Baptism of Our Lord

Baptism of Our Lord (13 January 2019)

Luke 3.15-22

JoAnn A. Post

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

She shouted the Bible study—each word articulated slowly and clearly because otherwise her nursing home audience couldn’t hear her. As her students enjoyed various states of slumber, she soldiered on—reading scripture, asking questions, telling stories. I admired her persistence.

At one point she asked in a loud voice, “From whom do we learn most? People who are like us, or people who are different from us?” What an excellent question. I almost answered, but one of the residents, rightly, beat me to it.

He roused and in a gravelly voice pronounced, “We learn most from people who are like us.” And promptly fell asleep again. Though I disagree with him (as did the Bible study leader), I understand his perspective.

The nursing home in question is in my home town, a village made up of about three or four large extended families, all of whom emigrated from the same part of Germany at about the same time, and who have known one another for at least four generations. I sometimes tease that I had either dated or was related to everyone in my high school class. Of course, this man assumed you learn most from those who are like us. Who else is there?

But, I think we learn most about ourselves from those who are wildly different. John the Baptizer agrees with me on this one.

John’s congregation at the river was much like my hometown—observant Jews from the northern part of the Galilee, married to one another’s cousins, criticizing the same rabbi, shopping at the same kosher market.  And sharing a common vision, a common dream of deliverance. Together they had dreamed of the day when the Messiah would appear—the one anointed by God to restore peace and prosperity and hope.

One of the reasons John the Baptizer was such a draw is that he bore a modest resemblance to the Messiah they had been taught to expect. If you squinted just the right way you could almost see it. John was strong. Passionate. Articulate. Unafraid. Rumor had it that he might be Him.

Another preacher would have entertained their adulation for a little while. It’s not every day people confuse you with God. But John wanted none of it. Though the dream of the Messiah was as familiar to them as their faces were to each other, familiarity was not the promise.

Here’s the interesting thing. It is not clear from the text that John the Baptizer knew Jesus was the One they had been waiting for. We don’t even know if John knew Jesus was in the crowd. When John raises the specter of the Expected One—powerful beyond measure, breathing Spirit and Fire, armed with a pitchfork, ready to burn the place to the ground—he wasn’t speaking with personal knowledge of the Messiah or winking Jesus’ direction. Nor was he parroting their pet images.

What good would it be if the Messiah arrived, looking like the picture in the children’s book and nodding benignly—Glinda the Good Witch blessing the adoring Munchkins. The Messiah they imagined would be their friend and protector. John quickly disabused them of that fantasy.

John knew that the one God would send would be wildly different from their expectations and wildly different from them. That the world the Messiah would create would be so different from this one that we wouldn’t even recognize it. Or miss this one.

The Messiah about whom John shouted would be utterly different. Completely other. Totally terrifying. Do you suppose, after John the Baptizer described the One Who Is to Come they still wanted to meet him?

From whom do we learn most? People who are like us, or people who are different from us?

My sisters and I love to talk politics. We are incredibly smart and insightful and open-minded. We agree with each other about almost everything. You’ve not such self-righteous ranting anywhere. I hadn’t even noticed how mirror-like we are, affirming one another’s opinions, multiplying each other’s anger, laughing at each other’s clever quips until, just this week, I started to share my clever political insights with someone not my sister.

As I spouted my sparkling solution to the budget impasse, shared my keen insights about the wisdom of walls, my conversation partner grew more and more silent. I sensed a slight tightening of the jaw. And then I realized that I am so used to talking to people just like me, that it hadn’t dawned on me there might be other, equally insightful, equally faithful, equally reasoned opinions wildly different from mine.

I finally had the sense to apologize. And to shut up. I have been thinking about that conversation ever since. What a gift to engage someone not like me.

John the Baptizer didn’t stand at the river saying to sinners, “You’re right. Everything will be fine. I agree with you completely. Maybe the Messiah will bring you a pony.”

No, he shouted at them, challenged their lives and their dreams. And they loved him for it, for freeing them from their suffocating sameness, their couch-like comfort.

Jesus didn’t come to be our girlfriend, our sounding board, our wall against the world. He came to be different. To make us different.

Jesus demands that the strong surrender to the weak.

Jesus demands that the powerful kneel before the meek.

Jesus demands that the first become last, the rich become poor, that the found seek the lost.

After all, what sort of dream is that—that the One for whom we have waited will just scooch on to the couch beside us and ask for the remote.

Isaiah promised raging rivers and scorching flame.

John the Baptizer promised power beyond imagining.

And Jesus? He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will separate the wheat from the chaff, the faithful from the faithless, the relaxed from their recliners. Jesus will make us different.

In a moment, we will sing a hymn drawn directly from Isaiah’s promise. “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” (ELW 581) It sounds like comfort, and it is. Sort of. But it also bears a painful truth. There will be fire. There will be flood. There will be hardship and loneliness and fear. And the One who is to come, the One whom John described won’t prevent the trouble, but will be in the trouble with us. Carrying, pushing, prodding. Is that what we had imagined?

From whom do we learn most? People who like and are like us, or people who challenge us? When do we grow the most, when life is simple or when it is hard? If we follow Jesus, we don’t have a choice.

 

 

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Festival of the Epiphany

Festival of the Epiphany (6 January 2019)

MT 2.1-12

JoAnn A. Post

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

All the landmarks are gone. The Schmidt’s round barn? Hauled off to a barn museum. The neighbor’s three-story farm house? Replaced by a sleek gray ranch. The corn crib at the corner? Bulldozed under newly-tilled crop land.

All the landmarks are gone.

But still, every time I turn north on County Road R14 toward Titonka, I know the way. How is that possible?

It happened again this week. I’ve been missing my Mom, so decided to start the new year with the seven-hour drive to see her. I use Google maps to guide the way, but there really isn’t any reason. Accompanied by audio books and fueled by diet coke, the seven hours fly by.

The closer I get, the less I pay attention to the road. I suppose its muscle memory that knows to turn west at Waverly, and north again at Wesley.

But what about those missing landmarks? The red barns and corn-filled storage bins, the only brick house in our township and the rickety one-lane bridge? I’ve so committed them to memory that they still guide me home. Even though only my heart can see them.

The travelers of whom we read today had no such luxuries. No landmarks. No diet soda. No NPR stations automatically programmed on the radio.

They traveled foreign roads with no GPS, ate odd (to them) local cuisine, listened only to the belching of camels and the sigh of the wind.  The only thing that guided them was curiosity about an unusual star. These travelers were professors, academics from someplace east of Israel. Plodding across deserts and fording rocky streams, they followed the star wherever it went. Because they knew, experienced astrologers that they were, that the star would lead them to treasure. Not a pot of gold, but the throne of a king.

We have so fictionalized these characters that they bear no relation to the real story. Were they kings? No. Were there three of them as the song suggests? (“We three kings of orient are . . .”) Did they arrive on Jesus’ doorstep as promptly as did the shepherds whom the gospel writer Luke sends? Did they offer anything useful—diapers and binkeys—or just symbolic gifts—perfume and incense and nuggets of gold?

In fact, most of the details are unknown. That there were three of them is the stuff of legend. The timing of their visit is subject to debate—while it would have taken an enormous amount of time to travel from Persia to Bethlehem by starlight,  Jesus and his mother were still in Bethlehem when the professors arrived. Was Mary pleased to see them or did she text Joseph “HELP!” when they parked their camels in her driveway?

This is not a nice children’s story, or just a loping Christmas lyric, but a tense narrative filled with offense and intrigue. These darker-skinned foreigners who didn’t speak the language or worship Israel’s God crossed the border unannounced, carrying sensitive information about a rival king. Matthew tells us that Herod and all of Jerusalem were frightened when these Wiseguys plodded into town.

Sadly, the outline of this story could be told at any time in human history. We have always both used and feared the unfamiliar Other. But these particular undocumented strangers were like the Christmas angels, they carried good news of great joy to all the people. What if Herod had turned them away?

O, star of wonder, star of night. The professors traveled on with Herod’s blessing—they sought a king; Herod sought that tiny king’s life.

The intent of Matthew’s narrative is to challenge our comfy notion that Jesus was sent to earth to save only those who were like himself—Jewish boys born to Jewish mothers who worshipped the one true God of Abraham and Moses—and later people like us who claim that same heritage. Matthew blows the quaint Christmas narrative all to pieces. Jesus is Lord not only of his own people in the little town of Bethlehem, but of the whole world and all its people. And all are welcome to worship him.  Even, maybe especially those against whom we would slam the door.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. The visitors from the east were warned in a dream that Herod was not to be trusted. So, after kneeling before a diapered king, they saddled their camels and went home by another road. A road both literal and spiritual.

The literal road? Imagine how much more difficult the trip home would have been. Which roads were safe and which were populated by bandits? They could not have traveled unnoticed—their dark skin and royal robes prevented that.  Who among their fellow travelers were kind strangers and which ones were Herod’s spies?  How would they know which way to go? The star had dissipated long ago and they had no map to guide them. Landmarks eluded them.

And the spiritual road? They had come to Bethlehem as curious constellation-chasers. They left Bethlehem having seen not just a cute baby, but the face of God.  Before Bethlehem, they had been students of the stars and teachers of the cosmos. But now those familiar landmarks elude them. And they—these dangerous strangers whom Jesus welcomed—would never be the same. Traveling home by a brand-new road.

A friend of ours was widowed yesterday.  The diagnosis of a brutal cancer came just two months ago; yesterday she held her husband’s hands as he breathed his last. Her loss is without measure. He was my age. He was much loved. His future was rich with possibility. And not a centimeter of the road they traveled in the last two months was on anybody’s map.  There were no landmarks, and certainly no rest stops.

And now she goes on without him, forced to travel back to her own country by another road. An unfamiliar road. An unwelcome road. A road potholed with grief and anger. A road wet with tears and rutted with regret.  A road populated by well-meaning strangers and distraught friends. Who can she trust? Who will guide her? Will there be any landmarks on this dark stretch of the highway?

Yes. Because others have traveled this road before. Wise ones have traveled this road before.

Since Christmas, we have all been on the road. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel by the greedy machinations of an intemperate king. Angels swooped from heaven. Shepherds ran into town. Last Sunday Jesus and his family traveled to Jerusalem, where he lingered a little too long. And today we share the journey with Wise Ones from a distant land—different only in their country of origin and the words they use for praise, but seeking and hopeful just as we are.

None of us can return by the same road once we have encountered God. Whether stunned by grief or overwhelmed by joy or searching for a truth that has so far eluded us, once we have seen the face of God, worshipped Christ the King, we travel back to our own countries by another road.

There will be no red barns or corn-filled storage bins. No familiar bridges or well-marked intersections. All the land marks are gone. But these: companions when we stumble, sustenance when we grow hungry, welcome when we stop to rest.

First Sunday of Christmas

First Sunday of Christmas (30 December 2018)

Community Worship with Northfield Community Church and St. James the Less Episcopal Church

Luke 2.41-52

JoAnn A. Post

Now every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 

After three days, they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

I am one of eight Iowa farm children, each of us taller and more opinionated than the one before. We are a highly verbal family, nothing goes without saying—even things that probably should have been left alone. Unlike Mary, Mother of Our Lord who is a “ponderer,” we are “blurters” who mostly speak before we think.

Imagine being born into that noisy household. Imagine how little anyone cared what you had to say, even if there was an opening to say it or anyone remembered your name. The family lore is that one of my younger brothers—hard to keep track of which one in the scrum around our kitchen table—didn’t speak a word until he was four. Had this happened these days, my parents would have rushed such a child to every specialist in the county, testing him for rare disorders or cognitive disabilities. Instead, our country doctor, who knew our family well because he had delivered most of us, was unflustered. “He’ll talk when he has something to say.” And he was right.

One day out in the dairy barn, my four-year-old brother looked up at Dad and said, “I think the cat wants some milk.” He had waited four years to say that?

If the gospel writer Luke is to be believed, Jesus didn’t speak for a dozen years. In fact, Jesus probably spoke plenty but nothing worth reporting—not even the words he exchanged with the elders in the temple, asking and answering scripture questions. I suppose Luke, a country physician himself, figured he’d let us know when Jesus had something important to say.

Today is that day. Luke reports Jesus’ first words today. And all of us lean in to hear. What will Jesus say, this child of unusual birth and prophetic promise? Prepare to be disappointed. Jesus’ first recorded words? Sass: “Where did you think I was?” Disrespect: “I was in the house of my real father.”

He waited 12 years to say that?

Scripture nerds find this text fascinating. There are a hundred ways into its maze-like construction. Why the 12-year silence about Jesus’ life? We could study the literary technique (the foreshadowing of his three-day absence, for example), or the family dynamics (if I had talked to my parents with that attitude, it would not have gone so well). Luke gives us insights into Jewish custom (the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem, for example), and social customs (would your parents have trusted you were in good company if you went missing for a day?)

It is also filled with oddities:

  • Jesus was 12 in this story—a full year before he would return for his bar mitzvah and his formal questioning; couldn’t he have waited a year to show off his skill with a yod and a torah?
  • Jesus didn’t have a clue why his parents were so upset? Really?
  • On the night of Jesus’ birth, Mary “pondered all these things in her heart.” Later, at his circumcision, Simeon warned Mary that a “sword shall pierce your heart” because of this child (Luke 2.35). Now, Mary “treasures all these things in her heart.” How can a single heart survive such pondering and treasuring and piercing?

The lectionary cycle can be wildly confusing. Just five days ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus. Today he is 12 years old, and in four months he will be an adult being tried for blasphemy in a kangaroo court. The lapses in the story make it sometimes difficult to follow. But the gospel writer was not producing a court transcript, taking down every word, every sigh, every eye roll. Instead, Luke is hastily setting the table for the feast of Jesus’ ministry to follow. In this handful of verses about pre-pubescent Jesus, Luke tells us everything we need to know—his past, his present, his future.

Luke closes this breathless synopsis with a simple sentence: “Jesus returned with them to Nazareth and was obedient to his parents.” Good plan, Jesus, since questioning your paternity in front of the neighbors may not have been the wisest move.

But at the center of the intrigue about this text are those first words: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

If we are honest, most of us are more comfortable with the Baby Jesus—infant holy infant lowly lying in a cattle stall—than we will be with the Adult Jesus.  The Jesus who makes pronouncements as startling as these every day of his (recorded) ministry.

Jesus will name demons by name; he will challenge death; he will teach the teachers of Israel. Jesus will forgive the sins of unforgiveable sinners and name as “sin” the behavior of the temple leaders—those who strut in long robes and pray long prayers and write checks with long zeros at the end. Jesus will defy the laws of physics (remember walking on water?) and defend his disciples from those who choose to misunderstand.

From his first words to his last, Jesus always speaks the truth.  Always. And that truth-telling will ultimately earn him a cross.  Where Mary, whose heart is already bursting, will watch him hang like a criminal.

In two days, we begin a new year. A fresh calendar page. A laundry list of “this year I’m gon’na . . .” A chance to try something new. What will our first words in the new year be? Our last?  It is worth pondering. Because our words matter.

The coming year may bring enormous upheaval in governments at every level, on every continent. Though the temptation will be to imagine enemies, to delight in downfall, to offer opinion unblemished by fact, we who follow Jesus know that words matter. Will we pray for our leaders and those in authority over us? Will we welcome those whose ideas differ from ours or shun them? How will we use our words?

Our congregation, like yours, I imagine, has seen a heartbreaking number of sorrows in recent weeks. And some of us anticipate more sorrow in the year to come. My own mother is old, winding down like a clock. There are seven hours between us, so with very visit I wonder if it will be my last. What will I say to her when I see her next? What will she say to me? I don’t recall her first words to me. I wonder what her last will be?

In every aspect of our lives, words matter. And those of us who love and follow Jesus must choose our words carefully.  In the public square, on social media, in our congregations, in the privacy of our homes.

Jesus’ first words stung. He was mystified at his parents’ fear. He clarified the angels’ words about his paternity. But we know he didn’t intend to hurt. He was speaking truth—a truth Mary and Joseph had probably been waiting for. And after his first momentous words, his parents gathered him in their arms, set their eyes toward home, and treasured all that he had said to them.

Jesus was a good son to Joseph and Mary, and to God: “growing in wisdom, years and favor.”

Today Jesus’ words are spoken directly to us. Words of forgiveness. Words of welcome. Words of love. Every word matters. Every word is true.

 

 

 

 

 

The Nativity of Our Lord

The Nativity of Our Lord (24 December 2018)

Luke 2.1-20

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

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

To whom does this baby belong?

From the first queasy evidence of Mary’s pregnancy, this question was on everyone’s mind, if not on their tongues: “To whom does this baby belong?”

Mary was young, engaged to be married, but not yet living with Joseph. The sketchy story that she had been visited by an angel (with no corroborating witnesses), that the baby she carried was “Son of the Most High” (LK 1.32) raised more than one eyebrow in her small town. And though we—because we believe Mary’s story—thought nothing of her three month visit with her old cousin Elizabeth, I wonder now if there was more to it than just a social call.

The village in which Elizabeth lived is unnamed in the biblical record. The sudden travel of a young expectant girl sounds shockingly like stories my mother tells about her young adult years, when local girls suddenly went on an extended visit to an Aunt no one had ever heard of before.

Was it like that? Were Mary’s parents ashamed? Was Mary sent to Elizabeth to protect her from the gossip, to hide her pregnancy?  Because more than the fact of an unexpected pregnancy was the lingering question, “To whom does this baby belong?”

Tonight’s telling of Jesus’ birth sheds unexpected and troubling light on this question. Traveling on the whims of an egotistical king, forced to give birth in a barn with neither mother nor midwife to assist, Jesus’ birth gets scant attention in the narrative. One sentence announces the arrival of “the Son of the Most High.”  Luke writes, “She gave birth to her firstborn son and laid him in a manger.” That’s it.

Jesus’ actual birth is apparently inconsequential to the larger story, because we still don’t know the answer to that question: “To whom does this baby belong?” There isn’t time to answer it.

Because as quickly as we learn of Jesus’ birth, we are whisked out of the barn; pulled through an interstellar wormhole from Bethlehem to a cold hillside outside the city.  Unannounced and breathless, angels swoop down on unsuspecting shepherds with a song, an announcement, and an answer to a question we have been pondering, but which the shepherds had not asked. “A baby was born in Bethlehem tonight,” the angels sing. “A baby was born TO YOU.”

What? How did the shepherds get mixed up in this narrative? No one had suspected the shepherds. They were nowhere near Nazareth when Mary was visited by an angel. The shepherds were as related to Joseph and Mary as I am to Pope Francis. The only “little ones” they tended were lambs separated from their mothers in the cold and dark. How could the baby be born to them? Did that mean this baby belongs to them?

Mary endured months of shame, Joseph lay sleepless night after night, for this? After all that sorrow and confusion and whispered accusations, we learn that the baby Jesus doesn’t belong to Mary or Joseph at all, but to the shepherds. How can this be?

“To whom does this baby belong?”

How privileged we are to welcome another baby into our midst tonight. Much-loved Caroline flew all the way from Rochester NY to be with us tonight—to the barn-like structure in which her mother was raised in the faith, in which her parents were married. And now she is here with us—a gift from God from before she was born.

There is no question that she is Aaron and Catherine’s daughter, that she was born into families that love and cherish her. But tonight, in her baptism, a familiar question and its faith-filled answer hover in the air like angels.

Because as much as Caroline and all our children are loved, they do not belong to us. Children are a gift, to be sure, but a gift we cannot hold or control or tuck away to admire for another day.  And in her baptism, Catherine and Aaron admit that. To us and to her and to themselves. Caroline is a gift—a child who will grow to be strong and kind and honest and faithful. But to whom does this baby belong? She belongs to us—we who long for a light in our darkness. And she belongs to God.

Sadly, only two days ago, Caroline and her family were at a funeral—the funeral of her great-grandfather Arthur. His death in this holy time echoes the angels’ announcement to the shepherds. To whom did he belong? In our living and in our dying, every baby, every child, every old man belongs to God. A gift to us to hold only for a time.

Jesus was born in a barn to parents who loved him. Jesus was also born to us.  Jesus is the love of God in human form, wearing human flesh, given to us in a manner we could understand.

And on the night of his birth, angels sang that Jesus belongs to all of us—smelly shepherds, young parents, grieving families, ordinary sinners like you and me.

And, we who receive him are his brothers and sisters, children of the same God who sent him to us, the God who receives us when this life is done.

To whom do we belong? In our living and in our dying, we belong to God.

To whom does this baby belong? The angels answered that question centuries ago.

This baby, this Christ Child, this God-With-Us belongs to us. O, come, let us adore him.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent (23 December 2018)

Advent Lessons and Carols

JoAnn A. Post

For 150 years, the church in the West has been celebrating a simple liturgy called “Lessons and Carols.” First heard in 1880 in Truro, England, the pattern has expanded across the globe, in every language, every denomination, in times of both war and peace.

The most famous of this genre is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols sung at King’s College on Christmas Eve. For as long as I can remember, my little family has calculated the airing time of their BBC broadcast in whatever time zone we found ourselves, pausing our Christmas preparation to hear, again, the story of salvation in scripture and song.

In a culture addicted to innovation and numbed by novelty, this humble pattern speaks to us at a slower pace, in a gentler voice. We listen and we sing. We listen and we sing. Who would have imagined such a simple act would be so difficult, and so refreshing.

Our Advent Lessons and Carols digs even deeper into our church’s past than the 19th century. As long ago as the 8th century, a series of “O Antiphons” was in use at this time of year. “O” refers to the beginning word of each “antiphon”—a fancy church word for a sung sentence. This morning we sing five of the seven “O Antiphons,” each one naming a different attribute of God.  Wisdom. Root of Jesse. Dayspring. King of the Nations. Emmanuel.  (Perhaps you had never noticed that the familiar carol, O Come, O Come Emmanuel,  is based on this set of antiphons.)

In a country that is daily rocked by news more troubling than the day before, at a time when opinion masquerades as fact, and humility is a dirty word, we return to an ancient form of worship, a sparse word of praise, a simple trust in God whose power puts to shame all earthly power, and exceeds our vocabulary to describe it.

This morning we trace the universal longing for salvation, beginning with the prophet Isaiah, concluding with the twinned voices of Mary and Elizabeth—beneficiaries of God’s grace in unexpected ways.

Sometimes we run out of words. To name our pain. To voice our joy. To shape our questions. So this morning we resort to a single word, a word that both begs and exalts at the same time. “O.” Humbly inviting God into our worship space, into our lives, into our world.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel” and teach us, again, that God is with us.

Antiphon 1: O Wisdom

Isaiah 40.1-5  Comfort, O comfort my people

Comfort, Comfort Now My People (ELW 256)

 

Antiphon 2: O Root of Jesse

Isaiah 11.1-10 The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him

Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming (ELW 272)

 

Antiphon 3: O Dayspring

Micah 5.2-5a He shall stand and feed his flock

As the Dark Awaits the Dawn (ELW 261)

 

Antiphon 4: O King of the Nations

Luke 1.8-17    Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace

Now, Lord, You Let your Servant Go in Peace, Briehl and Haugen

 

Antiphon 5: O Emmanuel

Luke 1.39-45             Blessed are you among women

Mary and Elizabeth, P. Choplin

 

Third Sunday of Advent

Third Sunday in Advent (16 December 2018)

John 3.7-18

JoAnn A. Post

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”


And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

“Were we wrong?”  I’ve had this same conversation with my older sister a hundred times. We had it again Friday morning. “Were we wrong?”

Perhaps you recall that my Mom has not been well. In addition to advanced old age, her grief over my father’s death—now more than a year ago—is nearly debilitating. In the last few days, she has developed new symptoms, new sadnesses. She hardly eats or drinks anymore. She doesn’t want to leave her room. She has little to say.

My sister and I have memories of a Mom who was kind and gentle, quick with a smile, clever with Scrabble, tireless and generous. But now?

Many of you have walked this road with people you love. Whether it is illness or age or some sort of trauma, people can change. Sometimes they change so much we don’t even know them anymore. And we wonder if maybe we were wrong about them all along.

Years ago, I skimmed a book called “Being Wrong” for a class I was taking. (Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” Kathryn Schulz, Ecco, 2011) I remember little about it, except for this intriguing proposition: the more wrong we are, the more we insist we are right. Why? Because, on some level, we worry that if we are wrong about one thing (a person, a memory, an idea), we might be wrong about other things. And then, where would it end, this being wrong?

Which leads me back to my sister’s question and the fear that lies beneath it: “Were we wrong?”

I imagine John the Baptizer’s audience facing the same dilemma. Last week, Luke introduced us to John by first placing him in his historical context. “In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius . . .” (Luke 3.1ff) Then Luke reminded us that John was “son of Zechariah,” a memory tickler of John’s miraculous birth to very old parents. (Luke 1.5ff)

What would this John have to say?  Standing as he did in the shadow of some of the most vicious rulers in human history, identified by his old man’s name?  Will he challenge the ruling authorities? Will he spin sappy memories about growing up with geriatric parents? No. He told them they were wrong.

“Don’t start with me about being descendants of Abraham,” he mocked. “If God wanted more descendants of Abraham, these rocks would grow legs.”

“And don’t go on about being of David’s line. That storied lineage, that tree is being chopped down even as we speak.”

Well, he was speaking. They were speechless.

There is no corollary for us with regard to the offense John caused. No lewd Martin Luther joke comes close to cutting this deep. His audience was filled with observant Jews, come to the river to be baptized for repentance—a ritual as ancient as Abraham himself. For centuries, they had taken courage in the promise made to their ancestor Abraham, that they would be given a land, that they would be a blessing. For centuries, they had waited for the “branch of Jesse” to be restored, for a king like David to take the throne.

And John? With two swift kicks, he had them on the ground.

“Children of Abraham?” Don’t even.

The restoration of David’s line? As if.

John assured them they had been, most certainly and completely, wrong. Wrong about the two most important things in their lives, in their world.

But rather than shake their fists or stamp their feet, as I would do, they believed him. They believed this poorly-dressed, foul-mouthed, disrespectful son of an octogenarian. They believed they were wrong. And they welcomed the news.

I honestly don’t understand their reaction. This story has baffled me for decades. It would be like getting your “23andMe” DNA results back and discovering you were the daughter of a Golden Retriever and a Scottish bagpipe. What? Not possible.

To destroy their connection to Abraham, to chop down the tree that was David’s line was. . . Well, as I said, there is no corollary.

But they were fully willing to be wrong. Their question was not, “How dare you,” but “What then shall we do?”

In their wrong-ness, in this new reality, in this unsettling moment. What then should they do?

And he invited them to be wrong again. He invited the rich to stop being rich, the tax collectors to stop being sneaky, the soldiers to stop extorting. Why? Because someone, something better was on the horizon. And all the things they had clung to before would no longer matter.

“One is coming who is more powerful than I,” he promised. And they were willing to be wrong, to drop everything to receive this Promised One?

Were we wrong?

You may remember I told you last week about my 4-year-old neighbor’s Advent/Hanukah gift to me? That he appeared at the door last Saturday afternoon dwarfed by a poinsettia as red as his rosy cheeks. It was a lovely multi-generational interfaith moment that makes me smile every time I think about it.

So, imagine my delight Thursday evening, just after I had finished dinner dishes, when there was a knock on the door. Expecting to see the UPS truck parked in the driveway, instead I was presented with an enormous winter bouquet—red roses and green boughs and sparkling tinsel. I thought, “How is this possible? Flowers again? What are the odds?”

And as quickly as I reached for it, the woman presenting the bouquet, peered over the top, gasped and snatched it back. “These aren’t for you! We must have the wrong house! I’m so sorry!” And she scurried toward the car idling in the driveway, shouting “Wrong house! Wrong woman!”

I have no idea who they were looking for, or if she ever received that lovely bouquet. But they were so wrong. And so ashamed.

We can be so wrong about so many things. People. Beliefs. Addresses. And, if we discover we are wrong, that the person we loved is no longer the same, that our faith had been misplaced, that we are lost, what then shall we do?

John, storied son of Zechariah, encourages us to rest in our wrong-ness. To let go any ideas we had about what is important or what is sure or what is safe.  To his wildly-wrong audience at the river he advised, “Be generous, be honest, be content.”

And us? What if we are wrong?

Were my sister and I wrong about our mother’s true nature? I don’t think so. Though she is not the mother we once knew, she’s still our Mom—a sadder, older, more tired edition.

But we will not always be wrong. The world will not always be wrong. One who is more powerful is coming to set things right. One who is more powerful than our wealth, more powerful than our confidence, more powerful than our fear.  We would be wrong to underestimate the power of this One who is coming. This One named Jesus. He will lift us. And love us. And free us. And right us.

“Were we wrong?” Possibly.

Will he make it right? Absolutely.

 

 

 

Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (9 December 2018)

Luke 3.1-6

JoAnn A. Post

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

In the second year of the reign of President Donald J. Trump, when Bruce Rauner was governor of Illinois, and Rahm Emanuel was mayor of Chicago; during the bishopric of Elizabeth Eaton in the ELCA, and Wayne Miller in the Metro Chicago Synod, the word of God came to . . .

Well, who did it come to? Who has either the credentials or the courage to receive the word of God in such a time?

This morning’s gospel reading opens with just such a parade of dignitaries—emperors and governors, rulers and high priests. It was the red carpet of the 1st century, the Who’s Who of both political and religious authority.

Luke opens the story this way for two reasons. One, is to center the story of John the Baptizer in real time. John was not a fairy tale, a once-upon-a-time character. John was a human being whose parents we know. But, until this moment, until this enormous ellipse (. . .) John was known only as the unexpected child of elderly parents, and a distant relative of another nobody named Jesus.

So, for the record, what follows is based on true events.

The second reason Luke drops all those names on our heads is to indicate the uphill climb that lay before John, the unlikelihood of his task. The word of God came to him, and it is unclear why. If God had something to say, if God had wanted to get the attention of Tiberius and Lysanias and Caiaphas, perhaps God would have been wiser to send someone to whom they would pay attention. God might have sent Toni Preckwinkle or Mitch McConnell or Chance the Rapper. Important people whose word and presence would command respect.

But instead, God sent a kid from Little League straight into the Majors. Armed with only a sharp tongue and a passionate heart.

Where did John come from? And why would God choose him?

Let me tell you a story.

The gospel of Luke opens (again in verifiable time: “In the days of King Herod of Judea”) in a side chapel of the temple, where an old priest named Zechariah was taking is turn at the altar. Zechariah carried an enormous, secret sorrow—he and his equally-elderly wife, Elizabeth, had been unable to have children. Like Abraham and Sarah before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up hope of having a family, but the heartache never eased.

Enter, altar-left, an angel of the Lord, who announced to Zechariah that he would be a father. “Buy some cigars, Old Man! Elizabeth will soon be great with child!”

Zechariah was surprised. And skeptical. “How can this be so? I am old and my wife is also getting on in years.”

The angel was offended. Ruffling his wings with great umbrage, he snorted, “I am Gabriel! I have been sent by God with this good news, and you doubt me? Because you did not believe my words, you will become mute, unable to speak until the day these things occur.”

No one has ever wished harder that they could take their words back and get a do-over. To “dis” an angel of the Lord? Not a good idea. But the angel’s word was true. Zechariah was struck speechless, and Elizabeth’s belly soon bumped with baby.

Who was it that Elizabeth carried in her wrinkled womb?  It was John. A child born under circumstances almost as miraculous as his cousin Jesus. But aside from the extraordinary events surrounding his birth, John was nothing more than the much-loved son of old parents.

The last we hear of John until this morning, was the day he was taken, at eight days old, to the temple for circumcision and naming. Though everyone expected him to be named Zechariah, after his father, John’s tongue-tied father grabbed a piece of paper and pen and wrote, “His name is John.”

With that, Zechariah’s tongue was loosed. John was snipped. John was named. And this happy little family disappeared into the ordinariness of their lives.

Until . . . the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius.

But even then, as John squared his shoulders and prepared to preach, he is named as nobody. Not yet, “John the Baptizer” of headless camel-clad fame. Luke identifies him as “John, Zechariah’s boy.” Just a kid from a poor priest’s family. Who in the world did John think he was? And what gave him the right to be included in the same sentence as the rulers of the world?

John didn’t volunteer for duty. He was chosen to bring the word of God to his time and place. For a time—a significant time, to be sure—he stood at the Jordan River and whipped the crowds into a lather over the One who was on his way. The One whom Isaiah had promised.  But then, after burning brightly, John disappeared into the bowels of Herod’s prison and was summarily separated from his head.  He died. As do we all. But the word he carried did not.

Our times are as frightening and unsettling as any time in memory. Powerful people—presidents and governors, mayors and bishops—wield enormous authority. While, in antiquity, emperors ruled by fiat, today our leaders lead by Tweet. With 144 characters, they can send the stock market tumbling, fill the streets with protestors, send immigrants into hiding.

What will become of them, these people who so capriciously control our lives? They will go the way of all the world’s rulers. They will play a role. For a time. Some of them will do God’s work in the world, while others will pursue their own profit. But then they will be done. Just as nobody quotes Emperor Tiberius anymore, so the great names of our age will one day exist only in the pages of books.

That’s why the word of God came to John. He was not the word of God. The word of God came to him. To shepherd. To share. For a time. God’s time.

Though many of us may be important only in someone’s eyes, in someone’s world, we are not emperors or bishops. We can’t even claim a miraculous birth. But the word of God will come to us, through us. And like John, son of a skeptical silent priest and a doddering but doting mother, we have a responsibility to speak it. Perhaps it is a simple word of encouragement to one who is discouraged. Or a word of reproof to someone walking a dangerous path. Or a word of forgiveness to someone who has harmed us. Or a promise of God’s light in our darkness.

We cannot change the world, but we can speak a word.

In the second year of the reign of President Donald J. Trump, when Bruce Rauner was governor of Illinois, and Rahm Emanuel was mayor of Chicago; during the bishopric of Elizabeth Eaton in the ELCA, and Wayne Miller in the Metro Chicago Synod, the word of God comes to . . . You.

First Sunday of Advent

First Sunday in Advent (2 December 2018)

Luke 21.25-36

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

I was a very tall sixth-grade girl. Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising—the “Post” family is aptly named, all of us tall and straight as fence rails. As an adult, I don’t mind at all. I can see over the tops of peoples’ heads in crowds. I can put my own luggage in the overhead storage bin. I am very useful at social gatherings—my height-challenged friends can count on me to fetch the good dishes from the top shelves. But, when you’re 12 years old and taller than everyone else in the room—including the boy on whom you have a crush—it’s not a lot of fun.

Fortunately, my mother, who is of average height but uncommon wisdom, put an immediate stop to the shoulder slump I started to adopt. Watching me at a school event, slouching to look like everyone else, she told me afterward, “Be proud of your height. They all wish they were as tall as you. So, keep your shoulders back and your head high.”  I did. I do. And though I doubt other girls were lying awake at night longing to be a giraffe like me, her point was sound.

To this day, when I encounter tall people who walk with rounded shoulders I want to give them my mother’s advice. But they don’t ask, so I don’t tell.

Keep your shoulders back and your head high. That advice has served me well. Physically and metaphorically.

The way we hold our bodies affects the way we view our world—and the way the world views us. Telemarketers and people who answer telephone help lines are taught to answer the phone with a smile—even though the person on the line can’t see it, that smile lightens the tone of your voice.  People in treatment for addictions or illness are taught to “fake it ‘til you make it.” That is, walk and talk as though you are well and strong—your body will train your heart to do the same.

“Keep your shoulders back and your head high” is more than just good maternal or chiropractic or therapeutic advice. It is a spiritual discipline, as well.

Advent is a confusing season for us. Stores have been decorated for Christmas since the afternoon of October 31. My least favorite radio station—“Christmas Carols Radio”—has been blaring in a friend’s car for weeks. And while our sanctuary is beautifully decorated for Christmas, we will patiently, ploddingly light the Advent candles one at a time—though it is as futile a task as trying to slow Santa’s reindeer once they are airborne.

Why wait? Why not join the cultural Christmas caravan like everyone else?

Because, we are not ready for Christmas; we are not ready to receive the King. First, we have to learn how to stand.

Today’s texts are all about last things. Jeremiah promises deliverance from a dark time—a dark time will grow darker still. (Jeremiah 33.14-16) Paul writes joyfully to the congregation at Thessaloniki, reminding them that they will see one another again (1 Thessalonians 3.9-13)—though whether that reunion takes place there in Greece or in the courts of heaven is unclear. And Jesus, preternatural spoiled sport that he is, has nothing hopeful to offer his disciples.

As we discussed a few weeks ago in Mark’s take on this same conversation (Mark 13.1ff), Jesus was an astute observer of the political winds. Though speaking in the 20’s or 30’s of the 1st century CE about an event that would not take place until the year 70, he and many others recognized that Jerusalem’s cultural, military and political situation was unsustainable. He knew that eventually it would all come tumbling down—the temple, the city, their lives.

Of course, they would have ample warning. There would be signs in the sun and moon, distress among nations. The signs of the end would be as clear as the unfurling of figs leaves in the spring. I find Jesus’ warnings oddly unsatisfactory.

When haven’t the heavens been troubled? When hasn’t there been distress among nations? Has there ever been a season when at least one fig didn’t blossom? How were they to know that a particularly troubled season was the dreaded one or just another one? Jesus wasn’t saying. Still isn’t.

And to reference Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, does he have any idea how difficult it is NOT to be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the cares of the world? Aggressions micro and macro bear down on us every day, causing both our shoulders and our spirits to sag.

Jesus’ advice to his disciples then and now about impending trouble was the same as my mother’s advice to a tall, timid me.  “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Ah, he was not concerned only about the upcoming assault on the temple. Jesus was also preparing them for that last great day when they would stand before the throne of God, a moment that might be modestly frightening. “Be alert at all times that you may have strength to stand before the Son of Man.”

In life and in death, his word to them was the same. Stand up.

If you’ve ever been in a dangerous situation—a war zone or a car crash or a violent altercation—you know that, in that moment, our reptilian brains take control of our bodies. That same part of the brain that makes your dog go certifiably insane at the scent of a squirrel, robs us of any attempts at control.  A scream escapes our mouths. Our eyes close involuntarily. Our bodies go fetal or limp, protecting themselves from the danger.

It is possible to unlearn that prehistoric response to danger. But not easily. People who work and live in dangerous places need to be taught to maintain control, to remain alert, to stand up straight. And it ain’t easy.

Advent isn’t just a waiting room for Christmas. Advent is a training season for us. Rather than rushing headlong into the joy and promise of Christmas OR hiding from the looming trouble in our world, disciples pause. Like soldiers on the eve of battle, we hold ranks, we slow our breath, we clear our heads, we stand attentive. A jittery disciple is as useless to Jesus as is a guard dog hiding under the bed.

His word to them is also a word to us. We may not fear the end of our world, but we fear many things. Changes in our bodies, our homes, our hearts. Disappointments large and small. Rather than stand, we want to scream.

But Jesus had a mother much like mine. And he passed her advice on to his disciples and to us, “Keep your shoulders back and your head high.”

Thanks, Mom.

Christ the King Sunday

Christ the King Sunday (25 November 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

John 18.33-37

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

As a child I was taught that the adventurers aboard the Mayflower came to the New World in search of religious freedom. I was taught that those first settlers were open-minded, peace-loving citizens of the world, eager to launch a new world of religious equity and equal opportunity. I was taught that they lived in harmony with one another and with the native people whose land they shared. It was a nice story when I was nine. But now, 50 years later, we know the truth to be a bit darker. And sadly familiar.

Those whom we later named “Pilgrims” set sail from England in September 1620, many of them members of a radical religious separatist group that felt stifled by the Church of England. Ill at ease with the requirements of the King’s church, they sought to establish a new community of piety, purity and power. The so-called “Puritans” followed close on their sterns, sailing toward their own version of religious freedom. That is, freedom of religion for themselves, freedom to believe and practice as they wanted to believe and practice. In fact, they wrote their religious belief system into the first town charters and constitutions, replicating the very same stifling situation they had fled England to avoid.

Whoever thought it was a good idea to give power over both church and state to one group of individuals? Well, lots of people. We’ve been making that same mistake for centuries, consolidating control over both heart and hearth in the hands of a few. And always to bad ends.

You may be scratching your head about today’s gospel reading—the debate between Jesus and Pilate. After all, the sanctuary is already adorned for Advent. We should be talking about mangers and shepherds, not crosses and kings. But this Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, was established almost a century ago, in circumstances much like those that launched the pilgrims, those that erected the cross.

Concerned about rising nationalism and faltering faithfulness, Pope Pius XI established this church festival in 1925 as a way to re-assert the authority of God, the kingship of Christ, and the limited power of the world’s rulers.

That is why, on this wintery Sunday, with evergreen boughs above us and Thanksgiving’s feast still gurgling in us, we assert the Lordship of Jesus Christ, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Ruler of the Rulers of the World.

Because whether we speak of tyrants in the 1st century or the 17th or the 20th, history keeps repeating itself. We continue to mistake human authority for God’s authority, shaking them together like a James Bond martini.

That is why Jesus, a Jew accused of blasphemy, was summoned to a private audience with Pontius Pilate, a political appointee who had never heard of Jesus before. Jesus’ claims to be Messiah—a religious claim—and Son of God—a challenge to the emperor who believed himself a god—endangered both secular and sacred seats of power. It would have been to the benefit of both temple and palace that Jesus be sidelined. Once he was out of the way, they could resume their complete control of the region and its inhabitants. (Cartoonish Dr. Evil hand-wringing ensues.)

But Pilate had not been read in on any of these machinations—he was the Emperor’s lackey, brought in at the last minute to do the dirty work. That is why John, the gospel writer, portrays a Pilate modestly confused about why Jesus had been hauled into his chambers.

Was Jesus king of the Jews? Unlikely, since the Jews didn’t have kings.

Was Jesus a military rival? Apparently not, since he had no army.

Pilate’s confusion is evident when, after Jesus explained it all to him, Pilate asked again, “So, you are a king?” Question mark? Question mark?

Pilate had a limited imagination. The only world he knew was a world in which kings looked like kings, and power was wielded in very particular ways. Power was housed in enormous buildings, exercised by old men in long robes, motivated by financial wealth, geographic dominance, and fear. He couldn’t quite figure out what sort of king Jesus might be, what it was Jesus wanted. Money? Land? Castles? Temples? Armies?

No, Jesus was after something even more dangerous. Jesus was after the Truth.

For some reason, the gospel reading ends before what is, to me, the most important part of the text. If we were to have added just one more verse, we would have heard Pilate scratch his own head: “What is truth?” (John 18.38)

Ah, that is the question. And what is this capital-t Truth of which Jesus spoke?

“God so loves the world, that God sent the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not die, but have eternal life.” (John 3.16)

We’ve heard the words so often they no longer startle us. But they startled Jesus’ first hearers. And frightened his enemies.

Meanwhile, those pesky Pilgrims and Puritans were committing the same sins of which they accused King Henry and his bishops back in England. They believed they were the arbiters of Truth—reading scripture in a particular way, organizing their churches in a particular way, punishing particular sins in a particular way. They pursued a truth Pilate would have understood. A truth that laid power in human hands, imagining their hands to be the hands of God.

They lived by their own sort of truth, Pilate’s truth, a manufactured truth, a truth we know too well.

The dark truth for which we have settled is that nothing is reliable, no one is to be trusted, nothing makes sense. We manufacture a truth that tries to make sense of no sense. Not unlike the collision in our worship space this morning: Christmas decorations as a backdrop to Jesus’ crucifixion, Thanksgiving gratitude wilted by funeral flowers. Which is it?  Which way do we look?  What is truth? Birth? Death? Gratitude? Grief?

Jesus stood before Pilate as a king unlike any king on earth, ruling with life-giving Truth. Jesus the King rules in human hearts, leads in love, welcomes even those who betray him. Jesus the King desires that we live in peace, that our lives are just, that our words are kind.

Pilate didn’t recognize Jesus or his truth, instead collaborating with the temple to kill him. The Pilgrims and Puritans didn’t recognize Jesus or his truth, oppressing both native peoples and any others who didn’t agree with them. Pope Pius XI feared fascism in the 1920’s; his successor Pope Pius XII turned a blind eye to it in the 1940’s.

What is truth? God loves the world. Jesus died to save us. We are loved beyond measure. That is the truth of this day. And of our lives.

Jesus is a beautiful savior, king of all creation, our brother and our Lord.

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (18 November 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

Mark 13.1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

Or, at least a memory of life. Might they find a photo album unsinged, a truly fireproof safe that protected important documents, a wristwatch blackened but still ticking? Probably not. More likely, they would find nothing but soot-covered bedsprings and a heap of ashes where the dining room table once stood.

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

The devastation in Paradise and other California towns is unimaginable. Fires that raced faster than cars engulfed everything in their path. “Search and Rescue” teams reluctantly became “Evidence Gathering” teams, since the only thing that survived the fire was bone fragments and tears.

Will they rebuild? Can they rebuild? Or better to gather the borrowed clothes and sooty sleeping bags and limp off to someplace new, someplace far from the fires.

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

Both the Old Testament (Daniel 12.1-3) and Gospel readings this morning hint at a similar search. Though written centuries apart, they each reference a time of unprecedented tumult and terror.

Daniel’s audience faced persecution from the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes IV—a brutal turn-of-the-millenium tyrant, who lusted to destroy any remnants of Jews on his territory. Daniel writes, “There shall be a time of anguish such as never occurred since nations first came into existence.”

In fact, Daniel’s audience in the 2nd century BCE would be submitted to all manner of horror. And when it was over, their lives would be little more than dust and ashes.

Jesus moved through the world in a similarly troubled time. Though today’s exchange about the grandeur and durability of the temple took place early in the 1st century, years before the temple would actually be destroyed in 70 CE, Jesus was an astute sniffer of the political winds.  Like smoke sullying the air hundreds of miles away, Jesus sniffed the trouble ahead—for him, for his disciples, and for the whole city of Jerusalem.

Enemies always had their eyes on Jerusalem (they still do)—if they could capture the city, they could rule the whole region. But, even more diabolically, enemies knew that if they could capture the temple in Jerusalem, they could destroy a whole people.

The temple in Jerusalem was more than a significant house of worship, more than a stunning cathedral or synagogue. God’s people believed the temple was, literally, the dwelling place of God.  There is no emotional or spiritual equivalent for us. Because as much as we love this beautiful worship space, and even though we speak of meeting God here, none of us means that literally. If this building burned to the ground, we would be sad, but our faith would not be destroyed.

It was different for the people of Israel. God resided in the temple itself.  Since the days of the wilderness wandering, when the Ark of the Covenant was carried before them as a sign of the presence of God, the God of Israel had always been found in a place. For their sake—they needed to know God was close.

Erected by King Solomon ten centuries before Christ, the first temple in Jerusalem stood for 600 years, before being destroyed by invading armies. Rebuilt a century later, the second temple—20 stories high, built on foundation stones each weighing 400 tons—was unassailable, built to withstand any intruder. It dominated the Jerusalem skyline and protected God and God’s people for another 500 years before the conversation we overhear today.

That the temple would be destroyed a second time was not only unimaginable, but impossible. But it was possible. And Jesus could imagine it. He spoke the truth: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

How would God’s people survive a second such tragedy? Where would they go to meet God? And, more significantly, where would God go?

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

We have grown hard to unspeakable tragedies—the recent discovery of mass graves in Iraq, the displacement of millions of refugees worldwide, shooting venues and victims too many to count. Hard to imagine, easy to forget. But the climbing casualties in California’s wild fires trouble even the most jaded among us.

Metaphors abound. Paradise Lost. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Escaping with only the clothes on their backs.

Though none of us has survived such a conflagration by flame, many of us have lived the metaphor: dreams gone up in smoke; the loss of all we hold dear; nowhere to run/nowhere to hide. Tragedies like those threaten to destroy us. Sometimes, they do.

God has survived such tragedy, as well.

As I watch footage of cadaver dogs and white-suited searchers poking, sniffing through the ashes, I cannot help but imagine God doing the same.

Sifting through our ashes, searching for signs of life.

God created us in such hope, loves us with such passion, but has been disappointed again and again. Built to love, we love to hate. Designed for community, we isolate ourselves from all but those who agree with us. Voices made for praise, we raise them, instead, in anger and accusation.

Will God find any fragment of the people we were made to be? Will God uncover any evidence of the life God desires for us?

Yes. God’s dreams for us have not died. And God never stops searching.

When we gather here, in this temporary sanctuary, we are, for a moment the people God intended us to be. Regardless of political opinions or social status, we pray with one voice, eat at one table, hope with a single hope.

When, in our daily lives, we do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, God is able to erect walls of safety around us and those in our care.

When, as the writer of Hebrews urges (Hebrews 10.24) we “provoke one another to love and good deeds,” we stand on an unshakeable foundation.

All temples always fall. Fire always wins. We always disappoint—one another and God.

Day after day, century after century, God sifts through the ashes: restoring life when all seemed lost.