The Festival of Pentecost

The Festival of Pentecost (20 May 2018)

Acts 2.1-21

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we drill into their heads and hearts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (6 May 2018)

Acts 10.44-48

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

Pointillism is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was starting to get a little weird.

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

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

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

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

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

But it will not be so among us.

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

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

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

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (29 April 2018)

John 15.1-8

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you understand what you are reading?

How can I, unless someone guides me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean? Let me show you.

 

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter (22 April 2018)

John 10.11-18

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

My friend’s husband was a Navy SEAL. He is smart and strong, and completely addicted to adrenaline. There was no assignment too dangerous; no locale too exotic. Though the combination of his wife’s pleading and the Navy’s regulations eventually pulled him away from active SEAL duty, he could never quench his thirst for danger. Or for meaning. So now in middle age, he works for the Air Force Survival School—training young, brave, fearless military women and men to do exactly what the name of the school says. He teaches them to survive.  Torture. Extreme weather. Mental anguish. Isolation. Deprivation and degradation of every kind.

Years ago, he confided that his deepest desire is to die in a dramatic fashion. His is no maudlin death wish, but a need for his life—and his death—to matter. Knowing that we all die, he would choose to die fearlessly for the sake of another. “I want to push someone from the path of a speeding train,” he told me once. “I want to take a bullet. I want to rescue a child from a burning building.”  Since childhood, he has wanted not to have his life taken, but to lay it down. To die of old age in a rocking chair would be, for him, an unsurvivable torture.

Today’s texts take us back in time from where we have most recently been reading. Since Easter, our Sunday gospels have all been about Jesus post-resurrection.  We peered into the empty tomb. We met Doubting Thomas. Last week we watched Jesus eat fish—something ghosts don’t do. But this morning we return to the scene of the crime, the events that led to Jesus’ death and resurrection. And we find ourselves ankle-deep in sheep.

Some jobs don’t change much over time. Sheep herding is one of them. Unless you are descended from the Basques, for whom shepherding is a point of national pride, no one wants to be a shepherd. Shepherds live in virtual poverty, without shelter, in barren landscapes, often without human contact for months at a time.  Shepherds are, stereotypically, uneducated, isolated and anti-social.

When this morning’s gospel reading opens, Jesus is defending himself against his arch enemies, the temple hierarchy. Jesus had recently restored sight to a man born blind, thus picking a fight with Pharisees and scribes who would later amuse themselves by imagining ways to torture and kill him.

Addressing no one in particular, and apropos of nothing, but knowing that the Pharisees were listening, Jesus announced, “O, and BTW, I am the good shepherd.”  It probably seemed an odd statement, since he was raised in the home of a carpenter and had demonstrated his remarkable intellect and ability on numerous occasions.  Sheep herding was an unlikely career choice.

But, more than that, his statement was provocative.

Good shepherd? Does that mean all the others are bad?

And the good shepherd? There can be only one?

But he went on. Turning to the eavesdropping Pharisees, he said, “The hired hand, who is not the shepherd, sees danger, cries wolf and runs away.”  Long silence. They immediately understood where he was going.  If he was the good shepherd in this narrative, they were the bad hired hands. No wonder they hated him.

The final nail in the cross was this: “The shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Each gospel writer tells the story of Jesus’ suffering and death a bit differently. John’s Jesus is fearless, purposeful, eager to get on with it. There is, in John’s gospel, no anguish in the garden; no “Take this cup from me.”  In John’s gospel Jesus steps in front of the moving train, takes the bullet, runs into the burning building, hoists the cross on his shoulders and marches up the mountain.

Because he knows that the shepherd’s life matters only if the sheep live.

Long after John’s gospel was written, there was still a “school of John,” devotees who studied and expanded on his writing in the way that long-dead scientists or philosophers in our time have “schools.” For example, we still study Keynesian economics and King’s non-violence, though both John Keynes and Martin Luther King, Jr. are long dead.

The “school of John” survives in the three brief books we cleverly call 1st, 2nd and 3rd John. What aspect of John’s Jesus did this school of thought cling to? We read it only moments ago: “We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” (1 John 3.16)

After the resurrection, after Jesus has both laid his life down and picked it up again, we are now called not to be shepherds, but to imitate the one who shepherds us. To love, as 1st John instructs, not only in word and speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3.18)

Unlike my selfless SEAL friend, I have no desire to die dramatically. And, I’m guessing, neither do most of us. But, for Jesus’ disciples, there is a way to lay down our lives without leaping into the lion’s mouth. What would that look like? And do we really have the courage to do it?

I recently heard an interview with country singer Jason Isbell, formerly with the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. (“Sound Opinions,” WUNC, April 19, 2018) He was remembering a time when alcohol was both running and ruining his life. He had tried every way to stop drinking, but simply couldn’t do it. One night, in desperation, he said to his wife, “I can’t do this alone.” After he went to bed, she got on the phone, calling all the people he cared about—band members, agents, high school friends, his parents. She said to each of them, “Jason can’t stop drinking without your support.”

He told the interviewer, “I can’t imagine the courage it took for her to do that, to admit to people—some of whom she’d never met—that I needed their help. At 3:00 in the morning she was calling strangers. Because she loved me.” He’s been dry for years.

Though his wife is still very much alive, and this is no antidote to addiction, she laid down her life for him—abandoning her pride, her prejudice and her privacy—because if she had not, he would have died.

Imagine the person with whom you most struggle. Because they hurt you. Because they confound you. Because they abandoned you.

Now imagine what it is that person most needs from you. Not the thing that would be “best” for them, or the thing you would love to say to them, but the thing they need from you—you who are but a sheep for whom the shepherd laid down his life.

Maybe they need forgiveness. Or time to think. Or patience. Or help you cannot offer. Maybe they just need you to love them. Some smelly sheep, some sad soul, some shameless sinner, needs you to lay down your life. In a way that may make taking a bullet seem an easier thing.

“We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

Jesus is the Good Shepherd. We are his sheep. Alive because he laid down his life for us. Alive so that we can do the same for another of his flock.

 

Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter (15 April 2018)

Luke 24.36b-48

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” 

“You’re just too good to be true. Can’t take my eyes of you. You’d be like heaven to touch; I wan’na hold you so much. . .” (Frankie Valli, 1967)

That song is attributed to Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, but I wonder if they didn’t plagiarize it. Like maybe from Jesus’ disciples. After all, Luke says that they received Jesus that first Easter night with joy, disbelief and wonder. So perhaps this is really an early Easter hymn text. Can’t you imagine them singing to Jesus, “And I thank God you’re alive . . .”

But, to be truthful, I doubt the disciples were singing that night. (And they didn’t have the hair for 60’s doo wop.)  Today Luke tells a different version of the story we heard from the gospel writer John last week—the story of Jesus’ disciples huddled together in the dark. John told us they were frightened, that the doors were locked. His is a story of political turmoil and 1st century spy craft.

Luke tells the same story but with a different emotional tenor.  The disciples he describes were delighted (sort of) to see Jesus, but also “disbelieving.” After all, they had credible evidence of the fact of Jesus’ death or, at the very least, his absence.  Remember the stone rolled away, the angelic visitors, the empty tomb, the running women? The only explanation they could muster for Jesus’ sudden appearance in their midst was that he was a ghost.  An apparition. A hologram, if such a thing had then existed.

Jesus sensed their confusion, so he asked abruptly, “Have you anything here to eat?” I imagine he was hungry, he’d been popping in and out of places all day, but it wasn’t the pain in his stomach that prompted the question. It was the pain in his disciples’ eyes.  They handed Jesus a piece of fish and he stuffed it in his mouth, chewing it with great smacking and slurping noises, swallowing it in a great gulp.  His table manners were atrocious, but his point was clear. “Ghosts don’t eat. It’s really me.”

And then, when they were convinced it was really him, he taught them. He taught them scripture stories they would soon need in order to convince others.  He reminded them of Moses. Prophets. Psalms. He filled their hearts with hope and their mouths with words so that, when he left them again in his ascension, they would be able to testify to others who wanted to believe but hadn’t been able to see.

But what a whiplash event. It is easy to imagine the emotions of that first night: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”

“You’re just too good to be true. . .”

We have some recent experience with joy and disbelieving, wonder and doubt.

I had a hard time falling asleep Friday night. Our political and military leaders had decided, in coordination with France and Great Britain, to retaliate on Syria’s recent chemical assault with missile strikes. Everyone agrees that that Syria’s barbarism needs to be addressed, but the way to do that is hotly debated. Would these missiles change Assad’s mind? Or would they further cement his hateful resolve? Might this be a sign of a turning political tide, or the beginning of a war that cannot be won?  What of the innocents on the ground who first survived a storm of chemicals, only to endure a storm of weapons falling from the sky? From purported allies. Joy? Disbelief? Wonder? Fear?

I’m sure you’re aware of the turmoil swirling at a nearby mega-church. After 38 years of powerful, world-changing ministry, Willow Creek’s founding pastor is taking early retirement because of allegations of improper interpersonal conduct. I don’t know the particulars of this case, but I’ve walked with people on both sides of similar sorrows.

In another parish, a neighboring pastor was accused of sexual misconduct with a number of women and a couple of teenagers in his congregation. I took no delight in the possibility of a long pastoral career going up in flames. But I also know that those who are harmed by the powerful (especially children) don’t come forward easily—going public with accusations of misconduct can destroy them, too. And the congregation? It was ripped to shreds—some believed the pastor and wanted his accusers to be destroyed; others believed the accusations and wanted the pastor to be severely punished; most shook their heads and quietly drifted off.  Disciples awash in disbelief, wonder, fear.   But no joy.

“You’re just too good to be true; can’t take my eyes off of you . . .”

Jesus knew the struggles in and among his disciples that night. He also knew that greater struggles lay ahead.  If his own disciples who had laid both hands and eyes on him had a hard time believing, how would future generations come to believe? What of those, what of us who, as the gospel writer John concluded last week, “have not seen but may yet believe?” How do we convey the joy of discipleship, the disbelief of the good news, the wonder of God’s goodness, the fear that we may be right? Or wrong.

Our generation of believers is turning a new page on the gospel story.  Many of us were steeped in stories of Jesus from childhood, have believed that Jesus has been raised from death and offers life to all. We rarely consider the veracity of scripture’s claims—we have seen and tasted and met the risen Jesus in our own lives and gladly follow.  But there are some among us here and many more not in our pews who not only have not heard, but simply cannot believe.

I often speak with people in the church whose children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, neighbors and friends were raised in the faith but have chosen not to remain. Some of them fled the church and its people because they were harmed. But most who no longer identify as Christian simply found the faith irrelevant, or have found Christian community lacking.

How do we speak the gospel message, how do we tell the joy of the resurrection, how do we convey our own disbelieving belief to those who have not met Jesus, who have not tasted his goodness, who do not delight in the life he offers now and for all eternity?

I can tell you how not to convey that message. When the only public word from people of faith is hypocrisy or bigotry, turning a blind eye to their own sins and shining klieg lights on the sins of others—those are sure-fire ways to convince the skeptical that both we and our story are a lie.

So, what is our message? Much as I enjoy Frankie Valli’s lyrics I don’t think “O pretty baby . . . “ is going to bring anyone to faith.

The resurrected Jesus gives his disciples words to speak. He models unconditional forgiveness. And, ready or not, he sends us out. In joy. In wonder. In disbelief. Together.

 

 

The Resurrection of Our Lord

Festival of the Resurrection (1 April 2018)

Mark 16.1-8

JoAnn A. Post

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus’ body. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

She was laughing so hard I couldn’t understand a word.  “What did you say?” I asked. She choked out, “No words.”  It’s my younger daughter’s favorite summary statement about something too ridiculous to believe, or some behavior so scandalous it defies explanation. “No words.” Except those, apparently.

This is the same daughter who responds to other people’s outrageous good fortune with a simple, “Same.”  The friend who became a Rhodes Scholar at the age of 17? “Same.” The 18-year-old Canadian woman who bought her first legal bottle of booze and a winning million dollar lottery ticket? “Same.” The woman on Facebook who reportedly gave birth to kittens? “Same.”

My daughter may well be channeling other women, ancient women, grieving women who showed up at Jesus’ tomb early one morning. The only reported conversation among them was a rhetorical question, “Who will roll away the stone?” Maybe they should have thought of that before they left home, but the question seems to be more idle reflection than real worry.

Did they talk about other things on the way? The weather? Their kids? Or perhaps things more consequential—events of the last three days or their concerns for Jesus’ orphaned disciples? We don’t know. Mark doesn’t say.

But we do know that when they arrived at the tomb nothing was “same.” And they had no words. The stone was gone—someone had solved that little problem for them. But the place that Jesus’ body should have occupied was instead inhabited by a young man wearing a white robe.

“Don’t be alarmed,” the man said. “Jesus is up and gone. But you can find him. He’ll be in Galilee.”

But still they had no words. But Mark tells us three things about these dumb-struck mourners. The terror, the amazement, the fear were written on their faces.

And then in an unexpected plot twist, the women ran. Without saying a word. To anyone.

Of course, they must have said something to someone. If they hadn’t, none of us would be here. If they hadn’t told the story of Jesus’ empty tomb, we’d all be home sleeping off the Loyola game instead of praising God who brings life from death. Someone had to say something. But on that long-ago morning, in the confusion of the moment, there were no words.

To the women who fled speechless for fear and amazement, we can say only, “Same.” When both the tomb and our hearts are empty, when the promise of life and hope is elusive as the Easter Bunny, we find ourselves similarly speechless.

My father was a force of nature—more hurricane that spring shower. Everything about him was big—his hands, his voice, his opinions. But about a year ago he started to diminish, everything about him growing smaller. Chocolate ice cream no longer enticed. He could stare out the window for hours and not say a word. Once, just to test him, I said something of a provocative political nature that would typically have enraged him. But he only smiled. He didn’t have any fight left in him.  Something was wrong.

Tests and reports. Conversations and more tests. Finally we had an appointment with an oncologist who would put all the pieces together. All of us kids wanted to be there for the appointment, but time and distance did not allow. So her office set up a conference call with four of us in the room with Dad and four of us calling in. My Mom was too frail to be there.

As the oncologist reviewed the reports, which we had all received by e-mail that morning, she fielded questions from eight inquisitors. I wasn’t in  the room, but imagined her an octopus with a fielders mitt on each tentacle.  She talked with us for an hour, answering every question, calming every speculation. The only one who was silent was Dad.

A less gracious physician would have said, “Would you all just shut up and let your Dad talk?” But she didn’t. Instead she stepped in and said, “Mr. Post, you are so fortunate to have children who love you so much. But do you have anything to ask? Anything to say?”  Long silence. He shook his head.

I later learned that when he returned to the care facility where he lived with my Mom, he stopped his wheelchair in their doorway. My Mom looked up from her crossword puzzle. My brother reported that, between these two who had shared life’s joys and sorrows for 62 years, there were no words. Just a sorrowful, knowing gaze and slow tears.

No words.

“No words” made the other gospel writers uncomfortable, too. Only Mark ends the Easter story with silence, the only sound the thump of feet running away. Matthew, Luke and John tell of dazzling angels and frightened soldiers, Mary Magdalene’s tears and Peter’s disbelief. The other gospel writers report post-resurrection appearances in Emmaus, in Jerusalem, on the beach. We know those other gospel writers tell the truth—somebody had to run and tell.

But Mark tells a truth, too. A silent truth to which we all respond, “Same.”

In times of either pernicious sorrow or profound joy, the best words are often no words. Silence finally broken by what the dark poet Leonard Cohen describes as “a holy or a broken Hallelujah.”

As my Dad lay dying, the thing he most looked forward to in heaven was seeing his mother’s face—he had missed her every day of the 25 years since she’d died.  After Dad died, I asked my Mom, who also has a vivid and concrete vision of heaven, what Dad and Grandma would have said when they were reunited. Mom didn’t hesitate: “They didn’t say anything. But I can see their smiles from here.”

There were words on that first Easter morning. Eventually. Words of delight and disbelief. Confusion and courage. “Oh my’s” and even a smattering of “Alleluias.” But today we stand with women at the tomb, our hearts too full to speak.

The resurrection is real. Death has been defeated. Jesus goes before us down every road. We believe all of this to be true.  But some days it is hard to put all the pieces together, to trust our hearts when our eyes tell us otherwise.

That is why today, on this cold Easter morning, we read Mark’s Easter story.  His gospel that tells the truth not only of Jesus’ resurrection but also of our lives.

For the promise of life not only after death, but life in spite of death, we have no words. Except maybe one? A holy and broken “Hallelujah.”

 

 

 

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday (29 March 2018)

Exodus 12.1-14 and John 13.1-17, 31b-35

JoAnn A. Post

His daughters were raised around the church building, as were mine.  We call a pastor’s children “church monkeys,” because they get into absolutely everything. He knew that his children had figured out how to hack onto his computer to play games, and that they knew where the secret office key was hidden, but he didn’t know they were also listening. To every word he spoke.

One Sunday afternoon as he read the newspaper in the living room, he heard tussling upstairs in the children’s room. He ran upstairs to find the older daughter smothering the younger with a blanket shouting, “Admit it! You’re captive to sin and cannot free yourself!”

He freed the little one, reprimanded the big one, and couldn’t get the scene out of his mind.

His children had been listening to every word. And they knew what “captive” meant. Do we?

Though we sometimes speak of being trapped in a deadend job, an unhealthy relationship, in poverty, by addiction, do we regard those circumstances as “captivity?” Can we free ourselves from any of those traps?  Not easily.

This night marks the beginning of the Great Three Days.  We follow Jesus’ path from the Last Supper to the Foot of the Cross. Our liturgies try to soften the blow a bit, sanitizing the stink of it with beautiful music and studied sorrow. But the truth is that Jesus was captive, enslaved, bound. By choice. Unlike us, Jesus could have freed himself at any point, but he chose not to. Instead, as we will read tomorrow evening, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth.”

He was willingly a captive so we might be free.

But tonight we linger a moment in what it means for us to be captive.

Tomorrow night our Jewish brothers and sisters will mark the event of which we read tonight—Passover, the end of their captivity in Egypt millennia ago. Did they tremble as they slaughtered the lambs, as they ate the odd meal mandated by God? Did they cringe as the angel of death passed over their homes, as they heard the keening wails of Egyptian parents whose children were not spared? When morning dawned on the following day, they would be captive no longer. But their freedom was bought with a price.

We echo Peter’s horror as Jesus kneels to wash his feet, “You will never wash my feet!” Like him, we are captive to shame about our bodies, to the belief that we neither serve nor want to be served. Captive to pride.

And, as my friend’s daughters so powerfully demonstrate, we are also captive to sin. Those things we do and fail to do, sins of omission and commission. Remember the words with which we confessed on the Sundays of the Epiphany season?

We have spoken or acted too quickly;

we have not spoken or acted at all;

we have hurt those closest to us;

we have hurt those we have yet to know;

we have thought more about ourselves than others;

we have thought less of ourselves than we ought.*

Admit it. We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. But another can. Jesus frees us from our bondage the ways of the world and the fears of our hearts.  And because we are so freely loved, we freely love in return.

With our hands. With our hearts. With our feet. With our lives.

*Copyright © 2018 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #SAS004195.

 

 

 

Sunday of the Passion

Sunday of the Passion (25 March 2018)

Mark 14.1-15.47

JoAnn A. Post

They were waiting at the O’Hare with a hand-lettered sign that said, “Welcome Home to Chicago!” in both English and Greek. My husband spotted them as he waited at baggage claim Thursday. After all, it was hard to miss the tall bearded man in dark priestly garb, his beautifully dressed wife, and seven children wearing elite infantry dress, similar to that worn by guards at the Parliament in Athens.

Since the baggage carousel was slow to start (it was O’Hare), my husband approached them, wondering if they might be waiting for Metropolitan Nathanael, new head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago. Indeed they were—the Metropolitan was coming home to Chicago for his enthronement after festivities around his ordination in New York City. Though subdued, perhaps it served as a suitable welcome for a servant of the church.

Contrast that with the parade that will greet the Ramblers when they come home. Even if they don’t take the tournament, their performance so far has been nothing short of miraculous. Maybe it’s Sister Jean’s fierceness, or just years and years of disciplined coaching and team development, but what the Loyola Ramblers have done is historic. And the parade will be massive.

Greeting royalty when they come to town. There is no playbook for that.

In a single short hour this morning we trace Jesus’ path from ticker tape parade in Jerusalem to his elevation on a cross on the outskirts of the city. He will be greeted at every turn of his journey—palm fronds and Hosannas at the gates of the city. Oil and tears greet him as his feet are washed in Bethany. In the Garden, he will be hailed by soldiers and a betrayer’s kiss. The High Priest will mock him. Pilate will pity him. Crowds will demand his blood. And finally, as he processes toward the cross, there will be no one. No one but a stranger named Simon and an unnamed Centurion to mark his passing.

How can this be? Isn’t Jesus “royalty” of the first order? King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Shouldn’t he have been greeted better? Treated better? Feted better?

Yesterday morning as my husband and I drove to Chicago for the Enthronement of Metropolitan Nathanael of the Greek Orthodox Church (he received a proper processional during the liturgy, by the way) our car merged with yet another parade. Thousands and thousands of cars were headed to Union Park for the youth march to address gun violence. As we exited on Ohio, the parade continued on to Ogden and I shouted across the Expressway: “March for your lives!”

Parades are funny things. There is always someone who cheers. There is also always someone who jeers. Today both crowds will be present; both reactions to Jesus will be shouted. And we? Where will we stand as the procession goes by? With him? Against him? Unsure of him.

Regardless of how we feel about Jesus as we enter this Holy Week, I know for certain that as he parades and processes, he marches for our lives.

Vespers in the Fifth Week of Lent

Vespers in the Fifth Week of Lent (21 March 2018)

Daniel 3.1-29

JoAnn A. Post

King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” Therefore, as soon as all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, all the peoples, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.

Accordingly, at this time certain Chaldeans came forward and denounced the Jews. They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! You, O king, have made a decree, that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, shall fall down and worship the golden statue, and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire. There are certain Jews whom you have appointed over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These pay no heed to you, O King. They do not serve your gods and they do not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar was so filled with rage against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that his face was distorted. He ordered the furnace heated up seven times more than was customary, and ordered some of the strongest guards in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and to throw them into the furnace of blazing fire. So the men were bound, still wearing their tunics, their trousers, their hats, and their other garments, and they were thrown into the furnace of blazing fire. Because the king’s command was urgent and the furnace was so overheated, the raging flames killed the men who lifted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But the three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down, bound, into the furnace of blazing fire. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up quickly. He said to his counselors, “Was it not three men that we threw bound into the fire?” They answered the king, “True, O king.” He replied, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the fourth has the appearance of a god.” 

Nebuchadnezzar then approached the door of the furnace of blazing fire and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!” So Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out from the fire. And the satraps, the prefects, the governors, and the king’s counselors gathered together and saw that the fire had not had any power over the bodies of those men; the hair of their heads was not singed, their tunics were not harmed, and not even the smell of fire came from them.

Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins; for there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way.”

Herald: His royal highness, Christopher Rupert, son of her majesty Queen Constantina Charlotte Hermantrude Guenivere Mazie . . .

Boy: Mazie?

Herald: Mazie . . Margaret Ann is giving a ball!

(“The Prince is Giving a Ball!”

Rogers and Hammerstein, “Cinderella,” 1965)

It was all larger than life when I was six years old. Some of you may remember Roger and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” which first aired in 1965. It was an impossible story of an impossibly wicked stepmother, an impossibly gorgeous Cinderella, an impossibly hunky Prince, an impossibly generous Fairy Godmother. More than once, I remember falling asleep still singing of impossible things and lovely nights.

Everyone knew the story was fanciful, but it spoke to the deep longings of both children and adults to live in a world in which the innocent would be protected, the wicked would be punished, and the slipper would always fit.

I hope not to offend anyone here, but the Story of the Fiery Furnace played just such a role for our ancient Jewish ancestors—ancestors who were persecuted, tortured and ridiculed. The Book of Daniel is a collection of folktales—this and “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” being the most famous—from a period more than 500 years before the birth of Christ.  In Daniel’s book, there are no waifs sitting in ashes or pumpkin-shaped carriages. Instead, the innocents needing protection were the Jews. The role of the wicked stepmother was played by a succession of evil Babylonian rulers, hell-bent on destroying the Jews in their midst.  And the good guys, the slipper-fitters?

This wild story of three men—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—was intended to inspire Jews under persecution. The story telling is masterful, rushing headlong through lists of dignitaries as long as Her Majesty Queen Constantina’s name (satraps, prefects, governors and counselors . . .) and musical instruments we’ve never heard of (horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp . . .) until the action screeched to a halt at the door of the fiery furnace—a furnace so hot it melted the men who stoked it.

In an epic contest of wills, the delusional, boastful King Nebuchadnezzar gave his young Jewish victims one more chance to worship the massive statue he had built. But their profession of faith scorched the wicked king as severely as the fire had annihilated the poor schmucks who built it: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Such courage is the stuff of fairy tales. Who else, faced with certain incineration, would so boldly, almost cavalierly taunt the only one who could save them?

Well, I can think of one. Daniel might call him the Fourth Man. That fourth figure in the fire that had the appearance of a god. But we know better. We would name that singular courageous figure “Jesus.”

Behind us, on these Lent Wednesdays, lie gallons and gallons of water: the dark deep of creation, Noah’s endless rain storm, the vast sea which Moses parted, the promise of free water to all who thirst. Tonight the threat to God’s people is from fire—a death to horrible to contemplate. And ahead us? Ahead of us is yet another danger, another threat to those who cling to the God of our ancestors.

Before us lies a cross. And there is only one who can climb it, only one whom it cannot destroy, only one whose faith is strong enough to face threats more thorough than either drowning water or consuming fire.

In a few short days, we will mark Jesus’ confident procession toward what looks, for all the world, like death. He will be undeterred by either praise or protest, but will trust in God to carry him through with both unmoistened foot and without a whiff of fire on his clothes.

To the unbelieving, the Gospel story we tell is as fanciful as “Cinderella” or the “Fourth Man in the Fire,” but to we who are perishing it is life abundant which neither water nor fire can destroy.

Song of the Day:The Fourth Man,” by Arthur Smith (1955), recorded by The Statesmen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aR0Zy4bDcyI)

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (18 March 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

John 12.20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Those words were carved into the marble pillar at the base of the staircase that led up to the canopied pulpit lit by a single dove-shaped spotlight. It was my first time occupying the lofty pulpit that had for generations been occupied by powerful preachers. I was also a first for them. No woman had ever been called as a pastor there; no ordained woman had ever stepped foot in that storied pulpit. So even though the marble pillar reminded me it was Jesus all those people had come to see, it was my face they would be studying.

I took the call to that wonderful downtown cathedral church at the ripe old age of 29. It was a plum of a call. Not just anyone was called to be an associate pastor there, so to be called at all was a deal. To be the first woman was, thirty years ago, a big deal.

Did I do my gender proud that morning? Was it worth all the money and time they had spent vetting me for the call? Who knows. But I know this. I was frightened as a rabbit that first time in their pulpit, so If they saw Jesus, it was purely by accident.

As you know, that carved quote is from today’s gospel reading in the 12th chapter of John. On the afternoon of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, (John 12.12ff) of which we will read next Sunday, a group of Greek tourists were intrigued by Jesus. They inquired of Jesus’ disciple Philip, himself from Greece: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip conveyed the request to Andrew who in turn brought it to Jesus. Here’s the funny thing about the Greek’s request. Jesus never got back to them. They never saw Jesus. At least, not the way they imagined.

But everybody else did. Everybody else saw Jesus.

For some reason, the request for an audience with the Greeks put Jesus in a reflective mood. He turned to Andrew and Philip and gave them a crash course in discipleship. Here’s how this goes, he said.

  1. You are a seed that lives only if it dies.
  2. This life is pointless without the promise of life forever.
  3. There are no masters here, only servants; no leaders, only followers.

And then, almost to himself, he said, “Now my soul is troubled.”

This is where John’s Jesus departs from the story the gospel writers Matthew, Mark and Luke tell.  In those Gospels Jesus struggles with the decision to go to the cross, to be humiliated, to die. But not in John. Jesus says, sotto voce, “Should I ask my Father to take this suffering away? No! This is why I came.”

And his decision to accept suffering was met with a clap of thunder, a heavenly voice, and an assurance. “They will all see me. When I am lifted up. When I am glorified. They will all see me then.”

Long ago I decided I wanted to have it all.  That is, to have the “all” that mattered to me. I wanted to be a good daughter. I wanted to be a good wife. I wanted to be a good mother. I wanted to be a good pastor. I wanted enough to live and some to share.  Those things might not be on your “have it all” list, but they were on mine.  And I have them all.

But, having made that decision means that another decision was, implicitly, made for me. Specifically, the dream of being pastor of a really, really big church. I’ve been in the business for more than 30 years, and have had a couple of opportunities to do the big church—thousands in worship, big staff, enormous buildings, huge budget, broad reach. It’s incredibly tempting. But not a good idea.

First, I know that to take on that kind of challenge meant I might not be able to have the “all” I always wanted. Friends have done it with aplomb, but I’m not sure I could have. But second, and most damning, is I know myself. I find myself fascinating. And a larger stage would only create a larger ego—not a more faithful servant.

I have always been convicted by the Greek’s request, “Ma’am, we wish to see Jesus. Not you.”

Regardless of the life choices you have made, or what is on your “have it all” list, those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus have had one important decision made for us—Jesus will be seen in us, through us, sometimes, in spite of us.

What would it mean for others to “see Jesus” in us?  To forgive when we are wronged. To be satisfied with enough. To shoulder another’s burden. To give glory rather than take it. To be servants rather than masters.

Can I tell you one more funny (now) story about the “Sir, we would see Jesus” church? A couple of years into my call there, a long-time leader and I had a disagreement about a program we were launching. I didn’t realize I had overstepped my bounds until he raised his voice: “Do you know why we called you here?” (I assumed it was because I was a good pastor.) “We called you here because you look like the kind of person I want to worship here. Young. Pretty. Married. Children. That’s why you’re here. To draw other people like you. Don’t forget it.”

Was he telling the truth or just really angry? I’ll never know.

But, sir, I thought they wanted to see Jesus, not just a mirror image of themselves. In fact, though humiliating, it was a clarifying moment. When it was next my turn to occupy that beautiful pulpit, his words propelled me up the stairs. It was not about me. Never had been. Never would be. They wanted to see Jesus.

Even when our own words and works fail, as they so often do, the world still longs to see Jesus. Whether by day we are pastor or plumber, wife or window washer, in fact, we are Philip. We are Andrew. Others come to us for an introduction to our master. To see Jesus.

And soon they will. All the world will see Jesus. Planted like a seed in the ground. Alive though dead. Servant of sinners. Lifted high on a cross.

The world is waiting to be introduced. The world is still asking, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Will they?