Vespers in the Fifth Week of Lent

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

Daniel 3.1-29

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy: Mazie?

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

(“The Prince is Giving a Ball!”

Rogers and Hammerstein, “Cinderella,” 1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song of the Day:The Fourth Man,” by Arthur Smith (1955), recorded by The Statesmen (


Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (18 March 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

John 12.20-33

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

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

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

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

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

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

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

But everybody else did. Everybody else saw Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vespers in the Fourth Week of Lent

Vespers in the Fourth Week of Lent (14 March 2018)

Isaiah 55.1-11

JoAnn A. Post

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Our older daughter has been singing in cars, choirs, concerts and cabarets since she was a little girl. Now that she is a professional opera singer, we look back on some of those earlier performances and wonder if already there were hints of the “voice” she would become.

One of her most memorable performances, from the perspective of the show itself, was when she sang the role of “Penelope” in the musical “Urinetown.” Yes, you heard that right. A musical named “Urinetown.”

Inspired by the writer’s first encounter with a European toilet (“pay to pee?”) the musical imagines a future when water will be so severely rationed that even a cup of tea will be considered a luxury. Our daughter sang:

Our reservoirs have all dried up

I take my baths now in a coffee cup

I boil what’s left of it for tea

And it’s a privilege to pee

Though the premise may seem outlandish (and you’d be amazed how many elimination puns there are), life-threatening water shortages in South Africa and Syria’s only-recently-relieved drought may prove “Urinetown” prescient. After all, where there is no water, there is no life. But there is war.

Before we go any further, it’s important to remember the climate in which most of our biblical texts find their home. God’s people, the people of Israel, lived in a desert—same as the Middle East is today. Water was a precious gift, often hard to find, and was first given to livestock and crops. That’s probably why water figures so significantly in the biblical story.

The first week of Lent vespers, God parted the dangerous “deep darkness” to create land on which humans might live. The second week we watched in horror as all but Noah and his family survived a 40-day rain storm. Last week, God’s people ran to safety across the dry bed of the Red Sea, before the waters converged on the whole of the Egyptian army. Each week we have waded in water that was endless, dangerous, too-plentiful for some.

But tonight there is not enough water. Recently returned home from exile in a foreign country, Isaiah’s readers, God’s people, had to buy water, had to wait in line for refreshment. To these parched people, God calls out like a street vendor, “Come to the waters, everyone who thirsts! You that have no money, come buy and eat—wine and milk without price!”

No longer would they queue up for liquid refreshment, no longer would the necessities of life go to the highest bidder. And no longer would some be saved and others not. “There is enough for all!” God cries. Enough for God’s people and Pharoah’s people. Enough for Noah and his neighbors. And God promises that not only will their bodies be satisfied, but their souls will be, as well. “As surely as the snow and rain fall and do not return until they have accomplished their work, so will my word be.”

God’s word is like rain falling from the sky, like snow drifting in doorways, replenishing empty reservoirs and watering thirsty herds.

Climate scientists tell us the days are surely coming when wars will be fought for water. As deserts march steadily north into once-fertile places, desperation will drive us. It already does in some in some places.

Napoleon is credited with saying, “An army marches on its stomach,” meaning that unless soldiers are well-fed they cannot fight.

Isaiah would re-write that famous saying, “An army need not march if it is well-watered.”

Sometimes water is dangerous—deep, dark, endless, lethal. Sometimes it is scarce—remember it will be a “privilege to pee.” But tonight God promises enough for all—enough water, enough wine, enough bread, enough of God’s word to sustain all who thirst.

Jesus is, for us, that endless stream, that ever-flowing fountain, that bottomless well. In Jesus there is enough, more than enough, of life and forgiveness and hope and refreshment.

Like a street vendor, God called Israel to the water.

Like a street vendor, Jesus invites us the water of life.

Water is neither privilege nor right. It is life. Life abundant. Come to the water.



Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (11 March 2018)

John 3.14-21

JoAnn A. Post 

Jesus said: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

“In the cross, in the cross, I will glory ever; till my ransomed soul shall find peace beyond the river.” (“Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” ELW 335)

It’s an old Fanny Crosby hymn from the 19th century, one of two in our hymnal. Any closet Methodists in the crowd are shaking their heads: “Only two?” After all, she wrote over 8,000 hymns in her lifetime; that only two pass Lutheran muster is a bit amazing.

Though it’s hard to believe of such a prolific writer, Ms. Crosby was blind from the age of six. She wrote with her own hand, but no one could read it. She played many instruments, without having ever seen the instruments or a note of music. She grieved the death of her only child shortly after birth—a daughter whose face she never saw. She and her husband lived apart most of their lives. She was poor by choice—donating all her income from writing and speaking to charity. Ms. Crosby both experienced and chose suffering that would have brought most of us to our knees.

An interviewer once asked her if she had one wish, what would it be? Expecting her to say, “I wish for sight,” she said instead, “I wish that I might continue blind all my life.” Her interrogator pressed her, and she explained, “After being blind all these years, the first face I want to see is the face of Jesus.” (

Though much of public Christianity in our time is preoccupied with being on the “right side” of political and cultural issues, Christianity is, in fact, a study in paradoxes. The blind regard their blindness as a gift. We believe that death leads to life. And, more to today’s point, an instrument of capital punishment is regarded as beautiful. “In the cross I will glory ever.”

I’m sure you recognized in today’s gospel reading what has been called the most popular Bible verse in the world. “For God so loved the world . . .” You know the rest. While, on the face of it, the verse is as clear as it can be, it is in fact a troubling concept.

Remember the odd Old Testament reading for today, about Moses and the snake on a pole? (Numbers 21.4-9) Jesus used that troubling image of himself in conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Nicodemus would have known the biblical reference, but its relationship to Jesus eluded him. After all, no one but Jesus knew, at that point, that his meteoritic rise to fame would crash to earth in a fire storm of humiliation.

Jesus knew that he would be lifted up like a snake on a pole when he was nailed to a cross. And, like that mythical snake, Jesus promised that all that looked on him would live.

“In the cross, in the cross, I will glory ever.”

In 2004, the French Parliament passed the law on Secularity and Conspicuous Religious Symbols in Schools. It was and is a controversial law, since the only “conspicuously religious symbol” to which it pertains is the head covering worn by many observant Muslim women. It does not prohibit Jewish prayer shawls. It does not prohibit the turban worn by Sikh men. Nor does it prohibit a Christian from wearing the cross. Seems strange. What more powerful, offensive religious symbol is there than the cross of Christ? I guess the French Parliament was hoping no one would notice the hypocrisy.

I see crosses everywhere. Necklaces. Earrings. T-shirts. Tattoos. Shaved into a man’s hair. At football games, on a placard emblazoned “John 3.16.” Is every gang member with cross-tattooed biceps, every actress who wears a cross around her neck a believer in Jesus Christ? Do they glory in the humiliation of the cross?  Do they know even know what they’re saying?

Friends of ours live in a city that sports a maximum security federal penitentiary in a state that allows the death penalty. In that state, the preferred method of carrying out the sentence of death is a noose, though, of course, it varies from state to state.

My friend had not been pastor of the congregation long when he realized that he had the perfect explanation for the offense of the cross in his backyard. Naïve to the politics of the region, he thought it would be a brilliant analogy to liken the death of Jesus on a cross to his death, in contemporary times, to death by hanging. Crucifixion was, after all, the way the 1st century dealt with unredeemable criminals.

“Imagine,” he said in a sermon, “if instead of wearing a cross around your neck, you wore a 24-karat gold noose on that delicate chain.” He expected a nod of recognition or at least a titter of amusement at his clever insight. Instead, the room grew deathly silent. It’s a wonder they didn’t hand him his hat and keys and say, “You can go now.”

No one who lives there wants to acknowledge what goes on in their backyard. And no one wants to imagine Jesus suffering the same fate as those heinous criminals.

We are only weeks from our own acknowledgement of the power of the cross, of Jesus’ death for our sake. Two Sundays from now we will read the story of Jesus’ suffering and death in the shadow of palm fronds. Three Sundays from now we will be singing of an empty tomb. And over all of it will stand the shadow of a cross. Sign of love so great, so offensive it would stop at nothing for our sakes.

In fact, a more accurate translation of the world’s most popular Bible verse is this, “God loved the world in this way, that God forfeited the only Son.”

As believers in Jesus Christ, we struggle with the paradox of God’s love so great it would die for us, and human hatred so deep it would rob the life of God’s only child in a particularly cruel fashion.

Today, a sightless, grieving, impoverished composer lends us the words. She could not see the cross, but she could imagine it. And in her imagination, it was a precious fountain, a bright and morning star, a cool shadow.

The cross, a symbol of death and suffering was for her and is for us a reminder of dying love. Love in which we glory.

Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross

1    Jesus, keep me near the cross,

there’s a precious fountain;

free to all, a healing stream

flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.


In the cross, in the cross

be my glory ever;

till my ransomed soul shall find

rest beyond the river.

2    Near the cross, a trembling soul,

love and mercy found me;

there the bright and morning star

sheds its beams around me.  Refrain

3    Near the cross! O Lamb of God,

bring its scenes before me;

help me walk from day to day

with its shadow o’er me.  Refrain

4    Near the cross I’ll watch and wait,

hoping, trusting ever,

till I reach the golden strand

just beyond the river.  Refrain

Text: Fanny J. Crosby, 1820-1915

From Sundays and Copyright 2018 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved.

Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #24195.





Vespers in the Third Week of Lent

Vespers in the Third Week of Lent (7 March 2018)

Exodus 14.10-31; 15.20-21

JoAnn A. Post

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.” The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

Five years ago I was undergoing chemotherapy for a rare cancer that usually kills.* That I stand before you, strong and healthy, is nothing short of a miracle.

I rarely attended worship during those months of treatment—I was either too tired, too sick, or too sad to submit myself to the loving crowds who greeted me, regardless of which local church I attended.

But my husband and I ventured out on the Eve of Easter to attend the Easter Vigil hosted by my congregation and two partner congregations. The Easter Vigil is a long, ancient liturgy during which we read of the mighty saving acts of God throughout history. In fact, the texts we are reading on these Wednesdays in Lent are among them. The liturgy starts outdoors, where a massive bonfire is lit and the new paschal candle is scribed. Singing with handheld candles lighting the way, the congregation winds its way indoors to a darkened sanctuary, where as many as twelve scripture stories are read.

This text, the narrative of the parting of the Red Sea is the third text of the evening.

I have few memories of that night, but one. A line from tonight’s reading that I’ve probably heard a thousand times before, but on that night, under those circumstances, in that darkened sanctuary, here’s the verse that jumped out at me:

“Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (EX 14.13ff)

Most often this text troubles me in the same way last week’s reading about Noah and the Ark troubles me. What of those who were not saved? What of Egyptian soldiers and their horses? But that is a longer conversation for another day.

On that night, my body coursing with chemicals and my strength quickly fading, I found myself among the weary Israelites, trapped between the approaching Egyptian armies behind and the tumultuous Red Sea before. They had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. Death was imminent.

Except that the Lord was fighting for them that day.  And the Lord said, “Take a long look. This enemy will soon be no more. Shut up and watch.”

After they had exhausted all their energy and ideas, when their best efforts were not enough and they could fight no longer, the Lord took up the fight, delivering them in ways they could not have begun to imagine.

All that night a pillar of fire protected the Israelites from the Egyptians. When morning dawned, Moses (who was probably as frightened as they) raised his hands as though parting heavy drapes in the morning, and the Red Sea parted on either side.

What happened next? One of my favorite Easter hymns describes it this way: “God led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters.” (“Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain,” ELW 363)

And, true to God’s word, they never saw that enemy again.

Rarely are we called upon to fight a seemingly intractable enemy. Terminal cancer. Bloodthirsty soldiers. Rising water. But we are daily called upon to trust that the Lord is fighting for us. And that enemy we fight—whether it be of flesh and blood, or fear and doubt—will never be seen again.

How will God perform that particular miracle of deliverance?

We have no idea.

Just as Moses and the Israelites never dreamed the scenario that saved them, so we cannot anticipate the miracle God holds in store for us.

Five years ago, you and I had never met. Five years ago we could not have imagined the circumstances that brought us together, the joys and sorrows we have already shared. But those days—both the wonderful ones and the horrible ones—are behind us, drowned as surely as were the Egyptian soldiers. And challenges yet lie before us. As a congregation. As disciples.

But tonight we lean into those startling words that have inspired the endangered people of God for centuries: “The enemy whom you see today you shall never see again.  The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.

*”Songs in My Head, A Cancer Spiritual,” JoAnn A. Post, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015)

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (4 March 2018)

John 2.13-22

JoAnn A. Post 

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 

After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

It’s called the Ceremonial Start.

The Iditarod Sled Dog Race launched yesterday as it has for more than 40 years in Anchorage, where thousands of people clog the downtown to watch powerful teams of dogs and their mushers forge through the streets. Years ago, I served a Lutheran church on the route of that Ceremonial Start. Our youth group made money hand-over-fist selling hot chocolate to spectators. The noise was deafening—barking dogs, shouting mushers, hawking vendors, cheering crowds, snow plows grooming the streets like Zambonis on an ice rink. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

But after the teams power through the downtown, past Central Lutheran Church and down Tudor Road, they will to a stop in a parking lot at Alaska Pacific University. Huge vans and tractor trailers wait there to load the dogs and sleds and mushers, driving them north to the Real Start, 70 miles from the city.

Hardly anyone but the teams and their handlers witness the Real Start. It’s inconvenient to get there, and isolated and cold. Nobody sells hot chocolate or faux fox hats. The Ceremonial Start? That’s for the tourists. The Real Start in a snow-filled basin far from civilization? That’s for the dogs. That’s for the mushers. That’s for the money.

What was it that irritated Jesus in temple that day? The ceremonial start?

I imagine Jesus’ abrupt entrance into the Temple bearing some resemblance to the start of the Iditarod. Money changers shouted their exchange rates. Tourists threaded among vendors’ stalls. Cattle lowed and sheep bleated and turtledoves cooed. It was Passover—the highest of holy days in the Temple in Jerusalem, drawing pilgrims and gawkers from across the Middle East. The grand event culminated in the slaughter of lambs on the high altar, a sacrifice of animal flesh as a sign to God of their devotion and obedience.

Such sacrifice was, in fact, mandated in scripture. For centuries, millennia even, God’s people had celebrated the Passover in that way, a powerful, passionate, annual reminder of the miraculous way God had freed them from slavery in Egypt.

Without diminishing its importance, the annual Passover celebration was primarily ceremonial. They no longer feared the Pharaoh or the Angel of Death. The Red Sea would not part, nor would Egyptian soldiers drown again. Passover was a day of remembrance, a perpetual ordinance. And a promise that God’s people would never be slaves again.

So, to be honest, Jesus’ anger is a little hard to explain. The pilgrims and money changers and livestock handlers had gathered in this way thousands of times before. Jesus himself would have witnessed the Passover preparations in previous years with his own eyes. But on that day, on that particular Passover, Jesus exploded: “You make a mockery of my Father’s house!” he shouted, whipping animals and vendors alike. I cannot imagine the terror, the chaos, the confusion, the noise.

In almost every congregation I’ve served, there has been some well-meaning soul who used this text about Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple to prohibit any exchange of money in the church. There would be no bake sales. No car washes. No Girl Scout cookies. No Holy Family Lent Challenges. But I don’t think Jesus was enraged about ThinMints that day in Jerusalem. I don’t think he cared much whether turtledoves sold two for a dollar or not. He simply wanted to be recognized. As the Real Deal.

No one but Jesus knew, when he entered the Temple that day that his presence rendered all that ritual activity irrelevant, their ceremony obsolete. They no longer needed currency for the purchase, animals for the sacrifice, reminders of freedom. Jesus was their freedom. Jesus was the conqueror of all would-be Pharaohs. Jesus was the true sacrifice—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He would be sacrificed for their sake—they didn’t need an animal. But they couldn’t know that yet.

There was a time in the church, centuries actually, when participation in the Lord’s Supper was kept from those who could not “understand” the sacrament—children, those with cognitive impairments, the very elderly. We created rules around the Table of the Lord, built fences around it, to protect the Lord’s body and blood from the (potentially) unbelieving. And while none of those regulations was wrong or mean-spirited, and while people of faith still choose to receive the Lord’s Supper at different times in their lives and in different ways, those regulations created a misunderstanding about the true gift of this meal.

Our sister Kaitlyn understands the true gift of this meal. Today she joins us at the table, extending her tiny graceful hands to receive the gift of grace, of forgiveness, of mercy. Though she might not be able to articulate the deep theological principles which undergird our practice, not many of us could either. It is not age or experience or intellectual ability to drives her forward. It is that she recognizes Jesus in our midst. Not an imitation. Not a holograph. Not a promise. But Jesus. In her hands. In her heart. In her life.

At 5:00 this evening here/2:00 in Willow, AK the dogs will start running. One team at a time, they will be released from the chutes to begin the arduous race to Nome. Today, when the dogs’ bootie-covered feet gain purchase on the hard-packed Alaska snow the real race begins. Most people have no idea that that Ceremonial Start was just that—ceremonial. But some do. And they will brave the cold and dark and ice to run the real race, to win the real prize.

They no longer sell turtle doves for the sacrifice, but our Jewish brothers and sisters still remember the hard-won gift of their freedom. We no longer bar people from the communion table, but we celebrate the meal knowing it is only a foretaste of a feast to come. Ceremonial? Perhaps. But as surely as Jesus thundered into the temple to take his rightful place, Jesus is here, as well. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.


Vespers in the Second Week of Lent

Vespers in the Second Week of Lent (28 February 2018)

Genesis 7.1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9.8-13

JoAnn A. Post

Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded.

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind—every bird, every winged creature. They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.

The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters.

At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him anymore.

In the six hundred-first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry.

Then God said to Noah, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

Some were saved. And some were not.

This morning students returned to classes at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. I cannot imagine the storm of emotions they fought as they walked through those doors after the Valentine’s Day Massacre. Fear. Anger. Anxiety. Paranoia. Confusion. Sorrow. And Guilt.

They call it “survivor’s guilt,” the irrational but unshakable question, “Why did she die and I did not?” It’s been reported by soldiers returning from war, survivors of 9/11, siblings of the Sandy Hook victims, those who have received a reprieve from cancer.

Some are saved. And some are not.

It took me a long time, years in fact, to figure out why the story of Noah and the Ark troubled me. On the face of it, it’s a lovely tale. A big boat with wide doors into which streamed a pair of every creature on earth. Giraffes. Tarantulas. Redheaded woodpeckers. Noah was the captain of a floating zoo that eventually landed safely thanks to the GPS coordinates provided by a brilliant white dove and the glow of the first rainbow.

I finally recognized my unrest while watching the movie “Titanic” on the big screen back in 1997. Unmoved by the love story between Jack and Rose, but impressed by the computerized graphics, I sat up when I heard a distressing, muffled sound. As overloaded life boats struggled to safety they rowed through a gauntlet of almost-frozen bodies—those who did not survive the sinking. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Though I kept my horrible realization to myself at the moment, I finally understood my Ark Angst. It was the bodies of those who didn’t survive—the millions of giraffes and tarantulas and redheaded woodpeckers that didn’t score a ticket on the boat. What about them? What of those who were not saved?

I’m sorry to magnify tonight’s dark skies with my dark musings. But this story, like so many biblical stories, raises difficult questions for us.  Questions that belie easy answers.

How do we live with this, this scriptural survivor’s guilt? How did Noah feel when he stepped off the ark into a people-empty landscape? How does a teenager feel, walking into the school building in which her best friend was killed? How does a war veteran face each day knowing that his buddies ran out of days back in the 60’s?

Some are saved. And some are not.

Without ignoring the difficulty of the Noah story, the early church co-opted the image of the ark as a saving vessel, the boat of baptism. Many church sanctuaries, ours among them, are built in the style of an overturned ship—worshippers protected in its sheltering hull. A ship sails in our foyer, replica of a Dutch tall ship that survived a storm on the North Sea. Not all sailors survive rough seas, but many do.

We know the seas on which we sail are dangerous. And left to ourselves we would suffer the fate of so many lost in life’s seas. In our baptism, we pass through the saving waters of Noah’s flood, reaching for the hand of the only one who can save us. In our baptism, we shed all that weighs us down—sin, shame and the power of the devil. In our baptism, we are free to open the door to all of God’s creatures, not only a few—Jesus died for all.

Tonight’s hymn is set to a Swedish lullaby,* a lyrical re-telling of the story of salvation on an ark.

We are sailors in search of safe harbor: “Oh, be my strength and portion, my rock and hiding place.”

We are tiny birds in search of safety, “Oh, let me nestle near thee, within thy downy breast.”

We are passengers on the ship of salvation, “Oh, wash me in the waters of Noah’s cleansing flood.”

Some are saved, and some are not. That is the story the ancients told, the story we tell one another now. But might it be possible, in the light, not of a rainbow but of a cross, that Jesus desires to save us all?

*Thy Holy Wings, Carolina Sandell Berg, 1832-1903 and Gracia Grindall, b. 1943

Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent (25 February 2018)

Mark 8.31-38

JoAnn A. Post

Then Jesus began to teach the disciples 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.”

My older sister received a major scholarship for college. It was a big deal that came with a plaque and a check. And a dinner.  A fancy dinner. In a fancy restaurant. Far from the farm. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about attending such a dinner, but my sister was the first in our family to go to college, and the ways of the academic world were foreign to us. My mother was too busy to be away from home that long, but my father consented. He could survive a fancy banquet if it made it easier for my sister to go to college. After all, how bad could it be? It turned out to be awful. For reasons you would not expect.

The evening was lovely. The presentation was flattering. The food was delicious. People could not have been more kind. My then 18-year-old sister remembers being so caught up in the evening that it took her awhile to notice that Dad wasn’t eating. He was just sitting there. She leaned over and said, “What’s wrong? Is it the food? Don’t you feel well?” No answer.  His food went untouched.

It was not until much later that we learned the reason my father had gone hungry that night. It was his hands. His massive, sunburned, swollen, grease-under-the-fingernails hands. All the people around him had soft hands, clean hands, manicured hands, college hands. My father was ashamed of his enormous farmer hands and all that they revealed about him. He would not lift them from his lap.

I think that painful memory for my Dad is what always makes my ears perk (and my eyes tear) at this gospel text. It’s not that Jesus will suffer and die. It’s not even that Peter puts another foot (is this the third?) in his mouth, trying to stop the freight train of Jesus’ destiny. It’s not even that those who would follow Jesus (aka us) will be called upon to suffer, as well.

It’s that word, “ashamed.” Twice.

“Those who are ashamed of me and my words,” Jesus warns “of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed.”

Which will be worse? That we will be ashamed of Jesus or that Jesus will be ashamed of us?

Shame is a hard thing. Not easily admitted or easily eased. Shame is different from guilt.  Its deeper. Guilt means that you feel bad about something you did.  We feel “guilty” for being short in conversation, for rear-ending another car in traffic, for letting someone down. We are named “guilty” before a judge and jury. Guilt is about what we do.

But shame? Shame is about who we are. A judge of my acquaintance has, more than once during sentencing, said to the guilty party, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Not for their crime, but because of what the crime revealed about their heart. Shame isn’t about something we do, a wrong that can be righted. Shame is about who we are.

An old friend hid his sexuality from the world to the day he died. He was ashamed of being gay. A family in another parish disappeared after they lost their home in the 2008 recession. They were ashamed of being poor. The mother of a school shooter changed her name so as not to associated with him. She was ashamed of being a failure. The objective observer would say they have nothing of which to be ashamed. The varieties of sexual expression. Financial loss. A loved one’s downfall. But shame is not rational.

Shame keeps us in the shadows. Shame keeps us silent. Shame keeps us from following.

Why did Peter react so strongly to Jesus’ spot-on prediction?  It was because Jesus was headed, not for glory, but for death. Jesus would be killed. Like a common criminal. Like a rabid dog.

Let me go out on a limb here and imagine what Peter was thinking.

If Jesus was going be bullied, beaten and bloodied. If everyone from the highest priest to the lowest soldier was going to laugh at him. If Jesus was going to be accused of a capital crime and left to dangle nearly naked from a cross. What would that say about Peter? It would say not that Peter had done something wrong—made an unwise choice of friends—but that he was wrong. That he was a fool, a dupe, a loser like the street preacher he had chosen to follow. If Jesus was nothing more than a common criminal, a famous fraud, then Peter was, too.

Jesus knew that Peter was ashamed of him. And Jesus promised to return the favor. Ouch.

What would it mean for us to be ashamed of Jesus? There’s a lot. Much of what we believe as Jesus’ disciples makes us seem naïve, even foolish. After all, look at what we believe. We forgive sinners. We care for the poor. We welcome strangers. We admit to weakness. We measure our judgements. We are kind to those who harm us. We give our money away. We trust God to be at work even when there is no evidence. How foolish are we? We ought to be ashamed.

The world wants muscular Christianity—an eye for an eye, three strikes, swift retaliation, you get what you deserve, make your own bed, go back where you came from. I can’t imagine Jesus believing even one of those things. But then again, look at what happened to him.

Look at us. We come together week after week after week to say we are sinners, to admit we are lonely, to lean on each other, to extend our hands like beggars. Today at the annual meeting we hitch our wagon to a world of need—everything we do here is for the sake of sinners, strangers and the sad.

But we are not ashamed. And Jesus isn’t either. Remember what Jesus did to Peter at the end of the gospel story? Peter who was boastful, pig-headed, ashamed to be named one of his disciples. Jesus loved him. And at the end of John’s gospel, Jesus gives him charge of the whole flock. “Feed my sheep.” (John 21.15ff)

Though Jesus had every right in the world to turn his back, to hide his face from Peter, he couldn’t do it. Because Jesus knew that Peter’s great shame deserved an even greater love.

I saw my Mom a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about Dad and I asked, “What do you miss most?” She didn’t hesitate. “His hands. They were so big and strong.”

The thing that shamed my father most was the very thing my mother loved the best.

We need not be ashamed of who we are or who we follow. According to Jesus, even if we lose our life, we’ll get it back.


Vespers in the First Week of Lent

Vespers in the First Week of Lent (21 February 2018)

Genesis 1.1 – 2.4a

JoAnn A. Post

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 

the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,

while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 

 and God separated the light from the darkness.

God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters,

 and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 

So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome  from the waters that were above the dome.

God called the dome Sky.

And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said,

“Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place,

 and let the dry land appear.”

“Let the earth put forth vegetation:

 plants yielding seed,

 and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.”

And it was so. 

And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky

 to separate the day from the night;

 and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 

 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.”

And it was so.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures,

 and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 

God blessed them, saying,

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas,

  and let birds multiply on the earth.” 

And it was so.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

And God said,

“Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind:

cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.”

And it was so. 

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image,

  according to our likeness;

  and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea,

  and over the birds of the air,

  and over the cattle,

  and over all the wild animals of the earth,

  and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 

And it was so.

God saw everything that had been made, and indeed, it was very good.

And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

And on the seventh day God finished the work that had been done,

and God rested on the seventh day from all the work that had been done. 

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it,

because on it God rested from all the work that had been done in creation.

“And it was so.” What would that be like? To have that power. To say it, to desire it, to authorize it and make it happen. Like Captain Piccard at the helm of the Enterprise: Make it so!

I snuck out of town last week to see my Mom for a couple of days. She is mostly well, though often confused and always sad. As we leafed through photographs of the grandchildren, whose names she couldn’t recall, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Why am I even here?” She wasn’t referring to her GPS coordinates, but to the fact that she is alive and mostly without purpose. “Every day I pray to die,” she confided. If God answers my mother’s prayers as she hopes, one day soon God will say, “And it was so.” It will be a great day for her.

I’ve stopped watching news on television, and have scaled way back on my internet news surfing. It’s not the news itself which troubles me, but the endless interpretation and accusation and obfuscation that wear me out. “Let’s turn to the panel.” No one wants more school shootings. No one wants Russian meddling in our affairs. No one wants nuclear war. But how to accomplish those common goals?  None of us has the ability or authority to force our answers on others. Only God can announce that “it is so.” We have to work at it.

And it was so.

In the beginning there was no earth, no asteroid, no nothing. Regardless of your understanding of the origin of things, most people agree that there was a time when there was nothing. Not even Time. Into that deep dark silence God spoke. A command: “Let there be!” And it was so.

Was God surprised? Was it like that first time you hear your own recorded voice and cringe: “Do I really sound like that?” Was God taken back that the command for light resulted not in a dim glow on the emerging horizon but in swirling stars and twirling planets, exploding supernova and imploding black holes?

God tested this super power again and again.

How about water and dry land? It was so!

What about signs and seasons, days and years? It was so!

Let’s try cattle and crawlers. Birds and bugs. Ravens and warthogs. It happened again.

As the creations grew increasingly complex and the commands more and more daring, God’s eyes grew wider and wider, until God made a command that seemed impossible to fulfill: “Make a sentient, upright, bi-pedal, omnivorous creature whose heart can hold both joy and sorrow in equal measure AND who will bear a resemblance to me.” Not possible.

But it was so. I wonder if God ever regrets that last wild wish.

In this valley we call Lent, on this troubled planet we call Home, we long for God to bring an end to violence and corruption, poverty and hunger. We beg God to create again—life from death, joy from sorrow, peace from war, abundance from scarcity, light from darkness.

And God will. But not until our hearts are changed, our eyes opened, our despair turned into hope.  Is it so? Not yet. But it will be. God is still creating.




Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday (14 February 2018)

Joel 2.1-2, 12-17

JoAnn A. Post

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—
a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old,
nor will be again after them in ages to come.

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged;
gather the children, even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.

Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.
Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ ”

Gordon rarely spoke of his children, except to say that they didn’t come around much.  I have learned to withhold judgement about such matters—no one can know what a family is like from the outside. Distance between parents and children is sad, but usually far more complicated than any outsider can assess. It was not my place to either evaluate or intervene.

But I learned it was more than just not “coming around much.” Gordon was estranged from his children because of his harsh and often cruel treatment of them and their mother. But when Gordon fell and broke his hip, and the doctor told me Gordon was dying, I decided to find them. I thought they would want to know.  One by one they made their way to the hospital to say good-bye to the father with whom they had not spoken since their mother’s funeral.  When he died, I was the only witness.

We didn’t hold a funeral for Gordon. Any friends he had had were long dead. He had no relatives but his children and grandchildren. What to do to mark the end of a long life?  It was Gordon’s Jewish daughter who suggested we gather at the graveside. Though raised in the Christian faith, she converted to Judaism after marriage. She understood, more than the other children, the need to gather at the grave.

On a cold February morning, we trudged through the snow to the open hole in the ground which would receive their father’s casket. I read scripture and prayed as we do in our tradition. Then I stepped aside so his daughter could offer scripture and prayer from hers.

Dressed in black from head-to-toe, she rocked slowly back and forth as she recited psalms and prayers in Hebrew. Then she took a small gold scissors from her coat pocket and took a cut at the black wool scarf over her head.

It was only then that I noticed the scarf, which I had thought was fringed. But it was not. It was cut. In a dozen places. It was her funeral scarf, snipped once for each grief she had witnessed. Each cut was a sign of her sorrow, of the wounds grief left on her heart. She performed Keriah—the ritual rending of a garment in grief.

Gordon died more than a decade ago, in a place far from here. I had not thought of him in years, not until reading these familiar Ash Wednesday texts. It was the words of the prophet Joel that caught my eye and heart this time. “Rend your hearts and not your garments.”

Rather than a delicate snip, mourners of Joel’s day tore their clothing, ripping it in two as a sign of grief. The prophet Joel called his congregation to such mournful violence, not for personal sorrow, but in communal repentance and remorse for the ways they had grieved God.  Joel urged them to mourn their shared sin as they mourned their personal sorrows. “Return to God with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

We have failed to be the children God desires us to be. And, to be honest, God has not always been the parental figure we had hoped. And while none of us can stand in judgment over another’s relationship to God, the fact of our estrangement is no secret. And no surprise.

We do not perform Keriah tonight. We have adopted another ancient practice to mark tonight’s sorrow. We will not tear our clothing, but we will smear our faces with ash. Ash. An ancient sign of repentance and grief.

When I was a child, ashes were not offered on this day.  Though my Roman Catholic classmates appeared at school on Ash Wednesday with a dark smudge on their foreheads, our faces were clean. When I asked my otherwise gracious mother why my Catholic schoolmates got ashes and we did not, she offered the same explanation as for every other question I had about our despised papist neighbors. “We’re not Catholic. We don’t do it because they do.” (I’ve been sporting Episcopalian ashes all day, BTW.)

Such scornful pride was common in those days in some corners of the church. But we have come to learn that the differences among the faithful have nothing to do with the denominational name on our 501(c)3 documents or the way we worship or the name of God on which we call, but with our willingness to publicly admit both our faith and our failing.

Tonight, before we receive the ash smudge, we will confess our common sin. Sin that is not Jewish or Catholic or Lutheran. Sin that is human. And if, as you bow your head to receive the ash cross and hear the words “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” your heart hurts a bit, know that you are in good company.

Tonight we rend our hearts and not our clothing. Tonight we admit our faithlessness to God and one another. Tonight we wear on our faces the truth of our hearts.

I have to believe there was healing for Gordon’s family on that bitter winter day. He was not the father they had wanted. They were probably not the children he had imagined. I have to believe that the cut of his daughter’s scarf, the single tear on his son’s face reminded God of their grief, of their need for a loving, forgiving father.

Tonight we return to God who is faithful and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Tonight God sees our sorrow—our smudged faces, our torn hearts—and loves us even more.