26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (18 November 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

Mark 13.1-8

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

Or, at least a memory of life. Might they find a photo album unsinged, a truly fireproof safe that protected important documents, a wristwatch blackened but still ticking? Probably not. More likely, they would find nothing but soot-covered bedsprings and a heap of ashes where the dining room table once stood.

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

The devastation in Paradise and other California towns is unimaginable. Fires that raced faster than cars engulfed everything in their path. “Search and Rescue” teams reluctantly became “Evidence Gathering” teams, since the only thing that survived the fire was bone fragments and tears.

Will they rebuild? Can they rebuild? Or better to gather the borrowed clothes and sooty sleeping bags and limp off to someplace new, someplace far from the fires.

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

Both the Old Testament (Daniel 12.1-3) and Gospel readings this morning hint at a similar search. Though written centuries apart, they each reference a time of unprecedented tumult and terror.

Daniel’s audience faced persecution from the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes IV—a brutal turn-of-the-millenium tyrant, who lusted to destroy any remnants of Jews on his territory. Daniel writes, “There shall be a time of anguish such as never occurred since nations first came into existence.”

In fact, Daniel’s audience in the 2nd century BCE would be submitted to all manner of horror. And when it was over, their lives would be little more than dust and ashes.

Jesus moved through the world in a similarly troubled time. Though today’s exchange about the grandeur and durability of the temple took place early in the 1st century, years before the temple would actually be destroyed in 70 CE, Jesus was an astute sniffer of the political winds.  Like smoke sullying the air hundreds of miles away, Jesus sniffed the trouble ahead—for him, for his disciples, and for the whole city of Jerusalem.

Enemies always had their eyes on Jerusalem (they still do)—if they could capture the city, they could rule the whole region. But, even more diabolically, enemies knew that if they could capture the temple in Jerusalem, they could destroy a whole people.

The temple in Jerusalem was more than a significant house of worship, more than a stunning cathedral or synagogue. God’s people believed the temple was, literally, the dwelling place of God.  There is no emotional or spiritual equivalent for us. Because as much as we love this beautiful worship space, and even though we speak of meeting God here, none of us means that literally. If this building burned to the ground, we would be sad, but our faith would not be destroyed.

It was different for the people of Israel. God resided in the temple itself.  Since the days of the wilderness wandering, when the Ark of the Covenant was carried before them as a sign of the presence of God, the God of Israel had always been found in a place. For their sake—they needed to know God was close.

Erected by King Solomon ten centuries before Christ, the first temple in Jerusalem stood for 600 years, before being destroyed by invading armies. Rebuilt a century later, the second temple—20 stories high, built on foundation stones each weighing 400 tons—was unassailable, built to withstand any intruder. It dominated the Jerusalem skyline and protected God and God’s people for another 500 years before the conversation we overhear today.

That the temple would be destroyed a second time was not only unimaginable, but impossible. But it was possible. And Jesus could imagine it. He spoke the truth: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

How would God’s people survive a second such tragedy? Where would they go to meet God? And, more significantly, where would God go?

Sifting through the ashes, searching for signs of life.

We have grown hard to unspeakable tragedies—the recent discovery of mass graves in Iraq, the displacement of millions of refugees worldwide, shooting venues and victims too many to count. Hard to imagine, easy to forget. But the climbing casualties in California’s wild fires trouble even the most jaded among us.

Metaphors abound. Paradise Lost. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Escaping with only the clothes on their backs.

Though none of us has survived such a conflagration by flame, many of us have lived the metaphor: dreams gone up in smoke; the loss of all we hold dear; nowhere to run/nowhere to hide. Tragedies like those threaten to destroy us. Sometimes, they do.

God has survived such tragedy, as well.

As I watch footage of cadaver dogs and white-suited searchers poking, sniffing through the ashes, I cannot help but imagine God doing the same.

Sifting through our ashes, searching for signs of life.

God created us in such hope, loves us with such passion, but has been disappointed again and again. Built to love, we love to hate. Designed for community, we isolate ourselves from all but those who agree with us. Voices made for praise, we raise them, instead, in anger and accusation.

Will God find any fragment of the people we were made to be? Will God uncover any evidence of the life God desires for us?

Yes. God’s dreams for us have not died. And God never stops searching.

When we gather here, in this temporary sanctuary, we are, for a moment the people God intended us to be. Regardless of political opinions or social status, we pray with one voice, eat at one table, hope with a single hope.

When, in our daily lives, we do justice, love kindness, walk humbly, God is able to erect walls of safety around us and those in our care.

When, as the writer of Hebrews urges (Hebrews 10.24) we “provoke one another to love and good deeds,” we stand on an unshakeable foundation.

All temples always fall. Fire always wins. We always disappoint—one another and God.

Day after day, century after century, God sifts through the ashes: restoring life when all seemed lost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (11 November 2018)

Mark 12.38-44

JoAnn A. Post

As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

“He wasn’t on our radar.”

“He wasn’t deemed a threat.”

How often have we heard those words after yet another tragedy?

But in Pittsburgh and Jefferson, Tallahassee and Thousand Oaks, without warning or explanation, these “under the radar” individuals burst into our lives in a hail of bullets. I’m not blaming anyone for this inability to identify and stop those bent on destruction. Our law enforcement agencies and officers cannot have their eyes on every twisted Facebook post, every troubled home, every lone wolf.  And, sadly, law enforcement officers are harmed more often than ordinary citizens like us.

But those twisted, troubled, isolated individuals are watching. Their eyes are on us. Especially if we represent something they hate. If we are black. Or Jewish. Or female. Or young. Or Muslim. Or trans. Or simply breathing air they think we don’t deserve to breathe.

Where are our eyes? We are so easily distracted, whiplashed by competing demands for the latest, the lewdest, for the opinion that confirms our own. This week our eyes were on the proudly powerful—the contemporary scribes, for whom Jesus had so little love.  Governors and senators, representatives and attorneys general. Our eyes are on the people who grab the headlines, grab the show, grab the mic, grab the throat.

We are all watching. Or being watched. And all of us are frightened.

Even Jesus plays the voyeur today, camping out in the temple to admire the fashions and evaluate the philanthropy of other temple goers. His first snide aside was to his disciples about the scribes—well-educated men with steady hands, who copied the words of the rabbis onto parchment. Their work of listening and recording was painstaking, and critical to the life of the temple. That some of them let that critical function go to their heads is no surprise. They weren’t all strutting buffoons. But some of them were. And Jesus found them laughable.

When Jesus turns his eyes and attention from the runway where the scribes strut their stuff, our eyes and attention are slow to follow. We like shiny things.

It seems the temple offering was a spectator sport, as Jesus grabbed a seat in the bleachers near the offering box to observe. It would be as if we all turned and watched what our neighbors put in our offering plate—admiring the soft cashmere cash, sneering at the clinking coins.

But we are still watching the scribes, expecting Jesus to be catty, so when Mark writes about the wealthy who put in large sums and the poor who put in little, we’re waiting for a smart remark. “Look at those rich people, showing off.” But there is no snark in Jesus’ voice. He places no moral judgement on either rich or poor.

After all, the temple relied on the generosity of those with means, as do we. Wealth is not inherently good or evil; neither is poverty. Whether we enjoy surplus or suffer scarcity, it does not reflect on our moral character. The wealthy should be generous. We know that. And the poor?

Since, next week, we will be receiving pledges of financial support for our ministries, this would be an apt opportunity to distract you with a brief commercial about our ministries, reminding you to be generous with our work here. But I won’t do that. You already know that. I trust us all to be generous, whether the sum  itself is large or small.

Because important as the offering box was in the first century and is today, that’s not where our attention is to linger. Our eyes are intended to linger where Jesus’ do.

Jesus isn’t a gerbil with a five-second attention span as most of us are. He was only momentarily distracted by the long-robed scribes and the large offerings of the wealthy. Instead, he was completely taken with the woman no one else noticed—a poor widow whose offering was proportionally more than all the tithes of all the wealthy combined. An offering that left her bereft.

Why would she do that? How would she live? What does this mean?

It means that, like Jesus, we are to notice those who are invisible to the rest of the world.

At 11:00 this morning,  no matter what we are doing, we will pause to ring bells. With houses of worship from coast to coast, we will notice a moment that mostly goes forgotten. 100 years ago, at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, the War to End All Wars came to an end. But the price of peace was high—16 million dead, 23 million wounded, the map of Europe completely redrawn. It seemed, at that holy moment, that we had learned a lesson, that human life is of more value than military might.

But we did not. Only 20 years later, we did it again. Tearing at one another with tooth and claw, hammers and tongs. Forgetting the price of war, the preciousness of peace. So today we notice the price of peace, if only for a moment.

Like you, the earth under me trembled on Wednesday when news of another, tragically named, “soft” shooting rocked the news. Stories of extraordinary courage have emerged from that event. Anguished cries of grief still echo in our ears. And while we pause to remember the dead and the grieving, there is another who caught my eye.

The gunman had a mother. A mother with whom he lived. A mother with whom he fought. A mother who loved him.

I cannot imagine her sorrow. The child whom she loved slaughtered the much-loved children of other mothers. Though I have no proof of this, I know from other such tragedies that her life is now in danger. That some, in the name of justice, will attempt to harm her. Who will watch over her, this nameless widow who gave her whole life for a child who betrayed her?

Most often we attend to Jesus’ words. Translating and teasing them apart for meaning in our lives. I do it all the time—it is my life’s work.

But today we follow Jesus’ eyes. We notice what he notices, we pay attention to his attention, to the people in the shadows who pull at his heart and occupy this thoughts. The invisible poor who drove his ministry and, ultimately, got him nailed to a cross.

What would happen if, only for a moment, we refused to be lured into the dark oozing hole of hatred? If we resisted the “look over there” distractions, the manufactured crises that demonize others and disempower us?

What if we looked where Jesus looks. At the wounded of war and the keepers of peace. At the people who are little more than punching bags for pundits and politicians. At children who are troubled, and the parents who love them. At the widow, and the orphan, the homeless and the hungry. At the innocent victims of violence, and the policies that could protect them?

In a moment we will sing a hymn that, at first glance, will seem apropos of nothing we have discussed here today. (“For the fruit of all creation,” ELW 679) But I beg you to notice, notice the words. Words that draw our attention away from the violence and the pronouncements and the daily pressure to perform.

We will sing of simple things that sustain us: plowing, sowing, reaping, silent growth while we are sleeping.

We will give thanks for a fair wage, a kind hand, a shared meal.

And in the verse I sang to my daughters at bedtime when they were small we will notice unseen gifts: “For the wonders that astound us, for the truths that still confound us, most of all that love has found us . . .”

We see what Jesus sees. We notice those whom Jesus notices. We watch. We wonder. We wait. And even through our tears and fear, we sing.

Reformation Sunday

Reformation Sunday (28 October 2018)

John 8.31-36

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Our confirmation class just finished a six-week session called “Lutherans Living in the World,” during which we discussed the day-to-day ramifications of what we believe. We practiced moral discourse. We dissected Luther’s Two Kingdom Theory. We reviewed the Eighth Commandment. And we did something. Because we believe that not only do Lutherans believe things, we do things.

In preparation for a congregation-wide Advent project, we introduced the students to one of our ministry partners—The Night Ministry. The Night Ministry serves Chicago adults and youth who struggle with homelessness, poverty and loneliness. (www.thenightministry.org)   Our project was to prepare hygiene kits for The Night Ministry’s clients, but before we did that, we wanted to talk with them about what it means to be homeless.

First, they were to write a dictionary definition of “homeless.” A simple assignment that devolved into a debate about whether “homeless” was a noun or an adjective.

We talked about the many ways there are to be homeless—in a shelter, on the street, couch-surfing, living in a car, claiming a vacant seat on the midnight Metra.

Then we made a list of reasons a person might become homeless. I was stunned at their insight, their awareness, their honesty. The list went on and on and on. I guess I imagined that being raised on the North Shore might stunt one’s sensitivities to suffering, but I was dead wrong. Here’s some of what they named: Addiction. Job loss. Family dysfunction. Mental illness. Poor decision-making. Disputes about sexual orientation.

How do they know about these things? About being homeless. Having no safe place.  Lacking a bed at night.

Homelessness is a horrifying threat. And not a new one.

Reformation Sunday can go wrong in so many ways. It can easily become a dry-as-kindling history lesson, or a doctrinal diatribe, or a smack down round of Lutherans vs. Catholics.  I once served a parish that moved an enormous marble statue of Martin Luther into the chancel on Reformation Sunday, so we could admire his doughy German face up-close and personal. Most often this day becomes an opportunity to shout through every dour German hymn tune in the book.

Is that why there was a price on Luther’s head? Why millions died of persecution, war or plague? Why the Church was so badly fragmented it has never recovered? So we could chest-thump? Hardly.

The Reformation was an impulse of hope, an attempt to know God, and a longing for home.

The scripture texts assigned for Reformation Sunday are the same from year-to-year. And they mostly make sense. We read about Jeremiah’s promise of a new covenant, etched on our hearts. (Jeremiah 31.31-34) The Apostle Paul contends that we know Christ not through law-keeping but through faith-living. (Romans 3.18-28)

But the Gospel takes us down an unlikely road—a road toward home. Jesus said, “The slave does not have a permanent place in the house. The child has a place there forever.”

Though this image may not ring for us, it was a vibrant reality for Jesus’ hearers. The wealthy of Jerusalem, the city in which this discussion took place, often had slaves. Slaves who took care of their children, scrubbed their floors, balanced their ledgers, cooked their meals, washed their dirty feet, entertained their guests. Households depended completely on slave labor for smooth functioning. But, as has always been true, no matter how hard the slave worked, how many generations her family had worked there, how indispensable he might be, the slave was always a slave. That is, completely dispensable. The slave could be sold or traded or dismissed at any moment for any reason.

Jesus’ followers shared some of the same fears. Though not technically “slaves,” they were Jews living in a city patrolled by Roman soldiers and ruled by Roman governors. Like household slaves, they lived in constant fear of being arrested, imprisoned, harassed or displaced. Was there a safe place?

It was that same fear the drove Luther and his colleagues, 15 centuries later. Church leaders enslaved ordinary citizens in constant fear of God’s judgement, hell’s fires, the priest’s displeasure, their loved one’s torture. Ordinary citizens lived on land owned by the church, were governed by leaders appointed by the church, had no hope of either employment or salvation apart from the church. They weren’t free. And they certainly weren’t home.

So, though the reasons for what we euphemistically call “housing insecurity” may differ from century to century, the fear of it is the same.

Surely John’s Jesus will save the day, right the wrong, bar the door against Rome. Nope. Jesus’ comfort to the Jews who believed in him, the Jews who lived under Rome’s thumb, was something less than comforting.

Observant Jews traced their roots back to Abraham. “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” If only. They could not trust even their Abrahamic ancestry to protect them.  Like slaves, they could be tossed out, turned in, tortured at any moment.

Yesterday’s massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue reminds us that the plight of Jews in the world is still dire. That they are the most persecuted of any religious group in this country.

Our Jewish brothers and sisters then and now have no safe home.

Though we mostly fear neither slavery nor religious persecution, in honest moments we know that everything we have, everything we love, everyone we love can be stripped away from us in a second. Where is “home” when your partner dies? Where is “home” when winds whisk it away? Where is “home” when people you trusted prove untrustworthy?

The reforming that Luther launched was about doctrine and scripture and literacy. But it was also about true security in a world that is anything but.

A true home is only a dream for too many in our own community. Ask the middle and high school students in your life. They know.

A safe place is an illusion not only for us, but for our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, as well.

The enemies of the gospel, named in our Prayer of the Day, are legion.

So today we pray that God continues to reform, reshape, rewrite our hearts.

  • Today we pray that one day no one will be enslaved to anyone.
  • Today we pray protection those whom the world hates.
  • Today we pray that the church of Jesus Christ is a safe place for all.
  • Today we pray that the breadth and depth of God’s love and mercy will extend to all people.

There are so many ways to be homeless. But only one way to have a true home. It is our work to open the door, extend the hand, live the wideness of God’s mercy for all.

 

 

22nd Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (21 October 2018)

Mark 10.35-45

JoAnn A. Post

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”


When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

He whispered in my ear as we wandered hand-in-hand through a quaint little lakeside village on our anniversary get-away weekend.

I don’t know what another husband might whisper in the ear of the beloved on such a romantic event.

“I’ve never loved you more than I do right now.”

“You’re as pretty as the day I met you.”

“Let’s get out of here and do something crazy!”

I honestly don’t know. My experience of spousal ear-whispering is limited by having only two ears and one husband.

What did my husband whisper gently in my ear on that lovely fall afternoon?

“Imperatives. Nothing but imperatives.”

I squeezed his hand to let him know I felt the same way.

This is what happens when nerds marry—they share a passion for good grammar and sound sentence structure and voluminous vocabulary. Cemented by a common syntax.

“Imperatives.” You know what that word means. An “imperative” is an urgent command, a directive. And what led my husband to whisper that sweet nothing in my ear?

Every shop in town was selling worn barnwood signs ordering us to do something.

“Never give up!”

“Eat dessert first!”

“Make everyday a Lake Day!”

“Dream big!”

I am sure the artists’ intention was to inspire, but I ended up feeling like a bad dog. Sit! Stay! Roll over!

Imperatives are what we offer when the people around us aren’t acting the way we think they should. Though couched in clever whimsy, such commands in fact say, “I’m displeased with you and want you to do it my way.” (Now that’s a sign I’d hang on my bedroom wall.)

So, when Jesus’ disciples ran up behind him and tugged on his sleeve, their flushed faces could not hide their disappointment with him. Imperative! Imperative! Imperative! They barked.  “Do for us whatever we ask!”

The clear implication was that Jesus wasn’t performing to expectation.

Amused, Jesus played along. “And what is it you want me to do?”

Imperative! Imperative! Imperative! “Give us the best seats in heaven!”

I doubt it was affection for Jesus that drove them to demand, a longing to never be parted. Instead, I believe they were afraid. Afraid someone else would be crowned king and queen of the heavenly prom. Afraid Jesus loved somebody more than he loved them. Afraid all their faithful following would come to naught.

When the other disciples learned of James and John’s private plea, they were enraged.  Imperative! Imperative! Imperative! they shouted at the brash brothers. “Jump in a lake!” or “Go, chase yourself!” or other suggestions I can’t say in church.

They were all unhappy. They were all afraid. So they beat each other over the head with imperatives.

Jesus broke up the fight and gathered the disciples around him as though they were tired toddlers at story time. And the story he told had not a single demand in it. He played no grammar games; he told them who they were.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Mom these days. She lives in a modest but comfortable retirement center in our modest but comfortable hometown. And she misses my Dad. She is always sad.

And what do we do about that, we children who love her more than our own lives? How do we comfort this gentle woman who raised us with kindness and calm and patience? We “should” all over her.

“You should eat something.”

“You should take a nap.”

“O, Mom, you shouldn’t cry.”

We don’t mean to be hurtful or impatient, but we are afraid ourselves. You can imagine how helpful it is.

Most of the people my mother lives with are people she’s known all her life. Neighbors from the farm. High school classmates. At one time, all of her siblings lived there. Only recently did I realize that when they talk with her, there are no demands or thinly-veiled criticisms. Only descriptions. They snuggle their walkers close to my mother’s wheelchair and describe her.

Her roommate, Arlene, is a childhood friend who tells stories from the farm, conjuring memories of summer picnics and draft horses with funny names, dogs with crooked ears and snowstorms that lasted for days.

One of the aides encourages my mother to eat by telling stories about farm food—sweet corn fresh from the field, chickens butchered by hand, cookies dripping with molasses, milk thick with cream from our own cows.

My aunt, for whom 1948 is far more vivid that 2018, tells stories about when we kids were small and always in to something.

Our imperatival pleading does nothing but remind Mom that she is sad. But when her friends tell stories, she is, again, a farmer’s wife, the mother of chatty children, a busy neighbor, a faithful friend, a favorite sister.

Imperatives serve only to remind us of who we are not; Love tells us who we are. Jesus wants us to follow him in faith, not in fear, so Jesus’ grammatical choices are not accidental. Rather than chastising the disciples for being complete idiots—Imperative! Imperative! Imperative!—he told them who they were, who we are.

We are servants, not masters. We are last, not first. We are grateful, not great. We will suffer, but will not be insufferable. Not a “should” anywhere, just the facts.

The life of the disciple is one of willing service, faithful following, joyful obedience. Though the world whispers in our ears that we are not enough, that we should be more, that we should be . . . something other than we are. Jesus reminds us of who we are already. In him.

Some relationships are necessarily built on rules, duty-bound and demand-heavy. Marines. Dog Obedience Schools. Fitness centers.

But it is not so among us. Here, we belong to Jesus and to each other, joyfully serving the world.

No “if,” “but” or “should” about it.

 

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (14 October 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

Amos 5.6-7, 10-15

Seek the Lord and live,
or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire,
and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.
Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood,
and bring righteousness to the ground!

They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
Therefore because you trample on the poor
and take from them levies of grain,
you have built houses of hewn stone,
but you shall not live in them;
you have planted pleasant vineyards,
but you shall not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time;
for it is an evil time.

Seek good and not evil,
that you may live;
and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you,
just as you have said.
Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.       

 

Mark 10.17-31

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

I’ve been reading and studying scripture for decades, thought I might have encountered most every biblical study technique or category, but this week I learned a new one. In the Old Testament reading from Amos, I discovered something called a “frustration oracle.” (“Studies on Old Testament Texts from Series B,” Ralph W. Klein, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, http://www.textweek.com)

What’s a frustration oracle, you ask? It’s this: “You build houses of stone, but won’t live in them. You plant vineyards, but won’t drink the wine.”

Not unlike frustration dreams, in which you shout but can’t be heard, run but don’t make progress, take the same high school math test over and over again. The kind of dream from which you wake unsettled, almost frantic. The kind of dream in which nothing you do works as it should.

That’s what Amos does to us in this unsettling “frustration oracle.” The rich will build houses into which they will never set foot. The rich will plant vineyards whose wine they will never sample. Spoken in a time of economic inequity much like our own, Amos warns that no matter what you do or earn or attempt works out as you imagine it would. In fact, Amos warns, wealth and success may be curses rather than blessings.

Amos suggests a way to break the cycle of frustration: hate evil, love good, establish justice.  Nice sentiments, to be sure, but nearly impossible to accomplish. Because, after all, it’s not any one person who has created this unsettling, frantic, unjust system. It’s the Democrats. It’s the Republicans. It’s the Fed. It the Police. Its the Protesters. Its Public Education. Its Racism. Its Sexism. It’s. . . .  well, it’s everybody. And nobody. How frustrating.

But scripture won’t leave us there, our hands thrown up in the air. Frustration isn’t a goal. It’s the goad.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is questioned in a very different fashion than last Sunday. Last Sunday the Pharisees lobbed a test question about divorce at him; their intent to shame or trip or challenge. But today, Jesus is questioned by an earnest, honest man. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus’ calm, loving response tells us the man was sincere, that this was no trap. But even this earnest, honest man left frustrated. Apparently, and we have no reason to disbelieve him, he had been a faithful keeper of the commandments all his life. He didn’t kill, steal, or lie; he didn’t cheat at cards or sleep around; he loved his mom and dad.

Commandment-keeping was easy, pleasurable for him. But mere obedience wasn’t the goal. The goal is to follow Jesus. Wherever he leads. And we can’t follow faithfully until we rid ourselves of anything that gets between him and us. Any behavior. Any idea. Any thing. In this case, it was the man’s wealth that kept him from fully following. Hardly seems fair, does it?

What did our obedient rich man do? He hung his head and walked away. Frustrated. Because he had many possessions and could not let them go.

On Friday, the state of Washington banned capital punishment, the 20th state in the union to do so. Their Supreme Court deemed the death penalty arbitrary and racially biased, unequally applied and serving no criminal justice goal. Illinois came to the same conclusion eight years ago.

When I heard the news, I called a friend who serves a congregation just down the road from a maximum-security prison in Washington.

“I just heard,” I said. “What do you think?”

He paused. “You know what I think. I don’t know.”

As a life-long Christian, he takes the commandments seriously. Remember “you shall not kill?” As a politically literate voter, he recognizes all the pitfalls the Supreme Court recognized. As a rule-keeping, take-responsibility for your own actions Eagle Scout he believes that sometimes “people deserve what they get.” As a pastor?

He counts a death row guard among his members. A woman whose twin brother awaits execution, sits next to a couple whose daughter was murdered by a man on death row. Some of his members routinely protest capital punishment at the prison’s gates. A federal judge who worships there is often pressed for a legal opinion at Coffee Hour. Most pretend the prison doesn’t even exist. And he is pastor to them all.

For their congregation, this Supreme Court decision is not a simple thing. It challenges them politically, economically, theologically, morally and very personally.

For the unthinking or uncaring among us, that debate—or any debate about difficult issues—produces no frustration at all. You think what you think and that’s it. But for most of us, it’s not that simple.

Amos says, “Hate evil, love good, establish justice.”

Jesus challenges mere commandment-keeping, laying on new demands.

Everywhere we turn, we are met with “frustration oracles”—evidence that nothing is as simple, as straight-forward, as clear as we would like.

#me too? What about #himtoo? Is protesting an act of patriotism or just wasted energy? Which is more important—human rights or international trade (see “American Journalist killed in Saudi Arabia)? When do we interfere in another nation’s conflicts? What is our responsibility to the immigrant and refugee? Should there be more guns? Fewer guns? Different guns? Soda taxes or property taxes? Or, as my libertarian friends believe, no taxes?

Last week we launched a series of conversations here about increasing the vitality and sustainability of our congregation. Borrowing from another Old Testament prophet we have committed ourselves to Do Justice; Love Mercy; Walk Humbly. (Micah 6.8)

Sounds good. Who can quibble with the prophets, with the need for goodness, justice, mercy and humility? We view this initiative as an opportunity to deepen our faith and extend our reach. How will we be changed? Who will we touch? What if we study and pray and act and nothing changes in the world?  Or in us? What if we disagree about what goodness, justice and humility look like?

But unlike us, who often regard those with whom we disagree as lesser forms of life, Jesus looks on us in our faithful frustration as he did on the commandment-keeping rich man. With love. With compassion. With patience.

Because, like him, we all lack one thing.

The rich man lacked trust. How would he live without his many possessions?

Jesus’ own disciples lacked one thing—imagination. They had been taught that wealth and power were signs of God’s favor, so if God’s favorites—the rich and powerful—couldn’t thread the eye of heaven’s needle, “Then who can be saved?”

We all lack one thing when it comes to faithful following, and that “one thing” differs from disciple to disciple. Some of us lack Patience. Others lack Humility. Or Hope. Or Confidence. Or Faith.

It would be easy to walk away today the way the rich man walked away from Jesus. Frustrated at the impossibility of following him. But Jesus has one more thing to say to us.

“You’re right. It is impossible for you—for any of you. Rich or poor. Old or young. Left or Right.” And then he paused. “But with God—all things are possible.”

Disciples don’t walk away when the following is frustrating. They ask for the one thing they lack. And follow further.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (7 October 2018)

Mark 10.2-16

JoAnn A. Post

Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

A member of a previous parish nursed an intense grudge against me. I’m not sure what I ever did or said to create such animus, but no matter what I did or said, it was wrong. The distaste became especially intense during a presidential election cycle, several cycles ago, when everything I said in a sermon or prayed in a prayer was received as a personal, partisan affront. I couldn’t win.

It was this person’s custom to lob a hand grenade my way each Sunday at the door after worship. I trained myself not to flinch when I saw them barreling down the aisle. This particular Sunday was no exception, but I was tired of being treated so poorly, being intentionally misunderstood, so, I lobbed one back (metaphorically): “But that’s not what I said, and you know it.” Without missing a beat, the retort came back: “I heard what you said. But I know what you meant.

Like I said. I couldn’t win.

Jesus finds himself in exactly the opposite position this week. We can’t really hear what he says because we know exactly what he means. And we don’t like it.

Let’s begin back at the beginning with today’s Old Testament reading. (Genesis 2.18-25) The second of two creation stories in Genesis, the one we read today begins not with wind blowing over the dark deep or God seeing that everything was good, but with the creation of a human male. In Hebrew, the word for this male creation is “Ish.” God loved Ish, and was sad that the man was alone. So, in a frenzy of trial and error, God made creatures to see which one Ish would like best of all. Four-legged beasts. Birds with feathers. Fish with fins.  Ish named them all. But none of the creatures God dreamed up was deemed suitable as a companion for Ish.

So, God created the human female, “Isha” in the Hebrew language. And when Ish woke from out-patient surgery on his ribs, he saw a creature just like himself—mostly. And what did Ish have to say about Isha? “He named her, just as he had named the other creatures God had made. “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!”

And they lived happily ever after. Oh, never mind, that’s another story.

And what did God have to say about all this? God said that Man and Woman, Ish and Isha, were to be helpers, partners. Not rivals or enemies, competitors or adversaries. But equals in caring for one another and the maniacal menagerie God had made.

Ish and Isha heard what God said; they knew what God meant.

But we also know what happened. And we’ve been imitating their blaming, shaming behavior ever since.

Jesus’ adversaries in Mark’s gospel loved to catch him in errors of logic or misinterpretation of legal precedent. So their question to Jesus today—“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”—was not a question at all, but a hand grenade lobbed in Jesus’ lap.

They knew the answer. They knew that, in fact, the law allowed a man to dismiss a woman for any reason—all he needed was a piece of paper that said, “I no longer wish to be married to you.” Is that what God meant? No, Moses, confronted with the fact that humans were going to be unfaithful to one another no matter what God said or meant, crafted an orderly means of parting—a certificate of dismissal designed to protect women from being unexpectedly abandoned. (Deuteronomy 24.1-4)

The Pharisees also knew exactly what God had said and exactly what God had meant. They knew what Moses had said and what he had meant. But divorce law was slippery even then, and they hoped to shove Jesus down that slope by surprise.

Jesus, weary of being intentionally misunderstood, lobbed a grenade right back at them. It was not his best moment, but he can be forgiven for being angry.

Diagnosing the Pharisees with a disease he called “Hardening of the Heart,” Jesus parsed Moses’ law into tiny, impossible pieces. Jesus expanded the law by allowing that women could leave men as easily as men could leave women. But to do so, and this was another new wrinkle, Jesus announced that to divorce and remarry was to commit adultery. Moses had never gone that far. And, interpreting the law with even more grit, Jesus said that those who marry are joined not only by the law but also by God. And anything God creates cannot be uncreated.

Remember what God said? Remember what God meant? Remember Ish and Isha? Man. Woman. Helper. Partner. Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh.

If only.

Here’s another name whose meaning you might not know. “Louise.”  It’s a German name that means “fierce warrior.” It conjures images of Wagnerian sopranos in horned helmets.

But, in fact, that powerful name belongs to a tiny child.

Parents have the unique privilege of naming their children—the same privilege God gave Ish in the beginning. Louise’s parents have gifted her with a powerful first name and two sturdy family names. Each of these names speaks of hope and connection and purpose.

But today Louise is given another name. The name God chooses for this remarkable creation. As water is poured over her head, oil pressed in a cross-shape on her forehead, God says, “I know you. I name you. You are my Child.”

And though our love for one another is imperfect, God’s love is as it has been from the beginning. Complete. Endless. God has never written a certificate of dismissal, has never divorced even one of God’s children.

Jesus was angry when he amplified the laws about divorce, convicting each of us. But he wouldn’t have had to be so harsh. Our hearts convict us, as well. We know that we fail—in our partnering, in our parenting, in almost every one of our relationships—even our relationship with God. We cannot discount Jesus’ words, but we also cannot punish ourselves for failing to live up to them. Who could?

Perhaps Jesus would not be quite so harsh in another circumstance, with another audience. We can’t know. But the story does not end there, with Jesus’ impossible demands.

He turns away from the hard-hearted Pharisees and extends his arms to open-hearted children. “Don’t be like them,” he said to his disciples, looking over his cold shoulder at the Pharisees. “Be like this. Be like children.” Trusting. Eager. Hopeful. Joyful. Playful. “Be like this.”

We know what Jesus said. We know what Jesus meant. We would if we could, but, so often, we can’t.

Perhaps you have imagined yourself the Pharisee in this story, the hard-hearted, rule-bound, fear-driven antagonist, punishing yourself for knowing the law but unable to keep it. But I don’t think you are. I think you, me, Louise—I think we are the Child whom God names, the Child for whom Jesus reaches, the Child whom Jesus protects and forgives and loves. We will always fail in our faithfulness to God or to each other. And when do, Jesus’ arms open to us again. “You belong to me. You belong to each other.”

Bone of my bone. Flesh of my flesh. Child, whom I name and love.

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (23 September 2018)

JoAnn A. Post

Mark 9.30-37

Jesus and the disciples went on and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Every morning is the same at my house. I am up at 5:30 and out the door with our eager-to-pee dog, Maggie. But first she has to point at a squirrel in the neighbor’s tree, stare at a bunny hopping across the lawn, finally doing her business under a favorite tree, where the grass grows especially green. As we round the corner back toward home, having sniffed every blade of grass in the neighborhood, the driver who delivers our morning newspaper burns rubber around the corner on to our street. I offer my customary greeting—a raised bag of warm dog poop—and so the day begins.

But there was a wrinkle in our routine Friday morning. As I walked toward the house, I saw something odd lying in our driveway—a rolled piece of paper covered in enormous block letters. It didn’t look like my morning newspaper, but without my glasses on it was hard to tell.  The pup and I approached it cautiously, wondering what sort of literary bomb was about to detonate in our driveway.

It was this—a faux front page on The Chicago Tribune.* Even under the kitchen’s bright lights and with glasses on my face, it made no sense. So I googled the fine print: yeezysupply.com. It was no help. Here’s what the website said: “Kanye West promotes YEEZY Boost 350 V2 “Triple White.”

I admit I am a Luddite with regard to popular culture, and it was early in the day, so my mind fluttered with barely formed questions:

  • Kanye West? Is he Mae West’s little brother?
  • Yeezy? Is that an expression of delight, like Booyah?
  • Boost 350 VT? An energy drink, like they serve my mother in the nursing home or maybe a New England license plate?
  • And what’s a “Triple White?” Toothpaste?

The answer to all those silly questions is “no.”

Mr. West was simply entering the “great” debate in which our country is embroiled. In a world puking with images and messages and attempts to get our attention and make things great again, Mr. West bested them all. This four-page ad is touted as “the single biggest YEEZY release in history” for “sneakerheads” willing to drop $220 (retail) on a pair of shoes unique because they boast a “Primeknit upper, Boost tooling, “SPLY-350” and stripe located on the medial side.”

Are those even real words?

Mr. West spent millions and millions of dollars to advertise a shoe? Is it the greatest shoe ever made? Is he the greatest ad-man in American history? Or are we the greatest suckers on the surface of the globe? (Did you know “gullible” isn’t in the dictionary?)

And besides, “greatest” is a relative term. Greatest at what? By what measure? Is greatness really the goal? And who really cares?

Jesus’ disciples could not have known that their bickering behind Jesus’ back would be front page news, earning them the ridicule of millions of Jesus fans in the centuries that followed. Like Mr. West and others who thirst for fame, these un-educated, itinerant groupies were most concerned about their own press. Though they followed Jesus everywhere, witnessing every miracle, hanging on every word, privy to his secret identity, their concern seemed to be, always and only, for themselves.

Jesus, who like my mother has eyes and ears on the back of his head, asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”

Ashamed to admit their foolishness, they fell silent. But Mark, the gossip writer, whispers in our ear: “They were arguing about which of them was the greatest.”

The greatest at what? Discipleship? Obedience? Humility? Hardly. They were greatest at being selfish.

To emphasize how low they had fallen, Jesus reached even lower, for something even smaller—in physical stature, at least. Jesus reached for a child playing in the dirt nearby.

No big deal, right? Politicians are always kissing babies, why shouldn’t Jesus do the same? But Jesus wasn’t running for office, mugging for the cameras. He was doing something no respectable adult man in his time would have even thought to do.

Unlike we who love children to the point of worshipping them, in Jesus’ day children were pretty much pointless. In the 1st century and until the 19th, the chance of a child dying before the age of 5 was 50%.** Little ones often went unnamed until it was clear the child would live. Death in childhood was as possible as life. It was best not to get attached, not to care, not to invest. In other words, and it hurts to say this, like dogs and women, children became important only when they became useful.

Imagine the offense that Jesus, only recently revealed as Messiah, would kneel to the ground, scoop up a child and say, “This is important. This nameless child is of more value than all of you put together. And when you welcome one of these, you have welcomed me. And, by extension, the Father whose child I am.”

Jesus didn’t surround himself with the world’s greatness. He created a whole new category. Last is first. Lowest is highest. Smallest is greatest.

How do we become great again in Jesus’ eyes, in God’s world? By being not great, by lowering ourselves, forgetting ourselves. Not by being as children—there’s plenty of immature behavior going around already—but by honoring what the child represented for Jesus. Honoring the one least worthy of honor. Praising the one least worthy of praise. Loving the one least worthy of love.  I can imagine the hat already: Make Humility Great Again.

A marriage and family counselor under whom I once studied knew the secret of a good marriage and happy home. “Everyday Honors,” he called them. “That’s the key.” What’s an “Everyday Honor?” Small gifts of unexpected kindness every day. For example, though he was not a morning person, he woke each morning before his wife to make her coffee. He didn’t need to; he often didn’t want to; he doesn’t even drink coffee. But every day he honored her with a coffee-cup size gift of kindness.

It’s not hard to perform these Everyday Honors. Fish the neighbor’s newspaper out from under the porch. Give the dog an extra treat. Share an umbrella with a stranger. Pay a compliment. Open a door.

Every Day Honors. Kindnesses we don’t have to commit. Gifts we don’t have to give. Love we don’t need returned.  We know we have committed such an honor when the other says, “Thanks. You didn’t have to do that.” That’s right. We didn’t.

It may sound foolish to speak of such small things as “honor.” But they are. And they are nothing but practice. Practice on easy days for the hard day when we will be called upon to kneel, to serve, to love a stranger, an enemy, even if it puts us in danger. After all, how will you know to be a humble hero in a crisis, if you’re a selfish slob the rest of the time?

James the Epistle Writer, in describing the disciple’s life, writes: “(It) is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (James 3.17)

Those who are great by the world’s standards spend a lot of money, make a lot of noise, demand a lot of attention, expect a lot of service. Those who are great by the world’s standards argue about who is the greatest.

By day’s end Friday, there were reports that the YEEZY Boost 350 V2 Triple White shoes were selling for more than ten times the retail price. That’s great, don’t you think?

Let it not be so among us.  We kneel at the feet of the world’s poor some of whom have no shoes at all, let alone buy brand-name sneakers. We glory in our shame, revel in our weakness, fully believing that it is greatest to be the least.

*https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/kanye-west-yeezy-ny-post-take-over/

**”Infant and Child Mortality in the Past,” Annales de démographie historique, 2015/1 (n° 129)

 

 

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (16 September 2018)

Mark 8.27-38

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

They live in a big old house facing the sea, in a small coastal Carolina town smack dab in the path of Hurricane Florence’s fury.

Shortly before the storm surge arrived Friday morning, an interviewer asked why she and her family had ignored the mandatory evacuation orders ahead of the hurricane. She said, “We wanted to see what it would be like to be here in a big storm.”

The Weather Channel reporter, exhausted and irritated, then asked, “And if things go badly for you, if the storm hits your house, you know that someone will have to come out into the storm to rescue you, someone will have to risk their life to save yours.”

Pause.

The woman said, “I hadn’t thought about that until just now.”

I can imagine a circumstance in which evacuation would be difficult—if someone in the home were sick or disabled; if there was livestock to tend or a business that had to stay open, or if you had critical skills. But to stay only to satisfy curiosity? Really?

In fact, within hours of the hurricane’s landfall, emergency teams near Wilmington had received more than 500 distress calls from families just like hers, who imagined their amusement was worth more than someone else’s life.  Who are these people?

Danger can escalate quickly in any storm—Mother Nature isn’t obligated to play fair. So, I pray that all those in the storm’s path are safe.  But, to be honest, a cold dark corner of my heart hopes that this family might have experienced just a moment of panic before being plucked from their roof. They needed to learn a lesson. A lesson about the value of a life. Someone else’s.

Hurricanes are not the only thing that can take sudden turns, escalating quickly into something unexpected and unmanageable.

Conversations can go that way, too.  Especially if Jesus is your conversation partner and a cross-shaped storm is brewing on the horizon.

Last week Jesus performed two miracles—banishing a demon from a little girl, and opening the ears of a hearing-impaired man. They were impressive, two more jaw-dropping events in an already breath-taking career.

Whether Jesus was in need of a pat on the back, or worried that his disciples weren’t sufficiently impressed, he queried them, “Who do people say that I am?” He was hoping they might say, “Bono” or “Pope Francis” or “Jack Ryan.”

Instead they said, “Well, we’ve heard rumors that you might be Elijah returned from death, or John the Baptizer reunited with his head.” Question mark? Their uncertainty hung in the air.

Exhausted and irritated, Jesus pressed, “Then who do you say that I am?”

The silence was deafening. Finally, Peter cleared his throat and said, “The Messiah?”

Something about that spot-on answer, Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ true identity opened the floodgates, and Jesus poured out a secret he’d been keeping for months, if not years.

“Friends, this will not end well. There are those who seek my life—some whom you know. I will be shunned. I will be tortured. I will be killed. And,” pausing for emphasis, “Then I will live.”

Peter didn’t hesitate this time. “No! It can’t happen! Not to you!”

Like a storm surge in a hurricane, Jesus unleashed a Category 5 rant.

“There is life. And there is life. There is death. And there is death.

Calling Peter names and shouting to the crowds, “The life you want—security, certainty, a comfortable retirement, reasonable answers—is not the life I offer. You’ve got to die to that life if you’re going to live into mine.”

And what does that life look like, the life Jesus offers, the death he requires? That life values the life of another more than your own. That life thinks about the needs of the other before your own. It is a life lived in the shadow of a cross—evidence of Jesus’ selfless love for us.

I have not known Kevin and Kara, whose daughter Hattie is baptized today, all that long, but I know something about them without having to ask. I know that if their daughters were in any danger—speeding train, rabid wolf, raging disease, mean girl—they would step in front of the danger for their girls without having to think about it for a second. I know, without asking them, that their love for Hattie and Landon is deep, selfless, endless. I know that they would die for their daughters if need be.

I know this because it is the way faithful parents love, thinking always of the welfare and happiness of the other. Knowing that the other’s happiness, the other’s joy brings happiness and joy to them, too.

And I know that, in bringing Hattie to us for baptism, they desire that life for her, as well.  They desire that she will, like them and her grandparents and her baptismal sponsors, live always for the sake of the other, especially if that “other” is a small or frightened or alone. As much as they love her, they know that God loves her more, that God has plans for her. A plan that involves service and kindness and generosity. And fearless love.

Please know, there is a great chasm between the life Jesus desires for us, this baptized life into which Hattie enters, and going through life as a doormat, a tool, an amusement, whatever someone else wants. The life Jesus asks us to live is a life we choose, not one that is thrust upon us by another whose motives may be suspect. As I said to my girls often when they were just beginning to date, “Anyone who says, ‘If you love me, you’ll do . . . , doesn’t love you. Run away.”

Disciples choose the way we love; no one tells us. No one but Jesus.

Meanwhile, people wise and foolish, generous and selfish are being pummeled by Hurricane Florence, a storm that does not distinguish among its victims. And none of us can know how we would respond under similar unexpected, threatening circumstances. So, rather than being catty, as I have been, about those who tempt Florence by staying behind, it is incumbent upon me and you, and all who have already waded in the waters of baptism, to protect these small, frightened, isolated children of God from the unwelcome waters that rise around them.

There is life and there is life.

There is death and there is death.

Jesus asks us to choose life that really is life, even if it means a little bit of what we had imagined has to die.

Today we choose Jesus’ life—for us, for Hattie, for all who must weather life’s storms.

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time/God’s Work Our Hands Sunday (9 September 2018)

Mark 7.24-37

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.


Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

She had come of age in a time when school teachers wore dresses and sensible pumps to school, when students sat in straight rows and called her “Mrs.” though she was not married. She had been astonished, as a young teacher, that her classroom parents accepted her advice about their children, supported her work, made sure their children were ready for the school day—homework done, breakfast in their bellies and lunch money in their pockets. Her students brought her homemade gifts at Christmas and relished the opportunity to clap the erasers clean for her at the end of the day. She loved being a teacher, couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

The teacher had never imagined she would spend the last few years of her teaching career fending off accusatory parents, providing food and clothing for her students, dealing with behaviors that bordered on criminal. It was then—at the weary end of an otherwise successful teaching career—that our daughter was assigned to her classroom.

On the second day of school, our daughter came home crying.  One of the boys had thrown a chair at the teacher. The teacher had run crying out of the room, and had to be replaced by the principal. After school, a parent was standing outside the classroom door to yell at the teacher. My daughter was afraid. Of third grade. We encouraged her to wait, to let everyone settle in to the routine. But it never got better.

We have always supported our children’s schools, and school teachers and administrators. But this was too much. We shouldn’t have to worry about our daughter’s safety in elementary school. For the first time in our lives, and with enormous angst, we made an appointment to see the principal to request a teacher change.

The principal was wonderful, and not surprised. She listened patiently. Asked helpful questions. And then said, “You’re right. That classroom is not a good environment for your daughter. We will move her to another room. But please be kind when you speak of her teacher. She is facing challenges I cannot tell you about. I worry about her, too.”

The word that best describes that moment in the principals’ office? “Intercession.” Us for our daughter; the principal for her teacher.

What does that mean? To intercede means to use your influence for the sake of someone who has none.  Our weekly prayers here are called “intercessions,” as we bring the needs of the world to God’s attention.

We interceded for our daughter, who did not have the tools to advocate for herself. And because we could not have known the teacher’s story, the principal interceded for her, urging us to kindness toward and patience with a teacher who was equally ill-equipped for whatever battle she faced.

Today’s gospel reading seems, at first, an odd pairing, random stories about Jesus doing amazing things. The first takes place on Israel’s North Shore, where a distraught mother threw herself at Jesus’ feet for the sake of her daughter who was demon-possessed. The mother’s address (the region of Tyre) tells us she was probably well-educated and wealthy, able to afford excellent medical care. But it was not medical care her daughter needed. It was freedom. And no amount of education or influence could provide that. So, Tesla still running, she ran to Jesus and fell at his feet. She interceded.

Jesus left that place and, again, the address of his next encounter is revealing. The “Decapolis” to which he travelled was a loose coalition of ten cities under Roman rule; they worshipped the emperor and enjoyed high culture—music, art, food, wine. It was there, in one of those cosmopolitan cities that nameless friends led a man unable to either speak or hear. The man could not ask for help for himself; someone had to do it for him. So, like the Syrophoenician woman before them, these cultured, unbelieving friends humbled themselves before Jesus for a miracle—not for themselves but for a friend.

They interceded. A mother for her child. Friends for their comrade. Because of their circumstances, I doubt they even knew for sure what they were asking, or of whom they were asking it. But someone they loved was in need. And they were going to do something about it.

In most arenas of our lives, our concern is primarily for ourselves. Professional advancement. Personal happiness. Amassed wealth. Public recognition. Educational attainment. It is especially true here, among us, on Chicago’s North Shore, where competition for excellence begins in kindergarten.

How fortunate we are, we who believe in Jesus and live among his disciples, to live another way, to pursue another goal. It is baked—actually baptized—into us that we do not live for ourselves but always for the other. And any influence we might have is to be used for the sake of those who have none.  We are, from our toes to our nose, engaged in “intercession” for the sake of the world.

But the miracles that take place in Tyre or in the Decapolis, in North Lawndale or even in Northfield, are not of our own making.  We can only intercede. Jesus acts.  Jesus speaks.

To the troubled mother he said, “Go! The demons are gone!”

To the deaf man he whispered, “Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Miracles happen every day. Because someone brings them to Jesus’ attention.

Let me tell you of another intercessor, another miracle, in another zip code.

A woman of North Lawndale, a teacher-turned-principal-and-now-CEO fell at Jesus’ feet for the sake of her students and her school.  The demons of poverty and violence plague her children’s lives. The ears of the world are deaf to their need. So, she daily intercedes for them with Jesus. And with us.

Our daughter thrived in her new classroom—there was no flying furniture, no screaming parents, no weeping teacher. But I have often wondered about her first teacher, who began her career with such hope. And I am always grateful for that wonderful principal, whose work was to intercede, to exert influence for those who had none.

Others come to us, Jesus’ disciples, in search of healing and hope. Interceding for victims of earthquake in Japan, war in Syria, violence in Chicago, justice in our courts. We, in turn take them to Jesus. Protect them. Free them. Encourage them.

“Go!” Jesus commanded the frightened mother. “The demons are gone!”

“Ephphatha!” Jesus whispered to the deaf man. “You can hear now.”

Because someone interceded, Jesus acted.  That someone is us.

 

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (2 September 2018)

Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23

JoAnn A. Post

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Rarely has Christianity been on display as widely, as publicly as in the last three days. The whole world watched as Aretha Franklin and John McCain were laid to rest—in funeral services that demonstrated the wide range and diverse beauty of what we believe.

Ms. Franklin’s Homegoing lasted more than seven hours. Scripture was proclaimed. Gospel music that made even tense white Lutherans want to dance rang through the cathedral. They prayed. They commended. They spoke of service and compassion and care for the poor and passionate pursuit of freedom and opportunity for all.

Senator McCain’s state funeral could not have been more different. But it was exactly the same. Only 2 ½ hours in length, scripture was proclaimed. They prayed. They commended. Flutey boys’ choirs and famous opera singers and weeping presidents sang dignified, haunting hymns of grief and hope. They spoke of suffering and humility and courage and passionate pursuit of freedom and opportunity for all.

Jesus would have been proud. I know I was.

Far too often we cede our public persona to fringes of the Christian faith community. Those who know nothing of Jesus but what they see on television or in the twitter-verse imagine that Jesus lived and died to maintain the status quo. Too often, those who would speak for us speak words of division and fear, judgement and disgust. The portray us as rule-bound and fear-ridden and finger-wagging. Those who would speak for us say a lot of “no” and very little “yes.” A lot of “don’t do that” and very little “Jesus loves you.”

What a gift it was to see the fundamentals of our faith played out across every media platform all around the world. Though we may sing different styles of music and differ on how long worship ought to last, the message of Jesus was plain to hear. Jesus calls us to serve. Jesus calls us to love. Jesus calls us to sacrifice. Jesus calls us to peace.

How odd then, that today’s texts have been used to caricature another great faith community, to limit their message to one that is rule-bound, fear-ridden, finger-wagging, a message that is all “no” and very little “yes.”

When Jesus takes on the Pharisees, it is not to incriminate all of Judaism, to put them in their place—that is, shove them aside now that Jesus is in the building. Jesus was himself a Jew, immersed in the history and the teachings and the practices of the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. Jesus did not hate Jews. Jesus did not intend to eliminate Jews. He was one.

So why the steady stream of criticism? “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition!”

Let’s step back a moment before going forward. This morning’s Old Testament reading is a portion of Moses’ speech to the people of Israel immediately before they were to cross the border into the Promised Land. Today they would be deemed “undocumented,” detained at the border for questioning. But God instead named them “chosen,” “holy,” a people in need of a home.

Early in Moses’ sermon he reminded them of both the value of the commandments of God and their purpose.  The value? Living in God’s ways would prolong their lives, stabilize their communities, shower them with blessings.  To paraphrase Moses, “The ways of God are good for you.”

But the purpose of the commandments, the rigors of the faithful life was witness.  God desires that all will come to know the joys of believing in God, so Israel’s adherence to God’s ways would be a magnet for the people into whose land they crossed. “You must observe them diligently,” Moses said, “for this will show your wisdom and discernment to peoples who will say, ‘What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord their God when they call?’” (Deuteronomy 4.6-7)

Long life. Powerful witness. That is what drove the people of God to obedience.

Fast forward many centuries, and it seems that, for some, that original good intent of God had been forgotten.  Some remembered the letter of the law, but not its intent.  That is why Jesus jumped all over the Pharisees. It seems they washed their hands fastidiously but did not remember why. They ate only select foods but did not remember why. They held to the commandments of God, at least some of them, forgetting that the core of the commandments is this: to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly.

Jesus was not indicting all of Judaism when he criticized the Pharisees. He indicted their forgetfulness. As a student of scripture, Jesus quoted Isaiah to them, “This people honors God with their lips but not their hearts.” Because, that is, after all the purpose of our lives—to honor God and care for the neighbor.

Those who love God love not the rules, but the rule-giver. The One who orders our lives and sends us out to witness.

It is not only Christians and Jews who sometimes obey without understanding.

Two weeks ago, a West Coast telecom cut off wireless service to a firefighting team in Sonoma. The fire fighters relied on their wireless service to communicate with one another and track the wildfires. But, that particular fire team had exceeded its data limit, so service was terminated. Temporarily. How many lives were lost, how many acres destroyed because adherence to the rule was more important than the emergency of the moment?

Last week two tennis players (is it accidental they are women?) were reprimanded for their attire on the court. One for wearing an admittedly unorthodox body suit deemed medically necessary. Another for ten seconds of shirtlessness because her shirt was on in-side-out. Rules were quickly crafted to justify these random decisions. Rules intended not to support or encourage women athletes or the game of tennis, but to control and to shame.

All Jesus did was for the sake of sinners. Healing. Feeding. Teaching. Forgiving. Dying. Rising. He reserved his judgment only for those who judged. He unleashed his sharp tongue only on those whose tongues were also sharp. He had little patience the finger-wagging, rule-worshipping, fear-mongering of some religious leaders. But endless time, eternity in fact, for those in need of mercy.

What does it look like to be a Christian? Watch those two amazing funerals. Read Jesus’ pointed words. Hang out with sinners.

And, for those who still insist on purity and rigidity, on adhering to every letter of the law we give James the last word: “Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1.27)

Jesus would be so proud.