Festival of Pentecost

Festival of Pentecost (4 June 2018)

Acts 2.1-21

JoAnn A. Post

When the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles 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.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ”

In the late 1880’s, after the territory of Alaska was purchased from Russia, indigenous peoples—pejoratively called “Eskimos”— were violently removed from their villages, beliefs and languages by the U.S. government. We called it “assimilation” and “education;” we called it deepening the “melting pot.” Placing native children in boarding schools far from home and family was deemed a chance at a better life for those “savages.” Never mind that those “savages” had enjoyed a rich cultural, religious and social life, respectful of nature for more than 10,000 years without any help from us. But we meant their quick and forced absorption into American culture as a gift. After all, who would want to speak a native language, eat local foods and worship animals when you could speak English and eat Velveeta and become Episcopalians?

When we lived in Alaska more than 30 years ago, we knew some of those displaced children grown to adulthood. Their stories of childhood abuse, hunger, and isolation are enough to make a grown woman weep—and a nation apologize. Assimilation in Alaska was an experiment that failed on almost every level. One of the many disastrous results of that failed frozen “gift” is that some of the languages in which indigenous Alaskans, for millennia, engaged in commerce, worshipped their gods, sang to the children and loved their spouses are dead.

Efforts to revive those indigenous languages are sometimes launched, but finding a native speaker of Eyak or Han is as likely as finding a unicorn at the grocery store. Age-old languages died along with their broken-hearted elderly speakers.

To say that we read today of the “First” Pentecost is a misnomer. There had been many hundreds of Pentecost’s before that polyglottal day in Jerusalem. For 35 centuries since Jews have gathered 50 days after Passover to celebrate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; in “Christian Speak,” the day God gave Moses the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Pentecost or “Shavuot” (its Hebrew name) is what we would call a “lesser festival.”. But circa 30 BCE, shortly after Jesus ascended to the Father and while his 120 disciples and friends waited in Jerusalem for the promised power, the city would have been packed with revelers.

That the day the Spirit assaulted them also happened to be a Jewish festival did not occur to those early believers until later. They were probably marking it as a lesser festival—a shared festive meal and particular prayers. But suddenly (the text says “violently”) they were accosted by a hurricane that lit their heads on fire. Words poured from their mouths, words in languages those back country fisherman had never heard, let alone knew how to speak. How did they do that?

It wasn’t the wind or the flame that brought crowds running. It was the noise. The cacophony of 120 startled commoners spewing words they did not know was a sight, a sound to behold.  Their quickly-assembled audience, though, was momentarily absolutely silent. Some of them were multi-generational residents of the city, but others of them immigrants with green cards, those “Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” And though they would have all shared the common language of the city—Hebrew—they spoke different languages, their own languages, at home. Parthian. Greek. Arabic. Latin.

Seems an oddly intricate miracle. When we travel to other parts of the world, we can almost always find someone who speaks English. It is, after all, the world’s language. And when immigrants settle among us, they quickly learn to speak “our” language, though often retaining their own dialect at home. It was that way in Jerusalem. Hebrew was the common language of that part of the world in the 1st century. Everyone knew at least a little. So why weren’t the disciples prompted to preach in Hebrew?

The assembled crowd would have been impressed enough with the apostles’ flaming hairdos to listen for a while. And they would have understood if the apostles had all spoken in Hebrew.

But they didn’t. Greek islanders heard Cretan. Onlookers from Cairo listened in Coptic. Visitors from China were schooled through Cantonese. Immigrants from Nineveh learned God’s mighty deeds of power in Sumerian. Had a Silicon Valley software designer chanced on the scene, the disciples would have communicated in binary code. Should a political pundit wander by? Twitter.

“Each of them heard them speaking in the native language of each.”

God knew, though those rattled multi-lingual disciples did not, that language is more than the mere conveyance of information. Hebrew might have taught them, but to hear God’s name, God’s love in their own languages changed them. As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a person in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to a person in his language, that goes to his heart.” (Chicago Tribune, June 3, 2017)

The words we speak and the way we speak them is more than a convention or a tool. The words we choose reveal our hearts. And to touch the heart of another, we learn their language.

A previous parish had been established by Eastern European immigrants in the 1890’s. Though the charter members were long dead by the time I served there, we still had a large contingent of elderly Czechs, Poles and Slavs among us.  Carl, an elderly man, loved to tell about meeting his wife, who had also fled Europe to the U.S. after the war. They met at a bar after work, each noticing the other across the room. But Carl spoke only Polish and she spoke only German. “How did you talk to each other if you didn’t share the same language?” I once asked. He winked. “We always spoke the same language about things that mattered.” And then slyly, “Some things don’t need words.”

After his wife died and his mind grew less sharp, he lapsed more and more often into his native tongue. And always when he prayed it was in the language of his childhood. When he prayed, both he and God were Polish.

Language is more than words. It comes from—and reveals—the heart.

What language should we use to tell of God’s deeds of power?  The words and hymns and ways that brought so many of us to faith now seem to fall on deaf ears and cold hearts. We could force people to listen, as we forced native Alaskan children to meet God on our terms. We could be like the fabled terrible tourist who, when confronted by a waiter who doesn’t speak his language, simply says it louder. “I said TWO olives!”

In the prayer of the day we prayed that God would “open the hearts of your faithful people by sending us your Holy Spirit.”  It will have to be the Holy Spirit who schools us, who teaches us words to say and gathers the people who need to hear them. We cannot force anyone to love Jesus, and shouting the same old words a little louder won’t convince anyone either.

We pray today that the Holy Spirit would light a fire under us, in us, would fill our mouths with words others want to hear. We pray that we will learn to speak the native language of each and, in that way, tell them about God’s deeds of power.

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (28 May 2017)

JN 17.1-11

JoAnn A. Post

After Jesus had spoken these words to his disciples, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 

Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Too many have fallen. Too many have died.

Of course, I speak of this Memorial Day weekend, a too-brief time during which we remember those who have lost their lives in service of their country. I am well aware that, as we sit in the safety of this sanctuary, some whom we know are fighting in Afghanistan and millions of others stand in silent grief at the graves of veterans. We are grateful for their service, and grieve the need to keep sending people off to war.

But at any time in human history, on any continent, under any political system, the same can be said. Too many have fallen. Too many have died.

Two Sundays ago we read about the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7.54ff), a death that marked the beginning of a period of persecution of early Christians that would last for more than a century.

This morning the writer of First Peter tells his readers not to be surprised when persecution falls on them. “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5.8)

In our own time we have witnessed the same. It happened in Egypt on Friday, as self-proclaimed Islamic militants ambushed a busload of Coptic Christians on their way to a mountain top retreat. The explosion of bullets was unrelenting and when it ended, the attackers fled like cowards back down the mountain and one of the smallest Christian communities in the world was shattered.

Might I claim a moment of personal privilege here? I hesitate to name the murderers of Christians in Egypt or concert-goers in England “Islamic.” It is a name they have stolen from a great world religion.  To imagine that ISIS or other groups like them speak for Islam is to imagine the KKK speaks for us. Anyone can call themselves anything, but, as a Southern friend says, “Just because you say it, doesn’t make it so.” I think it would be wise of us, especially as our Muslim brothers and sisters celebrate Ramadan, to treat them with the respect and kindness we seek for ourselves. To acknowledge that the troubled few do not speak for the faithful many.

But the falling and dying happen close to home, too. This week I heard an interview with a woman who lives on Chicago’s South Side, a grandmother who won’t let her children play outside because her neighborhood is a war zone. She said, “Call me selfish, but I know what I want and I want it now. I want this violence to stop. I want my babies to be safe.”

Too many have fallen, too many have died. Thousands of years ago and twenty miles from here. So what, then do we say to this?

On this last Sunday of the Easter season, now that the lilies have wilted and the crowds have thinned, we turn the page of our minds back to a time before we knew the grave would be empty, before we knew Jesus would live, before we would see the bottoms of his feet as he ascended to the Father.

We are once again back in a candlelit room around a supper table. Jesus’ words have alarmed his disciples. One of them would betray him. One would deny. They would all be scattered. He would be taken from them. And in the fear-filled dark, as he ran out of words to reassure them, he called on another to fill the void, to ease the pain, to show the way.

“Father, the hour has come,” he prayed out loud. “I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world,   but on behalf of those you gave me.” And what does he ask the Father to do? “Protect them.”

“Protect them so that they may be one.”

In fact, Jesus was praying not only for the 11 huddled befuddled disciples in the room with him on the night before his death. He prayed for millions who were not there. For the early believers. And for Coptic Christians. And for soldiers in places of war. And for gang-seduced boys. And for us.

We live luxurious lives. Largely protected from the violence that is too typical of some neighborhoods, some parts of the world. But the dangers that surround us, the roaring lion that prowls around us are equally troubling.

What is it that threatens us? Some would say our wealth is a danger. Others fear the bullies or the intense competition in our high-achieving local schools. It would also be appropriate to say we are in danger from ourselves, imagining that by our own understanding or effort we can forestall the trouble that others face.

But we also fear what the first disciples feared. Abandonment. Isolation. Death.

This afternoon, as most will be firing up the grills or napping with the Sunday newspaper, a clutch of grieving children will gather in our Garden. Their mother Pat died in December, taken from them in her sleep. And today we lay her to rest. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I will never forget her children’s faces as they spoke, first with the police, then with the medical examiner, then with a funeral director—each of those professionals more kind and gentle than I have ever seen. Though Pat’s “children” are in fact adults, the fear was palpable. That death can take us as we sleep. That we might not get a chance to stay good-bye. I called my own mother the next day, just to hear her voice. I wanted to say, “Don’t die,” but I didn’t.  Instead I said, “You know I love you.”

This evening we witness Catherine and Aaron’s wedding vows. Though theirs will be joyful wedding and a strong marriage, our hopeful hearts cannot silence the words we must speak. “Until death parts us,” they will say. I will lay hands on their heads and ask God to bless them “in their sleeping and in their waking, in their joys and in their sorrows, in their life and in their death.”

Some fall to war. Others to persecution. Still others to random violence. And some in our sleep. But all will fall. And all of us are afraid.

We would like to ask Jesus to make it stop. To put an end to war and sickness and death. And Someday he will. But for now we live in a world governed by many forces which no one can completely control. That truth causes some to turn from God. But it can also turn us toward God, trusting God’s power to be greater than all others.

So today we ask Jesus to pray for us. To pray the prayer he offered over the trembling heads of ancient disciples.  Protect us. Keep us together. Give us joy.

So that when we fall, whether in a momentary stumble or finally to death, we will be captured by the loving hands of God to whom we already belong.

 

 

 

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (21 May 2017)

John 14.15-21

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.


“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
         

On Friday, our president embarked on an eight-day, five-country trip abroad. He is accompanied by his wife and an airplane-full of security agents, staff members, representatives of the press corps, and personal assistants. His agenda is complicated and purposeful. Every speech he makes, every hand he shakes, every step he takes will be analyzed and scrutinized and evaluated.

But I am not nearly as intrigued by the public parts of his trip as by the parts we will never see. I am imagining the “ground troops,” the legion of staffers in each of the five countries coordinating his visits there.

I heard an interview with one of those on-the-ground coordinators, who tried to describe the complexities of the task they face. For example, she said that there is a whole team of people who do nothing but script and manage the first lady’s attire and movements. In some countries, she has to be veiled but not in others. In some countries, she has to walk a certain number of steps behind the president but in others she will be beside him. In some countries, she will be expected to speak and in others to be silent. Any infringement on these protocols might endanger the success of this trip.

Multiply the arrangements for her person by about 500 and you get a glimpse of the planning ordeal they face. And though everything on this trip is carefully scripted, it also has to appear as though it is not. Each speech, each suit, each smile will be tailor-made.  And could spell the success or disaster of this first international junket.

This morning we read about another political/diplomatic excursion. An ancient one.

Six months ago, I stood in the place from which the Apostle Paul spoke to the Athenians in the year 49. (Acts 17.22-31) Though now fallen to ruins, it is still easy to imagine the scene he would have addressed on that sunny day two centuries ago. On what is actually a small site, there is still evidence of over 20 “holy places,” altars and statues and shrines dedicated to the gods. In fact, they even erected an altar to an “unknown god,” just in case they missed one.

The preaching task Paul faced was enormous, his audience unlike any other.  His brother preachers, spread out across the Middle East and Mediterranean, often spoke to Jewish audiences, so issues of circumcision and law-keeping were primary there. Other audiences would have wanted to know about the political or societal implications of faith in Jesus.

But Paul’s audience was different. They were highly educated, deeply religious (though pagan), politically connected and possibly easily offended. His address to them had to be tailor-made. It was impressive. He complimented their religious array, quoted their poets, used images they would understand to describe the God Paul worshipped, the God who cannot be crafted from silver or stone.

Like a presidential visit abroad, Paul’s words and actions, even the foods he ate and the way he ate them were crucial to the success of his mission.

We know from other evidence that Paul’s reception was mixed. (Acts 17.32-34) Some wanted to hear more. Some immediately came to faith. Others scoffed and turned away. Though not uniformly encouraging, it beats the private prison escort he received in other cities.

To know your audience and address them appropriately. It is the task not only of 21st century presidents and 1st preachers, but also of Jesus.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus spoke to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, in a tone of voice he had not used before. At other times, he was short with them, or pedantic, or even, occasionally, aggressive. But on that particular night, as Judas snuck into the darkness and Peter prepared to betray, Jesus spoke with them in a new way, in a gentle coaxing voice.  He addressed them as a loving father, a patient teacher. He called them “orphans.” He promised them an “advocate” to stand beside them and protect them. He told them that he would “seen” by them even while they were parted. Whether his measured pace slowed their racing hearts or not, we don’t know. But we know that he refused a one-size-fits-all impatient tirade, choosing a bespoke message instead, tailor-made for frightened disciples.

I often hide my true identity when I am out in public, failing to mention the fact that I am a Lutheran pastor unless that piece of information is crucial. Because the minute strangers find out what I do, the conversation shifts. Sometimes I get the raised eyebrow and cold shoulder. Sometimes I hear about how much they love their own pastors or rabbis, all the amazing things their congregations are doing. But most often I hear horror stories of judgmental encounters, destructive behavior on the part of church leaders, wounds that go deep and will never be healed.

To hear those wounded by the faithful, you would think we didn’t have a brain in our heads or a heart in our chests. Are we really that closed-minded that we would intentionally offend or harm a brother or sister in the faith? Are we too stupid to know that our words and actions speak not only of ourselves but of the whole church and, to some, even of God? Are we so unimaginative that we have only one message, regardless of the situation or need? It would seem so.

Just the other day I met a former member of this congregation, who, when pressed, told about a long-ago last encounter with us. Apparently, when this person came to Ascension seeking counsel and forgiveness, someone in leadership here (I don’t know who it was because I didn’t want to know) chose instead to judge and belittle. “I came in need of comfort,” the person said, “and got only criticism. I never went back.”

Of course, we can write this off as evidence of sour grapes or thin skin, but I hear such stories often enough from people all over the country and of many religious affiliations to have to take them seriously.

Do we really have only one message? Do we force everyone we meet into a single small box? Is there only one way to follow Jesus? And if people don’t like what we have to say, do we automatically assume there is something wrong with them?

I’m not advocating that we adopt an attitude of saying whatever someone wants to hear. We believe some things very powerfully, and do not condone or conscience  a “whatever” way with the world. For example, when that same Apostle Paul later said, “I am all things to all people,” (1 Corinthians 9.19-23) he wasn’t confessing to being a soft-spined chameleon but speaking of the need to tailor the message to the moment.

Judgement is all around. Name-calling is our national pastime. Conspiracy theories abound, and may prove to be more than mere theories. Fear of the future and false memories of the past lead us to decisions that do not square with our present reality. So what do we do? What does this moment require of us? This moment in our congregation’s, our country’s life?

One of the things we do, as people of God, is pray for those appointed to leadership over us. Whether we agree with or even like those people, we have a responsibility to them and their welfare.

Another thing we do is change the names we use for one another. The Apostle Paul didn’t address his Athenian audience as “pathetic pagans” but as “extremely religious,” indicating to them that he respected their desires to know God, however misdirected those desires might seem to be.

Jesus didn’t call his disciples “Betrayers” or “Back stabbers” or “Traitors,” even though any of those names would have been accurate. He called them “orphans.” He called them “sheep.” He called them “little children.”

We don’t travel across the globe to address world leaders, as does a president. We don’t stand in great arenas and change the world with only our voices, as did Paul. We are not called upon to die for those who hate us, as did Jesus. But we are called to be in the moment with the word that is needed.

We offer Jesus’ words to frightened followers. “I will not leave you orphaned. I will always come for you. I will love you and you will see me.”

And they will know that protection, that presence, that passion because of us. We are the message in this moment. Speak it well.

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (14 May 2017)

John 14.1-14

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

It’s been home to my family for four generations. I grew up on a story book Iowa farm: a white four-bedroom farmhouse nestled in the middle of a farm yard studded with barns and outbuildings and machinery, teeming with livestock and barn cats and dogs always named “Shep,” surrounded by hundreds of acres of the richest soil in the world. In 1925 my grandparents created that farm from native prairie with a team of horses and a one-bottom wooden plow.  We’ve been working that land, and loving it ever since.

Though I had and have enormous affection for that house and that land, I have not lived there for almost 40 years. That’s why, when my parents first started making noises about moving to town, I was happy to hear it. My brother was already farming the land. The house was too much for my mother to care for. It took them awhile to adjust to the idea of moving to town. To have neighbors so near you could hear them talking in their kitchens in the summer when the windows were open. To park a car inside a building rather than a tractor. But finally they were emotionally ready to make the move.

Until my mother talked on the phone to one of my younger siblings, a sister who lived far away in a beautiful home of her own and who had been mostly uninterested in the discussion about the farmhouse. When Mom indicated that they were looking to buy a house in town, my sister burst into tears. “I won’t have a home anymore! Where will I go!”

That was it. They couldn’t move. It would be another five years before they bought a house in town. I just shook my head.

Today’s gospel reading is among the most read texts in the Bible. I have preached it at countless funerals and read it at even more bedsides. The reason John 14 resonates so deeply is not just its familiarity or the beautiful way it rolls off the tongue and through the heart at funerals  but because it is so honest. It addresses our greatest need and our greatest fear. That need is for home, for a safe place. That fear is homelessness—having no one or nowhere to go.

On the night of his betrayal, Jesus shared what would be a last meal with his disciples. They didn’t know that. They had felt things heating up around Jesus; the buzz in Jerusalem was loud. But that Jesus would be taken from them—because of internal intrigue and by violent means—was beyond their comprehension.

That’s why his simple statement about preparing a place in a house with many rooms elicited such confusion. Had Jesus bought a house? Was he moving? Would he leave a forwarding address?

It was not until after Jesus’ death and resurrection that they would understand his meaning. Jesus would leave them—but not by choice. He would be relocated—from the terra firma to a wooden cross. He would be temporarily homeless, forced to take up lodgings in a borrowed tomb on the edge of town. And, they knew, Jesus would return. Not to retrieve his luggage and pets, but to show them the way. The way home. The way that leads through him.

Jesus knew that his words would be upsetting. It was like starting a potentially explosive conversation at home with, “Now don’t get mad when I tell you this . . .”  He knew they would be troubled. And befuddled. And frightened. “Do not let your hearts be troubled?” Too late, Jesus.

Fear of abandonment is universal, whether we are children lost in a shopping mall or old lovers about to be parted by death. To be separated from those we love is our greatest fear. And Jesus knew it. “Don’t be afraid. Believe me,” he said. We’ll try.

He offered the image of a house, a massive house with rooms enough for all. (I think I spotted that house in Kenilworth a few weeks ago, but maybe not.) Is such a house possible? Does the architect exist who could design it?

Too often this text has been used not only to comfort, but also to divide.

Spoken to his disciples to encourage them, to strengthen them, to extend their vision beyond what they eyes could see, we have turned it upside down until it is no longer a promise about a home but a threat of eviction.

We have taken his words, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” as permission to do religious red-lining, imitating the Chicago bankers and realtors in the 1930’s who decided who might or might not be welcome in a particular neighborhood.

I’ve known Jesus my whole life, and I can tell you that he is not going to erect a not-for-sale sign outside his door just when you walk by.

There was no hidden barb in Jesus’ words, no dog whistle to his followers about who he really loved. He was worried about his disciples. He knew that his disciples would be tempted to fall away or run away, to believe the prevailing rhetoric of those who tried to “talk sense” to them. To disciples who had already abandoned their homes and been abandoned by family Jesus assured them their trust in him was well-placed.  I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life. You will always be home with me.

My parents moved into what we call The Little Red House in Town in 2005, 50 years after they first took up residence in the house in the country. And now, 12 years later, we have emptied The Little Red House to move them to a new home, to a care facility with a room large enough for two beds, two rockers and a wall of family photos.

Some of my siblings struggled as we cleaned out the house in town, dividing up my parents’ possessions. But I did not. It’s not that I’m hard hearted. Every time I visit my hometown I return with a car load of treasures that look like treasures only to me. No, I don’t grieve their move from that house. Because of the direction and adventures of my own life, “home” isn’t a building to me. Home is wherever my little family is. And as deeply grateful as I for the home we have created with each other, I know that one day that home—both the building and the people—will be taken from me, as well.

Where will I go? I will go home to the home I already know. A place you and I can already dwell.

Do not let your hearts be troubled, Jesus said. Home is neither an address nor a person nor where your heart is. Home is where he is.  And he is always here with us.

 

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday in Easter (7 May 2017)

John 10.1-10

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

He lost his job on the factory floor when the plant closed unexpectedly, the owners absconding in the night with both property and pensions. Like the other 300 hundred unemployed-through-no-fault-of-their-own employees there, he found himself dangling precariously with no safety net underneath him. Though angry, frightened and depressed, there was not time to secure either an attorney or a therapist. He had a family to feed, and would do anything to care for them.

Friends offered odd jobs. The church helped out with groceries. The bank was good about the mortgage. But he was a hardworking man who wanted to work. He secured a job with a local plumbing company, doing the jobs nobody else would do. And that’s how he found himself one day standing in six inches of raw sewage in a dank basement working overhead on pipes that leaked into his eyes. He told me later that he paused only briefly on that horrible day to say two things to himself. First: it can’t get any worse than this. Second: something has to change.

I thought of him this week while working with texts for Good Shepherd Sunday. We have so idealized the role of shepherd that it’s a wonder we don’t all leave our jobs to adore ovine where the verdant pastures grow.

But being a shepherd is only a half-step above the work my friend was forced to do. The shepherds whom Jesus would have referenced were illiterate, impoverished and isolated, the butt of jokes and object of scorn. For Jesus to identify himself as “shepherd” was to occupy a station in life almost as humiliating as the one he would adopt at the end of John’s gospel—that of criminal hanging on a cross. By choosing the image of “shepherd,” Jesus chose to stand ankle deep in the world’s refuse, willing to do anything to protect and provide for his sheep.

This gospel reading is a continuation of a conversation that started in John 9, a heated debate around the miracle of the man born blind. Religious leaders were both skeptical of and frightened by Jesus. But the crowds loved him. Who wouldn’t? Jesus could both strengthen the sick and poke the powerful. He was a rock star. To some.

But Jesus didn’t care what they thought of him, or his friends, or his metaphors. Jesus’ shepherd’s ear was not tuned to opinion polls or pundits. Jesus listened always for the voices of those whom no one else could hear, those whom no one else even wanted to hear.

Jesus could easily have strolled right by the man born blind (JN 9) or any of the countless others in John’s gospel who bleated to him for help—a leper (JN 5), a dying child (JN 7), an arthritic woman (JN 13). If you think health care is a huge topic in our time, imagine being ill in the days when sickness was considered punishment for sin and when a simple sore throat could kill. Healing the sick was miracle enough. But noticing them? That was nothing short of scandalous.

It’s nice to imagine sheep as fluffy, round, wooly creatures cavorting in pastures so green they could be ads for Scott’s Weed and Seed. It’s nice to imagine shepherds as steady and stern, leaning stoically on their walking sticks while the cool breeze tossed their flowing locks. If only.

The shepherd didn’t shepherd out of the goodness of his heart. “Shepherd” was the last choice on the Strong Campbell Interest Inventory that high school students endure. The shepherd was contractually responsible to the owner of the flock, tasked with bringing the sheep safely in from pasture when it was time to shear or to slaughter. The shepherd was penalized for any lost sheep and paid poorly for those that survived. It was a job. A job nobody wanted.

It was that job—that thankless, lowly, filthy job that Jesus took. For our sake. Because though we like to imagine ourselves, at best, master and commander, and, at worst, Loveable doofs, we are really just sheep. Easily distracted. Oblivious to danger. Mostly useless. Best served with mint jelly.

Someone needs to look out for us. Someone needs to guide us. Someone needs to protect us from ourselves. Who would take such a job?

His name was Walter. He was a life-long, church-going, Sunday School-teaching Lutheran. A good and kind man. An activist for all sorts of political causes. And he was the first in our area back in the 80’s to admit to a diagnosis of AIDS. His parents begged him not to go public—for his sake and for theirs. But there he was on the evening news, interviewed about his diagnosis, advocating for education, research, health care and compassion.

When his mother went to her pastor (not me) to share her sorrow and confusion, he refused to see her. The parish nurse would not visit in either home or hospital. And when Walter died, the church in which he was baptized refused to bury him. Apparently, it was Walter’s own fault that he was sick, so the church felt no obligation to care for him unless he repented. And it was too late for that.

Without warning or reason, this sheep in desperate need was shunned by the flock, abandoned by the shepherd, victim of the wicked tongues and rolling eyes of those who imagined his sin greater than theirs. Tripped by a leg of haughty lamb, butted aside by the shoulders he longed to lean on.

Wolves are not the greatest danger to the sheep. It’s the other sheep—and sometimes the shepherds—you need to watch out for.

It was for Walter and his parents, for my unemployed friend wading in a basement of shame, for the unjustly accused, for the publicly humiliated, for the intractably poor, for the helpless sinner that Jesus announced, “I am not only a shepherd; I am your shepherd.” Lover of the lost. Friend of the fallen. Shelter in a storm.

When I imagine that Jesus, the Son of God who left the throne of heaven to take the lowest seat among us, I read Psalm 23 in a whole new way.

The shepherd depicted there is forceful and unrelenting. That shepherd makes us lie down. That shepherd leads us down unfamiliar paths. That shepherd doesn’t divert us around trouble but accompanies us through all the shadowed valleys. That shepherd places us in the presence of those who hate us. And on all those unwelcome roads and in that unpleasant company, we know God’s goodness and mercy as abundant as oil flowing over our heads, our cups over full with blessings.

But for Jesus to be our shepherd, we have to be willing to be sheep. We have to admit our weakness, our wariness, our need, our nightmares. We have to submit to the shepherd who has walked every dark path before us, who desires nothing for us but life, in whose blessings we bathe.

You are our Shepherd, Jesus.  Lead us. We just might follow.

 

Third Sunday in Easter

Third Sunday of Easter (30 April 2017)

Luke 24.13-35

JoAnn A. Post 

Now on that same day when Jesus had appeared to Mary Magdalene, two disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.7And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.                                      

When we are walking, doubtful and dreading . . . (Day of Arising, ELW 374)

Long before I wore progressives and as a personal challenge, I picked up Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Before you get too impressed, you need to understand that I wimped out—I read that ancient masterpiece in English rather than in Greek or Latin. I have friends who’ve done so, but that’s just crazy. I expected to be bored, a slave to literary obligation, but instead I could not put it down. Even if you don’t know the details of the story—the Siren’s song, the Cyclops’ eye, the logy Lotus Eaters, the Suitors’ pursuit of dear Penelope, the passionate reunion—I can tell you what it means: love is more powerful than any obstacle heaven or earth can present.

Odysseus, the protagonist, was, for nearly 600 pages and ten years, on a journey, a journey toward home, a journey toward hope. And on the way he nearly lost his way a hundred times, so overcome with fear and longing and weariness.  Blinded by sadness, slowness of heart . . .

Literature is filled with such travelogues—Abraham’s journey toward blessing, Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, The Canterbury Tales and their bawdy pilgrimage adventures,  Ahab’s pursuit of the mythical white whale, a fictional hitchhiker named Arthur Dent who explored the galaxy after earth’s demise, Jon Krakaur’s “Into the Wild.” None of those journeys was easy. None of those paths was straight. And neither will ours be.

This morning we read one of my favorite biblical travel tales—heartbreaking in its pathos, illuminating in its resolution. Two unnamed men, ersatz disciples of Jesus, trudged their way home to Emmaus after a disappointing weekend in Jerusalem. They walked the road of grief so many of us have traversed. But on that dark road they encountered a fellow traveler, his identity hidden from their eyes. We know, because the author lets us in on the conceit, that it is Jesus. But they didn’t know that. Why couldn’t they recognize him? Was he in disguise? Were they so blinded by disappointment they couldn’t see straight? Was the sun setting in their eyes?

For hours they walked along together, the stranger spinning a story of scripture so complex they struggled to keep up. Exhausted, they finally arrived at their exit, the road to Emmaus.

It seemed the stranger wanted to walk on, but only a fool would be on that road in the dark—robbers and wild beasts patrolled the road at night. “Stay with us for night has come.”  In more ways than one.

I could not begin to narrate the story as beautifully as Luke does, so I will not try.  But I can tell you what it means: Yet Christ walks with us, ever awaiting our invitation: stay, do not part.

Only a fool attempts the journey alone. Whether the road we walk is pocked with potholes, populated with predators, or rough as a rollercoaster, it is no place for the solo traveler.

Much has been made of the fact that two disciples walked the Emmaus Road. They were wise men—the temptation in times of trouble is to shun company, to go it alone. But they knew better.

Years ago good friends chose this as the text for their wedding, this text of accompaniment and faith. Dan and Edward had loved one another in the shadows for decades, their commitment deemed illegal and illicit. But when old age and illness threatened to part them, they took courage in the image of Jesus accompanying two nameless men down a dangerous road.

You might consider their interpretation of this text self-serving, even scandalous. But grief is grief; fear is fear; the dark is uniformly dark. Regardless of one’s sexual orientation or marital status or circumstance in life, the longing for a companion in the dark is universal.

The companion we choose, the one who walks with us is Jesus, wounded and raised. Too often he is unrecognized until something happens; the thing that happened in Emmaus at a candle lit supper table. When they invite him, as fades the first day, and bread is broken Christ is made known.

It is not simply duty that draws us together each Lord’s Day, nor is it only habit that causes us to break bread and pour wine.

Not only is it dangerous to travel the road alone, it is difficult to see Jesus until we meet him at the table. The world would have us believe that Jesus is the private property of a particular kind of faith. The world would have us believe that we can have a private relationship with Our Lord and need no one else. The world would have us believe that Jesus loves us only when we live upright and righteous lives.  But none of that is true.

Jesus loves us best when, because we are broken, because he was broken for us. Jesus loves us best when this wine and our tears mingle in a common cup of sorrow and hope. We are our best disciple selves when we accompany one another into the darkness of not knowing, of disappointment, of grief, of doubt. When the church gathers, when bread is broken, there Christ is with us in bread and wine.

Literature is filled with travelogues, epic tales of journeys interrupted by head-scratching dilemmas and hair-raising dangers. But this is our traveling tale, our common story of faith. As the sun sets and darkness gathers, when disappointment or doubt threatens to divert us, we reach for the hand of another. We travel together with Jesus, our often unseen but always present guide, guest and host.

At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, Jesus invites us, sings to us, “Stay with me. I will accompany you through the darkness.”

Second Sunday of Easter

Second Sunday of Easter (23 April 2017)

John 20.19-31

JoAnn A. Post

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

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 that through believing you may have life in his name.

Mimes. That’s what I’ve been thinking about this week. Mimes. Not the French kind dressed in black and white striped prison pajamas with jaunty black chapeau perched atop their pointy little heads.  For some reason, French mimes are always trapped in boxes, athletically, aesthetically struggling to breach invisible walls. Don’t mimes ever just walk around? Are French doors harder to find than American doors?

No, I’ve been imagining 1st century Middle Eastern mimes—grown men in flowing robes and dusty sandals, dark circles under their eyes and knots in their beards. I’m imagining Jesus’ disciples who had neither slept nor eaten in days. Anxious men imprisoned in a dark locked room. Imprisoned by choice. And by fear.

These dumb (as in mute) disciples were not searching for an escape hatch as they might have done in France. They were at each other’s throats, shouting silently at one another, afraid that any noise might alert the authorities to their hiding place. Mutely they accused one another of betrayal and weakness. “What do you mean you never met Jesus?” they hurled wordlessly at Peter. To which Peter mouthed, “But you ran away when they came for Jesus!” While others whispered, “Be quiet or they’ll kill us, too.”

That first Easter night was not the Zen-like harmonious refuge we’ve always imagined. The disciples were scared to death. Their leader was dead. Or was he? They only had each other. Some comfort. The religious and political authorities who had hauled Jesus off might soon be coming for them. That first night was chaotic, fueled with accusation and abject terror. They were speechless.

It was into that nocturnal nightmare that Jesus appeared. I’m guessing he’d been ringing the bell and banging on the door for a while, but the disciples didn’t know if it was Resurrected Jesus, or Roman Soldiers or Papa John. Jesus had to break in, since they wouldn’t let him in.

Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus was a loquacious man, using fifty words when five would have done. But there was a change in Jesus after he was arrested.  Suddenly he had had little to say. The accused Jesus refused to defend himself.  The crucified Jesus received his sentence silently. The resurrected Jesus was similarly taciturn, sparing in speech.  Wading into the murderous scrum of his bedraggled disciples, Jesus whispered, “Peace.”

Or as I would translate it, “Knock it off.”

You’d think his miraculous appearance, his calm demeanor, his evident wounds, his simple teaching would have given the disciples courage, would have restored both their voices and their vocations.

But it didn’t. The disciples were too frightened. Too convinced that it was all over. So, a full week later (nobody knows where Jesus was or what he did during that week) Jesus had to perform the same Houdini routine again. Did Jesus ever get frustrated with his faltering flock?

Jesus again broke their speechless fear with an offer of peace. With the sigh of the Spirit. And with two additional instructions.

Forgive. (Or not.)

Get out of here. (Literally, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.”)

It is at that point that we become speechless.

Peace? With these people?

Forgive?  I don’t think so.

“Go?” It’s simply not safe.

But the most wronged man in human history appeared to his disappointing disciples with three simple instructions: Be at peace. Forgive. Get out of here.

Too often we resemble the disciples on that first Easter night. And the second. We are quick to anger. Slow to forgive. Slower still to go.

Week after week we casually extend a hand of peace to one another, oblivious to the fact that Jesus’ peace is both a personal and a political act. In this time of global tension, the mark of the Easter church is a dogged determination to be at peace. Not to retaliate. Not to win. Not to posture. Not to preen. “Peace to you,” we repeat again and again and again. Our words might not halt hate crimes in America or stem the tide of terrorism in France, but one by one, heart by heart, our prayer for peace will spread.

At our Thursday Bible study one of us said, “You know the hardest part of Sunday for me is when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, the part about forgive our sins as we forgive. I am so not there.” She is not alone.

Jesus said simply, “Forgive or not.” More literally, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

There are no caveats or conditions, no loopholes or lightheartedness. The risen Christ, abandoned by his own disciples and abused by his own religious community, said, “Forgive.” Something he’d already done. For them. And Pilate. And Caiaphas.

Forgive. Regardless of how you feel.

Forgive. Without expectation of an apology.

Forgive. Even if nothing changes.

And if we don’t, if we don’t forgive, if we retain? The sin just sits there. The one who wronged us eternally wronged by us. That’s a heavy burden.

What was the third thing Jesus said? 1. Practice peace. 2. Forgive each other. 3. I send you.

That’s easy. Of course, nobody stays here all week. We all leave the building eventually. “Going” is easy.

But Jesus didn’t say, “Go.” He said, “I send you.” Being sent is an entirely different thing from just walking away.

Jesus sends us into a world that preys on the weak, that betrays its friends, that competes like rats at the garbage can, that delights in the downfall of others, that remembers every wrong.  Disciples don’t go out there willingly. Disciples are sent. We are sent.

Now you know why Jesus’ followers resembled speechless mimes more than the vocal disciples he needed them to be. They hoped that if they laid low, if they kept to themselves, if they kept their mouths shut nobody would notice them. They hoped they could feel their way silently back out into the world as though nothing had happened. But something has. Everything has.

Our Evening Prayer liturgy (ELW 317) concludes with a prayer that my husband and I have prayed at many critical junctures in our life together. It is the prayer of disciples tempted to silence, to smugness, to safety. It is an Easter prayer:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.

The resurrected Jesus appears in our locked lives with words of command. Be at peace. Forgive each other. Go where I send you. Even when you cannot see the way. Or the why. But he knows what he’s talking about. He’s already done it all. For us.

 

 

 

Festival of the Resurrection

Festival of Easter (16 April 2017)

Matthew 28.1-11

JoAnn A. Post

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The shabby storefront on an equally shabby side street kept the tourists away. Only the locals knew about Mario’s, an Italian restaurant named for its founder, chef, maitre d’, bartender, bus boy and, I’m guessing, janitor in the early days. But since then Mario’s has grown and prospered. Mario no longer cooks, cleans and cashes out. He only greets. Calling us each by name.

I didn’t realize how often we frequented that unassuming little place when we lived in Dubuque until one night the waitress said, “Your booth is empty. Shall I bring your drinks now?” We never saw a menu after that—they knew our order by memory (carbonara for me). And Mario always came by the table with hugs and sometimes, when the girls were little, free spumoni.

Were there other restaurants in Dubuque, IA? Could we have been more adventurous eaters? Was Mario’s Italian food mind-blowingly good?  Yes. Yes. No. But, without making a conscious choice, any time we needed a night away from my own kitchen we found ourselves at Mario’s.

We only know what we know. We only see what we see. We only want what we want. Though it seems the whole world is addicted to novelty, the next new thing, in fact, we mostly hate surprises. In restaurants. And in life.

That’s why the guards at the tomb “became like dead men.” That’s why both the angels and our risen Lord instructed the women “Do not be afraid.” They hadn’t expected any surprises—or scares—at Jesus’ garden tomb.

Both the guards and the women knew what they knew. They knew that dead is dead.

Both the guards and the women saw only what they saw. They saw an empty tomb and were ready to walk away.

Both the guards and the women wanted only what they wanted. The guards wanted to clock out after the (literal) graveyard shift. The women wanted to grieve in peace.

But God knows more than we know. God sees more than we see. God wants more for us that we even dare to ask.

That’s why the angels, and Matthew and Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid.” God’s dreams for us are so far beyond anything we can imagine, dreams so unsettling as to be frightening. It’s the Easter way.

But if all we know, if all we see, if all we want is what we already know, see, want, how bleak, how dark, how truly frightening our lives would be.

Years ago good friends grieved the death of their daughter in a car accident. They were so stunned by sorrow, I didn’t know if they would survive. They have never fully recovered, but little by little, day by day the load became a little lighter. Until the day my friend called in a panic, almost a year after Maggie’s death. “I didn’t cry today. I didn’t cry for Maggie today. I didn’t think about her until just now. What sort of horrible mother am I?” And then she began to sob.

Since the moment the state trooper had appeared at the door, all she knew was the silence that used to be her daughter’s voice. All she saw was an empty chair at the kitchen table. All she wanted was to have her Maggie back. She had grown so accustomed to that wrenching routine that when the grief lifted, even for a day, she was plunged back into it, almost worse than before.

What would, what could life be like if we left that empty tomb behind and stepped into the light of God’s future? For fear of the possibility of life, our grieving friends shook and became like dead men, like the cemetery guards. Like the women. Like us. Immobilized by what they couldn’t understand, what they had not seen coming, what they really didn’t want.

Today we welcome young Matthew to the Lord’s Table. He does not take this step lightly. Matthew thinks everything through with great care; he crafts precise questions and refuses easy answers; he immerses himself in new ideas and experiences. In preparation for this day, not only did he pour over the study materials with his parents and sister, he joined our Altar Guild. He wanted to know everything about this thing we call “The Lord’s Supper.” Even what happens to the crumbs and the lipstick stained cups.

There is both a caution and a curiosity in Matthew’s nature, a small amount of fear and a growing faith. He could choose not to try new things, not to open an unfamiliar door, not to venture a next step. But he has learned here, and from his family to trust even when he is afraid. To believe that though he cannot see everything ahead God is out there waiting. Inviting him not only to the table, but to full, adventurous, generous life.

Four times Matthew, the gospel writer, tells us that there was much to fear on that first Easter day. But, after initial hesitation, the women put the tomb in the rearview mirror and ran toward life they could not yet imagine.

They did not know where they were going. They could not see more than one step ahead of them. They didn’t even know what to ask for when they got there. But they decided not to be afraid. To trust the promise of life ahead, rather than cling to the familiarity of death behind.

Easter did not happen only once, in a borrowed Middle Eastern grave in the 1st century. Easter happens every time God calls to us from what we think we know, what we dimly see, what we begrudgingly want. God calls us to step away from the familiar tombs in which we are buried to take a new step, dare a new idea, brave a new life. Perhaps even a new love.

Mario’s has changed since we left Dubuque 12 years ago. We learned after we left that Mario had a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and unable to speak. I assumed I would never see him again. But when last I drove through and stopped for dinner, Mario was there. Seated at the bar with a walker in front of him. When he saw me his eyes lit up and he opened his arms for a hug and a kiss. There were no words between us. Carbonara is no longer on the menu. But Mario is alive and I ordered something new.

Sometimes we have to be forced to think differently, see farther, want more. Sometimes someone else has to roll the stone away, crushing our fear beneath it.

Easter opens the door to a life so other than what we know it frightens us. But there is nothing to fear. “Go on ahead,” Jesus says to disciples. “I’ll be there to meet you.”

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday (13 April 2017)

John 13.1-17, 31b-35

JoAnn A. Post

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”


After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If 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.”

Last Sunday morning, as we gathered nonchalantly in the brilliant Palm Sunday sunshine, our Coptic brothers and sisters were wailing and tending to the dead—Palm Sunday worshippers in Tanta and Alexandria, Egypt attacked by suicide bombers in the middle of worship. I am surprised we did not hear their cries.

On Monday evening just before sundown the sidewalks in my Northbrook neighborhood were filled with black-cloaked walkers—our Jewish neighbors walking to one another’s homes for the first night of Passover. As the sun set they lit candles, recited ancient prayers and remembered another violent event—the violence of the first Passover when they were freed from slavery, and many Egyptians died.

I wonder if, in Tanta and Alexandria, Passover celebrations are a bit more muted this year, burdened by the grief of their Christian brothers and sisters.

Much of the life of faith involves great drama. Remember the parting of the Red Sea? Remember the battles necessary to claim the Promised Land? Remember the angry face-offs between Jesus and the Religious Right of Jerusalem? Remember the persecution of the early Christians? Remember the Thirty Years War? Remember the event we will recall tomorrow evening—the brutal murder of the Son of God? Our common history is marked by both shouts of joy and screams of pain.

But not tonight. Not here. Tonight is unlike all other nights.

Tonight we kneel.  Tonight we wash. Tonight we remember. Why?

Because some of the most important things in our lives happen not in the light of day or with flying fists or angry voices or exploding devices, but in sighs and tears that only God can know.

Tonight’s liturgy began with an acknowledgement that we have all sinned—against God, against our neighbors, against ourselves. We have done foolish things and failed to do kind things. We condemn in others the very things we do ourselves. We have been unfaithful in a hundred ways. But we did not shout that confession, nor did we shout the words of forgiveness. Those words, both of repentance and mercy, were meant not for the world, but for God’s ears and our wounded hearts.

In a moment we invite you to wash one another’s feet.  When I was a child growing up on the farm, we spent most summer days running barefoot through the woods and fields. By nighttime our feet were filthy. Rather than giving each of us a bath or shower (that luxury was reserved for Saturday nights), my mother lined us up on the edge of the bathtub like birds on a wire. We paddled our dirty toes in a few inches of warm water while she patiently moved from foot to foot with a cloth, scrubbing the day’s play away. It was a quiet time. We were tired. She was tired. It was an act of humble service, as Christ-like a moment as I’ve ever known.

On the night of his betrayal, Jesus gave bread and wine to his disciples with the words, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this to remember me.” So we do. Tonight we remember Jesus’ dying love for sinners. Not with parades of palms or shouts around the cross, but with beggars’ hands extended and the promise, “For you. This is for you.”

In other parts of our city, our country, our world, there is noise tonight. More gunshots will be fired in Chicago. More bombs will be dropped on Syria and Afghanistan. Protestors in Venezuela, refugees in Kenya, starving children in Sudan, mourners in Egypt fill the night air with grief and anger.  Tomorrow we will gather around a cross, scene of barbarism and fear. Tomorrow we will hear the enemies of love raise their voices against Jesus.

But not tonight.

On Monday evening, the youngest child in Jewish homes all over the world asked the first Passover question, “How is this night different from all other nights?”

We know the answer.

Tonight we kneel. Tonight we wash. Tonight we remember.

 

 

 

 

Passion Sunday

Sunday of the Passion (9 April 2017)

Matthew 26.14-27.66

JoAnn A. Post

Many attempts have been made to name the One in whose name we have gathered today.

The prophet Isaiah, writing not about Jesus, but about the people of Israel four centuries before Jesus, (Isaiah 50.4-9a) used the name “Suffering Servant” to describe those who, for God’s sake, suffer abuse and shame. It is uncanny how precisely Isaiah’s ancient prophecy suits the circumstance in which Jesus will find himself in Jerusalem.

The people of Jerusalem poured into the streets at the sight of Jesus riding into town. Not as a king in a chariot or on a litter, but astride a donkey whose unweaned colt trotted along beside. And what name did they use? The name that would get Jesus killed. They called him, “Son of David,” “the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 21.1-11) The sight of the masses stripping both palm trees and themselves to line the road put all Jerusalem into an uproar.

But we know how the story goes.

Only days after the palm procession crowds will gather again, not to celebrate, but to spit. And they will call him names then, too. Mocking names. From Judas: “Rabbi!” From Caiaphas, “Tell us if you are the Messiah!”  Servants around a fire called Jesus “The Galilean,” and “That man.”  Time  and again—15 times all told— they try to find the name to describe him, the name that will stick. Even Pilate’s wife, herself unnamed, upon hearing the crowds shouting outside her husband’s office rushed to him to warn him about “That innocent man.”

Who is this Jesus who makes kings quake and soldiers spit and priests pronounce judgement? Is he the Suffering Servant of whom Isaiah wrote?

Is he the Messiah for whom they had waited?

Is he an imposter, as the temple guards accuse?

No, there is only one name that is true today. The name given in his baptism.  (Matthew 3.13ff) The name affirmed in the transfiguration. (Matthew 17.1ff) The name uttered by a nameless soldier, shaken not only by an earthquake but also by faith, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

And that is the name that prompted a 1st century hymn writer in Philippi to pen, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2.10)

Choose a name, any name for Jesus. A name inspired by faith or dripping with doubt. But in his dying and in his rising, he is known by the name no one else has ever borne. The name feted by mortals on earth and praised by the angels of heaven.

King on a cross, lover of sinners, friend of the friendless. At the end of the day. At the end of the reading. At the end  of our lives, he is Jesus, Truly, the Son of God.

Read it for yourself.