Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

JoAnn A. Post

Mark 8.27-38

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi;

  and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 

And they answered him,

“John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 

He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 

And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man

  must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders,

  the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed,

  and after three days rise again. 

He said all this quite openly.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 

But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said,

“Get behind me, Satan!

For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,

“If any want to become my followers,

  let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 

For those who want to save their life will lose it,

  and those who lose their life for my sake,

  and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world

  and forfeit their life? 

Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words

  in this adulterous and sinful generation,

  of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed

  when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

A good friend was widowed, unexpectedly, in her mid-forties; her spouse felled suddenly by a rare, vicious cancer. It was weeks before the first tears fell—she was so stunned, her eyes forgot how to cry. That was many years ago, and she has since remarried and has learned to put one foot in front of the other. But her love for her first husband and the trauma of his death remain.

She and I talked not long ago about why this second year of the pandemic seems so much harder than the first. Last September, with some dangerously uninformed exceptions, we “were in this together.” We wore masks. We practiced social distancing. We supported local businesses. We learned to zoom. We cheered on the production and distribution of vaccines. We were patient with one another because we were all suffering. We promised each other an end to the crisis.

But this September? I shudder to open my email or the morning newspaper. National leaders tell laughable lies with a straight face. The preventable healthcare crisis filling our hospitals is met with a heartless shrug. Violence falls in every country, every city, every home.

What happened to the comradery and “we can do this” of last fall? I fear it has gone down the same hole as the comradery and “we can do this” that accompanied the events of 9/11 twenty years ago. When the enemy—virus or terrorist—is elusive, we turn on one another.

“What happened? Why are we all so angry?”  I asked my widowed friend.

She reflected on her own experience in the second year of her widowhood. She remembered that, after she swept up the shards of her life and tried to glue them together, she had survived that first year better than anyone expected. She had steeled herself for the first birthday without her husband, the first wedding anniversary, the first Christmas, the first everything. And she thought that, having survived that first year, she might begin to heal.

But the second year of widowhood knocked her flat. “I let my guard down,” she said. “I thought the worst was over. So when I had to endure the second birthday, wedding anniversary, Christmas, second-everything I had to admit he was really gone. I had never understood the word ‘suffering’ until then. The second year was so much worse than the first.”

Maybe that’s what happening to us now. After a unified first year of pandemic patience, a naïve imagining that soon this would all be over, we have to admit our lives are nowhere near normal. And that they might never be. Maybe that’s why this second year is so much worse than the first.

The gospel reading appointed for this Sunday could not be more appropriate. How did Mark know, 2000 years ago, that we would need him today? Following Jesus as he healed, preached, fed and offended, Mark reflected on the core of Jesus’ message, the guiding principle. And Mark realized it wasn’t the healing, preaching, feeding or offending that drove Jesus to work like a maniac. It was Jesus’ self-understanding of his purpose.

And what was it that drove him, that purpose? Authentic, lasting life for all those in need—that was the engine that propelled Jesus. He didn’t need to be in charge. He didn’t need to be right. He didn’t need to be famous. He needed to give life, to be life for those who knew only death. And to be life, to give life, meant he would also suffer.

That’s why he poured himself out for those starving for both food and forgiveness. He humiliated himself in order to lift up the humiliated. He spoke truth to lies, kindness to hatred, hope to despair. He scattered life the way a farmer scatters seed.

And for Jesus, that kind of “living” was inextricably intertwined with dying. Dying to self. Dying for the other. Dying to this life before entering a new one.

When, eight chapters into the gospel, Jesus finally confided to his disciples that his ministry would lead not to a coronation but a cross, they came unglued. And Jesus responded in kind.

“What did you think I was doing?” he shouted back. “Running for office? Padding my 401(k)? I’m dying out here. And if you want to follow me, you will die, too.”

He wasn’t inviting them to step in front of a bus, jump off a bridge, or leap into the line of fire. It wasn’t this physical life, this “flesh” life that concerned him.

It was this one.

The Greek word Mark used in this text for Jesus’ “life” is most closely translated in English as “psyche.” A word familiar to any of us who have therapists. It was this interior life, this “heart” life, this “soul” life, this “who we are at our core” life that mattered to him. It was that life, that life force that he poured out, and that we are invited to pour out, as well.

Life lived for the other. Life given up for the other. Life concerned not with my own life, but the deep soul-health, heart-health, eternal health of the other. And if that means we suffer, we suffer. Gladly, if that’s possible.

Those who care only for their own lives are already dead, according to Jesus. But when we die for the other, that’s when we truly live.

For the first time in two years we are delighted to witness a baptism in person. Of course, we baptized during the pandemic, washing our children in the garden fountain and here in the sanctuary. But cautiously. Quietly. Privately. Almost frightened that that much proximity might be dangerous.

Today, in the light of day, amid this cloud of (masked) witnesses, we welcome little Zachary to the waters of baptism. I hear that for some, baptism is an obligation, a page to be filled out in the baby book, a way to appease grandparents. But that’s not what’s happening here today. Mark and Rose bring Zachary to us for baptism because they want to commit his life to the life they have already chosen for themselves.

Lives of service. Of selflessness. Of faith. Sometimes, of suffering.

In baptizing Zachary here today, they are not baptizing him into membership in our congregation, or branding him “Lutheran.” Today Zachary is baptized into Jesus’ life, Jesus’ death. A life and death that know no denominational affiliation, national boundaries, or political ideology. They baptize him as we baptize all our children: immersed in love greater even than their own; invited into a life that is expansive and generous; taught to witness to the goodness and power of God, ready to receive whatever God’s future holds.

And that life, that baptized life for Zachary, means that from this moment on, we speak also of his death. Death to self. Death to pride. Death to fear. So that he and all whom he encounters will live.

It will be easy when he is little. But as with the second year of grief or of a pandemic, the ongoing experience of baptism will grow more and more difficult. Like the disciples who imagined following Jesus would come with a badge or a company car, we imagine baptism will protect us from the world’s dangers.

But Mark, Rose and Zachary, and all the baptized, emerge from these waters filled with a single purpose. To live. So that others might live, as well. It’s a tough road. Ask anyone who has already been walking it.

I was surprised that my widowed friend could so quickly call to mind the suffering of those first years of grief. Though decades have passed, the tears felt fresh.

I have been surprised at how quickly we, who are otherwise kind, generous, helpful, can be sparked to anger, to judgement. Though we have all endured many sorrows—the pandemic is not the first—the anger, the fear, feels fresh.

Today, Jesus invites us to follow him. He’s not interested in how we think the world ought to be run, or who we deem worthy to join us. We follow, unable to see the path ahead, because he is on it.

Today, Zachary and Rose and Mark follow.

Today, my widowed friend chooses to follow.

Today, we choose to follow. And if the path ahead is pocked with suffering, we will receive it. As gain. As life.

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (5 September 2021)

Mark 8.24-37

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.

He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.

Yet he could not escape notice, 

  but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit

  immediately heard about him,

  and she came and bowed down at his feet. 

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.

She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 

He said to her,

  “Let the children be fed first,

  for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 

But she answered him,

  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 

Then he said to her,

  “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 

So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre,

  and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee,

  in the region of the Decapolis. 

They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech;

  and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 

He took him aside in private, away from the crowd,

  and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 

Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,”

   that is, “Be opened.” 

And immediately his ears were opened,

  his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 

Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one;

  but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 

They were astounded beyond measure, saying,

“He has done everything well;

  he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

When my daughters each morphed into teenagers, they began the inevitable distancing from home and parents. We ate supper together less and less often. They went early to school and stayed late afterwards. Almost every weekend night they were with friends, sometimes at our house but more often out and about.

We tried not to burden them with rules. We didn’t want them to take on our worries. So, we kept it simple. We agreed on a reasonable curfew. We would meet their friends. We would limit their nights out during the school week. One of the ground rules was this: “When you are out, we always need to know where you are. If you go to a friend’s house after the movie, just let us know. And if you are ashamed or afraid to tell us where you are, you probably shouldn’t be there.”

We just wanted to know where they were. And they were wonderfully cooperative. (We think.)

Jesus’ parents were not so fortunate. I don’t know what Jesus was like as a teenager, but as an adult, he often didn’t let Mary know where he was or who he was with. He hung out in unexpected, often undesirable places. He turned off the location app on his phone. He swore his friends to silence about his whereabouts. His acquaintances were not always people Mary would have chosen. Was Jesus ashamed to be where he was? Was he afraid Mary wouldn’t approve? Jesus’ parents must have been worried sick, never knowing where their son was or who he was with.

It happens again in today’s gospel reading. Jesus and his disciples take a side trip to a wealthy, secular Mediterranean coastal community called Tyre. Tyre was once an exclusive, hard-to-access island where only the wealthiest were able to live. Famous for its massive cedar trees and luxurious textile industry, Tyre was a secluded hideaway in the sea. But three centuries before the time of Jesus, Alexander the Great, frustrated that this wealthy enclave would not surrender to him even after a seven-month siege, built a causeway from the shore to the city, turning the Island of Tyre into the Peninsula of Tyre. (332 BCE)

Tyre didn’t fight back. Any army that could build a road in the sea was an army worth respecting. But Tyre remained a swanky, snooty place. Right up to the day Jesus strode through the city gate. Without telling his mother where he was. He even swore his dinner companions to silence. Why?

I have to admit this image of Jesus is unsettling. I have always imagined Jesus an “ordinary” guy. Buying clothes from the sale rack at Target rather than through a Nordstrom personal shopper. Eating at fast food joints rather than Michelin-star restaurants. I have always imagined Jesus more of a blue-collar union guy than white collar management. That he collects change in a Mason Jar rather than consulting his stockbroker.

But the more time I spend with him, the more I discover Jesus was not just an ordinary Joe, accessible  to and interested in only the poorest of the poor. Jesus also moved easily in the halls of power, knew which fork to use and how to pick a wine. Nobody blinked when he was in the room where things happened.

Though Jesus was consistently, brutally critical of the wealthy and powerful, his criticism was not THAT they were wealthy and powerful, but that they misused that wealth and power.

After all, Jesus and all his followers after him relied on the wealthy and powerful for financial support and access to power. Jesus couldn’t be bought, but he was unafraid to ask. And he expected the wealthy and powerful to use those gifts for good.

The fact that he moved freely among both the poor and the powerful says something about the grip of his message, the pull of his vision, the importance of his mission. But let’s get back to Tyre.

And the fact that his parents—and nobody else either—was supposed to know he was there. Again, the question. Why?

Like all juicy secrets, this one didn’t stay secret for long. Someone tipped off a wealthy friend—a wealthy friend in desperate need. And that’s how the gentile (that is, not Jewish) Syrophoenician (that is, educated and connected) woman (who shouldn’t have been so bold) collapsed at Jesus’ feet. She is further evidence (as if we need more) that disease and demons are no respecter of wealth and privilege. Trouble knocks on every door.

Her daughter was possessed by a demon. Whether that would be the diagnosis in this century is open to debate, but in the 1st century, any illness that could not be diagnosed was attributed to demons. Did she suffer seizures? Night terrors? Hallucinations? Psychotic episodes? Did she self-harm? We don’t know. They didn’t either. And the not-knowing—especially in a child—was terrifying.

We are moved, nearly to tears, by the mother’s need. Jesus was moved not at all. How is that possible?

This text is filled with questions. Why was Jesus in Tyre? Why did his presence there need to be kept secret? Why did he dismiss a mother in such obvious need? Why did he later change his mind about treating her daughter? And why, in only a few verses and a few miles down the road, did he gladly and without hesitation, open the ears and loose the tongue of a speechless man who was also laid at his feet by worried relatives?

We understand so little of Jesus’ world. And we understand even less of Jesus. So, when we try to import our politics, our economics, our culture, our healthcare, our assumptions into Jesus’ world, we are always wrong.

In Jesus’ world, political power was transferred not through elections but through bloodshed. In Jesus’ world, wealth was held by very few, and most people’s lives were short and hard and hungry. In Jesus’ world roles were carefully subscribed and never altered (he should have been a carpenter), even simple illnesses could kill, and principles like free speech and equal access were laughable.

That’s why it’s so fascinating to me that Jesus moved so easily through this stratified, siloed world. Nobody did that. Nobody. And yet, week after week, in town after town, Jesus connects with both rich and poor, Jew and gentile, clean and unclean, male and female, powerful and weak. So much so, that at the end of this morning’s gospel reading, the crowd, remarks, “He does all things well.”

Indeed, he does. Who does that?

The welcome and reach of Jesus’ ministry are two of the reasons we can be pretty sure he was not just another protestor or preacher, magician or madman. Maybe Jesus really is the Son of God? Lots of people thought so. Some of us still do.

And that’s why people as different from one another as a wealthy, gentile woman and a speechless, disabled beggar went looking for Jesus. They all felt a connection to Jesus, and he to them.

I have been haunted by images of the Afghanistan evacuation last week. And of flooded basement apartments in New York City. And hurricane-ravaged neighborhoods in Louisiana. And scorched earth in Tahoe. And more gun violence in Chicago.

I’ve been haunted by these images not as a politician or climate scientist or military strategist or big city mayor might be, but as a pastor, as a parent, as a person who has never, not for one day, faced the terror and destruction those people, those communities, those countries have faced. The chasm between their experience and mine is almost unbridgeable.

Except that like a parent who knows and worries over the needs of each child, I believe Jesus knows and worries, as well. Regardless of the language we speak, the way we worship, the way we vote, our zip- or country codes—we are known. Those soldiers, those refugees, those families, those journalists and interpreters and shopkeepers and firefighters, those desperate souls in Kabul who clung to the side of a moving airplane—all of them have needs. And all of them are known.

And because Jesus knows them and us, we know each other. Bonded through Jesus who knows every need.

I know it sounds naïve, even childish, to believe Jesus can make any difference in the lives of those whose needs are so complex. But, as I discussed with a friend earlier this week, the line between “faith” and “desperation” grows blurrier every day.

When neither our armies nor our intellectuals can make a dent in the world’s need, when policies fail and our best intentions falter, where do we turn? Who do we talk to? Who will listen? Whom can we trust?  Is that faith? Desperation? Does it matter?

Like the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was tormented by demons, like the friends who asked a miracle for a man who couldn’t speak for himself, we lay the world’s needs at Jesus’ feet. What sort of healing do they need? What will we ask when we lay them there? What will Jesus do?

When, in faith or desperation, the needy cry for help . . .

When, in faith or desperation, we lay our loved ones at Jesus’ feet . . .

When, in faith or desperation, we beg for a miracle, we believe—because we have to—that our cries are heard, our burdens lifted, our needs are met.

For twenty years in the 60’s and 70’s, the national nightly news began with a question, “Its 10:00. Do you know where your children are?”

Even when we don’t, I know someone who does.

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (29 August 2021)

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

JoAnn A. Post

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 

So, the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
 ‘This people honors me with their lips,
  but their hearts are far from me;
 in vain do they worship me,
  teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them,

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: 

there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile,

but the things that come out are what defile.”

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit,

licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 

All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

I hardly noticed it at first, accepting that narrow band of green groundcover in our yard as part of the landscaping. But like Covid pounds that snuck silently and unbidden into my back pockets, that groundcover mutely multiplied. Slowly. Stealthily. When no one was looking. And now, after seven years of unchecked spread, that lovely band of green groundcover has taken over my yard. Crawling under trees, through the grass, among my roses—choking out the life of all it touched. I worry that if my dog, Maggie, stands still too long, she might be enveloped in it, as well.

The landscaper whom we called for help just shook his head. “Bishop’s Weed. I hate it. Its everywhere. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Undeterred and unsatisfied, I sent an SOS to the man who cares for our church grounds. Joe made an emergency house call—he heard the desperation in my voice. Standing in my sea of unrepentant weeds, he twisted his baseball cap in grass-stained hands, shrugged and said, “Bishop’s Weed. I hate it. But I can take care of it for you.”

And he did. Many sweaty hours, lots of digging and hundreds of dollars later, the Bishop’s Weed is gone. Mostly. Almost daily, we patrol the grounds with a bottle of Roundup at the ready, nuking any stray tendril of the weed that comes up for air. But our fight is futile. Bishop’s Weed always wins. Even now, I imagine its little subterranean rhizomes laughing at us. “We’ll be back,” it chortles in dormant delight.

The reason Bishop’s Weed is so viral is that it doesn’t belong here. While easily managed in its native Asian habitat, it was imported to this country in the 1850’s as an ornamental plant. To disastrous effect. By 1860, the state of Rhode Island had declared it “invasive and unstoppable,” hoping perhaps to shame it into oblivion. And yet it persists. 150 years after that slap on the wrist, though universally deemed an aggressive invader and environmental threat, Bishop’s Weed stalks unabated.

Who knew that a beautiful green groundcover would, one day, keep me awake at night? Well, Bishop’s Weed did. Outside its carefully controlled natural habitat, it rages across North America like wildfire. It doesn’t belong here. And it won’t go away.

But it is not the weed’s fault. It is, frighteningly, unfailingly predictable. Like the irritating family member who continues to belch, bluster and bloviate their way through our lives with the excuse, “Just me bein’ me.” Bishop’s Weed is just being Bishop’s Weed. You got’ta admire the consistency.

But consistency has its limits.

This morning let me re-introduce you to Mark, the gospel we abandoned back in July to follow our noses to the aroma of bread wafting from John’s gospel. But this is, in fact, the Year of Mark in our lectionary series. Every three years we read through the gospels of Matthew (Year A), Mark (Year B) and Luke (Year C) with occasional excursions into John. Its good to be back. I admire Mark’s clean lines, terse grammar, compelling story line. And today I admire his consistency.

Mark is unflinching in his portrayal of Jesus as impatient, outspoken, and insistent on his mission. What’s that mission? To declare the nearness of God and the opportunity to repent. (Mark 1.15) Jesus is like a dog with a bone. Like a weed with a root. Consistent to a fault.

But so are his opponents.

When today’s gospel opens, Jesus and his disciples are meandering the weekly farmers market, admiring the heirloom tomatoes, crushing a mint leaf between their fingers just to admire the aroma, wolfing down the samples.  And some of his disciples, unnamed to protect their identities, ate without washing their hands. Not just 20-seconds of “Happy Birthday to you” handwashing, but the elaborate, multi-step handwashing prescribed in the religious laws that governed their lives.

Rather than scrubbing up to the elbows with a sliver of Irish Spring, observant Jews were to wash their hands by slowly pouring water from a cup over each hand before they ate. This ritual washing was part of the blessing offered before a meal. That Jesus’ disciples would forego this long-established, reverent practice was abhorrent to the Pharisees who witnessed it. And they let Jesus know. They went so far as to name the disciples’ unwashed hands, “defiled.” That’s a bad word. Defiled means polluted, poisoned, degraded, corrupt.

Would it have been so wrong for the disciples to pause in their grazing to wash their hands properly? Probably not. But Jesus’ equally strong reaction to the Pharisees wasn’t only about handwashing. Their pompous reprimand about handwashing was just the last straw, the tipping point, the knock out blow for Jesus. The Pharisees had been harassing him and his disciples in very village, at every turn, about every thing. And Jesus had had it.

Opening a whole can of Isaiah on them, Jesus stabbed an angry finger their direction and accused them of lip service rather than heart service. He accused them of making a false equivalent between their desires and God’s desires. He accused them of commandment-breaking—substituting their laws for God’s laws.

After he dope slapped them for a while, he turned to the crowds and corrected the official record. “Look,” he said, “God doesn’t care what happens to the outside of your body—handwashing, ritual eating, social practice. God cares about what lies inside—theft, murder, pride, lying.”

And then, with a nasty glance over his shoulder at the tight-lipped, nearly fainting Pharisees, he challenged the crowd to have pure hearts, rather than pure hands. Boom.

If we were to read further than the end of today’s gospel reading, we would find Jesus and the disciples huddled in a house. The disciples were very confused. Jesus’ smack down of the Pharisees had taken them all by surprise. “We can wash our hands next time, Jesus,” they promised. But it wasn’t their hands or their ritual practice that Jesus cared about. It was what lived in their hearts, what emerged from their mouths, what they did with their hands.

What we do on the outside is evidence of what we believe on the inside.

Years ago, I served a parish in Wisconsin that, by chance, was within only a few miles of that year’s national Farm Progress Show. For those of you who didn’t grow up in the shadow of a big red barn, eating corn fresh from the field, the Farm Progress Show is a big deal. Equipment manufacturers, livestock breeders and seed companies from across the country set up shop for a week to showcase the latest and greatest. And because all those curious farmers have to be fed, my congregation and every other service organization in the county set up a food stand. Our specialty? Barbeque rib sandwiches and homemade coleslaw. We couldn’t keep up with the demand. (The only food stand more popular than ours was the United Methodist Church Women’s fresh pie stand. Pie and ice cream always wins.)

Because parking was an issue, volunteers were encouraged to get to the show every day by boarding chartered school buses that ran all-day round trips from a number of stops around the county to the Show. I hadn’t ridden a school bus in years, but I rode one twice a day every day for a week. Barbeque rib sandwiches, you remember.

One morning I boarded the bus, sporting my freshly laundered John Deere green church t-shirt, and sat next to an older woman I didn’t know. As we chatted, I made the mistake of telling her I was the local Lutheran pastor. She grabbed my hand, her eyes filled with tears, and she poured out her heart to me, right there on the school bus.

“My husband is in heaven. I know he is. Sure, most people didn’t like him. He was pretty rough. He couldn’t keep a job. He mostly said what he thought and did what he wanted. Sure, he was hard on the kids and on me, but I only had to call the police once. He drove off most of our friends and we did lose the farm because of his gambling. He never went to church and hated it when I did. But don’t think badly of him. I know that, in his heart, he was a good man. Deep in his heart, he was a good man. My husband is in heaven. Isn’t he?”

The anguish in her voice was heart breaking. I have no idea how long she had been a widow, or the circumstances of her late husband’s death, but her fear for his eternal salvation—because of the life he lived—consumed her. In fact, she didn’t want much from me but a non-judgmental ear. I can do that. And before we stepped off the bus into the Farm Show, I assured her that we are all sinners; that salvation is up to God not to us; and that I know God is, by nature, kind and forgiving. She hugged me at the bottom of the bus stairs, and then we were quickly lost to one another in the crowds.

But her story haunted me all that day. Still does.

Let me be clear about something, salvation does, in fact, belong to God. Speculating about the eternal disposition of any particular sinner, is a waste of time and breath. And that leads me to another, equally important point. We are all, without exception, sinful and unclean.

One of the most unique aspects of Lutheran theology is that we believe there are no levels of sin, only varieties. We believe that the person who lies is as sinful as the person who murders. We believe that the person who steals a pencil is as sinful as the person who robs a bank. Though in the eyes of the law those actions are treated very differently, and rightly so, in God’s eyes they are all the same. We are all the same. There are no levels of sin, only varieties.

So, if your only concern is for the next life, and you’re betting on God having a good day when you get there, knock yourself out. Live a debauched, unkind, selfish, hurtful life with wild abandon.

But if you have any concern for this life, and more important, any concern for others who share this life, we must also remind ourselves that though God is able to see the heart, all others can see of us is our actions, our words, that which emerges.

Some of you may remember the Kennedy Evangelism Explosion of the 1960’s and 70’s—a door-to-door “come to Jesus” crusade that swept the country. When you opened the front door to one of their volunteers, you would be met with the clever question, “If today you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

While the technique lacks a little in the way of elegance, and I don’t subscribe to the abrupt, accusatory strategy, I’ve always found the question compelling. In other words, in Jesus’ words, do our external actions and words accurately portray the internal faith we carry in our hearts and minds? Especially for those of us who publicly profess faith in Jesus Christ, it is critically important that our insides and outsides correspond. And if they don’t, if the world has to guess?

We shouldn’t be surprised that Bishop’s Weed acts like Bishop’s Weed. It is terrifyingly consistent and true to its nature. The part of the weed that lurks underground is exactly the same as the part that springs up in my lawn.

So, it should be no surprise that Jesus expects disciples to act like disciples. To be relentlessly consistent and true to our nature. Inside and outside. Day and night. When we are in public and when no one is looking. After all, it is what emerges from us that tells the truth. What truth does your life tell?

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (22 August 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem,

  and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel;

  and they presented themselves before God. 

And Joshua said to all the people, 

“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; 

  put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt,

  and serve the Lord. 

Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord,

  choose this day whom you will serve,

  whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River

  or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living;

  but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Then the people answered,

“Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 

  for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors

  up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,

  and who did those great signs in our sight.

He protected us along all the way that we went,

  and among all the peoples through whom we passed; 

  and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples,

  the Amorites who lived in the land.

Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

This quote from the book of Joshua hung on a wall behind my aunt and uncle’s kitchen table on the farm in Iowa. I mostly paid no attention to it; I certainly didn’t know it was biblical. My parents had similar plaques on the kitchen wall, “The family that prays together, stays together.” And, the one that creeped me out, even as a child, “Jesus, the Silent Guest at Every Meal.” Yikes. What a horrible guest he must have been. Who invited him?

Well, my father did.

My parents and their parents and their parents before them had been hard-working, unassuming, selfless, German Lutheran farmers, first in central Illinois and then in northern Iowa. Faith in God was assumed in the way that three meals a day was assumed. The presence of Jesus was invoked at every meal, in the reverent, measured voice my father used only in prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest . . .” To use the name of God, or Jesus, or any combination of those names in any context but prayer or worship was unthinkable.

We were Lutheran Christians, without question. We served the Lord. Was there an option?

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Was it easier for them, my much-loved aunt and uncle, to commit themselves and their family to faith in Jesus Christ? Was there any sense of irony in my father’s three-times-a-day invitation to welcome Jesus, Son of God and Lord of the Universe, to our humble kitchen table? Was it easier then, in a small town with few options about anything, to “choose this day whom you will serve?” I don’t know.

The situation in which Joshua spoke those words to the people of Israel was not such a simple time. After having wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, mingling with and marrying the locals, who worshipped a variety of gods and lived in wildly, wonderfully different ways, Joshua ordered them to choose. “You can’t have it both ways,” he said. They could continue as they had, addicted to novelty and easily distracted, or they could follow the ways of the God who had led and loved them all along.

“Your choice,” Joshua said. “But, as for me and my house . . .” In a patriarchal society he could do that, make a decision for everyone under his roof. And he did. “We will serve the Lord.”

And with one voice, like a cheer erupting from the cheap seats, “We will, too! We will, too! Go, God!” (That mob-made decision lasted about three minutes, but that’s another story.)

Choose this day whom you will serve.

In addition to being raised in a Christian home, I was raised with a particular view of the history of this wonderful country in which we live. I was raised with the notion of the “Christian nation,” that this nation was founded in Jesus’ name and under the special protection of God. What that meant was that, in Jesus’ name, any number of laws, ordinances and expectations were imposed on the whole country. Prayer in schools, no question mark. Blue laws that prevented commerce on Sundays, no question mark. Church on Sunday morning no matter how late you’d been out on Saturday night, no question mark.

It was only much later, after I studied those founding documents for myself and met people who had not been raised as I had been, that I learned that the founding fathers had not all been Christian, that they had gone to great pains to protect a variety of religious expressions, and that the choices made by others—by people who look like me—imposed a tremendous burden on people who believed and lived differently.

If we got to choose whom we would serve, didn’t they?

Fast forward to John 6, the fifth and final in our lectionary series, “Jesus, Bread of Life.”  For four weeks, we have been scratching our heads about Jesus’ self-identification as “Bread.” First he multiplied literal loaves of bread and fed 5000 people. That well-intended miracle got him in a ton of trouble, as rumor spread that Jesus was like a rogue ATM, dispensing unlimited bread on request. He didn’t want to be their 24-hour bakery. He wanted to be their metaphorical bread, their spiritual bread, their sustenance, their hope, their studied choice.

And today, on this last Sunday in John 6, Jesus gets his way. Today choices are made. The people who had been waiting around for more bread (“Croissant, please,”) had had enough. Both offended and disappointed, they grumbled and walked away. “We thought you were here to serve us,” they said.

Jesus was, apparently, not surprised. Jesus was and is an acquired taste, not to everyone’s liking. As more and more people turned their backs and walked away, Jesus said to the few who remained, “Did I offend you, too? Are you leaving, too?”

It’s not that they hadn’t thought about it. Jesus was not easy to follow. But the few that remained made a choice—for themselves, not for anyone else. But their choice was not a full-throated “Of course we will!”  as Joshua’s audience had done. Their response was a bit more muted. “No. We’ll stay. After all, where else would we go?”

Choose this day whom you will serve. And they did. Both the ones who stayed, and the ones who left.

Please don’t hear me wrong. I am deeply grateful for the way I was raised—my parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents raised me and “our household” to be faithful, honest, hard-working and generous.  It is because of them that I have chosen this particular path in life, this particular vocation. And I am deeply grateful to have been born in a country that, by design and at its best, provides good order, relative peace, and equal opportunity.

But since that ordered, predictable childhood, the world—and we—have been changed. All those assumptions with which I grew up, are assumed no longer. I often hear people, my age and older, lament the loss of those assumptions, that imposed order. But I do not. Especially here, in the church, among the people of God. Choices must be made. Choices get to be made. Why, its practically biblical.

A friend of ours is a practicing Christian in The Netherlands, where only a fraction of the population claims religious affiliation. She and her spouse are, in their late 50’s, the youngest people in worship on Sunday mornings. They and a handful of old women gather in their cavernous, mostly empty sanctuary each week to worship and pray. When we first met, I wondered what that was like, being the “youth group” in their congregation, continuing to worship and be active in a congregation when almost everyone else they knew was otherwise occupied.

“It seems right,” our friend said. “Jesus never expected everyone to follow him. Jesus expected us to choose. And we have.”

And their choice means they are in church on Sunday morning, and living out that choice every day of the week. Being generous. Being selfless. Being hopeful. Forgiving. And without judgment on those who have chosen differently.

The pandemic provided the context for similar choices in our country, in our town. Long-held assumptions about everything—school, church, entertainment, civic responsibility, work, relationships—were upended. And now, as we slowly, in fits-and-starts emerge from the pandemic, choices are being made.

What will your life look like once these choices are made? What will the church look like once these choices are made? Does Jesus offend you, too?

Meanwhile, Joshua’s ears are ringing with the explosive cheer, “We will, too! We will, too! We will serve God with you!” Did Joshua know, on that sunny mountain, that they would in fact, quickly choose otherwise.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ calendar has suddenly cleared. All those dinner invitations and guest lectures and book deals went up in smoke. Was he disappointed? Relieved?

Meanwhile, our faith requires that we choose. Not for others, but for ourselves. Whom will we serve?

And if we choose to follow Jesus, it means we are choosing a particular way of life. Again, for ourselves, not for others.

Those who choose Jesus choose to forgive, even if we don’t feel like it.

Those who choose Jesus choose to be generous, even if there is no tax break.  

Those who choose Jesus choose to place the needs of others above our own, even at cost to ourselves.

Those who choose Jesus choose to see God at work, not absent, in even the darkest night.

Those who choose Jesus choose to view others are siblings and neighbors, rather than strangers and enemies.

Those who choose Jesus choose. It is not a choice everyone will make. He was okay with that. Because though we might not choose to love Jesus, Jesus always chooses to love us. All of us. Those who follow and those who don’t.

The more I think about that plaque above my aunt and uncle’s kitchen table, the more I realize it was more than just a pious sentiment or a way to cover a crack in the plaster. They chose to “serve the Lord,” as Joshua instructed. Through the uncertainties of farming, the illness of a child, financial setbacks, tremendous health challenges as they aged, and in a rapidly changing world, they remained faithful to God. Without question. It was a choice they had made when they married, and they never changed their minds.

Was it easy for them? Did they know they had a choice? I don’t know. But I’m grateful for the choice they made. It changed my life and the lives of all whom they met.

Perhaps, like the crowds that gave up on Jesus, you are offended by him.

Perhaps, like the mob in the wilderness that promised to serve God and then changed their minds, you waver in your commitment.

Regardless of what you choose, you have been chosen. And Jesus never changes his mind.

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (15 August 2021)

John 6.51-58

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.

Whoever eats of this bread will live forever;

  and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying,

 “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 

So Jesus said to them,

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man

  and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,

   and I will raise them up on the last day; 

  for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 

Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 

Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father,

  so whoever eats me will live because of me. 

This is the bread that came down from heaven,

  not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.

But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Food doesn’t frighten me. Not all food interests me, but it generally doesn’t frighten me. I can think of only two times when food presented a real and present danger.

The first was a Saturday night out with friends years ago, long before my pastor days. The small table around which we were seated was crowded with drinks and napkins and snacks. I think it was the deep-fried mushrooms that proved most dangerous. Because nestled among the greasy, crispy bits was a cockroach 3 inches long. When our multi-legged bit of bonus protein crawled out of the basket onto the table, a friend yelled “Roach!” We leapt up, tipped the table, spilled our drinks and all the food. The waiter came running over to remedy the situation. His solution, “What can I do? Could I get you more mushrooms?”

The second was in the home of an elderly friend whose eyesight was gradually fading. The corners of every room were unswept, lacey with cobwebs. The dishes in the cupboard weren’t all that clean. Mail and newspapers piled up, unread, on every surface. She no longer locked the doors because she couldn’t find the key to unlock it. The most worrisome aspect of her visual loss was that she couldn’t tell if food was fresh anymore. (Her sense of smell was impaired, as well.) When, one steamy summer afternoon, she served me a plate of deli meats, all of which were slimy and smelly, a slice of bread dotted with mold, and a green salad in which there was movement, I grew concerned. For both of us.

No, generally food doesn’t frighten me.

But under the right—or wrong?—circumstances, it can kill you.

Think about the play “Arsenic and Old Lace,” based on a true story, about two spinster sisters who poisoned lonely bachelors in their boarding house for money.

Think about the unsolved 1982 Tylenol poisonings, in which some wicked individual laced random bottles of acetaminophen with potassium cyanide; seven Chicagoans died.

Think about the job-nobody-wants: food taster. Or, in antiquity, known as a cup bearer. Some poor schmuck (or “schmucks” plural—Adolph Hitler employed 15 of them simultaneously) were force fed the meal a famous person would later eat. If the food taster lived? “Hurray! Dinner is served!” If not? “Who’s next?”

Then there’s mad cow disease carried in beef. And salmonella. And e-coli. Yuk. Want inspiration to eat less? Imagine poison on your plate. Slimy sliced turkey. Deep-fried cockroaches. That’ll slow you down.

Generally, food doesn’t frighten me, but sometimes . . .

Today we read the fourth of a five-part lectionary series “Jesus, Bread of Life.” Every three years, preachers are presented the opportunity to serve up five sermons from 70 consecutive verses, some of which overlap week-to-week. So, if it feels like you’ve heard this story before, you have.

Why this tedious series from John in what is technically the Year of Mark? I asked my favorite theologian and this is what he said:

Coitis XI, the working group of the Vatican responsible for the shape of the lectionary in the early 1960’s, determined that there needed to be an extended treatment of what they viewed as the core eucharistic image so that the paschal mystery could be more fully appreciated through contemplation on Christ as bread of life.

Also, they were looking for a string of texts from the gospel of John to insert into the series from Mark, which for obvious reasons was going to run short, as well as they believed there was too little of John’s gospel read across the three-year cycle.           Its one of the best demonstrations of how the lectionary does not pretend to be comprehensive or didactic about scripture, but, rather, regard it as a theological feast.        (James Nieman, August 2021)

All of that came to me in a series of texts earlier this weekend, while aforementioned favorite theologian was doing yardwork at home, and I was working at church. Here’s to the multi-tasking, multi-talented pastor’s spouse.

So, in simpler language, why five weeks of Jesus, Bread of Life? It was a studied decision by sacramental theologians to provide more intense study and contemplation on the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, and a way to beef-up the lectionary with more texts from John’s gospel.

That is why, for four consecutive weeks, we have considered the fact of bread—Jesus fed 5000 persons with two loaves and five fish (John 6.1-21). We have considered the selfish misunderstanding of  those who witnessed the miracle of the loaves and fishes—they wanted to capture Jesus and turn him into a drive-through fast-bread dispensary (John 24-35). We have learned that those who consume Jesus, who take him into their lives like food, will be sustained on that meal into eternity (John 6.41-51). And that brings us to this week, as Jesus, Bread of Life, both pounds his fist on the table and a nail into his coffin.

“Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood,” he roared to his opponents, “you have no life.”

Though we kept reading beyond that unsettling exchange this morning, many of Jesus’ hearers had already stopped listening. Eat his body? Drink his blood? The Twitter-verse lit up with accusations that Jesus’ disciples were going to roast him on spit, cut him up and consume him. That accusation of cannibalism among Jesus’ followers dogged them for two centuries, finally laid to rest only when their persecutors found some other misunderstanding to exploit. (Jesus’ followers were later accused of incest and atheism. Never a dull moment in the willful ignorance department.)

Remember how I said at the beginning of this sermon that food doesn’t frighten me? Perhaps I should amend that statement. Or perhaps John already has.

Some food should frighten us. Because if we believe what Jesus says, that the only way to be like him is to consume him, we have no choice but to eat him up. To gnaw, chew, grind, nibble, tear and gobble him. The only way to be like Jesus is to take his reality—his flesh and blood reality—into our flesh and blood realities. The only way to be like Jesus is to . . . to be like Jesus.

To absorb him. And when we do, when we consume him, we become like him. Selfless. Generous. Bold. Fearless. Misunderstood.

Eat my flesh. Drink my blood. Take me in and live. You can imagine his words caused offense.

The favorite theologian who I mentioned earlier, once served on the pastoral team of a multi-site congregation in Alaska. The congregation stretched from Anchorage to the Arctic Circle, served by pastors and lay leaders in a handful of cities and villages. One of those villages was on an isolated island, called Shishmaref. An island village that is slowly being submerged into the Bering Sea as global warming does its wicked work.

Villages like Shishmaref were devasted—belatedly—by the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. Generally protected from the dangers of the outside world, ships and barges from Seattle brought the influenza virus into the villages on the sailors and on the mail they delivered. Thousands of native Alaskans died, many of them after the rest of the world had begun to recover.

Shishmaref and the surrounding communities have been Lutheran for 140 years. They have been singing hymns and teaching Sunday School and baptizing babies and consuming the Lord’s Supper longer than most Lutheran congregations in the Lower 48. It was common among them to consume the Lord’s Supper from a single loaf, to drink from a single cup. But in 1918, as the virus slipped into their community and no one yet knew how, they grew afraid. Afraid that they were being sickened, perhaps, by food. More specifically sickened, perhaps, by the body and blood Jesus. To this day, there is not a native Lutheran on the Seward Peninsula who will drink sacramental wine from a common cup.

Jesus’ body. Jesus’ blood. They were afraid it was killing them.

Today, 100 years later, we find ourselves similarly afraid of Jesus’ body and blood. After 15 months apart, we have now resumed our weekly gathering in-person, and we have experimented with worship in ways that are both meaningful and safe. That’s a tall order, since worshipping Jesus has always carried significant risk. Risk of being misunderstood. Risk of being changed. Risk of dying. We are all about worship that is meaningful. But safe? That’s not typically a word we associate with the life of faith.

But last Sunday, as we met one another here at the head of the aisle, eye-to-eye and mask-to-mask, I realized that we might have been placing one another in danger. I worried that in that holy moment, when bread is broken and wine is poured, we might be sharing more than the Lord’s body and blood. What if one of us carried the corona virus? What if, in that moment, we were exchanging a dangerous illness?

Of course, rationally, I know that is not possible. Rationally, we know that the risk of passing illness to one another in that brief moment, or even in shared bread and cup as we used to do is negligible—with or without a pandemic. But I do not want you to worry when you are here. I do not want you to feel threatened when you are here. So today, and until we decide differently, we will commune in our pews, consuming a chiclet sized-wafer and thimble of wine from a hermetically-sealed “chalice,” available on Amazon Prime for $50 per hundred. Shipping is free.

Jesus did not say, “Eat my bread and drink my blood in safety.” But Jesus could not have imagined the circumstances under which we now live.

That said, even if we commune at a safe distance with no danger of human contact, this food should frighten us. Jesus, Bread of Life, should frighten us. Because when we consume him, when we absorb him, when we believe him, we place ourselves in grave danger.

What if we eat his bread and drink his blood—safely or otherwise—and find him living in us? That would be dangerous. We might suddenly be compelled to forgive those who have harmed us. We might discover that other’s needs matter more than our own. We might be filled with a peace that we previously could not even imagine. We might be willing to stand up for those who have no one to defend them, even at risk to ourselves.

Food does not typically frighten me. But this? This flesh and blood. This bread and wine. When consumed, it may well consume us.

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (4 July 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

2 Corinthians 12.2-10

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 

On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

“Everybody has a limp. It’s just that you can’t always see it.”

My friend wasn’t talking about a literal physical impairment, necessarily, though even I, as I age, have a little trouble putting one foot in front of the other sometimes.

My friend was talking about herself. A woman who, to all appearances, is healthy and strong and limp-free. But she has limits—serious physical limits—because of a rare and chronic condition that can, on a moment’s notice, land her in an ICU bed on life support. Not many people know of her ailment—it’s not the sort of thing you brag about on Twitter. But the fact that few know about it means that she is often misunderstood.

“Oh, come on, let’s take the stairs. It’s better for you than the elevator.”
“What do you mean, you have to cancel? This meeting has been on the calendar for weeks!”

“You sure do have a lot of doctor’s appointments. You okay?”

Wouldn’t it be easier to just tell everyone about her physical limitations, get it out in the open? It might seem so, but she has learned, from painful experience, that when people know she has a “limp,” they treat her differently. She’s been passed over for promotions. She’s been eyed with suspicion if she so much as sneezes. She’s been treated as though she’s breakable. She was ghosted by a potential love interest when she confided her physical limitations. She overheard a colleague whisper to another in a high stakes, stressful meeting, “Don’t upset her. She’s not well.”

That’s why she doesn’t disclose her “limp.” It gets used against her.

Everybody has a limp. It’s just that you can’t always see it.

This morning’s scripture readings are packed with limps and limitations. Ezekiel can speak only the words God gives him, and even then he should expect to be ignored. (Ezekiel 2.1-5) The Apostle Paul, a famous braggart, was inflicted with a “thorn” to “keep him from being too elated.” Jesus himself limps away from his home town because the locals remember when he was a gangly, awkward middle school kid, last to be picked for the team. His own disciples, gifted with Jesus’ own power, would also be disregarded and dismissed. (Mark 6.1-13)

Limps and limitations are, according to scripture, part of the deal. And, apparently, nothing to fear. And maybe even, a good thing.

But not everyone reads it that way.

There is a strand of American Christianity that preaches the “prosperity gospel.” Its wildly popular, has made millionaires of its leaders. The prosperity gospel maintains that God wants us to be rich, that illness is a sign of weak faith, that “happy” is the norm, and that trouble is our own fault. If we believed more, trouble would go away, wouldn’t it? It’s just a matter of a positive point of view, isn’t it?

Would that it were true. Wouldn’t it be nice if praying the right prayer cured our cancer? Wouldn’t it be nice if attending the right church increased our income? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could believe the right way and remove sorrow from the lives of those we love?

It’s not we haven’t all tried. How many nights have you spent on your knees making deals with God; how many nights have you drenched your pillow with tears, begging for a different outcome? I know I have. I wish it worked that way. But it doesn’t.

Of course, miracles happen. Of course, prayer changes things. And, of course, I think a positive outlook is important. But if all it took to live a worry-free wealthy life was to think the right thoughts, there wouldn’t be a worry in the world; we’d all be gazillionaires.

But here’s the truth that informs our faith. Everybody has a limp. And sometimes, it makes us stronger.

I usually preach on the appointed Gospel text for the day, because I think it’s important to maintain a narrative thread week-to-week, and because Jesus and his ministry are endlessly fascinating to me.

But sometimes, every once in a while, I shift my gaze to another figure in scripture, a figure who either, because of great faith or great flaws or both, reveals an important truth. Today, Paul is that alternative figure. Would you indulge me a week’s divergence from the Gospel reading to study Paul—his great faith and his great flaws?

A quick review. We first met Paul in the Book of Acts back when he was named Saul. Saul was captain of his high school debate team, top of his class in law school, a whiz with ancient languages (which were, at the time, of course, modern languages), a rhetorician without peer. Paul was also incredibly angry and prone to fits of violence. His zeal for the law rendered him rigid, judgmental, righteous in the worst ways.

Following Jesus’ ascension, Saul ordered a brutal persecution of any Jews in Jerusalem who would have dared believe in Jesus. Following the public execution of one of Jesus’ followers named Stephen—an execution Saul personally ordered and supervised—the writer of Acts records this chilling result: “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem. Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (Acts 8.1ff) In the name of God, using the authority of his office, Saul ordered executions, imprisonments and torture.

But God had an eye on Saul, it seems. God needed Saul’s intellect and energy, his passion and persuasion. So, in chapter 9 of the Book of Acts, Saul was thrown to the ground by a flash of light and a mighty voice. While blinded by the light, Jesus came to Saul in a vision and said, in essence, you work for me now. Saul became Paul. Paul became the driving force behind the worldwide spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But it wasn’t all puppies and ice cream for Paul. For the rest of his life, many early Christians mistrusted Paul—his conversion was too bizarre to be believed. He was ever after regarded by some, a spy, a mole, a dangerous interloper.

Everywhere Paul went he knocked people out with his preaching. Everywhere Paul went the church grew exponentially. Everywhere Paul went, his ego got there first.

That is why in today’s second reading, Paul reports God’s decision to give him a metaphorical limp, a limit, a reminder of his humanity. Paul writes, “Therefore,  to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, to keep me from being too elated.”

What was that thorn? We don’t know. Maybe it was a physical limitation. Maybe it was a speech impediment. Maybe it was a mental illness, a cognitive disorder or an auto-immune disease. Maybe it was an addiction or a compulsion. Whatever it was, that “thorn” pricked him whenever he got ahead of himself, whenever he forgot his place.

And that “thorn,” that “limp” became, in time, a gift. Because in answer to his impassioned pleas for relief, Jesus said to him, again in a vision, “My grace is sufficient for you. Power is perfected in powerlessness.”

To which Paul responded in his letter to the church in Corinth, a place often bruised by his blistering personality, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

Did they believe it? Did he? We don’t know, but we know that thorn did its work.

Everybody has a limp. It’s just that you can’t always see it.

When I was younger, I was impatient. Even more impatient than I am now, if you can believe it. I didn’t understand why people don’t just do the right thing. I didn’t understand why people don’t just say “I’m sorry” when they’ve behaved badly. I didn’t understand why people would make the same mistakes over and over again. I didn’t understand why people would act against their own self-interest. I didn’t understand why people just didn’t do what they said they would do. I didn’t understand why people would be willfully ignorant. I didn’t understand why my parents, as they aged, seemed to “give in” to a slower, more limited life.

I didn’t understand a lot of things about people.

Or about congregations.  

Or about God.

Yeah, I was impatient. And, I fear, often insufferable.

But then I developed a limp. More than one.

I suffered setbacks. I faced life-threatening illness. I labored under disappointment. I experienced grief. I failed myself and others. I got older. And every setback, every illness, every disappointment, every grief, every failure, every birthday has made me more patient, more understanding, and more faithful.

Like a bad knee that predicts a change in the weather, that limp, that thorn, confirms today’s gospel truth:

God’s grace is sufficient.

Power is perfect in powerlessness.

When I am weak, I am strong.

That’s why, when the “thorn” pricked Paul, he grew stronger.

That’s why, when Jesus and his disciples were rejected, they became more resolute.

That’s why, when Ezekiel was ignored, he bulldozed.

That’s why, when we limp—as individuals, as congregations—we are reminded that God is at work in us. Perhaps more powerfully in our powerlessness.

My chronically ill friend will one day die because of her illness. That certain end has made her a kinder, more patient person.

Creeping cultural changes and the pandemic’s devastation have altered all our lives, all our families, all our congregations sometimes irreversibly. Will we try to remove the thorn? Will we fight this new limp, the new “hitch in our giddy up?”

Or will we recognize it, possibly, as God at work? Will we come to believe that God’s grace is sufficient, that we are strongest when we are weak, that powerlessness is true power?

After all, everybody has a limp. Maybe it’s time to let the world see it.

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (20 June 2021)

Mark 5.35-41

JoAnn A. Post

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “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?”

There is a lot wrong with this story. There are a lot more questions than answers in this story. There are a lot of evidentiary holes in this story. There is a lot about which to be concerned in this story. And Mark, the gospel writer, meant for it to be that way.

We come away from this story knowing a lot less than we did before we read it. And I think that’s the point.

Try these questions on for size:

Why would you go for a long sail at night?

What was waiting on the other side of the sea?

Who was in those “other boats” and did they nearly drown, as well?

What does it mean, they took Jesus “just as he was?”
If the storm was so immense, how could Jesus sleep?

I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee. It’s a stunning place, nestled in a ring of mountains and high hills, 12 miles long, 8 miles wide. The sea itself is 700 feet below sea level; the highest hill is 1400 feet above sea level. The sea lies in a basin, like milk at the bottom of a cereal bowl. On a still day, there is not enough wind to ruffle a Kleenex, let alone sail a ship. But on a whim, a cool wind blowing across the hills makes contact with the warm sea water, and ferocious storms erupt in a matter of minutes. Rocking side-to-side like, well like milk in a cereal bowl.

I’m sure that now, in the 21st century, it is possible to predict a shifting wind, and avoid the catastrophe that befell Jesus and his companions. But Tom Skilling hadn’t been born yet; there was no early morning pinpoint Doppler radar. Sailors on the Sea of Galilee were at the mercy of the wind and waves, which had minds of their own.

So, knowing all of this, the questions are more troubling. Why, after a long day of teaching on the beach, would Jesus pour himself into the stern of a boat and set sail for a foreign country, with a flotilla escorting him, no provisions, in the dark? If I didn’t know better, I would think Jesus was an adrenalin addict, itching for the next adventure, no matter the risk. But that is not the case.

In a few verses we will learn the reason for Jesus’ midnight cruise. But now, as Jesus snores and the disciples bail and the ships list dangerously port to starboard, we have to ask, “Jesus, what were you thinking?”

I imagine, if you have been following Jesus around as long as I have, you have asked that question before. “Jesus? Really? What were you thinking?”

Think of the storms in our own lives, in the world around us. The pandemic alone created enough storms to sink a whole navy’s worth of ships. Loss of every kind. Anxiety. Sleeplessness. Listlessness. Loneliness. Confusion. Anger. Sorrow. Fear. And that was just the first week.

If there had been a way to mutiny the Good Ship Coronavirus, we would have gladly done so. But we were forced, individually and collectively, to ride it to the other shore. This shore. This post-pandemic shore. Somehow, I had imagined it would be a relief to reach this distant, almost-virus-free beach, but instead I find as much anger and confusion and listlessness and loss on this side of the storm as before.

Maybe, as on the Sea of Galilee, there will always be storms in our lives, emerging suddenly and without warning. It might be that rather than seeking that illusory, always-calm sea, we need to befriend not only Jesus, but also the turbulence that accompanies him everywhere he goes.

Anyway. I digress. Where were we?

Oh, yes, rockin’ and rollin’ on the Sea of Galilee, while Jesus slept like a baby. And this must have been some storm. Remember, most of the disciples were professional fishers. They had been out in all kinds of weather on the Sea of Galilee, plying their trade. That they were afraid tells you something about the ferocity of the gale.

The ordinarily-rock solid, suddenly gelatinous disciples roused Jesus from his nap with an accusation, “You never loved us. You don’t care if we die.” To which Jesus opened first one droopy eye, then another, rolled them both and emerged from his nest.

Without even acknowledging his whiny, whimpering disciples, Jesus shouted at the sea, roared at the wind. “Stop! Shut up!” And they did. Like that. And what had been a roaring sea was suddenly a dead calm pond.

“Did you think I didn’t know what was happening to you,” Jesus asked. “Did you think I was going to let you drown?”

Casting a frustrated, judgmental eye all around, he plopped back down in the stern. He looked up at the torn sail and splintered mast, and said, “You got what you wanted. I stopped the storm. We would have gotten there faster if you had let the wind carry us. But no. You didn’t trust me. So, start rowing—it’s only another 10 miles or so.” And promptly went back to sleep.

Now we add another question to the list. Did Jesus know something they didn’t? Did Jesus know they would have gotten safely to the other side, in spite of, or perhaps because of the wind and waves? We’ll never know. Their fear precluded any other possible outcome.

As Jesus slept and the disciples rowed (we’re not talking about a canoe here, but a fishing vessel 30 feet long, 8 feet wide, solid cedar, with a shallow draft and low sides—it was an enormous floating bathtub), they realized their fear had been misplaced. It wasn’t wind and sea that threatened their lives, it was Jesus and his. The translators of this particular version of the story indicate that the disciples were “filled with great awe.” An earlier translation is more raw, “They were filled with abject terror.”

Of Jesus. Master of sea and storm. Ruler of life and death. Impatient with their misplaced fear. And ours.

Jesus, what were you thinking? And where are you taking us? And should we be afraid? Of you?

On the last day of second grade, as we were emptying our desks for the summer, suddenly, the tornado siren outside our school house window erupted with an ear-splitting wail. We were well-trained, always obedient farm kids, who always excelled at both fire and tornado drills. But even at that young age, we could tell a drill from the real thing. On drill days, our teachers would be watching the clock, keeping their desks tidy, giving us simple assignments, knowing that their lessons would be interrupted by a practice run out the back door or a practice duck under our desks.

But this time was different. This time my teacher, Mrs. Nelson, jumped as though she’d been shot. She looked out the window. She looked at us. She said, in a trembling voice, “Children, that’s the tornado siren. You know what to do.” But before we could duck under our desks, the principal came to our door and said, “Follow me.” Like trusting little ducks, we waddled down the hall, down the stairs, down more stairs, to a basement room I’d not seen before. It was filled with all the other students—grades kindergarten through 12. We had never had a drill like this before.

The room was filled with quiet chatter, muffled giggles, discussion among the seniors about graduation plans. And then we heard it. Overhead. Outside. All around. Wind like I’d never heard before.

And then the principal’s voice over the loud speaker, “Children. It’s just wind. There’s no reason to be afraid.” And that’s when the weeping really began.

We knew that we would not be told to be unafraid, if there was, in fact, nothing to fear. Who says, “Don’t be afraid,” when you’re about to get a pony for your birthday or win the lottery?

“Don’t be afraid.” Those words should strike fear in the heart of school children and adults everywhere.

It was true in Iowa five decades ago. It was true in a pandemic 15 months ago. It was true on the Sea of Galilee 2000 years ago. In fact, the gospel writers use the word “afraid” 34 times in their story-telling, and 30 times they use the word, “fear.” Clearly, there was, there is a lot of which to be afraid.

But, apparently, not the usual suspects. Apparently, there had been no reason to fear the surging sea and raging storm. After Jesus righted the ship and settled back into his seat, he didn’t say, “Don’t be afraid.” He said, “Why were you afraid?”

Jesus was honestly mystified that they were afraid of wind and wave. After all, he was in their boat.

And his confusion opened a whole new world of things to fear. Him. The disciples began to realize that Jesus was more than a healer, a preacher, a teacher, an exorcist—as if that isn’t enough. The disciples began to realize that Jesus was master of all creation—water below and sky above, earth and all its creatures, master of their lives. And their deaths.

A story that began with a lot of unanswered questions, ends in the same way.

What would have happened if the disciples had taken Jesus’ lead, and let out the sails, rode the wind, allowed themselves to be propelled by the waves?

What would have happened if the disciples had taken Jesus’ lead, and rested through the night, knowing that the next day, that distant shore would bring challenges of its own?

What would happen if we followed Jesus’ lead? What if, rather than sniping at each other, second-guessing our leaders, burnishing the past and fearing the future, putting the brakes on anything unfamiliar, we let out the sails? What if we rode the wind? What if we allowed the waves to throw us forward? What if we trusted Jesus to be more powerful than any force in our lives, in the world?

What would happen then?

One of my earliest questions had to do with what lay on the other side of the sea. What was the emergency, the urgency that had Jesus and his disciples out on the sea in the middle of the night in a storm? (Mark 5.1-20) A man. A single, solitary man. A single, solitary, demon-possessed man whom no one loved. It was for his sake that Jesus set sail. And once Jesus and the man met, once Jesus cast the demons out, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s go home. I did what I came to do.”

For one person. Jesus risked all their lives for one nameless demon-possessed person. Jesus, what were you thinking?

You’re probably wondering what happened to second-grade me and my classmates. Clearly, I survived the storm.

Within minutes of the power going out and wind passing over, amid the sniffles of children and sobbing cries of “I want my Mom,” we experienced a dead calm. Like the calm on the Sea of Galilee, the wind ceased, the sun came out, the storm had passed. We stepped out of the school basement into a brilliant afternoon, branches and twigs strewn across the lawn and street, school buses parked on the curb ready to take us home one last time that school year. There had been no reason to fear. We were in good hands.

Like disciples of every age, in every era, whether on land or sea, Jesus’ disciples know that sometimes the fastest way to the other side is straight through the storm. And if it seems like Jesus is sleeping, we would be wrong. He is so confident of our safety, so bent on his mission there is nothing to fear.

So we let out the sails, buck the waves, ride the storm.

Jesus, what were you thinking?

That’s easy, he says. I’m thinking we have work to do. And no time to be afraid.

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (6 June 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

Mark 3.20-35

Jesus went home, and the crowd came together again, so that Jesus 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 Jesus 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.”

And they tried to restrain him.

If you have always thought your family was the one that put the “fun” in “dysfunctional,” Jesus’ family got there first. Already in only the third chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been baptized by the Spirit and tested by Satan. He booted demons, healed the sick, straightened twisted limbs, preached ovation-worthy sermons, offended religious authorities, and called 12 disciples to help manage the burgeoning workload.

Imagine, now, that you are Jesus’ mother. Though Mark, the gospel writer, doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ unlikely birth, Mary has known since before Jesus wiggled in her womb that he was special. More than special. He was holy.

Though Mark, the gospel writer, doesn’t include any cute baby pictures or toddler stories, provides no senior year book photos, Mary savored every moment of Jesus’ (unknown to us) childhood, this child of Joseph, child of God.

How proud she must have been! Jesus’ face was on the side of every bus in the city. His twitter feed was exploding. Offers for consulting gigs and book deals poured in. Mary must have walked around town with a t-shirt that said, “Jesus? He’s mine!”

After all, if you could lay claim to having birthed the Son of God, wouldn’t you brag a little?

That’s why when this morning’s gospel reading opens, we are pleased to learn that Jesus “went home.” How long had it been since he’d slept in his childhood bed, or put his feet under Mary’s kitchen table? How long had it been since the kids had played Scrabble on the living room floor, or teased each other in the way that only brothers and sisters can? Mary and Joseph’s siblings must have been ecstatic to learn that their favorite brother was coming home.

But, contrary to our expectations, Jesus’ family was horrified. Their welcome was limp as a used tea bag. They hid in the house while Jesus stood on the porch and gave interviews. They went so far as to interrupt him mid-sentence, trying to drag him back into the house, to stop the circus playing out on the front lawn. Mary had heard the rumors about Jesus. Mary had lost friends because of Jesus. Mary knew that, though she thought Jesus was all that, others thought he was nuts, delusional, completely beside himself. And it was humiliating to her.

Jesus, firstborn of Joseph and Mary, the only child of God, was a raging embarrassment to the family. Mark writes, “They tried to restrain him.”

But Jesus would not be restrained.

When his family’s efforts to muzzle him failed, the scribes who had carpooled down from Jerusalem for the occasion took up the task, shouting what others had been whispering. “You’re crazy! You’re nuts! You’re Satan! You’re demonic!”

Please forgive my use of those pejorative, demeaning characterizations too often used of persons who might live differently than do we. Those are not my word or my thoughts. Though we still have a long way to go to understand the workings of the mind, in the 1st century, any hint of difference had only one diagnosis. Difference was of the devil. And with that blunt instrument, they wrote off as crazy, nuts, scary, demonic, anything that didn’t conform to prevailing norms. It was a dark time for anyone who was different, in any way.

“Different.” To most of you, it’s a three-syllable word. But in my northern Iowa farm family, it has only two syllables. “Diffurnt.” We were a shockingly homogenous bunch—most of the people in my little town had immigrated from the same region of Germany. (In other words, we all looked alike.) Most of the people in my little town went to church. Most of the people in my little town were unassuming, hard-working, carefully-modulated and modest people. It was frowned upon to put yourself forward, to draw attention. And anyone who was unlike us—in speech, in demeanor, in ethnicity, in religion, in anything—was deemed “diffurnt.”

Though it may sound judgmental, “diffurnt” was, in fact, just a comment, an observation.

The neighbor bought a Massey-Ferguson rather than a John Deere combine. “That’s diffurnt.”

The pastor wore plaid pants on a Sunday morning. “Well, that’s diffurnt.”

“Diffurnt” was occasionally used to cover shock or dismay, but most often it was simply a “huh,” or a “you’ll have that.”

The only reason the scribes could concoct for Jesus’ unwillingness to seize the attention and authority which he could rightly claim at any moment, was that he was “off” somehow. “Diffurnt” in a scary way. And they masked their fear with name-calling and bullying.

I will make no attempt to make sense of the witty repartee that follows. Jesus’ response to their mocking criticism was almost as circuitous and confusing as was his response to Nicodemus last week (John 3).

“How can Satan cast out Satan? Why would a demon exorcise a demon? How can a divided house stand? How can a strong man be robbed?” He then dropped a theological bomb that continues to terrify, warning them of the dreaded “unforgiveable sin against the Holy Spirit.” What is that? Have I done that?

Jesus dazzled them with fancy foot work, left them speechless. But in his heart, was he disappointed that he had to stand out there all alone, while his family—the ones who should have been bursting with pride—cowered inside? We don’t know.

What was it that so terrified Jesus’ family, Jesus’ enemies, even some of his old friends? It’s that Jesus didn’t want the things they wanted. Jesus didn’t need the things they needed. More important, Jesus didn’t see things the way they saw them.

The poor weren’t lazy; they were just poor.

The sick weren’t demon-possessed; they were just sick.

The sinful weren’t evil; just sinful.

The hungry weren’t selfish; just hungry.

Jesus saw a world in need—in need of him. And the scribes hated him for it. They deemed him “diffurnt.” Diffurnt enough to, eventually, kill.

But first, they had to restrain him.

Well, this is diffurnt. After 15 months apart from one another, we are together, physically, for worship. Some of us, at least. Those of us who are in the building this morning are wearing masks; we’re sitting at a respectful distance; we will exchange the peace in a Winston Churchill kind of way. (V sign, no cigars.) There is a camera in the middle of the center aisle. (Only until our new sound and recording equipment gets delivered and installed.) There is no coffee brewing in fellowship hall; there are no children running down the halls; we hear none of the easy laughter that is so typical here. But after 15 months apart and with painful restraints easing, we can live with a little “diffurnt.”

But more has changed than just physical proximity, fabric face coverings, gray hair on the elderly and longer legs on the young. We are different. The world is different. And all our attempts to restrain the change have failed.

What happened in the world while we were apart? Demons were outed and named. Economic inequity. Rampant racism. Long-standing lies. Changes that we imagined would take a decade to accomplish (or avoid), have overtaken us like a speeding train.

Our own personal demons emerged, as well. Fears we thought we had laid to rest. Prejudices that offended even us. Latent addictions. Deep doubts. Sleepless nights and endless days blurred our faculties and muted our senses.

The last fifteen months have spawned demons without and within.

And Jesus, much to his family’s chagrin, has power over them all.

Star Trek fans will know what I mean when I say that “resistance is futile.” Jesus fans will know what I mean when I say “restraints will fail.”

We cannot silence the voices of the poor any longer, though many try.

We cannot return to our old patterns of power, though many try.

We cannot isolate ourselves from the world, though many try.

We cannot restrain Jesus, though many try.

In our post-pandemic, still-grieving, often-angry, completely unsettled lives, Jesus is unrestrained and unrestrainable. Healing the sick. Loving the unlovable. Forgiving the unforgiveable. Speaking truth to power—even when it is we who hold the power.

Though “diffurnt” in my little town was not intended to be a hurtful or judgmental claim, it was an adjective worth paying attention to. “Diffurnt” meant that we were uncomfortable.

Like Jesus’ family, who tried to restrain him.

Like scribes and Pharisees, who tried to retrain him.

Like those whose world view is threatened, who try to reframe him.

It won’t work.

Jesus was not crazy or demon-possessed, for tending to the world’s needs—he was just being Jesus. Jesus is “diffurnt” in a way that saves.

Imagine. They tried to restrain him.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday (30 May 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

JN 3.1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 

He came to Jesus by night and said to him,

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God;

  for no one can do these signs that you do

  apart from the presence of God.” 

Jesus answered him,

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God

  without being born from above.” 

Nicodemus said to him,

“How can anyone be born after having grown old?

Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 

Jesus answered,

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God

  without being born of water and Spirit. 

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 

Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it,

  but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.

So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 

Jesus answered him,

“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know

  and testify to what we have seen;

  yet you do not receive our testimony. 

If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe,

  how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven,

  the Son of Man. 

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,

  so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 

  that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

  so that everyone who believes in him may not perish

  but may have eternal life.
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,

  but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

I got an email from an old friend a few weeks ago, a friend who is very dear but with whom I correspond only occasionally, and see even less occasionally.  Old enough to be my father; familiar enough to be my brother. You know, one of those friends whom you might not see for years, but when you lay eyes on each other, it’s as though no time has passed. You know, one of those friends who still sees you as they first saw you, almost 40 years ago. “You haven’t changed a bit!” we cry to each other when we meet. (And, we mean it.) You know, one of those friends to whom you need explain nothing—all is understood, all is already forgiven.

I got an email from an old friend like THAT a few weeks ago.

He wrote after seeing an article I’d published recently, to say, “Good work! How are you? And Jim and the girls? And that adorable grandchild?” he wrote. “It’s been too long!”

If we were in person, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell him everything—about me, my family, my work, the triumphs, the failures, the toll the pandemic has taken, my wonderings about the future. If we were in person, time would not matter and our stories and laughter and tears and scotch and cigar ash would spill all over each other. But how do you put all that in an email?

So, to his simple question I wrote a simple answer, “We are well. You?”

It’s not that I don’t want to tell him more, I just wouldn’t know how to start. Or how to stop.

Trinity Sunday is the oddest of church festivals. There is no baby in the manger, no wise man on the doorstep, no body on a cross, no empty tomb, no miracle of language. There is nothing on this day but an idea, a wondering, a proposal. About God.

Since God first wondered about people, people have been wondering about God. And we have come up with all sorts of opinions and ideas about who God is and how God works. Too often we forget that we are made in God’s image, and try to make God in ours. Too often we impute our motives to God, put our words in God’s mouth, plant our biases in God’s heart, imagine God is like us, when it is supposed to be precisely the other way around.

It must be exhausting to be God, don’t you think? To put up with our nonsense. We are like ants crawling up God’s legs, or puppies nipping at their exhausted mother. Notice me! Notice me! What a lot of work we are.

Being God is a lot of work. And today, as we name God “Trinity” we add to the load. For us. God is Three. God is One. God is Distant. God is Intimate. God is Eternal. God is Now. What?

God suffers no identity crisis; God’s self-image is strong; it’s all on us. Who is God and how do we know? Welcome to “Trinity.”

We typically read this circuitous conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus as a gentle smack-down. Nicodemus, highly educated, deeply curious, comes to Jesus with a simple statement of fact: “we know you are from God because, unless you were, no one could do the things you do.” Nicodemus might have had a little crush—hard to say.

And to Nicodemus’ innocent assertion, Jesus opens the tail gate of the theological truck, and dumps it all on Nicodemus’ head. Jesus takes him in and out of the womb, through the trees, up to heaven, down to earth, puts snakes on poles. What?

Was Jesus mocking Nicodemus?

Was Jesus exasperated with Nicodemus?

Was Jesus sick to death of all our needy nonsense and Nicodemus just happened to be the unfortunate putz who crossed his path at the wrong time, with one too many questions?

Remember my old friend, whom I have known forever, with whom I can discuss anything, to whom I can say anything?

I’m wondering now, as I read the banter between Nicodemus and Jesus if I’ve been reading it all wrong all along. What if Jesus isn’t put out or dismissive, but grateful? What if Jesus sees in Nicodemus’ eyes, hears in Nicodemus’ voice, senses in Nicodemus’ manner a man in whom there is no guile, a conversation partner rather than a challenger. What if, for some reason, Jesus believes Nicodemus’ interest to be sincere, his wonderings honest?

After all, nobody does that. Everywhere Jesus went people wanted a piece of him. They wanted to be healed or fed or forgiven. They wanted to debate or dispute or deny. Jesus couldn’t get a break. I imagine he cringed a bit when Nicodemus stepped out of the shadows. Poor Jesus, he couldn’t even stop outside to check his voicemail without being stalked.

But we know that Nicodemus was different. We know that Nicodemus came only to admire. He asked nothing. He just wanted to breathe Jesus’ air for a few minutes, to be in his presence. And he couldn’t do it publicly because, after all, he was a Pharisee. And the Pharisees had nothing good to say about Jesus. For Nicodemus to approach Jesus in the light of day . . . well, it wouldn’t have been kosher. So, instead he came at night. When no one could see him. Just to say “hey.”

When I read this text this way, when I imagine Nicodemus as a relief for Jesus rather than just one more sycophant, I hear Jesus’ seemingly incoherent theological rambling not as theological rambling at all, but as relief. “Finally,” Jesus said to himself, “I don’t have to pretend.”

“Finally, I can just say what I’ve been thinking.”

Intelligent as Nicodemus most certainly was, he couldn’t keep up with Jesus for even a minute. So after a couple of fledgling attempts to engage Jesus in conversation, he stopped trying. He just let Jesus talk. Out there in the dark. Under a street light. Swatting mosquitoes. Like friends.

It’s as though once Jesus started, he couldn’t stop.

Though the gospel writer doesn’t tell us what happened next, we can surmise that eventually Nicodemus went home and Jesus stepped back inside whatever house he was staying in. It’s as though nothing had happened. Because, really nothing did happen. Just two friends, talking at the end of the day. Did Jesus sleep better that night, for having been heard? We don’t know.

And what did that intimacy, that intensity do to Nicodemus?

It changed him. It made him bold. A little at a time.

We will meet Nicodemus two more times in John’s gospel. And each time he will step a little bit closer to center stage, a little bit further from the shadows.

Four chapters from now, John will let us eavesdrop on the Pharisees’ inner chamber, the “teachers lounge” of the temple where they could let their hair down. (John 45ff) The Pharisees were enraged with the temple police for not just arresting Jesus and throwing him in a dark cell somewhere. Nicodemus wasn’t having it; he piped up. He challenged his professional colleagues, who, almost to a person, hated Jesus.

Nicodemus said, not so innocently, “Doesn’t our law require that a person be heard before being condemned?”

The other Pharisees turned their anger on him. “Don’t tell us you’ve drunk the Jesus Kool-Aid, too!”

That went well.

Nicodemus will step into full daylight at the end of the Jesus story. (John 19.38ff) As Jesus hung lifeless on the cross, a wealthy man named Joseph of Arimathea, himself a member of the religious council who heard Jesus’ case but had abstained, sent Pontius Pilate a text, asking permission to take Jesus’ body and give him a proper burial.

Joseph of Arimathea was then joined by our old friend, Nicodemus the Pharisee, who, with his own money, purchased 100 pounds of burial spices. It was these two men, prominent religious leaders, who, in caring for Jesus not only publicly admitted their devotion, but also committed professional suicide.

We never hear of either man again, though the Roman Catholic Church has assigned them a shared commemoration day, August 31, on which they are honored as teachers of the law, early believers in Jesus, and friend to those who grieve. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the Pharisee are the patron saints of funeral directors and pall bearers. Fitting, don’t you think?

But today, on Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus is not the point. Except that, for some reason, Jesus trusted him, inviting Nicodemus into his confidence. Even for just a few minutes.

Perhaps you have such a friend, a friend who listens without judgement, who cares about the things you care about, a friend who would crawl over broken glass for you. Such a friend is rare. And precious.

Such a friend is also a glimpse of the premise that lies behind this day.

God is not a statue—a cold, hard idol from whom we beg favors.

God is not a bully—punishing wrong-doers and holding eternal grudges.

God is not a fantasy—a fairy tale to placate the feeble minded.

God is a relationship. A relationship within God—the endless interplay of Father, Son and Spirit; the infinite interaction of time and space, matter and meaning.

And a relationship with God. We believe that God, in many guises and with endless compassion, both loves us and welcomes our love. As a parent who loves a child, and is, in turn, adored. As friends who take turns carrying the load. As conversation partners, who alternately speak and listen.

God is a relationship. Into which we have been welcomed.

That is why Nicodemus could come to Jesus by night. He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t needy. He didn’t even want anything. He just wanted to say, “I know that you come from God. I even wonder if you might be God. Can I just stand here with you for awhile?”

And in the dark, Jesus opened his heart out to this equally open-hearted Pharisee.

Trinity is an invitation to get back in touch with God. Because, as with an old friend whose name in your inbox sparks joy, God would love to hear from you. And whether you address God as “Holy! Holy! Holy!” as did the seraphim in today’s Isaiah reading (Isaiah 6.1-8), or intimately as “Abba. Poppa. Momma.” as in the reading from Romans (Romans 8.12-17), or as “Hey, can we talk?” as did Nicodemus, God is listening.

Always has. Always will. Because when God starts loving you, God doesn’t know how to stop.

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (16 May 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

John 17.6-19

Jesus prayed: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 

“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”

“Do they have to be positive prayers?”

That question pretty well ended what had been a hopeful, though tenuous, clergy association in a previous parish. A handful of us “mainline” clergy had been meeting regularly to pray, learn and support one another. But that handful represented only a minority of the religious bodies present in our town. We were a predictable posse—Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, UCC. But we longed to expand the conversation, model an inclusive Christian witness, so we invited others—leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Saints, Evangelical Free Church, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Unitarian-Universalist Society, a Pentecostal congregation.

Though we knew such a group could never pray or worship together—some of them will pray and worship only with members of their own denomination—we thought we could have coffee, offer continuing education opportunities, get to know one another beyond the caricatures we had of one another.

For a while, it worked. Sort of. We all served the local hospital as chaplains, so we could talk about that. We all had students on the local university campus, so we could talk about that. Admittedly, the list of conversation topics was short, but at least we were talking.

Leave it to me to mess it up. I was president of the local clergy association, and, foolishly, proposed that we might pray for one another’s ministries—not together in the room at the same time or necessarily for the same thing. But what if, on a scheduled basis, all our congregations prayed for a specific congregation each Sunday morning during worship.  First Methodist Church and its ministry on the first Sunday of January, St. Augustine’s Catholic Church on the second Sunday of January. You get the gist.

What a gift this would be to our community; what a powerful witness—to know that each week, every church in town was praying for one of the other congregations, simultaneously. We would, together, weekly bombard heaven with our hopes for our partners in ministry.

What a gift? What a disaster.

Those of us who thought it was a great idea, immediately pulled out calendars and started planning a schedule. Those who were cool to it, were polite but silent. Those who were opposed were obviously so, sitting back in their chairs, arms across their chests, red anger creeping up their throats.

I was trying to read the room, trying to set everyone at ease. To no avail. Finally, one of those who attended our monthly gatherings only for fear of being publicly shamed if he did not, offered a seemingly innocent but barbed question: “If we pray for one another, do they have to be positive prayers?”

He was trying not to say that he would gladly pray the rest of us straight into hell.

His question unleashed others who were similarly reluctant. “Might we pray that those of you who ordain women, would see the error of your ways? Might we pray that those of you who support abortion, would be punished? Might we pray that our godless mayor might be voted out of office?”

That was the last time we talked about a Sunday prayer schedule. It was also the last time we met in that particular eclectic configuration.

“Do they have to be positive prayers?” That was a deal breaker.

I remember, though, having been inspired to offer this shared prayer idea at about this time of the lectionary year. Every Easter season, we end up reading a portion of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, the tedious, convoluted, logically-looping prayer Jesus offers on the night of his betrayal.

Whether it was this morning’s particular portion of the prayer, or another, I know that we would have read the same two themes: Jesus prays for us, and his prayer is that we might be “one.” Whatever that means.

Maybe the gospel writer John failed to capture the whole of Jesus’ prayer, and that what Jesus actually prayed was that “they might be one hot, sweaty, angry mess until I return.” If that was Jesus’ prayer, it has been answered.

But I’m trusting John at his word. Jesus’ only qualifier was that we would be one as he and the Father are one. Indivisible. Mutually supportive. Inextricable, one from another. That’s a tall order, a big ask, and as it turns out, utterly impossible.

So, though Jesus’ later followers—us and our generation—clearly imagine Jesus’ prayer to mean different things, some of us keep trying. We keep trying to bring Jesus’ prayer to life in our lives, in our congregations.

I wish I had been more prepared for my colleague’s question about “positive prayers.” But, honestly, I had not seen it coming. As is so often true, I come up with the best response about three hours after I need it. So, shocked as I was, I failed to remember that when Jesus prayed for his disciples on the night of his betrayal, he prayed for one in particular. One with whom he had a mighty disagreement.

Without naming names, Jesus prayed for the person who would be eternally implicated in his death. Jesus prayed for the disciple who, in this morning’s reading from Acts (Acts 1.15ff) was voted off the island by the eleven who remained after the resurrection. Jesus prayed for Judas. Judas—a name synonymous with deceit and selfishness.

Though, in the Acts reading, Peter has few words to say about Judas—“Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus,”—Peter didn’t throw Judas under the bus. Peter, like Jesus in today’s gospel reading, attributes Judas’ betrayal to scriptural necessity. In other words, the early church decided to soften their rhetoric about Judas. After all, he didn’t have a choice but to betray Jesus. It had to happen that way. Pity the fool; he couldn’t help himself.

What does Jesus say of Judas in his prayer? Exactly the same thing as Peter did in his sermon: “Father, I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.”

Though it was probably no comfort to Judas’ grieving mother, and though Judas is only one of two named in our historic creeds (him and Pontius Pilate), the biblical record is relatively kind to Judas. He was part of a plan; it could have been no other way.

So, did Jesus offer a “positive” prayer for Judas. Not exactly. But he certainly didn’t pray him any harm.

And in that way, Jesus models the way we are to pray—especially for those with whom we disagree, those who have harmed us, those who (left to our own devices) we would gladly draw and quarter.

If you have ever tried to pray for one who has wronged you, you know that our first impulse is to call the fires of hell down on their heads. But, as is often true, our first impulse is not always the most helpful.  There is another way to pray for the hated “other,” the person who harmed you or someone you love, the person whose very existence sets your blood boiling.

You may remember the name of the 20th century Lutheran martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Leader of the tiny, underground “confessional church” in Germany as Hitler rose to power, Bonhoeffer alternated between Jesus-like prayers for his enemies, and a desire to destroy them. (It is believed that Bonhoeffer was part of a failed assassination attempt on the Fuhrer. You know how that went.)

In Bonhoeffer’s most famous book, “Life Together,” he addresses the question of how we are to regard those with whom we are at odds. To sum up a much longer argument, Bonhoeffer encourages his small congregation to see the other, especially the enemy other, only in and through Jesus. He advised them to view the other as Jesus might view them, through Jesus’ own eyes. And how is that? Jesus loved even Judas. Jesus prayed for his enemies. Jesus forgave those who killed them.

Bonhoeffer would have us put on our Jesus Goggles when we pray—how does Jesus see this person? How might Jesus pray for them?

Of course, Bonhoeffer’s life ended at the end of a rope in a concentration camp, so his ideas were not universally applauded. But then, when are forgiveness and forbearance a winning combination?

Years ago, I served as associate pastor in a large congregation, which had never called a woman pastor before. (I was the first such creature in almost every parish I have served. It gets tiring.) I learned that a member of the staff, though publicly supportive of me, in private trashed me, lied about me, undercut me at every turn. Jealousy? Sincere disagreement? Pettiness? I have no idea. But their negative assessment of me and my work started to poison a small number of parish members. And what had been a wonderful, supportive pastor-parish relationship began to sour.

It didn’t take long for me to discover who was pouring vinegar in milk milk, and for the gossip to be stopped, but it was the first time someone had actively undercut and opposed me. I didn’t know what to do.

So, in a spirit of Christian love and compassion, I returned the favor. I spoke ill of them, highlighted their mistakes, cast doubt on their ministry. It felt really good, in my dark little heart.

But a wise congregational elder pulled me aside, listened to my rant for about 3 seconds and then said, “Do you pray for them?

What? Pray for that person? You mean like prayers that they would lose their job, be covered in boils, lose all their hair? Prayers like that?

“No, pray for that person as Jesus might pray for them. Imagine what Jesus wants for that person. And then pray that you would learn to want that, too.”

Oh, you mean positive prayers. Prayers that we might be one. I hate it when that happens.

I’d rather have driven an 18-wheeler over my own foot, than pray positively for my adversary, but it was worth a try.

I begrudgingly began to name the person’s name in my prayers—without comment. I crept toward a more charitable approach. And finally, after weeks of failed attempts, I was able to pray that I would learn to love the person as Jesus did.

And in that fleeting moment, Jesus’ own prayer was answered. Jesus prayed that we might be one, and for a moment, we were. In Jesus’ eyes, and those are the only eyes that matter.

Because I prayed for my adversary as Jesus did, they were no longer my adversary.

How telling, at this end of the Easter season and in a time of unprecedented polarization in our community and country, that Jesus would offer a tutorial on prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray for our enemies, and to pray for them until we become indistinguishable one from another—all of us loved by Jesus, forgiven by Jesus, valued by Jesus.

Though it is true that I have never met a person—or even a dog—named Judas, that is not Jesus’ fault. Nor the fault of the early church. Judas was surely a challenge for them all, but also an opportunity to test in practice what they said they believed, to test in practice what we say we believe.

So, what happened to that faltering clergy association all those years ago? The few of us that remained in the group decided to go through with our plan, to pray for one congregation every Sunday morning in our public prayers. And we prayed not only for one another, but for every congregation in our town. Even, especially for those who had thrown cold water on our clumsy idea.

It was a wonderful thing, for which our congregations expressed enormous gratitude.  Our members spoke of it to their friends and neighbors in an admiring way. We were praying for one another as Jesus prayed for us.

But one Monday morning, my office phone rang earlier than usual—my office manager wasn’t even in yet, so I picked up the phone myself. It was the pastor of the congregation for whom we had prayed the day before, a pastor who ordinarily would not speak to me or be seen with me. He wasted no words, “I heard you prayed for us yesterday. I thought we agreed not to do that. What did you pray?

I was tempted to be smart and say, “Only positive prayers.” But I am occasionally able to calm my clever nature.

“We prayed that you and your congregation would be healthy, strong and purposeful. We prayed that your ministry would thrive.”

He was silent on the phone. Fully expecting that we had prayed for him and his congregation as he most likely would have for us.

“Oh.” Silence.

“Oh, well don’t do that again.”

Today Jesus prays for us. Prays that we might be one. With Judas. With Peter. With those we love and especially with those whom we despise. After all, its what Jesus does.