Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (16 September 2018)

Mark 8.27-38

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

They live in a big old house facing the sea, in a small coastal Carolina town smack dab in the path of Hurricane Florence’s fury.

Shortly before the storm surge arrived Friday morning, an interviewer asked why she and her family had ignored the mandatory evacuation orders ahead of the hurricane. She said, “We wanted to see what it would be like to be here in a big storm.”

The Weather Channel reporter, exhausted and irritated, then asked, “And if things go badly for you, if the storm hits your house, you know that someone will have to come out into the storm to rescue you, someone will have to risk their life to save yours.”

Pause.

The woman said, “I hadn’t thought about that until just now.”

I can imagine a circumstance in which evacuation would be difficult—if someone in the home were sick or disabled; if there was livestock to tend or a business that had to stay open, or if you had critical skills. But to stay only to satisfy curiosity? Really?

In fact, within hours of the hurricane’s landfall, emergency teams near Wilmington had received more than 500 distress calls from families just like hers, who imagined their amusement was worth more than someone else’s life.  Who are these people?

Danger can escalate quickly in any storm—Mother Nature isn’t obligated to play fair. So, I pray that all those in the storm’s path are safe.  But, to be honest, a cold dark corner of my heart hopes that this family might have experienced just a moment of panic before being plucked from their roof. They needed to learn a lesson. A lesson about the value of a life. Someone else’s.

Hurricanes are not the only thing that can take sudden turns, escalating quickly into something unexpected and unmanageable.

Conversations can go that way, too.  Especially if Jesus is your conversation partner and a cross-shaped storm is brewing on the horizon.

Last week Jesus performed two miracles—banishing a demon from a little girl, and opening the ears of a hearing-impaired man. They were impressive, two more jaw-dropping events in an already breath-taking career.

Whether Jesus was in need of a pat on the back, or worried that his disciples weren’t sufficiently impressed, he queried them, “Who do people say that I am?” He was hoping they might say, “Bono” or “Pope Francis” or “Jack Ryan.”

Instead they said, “Well, we’ve heard rumors that you might be Elijah returned from death, or John the Baptizer reunited with his head.” Question mark? Their uncertainty hung in the air.

Exhausted and irritated, Jesus pressed, “Then who do you say that I am?”

The silence was deafening. Finally, Peter cleared his throat and said, “The Messiah?”

Something about that spot-on answer, Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ true identity opened the floodgates, and Jesus poured out a secret he’d been keeping for months, if not years.

“Friends, this will not end well. There are those who seek my life—some whom you know. I will be shunned. I will be tortured. I will be killed. And,” pausing for emphasis, “Then I will live.”

Peter didn’t hesitate this time. “No! It can’t happen! Not to you!”

Like a storm surge in a hurricane, Jesus unleashed a Category 5 rant.

“There is life. And there is life. There is death. And there is death.

Calling Peter names and shouting to the crowds, “The life you want—security, certainty, a comfortable retirement, reasonable answers—is not the life I offer. You’ve got to die to that life if you’re going to live into mine.”

And what does that life look like, the life Jesus offers, the death he requires? That life values the life of another more than your own. That life thinks about the needs of the other before your own. It is a life lived in the shadow of a cross—evidence of Jesus’ selfless love for us.

I have not known Kevin and Kara, whose daughter Hattie is baptized today, all that long, but I know something about them without having to ask. I know that if their daughters were in any danger—speeding train, rabid wolf, raging disease, mean girl—they would step in front of the danger for their girls without having to think about it for a second. I know, without asking them, that their love for Hattie and Landon is deep, selfless, endless. I know that they would die for their daughters if need be.

I know this because it is the way faithful parents love, thinking always of the welfare and happiness of the other. Knowing that the other’s happiness, the other’s joy brings happiness and joy to them, too.

And I know that, in bringing Hattie to us for baptism, they desire that life for her, as well.  They desire that she will, like them and her grandparents and her baptismal sponsors, live always for the sake of the other, especially if that “other” is a small or frightened or alone. As much as they love her, they know that God loves her more, that God has plans for her. A plan that involves service and kindness and generosity. And fearless love.

Please know, there is a great chasm between the life Jesus desires for us, this baptized life into which Hattie enters, and going through life as a doormat, a tool, an amusement, whatever someone else wants. The life Jesus asks us to live is a life we choose, not one that is thrust upon us by another whose motives may be suspect. As I said to my girls often when they were just beginning to date, “Anyone who says, ‘If you love me, you’ll do . . . , doesn’t love you. Run away.”

Disciples choose the way we love; no one tells us. No one but Jesus.

Meanwhile, people wise and foolish, generous and selfish are being pummeled by Hurricane Florence, a storm that does not distinguish among its victims. And none of us can know how we would respond under similar unexpected, threatening circumstances. So, rather than being catty, as I have been, about those who tempt Florence by staying behind, it is incumbent upon me and you, and all who have already waded in the waters of baptism, to protect these small, frightened, isolated children of God from the unwelcome waters that rise around them.

There is life and there is life.

There is death and there is death.

Jesus asks us to choose life that really is life, even if it means a little bit of what we had imagined has to die.

Today we choose Jesus’ life—for us, for Hattie, for all who must weather life’s storms.

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Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time/God’s Work Our Hands Sunday (9 September 2018)

Mark 7.24-37

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.


Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

She had come of age in a time when school teachers wore dresses and sensible pumps to school, when students sat in straight rows and called her “Mrs.” though she was not married. She had been astonished, as a young teacher, that her classroom parents accepted her advice about their children, supported her work, made sure their children were ready for the school day—homework done, breakfast in their bellies and lunch money in their pockets. Her students brought her homemade gifts at Christmas and relished the opportunity to clap the erasers clean for her at the end of the day. She loved being a teacher, couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

The teacher had never imagined she would spend the last few years of her teaching career fending off accusatory parents, providing food and clothing for her students, dealing with behaviors that bordered on criminal. It was then—at the weary end of an otherwise successful teaching career—that our daughter was assigned to her classroom.

On the second day of school, our daughter came home crying.  One of the boys had thrown a chair at the teacher. The teacher had run crying out of the room, and had to be replaced by the principal. After school, a parent was standing outside the classroom door to yell at the teacher. My daughter was afraid. Of third grade. We encouraged her to wait, to let everyone settle in to the routine. But it never got better.

We have always supported our children’s schools, and school teachers and administrators. But this was too much. We shouldn’t have to worry about our daughter’s safety in elementary school. For the first time in our lives, and with enormous angst, we made an appointment to see the principal to request a teacher change.

The principal was wonderful, and not surprised. She listened patiently. Asked helpful questions. And then said, “You’re right. That classroom is not a good environment for your daughter. We will move her to another room. But please be kind when you speak of her teacher. She is facing challenges I cannot tell you about. I worry about her, too.”

The word that best describes that moment in the principals’ office? “Intercession.” Us for our daughter; the principal for her teacher.

What does that mean? To intercede means to use your influence for the sake of someone who has none.  Our weekly prayers here are called “intercessions,” as we bring the needs of the world to God’s attention.

We interceded for our daughter, who did not have the tools to advocate for herself. And because we could not have known the teacher’s story, the principal interceded for her, urging us to kindness toward and patience with a teacher who was equally ill-equipped for whatever battle she faced.

Today’s gospel reading seems, at first, an odd pairing, random stories about Jesus doing amazing things. The first takes place on Israel’s North Shore, where a distraught mother threw herself at Jesus’ feet for the sake of her daughter who was demon-possessed. The mother’s address (the region of Tyre) tells us she was probably well-educated and wealthy, able to afford excellent medical care. But it was not medical care her daughter needed. It was freedom. And no amount of education or influence could provide that. So, Tesla still running, she ran to Jesus and fell at his feet. She interceded.

Jesus left that place and, again, the address of his next encounter is revealing. The “Decapolis” to which he travelled was a loose coalition of ten cities under Roman rule; they worshipped the emperor and enjoyed high culture—music, art, food, wine. It was there, in one of those cosmopolitan cities that nameless friends led a man unable to either speak or hear. The man could not ask for help for himself; someone had to do it for him. So, like the Syrophoenician woman before them, these cultured, unbelieving friends humbled themselves before Jesus for a miracle—not for themselves but for a friend.

They interceded. A mother for her child. Friends for their comrade. Because of their circumstances, I doubt they even knew for sure what they were asking, or of whom they were asking it. But someone they loved was in need. And they were going to do something about it.

In most arenas of our lives, our concern is primarily for ourselves. Professional advancement. Personal happiness. Amassed wealth. Public recognition. Educational attainment. It is especially true here, among us, on Chicago’s North Shore, where competition for excellence begins in kindergarten.

How fortunate we are, we who believe in Jesus and live among his disciples, to live another way, to pursue another goal. It is baked—actually baptized—into us that we do not live for ourselves but always for the other. And any influence we might have is to be used for the sake of those who have none.  We are, from our toes to our nose, engaged in “intercession” for the sake of the world.

But the miracles that take place in Tyre or in the Decapolis, in North Lawndale or even in Northfield, are not of our own making.  We can only intercede. Jesus acts.  Jesus speaks.

To the troubled mother he said, “Go! The demons are gone!”

To the deaf man he whispered, “Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Miracles happen every day. Because someone brings them to Jesus’ attention.

Let me tell you of another intercessor, another miracle, in another zip code.

A woman of North Lawndale, a teacher-turned-principal-and-now-CEO fell at Jesus’ feet for the sake of her students and her school.  The demons of poverty and violence plague her children’s lives. The ears of the world are deaf to their need. So, she daily intercedes for them with Jesus. And with us.

Our daughter thrived in her new classroom—there was no flying furniture, no screaming parents, no weeping teacher. But I have often wondered about her first teacher, who began her career with such hope. And I am always grateful for that wonderful principal, whose work was to intercede, to exert influence for those who had none.

Others come to us, Jesus’ disciples, in search of healing and hope. Interceding for victims of earthquake in Japan, war in Syria, violence in Chicago, justice in our courts. We, in turn take them to Jesus. Protect them. Free them. Encourage them.

“Go!” Jesus commanded the frightened mother. “The demons are gone!”

“Ephphatha!” Jesus whispered to the deaf man. “You can hear now.”

Because someone interceded, Jesus acted.  That someone is us.

 

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (2 September 2018)

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

JoAnn A. Post

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Rarely has Christianity been on display as widely, as publicly as in the last three days. The whole world watched as Aretha Franklin and John McCain were laid to rest—in funeral services that demonstrated the wide range and diverse beauty of what we believe.

Ms. Franklin’s Homegoing lasted more than seven hours. Scripture was proclaimed. Gospel music that made even tense white Lutherans want to dance rang through the cathedral. They prayed. They commended. They spoke of service and compassion and care for the poor and passionate pursuit of freedom and opportunity for all.

Senator McCain’s state funeral could not have been more different. But it was exactly the same. Only 2 ½ hours in length, scripture was proclaimed. They prayed. They commended. Flutey boys’ choirs and famous opera singers and weeping presidents sang dignified, haunting hymns of grief and hope. They spoke of suffering and humility and courage and passionate pursuit of freedom and opportunity for all.

Jesus would have been proud. I know I was.

Far too often we cede our public persona to fringes of the Christian faith community. Those who know nothing of Jesus but what they see on television or in the twitter-verse imagine that Jesus lived and died to maintain the status quo. Too often, those who would speak for us speak words of division and fear, judgement and disgust. The portray us as rule-bound and fear-ridden and finger-wagging. Those who would speak for us say a lot of “no” and very little “yes.” A lot of “don’t do that” and very little “Jesus loves you.”

What a gift it was to see the fundamentals of our faith played out across every media platform all around the world. Though we may sing different styles of music and differ on how long worship ought to last, the message of Jesus was plain to hear. Jesus calls us to serve. Jesus calls us to love. Jesus calls us to sacrifice. Jesus calls us to peace.

How odd then, that today’s texts have been used to caricature another great faith community, to limit their message to one that is rule-bound, fear-ridden, finger-wagging, a message that is all “no” and very little “yes.”

When Jesus takes on the Pharisees, it is not to incriminate all of Judaism, to put them in their place—that is, shove them aside now that Jesus is in the building. Jesus was himself a Jew, immersed in the history and the teachings and the practices of the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. Jesus did not hate Jews. Jesus did not intend to eliminate Jews. He was one.

So why the steady stream of criticism? “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition!”

Let’s step back a moment before going forward. This morning’s Old Testament reading is a portion of Moses’ speech to the people of Israel immediately before they were to cross the border into the Promised Land. Today they would be deemed “undocumented,” detained at the border for questioning. But God instead named them “chosen,” “holy,” a people in need of a home.

Early in Moses’ sermon he reminded them of both the value of the commandments of God and their purpose.  The value? Living in God’s ways would prolong their lives, stabilize their communities, shower them with blessings.  To paraphrase Moses, “The ways of God are good for you.”

But the purpose of the commandments, the rigors of the faithful life was witness.  God desires that all will come to know the joys of believing in God, so Israel’s adherence to God’s ways would be a magnet for the people into whose land they crossed. “You must observe them diligently,” Moses said, “for this will show your wisdom and discernment to peoples who will say, ‘What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord their God when they call?’” (Deuteronomy 4.6-7)

Long life. Powerful witness. That is what drove the people of God to obedience.

Fast forward many centuries, and it seems that, for some, that original good intent of God had been forgotten.  Some remembered the letter of the law, but not its intent.  That is why Jesus jumped all over the Pharisees. It seems they washed their hands fastidiously but did not remember why. They ate only select foods but did not remember why. They held to the commandments of God, at least some of them, forgetting that the core of the commandments is this: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly.

Jesus was not indicting all of Judaism when he criticized the Pharisees. He indicted their forgetfulness. As a student of scripture, Jesus quoted Isaiah to them, “This people honors God with their lips but not their hearts.” Because, that is, after all the purpose of our lives—to honor God and care for the neighbor.

Those who love God love not the rules, but the rule-giver. The One who orders our lives and sends us out to witness.

It is not only Christians and Jews who sometimes obey without understanding.

Two weeks ago, a West Coast telecom cut off wireless service to a firefighting team in Sonoma. The fire fighters relied on their wireless service to communicate with one another and track the wildfires. But, that particular fire team had exceeded its data limit, so service was terminated. Temporarily. How many lives were lost, how many acres destroyed because adherence to the rule was more important than the emergency of the moment?

Last week two tennis players (is it accidental they are women?) were reprimanded for their attire on the court. One for wearing an admittedly unorthodox body suit deemed medically necessary. Another for ten seconds of shirtlessness because her shirt was on in-side-out. Rules were quickly crafted to justify these random decisions. Rules intended not to support or encourage women athletes or the game of tennis, but to control and to shame.

All Jesus did was for the sake of sinners. Healing. Feeding. Teaching. Forgiving. Dying. Rising. He reserved his judgment only for those who judged. He unleashed his sharp tongue only on those whose tongues were also sharp. He had little patience the finger-wagging, rule-worshipping, fear-mongering of some religious leaders. But endless time, eternity in fact, for those in need of mercy.

What does it look like to be a Christian? Watch those two amazing funerals. Read Jesus’ pointed words. Hang out with sinners.

And, for those who still insist on purity and rigidity, on adhering to every letter of the law we give James the last word: “Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1.27)

Jesus would be so proud.

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (26 August 2018)

John 6.59-69

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So, Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

“Alleluia! Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia!”    (ELW Gospel Acclamation)

Fire nips at the heels of frightened families as they flee wildfires in the West.

Wind and water rise around tourists and locals alike on the Big Island in Hawaii.

Central American mothers, keening with grief, shoo their unaccompanied children north, far from the drugs and gangs of their villages.

Millions of people, around the world, find themselves with nowhere to go—torn from their homes by fire or water or violence or bigotry or earthquake or war.

“Lord, to whom shall we go?”

Jesus’ disciples faced no such threats to life and limb, but it is their words that come to the lips of hope’s refugees.

This is the fifth and final week of our “Jesus, Bread of Life” preaching series from John’s gospel. The coming weeks’ texts will be, mercifully, gluten- and yeast-free.

As you may recall, after feeding a hillside of picnickers with barely enough food to satisfy a bird, Jesus and his well-fed foes have spent the ensuing 56 verses antagonizing one another. The crowds want more bread. Jesus feeds them riddles. The crowds rise up. Jesus bears down. The crowds accuse. Jesus offends.

But today, worn out and confused, most of those who had followed Jesus to the hillside walk away. They had tried. They had really tried. They wanted to understand. They wanted to believe. Would it have been so bad if Jesus fed them every day? But it was just too much, the mind games, the demands, the “eat my flesh and drink my blood.”

John writes, “Because of this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with Jesus.” But where did they go?

Who was left? 12. Only 12 of the thousands he had fed.

One of my frustrations with the written text of scripture is that I want to hear it, too. I want to hear their voices, not just read about them. Inflection. Intonation. Emphasis. I don’t want to just read Jesus’ words; I want to hear them in his own voice.

When Jesus spoke to the dusty dozen who remained, what was his tone of voice? Sarcastic? Fearful? Weary? Hurt?

And what was theirs? Did they sing their response as we did in this morning’s gospel acclamation?

Here is the way I imagine the interchange:

Jesus, resigned, (heavy sigh) “Do you also wish to go away?”

Peter, desperate (voice tight), “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

They had tasted the bread. They had heard his teaching, witnessed his healing. They had also known a life apart from Jesus. And that life was now unacceptable. They knew the promise of so much more.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Shortly after my father died last November, my mother, a deeply-faithful life-long disciple of Jesus, took me by surprise. A well-meaning neighbor, intending to offer comfort said, “Oh, Troyce, don’t cry. He’s with Jesus now. You’ll see him again.” My mother looked her old friend square in the eye and said, “Yes, but I want him here, with me. I want to see him now.”

It didn’t take long for me to figure out which of Mom’s comforters were widows themselves, and which of them had not yet suffered the death of a spouse. The already-widowed were far more circumspect, less breezy about eternal life. One such woman knelt in front of my mother’s wheelchair, held her hand and her eyes silently for a long time, and then said, “I’m so sorry. It hurts, doesn’t it?”

I looked at her and asked quietly, already knowing the answer: “You’ve been widowed?”

“Yes,” she said, “Three times.”

My Mom’s longing for Dad’s physical presence, her impatience for their reunion has not diminished her faith in the least. Because unlike the majority of Jesus’ hearers who shrugged and walked away, my mother knows the words of eternal life. As did the 12. As do we.

“The words of eternal life” are not, “grit your teeth until this ends.”

‘The words of eternal life” are not hand-patting comfort.

Remember, Jesus fed everyone on the hillside that day. He cared deeply—and creatively—for the physical needs of his hearers.  Most of his ministry was tending to physical, daily need—illness, hunger, isolation. If the only thing that mattered to Jesus was eternal life, ushering us out of here as quickly as possible, why heal the sick? Why not just beam them up?

I think the “words of eternal life” are that the meals we eat, the health we know, the love we cherish is but a whisper of what waits for us. As we say of the Lord’s Supper, it is “a foretaste of the feast to come.”

Have you ever been sick for a long time, eating and drinking next to nothing? Then you also know that the first meal after a long illness is not steak and potatoes, but broth or toast. It would be too much for us to be seated at a banquet. Our bodies could not receive all that nourishment. Instead, we are restored to health a nibble, a sip, a kind word at a time.

Jesus says to the hungry, “Eat this. There will be more.”

To the thirsty he offers, “Drink this. There will be more.”

To the broken hearted he promises, “Love here. There will be more.”

Meanwhile, wildfires destroy homes and earthquakes level cities. Wind re-shapes the landscape and war destroys whole cultures. Millions seek safety; millions are hungry; millions cry out, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

In this life, they come to us. Because we know the words of eternal life, we offer a taste of that life now. We feed the hungry. We shelter the homeless. We comfort the grieving. We forgive the sinner.

We say to them what Jesus says to us. Eat. Drink. Love. Trusting that our words and actions reveal to them what Jesus’ words and actions have revealed to us: “These are the words of eternal life–receive this. Just for now. There’s more.”

 

 

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (19 August 2018)

John 6.51-58

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  

So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

God bless the late, great Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. She could sing and preach and play and compose and improvise and inspire like a house on fire. We have, rightly, run out of superlatives to describe her gift, her impact, her legacy.  But among all the accolades and remembrances and tributes I’ve read since she died this week, there is one point of praise I have not heard.

Aretha Franklin could spell.

Ms. Franklin lived with levels of disrespect I cannot even imagine. Even as a world-renowned musician, in the early years of her career there were places she was not invited to sing, to speak, to stay. But that lack of regard did not anger her, it gave her stronger voice. And in a segregated society that refused to value a person simply for being a person, she spelled it out for us. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.

And what it meant, and what it means is that Aretha Franklin was not a category, a color, a complication, or an irritation. She was a child of God. A child of God like all of us—worthy of attention and welcome and deference and, yes, RESPECT.

This little spelling lesson may seem elementary to you. But she, and Otis Redding before her, have been spelling that word for us for more than 50 years. And still we get it wrong.

Like you, I’ve lain awake nights this week trying to make sense of the violence and horror around us. Pedophile priests. Shameless shootings. More “Me, Too.”  National leaders behaving like playground bullies. It’s almost more than I can bear.

And the thread that ties all of this together is that the one who is harmed—whether a child or a woman or a basketball playing teenager or a political opponent—is being regarded not as a person, but an object. Something to be used for my personal pleasure. Something on which to vent my pent-up rage. Something to distract from my own faults.

You can’t respect someone and then shoot them. You can’t respect someone and then abuse them. You can’t respect someone and then call them names.

O, Aretha, where are you?

We are nearing the end of the five-week “Jesus, Bread of Life” lectionary series. My apologies if it has been a bit tedious. This particular portion of scripture—John 6—is not exactly a page-turner. But buried in the seemingly-repetitive monologue lies a truth that still confounds.

Remember, at the beginning of the chapter, when Jesus fed his countless hearers with a little boy’s sack lunch? Remember how grateful they were?

Of course, you don’t. Because they weren’t.

When rumors rumbled through the crowd that Jesus hadn’t had lunch catered, but had multiplied it with his own hands, they skipped right over gratitude and headed straight toward grasping.

First, they tried to take him captive. (John 6.14)

Then they stalked him. (John 6.24)

Then they doubted. (John 6.25)

And demanded: “Teach us how to do it, too!” (John 6.28)

And dared: “What else can you do?” (John 6.30)

Then they mocked him: “He says, ‘I am the bread that comes down from heaven.’” (John 6.41)

Their disrespect and selfishness are jaw-dropping. Jesus as a person was not interesting to them. Jesus as Son of God? They couldn’t imagine it. Their only interest in Jesus was as an object, an obscurity. He was only as interesting as his last trick. Jesus was, to them, a trained monkey. A genie in a lamp. A human ATM, supporting all their demands.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Excuse me, Aretha, but Jesus sang it before you. And he didn’t get any, either.

Jesus isn’t just an object for our amusement. Nor he is just an idea, a concept, a myth. He was for them, he is for us, the human face of God. A strong shoulder. A guiding light. A patient teacher. Sometimes, a kick in the pants.

“Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.” Or, as he will say to Thomas later in John’s Gospel, “Look at my wounded hands. Touch my torn side.” (John 20.27)

Jesus isn’t an object for us to study, or an idea in a book, or a servant to be controlled. Jesus is the living, breathing face of God. God who loves us each, by name, not as a category but as a creation. A creation worthy of attention. Worthy of respect.

I often have odd conversations as I go about my daily routine. People tell me things. Or ask me things. Or assume things. Sometimes I wonder if there is something tattooed on this ordinary Iowa face that invites too much information. “Tell me your troubles,” or “I got nothin’ to do but listen.”

In any event, I was walking my dog after work a few days ago and came upon a neighbor performing the same canine maintenance. I know them enough (both dog and owner) to say “hello,” but that’s about all. So, I don’t know what prompted it, but he volunteered, awkwardly, “You know, before I retired, I worked with black people.”

I glanced over my shoulder to see if he was speaking to someone else, or maybe talking on his Bluetooth and I just happened by. I just looked at him.

“You know,” he continued, “I used to employ a lot of people before I sold the company. I must have hired 1,000, no, more like 1,500 black people over the years. I even knew some of their names.”

And then he just looked at me, hoping for  . . . . .? I had no idea.

Should I have applauded? Or acted interested? Or told him his White Privilege was showing?

I must have been silent long enough that he shrugged and said, “O, well. Have a nice day,” and went on his way

I walked away thinking, “Rich Entitled Old White Guy.”

But you know why he felt the need to volunteer his liberal credentials? Because when he saw me coming he muttered under his breath, “Bleeding Heart Northshore Liberal.”

And then Aretha sang. And I studied Jesus’ words a little more closely. And I was convicted.

I had done to my neighbor what he had done to me, to his former employees who happened to be black. Some of whom had names.

I had done to my neighbor what gangs do to innocent passersby, what powerful men do to vulnerable women, what so-called “men of God” do to the children in their care, what fragile egos do to their opponents. I had done to my neighbor what Jesus’ hearers did to him.

“Eat my flesh.” Drink my blood.”

We fail to recognize Jesus as a physical reality, bread we can eat, wine we can drink, a creator who knows each creation by name.

Sometimes we need to have it all spelled out for us.

Aretha did that: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

And Jesus? He can spell, too.

E-A-T

D-R-I-N-K

L-O-V-E

Love me, and everyone I do, Jesus said.

 

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (12 August 2018)

John 6.35, 41-51
JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the crowd, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

“The problem is not that we ask questions of God. The problem is that we are often trapped in asking the wrong kinds of questions.” (Foreword x, “Glimpsing Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma and Ministry,” Deanna Thompson, Westminster John Knox Press, 2018)

The author of this book, “Glimpsing Resurrection” (which came out only two weeks ago) and I became acquainted through a shared sorrow. Each of us was diagnosed with different but equally dire cancers in the middle of our lives; each of us presented rare and complicated problems for our oncologists; each of us lived to write about it. I am five years’ cancer-free; she is in remission for the third time. We read one another’s books; we corresponded by e-mail. She then asked if I, along with other colleagues, would serve as consultant and reader for her new book—a book about the trauma that follows serious illness. Many of you could have consulted with equal ability—there is much survived-sorrow in this room.

I immediately resonated with her premise, that we often ask the wrong questions—or, at least, unhelpful questions—in the face of illness and death.

I first learned about the need to craft a good question from a faithful friend whose wife suffered a lingering and horrible death. He told me that, early on, he dispensed with the “why?” question. Why her? Why now?  He said, “’Why’ is a luxury question, idle musing. ‘Why’ is unanswerable. Instead,” he said, “I sat at her bedside and asked ‘How long, O Lord?’”

Now that’s a question. That was, eventually, answered.

My second lesson in the importance of crafting a good question came at the beginning of a sabbatical writing project. I had thoughts about what I wanted to do, but no clear focus. I made an appointment with an academic I admired, hoping for a lengthy philosophical discussion of my dilemma. Instead, the conversation lasted about 37 seconds. “What’s your question?” he asked. “Every good answer requires a good question.”

We are in the third of a five-week series of readings from John 6 about Jesus the Bread of Life. Preachers dread this series—a pastor has only so many clever anecdotes about bread. A colleague once preached a series on different kinds of bread, trying to tie the characteristics of each yeast product to Jesus’ ministry. Ciabatta. Pita. Naan. Scone. Focaccia. The conceit wore thin quickly. But everyone went home hungry for a sandwich.

In this, my umpteenth time through this preaching series, I am struck not by the nature of the bread product Jesus served or Jesus’ own words, but by the questions. And not Jesus’ questions, but the crowd’s.

This lengthy, doughy interchange was prompted by a miracle of bread at the beginning of the chapter—Jesus fed a crowd-too-large-to-count with five small loaves and two dried fish. I’m not sure what question would have come to my mind in the moment, but theirs were almost embarrassing:

Can you teach us to do that?

Can you do it again?

Moses gave us manna; what will you do for us?

For some reason, there was no curiosity about Jesus or the meaning of the miracle. Their questions were all self-serving. Self-promoting. Self-ish. The wrong questions, some might say.

This morning’s unhelpful questions are addressed not to Jesus but to each other. “Who does he think he is?” Implying that, because they knew his parents, he was just being uppity.

And then they mocked him: “I have come down from heaven? As if.”

I don’t think the problem was that they lacked a clear research focus or had not suffered sufficiently, but that they were trapped in asking the wrong questions; afraid to ask a real question. Afraid of a real answer.

Let me go back for a moment to something I said earlier, something I said about asking “Why?” First, know that I’m not trying to limit the content of the conversations you have with God. We don’t have to mince words with God or protect God’s feelings; God is not easily offended.

As the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman is reported to have said, “Anything that can be said, can be said to God.” So, go ahead; let ‘er rip.

“Why?” is a good question if you’re looking for information. Why are this year’s wildfires so devastating? Why didn’t I get a better grade on that test? Why does my car hesitate in cold weather? Why is my blood sugar so high? The informational “Why?” is necessary. And helpful. And may lead to change.

“Why” is also a good question if you’re Karen Carpenter, “Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?”

But the existential “Why?” Why me? Why this? Why now? Imagine that there was an answer. That God said, “Here’s the deal.” That it was something you did or didn’t do. Something someone else did or didn’t do.  The answer might give us someone to blame, but it would not resolve the suffering, would not remove the pain.

So, ask “Why?” if you will. I know I have. But don’t stop there.

Every good answer requires a good question. Ask a hard one.

Weary of their selfish, smug musings, Jesus gave them the answer before they knew to ask the question.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats of this bread, my body, will live forever.”

The crowd was silent. “Crickets,” a friend would say.

Jesus paused, “Now. Any more questions?”

Only a million. And none.

Most of life’s important truths are received not in our heads, but in our hearts. That good people love us.  That sunshine always follows shadow. That strength is given when we are weak. That our faults are forgiven. Do we question those things?  Do we ask “Why?” or “How can this be?” Or do we say simply, “Thank you?”

Important truth is also placed in our hands.

I could give you the doctrinal and theological rationale for our understanding of the consubstantiated bread and wine of our communion practice. I could explain the biblical context of Jesus’ claim to be bread from heaven that leads to eternal life. But when a sinner approaches with begging hands, when someone who loves you places homemade bread in your hand and says, “The body of Christ, given for you,” we simply say, “Amen.” “Amen.” A word common to all languages on the face of the earth. Untranslatable. Neither question nor answer. It is simply an assent, “Amen. Yes. I don’t know how, but I believe it to be true.”

When God pressed a fine, flakey substance in the Israelites’ hands (Exodus 16.15) they responded with a question of their own. “Manna? What is it?”

When, in today’s Old Testament reading, God, pressing a small cake in his hands, demanded that a weary, pouting, sarcastic Elijah get back in the game, God answered Elijah’s quizzical look with an answer, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” (1 Kings 19.7)

Questions? Answers? Are lives are filled with them. Some of our questions are unproductive. Some of God’s answers are unsatisfying. Most often the conundrums of our lives are asked and answered only by faith.

How can this be?

When will this end?

What is it?

Where shall I go?

Good questions that will result, eventually, in good answers.

But today the answer comes before we are able to craft the question.

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus promises. “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (5 August 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.


Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.”

John 6.25-35

When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were beside the sea, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

There hasn’t been measurable rainfall there in two months, and only an inch the month before that. As we flew from the west to the east side of Washington state last week to visit friends, the drought was evident even from the air. Except for occasional brilliant green crop circles created by irrigation, the ground was colorless and cracked. Dust blows every day, everywhere. Wild fires ignite at the mere thought of a spark. The summer wheat harvest is almost over, but the occasional combine still in the field was shrouded by a storm of swirling wheat chaff. Temperatures climb and climb and climb.

I woke to a hazy sky one morning at our friends’ home and, foolishly, asked if it was going to rain.  They just looked at me. “It doesn’t rain here in the summer. The haze? That’s smoke from the wildfires.”

Eastern Washington is not technically “desert country,” but it feels like it in the summer. Rain? It will come. But not any time soon. They don’t even expect it.

My last experience of a real desert was in the Middle East. Hiking in the Negev Desert is like hiking on the moon. Nothing but rocks and sand and grit for miles. And rain? Maybe five inches in a year, if you’re lucky. That is the sort of land through which the people of Israel trekked on their way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. That is the setting for the Old Testament reading for today.

Perhaps it had seemed a good idea at the time to march every Hebrew-born man, woman, child and beast out of Egypt into the wilderness.  After all, nothing could be worse than slavery, could it?

It could. Things can always get worse.

At this point in their journey, 45 days after their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, they were over it.  Freedom had stopped being fun. Food supplies were running low. Water was scarce. There was no structure to their days. In Egypt, at least someone—their slave drivers—had been in charge, but in the desert, they were just walking. Endlessly walking. And whining. Can you blame them?

The Israelites were pretty sure they’d been duped, that God had lured them into the desert under false pretenses, intending them to die of hunger, thirst, or tedium.

God heard their complaints. God knew they were hot and tired, in need of refreshment and rest. So, God made it rain.  Not water—it hardly ever rains water in the desert.  God made it rain meat. Quail, more specifically.

This scene from the wilderness always reminds me of an episode of the sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” which aired on CBS almost 40 years ago. “WKRP” was a beleaguered rock-and-roll radio station, competing with much larger, more professionally-staffed stations. WKRP would do anything for ratings. Including a memorable episode in which, instead of giving Thanksgiving turkeys away, they dropped live turkeys from a helicopter. Did you know turkeys can’t fly? Did you know a turkey dropped from 1,000 feet can destroy a parked car? Fictional radio announcer Les Nessman shouted his report: “The turkeys are hitting the ground like bags of wet cement!”

Though not quite the same as what happened in the desert, I can’t help but imagine live birds hurtling from the heavens, dropping on unsuspecting Israelites with a thud, the ground littered with wounded, confused quail. This was God’s answer to their sorrow? Quail carcasses?

But God was not done raining. The heavens rained quail only in the evenings. And in the morning?  Bread. Each morning, as the dew dried, it left behind a fine flaky, bread-like substance. It had no name; nothing like it had ever been seen before. The Israelites sifted the frost-like flakes between their fingers, looked at Moses and said, “What is it?” That question became its name—“Manna.” Literally, “What is it?”

It is hard to know if the Israelites were grateful for this flying, falling, meaty rainfall or terrified. I do imagine they stopped complaining—at least for a while. God answered their prayers, but in a way that left them scratching their heads. And picking feathers from their teeth.  “God, thanks for listening so carefully, but this isn’t quite what we expected. What is it?”

Jesus returned to the scene of the carnage, metaphorically speaking, in John’s gospel.  Fresh from feeding thousands with little more than a cheese sandwich and juice box (John 6.1-14), Jesus was hounded by crowds wanting more. They chased him on foot around the Sea of Galilee, expecting him to work more miracles for them. Audaciously, suffering from a breathtaking case of Hubris, they asked him to give them his power. “What must we do to perform the works of God?”

Dissatisfied with his answer (“Believe in me”) they tried a different tack, threw down a double-dog dare. “Moses gave our ancestors bread in the wilderness. What are you going to do for us?”

I can hear the distant thud of crashing quail, taste the flaky “what is it?” in my teeth. I want to shout at them. “Stop asking! If you’re not careful, he’ll rain all kinds of answers to prayer on you!”

And he did.  He promised them bread. Not the flaky hoarfrost that passed for bread in the wilderness, but the bread of his own body. “I am the bread of life,” he said. And they looked at one another.  “What is this?”

There are parts of our world that have not had rain in such a long time, they don’t even expect it anymore. They’ve made peace with water shortages and crispy crops and flash fires.

There are people in our world who trudge through barren deserts in search of freedom. Immigrants and refugees, victims of war and wickedness, they would rather die of thirst than at the hands of despots and desperados.

There are people in our world who have stopped praying, stopped expecting, stopped crying out to God. Parched too long, ignored too long, they no longer look to the sky for God’s answering rain.

But God always hears our prayers, every time we ask. Some of us have stopped believing that because, too often, the time lapse between asking and answering is confusing to us. Or the answer may leave us scratching our heads.  Like dinner that fell still-feathered from the sky and bread so lacking in substance it made Wheat Thins look beefy, sometimes God’s answers to our prayers leave us asking, “What is it?”

And others imagine the life of faith is simply a matter of Demanding and Dumping: “I want it so God had better do it.” That’s not been my experience.

Rather, the life of faith is the regular, trusting, honest interplay of questions that defy easy answers, and answers that leave us with more questions.

This is as it has always been between God and God’s people. And always, though in unexpected ways, the slaves are freed, the thirsty are watered, the hungry are fed, the sinners are saved.

So, contrary to common sense, we keep asking. Even in a drought, we look to the sky for God’s rain. Even when we sin, we look to one another for God’s mercy. And we keep asking questions—“What is this?”—trusting God to answer.

 

 

Home!

Dear Friends,

Our plane touched down at O’Hare last night at 11:45. Still functioning on Pacific time after almost two weeks visiting family and friends in Washington State, I had hoped to fall into deep sleep in the comfort of my own bed, but instead lay wide awake in the Central time zone dark. Rather than curse my wakefulness, I decided to review all that had transpired since last you and I were together.

Both with my husband’s family in the San Juan Islands and our dear friends in Walla Walla (“the town so nice they named it twice”) we ate and drank too much, stayed up late talking, went hiking and touring and exploring.  The Pacific Northwest is suffering horrible drought—fire warnings everywhere we went, the air always tinged with smoke from burning wheat fields and underbrush. A friend in Wisconsin died unexpectedly a week ago; I am unable to attend his funeral, so my next task is to write a note to his young widow—what to say when death comes far too soon? I also missed the Post Family Reunion while I was away, but have been enjoying the photographs of my ever-older gaggle of aunts, uncles and cousins. A neighbor watered our outdoor plants while we were away—I either need to leave more often or invite her to water more often because we came home to a lush jungle of foliage. My last thought upon finally falling asleep? Laundry—suitcases bulging with dirty clothes to be dumped into the washer today.

One of the many gifts of my time away was the opportunity to worship in a good friend’s church. Pastors are the worst church-sitters you can imagine–we tend to be insufferably critical about other congregations and pastors. But it was not the case last Sunday. My friend preached a gracious and challenging word. The congregation sang with passion and confidence. We were greeted with warm handshakes and hot cups of coffee. If I have to be away from you on a Sunday, there is no place I’d rather be than there.

But on Sunday I will be back at home with you—one of my favorite places in the world.  I have yet to wrap my mind around the preaching task, but let me share Sunday’s texts with you so you can read and be ready for worship. The Old Testament reading is from Exodus 16.2-4, 9-15—God’s promise that it will “rain bread” in the desert.  The Epistle is from Ephesians 4.1-16, an ancient encouragement to “grow up already!”  And we continue our five-week series of bread texts (John 6.25-34) with Jesus’ skeptical disciples gently challenging Jesus to prove himself to them. How will all of this come together in Sunday’s preaching? I’m as curious to know as you are.

Before we meet, however, I will have presided at the funeral of one of our own, and grieved my absence at the funeral of a friend.  Joy and sorrow are always mixed, aren’t they?

I trust you have been well while we were apart. Please know that you are always in my thoughts and prayers, that I give thanks for you.

See you Sunday!

Pastor JoAnn Post

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 July 2018)

Mark 6.1-1

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. 

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

As we speak, a rescue mission is underway, deep in a cave in Thailand. A soccer team and their coach, trapped by rainstorms more than two weeks ago, are fighting their way home through water and darkness and danger. I have had to force myself not to think about them too much—their suffering is beyond imagining. And the challenge before them is the stuff of nightmares—to perform herculean tasks for which they are not prepared under enormous pressure with life and death stakes.

When those boys do come to mind, I pray for them and their families, and then I follow Mister Rogers’ advice in times of trouble. “Look for the helpers.” There are many. Highly trained, courageous men and women have been tending to the team and, if anyone can bring them safely home, they can.

But the other thing I do when events emerge unexpectedly in my own life is to quickly assess my options. Instinctively, I craft Plans A, B and C—escape routes, alternative interpretations, other possible and acceptable outcomes.

But this morning, for twelve boys and their coach, there is only one acceptable outcome. And it is dangerous beyond imagining.

Only two chapters ago in Mark’s gospel, after miraculously stilling a storm at sea, Jesus’ disciples whispered to one another, “Who is this guy, that even the wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4.35ff)

Jesus was the master of great outcomes, surprising results, he was a proven producer of miracles.

But today, after having healed and hushed, exorcised and animated in other places, the crowd flips that question on its head, “Who is this guy, that we should obey him?”

That crowd, that sarcastic crowd? That was in Jesus’ hometown. Those were the people who had thrown Mary a baby shower and watched Jesus play T-ball. They were the people who hired Joseph to remodel their kitchens and shared bicycles among their children. They were the people who had loved him first, but had, for some reason, come to hate him.

Everywhere else he went crowds were astounded at his abilities, couldn’t get enough. The audience in Nazareth was astounded, too, but not in a good way. They were astounded not at his wisdom or reputation, but at his hubris. “Who is this guy? When did he get so smart? How did he do all those things?” They made fun of his parents and his brothers. They turned their backs.

Didn’t they know who he was? Hadn’t they heard what he could do?

Jesus was ruler of wind and sea, tamer of demons and friend of sinners. Everywhere. Everywhere but there.

Their unbelief was so intense it stumped him. Mark writes, “Jesus could do no deed of power there. He laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” And then he left.

In a world—then and now—that evaluates us solely on the basis of outcome, Jesus failed. How is that even possible?

Until that humiliating moment, Jesus had done nothing but succeed. But suddenly, in a place he thought he knew, there were roadblocks, walls, impediments, limits. The message landed on deaf ears and cold hearts. But he had so much work to do, so many ears eager for his words, hearts open to his love. You can almost see the wheels turning as he looks at his disciples and says, “Okay, Plan B. You go, too.”

Before they could object, he gave them two gifts. First was the gift of power—power to preach, to heal, to exorcise, to teach. And the second was the gift of limits. No bag, no coat, no cell phone. “Go—some will receive you; some will laugh you out of town. But go anyway, and keep going.”

What an interesting ministry model. Bang your head against doors until one opens. Not very efficient. Or inviting. But not surprising either.

The goal of Jesus’ ministry was not “success” that could be measured in numbers or quantifiable outcomes. If it was, he would have equipped them a little better. The goal of Jesus’ ministry was to bring the good news of salvation to as many people as he could.  To do the work, regardless of the outcome.

Because here’s what Jesus learned in Nazareth and what he taught his disciples: we are not responsible for the results, only for the work. The outcome is not ours; only the opportunity.

And then there are Hannah and Nathaniel—two of Jesus’ tiniest disciples. It seems they bring little to the business of discipleship. They can’t even walk yet, let alone spread the gospel message to distant lands. But that is not their work. We don’t baptize children and then plot their progress on a spreadsheet. We don’t evaluate their parents’ capabilities based on progress toward fulfillment of baptismal promises: Ten Commandments? Check. Apostles Creed? Check. Justice and peace in all the world? Needs improvement.

Hannah and Nathaniel’s work, their baptismal vocation, is to be loved.

And our work is to love them, to model patience and forgiveness and welcome and durability. To make this place, among God’s people, a safe and nurturing home.

Years ago, a friend’s grade school daughter begged her Dad to come outside and play catch with her. When they got outside, she took the ball away from him and said, “Dad, here’s what we’ll do. I’ll throw the ball in the air and you shout “Hurray!”

That’s what we do for Nathaniel and Hannah and all who are in our care. “Hurray!”  Without reservation or hesitation. Then, when roadblocks, walls, impediments, limits emerge, they will have the strength and confidence and skills to do whatever work Jesus calls them to do.  Not to worry about results, but to work fearlessly, joyfully, trusting all the outcomes to God.

That’s where Jesus’ business plan differs from ours. In every other arena of our lives, we are measured by outcomes. Results matter. Productivity matters. Efficiency matters. But not here; not for us.

Let this be a place where you are not measured or evaluated or compensated in relationship to the volume or value of your work. Ours is the work of ministry—of teaching and healing, feeding and forgiving. The results of that work?  Only God knows.

As we speak, subterranean rescue efforts are being carried out far from here. Those who do the rescuing bring exceptional skills to bear, doing everything they can do. But even they have limits. They cannot control the outcome. So, they do what they have been trained to do. What will come of their work? We cannot know now.

Jesus sends us into the world with gifts and limits. Gifts of grace and mercy. Limits of control. We are responsible for the work, not the results. All of that, all of us, belongs to God.

 

 

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (1 July 2018)

Mark 5.21-43

JoAnn A. Post

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So, he went with him.  And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’ He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Our older daughter, Clara, was a toddler, and our dog, Schatzie, just a puppy when we lived in Atlanta, almost 25 years ago. In Atlanta, every summer day is as hot and steamy as the last few have been here. Our rented house didn’t have air conditioning, so after dinner one still sticky night, I took both daughter and dog for a walk.  We ran into neighbors on the sidewalk and talked for a while, took a detour through a small park where Clara played and Schatzie pooped. The sun was setting when we finally headed home. Eager for a tall glass of ice water, I picked up the pace and stopped paying attention.

Who knew there was a small sinkhole there at the entrance to the park? Who knew that I would find the one low spot in an acre of lawn? Who knew that an ankle could twist so quickly? Hurt so much?

I lay on the ground, clutching a dog leash in one hand and a toddler in the other. What to do? The cell phone had not yet been invented. Our house was too far away to either holler or hobble. Other parents and children had already retreated to their homes.  I still don’t remember how it happened, but eventually my husband arrived with the car. I fell into the passenger seat. We dropped the dog at home, and hurtled to the emergency room.

Did I mention that it was Saturday night and my Sunday sermon was not yet written? Did I mention that it was already long past my daughter’s bedtime? Did I mention that the ER nearest us was a Level One Trauma Center, to which the most traumatic and difficult emergency cases were shunted?

We were placed on the ER check-in list and asked to wait. So, we did. We waited. And waited. My ankle grew fatter as my patience wore thinner. Case after case was directed to an examining room, but not me.  Ambulances came and went, delivering their cargo into the hands of the staff that should have been paying attention to me. Finally, in exasperation, I hobbled (dramatically) to the admissions desk. “I’ve been waiting for two hours. Others have gone in before me. Are you sure my name is on the list? There’s something wrong with my ankle. My daughter needs to go to bed. I have work to do. I want to see a doctor. Now.”

The desk clerk looked wearily over her glasses. “Ma’am, since you arrived we’ve received three gun-shot victims, a stabbing, four teenagers were nearly killed in a car accident, and we just received a baby that can’t breathe. Yes, you’re on my list. Now sit down. We’ll get to you when we can.”

She looked down, as did I. She was disgusted. I was ashamed.

My hubris haunts me to this day. I was a young, up-and-coming pastor at a high-octane midtown congregation. I had work to do and no time to waste. I knew important people and they knew me.

Just call me “Jairus.”

Mark names very few people in his narrative.  Most of his characters are identified by their illness, occupation or station in life. Demon-possessed man. Tax collector. Widow.

That Mark gives name to a frightened father tells us that Jairus was not just anybody, more important than your average synagogue leader.

But the thing that truly mattered about Jairus that day was not his job title but that his daughter (nameless) was dying. Jairus threw himself in Jesus’ path and begged him to help: “Come home with me. Touch my daughter. Make her well.”

Was Jairus the only desperate father in the crowd that day? Probably not. But Jesus didn’t poll the crowd or review his check-in list. He recognized fear when he saw it. He turned and followed Jairus home.

But there were others. Countless others, many of whom grumbled at Jesus’ decision to chase after a dying child when they were very alive and very much in need.  Among those others was an unnamed woman. We can infer from Mark’s narrative that she was middle-aged, menopausal, suffering from incurable, unstoppable bleeding. For 12 years. Was her need immediate? Yes. And no. After 12 years what was one more day, one more week?  If she had appeared at the ER today, she would have been put on a list. To wait.

Several weeks ago, we read a parable about seeds that were strewn absolutely everywhere and a farmer who slept the summer away. As if furrows open themselves. As if crops grow themselves. As if weeds uproot themselves. I announced to you that, based on Jesus’ random rogational method and my own vast experience with agriculture, he was a terrible farmer.

So, in keeping with the current trend of having opinions on topics about which I know nothing, I can tell you with some certainty that Jesus is also a terrible doctor.

A real doctor understands about triage—assessing patient need and then tending to the neediest first. It’s an important concept that saves countless lives each year. Triage is great if you’re mortally wounded or unable to breathe or carrying a limp body in your arms. But if you’re just a random, nameless person with a fat ankle or a chronic condition, not so much. You’re on the list. And the list is long.

But, as I said, Jesus is a terrible doctor.

Though Jairus’ daughter was near death, Jesus stopped in his tracks when he felt power leave his body. “Who touched me?” he shouted. It was a ludicrous question—it would have been easier to figure out who hadn’t touched him in that teeming throng of need.

“Who touched me?”.

“I did.”

The nameless, middle-aged woman crept out of the crowd. She expected to be dismissed or reprimanded or mocked. But instead she was named.  “Daughter.” Suddenly she was on par with the temple leader whose daughter was dying. No longer another nameless woman on a long list of need, but “Daughter” whose need was known and whose illness was healed.

But, by the time Jesus finished with her, the nameless child had died. “Don’t bother,” Jairus sighed. “You have more important things to do now.”

But Jesus, ever the terrible physician, pushed through the crowd. Kneeling at the bedside of the nameless child, he did for her what he had done for the nameless middle-aged woman. Though the child’s need was no longer acute and though there were countless other children in need of a healing touch, Jesus restored her life. And named her. “Little Girl.”

All over the world today, people in need go unnamed. They are identified as Somali refugee, or 543rd Chicago gunshot victim, or immigrant child separated from parents. In spite of technology that recommends books we might like on Amazon, and calculates our steps each day, we are not able to find these people and name them.  Let alone help them.

It may seem a small thing, in a world of desperate need, but Jesus knows us each by name. And Jesus does not triage us. He cares for each one, by name, according to our need, not relative to the needs or worth of others.

They each had a name. And a particular need. Jairus. Daughter. Little Girl.

Each received healing they did not expect. Love they did not earn.

By the time my name was finally called night had begun to turn toward morning. The desk clerk who had been so curt with me earlier, apologized. “JoAnn. May I call you JoAnn? It’s been a tough night here. They all are. I’m sorry you had to wait, but I hope you understand.”

I did. I do.

My name was known. My need was met. As my little daughter slept in my husband’s arms, I received the care I needed. And compassion I did not deserve.

Early that Sunday morning, we limped home. Clara, my daughter, was tucked into bed. Schatzie, my desperate dog, went for a walk. Bob, my pastoral colleague, had written a hasty sermon so I could stay home and rest.

Jesus knows us each by name, and heals us in the way that is best.

Triage? Miracle?

All of that, all of that and a simple gift named Love.