Second Sunday of Easter

Second Sunday of Easter (23 April 2017)

John 20.19-31

JoAnn A. Post

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Mimes. That’s what I’ve been thinking about this week. Mimes. Not the French kind dressed in black and white striped prison pajamas with jaunty black chapeau perched atop their pointy little heads.  For some reason, French mimes are always trapped in boxes, athletically, aesthetically struggling to breach invisible walls. Don’t mimes ever just walk around? Are French doors harder to find than American doors?

No, I’ve been imagining 1st century Middle Eastern mimes—grown men in flowing robes and dusty sandals, dark circles under their eyes and knots in their beards. I’m imagining Jesus’ disciples who had neither slept nor eaten in days. Anxious men imprisoned in a dark locked room. Imprisoned by choice. And by fear.

These dumb (as in mute) disciples were not searching for an escape hatch as they might have done in France. They were at each other’s throats, shouting silently at one another, afraid that any noise might alert the authorities to their hiding place. Mutely they accused one another of betrayal and weakness. “What do you mean you never met Jesus?” they hurled wordlessly at Peter. To which Peter mouthed, “But you ran away when they came for Jesus!” While others whispered, “Be quiet or they’ll kill us, too.”

That first Easter night was not the Zen-like harmonious refuge we’ve always imagined. The disciples were scared to death. Their leader was dead. Or was he? They only had each other. Some comfort. The religious and political authorities who had hauled Jesus off might soon be coming for them. That first night was chaotic, fueled with accusation and abject terror. They were speechless.

It was into that nocturnal nightmare that Jesus appeared. I’m guessing he’d been ringing the bell and banging on the door for a while, but the disciples didn’t know if it was Resurrected Jesus, or Roman Soldiers or Papa John. Jesus had to break in, since they wouldn’t let him in.

Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus was a loquacious man, using fifty words when five would have done. But there was a change in Jesus after he was arrested.  Suddenly he had had little to say. The accused Jesus refused to defend himself.  The crucified Jesus received his sentence silently. The resurrected Jesus was similarly taciturn, sparing in speech.  Wading into the murderous scrum of his bedraggled disciples, Jesus whispered, “Peace.”

Or as I would translate it, “Knock it off.”

You’d think his miraculous appearance, his calm demeanor, his evident wounds, his simple teaching would have given the disciples courage, would have restored both their voices and their vocations.

But it didn’t. The disciples were too frightened. Too convinced that it was all over. So, a full week later (nobody knows where Jesus was or what he did during that week) Jesus had to perform the same Houdini routine again. Did Jesus ever get frustrated with his faltering flock?

Jesus again broke their speechless fear with an offer of peace. With the sigh of the Spirit. And with two additional instructions.

Forgive. (Or not.)

Get out of here. (Literally, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.”)

It is at that point that we become speechless.

Peace? With these people?

Forgive?  I don’t think so.

“Go?” It’s simply not safe.

But the most wronged man in human history appeared to his disappointing disciples with three simple instructions: Be at peace. Forgive. Get out of here.

Too often we resemble the disciples on that first Easter night. And the second. We are quick to anger. Slow to forgive. Slower still to go.

Week after week we casually extend a hand of peace to one another, oblivious to the fact that Jesus’ peace is both a personal and a political act. In this time of global tension, the mark of the Easter church is a dogged determination to be at peace. Not to retaliate. Not to win. Not to posture. Not to preen. “Peace to you,” we repeat again and again and again. Our words might not halt hate crimes in America or stem the tide of terrorism in France, but one by one, heart by heart, our prayer for peace will spread.

At our Thursday Bible study one of us said, “You know the hardest part of Sunday for me is when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, the part about forgive our sins as we forgive. I am so not there.” She is not alone.

Jesus said simply, “Forgive or not.” More literally, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

There are no caveats or conditions, no loopholes or lightheartedness. The risen Christ, abandoned by his own disciples and abused by his own religious community, said, “Forgive.” Something he’d already done. For them. And Pilate. And Caiaphas.

Forgive. Regardless of how you feel.

Forgive. Without expectation of an apology.

Forgive. Even if nothing changes.

And if we don’t, if we don’t forgive, if we retain? The sin just sits there. The one who wronged us eternally wronged by us. That’s a heavy burden.

What was the third thing Jesus said? 1. Practice peace. 2. Forgive each other. 3. I send you.

That’s easy. Of course, nobody stays here all week. We all leave the building eventually. “Going” is easy.

But Jesus didn’t say, “Go.” He said, “I send you.” Being sent is an entirely different thing from just walking away.

Jesus sends us into a world that preys on the weak, that betrays its friends, that competes like rats at the garbage can, that delights in the downfall of others, that remembers every wrong.  Disciples don’t go out there willingly. Disciples are sent. We are sent.

Now you know why Jesus’ followers resembled speechless mimes more than the vocal disciples he needed them to be. They hoped that if they laid low, if they kept to themselves, if they kept their mouths shut nobody would notice them. They hoped they could feel their way silently back out into the world as though nothing had happened. But something has. Everything has.

Our Evening Prayer liturgy (ELW 317) concludes with a prayer that my husband and I have prayed at many critical junctures in our life together. It is the prayer of disciples tempted to silence, to smugness, to safety. It is an Easter prayer:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.

The resurrected Jesus appears in our locked lives with words of command. Be at peace. Forgive each other. Go where I send you. Even when you cannot see the way. Or the why. But he knows what he’s talking about. He’s already done it all. For us.

 

 

 

Festival of the Resurrection

Festival of Easter (16 April 2017)

Matthew 28.1-11

JoAnn A. Post

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The shabby storefront on an equally shabby side street kept the tourists away. Only the locals knew about Mario’s, an Italian restaurant named for its founder, chef, maitre d’, bartender, bus boy and, I’m guessing, janitor in the early days. But since then Mario’s has grown and prospered. Mario no longer cooks, cleans and cashes out. He only greets. Calling us each by name.

I didn’t realize how often we frequented that unassuming little place when we lived in Dubuque until one night the waitress said, “Your booth is empty. Shall I bring your drinks now?” We never saw a menu after that—they knew our order by memory (carbonara for me). And Mario always came by the table with hugs and sometimes, when the girls were little, free spumoni.

Were there other restaurants in Dubuque, IA? Could we have been more adventurous eaters? Was Mario’s Italian food mind-blowingly good?  Yes. Yes. No. But, without making a conscious choice, any time we needed a night away from my own kitchen we found ourselves at Mario’s.

We only know what we know. We only see what we see. We only want what we want. Though it seems the whole world is addicted to novelty, the next new thing, in fact, we mostly hate surprises. In restaurants. And in life.

That’s why the guards at the tomb “became like dead men.” That’s why both the angels and our risen Lord instructed the women “Do not be afraid.” They hadn’t expected any surprises—or scares—at Jesus’ garden tomb.

Both the guards and the women knew what they knew. They knew that dead is dead.

Both the guards and the women saw only what they saw. They saw an empty tomb and were ready to walk away.

Both the guards and the women wanted only what they wanted. The guards wanted to clock out after the (literal) graveyard shift. The women wanted to grieve in peace.

But God knows more than we know. God sees more than we see. God wants more for us that we even dare to ask.

That’s why the angels, and Matthew and Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid.” God’s dreams for us are so far beyond anything we can imagine, dreams so unsettling as to be frightening. It’s the Easter way.

But if all we know, if all we see, if all we want is what we already know, see, want, how bleak, how dark, how truly frightening our lives would be.

Years ago good friends grieved the death of their daughter in a car accident. They were so stunned by sorrow, I didn’t know if they would survive. They have never fully recovered, but little by little, day by day the load became a little lighter. Until the day my friend called in a panic, almost a year after Maggie’s death. “I didn’t cry today. I didn’t cry for Maggie today. I didn’t think about her until just now. What sort of horrible mother am I?” And then she began to sob.

Since the moment the state trooper had appeared at the door, all she knew was the silence that used to be her daughter’s voice. All she saw was an empty chair at the kitchen table. All she wanted was to have her Maggie back. She had grown so accustomed to that wrenching routine that when the grief lifted, even for a day, she was plunged back into it, almost worse than before.

What would, what could life be like if we left that empty tomb behind and stepped into the light of God’s future? For fear of the possibility of life, our grieving friends shook and became like dead men, like the cemetery guards. Like the women. Like us. Immobilized by what they couldn’t understand, what they had not seen coming, what they really didn’t want.

Today we welcome young Matthew to the Lord’s Table. He does not take this step lightly. Matthew thinks everything through with great care; he crafts precise questions and refuses easy answers; he immerses himself in new ideas and experiences. In preparation for this day, not only did he pour over the study materials with his parents and sister, he joined our Altar Guild. He wanted to know everything about this thing we call “The Lord’s Supper.” Even what happens to the crumbs and the lipstick stained cups.

There is both a caution and a curiosity in Matthew’s nature, a small amount of fear and a growing faith. He could choose not to try new things, not to open an unfamiliar door, not to venture a next step. But he has learned here, and from his family to trust even when he is afraid. To believe that though he cannot see everything ahead God is out there waiting. Inviting him not only to the table, but to full, adventurous, generous life.

Four times Matthew, the gospel writer, tells us that there was much to fear on that first Easter day. But, after initial hesitation, the women put the tomb in the rearview mirror and ran toward life they could not yet imagine.

They did not know where they were going. They could not see more than one step ahead of them. They didn’t even know what to ask for when they got there. But they decided not to be afraid. To trust the promise of life ahead, rather than cling to the familiarity of death behind.

Easter did not happen only once, in a borrowed Middle Eastern grave in the 1st century. Easter happens every time God calls to us from what we think we know, what we dimly see, what we begrudgingly want. God calls us to step away from the familiar tombs in which we are buried to take a new step, dare a new idea, brave a new life. Perhaps even a new love.

Mario’s has changed since we left Dubuque 12 years ago. We learned after we left that Mario had a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and unable to speak. I assumed I would never see him again. But when last I drove through and stopped for dinner, Mario was there. Seated at the bar with a walker in front of him. When he saw me his eyes lit up and he opened his arms for a hug and a kiss. There were no words between us. Carbonara is no longer on the menu. But Mario is alive and I ordered something new.

Sometimes we have to be forced to think differently, see farther, want more. Sometimes someone else has to roll the stone away, crushing our fear beneath it.

Easter opens the door to a life so other than what we know it frightens us. But there is nothing to fear. “Go on ahead,” Jesus says to disciples. “I’ll be there to meet you.”

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday (13 April 2017)

John 13.1-17, 31b-35

JoAnn A. Post

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”


After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Last Sunday morning, as we gathered nonchalantly in the brilliant Palm Sunday sunshine, our Coptic brothers and sisters were wailing and tending to the dead—Palm Sunday worshippers in Tanta and Alexandria, Egypt attacked by suicide bombers in the middle of worship. I am surprised we did not hear their cries.

On Monday evening just before sundown the sidewalks in my Northbrook neighborhood were filled with black-cloaked walkers—our Jewish neighbors walking to one another’s homes for the first night of Passover. As the sun set they lit candles, recited ancient prayers and remembered another violent event—the violence of the first Passover when they were freed from slavery, and many Egyptians died.

I wonder if, in Tanta and Alexandria, Passover celebrations are a bit more muted this year, burdened by the grief of their Christian brothers and sisters.

Much of the life of faith involves great drama. Remember the parting of the Red Sea? Remember the battles necessary to claim the Promised Land? Remember the angry face-offs between Jesus and the Religious Right of Jerusalem? Remember the persecution of the early Christians? Remember the Thirty Years War? Remember the event we will recall tomorrow evening—the brutal murder of the Son of God? Our common history is marked by both shouts of joy and screams of pain.

But not tonight. Not here. Tonight is unlike all other nights.

Tonight we kneel.  Tonight we wash. Tonight we remember. Why?

Because some of the most important things in our lives happen not in the light of day or with flying fists or angry voices or exploding devices, but in sighs and tears that only God can know.

Tonight’s liturgy began with an acknowledgement that we have all sinned—against God, against our neighbors, against ourselves. We have done foolish things and failed to do kind things. We condemn in others the very things we do ourselves. We have been unfaithful in a hundred ways. But we did not shout that confession, nor did we shout the words of forgiveness. Those words, both of repentance and mercy, were meant not for the world, but for God’s ears and our wounded hearts.

In a moment we invite you to wash one another’s feet.  When I was a child growing up on the farm, we spent most summer days running barefoot through the woods and fields. By nighttime our feet were filthy. Rather than giving each of us a bath or shower (that luxury was reserved for Saturday nights), my mother lined us up on the edge of the bathtub like birds on a wire. We paddled our dirty toes in a few inches of warm water while she patiently moved from foot to foot with a cloth, scrubbing the day’s play away. It was a quiet time. We were tired. She was tired. It was an act of humble service, as Christ-like a moment as I’ve ever known.

On the night of his betrayal, Jesus gave bread and wine to his disciples with the words, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this to remember me.” So we do. Tonight we remember Jesus’ dying love for sinners. Not with parades of palms or shouts around the cross, but with beggars’ hands extended and the promise, “For you. This is for you.”

In other parts of our city, our country, our world, there is noise tonight. More gunshots will be fired in Chicago. More bombs will be dropped on Syria and Afghanistan. Protestors in Venezuela, refugees in Kenya, starving children in Sudan, mourners in Egypt fill the night air with grief and anger.  Tomorrow we will gather around a cross, scene of barbarism and fear. Tomorrow we will hear the enemies of love raise their voices against Jesus.

But not tonight.

On Monday evening, the youngest child in Jewish homes all over the world asked the first Passover question, “How is this night different from all other nights?”

We know the answer.

Tonight we kneel. Tonight we wash. Tonight we remember.

 

 

 

 

Passion Sunday

Sunday of the Passion (9 April 2017)

Matthew 26.14-27.66

JoAnn A. Post

Many attempts have been made to name the One in whose name we have gathered today.

The prophet Isaiah, writing not about Jesus, but about the people of Israel four centuries before Jesus, (Isaiah 50.4-9a) used the name “Suffering Servant” to describe those who, for God’s sake, suffer abuse and shame. It is uncanny how precisely Isaiah’s ancient prophecy suits the circumstance in which Jesus will find himself in Jerusalem.

The people of Jerusalem poured into the streets at the sight of Jesus riding into town. Not as a king in a chariot or on a litter, but astride a donkey whose unweaned colt trotted along beside. And what name did they use? The name that would get Jesus killed. They called him, “Son of David,” “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 21.1-11) The sight of the masses stripping both palm trees and themselves to line the road put all Jerusalem into an uproar.

But we know how the story goes.

Only days after the palm procession crowds will gather again, not to celebrate, but to spit. And they will call him names then, too. Mocking names. From Judas: “Rabbi!” From Caiaphas, “Tell us if you are the Messiah!”  Servants around a fire called Jesus “The Galilean,” and “That man.”  Time  and again—15 times all told— they try to find the name to describe him, the name that will stick. Even Pilate’s wife, herself unnamed, upon hearing the crowds shouting outside her husband’s office rushed to him to warn him about “That innocent man.”

Who is this Jesus who makes kings quake and soldiers spit and priests pronounce judgement? Is he the Suffering Servant of whom Isaiah wrote?

Is he the Messiah for whom they had waited?

Is he an imposter, as the temple guards accuse?

No, there is only one name that is true today. The name given in his baptism.  (Matthew 3.13ff) The name affirmed in the transfiguration. (Matthew 17.1ff) The name uttered by a nameless soldier, shaken not only by an earthquake but also by faith, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

And that is the name that prompted a 1st century hymn writer in Philippi to pen, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2.10)

Choose a name, any name for Jesus. A name inspired by faith or dripping with doubt. But in his dying and in his rising, he is known by the name no one else has ever borne. The name feted by mortals on earth and praised by the angels of heaven.

King on a cross, lover of sinners, friend of the friendless. At the end of the day. At the end of the reading. At the end  of our lives, he is Jesus, Truly, the Son of God.

Read it for yourself.

 

 

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (2 April 2017)

John 11.1-45

JoAnn A. Post

1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.

20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Though no one else the story seems to pay him much attention, when I read this text it is Lazarus who catches my eye.  The way John tells the story, we know that he intends for all eyes to focus on the disbelieving disciples, the distraught sisters, the looking-askance Jews, the distant but tearful Jesus, the subsequent explosion of faith in the city of Bethany. But I have always rooted for the underdog, so my eyes and heart keep turning back to Lazarus.

Imagine what the last days of his life had been like. Terribly sick. Ignored by his friend Jesus. Knowing that his death would plunge his sisters into financial freefall. Death might have seemed a relief. But just when it seemed his strife was over, he was roused by a distant voice, “Lazarus, Lazarus!” Pulled to his bandaged feet by unseen forces, propelled toward the sunlight, startled by cheering crowds, stripped by strangers, and tackled by his sobbing sisters. Jesus had meant this miracle as a gift—to Lazarus, to his sisters, to the village, to those (like us) who would follow.

But. But it had been so peaceful in the tomb. So quiet. So controlled. Lazarus slept the deep sleep of death. And he didn’t mind. Death was not hard. But life was. And his was over.

These last three Sundays we’ve been reading texts that the early church deemed essential to the faith. We met the woman at the well, who drank Jesus’ living water after having been denied access to the village well (John  4). We met the man born blind, who saw both  the light of Jesus and the darkness of his world (John 9). Today we meet Lazarus, slain-too-soon, mummy-wrapped, stinking of death, mightily surprised Lazarus. What does this disruptive, death-defying miracle have to teach us?

As with the other two of the Gospel Scrutinies, this text is rich with intrigue, contradiction and questions. Does God really allow horrible things to happen to us so God can pull a rabbit out of a hat? Why didn’t Jesus race to help his dying friend? What was the tone of voice when each of the sisters said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died?” How did Lazarus hear Jesus’ voice, if he was dead? How did he exit the tomb if he was wrapped like a mummy? When did Lazarus realize that this miracle was only a temporary stay of execution, that he would eventually die for good? Did he resent Jesus for the fact that, as we learn in the next chapter of John (John 12.9ff), those who hated Jesus would be hot on Lazarus’ heels, as well?

As interesting as those observations and wonderment might be, the fact is Lazarus once was dead but was suddenly alive. But toward what end?

It is no accident that this text gets paired with Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones (Ezekiel 37.1-14). These incidents share much in common, primarily the fact that they confirm for us that “dead is dead.” Written six centuries before Christ, the people of Israel, metaphorically scattered across a desert valley, were so dead they were nothing but bones. Bones so dry they rattled and clattered.  John wants us to know Lazarus is really dead, also—he didn’t rattle; he stank. Neither of these miracles involves something as simple as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, or a mistaken diagnosis of demise. This is no earlier translation of Mark Twain, “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

When all was lost, when there was no breath, no movement, no hope, no life—life was restored. As God promised the reconstructed people of Israel, “I will open your graves and you shall live.”

Real life after real death. That’s the miracle.

We would be selling God short if we imagined, as did Mary and Martha, that the only hope for the dead is resurrection on the last day. It is, in fact, a great hope, a central tenant of the Christian faith. But if eternal life is the only life we have to look forward to, it seems to me a cosmic case of bait-and-switch.

That is why these texts are so rich, so compelling, so instructive. The life God breathed into bone-dead Israel, the life Jesus shouted to odiferous Lazarus was not life for some other day, but life now.  Life with purpose. Life with intent. Life with others. Life that opens the graves we have dug for ourselves. After all, which is harder to believe—that there will be life for us after our physical bodies cease to function, or that there will be life now in the midst of our daily dying?

We have all experienced death even while still breathing.  You probably don’t need to be reminded of all the deaths you have grieved. Loved ones who died too soon. Plans derailed and destroyed. The future we imagined for ourselves “cut off completely.”  Though we might not have used the same words, we have shared the sisters’ wondering, “Lord, where were you? This could have ended differently.” We have all experienced moments when physical death would have been a relief, and not a burden.

What of those deaths, those disappointments?

We tell ourselves, hopefully, that there is a reason for everything. Well, there’s not. Some things—things either too wonderful or too horrible to be believed—have no practical purpose, cannot be explained away or attributed to some cosmic intent. But it is possible to believe that God can use any of it—the “too amazing for words” or the sorrow that stuns us—for greater good. In the case of Lazarus, his life was restored for the sake of God’s glory, that others might come to believe. The fact that Lazarus would eventually die was a sorrow for another day. But, because Lazarus walked back into his life from the tomb, many came to believe in Jesus.

Even Jesus struggled to understand God’s purposes, it seems.  Though certain at the outset that “this illness does not lead to death, but is for God’s glory,” Jesus later wept with all the others.

Hearts cold as stone can be warmed. Graves long closed can be opened. Tears bitter with salt can be dried. Death can be replaced by life—in this life and in the world to come.

Jesus stood outside a tomb sealed tight and ordered it opened.  For the sake of life. In this life.

All of us have graves that need to be opened. And they will be.

Fourth Sunday in Lent

 

Fourth Sunday in Lent (26 February 2017)

 

John 9.1-41

 

JoAnn A. Post

 

1As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”


13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet

18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”


24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

 


35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

 

I was in South Carolina on Friday—its already spring there. I used to live in Atlanta, but had forgotten what it’s like to be in the South, where the tea is sweet, where my  name is “Ma’am,” and where, for the small islands of Lutherans, Episcopalians and Catholics adrift in a sea of Baptists, the season is Lint.

 

I was there for a day to be keynote speaker at the annual meeting of one of our vendors, ACS, the software company that supports our ministry.  We were early adopters of their Realm system, which hosts everything electronic we do here. Including on-line and text-giving for both our ministry budget and special projects, like our Lent Challenge for Holy Family School. They first became aware of us when they met our office manager at a training event and were blown away by her.  Because of that encounter they were here last fall to do a promotional video of us for their marketing department, which has become one of their most-watched client promos. So when they needed someone to rally their troops, they called me. “Motivate us. Remind us why we do what we do.”

 

It was not a difficult assignment.

 

But I was taken back when, after my speech, people lined up to thank me, to cry on my shoulder, to tell me what a difference my words had made. One brilliant, faithful, long-time employee lingered after the others to say, “It all feels pretty pointless sometimes. I was going to quit, but now I think I need to stay.”

 

What had I said? What had I done?  I merely wanted them see their work not as mundane but as ministry. I wanted them to see their work as not only binary code and customer service and profit margins and on-line platforms, but as central to our work.  I said, “Your work may not feel very sexy some days, but your ministry makes our ministry possible.”

 

Apparently, that was news to some of them. Suddenly their eyes were opened. To a truth that was already there. We all are blind, but we can see.

 

It’s hard to get our hands around the miracle of opening eyes in John’s gospel. The story of the man born blind is enormous, filled with troubling theological propositions, witty repartee, physical  impossibilities, and a description of the way one man came to faith in Jesus Christ.

 

Because of its rich complexity, this story has been used for centuries as one of the Gospel Scrutinies, a trio of stories in John—the woman at the well, the man born blind and, next week, the raising of Lazarus—that the early church regarded as essential elements of Christian education. Why? Because these stories are more than well-told intellectual puzzles; they are revealing.  They reveal our own lives—as outcasts, as ill-sighted, as mostly dead—and they reveal Jesus: as living water, as resurrection and life and, today, as light for the world.  A light which the world needs more than we ever imagined.

 

Time does not allow me to elucidate all the nuances and clever turns in this ancient story. So let me concentrate on the matter of sight—unexpected sight and willful blindness. 

 

First, unexpected sight.

 

With a poultice of mud and spit, Jesus opened the eyes of a man blind from birth. It was a disgusting demonstration. Yet, after washing in a nearby pool, the man came back seeing. Seeing more than he ever wanted to. Yes, he saw trees and sky and people walking around, but he also saw unpleasant truths. He saw his own neighbors peer at him, as though he were an animal in a zoo. He saw the Pharisees make fun of him. He saw his parents back away from him. He saw the ugly side of religion—the side that demands rule-keeping and routine, certainty and judgement.

 

Fans of Winnie the Pooh may remember a story in which Tigger says, “I’m sea sick. From seein’ too much.”  I wonder if the man was “see sick,” too, if he regretted Jesus’ miracle, if he would rather not have known how ugly the world could become. And so quickly.

 

 And now the matter of willful blindness. 

 

Even when faced with irrefutable truth, with incontrovertible facts, with physical evidence of the power of God, the blind man’s neighbors, religious leaders and even his own parents chose not to see, not to believe. In their world, there were no miracles. In their world, there were no surprises. Their world was a binary as that of a computer coder. Black and white. Sinner and righteous. Obedient or not.

 

The blind man’s accusers needed him to be blind, they needed to believe  that his blindness was because of sin, they needed to protect the Sabbath—even from good deeds.  Because if they entertained the possibility that Jesus, the Son of God, might be capable of opening a blind man’s eyes, they also had to entertain the possibility that God could do other things. Other wildly uncomfortable things that set their world and their teeth on edge.

 

To see clearly that which is already there. John calls it a miracle. I imagine there were some in Jerusalem that day who would beg to differ.

 

Here’s an astonishing thing, to quote the blind man. I know that every vocation, every life path suffers its own unique drudgery and pointlessness. It’s certainly true of mine. But I had not thought about what it must be like for people like those I met on Friday who are told their work is “ministry,” but for whom some days are pretty mundane. That’s why I was surprised at their strong reaction to our conversation. I thought they knew. I thought they knew what a difference there were making. But they weren’t.  So here’s the part of what I said that brought them to tears.

 

I told them about our conversation last week with a Holy Family graduate and his father. Many here were moved to tears and also to action at their powerful witness. I told my Southern friends that a couple of folks had actually pledged to our Holy Family campaign on their phones using Realm during the men’s testimony.  Here’s what I said, “Last Sunday, because of you, an accomplished Chicago business man who takes the train into work every day and a second-grade girl who walks to school under police protection every day, clasped virtual hands. Because of you.”

 

They had not seen that coming.

 

If, as we sing and say, Jesus Christ is the light of the world, that means that his light not only lightens our darkness, but exposes it, as well. Jesus’ light reveals truths we know but cannot easily believe, or may not want to—that our sins can be forgiven, that the outsider is really welcome, that even when it seems we are dead, life is possible.

 

The question for us is not, “Can Jesus open the eyes of the blind?” but “What happens when he does?”

 

Because if he does, when he does, we will see joys and sorrows we could not have imagined.  And, once we have seen them, we can choose to disbelieve and turn away, or we can embrace the vision in all its uncomfortable variety and profess with the most sightful man we have ever met, “I do believe, Lord. I was once blind, but now I see.”

 

 

 

 

 

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (19 March 2017)

John 4.5-42

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

On Wednesday afternoon I got sprung, released from the care of my oncologist, 4½ years after first being diagnosed with cancer. After reviewing my scans and lab work, he leaned back in his chair and said, “I have nothing to say to you. Nothing except congratulations. You’re done.” And then my wildly reserved physician stood up and gave me a hug.

I’d been expecting that day for years. I knew, during daylight hours when well-rested and in my rational mind, that I was probably cancer-free. But in the nighttime hours, when there were no distractions, irrational anxiety nibbled at my toes through the bed covers. I was, in the dark, a prisoner to my fear.It’s foolish I know, to be so afraid, but calamity seemed to be always lurking just under the surface.

I shared the news with my family and a few friends, and then came back to the office to work. As though nothing had happened. But a friend from Connecticut, who knows me as well as anyone, texted, “What are you going to do now? Now that you know you’re going to live?” It was then that I cried.

My days are lived with a biblical backdrop, as I study scripture texts for preaching or teaching. This week I wandered in a parched wilderness with an angry Moses (Exodus 17.1-7), and lurked at a public well with an unnamed Samaritan sinner.  My friend’s question could also be addressed to them.  “What are you going to do now? Now that you know you’re going to live?”

Moses and his followers were camped only a few days’ journey from slavery when they found themselves, for the moment, far from a source of water. Though they had witnessed mind-blowing miracles of deliverance (with water) from God’s hand, this temporary setback threw them immediately back into their old ways. Suddenly, they were slaves again. Powerless. Victimized. Frightened. Certain that death waited around every corner. I can’t say that I blame them, but it is shocking how quickly we revert to old patterns and old fears.

We don’t know if they were right, that God was testing them by parking them on parched real estate, but we do know that God never intended to let them die out there. Unexpectedly, with a word from God and a tap of Moses’ staff the rock cracked like an egg and water gushed out. It was cool. And clean. And endless. And just below the surface of their fear.

The Samaritan woman was similarly enslaved. Enslaved by her past and the disdain of others. We don’t know the details of her sordid life—five husbands?—but we do know that the circumstances of her life made her unwelcome just about everywhere, including at the village well. The “nice women” of the village came for water in the early dawn or just after dusk, when it was cool and they had time to linger. Nobody wanted to linger with her.

Though still breathing and working, the woman had no life. If she fainted from the heat, if she didn’t return from the well, would anyone notice? Would anyone care?

Jesus shared her circumstance. Alone at the well. In the middle of the day. Hungry. Thirsty. In that moment, under that hot sun, they were more alike than different.

The Woman at the Well was wary of Jesus. With good reason. What if it was not water he wanted, but something else? Something the men of the village also wanted and sometimes took, something that made her a pariah among her feminine peers.

Standing on the arid earth outside her village, Jesus offered water that no well could produce, no bucket contain, no desert air dissipate. Jesus offered his life for her death, his abundance for her poverty, his forgiveness for her failings. He offered her living water.

And why did she believe this outrageous offer? Because he knew her, knew all about her, and didn’t run away. Instead, she was the one who ran, waterless, breathless back to the village that shunned her, “Come, meet a man who knows everything I have ever done!”

This should not have been surprising, since they all knew what she had done, and some of them had done it to her. But here’s the difference. Suddenly, she was no longer the wicked woman who lived on the wrong side of the tracks. She was witness to the Messiah for whom her people had longed for centuries.

The words that flowed from her lips were as unexpected as a geyser erupting from a baked boulder. And her life was restored, life that had always been there, waiting for a word of forgiveness to be released.

In the desert, God provided water from a rock. And they lived.

Outside Samaria, Jesus washed a sinful woman clean. And she laughed.

And the question hangs in the air, “What are you going to do now? Now that you’re going to live?”

Most often, the deaths we suffer are small—not nearly so dramatic as chronic cancer or desert dehydration or public shame. But we all die every day. We fall prey to our fears, our disappointments, our anger, our limits. We grieve the harm we have caused or resent the harm we have received. We mourn the dreams that die at daylight. We fear being found out, exposed, shamed. We do not live abundantly, but with our heads down and our hearts heavy.

Some days it seems we are dead—dead to the world, dead to hope, dead even to God. But the water of God’s love, Jesus life flows freely. And just under the surface of our fear.

It might have felt like death out there in the Wilderness of Sin, but the water of life flowed wildly just under the surface, and soon they would drink deeply.

It might have felt like death out in the hot sun, but the water of forgiveness carries that nameless woman from the pages of history into our lives today.

We are going to live. All of us. Slaves and freed. Women and men. Public sinners and private ones, too. Because Jesus’ living water, abundant life, endless forgiveness is about to flow over us, as well. It is already there, waiting under the surface.

And my friend’s question still stands, “What are you going to do now? Now that you know you’re going to live?”

 

 

 

Second Sunday in Lent

 

Second Sunday in Lent (12 March 2017
John 3.1-17

 

JoAnn A. Post

 

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

 

9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

 

16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

 

I had opportunity this week to learn that there is  lot I don’t know. I was one of the presenters at a symposium about trauma studies—a field I didn’t know existed until I was invited to be part of the conversation. I was there, not as an academic or a medical practitioner as most of the presenters were, but as a writer who writes about the experience of having had serious cancer.

 

The question before the assembly was whether or not long-term illness qualifies, technically, as “trauma.” It is a more nuanced conversation than one might imagine, since the word “trauma” means some very specific things. I’m not sure we solved anything, but the discussion was lively—both heated and heart-wrenching.

 

Scattered among the mostly-able bodied and august entourage were some pretty ragged characters. One of the presenters has been in treatment for Stage IV breast cancer for nine years. Another is doing everything medically possible to live until his children are old enough to remember him, but his prognosis is dire. Yet another was in a wheelchair, having had both legs amputated due to cancer at the age of 12—he’s almost as old as I am now. My brief foray into the oncology world five years ago is piddling compared to theirs; I felt unqualified to speak.

 

So what didn’t I know that I didn’t know? I something that I sort of knew but hadn’t thought about much in recent  years—that a diagnosis of cancer is no longer necessarily a matter of life and death, black and white, a slam the door diagnosis as it was a generation ago. Cancer is now 500 shades of gray, a disease fewer and fewer people die from and more and more people survive.

 

Oddly enough, the medical advances that have made this possible, have also created a whole new kind of anxiety and fear. Living with cancer. Sometimes for decades. How can this be?

 

But the reason for the question—is chronic illness technically a trauma—arises out of that very reality. Technically a trauma requires an outside agent and an event with lingering after effects. War creates trauma, as does sexual assault or sudden job loss. You can name an enemy, and a date of onset, and mostly verifiable consequences. But illness? Where did it come from? Where will it go? Who caused it? How long will it last? How do I live in this in-between? Nobody quite knows. Thus, the question.

 

The older I get the more aware I am that few things are as clear and defined as I once imagined. It gets harder and harder to tell the good guys from the bad guys, right from wrong, truth from falsehood, damnable sin from tragic mistake, sometimes even life from death.  I don’t know if this is a common side effect of aging, but my father maintains that I am unusual in my willingness to live in a world with such permeable boundaries. “So open-minded that your brains have fallen out” is the way he describes it.

 

But as I reflected on the conference and mused about the scripture texts for the Second Sunday of Lent, I am beginning to think I am not alone in my willingness—or, more important, the necessity—to live with not knowing.

 

Imagine Abraham, confronted by the Lord—in a dream? in vision? in face-to-face conversation?—who said, “Go.”  God provided no destination, no route, and no rationale. How would Abraham know when he had arrived if he didn’t know where he was going? But he asked the Lord not a single question.  The text (Genesis 12.1-4a) simply says, “He went.” We know how the story ended—patriarch of the nation of Israel, father of offspring as numerous as the stars, founder of the three great Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Islam and Christianity), model for faithfulness across the centuries. But he didn’t know any of that.  He just went.

 

The Apostle Paul (Romans 4.1-5a, 13-17) traverses a narrow ridge between Roman Jews on one side and Roman Gentiles on the other, all of whom who loved Jesus. But each expected the other side to give in to their demands.  Who was right? Who was wrong? What would Jesus do? None of that was clear.

 

And dear Nicodemus. Steeped in certainty, trained in technicality, curious about Jesus who didn’t act like other religious leaders he had met. He came to Jesus, not with a question but with a declaration. “We know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do the signs you do apart from the presence of God.”

 

It’s an odd way to open a conversation, like a friend who used to call me in high school, and after I said “Hello” and she said “Hello” the line went silent. I had no idea what she had called to talk about, so I just sat there, too

 

But Jesus was not deterred. He responded with a declaration of his own. “No one can see the Father without being born from above.”

 

The verbal volley that follows has stumped scholars and ordinary readers like us for centuries. Was Jesus playing mind games, trying to get Nicodemus’ head to explode? Was this an accepted method of debate in the 1st century? What did either of them hope to gain? Are parts of the conversation missing or lost in translation? It is Nicodemus who finally breaks the tension. “How can this be?”

 

That’s the question Jesus had been waiting for.

 

How can this be? Here’s how. Like wind, whose effect is obvious but whose source and destination are both a mystery. Like birth, that takes place only once but is required again and again. Like Jesus. Fully God. Fully Human. Condemned to mortality but raised to immortality. Clear about sin but passionate about sinners. How can this be?

 

A diagnosis of cancer opens the door to all sorts of odd conversations. Some want to pry into all the gory details. Others want to tell their own stories. Early in my treatment, a casual acquaintance learned of my diagnosis and compassionately said, “Oh, my uncle died from that. It was awful.”

 

But among the most bracing was a relative always quick to judge, adept at turning every conversation her way. She called, ostensibly to tell me how sorry she was, but not really. Instead she said, “Don’t you just wonder, ‘Why me?’” I told her that that particular question hadn’t crossed my mind—why not me?  Then she said, “Don’t you just wish you could give this to somebody else?” To which I said, “No, actually, I can’t imagine hating anyone so much that I would wish this on them.

 

She was surprised. As was I. I had not realized until that moment that I was pretty chill about the whole thing. Not happy, but also not tortured by the need to know or to blame. I had what I had. The questions for me were first surprise: “How can this be?” and then practicality: “What now?”

 

People of faith come to learn that the edges can be fuzzy, the way ahead a little foggy, the answers not quite so clear as they once were.

 

The more we follow Jesus, the more we recognize that Jesus’ purpose in taking human form was not to judge or condemn, not to build walls or draw boundaries, not even to settle any debates. God loved the world so much that God sent Jesus to live and to die for us. For all of us.  How can this be?

 

This may be the only certainty in our lives. That Jesus loves us, forgives us, draws us to his side. And what do we do?

 

Like Abraham, we follow.

 

Like Paul, we teach.

 

Like Nicodemus, we wonder.

 

And, as we sang as small children, “Jesus loves me. This I know.”

 

 

 

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (5 March 2017)

Matthew 4.1-11

JoAnn A. Post

[After his baptism,] Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Yesterday I was phished. Phished with a “ph,” not a rod and a reel. Someone had obtained access to my debit card and, while I slept Friday night made scores of electronic purchases on my bank account. Most were caught by the bank’s fraud protection software, but not all of them. So, I’m temporarily missing some money. And my debit card lies in plastic ribbons in a waste basket.

How did I discover this cyber-theft?  Yesterday morning my debit card was rejected at The Container Store. The clerk said they’d been having trouble with the card reader.  I wasn’t worried. My card was declined again at the grocery store. Dumb luck. So my next stop was at my local bank.

The bank representative calmly suggested that the magnetic strip on my card might have gone bad. She wondered if I’d been traveling, and when I told her I’d been in Iowa last week, she winked and said, “You took your passport, didn’t you?” We continued in this lighthearted way while she tapped through computer screens in search of a solution.

But then her face went tight, and she said, “O my” and the printer started to kick out page after page of illegally attempted transactions.

There were times in my life when I worried about money every day. Every penny was accounted for; there was no room for error or extravagance. But that was years ago. So how is it that the whir of a desk top printer plunged me into irrational fears of utter financial ruin? That light-headed moment passed. But the hackers had phished more than my debit card. They phished my fears, too.

The season of Lent begins each year with the gospel reading about Jesus in the wilderness. Fresh from his baptism, communing with God and clearing his head before the start of his public ministry, Jesus might have been unprepared for the allures of The Tempter. In the 21st century we might rename him The Hacker.

Jesus knew he would be hungry after forty days and forty nights without food. He knew the road ahead would be hard. And he knew where it would end. Perhaps he had moments of doubt or of wishing it could be different. But the way ahead was clear. And necessary. It was a path he had chosen.

What he didn’t see coming was the offer an easier path, a quicker fix. For a fee. “There is an easier way,” The Hacker said. “I can give you all the power and prestige—and food—you could ever want. Just say the word and all this will be yours. No crowds. No complications. No cross.”

Was Jesus seriously tempted by these offers? We don’t know. But we do know that, unlike Adam and Eve in the Garden, he didn’t bite. He leaned into the truth he had always known, that God is faithful. In small troubles and large. He used the Word of God like a sword and shield against The Tempter’s seductions. And prevailed.

Of course, resisting The Tempter’s phishing didn’t mean the rest of Jesus’ life was rainbows and unicorns. There may have been days when Jesus wanted to reconsider that earlier offer. But he was on the right road. The only road. The faithful road. And he would not be deterred. Because we needed him to walk it.

I remember when my daughters’ grade schools offered DARE—education about resisting drugs and alcohol. I remember Officer Bob telling the children that the greatest dangers they would face were not from menacing strangers or in dark alleys. The greatest temptations they would face would come from people they trusted, and in small ways. Think about it. Nobody would be foolish enough to take a bag of nameless white powder from the foul-mouthed, filthy creep who lives in a van down by the river. But your best friend? Your favorite teacher? Your Dad?

For Jesus, and for us, the temptations come from surprising sources and when we least expect them. Like a hacker in your bank account. Unwelcome changes in our bodies. Disruption of trusted relationships.  Inability to control our own futures. Those things happen to us all.  But they seem to come when we least expect them. And they don’t look like temptations.  They look real.

Remember how quickly I reacted to the threat of “not enough” yesterday? Remember how unthinkingly I gave in to foolish fears of poverty? Almost as quickly as I recognized the temptations to fear and doubt, I was able to push them aside.

How did I do that? How was I able to keep from throwing up at the thought of how much money was at stake?

It may sound naïve, but I have experience with trouble, some of it serious. And I have come to believe that all my needs are known, that all I need will be provided. I have chosen a path that trusts in God’s guidance and direction. So, even though there was a moment yesterday when it seemed the bottom was falling out, that moment didn’t last. No hacker or Tempter can phish my faith. But he tried.

Of course, The Hacker works not only on individual human hearts and minds, but on a grander scale, as well.

Regardless of how you voted in November, there is no denying that issues of race and religion, immigration and the environment are on every mind. Perhaps we should be grateful for the current unrest. It’s made us think—individually and as a country—about what we believe, what we fear, whom we trust. And to realize how easily we are tempted. It’s a little unsettling.

What tempts us in these passionate political times?

We are tempted to fear the dreaded Other—the Muslim, the immigrant, the transgender grade school child in need of a restroom. We are tempted to isolation—circling the wagons and closing our borders to keep trouble at bay. We are tempted to anger—lashing out at anyone who disagrees with our point of view.

Did you ever wonder if we’ve been hacked? That The Tempter is prying into our secret fears?  Of course people are different from us. Of course there are enemies. Issues we once thought settled are suddenly in play. We are passionate in our beliefs and opinions. None of those things is a surprise.

The surprise is how quickly those known-realities are now used to divide us, to frighten us, to lead us, sometimes, to violence.

Is there any defense against these unexpected underground allures? Any way to thwart the temptation that doesn’t always look like one?

Jesus chose a path. A difficult path. And he did not swerve from it even once. His path led through the world’s pain and suffering to his own. And ours.

We also choose a path. We most ably fight the temptations of fear and uncertainty, doubt and judgment when are feet are firmly planted on God’s path. There are many from which to choose. But we have chosen to follow Jesus. Refusing the selfish, frightened, angry reactions to which we so quickly fall prey. Trusting that nothing can separate us from the love of God, the mercy of Jesus, the companionship of other faithful disciples.

The Bible calls it “temptation.” Might “phishing” be its modern corollary?  Regardless of the name, as disciples of Jesus we refuse to give in to it. We follow wherever he leads, trusting that the temptations calling to us have no power over us. That the road we have chosen leads to life.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday (1 March 2017)

Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

I was out driving in that gale-force, hail-pelted rain storm Tuesday night. The stormy weather matched my stormy mood.  I was returning from Iowa and a visit with my parents, who are aging rapidly. They no longer live in their own home, so a sister and I spent two days in Titonka preparing the house to be put on the market. We were boxing up all my parents’ formerly precious things—at least, those precious things that none of us eight siblings wanted to keep.  The things that once gave my parents such pleasure have become nothing but a burden. To them and to us

There is a social service distribution point in the county seat, about 20 miles from my parents’ home. They’ll take anything. We called to warn them we were coming, and descended on them with two SUV’s packed tightly with boxes and bags of my parents’ things that someone else might find useful. A team of volunteers met us at the loading dock, and as we handed our memories over to them, we told them what each box contained. Small kitchen appliances. Bedding for a full-size bed. Children’s toys. Part of our load was particularly dear and hard to part with. Tea cups. My mother had dozens

As I handed the box to the volunteer I said, “This is the first of two boxes of china and porcelain tea cups.” She paused and said, “Tea cups? I collect tea cups. Could I look at them?”  Be my guest.

We were told that the director of the agency would love to meet us and thank us for our donation, but she was working at home. A few months ago her own home had burned to the ground, its contents a total loss, and she was fully occupied with contractors and insurance agents. I didn’t think about it again, so absorbed in my own complicated feelings about our task.

We returned to the agency yesterday morning, with two more car loads of household goods. When we pulled up, one of the volunteers recognized us and ran back into the building. I was sure we had overwhelmed her the day before. Instead, she returned with the agency director, a weary-looking middle-aged woman named Linda. She thanked us for our generosity and then said, “You know those tea cups you brought? I’ve been collecting tea cups for my granddaughters for years, but all of them were destroyed in the fire. I hope you don’t mind, but I took some of your mother’s tea cups for my granddaughters. They’ll love them.

Houses burn to the ground. Our things become a burden. Parents and other loved ones inch toward the grave. Painful memories long buried resuscitate themselves.

Do we really need to be reminded tonight that we are dust.

When, in Matthew 6, Jesus warned his disciples about PDP’s—public displays of piety—he was addressing a real issue in their community. Religious leaders wielded an enormous amount of power and influence, and loved to parade it publicly. Praying loudly on the street. Fasting with groaning bellies. Announcing their donation as they dropped coins into beggars’ cups.  Their religious practice had become a source of pride.

We have exactly the opposite issue. We hide our faith so completely that, not only does our left hand not know what our right is doing, even God might not be aware. We compartmentalize—being generous and forgiving in these walls, but ruthless and selfish outside them. After all, what would our work colleagues, our neighbors, our political adversaries do if they knew?

I stopped at St. James the Less early this morning to get ashed by my friend, who is the priest there.  She looked deeply, kindly into my eyes as she traced this black cross, but I couldn’t return her gaze. The burden of sorrow I carry for my parents, the truth of my own sin and shame, the weariness that I can’t shake. It’s all here—in this black smudge. And I knew she could see it in my eyes, so I had to look away.

Ashes on the forehead of a 1st century Pharisee were as offensive as on the forehead of a 21st century Lutheran. All of us reluctant to admit the burdens we carry, the heavy loads we no longer wish to shoulder.

But tonight, in this dimly-lit space, we do. Standing amid the ashes of our burned-down dreams and ragged relationships, we hand the boxes and bags of our sin and shame into the hands of a gentle friend. And we name them as we turn them over:

Friendships left to fallow.

Good deeds undone.

Unkind thoughts nurtured.

Self-indulgence tossed in a box with disregard for the poor.

Falsehoods unchallenged.

Refugees left to float on dangerous waters.

My parents’ home is nearly empty now.  Most of their things will be distributed to strangers. But some of them have already fallen into loving hands, hands burned by fire, tinged with smoke.

It is a gift to hand off old burdens, useless things, tired dreams. It’s what we do tonight.

Because tonight we wearily admit that we are dust. And to dust we shall return.  Handed over, finally, into the hands of God, to whom we are, always have been and always will be precious.