24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (15 November 2020)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 25.14-30

Jesus said to the disciples: “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 

After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 

Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

I came to faith in the age of Sunday School leaflets. Each week my Sunday School teachers (who were also my aunts) distributed beautiful, four-page, full-color leaflets to each of us as we walked in the classroom door. On the cover of the leaflet was a beautiful drawing of the bible story for the day. Inside were crossword puzzles and coloring pages and prayers, pictures of rosy cheeked children doing good things, as Jesus did good things.

Those Sunday School leaflets were a weekly treasure; we clutched them in our sweaty little hands all morning, as though they were gold. And those leaflets, that quaint, mid-century art taught me everything I knew about Jesus.

That’s why, in the age in which I came to faith, Jesus and the disciples looked like me: white skin, blue eyes, smooth, fair hair. I didn’t give it a second thought, assuming that his world was like mine. After all, what other world did I know?

That’s why, on the long-ago Sunday when our country Sunday School class discussed this morning’s gospel reading (yes, I remember the leaflet)—The Master Who Gave Away Talents—I assumed a “talent” to Jesus was the same thing as a “talent” to me. And I wondered, what were those five talents, those two talents, that one talent the master gave his servants?

Tap dancing? Card playing? Running faster than their brothers? Being the best speller in second grade? Singing like an angel? (Those are the talents I wanted, so why wouldn’t they?)

Somehow, eight-year-old me missed the end of the story—the part about investing talents and burying talents. So, it came as a surprise to me, as I grew in faith and understanding, to learn that a “talent” to Jesus was not a fabulous flair, but a measure. And a big one at that.

Scholars differ on their estimates, but a talent in the 1st century was both a measure of weight (like a bushel and a peck) AND a measure of money (like dollars and cents). And both meanings of “talent” were significant. Some estimate a monetary talent in Jesus’ day to be worth about $25,000 in current dollars. (That’s a lot of tap shoes.)

So, as I grew into this story over the years, I became increasingly confused. The servants to whom the master entrusted his estate—each according to his ability—had, in fact, each been given a ton of money. I can understand entrusting great wealth—five talents—to one’s most trusted advisor, but why give so much—even 1 talent—to a servant who had no ability?

And, to add to the confusion, why did the first two servants have the good sense (or the hubris) to bet it all on the stock market and score a 100% return? I’m not sure that, if you gave me all your money, I’d race to Wall Street with it. And, if the first two had such extraordinary investing success, why did the third servant—the one of questionable ability—bury his in the ground, like a dog with a bone?

The more I knew, the less I knew.

And in studying those three servants so closely, I committed a classic mistake—whether you are a second-grade Sunday School student or a middle-aged pastor. I made the mistake of assuming this was about the servants. And, by extension, about me. And my talents, or lack thereof.

I assumed—in second grade—that Jesus wanted me to use whatever talents I had for good. (I was particularly adept at chasing barn cats—perhaps that was the talent Jesus gave me?)

I assumed—in middle-age—that Jesus wants me to be like those first two servants, to invest wisely, whether that is the investment of my wealth, my abilities or my time.

But this parable is not about those servants. Or me. Or you. Some of his parables are directed at his hearers—the “go and do likewise” stories. But not this one. This is not a children’s story tied up with a nifty moral at the end.

Remember my rule: Jesus gives away the subject of the parable in the first sentence? In this case, “It is as if a man, going on a journey . . . “

The parable of the Master Who Gave Away Talents is about the Master. The Master who gave it all away to his servants—ready or not.

The first two servants, recognizing the tremendous gift they had been given, wanted to be worthy of the master’s trust. So they took a chance—going off at once to multiply their master’s money. Out of respect. Out of gratitude. They regarded their master as generous, and wanted to be generous in turn.

But the third servant, the one with the shovel in his hand and dirt on his knees, despised the master. The servant regarded his master a bloviating bully who took credit for work he had not done: “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping what you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter.”

And because he regarded the master as small and selfish, he became exactly like the master he imagined.

This parable is not about what we think about ourselves—our ability to tap dance on a stage or around the facts—but about what we think about God. Who God is for us. For the world.

Like the servants in Jesus’ parable who thought of the master as they believed he thought of them, we expect God to think and act and judge as we do.

Here’s what I mean. If we know God to be generous, forgiving, gracious, we move through the world in the same way. Giving freely of our time and treasure, forgiving those who have wronged us, making space for second chances. Trusting that God has our best interests at heart. As did the first two servants.

But if we believe God to be stingy, angry, judgmental, harsh, we respond in kind, lashing out at God and each other. We become the Third Servant, burying all the good things we’ve been given in a hole in the ground.  We become all those things we first thought about our master. Stingy. Angry. Judgmental. Harsh.

Who is God for you? The generous giver of all good things, or a miser who cares nothing for us.

Remember in pre-pandemic days, when we gathered socially or professionally with strangers in crowded rooms at meetings and banquets? Remember cradling a cocktail or coffee cup in our hands as we talked? Yeah, a thousand years ago. 

I have met fascinating people in those spaces over the years, enjoyed intriguing and stimulating conversation. I loved those opportunities to meet people, make connections, tell stories. I remember often being surprised at how quickly the time passes. The gift of a person’s time and attention is a gift I don’t take lightly.

I also have uncomfortable memories of talking with “that person” at a social gathering who spends the whole time looking over my shoulder for a better conversation partner. The person who can’t wait to get away, because someone more important, more interesting, more attractive has caught their eye. Apparently, my time and attention are only place holders for the time and attention of a more valuable encounter.

Jesus’ parable is about gifts given to us by a Master who trusts us. Are those gifts enough? Do we value those gifts? Or are we always looking over God’s shoulder, wondering why we don’t have more, different, to our minds “better?”

 The Master entrusts each of us with “talents,” not tap dancing or yodeling, but valuable gifts to be shared. Even multiplied. Time. Wealth. Expertise.

The Master entrusts us with everything the Master owns. In a few short chapters, God will even surrender the greatest treasure, God’s only Son, Jesus, to an angry mob for our sake.

Do we value that treasure? Or dismiss it as not enough?

I never did learn to tap dance, but I can make gravy with no lumps; I can calm a crying child—skills that have been much more useful.  

But we have been entrusted with greater gifts than these. How shall we use them? If we use them well, if we use them for good, perhaps we will also be told, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 25.1-13

Jesus said to the disciples: 

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.

Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 

Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 

When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 

  but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 

As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 

But at midnight there was a shout,

  ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 

Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 

The foolish said to the wise,

  ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 

But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us;

  you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ 

And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came,

  and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet;

  and the door was shut. 

Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying,

  ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 

  But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ 

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is like an episode of “The Bachelor.” Ten young women, wearing uncomfortable, revealing dresses, vie for the eye of the, apparently, only eligible man in the county. What will they do to get his attention? To earn the coveted red rose? What horrible behavior will the bridesmaids have to endure; how deeply will they have to demean themselves? After all, only one can win the prized proposal. Stay tuned.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a presidential election; five bridesmaids wear red and five wear blue. Though publicly they promise to accept the groom’s decision, to remain friends at the end of the night, secretly they hate one another. They steal the other’s lamp oil. They accuse each other of seeking unfair advantage. How long must they wait to see the face of the elected one? Refresh.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .

Of all the Kingdom of Heaven parables in Matthew’s gospel, this one is least satisfying and most troubling. It reveals the ancient origins of the wedding industrial complex, which expects women to wait around in rented dresses for a man who might or might not show up. It portrays these young women as selfish and conniving, refusing to help one another, shoving each other out of the way like children on a playground. And the groom? More like Groomzilla. He’s no prize. He disregards the needs of his guests, by keeping them waiting without explanation. He ushers some of the bridesmaids in behind him, but slams the door on the others—the ones who had already been thrown under the bus by their alleged friends.

That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like? Endless waiting? Bad behavior? Sorting and rejecting on a whim? Who needs it?

We have to remember that, at this point in the Jesus story, he is only chapters away from being arrested like a common criminal, falsely accused, beaten, tortured and crucified. Though his disciples couldn’t know what lay ahead, Jesus did. He was, understandably, a little tense.

Jesus was also afraid. He feared that his disciples might not be up to the task. When, at the end of the parable, he says “Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” I wonder if he was throwing shade at Peter, who, in the Garden of Gethsemane would, in fact, fall asleep on his watch?

Regardless of who knew what when, no one comes out of this parable unscathed. They all fail—bridesmaids, grooms, disciples. Do we fail, too? Would we pass the Wide-Awake Waiting Test?

In some ways, this is an unintended Pandemic Parable. We are in our ninth month of waiting for an end to our vigil—we could have all had babies by now. But what, exactly are we waiting for? And how far have we fallen as we wait? It seems our goal is no longer to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, working together to protect and defend, caring most for the least. Instead we blame. And accuse. And threaten. And try not to die.

We are not waiting very well. For anything. We look a lot like foolish bridesmaids and selfish grooms.

I love having interns at Ascension. They bring a new energy, new questions, new challenges to me and to the congregation. But interns also bring with them a slew of paperwork—evaluations and applications and reviews and reports.

When a congregation applies for an intern, both student and supervisor have to fill out reams of forms intended to find a perfect match. One of the forms presents the supervisor with a Likert scale, asking us to place ourselves somewhere on a five-point scale with regard to various personal preferences about being a pastor. Do you find greater energy working alone or with others? Do you lead from the front or the back? Do you easily disclose personal information or maintain high boundaries?

And the question that always gives me pause, because the answer seems so obvious, posits these two poles, “The pastor’s personal life is nobody’s business,” or, “The pastor must live a life above reproach.”

I hope you don’t have to wonder where I fall on that scale. Of course, I believe pastors are held to a higher standard, in every way. That doesn’t mean I meet those expectations every day, on every front, but you should be able to trust that I try, that I long to be faithful in all my words and actions.

Who would disagree with that, you ask? Who would want their pastor to be just like everybody else?

Well, lots of people. Because the counter argument is that all who name Jesus’ name—ordained or not—ought to be above reproach. That all of us—ordained or not—ought to be faithful in word and deed. It’s not that some of my colleagues imagine they should be able to side hustle as serial killers or pole dancers, but that all Jesus’ disciples should be held to a higher standard. That all Jesus’ disciples demonstrate coherence between what we say we believe and the way we live.

Meanwhile, back at the wedding, ten young women are slumped on the curb in various stages of slumber. Drooling on their dresses. Crumpling their corsages. Trying not to miss their shot.

And when the shout is finally heard, “The Groom is coming! The Groom is coming!” they slip into their four-inch sling-backs, and hold their lamps high to light the way of the one, long-expected.

Putting aside all my difficulties with the caricatures of these women and the inconsistencies of the story, the Kingdom of Heaven is like ten bridesmaids, five who were foolish and five who were wise.

What makes the difference between wise and foolish?

The wise knew their job was to wait—as long as it took.

The wise knew that plans rarely go according to plan.

The wise knew that, regardless of what others around them might do or say or think, they had to be always ready, always aware, always above reproach. Because they had a single task. To light the way for the one who was coming.

Though none of us looks is particularly fetching in a bridesmaid’s dress, we are like those women. We have a single task, we who wait for signs of Jesus’ coming.

And though the rest of the world descends into partisan bickering, cruel stereotypes, and shameless self-promotion, we do not.  Whether we wait for the announcement of an election, or the taming of a pandemic, or the easing of a private and paralyzing fear, we wait with expectation. Because we—Jesus’ disciples, bridesmaids and groomsmen for his party—know that we have a single task.

To light his way in a dark world. And to illumine that path for others. Rejoicing as we wait.

Festival of All Saints

Festival of All Saints (1 November 2020)

Revelation 7.9-17

JoAnn A. Post

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count,

  from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,

  standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white,

  with palm branches in their hands. 

They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
 “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne,

     and to the Lamb!”

And all the angels stood around the throne

  and around the elders and the four living creatures,

  and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
 “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
 and thanksgiving and honor and power and might
 be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying,

  “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 

I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”

Then he said to me,

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal;

  they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
  and worship him day and night within his temple,
  and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
  the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
  and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
 and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

            
Do you hear the people sing?

               Singing the songs of angry men?

               It is the music of the people

               Who will not be slaves again!

               When the beating of your heart

               Echoes the beating of the drums

               There is a life about to start

               When tomorrow comes!

Do You Hear the People Sing?

“Les Misérables,” Boublil and Kretzmer (1980)

If you are fan of Broadway musicals, as am I, you recognize these lyrics as a fighting song, a triumph song of those crushed under the stiletto of France in the 19th century. They sing of freedom from slavery. They sing of self-determination. They sing of a willingness to die for the sake of greater life. There is no mistaking either the hope of these lyrics, or the hierarchy they seek to overthrow.

               For all the saints, who from the labors rest,

               Who thee, by faith, before the world confessed. (ELW 422)

If you are fan of Lutheran hymnody, as am I, you recognize these lyrics as a fighting song, a triumph song of those crushed under the heel of human authority in this and every century.

What? What fight? What heel? What are you talking about?

Perhaps, like me, you were lulled by the dulcet tones of this morning’s reader, the image of white robed martyrs standing at the throne of God, the promise of food and drink, of safety, of dry eyes.

Perhaps, like me, you wept through the words of our Gathering Song: “Oh blest communion, fellowship divine . . .”

But the Festival of All Saints is not a day for peaceful reminiscence. It is a day of rebellion, of mutiny, it is a holy insurrection.

For as we gather on this Festival of All Saints, the drums of heaven are beating, the martyrs of heaven are marching, the choirs of heaven are poised to sing.

But unlike the rebellions and mutinies, uprisings and insurrections from history, or that we suffer in these fraught days, today not a weapon is lifted, not a shot is fired, not one person is harmed or even frightened.

Because this is a regal rebellion, a majestic mutiny, an uprising rivaled only by resurrection. And no political party, no armed militia, no virus or vitriol can hold a candle to its power.

You probably don’t see that, do you?

When we read these encouraging words from Revelation, we typically hear heavenly voices and feel the brush of angels’ wings. We long to belong to that great multitude, too numerous to count, who are promised a day when “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more, when every tear will be dried.”

Yes, it is right to take comfort in those words.

But the fightin’ words, the rebellion I referenced? Take note of where this scene unfolds, who it is who sings and who receives their song: “Every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages standing around the throne.”

Whose throne? Not the emperor’s. Not a president or prime minister. This numberless choir sings allegiance and adoration to God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.

And while we eagerly lean toward that day when we and all the faithful who have gone before us sing together in endless song, the first readers of this text had something else in mind.

Here’s a little background. When the text of Revelation was first imagined, late in the 1st century, the people of God who lived in Rome were forced to worship the emperor as though he were a god. God’s people were to swear allegiance to a human being, who either by right of birth or through military conquest, occupied the throne of a kingdom that stretched thousands of miles. At the time of this writing, the Roman Empire was near its zenith—the largest empire ever to exist in western civilization. A kingdom that included people of every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages.

And regardless of what those nations, those tribes and peoples might have believed in their hearts, on their lips they carried words of praise for the emperor. And those who did not, those who refused to worship this self-anointed god? It did not go well for them.

That is why, in a sacred sleight of hand, the writer of Revelation, himself an unwilling servant of Rome, imagines a day when those same people, now crushed under the heel of Rome, would stand strong, together, singing so loud as to burst their lungs.

God’s people, freed from tyranny, freed from empire, freed from fear, pledge allegiance to the only One deserving of blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might. In the 1st century and in ours.

Today we strain to hear those heavenly voices, those we love who have already joined that holy choir. We search that numberless throng for the faces of our spouses and children, our friends and neighbors, the faithful who will, one day, greet us as we pass through those gates of pearl.

But it was not only in 1st century Rome, or 19th century France, that God’s people struggled to know whom to trust, whom to praise. In our own time, we hear voices praising human leaders as though they were gods. “This one will save us!” some cry. “That one will destroy us!” others fear. I don’t know about your ballot, but neither Jesus nor Satan was on mine.

As important as this and every election is, the people we choose to lead us have limited authority, no lasting power. They are mere mortals like us, entrusted, for a time, with leadership.

We pray for them, but not to them. We respect them, but do not worship them. They do not hold our hearts. They do not save our souls. They do not speak as gods or for God. I fear that sometimes we forget that.

The Festival of All Saints is a stake in the ground, a line in the sand, a barrier none can cross. Because on this day, we sing songs, not of angry men, but of a countless host whose confidence in God is rewarded with peace, with protection, with tearless faces and endless joy.

Today we remember the blessed dead, and praise the Lamb who led them safely from this world to the next. And as much as we long to see them again, we practice their song in our time. Praising the one true God. Loving the Lamb who was slain. Trusting the Spirit who leads where we cannot see. Today we “give thanks for those whose faith is firm when all around seems bleak.”

Blessed All Saints. Christ is King. There is no other. Can you hear the people sing?

Reformation Sunday

Reformation Sunday with Affirmation of Baptism (25 October 2020)

Matthew 22.34-46

JoAnn A. Post

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,

   they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer,

  asked him a question to test him. 

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 

He said to him, ““You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,

  and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 

This is the greatest and first commandment. 

And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together,

  Jesus asked them this question: 

“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?”

They said to him, “The son of David.” 

He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
 ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
 “Sit at my right hand,
  until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 

No one was able to give him an answer,

  nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

I drive by the sign almost every day. Planted in the grassy strip between the sidewalk and Dundee Road is a placard that reminds, “Love your neighbor!” Its been there almost since the beginning of the pandemic. And, unlike the political placards that drop like dog poop on our lawns, this sign has never been stolen or defaced. I suppose that, though we might disagree about who to elect as dog catcher, no one disagrees with “Love your neighbor.”

That’s really sad. Sad that no one disagrees with that statement. Because, after eight months of pandemic lock-down, and “love your neighbor” reminders from every politician and pundit, that sentiment has grown obvious, ubiquitous, innocuous. Like “merge left” or “make way for ducklings.”

But “love your neighbor” isn’t a platitude, it’s a challenge. Those words should raise both the hackles on our necks and our blood pressure. Those words should clench our fists and our jaws. “Love your neighbor” wasn’t coined by Anthony Fauci or Lori Lightfoot. It comes straight from the mouth of God who needed to say it because God’s people weren’t doing it.

How do I know that was God’s motivation? Because we don’t need to be reminded of things we already know.

For example, when my children were small, I filled their ears with reminders each morning as they left for school. I didn’t shout after them, “Breathe in and out!” I didn’t remind them, “Put one foot in front of the other!” I didn’t have to, because breathing and walking are automatic, natural. What did I call after them? Things I feared they would forget. “Be nice to Jamie today—his grandma is sick.” “Eat your sandwich before you eat your cookie!” “Look both ways before you cross the street.”

I knew they would exercise their autonomic and bipedal tendencies. But I didn’t know if they would remember to be kind, to eat well, to be careful.

Loving our neighbors doesn’t come naturally, either. If we were already, reflexively, loving our neighbors, scripture would not have to address the issue of “neighbor” 89 times—bombarding us with reminders to care for the other, the outsider, any who are in need. If neighbor love were as natural as breathing, God wouldn’t have to call after us every single morning, “Don’t forget to love your neighbor!”

But God does. Every day. Reminding us to reject our reptilian impulses to self-protect, and instead to embrace God’s impulse to welcome without condition or question.

Because neighbor love is so alien to our natures and so central to God’s, “love your neighbor” is our refrain on this Reformation Sunday.

We heard it first in the Leviticus reading (Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18): reminders to judge justly, to hold our tongues, to give up our grudges and reject revenge. To love our neighbors.

We heard it again in the gospel, as Jesus lifted love of neighbor to the same level as loving God. After all, Jesus says, we cannot do one without the other. We cannot love God without loving our neighbors, and our love of neighbors reveals something about our love of God.

So, given that rigorous standard—exercising love of God and of neighbor simultaneously—how are we doing? What do you think? Might we need to be reformed?

I am not often enraged—I usually simmer somewhere around “irritated.” But two weeks ago, we learned that one of my dear old aunts in Iowa was hospitalized and gravely ill with Covid-19. After seven months of zero cases in the facility in which she lives, she and another resident contracted the virus. How did that happen? Did the corona virus sneak under her door like second hand smoke, or drop from the sky like an autumn leaf? No, it walked in the door with a human being—a staff member? another resident?—who carried the virus with them.

“Enraged” would be an accurate description of my reaction.

I received the text message about my aunt in the middle of my Thursday morning Bible study. Ask anyone who was on that zoom call—I went nuts. “Who did this to her? Who carried the virus in to all those old people? Anyone who says the corona virus is going away is lying! Anyone who thinks that because it hits old people hardest it doesn’t matter, is just cruel! Anyone who thinks a mask is a political statement, is just . . .!”

I muted my mic and turned off my camera so they wouldn’t hear the foul language or see the stomping. I was so angry. So frustrated. Because I was so scared.

But do you see I did? Did you see what just happened? Out of love for an aunt who is as dear as my mother, I decided to hate that unnamed other, the person who—perhaps unknowingly and innocently—carried the virus into her life. Were I a more uniformly good neighbor I might have asked a few questions before coming unglued. Questions like: Has that person fallen ill, as well? Are they going to be okay? What about the other residents and staff? I never bothered to wonder, or to care.

Of course, my aunt is my neighbor. But that other person is, as well. That other person is loved by God, in need of compassion, worthy of respect and forgiveness. Not my R-rated rants and unjust judgements.

 “Love your neighbor” is a lesson that needs to be learned again and again, the reminder God whispers in our ears as we step into the world each day. “Don’t forget. Love your neighbor!”

In a moment you will meet neighbors dear to us all. Nine confirmands who are models of faithful living, who deliberately choose discipleship, who have been raised in homes that are loving and kind and attentive to the neighbor. When they were baptized, in congregations all over the Midwest, their parents and baptismal sponsors made some mighty promises. They promised to raise their children in the faith, to place in their hands the holy scriptures, to accompany them to the Lord’s table, to nurture them in faith and prayer, to be kind, to care, to seek justice.

And, to a household, those promises have been kept.

Today, under circumstances no one could have imagined on their baptism days, those small children now moving toward adulthood grab those promises from their parents like the steering wheel of the car, “Here, let me take that.” And, to a person, they make those same promises for themselves.

One of my favorite pastor things to do is to lay hands on the heads of those who affirm their baptism. To press the Spirit into their heads and hearts. But this year, I cannot, because we cannot be together. But it is not as great a loss as I had imagined. In a twist of faith, those same parents who promised to raise their children in the faith years ago, pass those promises along today.

We asked each family to pick a place that matters, and to record privately the laying on of hands we would ordinarily witness and applaud.

Our confirmands kneel at the edge of Lake Michigan as their parents pray over them. On a baseball diamond. On the porch. In a park. In the safety of their living room or backyard. One of our families placed Grandpa’s stole over their son as they prayed—the stole of the grandpa pastor who baptized him years ago.

And over their kneeling offspring, the parents lay trembling hands on bowed heads and pray an ancient prayer: “Stir up in our son, stir up in our daughter, the gift of your Holy Spirit.”

If you wonder what it looks like to be a neighbor, watch closely. Today our confirmands teach us through their witness, their words, their willingness to follow Jesus.

Loving our neighbor need not be a herculean task, requiring great strength and an iron will. Loving the neighbor might mean advocating for world peace on a national stage or taking a bullet for a stranger. But it might also mean something smaller, closer to home. It might mean tending to the person next to us, no matter how small the need or how different the neighbor might be.

Earlier this week, a masked man tapped on the window of my car at the gas station. “Excuse me, ma’am, but my van is running on empty and I need $60 to fill it.” I never, ever have cash, but that day, for some reason, I had three twenties in my wallet. Should I have interrogated him before honoring his request, asked for a receipt? No. he was a neighbor in need and I had the means to help. Why wouldn’t I?

Only a day later, I absentmindedly walked into my local grocery store without wearing a mask. I couldn’t have been more than two steps inside the door, when an employee came running toward me. What did he do? Did he accuse me of being a narcissistic Neanderthal for refusing to wear a mask? (Which is probably what I would have done.) No. He said, “Here’s a fresh mask. I forget mine in the car all the time, too.” That’s a good neighbor.

Reformation Sunday used to be celebrated as an homage to the theological battles of the 16th century. But we don’t fight those fights anymore. Instead, Reformation Sunday is an annual opportunity to ask again how it is that we as a church and as individual disciples need to be re-shaped, re-calibrated, re-formed for ministry in our time and place.

How are we being re-formed today? By learning to love our neighbors. It is a harder lesson for some of us than for others.

In what is nothing short of a miracle, my dear aunt survived Covid-19, and has been returned to her comfortable room in the lovely care facility that she calls home. Every day, she is treated with respect and kindness by staff members who get paid next to nothing to do heroic work. I am ashamed at how quickly I questioned their commitments, their care. Sometimes, I’m not much of a neighbor. But they are. To my aunt and everyone they meet.

What would it look like for you, for me to be a good neighbor?

It doesn’t need to be hard.  Pay for a tank of gas. Wear a mask. Keep a promise. Hold your tongue. Offer a hand. Think the best rather than the worst of the other.

These are the things neighbors do. And when we do, we witness not to our goodness but to God’s who, every morning calls to us as walk out the door. “Don’t forget. Love your neighbor!”

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (04 October 2020)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 21:33-46

Jesus said to the people, 

“Listen to another parable.

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,

  put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.

Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 

When the harvest time had come,

  he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 

But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 

Again he sent other slaves, more than the first;

  and they treated them in the same way. 

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 

But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves,

  ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 

So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 

Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 

They said to him,

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,

  and lease the vineyard to other tenants

  who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
 ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?
(Psalm 118.22)
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you

 and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 

The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces;

  and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables,

  they realized that he was speaking about them. 

They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds,

  because they regarded him as a prophet.

The letter was practically radioactive; I’m surprised the envelope didn’t burn the mail carrier’s hand. It was delivered by certified mail to my friends, who own the property on which the letter-writer lives.

My friends own land and homes in many locations, each of them special in some way. One of their homes is a farm that has been in the family for four generations. Another is a summer cottage on the ocean. Yet another is a piece of timber waiting to be developed. And this one, the one that prompted this postal tirade, is valuable just because it’s pretty—secluded, wooded, idyllic. It might one day be the home to which my friends retire.

But for now, the home is leased to tenants on a handshake, tenants who have rented, seemingly happily, for five years. The landowners have been clear with their tenants that the property is not for sale, and that, when the time comes for my friends to retire, the tenants will be given ample time to relocate. Until recently, it was an arrangement that seemed to suit them all.

No one is sure what prompted this mailed missal, but Yikes! The renters posit that they have been renting-to-own all these years. They claim that the property was promised to them. They accuse my friends of letting the place fall into disrepair. They call my friends liars and cheats, “devious” was one of their descriptors. The letter went on and on. Apparently, the renters have been polling the neighbors, and say that all the neighbors agree with them—that the landlords are horrible people whom no one in the neighborhood has ever liked.

How do I know so much about this letter? They forwarded a copy to me, in disbelief and anger—after first sending a copy to their attorney. “What do we do with this?” my friends wrote. “Its all lies.”

Indeed, it is. All lies. Wishful thinking twisted into delusional reality. As we see in our smoldering political climate, in the absence of information we like, we manufacture plots and conspiracy theories until the world mirrors the one we have imagined. Until we actually believe the falsehoods we have fathered.

My friends’ disgruntled tenants bear striking similarity to the tenants in Jesus’ parable. And though the parable is fiction, a story intended to disarm, it is completely plausible. Except for the murder part. And the beating part. And the stoning part. And the killing the heir to acquire the inheritance part. Except for that, it could be my friends’ story.

Just as filled with delusion. Just as puzzling.

The legalities of the situation in Jesus’ parable are not in question. The tenants are tenants, the owner is the owner, there is a signed agreement about mutual responsibility. The rules have been clear from the beginning.

But, for reasons that elude, the tenants have forgotten their place; the tenants have forgotten whose land they tend; whose grapes they pick; whose harvest it is. Fueled by their fantasies, the tenants almost literally bite the hand that feeds them.

And, rather than acquiring title to the property and right to the harvest, as they had foolishly imagined, they are punished as severely as they punished the landlord’s servants and son. They paid for their delusion with their lives.

But here’s the thing. This is a parable, not a news report. A parable has to have a point. And an audience. In this case, an enraged one.

Surrounded by the temple’s religious leaders, the caretakers of all that was sacred, Jesus not so subtly implied that they were the ungrateful, misguided, delusional tenants in his parable. That they were the ones who had forgotten whose land they tended, whose crops they picked, whose harvest it was. That they, more to the point, were not caring for God’s holy place and God’s holy people, instead violating the trust God and God’s people had placed in them.

Is it any wonder the religious leaders plot to take Jesus’ life?

Is it any wonder we are left smugly shaking our heads? Stupid tenants. Stupid pharisees. Who would do that? Do you really want to know?

But here’s the more interesting thing. All the death and mayhem in Jesus’ parable distracts us from his true point. Perhaps you remember my theory that the point of Jesus’ parables is revealed by the subject of his first sentence? That Jesus gives the parable away in his first breath? I think its true today, as well.

Jesus does not begin his parable by saying, “Once upon a time there were ungrateful renters . . .” Instead he begins this way, “There once was a landlord . . .”

In all the steam created by huffing and puffing from the Pharisees, we have lost sight of Jesus’ true point. It’s not the renters. It’s the landowner. The landowner who is good and responsible, hardworking and fair. The landowner who does all the things a good vineyard owner would do—he planted vines, he built a fence, he dug a wine press and erected a watch tower. What more could a vineyard owner do?

Though the renters may be more interesting, Jesus wants us to notice the landlord. To admire the landlord. To trust the landlord. And in so doing to recognize not only the faithless tenants but the faithful master.

Jesus’ parable bears another striking similarity to the circumstance of my landowning friends. Because much of my friends’ outrage and confusion about the renters’ accusations, is that they are good landlords.

My friends faithfully maintain and improve the property and house. They rent below market rate because the renters are a young family of limited means. When the renters wanted to plant a garden, my friends paid for the supplies. When the renters wanted to raise chickens, my friends erected a coop. When the renters couldn’t make a payment, my friends forgave it.

If my friends, the land owners, were slumlords who took advantage of the poor, the renters’ anger might be understandable. But the renters’ case has no merit. Their “facts” are false. Their ingratitude astonishing.

So, what did my friends do upon receiving that especially special delivery? They did what good landlords do. They did what the landlord in Jesus’ parable did.

Let’s look back at the parable before we go on. After Jesus described the terrible tenants, he turned to his audience—the chief priests and pharisees—for legal advice. “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants,” Jesus asked.

And it is the pharisees and chief priests, the real-life model for the parabolic tenants, who advise murder. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Oops. At what point do you suppose they recognized their mistake? At what point do you suppose they realized they had just signed their own death warrant? Wicked tenants that they were.

But this parable is not about wicked tenants or misguided religious leaders or even about ungrateful us. This parable is about a landlord who is good and responsible, hardworking and fair. This parable is about God, whose generosity and goodness know no limit. In spite of the fact that we, the renters, forget God’s goodness and generosity. In spite of the fact that we, the renters, have convinced ourselves that all of this belongs to us—to use or abuse as we see fit. In spite of our selfishness and short-sightedness, God continues to be good.

We might want to chase each other around with pitchforks and tar, but that is not God’s way. Not with tenants in a parable. Not with pharisees in a temple. Not even with people like us, whose memories for wrong are long, but whose gratitude for goodness is short.

Perhaps like me, you were struck by the bold claim made in the prayer of the day that we offered at the beginning of worship. Here’s what we prayed: “Beloved God, from you come all things that are good.”

What a simple, necessary reminder that God loves us, gifts us, wants nothing but good for us. Even if we are rotten renters or faithless pharisees.

Meanwhile, back to my parable.

After receiving that highly-critical correspondence, my friends thoughtfully wrote back; their response was pointed but kind. They did not dispute the facts one-at-a-time or threaten to throw them out. Instead, they reminded the renters that the land did not belong to them—never had and never would—but that they were welcome to remain until such time as the landlords wanted it for themselves.

And in response to their response, the suddenly-repentant renters offered three simple sentences: “Thank you for your letter. We apologize for any misunderstanding. We are grateful to be able to make your home our home.”

We are so easily led into anger and accusation. We love to point the finger at other tenants, to find fault with other pharisees, to question God’s commitments.

But the story is not about us. The world is not about us. It is about God—a landlord who is good and kind, responsible and hardworking. A landlord from whose hands come all things good.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (10 May 2020)

John 14.1-14

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the disciples: “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.”

“Come through.”

I love that line. Crisp. Clear. Confident.

“Come through.”

We’ve all been watching way too much TV these days, and in my queue is Season 9 of “Doc Martin,” a quirky BBC production filmed in Cornwall. If you are unfamiliar with Doc Martin, let me describe him this way—Dr. Martin Ellingham is a small town physician, acerbic, authoritative, impatient, judgmental. In other words, Doc Martin is “Me” on my worst day. The “Me” I try to hide from you.

“Come through,” is Doc Martin’s “invitation” to patients in his surgery. Not “how are you?” or “good to see you” or “let’s talk.”

“Come through.”

And, to a person, his patients eagerly “come through” from the cramped waiting area into his equally cramped office. Why do Doc Martin’s patients tolerate his sharp judgments, his unsettling stare, his brittle silences? Because he is a brilliant diagnostician and physician. Because his only desire is to make them well. The residents of fictional Portwenn “come through” Doc Martin’s office door because they know, no matter who they are or what their illness, he “will see you now.”

In last Sunday’s gospel reading from John 10, Jesus described himself as “The Gate.” The gate that swings wide for all the sheep—those seeking shelter inside and those seeking fresh grass outside. To the relief of sinners and the consternation of skeptics, Jesus asks no questions of the sheep. Jesus’ sheep don’t have to perform or beg or promise to be better sheep. He loves them all, and, to a sheep, they gladly “come through” Jesus, the Good Gate.

“I am the Gate” is but one of seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel.

Today, we hear three more in rapid succession:

“I am the way.”

“I am the truth.”

“I am the life.”

Each of these “I am” statements leave ample room for interpretation, for speculation about what Jesus really means. The skeptics among us interpret them as they interpret “I am the Gate.” They hear exclusion, judgment. They see a narrow doorway, a quickly-closing opportunity.  They insert a silent “only.”  As in, “I am the only way, the only truth, the only life.”

To be honest, I don’t hear that silent modifier: “only.” Certainly, Jesus is the only Son of God, the only Savior, our only True Peace. That he is unique in all the world, in all creation, is not in question.

But his uniqueness does not mean that his followers are equally “select.” Jesus being “only” doesn’t mean that only a few are welcome on his way, only a few hear his truth, only a few receive his life. Jesus is not a boutique, an acquired taste, a “members only” club.

Jesus’ uniqueness means that he is unlike all other ways, all other truths, all other claims to “life.” And all of us are invited to follow his way. All of us can trust his truth. All of us can lean into his life.

Like the Gate that opens to all the sheep, Jesus is the Way that invites us all to “come through.”

The stay-at-home orders under which we all live right now, have afforded time not only to watch quirky BBC dramas, but also to read and to think. I have plowed through all my back issues of “The New Yorker” and “The Christian Century,” devoured the stack of books on my bedside table, monitored the explosion of information made available to the public about virology and epidemiology, about public policy and political maneuvering, about privilege and about poverty.

And I have been convicted.

I think of myself as ordinary, typical, like everybody else. Foolishly, I have assumed that my experience is normative, that my daily life mirrors the daily lives of other Americans. Don’t all Americans enjoy what I do? Food, shelter, health care, employment. Intellectually, I know otherwise, but my heart has been slow to learn.

What I have seen and read and heard in these last weeks has taught my heart painful truths. Housing insecurity has skyrocketed. 15% of us are unemployed. 20% of our children are hungry. 50% of small businesses don’t have reserves enough to survive this crisis. And, here’s the number that made crushed me this week: while 40% of those who have died of the virus live in communities of color, 90% of those who protest stay-at-home orders are white.

Apparently, I am not alone in my inability to imagine the ways, the truths, the lives of others. We want OUR ways, our truths, our lives to matter most.

To be honest, I am struggling. The inequities of our lives, previously hidden or, at least, shaded, are now glaring.

I’m not hard-hearted or uninformed; it just takes me awhile sometimes. And I am ashamed at how blind, how thoughtless, how selfish I have been. My address. My education. My wealth. My whiteness. They blind me. Without knowing or admitting it, I have been walking a way, trusting a truth, living a life, shutting a gate that leaves too many of Jesus’ other sheep in grave danger.

“I am the Way,” Jesus says, not to exclude but to welcome.

He is the Way, as a waiter invites you to a table: “Right this way.”

He is the Way, as a tour guide invites you to adventure: “Follow me.”

He is the Way, as an exhausted EMT invites you to safety, “I’ll take care of you.”

He is the Way, as Doc Martin invites sick Portwennians: “Come through.”

We are all being changed by our current, shared crisis. And those of us who might have imagined that life is good and the future is bright, have now met those whose lives are hard, whose futures are uncertain. Some of us have become them.

And we have had to admit that it is a shameful luxury, a sign of our unacknowledged privilege to imagine Jesus is The Way only for those who believe or think or live as we.

In fact, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life not only for us but for all the all the sick, all the scared, all the sinful.

Jesus is the Gate for all the sheep.

Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life for all of them, too.

Come through.

First Sunday in Lent

1 Lent (1 March 2020)

Matthew 4.1-11

JoAnn A. Post

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

All that we need, we already have.

Easy for me to say, isn’t it? Loving family. Safe home. Meaningful work. Faithful friends. And, as I was recently informed by a complete stranger, good bone structure. (I’m not sure if that was a compliment or a diagnosis.) What more could a middle-aged pastor want?

But it has not always been the case, at least I have not always had all those things.

This month I see my oncologist for my annual post-cancer check-up. I’m tempted to cancel the appointment since I feel so well, and because the cancer for which I was treated—years before you and I met—has been long silent.

Surprisingly, that diagnosis, that year of treatment, now eight years ago, keeps coming to mind. I interviewed candidates for internship here next year, and one of them asked about it. A recent diagnosis of cancer in my pool of friends reminded me. Yesterday we hosted a funeral for a woman not much older than I, felled by pancreatic cancer.

I normally go weeks, if not months, without thinking about my cancer, but these days it is very present.

For a year, I was away from work—too weak to do much of anything. For a year, my body daily betrayed me. For a year, my home felt alternately like a haven and a prison. For a year, I kept friends at bay, so focused on my own sorrows. It was hard. Some of you have lived that year, as well.

But that long year of treatment was also surprisingly confirmatory. It is not often the pastor has her public teaching challenged so personally. Do I really believe all the stuff I say to you? That year I learned that, yes, I do. Even then, in that wilderness of treatment, I believed what I still believe today: all that I need, I already have.

The other reason my long-ago illness has come to mind, believe it or not, is this gospel reading. I wonder if Jesus didn’t experience in his wilderness what I experienced in mine. Jesus, still wet behind the baptismal ears, newly-anointed Son of God, was tossed into an isolated desert region like a piece of trash. Left to wander alone, without food or friends, Jesus had nothing. Or, at least, that’s how it looks from the outside. And how it might have seemed, sometimes, to him.

Regardless of the reason for his Spirit-mandated quarantine, or his own assessment of the situation, when Jesus’ solitude was broken, it was not by the voice of an old friend with clean clothes or a food truck offering a hotdog, the Chicago Way. It was an insidious voice, a dangerous voice, a diabolical voice. It was Satan, who pads through the shadows like a panther. Always lurking, difficult to see. It was that purring voice that greeted Jesus at the end of his sojourn.

And Satan’s first words to a famished Jesus?

“All that you need, I already have.”

It’s not hard to imagine what Jesus might have needed after 40 days and 40 nights without a cup of coffee, without a shower, without his I-phone. But Satan seemed to know better. Satan peers more deeply. Satan knew that those obvious needs were ephemeral, easily met by just about anyone. Jesus’ true needs were deeper.

If Jesus is anything like us, he needed to be fed. He needed to know he mattered. He needed to know he was not a victim but a champion.

Satan promised to remedy all those ills. Bread finer than from any French bakery. Stadiums full of fans. Land and possessions and power.  It would have been tempting.

But there are two things wrong with Satan’s calculations, two reasons Jesus didn’t jump, didn’t bite, didn’t bow.

First, none of those things—food, prestige, power—is Satan’s to give. The dark powers of the world have nothing that we need, no real power over us. Who was Satan to make those promises?

Second, and more important, none of those things is what Jesus really needed.

You see, all that Jesus needed, he already had.

And he gives it, today, to us.

I can’t know what it is that prowls like a panther at the edges of your dreams. The wilderness in which you wander. The voice that calls to you from the shadows.

But I know what those things are for me. And I know how easily they overtake. But I am convinced that all I need, I already have.

Not everyone can say that.

This Lent we’re multiplying our efforts to both learn about and alleviate homelessness. Those homeless vets, those troubled teens, those exhausted angels who befriend and shelter them. Do they have all they need?

This Lent we watch with the whole world as a new virus grips the globe.

This Lent we wince at the mud wrestling that is our political system.

This Lent we fret as markets tumble and those of us with pearls, clutch them.

This Lent, too many of God’s children will be tossed, like trash, into a wilderness they didn’t choose.

What are we to do, those of us blessed to have all that we need?

First, we un-clutch our pearls, and un-clench our fists.

Then? We love them. We remember them. We feed them. We share our abundance. We care for them until they have all the need. We speak to them.

Imagine, for one horrible moment, that instead of asking about the wife and kids, my oncologist hesitates, turns to the scan on the screen. Imagine, for one horrible moment, that that thing you have feared all your life knocks on your door. Imagine, for one horrible moment, that your needs go unmet.

What will we do then, we wilderness wanderers?

We will do what Jesus did at the end of his testing, we will do what the faithful have always done in times of trouble.

We will cling to the One who holds true power.

We will claim our true needs, rather than the world’s false ones.

We will remind one another that all we need, we already have.

Because we have the love of Jesus. And we have each other. What more could we need?

 

 

 

Transfiguration of Our Lord

Transfiguration of Our Lord (23 February 2020)

Matthew 17.1-9

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

“And he was transfigured before them.” What does that even mean?

This moment in the Jesus story finds Jesus on a mountain, though not the same peak as the one from which he delivered the Sermon on the Mount, which we have been dissecting for the last three weeks.

On that mountain peak, Jesus was surrounded by adoring disciples and desperate crowds. On this mountain peak, Jesus is accompanied by only three disciples and two late arrivals.

On that mountain peak, every word was recorded for the sake of later disciples and further study. On this mountain peak, we know nothing of the script.

On that mountain peak, Jesus looked the way he always looked. On this mountain peak he looks like the sun, clothed in robes so bright they blind.

On that mountain peak, Jesus’ intention was clear. On this mountain peak?

We know what it is to disfigure. That is, to mar one’s appearance.

We know what it is to misfigure. That is, when things don’t add up.

We know what it is to not figure. That is, to matter not at all.

But to transfigure?  That’s what happened to Jesus.

The prefix “trans” means “across, beyond, through.” So, somehow, on this second mountain, Jesus’ “figure”—his being, his face—crossed through. His true being, his true face emerged through the limits of human flesh under the disguise of peasant clothes. And he was seen as his true self. Shining like the sun, robed in clothes so bright they blinded.

His true nature was confirmed by the sudden appearance of unlikely conversation partners—Moses and Elijah. Centuries-dead but, apparently, in Jesus’ reality, very much alive. His true nature was confirmed by the echo of the heavenly voice from his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

So, in Jesus’ transfiguration we learn that physicality is fluid, that time and distance are relative, that death is simply another state of being, that there is much more to Jesus than meets the eye.

All of that intrigue, that mystery, that physical impossibility is buried in six little words: “And he was transfigured before them.”

A long-time friend is, at this moment, falling in love. Divorced many years ago, contented in her single life, she had not sought committed companionship. But this remarkable, unassuming man, whom I am eager to meet, blew into her life like a cool breeze on a lazy afternoon. She didn’t see him coming and now that he is here, cannot imagine life without him.

But there were fears in the early days of their courtship. What if he was too good to be true? What if he found out what she is really like? Her sarcasm when angry, her almost crippling fear of failure, the fact that, contrary to her cosmopolitan lifestyle, her favorite foods are Doritos and chocolate milk?

When we fall in love, our carefully curated public persona is transfigured—that is, our true self emerges. Who could love that?

On Tuesday, I will be at the seminary in Hyde Park (Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago) all day, interviewing candidates for internship after Vicar Julie, who will be impossible to follow, leaves us in June.

A few years ago, when we first interviewed for an intern, one of the students thought that, because of Ascension’s address, they knew us. They “knew” that, simply because of our location on the North Shore, we were not “generous, intentional and wise” as advertised, but privileged, prideful, self-possessed. All that from a zip code.

After the interview, the student evaluated our conversation this way, “I could never work in a place so privileged, so unwilling to get their hands dirty, so incapable of doing real ministry.”

Though angered by those unkind words, I have thought of them often. Is that, in fact, how we look to the world? When we are transfigured, that is when our true nature shines through, I wonder what the world really sees.

What do you suppose Jesus’ disciples muttered to one another on their way down the mountain? Bruised from a fall, blinded by Jesus’ light, sworn to silence, they would have had no idea what had just happened.

It would not be until years later, after Jesus’ resurrection, when his true self was revealed to the whole world, that they were able to make any sense of that day on the mountain.

Many years after Jesus’ transfiguration and resurrection, Peter, one of the three witnesses to both events and, by then, an old man, reflected on it this way: “He received honor and glory from God the Father. We heard the voice from heaven. You have the prophetic mission confirmed. Let it be for us a lamp shining in a dark place.” (2 Peter 1.16-21)

On the mountain that day, Jesus was not disfigured, or misfigured, or not figured. He was transfigured. Revealed as Son of God. Prophet. Teacher. A lamp in a dark place.

Today in this dark place, this dark world, he continues to shine for us, in us, and, we pray, through us. We pray that when the world sees us they see Jesus—forgiving, compassionate, selfless, generous.

To be exposed to the world in our true form, as our real self, without mask or ruse is a frightening thing. Unless it is God who does the transfiguring, the unmasking, the revealing. So today, we pray those six little gospel words will come to pass here: “And he was transfigured before them.”

And, that in the transfiguring, we are changed, as well.

 

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5.13-20

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.


“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“Our friend has died. Would you do his funeral?”

This unexpected conversation took place here, last Sunday, just after worship. We were all having coffee in Fellowship Hall when I saw a man and woman, who looked vaguely familiar, come through the front door.

They looked vaguely familiar because they had once attended a funeral here. As I recall, that had been a difficult circumstance, as well. They remembered that we had been kind to them then. In their sorrow and desperation, that long-ago kindness made them hopeful that we might extend that welcome to them again.

I asked them to tell me about their deceased friend. It was a shocking story. Their friend had been murdered in a particularly heinous way, in front of his only daughter. The friends had no money. The deceased had no money. But they had grief. And deep need. Though I had no way to verify the truth of their story, or evaluate the potential safety risks—how did I know the murderer might not show up here, as well—I said, “Yes. Of course. When shall we do this?”

I’ve told this story to a few of you this the week, mostly because telling it helps me to believe it actually happened. And, in spite of the strangeness of the request, the circumstances of the death, the potential danger to us, not one of the people I told said, “Why in the world would you do that?” They all had questions, but not one of you questioned that we would perform this kindness.

I was not surprised that you weren’t surprised. Ascension is many things, some of which make it highly unlikely that we would host the funeral of a destitute murder victim, but among all the things we are, at our heart, we are deeply kind.

I’ll tell you more about the funeral in a bit. His name was Johnny, by the way.

Last Sunday we heard the opening bars of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. You recall the scene—surrounded by new disciples and diseased crowds, Jesus sat on the peak of a mountain to preach. To introduce himself to the crowds. He began with what we call the “beatitudes:” blessed are the poor in spirit, the persecuted, those who mourn. It was lovely, really lovely. I felt so blessed.

But today Jesus takes a sharp, unexpected turn, engaging in what we might call “identity theology.”

We know a similar concept from current political debates. “Identity politics” is what happens when a candidate or a party divides the herd, engages in “us” and “them,” clumps people around a common characteristic. We are no longer Republicans, Democrats or Independents. We are, instead, subsets of those larger parties, taught to mistrust any one—even those of our own party—who do not share our point of view, our identity. Urban mistrusts rural. Poor mistrusts rich. Caucus mistrusts primary. Education. Race. Gender. I can’t keep up with it.

Jesus (who knows what his party affiliation would be?) engages in the same sort of dividing of the herd, but with no ill intent.

Identity Theology. He gives his followers a name. A stamp. A brand. And if they intend to follow him, they will answer to that name, accept that stamp, promote that brand.

You are Salt.

You are Light.

We are what?

Its not that his hearers were unclear on the concept. Salt. Light. Everybody knows what those things are. It’s that they were not used to being called by anything but their names or professions, their obvious identities.

You are Joseph the Carpenter.

You are Betty the Baker.

You are Roberta the Rabbi.

But Salt? Light? They leaned in a little closer.

For centuries, scholars and theologians have tried to make sense of these names, imagining Jesus was using code language, hinting at something more complex.

Parsing “salt” into its various uses, its chemical make-up, its role in culture, has led preachers to determine that Jesus means for his disciples to spice things up, or to preserve precious things as we would brine a side of beef, or to be valued, like money. You get the idea. Its tedious. And a stretch.

“Light” was equally analyzed. What does Jesus really mean?

Don’t over-think this.

Salt is salt. It doesn’t go to bed at night moaning, “Dang. I wish I was Sriracha.”

Light is light. It doesn’t stand in front of the mirror trying on characteristics like dresses. Natural? Incandescent? LED?

Salt is salt. And so are his disciples.

Light is light. And so are his disciples.

What does that make us?

Our congregation is in the process of analyzing our character, imagining our future. What is our calling? What is our purpose? What does it mean to be faithful? To do justice, love kindness, walk humbly?

At a book study here Thursday night, we briefly reflected on whether the name “Lutheran” enhances or inhibits our ministry. What do people hear, what do they think, what do they imagine when they hear we are Lutheran?

Swedish pancakes? Norwegian lefse? German rigidity? White privilege?

We did not answer the question to anyone’s satisfaction.

But I can tell you what “Lutheran” means to a family torn apart by violence, drowning in poverty, destined to struggle, grieving this and a hundred other tragedies.

Johnny didn’t identify as Christian. He wasn’t from Northfield. I never met him, and will probably not encounter his friends until tragedy strikes them again. But I know that when it happens they will remember that it was a Lutheran church that opened its doors. Without question. Without cost. And from now on, for that family, all Lutherans will be considered kind.

When we engage in identity theology as Jesus did, we know exactly who we are. We are Lutheran: sinners forgiven, strangers  welcomed in from the cold, beggars whose hands have been filled.

And because we are sinners, strangers, beggars, we know exactly what to do when we recognize the same sorrow in others.

We held Johnny’s funeral here on Wednesday evening. We were 12 people in the sanctuary—nine friends and family, Johnny’s primary care doctor, Vicar Julie and me. The hymn of the day was a Helen Reddy song downloaded from I-tunes. The flowers were plastic from Walgreens. The texts promised shelter and safety. The sermon was shared—I first offered reflections on the texts and then invited his friends to speak.

It was powerful. It was painful. It was over in 15 minutes.

The mourners lingered until Vicar Julie and I had to leave them to teach confirmation.

“I feel safe here,” one told me.

“I have some hope now,” another said.

“Thank you for this. You didn’t have to,” another offered.

Oh, but we did. We did have to.

Remember the words of the prophet? (Isaiah 58.1-9a)

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

We are Salt.

We are Light.

We are Sinners.

We are Strangers.

We are Beggars.

We are Kind.

We have no choice. It’s who we are.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (2 February 2020)

Matthew 5.1-12

JoAnn A. Post

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

  “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Since childhood, I have had a recurring a nightmare in which I am forced to count things. Tiny things. Many tiny things. Very quickly. Kernels of corn. Hole punch dots. Pea gravel. I wake from that dream sweating, counting. 1,469,752. 1,469,753. It was exhausting.

That is why, when I am awake, I flinch when faced with lots of numbers on a page. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with me, you know that I always leap to the bottom line of a financial report. Not because that’s all that matters or because I can’t do the numbers, but because all those tightly-packed figures on a page make me nervous.

I spent Friday evening and all day yesterday with other area church leaders of our synod, conducting the business of the Metro Chicago Synod, a jurisdiction of about 175 ELCA congregations. There were 30+ of us at the meeting—elected council members like me, and synod staff members.  And our bishop, Bishop Yehiel Curry. He is a brilliant man, a faithful pastor, a challenging conversation partner, a strategic thinker, a powerful leader. I respect everything I know about it. Except for one thing. Before he was a pastor he was a finance guy. Specifically, he worked to help his clients plan for the future by multiplying their assets.

In other words, he loves numbers. Complicated numbers. Playing with numbers to see what they—and the money they represent—can do.

One of our planning exercises Friday evening was a game in which we were each given 500,000 imaginary dollars. All around the room, pieces of paper were tacked to the conference room walls. Each piece of paper contained a numbered ministry challenge in our synod, and a corresponding dollar amount.

Project 26: 25 full-tuition scholarships to Lutheran colleges: $500,000.

Project 9: Renovation of an apartment building to create affordable housing: $225,000.

Project 14: Grants to support lead-free drinking water in Southside neighborhoods: $480,000.

26 numbered pieces of paper, each with a project and another number on it.

We were each given a pad of paper and a pen, and this instruction. “You are the leaders of the synod. How will you spend your $500,000.”

Imagine my delight. My palms sweat just telling you about it.

My colleagues started working around the room. Taking notes, adding numbers in the margin, silently, individually weighing the merits of various projects. I froze. I would rather have swum into a room full of hangry senators in Washington DC on Friday night than do that.

So, I punted. I grabbed someone nearest me and said, “Wan’na pool our money? We can do more together, and then we wouldn’t have to make these decisions.”

He ignored me.

I kept working the room, pretending to have a plan, when in fact, I was avoiding the numbers on the wall. 1,469,754.

Just as our time was up, I had wrangled two others to join me. Between us we had $1.5 million to invest. One of them did some quick math, investing in a mixed portfolio over a fixed period of time, we would have been able to accomplish all the projects on the walls in about ten years. Together. Boom.

As we went around the room to report out, my synod council colleagues described brilliant insights into the projects that mattered most, wise ways to use their money. The bishop invited people to describe their plan, but he kept skipping me. I was mortified. Clearly, I had done this wrong, and he knew it. He was sparing me the shame of my fear-driven scheme.

But then he turned to our little investment group, and said, “I didn’t call on you,” pointing to our little team, “because you did exactly what I hoped you would do, something no one else who has done this exercise has ever done before. You listened to my instruction.”

And then he looked at the whole group, “Here’s what I said, ‘You are the leaders of the synod.’ I meant ‘you” plural, ‘you’ all together, ‘you’ as a team. Not as individuals having to figure everything out for yourself. We fail when we work alone. The only way to do this work is if we do it together.”

And then he turned to us again, “Tell us about your strategy.”

Perhaps you, like me, stifle a yawn when you hear the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the merciful. Yada. Yada. Yada. These 12 verses are the least interesting part of a three-chapter lecture about Jesus’ vision of the world. In subsequent chapters, he will challenge conventional wisdom and legal precedent about revenge, about mercy, about family, about wealth. That’s the good stuff.

Seated on a mountain, surrounded by disciples and a recently-healed crowd of fans, Jesus described the way he saw the world. And I would be more than happy to skip the details, and jump right to the bottom line.

But, as much as I hate numbers, I love grammar. Bishop Curry’s grammar. Biblical grammar. I love Jesus’ grammar.

When Jesus gazes out at this eager congregation, each one hoping for a word directed at them, at their own life, Jesus goes all plural on them.

“Blessed are all those who . . .” he said.

Blessed are all those who seek justice, all those who are kind, all those who grieve. Because when we do justice and seek kindness and walk humbly together, the kingdom of heaven is so near you can see the light on in the kitchen window.

Left to our own devices, intent on our own needs, fearful for our own future, we miss the blessings that rain down on our heads when we both suffer and rejoice together.

At the end of the introductory material, Jesus finally gets personal. Sort of. He stops speaking in the third person about all of them, “those who.” He points at his disciples and again—grammar matters—he says, “Blessed are you—all of you—when you are persecuted because of me.”

He knew what waited for him at the bottom of the mountain; he knew the challenges his followers would face because of him. They would be persecuted, ridiculed, demeaned, punished for imagining a world in which blessings fall on our heads, a world in which we are stronger, more faithful, more effective when we are together. When we suffer together. When we grieve together. When we invest together.

The world thought they were crazy, thinks we are crazy. But we know better.

Should I confess to the bishop that my brilliant plan was driven by fear? That all those numbers made my stomach hurt? And does it matter? Does it matter why any of us follows? Why the disciples leapt out of their boats? Why people followed Jesus like puppies? Why we have chosen to identify as his disciples? Probably not.

What matters is that we are together, in both blessing and burden.

Our synod council is from the north shore and the south side, western suburbs and the Loop. We are latinex and indian, black and white, gay and straight, boomers and millennials, real and decaf. Some of us are in thriving congregations and others struggle to keep the lights on. We are nurses and community organizers and attorneys and pastors and students and bankers and retired school teachers. 1,469,755.

But by the end of our meeting yesterday, we were able to hear Bishop Curry’s description of us, not to diverse individuals but all of us, “You are the leaders of the synod.”

Jesus wasn’t sitting down for one-on-ones with his followers when he perched on that mountain, surrounded by sweaty-palmed disciples and empty-bellied believers. He laid a challenge to lay on them all. “Blessed are all of you together when, in my name, you see what I see, do what I do, hope what I hope.”

How many disciples does Jesus have? I get sweaty just thinking about it. But I know we are among them.  And we are 1.