Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 October 2017)

Matthew 21.33-46

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the people: “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’? (Psalm 118.22-23)

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”  (Isaiah 18.14-15)

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because the people regarded him as a prophet.

It could have been us.

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

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

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

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

It was. It was one of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ hearers would have recognized the similarities, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what will God do? What did God do?

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

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

 

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Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (1 October 2017)

Matthew 21.23-32

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snap.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Names changed to protect the neighbors

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (24 September 2017)

Matthew 20.1-16

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fifteen Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (17 September 2017)

Matthew 18.21-35

JoAnn A. Post

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason, the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Forgive our sins, as we forgive, you taught us Lord to say,” (ELW 605)

On Wednesday, our Jewish brothers and sisters enter the holiest of holy times for them—the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with the blowing of the Shofar, the ram’s horn, on Rosh Hashanah. The opening liturgy is tearful, mournful, anguished, exhausting.  It is a hard day for them.

Our neighborhood is dotted with synagogues, one of them only minutes’ walk from our home.  On Wednesday and again on Yom Kippur, the sidewalks will be filled with people. Families with strollers. Old people leaning on walkers. Teenagers bumping each other off the sidewalk as they walk to synagogue for the great liturgies. All of them will be dressed in black, the women in modest dress, the men’s heads covered with the Yarmulke. Even our neighbors who are only nominally Jewish will make their way to synagogue.

Why? To repent. To admit before God and one another that they have failed. This is serious business. The opening prayer announces the gravity of these days: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die.”

How is that judgment made, that separating of those who will live from those who will die? It is a simple equation. Those who live are those who forgive. And those who die? You can finish that sentence.

Forgive our sins as we forgive, you taught us Lord to pray.”

How fitting that, as our neighbors and friends prepare for this holy season, we are forced to examine our own hearts, our own willingness to forgive. Or not.

Jesus has been pushing us toward this question for some time now in Matthew. Two times before Jesus has spoken of the “binding and loosing of sins,” first in private conversation with Peter, and later with the gathered disciples. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  (Matthew 16.19, 18.18) In other words, the decisions we make about freeing a sinner from their sins, or looping them as a noose around their neck, have eternal consequences.

Today, in Matthew’s gospel, the weight of Jesus’ words reaches its apex. There will be no blowing of the Shofar, no parades of black-clad mourners streaming through our doors.  Instead, Jesus introduces us to a King who is both demanding and generous.  And we meet a little boy who will look to us to answer the questions of who will live and who will die.

First, the King. The parable of the Forgiving King sounds like a bedtime story. Even though a servant had racked up enormous debt—maxing out his credit cards and pawning his wife’s wedding ring—the king could not bear to ruin his life by demanding payment of all those debts. Instead, the king cancelled the whole debt. American Express? Paid. Wedding ring? Reclaimed. Tesla? Returned to the dealer. The missing silver? All forgiven.

In a story book world, Jesus would close the book and tuck us into our beds. “Good night, my sleepy little disciple. Know that I will always forgive you from my heart.”

Ah, but there is another chapter. The chapter about the servant who didn’t recognize the gift he had been given. The chapter about the servant who destroyed another man’s life. The chapter as startling as Pennywise the Dancing Clown peering out of the storm grate. Or imagine Jesus as the Wicked Witch of the West, wringing her bony green hands, “So, my little pretty, your heavenly Father will also do this to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Forgive our sins as we forgive? If the measure of God’s forgiveness equals the measure of our forgiveness for one another, it’s not a happy ending.

This morning we bring little Zachary to the font to be baptized. Zachary is a busy little boy; now that he has learned to walk, nothing is safe. And Zachary watches everything. With wide eyes, he quietly takes in his world, absorbing lessons we teach not with our words, but with our actions.

I have no doubt that, in his home his parents’ lessons—in words and actions—are consistent. They are patient and kind, laughter comes easily and their love for one another is apparent. Do they forgive one another? Everything I have seen says, “Yes, every day.”

But Zachary cannot remain cocooned in the safety of their home. Zachary will also move among us, hearing our words, watching our actions, assessing our unspoken but obvious biases. What will he learn from us?

In Jesus’ parable, the king, naively, imagined that his servant would be watching, would realize the gift he had been given and imitate his master.  But the servant was hard-hearted. Apparently, he had not been to synagogue in some time. Rather than imitate his master’s generosity, he tossed it aside, trampling it under his own greed.

Though the words may seem harsh—both those prayed in synagogue on Wednesday and Jesus’ own words today—they are meant as a gift.

We don’t need to imagine what the life of faith looks like. We don’t have to make it up as we go along. We don’t have to wonder what God wants. All we have to do is watch.  We watch the ways of God with us. What do our Jewish brothers and sisters see? What does Zachary see? What do we see?

We see that God forgives us every time. God loves us before we ask. In our own liturgy of repentance on Ash Wednesday, we say, “God never tires of showing mercy.”

Today we meet a king who wants to forgive, but who can be stymied by a hard heart. Today we meet a little boy who wants to know God—through us. Today we wait to hear the ram’s horn, calling the faithful to repentance.

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (10 September 2017)

God’s Work Our Hands Sunday

Matthew 18.15-20

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the disciples: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

She was sleeping at our front door here yesterday morning, a tiny, disheveled woman, embarrassed to be found asleep in broad daylight. She struggled to her feet, clutching her winter coat and scarf a little tighter, three scuffed canvas bags jumbled at her feet. “Good morning, Ma’am,” she murmured quietly.  “Good morning,” I said.  “Can I help you?”

I always hesitate before announcing that I’m the pastor here. It’s not that I’m ashamed, but sometimes when people discover who I am, the conversation changes. And yesterday, it would have been easy to pass. It’s always easy to pass. Nobody ever expects that I’m the pastor—being a girl throws them off the scent. But for her I revealed my true identity. I figured she needed a pastor more than she needed Clark Kent.

It was immediately apparent, that in many ways she and I couldn’t have been more different. It’s as though there were a chasm between us, an un-crossable divide economic, educational, racial and social. What could I do to bridge that gap? She said she was hungry and needed to get to the city. I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I made arrangements for her to receive food and bus fare. And then we prayed. My large white hands enveloping her small black ones. And then she was on her way.

How she ended up at our door I will never know. We are mostly insulated from need like hers here in this lovely zip code. But, she and I found ourselves on common ground, framed in a church doorway on a sunny Saturday morning, united by faith in God who hears all our prayers. But in spite of that moment of “sameness” before God, there will always be a chasm between her and me.

A chasm. An uncrossable divide. Did such fissures open in the ground in Mexico when an earthquake rumbled up through the earth’s crust? Are such gaping wounds opening in Florida, as wind and rain rip trees from their roots and houses from their foundations? How will the Dreamers fare, the young immigrants who thought they were safe among us, but who suddenly find themselves on unstable political ground? It seems there is no place on earth—or in our hearts—that is safe from seismic shift.

Today Jesus speaks of another abyss, another widening chasm. Though we don’t immediately recognize it as such.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

I love this. Jesus gives me permission to point out others’ sins with impunity, naming their faults with ungodly glee.  To point out another’s mistakes. Who wouldn’t relish that?

But the fault of which Jesus speaks is not an error, a mistake; it’s not the angrily thrown accusation, “It’s all your fault!”

No, the fault Jesus wants us to recognize is a literal fault, a chasm, a barrier, a divide. In my amateur translation of the Greek, Jesus said, “Point out the thing that has come between you.”

Jesus would have us lay no blame for the divide, but to recognize that it exists. And then he urges that the chasm—regardless of who or what opened it—be closed, the barrier be bridged, the torn seam stitched back together.

To be divided one from another is exactly the opposite of what Jesus desires for his church. His true desire? That we would “regain” that one who would otherwise slip from us, tumbling down a crevasse we choose to ignore.

Almost 40 years ago when I was thinking about being a pastor, I asked my high school Sunday School teacher to write a reference for my seminary admission file. He had always been a friend to me and to my family, so I trusted him to write a kind, honest assessment. I did not realize that my request would open an irreparable rift.

He sought me out me on a hot summer day, as my sisters and I hoed weeds out of our father’s bean field. He parked his pick-up truck at the end of the row and waited. I couldn’t imagine why. When we approached him, he called out, “JoAnn, could I talk to you?”

He had a speech prepared. He said, “You cannot do this. You cannot go to seminary. You cannot be a pastor. Scripture clearly states that what you intend to do is a sin. Women cannot be pastors.

“I speak to you out of love, as a brother in the faith, out of concern for your soul. If you insist on doing this, I will write the letter, but tell them what I really think. If you insist on doing this, I cannot speak to you again.”

This deeply faithful disciple, so instrumental in my growth in faith, was compelled to speak, to name what he perceived to be my sin, to protect my eternal soul, “to point out the fault when we were alone.” He was doing what Jesus told him to do. He thought.

But instead of changing my mind or saving my soul, he opened a chasm between us. We never spoke again.

It would be easy to get tangled in the underbrush of this text, debating who gets to name sin, what a “sin” might be, how far we can go in reproving an erring brother or sister. Is it a sin to be an ordained woman? Is it a sin to be a divorced man? Is it a sin to be a transgender person? Is it a sin to be rich?

But Jesus is less interested in my personal opinion about your life choices then he is about the distance between us, the misunderstandings or hurt feelings or harsh words that divide us one from another.

Imagine that the next time you are at odds with someone, you pointed out the “fault” not by saying, “You are a miserable jerk and I wish you’d never been born!” you said, “I am sad for the fault between us, the distance that has grown. How might we close the gap?”

Or as Jesus would say, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the chasm when the two of you are alone.”

We all teeter on the edge of the precipice.  Divisions created by hurt feelings or harsh words or unmet expectations or brittle disagreement. It happens to us all. Husbands and wives. Parents and children. Friends and neighbors. Pastors and congregations. We are all at fault for the fault.

Earthquakes produce fissures. Hurricanes create gullies. Fires burn scorched earth. Our political decisions establish deserts. And us? When we leave faults, Jesus demands that we close them.

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (3 September 2017)

Matthew 16.21-28

JoAnn A. Post

From that time on, after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

 

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

Standing in the lobby of the Crown Plaza Hotel yesterday morning, I was talking with the desk clerk about the relative merits of cab vs. über to get me to Logan for my flight home to O’Hare.  We had been in Boston moving our younger daughter into a new apartment, and I was flying home—leaving my husband to do the 16-hour drive by himself. (Yes, I know, I owe him big. But I had to work today.) I did not know the desk clerk and I were being observed.

As I turned from the counter, an elderly woman who could have been a Bernie Sanders impersonator approached me and wondered, “Did I hear you say you’re going to the airport?” I could hardly lie since she’d heard the whole conversation, so I affirmed that I was.  “How are you getting there?” Again, I had no option. When I told her I was about to call for an über, she said, “Oh, can I go with you? I’ve never been in an über!”

She didn’t look like the other patrons in the hotel lobby, who were mostly middle-aged prepsters in Boston for the weekend, men wearing loafers with no socks, women with Jackie O sunglasses propped on their heads. Or the towering team of college volleyball players, each of them a foot taller than me. She didn’t look like them. Or me.

Was she a hotel guest or just a curious person from off the street? Who can know? And what was I to say?

I thought briefly about ditching her like a bad date, but my Iowa Nice kicked in and I said, “Sure.” What a good decision that was.

Ella is a long-retired international studies college professor, who lives half the year in Vermont and the other half in a tiny town on the Oregon coast. She’s a world traveler, a patron of her local arts council, mother of one and grandmother of four whose pictures I admired on her up-to-the minute Android phone. Her age? 80? 90? 25?

As we neared the airport she patted my knee and said, “What a pleasure this has been. I always meet the nicest people when I travel.” And she hopped out to catch her flight to Florida for a cruise with her college roommate. I hope they have a wonderful time in the Caymans.

Need I tell you she surprised me?

When last we saw Peter, he surprised us. Peter is best known for his ignorance of the laws of physics (“Command me to come to you on the water!”), his ill-conceived architectural plans (“I will make three dwellings here—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah!”), his love of loopholes (“If someone in the church sins against me, do I have to forgive every time?”), and his episodic amnesia (“Jesus? Never heard of him.”).

But last week, when Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter nailed it. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  Jesus was as startled as we.

But it turns out we were right about Peter all along, and that Jesus is a terrible judge of character. In today’s Gospel reading, a mere six verses after Peter’s astonishing observation, he returned to form.

Jesus’ time was running out; he could wait no longer to tell the disciples who he really was and what lay ahead—suffering, death, resurrection. So, he told them (almost) everything. But Peter wouldn’t hear it. “No, Lord, it can’t happen to you!”

I knew it. I knew it all along. Peter had no idea who Jesus was; he was as clueless about Jesus as Jesus, obviously, was about him. Clearly, Peter’s confession had been a shot in the dark. Jesus, whether angry or disappointed or surprised we can’t know, turned on him, “You idiot! Tied to the world’s ways and not mine.”

Ouch.

What would it mean to follow Jesus now that the Crucifixion Cat was out of the bag? Self-denial. Loss. Poverty. Death.

Peter wanted none of it. Not for Jesus or for himself. Some rock.

Years ago, I served as associate pastor of a fancy-schmancy church full of power-brokers and quick critics. They loved me. Mostly. When an event I planned fell short of expectations, I was skewered. The senior pastor comforted me: “You can do 100 things right, but do one thing wrong and some will never forget it.”

He was right. That is, in fact, a “human thing,” to quote Jesus. To judge ourselves and each other by our last performance, our worst moment, our weakest hour. To hold others to standards of perfection we would never tolerate for ourselves.

What would the “divine thing” be? The divine thing would be to emulate Jesus and his ill-placed regard for Peter. In spite of evidence to the contrary, Jesus’ minority report about Peter proved apt. How else to explain the fact that the church which Jesus built on Peter’s back is still thriving in every corner of the globe? There was something there in Peter, something we cannot see.

But we are not Jesus. We don’t have Superman’s x-ray vision. Some of us are even less admirable than Peter, brash bloviater that he was. Good grief, I was ready to turn my back on a stranger that I didn’t deem worthy of an über ride.

While it would be an admirable life goal to imagine the best of others, to get to know a person before making judgment, to forgive as readily as we expect to be forgiven, I don’t think that’s the take-away from this Gospel reading.

What can we walk away with? Sometimes we cannot see our own value, our own worth, let alone the value of another. To us, Peter is inconsistent, inarticulate, impulsive. To Jesus he was a bold, belligerent builder. Jesus hung in there with Peter, continually testing and training, sculpting and shaping him until Peter became the rock Jesus needed him to be.

In Jesus’ eyes we are infinitely more than we can see.

If you are like me, I have a keen memory for my own sin, my own stupidity, my own selfishness. That I stand before you as a pastor of the church is sometimes still surprising, even to me. Perhaps you rest more easily in Jesus’ love and kindness to you, but I do not. I’m always waiting for him to look at me and say, “Nope.”

But no matter how often we fail or falter, even if we turn tail run, it cannot deter Jesus from making more of us, making something of us, using our meager gifts for his purposes.

Last night I talked to my husband before bed, telling him about Über Ella, and my delight in being proven wrong. He laughed and said, “You don’t know that any of that is true. She might tell the next person she designed the Apollo 11 moon lander. She could be anybody.”

I hadn’t thought about that. What if he’s right? What if she’s nothing more than a wily wild-haired con artist who hangs around hotel lobbies, asking strangers for outrageous favors?  For all I know I’ll show up on an episode of her reality TV show “Gullible’s Travels.”

And if my husband is right? What if I got snookered? It doesn’t matter.

What I think about Ella—or you—doesn’t matter a whit.  Jesus looked at Peter and saw a rock. Jesus looks at us and sees disciples.

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (27 August 2017)

Matthew 16.13-20

JoAnn A. Post

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

They use words like “devastate,” “decimate,” and “complete destruction.” Residents are “frantic” and “frightened.” These words describe Hurricane Harvey, but they were also used of a storm almost 60 years ago—a storm that nearly destroyed both a city and a career.

My friend was a young pastor then, newly ordained, called to a bursting-at-the-seams mission congregation outside Los Angeles. As is true of most new pastors, he had far too many principles.  He knew the right way to do just about everything.

It was wildfire season in southern California, and though the fires had not reached that particular suburb, they were not far away.  He had been urged to cancel church that Sunday, even though it was his first Sunday, but he knew that a real pastor never cancels church.  Worship attendance was lighter than expected—many of the congregation’s members were hosing down their roofs, packing cars to evacuate. But he stepped into the pulpit armed with this Gospel reading, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

And, though he could admit it at the moment, he imagined himself on that rock right beside Peter. He would be Dan, the rock on which that particular congregation would be built.

His preaching was inspired, powerful—for about two minutes. Until he and everyone else noticed the glow of red through the sanctuary windows, the faint crackling in the distance, the sudden rise of temperature. Their suburb was on fire, looking a whole lot like the Gates of Hell of which Jesus spoke.

He gaped at them, had absolutely no idea what to do.  Except run. And resign. On his very first day he had failed them. Preaching about Peter when he should have been fighting the flames. That moment still makes him wince.

I thought about my old pastor friend as Hurricane Harvey continues to rain down on Texas. Do you suppose some young pastor is holding forth in Corpus Christi this morning? Is there a church open anywhere on the Texas Gulf Coast today?  And, if anyone were foolish enough to do so, what might they say about Peter the Rock and the Gates of Hell and the Keys of the Kingdom as the waters rise and the winds blow and their world ends? 

Jesus knew, on that sunny day outside Caesarea Philippi that a storm was building around him. But his disciples couldn’t see it. All they saw was success—thousands of empty stomachs filled, scores of demons dispatched, hospitals emptied by Jesus’ healing, crowds so large Soldier Field could not contain them.  But Jesus felt the heat rising, the wind building, the rains gathering on the horizon.  Tom Skilling (WGN weather anchor) couldn’t have made a more accurate prognostication of the trouble to come.

Jesus knew the day would come when he would not be able to either lead or protect his followers.  When winds would blow that even he could not stop. Before the storm engulfed them, he had to prepare them.

Peter seems an unlikely choice as the foundation, the rock of Jesus’ emerging church. Opinionated. Judgmental. Prideful. Something of a storm himself. Surely Jesus could have chosen a more level-headed, organizationally-minded leader. Someone who appealed to youth and young families. But Jesus knew that Peter’s fierce, sometimes foolish, nature would be essential against the fierce storms waiting for them.

And Jesus’ gift to this first church planter, this papal precursor, this religious rock, this steady head in a violent storm?

A key.  Not Alicia Keys. Not Francis Scott Key. Not Keegan-Michael Key. Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. And with those keys, Peter and his descendants would be able to open any lock—even the lock to the Gates of Hell.  But, with those keys, he could also shut any door. Forever.

Martin Luther, stormy theologian that he was, writes,

The Office of the Keys is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent. (“Confession,” The Small Catechism)

In the face of storms that threatened to destroy Jesus’ fledging movement, this was the thing Jesus was most worried about? Forgiveness?

What about “batten down the hatches!” or “steer into the storm!” or “run for your lives!” But in his wisdom, Jesus gave Peter and all who followed him the thing they would need most—the keys to the kingdom, the power to forgive or to withhold it. That power would be his, and ours, and would be enough to weather any storm.

Even as we speak, the winds of change blow around our church. The American church some of us knew in childhood will soon be only a memory. But in the Global South the church is growing faster than we can imagine. They cannot keep up. What to do?

The simple answer would be to replicate the reason the American church grew in the first place. The bustling, thriving churches most of us grew up in were composed of immigrants of many languages who had lots of babies.  Want to secure Ascension for the future?  Have more babies! And learn Mandarin.  It worked for our grandparents.

But perhaps, rather than worrying about self-preservation, which so much of the American church is doing, we could return to the scene of the crime—the day Jesus established his church and gave it a set of keys.

Jesus’ concern on that day was not for institutional preservation. There was no institution to preserve. His concern was that, as his suffering and death drew ever closer, and that his disciples would most likely turn on one another when it did, they needed something both to hold them together and drive their ministry forward

Forgiveness.  That was the key. Forgiveness.

If the Jesus Movement were to survive beyond the 1st century, the disciples would have to first forgive one another. Then they would have to forgive the people and structures that sent Jesus to the cross. They would have to decide that the most important thing Jesus’ church could do was welcome sinners, flinging wide the doors that might keep would-be disciples from learning the love of God which steadies us in all our storms. Our first, last and primary task as the church of Jesus Christ is to forgive.

My California friend did not resign his call, nor did the congregation burn him at the stake—though they certainly had ample kindling available. After the wind subsided and the flames died down and the neighborhood was rebuilt, he confessed his hubris to the congregation council, offering to step down if his failure in the face of the flames had been too much to forget.

But they did not accept his resignation. Instead they forgave him, not for his behavior, which was understandable, or for his youth, which he could not help. They forgave him his fear. His fear of them, the church of Jesus Christ in that place. There is no perfect pastor, no perfect congregation; storms come to us all. Though never a great preacher, he was, forever after, a forgiven one.

If you’ve ever been caught in the middle of a hurricane, you know the fear that accompanies it. You know that, at the height of the storm, no structure is safe.   It is true of our homes. It is true of our church. So what do we cling to when the winds blow and the rains fall and everything we love is threatened? We reach for the keys, the keys that lead to forgiveness for every failure, for every fear, for every faithless moment. We reach for the keys of the kingdom.

 

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Affirmation of Baptism for Isabel DeWitt Schneider

20 August 2017

Matthew 15.21-28

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”7She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

“I really enjoy living here on the North Shore. The schools are wonderful. My neighborhood is quiet.  I know that it is a privilege to live here; I know that we have more here than most. And I’m grateful.

“I am generous with tips for both my cleaning lady and the young man who cares for my lawn. His name is Jamal or Camal or Hallal, or something like that.

“When my daughter came home with a C in Algebra I knew that I could call the principal and get it taken care of right away.

“I saw a family I wasn’t sure about looking at the house next door that’s for sale, but then I never saw them again. I have the realtor’s cell phone number—we go to the same nail salon.

“Of course, it’s not always easy living here. The taxes just keep going up, but I have my attorney working on an appeal. I have to find a new dog groomer—the last one complained that my dear little Mooch had an attitude. Imagine.

“Yes, I like it here on the North Shore—the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee.”

We have typically read this story as though the woman were a desperate beggar, crawling to Jesus on hands and knees for her daughter’s sake. But the region in which Jesus travelled was exclusive and expensive. She was quite possibly a woman of means.  Look at the clues. The way she approached him—shouting and expecting immediate action—tells us that she viewed Jesus as a service provider, like her cleaning lady or landscaper. When he refused her, her debate-worthy rebuttal indicates that she was well-educated and articulate, used to standing her ground.

But as a mother of daughters myself—a mother on the North Shore of Lake Michigan—I imagine fear for her daughter made her a little bit louder and little bit worse than she might ordinarily have been. We need to give her little room. She was not her best self that day.

I have a friend who used to work for the Navy, now a Lutheran pastor, whose policy in dealing with demanding and unreasonable sailors or demanding and unreasonable parishioners is “Don’t negotiate with terrorists.” Jesus’ response to this demanding, unreasonable North Shore Mom? He didn’t negotiate. He was silent. She hadn’t expected silence.

Events in Charlottesville last weekend and the subsequent rationalizing and obfuscating have been jaw-dropping. And after a loud week of opinions and accusations, and after a bloody terrorist attack in Barcelona, we are now being advised to keep silent. For a little while. On purpose. For two reasons.

First, we who are white and privileged are asked to stop talking and listen to our Jewish and black brothers and sisters about their real experience in our country. Second, we are advised to keep silent to starve the self-styled militia and neo-Nazis of attention, the way you deny oxygen to a fire.

Is that why Jesus was silent in the face of the Canaanite woman’s demands? He wanted to listen to her experience? Hardly. He was silent because he hoped she would just go away.

Whether out of desperation for her daughter or irritation at being ignored, she refused to be silent. But she stopped shouting. She recognized that she was powerless over whatever it was that tormented her daughter. She realized that nothing she had—wealth, status, education—could save her daughter.

“Lord, help me,” she said. And he did. But not without some urging.

They both behaved badly. She imagined him a servant who would do her bidding. And Jesus imagined her to be the caricature of the rich 1%. Each was wrong. Each was changed.

You know who else lives on the North Shore?  Our sister Izzy. Every day of her young life she wades in the deep waters of our competitive culture—deep waters in which everything from soccer to social life can be demanding and demeaning. It would be easy to give in to the demands and expectations, to adopt an entitled attitude, to expect to be served.

But Izzy will not do that; she will renounce that. She is a baptized child of God; she swims in other waters.

Today, like the Canaanite woman, Izzy seeks a miracle.

Today, like the Canaanite woman, Izzy kneels for a blessing.

Today, like the Canaanite woman, Izzy receives a gift.

Not North Shore gifts of wealth or popularity, nor the gift of physical healing that the Canaanite woman’s daughter received. Today we ask for and Izzy receives the things that God wants to give her.

Here’s what we will ask:

  • Confirm her faith, that is, remind her of what she believes.
  • Guide her life, that is, put her feet on the right road.
  • Empower her in her serving: note “serving” rather than “being served.”
  • Give her patience in suffering, because we know suffering comes to us all.
  • Bring her to everlasting life, because every one of our lives will end.

Does that sound like an entitled life? Like a selfish life?  No, it sounds like a faithful life—the baptized life we share with her, regardless of where we live or what we own or who we are.

There will be times to break our silence, to make demands, to shout, to expect.  But not for ourselves. We shout and demand and expect for others, others too long denied the gifts we receive every day.

But today is a time for simple words and long silences.

The Canaanite woman begs, “Help me.”

We pray for Izzy, “Guide her.”

Izzy affirms, “Here I am.”

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (13 August 2017)

JoAnn A. Post

 

1 Kings 9.9-18

At Horeb, the mount of God, Elijah came to a cave, and spent the night there. 

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”                                       

Matthew 14.22-23

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”    

 

They were broken men, Elijah and Peter.

Near the end of an illustrious career, Elijah curled fetal in a cave, his prophet’s mantle clutched to his chest like a child’s blankie, frozen in fear of Jezebel, the murderous queen. (1 Kings 19.9-18) Nothing he had done or said, nothing God had done or said meant anything to him anymore. He was a weak and ruined man with a price on his head. Hiding in a cave like a wounded animal.

True to form, the disciple Peter humiliated himself yet again. (Matthew 14.22-23) I would say he put a foot in his mouth, but he was dog paddling too hard to free a foot for chewing on. He always spoke before he thought, leapt before he looked. “Jesus, dare me to come to you and I will!” What did he think was going to happen when he stepped out of the boat into stormy seas? Knowing his penchant for unwarranted boasting and unmitigated self-admiration, the other disciples secretly wished he would just drown already, that Jesus would accidentally let loose of Peter’s hand.

Surely, there were better moments in each of their lives. Elijah is revered as one of the two great prophets in history. Peter became the rock on which Jesus built his church. But thanks to today’s unflattering accounts, we also remember them as broken men. Elijah hiding in a cave. Peter drowning in his own pride. Their humiliation is endless.

What drove Elijah into hiding, Peter into drowning? Fear.

In June, Northern California native Alex Honnold became the first person ever to “free solo” Yosemite National Park’s 3,000-foot tall El Capitan—climbing with neither rope nor net.* Fans of the sport went nuts—it was every rock climber’s wildest dream. Ordinary people like me, who regard any height beyond a step stool as suspect, shook their heads—it was a foolish, pointless, potentially lethal stunt.  But he did it. Why? How?

Other climbers report no interest in repeating his stunt for two reasons: the impossibility of the climb, and paralyzing fear.

But Mr. Honnold was stopped by neither of those realities. He credits his humanly-impossible feat with two equally compelling reasons: 1. he’s been training for this challenge for more than twenty years, and 2. that he simply refuses to be afraid.  In an interview he said, “Obviously, I know I’m in danger, but feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way. It’s only hindering my performance, so I just set [the fear] aside and leave it be.”*

There is something wrong with him. Friends, don’t try this at home.

His calm explanation may be inspiring, but it is not natural. At least, that’s what a team of neuroscientists thinks. So they’re studying his brain. What have they found? There is, in fact, something wrong him. Mr. Honnold’s amygdala, the so-called fear center of the brain, is almost completely lifeless—it responds to no stimuli on an MRI. He doesn’t feel fear because he doesn’t recognize danger.**

How does his mother sleep at night?

Meanwhile, the rabbits I encounter on my early morning dog walks freeze in place when we stroll by—the neighborhood peppered with little brown bunny statues, paralyzed by the presence of my sleepy, pooping pooch.

Fear is a powerful thing. It makes us weak. It makes us foolish. It makes us bold. It turns us into rabbits.

It would be reasonable to believe that there is something wrong with Jesus’ brain, that his amygdala doesn’t light up on an MRI. How else would we explain his naive instruction, “Do not be afraid?”  The wind was howling, the waves were pounding, the disciples were exhausted from rowing into the wind all night long. Everything in this frame screams Danger! Danger!

“Do not be afraid?”

In fact, he is a reliable witness. Jesus knows something we don’t know.

This morning we lay hands of blessing on three of our children, now grown to adults, who are college-bound. I’ve stood both in their sporty shoes and their parents practical ones; I have an inkling of the fears they face.

Student fears: Will I find friends? Can I do the work? Will my parents ever stop texting me?

And their parents’ fears: Who will look out for them? What do I do with this hole in my heart? How will I pay for this?

It is tempting to say to them, “Do not be afraid. It will all be okay.”

But, even if that is true (and it might be), those assurances ring hollow today—as the winds of change howl through their homes and hearts, as one rows wildly toward the future and the other longs to drop anchor.

We have no authority to make that claim, because we are frightened, too. Rowing for our lives against head winds stronger than we.

But Jesus can make that claim. Not because his brain malfunctions, or because there is nothing to fear. There is. There is plenty to trouble our sleep.

But Jesus is master of every storm, calmer of every wind, savior of every drowning soul.  God didn’t leave Elijah huddling in the cave, even though Jezebel was still out there plotting his capture.  Jesus didn’t let Peter sink, even though the wind and waves were, in fact, brutal. Jesus won’t abandon Cam and Kayla and Wynton—or their parents—to their fears or their failings.

When danger lurks, when winds blow, when the future is uncertain, Jesus doesn’t ask us to ignore the circumstances, to pretend everything is okay. He commands us to shun fear, to put it aside—not as cavalier, cocksure climbers, but as disciples confident that no storm can separate us from his sturdy side.

Like both Elijah and Peter, we are broken women and men, burdened by the past and afraid of the future. Neither our accomplishments nor our hubris can save us. But Jesus walks toward us through the storm, pulls us to our feet as we are about to drown, saying to the wind, “Be still!” And to us: “Keep rowing.”

 

*Climber Completes the Most Dangerous Rope-Free Ascent Ever

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/features/athletes/alex-honnold/most-dangerous-free-solo-climb-yosemite-national-park-el-capitan/

 

**The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber

http://nautil.us/issue/39/sport/the-strange-brain-of-the-worlds-greatest-solo-climber

 

 

Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (6 August 2017)

Matthew 14.13-21

JoAnn A. Post

Now when Jesus heard about the beheading of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

They say a criminal always returns to the scene of the crime. Whether it’s because the perpetrator just happens to live in the neighborhood or because she delights in the chaos of the investigation, sometimes we just can’t look away from the train we just wrecked. But it’s a bad idea.

Most of us who commit crimes (or simply do something remarkably stupid) run as far from the scene as possible. We delete our new nemesis on Facebook. We shop at a different grocery store. We pretend not to see them idling next to us on the expressway. It is, sometimes, for the best.

Why would you go back to the person who pesters you, the territory that tempts you, the habit that harms you? Apparently, Jesus didn’t get that memo.

If you remember the way the gospel of Matthew begins, you’ll recall that immediately after being baptized, Jesus was flung into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

He was plunked down in what Matthew called, in Greek, the erēmos.  It’s the same word for the “deserted place” in today’s gospel. Matthew uses that word eight times; it is used 50 times in the whole New Testament. And not one of those references to erēmos is appealing. Wild animals live there. Satan prowls there. Blazing sun and blistering cold alternate their torture there. The wilderness is empty, wild, unpredictable.

After 40 days and nights of being tempted there by Satan, you would think the last place Jesus would want to retreat would be to the wilderness, a desolated place. But that’s exactly what he did. Today he returns to the scene of the spiritual crime that occurred in the erēmos near Nazareth where his parents lived. Was he nuts?

Matthew writes that, following news of the brutal death of John the Baptizer (MT 14.1-12), Jesus needed to get away. He had options. He could have knocked on his parents’ door—they didn’t live far away. He could have rented a room at the local Hassidic Holiday Inn.  Instead he went to the most dangerous place he could think of. Erēmos. The archetypal home of danger, distress and death.

Perhaps he fled there thinking, foolishly, that no one would dare come after him in that desolated place. But he was wrong.

Even there, in that no-person’s land where no one would willingly go, the crowds found him. Some 1st century leaker discovered Jesus’ location and the tweet went viral. Thousands of people ran, limped, crawled, were carried to that desolated placed, a place so isolated Jesus had had to access it by boat. They didn’t care that he was grieving. They didn’t care that he was exhausted. They didn’t care that he had gone there expressly to avoid them.

They were in desperate need of comfort and of cure, of forgiveness and food. Because, for them, the wilderness was not a spot on the map. Their very lives were erēmos, empty, ugly, isolated, desperate. That Jesus was grieving the death of a friend and colleague only made him and his location more appealing. If anyone would understand the emptiness of their lives, it would be a grieving Jesus.

The rest of the story, though miraculous, is familiar. Jesus saw the crowds approaching from far away. And rather than blowing up at them, “Can’t a guy catch a break?” he had compassion on them. He abandoned his desolate corner, rowed back across the lake and spent the day curing them. Touching their wounds and making them whole.

The story could have ended there. But it didn’t. Though Jesus had cured all their diseases, they had one more need. A practical need. They were hungry. So in spite of his disciple’s skepticism, Jesus fed them all, sending his also-famished disciples through the crowds breaking bread, splitting fish. How the miracle actually occurred we will never know. But as the sun set, 5,000 men and their families lay sated and sleepy on the grassy hillside, while the disciples picked up the scraps.

At the opening of that long day, Jesus, his disciples, and the crowds didn’t know each other, but they knew erēmos, they knew desolation, sorrow and sickness. And at its end, that once desolated place was full. Of hope. Of healing. Of once tortured souls filled with courage to go on at least another day. Jesus had returned to the desolated place to be alone, and instead found it filled with others just like him.

I was listening to NPR in my car on Thursday afternoon, driving from one appointment to the next, when a story with an arresting intro stuck me:  “Two summers ago, we met a woman who went by the name Teacup.”* Even after I reached my destination, I waited in the car to hear the end of the story. It’s not every day you meet a woman named Teacup.

Teacup is a Baltimore woman who for decades had been addicted to opioids. If she could inject it, smoke it, snort it or eat it, she took it. Two years ago she had a near fatal encounter with Fentanyl, the wildly dangerous and addictive drug driving so much of the opioid crisis in our country. After years of failed attempts at recovery and two doses of life-saving naloxone, she’s been clean for almost a year.

Most often counselors advise those recovering from addiction to get as far away from the people and places that fed the addiction as possible. To flee the scene of the crime. But sometimes, in some circumstances, if the stakes are high enough, a recovering addict may choose to stay right there, to plant her feet in the middle of that desolated place, that wilderness, that erēmos where death is only a needle stick away.

Teacup is living in her old neighborhood, but not by choice. She doesn’t have the resources to leave. But she’s decided that she is called to be there. To offer clean needles. To administer the antidote. To call the ambulance. To stand waist-deep in death and desolation and despair, a wounded witness to the possibility of life.

I wonder if Jesus were to pay a visit to our time, he wouldn’t start in Baltimore, that he might look a lot like Teacup.

If you ever imagine that you are alone in your wilderness, in sorrow, in anger, in fear, in your hunger for nourishment of body and soul, I ask you to lift your eyes as Jesus did—lift your eyes from the darkness of that desolate place to see others, to see us grieving, longing, begging right beside you.

No one wants to live there, to be there. No one wants to return again and again to that place of pain. But Jesus can break more than bread.  He can break into our desolation, too, turning the scene of the crime into a haven of healing.

 

*”’That Fentanyl — That’s Death’: A Story of Recovery in Baltimore,”

heard on All Things Considered, NPR, August 3, 2017, 3:23 PM CT