Second Sunday of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent (10 December 2017)

JoAnn A. Post

 

Isaiah 40.1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Mark 1.1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Hearers of a certain age will remember, with a wince, when near the end of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan famously said, “’I’m no linguist but I have been told that in the Russian language there isn’t even a word for freedom.”  He was quickly proven wrong, but his assertion that our Communist enemies were so depraved they didn’t even know freedom existed was wildly appealing.

The Inuit people of northern Canada boast 53 unique words for the thing we generically call “snow.” Each of their words connotes something unique about the quality of a particular snowfall—grainy, heavy, wet, blinding, blowing. 53 shades of snow may seem extreme to us, but if your whole livelihood depended on cold, snow and ice, you’d have a lot of words for it, too. My farmer father was not a fan of snow—snow makes farm work much harder than it needed to be. So he had a lot of words for snow, too, but they mostly don’t appear in any thesaurus, and most have four letters.

You might not have noticed that in this morning’s readings, the word “cry” is used five times. I am not sure how many words we have in the English language for “cry,” but on my own I quickly came up with 20, among them “caterwaul, blubber and keen.” In Hebrew, the language in which the prophet Isaiah wrote, there are seven unique words for the word today translated, “cry.”

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term.”

Again, “a voice cries out.”

And later in today’s Old Testament reading, “What shall I cry?”

Isaiah wrote to the people of God in exile, dragged from home and temple to a foreign land where they were forced to live for a generation.  I imagine that in the early days of their imprisonment tears had flowed freely, tears of anger and frustration and fear and sorrow and weariness.  I wonder how long it took for them to run out of tears, to realize that no matter how they bawled and wailed and sobbed, it would make no difference. “Cry me a river,” their captors mocked. So, eventually, their tears stopped.

That’s why the cry Isaiah reports has nothing to do with tears.  Their cry was more of a vocalization, a raw-voiced, tested, troubled, weary faith. It was an expression of desperation tinged with hope that God might still be listening.  “Cry to her,” Isaiah orders.  That cry would fall from cracked lips, parched throats, broken hearts. Long after all their tears had been shed, a shred of hope remained. Hope that one day they would be free. Cry that, Isaiah orders.

Some of you may remember the Englewood Four, the young black Chicago men falsely imprisoned for a brutal rape and murder in 1994.  Since their exoneration in 2011, after serving almost two decades in prison, they speak of their confidence that one day the truth would be told, that they would breathe the air of free people. “We never stopped believing we would be free. But it got harder and harder.”

I think of them, of their desperate confidence when Isaiah writes, “Cry to them that they have served their term, that the penalty has been paid.”  In my mind’s ear, Isaiah’s voice cracks with emotion and relief.  “It’s over.”

The parish I served in Atlanta, when my older daughter was a toddler, had a robust relationship with a nearby women’s shelter.  The director of the shelter, a remarkably soft-hearted woman considering the sorrow she saw every day, told me about a toddler who often came to the shelter’s noon meal trailing his homeless mother.  He was small for his age. He would eat anything. And he never cried. For some reason, his silence troubled her and she pursued it with her own therapist.  The therapist’s answer was simple, “A child cries because he expects someone to hear, to care, to come running.  Why would a child born on the street to an addicted mother bother with tears? They wouldn’t make any difference.”

To that tearless little boy Isaiah cries, “God will gather you like a lamb in his arms and carry you near God’s heart.

A cry, whether tear-full or tear-less, assumes someone will hear it.

The 1st century writer Mark opens his gospel with what he claims to be “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” It doesn’t seem like the beginning of Jesus’ story to us. Where are Joseph and Mary, a child born in a barn, smelly shepherds and angel choirs?  Though it seems surprising and even modestly offensive to us, we who are hyper-sentimental about Christmas, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth didn’t impress Mark at all.  Mark’s “beginning” finds Jesus fully grown, about to be baptized. The thing that mattered for Mark, the first of the Gospel writers, was  not Jesus’ infant cry but his full-throated response to the cry of God’s people.

Our introduction to Jesus comes via John the Baptizer “crying” in the wilderness.  John was dressed as an Old Testament prophet (2 Kings. 1.8), announced with ancient prophecies (Malachi 3.1; Isaiah 40.3), bold and brash and baptizing as fast as he could. John the Baptizer’s cry—“Repent!”—resonated deeply with the desperate people of Judea and Jerusalem. Like Isaiah’s first hearers they were not free. They lived in their own homes, but Roman soldiers patrolled their streets; Roman political appointees occupied their government; Roman leaders colluded with Jewish leaders for personal gain. Though they wept for relief, no one came to help, so their tears dried.

The people of Judea and Jerusalem heard John’s cry and ran toward it. And when John had their attention, he told them of another, another more powerful than he, who would hear their bitter cries. That One would lead them to life where there is no crying, no tears and no pain. But that’s a story for another day.

Isaiah’s cry. John the Baptizer’s cry. Our cry.  Though our eyes have run out of tears, our hearts still hope.  It is that desperate but believing cry that falls from our lips and our lives in this holy season.

Every once in a while I meet people whose stories are more than heartbreaking, people who suffer such deep sorrow it makes my knees buckle. I met such a woman years ago, about five years after she had been widowed, orphaned and physically maimed in a car accident. She spoke freely of her grief, her desire to die rather than live with both shattered heart and body. Naively, I asked how long it took for her to reach the point where she didn’t think every day about dying. She smiled wearily. “Longer than I hoped, but not as long as I feared.”

God heard her cry. Not the caterwauling, blubbering, nose-running noise of self-pity, but the cracked and quiet voice of desperation tinged with hope.

She believed Isaiah when he wrote, “God is mighty.”

She believed Isaiah when he wrote, “God will carry you.”

She believed John the Baptizer when he promised, “God is coming.”

Buried among the many words we used to describe the world’s sorrow, is the simple word, “cry.”  Not with weary tears but with hard-fought faith.  Our cry will be heard.  Christ is coming soon.

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First Sunday in Advent

First Sunday in Advent (3 December 2017)

Mark 13.24-37

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said: “In those days, after that suffering, 
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Last Sunday morning my friend sat at the bedside of her 94-year-old mother, who had been trying to die for almost a week.  Ancient Vivian had not spoken in at least two days, but unexpectedly she opened her eyes and said dreamily, “Did you hear that? Someone’s knocking on the door.” And then she closed her eyes again, drifting off to wherever it was she had been. (There was no one at the door.)

Vivian died a short day later, opening the door to the One who had so quietly come for her. Is that how life ends? With a rap on the door?

My phone burst with text messages rapid as machine gun fire Wednesday morning. It was my Sisters’ Group Message exploding with news of the most recent mighty fall.  “Matt Lauer??????? You’re kidding! What did he do? Is he on the air? Ew.”  I had to mute my phone if I was going to get any work done.

Mr. Lauer and so many others like him will be remembered not for powerful careers or even for having done great good, but for imagining they could do anything they wanted to anyone they wanted without consequence. Is that how a career ends? In a firestorm of shame?  A door slammed?

Endings can be hard. We are much more comfortable with beginnings.

On Thursday I got to hold a beginning, newborn Nathaniel’s bundled body a tiny furnace in my arms. He is a promise newly made to us—his future known only to God.

In our scripture readings in coming weeks, we will hear news of another infant. Though Jesus was the Mother of All Unplanned Pregnancies, his birth was a gift to his startled parents and to the whole universe.

This morning marks the beginning of a new church year and a new primary Gospel—Mark—which tells Jesus’ story from a unique and sometimes troubling almost-eye witness perspective.

Imagine a world that was only beginnings. Tiny babies. Warm puppies. First kisses. New cars.

But we know that every beginning has an ending. A knock on the door. A shameful secret exposed. And, in Advent’s case, the end of all we know.

In Advent, we begin at the end. Jumping into Mark’s Gospel at the 13th chapter is a little like starting “Game of Thrones” in Season 6. Brienne of Tarth and Jon Snow and The Wildlings? What?

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that the political and religious situation in 1st century Jerusalem was unsustainable.  Enemies within and without, secret and shameless schemed for power and position. Though those enemies chipped away at Jerusalem’s stability every day, the surefire method of bringing the whole city—and a whole people—to its knees was to destroy the temple.  It was bound to happen. The original Nuclear Option.

The Temple in Jerusalem was more than a beloved church building. As much as we love Ascension, if it burned to the ground, we would cry, call the insurance company and start again. But the Temple in Jerusalem was the Home of God, their protection and inspiration and identity. If you wanted to destroy Jerusalem and the Jews, what would you do? Torch the Temple.

Jesus was that rocket scientist. He knew the end was coming—for the city, for the Chosen People, for his ministry.

When? Only the Father knows.

How? That’s a more interesting question.

Jesus hints at a number of options.

The end of their world might come with stars falling from the skies and earthquakes beneath their feet, with angels and winds and a mighty return. “Look out!”

Or their world might end as quietly as a fig tree that blooms in the spring and withers in the fall. After all, every spring begs an autumn.  “Just wait.”

Or it might end as delightfully as the return of traveler, long-anticipated and always welcome. “Open the door.”

Or, to use an example ripped from the headlines, the end may come with a final judgement. “I saw what you did.”

Advent begins at the end—of our lives, our reputations, our dreams, our world.  And Advent will end at the beginning—with news of a birth.

Shall we begin?

 

 

Christ the King Sunday

Christ the King Sunday (26 November 2017)

Matthew 25.31-46

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 

“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

“Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

He didn’t know anyone was watching.

Friday afternoon I pulled up to the four-way-stop at Cherry and Meadow in Northbrook—an intersection that can turn mild-mannered Northbrookians into angry road-ragers. But on Friday afternoon it was sunny and 60 degrees and no one was in a hurry, so we all willingly stopped to let a young woman with two small children cross the intersection. Suddenly, one of the little boys paused and turned three quick cartwheels in the crosswalk. And then he just kept walking. As though nothing had happened.

He clearly didn’t do it for us, his automotive audience, but for himself. His heart was happy on that warm, sunny day, and that happiness just burst out of  him.  When a couple of us lowered our car windows and applauded, he looked surprised. He didn’t know anyone was watching.

Neither did she.

Only moments before that delightful display I had witnessed an unhappy heart. A woman at the grocery store looked disapprovingly at the newspaper ad left in her cart by a previous shopper. She pulled it out of the cart and threw it to the floor in disgust. I managed to avoid her as she careened down the aisles, but ended up behind her at the check-out counter. She treated the cashier like cheap help. She shoved her cart into another shopper on her way out, and then grabbed her groceries and left her empty cart wedged in the exit door. A store employee had to free the cart—and us.

A number of us stood silently, amazed at her rudeness. But she didn’t care. She didn’t know anyone was watching.

What do we reveal about ourselves when we think no one is watching?

On this last Sunday of the church year, Christ the King Sunday, we turn our attention to the end of all things, that day when all will be judged.  Today Jesus describes the last judgement with a parable about the Son of Man who will come in glory, with angels around the throne. Don’t worry. “Judgement” doesn’t necessarily mean punishment, but it does mean that all will be called to account for their lives.

Jesus uses the image of sheep and goats—sheep being the good guys, and goats the bad.  As the Son of Man starts the sorting, every one in that ovine audience is stunned by the terms of the sorting.  The Son of Man didn’t ask for references or resumes, evidence of selfless philanthropy or even of regular worship attendance. The terms of the judgement caught everyone by surprise.

“Who are you when no one is looking? What do you do when no one is watching?”

Jesus’ judgment isn’t based on our public selves, but on our private hearts. The people we are when we think no one is looking.

That’s why the “sheep” were stunned to be told that all their acts of quiet kindness had been noticed. When they visited the prisoner, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, loved the unlovable—Jesus was watching the whole time. In fact, Jesus was that prisoner, that hungry, naked, frightened stranger.  None of the sheep had expected any reward for their actions. They were just doing what they do. Even, especially, when no one was watching.

The “goats” on the other hand, were outraged.  “Had we known it was you,” they bleated. “Had we known it was you, we might have treated you better! We might have been more generous, most soft-hearted, more welcoming if we had known you were watching! This isn’t fair!”

Too baaaaad, the Son of Man replied.  The way you treat the least of my children reveals your heart. And your hearts are hard.

Years ago, when Southwest Airlines was just getting off the ground (pardon the pun) they were staffing with an eye not only for professional competency, but for a particular attitude among their employees, a state of the heart. That is not so easy to determine as one might imagine. Everyone puts their best foot forward in a job interview. How do you find out who someone really is?

The story goes that the interview started when the prospective employee landed at the airport or arrived at the building. Everyone from the driver to the parking lot attendant to the cashier in the coffee shop to the concierge in the lobby to the custodians in the restroom were part of the process. By the time the interviewee sat down for the formal interview, it was often already over. Because each of those “nobodies” whom they encountered on the way up had reported in.  And jobs were often won—or lost—because of the way the “least of them” had been treated. The way the prospective employee was when no one was watching.

Jesus hinted at this judgement strategy way back at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. He was wildly critical of the Pharisees who prayed and fasted and gave offerings “in order to be seen by others.” Already then, before anyone really knew who Jesus was, he revealed his heart. “Don’t be like them. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6)

So how does a sheep learn to be a sheep?  By example.

Jesus himself lived the way he expected his sheep to live. He could have done his ministry very differently. He could have courted power, walked red carpets, lobbied for votes, golfed at luxury courses. He could have espoused “trickle-down righteousness,” assuming that the wealthy whom he influenced would share his lessons with those beneath them.

But it doesn’t work that way. Jesus’ natural habitat, his preferred way of being, the state of his heart was to wade into the weeds of the world without expectation of reward or acclaim. He forgave. He fed. He clothed. He visited. The fact that everyone was watching didn’t influence his actions, at all.  And for his selfless, sinless, shameless love for the poor—he was treated the way they were. He was executed as a common criminal.  Serving and becoming “the least.”

Christ the King Sunday raises more questions than it answers.

Do we commit kindness whenever we can, or only when there are witnesses? Are we sheep in the sunlight and goats in the shadows? Are we inspired to cartwheels or cart-shoving? Do we prefer to be seen or to see?

Jesus became the Least for the Least. The King of Creation chose to become the Friend of Sinners. Today we see him as he is.

 

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time and Commitment Sunday

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (19 November 2017)

Matthew 25.14-30

JoAnn A.   Post

Jesus said to the disciples: “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 

“After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 

“And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 

“Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 

“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

On Tuesday, a headline in The Chicago Tribune read, “175 years ago today, Chicago auctioned off a black man.” (The Chicago Tribune, November 14, 2017) According to writer and historian Mark Jacob, “The man being auctioned was Edwin Heathcock, described by early Chicago historian Alfred Andreas as ‘a colored man, industrious and well-behaved, and a member of the Chicago Methodist Church.’”

Mr. Heathcock claimed to be a free man, but could produce no papers to prove it, so he was sent to jail and then to the auction block. What became of him?  I’ll tell you in a minute.

We like to imagine that slavery is a thing of the past, that the days of buying and selling human flesh is but a sad chapter in our nation’s history. But it is not. If we define “slavery” literally, we know that it continues around the world, even on our own soil, as women and men, often as children, are traded for their services as cowboys used to trade cattle.

But slavery is more than an economic exchange, an abuse and misuse of human beings, it is also a state of the heart.  Jesus accused his hearers, in John’s gospel, of being “slaves to sin.” Martin Luther wrote of the “bondage of the will.”  In our liturgy we confess, “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” In this morning’s prayer of the day, we claim that God “owns the earth and all its peoples.”

Slavery continues. In the world. In our hearts.

Most often when we read the parable of the Master and Three Slaves, we are distracted by the details. Why did the Master leave, and for so long? What was he thinking, entrusting wealth to slaves? (Fun fact: the “talents” which the Master entrusted were certificates each equal to 15 years’ wages, meaning that, by North Shore standards, even the hole-digging slave was given $1.5 million to play with.) Who did Slaves 1 and 2 invest with to get that rate of return? Was the Master really a wicked man as Slave 3 claimed? Isn’t the “outer darkness” a bit of a harsh punishment for digging a hole?

But, interesting at they might be, none of those questions drives to Jesus’ point.  Another fun fact, if you want to know what a parable is really about, look at the subject of the first sentence. “For it is as if a man . . .”

Ding! Ding! Ding! I know the answer! Jesus’ parable isn’t about slaves or certificates or outer darkness, but about the man, the master, the wealthy though foolish landowner who entrusted all his wealth to slaves.

Who was this foolish fictional “man”? You get one guess.

Though Jesus’ disciples had no idea, Jesus knew that his earthly days were drawing to a close, that all he had taught and preached and prayed would soon be handed over to others.  His concern was that the caretakers of the kingdom, his servants would recognize the value entrusted to them, the gift given them, the responsibility laid in their hands.

What was Jesus thinking? Leave everything to slaves?

He was thinking that they were, that we, are trustworthy slaves.

Without romanticizing the facts of the matter, 1st century slaves were often trusted members of the household.  The slaves to whom the master gave millions of dollars of wealth had abilities, and had earned the master’s trust.

Two of them understood the terms of this agreement. Though slaves in an economic sense, they were free to think and plan and invest. They had been given much. They trusted their master. They gave much in return.

But the third slave, the hole-digging slave, was enslaved not only in his body, but in his heart. We have no idea if his master was, in fact, harsh, frightening, reaping where he did not sow. But we know the slave was. How do we know? Because we always fear and hate in others what we fear and hate in ourselves. His assessment of the master revealed his own heart—he was as wicked and harsh and selfish as he imagined the master to be.

So, in the time-honored tradition of creating our own hell, he got exactly what he feared. The master was angry upon this return.  He was harsh. He was frightening. Much had been entrusted to Slave 3, and the slave trusted none of it.

What does any of this have to do with us and with Commitment Sunday?  It seems a stretch.  But it’s not. This text, this Sunday, our lives are about trusting the master who trusts us.

Remember our friend, Mr. Heathcock? He did in fact, stand on an auction block in Chicago, offered to the highest bidder. But what the auctioneer did not know was that local abolitionists—Christian abolitionists, to be more specific, had seeded the crowd, and would not allow Mr. Heathcock to be sold. Mr. Jacob writes:

The sheriff, insisting he was just following the law, explained that he was auctioning off Heathcock for a month to pay for his stay at the jail.

He asked for bids. He got none.

He asked again. None.

He kept asking, and finally warned the crowd: “If I can get no bid for this man, I must return him to jail.” Up stepped Mahlon Ogden, whose brother William was Chicago’s first mayor. Mahlon took out a silver quarter and offered 25 cents for Heathcock. The sheriff accepted.

Mahlon Ogden then told Heathcock: “Go where you like.” And that was it.

Mr. Heathcock’s life lay in the hands of strangers. Buffeted by the cold wind whipping off Lake Michigan, studied like a piece of meat, could he trust that someone would free him?Though he could not have known it, those strangers who came to his aid were themselves trustworthy “slaves,” followers of Jesus, who recognized what they had been given, and vowed to give those same gifts—freedom, dignity, agency—to a man unjustly imprisoned.

Today we receive commitments of support for next year’s ministries and for improvements to our facility. We are not asking you to enter indentured servitude, to deny yourselves food and clothing. We each support this ministry according to our abilities, as did the slaves in Jesus’ parable. But why all the fuss, all the money? It is, after all, only a building.

Only a building where children learn the faith, and lovers come to be married, and the hungry come for food, and the burdened find relief, and our elders are laid to rest. Only a building that houses a ministry that is vital to us and to the world.  We have been entrusted with this lovely place, and others trust us to carry out our mission. Can they? Can they trust us?

We are all slaves. Some in our world are enslaved in a very real way, owned by another. But some of us are slaves to fear and doubt, unable to trust our Master to be kind.

We can trust God, our Master, to provide our needs. In turn, God entrusts us with enormous gifts, intended to be shared. To the prisoner, freedom. To the hungry, food. To the homeless, shelter. The Master trusts us. But do we trust the Master?

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (12 November 2017)

Matthew 25.1-13

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the disciples: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 

But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Last Sunday morning I held my mother’s hand as she wept about my father’s death. Her broken heart breaks mine; my own tears that morning were for both my mother and my father. As I reached for fresh Kleenex—one for her and one for me—I glanced at the muted TV in the corner of her room. The crawler on the screen read, “Multiple deaths in Texas church shooting.”

The disconnect was breathtaking. There I sat in a quiet, safe room with my elderly mother, grieving my father’s death but grateful for the peaceful way in which he died. At the very same time, in another time zone, in a room that was supposed to be safe, other children and parents, husbands and wives wailed over the crumpled bodies of those who died violently and too soon.

When I returned to the office Monday, the very first conversation we had was about our safety here. What will we do if an unwelcome stranger, an armed intruder approaches this safe place? I am ashamed to tell you that we would not be ready. We had launched a safety team and drafted emergency protocols more than a year ago (probably after a similar public tragedy), but then we got distracted by other matters. We became complacent. The statistical improbability of such an occurrence dulled our fears. We stopped paying attention.

Perhaps Jesus was concerned about our tendency to underplay the dangers around us, our self-inoculation against reasonable reaction. Maybe that’s why he told a parable about 1st century bridesmaids, using their inattention to scold us about ours.

He told an amusing parable of complacent young women dolled up in foofy dresses with big bows on the butt, architecturally stunning hair-dos and spiky shoes designed to turn not heads but ankles. “Light your lamps!” Jesus cried. “Keep awake!” he warned.

But he wasn’t warning them of a tragedy about to round the corner. They were watching for a tipsy bridegroom to lurch into view, stumbling from the bachelor party to the banquet hall. That love-drunk bridegroom would need the bridesmaids’ lamps to light his way. “Be awake! Light his joy!”

Jesus’ concern as we near the end of Matthew’s gospel is for neither institutional emergency preparedness or inattentive bridal parties.

We have allowed ourselves to be distracted in this, too. We have been distracted from Jesus’ true concern by our own. Let’s go back to the beginning. The beginning of the text, and the beginning of the book of Matthew.

Jesus’ parable opens in a familiar way: “The kingdom of heaven will be like this. . . “

Those words echo some of the first words out of Jesus’ mouth way back at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel: “The kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 4.17)

The kingdom of heaven is mentioned 29 times in Matthew’s gospel. We are meant to notice. But the “kingdom of heaven” isn’t a euphemism for imminent danger or slow-to-start wedding receptions or “the place you go after you die.” The kingdom of heaven for which the bridesmaids were to watch is here, every day, everywhere. And has been since Jesus first breathed our air.

The kingdom of heaven for which Jesus’ mythical bridesmaids were to prepare was imminent, inevitable, obvious once you knew what to watch for. As surely as a bridegroom eventually shows up for his wedding, so surely will we see the kingdom of heaven among us. And, according to Matthew, this is what it looks like:

The kingdom of heaven is seen when we do God’s will.

The kingdom of heaven appears when we tend to the poor.

The kingdom of heaven appears when, like seeds, hope sprouts.

The kingdom of heaven appears when we forgive.

When we are humble.

When we are generous.

We don’t have to look hard to find these signs. But they seem so ordinary, so unremarkable. So easy to ignore. In the same way we forget to be vigilant after a crisis passes, we forget that the Kingdom of Heaven is all around. It only needs to be noticed.

As we near the end of our capital campaign, the campaign playbook instructs that on this Sunday, the pastor will preach a stewardship sermon. I had intended to. I had intended to talk to you about our capital campaign and our ongoing ministry plans. I had intended to convince you that you have enough for what you need and some to share. I had intended to be direct about our responsibility to share our gifts with the world through Ascension. I believe all those things. It would have been easy to preach that sermon.

But then my Dad died. And a church was riddled with bullets. And all the while, allegations of sexual harassment popped up in every industry. And though it may have seemed to some that the darkness was growing, in fact, the lamps of attentive bridesmaids lit the darkness like stars.

The manager of the inn where my family stayed for my father’s funeral moved us from the small, inexpensive room I had reserved to a much larger, nicer space. And cut the price in half. “You’ll need a nice place to come home to,” he said.

Following the shooting in Texas, though for a brief time, the voices of hope and acts of kindness were more prominent than the angry voices of those who immediately accuse the other side of the aisle for the carnage.

As more and more wary witnesses tell their stories of creepy seduction and outright harm from powerful people, we are beginning to believe them.

These might seem like small things. A safe place at the end of the day. Strong shoulders that support those who weep. Telling a hard truth and being believed.

But the kingdom of heaven is like this.

Bridesmaids aren’t asked to light the whole city. Only the path of a bridegroom on the way to his bride. We can do that.

We are re-assembling our team to ensure Ascension’s safety. On Wednesday, we stuffed Christmas stockings with small gifts to warm men who live under bridges in Chicago. Next week we receive commitments of support for this ministry—so that Ascension’s light might shine in the world’s dark places. In Advent, we will have opportunity to provide Christmas gifts for inner-city school children. These are small things.

Over and over and over again Matthew’s Jesus urges us to identify signs of the Kingdom of Heaven all around. To wake from the darkness and light our lamps. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is like this . . .

 

 

 

 

Reformation Sunday

Reformation Sunday (29 October 2017)

John 8.31-36

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

When people find out I’m a pastor, all sorts of conversational chaos ensues. Shock. Awe. Awkward.

Not long ago at a social event, I made the mistake of identifying myself as a Lutheran pastor. “Aha!” my conversation partner cried. “I thought about being a Lutheran once. Until I learned that Martin Luther was an anti-Semite. Who would be part of an organization that hates Jews?”

He leaned back triumphantly, arms across his chest, as though he had just delivered a brilliant closing statement on “Law and Order.”

That Martin Luther hated Jews is reprehensible, but no secret. He also hated Muslims, whom he called “the Turks.” His teaching sparked a flame of hatred against the emerging Anabaptist movement that resulted in the deaths of thousands. That Martin Luther was not only a brilliant,  theologian but also a bigoted, small-minded man of his time should surprise no one. We are all a mixed bag of blessings and curses. His bigotry has not gone unnoticed. Nor do we condone it. In fact, for decades, the Lutheran church has been in dialogue with Jews and Muslims and Mennonites, mending the breach, finding a way forward.

My cocktail party accuser may have scored a point for shaming a stranger in a public place, but why stop with Luther’s personal sin, the sin in which our whole denomination was born?

My family farm is planted on land which formerly  grazed bison for the Lakota Sioux. The Sioux didn’t give that land to us—we took it.

The White House, which has proudly housed the First Family for 217 years, was built on the backs of slaves. Are the current occupants complicit?

We now know that many of the movies we enjoy were financed, directed, produced or cast by people of corrupt moral character. When we attend movies do we condone their despicable deeds?

The list of reprehensible behavior on the part of individuals or organizations is endless. Does the name Wells Fargo ring a bell?

It’s a real question. What are we to do when we discover that the people, the places, the institutions, the movements we respect were built on bigotry, blindness or even blood?

Jesus said, “Anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

That’s an answer?  Anyone who commits sin? That you and me and anybody who has ever drawn a breath is not only a sinner but a slave to it? No wonder neither Jesus nor Luther ever won a popularity contest.

But when Jesus said “anyONE,” he was not implying that only individuals sin.

Jesus might have concurred—loosely—with Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby, the 2014 Supreme Court decision which granted privately-held companies rights that had previously pertained only to individuals.  If corporations can donate to political campaigns and enjoy free speech as individuals do, it should follow that they enjoy all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto. Like the privilege, the propensity to sin.

Can corporations sin? Absolutely.

When Jesus said, “Anyone who sins . . . “ he wasn’t indicting only the individual sinner. He indicted us all. You and me. Our whole denomination. Midwest farmers. White House residents. Oblivious movie-goers. Financial institutions. We are, all of us, slaves to sin. And Happy Reformation Day to you, too.

For the last year, we’ve been talking about Reformation500 as though it were a single word like IPhoneX or Century21. We’ve been talking about this anniversary as though it were a singular event, a day on the calendar remembering another day on the calendar 500 years ago. As though on Wednesday morning, November 1, it will all be over. Martin Luther impersonators will have to go back to their day jobs. The Lutheran church will recede back into the cultural shadows where it mostly lives. We will return to our regularly scheduled programming—worrying about budgets and buildings and long-term institutional viability.

But the Reformation wasn’t about a man—Martin Luther. Or a day—October 31, 1517. Or an idea—by grace you have been saved through faith. The Reformation is about our ongoing, never-ending, confessional belief that all of us have sinned, that all have fallen short of what God desires, that all of us—from the youngest child to the richest corporate CEO—are complicit in the world’s evil.

But that’s not where it ends. That’s where it starts.

Luther’s big revelation was not about the pervasiveness of sin. It was about the relentlessness of God’s mercy.

You see, Jesus didn’t go mute after naming us “slaves to sin.” He went on, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”

He speaks a truth harder to stomach that the truth of our sin—the fact of our freedom. Some of us haven’t quite come to terms with that yet.

Some time ago I visited an elderly friend, a pastor whom I have always admired. During our visit, he turned to me and said, “I need to confess.” I was stunned. I could not have known that this man, who for decades lived and preached the mercy and forgiveness of God, spent the last days of his life in guilt and shame. “The things I’ve done,” he said, hanging his head. “The things I’ve done. I thought I would tell you, but I can’t say them out loud. No one but God knows. Will God forgive me?”

I was stunned. That he is a sinner is no surprise. But that he would carry those sins, whatever they might be, as a weight on his heart, breaks mine. Apparently, even he, this forgiving, faithful servant of God needs to hear that though, on his own, a slave to sin, Jesus frees him.

The Reformation, launched five centuries ago but never really completed, only hinted at a truth we hardly dare believe.

God loves you. Without limit. Without condition. Without question. There is nothing you can do to make God stop loving you. And no matter how often or how creatively you fail, God’s love and forgiveness never will.

Our sin goes  deep, but God’s love goes deeper still.

So when the casual critic points out the fly in our historical ointment we proudly quote our flawed but faithful forefather:

Be a sinner and sin boldly.

But believe and rejoice more boldly still,

for God is victorious over sin, death and the world.

Sin boldly?” Gladly. Because the depth of our sin reveals the wideness of God’s mercy. Here’s to the next 500.

 

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (22 October 2017)

Matthew 22.15-22

JoAnn A. Post

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

When we emptied my parents’ house earlier this year one of the last things to go was the books. There were hundreds of them, in bookcases and boxes and tucked in a crawl space under the stairs.  One evening I spent hours sitting on the floor in their back bedroom, surrounded by stacks and stacks of books. I wanted to make sure that any book one of us had owned or had given our parents as a gift was returned to the giver. The eight piles grew until they toppled.  But I didn’t finish.

It was more than tempting to open each book, especially the books we had had as children, and read them again. But I would still be sitting there. And I was on a personal mission. I was looking for one book in particular. A book my mother had given my older sister, Mary, and me when we were little.

My older sister and I are best friends and thick as thieves, always have been. But there was a time in our lives—around 1966, if I remember correctly—when sharing a room, a bed, a dresser, a closet, our clothes and the very air we breathed became an issue.  So my mother, the child whisperer, bought us a book. To share.

On that early spring night in Titonka, IA, sitting alone in my parents’ almost empty home, I was looking for a book my mother had given my sister and me. To preserve us as sisters.

There are lots of ways to approach this morning’s gospel reading.

A pastor friend who is unashamedly political is probably dealing with the obvious political tension in this text.  After all, Jesus was a threat to both the religious and political authorities—the Pharisess and the Herodians. In this politically charged time in our country’s history, it wouldn’t be hard to talk about the political dimensions of faith in Jesus Christ. When is it not only appropriate, but necessary, to oppose the ruling authorities?

A pacifist pastor friend is probably admitting to a federal crime. For years, she has withheld the portion of her federal income tax equivalent to the amount of the federal budget dedicated to military spending. She gives to the emperor that which belongs to the emperor—except about 16% which would support the Pentagon. The IRS hasn’t come after her. Yet. But I’ve always promised that I’ll visit her in prison.

We are in the early days of a capital campaign, and a less subtle and more desperate preacher than I might use this opportunity to remind you that everything you have is a gift from God to be used for the greater good. Specifically, for our greater good. Just think how happy Jesus would be if you gave a massive gift to our capital campaign. (Not really.)

But my head and heart are elsewhere this morning.

My head and heart are with Annabelle. It is our practice here to commune children when they are baptized or any time after that when they express a desire to join us at the table. She has wanted this for a long time—we first talked last spring. But Annabelle is a Planner—there were lots of pieces to the puzzle that had to be arranged before we could pick a day. And today is that day.

I wonder what this is like for her parents, to watch their brilliant, inquisitive, deliberate daughter stand on her own two patent-leather feet, extend her own hands to receive the bread and wine. It is not all that many years ago that they carried her in their hands—carried her to a font where they said in front of God and everybody that she was not really their child, but that she belonged to God. Not to the emperor. Not to us.  Annabelle is a gift from God. She is not ours.

So, though Jesus poked his highly-educated, wildly-important political and religious opponents to identify what belonged to the emperor and what belonged to God, the challenge to us today is a little closer to our hearts. What does it mean that everything—our bodies, our minds, our passions, our possessions, the people we love—all belong to God?

That little book I sought? “This Room Is Mine,” published in 1966. I never did find it. But this gospel reading put me in mind of it. I wanted to see it again, wanted to read it again. (It cost me $36 on Ebay.) Part of my desire to see it again was nostalgia—I miss the gift of mother’s bedtime reading voice. But I also wanted to share it. With our children. And with you. This simple little story speaks a difficult truth. When we imagine our stuff belongs to us, when I divide my stuff from your stuff, my room from your room, I am, in fact, dividing my heart from your heart, my life from your life, my good from your good. We forget that not only our bedrooms and clothes and toys belong to God, but all of us, everything we have and are, belongs to God. And to deny that is to be poor. To be alone.

Annabelle will never be alone. Her parents will love her with all their hearts until they themselves are returned to God. We will love her. Everywhere she goes, God will place good and kind people in her path to guide and protect and cherish her. Annabelle doesn’t belong to us. This building doesn’t belong to us. Our stuff doesn’t belong to us. Our money doesn’t belong to us. It all belongs to God.

I was Annabelle’s age when Mom handed “This Room Is Mine” to my sister and me. The two sisters in the story decided to divide everything right down the middle. Until they realized that though they had gained ownerships of some stuff and some floorspace, they had lost each other. My mother’s message was clear. There is no thing worth losing your sister over.

I doubt that Jesus was anticipating eight-year old Annabelle when he confronted the Pharisees and Herodians. Nor was he anticipating us and our love of money, our love of things. But whether the “stuff” we hoard is status or wealth or power or a closet, none of it belongs to us.

“Give to the emperor that which belongs to the emperor,” Jesus said. That’s easy. Everything else? The “everthing else” that belongs to God. You know what to do.

 

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 October 2017)

Matthew 21.33-46

JoAnn A. Post

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 118.22-23)

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.”  (Isaiah 18.14-15)

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 the people regarded him as a prophet.

It could have been us.

On Sunday evening our office manager drove by the country music concert venue in Las Vegas only ten minutes before the first bullets were fired. Mercifully, she and her vacationing husband spent the night in the Las Vegas airport rather than an ER, or  the morgue. Though she was never in real danger, she was close. It could have been her.

On Monday morning authorities and family members went to an Orlando nursing home to tell the gunman’s mother that her son had committed mass murder. My own mother is elderly and lives in a nursing home. Though none of the eight of us Post kids will likely be an assassin, the shooter’s elderly mother is not much different from mine.

On Thursday morning, we learned that the gunman had been casing other venues for his violence—Chicago’s Lollapalooza for one. Usually the biggest tragedy at an outdoor concert venue is the long line at the Porta Potties. The thought of Grant Park’s lovely lake-side arena awash in blood and bullets was jolting. It could have been us.

On Friday evening, CNN’s Anderson Cooper sat on a stool on a dark sound stage telling stories of the 58 killed Sunday night. Mothers. Fathers. Brothers. Sisters. Children. Spouses. Fiancés. Best friends. Their only “crime” was that they love country music and a cold beer. Any one of them could have been us.

It was. It was one of us.

I am ashamed to say that one of my first fears on hearing the news was about the identity of the gunman.  If he had been black or brown, Mexican or Muslim, you know exactly what the public outcry would have been. Instead (twisted sigh of relief), the shooter was male, white, wealthy, with no criminal past.* The shooter could have been us.  So instead of inevitable demands for tighter borders or higher walls or greater surveillance, the whole country stood shaking its head.

What does it mean that someone whose profile so closely matches ours would commit a crime that none of us, not in our darkest moment, could even imagine, let alone execute?  What does it mean that an otherwise ordinary man would take extraordinary measures to murder fun-loving country music fans, a man whose mother loves him, whose life any of us would envy? Listen carefully–its not his whiteness or his “guyness” or his wealth that makes him so like us, but the remarkably unremarkable nature of the life he led; a life so like ours. What triggered him to pull the trigger—again and again and again?

Jesus tells his disciples a parable about an almost-as-gruesome crime scene, this one set in a vineyard, not at a music venue. In Jesus’ imagined vineyard, previously-hardworking tenant farmers with no prior history broke their contract, committed vicious acts and, to employ a canine metaphor, bit the hand that fed them. Mercifully, this horrible tale is fictional, not front page.

What prompted their murderous outburst? Maybe the landlord abused them. Maybe their working conditions were inhumane. Maybe the slaves who came to collect the produce harmed them. Surely, there was a reason, a motive, a message scrawled somewhere. But there is no easy explanation for their premeditated murder—as if any explanation would ease the pain.

What happened to those suddenly-murderous grape pickers, who inexplicably turned their wine presses into weapons? Jesus has a thought.

You may have heard striking similarities between today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 5.1-7) and Jesus’ parable. Isaiah also wrote of a vineyard lovingly tended and managed. A vineyard attacked, not by crazed tenant farmers, but by the vines themselves—vines that sprouted small sour pebbles rather than rich ruby grapes. In frustration, the vineyard owner threatens a lawsuit against his vines: “Judge between me and my vineyard!”  And then he wept to anyone who would listen, “What more was there to do for you that I have not already done?”

Jesus’ hearers would have recognized the similarities, too.

Both the Ancient Seer and the Son of God speak a truth that hits us hard.

Everything we need, we already have. Everything we need is already known.

I’m not talking about material things—we have plenty of things, too many things. Nor am I talking about the secret cravings of our hearts—whether those cravings are dark desires for control, power, revenge, or broken-hearted longings that would magically re-write the past or alter the future.

I’m talking about the things we need from God, things that only God can provide. What do we need? We need to be pruned like vines, so that the evil in us is tossed away, allowing the good to grow. We need to be engaged in work that encourages life and joy.  We need to be forgiven when we fail to be the grapes, the vines, the workers God needs us to be.

But for some inexplicable reason, the gentle pruning, the loving guidance, the free forgiveness is not enough. It is easy to see the fault in others, to point out the foolishness of the gunman’s actions. But like the Pharisees who suddenly realized Jesus was talking about them, the truth is slow to dawn on us.

Though none of us is twisted enough to murder innocent strangers, the rogue vines, the revengeful tenants, the renegade assassin, are eerily like us. We seem to never be satisfied. There is an emptiness. A longing. Perhaps an entitlement that never goes away.

God’s cry of anguish over rogue vines echoes to us yet today. “What more was there to do for you that I have not already done?”

Sitting at a stop light last week, I had time to watch a patient well-groomed man coaxing an impatient well-groomed puppy to walk beside him. It wasn’t going well. The puppy plopped butt-down on the sidewalk, stubborn as a mule, while its kind owner tugged persistently on the leash, spoke clear commands, offered enticing treats. The pup refused. What more could the puppy want?  What more could its owner do? As I drove away, I could see the test of wills continue in my rearview mirror. And the parallels between our lives.

I prefer to think of myself as a poorly-trained puppy rather than a vicious vine, a murderous grape picker or a cowardly assassin. But the impulse is the same.

God has given us everything—life, breath, purpose, love—and we want more. We want other.

So what will God do? What did God do?

In a world of unanswered questions, we know the answer to this one. God sent the only Son into our vineyard to gather all those who belong to him. To prune, to employ, to forgive. Because, for God, it’s always about us.

*“White Men Have Committed More Mass Shootings than Any Other Group,” Newsweek, Monday, October 2, 2017

 

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (1 October 2017)

Matthew 21.23-32

JoAnn A. Post

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

It’s not a saying we repeat often, but apparently it was common in antiquity, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Ezekiel 18.2)

What does that mean? It means that children suffer for a parent’s actions. It means that trouble has a generational reputational ripple effect. It means that if a father committed a crime, his children and grandchildren would be forever tainted by it. And, to reverse the saying, a parent’s good name made life easier for every child born into that family.

On a recent trip back home to see my parents, my older brother asked me to run an errand at the bank for him.  I haven’t banked in my hometown in more than 40 years, so I was a little dubious. Even at my own bank here, they often ask for ID before speaking to me, all the while being watched by security cameras. But when I walked in and said, “Hi, Dave Post sent me to . . .” I didn’t even have to finish the sentence. I could have asked them to open the vault and hand me all the money and they would have. It’s a good thing to be a Post in Titonka, Iowa.

Not so much if you’re a Richter or a Hanson.* I don’t know what some long-ago elder Richter or Hanson ever did, but you can’t trust any of them. Because you know, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Or, as Ezekiel might say, their parents ate some sour grapes.

We do it in public life, too. Depending on your political persuasion, the name of Chelsea Clinton or Eric Trump may make you clench your jaw or cheer out loud, because though we’ve never personally met either of them, we know what they’re like—because we know what their parents are like.

The prophet Ezekiel argued that, though conveniently dismissive and anecdotally verifiable, that saying would no longer apply. It had been revealed to him by God that whether parents ate sour grapes or robbed banks, it had no lasting effect on their offspring. Each was responsible for his or her own sin.

Though we might remember and judge a person because of something someone else did long ago, Ezekiel quotes a new law from God, “Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine; it is only the person who sins that shall die.”

Fast forward to the 1st century, to Jesus’ building feud with the leaders of the synagogue.  Today’s gospel reading opens with a reference to “these things.” “By what authority are you doing these things,” the chief priests and elders asked.

What things? At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem as a conquering king—seated on a donkey that pranced on a street of palms.  After that Jesus stormed into the temple complex and flipped over the tables of the moneychangers who were making change for foreign guests in Jerusalem to worship. After that, he cursed an unproductive fig tree and it withered to a dry stump.

“By what authority do you do these things?” Parade into town like a king. Trash the local bank. Overwhelm nature?

Did they want to do these things themselves? Were they just curious? Or scared to death?  Jesus would gladly have answered their questions, but they refused to answer his question about the way they treated John the Baptizer, so instead he told them a story.

A story about two sons, each of whom said one thing and did another.

Jesus finished the story with a simple question: “Which of the two did the will of the father?”  That was easy. The one who did what his father asked.

Snap.

The chief priests and elders had had every chance to “do the will of the Father,” to hear John the Baptizer and repent of their own sins. But they didn’t. They wouldn’t. Who did? Richters and Hansons. Tax collectors and prostitutes.

Think about those two professions for a moment. No child, then or now, lay awake nights thinking, “I want a job that will make everyone hate me, that will debase and harm me.”  That was the life of tax collectors and prostitutes. Tax collectors were lying thieves, and prostitutes. Well, you know . . .

The chief priests and elders might have been upstanding citizens in every way, they assumed their inherited job titles would impress God as much as they impressed people. But Jesus wasn’t impressed. John had offered them an honest dip in the river, and they had refused.  Why would they admit sin when they had none?

But the tax collectors and prostitutes came running when they heard John’s message. They wanted to be free of the circumstances that forced them into sinful lives. They wanted to repent. They wanted to be made new.

Did they stop being tax collectors and prostitutes after washing in the River Jordan? We don’t know. They may have had no choice but to return to their old lives. But those old lives, those destructive careers no longer defined them. They shed sin the way a snake sheds skin.

Regardless of who they were or what they did, even if they came from a long line of scheming tax collectors or salacious sex workers, Jesus promised them a place at the front of the line on the day of salvation. They repented. And that’s all Jesus asked.

I have had a friend for 20 years who only ten years ago told to me that his father, who I thought was dead, is in fact serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary for armed robbery. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked him.  “Because I didn’t want you to think less of me.”

His father’s criminal past changed nothing about my regard for my friend. But he didn’t know that.  What was that saying, “The parents eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge?”

Though we may remember past sins or revile one another’s shady reputations or dark associations, God does not think about us that way.

When God thinks about us, it is not as chief priests or tax collectors, elders or prostitutes, Posts or Richters. We stand before God, we kneel before God as sinners loved in the same measure as the sin itself.

Who does the will of the father, Jesus asked? The one who repents, and who welcomes others who repent, as well.

*Names changed to protect the neighbors

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (24 September 2017)

Matthew 20.1-16

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the disciples: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

“The usual daily wage.” Matthew’s readers knew what that meant, but we have no idea. The person who works the labor pool on Chicago’s Southside receives a different daily wage than the police officer walking the beat, who earns a different daily wage than the public school teacher, who takes home a different daily wage than the penthouse executive. What a simple world it must have been when everyone understood the “usual daily wage.”

What was “usual” about it was that it could be anticipated, planned for, budgeted. Everybody knew what a day’s work was worth. What was “daily” about it was that it provided for a person’s needs for one day. There were no pension plans or bonuses, nothing to stuff under the mattress. Just enough for today. And you could count on it.

1st century grape pickers didn’t stockpile the way we do. For example, even in our little two-person home, we have a fancy refrigerator-freezer in our kitchen, and a smaller fridge in the basement. You never want to run out of cold beer or Diet Coke. We have 80 running feet of food storage in our pantry, and while it sounds like a lot, it’s not. Go home and measure yours. The checkout staff at Sunset Foods knows me by name—I stop there every night on my way home from work. Somehow, no matter what my pantry or frig contain, I always need something more.

Of course, my Northshore usual daily wage has to include more than what I might need for food. How does one calculate 1/365th of the mortgage, the student loan, the Nordstrom card, the Botanic Gardens annual dues? All those things I need?

But the laborer’s in Jesus’ parable didn’t struggle with too much of anything. When they got all red-faced and snippy about the way they were paid, they weren’t being unduly spiteful. They were being honest. They were being afraid. They knew they were only one usual daily wage away from being homeless and hungry. So they were willing to do a full-day’s work for a full-day’s wage—they had children waiting at home with a full-day’s hunger.

That’s why they were justified in complaining: “These last worked only an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat?”

They were angry because they thought others were being unfairly compensated, that is, compensated at the same rate for less work. Remember that the early risers received exactly what they’d been promised; they weren’t shorted in any way. But those other guys? They didn’t deserve a half of the usual daily wage. That’s why the early risers regarded the landowner not as generous, but as foolish. And wildly unfair.

This might be a point at which we could talk about the wild unfairness baked into our own country’s financial system. The growing chasm between rich and poor.  The high incidence of corruption and inequity at all levels of our economy. And that is a conversation we should have.

But Janet Yellen has nothing to fear from Jesus, or from me. To talk only about money at this point would be to miss Jesus’ gracious and pointed point. Jesus told this parable to prick his disciples, to make them uncomfortable. And to prepare them for greater inequities to come. (Remember the day Jesus forgave those who nailed him to the cross, promised paradise to a convicted criminal? Who does that?)

One of the breakthroughs of the reformation was the realization that we are all nothing but laborers in someone else’s field. In God’s field. Pope and pauper. Educated or illiterate. Though we evaluate one another on a whole variety of measures, God uses no such scale. After all, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We believe that though there might be varieties of sin, as there are varieties of grapes, there are no levels. At the end of the day God regards us as the landowner regarded his workers. We are all the same, everybody worthy of receiving the usual daily wage, regardless of what they had done or who they were.

There is a parable-like quality to recent weather events. In a negative and violent fashion. Hurricane Maria didn’t differentiate between those who deserved to be wiped out and those who should be spared. She blew where she blew and no one was spared. And did you notice that, for a moment, the winds, the rains, the tremors created the same indiscriminate leveling among those in her path. In Houston, in the Keys, in Puerto Rico, in Mexico City, suddenly it didn’t matter if you were rich or poor, black or white, liberal or conservative, straight or trans. Wind and rain, tremor and terror leveling both structures and status.

The difference between God and an earthquake or a hurricane?  God doesn’t leave destruction in God’s wake, but mercy. Everywhere. For everyone. And in telling this parable of God’s up-side-down economy, Jesus introduces us to one another in a new way. We are all the same in each other’s eyes, as well,  laborers in a vineyard owned by someone else. We are all the same in our desperate sin and our desperate need. And if it bothers us that people we regard as less deserving are loved and forgiven in the same measure as we are, Jesus would like to spend a day with you, picking grapes in the hot sun.

There are times when we may doubt God’s gracious providing, Jesus’ even-handed mercy. If you’ve ever been burdened by hardship—so poor you can’t eat, so sad you can’t sleep, so scared you can’t breathe, so ashamed you can’t show your face, so angry that, like Jonah, you’d rather die—you know how desperately you need that “usual daily wage” from God. Enough for today. Just for today. Tomorrow? Tomorrow doesn’t belong to us. We rely on God to give us what we need for today. The usual daily mercy. The usual daily courage. The usual daily love.

We are laborer’s in God’s vineyard. Each of us receiving from God’s hand the usual daily wage.  Usual in that we can anticipate it. Daily in that it will be enough.

Jesus’ fictional landlord says it best, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

No, not envious. Stunned, perhaps. And learning to be grateful. Grateful for the usual daily gift we each–every laborer–receive from God’s hand.