Funeral for John Satter

The Funeral of John G. Satter (12 July 2019)

John 12.27-38

JoAnn A. Post

John used to run. For fun. “Running for fun” is a concept that eludes me. Not my life. He told me once that when the family lived in Dwight, and John was a busy local attorney, he would rise early to go for a run. Not the way you and I might. Most of us would lace up our shoes, and trot sleepily out the front door, making a loop that started and ended at home. But not John.

Everything to John was a test, a challenge.

Instead of loping out the front door in the early morning hours, he would ask his wife to drive him miles out into the country, just a little farther than he could comfortably run. And then he would run home.

Even if it hurt, even if it was hard. John had given himself no choice but to run home.

Because everything to John was a test, a challenge.

As John grew older, his running days long behind him, he was becoming a sort of test and challenge of his own. But I don’t think he meant to be difficult. In my family, we maintain that as we age, we simply become “more.” John was becoming “more” himself all the time. Intellectually curious. Personally disciplined. Confident in his own abilities. Always testing assumptions. His death in the early morning hours Monday took us all by surprise. We had imagined he might die as he had lived—arguing the merits to his last breath.

John lived large, and respected others who did, too.

His favorite composers? Mahler. Beethoven. Bombastic musicians whose compositions require cannons and choirs and drama.

His favorite sport? Debate. “I take issue with . . .”

His favorite theologian? Martin Luther, a contentious 16th century monk.

His favorite biblical writer? Paul, a relentless 1st century convert.

Do you see a pattern emerging here? Bombastic. Questioning. Contentious. Relentless.

How fitting that our dear brother John, who planned much of today’s liturgy, chose readings that question, that push, that challenge our assumptions.

From Micah: “What does the Lord require of you?”

From James: “What is true religion?

From Paul: “Which is better? To live or to die?”

And from Jesus himself, in the gospel of John, who, in a dark exchange with neophyte disciples revealed the depth of the challenge before him:

“Now my soul is troubled,” Jesus said.

“Now is the judgement of this world.”

“Now is the light shining, though it looks like only darkness.”

Though most of us seek comfort and certainty and simplicity, John pursued truth and integrity. Always testing. Always challenging. Always wondering. Even in matters of faith.

And, as passionately as he lived, so passionately did he love.

John was of the generation of my parents, who held us to ridiculously high standards, who reserved displays of affection for special occasions, who loved us without ever saying the words. But he did love you, his children and grandchildren. He loved you fiercely, perhaps not always telling you, but the gallery of family photos in his apartment revealed his heart. You surrounded him, comforted him, inspired him both night and day.

And as passionately as he worked and argued and planned and loved, so passionately was he loved.

By you. By those of us who were his sparring partners and friends. And most certainly, by God.

There were moments, in recent months, when John worried that, in the life to come, he might be judged harshly. He reported lying awake nights wondering if he could be forgiven for actions, words, decisions in his life of which he was ashamed. He worried that God might be as relentless in questioning him as John was in questioning God.

But John had no need to worry, to wonder, to lie awake. God’s love for him, for us, is passionate, fierce, relentless. God’s love is not a test or a challenge. It is a gift.  In God’s love, all sins are forgiven. All wounds healed. All sorrows softened.

How fitting that God, who knows all our hearts, our desires and our fears, would call John from this life in such a gentle, kind way. John had no opportunity to question or to challenge, to take issue with God’s methods or strategy. Instead John died with a whisper, a sigh, just as the darkness of night was turning to day.

What was it Jesus said? “Believe in the light, so you may become children of light. The darkness will not overtake you.”

Jesus, ever the attorney, also said this: “Now is the judgement of this world.”

 

And the judgment is this:

We are loved beyond measure.

Forgiven before we ask.

Loved with a fierce tenderness.

All John’s questions have been answered.

All his running stopped.

All his wounds healed.

All his sorrow turned to joy.

Though our lives may be plagued with tests and challenges, our dying is simply a matter of taking the hand of the One who loved us first, who loves us last, who loves us even to and through death to life in light eternal.

Hymn of the Day: Precious Lord, Take my Hand

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Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (7 July 2019)

Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

JoAnn A. Post

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’

“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

I learned more about tanks this week than I ever imagined I would care about. The controversy about including military equipment in Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, D.C. opened up a rabbit hole about weaponry I didn’t know existed. The inter-webs are full of links to articles about the history of warfare, design specs of various armaments, reviews of Independence Day traditions in our nation’s past, speculation about potential damage to D.C. infrastructure, and opinion pieces about either the genius or the hubris of military parades.

I didn’t grow up playing with GI Joe figures, or engaging endless games of “Battleship” as some of you might have. Military strategy has never been a particular fascination of mine, though I did once date a guy who went to West Point. Does that count? But for some reason this week, tanks—Abrams, Sherman, Patton, Stryker, Bradley, Breacher, Humvee, Growler (great names for dogs, by the way)—beckoned me deeper and deeper down the cyber-hole.

I was particularly drawn to an analysis of why tanks are no longer a useful piece of military equipment on most battlefields. Tanks were the early 20th century mechanized upgrade of the cavalry, best used in open terrain and when brute force is required. Think Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge. Modern wars are no longer fought on broad beaches or in northern European forests. Tanks are far too easy to destroy and far too clumsy to be nimble under attack. One military expert believes the only reason anyone uses a tank today is for purposes of intimidation—think Tienanmen Square and Pyongyang and Caracas. The implicit message being, “I could use this against you if I wanted to.”

How are wars fought in the 21st century? With high-tech highly-mobile weapons, spy craft, stealth, and, this from a former combat engineer turned military analyst:

On the actual battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria . . . real strength lies in their mastery of the human terrain, winning “hearts and minds.” On this battlefield — the contested ground of policing and politics that endures years after the guns fall silent — tanks have no role. 

The human terrain is won and lost through hearts and minds. Hmmm.

So how, you ask yourself, am I going to transition from armored tanks on the National Mall to the 10th chapter of Luke? High-tech wordsmithing? Spy craft? Stealth? No, I’m just following the rabbit hole Jesus opened.

Last week Jesus made the strategic error of giving his disciples too much power. Because the ministry was so complex, growing so fast, Jesus had to multiply his mission. He authorized the disciples to go ahead of him, laying groundwork for future visits and, in chapter 9, he “gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal.”

This power proved too much for his followers and, in a fit of rage over the way Jesus was treated in Samaria, they asked permission to blow the whole works up. “Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Their solution to a snub was to annihilate. Seems a bit much. Like taking a tank to a tennis match. Jesus commanded them to “stand down.”

Jesus’ ministry—whether the territory was friendly or hostile—was not violent, but relational. He stripped his disciples of anything that resembled safety or security—no purse, no bag, no sandals. He sent them knowingly into danger, as “sheep among wolves.” And, then he taught them how to use the most important tool in their arsenal: he taught them how to knock on a door.

Equipped with less than your average Avon Lady, disciples went door-to-door in every town they entered, offering peace. If the resident of the home returned the greeting, that house became command central for their work in that region. And what was their work? Eat what was offered. (This might have been complicated if the disciples stepped into Gentile territory, where grilled pork might have been on the menu.) Seek out the sick and cure them. And most important, embody the coming kingdom of God.

And even if every door in a village was slammed in their faces, they were not to retaliate. They were to simply rid their feet of the dust of that town, and leave behind the same gospel message, “The Kingdom of God has come near you.”

In their wake they were to leave, not destruction and bloodshed, but a promise.

There was a time in our common history when churches like ours were filled every Sunday. Churches were the focal point of community life. Churches provided social ministries like nursing and child care. Churches gave young people opportunity both to socialize and to serve. Whole communities revolved around the church’s calendar: imagine the fate of the school principal who scheduled activities on Sunday morning, or on Wednesday afternoons during confirmation or CCD. City council meetings opened with unashamedly Christian prayer. Pastors were valued local leaders. Faith in Jesus Christ was assumed. Faith in Jesus Christ was demonstrated by going to church on Sunday.

I’m not so sure that correlation is helpful. Or even valid. But that is another conversation.

The whole world has changed, and our ministry changes with it.

We could waste our time wringing our hands, wondering why the old ways no longer work, wondering what we did wrong. Sometimes we miss the Sherman tank-like influence the church used to have.

But, in the same way the military mindset adapts to new terrain and new strategies, we who believe in Jesus Christ must adapt to our new environment.

So how do we engage this new reality? What “weapons” might we take up?

Jesus schools us in a ministry of hearts and minds. Jesus teaches us to—metaphorically—knock gently on doors.

Jesus didn’t always wait for people to come to him; he sent his disciples where people lived and worked. Not with a pamphlet about the fires of hell or an invitation to a church potluck, but with heartfelt concern for their welfare. Some of the people the disciples encountered may have come to faith in Jesus because of their compassion. But even if they did not come to believe, they received the same offer of peace, the same healing, the same assurance that God was in their midst.

The promised kingdom of God doesn’t bristle with weaponry or take prisoners. The promised kingdom of God is evidenced by peace, by healing, by compassion. The prophet Isaiah imagines the kingdom as a nurturing mother. (Isaiah 66.10ff). The apostle Paul encourages that “we work for the good of all.” (Galatians 6.7ff)

Though the disciples’ first impulse was to blow the doors off any home that did not receive them, Jesus quelled that impulse with a simple instruction.

“Take nothing with you. Knock on every door. Leave peace in your wake.”

Perhaps you have opportunity in your daily life to wage such a stealthy campaign. Perhaps you have opportunity to offer a strong shoulder to someone carrying a heavy load, to extend kindness to one who has been treated cruelly. Maybe you will be asked to listen without judgment, to set another place at your table, to give a second chance to someone who has failed, to knock on the door of a troubled life and offer—without expectation—the peace of Jesus.

Please never discount the value, the critical nature of such ordinary kindnesses. In a world loud with anger and bristling with weaponry, in a world that erects walls rather than opens doors, the kind word, the helping hand, the offer of peace, our work in Jesus’ name is a rare and life-changing gift.

There may have been a time, militarily speaking, when brute force and swift judgment won wars. But if there was, that time has passed.

There may have been a time, faithfully speaking, when faith was assumed and the church’s truth was unassailable. But if there was, that time has passed.

Jesus is looking for a few laborers for the fields, a few door-knockers for the cities. Jesus is changing the rules by changing us. Sending us on his behalf with words of peace on our lips and healing in our hands.

This was the article I reference most often. I am not supporting the writer’s political viewpoint, but found his military analysis challenging and insightful.

 

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (30 June 2019)

Luke 9.51-62

JoAnn A. Post

When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Last week, someone said casually to me, “What is it with Iowa? Nothing happens there. Why all the fuss?” He meant no harm. He spoke from ignorance. But his words riled.

What is it with Iowa? Let me tell you.

Remember, not only does my home state lead the nation in education, agriculture and research, it is the home of the internationally-acclaimed Iowa State Fair and sliced bread (1928). Iowa boasts the Butter Cow, the Grotto of the Redemption (the largest grotto on earth), and soil so rich it is called “Black Gold.” Our athletes are big, broad and tall. Some of the nation’s finest writers study at the Iowa Writers Workshop. This morning’s Chicago Tribune carried a front-page story, on this Pride Day, about Iowa’s leadership in marriage equality. And, But, more to my ill-informed friend’s point, since 1968, Iowa has been entrusted with charting the course of presidential elections with its intricate system of caucuses and even-handed, fair-minded, charitable pattern of community discernment.

What is it with Iowa? Don’t get me started.

But even Iowans make fun of themselves in this political season. For more than a year already, potential presidential candidates have been pretending to care about the state. They show up in small town cafes wearing brand new seed corn caps, crisp blue jeans and unscuffed work boots. They judge 4H projects, consume vast quantities of homemade pie, and try not to fall off field equipment so bizzrely complex it could have come straight off a Star Wars set. They imagine they can tell the difference between dairy and beef cattle, and boast about their ability to decipher the acronym RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa). A few years ago, a candidate actually moved to Des Moines to enroll his grade school daughter in public school, thus demonstrating his commitment to the state. (Imagine her therapy bills.)

But most often, except for the little-known candidates who have no money or staff, presidential candidates send advance teams into the state. Staffed by college students eager to change the world, these advance teams sniff out towns and counties most amendable to their candidates’ causes. Why waste money in a county that will vote for the opponent anyway? Why risk a PR nightmare with angry farmers, when they could be kissing babies on friendlier ground?

Much as I like to imagine presidential candidates love and admire my home state as much as I do, I know it’s all a game of pretend. A marriage of convenience.

But it is that image of calculated compassion and studied smiles that first came to mind when I read of Jesus’ advance teams in Luke 9. Like a presidential candidate rising in the polls, Jesus’ ministry was quickly getting away from him. The crowds grew larger and more demanding. Twitter blew up every time he posted, and multi-national corporations were pitching opportunities to support his campaign: “Jesus loves Jamba Juice!” or “Jesus: Going with Boeing!”

But Jesus wasn’t as calculating as candidates have to be. Unlike the tortured gerrymandered algorithms of political campaigns, Jesus, foolishly, sent his teams everywhere. Territory friendly and hostile. To Jews and Gentiles. Small towns and urban areas. Deserts and oases. They canvassed nomads and neighborhoods. If there were people there, Jesus wanted to meet them. Especially, it seems, if they fit one of two categories: desperate or despised.

By this time in Jesus’ ministry, his disciples had been given enormous authority. (Luke 9.1ff) After all, Jesus couldn’t be everywhere at once, so he had authorized and empowered them to preach, teach, heal and exorcise in his absence. Pretty heady stuff for a handful of fishermen and IRS agents like his disciples. The power went quickly to their heads.

We see their ou-tsized sense of self today when, after receiving a cold Samaritan shoulder, they offered to reward the Samaritans with a mushroom cloud. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Apparently, they had the ability to do that. But Jesus deemed it unwise, and a little over the top. “Tell you what,” Jesus said, tipping his seed corn cap back on his head, “let’s stop for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee. I saw a nice little café just down the road.”

Though our shameless lust for power and fame is quickly multiplied by social media (who doesn’t want to go viral?), that lust is nothing new. Jesus’ disciples didn’t want to be just “Jesus’ disciples.” They wanted to be famous. They wanted to be feared. They wanted to be a franchise.

And what did Jesus want from them? Only that they be faithful. How dull is that?

Luke reports that there were also others tagging along behind Jesus and his advance team, puppy dogs nipping at the Big Dog. “Pick me! Pick me!”

Jesus could neither confirm nor deny the wisdom of joining his campaign. He just told it to them straight, Iowa-style.

“No home but the road.

“No allegiance but to me.

“No work but mine.”

We have no idea if these wanna’be’s followed him or not. Jesus just wanted them to know that they were signing on, not for fame and fortune, but for a slow-walk to disappointment, rejection and frustration. “Just sayin’.”

It is incredibly frustrating to me, and probably to you, too, that no matter how faithfully, as individuals and as congregations, we follow, how passionately we pray, how generously we give, how informed we are, the world continues to spin dangerously toward darkness. “Compassion” is a dirty word. “Cooperation” a sign of weakness. Facts are fungible. An “enemy” is anyone who doesn’t agree with or look like me. We magnify the mistakes of others, and deny our own. And the exhaustive list of “works of the flesh” that Paul catalogued in the 1st century (“fornication, impurity, licentiousness, . . .” Galatians 5.19ff) seems hopelessly naïve in ours.

Jesus resisted the temptation to blow things up, take to Twitter, force his agenda on the world. Jesus was simply faithful to his mission. No matter how long the road or frustrating the work.

Jesus had no home. Jesus had no corporate sponsor. Jesus had no fixer, no front man, no visions of grandeur. He had a handful of eager but easily-distracted disciples, a backlog of “maybe someday’s” and a mission from which he would not be distracted.

Jesus healed all who were sick. Forgave all who sinned. Fed all who were hungry. Folded into his ministry and his arms any who were in danger or distress.

Jesus wasn’t running a campaign, pretending to care, angling for power. He was on a mission to bring all the world to knowledge of the grace and mercy of God. And you know how he was rewarded for his efforts. Death on a cross.

And though our discipleship may go unnoticed, might even seem flat-footed or irrelevant, it is discipleship nonetheless. In Jesus’ name we do as he did. Not raining fire from heaven, but healing the sick, forgiving the sinner, feeding the hungry, welcoming all who seek shelter.

Jesus’ face was set toward Jerusalem. And any who are willing to be nobody and go nowhere fast, are invited to follow him there.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday (16 June 2019)

John 16.12-15

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason, I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

We gathered on a grassy slope on a perfect spring day, looking out over the Mississippi River. I forget the name of the cemetery, but it was the same cemetery in which her parents and grandparents had been buried and that now, on that day, would become her final resting place. As the sun shone softly on their shoulders, her slow-moving, elderly husband, six middle-aged children and a gaggle of grandchildren stood solemnly in a circle around the freshly turned earth of her grave. After the pastor offered the final blessing, they found one another’s hands, and began to sing.

In perfect harmony, their voices clear and pure, their words floated over her grave, were caught into the breeze and flowed down the river. “Children of the Heavenly Father.” “Amazing Grace.” “Beautiful Savior.”

It was breathtaking. But we shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose. They always sang. They were southwest Wisconsin’s version of the Von Trapp Family singers. If there was a piano anywhere nearby, their mother, the woman whose death we marked, would work her way quickly up and down the keyboard, testing the instrument’s worthiness, and then they would sing. Hymns. By heart. In multiple parts.

As their voices rose and swelled around us, I wondered if a farmer in nearby field paused from his work to snatch one of their melodies out of the air. If cattle in a pasture chewed in time to their song. If somewhere, down river, a child who struggled to nap was lulled to sleep by their melody

I have often wondered what it would be like to be part of their family. To sing. For joy. For sorrow. For fun. Always in harmony. Always holding hands.

Today we are that family. And we sing, not for a death, but for a mystery.

Since the earliest days of the Christian church, we have been trying to turn the idea of the Trinity into a song we could all sing. Today’s Old Testament reading (Proverbs 4) imagines that, before the beginning of the beginning, God had an idea. That idea was named Wisdom. She was God’s partner as they tossed stars into the sky and stirred the waters in which fish would thrive.

Paul wrote to the church in Rome (Romans 5) that life in the Trinity is marked, not by song, but by the holy trifecta of suffering, endurance, and character named Hope.

And Jesus, on the night before his death warned the disciples that harder days, harder words were coming. “You cannot bear them now,” he sighed. “But I will help you. My Father will help you. The Spirit will help you. And, in time, you will learn the truth.”

My favorite literary image of the Trinity is from the science fiction writer, Madeleine L’Engle, who, in her book, “A Wrinkle in Time,” imagined God as three shape-shifting women named Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. Together they battled the cosmic darkness and reunited a family torn apart by time.

Clunky, contemporary theologians have tried to fit the Trinity into a single, clever image. An egg—yolk, white, shell. An apple—core, flesh, peel. Water—steam, liquid, ice. But God does not fall out of a chicken, or from a tree, or flow from your faucet.

The Trinity is a mystery, a mystery whose goal is to speak the unspeakable. To speak of God who loves us beyond measure, beyond time, even beyond belief. We know God in many forms, by many names. But today, I am imagining the Trinity to be a choir—three persons who love one another and us, holding hands, singing in perfect harmony around the world that, if not for that love, would be our grave.

Today we welcome our intern, Julie Grafe, who will spend a year learning with us, from us, perhaps in spite of us what it means to be a pastor of the church. A lifelong Christian, an unrepentant “doer,” an astute listener, Vicar Julie will be listening for God’s voice in ours. We will not always sing from the same page, agree on the beat, or find a perfect pitch. But maybe, once in a while, she will glimpse God in our lives, feel God in our tightly-clasped hands, hear God in our faltering though earnest song.

Today, four little ones, Benji, Lizzie, Annabelle and Mae come to the Lord’s Table for the first time—their hands outstretched like beggars. We will press homemade bread into their hands. They will sip the fruit of the vine, which tastes to them like EW. And they do not care if God is Father, Son and Spirit, or Joe, Curly and Moe. They will look to us, listen to us to know that God loves them beyond measure, beyond time, beyond belief. They will join their young, pure voices to our song.

Today, Stephen and Carolyn, Annabelle, Luke, Rosie and Juliette join themselves to us in ministry. They seek no attention, no prominence. They seek God. They listen for God. What will they hear here? Will we give them a place in this small choir?

Sadly, too often, the song the world hears from us is more cacophony than choir. We raise our voices, not in praise, but in anger. Asserting, in the holy name of God, that we know when life begins, that we are the arbiters of justice, that God’s door opens for some but not for others. We shout. We accuse. We criticize. We threaten.

Does God sit around the kitchen table at night laughing at our hubris, or fearing for our souls? A four-year-old friend who, upon being subjected to a well-meaning but poorly-tuned community choir, clamped her hands over her ears, and moaned to her mother, “Make them stop.”

Is that what God is saying to one another? Is that what the world begs?

Long ago, a crowd gathered on a grassy slope, high on a hill overlooking Jerusalem. They thought they had come to mark a death, but they had come to see God. Lifted high. On a cross. And from that cross, they witnessed the unspeakable, indescribable, eternal love of God. Love strong enough to forgive. Love humble enough to die. Love broad enough to welcome even those who did not believe. And on that day long ago, a song floated through the air. Father, Son, Spirit. Three persons. One family. Singing around the world, that, if not for their love, would be our grave.

I have often wondered what it would be like to be part of their family. To sing. For joy. For sorrow. For fun. Always in harmony. Always holding hands. We can be. We are. In God’s holy name and beautiful image, we are.

Festival of Pentecost

Festival of Pentecost (9 June 2019)

Acts 2.1-20

JoAnn A. Post

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

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”  

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 

But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.’”

I knew Karl and Suzanna only as an adorable elderly couple who always held hands. I was touched by their devotion to one another. Their tenderness. At least, his devotion and tenderness to her.

Every day he visited her in the memory care unit of our local nursing home. He sat with her for two meals each day, watched “Jeopardy” every afternoon in the sun room, tucked her in each night before going home to the quiet cottage they had shared for almost 60 years. I never heard Suzanna’s voice, never heard her laugh, never even made eye contact with her. By the time I met her, Alzheimer’s Disease had robbed her of her.

But nothing could rob her from Karl. In his eyes, she was still the sparkling young German waitress serving beer in a British bar to GI’s from all over the world. He was a Polish citizen, serving in World War II with the British army.  (It’s a long story.) Karl spoke only Polish. Suzanna spoke only Platte Deutsch. But the difference between the languages wouldn’t become apparent for months. And, ultimately, wouldn’t matter.

He told me spent months ginning up the courage to speak to her—him and about 1,000 other soldiers. When, finally, he caught her eye, he blushed and turned away. She did the same. It would be a full month before he made another attempt.

At this point in his story, Karl paused to look at her smooth face, her vacant eyes. Stroked her cool, limp hand.

“So, when did you finally get the courage to talk to her?” I pressed.

“Talk? We didn’t talk to each other for a long time. She couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand her. But,” he blushed at the memory and looked down at their hands: “sometimes the words don’t matter.”

How poignant, how fitting that a relationship that began with no words would end the same way.

Pentecost is a festival of words. Words that most didn’t understand. Words that went unrecorded. Words that ultimately wouldn’t matter.

50 days after the drama of the empty tomb, 10 days after Jesus’ disappearance into the clouds, the disciples—about 120 of them—had been hanging around Jerusalem waiting. Waiting for the promised Spirit. The only problem was, they didn’t know what they were looking for. A person? A ghost? A constellation? An army? A cat video on Instagram? They had been told, simply, to wait (Luke 24.49) So they did.

Like GI’s far from home, they prowled the streets of Jerusalem in search of this elusive Spirit. Praying at temple. Playing cards. Swilling beer.

Not one of them was prepared for what actually happened when the Spirit touched down. The witnesses had no words to describe it. Only similes. The Spirit was like a violent wind. The Spirit was like tongues of fire. The Spirit was like inebriation. The Spirit was like chaos.

As the wind blew and the fire snapped, the disciples’ mouths fell open and words fell out. Words they didn’t know. Words in languages they couldn’t speak. Words that either startled or offended every one in ear shot. But the words they spoke, the actual script handed them by the Spirit? No one knows.

All we know is that each disciple spoke of God’s deeds of power. Their words falling in a hundred languages on thousands of ears. Each one hearing in the native language of each. But the particular words? No one knows.

But, ultimately, the words wouldn’t matter.

Our familiarity with this text robs it of its power. Wind. Flame. Crowds. Shouting. We’ve attended rock concerts—and family reunions—about which we could say the same.

Again, I have only similes.

The Spirit was like tanks rumbling down a city street.

The Spirit was like soldiers storming the sand of Omaha Beach.

The Spirit was like the Mississippi River roaring over its banks, like a Kansas tornado sending houses flying through the air.

That was what the Spirit was like in Jerusalem that day.

The noise that accompanied the Spirit’s “tada!” would have been just as confusing, just as startling, just as frightening. For all of them—disciples and onlookers alike.

So what was the point? Why the drama? Why the lack of a script?

Because, from that day on, nothing would be the same. Not Jerusalem. Not the disciples. Not the crowds. Not the words. The only thing that would never change—even to this day—is that disciples are still tasked with speaking the mighty deeds of God. In whatever language is laid on our tongues, wherever the Spirit decides to explode.

The world has been remembering this week. Remembering events on Omaha Beach 75 years ago, events in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago. No one knew, when the first bugle sounded, the first tank rumbled, the first bomb exploded how the chaos would be resolved. Wind. Fire. Shouts. It must have seemed a darker, more desperate, more dangerous Pentecost.

Was it the Spirit blowing on that windy beach, in that hot public square? Was it the Spirit speaking through generals who forced their men forward, who gave courage to Chinese students? Each of those events was as confusing as were the events in Jerusalem, people shrugging wordlessly through the smoke and noise, “What does this mean?”

And how are we to know, in this time, when the voices that shout at us are speaking God’s word, Spirit ways, or simply division and violence and deceit? Who can we trust to tell us what the words mean?

On that first Pentecost it was finally Peter, The Impulsive, who leapt atop an overturned tank, grabbing the bullhorn to address the stunned crowds. “What does this mean?” they begged.

He thought it the world was over. He quoted the prophet Joel who had promised, centuries before Peter, that the Last Days would be marked by events just like this. The last days would be marked by prophesy from unlikely voices—young women, old men, slaves. The last day would be marked by signs in the atmosphere, and smoke on the horizon. The last day, he admonished, was that day. And all who called on the name of the Lord—whether in faith, in fear, regardless of the language—would be saved.

And they were. By the thousands. Across continents. Through the centuries. Traces of that wind, that fire, that crazy noise blow through the world even today. Whispering, shouting, promising God’s deeds of power.

But Peter was wrong. Wrong about one thing. That day was not the last day. Though I’m sure it seemed that way. It was the first day. The first day of God doing a brand-new thing. The word of Jesus Christ would spiral out of Jerusalem through the Middle East, east into Europe, south into Africa, across oceans. In words no one remembers but everyone understands.

Karl was holding Suzanna’s hand when she died. He had been holding it for two days, refusing to leave her side. Wordlessly, he gazed at her face, out the window, down at his worn Polish Bible. The only words he would speak with me were the words of the Lord’s Prayer, which he whispered—in Platte Deutsch, the language she understood—in her ear.

Sometimes our words speak God’s deeds of power. Sometimes our lives demonstrate them. Ultimately, in both life and death, the words may not matter all that much. Because when the Spirit drives them, the words do all the work.

 

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (2 June 2019)

John 17.20-26

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus prayed: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

In 1967, then-US Navy lieutenant commander John McCain fell into the hands of North Vietnamese forces and became one of the most famous POW’s in American history. His “fame” (an unfortunate word) grew, not because of his four-star military heritage, or the brutality of his captors, but because he refused to leave. When his abusers discovered that their prisoner was the son of the commander of US forces in the Pacific, they offered him early release—a propaganda ploy and an attempt to further demoralize other US prisoners of war.

The young McCain refused, clinging to the POW code that prisoners are released in the order in which they are taken captive. He would not do damage to his brothers in prison, even though he was nearly killed for refusing the “offer.”

He suffered unbelievable hardship because he stayed. For the sake of another.

In 1985, imprisoned leader of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela refused an offer of early release from Pollsmoor Prison, Capetown. At that point, he had already been held for 14 years as a political prisoner. Why did he refuse? Until other political prisoners were released AND until the ANC was recognized as a legitimate political party AND until Apartheid was lifted, he would not budge. For his stubborn loyalty to the cause of racial equity in South Africa, he sat in prison for another six years before an agreement was reached.

He suffered decades of isolation because he stayed. For the sake of another.

This morning we read a similar story in scripture (Acts 16.16-34). In the year 70, the apostles Paul and Silas were chained in the bowels of a Greek prison. Their crime? They had cast a demon from a slave girl. Outraged that their “property” would no longer turn a profit for her “owners,” the owners convinced the magistrates that these middle-eastern preachers were a threat to society. They were bullied and beaten with rods for their “crimes.” It was, of course, a complete sham, but Paul and Silas refused to defend themselves.

In a miraculous turn of events, their shackles—and the shackles of all the prisoners locked in that jail—were loosed, the prison bars shredded by a mighty earthquake in the middle of the night. Convinced the prisoners had fled (wouldn’t you?), the jailer was about to take his own life rather than face the consequences of his failure to secure the prisoners.

Paul cried out in the dark, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”

They were. Paul. Silas. And every one of the other prisoners. Not only did they stay. They sang. Long into the night. They sang.

What causes a prisoner to willingly remain in prison? What drives a prisoner to sing in shackles?  Why would one stay in the dark brutality of a prison? The writer of Acts doesn’t say specifically. But we can guess. I think it was because of something Jesus said the night before he himself was taken prisoner, unjustly accused, beaten and sentenced to death. Something about living—and dying—for the sake of another. Something about staying.

As the Easter season draws to a close, we find Jesus on his knees in prayer. Recently betrayed by Judas, aware that in a few hours Peter would do the same, Jesus prayed—out loud.

Funny thing. Jesus’ prayers bear no resemblance to mine.

My prayers are typically terse, selfish. “Help me.” “Protect the ones I love.” “Show me.”

Jesus would have had every reason to pray a similar, terse, selfish prayer that night. Had he been inclined he could have prayed fire down on the head of his accusers. He could have prayed for an escape route. A change of heart for Pilate. An ally among the soldiers. He could have prayed to wake from the nightmare his life had become. But he refused.

Instead he prayed for his disciples—the weak-kneed, self-serving, easily-distracted cast of characters he had chosen to be his closest friends.

But, again, he didn’t pray for them as I might pray for my friends. He prayed that they would be one. United. Of one mind. For the sake of another. Firmly planted in the world.

The gospel writer John has a unique slant on the Jesus story. Unlike the other three gospel writers, his goal was not to chronicle Jesus’ ministry or make political and theological points. John’s Jesus is always glancing out of the corner of his eye, over his shoulder, into the distance. If Jesus had been an actor, we would say that he was “breaking the fourth wall.”

The fourth wall is a theater concept. The fourth wall is the invisible barrier separating the audience from the actors on stage. The actors typically play their roles as though no one is watching. But every once in awhile, an actor will turn to the audience, breaching the fourth wall, and address them directly. It is a wink, a nod, a dog whistle that says, “I know you’re there. We all know you’re there. This is all for you.”

John’s Jesus consistently breaks the fourth wall. Making it clear that we are his intended audience, we are the object of his affection, the source of his concern, the reason he stayed with unworthy disciples, and his unworthy disciples would remain in the world.

Three times in this morning’s gospel Jesus winks our direction in his prayer, asking his Father “that the world may believe you have sent me;” “that the world may know you love them;” “so that I may be in them.”

By the end of the gospel, John himself will have abandoned all pretense of impartiality. He will turn directly his audience—to us—to spill the beans, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20.30ff)

Everything Jesus did and said, every miracle he performed, every indignity he suffered, every prayer he prayed—all of it was for another. All of it was for us. And also, for us, he stayed. When another would have run or retaliated. Jesus stayed.

I marvel at men like John McCain, Nelson Mandela, the early believers who suffered sorrows we cannot imagine. This week we have been invited to also consider Harriet Tubman, as much a marvel as any of the men we have already named.

You may recall that she was a 19th century abolitionist, who repeatedly risked her own life to free other slaves. Born into slavery herself, Tubman escaped and subsequently made at least thirteen missions to rescue over seventy enslaved people. She is in the news now because she has been deemed mysteriously unworthy of gracing the $20 bill, as had been planned by the US Treasury. Misogyny? Racism? Political game-playing? No mind. It was not public fame or a minted image she sought. She would not allow anyone to be left behind. Returning again and again to the war zone of Reconstruction. She stayed with slaves until they were free.

Of course, we are grateful for the tremendous sacrifices these women and men made for us. We are humbled at their courage to stay behind, sometimes even to sing. Who among us has courage to do the same?

But today we are asked to do more than admire selfless individuals. Because Jesus is still praying.  And as he prays, he glances out of the corner of his eye, over his shoulder, into the distance. Past us. To all of them.

It is not enough that we receive Jesus’ affection and attention. Gosh, thanks, Jesus. You shouldn’t have.

It is our turn to face the audience, to address the world. Our turn to be brave. Our turn to love. Our turn to be stand as one. Our turn to stay with all the broken and abused, the misunderstood and misplaced in our world.

In Jesus’ name, we will stay in the world, with the world, united in love for another and all for whom Christ died.  And, of course, we will sing.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (26 May 2019)

John 5.1-9

JoAnn A. Post

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.


Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. 


Now that day was a sabbath.

 I like living here in Pleasantville. The streets are wide, the trees stately, the schools are safe, our children are remarkable. We are so fortunate to live here, surrounded by peace and pleasantness and prosperity.

I always peruse the police reports in the “Northbrook Tower” and was amused to read this week that the police were called about missing lawn furniture, a package that wasn’t delivered, suspicious voice mail messages, and an unlicensed driver at Dundee and Sanders. Though I’m sure local law enforcement is grateful to supervise such a bucolic arena, I wonder if they feel sometimes as does a priest friend who hears confessions at a nun’s retirement home once a week. “They confess coveting a second dessert, or being at odds with Sister Bertha, or yawning at Morning Prayer. What I wouldn’t give to hear a really juicy sin, just once.”

Do you suppose the Northfield police would like to turn on the sirens and chase a really juicy bad guy, just once?

But not so far from here lies Gotham City or, as most call it, Chicago. I pray for newly-elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chief of Police Eddie Johnson—I can’t imagine the burdens they carry, the dangers they face. What they wouldn’t give for a missing deck chair or an unwelcome phone solicitation. Instead their attention is split among neighborhoods that are thriving, businesses that are booming, and neighborhoods that are unsafe and store fronts shuttered. Sometimes only blocks apart.

If all you knew of this area was Northfield, you would think the world had reverted to the Garden of Eden. But if all you knew of this area was the troubled neighborhoods of Chicago, you’d be scanning the sky for the Bat Signal.

We are a tale of two cities. As is today’s gospel reading.

This morning’s gospel opens on a festival day in Jerusalem. The city would have been full of pilgrims, street musicians, holy men in flowing robes. Food trucks and street vendors. If you were a pilgrim coming to Jerusalem for the Festival, you would have entered through the Beautiful Gate on the east side of the temple enclosure. Double doors made of brass, so heavy 20 men were needed to open them. 12 wide terraced steps conveyed worshippers into the temple courtyard. It was a magnificent event simply to walk through the Beautiful Gate itself.

But in today’s reading Jesus is not at the Beautiful Gate. For some reason, he is at the Sheep Gate, on the north side of the temple enclosure. True to its name, the Sheep Gate was the entrance through which animals for sacrifice were brought. Imagine the noise, the smell, the manure. Some even believe that the pool at which Jesus met the disabled man, the Pool of Beth-zatha, doubled as a bidet for livestock coming in from the desert roads. Herders would coax their animals into the pool to wash off some of the road dust, before being presented at the temple for slaughter.

Most pilgrims never saw the Sheep Gate. Most shepherds didn’t even know the Beautiful Gate existed.

It was there, at the Sheep Gate, surrounded by bleating and stench and dust clouds and the raised voices of weary shepherds, that the poorest of Jerusalem’s poor were strewn. Lying around a spring-fed pool that they shared with animals, praying that the water might be disturbed, not by swimming sheep, but by an occasional angel.

The verse about this long shot was not authenticated in enough early manuscripts to be included in the Bible translation we typically use, but some early writers included this note: They were waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease the person had. (John 5.4)

How desperate would you have to be to believe such a tale, to share supposedly “healing waters” with filthy animals? And the man on whom Jesus’ eyes fell was more desperate than most. Unable to walk for 38 years, he was completely alone in the world—he had no one to lift him, to muscle him to the front of the crowd and throw him in the water when it rippled. Is there a sadder story?

Yes. Jesus’ insensitive, insulting and obvious question to a man who lay in a pile of rags beside a dirty pond imagining the water might heal him. Jesus looked down at the man, literally “down”, and said, “Do you want to be made well?” Not one of Jesus’ better days, from an empathy standpoint.

The man didn’t respond to the seeming insult underlying Jesus’ question. He took it at face value. And explained why he lay there day after day, praying for a dubious miracle.

But we need to cut Jesus a little slack. He didn’t ask the man if he wanted someone to throw him in the pool. He didn’t ask the man if he wanted to walk. He asked the man a very specific, subtle question: “Do you want to be made well?” Not cured. Not straightened. Not carried. But “made well.” “Made whole.”

Jesus’ concern was not for the man’s legs only, for also for his life.  To be whole meant the man would be loved, would have a home to live in, a table to sit at, friends to talk with, a place in the temple, strong arms to carry him. Not walking was the least of the man’s worries.

Jesus wanted more for him than simply being able to put one foot in front of the other. Jesus wanted him to have a full, rich, loved life. “Is that what you want?” Jesus asked. The man did not know how to answer.

So, Jesus gave him both what the man thought he needed and what he truly needed. The man stood up. Rolled up his mat. And strode away from the filth of the Sheep Gate to the gate called “Beautiful.” Whole. Well.

To be cured is a good thing. Cessation of symptoms. Freedom from pain. But to be healed, to be well, to be whole. That is a gift few of us dare to ask. We would be happy for a single pain-free day. Imagine a meaning-filled life.

That’s what Jesus offered the man lying at the Sheep Gate. That is what Jesus offers us.

This weekend, Memorial Weekend, marks the beginning of what Chicago’s new mayor calls “Summer Violence Season.” Though none dispute the rise in gun violence in hot weather, they disagree about the solution. In gospel terms, we disagree about what it would mean for the city to be simply “cured” rather than “made well.”

Some would seek only to remove guns from dangerous hands.  As though hands and homes emptied of guns is the sole answer.

But if Jesus were to stroll the city’s troubled neighborhoods asking, “Do you want to be made well?” I wonder what miracle he would perform.

He might advocate for stiffer gun regulations. But that is not enough. That’s like teaching a man to walk, but giving him nowhere to go. Jesus would also seek homes and education and jobs, meaning and purpose and love, stability and pride. He would choose not only a weekend free of violence, but a life full of purpose. He might ask us to do the same.

On a more intimate level, I recently spoke with a man who has been dry for 29 years, who still attends AA meetings faithfully. But he wants to be more than “dry;” he wants to be “well.” Abstaining from alcohol is not enough if he is to have a full life. So he prays. And meditates. And accompanies others on their journeys. And commits himself every day to living a grateful, forgiving life.

Jesus wants more for us than mere ambulating. Jesus wants more for us than simply abstaining. He wants us to be well. He wants us to be whole.

Today is our sabbath, a mandated day of rest. It was just such sabbath on which Jesus picked his way over the piles at the Sheep Gate. Though Jesus may have been resting from hard labor, he never rests from making us well.

Brightening blind eyes. Strengthening weak limbs. Opening closed ears. Softening hard hearts. Offering life, full and abundant, to those who ask too little.

Whether we live in Pleasantville or Gotham City, Northfield or on the North Side, Jesus is strolling the city, seeking the lost, strengthening the weak, making half-lived lives whole.

And asking everyone he encounters: “Do you want to be made well?”

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (19 May 2019)

John 13.31-35

JoAnn A. Post

When Judas had gone out, Jesus said,

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified,

and God has been glorified in him. 

If God has been glorified in him,

God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 

Little children, I am with you only a little longer.

You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you,

‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 

I give you a new commandment,

that you love one another.

Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,

if you have love for one another.”

So often the news seems far away, interesting but not part of our daily lives. The goings-on in Washington D.C. make us shake our heads, but it seems there is little we can do. As state legislatures make decisions calculated to provoke, our blood pressure rises, but, what to do? The battle over tariffs has not yet touched my checkbook, though I know farmers who lay awake nights over it. Even in Chicago, only miles away, the world’s depravity is real to us only by way of newspaper ink or Facebook clicks.

But every once in awhile the news explodes in our faces and we cannot turn away. It happened to me this week.

A person of my family’s acquaintance became national news as she and her family were detained for lack of proper documentation. She and her husband came to the U.S. more than a decade ago seeking political asylum, but their case got stalled in the courts. While waiting for a response, they raised a family, attained advanced degrees, worked responsible jobs, paid taxes. They weren’t hiding from anyone, just waiting. For some reason, the immigration system that had seemed to forget about them for so long, suddenly remembered. Violently.

The details are straight out of a Jason Bourne movie: access to the family was acquired through deception, a screaming child was torn from her mother’s arms at gunpoint by heavily-armed federal agents, innocent by-standers were swept into the raid, the front door of the house was left open after the raid and the home was looted. Witnesses said the agents laughed as they paraded the family out of their home, in their nightclothes, into waiting vehicles.

Regardless of where you stand on immigration reform or enforcement, the cruelty of this raid in a quiet town not far from here was horrifying.

And woven around the sometimes remote/sometimes very-real debates about immigration and abortion and trade and guns and military aggression are the words of the 11th commandment. The commandment Jesus gave his disciples the night before he was crucified.

It sounds both cheesy and predictable that Jesus would advise his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” What else would Jesus say on his way out the door?

“Go, Bears!” or “Make Bethlehem Great Again! Or “Don’t forget your raincoat!”

But Jesus’ commandment to love wasn’t mushy or romantic. It was born of both experience and fear.

The experience? From before he was born, Jesus’ earthly parents, Joseph and Mary, loved him without question, in spite of rumors and innuendo and mockery and serious questions about his paternity. Their love for him was fierce, deep, relentless. He knew, firsthand, that love was not a feeling, but a fact.

The fear? Even as Jesus’ fan-base grew, so did his foe-base. Foes in powerful places. Foes with financial means. Foes with no scruples. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Jesus to have adopted the hateful, dishonest, bloodthirsty practices of his detractors. But he was afraid that if, even for a heartbeat, he gave in to that impulse, his whole ministry would be sunk. Hating those who hate you? It’s a natural impulse. Tolerating those who hate us? Makes us feel big, somehow. But to love them? Love them to death? It is a rare and holy thing.

“Love one another,” was a lesson buried deep in Jesus’ complicated DNA.

But on this night, the night described in John 13, even Jesus’ love was tested. The danger was neither remote nor theoretical. The danger had its feet under Jesus’ supper table. Judas (ever notice that no one ever names a son “Judas?), who had been with Jesus from the first days of his ministry would soon become the agent of his assassination.

As Judas disappeared into the night and Jesus’ remaining disciples looked after him in disbelief, Jesus reminded them of his mission—a mission that would soon belong solely to them. “Love one another,” he said sternly. Even Judas. Even Peter. Even Pilate.

How is that possible? Left to ourselves, it’s not.

As you could tell from the way I started the sermon, my sympathies lie with the undocumented, three-generation Kenosha family taken into custody last week. I have no difficulty loving them, understanding their sorrow, defending them.  “Love one another?” Of course.

But what of the federal agents who took them into custody? What of the judge who signed the warrant? What of the guards at the detention center? The lotters who robbed them blind? Left to my own ugly imaginings, I have nothing good to say to them or about them. But what would Jesus have to say to me?

The same thing he said to Judas, as he slipped into the shadows. The same thing he said to his disciples. “Love one another.”

How do I love those with whom I so violently disagree, whose lives make no sense to me?  Jesus would say, “Who cares what you think?”

I don’t have to agree with them. They don’t have to make sense to me. They are Jesus’ sheep, God’s children, my brothers and sisters. My love for them may come with gritted teeth and a heavy sigh. But what choice, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, do I have?

So I have decided to love as Jesus loves those who carry out our country’s immigration policies. I pray for their safety. I give thanks for their loyalty. I trust their work is well-intended. I hope their families never suffer as so many families do.

And, I know that though you may disagree with where my sympathies lie, you could also, and without too much trouble, conjure an “I struggle to love” list of your own. Perhaps you would flip my story, finding the undocumented family at the center of it worthy of scorn, and the federal agents to be heroes. Regardless of where your political inclinations or heartfelt sympathies lie, the commandment applies.

“Love one another,” Jesus whispered to Judas’ turned back. “Love one another,” he ordered his gaping disciples. “Love one another,” he reminds us.

Such love is a daily decision for us. Left to our own devices, our hearts can be cold. And hard.

So how do we love one another? And why would we do that?

Because that unquestioning, intentional love is the way Jesus loves us. Whether we are Judas or Peter, undocumented or citizen, left or right, rich or poor, Jesus’ love for us is the same. And as he prepared to leave his disciples he turned that hard-working, heart-breaking, mind-boggling love over to his them.

Love the world the way I have loved you. That’s all he wrote.

 

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter (12 May 2019)

John 10.22.-30

JoAnn A. Post

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

Our Little Ones are, at this moment, engaged in a program called Godly Play—a Montessori-based Sunday School curriculum that has captivated them. They have their own learning and worship space in the Education Wing, where they gather as we gather here in the sanctuary. Week after week, children as young as three-years-old gather around a story teller to hear and watch the story of God’s love unfold before them. Our story tellers are trained to tell the story in a particular way, using a carefully-worded script, illustrated by beautifully-crafted figures.  The story tellers are trained not to make eye contact with the children as they teach, so that all eyes are on the figures, all ears on the words rather than on the story teller.

Much of the story-telling time is silent, as the figures are moved into place.  This morning we share a small portion of the Story of the Good Shepherd, today’s gospel reading, with our Sunday School Coordinator  as story-teller. Listen to the silences as much as the words.  And then we’ll talk. (video)

Kate told the little lambs flocked around her, “I know each of my sheep by name. And the sheep know my voice.”  What more does a child need to know? And who better than Kate to embody the safety, the welcome and the love of the Good Shepherd?

The story as John, the gospel writer tells it, is more complex than the story our children hear this morning. John places Jesus in the temple during the Festival of the Dedication, a festival we know as Hanukah. And John notes, cryptically, “It was winter.” Not Illinois winter with snow and cold and biting winds, not Game of Thrones winter with zombies and blood and death, but Middle East winter—cool, rainy, overcast.

Perhaps Jesus was seeking silence for himself on a gray day, walking off the controversy that swirled around him everywhere he went. But his reverie was interrupted by religious authorities, demanding to see some identification. “Tell us who you are. Tell us plainly.”

And much like the sales person in a high-end shop who patronizes, “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it,” Jesus smiles, “If you have to ask me who I am, you don’t belong to me.”

Believe it or not, this short little story has generated centuries of theological controversy. Was Jesus saying that some just belong to him and some just don’t, that there is nothing we can say or do to become part of Jesus’ flock because its already been decided? Was Jesus arguing for predestination, the 19th century theory that the die of salvation are cast for us? Sheep. Not sheep. Too bad, so sad.

If you know Jesus at all, you know that’s not the case. But we make the mistake of thinking Jesus thinks the way do, that some people are worth our time and trouble and some simply don’t matter.

Listen again to what Jesus told his challengers. He didn’t tell them he was turning his back on them, that there was no hope for them. He said: “My sheep hear my voice.”

Its not about predestination or popularity or a lottery. Its about our ears. Do we hear Jesus’ voice? Or have we chosen not to listen? (In my family we call that “husband hearing,” the domestic phenomenon that our spouses hear everyone but us.)

Here’s what I think Jesus means. I think that Jesus’ voice is clear enough for all to hear, but that some of us have chosen not to hear it. Either because we don’t believe what he says about himself or because we don’t believe what he says about us.

What does he say about himself? That he is Son of Mary and Son of God, the long-expected Messiah. Why, some ask, would I believe something as far-fetched as that? They don’t hear Jesus, because they don’t believe what he says about himself.

But most of us who struggle, I think, have a hard time believing what he says about us.

We are keenly aware of our faults and failures, the inconsistencies of our character, the darkness in our hearts. We are daily confronted with our lack, as in both work and play we are pushed to be more, be better, work harder, work longer, perform at a higher level.

A friend of mine has been in sales his whole career, has risen to the top of his field, has been awarded national salesperson of the year over and over. Every year he beats his marks, exceeds his goals, lifts his whole team, improves his industry. But a few years ago, the corporation for which he worked started raising his marks to unreasonable levels. If he exceeded the previous year’s goal by 5%, they raised the next year’s goal 10%. Or even 20%. They set unattainable expectations for him, hoping, we later learned, to find reason to release him.

The pressure, the fear of failure, nearly destroyed him, pushed every self-critical, self-destructive button in his psyche. His employer was telling him he was worthless, lazy, a fraud. None of it is true, but that judgmental voice whispered in his ear every day, for months.

His experience is not unusual. We are never good enough, smart enough, fast enough, strong enough, rich enough, pretty enough. Whatever it is we ought to be, we aren’t. Failure is always a possibility, for some, an inevitability.

Who tells us that? Why do they tell us that? And, more important, why do we listen?

That’s why it is so hard for us to believe the voice of the Good Shepherd, that voice of Jesus who wants us to keep us safe, who wants to love us, who leads us, as Kate said to the children, to the good grass.  Hardly anyone speaks to us that way. Hardly anyone, in any arena of our lives says, “I love you. Period.”

Jesus’ opponents on that cool, gray Hanukah day simply couldn’t hear what he said about them, what he said about himself because the voices in their heads were so loud. They couldn’t think of themselves as lambs because they lived among wolves, eager to pounce at the first sign of weakness.

“I am the Good Shepherd” Jesus speaks in a calm, comforting voice. “And my sheep? My sheep hear my voice.”

Our children are, at this moment, learning to hear Jesus’ voice from the voices of their teachers.

Who speaks so kindly to you? Who tunes your ear for the voice of the shepherd?

And when you speak, is it in tones that are kind, encouraging, caring, or in a voice that only adds to the destructive din of hatred and division? Perhaps someone will recognize Jesus’ voice of welcome because they first hear yours.

The life of faith is a daily decision to listen, not to the voices of competition and criticism that surround us, but to the voice of the Good Shepherd. “You are safe. You are loved. You are mine. And no one can snatch you from my hand.”

Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter

John 21.1-19

JoAnn A. Post

After these things, Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.  

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 

“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)

After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Before we lived here, my husband and I lived in New England, where I served a congregation in a former mill town, and he served on the faculty at a seminary. He was soon invited to serve as academic dean—a position long on demands and short on rewards, but critical to the life of an academic institution. Every important decision about curriculum, tenure, promotion, retirement, scheduling and strategic direction went across his desk.

Shortly after his appointment, a long-time friend who also served in seminary administration came to town, ostensibly for lunch, but with the real purpose of schooling him in the ways of power in the world of theological education. The most chilling bit of wisdom he shared was this, “You will never have another casual conversation.”

What?

“Everyone will be your friend. Everyone will want to ‘chat’. And everything you say or don’t say, everything you do or don’t do, can and will be used against you.”

My husband is away this weekend, keynoting a synod assembly in a synod that yesterday unseated its bishop. A disgruntled takeover of sorts. As we processed this ecclesial coup on the phone last night, we remembered a bishop friend who was similarly unseated in a fit of “throw the bums out” a few years ago.

Our friend fell into a massive depression, not because he was no longer bishop, but because the phone no longer rang. His in-box gathered dust. His calendar was eerily clear. All those people who used to clamor for his attention, hang on his every word and seek his wisdom? Poof.

He went from being the most important man in every room to “old what’s his name” in a matter of minutes. How he longed for even a casual conversation.

Falling from Somebody to Nobody is a hard landing.

You would think that in these Sundays after Easter, all eyes would be on Jesus, recently resurrected from the dead, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.  Sorry, that was Superman.

But Jesus? He materialized in locked rooms, opened eyes blinded by grief, dried the tears of followers who believed him most sincerely dead.

But today Jesus, raised from death and uber-alive, is upstaged. Upstaged by a disciple who exemplifies the very best and the very worst of Jesus’ followers. The very best? Bold. Decisive. Strong. The very worst?  “All hat and no cattle,” as my father used to say. It didn’t take much to push “courageous” Peter, cowering, into a corner.

Remember the night Jesus was arrested and Peter was given three opportunities to pledge allegiance to Jesus? Yeah, it didn’t go well. Three times Peter said, “Nope, never met the man. Don’t know who you’re talking about.”

Peter was a pariah from that moment on. His inbox was empty, his phone silent, his calendar clear. Until today.

The post-resurrection appearances are fascinating to me. Primarily because nobody seems bothered or impressed by what happened. After a sudden burst of angels, announcements and lots of running, life went back to normal.

Resurrection? What resurrection? Oh, that.

In this morning’s gospel Peter and six other disciples took their fishing boats out of dry-dock and flung their nets into deep water. Though Jesus was raised from death, for them it was just another day at the office.

The fishing was poor. A random beachcomber shouted, “Toss your nets on the other side.” Somebody shouted back, “Its Jesus!” Peter, never one to think twice, threw his clothes on, jumped into the sea, and swam ashore where the man who might or might not have been Jesus was fixing breakfast. Frying fish. Toasting bagels. Boiling coffee over an open fire.

If ever a person of prominence fell from power, it was Jesus. No longer Son of God and Son of Man, but Cookie, the gimpy character on old TV westerns.

But Peter was about to fall farther. Or rather, he was about to be schooled in the ways of the resurrection.

We first met Peter on the seashore at the beginning of John’s gospel, Jesus on the shore. Shouting.

And now we are back at that beginning. Peter again in a boat. Jesus on the shore. Shouting. But this time more than knotted nets and rotting fish stood between them. The stench of Peter’s three-part denial of Jesus hung in the air. There would be no casual conversation between them ever again.

“Do you love me?” Jesus whispered.

Tears in his eyes, Peter said, “Yes, you know I do.”

“Do you really?” Jesus pressed.

Ashamed, Peter nodded.

A third time, Jesus queried, “Peter. Look at me. Do you love me?”

Heart-broken, Peter said, “Yes, Lord, I do.”

And then, his three denials erased by three expressions of devotion, Peter was demoted.

No longer Fisherman. No longer Disciple. No longer the powerhouse whom Jesus had dubbed “Rock on which I will build my church.” No longer even the coward who catapulted from fame to infamy as the Denier of Jesus. Now? After a stunning early climb to power, he was dropped like a rock. What would he be now?

Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs.

Peter became a shepherd. Like the unnamed, illiterate, unkempt, socially outcast herders who first told of Jesus’ birth. Peter would take his place at the bottom of every social scale.

It was a stunning blow. A world-class fall from grace. And a gift.

Peter was to become like Jesus in service to the world. Remember. Jesus was the Good Shepherd. Jesus was the Friend of Sinners. Jesus was Lover of the Unloved.

Jesus trusted Peter so much he laid his own work into Peter’s knotted, sunburned hands.

“Feed my sheep, Peter. Tend my lambs.”

And like the shepherds who ran to Bethlehem in the dark of night, Jesus said, “Tell my story.”

Peter’s circumstance was not new. As ancient philosophers used to shrug, “Sic transit gloria mundi.” In English: “So goes the power of the world.”

We delude ourselves if we think any of our fame or importance is of any real consequence. Any one of us can fall from grace faster than a bishop at a synod assembly, faster than a movie star who buys college admission or a politician who can’t keep his phone zipped.

True power. True authority. True Wisdom. These are gifts given by God, not by corporate boards or seminary faculties or national elections.

To fall as far as Peter. What an Easter gift that would be.

Jesus invites us to join him at the bottom, to have friends in low places: “Feed my sheep. Tend my lambs. Follow me.”