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

 

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (30 July 2017)

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

Dangerous words hung in the air. Treason. Collusion. Conspiracy.

Powerful people met in secret corners, under cover of darkness, scheming late into the night. “Are you with me? Can I trust you?”

A confrontation was inevitable, a great collision of forces. The people were frightened, but the schemers, the planners, the powerful were drunk with excitement.

The scene was not Washington DC in the 21st century, but Jerusalem in the 1st. And for those who imagine that politics has no place in the church, may I introduce you to Jesus? To us, he is friend of sinners, hope for the hopeless, shepherd of lost sheep. But to the ruling powers in Jerusalem—both political and religious—he was a traitor, a rabble rouser, a threat.

His claim to be the Son of God, his demonstrated power over all the powers of the world marked him a dangerous man. Politicians and priests alike feared and loathed him.

But they got even. Remember the slur under which he was crucified? “Jesus, King of the Jews.” (MT 27.37) That hastily scrawled nameplate was neither compliment nor confession. It was mockery, the sarcasm of it dripping down his brow like sweaty blood.

With Jesus’ death, order was restored, the lines of authority were reestablished, the true rulers were reseated on their thrones. In matters of the world, the people again bowed to Pilate. In matters of religion they owed allegiance only to Caiaphas. Jesus? That faux king? Crisis averted. Briefly.

When midway through his ministry Jesus spoke to his disciples of the “kingdom of heaven,” he was not promising a sweet someday, aloe for their anxious hearts. He spoke instead of a real kingdom, a real ruler. He warned of cataclysmic conflict, of the great clash between the powers of the world and the powers of God.

Remember Paul’s words to the church at Rome, his assessment of the world’s powers? Hardship. Distress. Persecution. Famine. Nakedness. Peril. Sword. Death. (RM 8.35)

But Jesus’ powers? The powers of the Kingdom of Heaven?

With images he hoped his disciples could understand, he drew clear lines between the kingdom of the world that oppressed them and the kingdom of heaven toward which they called.

What is that Kingdom like? There is no easy adjective, no obvious example; Jesus can only say what it is like. In the Kingdom of Heaven . . .

God is a gardener planting seeds. The kingdom is quietly growing.

God is a baker kneading dough. The kingdom is steadily rising.

God is a scavenger digging holes. The kingdom is being revealed.

God is a merchant shopping oysters. The kingdom is cracking open.

God is a fisher throwing nets. The kingdom is wriggling free.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like all of that.  Growing, rising, revealing, cracking, freeing. And it scared the togas off the rulers of Jesus’ world. Because they knew it was true; they had seen what he could do. And that he could not be stopped. There was no king, in heaven or on earth, like him.

Might I add another example to Jesus’ list?

The Kingdom of Heaven is like young parents entrusting their only child to the mercy of God. The Kingdom of Heaven? It looks like Justin and Natalie. It looks like Jakob. It looks like baptism.

There are some for whom baptism is an empty ritual, something we do either to please our parents or because there’s a space in the baby book for “baptism picture.”

But we know, Jakob’s parents know the truth that Jakob will quickly, sadly learn. No matter how much his parents love him, how fervently his sponsors and grandparents pray for him, the world is a dangerous place. Though he might not face the trouble Paul described to the church in Rome, trouble will come. Some of it unavoidable, beyond anyone’s control. But some of it will require a firm commitment to one kingdom or another.

Will he be a servant of the Kingdom of the Heaven or of the Kingdom of the world?

When Jakob is harmed, will he forgive or let it fester?

When Jakob is tempted, will he withstand or waver?

When Jakob is mocked, will he turn the other cheek or turn on the other?

When Jakob is afraid, will he trust God’s strong arms or run to the arms of another?

These seem like small things, momentary impulses. But they are more than that. They are yeast, pearls, treasure. They are signs of God at work in Jakob’s life. Jakob, who today claims dual citizenship. Fully engaged in this world. Fully engaged in the kingdom that belongs to God.

None of us will face the opposition Jesus faced. He stood before the elected and appointed powers of his world and said, “I am King and you are not.”

But we, the gathered disciples of Jesus Christ, who also claim dual citizenship, must be engaged in the world in particular, faithful ways. We engage politically. We engage prayerfully. We engage humbly.  And we never forget that though hard to spot and harder to live, the Kingdom of Heaven is already here. Rising. Growing. Burbling to the surface.

What does it look like?

The kingdom of the world encourages us to hate our enemies, to speak ill of those with whom we disagree, to plot their downfall. The kingdom of the world encourages opinion without information, reaction with ramifications, shameful behavior without shame. The kingdom of the world worships power and prestige; it settles disputes with guns and

In the kingdom of heaven we pray for our enemies and love those who hate us. In the kingdom of heaven we seek forgiveness when we have wronged and forgive those who harm us. In the kingdom of heaven we respect those in authority over us and seek only their good. In the kingdom of heaven we care most for the least.

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asked his disciples.

They didn’t. We don’t. But the kingdom of heaven is ours today. We already live there. With a little boy. With a little water. With a little bread. And always with a song.

Hymn of the Day: Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (2 July 2017)

Matthew 10.40-42

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the twelve: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

I’ve put a lot of miles on my trusty Subaru Outback in recent months.  Every chance I get, I’m on the road to my hometown in Iowa, seven hours north and west of here, to spend time with my rapidly aging parents. The radio gets pretty tedious pretty quick on a trip like that. So a friend turned me on to audio books. I downloaded the trusty OverDrive app from the Northbrook Public Library, and put whole books on my IPhone.  The miles melt beneath me as I “read” mysteries, classics, biographies and memoirs on the road between here and Titonka.

Last weekend I chose to listen to a book I’d first read in high school, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’d forgotten what a beautiful story it is. And the crush I’d had on Atticus Finch.

Last Friday morning, I’d just crossed the long metal bridge over the Mississippi River that protects Iowa from Illinois when this favorite Atticus Axiom fell on my ears: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Maybe it works for Atticus. But for us? Not so much. To pause. To ponder. To imagine another’s perspective. Far easier to write than to live.

But if Harper Lee’s provocative turn of phrase seems a bit too aspirational, today Jesus offers another famous quote that seems too quaint.

Today we listen in on the tail end of a much longer set of instructions to Jesus’ disciples. A couple of chapters ago Jesus realized that the work ahead of him was enormous, too much even for the only Son of God. So he enlisted twelve disciples—ordinary men whom he gifted with extraordinary ability. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (MT 10.8) Pretty heady stuff for guys who only weeks before had been gutting fish and collecting taxes.

But the “gee whiz” factor was quickly tempered by Jesus’ warnings about the welcome—or not—they would receive when they traveled in his name. He advised them that some would open their doors wide in welcome and others would cock their weapons. He cautioned that they would be handed over to councils and flogged in synagogues. He buttressed their resolve with limp encouragement: “Have no fear of them. Not a sparrow falls from the sky apart from your Father. You are of more value than many sparrows.” Thanks, I think.

It gets worse. “I have come to set father against son and a daughter against her mother.”

And worser: “Those who find their life will lose it, but those lose their life for my sake will find it.”

But there’s one more thing. The “quaint” quote I referenced earlier offers scant comfort to disciples who were rapidly planning their exit strategy: “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple will not lose their reward.”

The reward Jesus posts? Why, it’s the reward of a prophet—to be despised, mocked and run out of town on a rail.

They would receive the reward of a righteous person. What’s that? Well, Jesus was righteous and you know what happened to him.

And the reward for offering that cup of cold water? It wouldn’t come to the disciples at all. They’d never see it. The “reward” would be that someone else would offer a small kindness in the name of a disciple.

“Here,” someone would say, “One of Jesus’ disciples did this for me, and now I’m doing it for you.”

That’s the reward for following Jesus. A much delayed reward. That someone else, far down the road of history, would receive a small kindness because of something a disciple did for someone else.

I was armed with both Atticus Finch and Jesus on Friday morning when I came to work. They would have been proud of me. Because Friday was a dumb day.

Twice, I was stood up for appointments in my office—was it something I said? I offered to take a friend to lunch, only to find the restaurant closed—it’s always open on Friday. A quick trip to Target on my way home wasn’t. I got behind the person with $332.15 worth of merchandise in the cart, who quibbled about an expired 40 cent coupon, presented three already-used gift cards, and forgot the PIN for two different debit cards.

I wanted to scream. But I didn’t.

The first thing I did was put on my Atticus Eyes—imagining what might have kept my guests from appearing, a restaurant from opening on time, a shopper to worry about 40 cents. I quickly tried to walk around in their skin.

But more than that is I lived the lesson taught me by Jesus and his disciples.

Sometimes the only thing that keeps me from pitching a fit in public or offering a pointed gesture in traffic is that people know what I do for a living. More often than you can imagine, I have refrained from bad behavior because of how it might harm you—the people who call me pastor—and Jesus, into whose service I have committed my life.

It might seem a small thing, to worry about the damage my thoughtless words and actions might cause. After all, people far more important and influential than I behave badly all the time. Take for example, this week’s ridiculous Twitter war between adults who ought to know better. Most of us have learned the hard way that the moment of elation experienced when we launch the perfect snarky salvo is quickly eclipsed by a week’s worth of regret for having been small. It’s simply not worth it.

But if bad behavior grows legs, and lives far beyond the moment, I believe the cup of cool water offered in a disciple’s name lives longer still.

There is not time to recount for you all the people who have forgiven me, who have comforted me, who have treated me with kindness and respect I didn’t deserve. Why did they do it? Because, in many cases, they were Jesus’ disciples who had also been forgiven, comforted and respected by another.

Kindness to a stranger, swallowed words, patience under pressure—they are but small cups of cool water. And the rewards of those small cups of kindness are given to countless people who preceded me, who showed me the disciple’s life. Because this is the disciple’s reward—to know that the cup of cool water, whether literal or figurative—gets passed to other parched souls whom we might never meet.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” ends with Atticus sitting at the bedside of his badly beaten boy Jem, whose life was saved by an unlikely angel named Boo Radley.

Today’s Gospel ends with Jesus just walking away. Matthew writes, “Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim the message in other cities.” (MT 11.1)

Jesus’ work never ends. Neither does ours. To speak the prophetic word. Take the righteous road. Offer the cup of kindness. Welcome both enemy and stranger. When we do, someone else will have the reward. It’s the disciples’ way.

 

Festival of Pentecost

Festival of Pentecost (4 June 2018)

Acts 2.1-21

JoAnn A. Post

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


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

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

In the late 1880’s, after the territory of Alaska was purchased from Russia, indigenous peoples—pejoratively called “Eskimos”— were violently removed from their villages, beliefs and languages by the U.S. government. We called it “assimilation” and “education;” we called it deepening the “melting pot.” Placing native children in boarding schools far from home and family was deemed a chance at a better life for those “savages.” Never mind that those “savages” had enjoyed a rich cultural, religious and social life, respectful of nature for more than 10,000 years without any help from us. But we meant their quick and forced absorption into American culture as a gift. After all, who would want to speak a native language, eat local foods and worship animals when you could speak English and eat Velveeta and become Episcopalians?

When we lived in Alaska more than 30 years ago, we knew some of those displaced children grown to adulthood. Their stories of childhood abuse, hunger, and isolation are enough to make a grown woman weep—and a nation apologize. Assimilation in Alaska was an experiment that failed on almost every level. One of the many disastrous results of that failed frozen “gift” is that some of the languages in which indigenous Alaskans, for millennia, engaged in commerce, worshipped their gods, sang to the children and loved their spouses are dead.

Efforts to revive those indigenous languages are sometimes launched, but finding a native speaker of Eyak or Han is as likely as finding a unicorn at the grocery store. Age-old languages died along with their broken-hearted elderly speakers.

To say that we read today of the “First” Pentecost is a misnomer. There had been many hundreds of Pentecost’s before that polyglottal day in Jerusalem. For 35 centuries since Jews have gathered 50 days after Passover to celebrate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; in “Christian Speak,” the day God gave Moses the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Pentecost or “Shavuot” (its Hebrew name) is what we would call a “lesser festival.”. But circa 30 BCE, shortly after Jesus ascended to the Father and while his 120 disciples and friends waited in Jerusalem for the promised power, the city would have been packed with revelers.

That the day the Spirit assaulted them also happened to be a Jewish festival did not occur to those early believers until later. They were probably marking it as a lesser festival—a shared festive meal and particular prayers. But suddenly (the text says “violently”) they were accosted by a hurricane that lit their heads on fire. Words poured from their mouths, words in languages those back country fisherman had never heard, let alone knew how to speak. How did they do that?

It wasn’t the wind or the flame that brought crowds running. It was the noise. The cacophony of 120 startled commoners spewing words they did not know was a sight, a sound to behold.  Their quickly-assembled audience, though, was momentarily absolutely silent. Some of them were multi-generational residents of the city, but others of them immigrants with green cards, those “Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” And though they would have all shared the common language of the city—Hebrew—they spoke different languages, their own languages, at home. Parthian. Greek. Arabic. Latin.

Seems an oddly intricate miracle. When we travel to other parts of the world, we can almost always find someone who speaks English. It is, after all, the world’s language. And when immigrants settle among us, they quickly learn to speak “our” language, though often retaining their own dialect at home. It was that way in Jerusalem. Hebrew was the common language of that part of the world in the 1st century. Everyone knew at least a little. So why weren’t the disciples prompted to preach in Hebrew?

The assembled crowd would have been impressed enough with the apostles’ flaming hairdos to listen for a while. And they would have understood if the apostles had all spoken in Hebrew.

But they didn’t. Greek islanders heard Cretan. Onlookers from Cairo listened in Coptic. Visitors from China were schooled through Cantonese. Immigrants from Nineveh learned God’s mighty deeds of power in Sumerian. Had a Silicon Valley software designer chanced on the scene, the disciples would have communicated in binary code. Should a political pundit wander by? Twitter.

“Each of them heard them speaking in the native language of each.”

God knew, though those rattled multi-lingual disciples did not, that language is more than the mere conveyance of information. Hebrew might have taught them, but to hear God’s name, God’s love in their own languages changed them. As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a person in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to a person in his language, that goes to his heart.” (Chicago Tribune, June 3, 2017)

The words we speak and the way we speak them is more than a convention or a tool. The words we choose reveal our hearts. And to touch the heart of another, we learn their language.

A previous parish had been established by Eastern European immigrants in the 1890’s. Though the charter members were long dead by the time I served there, we still had a large contingent of elderly Czechs, Poles and Slavs among us.  Carl, an elderly man, loved to tell about meeting his wife, who had also fled Europe to the U.S. after the war. They met at a bar after work, each noticing the other across the room. But Carl spoke only Polish and she spoke only German. “How did you talk to each other if you didn’t share the same language?” I once asked. He winked. “We always spoke the same language about things that mattered.” And then slyly, “Some things don’t need words.”

After his wife died and his mind grew less sharp, he lapsed more and more often into his native tongue. And always when he prayed it was in the language of his childhood. When he prayed, both he and God were Polish.

Language is more than words. It comes from—and reveals—the heart.

What language should we use to tell of God’s deeds of power?  The words and hymns and ways that brought so many of us to faith now seem to fall on deaf ears and cold hearts. We could force people to listen, as we forced native Alaskan children to meet God on our terms. We could be like the fabled terrible tourist who, when confronted by a waiter who doesn’t speak his language, simply says it louder. “I said TWO olives!”

In the prayer of the day we prayed that God would “open the hearts of your faithful people by sending us your Holy Spirit.”  It will have to be the Holy Spirit who schools us, who teaches us words to say and gathers the people who need to hear them. We cannot force anyone to love Jesus, and shouting the same old words a little louder won’t convince anyone either.

We pray today that the Holy Spirit would light a fire under us, in us, would fill our mouths with words others want to hear. We pray that we will learn to speak the native language of each and, in that way, tell them about God’s deeds of power.

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (28 May 2017)

JN 17.1-11

JoAnn A. Post

After Jesus had spoken these words to his disciples, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 

Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Too many have fallen. Too many have died.

Of course, I speak of this Memorial Day weekend, a too-brief time during which we remember those who have lost their lives in service of their country. I am well aware that, as we sit in the safety of this sanctuary, some whom we know are fighting in Afghanistan and millions of others stand in silent grief at the graves of veterans. We are grateful for their service, and grieve the need to keep sending people off to war.

But at any time in human history, on any continent, under any political system, the same can be said. Too many have fallen. Too many have died.

Two Sundays ago we read about the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7.54ff), a death that marked the beginning of a period of persecution of early Christians that would last for more than a century.

This morning the writer of First Peter tells his readers not to be surprised when persecution falls on them. “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5.8)

In our own time we have witnessed the same. It happened in Egypt on Friday, as self-proclaimed Islamic militants ambushed a busload of Coptic Christians on their way to a mountain top retreat. The explosion of bullets was unrelenting and when it ended, the attackers fled like cowards back down the mountain and one of the smallest Christian communities in the world was shattered.

Might I claim a moment of personal privilege here? I hesitate to name the murderers of Christians in Egypt or concert-goers in England “Islamic.” It is a name they have stolen from a great world religion.  To imagine that ISIS or other groups like them speak for Islam is to imagine the KKK speaks for us. Anyone can call themselves anything, but, as a Southern friend says, “Just because you say it, doesn’t make it so.” I think it would be wise of us, especially as our Muslim brothers and sisters celebrate Ramadan, to treat them with the respect and kindness we seek for ourselves. To acknowledge that the troubled few do not speak for the faithful many.

But the falling and dying happen close to home, too. This week I heard an interview with a woman who lives on Chicago’s South Side, a grandmother who won’t let her children play outside because her neighborhood is a war zone. She said, “Call me selfish, but I know what I want and I want it now. I want this violence to stop. I want my babies to be safe.”

Too many have fallen, too many have died. Thousands of years ago and twenty miles from here. So what, then do we say to this?

On this last Sunday of the Easter season, now that the lilies have wilted and the crowds have thinned, we turn the page of our minds back to a time before we knew the grave would be empty, before we knew Jesus would live, before we would see the bottoms of his feet as he ascended to the Father.

We are once again back in a candlelit room around a supper table. Jesus’ words have alarmed his disciples. One of them would betray him. One would deny. They would all be scattered. He would be taken from them. And in the fear-filled dark, as he ran out of words to reassure them, he called on another to fill the void, to ease the pain, to show the way.

“Father, the hour has come,” he prayed out loud. “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world,   but on behalf of those you gave me.” And what does he ask the Father to do? “Protect them.”

“Protect them so that they may be one.”

In fact, Jesus was praying not only for the 11 huddled befuddled disciples in the room with him on the night before his death. He prayed for millions who were not there. For the early believers. And for Coptic Christians. And for soldiers in places of war. And for gang-seduced boys. And for us.

We live luxurious lives. Largely protected from the violence that is too typical of some neighborhoods, some parts of the world. But the dangers that surround us, the roaring lion that prowls around us are equally troubling.

What is it that threatens us? Some would say our wealth is a danger. Others fear the bullies or the intense competition in our high-achieving local schools. It would also be appropriate to say we are in danger from ourselves, imagining that by our own understanding or effort we can forestall the trouble that others face.

But we also fear what the first disciples feared. Abandonment. Isolation. Death.

This afternoon, as most will be firing up the grills or napping with the Sunday newspaper, a clutch of grieving children will gather in our Garden. Their mother Pat died in December, taken from them in her sleep. And today we lay her to rest. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I will never forget her children’s faces as they spoke, first with the police, then with the medical examiner, then with a funeral director—each of those professionals more kind and gentle than I have ever seen. Though Pat’s “children” are in fact adults, the fear was palpable. That death can take us as we sleep. That we might not get a chance to stay good-bye. I called my own mother the next day, just to hear her voice. I wanted to say, “Don’t die,” but I didn’t.  Instead I said, “You know I love you.”

This evening we witness Catherine and Aaron’s wedding vows. Though theirs will be joyful wedding and a strong marriage, our hopeful hearts cannot silence the words we must speak. “Until death parts us,” they will say. I will lay hands on their heads and ask God to bless them “in their sleeping and in their waking, in their joys and in their sorrows, in their life and in their death.”

Some fall to war. Others to persecution. Still others to random violence. And some in our sleep. But all will fall. And all of us are afraid.

We would like to ask Jesus to make it stop. To put an end to war and sickness and death. And Someday he will. But for now we live in a world governed by many forces which no one can completely control. That truth causes some to turn from God. But it can also turn us toward God, trusting God’s power to be greater than all others.

So today we ask Jesus to pray for us. To pray the prayer he offered over the trembling heads of ancient disciples.  Protect us. Keep us together. Give us joy.

So that when we fall, whether in a momentary stumble or finally to death, we will be captured by the loving hands of God to whom we already belong.

 

 

 

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (21 May 2017)

John 14.15-21

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.


“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
         

On Friday, our president embarked on an eight-day, five-country trip abroad. He is accompanied by his wife and an airplane-full of security agents, staff members, representatives of the press corps, and personal assistants. His agenda is complicated and purposeful. Every speech he makes, every hand he shakes, every step he takes will be analyzed and scrutinized and evaluated.

But I am not nearly as intrigued by the public parts of his trip as by the parts we will never see. I am imagining the “ground troops,” the legion of staffers in each of the five countries coordinating his visits there.

I heard an interview with one of those on-the-ground coordinators, who tried to describe the complexities of the task they face. For example, she said that there is a whole team of people who do nothing but script and manage the first lady’s attire and movements. In some countries, she has to be veiled but not in others. In some countries, she has to walk a certain number of steps behind the president but in others she will be beside him. In some countries, she will be expected to speak and in others to be silent. Any infringement on these protocols might endanger the success of this trip.

Multiply the arrangements for her person by about 500 and you get a glimpse of the planning ordeal they face. And though everything on this trip is carefully scripted, it also has to appear as though it is not. Each speech, each suit, each smile will be tailor-made.  And could spell the success or disaster of this first international junket.

This morning we read about another political/diplomatic excursion. An ancient one.

Six months ago, I stood in the place from which the Apostle Paul spoke to the Athenians in the year 49. (Acts 17.22-31) Though now fallen to ruins, it is still easy to imagine the scene he would have addressed on that sunny day two centuries ago. On what is actually a small site, there is still evidence of over 20 “holy places,” altars and statues and shrines dedicated to the gods. In fact, they even erected an altar to an “unknown god,” just in case they missed one.

The preaching task Paul faced was enormous, his audience unlike any other.  His brother preachers, spread out across the Middle East and Mediterranean, often spoke to Jewish audiences, so issues of circumcision and law-keeping were primary there. Other audiences would have wanted to know about the political or societal implications of faith in Jesus.

But Paul’s audience was different. They were highly educated, deeply religious (though pagan), politically connected and possibly easily offended. His address to them had to be tailor-made. It was impressive. He complimented their religious array, quoted their poets, used images they would understand to describe the God Paul worshipped, the God who cannot be crafted from silver or stone.

Like a presidential visit abroad, Paul’s words and actions, even the foods he ate and the way he ate them were crucial to the success of his mission.

We know from other evidence that Paul’s reception was mixed. (Acts 17.32-34) Some wanted to hear more. Some immediately came to faith. Others scoffed and turned away. Though not uniformly encouraging, it beats the private prison escort he received in other cities.

To know your audience and address them appropriately. It is the task not only of 21st century presidents and 1st preachers, but also of Jesus.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus spoke to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, in a tone of voice he had not used before. At other times, he was short with them, or pedantic, or even, occasionally, aggressive. But on that particular night, as Judas snuck into the darkness and Peter prepared to betray, Jesus spoke with them in a new way, in a gentle coaxing voice.  He addressed them as a loving father, a patient teacher. He called them “orphans.” He promised them an “advocate” to stand beside them and protect them. He told them that he would “seen” by them even while they were parted. Whether his measured pace slowed their racing hearts or not, we don’t know. But we know that he refused a one-size-fits-all impatient tirade, choosing a bespoke message instead, tailor-made for frightened disciples.

I often hide my true identity when I am out in public, failing to mention the fact that I am a Lutheran pastor unless that piece of information is crucial. Because the minute strangers find out what I do, the conversation shifts. Sometimes I get the raised eyebrow and cold shoulder. Sometimes I hear about how much they love their own pastors or rabbis, all the amazing things their congregations are doing. But most often I hear horror stories of judgmental encounters, destructive behavior on the part of church leaders, wounds that go deep and will never be healed.

To hear those wounded by the faithful, you would think we didn’t have a brain in our heads or a heart in our chests. Are we really that closed-minded that we would intentionally offend or harm a brother or sister in the faith? Are we too stupid to know that our words and actions speak not only of ourselves but of the whole church and, to some, even of God? Are we so unimaginative that we have only one message, regardless of the situation or need? It would seem so.

Just the other day I met a former member of this congregation, who, when pressed, told about a long-ago last encounter with us. Apparently, when this person came to Ascension seeking counsel and forgiveness, someone in leadership here (I don’t know who it was because I didn’t want to know) chose instead to judge and belittle. “I came in need of comfort,” the person said, “and got only criticism. I never went back.”

Of course, we can write this off as evidence of sour grapes or thin skin, but I hear such stories often enough from people all over the country and of many religious affiliations to have to take them seriously.

Do we really have only one message? Do we force everyone we meet into a single small box? Is there only one way to follow Jesus? And if people don’t like what we have to say, do we automatically assume there is something wrong with them?

I’m not advocating that we adopt an attitude of saying whatever someone wants to hear. We believe some things very powerfully, and do not condone or conscience  a “whatever” way with the world. For example, when that same Apostle Paul later said, “I am all things to all people,” (1 Corinthians 9.19-23) he wasn’t confessing to being a soft-spined chameleon but speaking of the need to tailor the message to the moment.

Judgement is all around. Name-calling is our national pastime. Conspiracy theories abound, and may prove to be more than mere theories. Fear of the future and false memories of the past lead us to decisions that do not square with our present reality. So what do we do? What does this moment require of us? This moment in our congregation’s, our country’s life?

One of the things we do, as people of God, is pray for those appointed to leadership over us. Whether we agree with or even like those people, we have a responsibility to them and their welfare.

Another thing we do is change the names we use for one another. The Apostle Paul didn’t address his Athenian audience as “pathetic pagans” but as “extremely religious,” indicating to them that he respected their desires to know God, however misdirected those desires might seem to be.

Jesus didn’t call his disciples “Betrayers” or “Back stabbers” or “Traitors,” even though any of those names would have been accurate. He called them “orphans.” He called them “sheep.” He called them “little children.”

We don’t travel across the globe to address world leaders, as does a president. We don’t stand in great arenas and change the world with only our voices, as did Paul. We are not called upon to die for those who hate us, as did Jesus. But we are called to be in the moment with the word that is needed.

We offer Jesus’ words to frightened followers. “I will not leave you orphaned. I will always come for you. I will love you and you will see me.”

And they will know that protection, that presence, that passion because of us. We are the message in this moment. Speak it well.

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (14 May 2017)

John 14.1-14

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

It’s been home to my family for four generations. I grew up on a story book Iowa farm: a white four-bedroom farmhouse nestled in the middle of a farm yard studded with barns and outbuildings and machinery, teeming with livestock and barn cats and dogs always named “Shep,” surrounded by hundreds of acres of the richest soil in the world. In 1925 my grandparents created that farm from native prairie with a team of horses and a one-bottom wooden plow.  We’ve been working that land, and loving it ever since.

Though I had and have enormous affection for that house and that land, I have not lived there for almost 40 years. That’s why, when my parents first started making noises about moving to town, I was happy to hear it. My brother was already farming the land. The house was too much for my mother to care for. It took them awhile to adjust to the idea of moving to town. To have neighbors so near you could hear them talking in their kitchens in the summer when the windows were open. To park a car inside a building rather than a tractor. But finally they were emotionally ready to make the move.

Until my mother talked on the phone to one of my younger siblings, a sister who lived far away in a beautiful home of her own and who had been mostly uninterested in the discussion about the farmhouse. When Mom indicated that they were looking to buy a house in town, my sister burst into tears. “I won’t have a home anymore! Where will I go!”

That was it. They couldn’t move. It would be another five years before they bought a house in town. I just shook my head.

Today’s gospel reading is among the most read texts in the Bible. I have preached it at countless funerals and read it at even more bedsides. The reason John 14 resonates so deeply is not just its familiarity or the beautiful way it rolls off the tongue and through the heart at funerals  but because it is so honest. It addresses our greatest need and our greatest fear. That need is for home, for a safe place. That fear is homelessness—having no one or nowhere to go.

On the night of his betrayal, Jesus shared what would be a last meal with his disciples. They didn’t know that. They had felt things heating up around Jesus; the buzz in Jerusalem was loud. But that Jesus would be taken from them—because of internal intrigue and by violent means—was beyond their comprehension.

That’s why his simple statement about preparing a place in a house with many rooms elicited such confusion. Had Jesus bought a house? Was he moving? Would he leave a forwarding address?

It was not until after Jesus’ death and resurrection that they would understand his meaning. Jesus would leave them—but not by choice. He would be relocated—from the terra firma to a wooden cross. He would be temporarily homeless, forced to take up lodgings in a borrowed tomb on the edge of town. And, they knew, Jesus would return. Not to retrieve his luggage and pets, but to show them the way. The way home. The way that leads through him.

Jesus knew that his words would be upsetting. It was like starting a potentially explosive conversation at home with, “Now don’t get mad when I tell you this . . .”  He knew they would be troubled. And befuddled. And frightened. “Do not let your hearts be troubled?” Too late, Jesus.

Fear of abandonment is universal, whether we are children lost in a shopping mall or old lovers about to be parted by death. To be separated from those we love is our greatest fear. And Jesus knew it. “Don’t be afraid. Believe me,” he said. We’ll try.

He offered the image of a house, a massive house with rooms enough for all. (I think I spotted that house in Kenilworth a few weeks ago, but maybe not.) Is such a house possible? Does the architect exist who could design it?

Too often this text has been used not only to comfort, but also to divide.

Spoken to his disciples to encourage them, to strengthen them, to extend their vision beyond what they eyes could see, we have turned it upside down until it is no longer a promise about a home but a threat of eviction.

We have taken his words, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” as permission to do religious red-lining, imitating the Chicago bankers and realtors in the 1930’s who decided who might or might not be welcome in a particular neighborhood.

I’ve known Jesus my whole life, and I can tell you that he is not going to erect a not-for-sale sign outside his door just when you walk by.

There was no hidden barb in Jesus’ words, no dog whistle to his followers about who he really loved. He was worried about his disciples. He knew that his disciples would be tempted to fall away or run away, to believe the prevailing rhetoric of those who tried to “talk sense” to them. To disciples who had already abandoned their homes and been abandoned by family Jesus assured them their trust in him was well-placed.  I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life. You will always be home with me.

My parents moved into what we call The Little Red House in Town in 2005, 50 years after they first took up residence in the house in the country. And now, 12 years later, we have emptied The Little Red House to move them to a new home, to a care facility with a room large enough for two beds, two rockers and a wall of family photos.

Some of my siblings struggled as we cleaned out the house in town, dividing up my parents’ possessions. But I did not. It’s not that I’m hard hearted. Every time I visit my hometown I return with a car load of treasures that look like treasures only to me. No, I don’t grieve their move from that house. Because of the direction and adventures of my own life, “home” isn’t a building to me. Home is wherever my little family is. And as deeply grateful as I for the home we have created with each other, I know that one day that home—both the building and the people—will be taken from me, as well.

Where will I go? I will go home to the home I already know. A place you and I can already dwell.

Do not let your hearts be troubled, Jesus said. Home is neither an address nor a person nor where your heart is. Home is where he is.  And he is always here with us.

 

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday in Easter (7 May 2017)

John 10.1-10

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

He lost his job on the factory floor when the plant closed unexpectedly, the owners absconding in the night with both property and pensions. Like the other 300 hundred unemployed-through-no-fault-of-their-own employees there, he found himself dangling precariously with no safety net underneath him. Though angry, frightened and depressed, there was not time to secure either an attorney or a therapist. He had a family to feed, and would do anything to care for them.

Friends offered odd jobs. The church helped out with groceries. The bank was good about the mortgage. But he was a hardworking man who wanted to work. He secured a job with a local plumbing company, doing the jobs nobody else would do. And that’s how he found himself one day standing in six inches of raw sewage in a dank basement working overhead on pipes that leaked into his eyes. He told me later that he paused only briefly on that horrible day to say two things to himself. First: it can’t get any worse than this. Second: something has to change.

I thought of him this week while working with texts for Good Shepherd Sunday. We have so idealized the role of shepherd that it’s a wonder we don’t all leave our jobs to adore ovine where the verdant pastures grow.

But being a shepherd is only a half-step above the work my friend was forced to do. The shepherds whom Jesus would have referenced were illiterate, impoverished and isolated, the butt of jokes and object of scorn. For Jesus to identify himself as “shepherd” was to occupy a station in life almost as humiliating as the one he would adopt at the end of John’s gospel—that of criminal hanging on a cross. By choosing the image of “shepherd,” Jesus chose to stand ankle deep in the world’s refuse, willing to do anything to protect and provide for his sheep.

This gospel reading is a continuation of a conversation that started in John 9, a heated debate around the miracle of the man born blind. Religious leaders were both skeptical of and frightened by Jesus. But the crowds loved him. Who wouldn’t? Jesus could both strengthen the sick and poke the powerful. He was a rock star. To some.

But Jesus didn’t care what they thought of him, or his friends, or his metaphors. Jesus’ shepherd’s ear was not tuned to opinion polls or pundits. Jesus listened always for the voices of those whom no one else could hear, those whom no one else even wanted to hear.

Jesus could easily have strolled right by the man born blind (JN 9) or any of the countless others in John’s gospel who bleated to him for help—a leper (JN 5), a dying child (JN 7), an arthritic woman (JN 13). If you think health care is a huge topic in our time, imagine being ill in the days when sickness was considered punishment for sin and when a simple sore throat could kill. Healing the sick was miracle enough. But noticing them? That was nothing short of scandalous.

It’s nice to imagine sheep as fluffy, round, wooly creatures cavorting in pastures so green they could be ads for Scott’s Weed and Seed. It’s nice to imagine shepherds as steady and stern, leaning stoically on their walking sticks while the cool breeze tossed their flowing locks. If only.

The shepherd didn’t shepherd out of the goodness of his heart. “Shepherd” was the last choice on the Strong Campbell Interest Inventory that high school students endure. The shepherd was contractually responsible to the owner of the flock, tasked with bringing the sheep safely in from pasture when it was time to shear or to slaughter. The shepherd was penalized for any lost sheep and paid poorly for those that survived. It was a job. A job nobody wanted.

It was that job—that thankless, lowly, filthy job that Jesus took. For our sake. Because though we like to imagine ourselves, at best, master and commander, and, at worst, Loveable doofs, we are really just sheep. Easily distracted. Oblivious to danger. Mostly useless. Best served with mint jelly.

Someone needs to look out for us. Someone needs to guide us. Someone needs to protect us from ourselves. Who would take such a job?

His name was Walter. He was a life-long, church-going, Sunday School-teaching Lutheran. A good and kind man. An activist for all sorts of political causes. And he was the first in our area back in the 80’s to admit to a diagnosis of AIDS. His parents begged him not to go public—for his sake and for theirs. But there he was on the evening news, interviewed about his diagnosis, advocating for education, research, health care and compassion.

When his mother went to her pastor (not me) to share her sorrow and confusion, he refused to see her. The parish nurse would not visit in either home or hospital. And when Walter died, the church in which he was baptized refused to bury him. Apparently, it was Walter’s own fault that he was sick, so the church felt no obligation to care for him unless he repented. And it was too late for that.

Without warning or reason, this sheep in desperate need was shunned by the flock, abandoned by the shepherd, victim of the wicked tongues and rolling eyes of those who imagined his sin greater than theirs. Tripped by a leg of haughty lamb, butted aside by the shoulders he longed to lean on.

Wolves are not the greatest danger to the sheep. It’s the other sheep—and sometimes the shepherds—you need to watch out for.

It was for Walter and his parents, for my unemployed friend wading in a basement of shame, for the unjustly accused, for the publicly humiliated, for the intractably poor, for the helpless sinner that Jesus announced, “I am not only a shepherd; I am your shepherd.” Lover of the lost. Friend of the fallen. Shelter in a storm.

When I imagine that Jesus, the Son of God who left the throne of heaven to take the lowest seat among us, I read Psalm 23 in a whole new way.

The shepherd depicted there is forceful and unrelenting. That shepherd makes us lie down. That shepherd leads us down unfamiliar paths. That shepherd doesn’t divert us around trouble but accompanies us through all the shadowed valleys. That shepherd places us in the presence of those who hate us. And on all those unwelcome roads and in that unpleasant company, we know God’s goodness and mercy as abundant as oil flowing over our heads, our cups over full with blessings.

But for Jesus to be our shepherd, we have to be willing to be sheep. We have to admit our weakness, our wariness, our need, our nightmares. We have to submit to the shepherd who has walked every dark path before us, who desires nothing for us but life, in whose blessings we bathe.

You are our Shepherd, Jesus.  Lead us. We just might follow.