Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany (26 January 2020)

Matthew 4.12-23

JoAnn A. Post 

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”


From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

The steeple was leaking. Last Sunday. The steeple was leaking.

It took awhile for us to figure out why, early on a Sunday morning, there might be drops of water on the communion table. But we weren’t worried. It was only a few drops of water. We wiped them off. And then, over the course of the morning, they returned. Slowly. Almost imperceptibly. Drip. Drip. Drip.

If you had happened to look into sanctuary after worship last week, you might have seen a handful of us, like geese in a pouring rain, peering at the sanctuary ceiling for clues.

I think I was the first to say, “I think the steeple is leaking.” My keen observation was met with skeptical though respectful silence.

What made me think the steeple might be leaking? I am far too familiar with the ways of water, having had our home in Connecticut nearly destroyed in a winter weather pattern of snow, wind, thaw, snow, wind, thaw. Our otherwise water-tight home fell victim to the insidious pressure of freezing and thawing. And that’s how I know about water.

But since I received my roofing contractor credentials from an ad on a Cheerios box, we decided to ask the experts.

I was smugly cheered to learn from our vendor, Raincoat Roofing, that I was right. You see, the church steeple stands directly over the communion table. A vent in the ceiling allows circulation in the steeple, and vents on the steeple itself prevent moisture from sneaking in. But under the right conditions of snow, wind, thaw, snow, wind, thaw, the water found a way.

The roof would certainly be more air- and weather-tight if there were no steeple on it. And some churches in a similar situation might just lop the thing off. But without the steeple—even an occasionally drippy one—how would people know who we are?

There is no obvious connection between our dripping steeple and today’s gospel reading, at least not at first glance. But like the slow drip, drip, drip of wayward water, if you wait long enough, look carefully it will come into view.

Previously on “Matthew’s Gospel” Jesus was born in a barn, feted by astrologers, and then spirited out of Nazareth to protect him from a murderous King Herod. After that, Jesus dropped out of sight.

When next we encounter him, in chapter 4, he is an adult, standing in the Jordan River being baptized by John the Baptizer. He is then again spirited away into the wilderness (Jesus makes a lot of hasty entrances and exits in Matthew) to be tempted by Satan.

It appears that while he was wasting and wrestling in the wilderness, John the Baptizer was getting himself arrested. Disorderly conduct? Impersonating an officer? Shooting off his mouth without a permit. We don’t know.

But this is where today’s episode of “Matthew’s Gospel” opens. And Jesus, upset by news of John’s arrest, immediately, true to form, finds the nearest exit.

I know this is all terribly interesting, but you’re wondering, where is this alleged steeple? Its coming. Wait for it.

Mind cleared by the fresh, salty air on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus did an unexpected thing. He picked up where John the Baptizer left off, preaching John’s sermon as though it were his own: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

Up and down the shore. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” He took a break from preaching only to grab a smoke, stroll the beach  and fish for followers before returning to his task: “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.”

And there it is. Standing by the sea, wind whipping sails and fish filling nets, Jesus starts setting a steeple, crafting a cathedral, building a kingdom. One sermon at a time.

You see, when John the Baptizer promised the kingdom of heaven, he was pointing to Jesus. When Jesus said those same words, he was pointing to himself. “I am the kingdom of heaven come near,” he said.

Houston, we have a problem.

The problem with Jesus’ metaphor of himself as a “kingdom come near” is that the ground on which he stood was already part of a kingdom. A kingdom called Rome, 1400 miles away. In spite of the distance, the whole country of Israel trembled under Roman occupation. Roman soldiers patrolled their streets. Roman mercenaries bivouacked in their homes. Roman tax collectors drained their pockets. Roman governors made the laws. Roman police enforced them.

Though naming himself and his work a “kingdom” might seem innocent enough to us, those words, that image were fightin’ words in 1st century Israel. After all, there was only one king. And his name was Tiberius, under whose clenched fist Israel was crushed with disease, poverty and fear. By claiming a kingdom, naming himself its king, Jesus challenged Tiberius and the whole Roman system of domination and control.

Jesus will get his way. By the end of Matthew’s gospel Jesus will rule as king. From the highest steeple in the land. Jesus will be crowned and hoisted on a cross. The Jesus story would be easier to take if weren’t for that cross-shaped steeple on the horizon. But without it, how would people know who he was?

Tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of the freeing of prisoners at Auschwitz, the most famous of a system of Nazi concentration camps during WWII. A survivor of that camp remembers being informed of his father’s death there this way, “he went up the chimney.”* “The chimney” in question was the smokestack on the gas chamber which claimed the lives of millions of people.

A beloved member of a former parish was a young American GI when the camps were liberated. He and his unit were sent to Mauthausen, a death camp on the Danube River. He reported smelling the camp before he saw it—the gas chambers had been working night and day to destroy the evidence. As soldiers neared the camp, they could see the smoke stack. And then they saw . . .  well, it wasn’t quite clear what they saw. Jack tried to tell me this story a couple of times, but never got much farther than this: “And then I saw the people, but I couldn’t tell if they were people . . .”

That ash-belching smokestack was a steeple of sorts, the highest point on the horizon, erected by the would-be king of an evil kingdom. And because of that smokestack, that sinful steeple, we know exactly who they were.

Steeples.

Whether perched on a church roof, or belching ash in a death camp, or casting a shadow on a lonely hill, the steeple tells the truth of who lives under it. Or, in Jesus’ case, who hangs on it.

Though Sunday’s drip, drip, drip was no threat to our steeple, the day will come when this steeple will fall. From age. From weather. From a wrecking ball so that this corner can be repurposed. Who knows what will become of us? But, as long as it stands, this steeple tells the world who we are.

That steeple tells the world that we are loving, we are welcoming, we are forgiving. We are that way because we have ourselves been loved, welcomed, forgiven. We look like the One whom we serve.

Mercifully, most of the gas chamber “steeples” in Europe have been dismantled. But a few of them still stand. Not to celebrate their purpose, but to warn the world about what happens when we become like them—when we worship a false god, when we spew hatred, when we treat people like animals.

And the steeple on Jesus’ kingdom? It will stand forever.

Jesus built that kingdom, chose that throne, climbed that cross to tell us who he is. And who we are.

He is the savior of the world, friend of sinners, healer of our every ill.

All steeples fall. All steeples but this one. It stands to remind us of who, and whose we are. And that, in spite of evidence to the contrary and competing claims, the kingdom of heaven is the kingdom in which we live.

 

 

*“It’s like going to the family cemetery,” NPR, January 24, 2020

 

 

Second Sunday after Epiphany

Second Sunday after Epiphany (19 January 2020)

John 1.29-42

JoAnn A. Post 

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Systematic Theology. Its been keeping me awake at night. You, too?

In addition to the terrors of climate change, the rumble of impeachment, the dethroning of Harry and Meghan, and most troubling of all, Domino’s Pizza’s announcement that it is opening stores in Italy (?!?!) I have chosen to be troubled by Systematic Theology.

Most people don’t even know such a thing exists, let alone care about it, so a brief explanation is in order. Systematic Theology is just what it says: a systematic way of thinking about all things God. It is part of the central core of concerns we teach aspiring pastors and theologians, but probably has little impact on your daily life.

The earliest systematized theology in printed record comes from the 8th century. (John of Damascus, “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”) Its first chapter addresses this desperate concern: That the Deity is incomprehensible, and that we ought not to pry into and meddle with the things which have not been delivered to us by the holy Prophets, and Apostles, and Evangelists.

Riveting. No?

So why am I virtually somnambulant about Systematic Theology? Because I am teaching it. I am one of the instructors for the synod’s lay school, an intensive two-year continuing education program for congregational leaders who want to know more. Over the course of five Saturdays and fifteen contact hours, I am tasked with introducing them to 14 centuries of systematic thought about God and God’s ways in the world. To be honest, it is a bit more work than I anticipated.

To be honest-er, it is also a bit more interesting than I had expected.

The questions we were asking about God and the Church and Sin in the 8th century are wildly different from the questions we asked in the 16th or 19th or 20th. That’s because, though God does not change, our questions, our fears, our world do.

Meanwhile, John the Baptizer is claiming to know nothing of Jesus until the day he baptized him. Apparently, a little voice told John, while baptizing others, to pay attention to the one on whom the Spirit descended and remained. That one was Jesus.

Seems odd that John the Baptizer, Jesus’ second cousin by marriage, knew nothing of him, but we’ll humor him a bit longer.

It was the day after Jesus’ baptism when John the Baptizer, loitering with his own disciples, spotted Jesus coming toward him down the street. (I was tempted to program as the hymn of the day, the 1963 Manfred Mann classic “Here he comes, just a-walkin’ down the street. Singin’ do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do.” But then I thought better.)

In an announcement that stopped his hearers in their tracks, John the Baptizer shouted, “Look! The Lamb of God!” It happened again the next day. John’s own followers then abandoned him and ran after Jesus, attaching two additional labels to him: Rabbi and Messiah.

Each of those monikers, though not native to us—Lamb of God, Rabbi, Messiah—was a dog whistle for faithful 1st century Jews.

“Lamb of God.” Until that moment, that name had belonged to only one creature.  A four-legged one. It belonged to the lamb slaughtered on the temple altar once each year, a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of God’s people. To name Jesus “Lamb of God” was to imply that he would be killed for the sins of others. Does John the Baptizer know something we don’t?

“Rabbi.” The rabbi in a community played the role of the pastor in ours. He was the primary teacher of the faith; he led the local congregation in prayer. He arbitrated disputes. He presided at their weddings and laid them in the ground. This Jesus, previously unknown, was that trustworthy, that knowledgeable, as intimate a friend as a rabbi?

“Messiah.” For all of their history, the people of God had believed God would send one who, like a king or a warrior, would bring peace and prosperity, would vanquish their enemies and establish Israel as a light to the nations, the locus of God’s reign on earth, a haven for the disadvantaged and shelter for the outcast. But Jesus, just walking down the street, wore neither crown nor armor.

Those words, those names meant something in the 1st century. They signaled that Jesus was more than just another street preacher, more than a one-hit wonder, more than just son of Joseph and Mary.

But they mean little to us. Those names mean as little to us as does a systematic 8th century discussion of the incomprehensibility of the Deity.

So, what to do? Is John the Baptizer’s witness merely interesting, relic of a bygone era, evidence of outdated cultural concerns? Or is there reason, even now, to care?

So, here’s the question I asked my students yesterday, after reviewing several centuries’ worth of systematic theologies. It’s a question we can also ask about John the Baptizer and his wildly relevant-then-but-now-seemingly-quaint identifiers of Jesus.

What are the burning questions, the systemic questions, the life-and-death issues, in our time, about God, about the Church, about Sin?

One hundred years from now, when students pick up a systematic theology written in this decade, what will they read about?

Perhaps they will read about our difficulty with trust—we trust no one, no leader, no institution. And, sadly, that inability to trust extends even to God.

Perhaps they will read about the seismic shifts in the church—as local congregations lose their influence, and stadium-sized pep rallies and charismatic Pied Pipers become the norm, what does it mean to be “church?”

Perhaps they will marvel at our discomfort with the word Sin, and the ways we justify—personally and corporately—our behaviors, our failures, our faults as “none of your business,” or “consensual,” or “human nature.”

Similarly, what are the names for Jesus that bring us to our feet, that capture our attention, that might cause us and others to believe in and follow him?

If not, “Lamb of God,” “Rabbi,” “Messiah,” then what? What titles, what positions, what characteristics of a leader would, without question, make us trust him?

I honestly don’t know. There was a time when “President” or “Pastor,” “Physician” or “Professor” or “Parent” inspired respect, admiration, trust. But no longer. We excel at hurling hurtful names, unfounded accusations, blanket judgements. But the names that we trust?

What name for Jesus could possibly capture what we believe, both systematically and in our hearts? What name articulates our belief that this One, this God in human form, has loved us from before the beginning, that this One carries our sins on his shoulders, that this One has power over life and death?

Today a hymn writer puts names in our mouths. We will sing him “Lord of sea and sky; Lord of snow and rain; Lord of wind and flame.” Are those the names you would choose? Is that the Lord you know?

But regardless of the system that describes our belief or the name we cry out in times of terror or joy, we follow the example the disciples from the earliest days of faith. We abandon our attempts to establish order, saying the only words worthy of the moment, “Here I am.”

And then we follow where he leads.

 

Second Sunday after Christmas

Second Sunday after Christmas (5 January 2020)

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 man, 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.

Where’s the baby? If this is still the Christmas season, as the liturgical calendar indicates, there ought to be a baby.

And angels. And shepherds. And a barn. A young woman great with a child, and an anxious husband with no place to shelter his quickly growing family. And there ought to be a baby!

But there are lots of ways to tell a story. We have grown so accustomed to a solitary story teller’s voice on these matters, that we can’t imagine Jesus’ birth took place any other way but the way we have most often been told, the story our children told us on Christmas Eve.

Here’s the one we know best, and Luke is in the one who tells us. Luke’s eyes are always on Mary, the unlikelihood of her pregnancy, and the strange circumstances that accompanied Jesus’ birth. It is Luke who gives us the census that put Joseph and Mary on the road, who introduces us to shepherds in the fields and angels in the clouds. It is Luke who places the Holy Child in a manger, who lets us see into Mary’s pondering heart. Who sends the shepherds back into the night glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard. (Luke 2)

That’s a proper baby story. So, why aren’t we telling it again today?

Of course, there is also Matthew’s version of events.

The gospel of Matthew claims to be the definitive source on these matters. Matthew writes, “Now the birth of Jesus took place THIS way.” His story is long on Joseph, short on Mary, and even less interested in the child. Off-handedly, Matthew concludes, “O yeah. And Joseph had no marital relations with Mary until she had borne a son; and Joseph named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1)

Not very interesting, but at least there is a baby.

Don’t even bother asking about the birth story told by gospel writer Mark. There is none. There is not a sentimental or romantic bone in his body. He was a stoic man, a terse writer. His gospel opens not with a baby in a manger but with a fully-grown, heavily-bearded, verbally-abusive, oddly-dressed John the Baptizer, knee deep in sinners and sarcasm. It is John the Baptizer who introduces us to Jesus who is, himself, also all growed up.

But there’s one more story to tell. There is still John’s Gospel. Surely John will bring a tear to our eye, a tug to our heart.

It ain’t going to happen. Today, on the Second Sunday after Christmas, John gets the last word on Jesus’ birth. Prepare to be underwhelmed.

John’s birth story takes us, not on a journey to Bethlehem, but on a journey through time. On an adventure with physics.

“In the beginning,” he writes. In the beginning before there was anything or anyone, when the world we know was only a gleam in God’s eye, John claims that Jesus was there. In the beginning. Not as a human, certainly not as an infant, but as a Word. A Word that lit the spark that fueled creation. Jesus is, according to John, the “light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

Before we have time to absorb that metaphysical claim, John jerks the narrative steering wheel toward John the Baptizer, mostly to run him off the road. “There was a man sent from God. But it wasn’t him.”

Pulling us back on the road, John finally tells us about a birth. But not Jesus’.

Ours.

John tells our birth story.

“To all who received Jesus, 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.”

John doesn’t give a fig about mangers and angels, virgins and sheep. John then turns his attention from the page to stare at us. “Let me tell you where you came from. Let me tell you about your birth, Child of God.”

Right after Christmas, I had opportunity to reconnect with a long-time though geographically-distant friend. I had not seen her in the flesh since her husband’s funeral, a little more than a year ago.

He was young when he died (my age). His death was horrible—sudden, dramatic, traumatic, absolutely unexpected. He died because of an unrepeatable, unpreventable confluence of events medical and circumstantial, that felled him like a mighty oak. His death stopped the earth spinning on its axis. At least for her.

The ensuing months have been more fog than sunlight, more tears than laughter, more turmoil than peace. Whole chunks of time are simply missing. There are days she can barely move.

My friend will never be the same. Grief has changed her, perhaps on a cellular level. I have worried that the light that once shown so brightly in her heart has gone out.

But it has not. It cannot. It will not.

My friend is a woman of mature, honest, hard-fought faith. And though it may seem hokey to you, or maybe even naïve, the one thing that has sustained her in this year of grief is that she knows her birth story, she knows where she came from. Not the story her elderly parents tell, but the story John tells. My friend knows, beyond doubt and beyond reason, that she is God’s child. With all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto.

And she knows, on a cellular level, that the light that somehow flickered on even the darkest days, the light that comforted her through the darkest nights, is not hers. And therefore, it cannot be extinguished. It is the light that birthed her, the light that carried her, the light that has guided weary travelers on every dark road since God first said, “Let there be light.”

We have all learned to self-identify in the world. I am a pastor. I am a wife. I am a friend. I am a daughter. All those identifiers are true. But each of those identities can be stripped from me with a stroke of a pen or a short circuit of my heart.  And when they are—not if, but when—who am I then? Whose am I then?

I will be, always have been, God’s child.

That is why today, on the Second Sunday after Christmas, there are no mangers or angels, virgins or sheep. There is not even a baby. But there is a birth.

“To all who received Jesus, 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 to accompany our birth, our identity as children of God, today we sing an odd little lullaby. “Of the Father’s love begotten, e’er the world began to be . . . “

When next we meet, the accouterments of Christmas will all be gone. The Wisemen will have visited, leaving not even a whiff of camel poop behind them. Our lives will resume. And the sun’s light will gradually grow stronger and longer.

Who knows what this new year will bring? What joys and sorrows lie before us? Who among us will celebrate a baby? Who among us will grieve a death? Who among us will experience life-altering, seismic change? We cannot know.

In the coming year, in joy and sorrow, perhaps we can keep our bearings by telling our birth narrative, our origin story. Perhaps we will take comfort knowing where we come from and to whom we belong. Perhaps we will need to be reminded that we have been born, not of blood or flesh or human volition, but of God.

God, whose light shines in every darkness.

God, who loved us from the beginning.

God, who delights to call us sons and daughters.

Happy Birthday, child of God.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve (24 December 2019)

Luke 2.1-20

JoAnn A. Post

In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”


When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Cardboard art.

This tarnished, faded ornament is almost 60 years old, the only one of its kind remaining in my Christmas collection, though at one time there were dozens.

When I was small, living on the farm in Iowa, we made ornaments for our Christmas tree every December. Whether we made them because it was a fun craft project or because we couldn’t afford store-bought, I don’t know. But I have clear memories of Mom protecting the kitchen table with newspaper. Used, crumpled aluminum foil was cut into shapes and affixed to cardboard disks. Some years we had glue and glitter with which to express ourselves. Other years we had only crayons.

Once decorated and dry, Mom fit the disks into no-longer-needed Mason jar rings and tied a ribbon around the rim. Throughout my childhood, our Christmas tree was festooned with these homemade ornaments, and paper chains, and other craft projects. I don’t remember if we eventually grew too old to find this fun anymore, or if Mom finally had enough money to buy a box of “real” ornaments at the hardware store, but eventually the homemade ornaments slipped to the bottom of the Christmas box until they were no longer used at all.

Cardboard art.

You see it every day. The grizzled vets on the street corner. The weary teenager at the train station. The young men who cluster at stop lights, entertaining us with bucket drums, hoping for a handout. The “art” they make on scraps of cardboard isn’t intended as a decoration, but as a plea, a few simple words to make their desperate case to passersby.

“Hungry. Will work for food.”

“Unemployed veteran, anything will help.”

“Cold and alone.”

They don’t craft those signs in warm farm kitchens, with their parents close by, steaming cocoa in mugs. They scrawl them while huddled under viaducts using damp cardboard from the dumpster, scrounging for markers or charcoal or discarded pens to convey their message in 10 words or less.

We made our own cardboard art at Ascension, part of our concern and compassion for those who are homeless. We were invited to use cardboard to convey a message of hope as simple as theirs of hopelessness. We wrote about home.

Here’s what we wrote:

Home is warm and safe.

Home is where I want to be.

Home is wherever you make it.

Cardboard art.

Centuries ago, a young family, carrying all their belongings on their backs, went door-to-door looking for a safe place to sleep. And to birth a child. Though their homelessness was temporary—they had a house in Nazareth—on that chilly Bethlehem night, Mary and Joseph had no place to lay their heads. There were probably thousands of people just like them on the street.

Why? Because Emperor Augustus, perched in his palace, had concocted a plan to wring more money out of his reluctant subjects. He didn’t care that his political whims caused such hardship. Luke is kind to Augustus, naming this forced migration, “the first registration,” noting that “all went to their own homes to be registered.”

Truth is, Augustus set the whole map in motion for a census, so he could keep more accurate records of the taxes he was owed.

That’s why Joseph and Mary had to bed down in a barn in a strange city, as homeless as anyone in Chicago tonight. Because of a wealthy oligarch whose heart was as hard as the coins he coveted.

What do you suppose Mary and Joseph scribbled on their cardboard art?

Why have you come out on a night like this? This is not your permanent home. You certainly have other places to be. What caused you to wander out of the warmth and safety of your home to be with us?

Could it be your cardboard heart? Frail. Flimsy. Frightened.

The Christmas gospel is a message so simple it can be written on the back of your hand, glitter glued on a child’s ornament, scrawled on a scrap of cardboard.

But tonight, the message comes to us not as a distant childhood memory or scribbled on musty cardboard, but by angelic hosts, singing a song that bursts through the clouds. “Fear is foolish. Peace has come. Christ is born. For you.”

Whether we live in a palace or under a bridge, tonight we know that God seeks us, finds us. Not to count us or tax us or punish us. But to love us. Without condition or hesitation or reservation.

Tonight, God gifts us with Love that goes by the name of Jesus, laying it in our trembling hands. Writing it on our frail and frightened hearts: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Born to you. Born to us. A Savior.

Cardboard art. A simple memory of my mother’s love.

Cardboard art. A simple message of hope for the homeless.

Tonight, God’s love is inscribed on our fragile cardboard hearts with a gentle hand: “Christ is born. For you.”

 

Advent Lessons and Carols

Advent Lessons and Carols (22 December 2019)

Fourth Sunday of Advent

JoAnn A. Post

The “O antiphons” are a set of medieval refrains originally used before and after singing of the Magnificat. They were already in use as early as the 8th century. Each antiphon invokes the Messiah under a different title derived from the Old Testament. This title is then amplified, and followed by an appeal to “come” and save us in a particular way.

 Around the 12th century, these antiphons were collected into a Latin verse hymn, which was later translated by John Mason Neale, finally becoming the beloved Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Five of these antiphons form the structure of this Sunday’s Advent Lessons and Carols. Each is pointed for chanting by the cantor, and is followed by the corresponding verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

O Wisdom

O Root of Jesse

O Dayspring

O King of the Nations

O Emmanuel

“Oh.”

We were strangers, shoehorned into a stuffy waiting area, a little too close for comfort. When it became clear that we would be intimate for some time, she and I struck up a pleasant conversation.

“Where are you from?”

“What do you do?”

“Come here often?”

Pleasant, pleasant, pleasant.

It turns out that I know her daughter, though very casually. What’s the chance of that? So, I quickly offered the obvious follow-up:

“Do you have other children?”

“Yes,” she smiled, “I have three.” And then she paused. “I had three. My oldest son died in 1999. He was 23. Killed in a drive-by shooting on the South Side. Him and a carload of friends.”

Oh.

What else was there to say? Oh. I can’t imagine your sorrow.

How is it possible that that that simple, breathy syllable could be so freighted with meaning? Oh.

Sometimes it expresses sympathy, as happened with my waiting room buddy.

Other times it is a query. “Oh? You’re Joe Biden’s dry cleaner?”

Sometimes it expresses surprise, as the other morning in the early dark when the world’s fattest skunk sidled up to my dog and me. “Oh!”

And sometimes, as today, it is a moan, an ache, a longing to be free.

Advent Lessons and Carols is built around a set of ancient refrains, called the O Antiphons, a medieval liturgical pattern invoking a variety of names for God, each one a moan, an ache, a longing for the world, for our lives, for our hearts to find relief.

The cantor will chant each of the antiphons; we will respond with a verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and then we will read: “Oh” in all its iterations.

We will read assurances of relief to refugees stripped from their land: “Comfort, O comfort my people. Tell them their sentence has been served.” (Isaiah 40.1-5) Oh, we’re going home.

We will hear promises of an impossible age when all judges are just, when wild creatures and nursing infants play side by side. Oh, skeptical question mark? (Isaiah 11.1-10)

We will cheer as the weak are chosen for greatness: “But you, tiny Bethlehem, from you shall come from a ruler!” (Micah 5.2-5a) “Oh! My!”

We will confess to confusion, as childless Zechariah learns that, after decades of negative pregnancy tests and infertility exams, he and his wife will have a son. A son to be named John. His response is a befuddled but believing. “Oh!”  (Luke 1.8-17)

And then we meet Joseph. I love the confidence of Matthew’ story-telling: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place THIS way.” Forget the wild tale about Mary and an angel’s visit; ignore the rumors and crass jokes from the neighbors; never mind that the father of the Messiah is the original Ordinary Joe. THIS is how it happened, Matthew tells us. To which Joseph, who obviously had other plans for this unexpected pregnancy, shrugs a good-guy shrug. Utters a resigned, “Oh. Okay.” (Matthew 1.18-25)

From the earliest days of the church to this one, when ordinary words fail, we utter a simple syllable. A sudden exhalation. A punch in the gut. A cry of delight. A question too difficult for words. Giving in to a will, God’s will, greater and wiser than our own.

With grieving mothers of every city, with refugees and rural villages, with endangered creatures and blighted landscapes, with those who long for children and those who find themselves unexpectedly a family, with all who seek from the Lord great and abundant mercy, we cry out: O come, O come, Emmanuel.

In all our sorrow and surprise, our confusion and our questions. Oh, come. Oh, come.

In this holy moment as we are huddled together in the presence of God, awaiting word of the birth of the Christ Child. Oh.

 

 

 

Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (8 December 2019)

Matthew 3.1-12

JoAnn A. Post 

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

I never cared for him. For conversation’s sake, I’ll call him Rocky Horror.

Rocky and I were classmates in college—a small Lutheran school where everybody knew everybody. Our alma mater was the only thing we had in common. He was a football star; I was a drivetime DJ. He lived on the wildest floor on campus; I was an RA on the smartest. He was on a full-athletic scholarship; I was a grant/loan/work study student. He was wildly popular. I was wildly nice.

None of those differences is significant—I have many friends who are similarly dissimilar from me.

The reason I never cared for him? The way he treated women. He was a cat caller, a ghoster, a user. He treated women the way we treat kleenex. Use ‘em up and toss ‘em away.

It so happens that many years later, one of my daughters picked up a nasty virus. After the doctor examined her, she sent me straight to the pharmacy. There was no time to waste getting the medication started.

Standing in line at the pharmacy, I was impatient with worry. Shifting from foot-to-foot, calculating my wait-time, I started reading the walls. A poster about careful hand-washing. A reminder about the co-pay policy. Diplomas. The pharmacist’s diplomas.

Apparently, the pharmacist had earned his pharmacy credentials at an impressive pharmacy school. Good, I thought. Looking closer, I recognized the insignia of my college on another and thought, “Hmm. I wonder if we were in school together?” I stepped a little closer to the diploma wall to read the pharmacist’s name and nearly choked.

Then I looked more closely at the pharmacist. It was him. Rocky Horror. Twenty years and twenty pounds older. But it was him. My daughter’s health and well-being would soon be in the hands of a man for whom I cared not at all, whom I wouldn’t have trusted to feed my hamster.

Most of us have developed strategies for avoiding people we don’t care for.  Whether they make us feel unsafe, or bore us to death, or hold opinions that make us cringe, we tend to avoid them.  It’s only natural.

And if you’re wanting confirmation for your biases against the Rocky Horror’s of your life, you’ll find good company in John the Baptizer. He may have dressed oddly, and enjoyed a limited food repertoire, but he was a powerful preacher, charismatic in a way we can only imagine. Busloads of people flocked to the sandy banks of the Jordan River to hear him preach, to give him their confession, to feel his powerful hands push them into the water.

John the Baptizer was great with people who were sick. Or sad. Or sinful. Or confused. Or lonely. People of obvious need.

But people who were powerful? Not so much.

That’s why the presence of Pharisees and Sadducees at the riverbank sent him into low-earth orbit. They represented everything he hated. Power. Privilege. Pride. John just started yelling. He called them names. He questioned their motives. He mocked their ancestry. He threatened them with violence. He warned them that if they thought he was scary, Jesus would slay them, offering the equivalent of a mother’s threat, “Wait until your father gets home!”

Like I said, if you want to have biases against your enemies confirmed, John the Baptizer is your man.

But. Isn’t there always a “But?”

But John is not the one for whom we have waited. John is not the one who gave his life for the sake of sinners. Powerful though he might have been, John the Baptizer was also a way-woke grudge-holder with a trigger temper and no filters. Is that really who we are intended to emulate?

For an alternative world view, we have to look elsewhere.

Isaiah offers an alternative view. (Isaiah 11.1-10)  Isaiah promises a time when justice will be just, when the weak will be strong and the wicked receive their due. Isaiah imagines a world in which natural born enemies are friends. Wolves and lambs. Leopards and goats. Calves and lions. Cows and bears. Children and poisonous snakes.

Sounds great, but I side more with Woody Allen who mused: “The lion may lie down with the lamb, but one of them won’t get much sleep.”

The apostle Paul also offers an alternative view. (Romans 15.4-13) Himself a Pharisee who had once hated Jesus and his followers, Paul learned to love. Take that back. He DECIDED to love not only Jesus’ Jewish followers, but the gentile ones, as well. You see, the congregation in Rome was delighted to welcome other converted Jews into their fold—people who looked like them. But when Gentiles—not circumcised, not chosen, practically pagan—knocked on their door, they slammed it shut. Paul refused to confirm their biases: “Welcome one another as Christ welcomed you.”

Imagine those first few Sundays at the coffee pot. Brrrr.

John the Baptizer was willing to baptize almost anyone. Almost.

We are willing to associate with almost anyone. Almost.

Advent is a season of preparing and waiting. Preparing and waiting to see the baby in the manger is the easy part.

It’s the preparing and waiting for the world Jesus promises that’s hard.

We are more like John than Jesus. There are some people, or some kinds of people that just bring out the worse in us.

For John, it was prominent religious people. And, on those grounds, it’s possible that, without evidence, John would have had no time for people like me. He would have taken me for a Pharisee—a professional religious person in a long robe, praying in public, living a cushy suburban life. He would rather have set my hair on fire than baptize me in the Jordan.

Who is it for you?

The day I had my second cataract surgery, I was separated from another patient in pre-op by only a thin surgical curtain. Apparently, the patient and her husband had just come back from the city, and had a lot to say about “them.” It didn’t take long to figure out who “them” was. The husband concluded their conversation by proposing that the city just put a fence topped with razor wire around “those neighborhoods” to keep us safe from “them.” Thank God for the curtain. Of course, I have just demonstrated by own bigotry, since I had as little time for the couple on the other side of the curtain as they had for “them,” so neither of us holds the moral high ground.

I don’t know who your “them” is, who it is who makes you uncomfortable, or angry or impatient.

But you’re wondering about my college pal, aren’t you? You’re expecting me to tie a pretty ribbon around a strained relationship, to tell you that Rocky and I embraced over the counter, confessed our mutual smallness, and promised to have lunch one day. Here’s what really happened.

When I reached the front of the line, I confirmed that it was, in fact, Rocky Horror at my service. I handed him the prescription and said, “You and I went to college together.” He didn’t even look up. “We graduated in 1926 (or so).” Still no acknowledgement. “JoAnn Post. We had chemistry together.” He finally looked up and said, “You’ll have to wait over there.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. We all know that lions don’t lie down with lambs. Jews don’t break bread with Gentiles. Democrats don’t have dinner with Republicans. Rich people don’t live next door to poor people. Not without some encouragement.

We continue to wait for the peace Isaiah promises, the unity Paul urged. But already we have been changed. Though perhaps only a little bit. We have been singed by Jesus’ refining fire, sifted by Jesus’ discerning wisdom, washed in the same water as those who are wildly different from us.

The best we can do—for now—is repent. Stand in line with Rocky Horror and all those other sinners and even John the Baptizer, as we wait for the One who is to come.

Christ the King Sunday

Christ the King Sunday (24 November 2019)

Luke 23.

JoAnn A. Post

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

1919: The German Workers Party formed; Adolf Hitler was an early recruit

1929: Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s facism took the world stage

1939: World War II was launched by Germany’s unprovoked attack on Poland

1949: Apartheid was declared official policy in South Africa

1959: Fidel Castro became president of Cuba

1969: Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon

1979: Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant suffered a terrifying though partial meltdown

1989: Protestors in China’s Tiananmen Square were quickly silenced

1999: The world was going to end, as computers rolled us into binary oblivion

2009: In the depths of a recession, we inaugurated our first black president

2019: Hmm, what shall we say?

We would like to imagine that the world is a kinder, safer, more hospitable place than a century ago. After all, the events of the last 100 years have surely convinced us of the dangers of white nationalism and military aggression, the inhumanity of oppressing people because of race or religion. Surely, we have been inspired by the possibilities of cooperative research, the emergence of sustainable energy sources, a better understanding of artificial intelligence and global networking.

Instead we have only replaced those infamous names and deadly -isms with new ones. New dictators seize power as ancient antagonisms wake. Racism and antisemitism march our streets. (Remember, “Jews will not replace us?”) We don’t have to drop nuclear weapons—guns are far more efficient, inexpensive and available. Money for shared research has evaporated. What some call “woke” sounds, to others, like just more anger from the other side of the aisle. We are as divided in this country—on every front—as we have ever been.

And we have the audacity this morning to claim, as Christians have done for almost a century, that Christ is King.

In 1925, an astute and frightened Pope Pius XI launched this festival—a bold, public statement of opposition to the world’s corrupt rulers, the world’s dark power.

Christ is King. Not Hitler or Mussolini or Castro or al-Assad or El Chapo.

Christ is King. Not nazism or facism or antisemitism or racism or nationalism.

Christ is King. Not fear or hatred, poverty or homelessness, abuse or addiction, enslavement or imprisonment, division or disdain.

“Christ is King.” Its a bold claim.

One of the reasons it is so difficult for the world, and even for us, to recognize and acknowledge the absolute lordship of Christ, the unassailable power of God, is that it doesn’t sound or smell like Lordship, it doesn’t walk or talk like Power.

Pope Pius XI could have suggested other reading material for this homemade festival of his. Maybe we could have read an Old Testament story about how God’s people annihilated all the armies they encountered. Maybe we could have read an Epistle text from Paul, who threw verbal hand grenades at his opposition. Maybe we could have read a Gospel text about Jesus flipping furniture in the temple, shouting down demons, humiliating the temple hierarchy.

That’s a God we can get our arms around, a Christ who inspires allegiance. Military power. Righteous anger. Public shaming.

We would be much more comfortable to proclaim: Christ is King, and he’s not happy. Ah, Pope Pius XI missed an opportunity.

But, what do we get instead?

Jesus. Naked, beaten, parched, bleeding, humiliated. He was unrecognizable even as himself. Who would have imagined him a king?

It could have been so different. Three times, in this morning’s gospel reading, he was invited to save himself. To free himself from the cross. Three times he refused.

We have every reason to believe it was in Jesus’ power to do all that. To free himself from the cross. To rain fire down on his accusers. To establish a new political movement, a new religious mandate.

But he did not. He chose not to. Not for his sake, but for ours.

Two things happened on the cross that day that mark him as King like no other, a King unrecognizable to all but those who listen closely.

Looking down from the cross at the mob that cheered his death, he whispered. “Father, forgive them. They have no idea what they are doing.”

Even before they knew they had sinned, before they asked for mercy, they were already forgiven. By the very one whom they had tortured to death.

The second quiet word from the cross?

Another prayer, the prayer of a dying thief. “Remember me.” That’s all he asked. “Remember me.”

And Jesus promised, “I will. I will remember you today. And forever.”

These are the proclamations of our King:

I forgive you.

I remember you.

Friday night, the church building was electric with energy as we participated in the World’s Big Sleep Out. Giant jenga blocks tumbled. Adults who should know better cheated at Go Fish. Letters were penned to our legislators. Ziplock bags were stuffed with blessings. Cardboard art invited us to consider “home.” A tent city grew on our lawn, and the snores of the few who were able to sleep created envy among those who couldn’t. And we met some of our ministry partners who provide hands-on care for homeless persons here on the North Shore and in the city. We were both inspired and convicted.

Inspired by the possibility of making a difference. Convicted by the love of Jesus for all, especially for those who have no place to lay their heads.

Does Jesus forgive us? Does Jesus remember us?

Can we be forgiven for failing to see the poor among us—hungry students in our hyper-performing schools, and low-wage workers at the local fast food outlet? Can we be forgiven for judging the under-educated for their lack of expertise, the under-employed for their lack of a briefcase, the under-housed for their lack of hygiene.

Our King says, “Yes. I forgive you. I forgave you. Already. Before you asked.”

And then he promises to remember us—all of us. Those of us who are well-fed, well-bred, well-read. And those of us struggling to survive, wondering why they are alive, failing to thrive.

It is tempting to lament that we will always have the poor with us, that the powers of the world and the needs of its people will always be at odds. But if past performance is no predictor of future results, perhaps our life together going forward, the next century in our world will be marked, not by war, but by peace, not by fear, but by hope, not by isolation but by companionship.

Perhaps in the decades to come the world will learn of and come to love our King.

A king who, quietly, forgives all who sin.

A king who, faithfully, remembers, even those whom we have forgotten.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (17 November 2019)

Luke 21.5-19

JoAnn A. Post

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

I am surprisingly nostalgic these days, often brought to tears by memories of people long-dead, places long-gone. Perhaps it is because I was, this summer, orphaned. Perhaps it is because, as we settle my parents’ estate,  we are considering the future of the farm. Perhaps it is because my parents’ wedding anniversary came and went yesterday. Perhaps it is because the whole generation older than me is passing from the earth—my aunts and uncles, Sunday School teachers and neighbors.

Recognizing my sadness and having known all these people I miss, my dear husband did an Ebay search for a precious family memory, lost long ago. An album. A record album. Remember those? It was a 1965 recording made by my mother’s cousin, himself a pastor and Titonka native, who also happened to have a stunningly beautiful, pure tenor voice. That album—his only recording—was a favorite in my childhood home.

We listened to him sing “The Lord’s Prayer” and “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace” over and over, until the grooves were so worn they no longer kept the stylus in place.

But Tuesday evening a package was waiting at our door when I got  home from work. It was the album: “A Pastor Sings.” I wept just seeing that familiar album cover.

It happens that a year ago, unwilling to abandon a technology now seen only in museums, we had purchased a new turntable. My husband gently lifted the cover, placed the needle on the vinyl disc, and stood back as a pastor sang: “Bless this house, O Lord, we pray. Keep it safe by night and day.”

As though transported through time, I was suddenly standing in front of my grandparent’s farmhouse in which my mother was raised. The sturdy little ranch my grandfather later built when they moved to  town. The dense grove of trees that protected the north side of our farmyard from winter storms. The faded red barn we spent a summer painting when I was in high school.

Bless this house, he sang. And this barn. And those trees. And those people. Most of whom now exist only in my memories.

Jesus’ disciples were also admiring architecture, standing outside the temple in Jerusalem, admiring its sturdy walls and soaring arches. The temple they admired was the second on that site, the first having been decimated in 586 BCE by vicious Babylonian armies. The temple they cherished in the 1st century CE, the temple in which they worshipped was far grander, larger, stronger than the first. It was inspiring, unassailable, eternal.

Jesus saw the admiration in their eyes, recognized the elusive comfort that building represented, and quickly opened thunderclouds on their parade. “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Of all the certainties on which they relied—family, reputation, purpose—the temple was the one thing that could never be taken from them. It was, after all, the dwelling place of God on earth. Rebuilt to withstand any enemy. They must have thought Jesus insane. But they humored him. “So, Jesus, if, as you say, the temple will fall (unlikely), when will that take place, and how will we know to get out the way?”

Sorry I asked.

Jesus didn’t hesitate. He promised—note, he promised, not warned—that not only would the temple fall, but the whole world would come unglued. Wars. Corruption. Natural disasters. False imprisonment. Persecution. Torture. Betrayal. Execution. If you can think of a bad thing, Jesus named it.

His disciples were horrified.

We now know that Jesus was not insane, but spot on. The temple that could never fall? It fell in the year 70. He himself was the victim of all the persecution, torture, betrayal and execution of which he spoke, and some of them were, as well.

Jesus didn’t mean to terrify his disciples. He wanted to prepare them. He wanted to prepare us.

My apologies if, in these troubled times in our world, nation and city, you were hoping for an uplifting, yippy-skippy sermon. Maybe next week.

I’ve stood where the disciples stood on what is now called the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Temple Mount is the site of that long-ago-deconstructed second temple, a site on which many Jews believe the Third and final Temple will one day be built. Portions of that second temple still stand—the Western or Wailing Wall being the most prominent remnant. But mostly, the vision of that unassailable Temple is conjured only in memory.

The Temple Mount is one of the holiest and most contested pieces of religious real estate in the world, a holy site for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Wars have been waged over that mostly empty lot, political careers ruined, lives lost.

Why? Because we want our buildings to stand. We want our shrines to soar. We want some thing, some place, some one to be permanent, reliable, unassailable. But there is no such thing, place or person.

Instead, we who believe in Jesus, are taught to make up our minds about the way we will walk through the permanent impermanence of the world. We are taught to recognize this impermanence as an opportunity, an opportunity to testify. Opportunity to testify not to the sturdiness of our structures or the soundness of our ideas or the strength of our bodies. But opportunity to testify to the one unchanging, indestructible force in the world—the love of God in Jesus, who knows all our sorrows, who suffers all our wounds, who holds us steady when all around us falls.

My parents would have celebrated their 64th wedding anniversary yesterday. Theirs was a marriage that stood firm through decades of joys and sorrows. But it has ended. As do all marriages.

That house my grandpa built when they moved from the farm to town? When my aunt moved out and we put it on the market, it was found to have a significant crack in the foundation.

That thick stand of trees that protected the family farm from winter winds? Many of those trees under which we played for years have died.

The big red barn still stands, but it no longer shelters livestock. It is home now to a handful of feral barn cats, hay and straw stored for the winter.

Because impermanence is permanent, change inevitable we have a choice to make. We can choose to rage and weep, blame God or somebody for taking away all that we hold dear. Or we can choose to be grateful for these temporary structures, these  mortal relationships, these complicated systems that shelter us now.

The world’s impermanence gives us opportunity testify to the permanence of God’s mercy, the sturdiness of Jesus’ guidance, the eternal love that waits for us all.

Bless this house, O Lord, we pray. And when it falls teach us to trust, to stand, to endure. To testify.

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (10 November 2019)

Luke 20.27-38

JoAnn A. Post

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally, the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

“I take you to be my spouse, from this day forward, to join with you and share all that is to come; and I promise to be faithful to you until death parts us.” (ELW marriage vows)

These are the simplest, most straight-forward wedding vows offered in our wedding liturgy. Another option offers language about “richer and poorer, in sickness and in health.” Yet another suggests that we “forgive as we have been forgiven.”

Since the long-passed OK Boomer days of church weddings with a common liturgy, weddings have become completely customized, tailored to the needs and desires of each couple. Invitations. Events. Venues. Menus. Officiants. Rituals. Play lists. No wedding is like any other. In keeping with this personalization of the rite, rather than borrowing vows, words crafted and tested over centuries, couples like to write their own. Confidentially, I discourage the practice. Because it is harder than one might think.

We struggle to send a text message without unfortunate errors or inappropriate emojis.  Imagine how hard it would be to find words of such gravity and depth that they will last a lifetime. Emoji-free. It’s not easy.

Some hand-crafted vows are too intimate, better whispered on a moonlit beach than shouted in front of Grandma. “When I look into your sultry eyes . . .“ Yeah, no.

Others are far too intricate, attempting to address every possible circumstance that might befall them. “When you stay up late working, I will keep your side of the bed warm. When the dog barfs on the rug, I’ll clean it up.” Take it from me—those are the easy parts.

And most custom-crafted wedding vows are dishonest. Not by design, but out of denial. We want to use words like “forever” and “always.” But we don’t marry forever, or for always. Because, sad but true, even the most loving, most faithful marriage ends. We are married only until death parts us.

“Do we have to say that part? The death part?” couples often ask. “I don’t want to think about dying on my wedding day.”

Who does?

Jesus has arrived. After chapters and chapters of traveling to Jerusalem, he has arrived, standing inside its storied walls. As we would have expected, his reputation got there before him, and so far he’s been alternately adored like a rock star and splattered with questions like paint balls.

“By whose authority do you do these things?”

“Is it lawful to pay taxes or not?”

And today: “In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?”

None of these was a real question. They just wanted Jesus to say something stupid on a hot mic.

When the Sadducees (disingenuously because they didn’t believe in a resurrection of the dead) challenged Jesus’ understanding of the resurrection, they did so with a troubling nuptial “what if.” In a discarded first draft of the musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” the Sadducees sing a song of a solitary bride, serially, tragically married to seven brothers.

A pastoral colleague wondered, darkly, about this bride, widowed seven times—might she have had access to arsenic? It’s been done. And those short-lived brothers. What in the world was floating in their gene pool that they lasted about as long as mayflies?

We’ll never know. And it doesn’t matter. Because it’s only a story. And an outrageous test of Jesus’ eschatology—his belief about what happens after we die. It’s also a perennial question, speculation about life after death, a question which Jesus twists to fit his answer.

In a bizarre riff on Moses and the burning bush (EX 3), Jesus makes the claim that the dead to us are not dead to God. Because those whom God deems worthy “cannot die anymore.” After all, Jesus points out, “Pay attention to God’s grammar. In speaking of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, long-dead patriarchs, Moses used a present tense verb: is. God IS their God, not WAS. So, ipso facto they must be alive.”

What? The Sadducees looked at him sideways. Is? Was? Dead? Alive? Perhaps Jesus was imagining a famous quote from an impeachment trial that would take place two centuries later, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” (President Bill Clinton, September 1998)

Is their God? Was their God? How would you diagram that sentence? Where’s my seventh-grade English teacher, Miss Shroyer, when you need her?

Jesus just shrugged and went back to his teaching.

For him, their effrontery was just another day at the office.

But for us? Jesus had us at “Those who belong to this age marry. But in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

Remember “until death parts us?” We didn’t just make that up. Marriage ends. Instead of imagining that the life to come will simply be a better version of this one, Marriage 2.0, Jesus pursues a different image of life after this life ends: “They will be like angels, children of God, children of the resurrection.”

All the images we have of life after this life ends are just that. Images. Whether from Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives and will stand upon the earth,” (Job 19.23-27a) or from the Thessalonian correspondence, “you will be the first fruits for salvation,” (2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17), we can only speculate, only imagine. Even scripture offers no single image, no definitive answer, no irrefutable evidence. How long will we, like John Brown’s body, be a-mouldering in the grave? Who will be there, in that life to come, and what will they look like? Will all wounds be healed? Will all relationships be mended? Will all sorrows be forgotten? Will we recognize one another? Will we get to choose between a harp and a harmonica? Will we care?

The shock in Jesus’ flippant answer to the Sadducees is not that God parses sentences differently than we might—is, was, dead, alive—but that all marriages end. For the happily married or partnered, that is an outrage. How dare Jesus tell me I won’t be married to my beloved into eternity! But for those for whom marriage is a burden, a struggle, a disappointment, the fact all marriages end is a relief. Tied to that ball and chain for all eternity? No thanks.

Here’s the thing. We can’t have it both ways. Either all relationships linger into eternity, or all relationships end. We can’t assume that the relationships we cherish will endure forever, and those we despise will end. Eternity belongs to God, it is not ours to design.

My Dad died 18 months before Mom did, and every day of those 18 months she lived without him was torture. “I just want to see his face,” she cried almost daily. When my Mom died in July, my husband and I were in the car, racing to see her, but we didn’t get there in time. Instead, when my brother called with the news, I whispered through my tears, “Say ‘hi’ to Dad for me.” Will it be like that in the next life? That we just pick up where we left off?

I once served in a community with an enormous township cemetery on the edge of town. The richest farmer in town, and the most self-important, purchased the eastern-most plot in the cemetery. Believing that Jesus will return from the east, like the rising sun, he wanted to ensure he would be the first in our town to be up and at ‘em when the trumpets sounded. When, years after he died, the cemetery was expanded, his family had his body exhumed and moved to the new eastern-most plot. They knew he wanted to be the first to see Jesus on resurrection day. Will it be like that? Obnoxious for eternity?

But here’s the honest truth. All these things we cherish and know—relationships, possessions, structures, even the church—are temporary. They give order to our lives in this life. But like our bodies that eventually return to the dust from which they were made, all those structures dissolve. At their best, they offer only an image, an approximation of eternity. But only an image, only an approximation.

The Sadducees’ convoluted question wasn’t a real question; they were just messing with Jesus. But their “what if” provided Jesus an opportunity to speak of limits. Soon to face his own death, Jesus had limits on his mind. The limits of life. The limits of relationships and structures. The limits of knowledge. The limits of our imagination.  And the limitlessness of God and God’s love.

“In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?” they wondered.

We know the answer to that. We are married only until death parts us. But Jesus has more to say.

“In the resurrection,” Jesus responded, “there will not be marriage. It will no longer be necessary. But there will be life. For to God, even the dead are alive.”

And to that life, there is no limit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Saints Sunday

All Saints Sunday (3 November 2019)

Luke 19.1-10

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So, he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So, he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

He was so small.

I’m not stature shaming, mocking his diminutive height. Though, to be honest, I first learned of Zacchaeus in Sunday School when I was a small person myself, and imagined him to be a little person, a leprechaun, a miniature human. Remember the Sunday School song: Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he!

Though the gospel writer tells us that Zacchaeus was shorter than a typical 1st century Middle Eastern male, that detail is important only because it explains Zacchaeus’ perch the day Jesus passed through town.

It must have been startling to the locals to see Zacchaeus in a tree. After all, he was important to the point of infamy in Jericho. Luke tells us that not only did he need a ladder to see the Lord, he was also the chief tax collector and wildly wealthy. Zacchaeus would have been a dapper dresser—bowler hat and ebony cane, spats and slicked-back hair. Like the guy on the Monopoly game board. Zacchaeus had “people”—drivers and dressers, butlers and barristers, groundskeepers and groomers. He made his money the old-fashioned way—levying onerous surcharges on already-hefty tax bills.

Well-dressed, well-heeled, well-informed. Indeed.

Self-important. Self-promoting. Self-possessed. Without question.

Detested. Despised. Distained. Absolutely.

Zacchaeus in a tree? Surprising to some, perhaps, but not to all. Where else would he be, but looking down on people, even important people like Jesus.

Remember, I told you he was small.

They were so small, as well.

In previous stories about Jesus’ travels, it was not uncommon for him to be ridiculed by the Religious Aren’t-We-Right and others in positions of authority. Pharisees. Scribes. Sadducees. Governors. Kings. Mayors. They hated him. Or envied him. Or both.

But the crowds loved him. Until today.

When Jesus ordered Zacchaeus out of his nest, informed him that they had a dinner date at Zacchaeus’ own home, the crowds went crazy. Not in a good way. More in a “Lock him up!” kind of way.

They were accustomed to Jesus being kind to sinners and sick people like them. But to align himself with that pompous, preening, promiscuous quisling was more than they could bear.

The crowds, and we might assume Jesus’ own disciples, were ordinarily all about grace and mercy, forgiveness and generosity. As long as that grace and mercy was directed their way. As long as that forgiveness and generosity had limits.

Like I said, they were so small.

Here’s something that is not small. Our grief.

For several years now we have invited you to write the names of those who have died in the last year in our Book of Remembrance for inclusion in our All Saints prayers. This year we broke a record. With over 60 names written in our Book and scores more than that inscribed on our hearts, the degree and depth of our congregation’s loss is breathtaking. And heart breaking.

Grief is complicated thing. It looks different on everyone who wears it, goes by a variety of names, appears at our doors in disarming disguises.

And grief can make us so small.

It isolates us, practically pulls the covers over our heads all by itself.

It trips us, like a shadow underfoot even on sunny days.

It changes us, stifles our smiles, messes with our memories, overwhelms our emotions, robs us of hope. Grief makes us competitive—we evaluate our grief as greater or lesser than others.

One would think it would be otherwise, that grief would be considered normal, a shared experience. That it might make us more compassionate, more expansive. After all, there is not a person alive who has not lost someone, something dear. But instead, grief can make us small.

Nine years ago, an angry employee opened fire in the Hartford Distributors building, only two miles from the Connecticut congregation I served at the time. Eight were killed; two gravely wounded. I have not seen such grief since September 11, 2001. Community religious leaders—Christians, Jews, Muslims—came together to worship and pray, and to plan a public memorial service. There was surprising cooperation among us; the liturgy came together quickly, and with great creativity and compassion.

The only point of contention? In our prayers for those who mourned the dead, some of us wanted to include the family of the gunman—particularly his bereaved mother whose sorrow and shame were immeasurable. Others of us were appalled that we would even consider such a thing. To them, the gunman’s violence and disregard for life placed both him and his family outside the limits of God’s love.

It would be as if we were to name the family of recently-killed ISIS leader al-Baghdadi in our prayers this morning. He was, without question, ruthless, violent, bloodthirsty, heartless. We can’t imagine anyone loved him, not even God. But what if? What if God is not as small as we are. What if God’s grace and mercy, forgiveness and generosity extend not only to Zacchaeus and to those we mourn, but to all whom God made?

There were some in Jericho that day who resented Jesus’ willingness to eat with Zacchaeus, the city’s #1 sinner. It was they who were small.

There are some among us for whom grief is a pain we can’t ease, an emptiness we can’t fill. Grief shrinks our world, makes it small.

There are some among us who believe God’s love has limits, that some actions, some beliefs, some words are just too much. Is God as small as we?

It is one thing to be small in stature, as was Zacchaeus. We can’t repent our inherited dimensions.

It is another thing to be small in spirit, runty in our welcome, cramped in our kindness.

This morning our Book, our prayers, our hearts are filled with memories of those we love who have died. Some of them were seamless saints, others were sinners whom even a mother might struggle to love.

But God? God doesn’t struggle to love any of us.

Remember: the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. No matter how small they might be.