If you have ever tried to pray for one who has wronged you, you know that our first impulse is to call the fires of hell down on their heads. But, as is often true, our first impulse is not always the most helpful.  There is another way to pray for the hated “other,” the person who harmed you or someone you love, the person whose very existence sets your blood boiling.

You may remember the name of the 20th century Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Leader of the tiny, underground “confessional church” in Germany as Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer alternated between Jesus-like prayers for his enemies, and a desire to destroy them. (It is believed that Bonhoeffer was part of a failed assassination attempt on the Fuhrer. You know how that went.)

In Bonhoeffer’s most famous book, “Life Together,” he addresses the question of how we are to regard those with whom we are at odds. To sum up a much longer argument, Bonhoeffer encourages his small congregation to see the other, especially the enemy other, only in and through Jesus. He advised them to view the other as Jesus might view them, through Jesus’ own eyes. And how is that? Jesus loved even Judas. Jesus prayed for his enemies. Jesus forgave those who killed them.

Bonhoeffer would have us put on our Jesus Goggles when we pray—how does Jesus see this person? How might Jesus pray for them?

Of course, Bonhoeffer’s life ended at the end of a rope in a concentration camp, so his ideas were not universally applauded. But then, when are forgiveness and forbearance a winning combination?

Years ago, I served as associate pastor in a large congregation, which had never called a woman pastor before. (I was the first such creature in almost every parish I have served. It gets tiring.) I learned that a member of the staff, though publicly supportive of me, in private trashed me, lied about me, undercut me at every turn. Jealousy? Sincere disagreement? Pettiness? I have no idea. But their negative assessment of me and my work started to poison a small number of parish members. And what had been a wonderful, supportive pastor-parish relationship began to sour.

It didn’t take long for me to discover who was pouring vinegar in milk milk, and for the gossip to be stopped, but it was the first time someone had actively undercut and opposed me. I didn’t know what to do.

So, in a spirit of Christian love and compassion, I returned the favor. I spoke ill of them, highlighted their mistakes, cast doubt on their ministry. It felt really good, in my dark little heart.

But a wise congregational elder pulled me aside, listened to my rant for about 3 seconds and then said, “Do you pray for them?

What? Pray for that person? You mean like prayers that they would lose their job, be covered in boils, lose all their hair? Prayers like that?

“No, pray for that person as Jesus might pray for them. Imagine what Jesus wants for that person. And then pray that you would learn to want that, too.”

Oh, you mean positive prayers. Prayers that we might be one. I hate it when that happens.

I’d rather have driven an 18-wheeler over my own foot, than pray positively for my adversary, but it was worth a try.

I begrudgingly began to name the person’s name in my prayers—without comment. I crept toward a more charitable approach. And finally, after weeks of failed attempts, I was able to pray that I would learn to love the person as Jesus did.

And in that fleeting moment, Jesus’ own prayer was answered. Jesus prayed that we might be one, and for a moment, we were. In Jesus’ eyes, and those are the only eyes that matter.

Because I prayed for my adversary as Jesus did, they were no longer my adversary.

How telling, at this end of the Easter season and in a time of unprecedented polarization in our community and country, that Jesus would offer a tutorial on prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray for our enemies, and to pray for them until we become indistinguishable one from another—all of us loved by Jesus, forgiven by Jesus, valued by Jesus.

Though it is true that I have never met a person—or even a dog—named Judas, that is not Jesus’ fault. Nor the fault of the early church. Judas was surely a challenge for them all, but also an opportunity to test in practice what they said they believed, to test in practice what we say we believe.

So, what happened to that faltering clergy association all those years ago? The few of us that remained in the group decided to go through with our plan, to pray for one congregation every Sunday morning in our public prayers. And we prayed not only for one another, but for every congregation in our town. Even, especially for those who had thrown cold water on our clumsy idea.

It was a wonderful thing, for which our congregations expressed enormous gratitude.  Our members spoke of it to their friends and neighbors in an admiring way. We were praying for one another as Jesus prayed for us.

But one Monday morning, my office phone rang earlier than usual—my office manager wasn’t even in yet, so I picked up the phone myself. It was the pastor of the congregation for whom we had prayed the day before, a pastor who ordinarily would not speak to me or be seen with me. He wasted no words, “I heard you prayed for us yesterday. I thought we agreed not to do that. What did you pray?

I was tempted to be smart and say, “Only positive prayers.” But I am occasionally able to calm my clever nature.

“We prayed that you and your congregation would be healthy, strong and purposeful. We prayed that your ministry would thrive.”

He was silent on the phone. Fully expecting that we had prayed for him and his congregation as he most likely would have for us.

“Oh.” Silence.

“Oh, well don’t do that again.”

Today Jesus prays for us. Prays that we might be one. With Judas. With Peter. With those we love and especially with those whom we despise. After all, its what Jesus does.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (2 May 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

John 15.1-8

Jesus said: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 

He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.

Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 

You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 

Abide in me as I abide in you.

Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine,

  neither can you unless you abide in me. 

I am the vine, you are the branches.

Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit,

  because apart from me you can do nothing. 

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers;

  such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you,

  ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

My Father is glorified by this,

  that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

She was among the first in Connecticut certified to teach in special education, a pioneer in the field. She loved the work, and it occupied every waking moment. But she woke up one morning at the age of 62 and thought, “I’m done.” She retired that June.

In retirement, she took up all the things she had not had time to do while teaching full-time.

She had breakfast with friends. She walked every day. She strolled summer art fairs. She tended a butterfly garden in her backyard. She and her husband would drive for hours—north to Maine, east to the Cape—stopping when and where they pleased. But the retirement project that most delighted (and surprised) her was painting. Not the sides of barns or paint-by-number kits, but delicate water colors. She found a studio and an instructor who taught her how to cast her eye for beauty and detail onto canvas.

She and I became friends when I became her pastor. Old enough—and kind enough—to be my mother, she was a steady leader in the congregation. Though she served on every committee there was, her heart was with those who had been forgotten. She designed a plan so that the elderly, the isolated, even the angry stayed connected to the parish. She directed a team of volunteers who wrote notes, ran errands, delivered flowers and made phone calls. Her training in special education had tuned her heart to notice needs that others either overlooked or ignored.

What started as the occasional planning meeting at her kitchen table, turned into tea every Thursday afternoon at 3:00. For nine years, those afternoon visits with her provided a rhythm and pattern to my week., and deepened a rare and precious friendship.

She was among the first I told when I learned that my family would be moving to the Midwest. It was a tearful conversation, as you can imagine. Two days before we drove away from Connecticut, I sat at her table for one more cup of tea. And she said, “I have a gift for you.”

It was an original water color, over which she had wept and worked for weeks. Two empty Adirondack chairs facing a beautiful Cape Cod beach, a sun hat hanging from the back of one. She said, “On the Cape, when you leave your spot on the beach, you hang a hat or beach towel over the back of the chair to indicate that it belongs to someone, that you’ll be back.”

With tears on her eyes, she said, “That’s your hat on the chair. I titled this one, ‘She’ll be back.’ Because I know you will.”

And I was. Though not often. Even though we were separated by many miles, she and I remained deeply connected, always in one another’s hearts.

Think of all the ways we stay connected to those from whom we are absent. A photograph on the wall. An exchange of letters or texts. A stained coffee cup given by a friend. Your Grandpa’s tools in the garage.  The sweater your Mom used to wear (that probably belongs in the Goodwill bag). Sometimes it’s the whiff of fragrance on a passerby. For church people, it can be a favorite hymn, or “dibs” on a pew. And for people like me, who love cemeteries, it means a visit to the place where a loved one is buried, tracing the name etched in stone, talking quietly with them as we did before.

Though the ones we love may not always “be back” in a physical sense, we are always connected to them. In life and in death.

The first four Sundays of Easter were like a game of Whack-A-Mole with the resurrected Jesus. He just kept showing up in places—in a garden, on a road, in a locked room, on the beach. It was a full-time job for Jesus after he burst from the grave—proving to people that he was alive, that he still loved them, that even death could not separate them.

But today, our texts take a turn away from re-establishing a connection that had almost been severed by a cross, toward establishing a new connection that would have to survive another absence. A connection that could survive any absence, even one as long as the one we know.

A little background. Jesus has today’s “vine and branches” conversation with his disciples on the night before he died. They had just eaten what we know was their last supper together. Judas had just fled into the darkness to betray Jesus to the authorities. Accusers were being coached, excuses were being made, crosses were being constructed. It was then, about to be torn from those he loved best that in the world, that Jesus offered an image, spun a story that only later they would understand.

“I am the vine. You are the branches.”

Jesus had already made a bunch of claims they had not quite understood. I am bread, he had said once. I am light. I am shepherd. I am the way, the truth, the life.

But this? Vine? Branches? Though they lived in a climate in which grape vines flourished like weeds, they had never imagined Jesus a woody vine or themselves as billowing branches.

But Jesus persisted, digging deep into the image with a shovel, shaping it as with shears.

“The vine is rooted deep in the soil that is my Father. The branch survives only when connected to the vine. The fruit grows only on healthy branches. I am the vine. You are those branches. You will produce that fruit on which the whole world depends.”

It must have been keeping Jesus awake at night, “How do I stay connected to them, how do they stay connected to each other, how does the ministry continue, when I am taken from them?”

I imagine Jesus a journaler—crossing out, erasing, expanding, desperate to find the words, the image that would both inspire and protect them. Finally, almost at the last minute, it came to him.

Like a vine to the soil. Like branches on the vine. Like fruit on the branch. That is how it would be for them when he was gone.

Grape vines, while lovely, have a specific purpose. They don’t just wind themselves over fences or send roots deep into the soil for fun. Grape vines are planted and pruned, tended and watered not for their own sake, but for the sake of production, for the sake of growth, for the sake of the grapes on which so much of life depends. 

And, Jesus warned, those branches that choose not to produce, those branches that imagine they can survive on their own, those branches that would rather produce grapefruit rather than grapes, are lopped off and burned. After all, fruitless branch is as useless as a leaky bucket.

A disconnected disciple . . . ? You can finish the metaphor yourself.

“How will they stay connected when I am gone?” Jesus agonized.

Like this. Like flourishing branches on study vines. Producing fruit that nourishes the whole world.

How do we stay connected? To Christ? To each other? To the world? And for what purpose?

He and I met in seminary 40 years ago, both of us studying to be pastors. I have always liked him immensely, valued him as a colleague, respected him as a pastor, but we rarely saw each other. Until now. As it happens, we both now live and work on the North Shore, running into each other more in the last decade than in the previous three decades combined. But it’s not surprising. He is a builder of bridges, a keeper of friends, a tender of vines. Running into him, whether after a week or a year, is always like running into an old friend. Faithfulness is his super power.

There is sorrow in his life—his wife’s early onset Alzheimer’s had slowly turned him from full-time pastor to full-time caretaker. But after months and years of slow change, another change has fallen on their home like a stone. A few weeks ago, my friend had a significant stroke, brought on, perhaps in part, by the stress of caring, almost single-handedly, for his beloved wife. His love for her nearly did him in.

I heard from him just a few days ago. This long-time acquaintance with whom I am connected primarily by vocation and affection, has renewed our connection once again. He is growing stronger by the day, seeking advice from trusted colleagues about a place where he and his wife can live together, each of them needing different kinds of assistance, but determined to receive it together. They cannot be separated one from another.

My colleague is inextricably bound to the vine that is Christ; he has flourished and borne fruit his whole life; his connection to those he loves cannot be severed. And I and many others are privileged to witness his witness to faithfulness. To sturdiness. To fruitfulness. Ah, to be such a branch.

I last saw my dear friend in Connecticut shortly before the pandemic fell. On a trip to visit my younger daughter in Boston late in 2019, I rented a car for a day trip to have tea with my friend. We cried. We laughed. We talked. We drank a lot of tea. When we parted, she reminded me of the painting. “I knew you would be back,” she said.

Who could have known we had shared our last cup of tea? Our last conversation was just a couple of months ago, a Valentine’s Day phone call in which she worried about what was happening to her. Cancer was happening to her. Diagnosed only days later, four weeks later she died.

And though my dear friend and I will not see one another again in this life, we remain connected. Every time I pour a cup of tea. Every time I see her painting. Every time I come across one of her hand-painted cards in the pile of correspondence on my desk at home. Every time I think to pick up the phone. Connected by friendship and discipleship. And the promise of seeing one another again. We share a bond that cannot be severed.

Jesus lay awake the night before his crucifixion, worrying about his disciples and the difficult work before them. “How will we stay connected? How will they stay connected? How will my work continue to grow?”

Like branches to a vine, flourishing in all seasons.

Like friends whose friendship survives great distance.

Like congregational leaders who tend to the lost and least.

Like lovers whose love thrives even in hardship.

Like mourners who trust in a great reunion.

Like disciples connected to Christ and Christ’s church.

So much divides us. So much threatens to separate us. But nothing—not pandemic, not absence, not hardship, not even death—can separate us from one another when, together, we cling to Christ.

He is the vine. We are merely branches. Our sole purpose is to bear fruit.

And who knows, maybe the hat on this chair belongs not to me, but to Jesus. After all, we know he’ll be back.

Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter (18 April 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

Luke 24.36b-48

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them,

“Peace be with you.” 

They were startled and terrified,

  and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 

He said to them,

“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 

Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.

Touch me and see;

  for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 

And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,

  he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 

They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them,

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—

  that everything written about me in the law of Moses,

  the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written,

  that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 

  and that repentance and forgiveness of sins

  is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 

You are witnesses of these things.”

She led a double life. For years, no one knew what she was up to in her spare time. Unexplained withdrawals from the checking account. Unexplained absences from work. Unexplained day dreaming and indecipherable doodles on notepads all over the house. She later told her family that she had kept this enormous secret from them because she was afraid. Afraid of ridicule. Afraid of judgement. Afraid of doubt. Afraid of unsolicited advice.

She did not reveal the nature of her secret until she had a manufacturer and investors—people apart from her inner circle who believed in her idea, but whose questions and doubt were not so personally painful.

What was that idea? The terrifying idea that caused her to hide in fear? Spanx. Formally known as “shapewear.” Her big, terrifying idea was underwear. You’ve probably got a pair or five in your house at this very moment.

It probably seems silly now, but she was so afraid of judgement that she kept this secret from everyone close to her. After all, if her idea was as stupid as she had feared, she didn’t want anyone to know.

I have a secret, too. Nothing so exotic as a double life or a multi-billion-dollar manufacturing scheme, but a project unknown to all but a few. Once a month, in an undisclosed location, I meet with a clutch of other secret keepers. Over brown bag lunches and cupcakes from Sweet Allies, we write. Lyrics. Essays. Novels. Non-fiction. We share our writing with each other, and no one else. Crafting sentences. Critiquing ideas. Urging each other to keep writing. Even if no one ever sees it. Even if we fear it might be stupid.

At our last clandestine gathering, one of my underground writer friends shared a chapter of an under-construction book, years in the writing. The chapter is titled simply, “Believe,” a fascinating analysis of the nature of belief—not just religious belief, but the beliefs that drive our lives. The beliefs so central to who we are, we don’t even acknowledge them. At our last meeting, we parsed two particular aspects of belief: “empowering beliefs” and “limiting beliefs.”

The concepts are captivating enough on their own, but since my public persona as a mild-mannered midwestern pastor causes me to sift everything through a biblical lens, I realize this parsing of “belief” has Easter impact, as well. Here’s how.

An empowering belief is a deeply held conviction that urges us on, that empowers. “My vote counts,” is an empowering belief. “My ideas have value,” is an empowering belief. “God is good,” is an empowering belief. Without conscious assent, these ideas inspire my public, private and pastoral life.

A “limiting belief?” As evidenced by the Spanx story, one limiting belief is “My ideas are stupid.” Such a belief stifles creativity, inhibits action. Other limiting beliefs have more dire consequences.

If you are a young black man in a US city, chances are that many of the men in your life have been imprisoned or killed before the age of 30. Why should your life be any different? You may, without knowing it, have adopted the limiting belief that you have no future.

If you grew up in either great poverty or great wealth, your parents might have been absent a great deal; chances are you were alone for long periods of time. You may, without knowing it, have adopted the limiting belief that no one loves you.

A friend grew up in a home with a severely disabled sibling, whose care, understandably, occupied all the family’s time and attention. Though she loved her sibling, she grew up believing that her own needs didn’t matter. She honestly believes that, in her family, she is invisible.

These limiting beliefs—“My ideas are stupid;” “I have no future;” “No one loves me,” “I am invisible”—drive our lives as surely as do the empowering ones. And sadly, when limiting beliefs are accompanied by guns, by poverty, by racism, they can kill.

Today is the Third Sunday of Easter, and for three weeks in a row, we have been immersed in stories easily characterized as “limiting beliefs.” The stone is too large. Jesus has been dead too long. Resurrection was a rumor. The male disciples dismissed the women because—”limiting belief” alert—women can’t be trusted.

There’s more.

Why is it that disciples failed to recognize Jesus after the resurrection—in the Garden, on the Emmaus Road, in the Upper Room? Was he masked? Disfigured? No, I think the disciples’ limiting belief that death means “done” prevented them for seeing his resurrected form. Even when he stood before them alive. They had been taught to believe that dead is dead, and no amount of hoping or wishing or resurrecting could change that.

So, after the resurrection, which must have been exhausting all by itself, Jesus had to spend the next many weeks convincing people, over and over again, that he was alive. “Hear my voice! Look at my hands! Look at my feet! Watch me eat!”

There was no place in their heads, hearts or belief systems for “resurrection.” What they believed about both life and death limited their ability to believe the most empowering belief of all: “Christ is Risen! Risen from the dead.”

Up to this point, you may have been with me for the Spanx story, for my quick analysis of empowering and limiting beliefs. You might have nodded along as I described the disciples’ disbelief in a resurrected Jesus—it’s a familiar tale. You might even have the spiritual bandwidth to accept that Jesus was raised from the dead, though, to be honest, that’s a stretch for many.

And while belief in Jesus’ resurrection is an essential component of what it means to be Christian, there is a second part to that belief, a flip side, the truly empowering part. It’s the second part that is most difficult for us to comprehend. Christ is alive AND Death has been destroyed. You can’t have one without the other. Because here’s what we believe; here’s what empowers us: Christ’s life gives us life. Now and forever.

On Thursday, I stood at the graveside of a much-loved daughter, wife, mother and friend, felled by cancer. What did we say over her grave, through our tears? “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

Of course, we believe that she—a baptized, faithful, loved and loving child of God—knows Easter life with Christ, in a resurrection like his.

And what of others who have died?

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who died peacefully in old age.

Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old killed in an altercation with police.

Bernie Madoff, a convicted felon who died ignobly in prison.

If we believe, and we do, that Christ lived and died for sinners, we also believe that all of these—the loved, the royal, the young, the convict—know life in Christ.

Here’s the funny thing about our beliefs, though. Our beliefs may empower or limit us, but they don’t have the same effect God. For example, while you might look at any of those recent, very public deaths and have a strong opinion about God’s next steps: something like, “Ugh. I hope he rots in hell,” or another similarly subtle conclusion, God is not bound by it. Instead, God says, “Huh. Thanks for sharing. Not your call.”

Our inability to imagine God’s future for us, doesn’t limit God’s ability to accomplish that future. Our hatred of others, doesn’t diminish God’s love for all.

But what of those they left behind? What does the resurrected life look for a grieving family dear to us, for a queen and country, for another South Side family, for the victims of a white-collar criminal? Is life possible for them, for those who grieve?

Here’s what we believe, in an empowering way. God promises life, in Christ, for all. Not only those of whom we approve. And not only after death.

If life is possible, in Christ, on both sides of the grave, how then do we live?

Think of all those daily deaths we die—the public humiliations, the tattered dreams, the unmet expectations, the untold lack and loss in our lives. I believe that God has power over them all. I have learned, from faithful people like you, the following empowering beliefs:

Forgiveness is free.

Tomorrow is God’s.

Abundance is ours.

Love is alive.

And while, in any given moment it may be hard to see God making life in what looks like death, we don’t live moment to moment.  We live in God’s time, confident that God is unfettered by our limits, undeterred by our roadblocks, unmoved by our objections.

And though our limiting beliefs have no impact on the way God acts, they do alter our actions. Though God forgives, we may choose not to receive it. Though God is already imagining tomorrow, we may choose to live in the past. Though we have all we need, we may choose to want more. Though love is all around, we may choose to nurse hate.

Our lack of imagination, our nurtured negativity, our limiting beliefs don’t limit God—they limit our ability to see God at work. In life and in death.

So, Pastor Post, you say to yourself. This is all fascinating. But what happened to that gospel reading from Luke 24 that you read to us about . . . two days ago? You know Ghost Jesus and “give me something to eat!” and “you are my witnesses?”

Don’t worry. I’ve not forgotten.

The disciples had limited imaginations, believing only what they had been trained to believe, seeing only what they expected to see. That’s why when Jesus, fresh from the grave, stood among them, “Ta da!,” they regarded him a stranger.  He was left saying, “Hello! Hello! It’s me here!”

That’s why Jesus did everything but stand on his head to demonstrate that it was him. “See my hands and side,” he said. “Watch me eat,” he offered. “Listen to my voice.” He had to overcome the limits of their beliefs, in order to empower them for what was next.

And what was next? More disappointment. Jesus would soon leave them again, ascending to the right hand of the Father. And what then?

He empowered them. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus promised. “Everything you have heard and seen and learned from me, you will tell.”

As he said to Thomas in last week’s gospel, “Do not doubt but believe. And now, get out of here.”

Some limiting beliefs have limited consequences. Had Spanx never been invented, our clothing might fit a little differently, but there are worse things.

But when we believe that there is no future, that we are unlovable, that death has the last word, we limit not only ourselves but also our ability to do the one thing Jesus asks us to do.

Jesus’ resurrection empowered him—and us—to speak peace.

Jesus’ resurrection empowered him—and us—to forgive.

Jesus’ resurrection empowered him to send and us to be sent.

Jesus’ resurrection empowers us. To believe. To tell. To live.

Resurrection of Our Lord

Resurrection of our Lord (4 April 2021)

Mark 16.1-8

JoAnn A. Post

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 

And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

“And they said nothing. To anyone.”

Well, we know that’s not entirely true. If, in fact, it was true that the women at the tomb said nothing to anyone, we would not be here.

No eye witness testimony? No Easter.

No eye witness testimony? No Church.

No eye witness testimony? No Life.

If the women had said nothing to anyone, Jesus’ death would have been just another entry in a centurion’s log book. His name, the crime of which he was accused, and the date and manner of his death a matter of public record like hundreds of other criminals executed in Jerusalem.

Instead, the fact that Jesus’ body was not missing but resurrected, turned the world upside down. So, we know the women must have said something to someone. Eventually.

I have wondered all week if perhaps I should be preaching on John’s resurrection story rather than Mark’s. The world is dark enough without the dull thud of Mark’s Easter non-ending. Now John’s Easter story? Its epic! John’s telling of the events includes all sorts of wonderful detail—a garden in the early morning, loquacious angels, abandoned burial linens and a race to the tomb, Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, his instruction to tell the world what she had seen. It’s the Easter story we love to tell, filled with hope and excitement.

But Mark’s is the Gatling gun of gospels. Rat-a-tat-tat! Events fired off in quick succession. Baptism! Healing! Exorcism! Preaching! Death! Empty tomb! Rat-a-tat-tat! That’s why, in the context of the gospel itself, Mark’s crisp, spare resurrection story is unsurprising. Mark is notoriously stingy with detail. But as the launching pad of a world-wide, world-changing message of good news it lacks a certain something.

“And they said nothing. To anyone.” Yawn.

Mark explains the women’s silence as the consequence of fear. I can imagine fear being one response to an empty grave. But I’m only guessing. So, what was it, in fact, that had frightened them into silence? That’s what I’ve been wondering all week.

Here are a few theories.

On Friday I stopped by a favorite little shop to pick up a few Easter treats, and found myself in the middle of a heated discussion among the shop owner and two clerks. Apparently, the last customer had challenged their mask requirement, and had gone on at some length about the danger and hoax of the Covid-19 vaccination, and of vaccinations in general. You’ve heard these arguments—they are dangerously without merit. But being unrepentantly wrong seems to be a badge of honor for some, so, apparently, the customer had been relentless. The staff was shaken, and wanted to talk about it.

“Did you say anything to her?” I asked, naively. “Did you try to correct her ‘facts’? What did you do?”

They looked at me as though I had sprouted rabbit ears and a tail. Did I mention that all these women are immigrants, for whom English is a second language?

“No, we can’t challenge a customer,” the owner said. “It’s too dangerous. We don’t know what she would do to us.”

And the women said nothing. To anyone. For fear of an immigration investigation. For fear of losing business.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were starting to make a little more sense to me.

Meanwhile, all the world is watching a courtroom in Minneapolis, as attorneys try to decide if it is George Floyd who is on trial, or the police officer at whose knee he died. If you’ve been watching the proceedings, it appears some are having a hard time deciding which man is the victim, and which the perpetrator.

Before the trial ever started, I was fascinated by the voir dire, as potential jury members were sorted and selected. From a pool of 52 candidates, a jury of 12 members and 2 alternates has been seated. And what of the 40 who were not chosen?

Some owned up to partiality before the trial ever started, some already siding for the defense and others for the prosecution. Some admitted a visceral aversion to the video evidence—watching a murder in real time over and over again would be traumatizing. And some confessed to plain old-fashioned fear. Before a jury had been seated, threats of violence had been made against potential jurors. Some of them struggled to balance their sense of civic duty with fear for their safety and the safety of their families.

Such jurors were dismissed before ever hearing the evidence or rendering a verdict. Much to their relief, they had to say nothing. To anyone. For they were afraid.

Do you see a pattern emerging? Fear of retribution. Fear of violence. Is that what muzzled the two Mary’s and their friend?

Or maybe, as the gospel writer Luke indicates, they were afraid of the other disciples. Luke writes, “Their words seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe the women.” (Luke 24.11) Women are used to being disbelieved and dismissed. Maybe the three women knew they would be mocked, and just didn’t want to go there.

Mark doesn’t say.

But I have another wondering, another possible explanation for the women’s stunned, terrified silence.

What if, in seeing the empty tomb, they remembered Jesus’ own words to his followers and knew exactly what had happened. Mark wrote, eight chapters ago: “Jesus began to teach them, that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8.31)

Jesus had already predicted the events of the last three days with startling accuracy. They also remembered how he had told them openly of his resurrection. But there had been no mental hook on which to hang that image, no reference point for such an impossible claim. No one had ever been resurrected from the dead. So, Jesus’ claim got filed away in their brains under the category, “Well, that’s odd.”

Until that morning when they peered into the empty tomb. And of all the thoughts that flooded their minds—grave robbers, hoax, retribution, persecution, derision—the one that frightened them most was this: Jesus had been right. Jesus had been raised. Jesus was alive.

Here is another theologian’s take on this text: “Mark’s ending points to a truth that often gets lost in the celebration: Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.” (“The Unsettling Power of Easter,” Esau McCaulley, The New York Times, April 2, 2021)

And they said nothing. To anyone.

Why? They were afraid that Jesus might have been telling the truth.

As our world and our lives gradually, incrementally ease toward release from the pandemic’s hold on us, I find myself afraid to hope. In spite of the fact that many of you have been fully vaccinated, and my own arm aches from the first shot. In spite of the fact that travel restrictions are easing and restaurants are opening and families are hugging. In spite of the guarded predictions of the virus’ diminution. We have a hard time hoping. We’ve been burned before.

So much has been lost in this last year, it’s no wonder we’re skeptical. We grieve our absence from one another. We have all suffered terror and illness and death. Events that once seemed so ordinary have become painfully elusive—graduations, weddings, reunions, funerals. All the world is angry. All the world is sad. One day runs into the next and the next and the next. And we find ourselves afraid to, unable to hope.

Which is easier? Weeping over the death of our empty lives, of an empty tomb? Or believing that life will resume, that love will triumph, that death has been defeated and Christ is risen?

What was it that wise writer said? “The only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.”

That’s why the women were afraid. That’s why they were silent. It was almost too much to hope that Jesus was alive, that his words were true, that the politicians and prelates, the crowds and even the cross were powerless against him. Powerless against the love of God. Powerless against the promise of life.

“Christ is risen, just as he said?” The possibility was too much to bear. Even now, it may seem an idle tale that we fear even to imagine, let alone shout out loud.

But Mark was wrong. Wonderfully wrong. At some point the women decided to speak, even to sing. Even if their words brought retribution or violence. Even if their words were deemed nothing but rumor.

“Christ is risen,” they told the disciples. And eventually the disciples had to agree. “Christ is risen indeed.”

Because the only thing more terrifying than death is life. And now that life, that resurrected life, is offered to us.

Please, tell someone.

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (21 March 2021)

Jeremiah 31.31-34

JoAnn A. Post

The days are surely coming, says the Lord,

  when I will make a new covenant

  with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 

It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors

  when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—

  a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 

But this is the covenant that I will make

  with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts;

  and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other,

  “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me,

   from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord;

  for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Time has largely ceased to have any meaning.

What day is it? “Blursday? I don’t know.”

What month is it? This little Tweet answers that question cleverly:

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November,
all the rest have thirty-one
Except March which has 8000

(“brandAN is good” on Twitter, March 28, 2020)

What year is it? Star Trek fans will know exactly what I mean when I say that we are living sometime after the year 1966. Why 1966? Because it was in that year that the Star Trek episode “Miri” debuted.

Captain Kirk (aka William Shatner or Mr. Priceline) and the crew of The Enterprise were sent to explore a planet inhabited by only children. Where were the adults? The adults had all died as the result of a global pandemic. The grieving orphans they left behind remembered the time when parents and grandparents lived with them as “The Before Time.” When life was normal. When life was predictable. A time when they felt safe.

“The Before Time.” I remember that time, too.

For the last five weeks, we’ve been preaching on Old Testament covenants, taking time with sacred stories of our ancestors not often told.

Lent began with Noah afloat on a boat, and a rainbow tossed into the sky. The rainbow was a “note to self” for God to remember that wiping out humanity with a flood had been a very bad idea. “When I see the bow in the clouds,” God said, “I will be reminded to never again destroy all flesh with water.” (GN 9)

We turned then to Abraham and Sarah, nomadic nonagenarians blessed with a child. Eventually. 25 years passed between the time God first promised offspring and the birth of their son Isaac. Is it any wonder, that the name Sarah gave her first (and only) born means “Laughter?” Pregnant at the age of 99? What a hoot. (GN 17)

On the third week of Lent we climbed Mount Sinai with Moses, where he and God hatched a plan. You see, after 400 years of slavery, the Israelites didn’t how to govern themselves—their slave masters had made all the decisions for them. So, after crossing the Red Sea enroute to the Promised Land, the Israelites meandered and muttered, completely clueless about what to do next. So, with the stroke of a chisel on stone, God and Moses presented the Ten Commandments. A gift of structure that God’s people came to resent. (EX 20)

And last week? Snakes. Flying, flaming, venomous snakes. In what has to be one of the oddest of God’s bright ideas, God chose to subdue not the snakes, but the people on whom the snakes snacked. God instructed Moses to craft a serpent of metal and hoist it on a pole. And “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look upon the serpent of bronze and live.” (NM 21) Couldn’t God have just whistled for St. Patrick to come and coax the snakes away, as he would do in Ireland some 5000 years later?

What connects these seemingly disconnected stories?

Each of these odd stories is about a “covenant.” A word we don’t often use, because covenants are hard. And rare. We are much more comfortable with “contracts.” And we would prefer God function that way, as well.

A contract is transactional. A contract is an agreement between two parties to exchange one thing for another. Want to buy a car? We hand the dealer money and the dealer hands us the keys. Want to play the bassoon? We engage the services of a bassoon teacher and in exchange we promise to practice the instrument (until the neighbors complain). In a contract, each party promises something to the other. A contract is mutual. Transactional. This for That.

And if one party chooses not to hold up their side of the contract? We tear it up. And the repo man comes for the car. (No one will take the bassoon.)

We would prefer that God wrote contracts, as well. Then we could bargain: “God if you will fill in the blank, I will fill in the blank.” But God doesn’t work that way. Contracts assume an agreement between equals. We are not God’s equal in any way. And that’s a good thing.

But a covenant? That’s God’s preferred way of doing business. A covenant is completely one-sided. A covenant is given, not signed. A covenant is gifted, not purchased. A covenant is lop-sided in a way that is completely typical of God. “Let me love you,” God says. “I’ll do the work for both of us.”

In a biblical covenant, one party takes all the risk, does all the work, assumes all the responsibility. The purest covenant ever offered? Wait until Holy Week, when we move somberly through the events leading to Jesus’ death for our sake. We can do nothing but receive that dying, selfless love. God does all the lifting on the cross. But that conversation will have to wait a week. Back to our Old Testament covenants.

The rainbow in the clouds? A reminder to God to think twice before acting in anger. Noah had to do nothing.

The child in old age? A promise from God that Abraham and Sarah could only receive. And laugh.

The commandments etched in stone? A gift from God to which to the Israelites had to say only “thank you.”

The snake on a pole? Nothing but a visible sign of something God was already doing in a way they could not, would not see.

And today? The oddest covenant of all.

“The days are surely coming . . .” Jeremiah writes.

Today’s covenant is given in a time that has no time. It is marked by days “that will that surely come” (vs. 31), and “after those days,” (vs. 33), and with lots of non-specific future tense verbs, lots of “I will” and “I shall.” Nothing you could circle on a calendar. Maybe Blursday. Or Septuly.

Jeremiah’s first readers were as impatient for information as we are: “When? When are the days surely coming. After which days?” 

What did God answer to their question? Crickets.

God’s people were living in exile in Babylon, a many-centuries-later, wildly-unwelcome approximation of the Exodus their own ancestors had experienced. For a whole generation, with Jeremiah as its prophet, God’s people had been living as refugees in a foreign land.

Like children on the planet Miri, they remembered “The Before Times.” They remembered school playgrounds screaming with children. They remembered big family suppers around the dining room table. They remembered crowded markets and sidewalk conversations. They remembered grandchildren sitting on grandparents’ laps, and friends talking late into the night, and coffee in the Fellowship Hall after Shabbat services.

Funny, they remembered all the things we remember about our Before Time.

In other words, they remembered, romantically, the time before exile.

So, when God started talking about a future, about days surely coming, they leaned forward in their seats and muted the podcasts on their phones.

They imagined that when those days “surely” came, God would return them to the way they had lived before. That their memories would be revived, their broken hearts mended.

But, sadly, the Before Time was over. The After Time was not yet. And when it came, it would be no relationship to the time, the life, the patterns for which they longed. As quickly as their hopes were raised, they were dashed.

First, by the non-specificity of God’s timing. (Isn’t that always the case?)

And second, by the promise of something new. A new covenant.

Those were fightin’ words. Though they and their ancestors had been repeatedly unfaithful to God, breaking God’s laws and God’s heart with wild abandon for centuries, they didn’t remember it that way. Like the grumblers in last week’s preaching text who remembered slavery as the “good old days,” God’s people in exile remembered their “Before Times Selves” as obedient and their “Before Times Lives” as exceedingly chill.

They wanted to go home. And they wanted to go home that minute. But that home, that life, those patterns no longer existed.

Returning to the Before Times wasn’t to be. It never is. We should know that better than anyone.

As the pandemic seems to be easing, though still far from over, we are all turning our eyes to The After Times ourselves. And though we probably know better, we imagine the After Times will look a lot like The Before Times.

A few weeks ago, we circulated a proposal for what it might look like as Ascension inches back to life. But it’s only a proposal, as non-specific as was Jeremiah’s promise. And, as has been true of all our previous post-pandemic proposals, it will be re-worked and re-drafted every time the governor speaks and another arm gets poked.

I’ve been surprised at the reactions. Most of us have received the proposal for what it is. A proposal. A plan. A draft. But some of us are terrified: “Too soon! Too lax!” And others of us enraged: “Open the doors! Now.”

We come by this dysphoria honestly. It is to be expected.

We remember The Before Times with great fondness, and press toward The After Times with a knotted mix of hope and fear. Not surprising. It’s the way God’s people have always moved through life. Longing. Hoping. Misremembering. Always impatient. But having to admit, eventually, that the days that are surely coming may bear little resemblance to the days that came before.

Once Jeremiah’s audience unruffled its feathers so they could listen to what God was really saying, they were intrigued.

Always defined as a People of the Covenant—that is, a people for whom God did all the heavy lifting—they thought that maybe, just maybe Jeremiah was promising a new iteration of promises God had made before. What would it be this time? What sign would God give them that they were truly loved, truly chosen, truly holy?

This time there would be no external sign. No rainbow. No baby.

Instead, it was they who would be changed.

It was they who would be the sign of the covenant, not some snake on a pole or commandments etched in stone.

“I will write my law within you. I will write it on your hearts.”

For centuries God had attempted to woo them and remind them with external evidence, things they could see and hear and hold. But no longer.

In the days that are surely coming, God’s people would themselves be the sign of the covenant. Moving through the world as living, breathing evidence of God’s goodness.

Unlike The Before Times when they were defined by things outside themselves, in The After Time, the days that will surely come, they will experience God and God’s goodness as intimately as they experienced the beating of their hearts.

God writes the new covenant not in stone, but on human hearts. And in that way, God goes with us, in us—with every breath, every beat, every step.

I find myself unsettled these days, as quickly brought to tantrums as to tears. My apologies if you’ve been on the receiving end of either of those episodes. But I know you understand—none of us is our “best selves” these days.

I think it’s because we are all living in exile, far from what we once knew and unable to imagine what lies ahead. Like the children of Miri, like the ancient Israelites we long for The Before Times. But time belongs to God, not to us. And so, we learn to wait. And to trust.

The days are surely coming, Jeremiah reminds. May they come soon, we respond. May they come and change our hearts to be like God’s.

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (7 March 2021)

Exodus 20.1-17

JoAnn A. Post

God spoke all these words: 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. 

You shall not bow down to them or worship them;

  for I the Lord your God am a jealous God,

  punishing children for the iniquity of parents,

  to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 

  but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation

  of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,

  for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 

But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God;

  you shall not do any work—

  you, your son or your daughter,

  your male or female slave,

  your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea,

  and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day;

  therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother,

  so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house;

  you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave,

  or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

A friend’s parents always eschewed store-bought wrapping paper for gifts; choosing instead to be environmentally friendly by wrapping gifts in brown paper bags. There were exceptions. On really special occasions, they wrapped gifts in the Sunday comics.

Another friend’s parents owned a gift shop for years, and because they wrapped gifts for a living, covered even the most insignificant gift in elegant paper, adorned with ribbons and bows and sparkle. Every gift wrapped in a work of art.

Today we receive a gift wrapped in a deceiving manner. A disguise almost. It’s hard to tell that it’s a gift, at all.

This Lent we have chosen to preach on five Old Testament covenants with which the lectionary gifts us every three years.

Two weeks ago, we learned that God tossed the rainbow in the sky, not to impress Noah, but to be reminded that destroying humanity is a bad idea.

Last week, we endured a gestation period longer than any elephant’s, as Abraham and Sarah waited 25 years for the birth of the promised heir.

Next week, we will dance among snakes (Numbers 21 ) and the week following God will perform open-heart surgery (Jeremiah 34). But this week?

This week we are given a gift. That looks like a weapon. A rock with which to bludgeon our opponents. Though that is not God’s intent.

Before we unwrap this granite gift, let’s review.

This morning’s reading finds the people of Israel, God’s chosen ones, adrift in the desert. It was not what they had expected.

After the death of their patriarch Joseph, hundreds of years before, who had promised them land and prosperity, the book of Exodus begins with the ominous sentence, “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1.8) This new king didn’t care a fig about Joseph’s promises to these foreigners living on his territory. Instead, the king subjected the people of Israel to what would become 400 years of slavery in Egypt.

As slaves, they built the pharaohs’ homes and the region’s aqueducts and all manner of bridges, roads and plazas. For four centuries, they slaved in the service of an enemy emperor; they were slaves so long that they knew no other life but slavery.

Did any of these slaves long for a better life, a freer life? Did any of these slaves even know there could be a better life, a freer life? We don’t know. Can a person want what they don’t know exists?

Enter Moses, a child of Israel raised, in disguise, in the Pharaoh’s own home, as a foundling. Though raised in opulence, Moses was not immune to the suffering of the Israelites. He saw the hovels in which his people lived, heard the lash of the whip and cries from the auction block; he witnessed the whimpering of hungry children. Slavery—it has always been the same. And not God’s intent.

Moses was chosen by God, disguised as a shrub burning in the desert. (There are a lot of “disguises” in this story. More on that later.)

Through a series of confrontations, magic tricks, plagues and broken promises, the Pharaoh finally “let my people go.” And Moses led the whole house of Israel, thousands and thousands of people, across the suddenly-dry Red Sea to a place where they could be free.

It was a dream come true. Freedom! After 400 years!

And that’s where we find them this morning. Blinking in the desert sun, spitting sand, witching for water, wondering where the Denny’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet is, and will the concierge pick up our dry cleaning?

They didn’t know what freedom looked like, but had not imagined this.

This? This arid wasteland was the Promised Land of which they had dreamed? It looked less like a promise and more like a curse.

In a forehead smacking, duh moment, God and Moses realized at exactly the same moment that freedom was foreign to these people. As slaves, the people of Israel had never even been able to select the clothes they would wear, let alone how they would govern themselves or manage their common life.

Though Janis Joplin believes that “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” God and Moses believe that freedom is a gift that can be given. A gift they wanted to give. A gift delivered in unlikely wrapping.

Immediately before this morning’s reading takes place, God had invited Moses to the top of Mount Sinai to hash it out. “What does freedom look like?” they wondered, and how will we gift it?

They spent days together, tearing up first drafts, editing each other’s work, pounding chisels to nibs, refining and refining and refining. Until the gift of freedom was ready to be given.

Moses descended the mountain in a rain of fire and thunder bearing the gift we call the Ten Commandments. Wrapped not in grocery bags, the Sunday paper, or curly ribbons. The gift of freedom, the Ten Commandments, was wrapped in a rock.

“Here,” Moses said, extending two heavy stone tablets to the people, “God has a gift for you. May I present? Freedom!”

His speech was met with silence stonier than the tablets in his hands. Ten Commandments? Ten Rules? This is our reward for risking life and limb to escape Egypt for a promised land? Stone Sentiments?

We are as confused as they were.

Though Martin Luther, in the 16th century, wrote extensively on the subject, viewed the Ten Commandments as an opportunity to be of service to God and neighbor, we continue to view the Ten Commandments alternately as burdens to be borne OR a weapon to be wielded.

When we hear the Ten Commandments, we hear them alternately as “no, no, no” OR “you oughta, you oughta, you oughta.”

We use the Ten Commandments to punish ourselves or others.

Some gift, God. Way to go, Moses.

But gift they are. A gift we do not recognize because we wouldn’t know Freedom if it came up and kissed us on the cheek.

Left to our own devices we are selfish and small; we hoard good things and begrudge the good others enjoy; we seek what is best for ourselves and give away only scraps; we regard God as the enemy and worship a burden.

Those are the attitudes of those enslaved to sin. Not the hearts of those who have experienced freedom.

The Ten Commandments come to us in two parts. The first part—commandments 1-3—are about the way we are to love God. And how is that? Only. Respectfully. Regularly.

The second part—commandments 4-10—is about the way we love our neighbors. And, to preempt a question that will be posed by Jesus about 5,000 years after Sinai, who is my neighbor? (Luke 10) Anyone in need. So, just about everybody.

So, how do we, according to the Ten Commandments, love our neighbors? We honor our elders. We protect life and relationship, property and good name. We seek what is best for the other, trusting that they will seek the best for us.

That is what the Ten Commandments teaches, the gifts they give.

But, too often, we use these gifts as weapons. Turning them against our neighbor. Or, worse, we use them to violate the very first commandment: No Idols.

A blast from our common political past. Remember when it was de rigueur to post the Ten Commandments in prominent places? City parks? Courthouses? Remember the lawsuits that followed? We ran the Ten Commandments up the flag pole, and destroyed anyone who didn’t salute. As though simply posting them in public would make us more faithful spouses, more generous neighbors, more faithful disciples.

That’s like imagining that seeing the calorie count on a Big Mac at the drive-through prevents us from ordering it, or that watching stand-up comics on late-night television will make us funnier. Posting the words and imagining obedience would follow is both naïve and idolatrous. You can’t legislate love or force faithfulness. But we have used the Ten Commandments in the same way we have made the American flag and the national anthem idols to be worshipped, litmus tests of loyalty, rather than reminders to be grateful, gifts to be shared.

The Ten Commandments are not a weapon or a test or a salute. They are a gift.

We also abuse the Ten Commandments when we use them to judge others, rather than measure our own behavior. Again, fast forwarding to Jesus, we are more than happy to point out the other’s sin, to criticize the other’s life, to poach the other’s property, to “see the speck in the other’s eye and not the log in our own,” (Matthew 7) than we are to forgive, to support, to encourage.

Remember, these gifts were given to a people that had not been free in 400 years. They had not been allowed to think a thought, make a decision, or shop for their own groceries. They didn’t know how to govern themselves because they had never done it. They didn’t know how to manage property because they had never owned anything. They didn’t know how to worship the one true God because they had had to bow to the Pharoah. They didn’t know how to live faithfully with parents and children and spouses, because for centuries their parents, children and spouses had been ripped away from them and sold.

As with any who are new to freedom, the Ten Commandments were a gift to keep them safe, a gift to keep them together, a gift to make them glad.

Moses handed them those granite gifts as a guide for faithful life.

There are so many disguises in this story. Moses, the Israelite incognito. God, traveling under the guise of a pillar of cloud and fire. The people of God, milling like confused cattle. And the most ingenious disguise of all? Words on a rock that give us life.

This Lent we study five covenants—five gifts God gave to people, like us, who are slow to receive them.

This morning we receive the gift of the Ten Commandments. A gift of freedom to a people long enslaved. A gift of grateful worship of God, and loving service of our neighbors.

Here. It’s a gift. Feel free to share it.

Transfiguration of Our Lord

Transfiguration of Our Lord (14 February 2021)
Mark 9:2-9
JoAnn A. Post


Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high
mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became
dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah
with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to
be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not
know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the
cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they
looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had
seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


Remember magazines in a doctor’s office? The gossipy rags you’d never subscribe to
yourself (and if you did you wouldn’t admit it), but hoarded while waiting for your
appointment? People. Star. Us. Or, in a specialist’s office: O. Goop. Elle. Another cultural
experience lost to the pandemic.


Back in the days when you could browse the magazine rack at the doctor’s office while
waiting 90 minutes for a three-minute check-up, I would make a pretense of reaching for a
dignified magazine—a dog-eared Time, a pristine copy of Runners World or Forbes. But
when no one was looking, I’d tuck a tattered US Weekly inside the more reputable one, and
flip to my favorite section, “Stars! They’re just like us!”


It gave me a moment’s smug satisfaction to see famous, glamorous, gorgeous people in
saggy sweat pants on their way to the grocery store, Jennifer Aniston on a bad hair day,
Samuel L. Jackson’s backward beret. It also gave me a moment’s guilty pleasure to imagine
that, if I had access to their trainers and stylists and nutritionists and dressers, I could look
like them.

But then I’d be called back to the doctor’s office. I’d have to stand on a scale which always
weighs me 15 pounds heavier than I actually am, put on the hospital johnny that makes us
all look like extras in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” admit that I haven’t been doing
my exercises or taking my vitamins.


So much for being mistaken for Julia Roberts at the grocery store. The more likely mix-up is
between me and Jeff Bridges on the set of “True Grit.”


We all have this weird curiosity about famous people. What do they look like when no one
is looking? Who are they? (Really.)

I once saw another book on the side table at the doctor’s office: a Gideon Bible that some
hopeful person had accidentally “left behind.” Of course, as soon as the staff saw it, it would
have been confiscated and donated to The Salvation Army. But for a few minutes it lingered
on the table, patients eyeing one another to see who might flip it open and actually read it
or who would pitch a fit. I don’t know what happened. I was called back to my annual
humiliation before it got to the good part.


Imagine, for just a moment, that some unsuspecting reader dared open the cover, flip
through the table of contents, searching for the section, “Jesus! He’s just like us!” What
would they learn? Would they see Jesus in sweat pants on his way to the grocery store?
Would we finally find out if Jesus is a Paleo-diet or Juice Cleanse kind of guy? What does he
look like with his hair down?

Who is Jesus? (Really.) After all, enquiring minds want to know.


Because only a few were literate in Jesus’ day there were no gossipy magazines. No
Disciples Digest. No Fortune First Century. And if there were, there were no doctor’s offices
in which to read them. News was all local, and traveled by word of mouth. Rumors
proliferated as quickly as reality. Glossy photographs of famous people? The technology
didn’t exist. Except for the image of the emperor inscribed on coins, you knew what a
person looked like only if they lived next door.

Jesus would have looked like a hundred other men his age, known by his family, friends and
neighbors, but otherwise able to pass, unnoticed, through crowds as easily as, later, he
would pass through locked doors. (John 20)


Even though no one was sure what he looked like, they knew what he could do, and his
reputation grew like wild fire. After all, Jesus wasn’t exactly trying to stay out of the
spotlight.


Two weeks ago, Jesus outed himself when he cast a demon out of a man sitting in the back
pew at temple. (Mark 1.21ff)

Last week, when word emerged from Simon’s house that Jesus had cooled a woman’s fever,
the whole city of Capernaum gathered on the front lawn. (Mark 1.29ff)
He was becoming known across the region. As a preacher. As a teacher. As a healer. As an
exorcist. The rumors grew, and soon he was portrayed as whoever people needed or
wanted him to be.


But as any famous person will tell you, crowds are exhausting, the demands of public life
both depleting and demeaning. So, while famous people now go on retreat or into rehab to
get away, today, Jesus has another destination in mind.


A mountain. A mountain by himself. A mountain by himself with a couple of close friends.
What could be more refreshing? He wouldn’t have to deal with crowds. He wouldn’t even
have to brush his teeth. What a relief.

But Jesus didn’t go up on the mountain to be alone. He went up on the mountain to b
known. Truly known. It was clarifying. And terrifying.


Transfiguration, the minor festival we celebrate today, is both the backdoor of Epiphany
and the front porch of Lent. Dropped in between weeks of the “revealing” stories behind us,
and the “suffering” stories ahead of us, we pause to take stock. To evaluate. To rest. To see
Jesus as he truly is. And, in seeing his true self, to see ours, as well.

Remember how I told you that, in the 1st century, there were no photographs, no IMDb, no
way to know what a person looked like. That’s why it’s curious to me that on the Mount of
the Transfiguration, where Jesus’ true self was made known—his clothes bleached brighter
than light, his face glowing like the sun, a voice from heaven announcing, “This is the
One!”—his disciples immediately recognized Jesus’ conversation partners.
Elijah! Moses!
Really? How did they know? Name tags?


But it was instantly clear to Peter, James and John that they may have underestimated
Jesus. That Elijah—the greatest of prophets caught directly up into heaven—and Moses—
the freer of slaves and giver of the law—would just drop by for a visit. That the confines of
linear time, the physics of light no longer applied. That Jesus was more than Joseph and
Mary’s boy, more than a clever teacher or a magician with healing in his hands.


Who is this guy, this Jesus, whom they followed around?
They were about to find out.


The other mystery of this story is that Jesus chose these three clowns to accompany him up
the mountain. Peter would betray Jesus at a critical juncture. James and John would clamor
to ride shotgun with Jesus in the next life. More concerned with self-protection and self-promotion
-that with true discipleship. None of them worthy of the honor.


And that, my friends, is where we become part of the story. Where we see Jesus as he truly
is.

On Wednesday, Christians around the world will be transfigured, revealed, outed to the
world. Our true identities known. Not on a mountain, but on our knees.


On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we will be willingly disfigured, etching on our own
foreheads the smudge of Jesus’ cross, sign of our sin. In an ordinary year, we would
undertake this demeaning and depleting task together, here, but the pandemic prevents us.
Instead, we will send you a link to recorded worship so that you might endure this annual
liturgical humiliation in the comfort of your own home.


We will confess, naming sins and shortcomings so familiar they no longer seem, to us, like
sins and shortcomings.

We will impose ashes—do you have a fireplace? A wood stove? A fistful of potting soil the garage? Something that stains.
We will eat the bread and drink the cup. The bread and cup first shared with losers like
Peter, James and John, now offered to losers like us.


We will admit to ourselves and to anyone in earshot that we are sinful and unclean, at best
unremarkable, and, at worst, unworthy.


And we will hear that, though, we are at best unremarkable, and, at worst unworthy, God
loves us beyond reason, forgives us beyond deserving, heals us completely.
Who is Jesus? Really?

Today we learn that he is a peer to the greatest who ever lived, that he is the only son of
God, that his is a voice worth heeding. And that he loves us. How can that be?


And who are we? Really?

Today we learn that, like Peter, James and John, we think more of ourselves than we ought,
that we are simultaneously terrified to see Jesus’ true nature and mystified that we are not
crushed by it.


Back in the days before the pandemic, we moved easily through the world, occupying
ourselves with nonsense like Britney Spears’ legal battles and rumors about our
representatives. But now, deep in a crisis that has ruined millions of lives, we do not move
so easily or occupy ourselves with such inanity. We live each day as though it were Ash
Wednesday—a bleak reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will all return.
And somehow, on this Transfiguration Sunday, as Jesus glows and disciples cower, that is
good news.


None of us really cares what the Stars! are really like. We already know.

We are, all of us, sinful and forgiven, unclean and washed, unlovable and deeply loved. And
that is the face we are called to show to the world.


Transfigured to the world as today Jesus is transfigured before us.