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.

Seventh Sunday in Epiphany

Seventh Sunday in Epiphany (19 February 2017)

Matthew 5.38-48

JoAnn A. Post

 

Jesus said to the disciples: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I recognized his malady immediately—the jaundiced pallor of his skin, the hairless arms and face, bony shoulders like coat hangers on which his thin frame hung. He stood wearily in front of me at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew his car’s registration, learning heavily on the counter. Without looking up, the woman behind the counter asked, “How are you today?” He smiled slightly and said, “Well, I’ll never have to do this again.”

“Good,” she said. “Will that be credit or debit?”

She clearly wasn’t paying enough attention to absorb what he was saying, but I was. A year from now, when his car’s registration comes up for renewal, he will no longer be alive to drive it.

You must wonder sometimes if I make all this stuff up, if all these stories I tell you are true. I assure you they are. It’s not that I’m a magnet for sad stories. Fact is, my work has trained me to watch and listen. And what I hear and see confirms what we all know in our secret hearts.  Trouble comes to us all. And sometimes spills out on the counter at the DMV on a Friday afternoon.

You know where else I learned that lesson? Here. From Jesus.

We are nearing the end of the Sermon on the Mount, 139 verses of instruction to Jesus’ new disciples about the world that waited for them at the bottom of the mountain. You may recall that thus far he has identified the mob that followed them around as “Blessed,” and that he named them “Salt” and Light.” You may recall that he pushed them to exceeding righteousness, to expansive obedience to the commandments. And today he speaks of the inevitability of trouble for those who would follow him.

What sort of trouble?

Revenge. Retaliation. Persecution. Provocation.

And when that inevitable trouble came, they were to say, “Hit me again,” or “Take everything I have,” or “The more you hate me the more I love you.”

Hardly seems natural. Or helpful.

Sadly, these verses have been used to justify all manner of domestic violence and guilt-induced charity. They have been used to discourage legal redress for wrongs or to abuse the innocent. That was not Jesus’ intent.

Let’s step back. When the commandments Jesus references were first introduced to the People of Israel 14 centuries ago, they were regarded as wildly progressive.  Before “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” revenge was limitless. If you hurt my dog, I could burn down your house. If you stole my cow, I could wipe out your life’s savings. By limiting retaliation to proportionate punishment—only an eye for an eye, no more—a wrong could be righted only once and only in measure to the offense.

Before “love your neighbor” was introduced, compassion and concern extended only as far as one’s immediate family.  To love one’s neighbor opened that compassion and concern to whole tribes of people. You could still hate your enemies, but the circle of neighborly love was enormous.

But that once-progressive legal rendering was not enough for Jesus. He and his disciples would live differently, love differently. It was no longer “an eye for an eye” but “don’t strike back at all.” It was no longer “hate your enemies,” but love and pray for them.

Years ago, when we first had a family dog, I bemoaned the fact that no matter how well we trained her, a scampering squirrel turned her from mild-mannered house pet to snarling wolf. I was comforted to learn that dogs—and people—have something called a reptilian brain. That prehistoric knot of muscle memory deep in the brain that overrides all reason, untouched by evolution. A dog can’t help but chase a squirrel, or snap at a threatening stranger. Though we are a bit more advanced than dogs, we struggle with the same. No matter how hard we try, there are times when our dark nature snaps to life. In anger. In self-protection. In fear.

Trouble, danger, challenge comes to us all. Would that all our trouble looked like a squirrel.

Instead, Jesus trains his disciples to overcome those natural impulses, our Neanderthal natures, to meet hatred with love, to greet violence with peace, to turn angry words to hopeful prayer. Is that even possible?

Secular examples abound. Civil rights marchers in Selma were trained to be silent as they were beaten. Fire fighters are trained to resist the impulse to rush into a burning building until they know where the true threat lies. One of the members of our Thursday Bible study is a Vietnam veteran who described the difficulty of training young soldiers to neither run from nor grab an enemy grenade, but instead to cover it with their own bodies. None of those peaceful, thoughtful, generous reactions comes naturally. It has to be learned. And drilled. And practiced. And lived.

Though we are already imagining a million ways around this new interpretation of the law, Jesus allows no escape. Because he knew what he was talking about. By the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will have done all that he asked his disciples to do. He would allow soldiers to spit on him, crowds to mock him, burdens to be laid on him. From the cross he would pray for his enemies. And though none of us has the courage of Jesus, we have seen that such expansive, selfless love is possible. And that it changes the world.

My friend at the DMV leaned heavily on the counter, a small bead of sweat over his lip. He was exhausted. He could have been angry or depressed or anxious or afraid. And sometimes he probably is. But on that sunny winter day at the DMV, virtually ignored by a tired state employee who would ask the same questions a thousand times that day, he was kind.  He had opened his heart. She was oblivious. How did he respond to her? “Debit, ma’am. Thank you.”

I will never see that gaunt man again. I don’t know if he was Christian or Buddhist or None or Done. I don’t know what motivates him. Somewhere, in the midst of his personal suffering, he found a way to be kind.

The lives to which Jesus calls us are expansive. Forgiving. Selfless. Kind even in the face of hatred.  And that counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, wildly unnatural life cannot be manufactured on our own. It is motivated by the One who has already been that way with us. “Be perfect,” Jesus says, “as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”

We will try. But first we will gladly receive that forgiveness, that love, that second mile Jesus offers us all.

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (12 February 2017)

Matthew 5.21-37

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the disciples: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

 

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

My older daughter was—and is—a remarkably even-tempered person. Even as a child, she was cooperative and attentive, able to wait for things or to alter course if necessary. But not always. I remember one particular day when she was four, picking her up after a day at nursery school, and the minute the car door shut, she went nuts. Angry. Tearful. Accusatory. I was stunned.  Most days our car ride home was filled with stories about the day and singing along with Raffi on a cassette tape. But that day I didn’t even recognize her.

I made an appointment to see her Nursery School teacher the next day, worried that there was something wrong with my daughter or something horribly awry at school. Her teacher, Miss Helen, was a Southern grandma who had been dealing with anxious mothers for forty years. I told her about the melt down in the car the previous day, still a little tearful.

Miss Helen and I were seated in tiny little preschool chairs, our knees up to our chins. She reached across the small space between us and patted my hand. “Your daughter is fine. We love her and she loves it here. But no child can be good all the time. It’s tiring to behave.”

We now find the same thing happening with my elderly parents. They are mostly fine during the day. But as the day wears on and the sun begins to set, they change. Names elude them. They forget where they are. They tell the same story ten times. They grow irritable. In the elderly this phenomenon is called “Sundowning.” I think Miss Helen was on to something.

If you came to church needing to hear that Jesus loves you and that everything will be okay, you might leave disappointed. Of course, Jesus loves you and even if everything doesn’t turn out okay, we will forge ahead together. But today’s texts aren’t intended to comfort or soothe. Today’s texts speak a truth we all know—nobody can be good all the time; it’s tiring to behave.

It was as true for our forebearers in the faith as it is for us. Whether the congregation in question is gathered on the edge of the Promised Land, waiting to sprint across the finish line (Deuteronomy 30.15-20), or the congregation in Corinth, fighting like children who need a nap (1 Corinthians 3.1-9), or today’s installment of the Sermon on the Mount, the issues are the same. Those who claim to believe in God are called to a higher standard, a more rigorous code of conduct than anyone else.

You may remember that last week Jesus shook a finger at his fledgling disciples and said, “You must exceed the scribes and Pharisees in righteousness.” You may also remember that I wondered out loud how that was possible. No one was more obedient than the scribes and Pharisees.  Sort of.

The Ten Commandments, and their ancillary statutes, ordinances and laws were very clear. Still are. Today Jesus highlights three of the Ten Commandments. Don’t murder. Be faithful in marriage. Use God’s name with respect. Most people agree that these are all good ideas, and most days we are pretty good at obeying.

But Jesus wants more than mere obedience. Dogs are obedient. Prisoners are obedient. Disciples fall all over themselves to honor not only the letter but also the intent of the law.

It’s not enough to merely refrain from strangling your neighbor; we refrain from any word or action that causes another pain.

It’s not enough to remain sexually faithful to our partners; we keep our hearts and thoughts and our hands at home, too.

It’s not enough to avoid the wide variety of offensive uses of God’s name; we make sure our own names are synonymous with honesty and truth and reliability.

Jesus calls us to more than obedience. He calls us to decisive discipleship. And its tiring.

Perhaps I am the only person in the room whose mood and resolve disintegrate as the day goes on. I have no ready excuse, since I am neither 4 nor 84.

Driving to work in the morning I am calm and patient; by 5:30—not so much. I’m sorry if that was you to whom I made a questionable gesture Friday afternoon at Techny and Pfingsten.

I start off the day determined to eat well and simply, but by bedtime I’m not reaching for a crisp apple, but licking the salt out of the potato chip bag.

The morning’s to-do list gets crumpled into a ball and tossed by about 4 in the afternoon. Who thought I could get all that done in one day?

What happens to those good intentions, that calm resolve, that amiable demeanor? I recently discovered I do have an excuse. It’s called “decision fatigue.”

Here’s what it means: decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making.

Why do you think they put candy bars and trashy magazines at the checkout counter? After making a cart-full of decisions about prices and calorie counts and nutritional snacks, we are tired of making decisions and those Peanut M&M’s have your name all over them.

Same with afternoon irritability or financial misconduct or late night mischief. We’ve been making good decisions all day and just can’t make them anymore. Or, as Miss Helen would say, “It’s tiring to behave.”

The antidote to decision fatigue? Make those hard decisions early. And once.

Jesus might not have had a name for it, but he knew how hard it is for us to remain faithful, to keep our word, to treat one another well. That’s why, at the beginning of his relationship with his disciples, he taught them to make decisions that would be harder and harder as the day, as their following wore on. He didn’t wait until they were faced with an angry mob to teach them about emotional restraint. He didn’t wait until they’d been on the road for months to remind them of the gift of their marriage vows. He didn’t wait until they had hard choices to make to remind them of the value of personal integrity.

Before you yell, before you fail, before you swear, decide how you will decide. And then, when we are tired or afraid or alone, there is no decision to make.

Of course, it was not only the disciples who would be tempted by decision fatigue, whose resolve would waver.

Jesus himself, at the beginning of a journey that promised a bad end, had to decide, too. That’s why, early on, he decided to be faithful to his disciples even when they were unfaithful to him. That’s why, early on, he decided to forgive everyone who asked, heal any who were sick, feed any who were hungry.

He knew he would tire. He knew he would waver. He knew we would, too. But if we decide early to obey, to love, to forgive, when called upon to do so, there is no decision to make.

We all fail in faithfulness—to the commandments, to one another, to God. And though we might struggle to decide how to go on, Jesus has no such struggle. From the moment we were bathed in baptismal water, Jesus decided to love us. Without reserve. Without question. Without fail.

Jesus said to the disciples, “You have heard it said . . ., but I say to you . . .” We are called to a greater love, a deeper faithfulness, a kinder heart.

The decision has been made.

 

“Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” John Tierney, The New York Times, August 17, 2011

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

 

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (5 February 2017)

 

Matthew 5.13-20

 

JoAnn A. Post

 

Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

 

17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Growing up on the farm, we always had dogs. Not pets. Dogs. Each dog was valued for a particular skill. Rex was a guard dog. Shep was a birder. Lady kept the cattle in order. I remember there were other dogs, some of whom did not stick around long enough even to be named. If they didn’t do their work, they didn’t stay. It was heartbreaking for a child, but necessary for the work of a farm.

 

In my own home now, we don’t have dogs. We have pets. Each one valued not for what it does, but for who it is. As descendants of canis lupis, they have been uniformly useless. As pets they are dear to us as children. But my favorite of all the canine companions we have had was a Golden Retriever named Ginger. She didn’t do anything useful, though she could do a convincing impersonation of a rug. No, her value to me was not was she did, but who she was. And couldn’t help being. Gentle. Congenial. Happy. She is smiling in the first photograph we ever took of her, and even on the day she died, she weakly thumped her tail at us—always grateful, even in death.

 

There is a difference between what we do and who we are. It is true for dogs and for people, too. What we do can be changed; we can learn new skills; adopt new habits. But who we are? We who have been adopted by Jesus? It is hard wired in us. And we can’t help being who we are any more than a Golden Retriever can help being happy.

 

In last week’s Gospel, Jesus identified as “blessed” people who would gladly have been anything else. He pronounced blessing on the grieving, the meek, the peaceful, the poor. Apparently, they had no choice about who they were.

 

But after those odd blessings, Jesus turned to his disciples to bless them as well. For what would happen to them. For what they would do. When they took a hit for the helpless, when they defended the endangered, when they loved those whom Jesus loved, they would be persecuted. But “persecuted” was not who they were; it is simply what would happen to them.

 

No, disciples are more than what they do, more than what happens to them. Today, Jesus gives them, gives us, new names. And in so doing, he changes, not what we do, but who we are. Like naming dogs, Jesus named them in accord with their true natures. “You are Salt. You are Light.”

 

In antiquity, salt was a valuable commodity. The first roads were built to transport salt; the first taxes were levied on salt. Life is not possible without salt. And though it is variable in color, intensity, taste, and quality, Salt can be only one thing. Salt.

 

Same with light. A flame can burn dimly or erupt in a conflagration, but the result is always the same. The darkness cannot overcome it.

 

Of course, it’s not quite that easy for us. It’s not as though I could name a frothing junkyard dog “Fluffy” and instantly change its nature. But when Jesus names us, identifies us, it is because he both sees something in us and needs something from us. Those who would be Jesus’ disciples not only are things—Salt, Light—but we live that way, as well. Congruence between the fact of us and the face of us, that’s the disciple’s task.

 

A friend once warned me before meeting her Dad, that he could be difficult. She said, “But don’t worry. He’s just a marshmallow wrapped in barbed wire.” In other words, she wanted me to know that he was other than he did. At least to her. I trusted her judgment, but grieved for my friend who, since childhood, had had to constantly remind herself that the sharp-tongued, short-tempered man who was her father really did have her best interests at heart.

 

Fortunately, he had a daughter who loved him enough to explain him to the world. But we have no such luxury. We, who are Jesus’ disciples, have no advance team to explain that we really are Salt, we really are Light. So the world can be forgiven for misunderstanding us if our public face does not match the identity Jesus gives us. The world has to be forgiven if it instead names us Judgmental and Petty, Frightened and  Closed. Though Jesus might know who we truly are, the world sees only what we do. And often what we do does us no credit.

 

But there are some among us who are seamless in discipleship, whose actions completely coincide with who they are. This morning we welcome our sister Addison to the Lord’s Table. She is one such seamless disciple. There is no conceit in her, no wondering what she is really like. From her gleaming curls to her beautiful smile, she both is and does kind, she both is and does loving, she both is and does faithful. As we prepared for her first communion, we talked about what this meal means to her. After consulting with her brother and sister, who are also deeply good and kind people, she told me, “I think that all of God is in that little piece of bread.”

 

So, if who we are is revealed in what we do, Addison’s absolutely consistent discipleship teaches us something also about who God really is. God is Generous. God is Accessible. God is Here.

 

To both be and do—that is the life to which Jesus call us.

 

How do we know? Because he follows his brief comments about Salt and Light with what seems to be an about-face.

 

“So, Salt and Light,” he says, “The Law still stands.” All those commandments, statutes, laws and ordinances which had defined God’s people for centuries were not erased because of Jesus. If anything, they were intensified; the expectations placed on those who would be his disciples were multiplied.

 

Jesus’ disciples were to be more faithful than even the scribes and Pharisees, who were unassailable in their adherence to the law. From the washing of pots to the distribution of the tithe, they were without peer. So how could Jesus expect that his remarkably ordinary, still-smelling-of-fish followers could exceed the faithfulness of the scribes and the Pharisees?

 

By not only doing the right thing, but by being the right thing.

 

We can only “act” faithful for so long if our actions do not match our hearts.

 

We will not be let off Jesus’ hook any time soon. We are only 20 verses into the 109 verses of the Sermon on the Mount. What follows is even more rigorous than what we have already read.

 

But disciples do not fear or resent the law, we do not have to study up or put on a face. We are so essential for life, so brilliant to behold that we cannot help but live faithful lives. Like my dog Ginger whose faithfulness revealed her heart. Like our sister Addison whose joy radiates from deep within her.

 

We are Salt. We are Light. We are Called. And we live that way, too. 

 

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (29 January 2017)

Matthew 5.1-12

JoAnn A. Post

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Ask me to diagram an electrical circuit which includes a battery, a resistor and a light emitting diode, and I can do it. Ask me about the relative merits of dipole and directional antennae and I can tell you. But ask me today. Because all that valuable information is leaking out of my head faster than air out of a balloon.

More than a decade ago, on a dare, I studied for my entry-level ham radio license. I got it. Of course, one license wasn’t enough, so I went on to learn Morse Code and attained a second.  For years I played radio in a ham shack my husband built just for me. But then life got complicated and I ran out of time and lost interest and we moved. And, foolishly, I let my license lapse. All that work, all those hours of study and investment in equipment out the window.

But I’ve been reenergized. Next weekend one of our best friends is coming to help my husband build a new ham shack in our home here. But I can’t play radio if I don’t have a license, so under cover of darkness and without telling anyone, I’ve been studying. Studying what is essentially a foreign language to me.

My life will never depend on my ability to contact a satellite in low earth orbit, nor will I ever build an antenna. But I need to know these things in order to pass the test. So I’ve been learning in the worst possible way. Learning just enough to pass the test.

What does that mean? I’ve developed all kinds of clever games to help me remember things. Rhymes. Pictures. Word games. And sometimes I just have to memorize things, like the layers in the atmosphere and the frequency of various wavelengths. I’ve had to break an enormous amount of information down into manageable, memorable bits. Twitter Test Prep.

But we were communicating in short memorable bursts long before Jack Dorsey invented Twitter.  “Ask not what your country can do for you!” “To be or not to be.” “E = mc2”

Each of those sound bytes refers to something larger, something deeper, but we would not pursue that larger deeper meaning if we couldn’t remember the slogan in the first place.

At the risk of being a reductionist, the Beatitudes function in much the same way. Millions of pages have been written, analyzing the teachings of Jesus. Centuries of sermons have parsed his preaching. People of good faith disagree wildly about what Jesus’ life really reveals. But, except for those who delight in being difficult, there can be no debate about what Jesus meant on that mountain.

Blessings accrue to those whom the world despises. Blessings from whom? Blessings from God.

Blessings to the discouraged, the grieving, the meek, those who long for justice. Blessings for the kind, the true, the peaceful, the persecuted.

But notice that all those blessing accrue in the third person. Jesus was addressing his disciples, but speaking about others. Speaking about the numberless crowds of people who dogged him everywhere he went. The disciples probably regarded them as a distraction, a nuisance. For every person Jesus healed, ten more fell at his feet. For every person Jesus fed, thirty families begged for more. For every tear Jesus dried, oceans were filled with more.  There was no end to the need around them. It was exhausting. And probably irritating.

It is not until the final “blessing” that Jesus turned to his disciples.  “Blessed are you,” he said finally.  “Blessed are you when people hate you and mock you and lie about you because of me.”  It seems as unwelcome a blessing as those conferred on the mewling masses around them.

But why would they be persecuted and hated? Why would people lie about them? Because if they were to follow Jesus any further, they would begin to see the world as he did, love it as he did. They would be hated because they would come to see the outcast and the immigrant, the sinful and shamed as those most blessed, most deserving of God’s attention, most loved of all God’s people. They would see and live something the powerful would never see or acknowledge. The way we treat the least among us is the way we treat God.

So little has changed since that time. The sea of need and sorrow is deep. Some of it we know—the private grief, the secret sorrow, the unnamed fear in our own lives.  And some of it we learn second-hand, through witnesses to the disruption and disease, the terror and torment in every corner of the globe.

It seems so obvious to us that, as Jesus’ disciples, we cast our lot with those whom Jesus named as blessed, whom the world despises. But it is not obvious. Not to everyone.

When we moved into our Northbrook home two years ago, most of the moving crew spoke no English. I didn’t care. They worked incredibly hard and carefully, emptying a full moving truck of household goods into a three story home without a single scratch. At noon I went to Subway to get lunch for everyone, and as we ate I tried to engage the movers in conversation. In an attempt to be friendly, I asked the lead mover, “Where are you from?” His face froze and he turned away. My question frightened him.

43 million foreign-born people live in the United States; a quarter of them illegally. And they are, statistically speaking, more law-abiding then we who are American born.  (“Contrary to Trump’s Claims, Immigrants Are Less Likely to Commit Crimes,” The New York Times, January 26, 2017) But if we believed the popular rhetoric, you would think that all those non-citizens—the business owners and truck drivers, the parents and nurses—were stalking our streets at night, just waiting to murder us in our sleep. It is simply not so. But to speak for the immigrant, the undocumented person is tantamount to treason in some corners. Except that Jesus names them “blessed.”

I stood in line at the pharmacy on Wednesday, on Day 8 of whatever contagion I suffered. How blessed I am. I saw my doctor the same day I called; my prescriptions cost hardly anything because of my insurance; I can take whatever time off from work that I need to recover. It is not true for everyone.  And yet there are those who would take the most basic benefits away from the most vulnerable, leaving millions of people—many of them young, underemployed or ill—defenseless against disease and disability. (“Fact check: Trump on the ACA and the uninsured,” USA Today, January 27, 2017)  The voices of those who urge caution in making changes, who speak for the potentially uninsured and uninsurable are barely heard. Except that Jesus names them “blessed.”

At every turn, from every corner, the ones whom Jesus loves best are threatened by people like us, who know every blessing the world has to offer. When we are hungry, we are fed. When we are tired, we have a safe place to sleep. When we are ill, someone cares for us. When we are old, we can retire. And when we die, someone holds our hand.

Jesus’ tweets remind us that we who are so obviously blessed are obligated to advocate for those whose blessings are more subtle. Even to them.

So, you ask, what about the Twitter Test Prep I was doing? I took the test yesterday, and passed without breaking a sweat.

And if by this time next week I’ve forgotten that resistance equals voltage divided by current, no one will suffer, little will be lost. But if we forget Jesus’ simple assertion of blessings for the least, some will suffer. Families will be separated. Children will lack education. Refugees will remain homeless. The sick will grow sicker. And our many blessings will burn a hole in our hearts for all the strangely-blessed, deeply loved children of God we denied.

Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the peacemakers. And if, in speaking of them, for them, to them, we are persecuted, then blessed are we, too.

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany (22 January 2017)

Matthew 4.12-22

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.

I’ve missed out on a lot these last couple of days. I was felled by the cough and cold that have stalked so many of you. And though it seems the worst of the plague might be over and I am no longer closely related to Typhoid Mary, I feel as though I fell asleep in Kansas and woke in the Land of Oz. When I fell into bed days ago, it was January; when I woke yesterday my neighbor was washing his convertible. I also woke to the always-remarkable of transition of power from one president and administration to another.

I couldn’t concentrate enough Friday to listen to any news about anything, so I have had to rely on others to tell me what happened, how the transition of power went. Scattered among reports about the new First Lady’s stunning inaugural ensemble and wide-spread protests around the capital city, The Chicago Tribune yesterday morning used words like “bleak” and “polarizing” and “combative.”

Many are hopeful about the direction our country will now head; many others are frightened. But, as I emerged from my sick slumber I also read an article in “The Christian Century” which quotes the 18th century writer Samuel Johnson, “How small, of all that human hearts endure, that part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” (“A Conversation with David Brooks about Sin and Beauty,” The Christian Century, January 17, 2017)

Yes, the people who lead our nation, our state and our city have enormous influence over the future, but they can neither heal nor harm the human heart. Their power—whether used for good or ill—is limited. And we gather today because we believe in a power greater than political party, a passion deeper than patriotism, a timeline that far exceeds the next election cycle.

Ten centuries ago a prophet named Isaiah wrote to a nation of immigrants, the people of Israel in exile, acknowledging their bleak situation. He described them as “the people who sit in darkness, in the region and shadow of death.”  We catch a glimpse of their dire situation among the refugees fleeing tyranny in our time, the boats that wash ashore bearing as many dead as alive, the tent cities in which some displaced persons have lived for a generation. Isaiah’s voice was not harsh or judgmental. It was gentle and calm. And, oddly enough, hopeful.

In Isaiah’s time, the light for which they longed was not a shift in the political climate, but a literal act of God that would re-open the borders of their homeland. Rulers had come and gone. The economy had swelled and subsided. Promises had been made and broken. Their only hope was in God.

They did go home. Eventually. They left the darkness of exile behind and walked into the light which only God can shine. But it was hard. And slow. And the fear of darkness never really left them.

Fast forward 800 years to the time of Jesus. The gospel writer Matthew quotes Isaiah’s words, still relevant though much had changed. And while Matthew’s readers weren’t immigrants, exiles or foreigners, they knew the sorrow and fear that we all do. Because whether the tyranny under which we live is political, as in Isaiah’s day, or personal—the burdens and fears of our hearts—it is a darkness, a shadow, a valley in which no light shines.

Jesus stepped into that darkness, fresh from baptism and a rumble with Satan in the wilderness, with two simple words.

The first?  “Repent.”

Repent? Repent from what?  What did we do? What was he accusing us of?

Ah, but the command to “repent” isn’t a judgment; it’s an invitation.

To repent means to turn. To make a 180-degree course correction. To turn not only away from something, but toward something else. To repent is to set a new direction, stepping out of the land of deep darkness into the light that dawns.

And when we do, when we swallow hard, turn our feet and leave behind the familiar darkness, what will we find? What will we do? We listen for Jesus’ next word.

And that word is “follow.”

We can’t know how many heard that invitation before Jesus got any takers. Not many of us are willing to accept either invitation, to repent or to follow. But we do know that Simon and Andrew, James and John found Jesus’ call irresistible. Without so much as a question to Jesus or a farewell to their parents, they dropped their fish and their nets, and followed Jesus away from their familiar lives to something entirely new.

Was their old life so hard, so dark? All we know is that what Jesus offered seemed better than what they knew. So they repented. They turned away. They turned toward.  And in turning, they also accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow.

But where?

Christians have always had a complicated relationship with secular authority. It was born a rebel movement in a land occupied by Roman soldiers. What was the allegiance of the first Christians to those who ruled them, often cruelly? It is a long conversation, but scripture is clear about one aspect of civil obedience. In Romans 13 we are told to “respect the governing authorities.” In 1 Peter 2 we are instructed, “For the Lord’s sake, accept the authority of every human institution.”

In other words, obey everyone in authority over you. Really? Everyone?

But those words do not stand in isolation from other teachings about authority. In fact, our governing body, the ELCA reflects on the relationship between faith and human authority in this way:

This church respects the God-given integrity and tasks of governing authorities and other worldly structures, while holding them accountable to God. This church must participate in social structures critically, for sin also is at work in the world. (“The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” 1991, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

We obey those elected to power over us, whether we agree with them or not. And, at the same time, we regard them with a critical eye. A gospel eye. In other words, we follow in a particular way. Always holding those in power to account for their treatment of those who have none.

Back to Simon and Andrew, James and John. When they repented—turning away from their own lives—and followed, where did Jesus lead them?

When you get home today, read the verses that follow today’s Gospel reading. (Matthew 4.23ff) Jesus led his recently-repented disciples right back into the darkness from which they had emerged—other peoples’ darkness.

Matthew writes that Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching, proclaiming, and curing. He immersed himself in a sea of illness and despair and fear—the list includes “various pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics.” Wherever there was need, Jesus was there, too. Wherever there was darkness, Jesus shone. And his disciples followed him wherever he went.

In this new season in our nation’s history, we respect and pray for those who govern over us. We obey them. We respect them. We pray for them. But we follow Jesus.

We follow Jesus into the land of deep darkness, into the region and shadow of death. Whether that darkness is as massive as a global refugee crisis, or as local as fears of our own futures, Jesus leads us into those places.

We may have little to offer in the way of power or influence in the world. But we refuse to either deny or fear the darkness. We willingly turn from our old divisive ways. We follow where Jesus leads, fishing always for hope.

Second Sunday after Epiphany

Second Sunday after Epiphany (15 January 2017)

John 1.29-42

JoAnn A. Post

The next day John the Baptizer 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!”

John’s 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).

A long-time, long-married friend has recently found herself to be no longer married. It may seem an odd way to speak of divorce, but in my friend’s case the termination of a multi-decade marriage came as an enormous surprise. One day they were happily married; the next they were standing in front of a judge.

After a long period of depression and isolation, she has decided to re-enter the world as a single person, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto. In other words, she has decided to start dating.

If you’ve ever dipped a toe in the world of on-line relationships (I have not), you know it is fraught with peril. When you meet someone on-line, you know only what your cyber-friend wants you to know, see only what your cyber-friend willingly reveals. Does the photo on the website match the reality? Is your newfound friend’s marital status truly as portrayed?  Less is known than unknown.

After numerous disastrous dates with handsome men who weren’t, single men who weren’t, fun-loving men who weren’t, and soulmates who turned out to be soul crushers, my friend is about ready to give up. “I just want to meet someone who will stay; I want to be in a relationship that will last.”

In the gospel of John, the details of Jesus’ baptism don’t match what we’ve heard from others. Here we get no report of John the Baptizer’s wild clothes (camel’s hair) or unusual diet (locusts and wild honey). He is not the wild-eyed, sharp-tongued preacher of whom others have spoken. Here John the Baptizer claims not to know Jesus’ true identity. And according to this gospel, John the Baptizer’s sole reason for being was to meet Jesus at the Jordan and baptize him: “I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed.”

If you met John the Baptizer through his profile on match.com, you’d be mightily disappointed. And confused.

Because John is not the one you’ve been looking for. He’s not Mr. Right, or even Mr. Right Now. Though the first three gospels offer a John the Baptist who is larger than life and a force to be reckoned with, in John’s Gospel he is a long-boned finger pointing away from himself toward Jesus, the Lamb of God, the one who bears the sins of the world.

As evidence of the power of John’s testimony, two of John’s own disciples jump ship to follow Jesus. Fickle followers. And as Jesus senses them tiptoeing behind him, he turns to ask, “What are you looking for?” They answer with a question of their own: “Where are you staying?”

It seems an odd overture. Were they wanting to camp in the lobby of his hotel, like paparazzi? Were they looking for a new place to sleep since they could no longer bunk with John the Baptizer’s other disciples?

No, their question was more subtle than that. It echoes the question asked by my newly-single friend. Jesus’ new disciples want to know if he is a safe place, a secure shelter, a destination rather than just one more bad date. Where are you staying?  The Greek word for “staying” is meno: to abide, remain, endure, continue, dwell, in the sense of permanence or stability.*

These would-be disciples were tired of wandering around, sleeping wherever they could, daily wondering if the one to whom they had hitched their wagon was leading them well. “Where are you staying?” In other words, in Greek words, “If we follow you, will you lead us to safety?”

On the rare evening when my husband and I are home together with nothing pressing to do, we sometimes binge watch NetFlix.  We have watched all of “Breaking Bad” and “Doc Martin.”  The violence of both “Game of Thrones” and “West World” was troubling. “Mad Men” didn’t hold my interest. Our current craze? “House of Cards.” It’s a riveting story, but not a good bedtime story.

After watching Kevin Spacey betray everyone from his wife to his president, and once you realize that everyone is a double agent with nefarious intent, you start to think the whole world works that way. I had troubled church dreams one night this week, in which members of our congregation council and staff were plotting to overthrow me for a hip, young pastor with fewer opinions and softer edges. (I watched them closely the rest of the week.)

How quickly fears of impermanence, of betrayal, of instability form in our minds and hearts.  We know that faithful marriages can fail, and friends deceive. We know that reliable jobs can end, and death come suddenly. We know, in this week of both a national transition of power and a federal investigation into Chicago’s policing, that elected leaders often serve their own interests rather than ours, and that those tasked with protecting us can injure instead. We come to fear that nothing is permanent, nothing is safe, nothing is sure.

Where are you staying, Jesus?

In other words, “Are you steady?” “Are you reliable? Are you safe?” Or to quote the great 20th century theologian Carole King, “Will you still love me tomorrow?”

The season of Epiphany is a season in which Jesus is revealed, in which he is known, in which his true identity is shown.  What do we learn of him today? Today we discover Jesus to be not only the Lamb of God, willing to die for our sake, but also a safe place, a sheltered harbor, a steady hand.

But much is yet unknown. Not because Jesus is a shady on-line dating troll, but because we can know him fully only when we follow him fully. Until, like the first disciples, we remain with him. Trusting beyond knowing that he is our home.

*Audrey West, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008.