Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 July 2018)

Mark 6.1-1

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. 

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

As we speak, a rescue mission is underway, deep in a cave in Thailand. A soccer team and their coach, trapped by rainstorms more than two weeks ago, are fighting their way home through water and darkness and danger. I have had to force myself not to think about them too much—their suffering is beyond imagining. And the challenge before them is the stuff of nightmares—to perform herculean tasks for which they are not prepared under enormous pressure with life and death stakes.

When those boys do come to mind, I pray for them and their families, and then I follow Mister Rogers’ advice in times of trouble. “Look for the helpers.” There are many. Highly trained, courageous men and women have been tending to the team and, if anyone can bring them safely home, they can.

But the other thing I do when events emerge unexpectedly in my own life is to quickly assess my options. Instinctively, I craft Plans A, B and C—escape routes, alternative interpretations, other possible and acceptable outcomes.

But this morning, for twelve boys and their coach, there is only one acceptable outcome. And it is dangerous beyond imagining.

Only two chapters ago in Mark’s gospel, after miraculously stilling a storm at sea, Jesus’ disciples whispered to one another, “Who is this guy, that even the wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4.35ff)

Jesus was the master of great outcomes, surprising results, he was a proven producer of miracles.

But today, after having healed and hushed, exorcised and animated in other places, the crowd flips that question on its head, “Who is this guy, that we should obey him?”

That crowd, that sarcastic crowd? That was in Jesus’ hometown. Those were the people who had thrown Mary a baby shower and watched Jesus play T-ball. They were the people who hired Joseph to remodel their kitchens and shared bicycles among their children. They were the people who had loved him first, but had, for some reason, come to hate him.

Everywhere else he went crowds were astounded at his abilities, couldn’t get enough. The audience in Nazareth was astounded, too, but not in a good way. They were astounded not at his wisdom or reputation, but at his hubris. “Who is this guy? When did he get so smart? How did he do all those things?” They made fun of his parents and his brothers. They turned their backs.

Didn’t they know who he was? Hadn’t they heard what he could do?

Jesus was ruler of wind and sea, tamer of demons and friend of sinners. Everywhere. Everywhere but there.

Their unbelief was so intense it stumped him. Mark writes, “Jesus could do no deed of power there. He laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” And then he left.

In a world—then and now—that evaluates us solely on the basis of outcome, Jesus failed. How is that even possible?

Until that humiliating moment, Jesus had done nothing but succeed. But suddenly, in a place he thought he knew, there were roadblocks, walls, impediments, limits. The message landed on deaf ears and cold hearts. But he had so much work to do, so many ears eager for his words, hearts open to his love. You can almost see the wheels turning as he looks at his disciples and says, “Okay, Plan B. You go, too.”

Before they could object, he gave them two gifts. First was the gift of power—power to preach, to heal, to exorcise, to teach. And the second was the gift of limits. No bag, no coat, no cell phone. “Go—some will receive you; some will laugh you out of town. But go anyway, and keep going.”

What an interesting ministry model. Bang your head against doors until one opens. Not very efficient. Or inviting. But not surprising either.

The goal of Jesus’ ministry was not “success” that could be measured in numbers or quantifiable outcomes. If it was, he would have equipped them a little better. The goal of Jesus’ ministry was to bring the good news of salvation to as many people as he could.  To do the work, regardless of the outcome.

Because here’s what Jesus learned in Nazareth and what he taught his disciples: we are not responsible for the results, only for the work. The outcome is not ours; only the opportunity.

And then there are Hannah and Nathaniel—two of Jesus’ tiniest disciples. It seems they bring little to the business of discipleship. They can’t even walk yet, let alone spread the gospel message to distant lands. But that is not their work. We don’t baptize children and then plot their progress on a spreadsheet. We don’t evaluate their parents’ capabilities based on progress toward fulfillment of baptismal promises: Ten Commandments? Check. Apostles Creed? Check. Justice and peace in all the world? Needs improvement.

Hannah and Nathaniel’s work, their baptismal vocation, is to be loved.

And our work is to love them, to model patience and forgiveness and welcome and durability. To make this place, among God’s people, a safe and nurturing home.

Years ago, a friend’s grade school daughter begged her Dad to come outside and play catch with her. When they got outside, she took the ball away from him and said, “Dad, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll throw the ball in the air and you shout “Hurray!”

That’s what we do for Nathaniel and Hannah and all who are in our care. “Hurray!”  Without reservation or hesitation. Then, when roadblocks, walls, impediments, limits emerge, they will have the strength and confidence and skills to do whatever work Jesus calls them to do.  Not to worry about results, but to work fearlessly, joyfully, trusting all the outcomes to God.

That’s where Jesus’ business plan differs from ours. In every other arena of our lives, we are measured by outcomes. Results matter. Productivity matters. Efficiency matters. But not here; not for us.

Let this be a place where you are not measured or evaluated or compensated in relationship to the volume or value of your work. Ours is the work of ministry—of teaching and healing, feeding and forgiving. The results of that work?  Only God knows.

As we speak, subterranean rescue efforts are being carried out far from here. Those who do the rescuing bring exceptional skills to bear, doing everything they can do. But even they have limits. They cannot control the outcome. So, they do what they have been trained to do. What will come of their work? We cannot know now.

Jesus sends us into the world with gifts and limits. Gifts of grace and mercy. Limits of control. We are responsible for the work, not the results. All of that, all of us, belongs to God.

 

 

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Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (1 July 2018)

Mark 5.21-43

JoAnn A. Post

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So, he went with him.  And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’ He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Our older daughter, Clara, was a toddler, and our dog, Schatzie, just a puppy when we lived in Atlanta, almost 25 years ago. In Atlanta, every summer day is as hot and steamy as the last few have been here. Our rented house didn’t have air conditioning, so after dinner one still sticky night, I took both daughter and dog for a walk.  We ran into neighbors on the sidewalk and talked for a while, took a detour through a small park where Clara played and Schatzie pooped. The sun was setting when we finally headed home. Eager for a tall glass of ice water, I picked up the pace and stopped paying attention.

Who knew there was a small sinkhole there at the entrance to the park? Who knew that I would find the one low spot in an acre of lawn? Who knew that an ankle could twist so quickly? Hurt so much?

I lay on the ground, clutching a dog leash in one hand and a toddler in the other. What to do? The cell phone had not yet been invented. Our house was too far away to either holler or hobble. Other parents and children had already retreated to their homes.  I still don’t remember how it happened, but eventually my husband arrived with the car. I fell into the passenger seat. We dropped the dog at home, and hurtled to the emergency room.

Did I mention that it was Saturday night and my Sunday sermon was not yet written? Did I mention that it was already long past my daughter’s bedtime? Did I mention that the ER nearest us was a Level One Trauma Center, to which the most traumatic and difficult emergency cases were shunted?

We were placed on the ER check-in list and asked to wait. So, we did. We waited. And waited. My ankle grew fatter as my patience wore thinner. Case after case was directed to an examining room, but not me.  Ambulances came and went, delivering their cargo into the hands of the staff that should have been paying attention to me. Finally, in exasperation, I hobbled (dramatically) to the admissions desk. “I’ve been waiting for two hours. Others have gone in before me. Are you sure my name is on the list? There’s something wrong with my ankle. My daughter needs to go to bed. I have work to do. I want to see a doctor. Now.”

The desk clerk looked wearily over her glasses. “Ma’am, since you arrived we’ve received three gun-shot victims, a stabbing, four teenagers were nearly killed in a car accident, and we just received a baby that can’t breathe. Yes, you’re on my list. Now sit down. We’ll get to you when we can.”

She looked down, as did I. She was disgusted. I was ashamed.

My hubris haunts me to this day. I was a young, up-and-coming pastor at a high-octane midtown congregation. I had work to do and no time to waste. I knew important people and they knew me.

Just call me “Jairus.”

Mark names very few people in his narrative.  Most of his characters are identified by their illness, occupation or station in life. Demon-possessed man. Tax collector. Widow.

That Mark gives name to a frightened father tells us that Jairus was not just anybody, more important than your average synagogue leader.

But the thing that truly mattered about Jairus that day was not his job title but that his daughter (nameless) was dying. Jairus threw himself in Jesus’ path and begged him to help: “Come home with me. Touch my daughter. Make her well.”

Was Jairus the only desperate father in the crowd that day? Probably not. But Jesus didn’t poll the crowd or review his check-in list. He recognized fear when he saw it. He turned and followed Jairus home.

But there were others. Countless others, many of whom grumbled at Jesus’ decision to chase after a dying child when they were very alive and very much in need.  Among those others was an unnamed woman. We can infer from Mark’s narrative that she was middle-aged, menopausal, suffering from incurable, unstoppable bleeding. For 12 years. Was her need immediate? Yes. And no. After 12 years what was one more day, one more week?  If she had appeared at the ER today, she would have been put on a list. To wait.

Several weeks ago, we read a parable about seeds that were strewn absolutely everywhere and a farmer who slept the summer away. As if furrows open themselves. As if crops grow themselves. As if weeds uproot themselves. I announced to you that, based on Jesus’ random rogational method and my own vast experience with agriculture, he was a terrible farmer.

So, in keeping with the current trend of having opinions on topics about which I know nothing, I can tell you with some certainty that Jesus is also a terrible doctor.

A real doctor understands about triage—assessing patient need and then tending to the neediest first. It’s an important concept that saves countless lives each year. Triage is great if you’re mortally wounded or unable to breathe or carrying a limp body in your arms. But if you’re just a random, nameless person with a fat ankle or a chronic condition, not so much. You’re on the list. And the list is long.

But, as I said, Jesus is a terrible doctor.

Though Jairus’ daughter was near death, Jesus stopped in his tracks when he felt power leave his body. “Who touched me?” he shouted. It was a ludicrous question—it would have been easier to figure out who hadn’t touched him in that teeming throng of need.

“Who touched me?”.

“I did.”

The nameless, middle-aged woman crept out of the crowd. She expected to be dismissed or reprimanded or mocked. But instead she was named.  “Daughter.” Suddenly she was on par with the temple leader whose daughter was dying. No longer another nameless woman on a long list of need, but “Daughter” whose need was known and whose illness was healed.

But, by the time Jesus finished with her, the nameless child had died. “Don’t bother,” Jairus sighed. “You have more important things to do now.”

But Jesus, ever the terrible physician, pushed through the crowd. Kneeling at the bedside of the nameless child, he did for her what he had done for the nameless middle-aged woman. Though the child’s need was no longer acute and though there were countless other children in need of a healing touch, Jesus restored her life. And named her. “Little Girl.”

All over the world today, people in need go unnamed. They are identified as Somali refugee, or 543rd Chicago gunshot victim, or immigrant child separated from parents. In spite of technology that recommends books we might like on Amazon, and calculates our steps each day, we are not able to find these people and name them.  Let alone help them.

It may seem a small thing, in a world of desperate need, but Jesus knows us each by name. And Jesus does not triage us. He cares for each one, by name, according to our need, not relative to the needs or worth of others.

They each had a name. And a particular need. Jairus. Daughter. Little Girl.

Each received healing they did not expect. Love they did not earn.

By the time my name was finally called night had begun to turn toward morning. The desk clerk who had been so curt with me earlier, apologized. “JoAnn. May I call you JoAnn? It’s been a tough night here. They all are. I’m sorry you had to wait, but I hope you understand.”

I did. I do.

My name was known. My need was met. As my little daughter slept in my husband’s arms, I received the care I needed. And compassion I did not deserve.

Early that Sunday morning, we limped home. Clara, my daughter, was tucked into bed. Schatzie, my desperate dog, went for a walk. Bob, my pastoral colleague, had written a hasty sermon so I could stay home and rest.

Jesus knows us each by name, and heals us in the way that is best.

Triage? Miracle?

All of that, all of that and a simple gift named Love.

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (24 June 2018)

Mark 4.35-41

JoAnn A. Post

When evening had come, Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

This morning we board an overturned boat, the lofty ceiling of this dignified sanctuary mimicking the capsized hull of a sea-going craft. The place where you are seated is called the “nave,” or in Latin “navis,” from which we also get the word, “naval.” This is no architectural accident that churches are designed to to look like boats. Week after week, generation after generation, century after century, Jesus’ disciples have boarded such inverted ships all over the world, riding out the storms of life together.

The boat has always been for us a sign of salvation.

Remember the ark on which Noah and his family sailed to safety? Luther spoke of baptism as a boat on which we ply life’s dangerous waters. The Danish sailing ship that hangs just outside these doors is a common sign in northern European churches—each one an exact replica of a vessel on which that congregation’s maritime members sailed safely through a storm. Today we row beside Jesus’ disciples in a flimsy craft on rough seas.

And it seems to us, as it did to them, that Jesus is asleep in the stern.

We are still in the early chapters of Mark’s gospel, chapters in which Jesus flexes his miracle muscles and tests his power.  Already he has cast out demons, made robust a withered hand, taught a lame man to walk, cured a leper and cooled a fever. Is there nothing this man can’t do?

On that long-ago night on the Sea of Galilee, it seemed so. It seemed Jesus had reached the limit of his powers.

Exhausted from a day of proving himself to the crowds, Jesus ordered his disciples, at dusk, to row him to the other side of the sea. It was a fool’s errand—only an idiot or a criminal—would launch a small craft on those deep waters in the dark.

Lying 700 feet below sea level, the Sea of Galilee is notorious for sudden storms. Around the sea, the hills of Galilee reach nearly 1,400 feet above sea level, and the mountains of the Golan Heights reach more than 2,500.* Winds pour over those mountains and into the basin, whipping waves into a frenzy in a matter of minutes.

Was Jesus running from something? To something?  (What waited for them on the other side of the sea is a conversation for another day.) Mark doesn’t mention motive.  But immediately after setting his disciples to the oars, Jesus fell asleep in the back of the boat.

Panicked, the disciples rowed and bailed as fast as they could, but the sea seemed to be winning. In desperation and trepidation, they shook Jesus awake with an accusation. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” I can’t imagine Jesus welcomed the interruption, or the assumption.

Without addressing the obvious flaw in their logic, Jesus stood, stretched and shouted.  Not at them, but at the wind and the waves. “Shut up!”  And they did. Like lifting the needle on a turntable, the sea fell suddenly silent, the wind not even a whisper.

Then he turned to his disciples, probably cowering in the bottom of the boat. If Jesus could force nature to its knees, what could he do to them?

Nothing.  Except sigh, “What else do I have to do to make you believe?”

As a young pastor in Alaska, I was assigned to the team that planned and hosted the All-Alaska Summer Youth Camp. Lutheran kids from all over the state converged on a wilderness campground for a week to sing, study, make useless crafts for their mothers, and bond with other young Christians. There is no weather as gorgeous as in Alaska in the summer. But, even in the summer, the lakes are frigid—only the truly brave or truly foolish swim in them. But those kids were fearless in boats.  The canoes went out right after breakfast and often didn’t dock until dusk.

One evening during supper, the camp director pulled me aside, and whispered, “Count your kids.”

“What?” I whispered back.

“Count your kids. We just spotted an overturned canoe in the middle of the lake and we don’t know who was in it.”

Quickly huddling the rest of the staff, we decided to make the emergency head count a game, hoping to hide our panic.

“Everybody up!” I shouted. “Fastest to find your cabin group, wins a prize!’

Always up for fun, campers leapt from their seats, rushed to find their counselors and waited. While we counted. Each counselor calling camper names, dreading the silence should one of those campers be at the bottom of the lake.

When all our campers were declared present and accounted for, I turned to the camp director with a shrug. “We’re all here,’ I said. “What does this mean?”

It meant that he was enraged.

“Who did this?” he shouted at our kids. “What idiot left a canoe overturned in the middle of the lake? Do you know how many people have been searching for you? Do you have any idea how afraid we were?”

It didn’t take long to identify the guilty parties—three mischievous boys who loved to prank and hadn’t really thought about the consequences. The camp director marched them to his office for a lecture, and we were left to calm the fear that filled us.

Waters—whether Alaskan or Israeli—easily overwhelm even the most skilled of sailors. And only a fool is not afraid. Only a fool. Or Jesus.

Week after week, generation after generation, century after century, Jesus’ disciples have boarded the boat that we call “church,” riding out the storms of life together. It is no accident that this ship sails the world’s waters overturned—like a kids’ canoe swamped in a lake.  Does this architectural enhancement mean that we’re already sunk, already in over our heads, doomed to drown?

No, it means that Jesus is never far away. It means that, in the middle of the storm, we cannot know what the storm means. It means that even if he seems to be sleeping—by his inaction allowing danger and fear, sin and sorrow to overwhelm us—he has power to weaken any wind.Together we set sail into the world’s dangerous waters. Sheltered in this battered bow.

You see, Jesus doesn’t stir the storms. He stills them. And then sets us back to the oars.

*www.thattheworldmayknow.com

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (17 June 2018)

Mark 4.26-34

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Thy sea, O God, so great,
My boat so small.
It cannot be that any happy fate
Will me befall
Save as Thy goodness opens paths for me
Through the consuming vastness of the sea.

(Winfred Ernest Garrison)

If Jesus can speak in parables, please permit me to speak in poetry. After all, both parables and poetry pursue the same goal—to provide images for a truth too great for ordinary words to address.

The poem, of which I quoted only the first verse, was a favorite of President John F. Kennedy’s. You may recall that in addition to being president during one of the most dangerous periods in our nation’s history, he was, himself, a seafarer. It is also reported that this poem was often given to the commanders of US warships before setting off to sea. I cannot imagine tasks more daunting than that of leading a nation or sailing into battle. The sea so great; the boat so small.

A president presiding with poetry? A naval commander armed with only images? It’s possible. Jesus armed his disciples with nothing but words, poetic, parabolic words that left them scratching their heads.

At the beginning of his ministry, the disciples not yet fully aware of how steep the path would become, Jesus armed them with images. Discouraging, disheartening images.

“You know how a farmer plants seeds and then waits for something to happen?” he said. Innocent enough. But Jesus’ portrayal of the farmer is insulting, implying that farming involves nothing but the random scattering of seed, followed by a long summer’s nap.

The contemporary farmer would chafe at Jesus’ characterization of the work. Farmers don’t sit idly by. They till and cultivate, fertilize and monetize. They use herbicides and pesticides. They do everything in their power to make seed grow. And that’s the critical caveat—everything in their power. Farmers may be able to control pH levels and row width, but the farmer cannot make the rain fall or the wind subside. In the end, every farmer knows that we control nothing at all. That’s why Jesus said, “The earth produces of itself.”

The field so great; our best efforts so small.

The same sense of powerlessness hovers over Jesus’ second parable. He describes a mustard seed, impressive only in its un-impressiveness. But from that tiny seed grows a mighty bush. “Who knew?” Jesus muses. What looks puny to our eyes, might in fact be mighty. And, conversely, the impressive and bold might, in fact, produce nothing at all.

This was the task to which Jesus set his disciples. To scatter words of hope and acts of kindness like seeds, with no way to know if anything would grow. They were to regard greatness with skepticism, and weakness with respect.

He called this seemingly-pointless work the “kingdom of God.” The place that God dwells on earth. The place where God chooses to be known—in unlikely places and by unlikely means. Nurtured by tiny seeds and random acts of generosity.

Our friends’ daughter fell in with the wrong crowd in high school. Mary Beth stopped studying. She quit soccer. She copped an attitude. She stayed out later and later, in dangerous places and with dangerous people. Time and time again her parents tried to lure her back to safety. But nothing worked. Not kindness. Or anger. Or threats. Or patience. Or reason. But our friends ended every conversation—or fight—with Mary Beth by saying, “Always remember. We love you.” Most often, her response was a slammed door.

It was beyond comprehension, that their much-loved daughter, slight and naïve, willingly planted herself in harm’s way. A tiny boat on treacherous seas.

This story, absolutely true, does not have a happy ending. Yet. Only God knows the outcome of their labors.

Our friend was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer for which there was no treatment. It was her deepest desire to reconcile with Mary Beth before she died, so the family sent word out through every channel they knew that they wanted her to come home.

She did finally. Once. Late at night. Letting herself in the back door which was never locked, Mary Beth presented herself at her mother’s bedside. They talked briefly. As the daughter turned to leave, her mother said, “Did you ever hear us when we said ‘I love you’?”  To which her daughter replied, “Yes, Mom, I heard you. Every time.” And then she slipped into the darkness.

Was Mary Beth lost to her parents? Perhaps. Was she lost to God? No. none of us is.

But it is a conundrum. The field is so vast, and our seeds so small.

Does the seed of a parent’s love stand any chance against the dangers of the world?

Do our prayers for peace, for reconciliation, for healing root anywhere or do they just blow off in the wind?

And how do we know if a tiny word, like “I love you” or “I forgive you” will ever sprout and grow?

This morning the Texas border is dotted by protesters–many of them parents–seeking the reunification of families separated at the border. Children weep on one side of the bridge and their parents on the other. And yet, people of good will–from every corner of the political spectrum–launch small boats of hope and love and encouragement into the vast sea of immigration policy.

Is it foolishness that we continue to sow the seeds of God’s love? Or faithfulness?

We don’t know. We can’t know. It is not ours to know. Or to control. Such is the kingdom of God. In the face of not knowing, of not seeing, God is always at work. God is seen in our world not in success or wealth or power, but in tiny seeds of love and forgiveness and never giving up. Because that is how God tends the field that is us—with love and forgiveness and never giving up.

President Kennedy steered his presidency with words inscribed on a small plaque on his desk: “Thy sea, O God, so great, my boat so small.”

We might alter that text a bit: “Your field, O God, so vast, our seeds so small.”

Seeds. Words. Hope. These are the tools we have been given.

The rest belongs to God, the Gardener.

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (10 June 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

Genesis 3.8-15

Adam and Eve heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” The Lord God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent, 
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

 

Mark 3.20-35

After appointing the twelve disciples Jesus went home and the crowd came together again, so that he and the disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

 

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

 

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Rudyard Kipling called them, “Just So Stories,” written for his daughter Josephine, who would now be well over 120 years old. To coax her to sleep, Kipling concocted stories that had to be told exactly the same way every time (“just so, Dad”) about the origins of things: How the Whale Got his Throat, How the Camel Got his Hump, How the Leopard Got his Spots.

We have our own such tales among the biblical stories that must be told “just so.” In fact, we have two such stories about a single event—the creation of everything.

The first story opens “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,” and describes an orderly, methodical, almost liturgical God-driven creation in seven parts. (Genesis 1.1 – 2.4a)  After each day’s creative work, God announced, with great satisfaction, “This is good.” The last of God’s creative efforts, the crown jewel? Human beings. Male and female. Crafted in the image of God.

The second creation story is excerpted in our readings today and begins differently, “In the day that the Lord God made the heavens and the earth . . .” (Genesis 2.4b-3.24) In this telling of God’s creative impulses, the human male is the first of created beings, followed by the animals and only later is a human female created to be his companion.

This is an “origin story,” a “just so story” a pre-scientific, pre-historic faithful explanation for why things are the way they are. Today’s portion of the story explains how God’s good intention for creation was corrupted, starting with the snake’s hissing probe: “Did God really say you can’t eat from that tree?” We learn why women have long been considered untrustworthy (“She made me eat it!”), why the snake slithers rather than walks (“On your belly you shall go . . .”), and why we hate snakes so much (“I will put enmity between you and the woman and between her offspring and yours.”)

It is a rich, complex attempt to make sense of why the creation whose name still evokes peace and calm and nothing but goodness—Eden—is now torn apart by sin and mistrust and deceit and blame. “It was Snake! It was Woman! It was Man!” The best accusation of all in this telling is from Man to God: “It’s your fault! You gave her to me!”

What was God’s original intent for creation? That all would live peacefully together, as we pray in our Eucharistic Prayer this season:

In the harmonious world of your creation,

the plants and animals, the seas and stars

were whole and well in your praise.

The most insidious and damaging of all the outcomes of the second creation story is that harmony was turned to cacophony, mutual trust to paranoid doubt, community to isolation. Man against Woman. Woman against Snake. Humans against God. Though this “just so” origin story is not scientifically factual, there is no truer tale in the world: God intends that we live together peacefully; we simply cannot do it.

This fracture among and between us is evidenced in today’s Gospel reading, as well—a narrative that should be a yippy-skippy homecoming story for Jesus, who has already, in only three chapters of Mark cast our demons, healed a paralyzed man, cleansed a leper, restored the use of a withered hand, and found lunch for his disciples on the Sabbath.

But Jesus’ arrival in his hometown destroyed whatever tenuous truce might once have reigned there.  Crowds were so intrusive Jesus and his disciples couldn’t find a place for lunch. His mother and siblings roared into town to protect him from accusations of mental instability. Scribes Uber-ed in from Jerusalem, a distance of about 92 miles, to assert that Jesus was demon-possessed. Before Jesus opened his mouth, everyone had an opinion about him. And not one of them was charitable.

It’s another chapter of the book that could be titled “Evil in Eden: Just So You Know.” Everywhere Jesus went, someone (or someones) sowed doubt and deceit, scandal and scuttlebutt. They didn’t want Jesus to create harmony; they preferred discord. Evil always does.

It is a tragic “just so” story. Over and over again, God’s intention to draw us together is thwarted by our own attempts to tear us apart. It happened in the Garden of Eden. It happened in Nazareth. It happens still today.

I had opportunity to talk this week with some local pastors of the Evangelical Covenant tradition, a church with roots in Swedish Lutheranism and a passion for world mission and biblical clarity. These pastors shared their deep fears for the future of their denomination because of bitter disputes among them. Their denomination is in the throes of discussions about how they will regard gay and lesbian persons, both as congregational members and as clergy. It is a heart-felt, hard-fought discussion which our denomination pursued more than a decade ago. They will meet as a national body two weeks from now, and already these faithful church leaders lie sleepless at night, wondering what their church will look like when/if the dust settles.

Their lament is not that there is disagreement. To imagine always-agreement anywhere is simply naïve. Their lament is that the disagreement is so vicious, so vile, so personal. Those who disagree are regarded not simply as “those with whom I might disagree,” but as faithless, unchristian, traitors to their denominational roots. Snakes in Eden’s grass.

In the harmonious world of God’s creation, disagreement did not divide. It was God’s first work to create community—among humans, creatures and creation. It seems our work is to destroy it. God calls us together; we shove one another aside. Again and again and again. We left the Garden of Eden so long ago, we can’t even remember what it was like.

Back to Mark. After robust debate about Satan’s power and what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, Jesus sat down and drew them all to himself again.  His mother and brothers and sisters waiting in the car, motor running, the crowds huddled around him, religious leaders listening to Jesus with one ear, cell phones pressed to the other to relay his message back to Jerusalem.

“Who is my family?” he asked.  The answer seems obvious. But Jesus’ idea of belonging is far more expansive than ours. He didn’t reject his mother and brothers and sisters. He multiplied them.  “This,” he said, spreading his arms to the crowd, “this is my family. Any who do what God would do is family to me.”

Yesterday the Taliban announced a cease-fire for the three days surrounding Eid—the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan. On Tuesday leaders of our country and North Korea will sit across from one another at a table. Friends of ours whose marriage seemed irreparably broken have decided to talk again. What does all this mean? Regardless of the intent or the outcome, might this be God at work again—drawing together that which we have divided?

Eden need not exist only in a galaxy far, far away. For a time here every week, in this holy place, we replicate God’s intent for us all. Doing the will of God—drawing all people to Jesus just as Jesus himself did centuries ago.

That is God’s will for all creation, you know. Peace. Harmony. Welcome. We keep trying. Here on the outskirts of Eden.

 

From Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2018 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #24195.

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

First Sunday in Ordinary Time (3 June 2018)

Deuteronomy 5.12-15
JoAnn A. Post

Moses said: Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

So many things I didn’t know to worry about.

Returning from a conference in Orlando Friday night, my plane touched down at O’Hare 15 minutes ahead of schedule. You could hear the sigh of relief among the travelers—it is a wonderful though small gift to get home a little early after having been away.  As soon as the “fasten seatbelt” sign went off, buckles clicked open and passengers leapt to their feet to retrieve bags from the overhead compartments. And then we all stood in the aisle. Unmoving. Someone behind me said, “Why aren’t they moving?”  We stood a bit longer. Finally, the pilot’s voice explained, “We’re having trouble with the automatic leveling function of the jetway.  It will be just a minute.”

Automatic leveling function? I didn’t know there was such a thing.

A minute passed. Then five. Then ten. People were sitting down, sighing, preparing to bed down for the night in that aluminum tube.

The pilot spoke again. “Let me tell you what’s happening. As luggage is removed from the cargo hold and passengers deplane, the body of the airplane gets lighter and lighter. The automatic leveling function on the jetway ensures that as the airplane rises, so does the jetway. Without it, the gap between the airplane and the jetway goes larger and larger.” He paused and went on. “At this moment, now that the luggage is off, the gap between the jetway and the airplane is ten inches. We can’t let you step off the plane. It’s not safe. But don’t worry—we’ll get you home.”

It was a full hour before they let us deplane, after having exhausted every possible solution. Sure enough, when those of us at the back of the plane, in the cheap seats, got to the exit door, the gap between the plane and the jetway was a full fifteen inches. Burly attendants waited on the jetway to first take our hand-carried luggage from us, and then lift each of us down to the jetway.

Great. Now when I fly, in addition to worrying about wind shear and engine failure and unruly passengers, I can add “automatic leveling function failure.” Who knew?

I was in Orlando to speak at the national conference of a church software development company. I bet you didn’t know there was such a thing. My task was to “inspire” the convention-goers.  For my own inspiration, I worked with today’s scripture texts, hoping to do double-duty with the conference and this sermon. To no avail. I gave every “remember the sabbath day” thing I had to 1,000 church professionals and had nothing left for today. Until the automatic leveling function failed.

Buried in the Old Testament reading’s injunction to “remember the sabbath” lay a sentence I had never really noticed before. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God brought you out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”

What could possibly connect those two statements? God freed you from slavery. Remember the sabbath.  Yeah. So?

How’s where they intersect.

The institution of the sabbath was a big, unprecedented deal. Through Moses, God asked the people to set aside a full 24-hours every week to do nothing but rest. No food preparation. No exercise. No studying. No video games. It must have seemed an enormous, unreasonable request.

Who could bear it? And, why would they want to?

The “why” is simple. If God, the Lord and Master of the universe, could finish the work of creation in six days and rest on the seventh, so could they. Everyone needs to rest—it levels us.

That’s the why. If God has time for a scotch and cigar, you do, too.

But how would they bear it? A whole day?

“Remember that you were a slave, and I freed you.”

We tend to forget that, in fact, we control next to nothing. For most of us, living in the most prosperous nation on the planet is an accident of birth. No matter how well we care for ourselves, health issues emerge. Love flourishes and fails for inexplicable reasons. Airplanes stay aloft almost 99% of the time through no effort on our part.

And through all the seeming randomness of our lives, the dumb luck and head-scratching coincidences, there is a constant. God’s steady, sure love for us. (Also, inexplicable, by the way.)  In giving the third commandment, God assured them that sabbath was not only necessary, but possible. Not because of them, but because of God. The Sabbath is God’s automatic leveling function in our lives, in our world, keeping us from stepping too far or falling too fast. But we fight God’s good and gracious intent.

After all, the Israelites didn’t free themselves from slavery.

They didn’t appoint themselves a light to the nations.

They didn’t feed themselves for 40 years of wilderness wandering.

God did, in surprising and unorthodox ways. God did it all. Freedom. Witness. Sustenance. It’s all God’s doing, not ours.

“You can keep the sabbath,” God said. “You can keep the sabbath not because of your rigorous self-discipline or by sheer force of will. You can keep the sabbath because I will help you. You need to rest, but cannot seem to do so. I will help you.”

This shouldn’t be that much of a stretch for us.  We have been putting our lives in the hands of pilots and the laws of physics for decades. When we board a plane our biggest worry is that the person next to us will fall asleep and drool on our shoulders, or that the flight attendant accidentally spills a diet coke in our laps.  The rest of it—wing flaps and flight patterns and altitude control and automatic jetway leveling—belongs to someone else. It shouldn’t be our worry.

It seems we put more trust in aviation than we do in God. Because it is, in fact, excruciatingly hard to trust, to lay down our worry and rest.

There was a toddler on Friday’s flight who simply could not sleep.  He cried and fussed for almost 2 1/2 hours, finally too tired even to rest. When we refuse God’s good and gracious advice, when we refuse to rest, we are like that exhausted child. We fight the hand that will help, the comfort that would soothe. The gap between God’s intent and the fact of our lives grows perilously large. We step too far. We fall too fast. We imagine it all depends on us.

Until Friday night I didn’t know that jetways level automatically for our protection. I didn’t have to know. And God does the same for us—levels our lives, calms our fears, slows our pace, guides our paths.

Like the pilot on the jet’s intercom system, God reminds us, “Remember how I freed you from slavery? Trust me on this one—you need to rest. I’ll take care of things while you do.” One less thing to worry about.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday (27 May 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

Isaiah 6.1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: 
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”


The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

When I was a child, pastors were serious men.  They seemed old and stern, always dressed in black and not easily amused.  They preached in thunderous voices, and turned their backs on us to pray. When I asked my mother about it she whispered, “He’s talking to God.”

When I was a child, the church altar was affixed to what is called the “East Wall” of the sanctuary, often separated from the rest of the sanctuary by stairs and a rail.  On those rare occasions when communion was offered (to adults, not children), the altar rail was closed, leaving the pastor on the altar side of the rail and the people on the other. It felt, to childhood me, like a fence to keep us away from all the beautiful things.

When I was a child, no one spoke in the sanctuary during worship.  There was no shaking of hands to offer peace. The child who sang loudly at the wrong time was severely shooshed. Everyone was dressed up. No one seemed happy to be there.

When I was a child, everything about church seemed serious and beautiful and dignified and distant. Even God.

By the time I was ordained, Vatican II had completely reorganized the way we thought about worship and worship spaces. Altars were pulled away from the wall and were called “communion tables.” Pastors no longer turned their backs to pray, but faced the assembly as though we were having a conversation. Children sing. People chat. Flip flops and shorts are more common than coats and ties.

Now that I am an adult, everything about church is congenial and warm and welcoming and near. Even God.

So which is it?  God is distant and serious, or near and friendly?

Trinity Sunday is the oddest of church festivals. It marks, not an event in the life of Christ or the church, but an idea, a doctrine, an imagining of God.

We who describe ourselves as “Trinitarian” (as opposed to those who don’t believe in a three-person God who are called “Unitarians”) hold two completely contradictory ideas together in a single word.

The first belief is that there is only one God.  That belief is called “Monotheism” and dates back to the time of Moses when, at the burning bush, God told Moses “I am.” (Exodus 3.1ff) No longer were God’s people to worship the pantheon of gods their neighbors did, but one God, capital G.

But we also know that single, unique God in different ways.  We call God “Father.” We call God “Jesus.” We call God “Spirit.” And all those names are accurate, though certainly there are more.  A single God—monotheism—in three persons—trinitarianism. And each of those three persons, by whatever names we call them, communicates with the others—creating, saving, sending. It’s a hot mess of a theological concept. But it is what we believe.  Often without understanding.

Today’s texts attempt to describe this multi-faceted unity, describing God who is one and three at the same time. It is the Isaiah text that intrigues me because it speaks to about a particular issue that has troubled me since childhood. God is distant. God is near. Can God be both?

Isaiah reports a vision in which God is high and lofty, so large that the hem of God’s garment fills the temple. Seraphs—literally, flaming, flying snakes—attend God, their praise so loud the foundation shakes.  The scene is cacophonous and chaotic, smoky and frightening. This is a God to be feared.

Isaiah, meanwhile, quakes at a distance. He falls prostrate on the floor, confessing that he and all his relatives are sinners, worthless, useless, lost.

The distance between them could not have been greater. God was distant. Isaiah was petrified. And then something happened. Something came between them to bridge the gap.

This morning Katie will stand before us to affirm the faith in which she was baptized. On her baptism day more than a decade ago her parents and sponsors sat in this same pew, carrying her to the font to make promises for her. But they can carry her no longer. Today she walks on her own two feet.

Katie will recite the Apostles Creed with us. Katie will take on for herself the very same promises her parents made 13 years ago. But, in a bold and faithful move, she will also acknowledge that something stands between her and God, between all of us and God.

In a set of three renunciations, she will admit to the enormity and complexity of the evil that separates us from God and one another. I will ask her three questions, each one getting more specific and closer to home than the last.

“Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” That is, there are things in the cosmos, in galaxies far from here, that might cause us to question God’s faithfulness.

“Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?”  What are those powers of “this world?” Hunger. Poverty. War. Illness.

“Do you renounce the powers of this world that draw you from God?” This is a very personal question. “Katie, what in you—what fears or doubts or sorrows—put a gap between you and the God who made you?”

These are enormous questions—combatting evil at all levels—which Katie is far more willing to answer than I might be.

And then, after admitting to the cosmic struggle the faithful face, we promise her that God is very near.  I will place my hands on her warm head, and pray the Spirit of God into her as we did when she was baptized. In very specific ways. We will pray for faithfulness, guidance, servanthood; we will acknowledge suffering; we will acknowledge death. We will pray God—loving Father, saving Son, wise Spirit—into her life.

God who is distant; God who is near.

God who is one; God who is three.

God who defies definition; God whose name we know.

It was the seraphs—flaming, flying, snake-like creatures—that bridged the gap between God and Isaiah.  With a hot coal on the lips and the promise of forgiveness.

Today the gap is bridged again as a teenage girl steps into the breach in faith and hope.

Because today when God asks, “Whom shall I send?”

It is Katie who answers, “Here am I. Send me.”

The Festival of Pentecost

The Festival of Pentecost (20 May 2018)

Acts 2.1-21

JoAnn A. Post

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

When the school day opened, they were all together in one place. Students and teachers. Lunch ladies and custodians.  Suddenly there was a sound of a violent bang, and then another, and then a voice shouting, “Run! Run! Run!”  And they did. Students and teachers. Lunch ladies and custodians. They ran for their lives, as they had been taught in drill after drill after drill. And when the shooting stopped and the screaming subsided, they were no longer all together in one place. Ten were dead. Ten were wounded. All of their lives shattered.

You may recognize this as a true story that unfolded in Santa Fe, TX Friday morning. The 22nd such story this year about a place of learning and inquiry turned into a shooting gallery.

Is there a way to prevent another chapter of this story being written in Des Moines or Peoria or Green Bay or Northfield?  We like to think so. But what is the answer, or more accurately, what are the many answers? Maybe it’s too-accessible guns. Or untreated mental illness. Or inattentive parenting. Or unchecked bullying. Or violent social media. Or lax school security. Or any of a thousand reasons we assemble before trailing off into distressed silence.

Friday’s tragedy involved a firearm. But the weapon that harms doesn’t have to be a gun. Heart ache comes in a hundred flavors. Evil can enter any door, any home, any heart. And when it does, everything in us says, “Run! Run away!”

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. Jesus’ disciples were waiting for his promised gift of the Holy Spirit.  But they didn’t know what they were looking for. A FedEx delivery? A letter in the mail? A knock on the door? But, like most things we wait for, when it arrives it does not look as we had imagined. What did the promised Holy Spirit look like that day in Jerusalem?  Like a scene out of The Wizard of Oz. The doors were torn from their hinges by a mighty gust of wind. Flames appeared on each head, dancing but not burning. And words erupted out of the disciples’ mouths—words in languages they could not have known.

The gift of the Holy Spirit was noisy and chaotic, frightening and unexpected.

And at the sound of it, people ran.  Not like school children and lunch ladies taught to run from danger. But more like fire fighters and parents who instinctively run toward trouble. We are told that the whole city of Jerusalem ran toward the noise, toward the chaos, toward the (maybe?) danger. They ran together to see what God was doing.

Confirmation Day is always both joyful and sad for me. For two years, I’ve been privileged to spend Wednesday evenings with these remarkable young people. We come together week after week to study, to talk, to wonder, to play “Heads Up 7-Up” with the last few minutes of class. Sometimes I bribe them with DQ. (To be honest, I think I imagined our time together more than they did.) They are always in my thoughts and prayers, as are all of you.

But thoughts and prayers don’t teach them the faith. Thoughts and prayers don’t equip them for life. Thoughts and prayers don’t protect them from danger. Thoughts and prayers are for Hallmark cards. Not for people of faith who live in a real world of danger and confusion. So, like the schools they attend every day, we drill them. We flood their hearts and minds with lessons to protect them when fear falls and their own faith fails.

What do we drill into their heads and hearts?

  • There is nothing you can do to make God stop loving you.
  • There is no sin that cannot be forgiven.
  • You are loved beyond measure simply because you are.
  • You have everything you need.
  • You always have a home among God’s people.

I was baptized on June 28, 1959, in a Lutheran church perched on a hill among waving Iowa corn fields. I was confirmed there on April 28, 1974. I was also ordained in that church—on Pentecost, 33 years ago.  My parents were also baptized, confirmed and married there, and my father’s body now rests in the church cemetery beside his brothers, sisters and parents. I am what we call a “Cradle Lutheran,” born and raised and never left.

My story used to be common, but not anymore.  Even among those who join us this morning as new members, there are wide varieties of church experience—they are some lifelong Christians but there are also adult converts to the faith; some have sampled many ways of believing (and not believing) and have found in this place, among us, a welcome and a word that sustains them. On this Pentecost, the Spirit has spoken and we have run (or limped or crawled or sidled) from all corners of the world to hear it, as they did on that first Pentecost.

But nobody stays here, nobody lives in this building. When the day of Pentecost had come and they were all together in one place in Jerusalem, it was only for a time. The building wasn’t big enough to house them, but more important, their work wasn’t in that building. Disciples are always being called and sent, called and sent—brought together to be strengthened and then sent back into a world far more dangerous than any of us can truly fathom.

I was getting my hair cut on Friday when news of the Texas shooting broke. We watched the television in silence, scissors snipping nothing but air, as school children ran from the school—racing toward fields and out-buildings for protection from the danger inside. But I later read about others who ran—parents and teachers, neighbors and passersby who ran to find those students wherever they were hiding and return them to safety.

That is the Spirit’s work. To create shelter for the lost and frightened and then to send them—us—back into the world.

It is the Day of Pentecost. We are all together in one place. Soon we will run. But not just yet.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (6 May 2018)

Acts 10.44-48

JoAnn A. Post

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

My introduction to great art was in an “Art Appreciation” course my freshman year of college. There were no museums or galleries near our Iowa farm, and the art in our home was either family photos or paintings purchased at the furniture store to compliment a new sofa. The idea that art, whether music or sculpture or painting, might have its own intrinsic value, that it might both interpret the world and be interpreted by it was unimaginable. But I didn’t know. My favorite “Art” when I was a kid? My Dad’s oldest brother.

A friend describes such introductory courses as “Great Square Inches of Art,” since the immensity of a work and its implications have to be reduced to a multiple-choice question for the final exam:

Pointillism is

  1. to accuse with your index finger,
  2. a 19th century oil painting technique using unique brushstrokes,
  3. the winning argument in a debate (e.g. point taken!)
  4. a breed of hunting dog (e.g. An English Pointillism).

There are times in our lectionary life together that feel as though we’re studying Great Square Inches of Scripture. Week after week we smash together biblical texts from a wide array of literary styles, historic periods, and world views. Those of us who get paid to study scripture are able to see the pattern in the design, but the casual listener usually just waits for the “boring talking part of church” (as a confirmation student called it) to be over.

Not today. Before we escape the clutches of yet another Easter season, I want to expand beyond the square inches of scripture you heard today, and dig a little deeper into a story we’ve been dancing around for weeks. You’ve heard names like Phillip and Peter, Ethiopia and Caesarea, Cornelius and Stephen. Why? Who are these people? These places? What do they matter?

My concern for expanding our understanding of these ancient texts is that they are not all that ancient. They tell a contemporary story of intentional exclusion, racial and gender bias, parochialism and fear, of a young church testing the limits of the gospel, of God’s grace, of Jesus love. The question they were asking—where does this end, this welcome for sinners? The answer they were slow to learn was: “It doesn’t.” It doesn’t end. Let’s start at the beginning.

The book of Acts opens with Jesus’ disciples working a side hustle in Jerusalem after his Ascension, killing time until receiving the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. What would it look like? How would they know? Would it be wrapped up with a bow or dropped at their door by FedEx? The only hint Jesus had left them was this, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1.8) In other words, whatever the Spirit was going to do to them, with them, it would expand from Jerusalem like ripples in a pond. Every-widening circles of grace.

In a couple of weeks, we’ll read about the remarkable events of that Pentecost. The Holy Spirit fell like fire, like wind; the disciples spoke in languages they could not have known. And at the sound of it, gawkers flocked from all over Jerusalem, stunned by the spectacle and moved to faith by the disciples’ words. 3,000 were baptized that day. Already the circle was expanding.

But it was all happening too fast. The disciples weren’t prepared to expand their numbers exponentially. It had been just the 12 of them for years. How could they know who to let in and who to keep out?

One of the earliest debates of this exploding Christian community was whether or not non-Jews could be included in their congregations.

It seemed a simple matter. Jesus was a Jew. The disciples were Jews. They assumed being Jewish was a prerequisite for baptism. So, they quickly determined that anyone who was circumcised could join them.  So far, so good.

But then the disciples got called to Samaria, a country north of Israel populated by people whom the Israel Jews deemed imposters. But the Samaritans latched on to the Jesus story with such passion that the disciples had to expand the circle.

New rule: Circumcised Jews and Believing Samaritans. (Acts 8.4ff)

Last week we read about another challenge to their tightly drawn sphere of acceptance. (Acts 8.26ff) Phillip was ordered to interact with a man he met on the road, an Ethiopian ambassador who happened to be a eunuch. This man checked none of the right boxes—he was black, pagan, sexually mutilated, wealthy and educated. But he begged to be baptized, so Phillip relented.

The Spirit kept driving them farther from the comfortable center to the uncomfortable outskirts. After the encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch, the disciples were forced to accept into their ranks a man who had persecuted them in unimaginable ways.  The man was Saul, later named “Paul,” who was converted by Jesus on the Damascus Road. (Acts 9.1ff)

Circumcised Jews. Believing Samaritans. Ethiopian Eunuchs. Sworn enemies.

It was starting to get a little weird.

We’re not quite done. The five verses of Acts we read this morning are but the hood ornament on a tank barreling toward the edge of the known gospel. I encourage you to read the whole story for yourselves, but the capper on this ever-widening circle of welcome is this: the apostle Peter had a vision in which a sheet full of animals—clean and unclean by Jewish law—was lowered over his head. A heavenly voice said, “Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter argued with the heavenly voice, “No! The law limits the animals we can eat!” The voice challenged him. “What God has named ‘clean’ you can no longer name ‘unclean.’ There are no limits.” This happened three times.

Peter was confused about the meaning of the vision, until he got word that he was needed in Caesarea, called to the home of a Gentile (not Jewish) soldier (who patrolled their streets and bivouacked in their homes). Peter and a number of the disciples made their way to Caesarea and were astounded that this man—who represented everything they feared—begged to be baptized. Peter remembered the vision. “What God has named ‘clean’ is no longer ‘unclean.’” And in spite of everything he had ever believed or been taught, Peter opened his arms and the circle to a repentant stranger. That’s what we read this morning. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  The silence was deafening.

A college friend made the front page of The New York Times yesterday. He is the president of Colorado State University, and an alumnus of the aforementioned “Art Appreciation” class. He was forced into the spotlight by a painful incident of exclusion on his campus. Two teenage brothers had driven seven hours to be part of an admissions tour on the campus, but were turned over to the police by the mother of another young man because “They don’t look like they belong. They make me nervous,” she told the 911 dispatcher.

Translation: the boys were brown, Native Americans from New Mexico.

There is no way to control the fears demonstrated on a college campus or at a Philadelphia Starbucks or in Chicago when, on Thursday, an Israeli diplomat was violently ejected from an Uber for speaking Hebrew, his native tongue, on his phone.

But it will not be so among us.

In the middle of a theology lecture years ago, my professor interrupted himself by turning to the black board and drawing a big circle on it. He traced the circumference of the circle with his finger as he spoke. “Anytime we draw a boundary around the gospel of Jesus Christ, you’ll find him on out the outside with all those people you despise. Jesus won’t stay in our circle—he’s always out there.  With them.”

Friends, I have to admit I am as happy to build walls as anyone else. I have no problem including cultural outsiders in the circle of Jesus’ love. But you know who I (secretly) exclude? The excluders. The protective mother who humiliated another mother’s sons. The Uber driver who feared the dark-skinned diplomat. The purveyors of distrust and suspicion who grace every day’s news. I despise and fear them as much as they despise and fear people like me.

The goal of this Easter season and its square inches of scripture is to teach appreciation for the art of the gospel and its ever-expanding boundaries. Death gives way to life. Enemies become friends. Sinners are forgiven. And no one, no one who has received the Holy Spirit as we have will be rejected.

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (29 April 2018)

John 15.1-8

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

Have you ever tried to assemble an IKEA dresser?  You know, the furniture whose names are probably Swedish swear words: Kappong, Mimnes, Brimnes. The furniture notorious for requiring a double major in civil engineering and marriage counseling to assemble?  Too often we have sat in the middle of a sea of shelves and slats, rods and wing nuts with nothing but an obtuse drawing and a list of words to guide us. We recognize the words. We recognize the pictures. But together they make no sense.

A friend always names her pets after biblical characters. She once had an enormous hairy dog named Samson. A regal, sleek Rhodesian Ridgeback named Pharaoh. A wicked parakeet named Jezebel. People unfamiliar with scripture often miss the joke. But even those who have no idea what the reference is are amused when they meet her trio of cats. They might not know the text of Psalm 23, but their names—Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy—always get a laugh.

We may know the words. But we don’t always know what they mean.

A man of my acquaintance left his wife for another woman, and said, on the way out the door, “But I’ll always love you.” Love? That’s not what that word means.

Parents of a sick child heard the physician say “Cancer” of their precious daughter, a diagnosis so unexpected they said, “Cancer? I don’t know that word. What does that word mean?”

A school child with a reading disorder may be able to identify individual letters and even some words, but when those letters and words cover the page of a book, they become a maddening, shaming maze.

We may know the words. But we don’t always know what they mean.

Before we get to Jesus and his vineyard, I want to tell you more about the intriguing character we met in today’s first reading from Acts. (Acts 8.26-40) This part of the sermon comes with the standard disclaimer, “Some of the following content may be inappropriate for younger or more sensitive viewers.”

The Ethiopian Eunuch. He stands at a pivotal point in the life of the early church. He marks a shift from the story of Jesus being shared only among Jewish converts, to its spread across the globe. First to Samaria, (Acts 8.4-8) a country about which Israel felt the way South Korea does about North. And then to this man—a wealthy, regal, highly-educated, African diplomat with the highest security clearance in Ethiopia, neither Jew nor Gentile, sexually mutilated as a child to ensure he would be a safe companion for the Queen. Previously, the disciples would have never crossed paths with such a man, let alone speak to him. But the resurrection changed all the rules.

When the story opens, Philip finds himself standing in the middle of a wilderness road, nearly run over by a dusty gilded entourage of chariots and horses and soldiers. In the lead chariot stood the Ethiopian Eunuch, reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah. As a non-Jew, the words of the prophet might have intrigued him, but their meaning eluded him, obtuse as IKEA assembly instructions.

The Spirit propelling him, Philip approached the chariot and shouted up, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Philip stepped into the chariot beside a man who epitomized “unclean” and “outside” and opened the scriptures to him, as Jesus had done Easter evening on the Emmaus Road. The Ethiopian Eunuch was startled into faith, promptly baptized, and then turned his face to North Africa, where he would be responsible for spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to people and languages the disciples could not even imagine.

Do you understand what you are reading?

How can I, unless someone guides me?

Now to Jesus and John 15. As I mentioned last Sunday, our gospel readings in these waning weeks of the Easter season are set before the resurrection of Jesus. How did Jesus end up on a cross and then MIA from the tomb? These texts remind us of those events.

Today’s reading is set in the middle of what we call the Final Discourse in John, a four-chapter soliloquy in which Jesus prepares his disciples for all that will follow. Sadly, like the Ethiopian Eunuch, they heard the words he spoke but did not understand them.

He spoke of his departure, of a great reunion, of the Spirit’s arrival, of betrayal and sorrow, of love and peace. Their confused faces prompted him to slow down, to offer a more familiar image, “How about this? I am the true vine. My Father is the vine grower. You are branches, who cannot live apart from this vine.”

They knew the word “vine”—both what it was and what it meant. After all, they lived in grape country—though many of them were fishermen, most of their uncles would have owned vineyards. They knew that the best vines have to be cut back, pruned for greater growth. They knew that the weakest vines were cut off and cast aside, useless to the vine’s mission. Slowly it dawned on them that if Jesus was the vine, they would have to cling to him. They would have to trust that both the production and the pruning were necessary for life.

How often, after the events of Easter weekend, did they look back on that oenological image? How often, after Jesus’ Ascension, would they remind one another to stay connected—to one another and to Jesus’ mission? How often would they have to interpret the struggles they faced as the necessary pruning of productive branches?

“I am the vine. You are the branches.”

We know those words. We may even know what they mean. But how do we convey the gift and responsibility of that image to those who do not understand—the Samaritans whom we despise, the Ethiopian Eunuchs whom we fear, the “Nones” who don’t seem the care, the “Dones” who have tried Christian community and are over it? Do our lives, do our words reveal our connectedness to Jesus? Do our lives, do our words convey our confidence that even the pruning is a good thing?

The world may know the words we speak. Love. Peace. Mercy. Forgiveness. But do they understand them? So, we jump in beside the stranger; we sit beside the mourner; we acknowledge that all our lives come with “some assembly required.”

What does this mean? Let me show you.