Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (19 March 2023)

“Open to Change: Open His Eyes”

John 9.1-41

JoAnn A. Post

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

She frightened me. My mother’s cousin who lived next door to my grandparents in our hometown. Until I was old enough to understand her condition, my mother’s cousin frightened me.

Marie was a small, silent person with misshapen legs and feet. She sat slumped in a wheelchair—not a sleek, uber-portable wheelchair but a heavy wooden one with a high caned back and enormous steel wheels. She mostly sat in the bay window looking out on the street, or, on sunny days, in the driveway. Her silence, her shape, her hulking wheelchair—they were all terrifying to a small child.

When I was older I learned that Marie was a lovely person—gentle, kind, inquisitive. She had been born with spina bifida, a condition that, 100 years ago rendered her completely disabled. In fact, her parents, my mother’s aunt and uncle, had been advised to institutionalize her at birth. They were told that she wouldn’t live, and, if she did, would be nothing but a burden.

Clearly, Marie’s parents dismissed that advice. Marie went to school through middle school. She attended family gatherings. Until they grew too old to do so, her parents lifted her and carried her and tended to all her needs. Marie lived into her 50’s—an unheard of life span for someone with her condition in that era. But then, most children like her didn’t live in a home as loving and courageous as hers, either. Most children like her were were not seen as lovingly as she was.

I wonder what Marie’s life would be like with a similar diagnosis in our day. Actually, I have an inkling. A family friend’s daughter was diagnosed with spina bifida in utero just last year. The baby underwent a prenatal surgical procedure, and another immediately after birth. They anticipate that she will live a full, independent life. And regardless of her physical condition or the length of her life, she will live a life full of love and kindness and hope. What more could a child want? Her parents don’t see her as different or disabled; they see her as a gift from God.

It has not always been so. If it was grim for Marie 100 years ago, imagine what it was like to be “less than perfect” in the first century, in Jesus’ day. And, of course, because of poor nutrition and zero prenatal care, physical and cognitive impairments were far more common than they are now. It was also commonly held that illness, disfigurement, disability of any kind was a sign of punishment, of sin, of judgement.

That’s why the blind man whom Jesus accosted in this morning’s gospel reading was begging at the city gate. Maybe his parents took him there every morning and retrieved him every evening, providing him with a safe home. It is equally possible that they had disowned him, that he ground out a living on the street, in the company of others deemed sinful, shameful, unwelcome. To quote this morning’s text from Isaiah, he may have been abandoned to live among people like him who were “weak, feeble, blind, deaf, lame, speechless.” (Isaiah 35.3-10)

Here’s something else we know that would have been surprising to those who tossed coins in his basket. The man may have been blind but we know that he was also smart, articulate, theologically astute, even sassy. (Not unlike the Woman at the Well whom we met last week.) After the shock of being able to see (“here’s mud in your eye”) and the disappointment at what he saw (angry people), he quickly leapt to his own defense.

While Pharisees and neighbors and even his own parents bickered about him—didn’t he used to be blind? this can’t be the same guy! who did this? I don’t know, ask him!—he kept trying to get their attention. “I can hear you, you know!”

This text is rich with nuance and challenge, but time does not allow us to properly parse and study it. Instead, let’s consider this single aspect. Blindness. The inability to see. It can be both a physical condition and a spiritual one.

The Man Born Blind discovered something sad that we have also learned. Sometimes it is God’s people, Jesus’ followers, church-going people who are most blind to God’s work in the world.

Though we talk a lot about grace and mercy, welcome and inclusion, congregations can be the least welcoming of places.

Last summer, my husband and I attended a Lutheran church in our synod while on vacation. Though we looked like and walked like and sang like everyone else in the room, not a single person spoke to us. I didn’t expect the red carpet, but a ‘hello’ or a fist bump would have been nice. Maybe I’d accidently worn my invisibility cloak that morning? And how would they have treated visitors unlike them?

In my own experience, a seminary classmate who was legally blind was discouraged from pursuing ordained ministry. Another who had a significant stammer was similarly shunted off to the side. Who would want a pastor who couldn’t see, who couldn’t speak? In my home congregation, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome was almost denied her First Communion because her “condition” rendered her “unworthy.” 

Egregious! Impossible! Shameful! Yes, indeed. And we all do it.

We are all guilty of closing both our hearts and our doors to people whose perceived difference or inability makes us uncomfortable. Some among us are clinically blind or deaf or differently abled. And others among us are spiritually so. Unable or unwilling to see, to hear, to welcome the world into which Jesus would lead us.

Which is the greater “disability”—living with a clinical diagnosis or in a spiritual sinkhole?

Meanwhile, little Lillian is about to be baptized. Lillian, who dances in her parents’ laps every Sunday morning, who holds her older brothers in the palm of her hand, who captured our hearts the first time we saw her.             Because of the family in which Lillian is being raised, because of the congregation in which she is being baptized, Lillian knows nothing but love. If it were up to us or to her brothers, she would be carried everywhere, her feet never touching the ground, a veritable Queen of Sheba.

It is no secret that she is the favorite daughter in her home. Today God names her “favorite” in her baptism, as well. Best loved. Most cherished. God loves Lillian even more than her parents do, if that is possible. Would that her world would always be so safe, her welcome, so warm.

But safety is not the reason we have children, is it? Bubble wrap protects only packages, not people. Lillian will one day see a world in which not all children are loved, in which not all adults are safe, a world in which “difference” and “disagreement” are four-letter words.

I think of an episode in “Winnie-the-Pooh and Tigger Too” (1974)  in which Tigger has climbed to the tippy top of a spindly tree where he is whipped back and forth in the wind, becoming nauseous and disoriented. He finally falls to the ground, groaning, “I’m see sick from seeing too much.”

Lillian may one day grow See Sick, as well. She may one day see too much. Too much division. Too much dissension. Too much judgement. Too much of all the things from which we protect her now. With sorrow, she may one day echo the refrain of the Man Born Blind: “I once was blind but now I see.” (And wish I didn’t.)

But sight, seeing the world as it truly is is not necessarily a bad thing. Such sight may be a good thing, if it spurs us to action.

In these Sundays of Lent we are considering change. Change out there. In here. In our hearts. And as dramatic as the change around us may seem, it is nothing like the whiplash experienced by the Man Born Blind, or by those who fought his sight—the church elders and nosy neighbors and terrified parents who suddenly discovered they were as blind as he once was.

We are all being changed, whether we like it or not. We are seeing and being seen. And, as is true of so much of our lives, what we see may frighten us. It need not. Miracles of sight are all around.

This morning a Man Born Blind sees clearly.

This morning Lillian sees only love.

This morning I remember Marie who saw the world from a wheelchair, and who was seen by her parents with love.

We were, all of us, once blind. To what is Jesus opening our eyes?

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (12 March 2023)

“Open to Change: Open your Hearts”

JoAnn A. Post

John 4.5-42

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” 

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”

Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 

Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him. 

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” 

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

My father lived a full life. He was married for 60+ to the only woman he ever loved. His house was full of children; his barns full of livestock; his fields full of corn. His parents, his church and his dearest friends were all within a five-mile radius of our farm. He had everything he needed. A full life.

And a very small world. Only once did he venture far from the farm. Serving three years in the Korean Conflict was more than enough adventure.

To misquote Julius Caesar, “I came. I saw. I left as fast as I could.”

We all know and love people like this; people who have chosen to live a very circumscribed life. There is nothing wrong with living such a life.

            Unless you expect that others will, too.

My father believed that difference was not just different, it was wrong.

Change was not inevitable, but to be stopped.

And sin. Well, that was anything he didn’t agree with.

He didn’t mean harm. He just didn’t understand what was happening all around him. Things that used to be just “wrong” were suddenly normal. Things that used to be “sin” were now choices. Perhaps you share his confusion with the ways of the world. Many do.

It’s out of that confusion between the way we think things ought to be and the way things are that a saying emerged. You’ll hear people will say, “Well, you know what Jesus said, ‘Love the sinner. Hate the sin.’”

Though it is not meant to be cruel, it feels that way. Because what it really means is, “I don’t love all of you, only the parts of which I approve.”

We are not Oreo cookies, that you can twist apart; Lego’s that you can sort by color and size. We are human beings, wonderfully complex in our variety and absolutely alike in this: we are sinners through and through. It is not possible to love the sinner and hate the sin. They are one and the same.

As our Lutheran theology teaches us, we are born sinful and unclean. As the psalmist writes, “Indeed, I was born guilty; a sinner from my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 51)

As Jesus said, “Love the sinner. Period.” He does it again today.

Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well is a head-scratcher on all counts. That Jesus was alone at a well in the middle of a day in a foreign land. That a woman came alone to the well in the middle of the day. That Jesus and the woman conversed, maybe even met one another’s eye. That the woman was well-versed in both theology and interfaith issues. That Jesus somehow knew her sad circumstance—five times tossed out of a marriage—and regarded it only as a fact, not a flaw.

The offense of this conversation is made clear when the disciples, who had made a run to McDonald’s, running back with their grease-stained bags and icy Cokes and stopped short. John writes, “The disciples were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”

Everything was wrong with the conversation between Jesus and the woman of Samaria. The disciples were troubled. Then they were also jealous, “Who brought him something to eat?”

But the woman, abandoned, isolated, judged, dismissed, thirsty, was delighted.

She dropped her bucket the same way the first disciples dropped their nets. But instead of running after Jesus as they did, she ran back into town. Leaving Jesus, still thirsty, at the well with his hungry, thirsty disciples.

This shameful, shameless (?) Samaritan woman, boasted that Jesus knew all about her and did not reject her. “Come and see someone who told me everything I ever did!”

She was a sinner. Everyone knew it, treated her that way. Jesus knew it, too, but it didn’t seem to matter. He saw a woman, a child of God, a thirsty sinner. Just like all the rest.

I have always loved church. As a child I memorized all the hymns in the hymnal. I didn’t mind going to confirmation class every Saturday morning for three hours for three years. I thought being a pastor was the coolest job in the world—little did I know that I couldn’t be one. Even in college, I was the only one on my floor who was up and out the door to the early service at the Lutheran church six blocks from campus. What a nerd, no?

But college was also the first time I was exposed to the many wonders of the world. Some of them good for me, some of them not. At a particularly low point in my college years, when I was living a life of which I was not proud, I decided to give up something up for Lent. I decided to give up communion for Lent. I didn’t give up church—I loved the liturgy too much. But I was a little too sinful and unclean to kneel at that beautiful polished oak rail.

I was known to the pastors of the congregation. After all, I was the only person under 80 at the 8:00 service.  Apparently, they noticed that I was abstaining from the meal, and it troubled them.

A few weeks into my ill-advised Lent discipline, the senior pastor stopped me at the door after worship and asked if we could talk. “He’s on to me,” I thought. “I was right. I don’t belong here.”

But he sat beside me in a pew in the empty sanctuary and wondered, kindly, why I was not receiving communion. I told him my twisted rationale, that I was too sinful to receive Jesus’ body and blood. He paused, looked deep into my eyes and said, “Me, too. We are all too sinful to receive him. That’s why we are here. Jesus loves us because we are sinners, not in spite of it.”

I have communed at every opportunity since then. Sinner. Sinful. Always welcome.

Apparently, the “love the sinner/hate the sin” fallacy was alive and well even in the early church. In this morning’s second reading from Romans, Paul has to correct their theology the way my college pastor corrected mine.

Three times, the apostle reminds the congregation in Rome that Jesus didn’t wait to love them until they shed their sinful selves like a snake shedding its skin. Instead, he writes, “While we were weak; while we were sinners; while we were enemies—it was then that Jesus died for us.” (Romans 5.1-11)

In the middle of our failings and flaws, our troubling choices and troubled minds, Jesus loves us most. Jesus makes no distinction between sinner and sin. You is or you ain’t. And we all is.

This tightly written, densely packed text about the Woman at the Well challenges much of what we thought we knew of sin, of salvation, of God.

Jesus, who knew all about her, didn’t demand that she go to confession, that she become an “honest woman,” that she stop being a Samaritan and become a faithful Jew, that she fix her theology before he would pour her a glass of the living water he promised. Instead, it was in the heat of her sin, under the heat of the sun, he offered her the cool water of his love and welcome.

“While she was yet a sinner.”

I can hear the “yeah, but” in your mind.

“Yeah, but” some behaviors are simply wrong.

“Yeah, but” some decisions are wrong.

 “Yeah, but . . .”

I don’t disagree with you. We don’t applaud the harm we cause ourselves and one another by things done and undone. We don’t celebrate the grudges we hold, the judgements we make, the lies we tell, the secrets we keep, the love we withhold, the prejudices we nurse, the walls we build, the future we harm. Sins, all of them. Sinners, all of us.

In fact, we have a broad definition of sin: sin is anything that divides us from God and one another. The list is long. Sometimes we can’t help ourselves.

Remember what a church nerd I was? I used to love watching the Billy Graham crusades on TV with my Mom, a thousand years ago. If you ever watched one of the crusades, you’ll recall that at the end of every telecast, Bill Graham invited sinners forward for prayer. “Even if you’ve come many times before,” he would say. And as sinners streamed from stadium stands to the stage to be blessed, the congregation sang, “Just as I am, without one plea.”

“Just as I am.” That’s what the Woman at the Well could have sung. Over and over. Jesus loved her just as she was.

In the same way, almost every Sunday, we confess our sins and shortcomings before we do anything else. Every week. Don’t we ever get tired of sinning? Don’t we ever get forgiven enough? No, we are sinners through and through. That is why, each week, I invite: “Let us acknowledge our sin before God and one another.” And we do.

There is no “soft on sin” here, because sin is pervasive. We need to keep confessing, week-after-week, for all of our lives.

And it is because we are so keenly aware of our sin—our own and the sins of others—that the Woman at the Well is so intriguing for us.

What did she do after Jesus offered her living water, after Jesus “knew everything she ever did,” after a whole village came to faith because of her: “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have now heard for ourselves and we know that Jesus is truly the savior of the world.”

What did she do then? We don’t know. Which means its not the point of the story. Her amendment of life—or not—is not as important as the fact that while she was weak, while she was a sinner, while she was an enemy Jesus knew her and loved her.

He feels the same way about us.

My father and I rarely saw eye-to-eye. He never “got” me; I never “got” him. But because we shared a common faith, a common experience of having been forgiven, we were able to be in relationship. We were able to put our feet under the same table for meals. We were able to share a hymnal in worship—though he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. We were able to sit silently together as he lay dying. And when he died, we were at peace.

The Woman at the Well invites all of us—sinners, sin-full, sinned against—to receive the water of life. “Come, meet a man who knows everything you ever did.” And come as often as you need to.

Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent (5 March 2023)

“Open to Change: Open the Door!”

JoAnn A. Post

Luke 15.1-3,11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. 

And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons.”

Please forgive the interruption, but I want to set the context a bit before we go on.

The parable you are about to hear is part of a collection of parables, all of them about things that are “lost” and the people who find them. Jesus tells them in response to a challenge from the Pharisees and scribes about Jesus’ sketchy choice of friends: sinner and tax collectors.

The first parable is about a shepherd who loses track of a single sheep. The second is about a woman who misplaces one coin. The third, the one we read today, is about a father who loses (almost) not one, but two sons.

Biblical parables are sometimes difficult to decipher; much of the nuance buried in 1st century storytelling styles and cultural references that are lost on us. But Luke makes it easy. Each of his parables begins with the subject of the parable. So, though this parable is typically called “The Lost” or “The Prodigal Son,” Luke wants us to pay attention to the father. That’s why he begins, “There was a man. . . “ We need to keep our eyes on him.

Reader, please continue.

There was a man who had two sons. 

The younger of them said to his father,

‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belongs to me.’

So the man divided his property between his two sons.

Oops, forgive me for interrupting.  Something else to notice. When the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance he is, in essence, saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead.” The father, apparently not easily offended and foolish with love, did as he was asked.

Also notice that he divided the inheritance between both sons. Both the younger and older of his children obtained their inheritance while the father was still alive.

And because of 1st century property laws, the older son, whom we have not yet met, got far and away the larger share. That is, both boys benefited from their father’s foolish, loving largesse. Remember that when the older son starts to pitch a fit.

Please continue.

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had

  and traveled to a distant country,

  and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 

When he had spent everything,

  a severe famine took place throughout that country,

  and he began to be in need. 

So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country,

  who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 

He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating;

  and no one gave him anything. 

But when he came to himself he said,

‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare,

  but here I am dying of hunger! 

  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him,

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 

  I am no longer worthy to be called your son;

  treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 

So much to unpack!

The younger son, flush with cash, treated himself and his fair weather friends to a fabulous party. What “dissolute living” means exactly, we don’t know, but imagine you were 18 years old and had a pocket full of cash. Given what we know of adolescent brain development—that our executive function skills don’t mature until our mid- to late-20’s—this kid was doing what all of us at his age would do. Being stupid.

Of course, the money didn’t last. And his sudden poverty coincided with a recession, meaning there was no work. For anyone. As a result of his empty pockets and aimless wandering, he woke one morning in a land far from home. A land populated not by Jews like him, but with gentiles. How do we know? He got work with a hog farmer. Pork is forbidden for Jews; there is no Israel Pork Producers Association. That’s how we know the younger son is far from home, surrounded by people who did not share his faith or his customs.

Hungry. Humiliated. Desperate. He plotted a scheme and drafted a script sure to break his father’s heart. “O, Daddy. I’ve been a schlub. Forgive me. I’ll do anything if you’ll welcome me home.”

You can tell I doubt the son’s sincerity. But maybe I’m wrong about him, Maybe it really had been a wake-up call; maybe he really was repentant. We don’t know. It doesn’t matter. To us, or, as you will soon see, to his father.

Please continue.

So he set off and went to his father.

But while he was still far off,

  his father saw him and was filled with compassion;

  he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 

Then the son said to him,

‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;

  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 

But the father interrupted him and said to his slaves,

‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him;

  put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 

And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 

  for this son of mine was dead and is alive again;

  he was lost and is found!’

And they began to celebrate.

At this point in the telling, Jesus’ hearers would have been on their feet, throwing rotten fruit. Their upset was not with the foolish son, but with the foolish father.

Here’s the deal. In that culture, having been treated so disrespectfully by a child who later surrounded himself with gentiles, the father would have had to consider his son dead. His room would have been emptied, his photo taken off the wall, his name never spoken again. The son had so thoroughly shamed his father and his family name, that regardless of the story he told upon his return, his father would not, could not have opened the door to him.

“I have only one son,” is what the father would have said.

But, instead of barring the door and turning his back, it seems the father had been sitting at the kitchen table this whole time, hoping and praying his rotten son would come home. That’s why, when he saw the son still far off, the father pulled the door off its hinges, hiked up his robe and ran. Like a fool. Down the road to scoop this wayward child into his embrace.

It was humiliating to watch. And what he did next was even worse.

The father didn’t let the son deliver his well-rehearsed speech. Instead, he ordered his servants to throw a party. The best clothes. The fattest calf. The family ring. “This child was dead. But now he is alive.”

The neighbors were stunned. The son was stunned. The calf—well, he was stunned, too, though in a different sense.

Jesus would have had to shush his audience’s booing. “I’m not done. There’s more,” he said. And continued this unlikely parable of a foolish father.

“Now his elder son was in the field;

  and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 

He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 

Just one morelittle interruption.

Remember that this older son was in full possession of the bulk of his father’s estate. His parents were renters in the home that used to be theirs but now belonged to the son. His parents were given an allowance for groceries and gas. His parents were the laughing stock of the neighborhood, “Who gives their inheritance away while they’re still alive?”

So, remember that this elder son, who is about to throw a hissy fit, has benefited enormously from his younger brother’s unwise antics.

We continue.

“The servants replied,

‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf,

  because he has got him back safe and sound.’

Then the older son became angry and refused to go in.

His father came out and began to plead with him. 

But he answered his father,

‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you,

  and I have never disobeyed your command;

  yet you have never given me even a young goat

  so that I might celebrate with my friends. 

But when this son of yours came back,

  who has devoured your property with prostitutes,

  you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Have you ever heard such a pity party in your life?

Remember how the father pulled the door off its hinges in his haste to greet his younger, dead-to-me son? And now the older son, filled with self-righteous rage, refused even to cross the threshold—the threshold of the house that belonged to him because his father had already given it to him.

Standing in the front yard, pouting like a toddler, he made up a fanciful story that only multiplied the imagined offense.

“I’ve worked like a slave for you.”

Well, not actually. He owned the farm. But the father was silent.

“You’ve never even let me slaughter a stringy goat for my friends, but this son of yours gets veal served on a platter.”

“This son of yours?” Odd, since that son was his brother. Anyway . . .

And then the older son puts a fine point on the younger son’s dissolute living, by dropping a hint about prostitutes. Really? That’s the worst insult he could think of?

This poor father. Both his sons were idiots. The younger selfish and immature. The older selfish and self-pitying.

The father had given them everything, absolutely everything he had. His good name, his standing in the community, his financial security. And where was their mother? Probably weeping quietly in her room, wondering where she had gone so wrong in raising those two ungrateful wretches, and what could possibly have gotten in to her husband.

What would you have done with these two rotten kids? Stormed back in the house and slammed the door? Demanded your money back? Pitched a fit of your own?

The father does none of those. Because this parable is not about children lost in their own self-pity, but a father consumed by love, a father whose heart and door were always open.

I’m not holding him up as a model parent. This is, after all, only a parable. But Jesus has a point to make.

Before we let the reader read the end of the story, let me remind you of where we are here, in this household of faith.

Much has changed since the day Jesus told this parable to an incredulous crowd.

Inheritance laws no longer automatically favor male heirs based on their birth order.

The lines between religions and cultures are not so starkly drawn. In fact, in my own little Northbrook neighborhood we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim and None.

Again, in my own ordinary little cul de sac, we have welcomed immigrants from Poland and Pakistan, Korea and Ukraine and, of course, that most exotic of addresses, Iowa.

We are very young and very old—the school bus and the paramedics make an equal number of trips down our street.

We are Republicans and Democrats and unaffiliated.

Our neighborhood has and always is changing, boundaries being crossed and doors always open. That could not have happened in Jesus’ day.

Here at Ascension, we have immersed ourselves in conversations about change. Not to develop a defense against it, but to befriend it.

In a few weeks, we will be opening our doors to a new Lent Challenge, learning about the lives of foster children and parents, about the systems that help them and the systems that ensnare them. We will give of our energy, our time, our treasure. We will clasp hands with long-time partner Lutheran Social Services of Illinois. It might even be that among us is one who will feel the call to foster, to welcome a troubled child as though they were your own.

We will all be changed. All our doors will be opened.

Because we, as a congregation, we are not strangers to change or difference. We are becoming aware of issues of race and class, educational attainment and invisible barriers. And all the while we gaze at change around us, each of us changing inside, as well. The way our families function. The way our bodies function. Or not. Our hopes and dreams, our fears and anxieties are always in flux, and often in conflict with one another.

The temptation, when change comes at us too fast, is to slam the door. To pretend either that it doesn’t affect us or that we can tap our heels together three times and wake up in Yesterday.

Instead, like the foolish father who grieved both his sons, our faith requires that we not lock and bolt the door, but that we tear it off the hinges. That we both welcome the world in all its complexities, and step off the safety of our front porch to welcome all that God has placed before us.

Yes, this is only a parable. No child would be so coarse, no parent so compassionate. And yet. Jesus speaks truth to us in parable, truth that we could not accept if he just said it to us straight.

Here’s what he would say. In plain speech. If we were able to hear him. Love has no boundaries. Limits are artificial. All that we have is not ours for keeping but for giving away. No sin is too egregious to be forgiven; no sinner dead to us.

In parable, three in a row, Jesus reminds us that so many are lost. Who will find them? Who will run wildly down the street to greet them? And how will we then welcome the change this one who once was lost brings into our lives? Will we open the door? Or slam it?


The father said to his older son,

‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 

But we had to celebrate and rejoice,

  because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life;

  he was lost and has been found.’”

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (26 February 2023)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 4.1-11

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

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

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’

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

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

A friend who struggled with addiction, has learned that, among the many tools in his sobriety tool kit, is to avoid the places and people that trigger temptation. “Why would you walk into a bar, unless you were going to drink, into a casino unless you were going to gamble?” he explains. And of friends who inevitably do “too much” of whatever they’re doing. “It’s not good for me to hang out with them. I know what happens. Why would I go there?”

And he has found, over the years, that he no longer desires those places, those experiences, those people anymore. He has a full life without them. But it didn’t happen overnight. And he didn’t get there alone.

As the Big Book says, “We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we have been placed in a position of neutrality—safe and protected.” (Step 10, Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous)

Such neutrality does not come easily. It is practiced, every day, in the company of others who choose to live the same way.

But before a person gets to that level of calm, of confidence, whether the temptation is to addictive behaviors, or destructive thought patterns, or old habits—procrastination, gossip, Cheeto-binging—we do have to fight it, we do have to avoid it. Every day.

As they say: let sleeping dogs lie, don’t poke the bear, leave well enough alone. Until these old ways are completely behind us, we steer clear, even if it means taking the long way around.

Another friend, who desperately wants a dog but can’t afford one right now, said, “I’ll just go to the dog shelter and look.” To which I said, “Nobody who goes to a puppy shelter walks out without a puppy.” Don’t go there.

It has always seemed odd to me that Jesus, still dripping from baptism, didn’t go to brunch to celebrate with friends, didn’t jump straight into ministry, didn’t go on retreat to process all that had happened.

Instead, he roused a sleeping dog. He poked an ancient bear. He couldn’t leave well enough alone.

A casual read of this morning’s gospel makes it sound as though Jesus used his baptism to launch a 40-day vision quest, alone in the wilderness to find quiet, to find peace, to define his purpose, a cleanse. But the wilderness was no wellness retreat. It was a seriously dangerous place.

And Jesus knew it. Jesus went into the wilderness for the express purpose of being tempted. And to up the ante, he went without food or water or companionship the whole time. He was weak as a kitten. And it was in that defenseless state that he willingly put himself in Satan’s crosshairs, for 40 days and 40 nights. Unfed. Unwashed. Unaccompanied. On purpose.

As Matthew writes, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Apparently, it was part of the plan all along. Did the Spirit have to drag Jesus into the wilderness by the ear, by the scruff of his neck, kicking and screaming all the way? Or did Jesus go willingly? We don’t know. But he went, knowing exactly what would happen there.

If he wanted trouble, why not just to go the Humane Society and “look at” puppies?

And because Jesus willingly and intentionally placed himself in danger, he got exactly what he was looking for. Temptation is frighteningly consistent. Tempting. Every time.

I misspoke earlier when I said that Jesus went into the wilderness unaccompanied. Matthew writes that the Holy Spirit took him there, and that angels gathered around him when it was over. So there was someone there at the beginning, and others who mopped up at the end. But, in the wilderness? Where were his helpers then?

Last week, President Biden made a long-planned and closely-kept secret visit to Ukraine, to meet with their president and to confirm US support as the conflict grinds into another year.

I know nothing of military strategy, of the etiquette of armed conflict. So I have had to school myself. And I have learned that if US forces join the conflict on the ground in Ukraine or in the air space above Ukraine, it would serve as a declaration of war. We cannot cross that border with a single tank, a single soldier.

That’s why our president was well-protected on every step, every rail and air mile of his trip. Until his foot crossed the border from Poland into Ukraine. Then he was on his own, militarily speaking.

Once there, in that warring wilderness, our military could not accompany him, on land or sea or in the air. Of course, his movements were monitored by satellite from Poland; an air-borne strike force hovered just outside the Ukraine border in case they needed to swoop in and protect him. But, while on the ground, the president had minimal protection. Or as some have reminded, he faced the same dangers Ukrainian citizens face every day.

Our president took an enormous risk. Many tried to talk him out of it. But he knew exactly what he was doing. Some risks are worth the danger. And, he was not alone.

Perhaps you have your own story of stepping into the line of fire, of taking an enormous risk, of putting your life or your reputation or your livelihood on the line, of working without a net.

Though unaccompanied by Secret Service agents or hovering drones, Jesus carried with him into the wilderness all he needed. Itchin’ for a fight. He carried no food or clothing. No weapons or cell phones. He entered the wilderness with only two things: he knew exactly who he was and what he wasn’t.

He knew who he was: God’s Son. The voice at his baptism said so.

And he knew what he wasn’t. He wasn’t strong enough on his own. So he dug into the tool kit the faithful have used for millennia. Words. God’s words. Though, of course, Satan knew those words, too. Anybody can quote scripture—though not always for the right reasons.

Parrying back and forth:

You’re hungry, make bread! No, I need more than food.

You’re a chump, make God prove it! No, I need no proof.

Your god is worthless! Worship me! No, I need worship only One.

And having bested Satan, angels swooped in to comfort Jesus.

Frustrated, Satan huffed off. But, according to Luke’s gospel, not for long. Luke ends this episode by writing, “And Satan departed from Jesus, until an opportune time.” (Luke 4.13) Don’t touch that dial! It’s not over.

If temptation looked like temptation, we would be ready for it. We might not even be tempted by it. But the urge starts small, harmless, puppy-like, in a weak moment—just this once, just one more time, what can it hurt, who will know, you don’t know unless you try. And the urge grows. The temptation to despair. The temptation to anger. The temptation to destroy ourselves or someone else. How do we equip ourselves to resist those temptations, and, if we are unable to do so, how do we extricate ourselves?

There is no easy path, no one-and-done strategy. Some temptations are overcome. Some plague us all our lives.

If were to ask Jesus, this would be his advice.

Know who you are. You are God’s most-loved child and nothing can change that. No matter what Satan or that dark inner voice tells you.

Know what you aren’t.  You are not strong enough. Not by yourself. Armed with the word of the God, surrounded by the people of God, we enter the wilderness of temptation with all we will need.

And here’s one other thought. When we have overcome the temptation, we know that others have not. And sometimes, perhaps at our own peril, we must enter that wilderness again to protect, to encourage, to accompany one who struggles as we once did.

No one can meet temptation alone. No one survives the wilderness alone.

We don’t have to. We know who we are. And what we aren’t. And that’s enough.

Sunday of the Transfiguration

Sunday of the Transfiguration (19 February 2023)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 17.1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 

But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

We cannot know, in the moment, what something means. Or how the puzzle pieces will come together.

Who could have imagined that the shoddy construction of apartment buildings in Turkey 25 years ago would contribute to earthquake death and destruction on a horrifying scale?

Who could have imagined that a congregation established in a prosperous village during prosperous times would be asking the questions that same congregation is asking today?

In our own lives, think of the dreams laid, the promises made, the hopes displayed that somewhere along the way took an unexpected turn.

No one can know, in the moment, what something means. It is only in retrospect that we can say, “Oh, I see now. That led to that and that to that and that’s how we got to this.” 

That said, there are times and experiences in our lives, as a country, as a congregation, as individuals when meaning completely eludes us. Our lives are, after all, not a well-told story, a carefully-crafted narrative, a novel with a beginning, middle and end. Though we try to make meaning of wildly unexpected events, sometimes “I wonder what that was about?” is the best we can offer.

The same is true of the biblical story we share. We look back on events and see patterns that, in the moment, no one could have imagined. But that today are filled with meaning and intent.

Did Mary understand, when the Wise Ones knocked on her door, that she was opening the door to Jesus’ ministry to Jews and non-Jews alike? He was a toddler when they dropped wildly inappropriate baby gifts at his feet.

Did John the Baptizer know, when he stood at the river baptizing every sort of sinner, that among those wet heads was Jesus’? And that his indiscriminate diatribes and dunking would get him killed?

Did the disciples have any clue, when they dropped their nets and followed Jesus, that 2,000 years later we would study them and admire them and wonder about them? They mostly thought only as far as the next tide.

As we study scripture together, we can see a pattern in the Jesus story as Matthew tells it, a pattern whose meaning is still not entirely clear, but gradually coming into focus. Let’s look.

Jesus’ first public act, in Matthew’s gospel, was the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), portions of which we have been reading together these last weeks. Luke’s Jesus delivers that same sermon on a level place, a plain. So, Matthew puts Jesus on a mountain for a reason. (Though to be sure, it’s not much of a mountain.)

The “mountain” on which it is believed Jesus sat and sermonized is really nothing more than a high hill with great water views. But mountains were and are holy places in many cultures. To climb a mountain—as Moses did in this morning’s Old Testament reading (EX 24.12-18)—puts one in proximity to the heavens, steps nearer to God, enveloped in a thin place where heaven and earth kiss.

It was on that not-quite-a-mountain that Jesus hinted at what he was about. Blessings for the cursed. Curses for the blessed. Moral and ethical expectations far beyond anything the law demanded. It was there, modestly high and lifted up, that Jesus’ ministry map is starting to take shape.

This morning we read about another trip up a mountain. We believe that the Transfiguration occurred on Mount Tabor, a peak more akin to Appalachian foothills than the Rockies. But it was on that mountain, higher than where he had delivered the Sermon on the Mount, but not yet his highest ascent, that Jesus was transfigured, that he dished with Moses and Elijah, long-dead, that a voice from heaven rumbled around them.

The disciples’ reaction is remarkable for its lack of reaction. Here’s Jesus, sparkling like the sun, chatting like old pals with Moses and Elijah. And the disciples’ first impulse was to make a day of it, pack a picnic, pitch a tent. Watching Jesus and his ephemeral conversation partners was probably  a lot more interesting that watching reruns of “The Real Housewives of Capernaum.”

The disciples were eventually terrified, but only when the voice broke through the clouds: “This is my Son.” The same voice that spoke at Jesus’ baptism. What did it mean? They didn’t have a clue. Jesus comforted them with a familiar hand on their shoulders, his gentle encouragement to get up, his useless advice to refrain from fear. Only he knew that greater terror lay ahead.

From the shore of the Sea of Galilea to the Mount of the Beatitudes. From the Mount of the Beatitudes to Mount Tabor. Jesus is gently climbing, taking the disciples with him. Acclimating them to ever thinner air and steeper climbs ahead.

What does this mean?

We are so blessed to celebrate baptisms two Sundays in a row. Last week Fitzpatrick was washed in these waters; today Oliver will submit to the waters, as well.

Ollie’s parents are old pros at this parenting thing. Their older son, Leo, broke them in. So they know how important it is to cherish these early days, even these sleepless nights. It won’t be long before Ollie is up and running, chasing Leo around the house. Before he hops on a bus by himself for school. Pedals a bike around the corner. Asks for the car keys. There is a reason our children learn so gradually. If they emerged from the womb ready to vote, it would be nothing but chaos.

That is why we baptize our children when they are small. (We baptize adults, as well, you know.) We want Oliver to know, before he ever wonders, that he is loved beyond measure, that he is God’s favorite child, that no power on heaven or earth can separate him from God’s love. We do it now, while he is small, so that as he grows and wonders—about his parents, about his world, about God—he will never have to wonder about this. “This is my son,” God says to Ollie today. And that will never change.

My daughters, now grown, were in grade school when DARE programs were popular. DARE was a program in public schools that both taught children the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and the possibility of Stranger Danger. I applauded the impulse. But, as did my daughter’s teachers, saw its limits.

DARE encouraged children to reject offers of addictive or illegal substances, and to steer clear of adults who expressed undue interest. What’s not to like?

It was too late. And too dramatic. Long before a classmate offers a child a stolen cigarette or a scary stranger beckons from a dark alley, the child will have faced other smaller temptations. To fib just a little. To “borrow” a toy. To keep a library book. To sass parents. We teach our children very small lessons when they are very small, we train them to know right from wrong, safe from unsafe, wise and foolish in tiny little ways.

And then, when bigger temptations come—to bully a friend, to look the other way, to tell a lie, to hang out with dangerous people in dangerous places—they will be well-versed in resisting. Small decisions when they are small, make bigger decisions easier when they are big. By the time the dangers are truly dangerous, they will have had lots of practice making good decisions.

Raising children to meet trouble a little at a time, is like climbing with Jesus from the shore to a hill to a modest mountain. All of it preparation for greater challenges ahead.

And what were those greater challenges?

On Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent with the ash cross on our foreheads, and six more weeks of drafting behind Jesus’ gradual ascent to his journey’s end. Because at the end of the season for us, at the end of the road for Jesus lay the steepest climb of all. His Mount Everest. A cross. Set high on a windy hill. A peak to which no one aspires, but for which Jesus was uniquely prepared.

Remember the voice at Jesus’ baptism, the voice that echoed in his Transfiguration? “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.” We will hear that voice once again at our Lent journey’s end. As Jesus hangs, willingly, on the peak of a cross at the pinnacle of a hill, another voice will take up the refrain. A nameless soldier, kneeling at the foot of the cross. A hired mercenary who had witnessed all of it, bowed his head when Jesus died, confessing, “Surely, this is God’s Son.”

The road was not difficult at the beginning—if it had been, no one would have walked it. But as in our lives, we crawl before we walk and walk before we run—in the same way, as disciples, we follow Jesus one step at a time, gradually gaining both altitude and strength.

No one can know what challenges Ollie’s life will present. It is the same for all of us. In the moment, when either unspeakable tragedy or unutterable joy presents itself, we simply receive it. We trust God to be at work in it. We pray courage to live in it. To fight it or try to replicate it or explain it away is futile. Only later, when we look back on the journey we have taken, the hills we have climbed, will any of it make sense.

From the sea shore to a foothill. From a foothill to a mountain. From a mountain to the peak of a cross. Climbing. Climbing. Climbing. But what does it mean? We don’t know yet. There are greater peaks ahead.

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (12 February 2023)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 5.21-37

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Sometimes the way we treat our neighbors has life and death consequences. We need look no further than Turkey and Syria for evidence.

Two massive earthquakes and more than 100 aftershocks.

Destruction along a fault line hundreds of miles long.

25,000 dead and counting, millions homeless and hungry.

Getting aid to the area has been enormously difficult for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that, among the dead are firefighters, physicians, crane operators. When the call for assistance went out across the globe, it was answered with an unprecedented outpouring of aid. Rescue teams from more than 40 countries now work alongside local villagers, who tear through concrete and rebar and rubble with their bare hands.

Seems like a powerful example of being good neighbors—rushing to the scene of need. And it’s true. Much of the world is at its very best.

But the lack of neighborliness I’m thinking of has little to do with what’s happened on the ground since the earthquake, and everything to do with decades-long disputes in the region, shifting national and tribal borders, protracted civil war that has displaced millions and cut off vast swaths of Syria from the rest of the world.

Rather than flinging open the borders to assistance, relief teams are having to thread a tight needle of tribal jealousies and political machinations just to deliver food and medicine. Parts of Syria are still inaccessible, not because of rough mountains and harsh weather, but because warlords cannot lay down their rivalries long enough to let the trucks go through.

Failure to be good neighbors has life and death consequences. Hatreds too deep to be bridged—even in a crisis—mean that people die.

When Jesus gathered his disciples around him on the mountain in the 1st century, he could not have known how his words would fall on our ears in the 21st. This morning’s text is part of a three-chapter sermon in which Jesus lays out the ethical demands of discipleship. He redefines the word “blessing” in ways that turn our expectations on their heads. Blessed are the poor?

He redefines his disciples. No longer are they merely uneducated, ill-qualified tag-alongs. They are salt, light, cities on a hill.

And today he redefines all we thought we knew of the commandments—the Ten Commandments given to Moses on the mountain and the myriad interpretive ordinances and statutes that followed.

Jesus’ disciples thought they knew what the commandments meant. As do we. After all, it’s pretty simple, isn’t it? They are a concise list of “don’t do that’s.” All we have to do to keep them is zip our lips when swear words threaten to fall; all we have to do is not kill people; all we have to do is “dance with the one who brung you,” as they say in Texas, that is keep your heart and your hands at home.

That’s not so hard, is it? Ten little rules? Well, if you’ve ever let loose with a string of four-letter-words (none of them L-O-V-E); if you’ve ever wished harm on someone who harmed you; if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to go home with someone else, you know exactly how hard it is. And today Jesus makes it even harder.

As Moses indicated in the Old Testament reading (Deuteronomy 30.15-20), failure to keep the commandments isn’t just about mindless obedience. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord in this new land, you will live and become numerous,” he promised.

“But,” he warned, “if you fail to keep them, you will not live here long.”

Moses knew, Jesus knew, on some level we know that keeping the commandments is not about checking boxes. Keeping the commandments is about heartfelt, selfless, determination to always put the other before ourselves.

And when we don’t, when we hold on to old grudges, when we long for things and people that are not ours, when we shave the truth and lie just a little, it is not we who are harmed. It is our neighbors. And I don’t mean the people who happen to live in the house next door, but the “neighbors” with whom you live, the people who trust you, the people who need you. Our failure to be faithful to the commandments, results in our failure to be faithful to them.

And then when the earth shakes and trouble comes, the chasm between us and them is too great to bridge. And we all suffer. Some die.

Years ago I served in a small town that had two big ELCA churches. We worked together often, were on good terms, swapped pulpits and ideas and sometimes members. Occasionally, our members would get mad at me and huff off to the other congregation. Their members would get mad at something there, and huff across town to mine. It was mostly harmless, petty nonsense that righted itself in time.

But not always. A member of my parish, an elderly, upright, wouldn’t-smile-if-you-tickled-her matron had a sister just like her in the other parish. They looked alike; they acted alike; they lived on the same street. They also hated each other just the same.  If one was in the room, the other walked out. It was more than ridiculous; it was heart-breaking.

When the sister who was in my care became suddenly ill, and then when that illness threatened to end her life, I asked, “Hazel, might I call your sister? Don’t you think she would want to know?”

She reared up from her pillow as though to attack. “No! Never!” And fell back to the bed. She was so mad I think something must have burst. Hazel died that night.

The next morning I decided to pay a pastoral call. I knocked on her sister Mabel’s door, wanting to deliver the news in-person. I was certain she would be heart broken, would fall to her knees in regret and grief, would beg God’s forgiveness for failing to reconcile with her sister.

Mabel recognized me immediately, invited me in for tea. When I told her that I wanted to deliver news of Hazel’s death in person, the tea in my cup froze. Her eyes narrowed, her back straightened. “I don’t care,” she said icily. “After what she did to me? You can go now.”

I can be remarkably clueless when I want to be, so I didn’t go. I pressed. “What happened? What did she do?”

Mabel paused, “Actually, I don’t remember anymore. It was so long ago. Something about a boy.” Pause. Straighter spine. “And I’ll never forgive her. Don’t expect me to show up at her funeral!” And then I knew it was time to go.

The story is modestly amusing, except that it is sad. And a tiny example of Jesus’ concern in today’s gospel.

Two sisters who lived only blocks apart could just as well have been living on different planets. They broke all three of the commandments Jesus addresses today—they murdered with their anger; they separated over jealousy about another; they spoke nothing but smack about each other for decades. And if you multiply Mabel and Hazel’s unrelenting spite by our own petty grievances and our country’s willful divisions and worldwide ancient rivalries, you find yourself on the shaky ground between Turkey and Syria, where people are dying because no one will back down.

You wondered how I was going to get there, didn’t you?

And here’s where we going next. To the font. And Fitz and to what his baptism means for us.

Fitz is growing up in the most faithful of families. His parents would give their lives for him. His sister and brother will be his biggest fans and fiercest defenders. His extended family will be models of forgiveness and patience. This congregation will embrace him with shameless affection. If it were up to us, Fitz would never know sorrow or anger or trouble. But it is not.

So today, as we gather around the baptismal font, his parents and sponsors promise to raise him in the faith, to shove evil out of the way like linebackers defending a quarterback. We promise to pray for and love him. And God promises to accompany Fitz through all that will come—to be Fitz’ guide and guard, his protector and power.

Why? Why all these powerful promises made to one so tiny?

Because, as his sponsors will soon say, Fitz will shine like a candle in a dark world. Because of Fitz, God will be made known in all he says and does.

Fitz will grow up knowing that commandment-keeping is more than dull duty, but a gift to a divided world. Fitz will be taught and will teach us to forgive without reserve, to be faithful even when it is hard, to speak truth and kindness.

Then, when the earth shakes and death threatens, when we are tempted to turn our backs on others’ trouble, when our own needs suddenly become more important than the needs of others, we will remember Jesus’ words: “You have heard it said, do not kill, do not be faithless, do not be false.”

Today, Jesus amplifies those commandments, not with a “don’t” but with a “do”: Do forgive those who harm you. Do be faithful to those who trust you. Do let your words be true.

And when, on this small stage we keep the commandments that way, those who act on the world’s stage might find themselves suddenly softened, suddenly peaceful, suddenly helpful. Because of us. Who know that life and death hang in the balance if they don’t.

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (5 February 2023)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 5.13-20

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

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

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

When my toaster, for the second day in a row, burned my English muffin to a cinder yesterday morning, I decided to exercise my rights as a consumer. We all know that most products are designed to fail, that no toaster or refrigerator or TV lasts forever. Or even six months. And I wasn’t having it.

In righteous indignation—the toaster was only months old and had not been cheap—I took photos of the ashes on my plate, jotted down the serial and product numbers, and, rather than fight my way through the company’s on-line return process, I went straight to the source. I called Customer Care. Itchin’ and expecting to fight.

Sitting at my home desk with enough evidence to convict Jack the Ripper, I was ready to spend most of the morning on the phone—a fresh cup of tea and the Saturday crossword at my side. I was willing to wait as long as necessary to prove the validity of my claim to a claims processor who had probably not dreamed of growing up to be a claims processor.

The phone rang three times and then a human being answered. What? I was disarmed.

“Customer Care. May I help you,” a friendly voice asked.

            “Yes, my toaster is practically burning my house down, and I want something down about it!”

“O my, I’m sorry. Probably not the way you’d hoped to start your day.”

Who was this pleasant person? Where was the fight? The challenge to my integrity?

I heard the clicking of polished nails on a computer keyboard.

Using only my cell phone number, she immediately pulled up my account, and said, “Mrs. Post, I see you in our system. You are a valued customer.”

I waited for the “but . . .” But it didn’t come.

“We’ll be sending you a new toaster on Monday. I am so sorry for the inconvenience. Anything else I can help you with?”

I didn’t know quite what to do. I’d expected to sit on hold—a friend calls it hell’s waiting room. I’d expected to have to show proof. I’d expected to get the run-around. Instead, I am a valued customer?

So, knowing that my call was being recorded for quality control purposes, I affirmed her in return. “You are so kind,” I said. “Thank you for being so responsive and helpful.” And I meant it.

Did I hear her smile? Probably not. The people who work customer service desks don’t have time to smile. I’m sure that when our call finished, she was  facing an eight-hour day of equally-angry customers whose coffee makers done them wrong.

“You are valued,” she said to me. I’m guessing “valued customer” means I’ve spent a lot of money with them over the years. But I was touched by her comment, nonetheless. How often does the sentence, “You are . . .” end well?

I have said before that Jesus’ metaphors in this text have never really resonated with me. Salt. Light. City on a hill. I’m sure that, in Jesus’ day, that was both high praise and something to which they might aspire. So, though they don’t set my heart racing, they’re worth considering.

Salt didn’t come in a blue box with an umbrella-wielding little girl on the side. Salt was mined from the earth by prisoners and slaves, or harvested from sea water. Salt not only flavored their food, but also preserved it. In fact, salt was so difficult to collect and so necessary for life, it was called “white gold.” No salt. No life.

Jesus was affirming his disciples’ indispensable value. “You are salt.”

Light wasn’t an automatic event the way it is for us. Strike a match. Flip a switch. Grab a flashlight. Light was a precious and limited commodity because, as Jesus will say in John’s gospel, “Work while it is day. Night comes, when no one can work.” (John 9.4) After dark they were reliant on fires struck by hand or coals coaxed into life. After dark, creatures lurked and people of ill-intent prowled. No light. No work. Only danger.

Jesus was affirming his disciples’ absolute value: “You are light.”

And a city set on a hill? A city set on a hill can be seen for miles around. A city set on a hill is not easily attacked. Jerusalem was a city set on a hill, and not accidentally so. Jerusalem was a light to the nations, an unassailable sanctuary, a witness to God’s power and welcome.

Jesus was affirming his disciples’  strategic value: “You are a hill top city.”

Were the disciples beaming at all this affection and attention? You are salt. You are light. You are a city set on a hill.

Probably not. Jesus’ affirmation would have been as startling to them as was the affirmation I received from the Cuisinart customer support desk. Jesus’ disciples were uneducated, unskilled, unimpressive. Had Jesus said, “You are unemployed fishermen, squeezy tax collectors, illiterate day laborers,” they would have said, “Yup, that’s right. That’s us. We’re not worth much.”

But to be praised? To be named? It was overwhelming. And unsettling. I imagine they were waiting for the other sandal to drop. I imagine they were waiting for the “but . . .” that never came. 

Instead, as salt and light and fortified cities, they were entrusted with responsibilities. Salt and light and cities do things. And what were these salty, brilliant, unassailable disciples to do? They were to demonstrate absolute adherence to the law, every letter, every stroke, the greatest and the least. But, of course, in the same way Jesus reframes them, Jesus also deftly reframes the law.

In 1st century Israel, the “law”  included 613 mitzvot—commandments, ordinances and statutes. It was a daily duty and a life’s work to be faithful to them all. Armies of rabbis, lawyers and scribes studied and supervised it. But Jesus will later reduce those 613 mitzvot to only two: love God; love neighbor. (Matthew 22.34) Without fail. Without exception.

Because of who disciples are (salt, light, hill top cities), this is what they do: love God; love neighbor.

You are . . . so that.

In a world that routinely labels, demeans and criticizes, a world that tells us all the things we are not—not smart enough, not pretty enough, not talented enough, not rich enough, not whatever enough—Jesus says, “To me, you are of immense worth and value.” And without missing a beat, adds, “And here’s how you will live.”

Imagine the metaphors Jesus might use of us in this time in history. What priceless commodity, what indispensable skill, what sort of city might we be? What is his “you are . . .” to us?

We already know what we are not.

If you are reading our All Ascension Reads book, “The Nones,” you know what congregations and denominations like ours are not. Not growing. Not relevant. Not worth peoples’ time.

On an international scale, we know we are not safe. When Chinese “weather balloons” mysteriously travel 5700 miles from Beijing to Missoula undetected, we know something is aloft. And, have no illusions, we are sending “weather balloons” all over the globe, as well. We are not safe.

We are not of one mind. I don’t need to describe how deep the divisions are among us. We argue over everything from books in school libraries to whose history qualifies as “American.” We hate one another on principle, assuming the worst of others based simply on their zip code or party affiliation or tax bracket.

We are not kind. When someone like me, the poster child for Iowa Nice, gets wrapped around the axle about a broken toaster, something is deeply wrong. And when the weapon at hand is a gun rather than a kitchen appliance, our unkindness turns deadly.

We are not so many things. But you know that. The world tells us daily.

That’s why, when we are told “you are . . .” and it’s a good thing, we are taken back. Nobody says that. No one but Jesus. And what, who does Jesus say we are?

Think back to the last time someone affirmed you with a “you are . . .” Was it this morning, this week, even once this year? What was the affirmation that brought a smile to your eyes, a warmth to your heart, a moment of joy? I hope you don’t have to think too hard to remember one.

And what would Jesus say to us. “You are . . .” What would his modern metaphors for things of value be?

Jesus might say, “You are gold, pure gold.”  Valuable. Priceless. Beautiful. Though most days we feel as unsettled and unstable as bitcoin.

Jesus might say, “You are  Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.” Undimmed. Unquenched. Unrelenting. Though most days we feel like a faulty Bic lighter.

Jesus might say, “You are a Warming Center on a cold Chicago night.” Open. Welcoming. Safe. Though most days we feel like a graffiti-covered overpass.

I know my analogies are inelegant and unimaginative. It’s hard to best Jesus in the metaphor department. But I want us to be disciples of whom Jesus might boast to his Mom. “My disciples are . . .” he would brag over the supper table.

And whether we are salt or gold, light or star, Jerusalem or homeless shelter, because we “are” in Jesus’ eyes we also “do” in Jesus’ name.

We do what disciples have always done, regardless of the era in which they serve or the way they make a living. We keep the commandments without fail, without exception. Loving God. Loving Neighbor. Because we are. That’s what we do.

We have a running joke in confirmation class this winter. As we study “famous Lutherans” (a surprisingly short list; David Hasselhoff?), the students routinely and intentionally mistake the two Martin Luthers—the 16th century reformer and the 20th century civil rights leader. And when they wonder aloud if we’re talking about the pudgy Martin Luther who always wears that stupid hat, or the fiery Martin Luther who one student describes as “the one with the little stache,” I always laugh. “You are the worst,” I tell them. And, of course, I mean, they are the best. Insightful. Inquisitive. Inventive. Hilarious.

Though I assume they know what I mean, from now on I will more be careful to say what they are to me, and to the church. I will tell them that they are the best, a joy to me and a delight to the world. Because maybe they don’t know who, what they truly are. “You are . . .” They need to hear it from their pastor. And from their parents. And from you.

We are so rarely affirmed, praised, named in a good way. So rarely that a scripted comment from a beleaguered customer care representative gave me pause.

In a world longing for simple kindness, for second chances, for shelter from the cold, Jesus’ disciples are . . .

And Jesus’ disciples do . . .

Without fail.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (29 January 2023)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 5.1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

  for they will be filled. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,

 for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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

“The Lord is close to the broken hearted. Blessed be the Lord.” (PS 34)

One of the reasons we sing the psalms as we do each week—a repeated refrain amplified by verses sung by the cantor—is to embed a melody and an image in our minds. While hardly anyone accurately remembers a spoken phrase, let alone a whole psalm, it takes no skill at all to remember a sung phrase.

Anthropologists believe that among the very first brain centers to develop in our human ancestors was the center that creates music. It is as integral to our lives as breathing. And as relentless. Music is sometimes both the first thing and the last thing we hear in this life.

That is why, week after week in worship, we offer a phrase of praise. A sentence of a psalm that might echo in your ear, hum in your heart, set a pace for your days, jog a memory of God’s action in the world after you have left this place:  “The Lord is close to the broken hearted. Blessed be the Lord.”

This morning’s psalm, Psalm 34, speaks of the gentleness of God toward those who suffer, the terrified, the poor, the broken hearted. It was chosen to complement the message of the gospel reading, to confirm God’s preference for the poor, God’s soft heart for those whose hearts are broken, to pronounce unlikely blessings like those Jesus pronounces in the beatitudes.

It is all true. God loves most those whom the world loves least. Blessed are they. Blessed are you if you happen to fall in any of those unfortunate categories: the unloved, the unlovely, the unlovable.

As much as we want scripture to comfort us, to see us when we feel unnoticed, I don’t think Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was intended as a warm blanket. Yes, God loves the poor. Yes, Jesus showers them with blessings.

But the audience for Jesus’ beatitudes is not those unfortunately blessed. Today Jesus addresses those of us who are conventionally blessed. The people who are wealthy, joyful, proud, satisfied, and also sometimes unmerciful, sometimes impure, sometimes even violent. Jesus was trying to catch the attention of those who create or perpetuate the systems that cause so much sorrow for so many whom the world simply does not see.

Perhaps Jesus’ blessings fall like a cool rain on your parched heart. Blessed are you. Or, as my Georgia friends would say “Why, bless your little heart.” But I think many of us, including me, are complicit in prolonging the suffering of the people on Jesus’ mind today.

If you don’t believe me, listen to Jesus’ own words.

In Luke’s telling of this event Jesus says, “Blessed are YOU.” (Luke 6.20-26) In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ audience that day was packed with sad, scared, sick and marginalized people who had no one to love or protect them. “Blessed are you gathered around me here,” Jesus says.

Not Matthew. Matthew’s Jesus addresses a different audience. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks not to the poor and outcast but of them. “Blessed are THEY who . . . “

Apparently, Jesus believed the people who needed to hear about these awkward blessings weren’t the people experiencing them. You don’t have to explain hunger to a hungry person, or grief to a person drowning in tears. They didn’t need to hear about their unwelcome “blessings.” They lived them everyday.

Instead, in Matthew, Jesus spoke to the people who had power to change our unjust, economically-segregated, smug and vicious world; people like us.

“Don’t forget,” Jesus seems to say at the beginning of his ministry. “I didn’t come to endorse systems that divide. I come to destroy them.”

And, according to Matthew, he’s giving us the hairy eye ball as he speaks. “Blessed are they . . .” And he looks over our shoulders as he speaks.

Offended? I think that’s what Jesus intends. He wants us to be more than a little uncomfortable, a little chagrined, a little changed. He wants us to see the world through the eyes of the less blessed. The way he sees the world.

On Friday, news outlets released two videos that I cannot watch. I am probably one of a handful of people in the country who have chosen not to. I’m speaking of the recordings of an assault with a hammer on a congress person’s spouse in California, and of a man kicked to death on a Memphis street. All of it caught on camera.

If you watched those recordings, you are braver than I.

For some reason, images of suffering, any suffering, have always overwhelmed me. I am more a “reader” than a “watcher.” Always have been. Even though words alone can trouble me.

I still remember reading “Gone with the Wind” in grade school. I skipped supper one night because I’d read a passage about the starvation rampant in the South during the Civil War, and neither my stomach nor my imagination allowed me to eat. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” about the midnight massacre of a Kansas farm family kept me awake for weeks.

Just reading about suffering hurts my heart, troubles my imagination. Watching it? I just can’t.

But millions of people are able to watch those images, and, in seeing, are able to believe that the horror they have heard and read about is real. Sometimes, it is only after seeing that we willing to believe. And to act.

That’s what Jesus is about in today’s gospel. He spoke to his own disciples and whatever wanna-be’s listened in. He clearly assumed they had food to eat, a place to sleep, someone to dry their tears, someone to hear their fears. And he needed them to see the world as he sees it. To see those who have none of the daily blessings we all take for granted. And in seeing those who suffer, those who are suffer will be blessed. Invisible no more.

“The Lord is close to the broken-hearted,” the psalmist sings.

And Jesus adds a verse today. The Lord makes demands of those whose hearts are too hard to break anymore.

Non-Lutherans often comment about how much we sing in worship in our congregations. It is a little excessive. But we can’t help ourselves. The world is our shower. We’re all Beyonce with a car radio.

You’ve probably had the experience of attending worship—a funeral or wedding or Sunday liturgy—in a non-Lutheran church. If you have, you have also experienced the stares and startled looks as you belt the hymns—all the verses!—while everyone else merely mumbles. That’s us. Obnoxious. We’re proud of it.

We sing not only because we are so gifted or because Lutheran hymnody is superior to all others, but because music moves us in ways the spoken word cannot. And as  cerebral and circumspect as we can be, even the grumpiest old Lutheran gets a tear in the eye when the music begins.

That is why today we sing not only of God’s proximity to the poor, but also of the demands placed on we are rich. We sing it because if I said it, you’d have my head on a platter.

After the sermon this morning we’ll sing a lyric set to a lovely, familiar tune. We will sing words that, if spoken would have us throwing dishes.

Listen: Let streams of living justice flow down upon the earth. Give freedom’s light to captives. Let all the poor have worth. The hungry hands are pleading; the workers claim their rights. Make liberty a beacon. Strike down the iron power. Proclaim your peoples’ hour! (“Let Streams of Living Justice,” text W. Whitla, tune Thaxted by G. Holst, ELW 710)

Who is that? Karl Marx?

No, that’s a lyric written by a mild-mannered Anglican priest from Canada. A deeply offensive, scriptural lyric that found its way into our hymnal without pushback, because we sing it rather than say it. “Let streams of living justice flow down upon the earth.” Lovely, isn’t it? And suddenly palpable. But no less demanding.

I imagine Jesus’ words on the mountain that day had the same effect—the tone of his voice, the trust he had established and the use of “blessing” allowed his hearers to lower their defenses. To listen to his words. To see the faces of those he described. To suddenly care without condition and defend without being defensive.

We are like those first disciples. Until we see the faces of those who suffer, until we hear their stories, until we feel their pain, we will regard our lives as blessed. And theirs? Well. Too bad.

I don’t know which version of Jesus’ beatitudes strikes your heart today.

Some of us prefer Luke’s version, in which Jesus looks directly in our eyes, opens our hearts to say, “You are blessed. Even now. In your suffering.”

But some of us need to hear Matthew’s. Blessed are They. We need to be reminded that too many in the world, and even in our own communities, are poor and hungry, grieving and without guile. We need to see them and, in seeing them, begin the process of them being blessed. “Blessed are they,” Jesus reminds. “See them.”

And all of this potentially explosive theological debate is softened with song.

I encourage you to take a song home with you today, tuck it in your heart, set it on “repeat” on the soundtrack of your daily routine.

Perhaps you will sing to yourself and the world, “The Lord is close to the broken hearted.”

Or perhaps the song you sing will be a bit more challenging. “Inscribe our hearts with justice, your way the path untrod.”

Blessed are you when you are hungry, sad, poor, the victim of violence.

And blessed are we when we see them, these best-loved of God. Who is close to those whose hearts are broken. And those whose hearts are hard.

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Third Sunday after Epiphany (22 January 2023)

JoAnn A. Post

Matthew 4.12-23

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

I have great respect for this time we spend together each week, and am humbled by your willingness, week-after-week, to sit quietly while I preach. That you are here, that you are attentive, that you have chosen this place at this time when there are so many other things you could be doing—your willing presence moves me. I do not take this preaching task lightly. That’s why I hesitate to do what I am about to do.

But I just finished reading a novel that, if I were a better writer, I would have liked to write myself, it so respectfully mirrors my own growing-up life, the people and events and congregation that raised me: “Little Faith,” by Nickolas Butler.

Set in a fictional small town outside LaCrosse, WI, the author describes the lives of hard-working women and men who, though they might secretly have adored their friends and family, said little of their love. Instead, they lived lives of quiet duty—to community, to work, to family, to faith.

The main character, a retired appliance repairman, has a thoughtful, sometimes tense, relationship with the faith. He has tried, over the years, to believe in God, but never quite seems to get there. The death of his first child in infancy created a chasm even God cannot seem to bridge.

The character, Lyle, says at one point, sparring with a fly-by-night preacher with dubious motives, “I’m no theologian.” But he is. Listen to this description of his respectful, honest relationship to the country church he attended all his life, the church in which he was baptized, confirmed, married and would one day be buried:

Although Lyle stopped believing he never really stopped attending church. Indeed, he often suspected he was not alone in this, that millions of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists and Mormons all around the world attended their churches, temples and mosques as much out of routine or obligation as out of any real fervor or belief. (“Little Faith,” Nickolas Butler, HarperCollins Publishers, 2019, p. 37)

The pastor of this once-vibrant-now-dying country church is a local. After high school, he had disappeared into the world for decades, but having spent all his money, ruined his body and weary of adventure, returned home to attend seminary and take up the pastorate of the church in which he had also been raised.

Lyle continues his musing:

Attending St. Olaf’s was a melancholy weekly reminder of all that had been lost. For over the years, the hair of the parishioners had grown gray, then white, then disappeared altogether, and over time, there were fewer and fewer congregants in the pews, and certainly many fewer children. What must Pastor Charlie think, looking out at that long rectangular space which even two decades ago would have been packed. (“Little Faith, p. 38-39)

What does this gentle, poignant story of a dutiful but faithless appliance repairman and his life have to do with us?

I don’t know if you read the blog I post every Friday, musings on the upcoming Sunday’s preaching texts and our life together. On Friday I had reflected on the lives of the fishermen whom Jesus called in this morning’s gospel reading. Brothers Simon and Andrew, James and John. They were fishermen because their fathers were fishermen. 

Jesus called to two of them as they labored in the sea, naked and sweating, just offshore, manually pulling in enormous nets of fish. The other two had already finished their day’s fishing. They were sitting on the dock, stitching up holes in their nets in anticipation of the next day’s drudgery.

Unschooled and unequipped to do anything but fish, they were like countless other fishing families in the region. Hard-working because they had no choice. Poor because the government taxed them to death. They didn’t daydream about the future because they knew the future would look exactly like the past. Day-after-day, month-after-month, year-after-year, generation-after-generation they destroyed their bodies to feed their families and pay the taxes. And then die.

Though my farm family’s future was no so bleak, our work not so thankless, the repetitious, barely-getting-by lives of 1st century fishers is imaginable to me. Perhaps also to you.

 I secretly wonder if Jesus might have tossed the same line to others as he walked along the beach. How many other fishermen had scoffed and turned their backs when he shouted, “Follow me!” Would you give it all up for a non-specific job offer from an unknown passerby who clearly had nothing to do but beachcomb all day?

Again from the novel:

Lyle had never much had the inclination to follow. For decades he’d gone to church but not reverently, more the way one visited the post office or gas station, as routine. (“Little Faith,” p. 74)

What was it about Jesus’ unexpected invitation, or perhaps about the brothers’ brutally routine lives, that made them respond so quickly and without question? What made them follow?

Maybe the brothers were desperate. Why else would have just dropped their nets and walked away, leaving their fishing partners and parents slack-jawed and alone? The brothers didn’t ask where they were going or for how long or why. They just followed. Desperation?

Or maybe there was a more hopeful, less defeatist reason.

Perhaps there was something in Jesus’ startling invitation that caught them off-guard, that in that unguarded moment opened their hearts, that made them imagine, for a split-second, a different future for themselves.

“Follow me.” And they did.

Why do you? Why do you follow?

Of course, I’m making a huge assumption, that you are here because you have chosen to follow Jesus. There are lots of reasons to belong to a faith community, some driven by faith and others by practicality. Maybe, like fictional Lyle, being part of a congregation is just part of your routine, like flossing and showering and folding laundry.  Or maybe it’s more than that, something about community or congregational singing or the hope that this 60-minute burst of energy and light will fuel you for another week at whatever nets you haul in.

A friend who accompanied his wife through a brutal, prolonged illness admitted that, watching her suffer, he gave up on God. He first stopped going to church because he couldn’t leave her, and then he just stopped going to church. Because, what’s the point? But he says now, years later, that he was also aware of all the love and prayers that surrounded them, of all the good people who called on God daily on their behalf. He remembers a friend telling him, “I know you can’t believe now. I’ll believe for you.”

It was the faith of others that rekindled his own. And now, even when the Bears are playing at home, he attends his local church. Not because church is the only place he can believe. But because someone who is struggling might need him to be there. He follows for those who can’t. Until maybe they can.

Or as our fictional friend muses about his wife of 40 years:

They had hung on together, and if Lyle had fallen away from his faith, she had long ago seized his wrist so that even as they both dangled from this crumbling cliff, she would not let him go; she believed for him. And in him, too, somehow. (“Little Faith,” p. 39)

If my assumption is correct, and your presence here means there is even some small part of you that wants to follow Jesus, what does that look like? What intrigues you? And how can we accompany you in your following?

Since I’m in a musing mood, let me tell you a little more about my own decision to follow Jesus. It was easy, actually. Raised in a family that attended church together, encouraged in my gifts for music and teaching and public speaking, deeply admiring of our pastors, being a pastor was the only thing I wanted to do when I grew up. After all, all the things I love to do, I get to do. For a living.

But there have been moments, and still are sometimes, when I wonder if I would be a faithful follower if I wasn’t a pastor. I wonder some Sundays, if I’m preaching more to myself than to you. It is not lost on me that I am one of a small society who gets paid to pray, to study, to visit the sick, to encourage children, to be kind, to believe. I get to do professionally all those things we ask you to do in your spare time.

And in those times when the world seems pretty bleak and God seems distant, I follow Jesus because it’s my job. I follow with my public life until, once again, my private heart has found its way home.

It is like the advice of a marriage counselor I know, who counsels couples in troubled times, “Sometimes you stay only because you said you would. You’ll be glad you did.”

Or as AA advises those who are new to the program and who fear falling back into old, destructive habits: “Fake it until you make it.”

That is, stay sober on the outside until you are sober on the inside, too.

Some of us follow Jesus, and have chosen to do so through a congregation, because of a deep sense of purpose and belonging.

Some of us follow because it’s what we’ve always done.

Some follow Jesus because they fear the eternal consequences if they don’t.

And some of us believe for those who can’t. Until they do. We take turns.

This morning we listen as Jesus calls ordinary fishermen from fishing for fish to fishing for people. He will call others: IRS agents, other fishermen, some whose qualifications and vocations are unnamed. Jesus even called a man named Judas, who tried mightily to follow, until he couldn’t.

This morning’s text opens with a quote from the prophet Isaiah about those who lived in darkness, in deep darkness. Jesus adopts that prophesy for himself, announcing that he is that great light, the light that dawns on those trapped in the shadow of death.

Is that why Simon and Andrew, James and John followed? Because when Jesus called to them, his words were like a sudden light in a dark place, a beam cast through murky darkness, a flicker of hope in their hopeless lives?

We don’t know. They don’t say. The reasons they follow are almost as mysterious as ours.

At the end of the novel, as Lyle’s grandson lays dying in a hospital and his best friend’s orchard has been destroyed in an ice storm and his daughter will no longer speak to him, Lyle’s pastor and another friend invite him to pray:

The three men stood in an awkward huddle, their arms resting on each other’s shoulders. Lyle closed his eyes and instead of scrutinizing every word of the prayer as he would have done before, he let the words drift over him like musical notes or curls of smoke. When the pastor said, “Amen,” Lyle did not want to open his eyes. He remained just as he was, and his friends stood with him, their arms around him, supporting him. (“Little Faith,” pp. 297-298)

How do we follow? Why do we follow? What happens when we can’t?

Jesus calls us from the present darkness simply to follow into his light. With Peter and Andrew, James and John, we decide that we can. At least for now.

Second Sunday after Epiphany

Second Sunday after Epiphany (15 February 2023)

JoAnn A. Post

John 1.29-42

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Many years ago I was in a one-car accident on icy winter roads. My car skidded out of control on a steep hill, and I slid, helpless down the hill and crashed into a low wall at its base. Had the wall not stopped my fall, my car would have plunged 30 feet down a cliff and I would not be standing here today. The saddest part? My beloved VW Bug was a total loss.

My face buried in the deployed air bag, I remember coming to consciousness and hearing things. Hissing from under the hood. Shouts. Tugs on the drivers side door. Then sirens. And EMT’s. And then waking in the ICU.

That was many years ago. I’ve mostly forgotten about it. Far more interesting things have happened to me since.

But when our children were home with us for Christmas, somehow that event came up in conversation. And as each of us recounted our memories of the accident and its aftermath, I was shocked at the differences in our stories.

I felt the way my own mother felt when she would listen to us grown kids reminiscing about our growing up on the farm. “Did any of you grow up in the same house?” she would say.

Eye witness accounts have long been questioned in trial courts. Because eye witness accounts differ, both in the moment and in the hindsight. Memories evolve. Emotions cloud. Perspective shifts.

What happened? How did it happen? Who was there? What does it mean? Hard to say.

If you were with us last Sunday, you may recall that we spent time considering Jesus’ baptism. And our own. We read the gospel writer Matthew’s account of the event—one of the few events in Jesus’ life recorded in all four gospels. You wonder if the writers grew up in the same house.

Matthew remembers that John and Jesus had a disagreement about who should baptize who. John relented and baptized Jesus. Matthew then writes that as Jesus emerged from the water, he saw a vision of opening skies and descending dove and heavenly voice. I call it a vision not to dismiss its reliability, but because in Matthew’s telling, Jesus was the only who experienced it.

Matthew wasn’t there. He had to rely on the testimony of others. Same with Mark and Luke. And John, whose account of that event we read today, tells a story unlike the others. Each remembers the story a bit differently, for his own audience and his own purposes.

Note, before we go on, John the Gospel Writer is not the same person as John the Baptizer. It seems there was a certain lack of creativity in naming boys in those days. I call it the George Foreman affect. (For those of you who know George Foreman only because of his counter-top grill, he was a professional and Olympic heavy weight boxer also famous for naming all five of his sons George. Easier to remember, I suppose.)

For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to them as “The Gospel Writer” and “The Baptizer.” Just to keep the story straight.

This morning, The Gospel Writer recounts the story of The Baptizer recounting Jesus’ baptism at his hands. In other words, we hear it second-, maybe third-hand. Seeing Jesus walk by, he said to his own disciples, “Look! Its him!” And then, rather than calling him by name, The Baptizer says, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

“Lamb of God?” The Lamb of God was the yearling slaughtered at the annual Passover celebrations, a reenactment of the yearling slaughtered centuries before on the night God’s people escaped slavery in Egypt. “Lamb of God” was a fleecy, four-legged offering for sin.

It would have been an odd image for The Baptizer’s disciples.

Jesus kept walking. The Baptizer’s disciples continued gawking. And he kept talking. The Baptizer remembered for them the previous day when he baptized Jesus at the Jordan. He reports no disagreement, as Matthew asserted. He claims to have no idea that Jesus, one of many baptized that day, was, in fact, the Son of God. Instead, the Baptizer makes his own claim. He claims to have seen a dove descend on Jesus, but rather than hearing the voice Jesus heard, the Baptizer heard another, “This is the one,” the voice said, only to him. “This is the one you’ve waited for, who baptizes not with water only, but with the Holy Spirit.”

Way to write yourself into the story.

The same thing happened the next day. “Look, the Lamb of God,” he exclaimed. And The Baptizer told his story again. He was so exuberant about Jesus, that two of his own disciples said, “It’s been fun, Baptizer. We’re out of here.” And followed Jesus down the road.

The Baptizer’s role in Jesus’ ministry was significant, but would quickly fade as Jesus, Lamb of God, lives into that new name. We remember The Baptizer, but only as one remembers a sign post on the highway.

This weekend we remember and give thanks for the witness of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders in the civil rights movement. I was only a child when the marches and the strikes and the speeches and the fire hoses and the attack dogs were daily front page news. But even then, sequestered in small town Iowa, I knew something was afoot. Even I knew what “segregation” was. Even I knew that, to some, “all men are created” equal had loopholes.

Time has passed. Change has come. Enough change that many of us breathe a sigh of relief. “Glad that’s over.”

But it’s not. Segregation and racism are not over. Though they have taken on new disguises and created a softer public profile, we cannot let our memories of the Civil Rights Movement fade like an old photograph.

Whenever I feel myself growing complacent, saying to myself, “Oh, it’s not that bad,” I read. I read a letter. I read a letter written by Martin Luther King, Jr. from a jail cell in Birmingham, AL in August 1963. I commend it to you for your MLK Day reading, as well.

In a piercing, prophetic epistle, he remembers:

Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.

He called on their common memory of scripture, to interpret his present circumstance. I’m guessing many of those who benefited from segregation did not read scripture as he did, did not remember Isaiah, whose prophecies we read today, and Paul, from whose letter we read today, the way he did.

From a prison cell, he invited them to revise their memories. In order to right wrongs and alter the future. “Remember,” he wrote. “Remember it the way it actually happened.” Did they? Not for long, it seems.

Does the majority ever remember as the minority does? Of course not. Do you suppose the police officers who sicced attack dogs on marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma went home and said at supper, “Oh, I think I did a bad thing today. I think we can’t treat our black neighbors this way.”

No, they were applauded in the streets. They remembered a blow struck against civil rights. The marchers remembered only the blows.

What do we remember? How do we remember? Why do we remember?

Of our nation’s past.  Of our own pasts. Of the ministry of Jesus, in whose name we have gathered. And how do we make the disparate pieces fit? When even eye witness accounts differ and our own memories disagree? Accurately reconstructing memory is like trying to repair a broken mirror. You can’t do it without bleeding just a little.

The Baptizer hadn’t had much time to collect his thoughts about the events of Jesus’ baptism. What did it mean? Why him? What now? But only a day later, the day on which we eavesdrop in the gospel reading, he is already starting to construct the narrative, puzzle the pieces together.

Already, sandals still wet from the river, The Baptizer is constructing the memory. For himself and for his. “This is the One for whom we have waited,” he said. “And I have the memories to prove it.”

What do you remember of your encounters with Jesus in the past? How do you fit the pieces together, especially when they contradict one another?

Do you look back and recall Jesus a constant companion on your journey, or is he the one who abandoned you in your moment of need?

Do you look back and see the Spirit at work in your life, or is your past just a grab bag of random events?

Do you resonate with Isaiah’s promise of a God who calls and equips, or is God a powerless fairy tale?

What do we remember? How do we remember? Why do we remember?

My memory of that long-ago near-fatal car accident was forever altered by an ICU nurse, a woman with years of experience caring for the traumatized and terrified.

She checked on me during midnight rounds the night after the accident and found me lying in bed, my pillow soaked with tears. “What’s the matter?” she asked.

“I could have died today,” I whispered.

Pause. “But you didn’t. You didn’t die. Go to sleep.”

Nurse Ratchet? Perhaps. A messenger from God sent to reshape my memory of trouble? More likely.

The Baptizer remembers for us that Jesus is the One for whom we have waited. Dr. King remembers for us that scripture compels us to act. We are also called to remember God’s acts of mercy in our lives, Jesus’ power in the world, and remembering to witness.