18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (04 October 2020)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus said to the people, 

“Listen to another parable.

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,

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

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

When the harvest time had come,

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

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

Again he sent other slaves, more than the first;

  and they treated them in the same way. 

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

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

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

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

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

They said to him,

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,

  and lease the vineyard to other tenants

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

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

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

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

  and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables,

  they realized that he was speaking about them. 

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

  because they regarded him as a prophet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just as filled with delusion. Just as puzzling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, back to my parable.

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

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

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

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

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (10 May 2020)

John 14.1-14

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

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

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

“Come through.”

I love that line. Crisp. Clear. Confident.

“Come through.”

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

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

“Come through.”

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

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

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

Today, we hear three more in rapid succession:

“I am the way.”

“I am the truth.”

“I am the life.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I have been convicted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus is the Gate for all the sheep.

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

Come through.

First Sunday in Lent

1 Lent (1 March 2020)

Matthew 4.1-11

JoAnn A. Post

Then 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, saying 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.

All that we need, we already have.

Easy for me to say, isn’t it? Loving family. Safe home. Meaningful work. Faithful friends. And, as I was recently informed by a complete stranger, good bone structure. (I’m not sure if that was a compliment or a diagnosis.) What more could a middle-aged pastor want?

But it has not always been the case, at least I have not always had all those things.

This month I see my oncologist for my annual post-cancer check-up. I’m tempted to cancel the appointment since I feel so well, and because the cancer for which I was treated—years before you and I met—has been long silent.

Surprisingly, that diagnosis, that year of treatment, now eight years ago, keeps coming to mind. I interviewed candidates for internship here next year, and one of them asked about it. A recent diagnosis of cancer in my pool of friends reminded me. Yesterday we hosted a funeral for a woman not much older than I, felled by pancreatic cancer.

I normally go weeks, if not months, without thinking about my cancer, but these days it is very present.

For a year, I was away from work—too weak to do much of anything. For a year, my body daily betrayed me. For a year, my home felt alternately like a haven and a prison. For a year, I kept friends at bay, so focused on my own sorrows. It was hard. Some of you have lived that year, as well.

But that long year of treatment was also surprisingly confirmatory. It is not often the pastor has her public teaching challenged so personally. Do I really believe all the stuff I say to you? That year I learned that, yes, I do. Even then, in that wilderness of treatment, I believed what I still believe today: all that I need, I already have.

The other reason my long-ago illness has come to mind, believe it or not, is this gospel reading. I wonder if Jesus didn’t experience in his wilderness what I experienced in mine. Jesus, still wet behind the baptismal ears, newly-anointed Son of God, was tossed into an isolated desert region like a piece of trash. Left to wander alone, without food or friends, Jesus had nothing. Or, at least, that’s how it looks from the outside. And how it might have seemed, sometimes, to him.

Regardless of the reason for his Spirit-mandated quarantine, or his own assessment of the situation, when Jesus’ solitude was broken, it was not by the voice of an old friend with clean clothes or a food truck offering a hotdog, the Chicago Way. It was an insidious voice, a dangerous voice, a diabolical voice. It was Satan, who pads through the shadows like a panther. Always lurking, difficult to see. It was that purring voice that greeted Jesus at the end of his sojourn.

And Satan’s first words to a famished Jesus?

“All that you need, I already have.”

It’s not hard to imagine what Jesus might have needed after 40 days and 40 nights without a cup of coffee, without a shower, without his I-phone. But Satan seemed to know better. Satan peers more deeply. Satan knew that those obvious needs were ephemeral, easily met by just about anyone. Jesus’ true needs were deeper.

If Jesus is anything like us, he needed to be fed. He needed to know he mattered. He needed to know he was not a victim but a champion.

Satan promised to remedy all those ills. Bread finer than from any French bakery. Stadiums full of fans. Land and possessions and power.  It would have been tempting.

But there are two things wrong with Satan’s calculations, two reasons Jesus didn’t jump, didn’t bite, didn’t bow.

First, none of those things—food, prestige, power—is Satan’s to give. The dark powers of the world have nothing that we need, no real power over us. Who was Satan to make those promises?

Second, and more important, none of those things is what Jesus really needed.

You see, all that Jesus needed, he already had.

And he gives it, today, to us.

I can’t know what it is that prowls like a panther at the edges of your dreams. The wilderness in which you wander. The voice that calls to you from the shadows.

But I know what those things are for me. And I know how easily they overtake. But I am convinced that all I need, I already have.

Not everyone can say that.

This Lent we’re multiplying our efforts to both learn about and alleviate homelessness. Those homeless vets, those troubled teens, those exhausted angels who befriend and shelter them. Do they have all they need?

This Lent we watch with the whole world as a new virus grips the globe.

This Lent we wince at the mud wrestling that is our political system.

This Lent we fret as markets tumble and those of us with pearls, clutch them.

This Lent, too many of God’s children will be tossed, like trash, into a wilderness they didn’t choose.

What are we to do, those of us blessed to have all that we need?

First, we un-clutch our pearls, and un-clench our fists.

Then? We love them. We remember them. We feed them. We share our abundance. We care for them until they have all the need. We speak to them.

Imagine, for one horrible moment, that instead of asking about the wife and kids, my oncologist hesitates, turns to the scan on the screen. Imagine, for one horrible moment, that that thing you have feared all your life knocks on your door. Imagine, for one horrible moment, that your needs go unmet.

What will we do then, we wilderness wanderers?

We will do what Jesus did at the end of his testing, we will do what the faithful have always done in times of trouble.

We will cling to the One who holds true power.

We will claim our true needs, rather than the world’s false ones.

We will remind one another that all we need, we already have.

Because we have the love of Jesus. And we have each other. What more could we need?

 

 

 

Transfiguration of Our Lord

Transfiguration of Our Lord (23 February 2020)

Matthew 17.1-9

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

“And he was transfigured before them.” What does that even mean?

This moment in the Jesus story finds Jesus on a mountain, though not the same peak as the one from which he delivered the Sermon on the Mount, which we have been dissecting for the last three weeks.

On that mountain peak, Jesus was surrounded by adoring disciples and desperate crowds. On this mountain peak, Jesus is accompanied by only three disciples and two late arrivals.

On that mountain peak, every word was recorded for the sake of later disciples and further study. On this mountain peak, we know nothing of the script.

On that mountain peak, Jesus looked the way he always looked. On this mountain peak he looks like the sun, clothed in robes so bright they blind.

On that mountain peak, Jesus’ intention was clear. On this mountain peak?

We know what it is to disfigure. That is, to mar one’s appearance.

We know what it is to misfigure. That is, when things don’t add up.

We know what it is to not figure. That is, to matter not at all.

But to transfigure?  That’s what happened to Jesus.

The prefix “trans” means “across, beyond, through.” So, somehow, on this second mountain, Jesus’ “figure”—his being, his face—crossed through. His true being, his true face emerged through the limits of human flesh under the disguise of peasant clothes. And he was seen as his true self. Shining like the sun, robed in clothes so bright they blinded.

His true nature was confirmed by the sudden appearance of unlikely conversation partners—Moses and Elijah. Centuries-dead but, apparently, in Jesus’ reality, very much alive. His true nature was confirmed by the echo of the heavenly voice from his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

So, in Jesus’ transfiguration we learn that physicality is fluid, that time and distance are relative, that death is simply another state of being, that there is much more to Jesus than meets the eye.

All of that intrigue, that mystery, that physical impossibility is buried in six little words: “And he was transfigured before them.”

A long-time friend is, at this moment, falling in love. Divorced many years ago, contented in her single life, she had not sought committed companionship. But this remarkable, unassuming man, whom I am eager to meet, blew into her life like a cool breeze on a lazy afternoon. She didn’t see him coming and now that he is here, cannot imagine life without him.

But there were fears in the early days of their courtship. What if he was too good to be true? What if he found out what she is really like? Her sarcasm when angry, her almost crippling fear of failure, the fact that, contrary to her cosmopolitan lifestyle, her favorite foods are Doritos and chocolate milk?

When we fall in love, our carefully curated public persona is transfigured—that is, our true self emerges. Who could love that?

On Tuesday, I will be at the seminary in Hyde Park (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago) all day, interviewing candidates for internship after Vicar Julie, who will be impossible to follow, leaves us in June.

A few years ago, when we first interviewed for an intern, one of the students thought that, because of Ascension’s address, they knew us. They “knew” that, simply because of our location on the North Shore, we were not “generous, intentional and wise” as advertised, but privileged, prideful, self-possessed. All that from a zip code.

After the interview, the student evaluated our conversation this way, “I could never work in a place so privileged, so unwilling to get their hands dirty, so incapable of doing real ministry.”

Though angered by those unkind words, I have thought of them often. Is that, in fact, how we look to the world? When we are transfigured, that is when our true nature shines through, I wonder what the world really sees.

What do you suppose Jesus’ disciples muttered to one another on their way down the mountain? Bruised from a fall, blinded by Jesus’ light, sworn to silence, they would have had no idea what had just happened.

It would not be until years later, after Jesus’ resurrection, when his true self was revealed to the whole world, that they were able to make any sense of that day on the mountain.

Many years after Jesus’ transfiguration and resurrection, Peter, one of the three witnesses to both events and, by then, an old man, reflected on it this way: “He received honor and glory from God the Father. We heard the voice from heaven. You have the prophetic mission confirmed. Let it be for us a lamp shining in a dark place.” (2 Peter 1.16-21)

On the mountain that day, Jesus was not disfigured, or misfigured, or not figured. He was transfigured. Revealed as Son of God. Prophet. Teacher. A lamp in a dark place.

Today in this dark place, this dark world, he continues to shine for us, in us, and, we pray, through us. We pray that when the world sees us they see Jesus—forgiving, compassionate, selfless, generous.

To be exposed to the world in our true form, as our real self, without mask or ruse is a frightening thing. Unless it is God who does the transfiguring, the unmasking, the revealing. So today, we pray those six little gospel words will come to pass here: “And he was transfigured before them.”

And, that in the transfiguring, we are changed, as well.

 

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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 underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In 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.


“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For 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. Therefore, 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“Our friend has died. Would you do his funeral?”

This unexpected conversation took place here, last Sunday, just after worship. We were all having coffee in Fellowship Hall when I saw a man and woman, who looked vaguely familiar, come through the front door.

They looked vaguely familiar because they had once attended a funeral here. As I recall, that had been a difficult circumstance, as well. They remembered that we had been kind to them then. In their sorrow and desperation, that long-ago kindness made them hopeful that we might extend that welcome to them again.

I asked them to tell me about their deceased friend. It was a shocking story. Their friend had been murdered in a particularly heinous way, in front of his only daughter. The friends had no money. The deceased had no money. But they had grief. And deep need. Though I had no way to verify the truth of their story, or evaluate the potential safety risks—how did I know the murderer might not show up here, as well—I said, “Yes. Of course. When shall we do this?”

I’ve told this story to a few of you this the week, mostly because telling it helps me to believe it actually happened. And, in spite of the strangeness of the request, the circumstances of the death, the potential danger to us, not one of the people I told said, “Why in the world would you do that?” They all had questions, but not one of you questioned that we would perform this kindness.

I was not surprised that you weren’t surprised. Ascension is many things, some of which make it highly unlikely that we would host the funeral of a destitute murder victim, but among all the things we are, at our heart, we are deeply kind.

I’ll tell you more about the funeral in a bit. His name was Johnny, by the way.

Last Sunday we heard the opening bars of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You recall the scene—surrounded by new disciples and diseased crowds, Jesus sat on the peak of a mountain to preach. To introduce himself to the crowds. He began with what we call the “beatitudes:” blessed are the poor in spirit, the persecuted, those who mourn. It was lovely, really lovely. I felt so blessed.

But today Jesus takes a sharp, unexpected turn, engaging in what we might call “identity theology.”

We know a similar concept from current political debates. “Identity politics” is what happens when a candidate or a party divides the herd, engages in “us” and “them,” clumps people around a common characteristic. We are no longer Republicans, Democrats or Independents. We are, instead, subsets of those larger parties, taught to mistrust any one—even those of our own party—who do not share our point of view, our identity. Urban mistrusts rural. Poor mistrusts rich. Caucus mistrusts primary. Education. Race. Gender. I can’t keep up with it.

Jesus (who knows what his party affiliation would be?) engages in the same sort of dividing of the herd, but with no ill intent.

Identity Theology. He gives his followers a name. A stamp. A brand. And if they intend to follow him, they will answer to that name, accept that stamp, promote that brand.

You are Salt.

You are Light.

We are what?

Its not that his hearers were unclear on the concept. Salt. Light. Everybody knows what those things are. It’s that they were not used to being called by anything but their names or professions, their obvious identities.

You are Joseph the Carpenter.

You are Betty the Baker.

You are Roberta the Rabbi.

But Salt? Light? They leaned in a little closer.

For centuries, scholars and theologians have tried to make sense of these names, imagining Jesus was using code language, hinting at something more complex.

Parsing “salt” into its various uses, its chemical make-up, its role in culture, has led preachers to determine that Jesus means for his disciples to spice things up, or to preserve precious things as we would brine a side of beef, or to be valued, like money. You get the idea. Its tedious. And a stretch.

“Light” was equally analyzed. What does Jesus really mean?

Don’t over-think this.

Salt is salt. It doesn’t go to bed at night moaning, “Dang. I wish I was Sriracha.”

Light is light. It doesn’t stand in front of the mirror trying on characteristics like dresses. Natural? Incandescent? LED?

Salt is salt. And so are his disciples.

Light is light. And so are his disciples.

What does that make us?

Our congregation is in the process of analyzing our character, imagining our future. What is our calling? What is our purpose? What does it mean to be faithful? To do justice, love kindness, walk humbly?

At a book study here Thursday night, we briefly reflected on whether the name “Lutheran” enhances or inhibits our ministry. What do people hear, what do they think, what do they imagine when they hear we are Lutheran?

Swedish pancakes? Norwegian lefse? German rigidity? White privilege?

We did not answer the question to anyone’s satisfaction.

But I can tell you what “Lutheran” means to a family torn apart by violence, drowning in poverty, destined to struggle, grieving this and a hundred other tragedies.

Johnny didn’t identify as Christian. He wasn’t from Northfield. I never met him, and will probably not encounter his friends until tragedy strikes them again. But I know that when it happens they will remember that it was a Lutheran church that opened its doors. Without question. Without cost. And from now on, for that family, all Lutherans will be considered kind.

When we engage in identity theology as Jesus did, we know exactly who we are. We are Lutheran: sinners forgiven, strangers  welcomed in from the cold, beggars whose hands have been filled.

And because we are sinners, strangers, beggars, we know exactly what to do when we recognize the same sorrow in others.

We held Johnny’s funeral here on Wednesday evening. We were 12 people in the sanctuary—nine friends and family, Johnny’s primary care doctor, Vicar Julie and me. The hymn of the day was a Helen Reddy song downloaded from I-tunes. The flowers were plastic from Walgreens. The texts promised shelter and safety. The sermon was shared—I first offered reflections on the texts and then invited his friends to speak.

It was powerful. It was painful. It was over in 15 minutes.

The mourners lingered until Vicar Julie and I had to leave them to teach confirmation.

“I feel safe here,” one told me.

“I have some hope now,” another said.

“Thank you for this. You didn’t have to,” another offered.

Oh, but we did. We did have to.

Remember the words of the prophet? (Isaiah 58.1-9a)

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

We are Salt.

We are Light.

We are Sinners.

We are Strangers.

We are Beggars.

We are Kind.

We have no choice. It’s who we are.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (2 February 2020)

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. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Since childhood, I have had a recurring a nightmare in which I am forced to count things. Tiny things. Many tiny things. Very quickly. Kernels of corn. Hole punch dots. Pea gravel. I wake from that dream sweating, counting. 1,469,752. 1,469,753. It was exhausting.

That is why, when I am awake, I flinch when faced with lots of numbers on a page. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with me, you know that I always leap to the bottom line of a financial report. Not because that’s all that matters or because I can’t do the numbers, but because all those tightly-packed figures on a page make me nervous.

I spent Friday evening and all day yesterday with other area church leaders of our synod, conducting the business of the Metro Chicago Synod, a jurisdiction of about 175 ELCA congregations. There were 30+ of us at the meeting—elected council members like me, and synod staff members.  And our bishop, Bishop Yehiel Curry. He is a brilliant man, a faithful pastor, a challenging conversation partner, a strategic thinker, a powerful leader. I respect everything I know about it. Except for one thing. Before he was a pastor he was a finance guy. Specifically, he worked to help his clients plan for the future by multiplying their assets.

In other words, he loves numbers. Complicated numbers. Playing with numbers to see what they—and the money they represent—can do.

One of our planning exercises Friday evening was a game in which we were each given 500,000 imaginary dollars. All around the room, pieces of paper were tacked to the conference room walls. Each piece of paper contained a numbered ministry challenge in our synod, and a corresponding dollar amount.

Project 26: 25 full-tuition scholarships to Lutheran colleges: $500,000.

Project 9: Renovation of an apartment building to create affordable housing: $225,000.

Project 14: Grants to support lead-free drinking water in Southside neighborhoods: $480,000.

26 numbered pieces of paper, each with a project and another number on it.

We were each given a pad of paper and a pen, and this instruction. “You are the leaders of the synod. How will you spend your $500,000.”

Imagine my delight. My palms sweat just telling you about it.

My colleagues started working around the room. Taking notes, adding numbers in the margin, silently, individually weighing the merits of various projects. I froze. I would rather have swum into a room full of hangry senators in Washington DC on Friday night than do that.

So, I punted. I grabbed someone nearest me and said, “Wan’na pool our money? We can do more together, and then we wouldn’t have to make these decisions.”

He ignored me.

I kept working the room, pretending to have a plan, when in fact, I was avoiding the numbers on the wall. 1,469,754.

Just as our time was up, I had wrangled two others to join me. Between us we had $1.5 million to invest. One of them did some quick math, investing in a mixed portfolio over a fixed period of time, we would have been able to accomplish all the projects on the walls in about ten years. Together. Boom.

As we went around the room to report out, my synod council colleagues described brilliant insights into the projects that mattered most, wise ways to use their money. The bishop invited people to describe their plan, but he kept skipping me. I was mortified. Clearly, I had done this wrong, and he knew it. He was sparing me the shame of my fear-driven scheme.

But then he turned to our little investment group, and said, “I didn’t call on you,” pointing to our little team, “because you did exactly what I hoped you would do, something no one else who has done this exercise has ever done before. You listened to my instruction.”

And then he looked at the whole group, “Here’s what I said, ‘You are the leaders of the synod.’ I meant ‘you” plural, ‘you’ all together, ‘you’ as a team. Not as individuals having to figure everything out for yourself. We fail when we work alone. The only way to do this work is if we do it together.”

And then he turned to us again, “Tell us about your strategy.”

Perhaps you, like me, stifle a yawn when you hear the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the merciful. Yada. Yada. Yada. These 12 verses are the least interesting part of a three-chapter lecture about Jesus’ vision of the world. In subsequent chapters, he will challenge conventional wisdom and legal precedent about revenge, about mercy, about family, about wealth. That’s the good stuff.

Seated on a mountain, surrounded by disciples and a recently-healed crowd of fans, Jesus described the way he saw the world. And I would be more than happy to skip the details, and jump right to the bottom line.

But, as much as I hate numbers, I love grammar. Bishop Curry’s grammar. Biblical grammar. I love Jesus’ grammar.

When Jesus gazes out at this eager congregation, each one hoping for a word directed at them, at their own life, Jesus goes all plural on them.

“Blessed are all those who . . .” he said.

Blessed are all those who seek justice, all those who are kind, all those who grieve. Because when we do justice and seek kindness and walk humbly together, the kingdom of heaven is so near you can see the light on in the kitchen window.

Left to our own devices, intent on our own needs, fearful for our own future, we miss the blessings that rain down on our heads when we both suffer and rejoice together.

At the end of the introductory material, Jesus finally gets personal. Sort of. He stops speaking in the third person about all of them, “those who.” He points at his disciples and again—grammar matters—he says, “Blessed are you—all of you—when you are persecuted because of me.”

He knew what waited for him at the bottom of the mountain; he knew the challenges his followers would face because of him. They would be persecuted, ridiculed, demeaned, punished for imagining a world in which blessings fall on our heads, a world in which we are stronger, more faithful, more effective when we are together. When we suffer together. When we grieve together. When we invest together.

The world thought they were crazy, thinks we are crazy. But we know better.

Should I confess to the bishop that my brilliant plan was driven by fear? That all those numbers made my stomach hurt? And does it matter? Does it matter why any of us follows? Why the disciples leapt out of their boats? Why people followed Jesus like puppies? Why we have chosen to identify as his disciples? Probably not.

What matters is that we are together, in both blessing and burden.

Our synod council is from the north shore and the south side, western suburbs and the Loop. We are latinex and indian, black and white, gay and straight, boomers and millennials, real and decaf. Some of us are in thriving congregations and others struggle to keep the lights on. We are nurses and community organizers and attorneys and pastors and students and bankers and retired school teachers. 1,469,755.

But by the end of our meeting yesterday, we were able to hear Bishop Curry’s description of us, not to diverse individuals but all of us, “You are the leaders of the synod.”

Jesus wasn’t sitting down for one-on-ones with his followers when he perched on that mountain, surrounded by sweaty-palmed disciples and empty-bellied believers. He laid a challenge to lay on them all. “Blessed are all of you together when, in my name, you see what I see, do what I do, hope what I hope.”

How many disciples does Jesus have? I get sweaty just thinking about it. But I know we are among them.  And we are 1.

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany (26 January 2020)

Matthew 4.12-23

JoAnn A. Post 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston, we have a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steeples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

Second Sunday after Epiphany

Second Sunday after Epiphany (19 January 2020)

John 1.29-42

JoAnn A. Post 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riveting. No?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we follow where he leads.

 

Second Sunday after Christmas

Second Sunday after Christmas (5 January 2020)

John 1.1-18

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ours.

John tells our birth story.

“To all who received Jesus, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To all who received Jesus, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God.”

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

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

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

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

God, whose light shines in every darkness.

God, who loved us from the beginning.

God, who delights to call us sons and daughters.

Happy Birthday, child of God.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve (24 December 2019)

Luke 2.1-20

JoAnn A. Post

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

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


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

Cardboard art.

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

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

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

Cardboard art.

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

“Hungry. Will work for food.”

“Unemployed veteran, anything will help.”

“Cold and alone.”

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

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

Here’s what we wrote:

Home is warm and safe.

Home is where I want to be.

Home is wherever you make it.

Cardboard art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born to you. Born to us. A Savior.

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

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

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