Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (10 November 2019)

Luke 20.27-38

JoAnn A. Post

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally, the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

“I take you to be my spouse, from this day forward, to join with you and share all that is to come; and I promise to be faithful to you until death parts us.” (ELW marriage vows)

These are the simplest, most straight-forward wedding vows offered in our wedding liturgy. Another option offers language about “richer and poorer, in sickness and in health.” Yet another suggests that we “forgive as we have been forgiven.”

Since the long-passed OK Boomer days of church weddings with a common liturgy, weddings have become completely customized, tailored to the needs and desires of each couple. Invitations. Events. Venues. Menus. Officiants. Rituals. Play lists. No wedding is like any other. In keeping with this personalization of the rite, rather than borrowing vows, words crafted and tested over centuries, couples like to write their own. Confidentially, I discourage the practice. Because it is harder than one might think.

We struggle to send a text message without unfortunate errors or inappropriate emojis.  Imagine how hard it would be to find words of such gravity and depth that they will last a lifetime. Emoji-free. It’s not easy.

Some hand-crafted vows are too intimate, better whispered on a moonlit beach than shouted in front of Grandma. “When I look into your sultry eyes . . .“ Yeah, no.

Others are far too intricate, attempting to address every possible circumstance that might befall them. “When you stay up late working, I will keep your side of the bed warm. When the dog barfs on the rug, I’ll clean it up.” Take it from me—those are the easy parts.

And most custom-crafted wedding vows are dishonest. Not by design, but out of denial. We want to use words like “forever” and “always.” But we don’t marry forever, or for always. Because, sad but true, even the most loving, most faithful marriage ends. We are married only until death parts us.

“Do we have to say that part? The death part?” couples often ask. “I don’t want to think about dying on my wedding day.”

Who does?

Jesus has arrived. After chapters and chapters of traveling to Jerusalem, he has arrived, standing inside its storied walls. As we would have expected, his reputation got there before him, and so far he’s been alternately adored like a rock star and splattered with questions like paint balls.

“By whose authority do you do these things?”

“Is it lawful to pay taxes or not?”

And today: “In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?”

None of these was a real question. They just wanted Jesus to say something stupid on a hot mic.

When the Sadducees (disingenuously because they didn’t believe in a resurrection of the dead) challenged Jesus’ understanding of the resurrection, they did so with a troubling nuptial “what if.” In a discarded first draft of the musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” the Sadducees sing a song of a solitary bride, serially, tragically married to seven brothers.

A pastoral colleague wondered, darkly, about this bride, widowed seven times—might she have had access to arsenic? It’s been done. And those short-lived brothers. What in the world was floating in their gene pool that they lasted about as long as mayflies?

We’ll never know. And it doesn’t matter. Because it’s only a story. And an outrageous test of Jesus’ eschatology—his belief about what happens after we die. It’s also a perennial question, speculation about life after death, a question which Jesus twists to fit his answer.

In a bizarre riff on Moses and the burning bush (EX 3), Jesus makes the claim that the dead to us are not dead to God. Because those whom God deems worthy “cannot die anymore.” After all, Jesus points out, “Pay attention to God’s grammar. In speaking of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, long-dead patriarchs, Moses used a present tense verb: is. God IS their God, not WAS. So, ipso facto they must be alive.”

What? The Sadducees looked at him sideways. Is? Was? Dead? Alive? Perhaps Jesus was imagining a famous quote from an impeachment trial that would take place two centuries later, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” (President Bill Clinton, September 1998)

Is their God? Was their God? How would you diagram that sentence? Where’s my seventh-grade English teacher, Miss Shroyer, when you need her?

Jesus just shrugged and went back to his teaching.

For him, their effrontery was just another day at the office.

But for us? Jesus had us at “Those who belong to this age marry. But in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

Remember “until death parts us?” We didn’t just make that up. Marriage ends. Instead of imagining that the life to come will simply be a better version of this one, Marriage 2.0, Jesus pursues a different image of life after this life ends: “They will be like angels, children of God, children of the resurrection.”

All the images we have of life after this life ends are just that. Images. Whether from Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives and will stand upon the earth,” (Job 19.23-27a) or from the Thessalonian correspondence, “you will be the first fruits for salvation,” (2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17), we can only speculate, only imagine. Even scripture offers no single image, no definitive answer, no irrefutable evidence. How long will we, like John Brown’s body, be a-mouldering in the grave? Who will be there, in that life to come, and what will they look like? Will all wounds be healed? Will all relationships be mended? Will all sorrows be forgotten? Will we recognize one another? Will we get to choose between a harp and a harmonica? Will we care?

The shock in Jesus’ flippant answer to the Sadducees is not that God parses sentences differently than we might—is, was, dead, alive—but that all marriages end. For the happily married or partnered, that is an outrage. How dare Jesus tell me I won’t be married to my beloved into eternity! But for those for whom marriage is a burden, a struggle, a disappointment, the fact all marriages end is a relief. Tied to that ball and chain for all eternity? No thanks.

Here’s the thing. We can’t have it both ways. Either all relationships linger into eternity, or all relationships end. We can’t assume that the relationships we cherish will endure forever, and those we despise will end. Eternity belongs to God, it is not ours to design.

My Dad died 18 months before Mom did, and every day of those 18 months she lived without him was torture. “I just want to see his face,” she cried almost daily. When my Mom died in July, my husband and I were in the car, racing to see her, but we didn’t get there in time. Instead, when my brother called with the news, I whispered through my tears, “Say ‘hi’ to Dad for me.” Will it be like that in the next life? That we just pick up where we left off?

I once served in a community with an enormous township cemetery on the edge of town. The richest farmer in town, and the most self-important, purchased the eastern-most plot in the cemetery. Believing that Jesus will return from the east, like the rising sun, he wanted to ensure he would be the first in our town to be up and at ‘em when the trumpets sounded. When, years after he died, the cemetery was expanded, his family had his body exhumed and moved to the new eastern-most plot. They knew he wanted to be the first to see Jesus on resurrection day. Will it be like that? Obnoxious for eternity?

But here’s the honest truth. All these things we cherish and know—relationships, possessions, structures, even the church—are temporary. They give order to our lives in this life. But like our bodies that eventually return to the dust from which they were made, all those structures dissolve. At their best, they offer only an image, an approximation of eternity. But only an image, only an approximation.

The Sadducees’ convoluted question wasn’t a real question; they were just messing with Jesus. But their “what if” provided Jesus an opportunity to speak of limits. Soon to face his own death, Jesus had limits on his mind. The limits of life. The limits of relationships and structures. The limits of knowledge. The limits of our imagination.  And the limitlessness of God and God’s love.

“In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?” they wondered.

We know the answer to that. We are married only until death parts us. But Jesus has more to say.

“In the resurrection,” Jesus responded, “there will not be marriage. It will no longer be necessary. But there will be life. For to God, even the dead are alive.”

And to that life, there is no limit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Saints Sunday

All Saints Sunday (3 November 2019)

Luke 19.1-10

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So, he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So, he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

He was so small.

I’m not stature shaming, mocking his diminutive height. Though, to be honest, I first learned of Zacchaeus in Sunday School when I was a small person myself, and imagined him to be a little person, a leprechaun, a miniature human. Remember the Sunday School song: Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he!

Though the gospel writer tells us that Zacchaeus was shorter than a typical 1st century Middle Eastern male, that detail is important only because it explains Zacchaeus’ perch the day Jesus passed through town.

It must have been startling to the locals to see Zacchaeus in a tree. After all, he was important to the point of infamy in Jericho. Luke tells us that not only did he need a ladder to see the Lord, he was also the chief tax collector and wildly wealthy. Zacchaeus would have been a dapper dresser—bowler hat and ebony cane, spats and slicked-back hair. Like the guy on the Monopoly game board. Zacchaeus had “people”—drivers and dressers, butlers and barristers, groundskeepers and groomers. He made his money the old-fashioned way—levying onerous surcharges on already-hefty tax bills.

Well-dressed, well-heeled, well-informed. Indeed.

Self-important. Self-promoting. Self-possessed. Without question.

Detested. Despised. Distained. Absolutely.

Zacchaeus in a tree? Surprising to some, perhaps, but not to all. Where else would he be, but looking down on people, even important people like Jesus.

Remember, I told you he was small.

They were so small, as well.

In previous stories about Jesus’ travels, it was not uncommon for him to be ridiculed by the Religious Aren’t-We-Right and others in positions of authority. Pharisees. Scribes. Sadducees. Governors. Kings. Mayors. They hated him. Or envied him. Or both.

But the crowds loved him. Until today.

When Jesus ordered Zacchaeus out of his nest, informed him that they had a dinner date at Zacchaeus’ own home, the crowds went crazy. Not in a good way. More in a “Lock him up!” kind of way.

They were accustomed to Jesus being kind to sinners and sick people like them. But to align himself with that pompous, preening, promiscuous quisling was more than they could bear.

The crowds, and we might assume Jesus’ own disciples, were ordinarily all about grace and mercy, forgiveness and generosity. As long as that grace and mercy was directed their way. As long as that forgiveness and generosity had limits.

Like I said, they were so small.

Here’s something that is not small. Our grief.

For several years now we have invited you to write the names of those who have died in the last year in our Book of Remembrance for inclusion in our All Saints prayers. This year we broke a record. With over 60 names written in our Book and scores more than that inscribed on our hearts, the degree and depth of our congregation’s loss is breathtaking. And heart breaking.

Grief is complicated thing. It looks different on everyone who wears it, goes by a variety of names, appears at our doors in disarming disguises.

And grief can make us so small.

It isolates us, practically pulls the covers over our heads all by itself.

It trips us, like a shadow underfoot even on sunny days.

It changes us, stifles our smiles, messes with our memories, overwhelms our emotions, robs us of hope. Grief makes us competitive—we evaluate our grief as greater or lesser than others.

One would think it would be otherwise, that grief would be considered normal, a shared experience. That it might make us more compassionate, more expansive. After all, there is not a person alive who has not lost someone, something dear. But instead, grief can make us small.

Nine years ago, an angry employee opened fire in the Hartford Distributors building, only two miles from the Connecticut congregation I served at the time. Eight were killed; two gravely wounded. I have not seen such grief since September 11, 2001. Community religious leaders—Christians, Jews, Muslims—came together to worship and pray, and to plan a public memorial service. There was surprising cooperation among us; the liturgy came together quickly, and with great creativity and compassion.

The only point of contention? In our prayers for those who mourned the dead, some of us wanted to include the family of the gunman—particularly his bereaved mother whose sorrow and shame were immeasurable. Others of us were appalled that we would even consider such a thing. To them, the gunman’s violence and disregard for life placed both him and his family outside the limits of God’s love.

It would be as if we were to name the family of recently-killed ISIS leader al-Baghdadi in our prayers this morning. He was, without question, ruthless, violent, bloodthirsty, heartless. We can’t imagine anyone loved him, not even God. But what if? What if God is not as small as we are. What if God’s grace and mercy, forgiveness and generosity extend not only to Zacchaeus and to those we mourn, but to all whom God made?

There were some in Jericho that day who resented Jesus’ willingness to eat with Zacchaeus, the city’s #1 sinner. It was they who were small.

There are some among us for whom grief is a pain we can’t ease, an emptiness we can’t fill. Grief shrinks our world, makes it small.

There are some among us who believe God’s love has limits, that some actions, some beliefs, some words are just too much. Is God as small as we?

It is one thing to be small in stature, as was Zacchaeus. We can’t repent our inherited dimensions.

It is another thing to be small in spirit, runty in our welcome, cramped in our kindness.

This morning our Book, our prayers, our hearts are filled with memories of those we love who have died. Some of them were seamless saints, others were sinners whom even a mother might struggle to love.

But God? God doesn’t struggle to love any of us.

Remember: the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. No matter how small they might be.

 

 

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (20 October 2019)

Luke 18.1-8

JoAnn A. Post

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’  

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

What does justice look like?

Justice looks like a scar over an old man’s eye.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, who served in the United States House of Representatives for 23 years, suffered that scar as a young boy.

When Rep. Cummings was 11 years old, he and his buddies, all of them black, dared swim in a public pool in his hometown of Baltimore. For daring to believe they had the same rights as their white peers, they were taunted and threatened by a mob of almost 1000 people, who were held back by a line of police officers and K-9 units. The mob never laid hands on the swimming boys, but a glass bottle hurled over a barricade did. That bottle caught Rep. Cummings right above the eye, leaving a lasting impression.

Cummings died on Wednesday, heralded as a champion of civil discourse, fact-based decision making, and deep community involvement.

What does justice look like? Like a scar over an old man’s eye.

The parable of the Relentless Widow and the Misanthropic Judge couldn’t be farther away from that Baltimore swimming pool. But it asks the same question.

What does justice look like?

At first read, we are tempted to pity the widow, wronged in some way that Jesus never specifies. We imagine her a desperate, helpless old woman, dogging the judge for justice. What sort of hard-hearted man was that judge, unmoved by her pleas, stony to her sorrow?

Truth is, though he wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout—he speaks of himself as having no fear for God or respect for people—he may, in fact, have feared for his life.

The widow did more than follow him around, begging for mercy.

She stood outside his house in the middle of the night and taunted him. She called his landline a dozen times a day, leaving menacing messages. She watched him in the court house, never letting him out of her sight. If the judge is to be believed (and we have no reason not to), the widow was aggressive. She was a stalker.

My rough translation of the Greek text (hypopiahdzo) indicates that the judge was afraid of more than public harassment. He was convinced she was dangerous. He worried that she would punch him in the eye, get in his face, leave him marred, scarred as was Rep. Cummings.

She was no wilting, weeping widow. She was the Muhammed Ali of widows—pugnacious, relentless, shameless.

When the judge finally gave in (can you blame him?), granting her request, his action is described as “just.” Really? Just?

“Justice” assumes a fair hearing. “Justice” assumes an answer tailored to the question. “Justice” assumes that we get what we deserve, whether we are deemed innocent or guilty. There is no justice here. The woman got what she wanted because she was relentless. The judge granted her wish simply to get her off his door step. Some would call that sort of justice “the Chicago way.”

There is no easy way through this story; there is no sympathetic character. Both the widow and the judge are horrible people. And yet Jesus, himself sometimes scary, applauds the judge. Jesus goes so far as to use the judge as a model for God. “Look at the unjust judge. How much more will God listen to your cries, if even he listens?”

Apparently, Jesus is willing to edit the adage, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” in a biblical biblical: “The scary widow gets her way.”

What does justice look like? Caving to pressure. Really?

We are delighted today to welcome Megan and Laura to the Lord’s Supper for the first time. Laura and Megan are attentive, intuitive, eager to learn. They walk everywhere with their noses in books, breathing in words the way most of us breathe air.  They’ve been reading about this day, as well. Inhaling every resource about baptism and communion I could give them. They know what they’re getting in to—better than most of us, I think.

Some of us in the room are old enough to remember a time when Megan and Laura would have been denied the Lord’s Supper, simply because of their age. Regardless of their vast intellectual capacity or deep curiosity, there was a time when they would have been considered “too young” to receive the bread, drink the wine. Undeserving because they had not blown out enough birthday candles.

After all, it requires a mature faith, a firm grasp of Lutheran theology, a commitment to a faultless life to be worthy of this meal, doesn’t it? Thank goodness, no. If each of us had to pass those tests, prove ourselves worthy, we would be able to serve the “deserving” with a couple of croutons and a shot glass.

Like the relentless widow who didn’t deserve the kindness she received, Megan and Laura are welcome at the table because they don’t “deserve” to be. None of us does. Without having to prove our case, stand before a jury, or promise to lead a pure life, all the love of God is laid in their outstretched hands. Forgiveness before they ask. Strength greater than their own. Healing of body and spirit. Though they were not as relentless in their pestering for this day as was the widow, they didn’t have to be. This meal is given to all who ask.

What does justice look like? Second-grade girls standing shoulder to shoulder with their elders, similarly begging for and receiving mercy.

A few years ago, our congregation committed itself to a prophetic task: to do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.

That goal has forced us to ask: what does justice look like?

It looks like a lot of things.

For us, it looks like joining hands all the way from the suburbs into the city with those who advocate and care for the homeless poor.

For us, it is the discovery that we all long for the same things, whether we are home-less or home-owner, rich or poor, regardless of the color of our skin, the name we use for God, or who and how we love.

For us, it means understanding “justice” to be a gift none of us deserves or earns. When we call, God hears us. That may not be our sense of justice, of fairness, but then, who ever said God was fair?

That widow with a bull horn, stalking the thin-skinned judge? Neither of them received justice as we define it. They received God’s justice. Her trouble was heard. His hard edges were softened. She is a model of persistence; he a model of compassion.

What does justice look like?

Courage planted in a Baltimore boy’s heart.

Mercy granted an irritating widow.

Love placed in little girls’ hands.

Kindness extended to those who have no home.

Forgiveness offered to all who sin.

Hope that God’s justice will finally, always, prevail.

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (6 October 2019)

Luke 17.5-10

JoAnn A. Post

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Rumor has it that soon I will be a grandmother. Our older daughter is growing greater with child every day; our son-in-law has already taken a father’s attentive, protective stance around them both. Though I will not bore you with the details, I cannot help but remember these same months, now more than 30 years ago, when I waited for this very daughter’s birth, longing to see her face, wondering what her life would be like.

As is true of most of our wondering about the future, what actually happens is far different than what we had imagined. Remember your anxiety about freshman year in high school? What about the first job? The person you would fall in love with? What about getting older—is it what you thought it would be?

Some people have very specific imaginings and, often, sadly as a result, very specific disappointments. A friend always dreamed his son would join him in the family business. It was not to be. Another had imagined her niece would fulfill her own dreams for fame on a Broadway stage. The niece was not interested. Yet another postponed all his adventures for retirement, never dreaming he would retire one year and die the next.

I had no specific prenatal dreams for my children, or for my nieces and nephews. My imaginings were less specific, with softer contours. I prayed that they would be happy. That they would be well. That their lives would have purpose. That they would be loved.

So far, all those hopes have been realized.

But I never imagined for them, or for anyone else, what Jesus imagines for his disciples.

We are more than halfway down the road to Jerusalem, and a waiting cross. Jesus has been teaching, healing, forgiving, irritating people in every city and wide spot in the road. And for the disciples, the following was less fun every day.

Most recently, Jesus bore down on his followers with challenges about their allegiance. Specifically, their allegiance to him and his mission. Punching three times in quick succession, Jesus dropped the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11ff), the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16.1ff), and the Rich Man who ignored Lazarus (Luke 16.19ff), in the disciples’ laps. The message was not hard to decipher.

How much will you forgive?

Whom do you serve?

Are you paying attention?

When his disciples, freaked out about the complexities and demands of following Jesus, yelped, “Holy Cow! Give us more faith!” Jesus showed no mercy.

Instead of comforting them, he mocked them. “I can’t even see your faith. Your faith is smaller than a weed seed. Were it even a smidge bigger, you could perform bizarre miracles, like planting trees in the ocean. But you can’t. You can barely get yourselves out of bed in the morning.”

Jesus’ tone was a bit harsh, his example a little odd. The science of hydroponics, that is, growing things not in soil but in water, wouldn’t be invented for several centuries. And besides, even if you could do it, who would want to plant a fruit tree in a salt sea?

Jesus had no use then, or now, for pyrotechnics, dramatic entrances, show-stopping acrobatics. His desires for them, for all his children, are far more mundane. More humble. In fact, his desires for us are undesirable to us.

“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

To be a ‘worthless slave.’ It wasn’t on my list. It is not something to which I have ever aspired, either for myself or for those I love. But it is Jesus’ deepest desire for us. Slavery.

This setting does not allow time nor is it the proper venue for a discussion of the troubling nature of this image. Slavery. Worthless slavery. There is no positive construction of that image, that role. No one, at any time in human history, has been willingly enslaved, whether in chains of iron, the clutches of addiction, or the restrictions of a deeply flawed relationship. And I also wonder how this text is preached among Christians of African-Descent, for whom slavery is more than a metaphor. What do we make of this demeaning, racially-freighted, horrifying hope on Jesus’ part?

Worthless slaves. Who could have imagined?

Jesus’ disciples had grown complacent, had forgotten what they were about. I believe Jesus was replacing one outrageous metaphor with another. To get their attention. To help them find their footing. To force them to focus.

Swinging wildly from a bizarre image of aquatic fruit trees to one of forced labor, Jesus grabbed them, and us, by the metaphorical throat to ask: “What are you about?” Not drama; not fame; not wealth. Nor did he really expect them to live the other extreme, groveling at the feet of every bully in their path. He desired for them, for us, a life between. A life of service. Humble service.

Justin and Natalie no longer have to wonder what their daughter will look like, be like, sound like. Now born safely into their arms, Amelia is a daily delight. The calmest, happiest, gentlest child you have ever met. I wonder what they dreamed for her before she was born, and if those dreams might already have changed.

Whether she grows up to play lacrosse or checkers, whether she makes headlines or waits tables, whether she lives close to home or travels to the farthest reaches of the planet, even if she becomes the first in the history of the world to plant a mulberry tree in the ocean, today we commit her to another vocation, another purpose, another future—God’s future.

Today we add to the long list of things we hope for her and all our children, “worthless slave.” We pray that God will use her to serve those in need, to comfort the sad, support the weak, bring hope to the hope-less.

Is that too much to ask? To imagine? Perhaps. One day, Amelia may yelp as did the first disciples, “Lord, this is too much for me. Increase my faith!”

The Lord will.

In her baptism, we commit Amelia to God’s cause, and God commits to her, promising to never leave or forsake her, to give her the gifts she needs for the purposes she pursues. Gifts from one humble servant to another.

One day soon, God willing, I will meet the child of my child. My desires for her Little One are the same as they were for my own daughters when they were small, and all the Little Ones I love. And to that long list of desires, today we add another.

“Worthless slave” might sound a bit strong to our sensitive ears, and perhaps not what we had imagined if we follow Jesus, but would it be so bad—to always count others as better than ourselves, to kneel at the feet of a wounded world, to care deeply for the stranger?

Would it be so bad to be a humble servant to the world, as Jesus has so humbly served us?

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (22 September 2019)

Luke 16.1-13

JoAnn A. Post

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’  

“Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 

“No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

She had been the office manager for ten years before I became the congregation’s pastor. A lifelong member of the congregation, she had stepped in temporarily after the previous office manager had retired, and never stepped out. A member of my call committee hinted that it might be wise to start fresh, to hire my own support staff. But I was new and she was experienced. How bad could it be?

It was awful.

Though portraying herself as a “team player,” she was, in fact, a free agent. Ill-kept. Ill-tempered. Ill-intentioned. Ill-mannered. She yelled at people on the phone. She did only the work she wanted to. She set her own hours. She was the congregation’s most reliable source of gossip. She scared the mailman. Good grief, she scared me.

But she was a lifelong member of the congregation; her parents were lovely people; she was recently divorced and the sole support for her three children, one of whom was in my confirmation class. What could I do?

When I discovered that she was running a small business out of our office instead of doing our work, I nearly flipped. I had had it. But she was a lifelong member; her parents were lovely people . . . You know the drill.

I resigned myself to working under her regime for the sake of peace, until a leader of the congregation who never dropped by the office during the day, dropped by the office during the day. He dug right in. “Why have you kept the office manager?” I explained the rationale—life-long member, lovely parents, three children, yada yada yada.

“You know how she treats people.”

I admitted that I did.

“You know that, because you keep her on, people think you want her to treat people that way.”

I protested, but he was undeterred.

“She represents you. She represents us. And what she represents about you, about us, is bad. We are not like that.”

Someday I’ll show you the scars from the battle that ensued. But within weeks, she was no longer our office manager. And the person who followed her in that role was a gift to me and the congregation; a person who represented the very best of me, of us. Why had I waited so long?

Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, we’ve been able to understand Jesus without a lot of trouble. His schedule was brutal; he hardly ever slept. His words could be harsh, but his actions were pure compassion. He irritated powerful people, but the crowds loved him. He was a demanding colleague but the world’s most faithful friend. Oh, and he was the Son of God. There’s that.

So far this sleep-deprived, take-no-prisoners, lover-of-sinners has mostly made sense. But not today. Today he tells a parable that has left biblical scholars and readers scratching their heads for centuries.

Teaching in parables was, is, a way to make an uncomfortable point in a less-confrontational narrative style. Parables include stock characters and situations that lure you in to the story and then catch you up short, like a surprised salmon on a hook. The same is true today. This parable’s format is predictable, the characters are familiar—rich man, corrupt manager, under-the-table deals and self-promotion. It’s a common story, then and now. But then Jesus sets the hook. The rich man acts against expectation. Rather than punishing the dishonest manager for further harming his bottom line by reducing his debtors’ debts, he fawned over him. Still with me?

I suppose that, even if the dishonest manager’s tactics were a little sketchy, you had to give him credit for making both himself and his boss come out smelling like roses. The debtors were happy. The manager had friends. The boss emerged looking positively benevolent.

But the dishonest manager, who represented his boss to the world, was nothing more than a clever scoundrel. And since employees represent their employers, we have to ask. Was his boss that way, too? A clever scoundrel. Is that what the boss wanted the world to see, to know about him?

Before I go too deep into the psychological weeds, the literary nuances of the text, we have to pull back and ask: what is Jesus trying to tell us?

Here’s what I think. If employees represent their employers to the world, do disciples represent their master in the same way?

And if a dishonest employee continues being dishonest with the boss’ blessing, does Jesus want his disciples to be “by whatever means necessary” kind of people, as well? To be self-serving, self-promoting, self-ish?

That’s not the usual profile of a disciple, nor a flattering depiction of the master.

So, again the question: What is Jesus trying to tell us?

I think (today at least), that the key to the parable lies in the master’s challenge to the manager way back at the beginning of the parable: “Give me an accounting of your management.”

Each of us, in all arenas of our lives, is accountable for our “management.” Are we honest or dishonest? Kind or cruel? Forgiving or begrudging? Patient or pushy? Generous or miserly? Do our intentions coincide with our actions? Are we the boss, the employee, the co-worker, the parent, the child, the spouse, the neighbor, the friend, the citizen we imagine ourselves to be, the one we want to be? Would we be comfortable if our “management” of those relationships and responsibilities was exposed to public scrutiny?

And, for our purposes here, in this congregation, are we the disciples our master wants, needs, expects us to be? Do we represent well, accurately, the one whom we serve? And if so, what do we represent to the world about our master, our Savior, our God?

Of course, there are many ways to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ; there is no single, right way to follow. Like a choir in which each voice is important, each of our individual and congregational ways of being disciples enriches the whole body of Christ in the world.

That’s why we need to be reminded that the world is watching. The world is listening. Too often, we disciples who follow quietly—tending the poor, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, forgiving the sinner, caring for creation—are shouted-down by disciples who follow in a very different way—punishing the poor, shunning the stranger, holding out on the hungry, shaming the sinner, abusing the earth, all in Jesus’ name.

Most outside the church will not take time to determine if what they hear and see from some of Jesus’ disciples is representative of all his disciples, or, more important, of Jesus himself. In a twitter-addicted world with a five-second attention span, the loudest representatives of Jesus get to tell his story. And it is not always the story we would tell.

Is it any wonder so many reject faith in Jesus Christ, and the church that bears his name? Who would want to follow a master who is as self-serving, self-promoting, self-ish as the master portrayed by some who call themselves “disciples.”

“Give me an accounting of your management.”

This demand strikes fear in the heart of every disciple who may not represent the master well.

A couple of years ago I learned that my former office manager’s mother had died. The office manager and I had not spoken at all in the years since our relationship ended so abruptly. My relationship with her parents had been severed, as well. But I loved her mother. And, though our working relationship had been laced with barbed wire, I loved her, too. She was a good mother, a good friend; I had met her at the lowest moment of her life and, since then, I have learned from mutual friends that she is a new person.

I found her on Facebook, messaged her my sorrow over her mom’s death, and my hopes that she herself was well.

She wrote back almost immediately, “Thank you for reaching out. I miss my Mom. And she always missed you. I have, too.  If you are ever back in this area, I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee.”

She is a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, always has been. Though for a time her life and her witness were clouded, it is no longer. And she represents her Lord and Master well.

The master’s demand still hangs in the air, “Give me an accounting of your management.”

What will we say?

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 September 2019)

God’s Work Our Hands Sunday

Luke 14.25-33

JoAnn A. Post 

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 

“Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.  

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Our younger daughter attended a fine arts college in Boston, unlike almost any college in the United States, in that it awards degrees only in fine and liberal arts. Writing. Publishing. Acting. Cinematography. Directing. There isn’t an engineer or an early childhood education major within four blocks of the campus.

You can imagine the bohemian atmosphere, a campus so creative it glows in the dark.

A few years ago, the college added a degree program that, at first mention, seems modestly useless. It’s called Comedic Arts. Pay tuition to tell a joke? But more than teaching students to tell jokes in smoky bars (think “The Amazing Miss Maisel”), students study rhetoric, performance, writing, theater. They study the art, the architecture, the science of comedy. Shakespeare would be proud. And maybe if there are enough of them, the world will laugh a little more than it does now.

One of the intro courses for this new major is Improv 101. Since most people would rather die than speak in public, students must be taught, sometimes forces to improvise, in public, without a net. They learn to think and speak on their feet, to ignore the butterflies in their stomachs and attend, instead, to the rapid-fire exchange of ideas and witticisms. When we watch professional comedians improvise, it seems as easy as talking over lunch. But it is, in fact, an art, a skill, a finely-tuned mental discipline. Its sweaty.

One of the first lessons of Improv? “Yes. And.”

When one comedian hands the baton of a joke off to another, it is received first with affirmation. “Yes.” And then with expansion. “And.”

For example, the first comedian says, “Do you see that fish swimming toward us?”

The joke would be, literally, dead in the water if the second comedian said, “Nope. I don’t see any fish.”

Instead, the second comedian says, “Yes, and I think it’s from Loch Ness!”

The speaker is affirmed. The story expands.

It is the basis of all human interaction.

Yes. I hear you.

And. I’m willing to consider your premise.

Again, this seems a simple thing until you consider the way we mostly talk to each other, especially in public discourse. Imagine the presidential debate stage if, instead of trying to make the other candidates look like complete idiots, each one expanded, helpfully on the others’ ideas. Rather than a tedious two-hour display of arrogance and non-sequiturs, a debate might actually accomplish something.

It happens even in our homes. “What do you want for supper?”

“I don’t care.”

“OK, let’s get Thai take-out.”

“No. I don’t want Thai.” (Apparently, you do care.)

What if, instead, even if you weren’t in the mood for Thai take-out, you responded, “Yes, and, next time we’ll get pizza!”

Everyone eats. Everyone is heard. Everyone gets—eventually—what they want.

Yes.

And.

Most often we respond to any idea not our own with either an immediate “No!” or “Yeah, but.” Like I said, dead in the water. Jesus would have us improvise.

By this time in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ followers have multiplied from a handful of eager disciples, to an army that encamped around him day and night. Luke writes, “Now, large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” Think food trucks, tent cities, port-a-potties.

As the size of Jesus’ audience grew, so did the outrageousness of his message. In an attempt to wean the herd, Jesus laid out seemingly impossible demands. It is possible Jesus didn’t literally mean all he asked, but he wanted to push them, challenge them, expose the limits of their love.

“Hate your father and mother.”

“Count the cost and be willing to admit you were wrong.”

“Give everything away.”

Jesus would be a challenging improv partner, since everything he says elicits either an immediate “No!” or, more considerately, “Yeah, but . . .” from us.

Yeah, my parents can be irritating. But hate them?

Yeah, I might be in a little over my head, but give up now?

Yeah, I have too much stuff, but I can’t give it all away.

Not only is there no joke there, there is also no discipleship. When we won’t even consider Jesus’ demands, or even wonder about them, or entertain the possibility, we can’t even consider calling ourselves disciples.

After all, the word “disciple” means “student.” Show me the student who says “no” or “yeah, but” to everything the teacher says, and I’ll show you a student who learns nothing.

Imagine if when Jesus asks something hard of us, we paused before pouncing. We considered the merits of his request. We imagined our way into his world, even for a moment, improvising all the way.

Forgive those who harm you.

Love your neighbor.

Share all your possessions.

We want to shout “No!” Or “You don’t understand!” Those are easy answers. And show stoppers.

Closer to home, imagine that someone with whom you live or work or study floats an unlikely idea. Instead of saying, “What, are you nuts?” or “Yeah, but that would never work.” You said, “Yes, and . . .”

There’s a conversation there. There’s life there.

There are some who follow Jesus who do so with great certainty and confidence. They are quick with “No!” or “Yeah, but . . .” Apparently, they can read Jesus’ mind. They know who Jesus loves and who he doesn’t. They know what behaviors are acceptable to him and those that aren’t. They can ascertain, even at a great distance, who is heaven-bound and who travels the highway to hell.

They don’t follow very far, I fear. Discipleships isn’t “no.” Discipleship isn’t “but.” Discipleship is “and.”

Jesus doesn’t expect his disciples to be perfect in every way, to follow without question, to be dogmatic and rigid. He asks us to improvise.

Follow me, Jesus invites.

Today we say, “Yes, and . . . “

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (1 September 2019)

Luke 14.1, 7-14

JoAnn A. Post

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

I don’t often turn to “The Godfather” for homiletical inspiration, but Michael Corleone’s memory of his own father’s advice—“My father taught me many things in this room”—gave him permission to order a hit on a rival mafia family. Not only to retaliate for a wrong, but to convince another rival rival that they were still friends.

It is a complicated, bloody logic. Keeping one’s enemies close not only to keep tabs on them, but to trick them into thinking they are not enemies, but friends. Capisce?

Though Jesus and the Pharisees hardly qualify as rival mob families, their relationship is as complicated. Here’s another unlikely image. Like Sumo wrestlers circling one another in the ring, each one waiting for the best moment to pounce, Jesus and the Pharisees keep one another always just in reach. Close friends? Close enemies? Time will tell.

Before we unpack Jesus’ convoluted advice about table manners (taking a lower place, coming up higher), let’s take a look at the guest list for the meal Luke describes today.

Having only last week mocked the religious leaders in public for their hypocrisy about Sabbath law (remember, Jesus healed a woman in the synagogue on the sabbath, just to irritate them), today he is seated at the table of one of those same recently-humiliated leaders. What’s that about?

Is it customary in your family to rip someone to shreds one day and invite them to supper the next? I didn’t think so.

But Jesus and the Pharisees aren’t your ordinary enemies. They are far more “friends” than they imagine.

Each of them loves the law. Each of them obeys the commandments. Each of them honors sabbath practice. Each of them reveres the temple and supports the synagogue. Each of them seeks to be faithful to the one true God of their ancestors.

What’s with the feud?

For reasons that are not immediately clear, Jesus is having supper with a leader of the Pharisees. The peace is tenuous.

In spite of light-hearted banter around the table, Luke writes that the Pharisees “watched him closely.”  They were just waiting for him to say or do something incriminating.

But they were not the only ones on high alert. Luke reports that Jesus “noticed how the guests were seated.”

Eyes on each other, butter knives in easy reach, Jesus and the Pharisees were sizing each other up.  Remember, keep both friend and enemy close.

Imagine the swankiest banquet you’ve ever attended, the most pretentious reception. Unlike church potlucks where you sit wherever there’s a chair, at important events, every seat is claimed in advance. Whether with a name tag that has your name and table number on it, or on a clipboard clutched by a carefully-coiffed concierge, your seat has been selected for you. And your proximity to the front of the room tells you and everyone else how important you are. Are aren’t.

Apparently, there were some rubes in robes scattered among the crowd and, ignoring the number on their name tags, and catapulted straight toward the head table, air kissing the host, snagging a flute of fancy champagne on their way.

No one seemed surprised, or disturbed by this, but Jesus.

It was that shameless clambering for attention, butting to the front of the line, seeking to be seen that Jesus hated most about his close enemies, the Pharisees. Some of them—surely not all—but some of them had turned the synagogue from a house of worship and a place of sanctuary, into a country club, an exclusive resort, a pay-to-play Ponzi scheme.

So I think, knowing what I know about the host at this party, Jesus was invited for two reasons. First, they wanted to keep an eye on him—to keep him from infecting the crowds with his preaching. The second was because, in spite of their mistrust, they recognized him as important. To have the most important preacher in Jerusalem at their house was a coup, which raised their public status, as well.

Social climbing, I think it’s called.

Isn’t it exhausting? Keeping track of Who is Who and Who is Not? Where you stand? Where you sit? Hating your friend’s enemy, cozying up to your enemy’s friend? You practically need a score cord to keep track of who you are supposed to hate today. There’s probably an app for that.

Jesus, who most certainly had a seat at the head table, had not yet taken it. Standing at the back of the room, amused at the antics, he had one eye on the nonsense in the room, and another eye on the street outside.

A street clogged with beggars and con artists, people with disabilities and disease. He would much rather have been out there, wading among them, than choking on the pretention at the party.

Jesus didn’t last long at supper that night. He stormed to the front of the room and scattered the wanna-be’s who were stealing seats. He then stomped out into the street and invited in all the nobody’s languishing there. He dragged the high lower, and the pushed low higher.

Who was his friend then? Who was his enemy?

More important, did Jesus care?

FOMO. In the on-line world of clever acronyms, they call it FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out.

Some of the religious leaders hated Jesus because he didn’t care what they thought, who they were, what they did. They twisted themselves into knots making sure they were seen and that they saw. They would rather die than miss out.

Jesus didn’t care about any of that. Jesus’ lack of concern for public opinion, for headlines, both frightened and angered them. Who is this guy, who can draw a crowd just by walking down the street, and who can as easily walk away from it?

He didn’t care about missing out, but those others? Those who were never invited in? They had missed out on every opportunity in life. Jesus wasn’t going to miss even one of them.

Here’s another reason some of the religious leaders might have hated Jesus: he was always the same. Whether in black-tie or barefoot, Jesus was always the same. He was happy to engage anyone—important or not—in honest conversation about the ways of God. And he was equally happy to call out those who mistook their ways for the ways of God. And he also, always loved the losers. Forgave the sinners. Healed the sick. Raised the dying. Protected the weak. Listened to those who had no voice.

Remember what the writers of Hebrews reminded his under-siege little Christian congregation? “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.” (Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16)

Just this week, I read an analysis about the two faces of religion in our country.* One is the polished, public, preening, hyper-political face that makes headlines every day, seeking to be seen. The other is the unseen, unnamed, unassuming face, preoccupied with serving the least among us, ministering where most people fear to be found.

Whether you agree with the writer’s analysis or not, the premise is worth thinking about.

Where are we between those two poles? Where do we appear on that seating chart? Where would Jesus be?

Michael Corleone knew only two kinds of people. Friends and Enemies.

The Pharisees—the corrupt ones, at least—knew only two kinds of people. Insiders and Outsiders.

Popular cultures encourage us to know only two kinds of people. Us and Them.

Jesus? He knows all people. Loves all people. Whether in or out, friend or enemy, us or them, Jesus is always the same.

*”Why People Hate Religion,” Timothy Egan in The New York Times, August 30, 2019

 

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (25 August, 2019)

Luke 13.10-17

JoAnn A. Post

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.  

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”   

When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. 

She came to me on the advice of a mutual friend who worshipped in our congregation. The purpose of our appointment was unclear–we had a pleasant, though wandering conversation. She told me about the shenanigans of her small children, about frustrations at work, about the strained relationship with her parents. We talked about everything, it seems. Everything but the man with whom she lived. Whenever I asked about him, she quickly changed the subject.

I can’t imagine how difficult it was to tell a stranger, even a kind stranger in a clerical collar, what her life was really like. But finally she did. And what was her life really like? She was frightened. Frightened of him. Of his rages. Of his threats. Of his erratic behavior.

She cried as she talked, head bent low, eyes trained on the soggy Kleenex in her lap.

When she finished, we were silent for a long time. I broke the silence, “What do you need?”

She squared her shoulders, stuffed the tissue in her pocket and said, “I need to go home.” And she did.

I never had occasion to speak to her again, though I learned from our mutual friend that she moved out of the house, then back again. That they had another child. That she moved out of the house, then back again.

I wondered why she would return, again and again, to an unsafe home. A therapist friend whom I consulted for wisdom speculated it might be something called “learned helplessness.” The belief that, no matter how bad things were at home, she was helpless to change it, or to survive on her own.

I understood, but it didn’t ring true. Not in this case.  The woman who had sat across from me in my office was not weak or ill-equipped, certainly not helpless. Judging by the number of balls she kept in the air on a daily basis, she seemed strong and organized and decisive. So, why not leave if she felt the need?

Recently I learned of an alternative explanation, another reason why we might stay in a tough place, return to a troubled relationship, a motivation called “learned hopefulness*.”

That is, some people in difficult situations are able to stay, not because of help-less-ness but because of hope-full-ness. They see some good in the person with whom they live, they see some progress in the relationship, they can imagine a different outcome. It is hope that keeps them coming home, not weakness.

To be sure, there is no single reason for any of our seemingly self-defeating behaviors, and I would never advise a person in danger to remain, but it seems some of us choose to try, to stay, to hope.

In a world that makes so many feel helpless, some live lives of “learned hopefulness.”

I wonder why the woman in today’s gospel reading stayed.

We don’t know her age, or her family situation. But we know that, in spite of a crippling spinal condition (“quite unable to stand up,” according to Luke), she worshipped in the synagogue. Maneuvering among the courtyard vendors, skirting the rabbis huddled in corners with their students, down the narrow hallway that led to the women’s worship area—she saw none of it. Eyes on the ground, leaning heavily on a cane, she was forced to meet the world head-down, head-on, head-bowed.

For 18 years, she saw nothing but feet and floors.

Did she even bother to wonder, anymore, what it would be like to stand straight, to look someone in the eye, to greet the world with a smile rather than the top of her head. Had she learned helplessness, living with her ailment, or was she in synagogue because of hope?

Her true motivations will never be known.

But we do know that though she saw nothing around her, Jesus saw her. He picked her bent frame out of the sea of worshippers and worship leaders in synagogue, calling her to his side. With great effort, she sidled up to him in the crowd. With no effort at all he straightened her. “Be free. Be well. Stand up.”

He touched her. She snapped to attention. And began to sing, her life and hope restored.

I like to think that Jesus’ miracles were performed out of the goodness of his heart, for holy purposes. But sometimes, like today, I think Jesus is just being difficult. The miracle he performed was technically “work;” work was prohibited on the Sabbath. And what difference would one more day have made to a woman disabled for 18 years? Yet he did this non-essential, unauthorized work in the middle of the synagogue on the Sabbath in full view of the synagogue leader.

Though a gift to the Bent Woman, I wonder if this miracle was really just a poke in the synagogue leader’s eye.

But there’s more. Once Jesus had the full attention of the synagogue leader, he poked him in the other eye, accusing the leader of having more compassion for oxen and donkeys than for a disabled daughter of Abraham.

The leader fumed. The crowd cheered. And the woman? She danced all the way home.

What brought the Bent Woman to synagogue that day? Surely no one would have thought less of her for staying home. We have all had days when just the thought of getting up, getting dressed, getting out of the house and into a public place leaves us sweaty and limp.

But why wouldn’t she be in synagogue? I don’t think that, though disfigured and disappointed, the Bent Woman had learned helplessness. I think she had learned to be hopeful. Perhaps not for anything as specific as the miracle she received, but she kept coming to the synagogue to pray. She must have expected something.

Clearly, she never stopped hoping.

Before I go on, please let me remind you, there are circumstances in our lives when no amount of hope or faith makes a difference. Circumstances that require us to free ourselves or be freed. I would never advocate that we remain in homes or jobs or relationships that demean and damage.

But we all can name people, perhaps you are that person, who have been able to choose hopefulness over helplessness. People who, under difficult circumstances, live courageously and confidently, trusting and trying.

I think of the thousands of people damaged by sexual scandal in the church, many of whom have turned their backs on us. Can you blame them? But there are others, some of you, in fact, who have seen a possibility for change, a promise of life, who continue to hope beyond hope that the church can be the safe, shining light it is intended to be. You have learned to hope.

I think of migrants and refugees on every shore, who, having fled violence and poverty in their home countries, look to us for safety and relief. They are not criminals or low-lifes. They are desperate people, praying somewhere in the world they will find safety and welcome. They have learned to hope.

I think of the clients of The Night Ministry, whom we are getting to know. The causes of homelessness are as many as the persons who are homeless. Helpless? I’m sure it feels that way. But can they learn, can we teach them to hope? Or maybe it is they who teach us.

The Bent Woman may have been little more than an excuse for Jesus to throw shade at the synagogue leaders.  But she is more than that to us. Somehow, in the midst of her sorrow, she found reason to hope. And, beyond her wildest imaginings, that hope was rewarded.

Together, in a world and a country and a city and homes and sometimes a church that drains hope from us on a daily basis, those of us who are helpless, frightened and alone can learn to hope again. And those of us who, like the Bent Woman, now stand straight and strong, can teach it.

Jesus breaks rules for the sake of the broken.

Jesus lifts the fallen from their fear.

Jesus teaches us to hope.

 

*“A House of Their Own,” Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker, August 19, 2019)

 

 

Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (11 August 2019)

Luke 12.32-40

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.


“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

I have the misfortune of running into him every few weeks, our paths crossing in the grocery store or at Target. Most often, when I see him coming, I push my cart down another aisle, or pretend to be deep in thought in the produce section.

When we first met, a few years ago, he seemed harmless. But I have since learned this his mind and his heart are dark. No matter what the topic, he has something negative to say. Everyone is stupid. Everything is wrong. The world is out to get him. He thinks religion is for idiots and often greets me with a smirking, “How’s the God Business going?”

I come away from conversations with him exhausted and empty.

One of his favorite rants is about his mother, who, according to him, could be Cruella de Vil’s twin sister. She’s elderly, in poor health, unpleasant, unappeasable, and, worst of all, she just won’t die.

Much to my chagrin, I could not avoid an encounter with him this week. As we approached one another he said, “How’s your summer been?”  It seemed to be safe conversational terrain, so, foolishly, I told him. “Well, we had travel plans, but my Mom died unexpectedly and. . .” Before I could finish my sentence, he blurted, “Good for you! I wish mine would.”

If is mother is as awful as he claims, she may be staying alive just to spite him. (And perhaps I should share my family’s rule? That after 35 years of age, you can’t blame your parents for your problems anymore. I need to think about that.)

The saddest thing about my angry acquaintance is that I think he likes to feel this way, that he chooses to act and speak the way he does, darkening the world with his anger. He could choose a different way.

This morning I’m imagining God felt about Abraham the way I feel about That Guy. Though God had promised Abraham vast land holdings, enormous herds and flocks, children beyond number, Abraham was in a funk. (Genesis 15.1-6)

By the 15th chapter of Genesis, Abraham had decided that God was a liar, that God’s promises were worthless, that God was not to be trusted. Bumping into one another in a dream, God led with a chipper: “Hey, Abraham. Good to see you. The promise still stands. Nothing to fear.”

But Abraham laid into God, “You promised me children. Where are they? You promised me a home. Where is it? I’m wandering in the desert. Some kid named Eliezer claims to be my son. I’m done with you, God.”

Abraham may not have been, by nature, negative or ill-tempered. But decades of disappointment had let all the hope leak out of his heart, had made him afraid that, maybe, just maybe, everything he had believed in was a lie.

Abraham needed to be reminded that hope was possible, that God keeps promises, that he had nothing to fear.

To prove the point, God dragged Abraham out into the dark desert. A darkness lit only by twinkling stars, billions of miles away. “Look up, Abraham. See those stars? So many, so bright shall your descendants be. I promise. Don’t be afraid.”

My nasty nemesis would have kicked sand in God’s face, always choosing to be angry and mistrustful. But Abraham had not been completely consumed by the darkness. The writer of Genesis reports that Abraham made a different choice. He abandoned fear, choosing, instead, faith.

My grandfather used to roll his own cigarettes and smoke them in the car with the windows up. The longer he drove, the thicker the air became, the more noxious the fumes. We grandkids would fall out of the car when it stopped, gasping for air, coughing up a lung.

This week’s national air has felt as poisonous as in my Grandpa’s car.

For reasons that elude us, gunmen have taken to the streets as though we live in the Wild West. Dayton. El Paso. Chicago. Brooklyn. Utah. Missouri. Louisiana.

It is not only the bullets that concern me. The idle speculation about their actions is almost as dangerous.

A brief aside: I have to admit to being tremendously disappointed this week when some of these incidents, without evidence, were blamed on mental illness. As one who knows and loves many who struggle with mental health, speculation that mental illness leads to violence, or proposals that mental health crises should be punished with imprisonment or the death penalty were bone-chilling.

We would be wise to measure our words, withhold our speculation.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming: Why do young men arm themselves against us? What drives them into the arms of gangs or conspiracy theorists? There are a million reasons; not one of them good. I will leave the scientific, sociological and political analysis to others. But my pastor’s intuition, my biblical study, tells me that one reason they may lash out this way is because they have made a choice. They have made a choice to be afraid.

Afraid of abandonment. Afraid of irrelevance. Afraid of poverty. Afraid of change. Afraid of strangers. Afraid of being a victim themselves.

Are they lost to us? Hopelessly enveloped in anger and fueled by fear? I pray not.

I cannot begin to imagine the energy, the courage, the hope, the guidance it would take for them to make a different choice. To look at the world around them, a world that seems so dark, and choose to believe that there is nothing to fear. To choose to believe that God is a keeper of promises. Even when those promises are slow in coming.

“Do not be afraid,” God reminded Abraham.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel Gabriel encouraged Mary.

“Do not be afraid,” angels sang to shepherds when Jesus was born.

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus shouted to his disciples over the storm.

Clearly, fear has always come to us more naturally than has faith.

The young men who surrounded Jesus were not unlike those who stalk our national psyche with loaded words and weapons. They could have chosen a gang, I suppose. They could have chosen to follow someone who promised dominance over their enemies. But instead the disciples abandoned everything to follow Jesus, and often at the end of the day, found themselves with no place to sleep, no meal to eat, no idea when they would see their families again, no certainty of what lay ahead. They were often afraid.

How do I know this?

Because Jesus pulls them aside from the crowds to calm them as a shepherd calms spooked sheep, “Don’t be afraid.”

“Easy for you to say,” they thought smugly, having no idea what lay ahead for him.

“Do not be afraid. God wants to give you everything. God wants to give you the kingdom.”

And in the meantime, while waiting for that promise to be kept, they were to be unafraid, generous, alert to signs of God in the world.

“Who knows,” Jesus told them, “God might keep a promise at any moment, when you have stopped expecting it. Be alert. And unafraid.”

We all make choices about the way we move through the world.

Some of us choose to be angry. Some choose to hide. Some of us choose to mistrust. Some of us choose to come out swinging. Some of us choose to be afraid.

Jesus would have us choose another path. The path of fearlessness. The path of promise.  Do not be afraid.

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (4 August 2019)

Luke 12.13-21

JoAnn A. Post 

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produce abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 

So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

“Why am I here?” If I had a dime for every time I have been asked that question, I would have a lot of dimes.

The recently bereaved. The very elderly. The terminally ill. The unloved, unwelcomed, unmoored among us.

Years ago, a friend’s husband and only grandchild were killed in a car accident, from which she emerged the sole survivor. They were buried in the same casket, Roger cradling young Fredrick in his lifeless arms. For months, my friend wandered through her days aimlessly, asking even strangers, “Why am I here?” She could not imagine the purpose of her life, burdened as she was with grief and guilt.

“Why am I here?” is the refrain of the saddest song in the world.

I am only now returning from what was to have been a three-week vacation, but was, instead, a time of grateful grieving the death of my mother, who died two days shy of her 89th birthday, three weeks ago this morning.

But our grieving for her began long ago, as she slowly stopped being the Mom we knew.

My mom, Troyce Post, was a woman of her time. Beautiful, smart, kind. Had she been born in another generation she might have gone to college, might have had a career, might have moved off the farm. But instead she fell in love and married the boy next door, never living more than four miles from the place of her birth.

Mom’s life was defined by her roles: wife, mother, farmer, neighbor, sister, daughter, friend. She performed each of these roles with graceful expertise, never letting on how long her days were, how tired she must have been. I remember, as a child, thinking my mother never got sick. But then I had children of my own, and realized that she probably suffered the same ailments as everyone else; she simply didn’t have time to take a sick day.

I remember the day the last of us eight kids left for college. I was worried about my mother—what would she do without a child in the house. I called her about 10:00 that morning and she picked up the phone saying, “And you’re Number Five.”

She laughed. “I know you kids are worried about me, but I’m fine. Just finishing a cup of coffee and the crossword. Go back to work.”

Though her responsibilities had shifted and her burdens eased, they continued to define her. And happily so.

But after she no longer lived in her own home, made her own meals, woke next to her own husband, she started asking that hard question, “Why am I here?” We struggled to answer her, since we wondered, too, what her life meant when all those tasks that gave her joy, those responsibilities that filled her days had been taken from her.

Please forgive my preoccupation with my own memories. I don’t want to presume on your kindness and patience, since so many of you have grieved as I now do. You probably have a therapist; I have a pulpit.

And I don’t know that I would have spent this much time talking about my Mom except that the texts handed to me for preaching ask the very question so many have asked before us, the question that haunts so many whom we love. “Why am I here?”

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus is assaulted by a person in the crowd who wants to draw him into a personal dispute. “Jesus, Jesus,” the man jumped up and down to get his attention. “My older brother is a rotten so-and-so. Tell him how to divide my Dad’s estate!”

How do I know this was the younger brother? How do he now the estate was to be divided in a lopsided fashion? It’s easy. The law is clear. The oldest son in a 1st century family was automatically executor of the estate AND primary beneficiary of a family’s wealth. The younger brother and any other male siblings would be left with scraps. The older brother would have had no interest in alternative legal opinions—the law was on his side. So clearly, Jesus’ questioner work up on the wrong side of probate court.

Jesus, perhaps irritated that the dead father’s estate was more important to the questioner than the dead father’s life, brushes the anxious younger brother aside, “Ask your attorney.”

But recognizing what lay beneath the younger brother’s question, Jesus turned to the crowd—a crowd populated by both older and younger siblings, rich farmers and poor farm hands. “Look out,” Jesus said. “It is far too easy to be possessed by one’s possessions.” And then he told them a story.

At first hearing, Jesus’ point seems clear. “Don’t you just hate rich people?”

But we need to listen more carefully. Jesus makes no judgment on this smug farmer’s wealth. Both wealth and poverty are morally neutral. Both wealth and poverty are simply circumstances of life, not measures of character. I know people, both rich and poor, who are generous, thoughtful, humble. In the same way, I know people, both rich and poor, who are selfish, mean-spirited and prideful.

Jesus does not begrudge the farmer a great yield in a booming agricultural market. It’s what every farmer wants. And what all of us—who eat the product of their labor—need to live. Jesus is troubled that the farmer sees his good fortune as a gift only for himself.

“Why am I here?” the farmer asked himself smugly. And since there was no one is his cavernous house to talk to, he answered himself: “Bigger barns. Better cigars. Beefier steaks.”

In a dramatic shift from Luke’s pattern with parables, the moral of the story is rendered not by Jesus but by God, “You fool! Tonight is the night you die. And since you care for no one and no one cares for you, what good comes of your good fortune?” Ruh roh.

The not-dead-yet farmer had imagined the answer to “Why am I here,” to be strictly financial.

I’m guessing Jesus would have us answer it another way.

Jesus’ disciples are called to lives that are lived for the other.

Jesus’ disciples give away everything we have if another needs it.

Jesus’ disciples view the world, not as a trophy to be won, but as a field to be tended.

I remember once, when my mother asked what became a refrain—“Why are you here?” I gave a little girl’s answer. “Because I need my Mom.”

It was a selfish answer. A frightened answer. Though a true one.

But we can no longer offer selfish or frightened answers to ourselves or the world. The stakes are too high. The need to great.

Why are we here? Each of us? Not just in this room, but in this world.

Bigger barns? Better cigars? Beefier steaks?

No, Jesus’ disciples answer that question differently.

Why are we here?

To praise God.

To love our neighbor.

To provide food for God’s children, blessings for God’s people, love that showers the land.