Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter (18 April 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

Luke 24.36b-48

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them,

“Peace be with you.” 

They were startled and terrified,

  and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 

He said to them,

“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 

Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself.

Touch me and see;

  for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 

And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 

While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,

  he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 

They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them,

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—

  that everything written about me in the law of Moses,

  the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written,

  that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 

  and that repentance and forgiveness of sins

  is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 

You are witnesses of these things.”

She led a double life. For years, no one knew what she was up to in her spare time. Unexplained withdrawals from the checking account. Unexplained absences from work. Unexplained day dreaming and indecipherable doodles on notepads all over the house. She later told her family that she had kept this enormous secret from them because she was afraid. Afraid of ridicule. Afraid of judgement. Afraid of doubt. Afraid of unsolicited advice.

She did not reveal the nature of her secret until she had a manufacturer and investors—people apart from her inner circle who believed in her idea, but whose questions and doubt were not so personally painful.

What was that idea? The terrifying idea that caused her to hide in fear? Spanx. Formally known as “shapewear.” Her big, terrifying idea was underwear. You’ve probably got a pair or five in your house at this very moment.

It probably seems silly now, but she was so afraid of judgement that she kept this secret from everyone close to her. After all, if her idea was as stupid as she had feared, she didn’t want anyone to know.

I have a secret, too. Nothing so exotic as a double life or a multi-billion-dollar manufacturing scheme, but a project unknown to all but a few. Once a month, in an undisclosed location, I meet with a clutch of other secret keepers. Over brown bag lunches and cupcakes from Sweet Allies, we write. Lyrics. Essays. Novels. Non-fiction. We share our writing with each other, and no one else. Crafting sentences. Critiquing ideas. Urging each other to keep writing. Even if no one ever sees it. Even if we fear it might be stupid.

At our last clandestine gathering, one of my underground writer friends shared a chapter of an under-construction book, years in the writing. The chapter is titled simply, “Believe,” a fascinating analysis of the nature of belief—not just religious belief, but the beliefs that drive our lives. The beliefs so central to who we are, we don’t even acknowledge them. At our last meeting, we parsed two particular aspects of belief: “empowering beliefs” and “limiting beliefs.”

The concepts are captivating enough on their own, but since my public persona as a mild-mannered midwestern pastor causes me to sift everything through a biblical lens, I realize this parsing of “belief” has Easter impact, as well. Here’s how.

An empowering belief is a deeply held conviction that urges us on, that empowers. “My vote counts,” is an empowering belief. “My ideas have value,” is an empowering belief. “God is good,” is an empowering belief. Without conscious assent, these ideas inspire my public, private and pastoral life.

A “limiting belief?” As evidenced by the Spanx story, one limiting belief is “My ideas are stupid.” Such a belief stifles creativity, inhibits action. Other limiting beliefs have more dire consequences.

If you are a young black man in a US city, chances are that many of the men in your life have been imprisoned or killed before the age of 30. Why should your life be any different? You may, without knowing it, have adopted the limiting belief that you have no future.

If you grew up in either great poverty or great wealth, your parents might have been absent a great deal; chances are you were alone for long periods of time. You may, without knowing it, have adopted the limiting belief that no one loves you.

A friend grew up in a home with a severely disabled sibling, whose care, understandably, occupied all the family’s time and attention. Though she loved her sibling, she grew up believing that her own needs didn’t matter. She honestly believes that, in her family, she is invisible.

These limiting beliefs—“My ideas are stupid;” “I have no future;” “No one loves me,” “I am invisible”—drive our lives as surely as do the empowering ones. And sadly, when limiting beliefs are accompanied by guns, by poverty, by racism, they can kill.

Today is the Third Sunday of Easter, and for three weeks in a row, we have been immersed in stories easily characterized as “limiting beliefs.” The stone is too large. Jesus has been dead too long. Resurrection was a rumor. The male disciples dismissed the women because—”limiting belief” alert—women can’t be trusted.

There’s more.

Why is it that disciples failed to recognize Jesus after the resurrection—in the Garden, on the Emmaus Road, in the Upper Room? Was he masked? Disfigured? No, I think the disciples’ limiting belief that death means “done” prevented them for seeing his resurrected form. Even when he stood before them alive. They had been taught to believe that dead is dead, and no amount of hoping or wishing or resurrecting could change that.

So, after the resurrection, which must have been exhausting all by itself, Jesus had to spend the next many weeks convincing people, over and over again, that he was alive. “Hear my voice! Look at my hands! Look at my feet! Watch me eat!”

There was no place in their heads, hearts or belief systems for “resurrection.” What they believed about both life and death limited their ability to believe the most empowering belief of all: “Christ is Risen! Risen from the dead.”

Up to this point, you may have been with me for the Spanx story, for my quick analysis of empowering and limiting beliefs. You might have nodded along as I described the disciples’ disbelief in a resurrected Jesus—it’s a familiar tale. You might even have the spiritual bandwidth to accept that Jesus was raised from the dead, though, to be honest, that’s a stretch for many.

And while belief in Jesus’ resurrection is an essential component of what it means to be Christian, there is a second part to that belief, a flip side, the truly empowering part. It’s the second part that is most difficult for us to comprehend. Christ is alive AND Death has been destroyed. You can’t have one without the other. Because here’s what we believe; here’s what empowers us: Christ’s life gives us life. Now and forever.

On Thursday, I stood at the graveside of a much-loved daughter, wife, mother and friend, felled by cancer. What did we say over her grave, through our tears? “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

Of course, we believe that she—a baptized, faithful, loved and loving child of God—knows Easter life with Christ, in a resurrection like his.

And what of others who have died?

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who died peacefully in old age.

Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old killed in an altercation with police.

Bernie Madoff, a convicted felon who died ignobly in prison.

If we believe, and we do, that Christ lived and died for sinners, we also believe that all of these—the loved, the royal, the young, the convict—know life in Christ.

Here’s the funny thing about our beliefs, though. Our beliefs may empower or limit us, but they don’t have the same effect God. For example, while you might look at any of those recent, very public deaths and have a strong opinion about God’s next steps: something like, “Ugh. I hope he rots in hell,” or another similarly subtle conclusion, God is not bound by it. Instead, God says, “Huh. Thanks for sharing. Not your call.”

Our inability to imagine God’s future for us, doesn’t limit God’s ability to accomplish that future. Our hatred of others, doesn’t diminish God’s love for all.

But what of those they left behind? What does the resurrected life look for a grieving family dear to us, for a queen and country, for another South Side family, for the victims of a white-collar criminal? Is life possible for them, for those who grieve?

Here’s what we believe, in an empowering way. God promises life, in Christ, for all. Not only those of whom we approve. And not only after death.

If life is possible, in Christ, on both sides of the grave, how then do we live?

Think of all those daily deaths we die—the public humiliations, the tattered dreams, the unmet expectations, the untold lack and loss in our lives. I believe that God has power over them all. I have learned, from faithful people like you, the following empowering beliefs:

Forgiveness is free.

Tomorrow is God’s.

Abundance is ours.

Love is alive.

And while, in any given moment it may be hard to see God making life in what looks like death, we don’t live moment to moment.  We live in God’s time, confident that God is unfettered by our limits, undeterred by our roadblocks, unmoved by our objections.

And though our limiting beliefs have no impact on the way God acts, they do alter our actions. Though God forgives, we may choose not to receive it. Though God is already imagining tomorrow, we may choose to live in the past. Though we have all we need, we may choose to want more. Though love is all around, we may choose to nurse hate.

Our lack of imagination, our nurtured negativity, our limiting beliefs don’t limit God—they limit our ability to see God at work. In life and in death.

So, Pastor Post, you say to yourself. This is all fascinating. But what happened to that gospel reading from Luke 24 that you read to us about . . . two days ago? You know Ghost Jesus and “give me something to eat!” and “you are my witnesses?”

Don’t worry. I’ve not forgotten.

The disciples had limited imaginations, believing only what they had been trained to believe, seeing only what they expected to see. That’s why when Jesus, fresh from the grave, stood among them, “Ta da!,” they regarded him a stranger.  He was left saying, “Hello! Hello! It’s me here!”

That’s why Jesus did everything but stand on his head to demonstrate that it was him. “See my hands and side,” he said. “Watch me eat,” he offered. “Listen to my voice.” He had to overcome the limits of their beliefs, in order to empower them for what was next.

And what was next? More disappointment. Jesus would soon leave them again, ascending to the right hand of the Father. And what then?

He empowered them. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus promised. “Everything you have heard and seen and learned from me, you will tell.”

As he said to Thomas in last week’s gospel, “Do not doubt but believe. And now, get out of here.”

Some limiting beliefs have limited consequences. Had Spanx never been invented, our clothing might fit a little differently, but there are worse things.

But when we believe that there is no future, that we are unlovable, that death has the last word, we limit not only ourselves but also our ability to do the one thing Jesus asks us to do.

Jesus’ resurrection empowered him—and us—to speak peace.

Jesus’ resurrection empowered him—and us—to forgive.

Jesus’ resurrection empowered him to send and us to be sent.

Jesus’ resurrection empowers us. To believe. To tell. To live.

Resurrection of Our Lord

Resurrection of our Lord (4 April 2021)

Mark 16.1-8

JoAnn A. Post

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 

And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

“And they said nothing. To anyone.”

Well, we know that’s not entirely true. If, in fact, it was true that the women at the tomb said nothing to anyone, we would not be here.

No eye witness testimony? No Easter.

No eye witness testimony? No Church.

No eye witness testimony? No Life.

If the women had said nothing to anyone, Jesus’ death would have been just another entry in a centurion’s log book. His name, the crime of which he was accused, and the date and manner of his death a matter of public record like hundreds of other criminals executed in Jerusalem.

Instead, the fact that Jesus’ body was not missing but resurrected, turned the world upside down. So, we know the women must have said something to someone. Eventually.

I have wondered all week if perhaps I should be preaching on John’s resurrection story rather than Mark’s. The world is dark enough without the dull thud of Mark’s Easter non-ending. Now John’s Easter story? Its epic! John’s telling of the events includes all sorts of wonderful detail—a garden in the early morning, loquacious angels, abandoned burial linens and a race to the tomb, Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, his instruction to tell the world what she had seen. It’s the Easter story we love to tell, filled with hope and excitement.

But Mark’s is the Gatling gun of gospels. Rat-a-tat-tat! Events fired off in quick succession. Baptism! Healing! Exorcism! Preaching! Death! Empty tomb! Rat-a-tat-tat! That’s why, in the context of the gospel itself, Mark’s crisp, spare resurrection story is unsurprising. Mark is notoriously stingy with detail. But as the launching pad of a world-wide, world-changing message of good news it lacks a certain something.

“And they said nothing. To anyone.” Yawn.

Mark explains the women’s silence as the consequence of fear. I can imagine fear being one response to an empty grave. But I’m only guessing. So, what was it, in fact, that had frightened them into silence? That’s what I’ve been wondering all week.

Here are a few theories.

On Friday I stopped by a favorite little shop to pick up a few Easter treats, and found myself in the middle of a heated discussion among the shop owner and two clerks. Apparently, the last customer had challenged their mask requirement, and had gone on at some length about the danger and hoax of the Covid-19 vaccination, and of vaccinations in general. You’ve heard these arguments—they are dangerously without merit. But being unrepentantly wrong seems to be a badge of honor for some, so, apparently, the customer had been relentless. The staff was shaken, and wanted to talk about it.

“Did you say anything to her?” I asked, naively. “Did you try to correct her ‘facts’? What did you do?”

They looked at me as though I had sprouted rabbit ears and a tail. Did I mention that all these women are immigrants, for whom English is a second language?

“No, we can’t challenge a customer,” the owner said. “It’s too dangerous. We don’t know what she would do to us.”

And the women said nothing. To anyone. For fear of an immigration investigation. For fear of losing business.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were starting to make a little more sense to me.

Meanwhile, all the world is watching a courtroom in Minneapolis, as attorneys try to decide if it is George Floyd who is on trial, or the police officer at whose knee he died. If you’ve been watching the proceedings, it appears some are having a hard time deciding which man is the victim, and which the perpetrator.

Before the trial ever started, I was fascinated by the voir dire, as potential jury members were sorted and selected. From a pool of 52 candidates, a jury of 12 members and 2 alternates has been seated. And what of the 40 who were not chosen?

Some owned up to partiality before the trial ever started, some already siding for the defense and others for the prosecution. Some admitted a visceral aversion to the video evidence—watching a murder in real time over and over again would be traumatizing. And some confessed to plain old-fashioned fear. Before a jury had been seated, threats of violence had been made against potential jurors. Some of them struggled to balance their sense of civic duty with fear for their safety and the safety of their families.

Such jurors were dismissed before ever hearing the evidence or rendering a verdict. Much to their relief, they had to say nothing. To anyone. For they were afraid.

Do you see a pattern emerging? Fear of retribution. Fear of violence. Is that what muzzled the two Mary’s and their friend?

Or maybe, as the gospel writer Luke indicates, they were afraid of the other disciples. Luke writes, “Their words seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe the women.” (Luke 24.11) Women are used to being disbelieved and dismissed. Maybe the three women knew they would be mocked, and just didn’t want to go there.

Mark doesn’t say.

But I have another wondering, another possible explanation for the women’s stunned, terrified silence.

What if, in seeing the empty tomb, they remembered Jesus’ own words to his followers and knew exactly what had happened. Mark wrote, eight chapters ago: “Jesus 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.” (Mark 8.31)

Jesus had already predicted the events of the last three days with startling accuracy. They also remembered how he had told them openly of his resurrection. But there had been no mental hook on which to hang that image, no reference point for such an impossible claim. No one had ever been resurrected from the dead. So, Jesus’ claim got filed away in their brains under the category, “Well, that’s odd.”

Until that morning when they peered into the empty tomb. And of all the thoughts that flooded their minds—grave robbers, hoax, retribution, persecution, derision—the one that frightened them most was this: Jesus had been right. Jesus had been raised. Jesus was alive.

Here is another theologian’s take on this text: “Mark’s ending points to a truth that often gets lost in the celebration: Easter is a frightening prospect. For the women, the only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.” (“The Unsettling Power of Easter,” Esau McCaulley, The New York Times, April 2, 2021)

And they said nothing. To anyone.

Why? They were afraid that Jesus might have been telling the truth.

As our world and our lives gradually, incrementally ease toward release from the pandemic’s hold on us, I find myself afraid to hope. In spite of the fact that many of you have been fully vaccinated, and my own arm aches from the first shot. In spite of the fact that travel restrictions are easing and restaurants are opening and families are hugging. In spite of the guarded predictions of the virus’ diminution. We have a hard time hoping. We’ve been burned before.

So much has been lost in this last year, it’s no wonder we’re skeptical. We grieve our absence from one another. We have all suffered terror and illness and death. Events that once seemed so ordinary have become painfully elusive—graduations, weddings, reunions, funerals. All the world is angry. All the world is sad. One day runs into the next and the next and the next. And we find ourselves afraid to, unable to hope.

Which is easier? Weeping over the death of our empty lives, of an empty tomb? Or believing that life will resume, that love will triumph, that death has been defeated and Christ is risen?

What was it that wise writer said? “The only thing more terrifying than a world with Jesus dead was one in which he was alive.”

That’s why the women were afraid. That’s why they were silent. It was almost too much to hope that Jesus was alive, that his words were true, that the politicians and prelates, the crowds and even the cross were powerless against him. Powerless against the love of God. Powerless against the promise of life.

“Christ is risen, just as he said?” The possibility was too much to bear. Even now, it may seem an idle tale that we fear even to imagine, let alone shout out loud.

But Mark was wrong. Wonderfully wrong. At some point the women decided to speak, even to sing. Even if their words brought retribution or violence. Even if their words were deemed nothing but rumor.

“Christ is risen,” they told the disciples. And eventually the disciples had to agree. “Christ is risen indeed.”

Because the only thing more terrifying than death is life. And now that life, that resurrected life, is offered to us.

Please, tell someone.

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (21 March 2021)

Jeremiah 31.31-34

JoAnn A. Post

The days are surely coming, says the Lord,

  when I will make a new covenant

  with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 

It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors

  when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—

  a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 

But this is the covenant that I will make

  with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts;

  and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other,

  “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me,

   from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord;

  for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Time has largely ceased to have any meaning.

What day is it? “Blursday? I don’t know.”

What month is it? This little Tweet answers that question cleverly:

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November,
all the rest have thirty-one
Except March which has 8000

(“brandAN is good” on Twitter, March 28, 2020)

What year is it? Star Trek fans will know exactly what I mean when I say that we are living sometime after the year 1966. Why 1966? Because it was in that year that the Star Trek episode “Miri” debuted.

Captain Kirk (aka William Shatner or Mr. Priceline) and the crew of The Enterprise were sent to explore a planet inhabited by only children. Where were the adults? The adults had all died as the result of a global pandemic. The grieving orphans they left behind remembered the time when parents and grandparents lived with them as “The Before Time.” When life was normal. When life was predictable. A time when they felt safe.

“The Before Time.” I remember that time, too.

For the last five weeks, we’ve been preaching on Old Testament covenants, taking time with sacred stories of our ancestors not often told.

Lent began with Noah afloat on a boat, and a rainbow tossed into the sky. The rainbow was a “note to self” for God to remember that wiping out humanity with a flood had been a very bad idea. “When I see the bow in the clouds,” God said, “I will be reminded to never again destroy all flesh with water.” (GN 9)

We turned then to Abraham and Sarah, nomadic nonagenarians blessed with a child. Eventually. 25 years passed between the time God first promised offspring and the birth of their son Isaac. Is it any wonder, that the name Sarah gave her first (and only) born means “Laughter?” Pregnant at the age of 99? What a hoot. (GN 17)

On the third week of Lent we climbed Mount Sinai with Moses, where he and God hatched a plan. You see, after 400 years of slavery, the Israelites didn’t how to govern themselves—their slave masters had made all the decisions for them. So, after crossing the Red Sea enroute to the Promised Land, the Israelites meandered and muttered, completely clueless about what to do next. So, with the stroke of a chisel on stone, God and Moses presented the Ten Commandments. A gift of structure that God’s people came to resent. (EX 20)

And last week? Snakes. Flying, flaming, venomous snakes. In what has to be one of the oddest of God’s bright ideas, God chose to subdue not the snakes, but the people on whom the snakes snacked. God instructed Moses to craft a serpent of metal and hoist it on a pole. And “whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look upon the serpent of bronze and live.” (NM 21) Couldn’t God have just whistled for St. Patrick to come and coax the snakes away, as he would do in Ireland some 5000 years later?

What connects these seemingly disconnected stories?

Each of these odd stories is about a “covenant.” A word we don’t often use, because covenants are hard. And rare. We are much more comfortable with “contracts.” And we would prefer God function that way, as well.

A contract is transactional. A contract is an agreement between two parties to exchange one thing for another. Want to buy a car? We hand the dealer money and the dealer hands us the keys. Want to play the bassoon? We engage the services of a bassoon teacher and in exchange we promise to practice the instrument (until the neighbors complain). In a contract, each party promises something to the other. A contract is mutual. Transactional. This for That.

And if one party chooses not to hold up their side of the contract? We tear it up. And the repo man comes for the car. (No one will take the bassoon.)

We would prefer that God wrote contracts, as well. Then we could bargain: “God if you will fill in the blank, I will fill in the blank.” But God doesn’t work that way. Contracts assume an agreement between equals. We are not God’s equal in any way. And that’s a good thing.

But a covenant? That’s God’s preferred way of doing business. A covenant is completely one-sided. A covenant is given, not signed. A covenant is gifted, not purchased. A covenant is lop-sided in a way that is completely typical of God. “Let me love you,” God says. “I’ll do the work for both of us.”

In a biblical covenant, one party takes all the risk, does all the work, assumes all the responsibility. The purest covenant ever offered? Wait until Holy Week, when we move somberly through the events leading to Jesus’ death for our sake. We can do nothing but receive that dying, selfless love. God does all the lifting on the cross. But that conversation will have to wait a week. Back to our Old Testament covenants.

The rainbow in the clouds? A reminder to God to think twice before acting in anger. Noah had to do nothing.

The child in old age? A promise from God that Abraham and Sarah could only receive. And laugh.

The commandments etched in stone? A gift from God to which to the Israelites had to say only “thank you.”

The snake on a pole? Nothing but a visible sign of something God was already doing in a way they could not, would not see.

And today? The oddest covenant of all.

“The days are surely coming . . .” Jeremiah writes.

Today’s covenant is given in a time that has no time. It is marked by days “that will that surely come” (vs. 31), and “after those days,” (vs. 33), and with lots of non-specific future tense verbs, lots of “I will” and “I shall.” Nothing you could circle on a calendar. Maybe Blursday. Or Septuly.

Jeremiah’s first readers were as impatient for information as we are: “When? When are the days surely coming. After which days?” 

What did God answer to their question? Crickets.

God’s people were living in exile in Babylon, a many-centuries-later, wildly-unwelcome approximation of the Exodus their own ancestors had experienced. For a whole generation, with Jeremiah as its prophet, God’s people had been living as refugees in a foreign land.

Like children on the planet Miri, they remembered “The Before Times.” They remembered school playgrounds screaming with children. They remembered big family suppers around the dining room table. They remembered crowded markets and sidewalk conversations. They remembered grandchildren sitting on grandparents’ laps, and friends talking late into the night, and coffee in the Fellowship Hall after Shabbat services.

Funny, they remembered all the things we remember about our Before Time.

In other words, they remembered, romantically, the time before exile.

So, when God started talking about a future, about days surely coming, they leaned forward in their seats and muted the podcasts on their phones.

They imagined that when those days “surely” came, God would return them to the way they had lived before. That their memories would be revived, their broken hearts mended.

But, sadly, the Before Time was over. The After Time was not yet. And when it came, it would be no relationship to the time, the life, the patterns for which they longed. As quickly as their hopes were raised, they were dashed.

First, by the non-specificity of God’s timing. (Isn’t that always the case?)

And second, by the promise of something new. A new covenant.

Those were fightin’ words. Though they and their ancestors had been repeatedly unfaithful to God, breaking God’s laws and God’s heart with wild abandon for centuries, they didn’t remember it that way. Like the grumblers in last week’s preaching text who remembered slavery as the “good old days,” God’s people in exile remembered their “Before Times Selves” as obedient and their “Before Times Lives” as exceedingly chill.

They wanted to go home. And they wanted to go home that minute. But that home, that life, those patterns no longer existed.

Returning to the Before Times wasn’t to be. It never is. We should know that better than anyone.

As the pandemic seems to be easing, though still far from over, we are all turning our eyes to The After Times ourselves. And though we probably know better, we imagine the After Times will look a lot like The Before Times.

A few weeks ago, we circulated a proposal for what it might look like as Ascension inches back to life. But it’s only a proposal, as non-specific as was Jeremiah’s promise. And, as has been true of all our previous post-pandemic proposals, it will be re-worked and re-drafted every time the governor speaks and another arm gets poked.

I’ve been surprised at the reactions. Most of us have received the proposal for what it is. A proposal. A plan. A draft. But some of us are terrified: “Too soon! Too lax!” And others of us enraged: “Open the doors! Now.”

We come by this dysphoria honestly. It is to be expected.

We remember The Before Times with great fondness, and press toward The After Times with a knotted mix of hope and fear. Not surprising. It’s the way God’s people have always moved through life. Longing. Hoping. Misremembering. Always impatient. But having to admit, eventually, that the days that are surely coming may bear little resemblance to the days that came before.

Once Jeremiah’s audience unruffled its feathers so they could listen to what God was really saying, they were intrigued.

Always defined as a People of the Covenant—that is, a people for whom God did all the heavy lifting—they thought that maybe, just maybe Jeremiah was promising a new iteration of promises God had made before. What would it be this time? What sign would God give them that they were truly loved, truly chosen, truly holy?

This time there would be no external sign. No rainbow. No baby.

Instead, it was they who would be changed.

It was they who would be the sign of the covenant, not some snake on a pole or commandments etched in stone.

“I will write my law within you. I will write it on your hearts.”

For centuries God had attempted to woo them and remind them with external evidence, things they could see and hear and hold. But no longer.

In the days that are surely coming, God’s people would themselves be the sign of the covenant. Moving through the world as living, breathing evidence of God’s goodness.

Unlike The Before Times when they were defined by things outside themselves, in The After Time, the days that will surely come, they will experience God and God’s goodness as intimately as they experienced the beating of their hearts.

God writes the new covenant not in stone, but on human hearts. And in that way, God goes with us, in us—with every breath, every beat, every step.

I find myself unsettled these days, as quickly brought to tantrums as to tears. My apologies if you’ve been on the receiving end of either of those episodes. But I know you understand—none of us is our “best selves” these days.

I think it’s because we are all living in exile, far from what we once knew and unable to imagine what lies ahead. Like the children of Miri, like the ancient Israelites we long for The Before Times. But time belongs to God, not to us. And so, we learn to wait. And to trust.

The days are surely coming, Jeremiah reminds. May they come soon, we respond. May they come and change our hearts to be like God’s.

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (7 March 2021)

Exodus 20.1-17

JoAnn A. Post

God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,

  out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol,

  whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above,

  or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 

You shall not bow down to them or worship them;

  for I the Lord your God am a jealous God,

  punishing children for the iniquity of parents,

  to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 

  but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation

  of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,

  for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 

But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God;

  you shall not do any work—

  you, your son or your daughter,

  your male or female slave,

  your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea,

  and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day;

  therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother,

  so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house;

  you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave,

  or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

A friend’s parents always eschewed store-bought wrapping paper for gifts; choosing instead to be environmentally friendly by wrapping gifts in brown paper bags. There were exceptions. On really special occasions, they wrapped gifts in the Sunday comics.

Another friend’s parents owned a gift shop for years, and because they wrapped gifts for a living, covered even the most insignificant gift in elegant paper, adorned with ribbons and bows and sparkle. Every gift wrapped in a work of art.

Today we receive a gift wrapped in a deceiving manner. A disguise almost. It’s hard to tell that it’s a gift, at all.

This Lent we have chosen to preach on five Old Testament covenants with which the lectionary gifts us every three years.

Two weeks ago, we learned that God tossed the rainbow in the sky, not to impress Noah, but to be reminded that destroying humanity is a bad idea.

Last week, we endured a gestation period longer than any elephant’s, as Abraham and Sarah waited 25 years for the birth of the promised heir.

Next week, we will dance among snakes (Numbers 21 ) and the week following God will perform open-heart surgery (Jeremiah 34). But this week?

This week we are given a gift. That looks like a weapon. A rock with which to bludgeon our opponents. Though that is not God’s intent.

Before we unwrap this granite gift, let’s review.

This morning’s reading finds the people of Israel, God’s chosen ones, adrift in the desert. It was not what they had expected.

After the death of their patriarch Joseph, hundreds of years before, who had promised them land and prosperity, the book of Exodus begins with the ominous sentence, “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1.8) This new king didn’t care a fig about Joseph’s promises to these foreigners living on his territory. Instead, the king subjected the people of Israel to what would become 400 years of slavery in Egypt.

As slaves, they built the pharaohs’ homes and the region’s aqueducts and all manner of bridges, roads and plazas. For four centuries, they slaved in the service of an enemy emperor; they were slaves so long that they knew no other life but slavery.

Did any of these slaves long for a better life, a freer life? Did any of these slaves even know there could be a better life, a freer life? We don’t know. Can a person want what they don’t know exists?

Enter Moses, a child of Israel raised, in disguise, in the Pharaoh’s own home, as a foundling. Though raised in opulence, Moses was not immune to the suffering of the Israelites. He saw the hovels in which his people lived, heard the lash of the whip and cries from the auction block; he witnessed the whimpering of hungry children. Slavery—it has always been the same. And not God’s intent.

Moses was chosen by God, disguised as a shrub burning in the desert. (There are a lot of “disguises” in this story. More on that later.)

Through a series of confrontations, magic tricks, plagues and broken promises, the Pharaoh finally “let my people go.” And Moses led the whole house of Israel, thousands and thousands of people, across the suddenly-dry Red Sea to a place where they could be free.

It was a dream come true. Freedom! After 400 years!

And that’s where we find them this morning. Blinking in the desert sun, spitting sand, witching for water, wondering where the Denny’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet is, and will the concierge pick up our dry cleaning?

They didn’t know what freedom looked like, but had not imagined this.

This? This arid wasteland was the Promised Land of which they had dreamed? It looked less like a promise and more like a curse.

In a forehead smacking, duh moment, God and Moses realized at exactly the same moment that freedom was foreign to these people. As slaves, the people of Israel had never even been able to select the clothes they would wear, let alone how they would govern themselves or manage their common life.

Though Janis Joplin believes that “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” God and Moses believe that freedom is a gift that can be given. A gift they wanted to give. A gift delivered in unlikely wrapping.

Immediately before this morning’s reading takes place, God had invited Moses to the top of Mount Sinai to hash it out. “What does freedom look like?” they wondered, and how will we gift it?

They spent days together, tearing up first drafts, editing each other’s work, pounding chisels to nibs, refining and refining and refining. Until the gift of freedom was ready to be given.

Moses descended the mountain in a rain of fire and thunder bearing the gift we call the Ten Commandments. Wrapped not in grocery bags, the Sunday paper, or curly ribbons. The gift of freedom, the Ten Commandments, was wrapped in a rock.

“Here,” Moses said, extending two heavy stone tablets to the people, “God has a gift for you. May I present? Freedom!”

His speech was met with silence stonier than the tablets in his hands. Ten Commandments? Ten Rules? This is our reward for risking life and limb to escape Egypt for a promised land? Stone Sentiments?

We are as confused as they were.

Though Martin Luther, in the 16th century, wrote extensively on the subject, viewed the Ten Commandments as an opportunity to be of service to God and neighbor, we continue to view the Ten Commandments alternately as burdens to be borne OR a weapon to be wielded.

When we hear the Ten Commandments, we hear them alternately as “no, no, no” OR “you oughta, you oughta, you oughta.”

We use the Ten Commandments to punish ourselves or others.

Some gift, God. Way to go, Moses.

But gift they are. A gift we do not recognize because we wouldn’t know Freedom if it came up and kissed us on the cheek.

Left to our own devices we are selfish and small; we hoard good things and begrudge the good others enjoy; we seek what is best for ourselves and give away only scraps; we regard God as the enemy and worship a burden.

Those are the attitudes of those enslaved to sin. Not the hearts of those who have experienced freedom.

The Ten Commandments come to us in two parts. The first part—commandments 1-3—are about the way we are to love God. And how is that? Only. Respectfully. Regularly.

The second part—commandments 4-10—is about the way we love our neighbors. And, to preempt a question that will be posed by Jesus about 5,000 years after Sinai, who is my neighbor? (Luke 10) Anyone in need. So, just about everybody.

So, how do we, according to the Ten Commandments, love our neighbors? We honor our elders. We protect life and relationship, property and good name. We seek what is best for the other, trusting that they will seek the best for us.

That is what the Ten Commandments teaches, the gifts they give.

But, too often, we use these gifts as weapons. Turning them against our neighbor. Or, worse, we use them to violate the very first commandment: No Idols.

A blast from our common political past. Remember when it was de rigueur to post the Ten Commandments in prominent places? City parks? Courthouses? Remember the lawsuits that followed? We ran the Ten Commandments up the flag pole, and destroyed anyone who didn’t salute. As though simply posting them in public would make us more faithful spouses, more generous neighbors, more faithful disciples.

That’s like imagining that seeing the calorie count on a Big Mac at the drive-through prevents us from ordering it, or that watching stand-up comics on late-night television will make us funnier. Posting the words and imagining obedience would follow is both naïve and idolatrous. You can’t legislate love or force faithfulness. But we have used the Ten Commandments in the same way we have made the American flag and the national anthem idols to be worshipped, litmus tests of loyalty, rather than reminders to be grateful, gifts to be shared.

The Ten Commandments are not a weapon or a test or a salute. They are a gift.

We also abuse the Ten Commandments when we use them to judge others, rather than measure our own behavior. Again, fast forwarding to Jesus, we are more than happy to point out the other’s sin, to criticize the other’s life, to poach the other’s property, to “see the speck in the other’s eye and not the log in our own,” (Matthew 7) than we are to forgive, to support, to encourage.

Remember, these gifts were given to a people that had not been free in 400 years. They had not been allowed to think a thought, make a decision, or shop for their own groceries. They didn’t know how to govern themselves because they had never done it. They didn’t know how to manage property because they had never owned anything. They didn’t know how to worship the one true God because they had had to bow to the Pharoah. They didn’t know how to live faithfully with parents and children and spouses, because for centuries their parents, children and spouses had been ripped away from them and sold.

As with any who are new to freedom, the Ten Commandments were a gift to keep them safe, a gift to keep them together, a gift to make them glad.

Moses handed them those granite gifts as a guide for faithful life.

There are so many disguises in this story. Moses, the Israelite incognito. God, traveling under the guise of a pillar of cloud and fire. The people of God, milling like confused cattle. And the most ingenious disguise of all? Words on a rock that give us life.

This Lent we study five covenants—five gifts God gave to people, like us, who are slow to receive them.

This morning we receive the gift of the Ten Commandments. A gift of freedom to a people long enslaved. A gift of grateful worship of God, and loving service of our neighbors.

Here. It’s a gift. Feel free to share it.

Transfiguration of Our Lord

Transfiguration of Our Lord (14 February 2021)
Mark 9:2-9
JoAnn A. Post


Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high
mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became
dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah
with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to
be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not
know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the
cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they
looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had
seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.


Remember magazines in a doctor’s office? The gossipy rags you’d never subscribe to
yourself (and if you did you wouldn’t admit it), but hoarded while waiting for your
appointment? People. Star. Us. Or, in a specialist’s office: O. Goop. Elle. Another cultural
experience lost to the pandemic.


Back in the days when you could browse the magazine rack at the doctor’s office while
waiting 90 minutes for a three-minute check-up, I would make a pretense of reaching for a
dignified magazine—a dog-eared Time, a pristine copy of Runners World or Forbes. But
when no one was looking, I’d tuck a tattered US Weekly inside the more reputable one, and
flip to my favorite section, “Stars! They’re just like us!”


It gave me a moment’s smug satisfaction to see famous, glamorous, gorgeous people in
saggy sweat pants on their way to the grocery store, Jennifer Aniston on a bad hair day,
Samuel L. Jackson’s backward beret. It also gave me a moment’s guilty pleasure to imagine
that, if I had access to their trainers and stylists and nutritionists and dressers, I could look
like them.

But then I’d be called back to the doctor’s office. I’d have to stand on a scale which always
weighs me 15 pounds heavier than I actually am, put on the hospital johnny that makes us
all look like extras in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” admit that I haven’t been doing
my exercises or taking my vitamins.


So much for being mistaken for Julia Roberts at the grocery store. The more likely mix-up is
between me and Jeff Bridges on the set of “True Grit.”


We all have this weird curiosity about famous people. What do they look like when no one
is looking? Who are they? (Really.)

I once saw another book on the side table at the doctor’s office: a Gideon Bible that some
hopeful person had accidentally “left behind.” Of course, as soon as the staff saw it, it would
have been confiscated and donated to The Salvation Army. But for a few minutes it lingered
on the table, patients eyeing one another to see who might flip it open and actually read it
or who would pitch a fit. I don’t know what happened. I was called back to my annual
humiliation before it got to the good part.


Imagine, for just a moment, that some unsuspecting reader dared open the cover, flip
through the table of contents, searching for the section, “Jesus! He’s just like us!” What
would they learn? Would they see Jesus in sweat pants on his way to the grocery store?
Would we finally find out if Jesus is a Paleo-diet or Juice Cleanse kind of guy? What does he
look like with his hair down?

Who is Jesus? (Really.) After all, enquiring minds want to know.


Because only a few were literate in Jesus’ day there were no gossipy magazines. No
Disciples Digest. No Fortune First Century. And if there were, there were no doctor’s offices
in which to read them. News was all local, and traveled by word of mouth. Rumors
proliferated as quickly as reality. Glossy photographs of famous people? The technology
didn’t exist. Except for the image of the emperor inscribed on coins, you knew what a
person looked like only if they lived next door.

Jesus would have looked like a hundred other men his age, known by his family, friends and
neighbors, but otherwise able to pass, unnoticed, through crowds as easily as, later, he
would pass through locked doors. (John 20)


Even though no one was sure what he looked like, they knew what he could do, and his
reputation grew like wild fire. After all, Jesus wasn’t exactly trying to stay out of the
spotlight.


Two weeks ago, Jesus outed himself when he cast a demon out of a man sitting in the back
pew at temple. (Mark 1.21ff)

Last week, when word emerged from Simon’s house that Jesus had cooled a woman’s fever,
the whole city of Capernaum gathered on the front lawn. (Mark 1.29ff)
He was becoming known across the region. As a preacher. As a teacher. As a healer. As an
exorcist. The rumors grew, and soon he was portrayed as whoever people needed or
wanted him to be.


But as any famous person will tell you, crowds are exhausting, the demands of public life
both depleting and demeaning. So, while famous people now go on retreat or into rehab to
get away, today, Jesus has another destination in mind.


A mountain. A mountain by himself. A mountain by himself with a couple of close friends.
What could be more refreshing? He wouldn’t have to deal with crowds. He wouldn’t even
have to brush his teeth. What a relief.

But Jesus didn’t go up on the mountain to be alone. He went up on the mountain to b
known. Truly known. It was clarifying. And terrifying.


Transfiguration, the minor festival we celebrate today, is both the backdoor of Epiphany
and the front porch of Lent. Dropped in between weeks of the “revealing” stories behind us,
and the “suffering” stories ahead of us, we pause to take stock. To evaluate. To rest. To see
Jesus as he truly is. And, in seeing his true self, to see ours, as well.

Remember how I told you that, in the 1st century, there were no photographs, no IMDb, no
way to know what a person looked like. That’s why it’s curious to me that on the Mount of
the Transfiguration, where Jesus’ true self was made known—his clothes bleached brighter
than light, his face glowing like the sun, a voice from heaven announcing, “This is the
One!”—his disciples immediately recognized Jesus’ conversation partners.
Elijah! Moses!
Really? How did they know? Name tags?


But it was instantly clear to Peter, James and John that they may have underestimated
Jesus. That Elijah—the greatest of prophets caught directly up into heaven—and Moses—
the freer of slaves and giver of the law—would just drop by for a visit. That the confines of
linear time, the physics of light no longer applied. That Jesus was more than Joseph and
Mary’s boy, more than a clever teacher or a magician with healing in his hands.


Who is this guy, this Jesus, whom they followed around?
They were about to find out.


The other mystery of this story is that Jesus chose these three clowns to accompany him up
the mountain. Peter would betray Jesus at a critical juncture. James and John would clamor
to ride shotgun with Jesus in the next life. More concerned with self-protection and self-promotion
-that with true discipleship. None of them worthy of the honor.


And that, my friends, is where we become part of the story. Where we see Jesus as he truly
is.

On Wednesday, Christians around the world will be transfigured, revealed, outed to the
world. Our true identities known. Not on a mountain, but on our knees.


On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we will be willingly disfigured, etching on our own
foreheads the smudge of Jesus’ cross, sign of our sin. In an ordinary year, we would
undertake this demeaning and depleting task together, here, but the pandemic prevents us.
Instead, we will send you a link to recorded worship so that you might endure this annual
liturgical humiliation in the comfort of your own home.


We will confess, naming sins and shortcomings so familiar they no longer seem, to us, like
sins and shortcomings.

We will impose ashes—do you have a fireplace? A wood stove? A fistful of potting soil the garage? Something that stains.
We will eat the bread and drink the cup. The bread and cup first shared with losers like
Peter, James and John, now offered to losers like us.


We will admit to ourselves and to anyone in earshot that we are sinful and unclean, at best
unremarkable, and, at worst, unworthy.


And we will hear that, though, we are at best unremarkable, and, at worst unworthy, God
loves us beyond reason, forgives us beyond deserving, heals us completely.
Who is Jesus? Really?

Today we learn that he is a peer to the greatest who ever lived, that he is the only son of
God, that his is a voice worth heeding. And that he loves us. How can that be?


And who are we? Really?

Today we learn that, like Peter, James and John, we think more of ourselves than we ought,
that we are simultaneously terrified to see Jesus’ true nature and mystified that we are not
crushed by it.


Back in the days before the pandemic, we moved easily through the world, occupying
ourselves with nonsense like Britney Spears’ legal battles and rumors about our
representatives. But now, deep in a crisis that has ruined millions of lives, we do not move
so easily or occupy ourselves with such inanity. We live each day as though it were Ash
Wednesday—a bleak reminder that we are dust, and to dust we will all return.
And somehow, on this Transfiguration Sunday, as Jesus glows and disciples cower, that is
good news.


None of us really cares what the Stars! are really like. We already know.

We are, all of us, sinful and forgiven, unclean and washed, unlovable and deeply loved. And
that is the face we are called to show to the world.


Transfigured to the world as today Jesus is transfigured before us.

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (21 February 2021)

Genesis 9.8-17

JoAnn A. Post           

God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 

God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Once upon a time there was water. Everywhere. Lakes. Rivers. Oceans of water. Water so deep, it seemed bottomless. Water so aggressive, it ground gullies out of solid rock. Water so pervasive, it covered more than a fifth of the planet’s surface. Water that both supported life and destroyed it.

It’s hard to imagine that much water in one place. But we know it was there. We have evidence. We are there now.

A few days ago, we plopped down in the middle of that great oceanic environment named for the god of war, Mars. We got there, not with boats, but with a car-size droid named Perseverance. Percy, as it is affectionately called, was able to land safely because what was, billions of years ago, a vast ocean—900 feet deep, 28 miles wide—is dry as desert now. 34 million miles from earth, it took Percy only 7 months to arrive. If you want to see for yourself, you could hop in the car and be there in about 78 years.  

Once upon a time there was water. Everywhere. Lakes. Rivers. Oceans of water. Water so deep it seemed bottomless. Water so aggressive, it ground gullies out of solid rock. Water so pervasive it covered, we are told, the face of the earth. Water that both supported life and destroyed it.

Its hard to imagine that much water in one place. But we know it was there. We have evidence. And we are there now.

But we need not travel 34 million miles for evidence of this mythic, no longer rippling water. We need only open the Bible, flip to the book of Genesis and read about a flood that destroyed all but eight. All but Noah and his family, and the animals they were able to cram aboard the ark. Today, on the First Sunday of Lent, we are dropped like Perseverance into the middle of what was once an ocean.

An ocean on which floated a solitary boat. An ocean created by the disappointed tears of God.

This Lent we are privileged that the lectionary assigns us five great Old Testament stories. Most often we only brush up against these stories, distilling oceans of detail into a few salient, Sunday School-ready images. But we have decided to spend a little more time in these stories this Lent, to do more than brush up against these complex stories, but to study them, as Perseverance is studying not only the surface but also the subterranean depths of Mars.

We will travel many miles with Sarah and Abraham. (Genesis 17) We will climb Mount Sinai with Moses. (Exodus 20) We will flee snakes in the wilderness. (Numbers 21) We will open our hearts so that God might write on them. (Jeremiah 34) And today we are dropped like a rock in the middle of an ocean, dropped in the middle of the story we know as “Noah and the Ark.” I wonder if it might more aptly be named, “God Cries a River.”

There is so much more here than we first imagined, or that we learn in Sunday School. Let’s persevere, shall we?

This morning’s text is the penultimate chapter of a much longer story in which Noah is a central figure. The reason we don’t read the last of the Noah story in public? It is shameful.

After having been chosen by God to restore humanity, after braving public ridicule for building the ark and rough seas aboard the ark, the last we will hear of Noah is that he can’t hold his liquor. We last see Noah passed out cold on the ground outside his tent, unclothed and exposed. It is a sad ending for a great man. You can read it for yourself. If you have the stomach. (Genesis 9.20ff)

Unfortunately, Noah is, in the end, an utter disappointment to God.

As great a disappointment as are the people who prompted God to imagine the ark in the first place. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So far in the book of Genesis, God has created a world that is “good” and human beings with God’s authority to care for this good earth. Seems an easy assignment. But only three chapters into the story of God’s good creation, Adam and Eve succumb to temptation, Cain kills his brother Abel, and their ancestors overtake the earth—not to care for it, but to amuse themselves.

Here’s what the writer of Genesis says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great, and that every inclination of their hearts was nothing but evil. And God was sorry they had been made. They broke God’s heart.” (GN 6.5ff)

Remember now those opening lines of Genesis, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” God remembered those words, too. And longed for that momentary perfection. Wondered if maybe God could start again, again.

It is then, as the human creatures God imbued with such hope destroy both creation and themselves, that we turn the page to meet Noah.  Noah, who finds favor with God. Noah who is, apparently, unlike all other humans. Noah, who is described as a “righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.”

Out of regret for having created humans who were so selfish, so careless, so ungrateful, God chose Noah and his family to be the new Adam and Eve.

I wonder if even Noah wondered about God’s bright idea. Building a house boat in the middle of the desert seemed an odd hobby. But God had a plan. A creative plan. And because Noah was righteous, Noah trusted God.

Once the ark was built, once Noah and Mrs. Noah and their three boys and spouses and grandchildren and a broad array of creatures ovine, bovine, avian, equine, canine, feline, ursine Noah shut the door on the ark and it began to rain. Actually, I don’t think that’s quite accurate.

Scripture says that it rained for forty days and forty nights. But I wonder if the water falling from the sky wasn’t rain, but tears. God’s tears. God weeping over what had once been so good. As Noah and his family sailed to safety, God cried a river.

God’s tears filled the creek beds and valleys. God’s tears washed out roads and leveled cities.  God’s tears returned the earth to the condition in which it was first found. Deep darkness. Endless water. Nothing to see. Much like Mars might have been, billions of years ago.

From this watery and formless void, mourning the ruined remnants of a good creation, disgusted with the wickedness of humans, God started all over again. God rebooted the Garden of Eden with a man and a woman, their immediate offspring and a handful of creatures.

Upon disembarking the ark, God gave the instruction first given to Adam and Eve in the garden, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth!” The story could have ended there, but God is nothing if not self-aware. God wants to make sure not to make the same mistake twice.

And that, my friends, lands us on the soggy doorstep that is this morning’s Old Testament reading.  A breathtaking finale. A final bow that looks like a (rain)bow. Even in mourning, God has a flair for the dramatic.

But what is left to be done? A story that begins with a broken heart, morphs into a bizarre inland engineering project, floats a lonely boat over a drowning earth, deposits Noah and his (now multiplied) offspring on dry ground, ends with God’s admission of a faulty memory and a tendency to hold a grudge.

As God looked back over the whole affair—from the initial disgust with humanity to eventual satisfaction with Noah—God had a few misgivings. In hindsight, it all seemed a bit much, a little too drastic a solution. “I wonder,” God wrote in that day’s journal, “I wonder if maybe I acted a little hastily. If there couldn’t have been an intermediate solution. Did I have to choose the nuclear option?”

So, as insurance against future angry or ill-advised decisions, God did one more thing.

In a fit of self-awareness, afraid of another frustrated rant, God pledged to never again destroy the earth with water. (Funny side note, God left the door open to other varieties of destruction—meteor, hurricane, fire. But water? Never.)

As a note-to-self of that decision, God tossed a rainbow in the clouds, flinging its brilliant arc from horizon to horizon. Like tying a string around a finger or strapping a rubber band to the wrist. “When I see the bow in the clouds, I will remember,” God says to Noah. “I will remember not to do that again.”

God asked nothing of Noah, safely now on dry ground, but to be productive. The hard work belonged to God. Always has. Always will.

We are not so different from the people in Noah’s day. We craft increasingly creative means of hurting one another, ourselves and creation. We are a daily disappointment to God and to each other.

God could easily say of us that “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts is only continually evil.” I imagine there are days when it takes everything God has to be patient with us.

How do I know that? Because every once in a while, after a hard rain, under skies streaked with lightning, the earth trembling with thunder, God throws that bow in the clouds, flinging its brilliance from horizon to horizon. We view the rainbow as a heavenly gift, a sign of God’s favor, a celestial smile. But really it is little more than a magnet on God’s refrigerator door, a snap on the wrist, a mnemonic device for God: “Don’t hurt them. Don’t hurt them. Don’t hurt them.” And I wonder if, the more brilliant the bow, the more intense God’s need to be reminded of the painful lesson learned aboard the ark: “Never again will I destroy humanity.”

Apparently, it’s a lesson God needs to learn again and again and again.

What a story. A story not about human selfishness and depravity—that’s old news. But a story about the way God’s passion for us is both a gift and torture. Sometimes, God delights in us. Can’t get enough of us. Thinks we are the best thing ever.

But other times, as in today’s reading, God regrets us. Resents us. Resets us. Sometimes, God weeps oceans over us.

And that, my friends, is the story formerly known as “Noah and the Ark” which I have renamed “God Cries a River.”

It deserves a “mature audiences only” rating, for complicated emotional content and mind-exploding images of God.

Once upon a time there was water. Everywhere. Lakes. Rivers. Oceans of water. Water so deep, it seemed bottomless. Water so aggressive, it ground gullies out of solid rock. Water that both supported life and destroyed it.

What water is that? The water that used to cover Mars? The water that once drowned all created things?

No, that endless water is the tears of God—tears of joy mixed with tears of anguish. The tears of a God who loves us beyond measure, who will stop at nothing to preserve and protect us. Even if, occasionally, God needs a little reminding. So, be grateful for the rainbow after the rain—it means God hasn’t given up on us.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (7 February 2021)

Mark 1.29-39

JoAnn A. Post

As soon as Jesus and the disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

A Letter to a Friend

Dear Margaret, sorry I haven’t written in so long. So much has happened since I saw you last. How do you like Florida? Is it as hot and sweaty as they say? Snakes? Tourists? (Can you tell the difference?).

I’ve had quite a time myself lately. Today was the weirdest day ever—and the best. It was a long day, too, but it’s over now, so I thought I’d sit down and write.

You remember my son-in-law, Simon? I love him like he was my own. You remember how he was always inviting people over to the house without asking? He’s still at it. He doesn’t mean any harm—he just likes people. Saturday night poker games. (You’ll be glad to know that I stopped the cigar smoking the house.) Sunday afternoon football. The out-of-town sales rep tired of hotel rooms and take-out. I always set an extra plate at the dinner table—there’s bound to be an unannounced guest.

I’m not complaining. When my husband died (may he rest in peace), Simon didn’t miss a beat before promising me I’d always have a home with him and my daughter. What a good kid. His mother raised him right. I wasn’t wild about moving to Capernaum—it’s a little too big, a little too loud for me. I miss our Monday morning quilter’s group at the synagogue.

But, if Simon hadn’t been so good to me, who knows where I would be right now? Out on the street. Or, worse, with that other son-in-law of mine. What was my daughter thinking?

Anyway. I’m not complaining. Just saying. Simon has always loved a party—and if he can’t find one, he makes one.

I woke up feeling a little funny this morning—headache, sore throat. Something nasty has been going around, and though I mostly stay home, you never know. So, I figured I’d better get some work done while I still could. I got dinner in the oven so Simon and his friends would have a nice meal after temple. I set the table. But by then my knees were so weak I could hardly stand. My whole body hurt. I left a sticky note on the front door, “Gone to bed with a headache. Help yourselves,” and fell into bed.

I don’t know how long I lay there, but when I woke I was a sweaty mess, shivering and burning up at the same time. I thought I heard somebody come into the house, but my fever was so bad, I might have been hallucinating. I’ve never felt so sick. (It crossed my mind that the neighbor across the street won’t wear a mask, even when I ask him to. Maybe its him. Maybe I got that horrible virus from him? What’s so hard about wearing a mask?) Anyway.

I fell asleep again, I think, and woke to a man’s face looking down at me. There hadn’t been a man in my bedroom since my husband died (may he rest in peace), but I was so sick I didn’t care. Who was it? Neighbor? Cable Guy? Doctor Who? I didn’t know. Didn’t care. “Knock yourself out,” I thought, and fell back into the fever.

I could hear voices in the kitchen then, my daughter wondering if they should call the doctor, my son-in-law barking at the dog to stop barking. Stranger’s voices saying, “Sure smells good in the kitchen!” And that man. That man was still in my room. Looking down at me. He looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t know.

And then he sat on the edge of the bed. He took my hand—I’m surprise it wasn’t too hot to touch. He touched my forehead and smoothed my hair back. He was so kind, I felt like a little girl again, when my dad (may he rest in peace) would stay up all night with me when I was sick, just to make sure I was okay. I think I even said his name out loud, “Dad? Is that you?”

But it wasn’t. Turns out it was Simon’s friend from Nazareth. His name is Jesus. You might remember his parents—that handyman and his pretty, much younger wife. Good people.

Jesus didn’t say anything. He slowly stood up, still holding my hand. I thought he was crazy. What was he doing? I wasn’t going anywhere. The whole room was spinning. I thought I was going to throw up. But he just kept holding on to my hand, apparently trying to get me up. I didn’t think I could. But, before you know it, I was sitting on the edge of bed. The fever was gone. The headache was gone. I felt just fine.

I still don’t quite know what happened, but something about his touch, something about his kindness, it made me better.

That’s when I heard all the commotion in the kitchen. Simon and his friends clattering dishes, dropping silverware, putting ice in glasses, shushing each other. I thought, “They’re going to break my good china!” so I jumped up, put on my glasses and some shoes and ran into the kitchen.

Though I felt fine, I must have looked a fright. Simon said, “Ma! What happened to you?” My daughter jumped back against the kitchen counter. Simon’s younger brother, Andrew, (why won’t some nice girl marry him?) dropped his fork.

“Nothing happened to me,” I barked. “Get out of my kitchen.”

It was a nice meal, though the roast was a little overdone, and the mashed potatoes needed salt. Simon and my daughter kept exchanging looks, shrugging. Jesus acted as though nothing had happened.

Honest to Pete, its as though nothing had happened. We finished dinner. I did the dishes. The kids took the dog for a walk. Simon stretched out on the living room couch. Jesus played Candy Crush on his IPhone. I sat down to read the Shabbat paper. It was like I was never sick.

I must have fallen asleep in my chair, because when I woke the sun was going down, and the house was empty. Shabbat was over. It was usually a really quiet then. But there was so much noise outside—I think that’s what woke me. I couldn’t imagine what was going on.

I looked out the window and nearly fainted. People. People. Hundreds of them. People I didn’t know, standing on the lawn, leaning on the fence, crowding the street, shouting at the house. News trucks parked at every angle. Fox and CNN both!

They were shouting a name. Mine? Were they calling for me?

So, I stepped out on the porch to see if I could help, and they started shouting at me. “It’s her! The one with the fever! It’s her!” I ran back into the house and drew the drapes.

It was Jesus they wanted. They were shouting at Jesus. “Help me!” they shouted. “I’m sick!” A man was carrying a little girl in his arms, sobbing, trying to get to the front of the crowd. And remember that little girl from “The Exorcist,” frothing at the mouth, puking pea soup, saying horrible things? There were even people like that on my lawn.

Margaret, I hate to say it, but I think its my fault. If I hadn’t told Simon to bring friends home for dinner, if I hadn’t gotten sick, if Jesus hadn’t done whatever he did and helped me out of bed, none of this would have happened.

I felt so bad for Jesus. They wouldn’t leave him alone.

He was out there for hours. I watched through the peephole. What did he do with all those sick people? He laid his hands on them. He spoke to them. He got them back on their feet. He did for them exactly what he had done for me. I’ve never seen anything like it.

It’s quieter now. I think everyone has gone home. The dog is sleeping by the fire. My daughter tucked the kids into bed a while ago. Simon and Andrew helped themselves to my husband’s (may he rest in peace) best scotch. I don’t know where Jesus is, but wherever he is, he must be exhausted.

It’s been a long, long day, and now way past my bedtime. I’ll stop writing soon. But who could have slept with all that noise outside, anyway?

I don’t know how it is there in Florida, but here in Capernaum since the last election people have been so angry. They say it’s not real. And there’s this virus going around, its killing people, but there are people who say it’s not real, either. Sometimes I wonder if I’m crazy. Or maybe they are, I don’t know. I don’t know what to believe any more.

Except this. I believe this. I believe Jesus made me well. And a whole lot of other people, too. The look in his eyes, the calm in his voice, the gentleness of his hands. If Jesus looked into your eyes, touched your hand, you would know what I mean.

Oh, Margaret, it’s been so good to write to you. It feels like you’re in the room with me. Do you suppose we’ll ever see each other again?

I’m going to attach a couple of pictures—the hydrangea blooming in the front yard, my granddaughter in her prom dress.

I’ll write again soon—there’s bound to be something in the news about what happened here last night, about Jesus. I’ll let you know.

Wow! Its later than I thought. I’ll save this letter to my desktop and send it off to you in the morning. Sleep well, old friend.

PS The sun is just coming up over the mountains, and I woke up to more noise in the kitchen. Simon was packing a bag and a lunch, said something about hiking up into the mountains—apparently, Jesus went there to pray. Can you blame the man for wanting to be alone?

I still don’t quite understand what happened yesterday, how he made me well. But he did.  Me and a lot of other people, too. Something is going on—something good.

I just ran spell check and corrected all the errors. (You know, I’ve never been a good typist.) I’m hitting “send” now. Margaret, it’s a brand new day. Write soon.

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany (24 January 2021)

JoAnn A. Post

Jonah 3.1-5.,10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1.14-21

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

There are heroes and there are antiheroes.

Who are the heroes? Wonder Woman. Batman. T’Challa, aka Black Panther. The “hero” is the character who seeks truth and justice, whose motives are good and whose heart is strong.

Who are the antiheroes? Walter White (“Breaking Bad”). Severus Snape (“Harry Potter”). Michael Scott (“The Office”). The antihero is the character who, though they might lack the will or courage to do the right thing the first time, in the end, somehow, eventually, their questionable actions might lead to a good outcome, a brave and selfless act.

Notice that all my examples of heroes and antiheroes are fictional. In everyday life, the lines are not so easily drawn, the motives so clearly seen, the outcomes so final. Most of us, in our daily lives, are a tepid soup of noble and ignoble motives, selfless and selfish acts, laudatory and lame outcomes.

There are heroes and there are antiheroes. People who do good first thing in the morning AND the people who have to warm up to the idea.

There are disciples and there are anti-disciples.

Disciples are those who follow without question, who reflect the master’s ways, who act out of devotion and determination. The true disciple is an elusive beast.

Anti-disciples? That’s a more common type. The anti-disciple is the follower whose motives may be suspect, whose actions lack integrity, who drag their feet and whine, “Are we there yet?”

This morning’s readings introduce us to both types. And beg the question: which one am I?

We first meet Jonah, the original anti-hero. Though we are dropped into the middle of the story this morning, you know how it goes. Jonah, a heretofore unknown biblical character, is sent to Nineveh to preach repentance in the name of the one true God. His first impulse? Nope.

God had invited Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, but, instead, Jonah hightailed it for the marina where he snuck passage on the first outgoing frigate. Mayhem ensues and Jonah is tossed overboard, only to be slurped up by a passing whale, marinated in the whale’s bilious belly, and, three days later, vomited up on the shore. Apparently, he upset the whale’s stomach, left a bad taste in its mouth. Jonah had that effect on fish. And people. (Jonah 1)

That’s where this morning’s reading begins. Jonah, covered in whale puke, crusted with sea salt, breaded with beach sand. Even then, prepped like chicken for the fryer, the whale didn’t want him. But God did.

“Look, Jonah,” God said, “you have two options. You can do it my way the first time. Or you can do it my way the second time. But you’ll do it my way.”

And Jonah did. He had no choice. But he wasn’t going to like it. Dragging his feet, muttering under his breath, Jonah barely crossed the Nineveh city limits before he muttered, hoping no one would hear, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

No one was more surprised than Jonah when the whole city heard him—from the king on his throne to the beggar in the street—and all repented, in sackcloth and ashes. God’s message was delivered, in spite of the messenger.

“Dang it,” Jonah said to himself. “I hate it when that happens.”

Jonah. The Original Anti-Disciple.

Humor me, for a moment, as we turn the page to Mark’s gospel, where Jesus is assembling his entourage. Humor me as we pretend, for a moment, that the disciples whom Jesus calls today are true disciples.

After all, when we first meet Simon and Andrew, James and John, they are eager and ready to follow Jesus. Without question. Without a wave goodbye. Without a glance back over their shoulder.

They changed their Facebook status from “single” to “in a relationship,” their work status from “fisher” to “follower,” dropped their nets and chased Jesus down the beach.

Like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, fishing poles over through shoulders.

Like Thelma and Louise . . . driving over a cliff?

This story has always been a head-scratcher for me.

Seems a bit hasty, don’t you think to drop everything and follow the first guy who makes an offer. Kink of cult-ish.

Imagine the conversation at the table that night, when Zebedee, short two sons, has to explain to Mrs. Zebedee that the boys won’t be home for supper. For a while.

And all those fish that won’t be caught, those nets that won’t be mended, those bills that won’t be paid. Though Mark names them “disciples,” we might have other names. Ne’er-do-wells. Scofflaws. Ghosters.

But, at first blush, before we turn another page, they are true disciples. Seeking truth and justice. With pure motives and good hearts. Wonder Woman, Batman and Black Panther in hip waders.

It won’t be long before the disciples’ eagerness abates, their faithfulness flags. It won’t be long before we put a four-letter prefix in front of their designation.

After all, there are disciples. And there are anti-disciples. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. And sometimes they are the same person.

We have recently been witness to a whole lot of discipleship—dangerous discipleship. Images of camouflage-clad terrorists scaling the walls of our nation’s capital, carrying zip-tie handcuffs, chasing police, defecating in the hallways, these images haunt my sleep. Some of those terrorists were “true disciples.” They were ready to destroy, to kidnap, even to kill in allegiance to their criminal calling.

But among those dangerously misguided disciples were a whole lot of others who had no idea what they had gotten themselves into. School teachers and accountants. College students and grandparents. How many times have we now seen the tearful confession, “I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I went to DC to march, to protest. I didn’t know what they had planned.”

My heart goes out to them, and with a word of reminder. Following has consequences. Discipleship comes with a cost. Take that first step cautiously.

Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to death and mayhem, to division and destruction. Jesus calls them simply to follow—without a road map or a position description or a mission statement. “Follow me,” and something about his voice, his invitation makes that following seem like a good idea.

And here’s the really interesting thing about both discipleship models in today’s readings—the anti-disciple Jonah and the (temporarily) true disciple brothers. They weren’t asked to do much. They weren’t asked to go far. They weren’t asked to check their brains or consciences at the door.

Simple tasks. Easy to do. Close to home.

To Jonah, “Walk into the city. Read this script. That’s all.”

To Simon and Andrew, James and John, “Step away from the boat.”

We imagine that to follow Jesus requires some herculean effort on our part, that we’ll be called away from home and family, work and responsibility. But only 12 were asked to do that—only 12. The rest of us? We who would be disciples—or more likely, anti-disciples—are called to follow close to home, just one step away from the boat.

So, with apologies to Lin Manuel Miranda and Amanda Gorman, while history may have its eye on us, it’s God’s assessment that matters to me? What does God see in us—we would-be disciples?

A dear friend has been betrayed by one whom they had trusted. Everything in me wants to destroy that betrayer, return evil for evil, say out loud all the horrible things I feel. But I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, and I am called to forgive, to hold my tongue, to view that person as one whom God loves. And that’s what I am doing. Reluctantly, like Jonah. Foot-dragging, like Jonah. Begrudgingly, like Jonah. But I am a disciple of Jesus Christ and I do things his way. I hate it when that happens.

We cannot underestimate the division in our country, our community, even in our congregation. Though most of us would never harm a person with whom we disagree politically, terrorism is like a leaky roof. What starts as a distant drip, drip, drip, left unattended destroys the whole house. Danger is all around. And you and I feel powerless to stop them. What would a disciple do?

A disciple would make peace close to home. A disciple would take that single step into relationship, swallow that single word that would feel so good to say, extend a single kindness to one with whom we disagree. We are not called to defend truth, justice and the shop-worn American way. We are called to follow Jesus in our own stupid little lives. To take one step. To say—or swallow—one word. To forgive one failing.

It’s not a lot.

There are heroes and there are anti-heroes. Wonder Woman and Walter White. They are all fictional.

There are disciples and there are anti-disciples. Those who follow Jesus whole-heartedly, and those who lag behind, muttering all the way. But regardless of the robust or wimpy nature of our faithfulness, it is enough that we are disciples.

Say the word, my friend. Step away from the boat.

Jesus calls us. But he doesn’t call us to go far.

Second Sunday of Christmas

Second Sunday of Christmas (3 January 2021)

John 1.1-18

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 

The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

We were able to sneak in a few days with our grandson in North Carolina after Christmas, (his parents were there, too, but they are mostly just surplus genetic material at this point) and I am afraid to admit that it seems Theo’s first word is “quackquack.” Perhaps we sang the Raffi song about the Five Little Ducks a little too often, but any feathered creature in a storybook, any bird in a tree, is greeted with a grinning, drooling, “Quack!” Born into a family of readers and writers, singers and public speakers, somehow, I imagined a first word more profound. “Quackquack?” It could be worse, I suppose.

As one of eight children, I’m sure most of me and my siblings’ “first words” were drowned out in the family noise. But a friend from an even larger family than mine has been told that he did not speak until he was four-years-old. While you and I would be frantic about such an extended silence, his parents were unconcerned. As the youngest of a dozen, his parents figured he either didn’t have to speak because all his needs were met OR he wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise, even if he tried. “He’ll talk when he has something to say,” his father remembers. And he did.

Conversely, a good family friend has a child who has no words, who is, for some reason, non-verbal. Unlike my other friend’s parents who regarded his silence as a phase, these friends hang on every noise, every utterance, hoping to decipher a first word. It will come. You can see the words in the little one’s eyes. Whether with syllables or finger spelling, it will come. When that first word falls, you will hear the shouts of joy all over town. 

What were your first words—in life?

What about this year? What were your first words—this year?

After months of pandemic lock-down and economic chaos, news late last year of successful vaccine trials provided the first good news we had had in a long time. But late on New Year’s Eve, news broke of a rogue pharmacist in Milwaukee who had intentionally sabotaged 500 doses of the vaccine. What on earth made that seem like a good idea? You could hear the whole country groan in despair. For some of us, who had pinned too much hope on those precious vials of elixir, the first words of the new year were something unprintable muffled by bedcovers pulled over our heads.

Or perhaps you were among the indefatigable few who defied curfew and stayed up past midnight to greet the new year. What did you say as the ball in Times Square, witnessed only by camera crews and inebriated celebrities, fell to the cold, dark earth? Something hopeful? Something cynical? Only a sigh?

First words.

On this Second Sunday of Christmas, we hear a first word of enormous import. Unlike the story of Jesus’ birth that we read on Christmas Eve—Luke’s ret-telling in which Joseph’s first words were “It’s a boy!”—or the Epiphany story from Matthew about the Wise Ones’ visit—a story in which Herod’s first words were a menacing “Find that boy!”—the gospel of John has no such birth story, no remarkable first words. Even Mark’s gospel—the most abrupt of the four—records first words. Not about or from a baby, but shouts from a camel-hair clad prophet on a river bank, “Repent!” It’s a start.

John’s gospel is more circumspect, more cerebral, more inscrutable than the other three. What first words do we read this morning, at the beginning of a gospel, the beginning of a new year?  

“In the beginning was (wait for it) the Word.”

The Word. Singular? Only one? What particular word? Could you be more specific?  Of which word do you speak and who said it?

The beginning of John’s gospel starts with a capital-W Word. (In English.)

In Greek, the language from which this text comes to us, that first word of John’s gospel is “Logos.” “In the beginning was Logos.”

“Logos” is the basis for our English words “logic” and “logical” and “logistics.” “Logos” is a reasoned statement, a carefully-crafted argument, a declarative sentence, a stake in the ground.

So, when the gospel of John opens with a capital W “Word!” or, in its original form, a capital Λ “Logos!” John is saying something very specific about what God is saying. And the way God chooses to say it.

In sending Jesus—the Word, the Logic of God—to live among us, to take on human form, human failure, human fears, God wasn’t messing around. Jesus wasn’t spaghetti thrown against a wall or ideas scribbled on an easel. Jesus wasn’t a prototype or a first draft. God wasn’t testing the waters or taking the world’s temperature. God was saying, “This is the way I will be seen. In this One. In this Word.”

John quickly sketches two attributes of this Word. This one is Light. This one is Life.

Later in this morning’s reading, John characterizes the Word of God as Grace. Truth.

God doesn’t mince Word.

John, the gospel writer, chose his words with great care. The specificity of John’s syntax indicates that God had a very clear definition of this Word named Jesus. Light and Life. Grace and Truth. 

This is God’s desire for us, for the world, in sending Jesus. That we would know nothing but Light, nothing but Life. That we would emanate God’s Grace, God’s Truth. Try to fit that on a Christmas card.

I know, the baby in the manger is a whole lot cuter. I know that for most of the world Christmas is about angels and carols and burbling babies. But it’s time for us to grow up, to mature in our understanding of what God is up to. It is time for us to leave the manger in the barn and step into the world.

As followers of Jesus, the Logos of God, it’s time for us to make a reasoned statement, a carefully-crafted argument, a declarative sentence, to sink our stake into the ground. To say a Word. Not many words—blah, blah, blah—but A Word. A Word that sheds Light, that speaks Life. A Word that is Grace-full and True. A Word the world has not heard in a very long time.

These last few years have been trying times for all who name themselves “Christian,” who publicly follow Jesus. Our singular message of Light and Life has been twisted into Darkness and Death. Our promise of Grace and Truth has been repurposed as Judgement and Lies. Too often, Christians are characterized as divisive and judgmental, angry and unforgiving.   

Years ago, I had a chance, unpleasant encounter with a person who knew nothing of Jesus or his disciples, but thought they did. Upon finding out I am a practicing Christian, they said, “Great. Another one of those homophobic, pro-life, poverty-shaming, anti-intellectual, electric-chair racists.”

Wow.

Is that really what the world hears from us? “Nope?”

I fear that, contrary to God’s intent, we have taken God’s Word, God’s Big Idea, and chopped it into little tiny pieces, picking and choosing the parts that agree with us, the parts that support our argument.

But that’s not who we are, we believers in Jesus. And that certainly is not who God’s Word is.

God didn’t send the Word into the world to make a political statement, to sell a t-shirt, to divide and destroy. You’ll find God’s Word-lovers in every political party, every tax bracket, every neighborhood, every profession. Because God will not be defined by our categories, used to pursue our own ends.

Division is not what God had in mind, in that beginning of which John writes.

Jesus was spoken to gather all people to God.

Jesus was spoken to brighten every dark corner.

Jesus was spoken to breathe life into a world on life-support.

Jesus was spoken to grace the world with truth greater than our own.

First words.

From a baby’s first bursts to our elders’ final mutterings.

From our shameless proclamation of God’s limitless love to our silent, praying sighs.

God came into the world with a capital Word, in a burst of light, on a stream of song. With a reasoned statement, a carefully-crafted argument, a declarative sentence, a stake in the ground.

Anger is easy. Snark may be satisfying. But those are not God’s words. Those are not God’s Word. To a world buried under words that hurt and humiliate, shame and smear, we offer a different word.

God is Light. God is Life. God is Grace. God is Truth.

My Theo’s first word might be QuackQuack. Your first word this year might have had only four letters.

Our first words in this new year? Light? Life? Grace? Truth? Difficult words. So how about this one?

How about “Love?” Blessed New Year. The world is listening.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent (20 December 2020)

JoAnn A Post

Luke 1.26-38

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” 

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

“In the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel . . .”

The sixth month? The sixth month of what? Luke, the gospel writer, is all about the details, peppering his narrative with dates and places and names, as though to verify his account, to prove his point, to footnote his research.

“In the sixth month . . .” refers not to the sixth month of the year or the sixth month of a pandemic or the sixth month of a 12-month warranty on your new IPhone. It was the sixth month of a pregnancy—ancient Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Ancient Elizabeth, Mary’s second-cousin twice-removed on her father’s side, who had conceived a child in old age. (You can read all about it in Luke’s first chapter.) Her pregnancy was such a big deal that Luke uses it to time-stamp the beginning of Mary’s own pregnancy, and more important, the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.

So, the story of Jesus’ birth among us is framed by one old womb on one side and a womb yet untouched on the other.

But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’re only at the first phrase of a much-longer, more complicated story.

“In the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel was sent (by God) to a town in Galilee, called Nazareth.”

Sorry, we need to stop again. First a time stamp, now a geo-tag.

Luke is unfolding a tattered map of the Middle East in the 1st century, opening it to the country we now call “Israel.” He hikes the hill country north from Jerusalem, hangs a left at the Sea of Galilee, and drops a pin in the village of Nazareth, a burg of fewer than 500 people. (Titonka, my home town in Iowa, is bigger than Nazareth. By about 17 people.)

So, now we know when this happens and where it happens. Let’s get on with the story.

“In the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel was sent (by God) to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph.”

Sorry. Another bookmark. So far, we’ve got an old woman’s pregnancy six months on, a town that barely appears on a map, a passing reference to a nameless teenage girl and a groom whose name is Joseph.

Time stamp. Geo tag. Name drop. But still no baby. Let’s keep going.

Oops, almost forgot another name drop, “. . . a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”

Suddenly, it’s getting interesting. This might be no ordinary bride and groom in some washed-up hill town. Joseph is descended of royalty, an heir of King David, whose dynasty lasted more than 400 years. Why would Luke bother with that genealogical detail? King David had been dead for 1,000 years by the time Joseph was born; 40 generations separated them.

But in the same way that we are fascinated with our own blood lines, our own ancestral heritage, Luke is, as well. And he wants us to know, detail-addict that he is, that a promise made to King David 1,000 years before Luke put pen to paper, is about to be made good. The promise that, through David’s lineage, God would establish an everlasting kingdom that would usher in endless peace. We are reminded of that centuries’ old promise by an old woman’s pregnancy, in a backwater village, through a virgin yet unnamed who had the good fortune to have fallen in with Joseph. All the plot lines of history are coming together now.

And, oh, by the way, Luke adds, almost as an afterthought. That virgin? Her name is Mary.

There are a million ways to study this familiar text, a million rabbit holes—literary, historical, medical, theological, artistic, musical—that we could explore. After all, we’re only three pages into an eight-page manuscript, and haven’t gotten past the first sentence of the gospel reading. There is so much more to talk about. But, for now, let’s just spend a moment on the moment that Luke affords Mary.

She has no claim to fame. She appears nowhere in the historical record but in scripture. Her father wasn’t chairman of the town council. Her mother wasn’t the favorite lunch lady. Mary didn’t win any cross country tournaments or get a high score on her SAT.

She was an ordinary girl from an ordinary family, living in an ordinary town, engaged to an ordinary guy. And yet, Luke is careful to tell us, God’s angel came to her.

Time stamp. Geo tag. Name drop. We have a miracle in the making.

Luke is a terrific story teller, foreshadowing, overshadowing, sometimes winking at the reader with a sly grin, and other times stumping us.      

But Mary, the understated centerpiece of this amazing story, is completely underwhelmed.

“Greetings, favored one,” croons the angel. You would think Mary would faint from fear, or scream for her mother, or grab her phone to record the moment for Instagram, but she stops the angel. “What? Who?”

Mary was perplexed, not by the angel, but by the greeting. Mary was favored by no one, though her parents did love her and Joseph thought she was pretty. Gabriel must have been in the wrong house.

But Gabriel barreled ahead. Dropping names like confetti: Jesus, God, David, Jacob, Most High. Something about a pregnancy and . . .

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Mary stops the angel. “I have a question.”

Of course, she did. Hundreds of them. But she asked about the one thing that we almost missed. “This isn’t possible. I’ve never been with a man. There’s no way I can be pregnant. Are you sure you’re at the right house?”

Undeterred, Gabriel went back to his script. This whole thing had seemed like a bad idea to him, but the home office insisted.

“Here’s what happens next,” Gabriel read. It was all blah, blah, blah to Mary by then—Holy Spirit, overshadow, Son of God, Elizabeth. Her head was throbbing. Gabriel could tell he was losing her, so he jumped ahead to the punchline.

“Look Mary,” Gabriel sighed, sympathetic. “I know this seems bizarre. I’m with you on that. But I’ve been working for the Almighty for a long time now, and here’s what I know. With God, nothing is impossible.”

And then Mary sighed, too. “Okay. I get it. Let’s do this thing.”

Actually, Luke remembers it this way: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary, almost more than her famous son, has always captured the world’s attention. In every century and culture, every language and locale, Mary holds our hearts.

Last weekend marked the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the largest festivals of Mary in the world. An event so large, the city of Chicago had to hide her shrine and block off the streets surrounding it to keep the crowds away.  It wouldn’t have been safe.

Ordinarily, in a non-pandemic year, millions of people around the world would have crawled on their knees or walked barefoot for miles to the nearest shrine to seek her blessing. Why? Because Mary, who appeared to a peasant in the Mexican hill country in the 16th century, is one of us. Ordinary. Unlikely. Believer in the Impossible.

And Our Lady of Guadalupe, as that Mexican manifestation is known, is not aloof and alabaster as she is mostly portrayed in this part of the world. Our Lady of Guadalupe’s skin is brown. Her eyes are kind. Her touch brings healing.

In Rwanda, Mary is black. In Sweden, she is blonde. In Korea, her beautiful black hair glitters in the candlelight. Everywhere, she is revered.

Mary has captured our attention, as she once captured God’s. Because she is so much like us. Ordinary as an old shoe. Filled with questions. Willing to believe. And those who love and revere the Virgin, by her many names and in many languages, seek to be like her.

And that’s why Luke bothers with all the detail. Luke wanted us to know, without doubt, that Mary was chosen for no other reason than that God saw her, loved her, trusted her with the impossible.

So, in an homage to Luke’s narrative, here we go:

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent (time stamp), in a village built on land once home to the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac and Fox (geo tag), an angel of the Lord noticed ____ (drop name here). And God favored that people because they believed, without reason and probably against legal counsel, that with God, all things are possible.

None of this makes any sense. There is no verifiable proof of our faith. But, then, in my humble experience, the greatest truths come with the least evidence. Have you ever tried to explain love?

That is why, as the fourth candle burns on our wreath, and our eyes burn with frightened and lonely tears, we claim Mary’s faith as our own. And we believe, though unexpected and mysterious, that with God, all things are possible.