Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (22 May 2022)

“Resurrection Repercussions”

JoAnn A. Post

Acts 16.9-15

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.

Since 1935, Iowa has been testing its students’ basic skills. Not the “basic skills” one would expect in a state known for livestock and field crops—skills like milking cows and slopping hogs, walking beans and baling hay.  Iowa children inherit those skills along with a predilection for dry humor and coffee so thick it doesn’t need a cup.

No, the basic skills on which Iowa children are tested are vocabulary, listening, language, mathematics, social studies, science. We are an educated lot, we Ioweigans.  I love the Iowa Basic Skills test. I’ve always been competitive—even in grade school. But more than that, I’ve always loved words. I was reading Madeleine L’Engle and James Michener in second grade. I learned to read by decoding the backside of The Des Moines Register while my mom read the front. I’ve always loved words.

So, if you marry my killer instinct with my logophilia, you understand my passion for word tests. My favorite section of the Iowa Basic Skills? Reading comprehension. And further down that already-nerdy rabbit hole, I most loved “decoding contextual clues.” Trying to figure out from the text itself what a new word meant, a character’s motivation, imagining what might happen next.

I’ve never lost that investigative passion. That’s probably why I love scripture study so much. It’s the world’s biggest word test—centuries old, written in many languages by many authors, culturally bound. What does it mean?

During the Easter season we’ve been living in the 1st century with the apostles who carried news of Jesus and his resurrection to all corners of the then-known world. We so rarely spend any time in the book of Acts, with these characters, its been like six weeks of speed dating for me. (Though perhaps not as exhilarating for you.)

This week’s edition of Resurrection Repercussions presents a real puzzle and offers lots of contextual clues.

Who was the elusive “man from Macedonia” and how did Paul know he was from Macedonia?

How long did it take to sail from Troas to Neapolis, and then to walk to Philippi, and why did they stop there?

Why wasn’t Paul in synagogue on the sabbath?

What made them assume there was a place of prayer at the river?

What god or God did this “certain woman named Lydia” worship?

Just how wealthy was the she? After all, purple cloth was reserved for royals and generals.

Did she ask to be baptized or was baptism foisted on her and her household? And what sort of baptism was it?

So many clues.

But most curious is that, of all the encounters Paul and the apostles had as they journeyed on Jesus’ behalf, the writer of Acts would remember Lydia. Among hundreds of encounters, she is one of only six women named.

Why Lydia? This worshipper of god/God. This dealer in purple goods. This generous host. How does her life add to the story, multiply the ministry, extend the gospel, witness to the resurrection?

Women were not given starring roles in the 1st century. They were always “supporting actors,” providing services—lodging, clothing, financing, intel—to the men who got top billing.

Even given the restrictions of her era, Lydia was different from the other “supporting actors.” Time and again she opened her home to Paul and other evangelists. Without Lydia, the ministry in Greece would have lasted about five minutes. But it was her, her curiosity and kindness, her wealth and business sense that made the ministry happen.

Lydia is like so many women in our own lives who make our lives possible, but who never stand in the spotlight.

I don’t know at what point we consider a “girl” a “woman.” When does that language shift take place? (Of course, in some parts of the country, you’re a girl until the day you die. Hey, Girl!) Words are funny that way. Regardless of the age or the designation, we have all looked to women for inspiration, strength and support.

Two such women inspire us today. A few contextual clues.

Both AudreyAnn and Paige were baptized here, and are being raised by parents and baptismal sponsors and grandparents who do right by them everyday.

Both Paige and AudreyAnn live full lives of family and school and sports and friends—and faith. Not all women their age care about faith.

Both AudreyAnn and Paige are filled with questions. Why do we do that? What does that mean? When will that happen? Their curiosity far exceeds our ability to answer.

And both Paige and AudreyAnn will, today, commit to strong words and even stronger actions: affirmation, profession, renunciation, covenant.

We will pray powerful words over them: enlighten, nourish, uphold, stir up, confirm, guide, empower.

And we will today, test their basic skills.

When they were baptized, their parents and baptismal sponsors promised to raise them among God’s faithful people, teach them to love the Word of God and Holy Communion, model lives filled with good words and good deeds, live lives of service, justice and peace.

It was a lot to ask of young parents; even more to expect of infants in arms. It sounds like an impossible position description. But, for those of us who claim to be Jesus’ disciples, we know that these are the fundamental principles, the core concepts, the root from which all else spring. These are our basic skills. Which are tested every day of their lives, as they are in ours.

I know that I would have learned to read—eventually. But it was my mother’s example that made me to want to read so young, want to be like her. She taught me that reading is one of life’s most basic and essential skills.

I know that AudreyAnn and Paige might have come to faith on their own—eventually. But it is the example of their parents and grandparents, their baptismal sponsors that makes them want to be faithful. That makes them want to care for others, love this place and these people.

This morning, we gather at the river with Lydia—dealer in purple goods and host of the gospel—on whose hospitality, the simplest of gifts, all the gospel depends.

This morning, we gather at the river with AudreyAnn and Paige—whose curiosity causes us to question.

This morning we gather at the river with disciples of every language, every age, every orientation and identity, every ability.

Because together we live among God’s faithful people, welcome the stranger, ask the hard questions.  After all, these are, for Jesus’ disciples, the most basic of skills.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (15 May 2022)

“Resurrection Repercussions”

JoAnn A. Post

Acts 11.1-8

Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So, when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 

Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 

“At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 

When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying,

“Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

We think we know. We think we can discern hidden meaning, find elusive clues, suss out secret motives. We think we’re smarter than everybody.

A friend of Asian descent is routinely shouted at, “Go back where you came from!” If he could be certain the person who profiled him was not also armed, he would love to respond, “Where I came from? Omaha?”

A woman of my acquaintance, large of frame and thick around the middle, has lost count of how many strangers have inquired about her due date. The last time she was pregnant, Richard Nixon was in the White House.

Many years ago, after a grisly murder in a town where I served as pastor, I addressed the grief and fear from the pulpit the following Sunday. A guest at the door afterward pumped my hand and gushed, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Finally, a pastor who supports the death penalty.”

We think we know. We think we can discern hidden meaning, find elusive clues, suss out secret motives. We think we’re smarter than everybody. Sometimes, smarter even than God.

We’ve been living in the 1st century here at Ascension for all of the Easter season. We’ve been peeking into the synagogues and living rooms, the judges’ chambers and jail cells of the earliest Christians. Trying to understand what it meant to them that Jesus was raised from death. Trying to grasp their thought process as they shaped the gospel message. Trying to draw a line from their faith communities to ours.

We discovered that the Apostle Peter traveled with a healing shadow.

We discovered that Saul, persecutor of the church, became Paul, its chief defender.

We discovered that the voices and generosity of women were critical to the growth of the church.

What will we discover today? We will learn that even the giants of the faith make the same stupid mistakes we do. This week we learn that Peter thought he was smarter than God.

A little background. Step by step.

The first followers of Jesus Christ were Jewish; they attended synagogue; they lived by the rules first given to Moses in the desert thousands of years before. Think about it. There were no Christians before Christ.

That’s why some of the most bitter disputes in the early church were about the relationship between Jewish law and Jesus’ teachings.

For example, the first male Christians, because they were jewish, were all circumcised. The general population was not. There’s nothing wrong with circumcision; it simply wasn’t common.

For example, the first Christians, because they were jewish, obeyed kosher food laws—shell fish and pork were forbidden, as were some food combinations and manners of preparation. The general population did not observe those laws. There’s nothing wrong with kosher food laws; it’s just that they weren’t widely observed.

For example, the first Christians, because they were jewish, believed Jesus, also Jewish, belonged to them. As had Moses. The general population was not to be included or invited. They probably wouldn’t want to anyway.

Seems foolish to us, small-minded, but these debates about circumcision and food and welcome were huge. And, in some ways, not so foreign to us.

That brings us to this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

When we left Peter, he had resuscitated a seamstress and benefactor from Joppa named Dorcas. Rather than stay in her palatial home, Peter chose to bunk for a time with a certain Simon, a tanner, in his smelly seaside home.

While in Joppa, Peter had a vision which he recounted in Acts 11, where we are today.

Step-by-step, he recounted a fantastic, life and church-changing event to the leaders of the Jerusalem church, who were more than a little skeptical.

“I looked, and something like a huge sheet was lowered from the sky. In the sheet were four-footed animals, reptiles, birds, beasts of prey. A voice told me, ‘kill and eat.’ I refused. After all, some of those creatures are forbidden.”

Three times the vision came to him, until finally, by the third time, salivating and confused, Peter got the point.

What was the point? That previously-forbidden foods were suddenly on the dinner menu? That kosher food laws no longer applied?

No, the point was that Peter thought he was smarter than God.

How do I know that? A close reading of the text indicates that that enormous sheet contained both forbidden and allowed foods. That nestled beside the four-footed pigs (forbidden) were four-footed cows (lawful). That fluttering in the sheet were turkey vultures (forbidden) and turkeys (lawful). That the sheet contained all manner of created beings—some kosher and some not.

Peter had to receive the vision three times to get the point. Because Peter clearly thought God was a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Had God, who had personally delivered these laws to Moses, grown daft? Could God no longer tell a slab of bacon from a standing rib roast? Did God need to be reminded about what it meant to be faithful? Was God mistaken?

No, it was Peter who was mistaken. He thought he could read God’s mind, that he could tell proper from improper, lawful from unlawful, helpful from dangerous. Instead, in this vision, God reasserted authority, saying that now, anything/everything—fish and fowl, hooved and horned—was lawful.

Immediately after the three-fold vision, Peter was summoned to “come quickly” to a home in Caesarea, 36 miles away. He was summoned to the home of a Gentile, a non-Jew, who wanted to know more about Jesus. Peter, without question and because of the vision, baptized the man and his whole family. And then he stayed for dinner. I wonder what was on the menu.

As Peter recounted the vision and its consequences to the skeptical interrogators in Jerusalem who had summoned him for a talking-to, he concluded, “It is not ours to make distinctions. Among animals. Among birds. Among people. After all, what God has made clean, you must not declare unclean.” (Acts 10.15)

As they shook their heads in disapproval, Peter parlayed a line of argument he had first heard from a pharisee named Gamaliel, back in Acts 5. Gamaliel had said to his brother Pharisees, “If this Jesus business is a human invention, it will die. But if it is of God—look out.”

Similarly, Peter announced, “If God sent me to Gentiles to eat and baptize, who am I to stand in God’s way?”

Though Peter won that particular round, the fight flared up again and again in the early church, as believers tried to second-guess Peter. And God.

To this day, though we no longer argue about pork and beef, we try to second-guess God, make distinctions among ourselves, determine who is clean and who is not, who is welcome and who is not, what is proper and what is not. We imagine that God thinks about the world the way we do. That God votes the way we do. That God hates the people we do.

I hate to break it to you, but to quote Peter, “Who are we to make distinctions? To stand in God’s way. If it’s good with God, it’s good with me.”

I grew up in a bustling country church in north central Iowa. Back in those days, when dinosaurs walked the earth, first communion was offered only after we were confirmed, which happened only after we had finished ninth grade.

A family in our congregation had a daughter who was born with severe physical and cognitive differences. In spite of her differences, she was part of everything we did at church. Sunday School. Bible School. Children’s Choir. Hay rides in the fall and sledding parties in the winter. She was different in some ways, but exactly like us in others. We drew no distinctions.

When it came time for confirmation and first communion, at the end of what would have been her ninth-grade year in public school, her parents made an appointment with the pastor, as did all the confirmands’ parents, to talk about the process.

We later learned that the pastor was surprised at the request. And then firm. “She can’t be confirmed. She can’t receive the Lord’s Supper. She doesn’t understand what it means. Look at her.”

Perhaps you saw the fireball exploding over the parsonage from here.

On confirmation day she donned the white robe, wore the red carnation, sang with the confirmation choir, and received the laying on of hands. The following week she received the Lord’s Supper.

God makes no distinctions. Even if we do. Or try to.

Distinctions drawn in the early church seem quaint, even small-minded to us now. But we are no different.

Sadly, two things have never changed in the church.

First, we still think we know better than God, that sometimes God needs to be reminded of the rules.

 Second, God keeps pushing our limits, challenging our distinctions, questioning our questions.

Even at this moment, there are people in the world who, if they walked into our sanctuary, would be met with a gasp. And there are some who would never attempt to enter these doors because they can’t risk the rejection.

Some time ago, I did a funeral here for a man who had been murdered by a family member. It was a horrible circumstance. The funeral was small. The worshippers were rough. They were also terribly poor.

During the reception following, I watched the widow of the deceased study the room. Her fingers grazed the smooth table top. Her hand rested lightly on an upholstered chair. She cradled her China coffee cup as though it were made of eggshells. She said to me, “I’ve never been anywhere so nice. I’ve never seen such nice things. You’ve been very kind, but I could never go to church here. It’s too nice.”

Though we made no distinction, she did. It broke my heart. I never saw her again.

We think we know. Instead, we are known. By God, who makes no distinctions. And who will not let us stand in the way.

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter (8 May 2022)

“Resurrection Repercussions”

JoAnn A. Post

Acts 9.36-43

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 

Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 

This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

Dr. Strange. Sorcerer Supreme, protecting earth from mystical threats.

ElastiGirl. Superhumanly flexible, able to expand and contract at will.

Black Panther. Ruler of Wakanda and protector of worldwide peace.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Delivering vigilante justice to the streets of New York City, in a radioactive, sewer kind of way.

Superheroes. What would we do without them? Where would we be? If Dr. No had defeated James Bond. If Khan had outwitted Commander Kirk. If Prince Humperdink had out-fenced Inigo Montoya.

Superheroes. With superpowers. If only they were real.

Our lives are far more ordinary. Our “powers” mundane. And sometimes it’s hard to the heroes from the villains. On screen and in daily life.

That’s why, as we continue our post-resurrection journey through the book of Acts, it is comforting to encounter ancient superheroes, the (mostly) men who protected and furthered the spread of the gospel.

Two weeks ago, we learned that Peter, formerly a meh disciple, had been transformed by the resurrection glow into a super healer—his shadow alone could cure the sick. (Acts 5)

Last week the baddest of the bad, the pharisee Saul, was knocked to his knees by a vision of Jesus. In a flash of light, Saul became Paul and was transformed from assassin to apostle. (Acts 9)

Together, Paul and Peter, are credited for making the good news of Jesus Christ go viral. If not for them, we might not be here.

While it would be comforting to imagine there are disciples with super powers roaming the planet today, feeding the hungry, forgiving sinners, negotiating peace, healing the sick, it would be only imagining. The real heroes, the people who perform daily, mostly-unnoticed miracles are rarely seen, often unnamed. And certainly not under contract with Marvel Studios.

We meet such an unlikely hero with an unusual super power this morning. One of the few women given top billing in the book of Acts, and one of even fewer women who is named. She must have been something.

Here’s what we know. A wealthy weaver, seamstress and tailor named Dorcas (Tabitha to the locals) lived in big house on the Northshore of Joppa. We don’t know if Tabitha was single, married or widowed. We don’t know if she inherited her wealth or worked for it. But we know that besides being wealthy (her house had an “upstairs,” after all—a rarity in her time), she was wildly generous. In addition to designing and sewing couture gowns for the Met Gala, she clothed the poor in her community. Widows who would otherwise have been threadbare wore fine threads every day.

That’s why Tabitha’s unexpected and unexplained death created such a stir. That’s why, people who had heard about Peter’s healing shadow begged him to come. Without their creative benefactor Tabitha, many lives would have been thrown into chaos.

But what could Peter do? Healing the sick, which he could do, was a far cry from raising the dead, which no one but Jesus had ever done. Obediently, he traveled the sixteen miles from Lydda to Joppa, where he was immediately escorted to the master suite on the second floor of Tabitha’s fabulous home. There, they showed him the lifeless body of the woman who had protected so many from poverty. As proof of her goodness and generosity, the widows who loved her wept and showed him garment after garment, tunics and shawls and blankets and clothing she had given them.

Apparently, Tabitha’s skill with the loom was superseded only by her generosity.

Peter ordered the weeping widows from the room. He needed to think.

Recognizing the multi-level loss Tabitha’s death created, he did something he’d not done before. He prayed not for the power to heal, but for the power to restore life, to restore breath. I wonder if he hesitated before asking Tabitha to wake. I wonder if he wondered if maybe he had reached the end of his own super powers.

But, at the sound of her name, Tabitha opened one eye. In a funny little sidenote, the writer says, “Seeing that it was Peter, she got up.” Had it been Santa Claus or the next-door neighbor she would have stayed dead?

Giving her his hand, as though escorting her to the ball, Peter helped Tabitha to her feet. And gave her back to her community.

Of course, this was not a resurrection, like Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus lived to never die again. His is the resurrection toward which we all press when our own lives end. No, the miracle performed for Tabitha—and her community—was a resuscitation, a revival, a dramatic but temporary measure. After all, Tabitha would one day die for good. But not that day. She was too central to her community’s life to be taken from them that day. She—and they—needed to breathe.

How these biblical miracles happened. Why some were healed or resuscitated and others were not. Why there are no super-disciples roaming among us. I have no idea.

But I know that, though Peter and Paul get lots of deserved press and credit, the gospel of Jesus Christ was and is furthered by a host of ordinary disciples with “superpowers” we take for granted.

A silly example. I stole a few days right after Easter to flew to Durham to visit my older daughter and grandson. On a stroll through the Duke Gardens, I remarked to my daughter that people seemed so happy. Everyone we met on the paths was smiling. And then I realized that, running ahead of us, was our little Theodore James, in his matching shark hat and shoes. Theo would stick his pudgy little hand out at people coming toward him and chirp “Hello!” before running on ahead.

It’s not that North Carolinians are freakishly friendly. It’s that a two-year-old greeted them with a smile and a wave.

The toddler’s superpower—to make even grumpy grown-ups smile.

But, as Jesus’ disciples, we are called to more than just a toddler’s random acts of cuteness. We are called to be like Tabitha, who used all means at her disposal—wealth, business acumen, skill, hospitality—to provide for those too poor, too sad, too lonely to provide for themselves.

What is your superpower, O disciple of Jesus? What is the gift you give, perhaps without thinking about it, that conveys the promise of life to those who are otherwise dead?

It may take a minute. We typically don’t consider things we do easily “gifts.” “It’s just what I do,” we will say when people remark about our actions. But not everyone can do what you do. What is that God-given, Jesus-raised, Tabitha-like witness that you offer?

This morning two young disciples witness to the power of God to feed and nourish. Joseph and Magdalen will join us at the table for the first time today. They are being schooled in the faith not only here, but also at a local Catholic school where, in addition to math and reading, they are learning to be disciples. Yesterday, they received their First Communion with classmates. So today is, technically, their Second Communion.

They will extend their hands for the bread and wine, confident that Jesus loves them, feeds them, would even die for them. Their confidence inspires those of us who are jaded, who mutter about this-and-that, wafer/wine/blahblahblah. Joseph and Maggie remind those of us who have forgotten, that Jesus loves sinners. That Jesus feeds the hungry. That Jesus calls disciples of every age. It is their superpower. If only they had capes.

What is the super power granted to you, O disciple of Jesus Christ? Perhaps, like Tabitha, you weave protection around those in danger. Or listen to the lonely. Or perform difficult takes without complaint. Or make music that delights the soul. There are many such powers.

And, if that is too difficult a question (we lowly Lutherans would hate to brag) try this. What is the kindness extended to you, the forgiveness offered you, the new way of thinking opened to you by another disciple? How has Jesus’ resurrection opened the tomb in which you have been locked away? What is the word that raises you from what looks a lot like death?

Is there a Peter in your life? A Tabitha? Or perhaps even a Simon—the much-maligned tanner mentioned at the end of the text, who opened his home on the wrong side of the tracks to Peter. Couldn’t Peter have stayed with Tabitha for a few days—surely, she had a guest room.

But though it may not seem like a gift to us—to sleep downwind from enormous kettles boiling animal hides—it must have been. That unlikely Airbnb sheltered one of the greatest preachers in human history. Simon, a certain tanner, briefly shared the spotlight with a man who could breathe life into the dead.

There are occasional super heroes among us. I give thanks for those who negotiate peace in places of war. At those who, at the risk of great personal danger, create safe passage for refugees. At those who, also in spite of great danger, speak the truth of our world. But such superheroes—negotiators, aid workers, journalists—are rare.

Instead, most of us muddle through our days just doing the best we can. Perhaps never recognizing that, when we carry Jesus’ name, even our smallest actions, our simplest words, have the power to heal.

“Tabitha, get up,” Peter invited. She rose to wield her super powers for another day.

“Disciples, get up,” the resurrected Christ invites. The world needs our super powers, as well.

We may not be oak trees, deeply rooted, shouldering the world.

We are seeds, sprouting for a season, proof that even when all seems dead, life is possible. Get up.

Third Sunday of Easter

“Resurrection Repercussions”

Third Sunday of Easter (1 May 2022)

JoAnn A. Post

Acts 9.1-20

Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 

So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

A long-time family friend went through a divorce back in the days when divorce was not something nice people did. Overnight, this lovely woman, formerly married and welcome in every home was a divorced social pariah. No more invitations to the neighborhood card club or Sunday lunch. No more long phone conversations on the party line. Did people think divorce was contagious? Was she a threat to their marriages? Had she committed an unforgiveable sin? Regardless of the reason, she was dead to them.

A high school classmate, in a dark time in his life, was swept up in an FBI sting operation propositioning teenage girls on-line. He admitted to his crimes. He served his sentence. He took rehab very seriously. He agreed to and abided by the terms of his forever-status as a sexual predator. But when he came home, the locals were not having it. Backs were turned in the café when he stopped by for a cup of coffee. “We’re hiring!” signs disappeared from windows when he stopped to inquire. Though the legal system had released him, public opinion never would.

An important community leader in a previous parish, both respected and loved, fell from his pedestal fast and hard. We woke one morning to news that he had been arrested on charges of embezzling from a local non-profit on whose board he served. He publicly apologized, admitted to his crimes, repaid the money and did his time. But one of the patriarchs of the congregation, stomped his foot and bellowed, “I don’t care if God himself forgives this weasel. I never will!” He was not alone.

Shunning is nothing new. Whether we have violated a social norm or committed a crime, there are some who will never forget, never forgive. And who knows, maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe some conditions, some crimes, some betrayals render us forever wrong, forever dangerous, forever shunned.

This morning in Acts 9, we meet two who experienced exactly the sort of shunning my family’s friend and my high school classmate and that fallen-from-grace community leader suffered. Are either of this morning’s social pariahs sympathetic characters? Can either of them be trusted ever again?

Of course, the first “villain” we met in the reading was a man named Saul, whom we will later know by his new Christian name “Paul.” In some high flying religious circles, he was a hero. An Ivy-league educated canon lawyer serving in the Jerusalem temple, son of a another storied attorney, his word was law. Literally.

After the death of the man named Jesus, Saul took it upon himself to rid the world of any remnants of this rebel. Beginning in Jerusalem and travelling north into the hill country, he obtained no-knock warrants for anyone suspected of having been a Jesus sympathizer.

The temple authorities gave him unbridled license to track down, arrest, bind, imprison and, in some circumstances, execute any who might have even thought about believing in Jesus. Saul was a hero—rooting out religious corruption and protecting the purity of the faith.

But, it seems Saul had also captured the imagination of the resurrected Jesus, whose memory Saul hoped to eradicate. While traveling with his posse north to Damascus, a vision of Jesus exploded around him. Thrown to the ground, Saul covered his face and whimpered, “What do you want with me?”

The voice boomed, “This is Jesus. Maybe you’ve heard of me. Get up and go into the city. I have plans for you.”

Scratching at his suddenly blinded eyes he was led, stumbling and sightless, to Damascus where, in a dramatic three-day conversion, Saul came to believe that Jesus was, in fact, the Christ, the Son of God, the one for whom all Israel had waited.

Isn’t it nice when a story has a happy ending?

But, the story is not over. And it’s not happy.

There is another suddenly suspicious character I want you to meet. Shortly after accosting Saul on the Damascus Road, Jesus approached another man in similar fashion—a man named Ananias, of whom we will never hear again. Ananias was a leader of the Christians in Damascus, certainly on Saul’s most wanted list. Jesus’ ask of Ananias was as startling as what Jesus had asked Saul. “Ananias. You know Saul? Persecutor of my people? He’s a changed man. He believes in me. I want you to go to him and teach him. He will do important work in my name.”

Ananias was horrified. Terrified. He couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be safe. Saul was not to be trusted. What if it was a trap?

But you can only say “no” to Jesus for so long. Eventually, Ananias did as he was told. He found the home on Straight Street where Saul was recovering from his ordeal, laid hands on him, removed the scales from his eyes, baptized him, and welcomed him to teach in the local synagogue.  

There is no corollary for the scandal raised the day Ananias and Saul walked into the synagogue. For a disciple whom they trusted—Ananias—to collude with the pharisee whom they feared—Saul, was outrageous. You might as well welcome the Imperial Wizard of the KKK to engineer the Underground Railroad. It was just that wrong.

Did the local Christians ever come to trust Saul’s conversion?

Did the local Christians ever forgive Ananias’ collusion?

No, they elevated shunning to a whole new level.

 But it wasn’t only the followers of Jesus who were suspicious about Saul’s motives. Saul’s temple-attending law partners back in Jerusalem were stunned. The scribes and rabbis were horrified. Had Saul really betrayed them, and his temple roots; had he really gone over to the dark Jesus side?

If you were to keep reading after the portion of Acts we read this morning, you will have your questions answered.

Acts 9.23: “The Jews plotted to kill Saul—watching the city gates day and night in order to capture him.”

Acts 9.26: “When Saul came to Jerusalem, he tried to join Jesus’ disciples, but they were afraid of him, and did not believe his change of heart.”

Saul wasn’t welcome anywhere. Among Jews. Among Christians. For all of his career, the mistrust never abated.

In fact, in a sad end note, Saul/Paul story’s did not have a happy ending. He was martyred for believing in Jesus–murdered in the same way he had one authorized the murder of earlier believers.

Like a divorced woman in a close-knit community. Like a convicted felon in polite society. Like the betrayer of public trust. That’s what it was like for Saul—no one, Jew or Christian trusted him. That’s what it was like for Ananias—no Christian ever forgave him.

This ancient story raises a question that still troubles us. Can a tiger change its stripes? That is, is repentance really possible? And what is our responsibility to the one who has offended and has also repented?

I’m sure that in the time I have been preaching your mind has wandered, and it has taken you no effort at all to remember one or two events in your own life: a time you have been betrayed or wounded OR a time when you were the betrayer, the one who caused harm. Believe me, neither is a pleasant memory.

Before we start “yeah, but-ing” and “what iff-ing” ourselves into knots, excusing our bad behavior and magnifying the faults of others, let me remind you of where we are. Not where we are physically, but where we are liturgically. We are in the season of Easter, a week of weeks, during which we consider the repercussions of Jesus’ resurrection. You see, his resurrection from death was not a one-and-done, a “gosh, that was interesting.” Jesus’ triumph over death and the grave impacts our lives every day.

Remember what he said to the disciples, locked away on the first Easter evening? “I give you peace. I send you forgiving.”  (John 20.19ff) Those words weren’t for them only.

This morning we read that the resurrected Christ showed up on the beach on an early morning, watching his disciples who had, apparently taken up their nets again. He called to them, “Are the fish biting?” And then, “Come, have breakfast.” (John 21.1ff)

Why were they hiding? Why were they fishing? Why weren’t they carrying on the mission Jesus had left them? Was Jesus disappointed in them?

 Jesus has no illusions about his disciples. Fortunately, he also has a terrible memory.

That’s why Jesus didn’t lay in the dark of the tomb for three days, rehearsing every stupid thing his disciples had ever done. (Three days would not have been enough.) The past was the past.

Instead, Jesus emerged from the tomb into a resurrected future, a future marked by peace and by forgiveness and by welcome. And we, by Easter extension, are invited into that same future.

We have all caused harm. We have all been harmed.

We have all been the villain. We have all been the victim.

So, what do we, Jesus’ Easter disciples, do with those simple facts?

Here’s what we don’t do.

We don’t punish ourselves with would’a, should’a, could’a about the past. All have sinned, remember?

We also don’t punish others with how dare you and how could you and what were you thinking?

The world punishes us all plenty—the wrong and the wronged. Do we really need to join the pile-up, participate in the circular firing squad?

But remember Jesus’ Easter gifts. Peace. Forgiveness. Welcome. Gifts given this morning to Lillian in her baptism. Gifts she will extend to all whom she encounters.

Jesus gives to the sinned and the sinned against, the shunners and the shunned.

To those whose hearts are torn, he promises peace.

To those who sin, he promises forgiveness.

To the hungry, well, come have breakfast.

Second Sunday of Easter

Second Sunday of Easter (24 April 2022)

JoAnn A. Post

“Resurrection Repercussions”

Acts 5.27-39

When the temple police had brought Peter and the apostles, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” 

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” 

When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them. 

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” 

We left Peter a week ago, lying with a cool cloth on his forehead, a cup of chamomile tea cooling beside him, mulling what he had heard and not seen.

You may recall that last week we celebrated the Resurrection of Our Lord. We read of women at the tomb, two heavenly men, doubting disciples and then Peter—who only days before had pretended not to know Jesus.

You may recall that when the women reported their conversation with the two men at the tomb “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”, the disciples had poo-pooed it. “Women,” they muttered to themselves and went back to their morning coffee.

But Peter, always unpredictable, had snuck out of the house after hearing the women’s wild story to see for himself. Sure enough, the cave in which Jesus’ body had been stashed was empty. Except for the burial linens which were strewn about—like skin shed by a snake. It was that image of an empty tomb and scattered gauze that sent him back to his bed. I imagine he was feeling a little puny, as if he were Scarlett O’Hara on her fainting couch, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” (“Gone with the Wind,” 1939)

But now, Peter is feeling neither faint nor puny. Something has happened to Peter between the Day of Resurrection and his appearance weeks later in Acts 5 before the Sanhedrin, an assemblage of rabbis which decided legal cases referred by lower courts.

What happened to Peter? First he denied. Then he doubted. Then he pondered. And then, if you remember your biblical history, he was among those disciples who gathered in Jerusalem after Easter to wait for the Spirit Jesus had promised. The number of those who were willing to be public about their faith in Jesus, raised from death, was initially 120 persons. (Acts 1.15)

The Spirit came, eventually, as advertised. In rushing wind, dancing flames and the ability to both speak and understand multiple foreign languages all at once. It was on that day, the day we call Pentecost, that Peter shed his own skin and emerged strong, powerful, fearless. On that day, as the wind rushed and the flames snapped and the crowds swooned, he climbed atop a nearby soapbox and never stepped down. 3,000 people joined the movement that day, and it hasn’t stopped growing. (Acts 2.41)

For the next three chapters of Acts, Peter is on fire. Preaching. Healing. Getting up in the business of temple elders who had hoped the whole Jesus thing would die for lack of a second. (Part of what irritated the temple elite was that they “realized Peter and his companions were uneducated and ordinary men.” [Acts 4.13])

But the greater threat, besides being shown up by a bunch of hillbillies, was that Peter demonstrated extraordinary, otherworldly powers. Like this: “they carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on them as he came by.” (Acts 5.15)

Healing by shadow? That did it. The temple police were ordered to throw Peter and the other apostles in prison to shut them up. Maybe a little time in the slammer would cause them to reconsider (and dim the shadow). If only. It was not that simple. In the middle of the night, an angel of the Lord unlocked the prison door and told them, “Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about Jesus.”

The next morning, the Sanhedrin ordered Peter and his companions retrieved with the hoosgow, only to learn they weren’t there. Somehow, Peter and his pals had escaped and were back at it, preaching more boldly than ever. GRRRR! The temple police were then ordered to drag the apostles from the temple into council chambers for what we would call a “come to Jesus” talk. Of course, the Sanhedrin hoped their lecture would have the opposite effect, and that they might scare Peter silent.

To no avail.

Peter, emboldened by his jail break, rudely challenged their authority over him, and, once again accused them of being responsible for Jesus’ death. In a rage, the temple leaders sent Peter and the others into a time out to consider their options. Kill them? Or kill them? Which would it be?

Sorry for the all the backstory. This is a part of the resurrection story we never hear, and there is a lot of it. But this is where it gets good.

As the Sanhedrin debated methods of extermination—gun or guillotine, crucifixion or quartering—one of them succumbed to a fit of wisdom. A judge named Gamaliel, who urged patience.

I’m guessing Gamaliel was a crusty old dude, that he’d been on the bench a long time, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Antonin Scalia of Sanhedrin judges. I’m guessing he had seen it all several times, and was not easily impressed.

But he was.

Gamaliel first reminded them of other upstart preachers they had known (of whom we have never heard)—a preacher named Theudas who amassed a following of 400 before dying a mysterious death involving cement shoes and a dead fish; a preacher named Judas the Galilean (no relation) who had emerged about 30 years prior, during Jesus’ childhood, who had also disappeared, leaving no trace.

“Leave them alone,”  he advised of the apostles. “Remember the others who burned brightly for a time and then flamed out? That might happen to this Jesus nonsense, too. Don’t draw attention.”

The others stroked their beards, considering his considerable wisdom, comforted by the thought of Peter’s mysterious disappearance from the headlines.

But it seems even Gamaliel had been struck by Peter’s message. He leaned forward and warned, “But. But, if Jesus is more than just another one-hit wonder, if he is in fact who they say he is, there’s not a thing we can do to stop them.”

Actually what he said was, “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”

What did the Sanhedrin do? They decided to wait and see, as Gamaliel advised. They had the temple police rough Peter and the others up a bit, just for show, and kicked them out to the curb with a message, “Knock it off, or else . . .”

Or else what? Threats without consequence are just noise.

This is no fairy tale. Gamaliel was a real person, a revered doctor of the law in the 1st century. His grandfather was a famous rabbi; Gamaliel’s children went on to either become lawyers like their dad (the sons) or marry them (the daughter). To this day, Gamaliel’s name is attached to bold legal advocacy efforts. For example, radical left-wing Chicago natives of a certain age will remember Saul Alinsky’s Gamaliel Foundation, a (loosely) faith-based community organizing group which “wields power on behalf of the poor.” (www.gamaliel.org)

Gamaliel even has a saints day (August 3), and is revered for stepping out on a limb to save the apostles. And the whole Jesus movement with them.

Wow. That’s a lot for one day.

But here’s why this matters now, a week after our Easter celebration and 20 centuries after Gamaliel’s bold advice. “If this is of God . . .”

We are not the most patient of people.

We would rather buy lottery tickets then invest for retirement.

We would rather crash diet than eat reasonably every day.

We would rather consult web.md for a diagnosis than a professional.

We would rather trust the loudest voices than study the wisest minds.

We would rather have same-day delivery than support a local store.

We want what we want when we want it.

I suppose it’s always been that way. But increasingly it seems to me, a codger of Gamaliel’s vintage, that waiting, watching, taking a measured approach have gone out of style. Were they ever in?

It’s even more difficult to be patient when the question is not one of changing dress sizes or TV channels, but of discerning fact from fiction, truth from falsehood, God’s purposes from ours.

For example. I watch the news from Ukraine and wonder, in my dark little heart, why we don’t just fight fire with fire, returning Russia’s aggression with every weapon the West has to offer. “Just destroy them,” as Russia has promised to do to Ukrainian soldiers.

Well, I know why. An overwhelming show of force might stop the fighting for a moment, but what would have been gained? If we play by their rules, are we any different from them? And how long would a peace built on violence hold? It’s not that we’re doing nothing; its just not violent and decisive enough for some.

Wars, ancient and modern, are all, to quote Gamaliel, “of human origin.” Violence always is. How long would it take to imagine and implement a strategy, a resolution, a relationship that was “of God?”

How hard was it for Peter and the first apostles, veterans of the assault on Jesus and his ministry, to wait? Sure, Jesus had promised the coming Holy Spirit. Jesus had promised to be with them always. Jesus had promised to prepare a place for them. Lots of promises.

Meanwhile, they were hiding in borrowed basements, ducking the authorities, working two jobs to pay the bills, small in number with no obvious growth strategy.

How often had they wanted to take matters into their own hands? Hunt the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. Out the phony witnesses who testified against him. Name the hypocrisy of Pilate and Herod and the temple elders. Shame the crowds who cheered Jesus when he entered Jerusalem and jeered when he hung from a cross. It would have been so easy, so satisfying.

But would revenge and retaliation have been “of God?” Of course not.

And how would Peter have stood straight-faced before the Sanhedrin, accusing them of violence and falsehood, had he done the same to them?

Earlier we read about one of Jesus’ many appearances after the resurrection. (JN 20.19-31) Jesus appeared among the terrified disciples, some of whom had abandoned him at his darkest hour, with a surprising word. Not “how could you?” Or “you’ll get yours!” Or “let’s see how you like it?” Or “look what you’ve done!” (That’s what I would have done.)

Instead, he extended his wounded hands to his wounded disciples and offered them peace. Offered them forgiveness. Offered whatever it took for them to believe again. Who does that? Gamaliel would propose that such patience, such love, such forgiveness can only emerge if “this undertaking is of God.”

Clearly it was “of God.” And continues to be so.

We will be Easter-ing for seven weeks here. Reading and thinking about texts like this one from Acts—about the repercussions of the resurrection. Immediately afterward and in our time.

This morning, a long-dead lawyer advises caution. Not inaction. Not apathy. Not resignation. When tempted to retaliate, to harm, to shame, to hold a grudge, we listen for Gamaliel’s voice of caution. “Let them alone. If their actions are of human origin, they will fail. But, if of God, they cannot be stopped.”

Gamaliel was right. God has not been stopped. The resurrection cannot be put back into the can. The ways of the world  need not be our ways.

Peace, Jesus says.

Forgive, Jesus says.

Wait, Gamaliel says.

Be of God.

The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ

Festival of the Resurrection (17 April 2022)

JoAnn A. Post

Luke 24.1-12

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Its called Babi Yar, a ravine 50 feet deep, 5 football fields long, outside Kyiv, Ukraine. At Babi Yar more than 150,000 victims of Nazi terror were, unceremoniously and surreptitiously, buried. Because news did not travel as fast in the 1940’s as it does now, and because all of Europe was engulfed in terror, the serial massacres at Babi Yar went widely unreported. And might never have been fully known.

Except that we believe it is possible to seek the living among the dead.

A Kyiv native named Dina, a puppeteer, upon recognizing her imminent fate, leapt into the ravine before the Nazis could harm her. After the Nazis marched on to other cities to commit other atrocities, she crawled up from the ravine to tell the world what she had seen.

A passerby would not have been able to see the tragic evidence of Babi Yar from the road, so well did the Nazis cover their tracks—and their victims. But she and 28 other known survivors chronicled events that would otherwise have been lost in the fog of war.

We tell her story now, 80 years later, because Babi Yar is, again, in the news. The monument at Babi Yar was one of the first sites bombed by Russian troops in the current conflict in Ukraine. It’s almost as though invaders wanted to make sure the dead stayed dead. And that the glimmer of life offered by Babi Yar was extinguished for good.

But, still, we seek the living among the dead.

There was no secret about the atrocities that occurred in Jerusalem on that Passover weekend 2,000 years ago. There was no attempt to conceal the collusion of religious leaders, Roman appointees and the royal family. In fact, there was no shame about what happened to Jesus and the criminals hung on either side of him. After all, Jesus was just getting what he deserved.

Like lynchings in the early years of the previous century in our country, crucifixions were popular entertainment. Families packed a lunch. Crowds taunted. Bets were wagered. Soldiers took liberties, poking those who hung on the crosses. And when, at the end of the day, the crowds went home and bets were paid off, the bodies were hauled down from the crosses and given to whatever family members or friends were willing to claim them.

We imagine, somehow, that the manner of Jesus’ death was an anomaly, a particularly egregious punishment reserved for a dangerous criminal. A one-of-a-kind tragedy. If only.

Because, as is true for proponents of capital punishment in our day, crucifixion was viewed as a deterrent. A warning to others who might be tempted to treason or terrorism. The upright posts on which criminals were hung were permanently fixed in the ground, just waiting for the next victim stupid enough to challenge Rome.

So, to those who have tried to poo-poo Jesus’ resurrection because he was just “playing possum,” pretending to be dead, let me assure you that there were hundreds of eye witnesses who could swear to the finality of his situation. When, on the day we call Good Friday, Jesus was placed in a tomb, there was no question he belonged there. His life was over. The imagined threat he posed to society had been neutralized. Powerful privilege protected.

Unlike the left-for-dead witnesses at Babi Yar who lived to tell the tale, Jesus was most certainly dead.

That’s why, early on the first day of the week, women went to the tomb taking spices they had prepared. They went to honor their loved one and to care for his body, not to check for a pulse.  

The first hint that something was amiss was that the stone used to seal the tomb had been moved. The second hint was the absence of the body they had seen there only days before. And the third? The moment they realized things were really wrong, the sight that knocked them flat on their faces was the presence of two men “in dazzling apparel.” Who were they? Where had they come from? Were they responsible for this vandalism, this grave robbery? Because if they were, they were certainly to be feared.

But who was more surprised? The grieving women or the heavenly men?

The two men, apparently startled, said, “What are you doing here? What are you looking for? What makes you think Jesus would be here? The living don’t hang around with the dead.”

After they picked the women off the ground and brushed them off, they tried to jog the women’s memory, to remind them that, in fact, Jesus had told them this would happen. They he would suffer, that he would die, and that, on the third day he would rise.

But they had no frame of reference for such a claim. “Suffer” was a word they knew. “Die” was a word they knew. But “rise again?” Only bread rises again. It didn’t register when Jesus first said it. It didn’t register then either.

Where the two men went after that we don’t know. But the women ran back to town to tell the disciples all they had seen and heard.

Were they greeted with huzzahs and handshakes? Were they thanked for their excellent early morning reconnaissance mission?

No, they were mocked. And dismissed. “Women.” Stone moved? Body gone? Two dudes just hanging around a cemetery? Not likely.

Were they even curious about the women’s testimony? Apparently not. They went back to their coffee and Sunday New York Times. Except for Peter. Peter the Unpredictable. Peter snuck to the cemetery to see for himself. But even after seeing the evidence, he had no comment. Peter went home to put a cool cloth on his head and think about it.

Of all the possibilities he could imagine, Jesus Alive was not one of them.

After all, who would seek the living among the dead?

Well, we would. We do.

At this very moment, missiles are being fired into and out of Ukraine, as innocent victims run for their lives.

At this very moment, young men in Chicago are chasing each other with guns, terrorizing neighborhoods.

At this very moment, a family in our care is keeping watch at the death bed of their matriarch.

At this very moment, among us, hearts are breaking, tears threaten to spill, dreams sputter in the light of day.

Death is everywhere evident.

And yet. And yet.

As the apostle Paul mused in the second reading this morning, “If for this life only, we have hoped in Christ, we are, of all people, most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15.19-26)

He’s right. If this life, so full of disappointment and distress, terror and trouble, is all there is to hope for, what’s the point?

After all, if Roman soldiers had been able, with a simple cruel cross, to extinguish the Son of God.

If Nazi atrocities and Russian aggression had been able to bury the discomforting evidence of Babi Yar.

If gun violence and gang brutality were the only truth of our cities.

If love died when those we love do.

If our limited dreams were the universe’s only dreams.

Then we would be, as Paul wrote, “of all people most to be pitied.”

After all, anyone can find the dead among the dead. But to see life there?

Faith in Jesus Christ is a choice. Not a family tradition, an inherited trait or something you can force feed. Faith in Jesus Christ is a choice. A choice, from among all the religious and philosophical claims the world has to offer. Many choose not to believe in Jesus. Many choose not to believe in anything at all. We each get to choose.

But I choose to believe in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

The particulars of the resurrection don’t interest me much, just as they didn’t matter to the gospel writers, though they may matter to you. What matters to me is that, in spite of centuries of attempts to stop the story, to explode the myth, to keep Jesus in the tomb, life keeps emerging from death.

I believe that on the Day of the Resurrection, death was rendered impotent. The powers of the world were declawed. The fears that keep us cowering in the corner were exposed. The silencers were silenced. Jesus endured the worst we could throw at him, and it wasn’t enough to keep him in the grave.

In my own life and limited experience I have seen life emerge from, crawl through, dig its way out of death. I have seen resurrection.

That’s why I believe in the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because I believe that life is always possible, that light is always shining, that love is the believer’s superpower.

I have been intrigued (and horrified) by Babi Yar. I don’t doubt the historicity of it, though many have tried to debunk it. We are always trying to bury uncomfortable truths.

I also cannot begin to address the theodicy questions it raises: why some and not others? could it have been stopped? how much evil can a human heart hold? Those questions are way beyond my expertise, above my pay grade.

But Babi Yar is more than a place on a map or a set of troubling questions, it is also, for me, a metaphor, a metaphor of our resurrected life.

The Nazis weren’t the only ones who imagined that everyone tossed into that ravine had been silenced. I’m sure the women and men who survived the fall and the shooting imagined their lives were over, as well. Most of them were. That’s why I can’t imagine what it took for that lone woman to crawl her way toward light, toward fresh air, toward life.

And then, when she emerged, she did not run and hide. (Though no one would have blamed her.) Instead, we add her name to the list of women–Mary, Joanna and the others– who witnessed the power of life from death. She spoke her truth. She told her story. She was not cowed, even by those who mocked her or threatened to take her life—again.

She lived. Against all odds, she lived. And she did something with that life. Something so powerful that it is making an appearance 80 years later in an Easter sermon in a tiny village 5,000 miles away from the tragedy.

No one was looking for the living among the dead. But life emerged anyway. It always does.

We still commit that Easter audacity. In countries at war. In hearts gone hard. In lives grown stale. In a world that mocks anything it does not expect. We still seek the living among the dead.

Because Jesus lives. And so can we. Alleluia.

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday (14 April 2022)

JoAnn A. Post

John 13.1-7, 31b-35

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. 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.”

If you knew your friend would betray you.

If you knew your parents would misunderstand you.

If you knew your children would break your heart.

If you knew your beloved would be unfaithful.

If you knew all that, what would you do?

The better question is, what have you done?

After all, we already know these things. We already know, without being told, that everyone we trust will at some time, in some fashion, intentionally or not, disappoint us.

It is the risk we take when we open our hearts, when we let down our guard, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

The option, of course, is to take no risk at all. To close our hearts, build higher walls, harden the shell in which we live.

Which is worse? To have our hearts broken, or to have no hearts at all?

On this night, the night on which we remember Jesus’ vulnerability to his disciples, these are the questions that haunt us. Because these are the questions that haunted him.    

In John’s gospel, more than any of the other gospels, Jesus is in charge. Nothing happens without his foreknowledge and permission. No one does anything to him, no one takes anything from him, no one gets the better of him. Jesus directs all the players in this drama.

Even tonight, in the gospel reading about Jesus’ last night with his disciples, Jesus knows exactly what is about to happen to him. Jesus knows that two of his closest friends, two who shared the last supper and submitted to having their feet washed, would act to harm him. Judas, who would betray him. Peter, who would deny him. 

How did he do that? How did Jesus swallow his pride, bite his tongue and care for them? Gently removing their sandals, pouring water over their dirty feet, smoothing their callouses with his own calloused hands.

It is because Jesus knew something that no one else that night did. John writes, “Jesus, knowing that that Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God . . .”

That was the source of his patience and compassion. Knowledge of purpose, and of where he belonged.

And that is why he could offer the mandatum—the commandment—he delivers tonight: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

And how did Jesus love them? He gave them a share of his work. He fed them. He washed their feet. He forgave them. That is the commandment laid on us tonight—to love one another that way.

Perhaps it was easy for Jesus—after all, he had come from God and was going to God. But for us?   

We last gathered like this on Ash Wednesday—on a dark, cool March evening. On that first of the forty days, we submitted to the smudged cross on our forehead. And we admitted to one another, in corporate confession, out loud, all the ways we, as human beings, have failed God and neighbor.

Tonight, with those forty days behind us, on the threshold of the Great Three Days, those failures are more pronounced, more personal. We have all been wronged. And we have all wronged.

We, who are Jesus’ disciples, know what is demanded of us.      

But before we take on that task of loving as Jesus loved, of forgiving those who have betrayed us, we offer the opportunity for you to be loved as Jesus loved. Tonight, all that we have done, all that we have failed to do, will be forgiven. Tonight, you will feel strong hands on your head and hear forgiving words in your ear.

Imagine them to be Jesus’ hands. Jesus’ words. Jesus’ love. After all, in big ways and small:

We have betrayed our friends.

We have misunderstood our parents.

We have broken our children’s hearts.

We have been unfaithful to those who trusted us.

Take a moment in the safe silence of this place, to call to mind all those who love us, who trust us, who rely on us.

And now take a moment to search your heart—how might we be more faithful friends, more loving parents, children and partners?

And then, if you choose to come forward to receive forgiveness, know that there is no judgement in this place. Know that everyone in this room struggles as you do; that everyone in this room has failed and is in need of forgiveness.

On Jesus’ last night with his disciples, he forgave them all they had done and were about to do.

On this night, Jesus does the same for us.

Sunday of the Passion

Sunday of the Passion (10 April 2022)

JoAnn A. Post

Luke 22.14-23.56

What you are about to hear could have taken place in the 1st century or the 16th or the 21st,  in Berlin or Kyiv or Damascus. Many of the players and the events will be familiar to us—angry mobs, false charges, ruthless autocrats, cruel punishments. We have yet to figure out a way to resolve our differences in a calm, respectful manner. Sometimes, as in the events of which we read today, with dire consequences.

But first we time travel a bit further into our past.

Centuries before the birth Christ, the prophet Isaiah wrote of a “Suffering Servant” who would take on his own body, on his own back, undeserved punishment. Though we do not know of whom this poem was first written—“I gave my back to those who struck me. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting”—we now read it of Jesus, who suffered as a slave for crimes he did not commit. Isaiah’s poetic voice will be the first we hear this morning. (Isaiah 50.4-9a)

A generation after the death and resurrection of Christ, the apostle Paul reflected on this same humiliation. “Jesus did not regard equality with God a thing to be exploited, but took the form of a slave, becoming obedient to death on a cross.” (Philippians 2.5-11)

There are times in our common life when we lean into the power of Jesus Christ, when we celebrate his authority, as Paul writes, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.” But today, as we step through the doorway from our ordinary lives into the pathos and drama of Holy Week, we see Jesus as that Suffering Servant—taking on his back the punishment we deserve.

And now we are transported, biblically, to the streets of 1st century Jerusalem. This morning a readers choir will recount the last days and hours of Jesus’ life, according to Luke. But I’d like you to imagine this scene as we listen.

An angry mob, goaded on by unseen handlers, tells lies about Jesus in order to get the attention of the authorities.

Religious leaders, jealous of the attention Jesus receives, multiply the lies, deeming them worthy not only of punishment but of death. However, because they were legally unable to pronounce a sentence of death, the religious leaders hand Jesus over to the political leaders in Jerusalem—specifically to Pontius Pilate.

Pilate is the first to speak a true word in this sea of deception. Confused by their accusations and anger, he will say to the blood thirsty crowd and to the religious leaders, “This man has done nothing wrong.”

But because the mob grew more and more angry, Pilate tossed the responsibility to the monarch—to Herod, who had long wanted to meet Jesus. Herod similarly found no reason to hold Jesus, even for questioning. So he beat him instead.

Maybe it was an election year, I don’t know. But cool heads did not prevail. The religious leaders, the political leaders and the monarch gave in to the crowds, forcing Jesus toward a punishment he did not deserve.

And Jesus? What does Jesus have to say of all this? Almost nothing. Like the Suffering Servant of whom we read in Isaiah’s prophecy, he gave his back to those who would harm him; he turned his face toward those who struck him.

There are opportunities at every step of this journey for Jesus to either declare himself innocent or for someone in authority to stop the madness.

But he doesn’t. They don’t. And in a final moment of honesty, an unnamed soldier will tell another truth. “This man is the Son of God.”

Passion Sunday is a dizzying day. We open with palm-wielding crowds at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Those same crowds later turn on him and demand his death. When it is finished, those same crowds, aware of what their anger has produced, flee the scene of the crime, beating themselves in shame.

Soon enough we will celebrate Jesus’ triumph over the lies and the violence and even over death. But today? Today we remember this One, before whom every knee will bend, who suffered for sins not his own.

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (3 April 2022)

JoAnn A. Post

John 12.1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

When, a month or more ago, leading members of both political parties suggested that the way to end Russia’s violent and unprovoked assault on Ukraine was to assassinate Russian president Vladimir Putin, I sucked in my breath. Wow.

I know that we all have violent, hateful thoughts now and then. And, I know, because I watch “Madam Secretary” on TV, that international political machinations often involve violence. And I know that Russia’s barbaric behavior may well result in an international war crimes trial.

But, even with all that, to hear unnuanced, unashamed, more shockingly, unchallenged suggestions of assassination stopped my clock.

It would not be the first time such plots have been considered. Or carried out.

In fact, Lutheran pastor, theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer actively participated, as a double agent, in a 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. The attempt failed. Bonhoeffer was unapologetic. He was arrested, along with 19 other co-conspirators. He languished in a German prison for nine months before being hanged for treason. The war ended a month later.

A Lutheran pastor. Also an assassin?

Can there ever be justification for political or theologically-motivated assassination?

And why, you ask, on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, after hearing a moving account of Mary’s kindness to Jesus, am I thinking about assassination?

Because it is here. Actually, it is near. Waiting in the shadows both before and after. A violent frame for this otherwise lovely picture. And the presence of two adjacent assassination plots has to change the way we read this story.

Immediately before Jesus put his feet under Lazarus’ table in this morning’s gospel reading, he had roused Lazarus from the tomb. You may remember that Lazarus, his dear friend, had been stricken mortally ill in chapter 11 of John’s gospel. For reasons that are unclear, Jesus lolly-gagged, so that, by the time he arrived in Bethany, Lazarus was dead. And buried. And rotting. For four days.

After comforting Lazarus’ grieving, and probably angry sisters Mary and Martha, Jesus stood outside Lazarus’ tomb, ordered the stone removed and instructed him to come out. Talk about stopping your clock. Or, more accurately, restarting it. Lazarus emerged—wrapped in burial linens, wreaking of death. Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go.”

The crowd went wild. As did the chief priests and scribes. In a bad way. John writes, “Many of those who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. The chief priests and Pharisees called a council. . . . And from that day they planned to put Jesus to death.” (John 11.45ff)

Then, with a sigh, John wrote, “Jesus no longer walked about openly.”

Do you blame him? If you knew the whole religious apparatus was out to murder you, would you go to Target in broad daylight?

That’s why, when this morning’s gospel reading opens, an astute reader is curious.

John writes, “Six days before the Passover Jesus went to Bethany, to the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him.”

So many questions. How did Jesus get there without being seen? What was so special about this dinner that it was worth risking his life? What if it was a set-up? (Clearly, I watch too much crime drama on TV.)

It was a small dinner party. Lazarus, who still smelled a little of the grave. His sister Martha, true to form, managing the kitchen. His sister Mary, true to form, not helping. And a smattering of disciples including Judas, who, true to form, was scheming.

Fun fact. This is the first time we learn that Judas is both an embezzler and a quisling.

And a side note. We know that Jesus knows. About the embezzling. The collaborating. The payoff. The conspiracy. Because in John’s gospel, Jesus knows everything that will happen, and allows it to unfold. So, we know that Jesus knew all about Judas.

We have only just found out and want to shout “Jesus, look out!”

Jesus turns to us and says, “Hush. I know what I’m doing.”

The evening unfolds in a remarkable way. Mary emerged from her room carrying a large jar of nard. Nard was a wildly expensive, wildly fragrant compound used to anoint brides on their wedding day and the deceased on the day of their burial. The jar of nard Mary carried would have lasted a lifetime—being diluted with other, less expensive oils to make it last. My back-of-the-envelope calculation is that, un-cut, Mary’s nard would have cost just under $5,000 US, adjusted for inflation. It was a treasure.

But without hesitating, Mary uncorked the jar, poured $5,000 worth of ointment on Jesus’ feet, knelt before him and began to wash his feet with her hair. It was shocking. Embarrassingly intimate. Foolishly expensive.

John reports, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

What was Mary thinking? We don’t know exactly.

But we know what Judas was thinking. “Holy Cannoli!  A pound of nard!”

Judas tried to cover his greedy amazement with a lame excuse about using that money to feed the poor. Jesus didn’t buy it.

We also know what Jesus was thinking.

 Jesus knew that, only days later, Judas would lead soldiers to him in a private garden. Jesus knew that, only days later, he would be falsely accused, tortured, imprisoned, stripped and hanged on a cross. Jesus knew that, only days later, his followers would use other spices, ointments and perfumes to anoint his body for burial.

That’s why we understand what he says next, but no one else in the room that night did.

“Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

It’s a heartbreaking moment. In an unexpected collapsing of time, Jesus imagined himself already dead. And grateful for Mary’s kindness.

And then, in what I imagine to be a sarcastic put-down, Jesus turned to Judas and said, “Don’t even pretend to care. You’ll always have the poor with you. You won’t always have me.”

Fascinating, you say. Odd, but fascinating. But what of the assassination plot? How did Jesus get away?

Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten.

Jesus had entered Lazarus’ house, surreptitiously, under threat of death. He would have left the house in the same way. Disguised, perhaps.

It almost worked. But somebody had loose lips.

Word got out that not only was Jesus in the house, but used-to-be-dead Lazarus was, too. John writes, immediately after this morning’s text “When the great crowd learned that Jesus was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.” (John 12.9ff)

For the crowds, it was like going to see the freaks at the circus.

For the religious leaders, who had spies everywhere in the dark, Lazarus presented one more problem to be resolved.

John continues, “The chief priests then planned to put Lazarus to death, as well, since it was on account of him that many were deserting and believing in Jesus.”

We might be able to understand assassination orders for war criminals. But for Jesus, who had done nothing but bring hope and healing? And for Lazarus, who had done nothing but die and breathe again?

This is where we start to struggle. Where the Jesus story gets away from us. It’s hard for us to imagine the terror Jesus struck in the hearts of leaders—both religious and political. But the narrative John spins reveals the level of threat Jesus posed.

The religious authorities wanted him and anyone associated with him dead. They accused Jesus’ followers of being “deserters,” as though they had pledged a loyalty oath and could, themselves, be accused of treason. The religious leaders also drew the local governor, Pilate, into their schemes, convincing him that it was politically expedient to get Jesus gone.

What were they so afraid of?

Jesus wielded power unlike any ruler on earth. And his power terrified them, threatened theirs.

Jesus, Son of God and Creator of the Universe, could have taken the world by storm. Could have cracked the globe open like a melon. Conscripting armies. Slaughtering enemies. Amassing wealth. Spinning lies.

Jesus’ important enemies would have recognized that kind of power, even, begrudgingly admired it. Sadly, there are some among us who also applaud that kind of aggression. I don’t understand, but it happens.

But Jesus chose another way. Jesus chose instead to eat with sinners, to cure the sick, to surround himself with nobodies and nothings. Jesus chose the path of love. And forgiveness. And humility. Jesus submitted to be killed by his enemies rather than kill them first.

He could have. But he didn’t.

This familiar, touching gospel story of Mary’s extravagant intimacy is surrounded, on all sides, by darkness and death and selfish power. Assassins lurk on both sides of it.

But this story stands as a single candle flickering in a dark world. Mary’s extravagance. Lazarus’ new life. Jesus’ inexhaustible patience.

That is the life to which we are called. Odd and counter-intuitive as it may seem.

I’m sure that, at this moment, schemes to annihilate our enemies are being carried out. I’m sure that, at this moment, plots are being hatched and people are being paid to look the other way. That’s the way the world works. Sometimes, necessarily so. Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Whose decision to plot a murder ought to trouble us.

But we are not in charge of armies or nations or kingdoms. It is not our work to bring the powers of evil to its knees.

Our work is to fall to our own knees in service, in kindness, in love. To model, not the ways of the world, but the ways of Jesus. Who came among us not to win, but to die.

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (27 March 2022)

JoAnn A. Post

Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32

The gospel according to Luke

Glory to you, O Lord

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

And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying,

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. . .”

We could stop right here if we wanted. There is no mystery to this parable’s intent, no hidden meaning to be laid bare. As is typical of Luke, the gospel writer, he reveals the point of a parable in the very first sentence. “There was a man who had two sons. . .”

And, if that were not enough, the opening paragraph casts the Pharisees in the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on and interpreting the action. They grumble to themselves—and to us—“This man welcomes sinner and eats with them.”

That is all we need to know about Jesus and about this parable.

When it is done, we will have learned that Jesus, like a parent with two difficult children, welcomes sinners and eats with them.

But we will not stop there. There is more to be mined. Listen:

There was a man who had two sons.

The younger of them said to his father,

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

So he divided his property between them. 

I’m sorry to interrupt, but there are a few legal matters here we need to ponder.

In asking for his portion of the inheritance, the younger son caused multiple offenses.

First, by law, a family’s inheritance would be distributed only on the death of the patriarch. That means the younger son deemed his father’s wealth more important than his father’s life. In other words, “Dad, couldn’t you just die already so I can get what you owe me.”

Second, the older son in a family was privileged in the distribution of family wealth. The older son, whom we will meet in a moment, was entitled to a double share of the estate.  The younger son, who clearly received a lot from his father, was still not as wealthy as the older son.

Third, notice that Luke does not say the father gave only the younger son his portion. Luke writes, “So the father distributed his property between them.” That is, not only did the younger son, who wished his father dead, receive his portion of the estate, the older son received his portion at the same time.

In granting the younger son’s wish and distributing the estate, prematurely, as he did and by law, the father left himself penniless. Suddenly, everything he had belonged to his sons.

Fourth, in wishing his father dead and bringing shame on the family name, the son had also made himself dead to his family. His picture would be removed from the mantel. His mother would speak of having only one son. It would be as though the younger son had never been born.

Who is more foolish? The father who gave in or the son who cared so little?

“A few days later the younger son gathered all he had

  and traveled to a distant country,

  and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 

When he had spent everything,

  a severe famine took place throughout that country,

  and he began to be in need. 

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

  who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 

The younger son would gladly have filled himself

  with the pods that the pigs were eating;

  and no one gave him anything. 

We pause again.

The younger son is heaping offense on offense. He had wished his father dead. He ran off with his father’s wealth. He broke his mother’s heart. He spent his inheritance on drinking and debauchery, or as Luke describes it, “dissolute living.”

And then, when the money was gone, and all the “friends” he had made with his money had vanished, he had nothing. No money. No food. No family. No friends. No home. In a matter of days, he had fallen from his lofty perch as a beloved son of a wealthy land owner to a pig pen—a dirty, hungry, despised hired hand. Further shaming himself and his family name.

It couldn’t get worse. But it does.

As a Jew, the son would have been expected to live by kosher food laws. Like the law that prohibits raising pigs or eating pork. By virtue of the fact that he found himself in “pig country” as we Iowans say of our home state, and in violation of the food laws in` which he had been raised, the younger son added insult to injury, hiring himself out to a pig farmer. A pig farmer who, because of famine, had to prioritize his resources. His choice? He fed the pigs, and allowed the hired hand to starve.

Could it get worse? Wait and see . . .

“But when the younger son came to himself he said,

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

  but here I am dying of hunger! 

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

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

  I am no longer worthy to be called your son;

  treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 

So he set off and went to his father.

But while he was still far off,

  his father saw him and was filled with compassion;

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

Then the son said to him,

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

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

Who is this guy? Did he flunk Dad School? The father shouldn‘t have given this kid the time of day; he should have stayed in the house, pretending not to hear the knock on the door. But he did not. Apparently, he could not. He made a fool of himself—again. This father further shamed himself by bolting out of the house, hiking up his robes, and throwing himself, sobbing, on the younger son.

The younger son who had ruined him financially.

The younger son who had wished him dead.

The younger son who reeked of pigs and pig manure.

This father, so overwhelmed with joy, didn’t even let the stinky son finish his carefully rehearsed speech.

“The father said to his slaves,

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

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

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

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

  he was lost and is found!’

And they began to celebrate. 

And there it is. “This son of mine was dead, but now is alive.”

All was forgotten. The man, once again, had two sons.

And after having gifted himself into poverty, the father reached even deeper into the pockets of his foolishness and threw a party—the best robe, the biggest ring, the finest shoes, the fattest calf. This was a “celebration of life” in the truest sense.

Would that the story ended here. It’s been a lot.

We could maybe forgive the father his foolishness over this younger son. But in the same way the younger son slipped deeper and deeper into his debauched life, the father’s willingness to be made the fool knew no limits either.

“Now his elder son was in the field;

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

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

The slave replied,

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

  because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 

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

His father came out and began to plead with him. 

But he answered his father,

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

  and I have never disobeyed your command;

  yet you have never given me even a young goat

  so that I might celebrate with my friends. 

But when this son of yours came back,

  who has devoured your property with prostitutes,

  you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 

Pathetic, isn’t it. The older son, who had, upon the younger son’s departure, received most of his father’s estate, portrayed himself as the victim. Poor me. First he pouted, then he refused to step foot in the house to greet his no-longer-dead-brother and then he made his father the fool again.

The father, who should have insisted on some respect, who should have stomped his foot and turned his back, did for the older son what he had also done for the younger. He bolted out the door, hiked up his robes and ran out to meet his self-righteous son.

Then the father said to him,

‘Son, you are always with me,

  and all that is mine is yours. 

(Literally.)

But we had to celebrate and rejoice,

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

  he was lost and has been found.’”

Most often, this parable is named “The Prodigal Son,” that is, the son who wandered off. But this parable is not about a son—neither the selfish one nor the self-righteous one. It is about a parent who will stop at nothing for his children. A parent who will endure shame and grief, poverty and mocking for the sake of his children. Children who deserved nothing but punishment. Clearly fiction. Or is it?

Two things are on my mind.

First, is a phrase from this morning’s reading from Second Corinthians. “Christ entrusted the ministry of reconciliation to us.” (2 COR 5.16-21)

The ministry of reconciliation. What is that?

To be reconciled, in a biblical sense, is to be “decisively changed.” To intentionally, deliberately, decisively, even foolishly seek reunion with those from whom we are estranged.

Jesus, who tells this parable, models that ministry. In the same way, he expects us to be reconciled to one another and, in so doing, be reconciled to God. Parents and children. Spouses and loved ones. Friends and neighbors. With no exceptions.

When I am out and about and, foolishly, disclose my secret identity as mild-mannered Lutheran pastor, people talk to me. Strangers pour out their deepest secrets.

This week I encountered a woman who, unprompted, told a tale of family woe. She and a sibling were at odds. By her own admission, each had behaved badly. Neither had spoken since. She wanted me to side with her in this random dispute. To agree with her anger. To bless her stubbornness.

But I said, “What keeps you from reaching out to your brother?”

She reacted as though I had slapped her. “What? Give in?”

I said, “It’s not giving in. If you care about your brother and any future relationship, you could be the first to reach out.”

Again, incredulous, she said, “What? Apologize first? I would lose!”

Confused, I said “Lose what?”

“The game,” she said. “If I apologize first, I lose the game.”

Like the younger son, who cared nothing for his parents or his brother, this lost child refused to reconcile. She would rather roll in pig slop than repent. She regarded her family’s love a game rather than a gift. It seems “prodigal” children, children who wander off, are all around us.

But that is not who we are. We do not engage in tit-for-tat, stubborn, game playing with other peoples’ lives. We engage in a “ministry of reconciliation.” Why? Because that is what God has first done for us.

The second thing on my mind is Jesus. Jesus who told this parable with an obvious, yet offensive meaning.

Would the Pharisees look back on this moment and realize that Jesus had been speaking of himself? That Jesus was “the man with two sons.” That Jesus willingly shamed himself, impoverished himself, accepted blame that was not his and submitted to the mockery of bystanders.

In his suffering and dying, Jesus would play the role of a passionate parent with two selfish children. A passionate, foolish, generous, relentlessly reconciling father. Who regards us not as pawns in a game, but as children who are worth dying for.

The Pharisees, that Greek chorus, thought they had the perfect putdown for Jesus. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” To which Jesus responds, “Yes, and . . . “

But, even after all this exposition, there is still much we do not know.

Did the younger son straighten up and fly right, or did he, as so many who are addicted to novelty or narcotics, break his parents’ heart again?

Did the older son, beneficiary of both birth order and a father’s foolishness, repent and welcome his younger brother home, or live the rest of his life with his arms across his chest.

Did the parents, who endured countless sleepless nights over their errant children, ever give up on them? After all, even the best parents have limits.

So much we do not know. But this is much we do:

As we near the end of Lent, as the events of Jesus’ suffering and death in Jerusalem loom on the horizon, we can be certain of two things.

We are to love one another foolishly, generously, relentlessly. Engaging in a ministry of reconciliation. Why?

Because Jesus has first loved us that way. Every wayward daughter, every selfish son, every stubborn sinner.

Every time we are tempted to hold a grudge, to nurse a wrong, to regard our loved ones as players in a game, we remember,

“There was a man who had two sons. . .”

The gospel of the Lord

Praise to you, O Christ