Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany (24 January 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

Jonah 3.1-5.,10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1.14-21

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

There are heroes and there are antiheroes.

Who are the heroes? Wonder Woman. Batman. T’Challa, aka Black Panther. The “hero” is the character who seeks truth and justice, whose motives are good and whose heart is strong.

Who are the antiheroes? Walter White (“Breaking Bad”). Severus Snape (“Harry Potter”). Michael Scott (“The Office”). The antihero is the character who, though they might lack the will or courage to do the right thing the first time, in the end, somehow, eventually, their questionable actions might lead to a good outcome, a brave and selfless act.

Notice that all my examples of heroes and antiheroes are fictional. In everyday life, the lines are not so easily drawn, the motives so clearly seen, the outcomes so final. Most of us, in our daily lives, are a tepid soup of noble and ignoble motives, selfless and selfish acts, laudatory and lame outcomes.

There are heroes and there are antiheroes. People who do good first thing in the morning AND the people who have to warm up to the idea.

There are disciples and there are anti-disciples.

Disciples are those who follow without question, who reflect the master’s ways, who act out of devotion and determination. The true disciple is an elusive beast.

Anti-disciples? That’s a more common type. The anti-disciple is the follower whose motives may be suspect, whose actions lack integrity, who drag their feet and whine, “Are we there yet?”

This morning’s readings introduce us to both types. And beg the question: which one am I?

We first meet Jonah, the original anti-hero. Though we are dropped into the middle of the story this morning, you know how it goes. Jonah, a heretofore unknown biblical character, is sent to Nineveh to preach repentance in the name of the one true God. His first impulse? Nope.

God had invited Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, but, instead, Jonah hightailed it for the marina where he snuck passage on the first outgoing frigate. Mayhem ensues and Jonah is tossed overboard, only to be slurped up by a passing whale, marinated in the whale’s bilious belly, and, three days later, vomited up on the shore. Apparently, he upset the whale’s stomach, left a bad taste in its mouth. Jonah had that effect on fish. And people. (Jonah 1)

That’s where this morning’s reading begins. Jonah, covered in whale puke, crusted with sea salt, breaded with beach sand. Even then, prepped like chicken for the fryer, the whale didn’t want him. But God did.

“Look, Jonah,” God said, “you have two options. You can do it my way the first time. Or you can do it my way the second time. But you’ll do it my way.”

And Jonah did. He had no choice. But he wasn’t going to like it. Dragging his feet, muttering under his breath, Jonah barely crossed the Nineveh city limits before he muttered, hoping no one would hear, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

No one was more surprised than Jonah when the whole city heard him—from the king on his throne to the beggar in the street—and all repented, in sackcloth and ashes. God’s message was delivered, in spite of the messenger.

“Dang it,” Jonah said to himself. “I hate it when that happens.”

Jonah. The Original Anti-Disciple.

Humor me, for a moment, as we turn the page to Mark’s gospel, where Jesus is assembling his entourage. Humor me as we pretend, for a moment, that the disciples whom Jesus calls today are true disciples.

After all, when we first meet Simon and Andrew, James and John, they are eager and ready to follow Jesus. Without question. Without a wave goodbye. Without a glance back over their shoulder.

They changed their Facebook status from “single” to “in a relationship,” their work status from “fisher” to “follower,” dropped their nets and chased Jesus down the beach.

Like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, fishing poles over through shoulders.

Like Thelma and Louise . . . driving over a cliff?

This story has always been a head-scratcher for me.

Seems a bit hasty, don’t you think to drop everything and follow the first guy who makes an offer. Kink of cult-ish.

Imagine the conversation at the table that night, when Zebedee, short two sons, has to explain to Mrs. Zebedee that the boys won’t be home for supper. For a while.

And all those fish that won’t be caught, those nets that won’t be mended, those bills that won’t be paid. Though Mark names them “disciples,” we might have other names. Ne’er-do-wells. Scofflaws. Ghosters.

But, at first blush, before we turn another page, they are true disciples. Seeking truth and justice. With pure motives and good hearts. Wonder Woman, Batman and Black Panther in hip waders.

It won’t be long before the disciples’ eagerness abates, their faithfulness flags. It won’t be long before we put a four-letter prefix in front of their designation.

After all, there are disciples. And there are anti-disciples. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. And sometimes they are the same person.

We have recently been witness to a whole lot of discipleship—dangerous discipleship. Images of camouflage-clad terrorists scaling the walls of our nation’s capital, carrying zip-tie handcuffs, chasing police, defecating in the hallways, these images haunt my sleep. Some of those terrorists were “true disciples.” They were ready to destroy, to kidnap, even to kill in allegiance to their criminal calling.

But among those dangerously misguided disciples were a whole lot of others who had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. School teachers and accountants. College students and grandparents. How many times have we now seen the tearful confession, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I went to DC to march, to protest. I didn’t know what they had planned.”

My heart goes out to them, and with a word of reminder. Following has consequences. Discipleship comes with a cost. Take that first step cautiously.

Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to death and mayhem, to division and destruction. Jesus calls them simply to follow—without a road map or a position description or a mission statement. “Follow me,” and something about his voice, his invitation makes that following seem like a good idea.

And here’s the really interesting thing about both discipleship models in today’s readings—the anti-disciple Jonah and the (temporarily) true disciple brothers. They weren’t asked to do much. They weren’t asked to go far. They weren’t asked to check their brains or consciences at the door.

Simple tasks. Easy to do. Close to home.

To Jonah, “Walk into the city. Read this script. That’s all.”

To Simon and Andrew, James and John, “Step away from the boat.”

We imagine that to follow Jesus requires some herculean effort on our part, that we’ll be called away from home and family, work and responsibility. But only 12 were asked to do that—only 12. The rest of us? We who would be disciples—or more likely, anti-disciples—are called to follow close to home, just one step away from the boat.

So, with apologies to Lin Manuel Miranda and Amanda Gorman, while history may have its eye on us, it’s God’s assessment that matters to me? What does God see in us—we would-be disciples?

A dear friend has been betrayed by one whom they had trusted. Everything in me wants to destroy that betrayer, return evil for evil, say out loud all the horrible things I feel. But I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, and I am called to forgive, to hold my tongue, to view that person as one whom God loves. And that’s what I am doing. Reluctantly, like Jonah. Foot-dragging, like Jonah. Begrudgingly, like Jonah. But I am a disciple of Jesus Christ and I do things his way. I hate it when that happens.

We cannot underestimate the division in our country, our community, even in our congregation. Though most of us would never harm a person with whom we disagree politically, terrorism is like a leaky roof. What starts as a distant drip, drip, drip, left unattended destroys the whole house. Danger is all around. And you and I feel powerless to stop them. What would a disciple do?

A disciple would make peace close to home. A disciple would take that single step into relationship, swallow that single word that would feel so good to say, extend a single kindness to one with whom we disagree. We are not called to defend truth, justice and the shop-worn American way. We are called to follow Jesus in our own stupid little lives. To take one step. To say—or swallow—one word. To forgive one failing.

It’s not a lot.

There are heroes and there are anti-heroes. Wonder Woman and Walter White. They are all fictional.

There are disciples and there are anti-disciples. Those who follow Jesus whole-heartedly, and those who lag behind, muttering all the way. But regardless of the robust or wimpy nature of our faithfulness, it is enough that we are disciples.

Say the word, my friend. Step away from the boat.

Jesus calls us. But he doesn’t call us to go far.

Second Sunday of Christmas

Second Sunday of Christmas (3 January 2021)

John 1.1-18

JoAnn A. Post

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 

The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

We were able to sneak in a few days with our grandson in North Carolina after Christmas, (his parents were there, too, but they are mostly just surplus genetic material at this point) and I am afraid to admit that it seems Theo’s first word is “quackquack.” Perhaps we sang the Raffi song about the Five Little Ducks a little too often, but any feathered creature in a storybook, any bird in a tree, is greeted with a grinning, drooling, “Quack!” Born into a family of readers and writers, singers and public speakers, somehow, I imagined a first word more profound. “Quackquack?” It could be worse, I suppose.

As one of eight children, I’m sure most of me and my siblings’ “first words” were drowned out in the family noise. But a friend from an even larger family than mine has been told that he did not speak until he was four-years-old. While you and I would be frantic about such an extended silence, his parents were unconcerned. As the youngest of a dozen, his parents figured he either didn’t have to speak because all his needs were met OR he wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise, even if he tried. “He’ll talk when he has something to say,” his father remembers. And he did.

Conversely, a good family friend has a child who has no words, who is, for some reason, non-verbal. Unlike my other friend’s parents who regarded his silence as a phase, these friends hang on every noise, every utterance, hoping to decipher a first word. It will come. You can see the words in the little one’s eyes. Whether with syllables or finger spelling, it will come. When that first word falls, you will hear the shouts of joy all over town. 

What were your first words—in life?

What about this year? What were your first words—this year?

After months of pandemic lock-down and economic chaos, news late last year of successful vaccine trials provided the first good news we had had in a long time. But late on New Year’s Eve, news broke of a rogue pharmacist in Milwaukee who had intentionally sabotaged 500 doses of the vaccine. What on earth made that seem like a good idea? You could hear the whole country groan in despair. For some of us, who had pinned too much hope on those precious vials of elixir, the first words of the new year were something unprintable muffled by bedcovers pulled over our heads.

Or perhaps you were among the indefatigable few who defied curfew and stayed up past midnight to greet the new year. What did you say as the ball in Times Square, witnessed only by camera crews and inebriated celebrities, fell to the cold, dark earth? Something hopeful? Something cynical? Only a sigh?

First words.

On this Second Sunday of Christmas, we hear a first word of enormous import. Unlike the story of Jesus’ birth that we read on Christmas Eve—Luke’s ret-telling in which Joseph’s first words were “It’s a boy!”—or the Epiphany story from Matthew about the Wise Ones’ visit—a story in which Herod’s first words were a menacing “Find that boy!”—the gospel of John has no such birth story, no remarkable first words. Even Mark’s gospel—the most abrupt of the four—records first words. Not about or from a baby, but shouts from a camel-hair clad prophet on a river bank, “Repent!” It’s a start.

John’s gospel is more circumspect, more cerebral, more inscrutable than the other three. What first words do we read this morning, at the beginning of a gospel, the beginning of a new year?  

“In the beginning was (wait for it) the Word.”

The Word. Singular? Only one? What particular word? Could you be more specific?  Of which word do you speak and who said it?

The beginning of John’s gospel starts with a capital-W Word. (In English.)

In Greek, the language from which this text comes to us, that first word of John’s gospel is “Logos.” “In the beginning was Logos.”

“Logos” is the basis for our English words “logic” and “logical” and “logistics.” “Logos” is a reasoned statement, a carefully-crafted argument, a declarative sentence, a stake in the ground.

So, when the gospel of John opens with a capital W “Word!” or, in its original form, a capital Λ “Logos!” John is saying something very specific about what God is saying. And the way God chooses to say it.

In sending Jesus—the Word, the Logic of God—to live among us, to take on human form, human failure, human fears, God wasn’t messing around. Jesus wasn’t spaghetti thrown against a wall or ideas scribbled on an easel. Jesus wasn’t a prototype or a first draft. God wasn’t testing the waters or taking the world’s temperature. God was saying, “This is the way I will be seen. In this One. In this Word.”

John quickly sketches two attributes of this Word. This one is Light. This one is Life.

Later in this morning’s reading, John characterizes the Word of God as Grace. Truth.

God doesn’t mince Word.

John, the gospel writer, chose his words with great care. The specificity of John’s syntax indicates that God had a very clear definition of this Word named Jesus. Light and Life. Grace and Truth. 

This is God’s desire for us, for the world, in sending Jesus. That we would know nothing but Light, nothing but Life. That we would emanate God’s Grace, God’s Truth. Try to fit that on a Christmas card.

I know, the baby in the manger is a whole lot cuter. I know that for most of the world Christmas is about angels and carols and burbling babies. But it’s time for us to grow up, to mature in our understanding of what God is up to. It is time for us to leave the manger in the barn and step into the world.

As followers of Jesus, the Logos of God, it’s time for us to make a reasoned statement, a carefully-crafted argument, a declarative sentence, to sink our stake into the ground. To say a Word. Not many words—blah, blah, blah—but A Word. A Word that sheds Light, that speaks Life. A Word that is Grace-full and True. A Word the world has not heard in a very long time.

These last few years have been trying times for all who name themselves “Christian,” who publicly follow Jesus. Our singular message of Light and Life has been twisted into Darkness and Death. Our promise of Grace and Truth has been repurposed as Judgement and Lies. Too often, Christians are characterized as divisive and judgmental, angry and unforgiving.   

Years ago, I had a chance, unpleasant encounter with a person who knew nothing of Jesus or his disciples, but thought they did. Upon finding out I am a practicing Christian, they said, “Great. Another one of those homophobic, pro-life, poverty-shaming, anti-intellectual, electric-chair racists.”

Wow.

Is that really what the world hears from us? “Nope?”

I fear that, contrary to God’s intent, we have taken God’s Word, God’s Big Idea, and chopped it into little tiny pieces, picking and choosing the parts that agree with us, the parts that support our argument.

But that’s not who we are, we believers in Jesus. And that certainly is not who God’s Word is.

God didn’t send the Word into the world to make a political statement, to sell a t-shirt, to divide and destroy. You’ll find God’s Word-lovers in every political party, every tax bracket, every neighborhood, every profession. Because God will not be defined by our categories, used to pursue our own ends.

Division is not what God had in mind, in that beginning of which John writes.

Jesus was spoken to gather all people to God.

Jesus was spoken to brighten every dark corner.

Jesus was spoken to breathe life into a world on life-support.

Jesus was spoken to grace the world with truth greater than our own.

First words.

From a baby’s first bursts to our elders’ final mutterings.

From our shameless proclamation of God’s limitless love to our silent, praying sighs.

God came into the world with a capital Word, in a burst of light, on a stream of song. With a reasoned statement, a carefully-crafted argument, a declarative sentence, a stake in the ground.

Anger is easy. Snark may be satisfying. But those are not God’s words. Those are not God’s Word. To a world buried under words that hurt and humiliate, shame and smear, we offer a different word.

God is Light. God is Life. God is Grace. God is Truth.

My Theo’s first word might be QuackQuack. Your first word this year might have had only four letters.

Our first words in this new year? Light? Life? Grace? Truth? Difficult words. So how about this one?

How about “Love?” Blessed New Year. The world is listening.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent (20 December 2020)

JoAnn A Post

Luke 1.26-38

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” 

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

“In the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel . . .”

The sixth month? The sixth month of what? Luke, the gospel writer, is all about the details, peppering his narrative with dates and places and names, as though to verify his account, to prove his point, to footnote his research.

“In the sixth month . . .” refers not to the sixth month of the year or the sixth month of a pandemic or the sixth month of a 12-month warranty on your new IPhone. It was the sixth month of a pregnancy—ancient Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Ancient Elizabeth, Mary’s second-cousin twice-removed on her father’s side, who had conceived a child in old age. (You can read all about it in Luke’s first chapter.) Her pregnancy was such a big deal that Luke uses it to time-stamp the beginning of Mary’s own pregnancy, and more important, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.

So, the story of Jesus’ birth among us is framed by one old womb on one side and a womb yet untouched on the other.

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re only at the first phrase of a much-longer, more complicated story.

“In the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel was sent (by God) to a town in Galilee, called Nazareth.”

Sorry, we need to stop again. First a time stamp, now a geo-tag.

Luke is unfolding a tattered map of the Middle East in the 1st century, opening it to the country we now call “Israel.” He hikes the hill country north from Jerusalem, hangs a left at the Sea of Galilee, and drops a pin in the village of Nazareth, a burg of fewer than 500 people. (Titonka, my home town in Iowa, is bigger than Nazareth. By about 17 people.)

So, now we know when this happens and where it happens. Let’s get on with the story.

“In the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel was sent (by God) to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph.”

Sorry. Another bookmark. So far, we’ve got an old woman’s pregnancy six months on, a town that barely appears on a map, a passing reference to a nameless teenage girl and a groom whose name is Joseph.

Time stamp. Geo tag. Name drop. But still no baby. Let’s keep going.

Oops, almost forgot another name drop, “. . . a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”

Suddenly, it’s getting interesting. This might be no ordinary bride and groom in some washed-up hill town. Joseph is descended of royalty, an heir of King David, whose dynasty lasted more than 400 years. Why would Luke bother with that genealogical detail? King David had been dead for 1,000 years by the time Joseph was born; 40 generations separated them.

But in the same way that we are fascinated with our own blood lines, our own ancestral heritage, Luke is, as well. And he wants us to know, detail-addict that he is, that a promise made to King David 1,000 years before Luke put pen to paper, is about to be made good. The promise that, through David’s lineage, God would establish an everlasting kingdom that would usher in endless peace. We are reminded of that centuries’ old promise by an old woman’s pregnancy, in a backwater village, through a virgin yet unnamed who had the good fortune to have fallen in with Joseph. All the plot lines of history are coming together now.

And, oh, by the way, Luke adds, almost as an afterthought. That virgin? Her name is Mary.

There are a million ways to study this familiar text, a million rabbit holes—literary, historical, medical, theological, artistic, musical—that we could explore. After all, we’re only three pages into an eight-page manuscript, and haven’t gotten past the first sentence of the gospel reading. There is so much more to talk about. But, for now, let’s just spend a moment on the moment that Luke affords Mary.

She has no claim to fame. She appears nowhere in the historical record but in scripture. Her father wasn’t chairman of the town council. Her mother wasn’t the favorite lunch lady. Mary didn’t win any cross country tournaments or get a high score on her SAT.

She was an ordinary girl from an ordinary family, living in an ordinary town, engaged to an ordinary guy. And yet, Luke is careful to tell us, God’s angel came to her.

Time stamp. Geo tag. Name drop. We have a miracle in the making.

Luke is a terrific story teller, foreshadowing, overshadowing, sometimes winking at the reader with a sly grin, and other times stumping us.      

But Mary, the understated centerpiece of this amazing story, is completely underwhelmed.

“Greetings, favored one,” croons the angel. You would think Mary would faint from fear, or scream for her mother, or grab her phone to record the moment for Instagram, but she stops the angel. “What? Who?”

Mary was perplexed, not by the angel, but by the greeting. Mary was favored by no one, though her parents did love her and Joseph thought she was pretty. Gabriel must have been in the wrong house.

But Gabriel barreled ahead. Dropping names like confetti: Jesus, God, David, Jacob, Most High. Something about a pregnancy and . . .

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Mary stops the angel. “I have a question.”

Of course, she did. Hundreds of them. But she asked about the one thing that we almost missed. “This isn’t possible. I’ve never been with a man. There’s no way I can be pregnant. Are you sure you’re at the right house?”

Undeterred, Gabriel went back to his script. This whole thing had seemed like a bad idea to him, but the home office insisted.

“Here’s what happens next,” Gabriel read. It was all blah, blah, blah to Mary by then—Holy Spirit, overshadow, Son of God, Elizabeth. Her head was throbbing. Gabriel could tell he was losing her, so he jumped ahead to the punchline.

“Look Mary,” Gabriel sighed, sympathetic. “I know this seems bizarre. I’m with you on that. But I’ve been working for the Almighty for a long time now, and here’s what I know. With God, nothing is impossible.”

And then Mary sighed, too. “Okay. I get it. Let’s do this thing.”

Actually, Luke remembers it this way: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary, almost more than her famous son, has always captured the world’s attention. In every century and culture, every language and locale, Mary holds our hearts.

Last weekend marked the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the largest festivals of Mary in the world. An event so large, the city of Chicago had to hide her shrine and block off the streets surrounding it to keep the crowds away.  It wouldn’t have been safe.

Ordinarily, in a non-pandemic year, millions of people around the world would have crawled on their knees or walked barefoot for miles to the nearest shrine to seek her blessing. Why? Because Mary, who appeared to a peasant in the Mexican hill country in the 16th century, is one of us. Ordinary. Unlikely. Believer in the Impossible.

And Our Lady of Guadalupe, as that Mexican manifestation is known, is not aloof and alabaster as she is mostly portrayed in this part of the world. Our Lady of Guadalupe’s skin is brown. Her eyes are kind. Her touch brings healing.

In Rwanda, Mary is black. In Sweden, she is blonde. In Korea, her beautiful black hair glitters in the candlelight. Everywhere, she is revered.

Mary has captured our attention, as she once captured God’s. Because she is so much like us. Ordinary as an old shoe. Filled with questions. Willing to believe. And those who love and revere the Virgin, by her many names and in many languages, seek to be like her.

And that’s why Luke bothers with all the detail. Luke wanted us to know, without doubt, that Mary was chosen for no other reason than that God saw her, loved her, trusted her with the impossible.

So, in an homage to Luke’s narrative, here we go:

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent (time stamp), in a village built on land once home to the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac and Fox (geo tag), an angel of the Lord noticed ____ (drop name here). And God favored that people because they believed, without reason and probably against legal counsel, that with God, all things are possible.

None of this makes any sense. There is no verifiable proof of our faith. But, then, in my humble experience, the greatest truths come with the least evidence. Have you ever tried to explain love?

That is why, as the fourth candle burns on our wreath, and our eyes burn with frightened and lonely tears, we claim Mary’s faith as our own. And we believe, though unexpected and mysterious, that with God, all things are possible.

Second Sunday of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent (6 December 2020)

JoAnn A. Post

Isaiah 40.1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Mark 1.1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
 “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
  who will prepare your way;
 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
  make his paths straight,’ ”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent is not everyone’s favorite season. This lame opening act to the main event—“It’s a boy!”—is little more than a stone in the shoe, an itch under the collar, a too-small waiting room.

In a previous parish, a member of the congregation made it their personal mission in life to torture me about Advent each year. “The mall has Christmas trees. The radio stations are playing Christmas carols. I’ve been getting Christmas cards since the first of November. But not here! Oh, no! not here!” And then curling a lip and leaning too close, “Here, its Ad-vent. What is wrong with you? Didn’t your mother love you?”

Well, my mother did love me, and there’s lots wrong with me, but none of it has to do with Advent.

But my angry opponent was correct in their Advent Analysis. Most start celebrating Christmas before the jack-o’lanterns have rotted on the front step. This year, because of our pandemic-driven depression, the anticipatory events are even more intense. We’ve been lighting trees in our living rooms for weeks now. 93.9 MYfm has been playing Christmas music since the first week of November. “”With all the turmoil in the world today, we felt Chicago needed a little more Christmas right now,” a station representative said, while dancing around the studio in a Rudolf costume. (There’s something wrong with ME? I don’t even own a Rudolf costume.)

Though we might like to ignore Advent all together, we do so at our peril. There are some things into which we must be schooled; some things for which we are simply not prepared; some things for which we wisely wait.

Would you marry on the first date? Say to a child, “You can drive yourself to kindergarten today?”  Hand the inheritance to an eight-year-old?

None of us would do those things, because each of these events requires preparation, maturity, humility. But, in Advent, we act as though we are ready to waltz up to the King of Creation, the Lord of the Universe, the Savior of the Nations with a jingle bell in one hand and an eggnog in the other.

If, in fact, the only thing waiting for us at the end of this endless Advent was a stack of presents under a dry tree, and an overdue credit card bill, there would be no need to wait, nothing worth waiting for. But, though most of the world has not put together that Christmas is about “Christ,” we know exactly what this looming festival is about.  And we are simply not ready.

Side note. A pastoral colleague got an anguished email from a member of their congregation last week. “My children are asking pointed questions about Santa Claus. Pastor, how do we keep the true meaning of Christmas if they don’t believe in Santa Claus?”  Um, see “Christ” in “Christmas” above.

That’s why we wait. You can put your Christmas tree up in March for all I care. One of my aunt’s favorite hymns was “Joy to the World,” and when she died in July a few years ago, we sang all the verses at her funeral. Advent isn’t intended to deny us anything. Instead it prepares us for everything.

Enter John the Baptizer, my least favorite biblical figure. Poorly dressed. Bombastic. Judgmental. The world’s worst dinner guest. But, as we are learning with activists in our current political climate, sometimes it takes someone to be way out ahead of us before we are moved even a little.

Think about how “Black Lives Matter” and “#metoo” and “Count the Votes!” have changed our national discourse. No matter what you think about those movements, they’ve made us think.

John the Baptizer is that activist, that crackling lightening rod who startles us from our smug, settled lives to consider another way.

What was John’s slogan, his hashtag, the words scribbled on his poster with a sharpie? “Not Yet!”

For all the fanfare around John the Baptizer: “the whole Judean countryside, and all the people from Jerusalem came out to see him;” in spite of the fact that he appears more than any biblical character except Jesus in our preaching texts, John is only an Advent. John is a billboard, a network news crawler, a trending tweet. We need the speed bump that is John the Baptizer because we are not ready. Our hearts are not open. Our paths are not straight. Our rough places are still really rough, to misquote Isaiah. (Isaiah 40.1-11)

So, even though all the people standing around the river that day wanted it to be John, wanted their waiting for the Messiah to be over, wanted to witness Isaiah’s promise that the penalty has been paid, that God is here in both might and meekness, they weren’t ready. And neither are we.

Because we don’t really want what Jesus’ arrival means.

This Advent we are partnering with The Night Ministry to provide warm clothes, health supplies and financial support for their work with people experiencing homelessness. And we secretly imagine that, one day, all our gifts and our prayers and our work put The Night Ministry out of business; that we might hasten that day when no one will sleep on the street, when “couch surfing” will be a word nobody uses anymore.

But do we really want that? Are we really ready for an end to the world’s suffering, for everyone to have a home?

Two summers ago, our congregation’s leaders engaged in a little thought experiment about the future of our ministry. What if this enormous, stunning property on which we worship and work could be used for other purposes? What if we put our principles to work and erected affordable housing on this beautiful corner of creation? We certainly don’t use all this land, and the need for affordable housing in our area is undeniable.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Until we researched land-use protocols in our neighborhood and discovered there are prohibitions against our plans. Until we started floating it in conversation and got serious pushback about what affordable housing on our property would do to property values and schools and neighborhoods and transportation and the tax base. Even people who share our concern for those experiencing homelessness, are twitchy about alleviating homelessness in our backyard.

Yes, we want every tossed-out teen, every veteran, every single parent to have a safe, loving home. But providing homes for them would mean serious change for us. And we’re just not ready.

The promise of Christmas, of Christ’s birth among us, is not simple sentimentality. The promise of Christmas is that the world will be changed. By God. For us. Ready or not. All the rough roads will be smoothed. All the mountains will be lowered. All the chasms will be filled. The hungry will be fed; the naked will be clothed; the frightened will be safe; the unloved, unnoticed, uncounted will be held in God’s arms like lambs. God’s intent is that all people, ALL people, will know that their suffering is over, their term served, their penalty paid.

Do we really want that reality to be real? Are we ready for what Jesus bring? For what Jesus means?

John the Baptizer was an activist of the first order. Unrepentant in his righteous indignation. Shameless in his sermons. Unafraid of any opponent. His message, that slogan that caused crowds to alternately swoon and swear? “Not yet. You’re not ready yet.”

There are things that need to said, changes that need to be made. But we are simply not ready.

So we keep having to say “black lives matter,” because for too long, their lives and experiences have been disregarded.

So we have to keep saying, #metoo,” because for too long we have let others silence us.

So we have to keep saying, “count the votes,” because for too long the right for all to vote has been a privilege only for some.

We can’t even agree about what this (mask) means, or the meaning of the word “fact.” What makes us think we’re ready for the King of Creation, the Lord of the Universe, the Savior of the Nations?

The darkness of this season has as much to do with the way the earth tilts on its axis in the northern hemisphere, as it does with the hardness of our hearts and the set of our jaw.

John the Baptizer was sent to school us. Advent exists to slow us down. The mournful melodies, the flickering candles, the darkness of this season gift us with time. Time to listen. Time to consider. Time to be changed.

But for now, we live a little longer with the stone in our shoe, the itch under our collar, in this cramped waiting room we call Advent.

Christ is coming. Coming soon. But not just yet. We’re not ready.

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (15 November 2020)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 25.14-30

Jesus said to the disciples: “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 

After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 

Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I came to faith in the age of Sunday School leaflets. Each week my Sunday School teachers (who were also my aunts) distributed beautiful, four-page, full-color leaflets to each of us as we walked in the classroom door. On the cover of the leaflet was a beautiful drawing of the bible story for the day. Inside were crossword puzzles and coloring pages and prayers, pictures of rosy cheeked children doing good things, as Jesus did good things.

Those Sunday School leaflets were a weekly treasure; we clutched them in our sweaty little hands all morning, as though they were gold. And those leaflets, that quaint, mid-century art taught me everything I knew about Jesus.

That’s why, in the age in which I came to faith, Jesus and the disciples looked like me: white skin, blue eyes, smooth, fair hair. I didn’t give it a second thought, assuming that his world was like mine. After all, what other world did I know?

That’s why, on the long-ago Sunday when our country Sunday School class discussed this morning’s gospel reading (yes, I remember the leaflet)—The Master Who Gave Away Talents—I assumed a “talent” to Jesus was the same thing as a “talent” to me. And I wondered, what were those five talents, those two talents, that one talent the master gave his servants?

Tap dancing? Card playing? Running faster than their brothers? Being the best speller in second grade? Singing like an angel? (Those are the talents I wanted, so why wouldn’t they?)

Somehow, eight-year-old me missed the end of the story—the part about investing talents and burying talents. So, it came as a surprise to me, as I grew in faith and understanding, to learn that a “talent” to Jesus was not a fabulous flair, but a measure. And a big one at that.

Scholars differ on their estimates, but a talent in the 1st century was both a measure of weight (like a bushel and a peck) AND a measure of money (like dollars and cents). And both meanings of “talent” were significant. Some estimate a monetary talent in Jesus’ day to be worth about $25,000 in current dollars. (That’s a lot of tap shoes.)

So, as I grew into this story over the years, I became increasingly confused. The servants to whom the master entrusted his estate—each according to his ability—had, in fact, each been given a ton of money. I can understand entrusting great wealth—five talents—to one’s most trusted advisor, but why give so much—even 1 talent—to a servant who had no ability?

And, to add to the confusion, why did the first two servants have the good sense (or the hubris) to bet it all on the stock market and score a 100% return? I’m not sure that, if you gave me all your money, I’d race to Wall Street with it. And, if the first two had such extraordinary investing success, why did the third servant—the one of questionable ability—bury his in the ground, like a dog with a bone?

The more I knew, the less I knew.

And in studying those three servants so closely, I committed a classic mistake—whether you are a second-grade Sunday School student or a middle-aged pastor. I made the mistake of assuming this was about the servants. And, by extension, about me. And my talents, or lack thereof.

I assumed—in second grade—that Jesus wanted me to use whatever talents I had for good. (I was particularly adept at chasing barn cats—perhaps that was the talent Jesus gave me?)

I assumed—in middle-age—that Jesus wants me to be like those first two servants, to invest wisely, whether that is the investment of my wealth, my abilities or my time.

But this parable is not about those servants. Or me. Or you. Some of his parables are directed at his hearers—the “go and do likewise” stories. But not this one. This is not a children’s story tied up with a nifty moral at the end.

Remember my rule: Jesus gives away the subject of the parable in the first sentence? In this case, “It is as if a man, going on a journey . . . “

The parable of the Master Who Gave Away Talents is about the Master. The Master who gave it all away to his servants—ready or not.

The first two servants, recognizing the tremendous gift they had been given, wanted to be worthy of the master’s trust. So they took a chance—going off at once to multiply their master’s money. Out of respect. Out of gratitude. They regarded their master as generous, and wanted to be generous in turn.

But the third servant, the one with the shovel in his hand and dirt on his knees, despised the master. The servant regarded his master a bloviating bully who took credit for work he had not done: “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping what you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter.”

And because he regarded the master as small and selfish, he became exactly like the master he imagined.

This parable is not about what we think about ourselves—our ability to tap dance on a stage or around the facts—but about what we think about God. Who God is for us. For the world.

Like the servants in Jesus’ parable who thought of the master as they believed he thought of them, we expect God to think and act and judge as we do.

Here’s what I mean. If we know God to be generous, forgiving, gracious, we move through the world in the same way. Giving freely of our time and treasure, forgiving those who have wronged us, making space for second chances. Trusting that God has our best interests at heart. As did the first two servants.

But if we believe God to be stingy, angry, judgmental, harsh, we respond in kind, lashing out at God and each other. We become the Third Servant, burying all the good things we’ve been given in a hole in the ground.  We become all those things we first thought about our master. Stingy. Angry. Judgmental. Harsh.

Who is God for you? The generous giver of all good things, or a miser who cares nothing for us.

Remember in pre-pandemic days, when we gathered socially or professionally with strangers in crowded rooms at meetings and banquets? Remember cradling a cocktail or coffee cup in our hands as we talked? Yeah, a thousand years ago. 

I have met fascinating people in those spaces over the years, enjoyed intriguing and stimulating conversation. I loved those opportunities to meet people, make connections, tell stories. I remember often being surprised at how quickly the time passes. The gift of a person’s time and attention is a gift I don’t take lightly.

I also have uncomfortable memories of talking with “that person” at a social gathering who spends the whole time looking over my shoulder for a better conversation partner. The person who can’t wait to get away, because someone more important, more interesting, more attractive has caught their eye. Apparently, my time and attention are only place holders for the time and attention of a more valuable encounter.

Jesus’ parable is about gifts given to us by a Master who trusts us. Are those gifts enough? Do we value those gifts? Or are we always looking over God’s shoulder, wondering why we don’t have more, different, to our minds “better?”

 The Master entrusts each of us with “talents,” not tap dancing or yodeling, but valuable gifts to be shared. Even multiplied. Time. Wealth. Expertise.

The Master entrusts us with everything the Master owns. In a few short chapters, God will even surrender the greatest treasure, God’s only Son, Jesus, to an angry mob for our sake.

Do we value that treasure? Or dismiss it as not enough?

I never did learn to tap dance, but I can make gravy with no lumps; I can calm a crying child—skills that have been much more useful.  

But we have been entrusted with greater gifts than these. How shall we use them? If we use them well, if we use them for good, perhaps we will also be told, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 25.1-13

Jesus said to the disciples: 

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.

Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 

Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 

When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 

  but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 

As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 

But at midnight there was a shout,

  ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 

Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 

The foolish said to the wise,

  ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 

But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us;

  you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 

And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came,

  and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet;

  and the door was shut. 

Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying,

  ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 

  But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is like an episode of “The Bachelor.” Ten young women, wearing uncomfortable, revealing dresses, vie for the eye of the, apparently, only eligible man in the county. What will they do to get his attention? To earn the coveted red rose? What horrible behavior will the bridesmaids have to endure; how deeply will they have to demean themselves? After all, only one can win the prized proposal. Stay tuned.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a presidential election; five bridesmaids wear red and five wear blue. Though publicly they promise to accept the groom’s decision, to remain friends at the end of the night, secretly they hate one another. They steal the other’s lamp oil. They accuse each other of seeking unfair advantage. How long must they wait to see the face of the elected one? Refresh.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .

Of all the Kingdom of Heaven parables in Matthew’s gospel, this one is least satisfying and most troubling. It reveals the ancient origins of the wedding industrial complex, which expects women to wait around in rented dresses for a man who might or might not show up. It portrays these young women as selfish and conniving, refusing to help one another, shoving each other out of the way like children on a playground. And the groom? More like Groomzilla. He’s no prize. He disregards the needs of his guests, by keeping them waiting without explanation. He ushers some of the bridesmaids in behind him, but slams the door on the others—the ones who had already been thrown under the bus by their alleged friends.

That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like? Endless waiting? Bad behavior? Sorting and rejecting on a whim? Who needs it?

We have to remember that, at this point in the Jesus story, he is only chapters away from being arrested like a common criminal, falsely accused, beaten, tortured and crucified. Though his disciples couldn’t know what lay ahead, Jesus did. He was, understandably, a little tense.

Jesus was also afraid. He feared that his disciples might not be up to the task. When, at the end of the parable, he says “Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” I wonder if he was throwing shade at Peter, who, in the Garden of Gethsemane would, in fact, fall asleep on his watch?

Regardless of who knew what when, no one comes out of this parable unscathed. They all fail—bridesmaids, grooms, disciples. Do we fail, too? Would we pass the Wide-Awake Waiting Test?

In some ways, this is an unintended Pandemic Parable. We are in our ninth month of waiting for an end to our vigil—we could have all had babies by now. But what, exactly are we waiting for? And how far have we fallen as we wait? It seems our goal is no longer to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, working together to protect and defend, caring most for the least. Instead we blame. And accuse. And threaten. And try not to die.

We are not waiting very well. For anything. We look a lot like foolish bridesmaids and selfish grooms.

I love having interns at Ascension. They bring a new energy, new questions, new challenges to me and to the congregation. But interns also bring with them a slew of paperwork—evaluations and applications and reviews and reports.

When a congregation applies for an intern, both student and supervisor have to fill out reams of forms intended to find a perfect match. One of the forms presents the supervisor with a Likert scale, asking us to place ourselves somewhere on a five-point scale with regard to various personal preferences about being a pastor. Do you find greater energy working alone or with others? Do you lead from the front or the back? Do you easily disclose personal information or maintain high boundaries?

And the question that always gives me pause, because the answer seems so obvious, posits these two poles, “The pastor’s personal life is nobody’s business,” or, “The pastor must live a life above reproach.”

I hope you don’t have to wonder where I fall on that scale. Of course, I believe pastors are held to a higher standard, in every way. That doesn’t mean I meet those expectations every day, on every front, but you should be able to trust that I try, that I long to be faithful in all my words and actions.

Who would disagree with that, you ask? Who would want their pastor to be just like everybody else?

Well, lots of people. Because the counter argument is that all who name Jesus’ name—ordained or not—ought to be above reproach. That all of us—ordained or not—ought to be faithful in word and deed. It’s not that some of my colleagues imagine they should be able to side hustle as serial killers or pole dancers, but that all Jesus’ disciples should be held to a higher standard. That all Jesus’ disciples demonstrate coherence between what we say we believe and the way we live.

Meanwhile, back at the wedding, ten young women are slumped on the curb in various stages of slumber. Drooling on their dresses. Crumpling their corsages. Trying not to miss their shot.

And when the shout is finally heard, “The Groom is coming! The Groom is coming!” they slip into their four-inch sling-backs, and hold their lamps high to light the way of the one, long-expected.

Putting aside all my difficulties with the caricatures of these women and the inconsistencies of the story, the Kingdom of Heaven is like ten bridesmaids, five who were foolish and five who were wise.

What makes the difference between wise and foolish?

The wise knew their job was to wait—as long as it took.

The wise knew that plans rarely go according to plan.

The wise knew that, regardless of what others around them might do or say or think, they had to be always ready, always aware, always above reproach. Because they had a single task. To light the way for the one who was coming.

Though none of us looks is particularly fetching in a bridesmaid’s dress, we are like those women. We have a single task, we who wait for signs of Jesus’ coming.

And though the rest of the world descends into partisan bickering, cruel stereotypes, and shameless self-promotion, we do not.  Whether we wait for the announcement of an election, or the taming of a pandemic, or the easing of a private and paralyzing fear, we wait with expectation. Because we—Jesus’ disciples, bridesmaids and groomsmen for his party—know that we have a single task.

To light his way in a dark world. And to illumine that path for others. Rejoicing as we wait.

Festival of All Saints

Festival of All Saints (1 November 2020)

Revelation 7.9-17

JoAnn A. Post

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count,

  from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,

  standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white,

  with palm branches in their hands. 

They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
 “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne,

     and to the Lamb!”

And all the angels stood around the throne

  and around the elders and the four living creatures,

  and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
 “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
 and thanksgiving and honor and power and might
 be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying,

  “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 

I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”

Then he said to me,

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal;

  they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
  and worship him day and night within his temple,
  and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
  the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
  and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
 and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

            
Do you hear the people sing?

               Singing the songs of angry men?

               It is the music of the people

               Who will not be slaves again!

               When the beating of your heart

               Echoes the beating of the drums

               There is a life about to start

               When tomorrow comes!

Do You Hear the People Sing?

“Les Misérables,” Boublil and Kretzmer (1980)

If you are fan of Broadway musicals, as am I, you recognize these lyrics as a fighting song, a triumph song of those crushed under the stiletto of France in the 19th century. They sing of freedom from slavery. They sing of self-determination. They sing of a willingness to die for the sake of greater life. There is no mistaking either the hope of these lyrics, or the hierarchy they seek to overthrow.

               For all the saints, who from the labors rest,

               Who thee, by faith, before the world confessed. (ELW 422)

If you are fan of Lutheran hymnody, as am I, you recognize these lyrics as a fighting song, a triumph song of those crushed under the heel of human authority in this and every century.

What? What fight? What heel? What are you talking about?

Perhaps, like me, you were lulled by the dulcet tones of this morning’s reader, the image of white robed martyrs standing at the throne of God, the promise of food and drink, of safety, of dry eyes.

Perhaps, like me, you wept through the words of our Gathering Song: “Oh blest communion, fellowship divine . . .”

But the Festival of All Saints is not a day for peaceful reminiscence. It is a day of rebellion, of mutiny, it is a holy insurrection.

For as we gather on this Festival of All Saints, the drums of heaven are beating, the martyrs of heaven are marching, the choirs of heaven are poised to sing.

But unlike the rebellions and mutinies, uprisings and insurrections from history, or that we suffer in these fraught days, today not a weapon is lifted, not a shot is fired, not one person is harmed or even frightened.

Because this is a regal rebellion, a majestic mutiny, an uprising rivaled only by resurrection. And no political party, no armed militia, no virus or vitriol can hold a candle to its power.

You probably don’t see that, do you?

When we read these encouraging words from Revelation, we typically hear heavenly voices and feel the brush of angels’ wings. We long to belong to that great multitude, too numerous to count, who are promised a day when “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more, when every tear will be dried.”

Yes, it is right to take comfort in those words.

But the fightin’ words, the rebellion I referenced? Take note of where this scene unfolds, who it is who sings and who receives their song: “Every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages standing around the throne.”

Whose throne? Not the emperor’s. Not a president or prime minister. This numberless choir sings allegiance and adoration to God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.

And while we eagerly lean toward that day when we and all the faithful who have gone before us sing together in endless song, the first readers of this text had something else in mind.

Here’s a little background. When the text of Revelation was first imagined, late in the 1st century, the people of God who lived in Rome were forced to worship the emperor as though he were a god. God’s people were to swear allegiance to a human being, who either by right of birth or through military conquest, occupied the throne of a kingdom that stretched thousands of miles. At the time of this writing, the Roman Empire was near its zenith—the largest empire ever to exist in western civilization. A kingdom that included people of every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages.

And regardless of what those nations, those tribes and peoples might have believed in their hearts, on their lips they carried words of praise for the emperor. And those who did not, those who refused to worship this self-anointed god? It did not go well for them.

That is why, in a sacred sleight of hand, the writer of Revelation, himself an unwilling servant of Rome, imagines a day when those same people, now crushed under the heel of Rome, would stand strong, together, singing so loud as to burst their lungs.

God’s people, freed from tyranny, freed from empire, freed from fear, pledge allegiance to the only One deserving of blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might. In the 1st century and in ours.

Today we strain to hear those heavenly voices, those we love who have already joined that holy choir. We search that numberless throng for the faces of our spouses and children, our friends and neighbors, the faithful who will, one day, greet us as we pass through those gates of pearl.

But it was not only in 1st century Rome, or 19th century France, that God’s people struggled to know whom to trust, whom to praise. In our own time, we hear voices praising human leaders as though they were gods. “This one will save us!” some cry. “That one will destroy us!” others fear. I don’t know about your ballot, but neither Jesus nor Satan was on mine.

As important as this and every election is, the people we choose to lead us have limited authority, no lasting power. They are mere mortals like us, entrusted, for a time, with leadership.

We pray for them, but not to them. We respect them, but do not worship them. They do not hold our hearts. They do not save our souls. They do not speak as gods or for God. I fear that sometimes we forget that.

The Festival of All Saints is a stake in the ground, a line in the sand, a barrier none can cross. Because on this day, we sing songs, not of angry men, but of a countless host whose confidence in God is rewarded with peace, with protection, with tearless faces and endless joy.

Today we remember the blessed dead, and praise the Lamb who led them safely from this world to the next. And as much as we long to see them again, we practice their song in our time. Praising the one true God. Loving the Lamb who was slain. Trusting the Spirit who leads where we cannot see. Today we “give thanks for those whose faith is firm when all around seems bleak.”

Blessed All Saints. Christ is King. There is no other. Can you hear the people sing?

Reformation Sunday

Reformation Sunday with Affirmation of Baptism (25 October 2020)

Matthew 22.34-46

JoAnn A. Post

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,

   they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer,

  asked him a question to test him. 

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 

He said to him, ““You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,

  and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 

This is the greatest and first commandment. 

And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together,

  Jesus asked them this question: 

“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

They said to him, “The son of David.” 

He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
 ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
 “Sit at my right hand,
  until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 

No one was able to give him an answer,

  nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

I drive by the sign almost every day. Planted in the grassy strip between the sidewalk and Dundee Road is a placard that reminds, “Love your neighbor!” Its been there almost since the beginning of the pandemic. And, unlike the political placards that drop like dog poop on our lawns, this sign has never been stolen or defaced. I suppose that, though we might disagree about who to elect as dog catcher, no one disagrees with “Love your neighbor.”

That’s really sad. Sad that no one disagrees with that statement. Because, after eight months of pandemic lock-down, and “love your neighbor” reminders from every politician and pundit, that sentiment has grown obvious, ubiquitous, innocuous. Like “merge left” or “make way for ducklings.”

But “love your neighbor” isn’t a platitude, it’s a challenge. Those words should raise both the hackles on our necks and our blood pressure. Those words should clench our fists and our jaws. “Love your neighbor” wasn’t coined by Anthony Fauci or Lori Lightfoot. It comes straight from the mouth of God who needed to say it because God’s people weren’t doing it.

How do I know that was God’s motivation? Because we don’t need to be reminded of things we already know.

For example, when my children were small, I filled their ears with reminders each morning as they left for school. I didn’t shout after them, “Breathe in and out!” I didn’t remind them, “Put one foot in front of the other!” I didn’t have to, because breathing and walking are automatic, natural. What did I call after them? Things I feared they would forget. “Be nice to Jamie today—his grandma is sick.” “Eat your sandwich before you eat your cookie!” “Look both ways before you cross the street.”

I knew they would exercise their autonomic and bipedal tendencies. But I didn’t know if they would remember to be kind, to eat well, to be careful.

Loving our neighbors doesn’t come naturally, either. If we were already, reflexively, loving our neighbors, scripture would not have to address the issue of “neighbor” 89 times—bombarding us with reminders to care for the other, the outsider, any who are in need. If neighbor love were as natural as breathing, God wouldn’t have to call after us every single morning, “Don’t forget to love your neighbor!”

But God does. Every day. Reminding us to reject our reptilian impulses to self-protect, and instead to embrace God’s impulse to welcome without condition or question.

Because neighbor love is so alien to our natures and so central to God’s, “love your neighbor” is our refrain on this Reformation Sunday.

We heard it first in the Leviticus reading (Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18): reminders to judge justly, to hold our tongues, to give up our grudges and reject revenge. To love our neighbors.

We heard it again in the gospel, as Jesus lifted love of neighbor to the same level as loving God. After all, Jesus says, we cannot do one without the other. We cannot love God without loving our neighbors, and our love of neighbors reveals something about our love of God.

So, given that rigorous standard—exercising love of God and of neighbor simultaneously—how are we doing? What do you think? Might we need to be reformed?

I am not often enraged—I usually simmer somewhere around “irritated.” But two weeks ago, we learned that one of my dear old aunts in Iowa was hospitalized and gravely ill with Covid-19. After seven months of zero cases in the facility in which she lives, she and another resident contracted the virus. How did that happen? Did the corona virus sneak under her door like second hand smoke, or drop from the sky like an autumn leaf? No, it walked in the door with a human being—a staff member? another resident?—who carried the virus with them.

“Enraged” would be an accurate description of my reaction.

I received the text message about my aunt in the middle of my Thursday morning Bible study. Ask anyone who was on that zoom call—I went nuts. “Who did this to her? Who carried the virus in to all those old people? Anyone who says the corona virus is going away is lying! Anyone who thinks that because it hits old people hardest it doesn’t matter, is just cruel! Anyone who thinks a mask is a political statement, is just . . .!”

I muted my mic and turned off my camera so they wouldn’t hear the foul language or see the stomping. I was so angry. So frustrated. Because I was so scared.

But do you see I did? Did you see what just happened? Out of love for an aunt who is as dear as my mother, I decided to hate that unnamed other, the person who—perhaps unknowingly and innocently—carried the virus into her life. Were I a more uniformly good neighbor I might have asked a few questions before coming unglued. Questions like: Has that person fallen ill, as well? Are they going to be okay? What about the other residents and staff? I never bothered to wonder, or to care.

Of course, my aunt is my neighbor. But that other person is, as well. That other person is loved by God, in need of compassion, worthy of respect and forgiveness. Not my R-rated rants and unjust judgements.

 “Love your neighbor” is a lesson that needs to be learned again and again, the reminder God whispers in our ears as we step into the world each day. “Don’t forget. Love your neighbor!”

In a moment you will meet neighbors dear to us all. Nine confirmands who are models of faithful living, who deliberately choose discipleship, who have been raised in homes that are loving and kind and attentive to the neighbor. When they were baptized, in congregations all over the Midwest, their parents and baptismal sponsors made some mighty promises. They promised to raise their children in the faith, to place in their hands the holy scriptures, to accompany them to the Lord’s table, to nurture them in faith and prayer, to be kind, to care, to seek justice.

And, to a household, those promises have been kept.

Today, under circumstances no one could have imagined on their baptism days, those small children now moving toward adulthood grab those promises from their parents like the steering wheel of the car, “Here, let me take that.” And, to a person, they make those same promises for themselves.

One of my favorite pastor things to do is to lay hands on the heads of those who affirm their baptism. To press the Spirit into their heads and hearts. But this year, I cannot, because we cannot be together. But it is not as great a loss as I had imagined. In a twist of faith, those same parents who promised to raise their children in the faith years ago, pass those promises along today.

We asked each family to pick a place that matters, and to record privately the laying on of hands we would ordinarily witness and applaud.

Our confirmands kneel at the edge of Lake Michigan as their parents pray over them. On a baseball diamond. On the porch. In a park. In the safety of their living room or backyard. One of our families placed Grandpa’s stole over their son as they prayed—the stole of the grandpa pastor who baptized him years ago.

And over their kneeling offspring, the parents lay trembling hands on bowed heads and pray an ancient prayer: “Stir up in our son, stir up in our daughter, the gift of your Holy Spirit.”

If you wonder what it looks like to be a neighbor, watch closely. Today our confirmands teach us through their witness, their words, their willingness to follow Jesus.

Loving our neighbor need not be a herculean task, requiring great strength and an iron will. Loving the neighbor might mean advocating for world peace on a national stage or taking a bullet for a stranger. But it might also mean something smaller, closer to home. It might mean tending to the person next to us, no matter how small the need or how different the neighbor might be.

Earlier this week, a masked man tapped on the window of my car at the gas station. “Excuse me, ma’am, but my van is running on empty and I need $60 to fill it.” I never, ever have cash, but that day, for some reason, I had three twenties in my wallet. Should I have interrogated him before honoring his request, asked for a receipt? No. he was a neighbor in need and I had the means to help. Why wouldn’t I?

Only a day later, I absentmindedly walked into my local grocery store without wearing a mask. I couldn’t have been more than two steps inside the door, when an employee came running toward me. What did he do? Did he accuse me of being a narcissistic Neanderthal for refusing to wear a mask? (Which is probably what I would have done.) No. He said, “Here’s a fresh mask. I forget mine in the car all the time, too.” That’s a good neighbor.

Reformation Sunday used to be celebrated as an homage to the theological battles of the 16th century. But we don’t fight those fights anymore. Instead, Reformation Sunday is an annual opportunity to ask again how it is that we as a church and as individual disciples need to be re-shaped, re-calibrated, re-formed for ministry in our time and place.

How are we being re-formed today? By learning to love our neighbors. It is a harder lesson for some of us than for others.

In what is nothing short of a miracle, my dear aunt survived Covid-19, and has been returned to her comfortable room in the lovely care facility that she calls home. Every day, she is treated with respect and kindness by staff members who get paid next to nothing to do heroic work. I am ashamed at how quickly I questioned their commitments, their care. Sometimes, I’m not much of a neighbor. But they are. To my aunt and everyone they meet.

What would it look like for you, for me to be a good neighbor?

It doesn’t need to be hard.  Pay for a tank of gas. Wear a mask. Keep a promise. Hold your tongue. Offer a hand. Think the best rather than the worst of the other.

These are the things neighbors do. And when we do, we witness not to our goodness but to God’s who, every morning calls to us as walk out the door. “Don’t forget. Love your neighbor!”

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (04 October 2020)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus said to the people, 

“Listen to another parable.

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,

  put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.

Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 

When the harvest time had come,

  he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 

But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 

Again he sent other slaves, more than the first;

  and they treated them in the same way. 

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves,

  ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 

So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 

Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 

They said to him,

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,

  and lease the vineyard to other tenants

  who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
 ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?
(Psalm 118.22)
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you

 and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 

The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces;

  and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables,

  they realized that he was speaking about them. 

They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds,

  because they regarded him as a prophet.

The letter was practically radioactive; I’m surprised the envelope didn’t burn the mail carrier’s hand. It was delivered by certified mail to my friends, who own the property on which the letter-writer lives.

My friends own land and homes in many locations, each of them special in some way. One of their homes is a farm that has been in the family for four generations. Another is a summer cottage on the ocean. Yet another is a piece of timber waiting to be developed. And this one, the one that prompted this postal tirade, is valuable just because it’s pretty—secluded, wooded, idyllic. It might one day be the home to which my friends retire.

But for now, the home is leased to tenants on a handshake, tenants who have rented, seemingly happily, for five years. The landowners have been clear with their tenants that the property is not for sale, and that, when the time comes for my friends to retire, the tenants will be given ample time to relocate. Until recently, it was an arrangement that seemed to suit them all.

No one is sure what prompted this mailed missal, but Yikes! The renters posit that they have been renting-to-own all these years. They claim that the property was promised to them. They accuse my friends of letting the place fall into disrepair. They call my friends liars and cheats, “devious” was one of their descriptors. The letter went on and on. Apparently, the renters have been polling the neighbors, and say that all the neighbors agree with them—that the landlords are horrible people whom no one in the neighborhood has ever liked.

How do I know so much about this letter? They forwarded a copy to me, in disbelief and anger—after first sending a copy to their attorney. “What do we do with this?” my friends wrote. “Its all lies.”

Indeed, it is. All lies. Wishful thinking twisted into delusional reality. As we see in our smoldering political climate, in the absence of information we like, we manufacture plots and conspiracy theories until the world mirrors the one we have imagined. Until we actually believe the falsehoods we have fathered.

My friends’ disgruntled tenants bear striking similarity to the tenants in Jesus’ parable. And though the parable is fiction, a story intended to disarm, it is completely plausible. Except for the murder part. And the beating part. And the stoning part. And the killing the heir to acquire the inheritance part. Except for that, it could be my friends’ story.

Just as filled with delusion. Just as puzzling.

The legalities of the situation in Jesus’ parable are not in question. The tenants are tenants, the owner is the owner, there is a signed agreement about mutual responsibility. The rules have been clear from the beginning.

But, for reasons that elude, the tenants have forgotten their place; the tenants have forgotten whose land they tend; whose grapes they pick; whose harvest it is. Fueled by their fantasies, the tenants almost literally bite the hand that feeds them.

And, rather than acquiring title to the property and right to the harvest, as they had foolishly imagined, they are punished as severely as they punished the landlord’s servants and son. They paid for their delusion with their lives.

But here’s the thing. This is a parable, not a news report. A parable has to have a point. And an audience. In this case, an enraged one.

Surrounded by the temple’s religious leaders, the caretakers of all that was sacred, Jesus not so subtly implied that they were the ungrateful, misguided, delusional tenants in his parable. That they were the ones who had forgotten whose land they tended, whose crops they picked, whose harvest it was. That they, more to the point, were not caring for God’s holy place and God’s holy people, instead violating the trust God and God’s people had placed in them.

Is it any wonder the religious leaders plot to take Jesus’ life?

Is it any wonder we are left smugly shaking our heads? Stupid tenants. Stupid pharisees. Who would do that? Do you really want to know?

But here’s the more interesting thing. All the death and mayhem in Jesus’ parable distracts us from his true point. Perhaps you remember my theory that the point of Jesus’ parables is revealed by the subject of his first sentence? That Jesus gives the parable away in his first breath? I think its true today, as well.

Jesus does not begin his parable by saying, “Once upon a time there were ungrateful renters . . .” Instead he begins this way, “There once was a landlord . . .”

In all the steam created by huffing and puffing from the Pharisees, we have lost sight of Jesus’ true point. It’s not the renters. It’s the landowner. The landowner who is good and responsible, hardworking and fair. The landowner who does all the things a good vineyard owner would do—he planted vines, he built a fence, he dug a wine press and erected a watch tower. What more could a vineyard owner do?

Though the renters may be more interesting, Jesus wants us to notice the landlord. To admire the landlord. To trust the landlord. And in so doing to recognize not only the faithless tenants but the faithful master.

Jesus’ parable bears another striking similarity to the circumstance of my landowning friends. Because much of my friends’ outrage and confusion about the renters’ accusations, is that they are good landlords.

My friends faithfully maintain and improve the property and house. They rent below market rate because the renters are a young family of limited means. When the renters wanted to plant a garden, my friends paid for the supplies. When the renters wanted to raise chickens, my friends erected a coop. When the renters couldn’t make a payment, my friends forgave it.

If my friends, the land owners, were slumlords who took advantage of the poor, the renters’ anger might be understandable. But the renters’ case has no merit. Their “facts” are false. Their ingratitude astonishing.

So, what did my friends do upon receiving that especially special delivery? They did what good landlords do. They did what the landlord in Jesus’ parable did.

Let’s look back at the parable before we go on. After Jesus described the terrible tenants, he turned to his audience—the chief priests and pharisees—for legal advice. “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants,” Jesus asked.

And it is the pharisees and chief priests, the real-life model for the parabolic tenants, who advise murder. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Oops. At what point do you suppose they recognized their mistake? At what point do you suppose they realized they had just signed their own death warrant? Wicked tenants that they were.

But this parable is not about wicked tenants or misguided religious leaders or even about ungrateful us. This parable is about a landlord who is good and responsible, hardworking and fair. This parable is about God, whose generosity and goodness know no limit. In spite of the fact that we, the renters, forget God’s goodness and generosity. In spite of the fact that we, the renters, have convinced ourselves that all of this belongs to us—to use or abuse as we see fit. In spite of our selfishness and short-sightedness, God continues to be good.

We might want to chase each other around with pitchforks and tar, but that is not God’s way. Not with tenants in a parable. Not with pharisees in a temple. Not even with people like us, whose memories for wrong are long, but whose gratitude for goodness is short.

Perhaps like me, you were struck by the bold claim made in the prayer of the day that we offered at the beginning of worship. Here’s what we prayed: “Beloved God, from you come all things that are good.”

What a simple, necessary reminder that God loves us, gifts us, wants nothing but good for us. Even if we are rotten renters or faithless pharisees.

Meanwhile, back to my parable.

After receiving that highly-critical correspondence, my friends thoughtfully wrote back; their response was pointed but kind. They did not dispute the facts one-at-a-time or threaten to throw them out. Instead, they reminded the renters that the land did not belong to them—never had and never would—but that they were welcome to remain until such time as the landlords wanted it for themselves.

And in response to their response, the suddenly-repentant renters offered three simple sentences: “Thank you for your letter. We apologize for any misunderstanding. We are grateful to be able to make your home our home.”

We are so easily led into anger and accusation. We love to point the finger at other tenants, to find fault with other pharisees, to question God’s commitments.

But the story is not about us. The world is not about us. It is about God—a landlord who is good and kind, responsible and hardworking. A landlord from whose hands come all things good.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (10 May 2020)

John 14.1-14

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you,  I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

“Come through.”

I love that line. Crisp. Clear. Confident.

“Come through.”

We’ve all been watching way too much TV these days, and in my queue is Season 9 of “Doc Martin,” a quirky BBC production filmed in Cornwall. If you are unfamiliar with Doc Martin, let me describe him this way—Dr. Martin Ellingham is a small town physician, acerbic, authoritative, impatient, judgmental. In other words, Doc Martin is “Me” on my worst day. The “Me” I try to hide from you.

“Come through,” is Doc Martin’s “invitation” to patients in his surgery. Not “how are you?” or “good to see you” or “let’s talk.”

“Come through.”

And, to a person, his patients eagerly “come through” from the cramped waiting area into his equally cramped office. Why do Doc Martin’s patients tolerate his sharp judgments, his unsettling stare, his brittle silences? Because he is a brilliant diagnostician and physician. Because his only desire is to make them well. The residents of fictional Portwenn “come through” Doc Martin’s office door because they know, no matter who they are or what their illness, he “will see you now.”

In last Sunday’s gospel reading from John 10, Jesus described himself as “The Gate.” The gate that swings wide for all the sheep—those seeking shelter inside and those seeking fresh grass outside. To the relief of sinners and the consternation of skeptics, Jesus asks no questions of the sheep. Jesus’ sheep don’t have to perform or beg or promise to be better sheep. He loves them all, and, to a sheep, they gladly “come through” Jesus, the Good Gate.

“I am the Gate” is but one of seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel.

Today, we hear three more in rapid succession:

“I am the way.”

“I am the truth.”

“I am the life.”

Each of these “I am” statements leave ample room for interpretation, for speculation about what Jesus really means. The skeptics among us interpret them as they interpret “I am the Gate.” They hear exclusion, judgment. They see a narrow doorway, a quickly-closing opportunity.  They insert a silent “only.”  As in, “I am the only way, the only truth, the only life.”

To be honest, I don’t hear that silent modifier: “only.” Certainly, Jesus is the only Son of God, the only Savior, our only True Peace. That he is unique in all the world, in all creation, is not in question.

But his uniqueness does not mean that his followers are equally “select.” Jesus being “only” doesn’t mean that only a few are welcome on his way, only a few hear his truth, only a few receive his life. Jesus is not a boutique, an acquired taste, a “members only” club.

Jesus’ uniqueness means that he is unlike all other ways, all other truths, all other claims to “life.” And all of us are invited to follow his way. All of us can trust his truth. All of us can lean into his life.

Like the Gate that opens to all the sheep, Jesus is the Way that invites us all to “come through.”

The stay-at-home orders under which we all live right now, have afforded time not only to watch quirky BBC dramas, but also to read and to think. I have plowed through all my back issues of “The New Yorker” and “The Christian Century,” devoured the stack of books on my bedside table, monitored the explosion of information made available to the public about virology and epidemiology, about public policy and political maneuvering, about privilege and about poverty.

And I have been convicted.

I think of myself as ordinary, typical, like everybody else. Foolishly, I have assumed that my experience is normative, that my daily life mirrors the daily lives of other Americans. Don’t all Americans enjoy what I do? Food, shelter, health care, employment. Intellectually, I know otherwise, but my heart has been slow to learn.

What I have seen and read and heard in these last weeks has taught my heart painful truths. Housing insecurity has skyrocketed. 15% of us are unemployed. 20% of our children are hungry. 50% of small businesses don’t have reserves enough to survive this crisis. And, here’s the number that made crushed me this week: while 40% of those who have died of the virus live in communities of color, 90% of those who protest stay-at-home orders are white.

Apparently, I am not alone in my inability to imagine the ways, the truths, the lives of others. We want OUR ways, our truths, our lives to matter most.

To be honest, I am struggling. The inequities of our lives, previously hidden or, at least, shaded, are now glaring.

I’m not hard-hearted or uninformed; it just takes me awhile sometimes. And I am ashamed at how blind, how thoughtless, how selfish I have been. My address. My education. My wealth. My whiteness. They blind me. Without knowing or admitting it, I have been walking a way, trusting a truth, living a life, shutting a gate that leaves too many of Jesus’ other sheep in grave danger.

“I am the Way,” Jesus says, not to exclude but to welcome.

He is the Way, as a waiter invites you to a table: “Right this way.”

He is the Way, as a tour guide invites you to adventure: “Follow me.”

He is the Way, as an exhausted EMT invites you to safety, “I’ll take care of you.”

He is the Way, as Doc Martin invites sick Portwennians: “Come through.”

We are all being changed by our current, shared crisis. And those of us who might have imagined that life is good and the future is bright, have now met those whose lives are hard, whose futures are uncertain. Some of us have become them.

And we have had to admit that it is a shameful luxury, a sign of our unacknowledged privilege to imagine Jesus is The Way only for those who believe or think or live as we.

In fact, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life not only for us but for all the all the sick, all the scared, all the sinful.

Jesus is the Gate for all the sheep.

Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life for all of them, too.

Come through.