Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (8 September 2019)

God’s Work Our Hands Sunday

Luke 14.25-33

JoAnn A. Post 

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 

“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 

“Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.  

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Our younger daughter attended a fine arts college in Boston, unlike almost any college in the United States, in that it awards degrees only in fine and liberal arts. Writing. Publishing. Acting. Cinematography. Directing. There isn’t an engineer or an early childhood education major within four blocks of the campus.

You can imagine the bohemian atmosphere, a campus so creative it glows in the dark.

A few years ago, the college added a degree program that, at first mention, seems modestly useless. It’s called Comedic Arts. Pay tuition to tell a joke? But more than teaching students to tell jokes in smoky bars (think “The Amazing Miss Maisel”), students study rhetoric, performance, writing, theater. They study the art, the architecture, the science of comedy. Shakespeare would be proud. And maybe if there are enough of them, the world will laugh a little more than it does now.

One of the intro courses for this new major is Improv 101. Since most people would rather die than speak in public, students must be taught, sometimes forces to improvise, in public, without a net. They learn to think and speak on their feet, to ignore the butterflies in their stomachs and attend, instead, to the rapid-fire exchange of ideas and witticisms. When we watch professional comedians improvise, it seems as easy as talking over lunch. But it is, in fact, an art, a skill, a finely-tuned mental discipline. Its sweaty.

One of the first lessons of Improv? “Yes. And.”

When one comedian hands the baton of a joke off to another, it is received first with affirmation. “Yes.” And then with expansion. “And.”

For example, the first comedian says, “Do you see that fish swimming toward us?”

The joke would be, literally, dead in the water if the second comedian said, “Nope. I don’t see any fish.”

Instead, the second comedian says, “Yes, and I think it’s from Loch Ness!”

The speaker is affirmed. The story expands.

It is the basis of all human interaction.

Yes. I hear you.

And. I’m willing to consider your premise.

Again, this seems a simple thing until you consider the way we mostly talk to each other, especially in public discourse. Imagine the presidential debate stage if, instead of trying to make the other candidates look like complete idiots, each one expanded, helpfully on the others’ ideas. Rather than a tedious two-hour display of arrogance and non-sequiturs, a debate might actually accomplish something.

It happens even in our homes. “What do you want for supper?”

“I don’t care.”

“OK, let’s get Thai take-out.”

“No. I don’t want Thai.” (Apparently, you do care.)

What if, instead, even if you weren’t in the mood for Thai take-out, you responded, “Yes, and, next time we’ll get pizza!”

Everyone eats. Everyone is heard. Everyone gets—eventually—what they want.

Yes.

And.

Most often we respond to any idea not our own with either an immediate “No!” or “Yeah, but.” Like I said, dead in the water. Jesus would have us improvise.

By this time in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ followers have multiplied from a handful of eager disciples, to an army that encamped around him day and night. Luke writes, “Now, large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” Think food trucks, tent cities, port-a-potties.

As the size of Jesus’ audience grew, so did the outrageousness of his message. In an attempt to wean the herd, Jesus laid out seemingly impossible demands. It is possible Jesus didn’t literally mean all he asked, but he wanted to push them, challenge them, expose the limits of their love.

“Hate your father and mother.”

“Count the cost and be willing to admit you were wrong.”

“Give everything away.”

Jesus would be a challenging improv partner, since everything he says elicits either an immediate “No!” or, more considerately, “Yeah, but . . .” from us.

Yeah, my parents can be irritating. But hate them?

Yeah, I might be in a little over my head, but give up now?

Yeah, I have too much stuff, but I can’t give it all away.

Not only is there no joke there, there is also no discipleship. When we won’t even consider Jesus’ demands, or even wonder about them, or entertain the possibility, we can’t even consider calling ourselves disciples.

After all, the word “disciple” means “student.” Show me the student who says “no” or “yeah, but” to everything the teacher says, and I’ll show you a student who learns nothing.

Imagine if when Jesus asks something hard of us, we paused before pouncing. We considered the merits of his request. We imagined our way into his world, even for a moment, improvising all the way.

Forgive those who harm you.

Love your neighbor.

Share all your possessions.

We want to shout “No!” Or “You don’t understand!” Those are easy answers. And show stoppers.

Closer to home, imagine that someone with whom you live or work or study floats an unlikely idea. Instead of saying, “What, are you nuts?” or “Yeah, but that would never work.” You said, “Yes, and . . .”

There’s a conversation there. There’s life there.

There are some who follow Jesus who do so with great certainty and confidence. They are quick with “No!” or “Yeah, but . . .” Apparently, they can read Jesus’ mind. They know who Jesus loves and who he doesn’t. They know what behaviors are acceptable to him and those that aren’t. They can ascertain, even at a great distance, who is heaven-bound and who travels the highway to hell.

They don’t follow very far, I fear. Discipleships isn’t “no.” Discipleship isn’t “but.” Discipleship is “and.”

Jesus doesn’t expect his disciples to be perfect in every way, to follow without question, to be dogmatic and rigid. He asks us to improvise.

Follow me, Jesus invites.

Today we say, “Yes, and . . . “

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Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (1 September 2019)

Luke 14.1, 7-14

JoAnn A. Post

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

“Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

I don’t often turn to “The Godfather” for homiletical inspiration, but Michael Corleone’s memory of his own father’s advice—“My father taught me many things in this room”—gave him permission to order a hit on a rival mafia family. Not only to retaliate for a wrong, but to convince another rival rival that they were still friends.

It is a complicated, bloody logic. Keeping one’s enemies close not only to keep tabs on them, but to trick them into thinking they are not enemies, but friends. Capisce?

Though Jesus and the Pharisees hardly qualify as rival mob families, their relationship is as complicated. Here’s another unlikely image. Like Sumo wrestlers circling one another in the ring, each one waiting for the best moment to pounce, Jesus and the Pharisees keep one another always just in reach. Close friends? Close enemies? Time will tell.

Before we unpack Jesus’ convoluted advice about table manners (taking a lower place, coming up higher), let’s take a look at the guest list for the meal Luke describes today.

Having only last week mocked the religious leaders in public for their hypocrisy about Sabbath law (remember, Jesus healed a woman in the synagogue on the sabbath, just to irritate them), today he is seated at the table of one of those same recently-humiliated leaders. What’s that about?

Is it customary in your family to rip someone to shreds one day and invite them to supper the next? I didn’t think so.

But Jesus and the Pharisees aren’t your ordinary enemies. They are far more “friends” than they imagine.

Each of them loves the law. Each of them obeys the commandments. Each of them honors sabbath practice. Each of them reveres the temple and supports the synagogue. Each of them seeks to be faithful to the one true God of their ancestors.

What’s with the feud?

For reasons that are not immediately clear, Jesus is having supper with a leader of the Pharisees. The peace is tenuous.

In spite of light-hearted banter around the table, Luke writes that the Pharisees “watched him closely.”  They were just waiting for him to say or do something incriminating.

But they were not the only ones on high alert. Luke reports that Jesus “noticed how the guests were seated.”

Eyes on each other, butter knives in easy reach, Jesus and the Pharisees were sizing each other up.  Remember, keep both friend and enemy close.

Imagine the swankiest banquet you’ve ever attended, the most pretentious reception. Unlike church potlucks where you sit wherever there’s a chair, at important events, every seat is claimed in advance. Whether with a name tag that has your name and table number on it, or on a clipboard clutched by a carefully-coiffed concierge, your seat has been selected for you. And your proximity to the front of the room tells you and everyone else how important you are. Are aren’t.

Apparently, there were some rubes in robes scattered among the crowd and, ignoring the number on their name tags, and catapulted straight toward the head table, air kissing the host, snagging a flute of fancy champagne on their way.

No one seemed surprised, or disturbed by this, but Jesus.

It was that shameless clambering for attention, butting to the front of the line, seeking to be seen that Jesus hated most about his close enemies, the Pharisees. Some of them—surely not all—but some of them had turned the synagogue from a house of worship and a place of sanctuary, into a country club, an exclusive resort, a pay-to-play Ponzi scheme.

So I think, knowing what I know about the host at this party, Jesus was invited for two reasons. First, they wanted to keep an eye on him—to keep him from infecting the crowds with his preaching. The second was because, in spite of their mistrust, they recognized him as important. To have the most important preacher in Jerusalem at their house was a coup, which raised their public status, as well.

Social climbing, I think it’s called.

Isn’t it exhausting? Keeping track of Who is Who and Who is Not? Where you stand? Where you sit? Hating your friend’s enemy, cozying up to your enemy’s friend? You practically need a score cord to keep track of who you are supposed to hate today. There’s probably an app for that.

Jesus, who most certainly had a seat at the head table, had not yet taken it. Standing at the back of the room, amused at the antics, he had one eye on the nonsense in the room, and another eye on the street outside.

A street clogged with beggars and con artists, people with disabilities and disease. He would much rather have been out there, wading among them, than choking on the pretention at the party.

Jesus didn’t last long at supper that night. He stormed to the front of the room and scattered the wanna-be’s who were stealing seats. He then stomped out into the street and invited in all the nobody’s languishing there. He dragged the high lower, and the pushed low higher.

Who was his friend then? Who was his enemy?

More important, did Jesus care?

FOMO. In the on-line world of clever acronyms, they call it FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out.

Some of the religious leaders hated Jesus because he didn’t care what they thought, who they were, what they did. They twisted themselves into knots making sure they were seen and that they saw. They would rather die than miss out.

Jesus didn’t care about any of that. Jesus’ lack of concern for public opinion, for headlines, both frightened and angered them. Who is this guy, who can draw a crowd just by walking down the street, and who can as easily walk away from it?

He didn’t care about missing out, but those others? Those who were never invited in? They had missed out on every opportunity in life. Jesus wasn’t going to miss even one of them.

Here’s another reason some of the religious leaders might have hated Jesus: he was always the same. Whether in black-tie or barefoot, Jesus was always the same. He was happy to engage anyone—important or not—in honest conversation about the ways of God. And he was equally happy to call out those who mistook their ways for the ways of God. And he also, always loved the losers. Forgave the sinners. Healed the sick. Raised the dying. Protected the weak. Listened to those who had no voice.

Remember what the writers of Hebrews reminded his under-siege little Christian congregation? “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.” (Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16)

Just this week, I read an analysis about the two faces of religion in our country.* One is the polished, public, preening, hyper-political face that makes headlines every day, seeking to be seen. The other is the unseen, unnamed, unassuming face, preoccupied with serving the least among us, ministering where most people fear to be found.

Whether you agree with the writer’s analysis or not, the premise is worth thinking about.

Where are we between those two poles? Where do we appear on that seating chart? Where would Jesus be?

Michael Corleone knew only two kinds of people. Friends and Enemies.

The Pharisees—the corrupt ones, at least—knew only two kinds of people. Insiders and Outsiders.

Popular cultures encourage us to know only two kinds of people. Us and Them.

Jesus? He knows all people. Loves all people. Whether in or out, friend or enemy, us or them, Jesus is always the same.

*”Why People Hate Religion,” Timothy Egan in The New York Times, August 30, 2019

 

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (25 August, 2019)

Luke 13.10-17

JoAnn A. Post

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.  

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”   

When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. 

She came to me on the advice of a mutual friend who worshipped in our congregation. The purpose of our appointment was unclear–we had a pleasant, though wandering conversation. She told me about the shenanigans of her small children, about frustrations at work, about the strained relationship with her parents. We talked about everything, it seems. Everything but the man with whom she lived. Whenever I asked about him, she quickly changed the subject.

I can’t imagine how difficult it was to tell a stranger, even a kind stranger in a clerical collar, what her life was really like. But finally she did. And what was her life really like? She was frightened. Frightened of him. Of his rages. Of his threats. Of his erratic behavior.

She cried as she talked, head bent low, eyes trained on the soggy Kleenex in her lap.

When she finished, we were silent for a long time. I broke the silence, “What do you need?”

She squared her shoulders, stuffed the tissue in her pocket and said, “I need to go home.” And she did.

I never had occasion to speak to her again, though I learned from our mutual friend that she moved out of the house, then back again. That they had another child. That she moved out of the house, then back again.

I wondered why she would return, again and again, to an unsafe home. A therapist friend whom I consulted for wisdom speculated it might be something called “learned helplessness.” The belief that, no matter how bad things were at home, she was helpless to change it, or to survive on her own.

I understood, but it didn’t ring true. Not in this case.  The woman who had sat across from me in my office was not weak or ill-equipped, certainly not helpless. Judging by the number of balls she kept in the air on a daily basis, she seemed strong and organized and decisive. So, why not leave if she felt the need?

Recently I learned of an alternative explanation, another reason why we might stay in a tough place, return to a troubled relationship, a motivation called “learned hopefulness*.”

That is, some people in difficult situations are able to stay, not because of help-less-ness but because of hope-full-ness. They see some good in the person with whom they live, they see some progress in the relationship, they can imagine a different outcome. It is hope that keeps them coming home, not weakness.

To be sure, there is no single reason for any of our seemingly self-defeating behaviors, and I would never advise a person in danger to remain, but it seems some of us choose to try, to stay, to hope.

In a world that makes so many feel helpless, some live lives of “learned hopefulness.”

I wonder why the woman in today’s gospel reading stayed.

We don’t know her age, or her family situation. But we know that, in spite of a crippling spinal condition (“quite unable to stand up,” according to Luke), she worshipped in the synagogue. Maneuvering among the courtyard vendors, skirting the rabbis huddled in corners with their students, down the narrow hallway that led to the women’s worship area—she saw none of it. Eyes on the ground, leaning heavily on a cane, she was forced to meet the world head-down, head-on, head-bowed.

For 18 years, she saw nothing but feet and floors.

Did she even bother to wonder, anymore, what it would be like to stand straight, to look someone in the eye, to greet the world with a smile rather than the top of her head. Had she learned helplessness, living with her ailment, or was she in synagogue because of hope?

Her true motivations will never be known.

But we do know that though she saw nothing around her, Jesus saw her. He picked her bent frame out of the sea of worshippers and worship leaders in synagogue, calling her to his side. With great effort, she sidled up to him in the crowd. With no effort at all he straightened her. “Be free. Be well. Stand up.”

He touched her. She snapped to attention. And began to sing, her life and hope restored.

I like to think that Jesus’ miracles were performed out of the goodness of his heart, for holy purposes. But sometimes, like today, I think Jesus is just being difficult. The miracle he performed was technically “work;” work was prohibited on the Sabbath. And what difference would one more day have made to a woman disabled for 18 years? Yet he did this non-essential, unauthorized work in the middle of the synagogue on the Sabbath in full view of the synagogue leader.

Though a gift to the Bent Woman, I wonder if this miracle was really just a poke in the synagogue leader’s eye.

But there’s more. Once Jesus had the full attention of the synagogue leader, he poked him in the other eye, accusing the leader of having more compassion for oxen and donkeys than for a disabled daughter of Abraham.

The leader fumed. The crowd cheered. And the woman? She danced all the way home.

What brought the Bent Woman to synagogue that day? Surely no one would have thought less of her for staying home. We have all had days when just the thought of getting up, getting dressed, getting out of the house and into a public place leaves us sweaty and limp.

But why wouldn’t she be in synagogue? I don’t think that, though disfigured and disappointed, the Bent Woman had learned helplessness. I think she had learned to be hopeful. Perhaps not for anything as specific as the miracle she received, but she kept coming to the synagogue to pray. She must have expected something.

Clearly, she never stopped hoping.

Before I go on, please let me remind you, there are circumstances in our lives when no amount of hope or faith makes a difference. Circumstances that require us to free ourselves or be freed. I would never advocate that we remain in homes or jobs or relationships that demean and damage.

But we all can name people, perhaps you are that person, who have been able to choose hopefulness over helplessness. People who, under difficult circumstances, live courageously and confidently, trusting and trying.

I think of the thousands of people damaged by sexual scandal in the church, many of whom have turned their backs on us. Can you blame them? But there are others, some of you, in fact, who have seen a possibility for change, a promise of life, who continue to hope beyond hope that the church can be the safe, shining light it is intended to be. You have learned to hope.

I think of migrants and refugees on every shore, who, having fled violence and poverty in their home countries, look to us for safety and relief. They are not criminals or low-lifes. They are desperate people, praying somewhere in the world they will find safety and welcome. They have learned to hope.

I think of the clients of The Night Ministry, whom we are getting to know. The causes of homelessness are as many as the persons who are homeless. Helpless? I’m sure it feels that way. But can they learn, can we teach them to hope? Or maybe it is they who teach us.

The Bent Woman may have been little more than an excuse for Jesus to throw shade at the synagogue leaders.  But she is more than that to us. Somehow, in the midst of her sorrow, she found reason to hope. And, beyond her wildest imaginings, that hope was rewarded.

Together, in a world and a country and a city and homes and sometimes a church that drains hope from us on a daily basis, those of us who are helpless, frightened and alone can learn to hope again. And those of us who, like the Bent Woman, now stand straight and strong, can teach it.

Jesus breaks rules for the sake of the broken.

Jesus lifts the fallen from their fear.

Jesus teaches us to hope.

 

*“A House of Their Own,” Larissa MacFarquhar, The New Yorker, August 19, 2019)

 

 

Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (11 August 2019)

Luke 12.32-40

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.


“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

I have the misfortune of running into him every few weeks, our paths crossing in the grocery store or at Target. Most often, when I see him coming, I push my cart down another aisle, or pretend to be deep in thought in the produce section.

When we first met, a few years ago, he seemed harmless. But I have since learned this his mind and his heart are dark. No matter what the topic, he has something negative to say. Everyone is stupid. Everything is wrong. The world is out to get him. He thinks religion is for idiots and often greets me with a smirking, “How’s the God Business going?”

I come away from conversations with him exhausted and empty.

One of his favorite rants is about his mother, who, according to him, could be Cruella de Vil’s twin sister. She’s elderly, in poor health, unpleasant, unappeasable, and, worst of all, she just won’t die.

Much to my chagrin, I could not avoid an encounter with him this week. As we approached one another he said, “How’s your summer been?”  It seemed to be safe conversational terrain, so, foolishly, I told him. “Well, we had travel plans, but my Mom died unexpectedly and. . .” Before I could finish my sentence, he blurted, “Good for you! I wish mine would.”

If is mother is as awful as he claims, she may be staying alive just to spite him. (And perhaps I should share my family’s rule? That after 35 years of age, you can’t blame your parents for your problems anymore. I need to think about that.)

The saddest thing about my angry acquaintance is that I think he likes to feel this way, that he chooses to act and speak the way he does, darkening the world with his anger. He could choose a different way.

This morning I’m imagining God felt about Abraham the way I feel about That Guy. Though God had promised Abraham vast land holdings, enormous herds and flocks, children beyond number, Abraham was in a funk. (Genesis 15.1-6)

By the 15th chapter of Genesis, Abraham had decided that God was a liar, that God’s promises were worthless, that God was not to be trusted. Bumping into one another in a dream, God led with a chipper: “Hey, Abraham. Good to see you. The promise still stands. Nothing to fear.”

But Abraham laid into God, “You promised me children. Where are they? You promised me a home. Where is it? I’m wandering in the desert. Some kid named Eliezer claims to be my son. I’m done with you, God.”

Abraham may not have been, by nature, negative or ill-tempered. But decades of disappointment had let all the hope leak out of his heart, had made him afraid that, maybe, just maybe, everything he had believed in was a lie.

Abraham needed to be reminded that hope was possible, that God keeps promises, that he had nothing to fear.

To prove the point, God dragged Abraham out into the dark desert. A darkness lit only by twinkling stars, billions of miles away. “Look up, Abraham. See those stars? So many, so bright shall your descendants be. I promise. Don’t be afraid.”

My nasty nemesis would have kicked sand in God’s face, always choosing to be angry and mistrustful. But Abraham had not been completely consumed by the darkness. The writer of Genesis reports that Abraham made a different choice. He abandoned fear, choosing, instead, faith.

My grandfather used to roll his own cigarettes and smoke them in the car with the windows up. The longer he drove, the thicker the air became, the more noxious the fumes. We grandkids would fall out of the car when it stopped, gasping for air, coughing up a lung.

This week’s national air has felt as poisonous as in my Grandpa’s car.

For reasons that elude us, gunmen have taken to the streets as though we live in the Wild West. Dayton. El Paso. Chicago. Brooklyn. Utah. Missouri. Louisiana.

It is not only the bullets that concern me. The idle speculation about their actions is almost as dangerous.

A brief aside: I have to admit to being tremendously disappointed this week when some of these incidents, without evidence, were blamed on mental illness. As one who knows and loves many who struggle with mental health, speculation that mental illness leads to violence, or proposals that mental health crises should be punished with imprisonment or the death penalty were bone-chilling.

We would be wise to measure our words, withhold our speculation.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming: Why do young men arm themselves against us? What drives them into the arms of gangs or conspiracy theorists? There are a million reasons; not one of them good. I will leave the scientific, sociological and political analysis to others. But my pastor’s intuition, my biblical study, tells me that one reason they may lash out this way is because they have made a choice. They have made a choice to be afraid.

Afraid of abandonment. Afraid of irrelevance. Afraid of poverty. Afraid of change. Afraid of strangers. Afraid of being a victim themselves.

Are they lost to us? Hopelessly enveloped in anger and fueled by fear? I pray not.

I cannot begin to imagine the energy, the courage, the hope, the guidance it would take for them to make a different choice. To look at the world around them, a world that seems so dark, and choose to believe that there is nothing to fear. To choose to believe that God is a keeper of promises. Even when those promises are slow in coming.

“Do not be afraid,” God reminded Abraham.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel Gabriel encouraged Mary.

“Do not be afraid,” angels sang to shepherds when Jesus was born.

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus shouted to his disciples over the storm.

Clearly, fear has always come to us more naturally than has faith.

The young men who surrounded Jesus were not unlike those who stalk our national psyche with loaded words and weapons. They could have chosen a gang, I suppose. They could have chosen to follow someone who promised dominance over their enemies. But instead the disciples abandoned everything to follow Jesus, and often at the end of the day, found themselves with no place to sleep, no meal to eat, no idea when they would see their families again, no certainty of what lay ahead. They were often afraid.

How do I know this?

Because Jesus pulls them aside from the crowds to calm them as a shepherd calms spooked sheep, “Don’t be afraid.”

“Easy for you to say,” they thought smugly, having no idea what lay ahead for him.

“Do not be afraid. God wants to give you everything. God wants to give you the kingdom.”

And in the meantime, while waiting for that promise to be kept, they were to be unafraid, generous, alert to signs of God in the world.

“Who knows,” Jesus told them, “God might keep a promise at any moment, when you have stopped expecting it. Be alert. And unafraid.”

We all make choices about the way we move through the world.

Some of us choose to be angry. Some choose to hide. Some of us choose to mistrust. Some of us choose to come out swinging. Some of us choose to be afraid.

Jesus would have us choose another path. The path of fearlessness. The path of promise.  Do not be afraid.

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (4 August 2019)

Luke 12.13-21

JoAnn A. Post 

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 

Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produce abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 

So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

“Why am I here?” If I had a dime for every time I have been asked that question, I would have a lot of dimes.

The recently bereaved. The very elderly. The terminally ill. The unloved, unwelcomed, unmoored among us.

Years ago, a friend’s husband and only grandchild were killed in a car accident, from which she emerged the sole survivor. They were buried in the same casket, Roger cradling young Fredrick in his lifeless arms. For months, my friend wandered through her days aimlessly, asking even strangers, “Why am I here?” She could not imagine the purpose of her life, burdened as she was with grief and guilt.

“Why am I here?” is the refrain of the saddest song in the world.

I am only now returning from what was to have been a three-week vacation, but was, instead, a time of grateful grieving the death of my mother, who died two days shy of her 89th birthday, three weeks ago this morning.

But our grieving for her began long ago, as she slowly stopped being the Mom we knew.

My mom, Troyce Post, was a woman of her time. Beautiful, smart, kind. Had she been born in another generation she might have gone to college, might have had a career, might have moved off the farm. But instead she fell in love and married the boy next door, never living more than four miles from the place of her birth.

Mom’s life was defined by her roles: wife, mother, farmer, neighbor, sister, daughter, friend. She performed each of these roles with graceful expertise, never letting on how long her days were, how tired she must have been. I remember, as a child, thinking my mother never got sick. But then I had children of my own, and realized that she probably suffered the same ailments as everyone else; she simply didn’t have time to take a sick day.

I remember the day the last of us eight kids left for college. I was worried about my mother—what would she do without a child in the house. I called her about 10:00 that morning and she picked up the phone saying, “And you’re Number Five.”

She laughed. “I know you kids are worried about me, but I’m fine. Just finishing a cup of coffee and the crossword. Go back to work.”

Though her responsibilities had shifted and her burdens eased, they continued to define her. And happily so.

But after she no longer lived in her own home, made her own meals, woke next to her own husband, she started asking that hard question, “Why am I here?” We struggled to answer her, since we wondered, too, what her life meant when all those tasks that gave her joy, those responsibilities that filled her days had been taken from her.

Please forgive my preoccupation with my own memories. I don’t want to presume on your kindness and patience, since so many of you have grieved as I now do. You probably have a therapist; I have a pulpit.

And I don’t know that I would have spent this much time talking about my Mom except that the texts handed to me for preaching ask the very question so many have asked before us, the question that haunts so many whom we love. “Why am I here?”

In this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus is assaulted by a person in the crowd who wants to draw him into a personal dispute. “Jesus, Jesus,” the man jumped up and down to get his attention. “My older brother is a rotten so-and-so. Tell him how to divide my Dad’s estate!”

How do I know this was the younger brother? How do he now the estate was to be divided in a lopsided fashion? It’s easy. The law is clear. The oldest son in a 1st century family was automatically executor of the estate AND primary beneficiary of a family’s wealth. The younger brother and any other male siblings would be left with scraps. The older brother would have had no interest in alternative legal opinions—the law was on his side. So clearly, Jesus’ questioner work up on the wrong side of probate court.

Jesus, perhaps irritated that the dead father’s estate was more important to the questioner than the dead father’s life, brushes the anxious younger brother aside, “Ask your attorney.”

But recognizing what lay beneath the younger brother’s question, Jesus turned to the crowd—a crowd populated by both older and younger siblings, rich farmers and poor farm hands. “Look out,” Jesus said. “It is far too easy to be possessed by one’s possessions.” And then he told them a story.

At first hearing, Jesus’ point seems clear. “Don’t you just hate rich people?”

But we need to listen more carefully. Jesus makes no judgment on this smug farmer’s wealth. Both wealth and poverty are morally neutral. Both wealth and poverty are simply circumstances of life, not measures of character. I know people, both rich and poor, who are generous, thoughtful, humble. In the same way, I know people, both rich and poor, who are selfish, mean-spirited and prideful.

Jesus does not begrudge the farmer a great yield in a booming agricultural market. It’s what every farmer wants. And what all of us—who eat the product of their labor—need to live. Jesus is troubled that the farmer sees his good fortune as a gift only for himself.

“Why am I here?” the farmer asked himself smugly. And since there was no one is his cavernous house to talk to, he answered himself: “Bigger barns. Better cigars. Beefier steaks.”

In a dramatic shift from Luke’s pattern with parables, the moral of the story is rendered not by Jesus but by God, “You fool! Tonight is the night you die. And since you care for no one and no one cares for you, what good comes of your good fortune?” Ruh roh.

The not-dead-yet farmer had imagined the answer to “Why am I here,” to be strictly financial.

I’m guessing Jesus would have us answer it another way.

Jesus’ disciples are called to lives that are lived for the other.

Jesus’ disciples give away everything we have if another needs it.

Jesus’ disciples view the world, not as a trophy to be won, but as a field to be tended.

I remember once, when my mother asked what became a refrain—“Why are you here?” I gave a little girl’s answer. “Because I need my Mom.”

It was a selfish answer. A frightened answer. Though a true one.

But we can no longer offer selfish or frightened answers to ourselves or the world. The stakes are too high. The need to great.

Why are we here? Each of us? Not just in this room, but in this world.

Bigger barns? Better cigars? Beefier steaks?

No, Jesus’ disciples answer that question differently.

Why are we here?

To praise God.

To love our neighbor.

To provide food for God’s children, blessings for God’s people, love that showers the land.

 

 

 

Funeral for John Satter

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

John 12.27-38

JoAnn A. Post

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

Everything to John was a test, a challenge.

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

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

Because everything to John was a test, a challenge.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From James: “What is true religion?

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

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

“Now my soul is troubled,” Jesus said.

“Now is the judgement of this world.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

And the judgment is this:

We are loved beyond measure.

Forgiven before we ask.

Loved with a fierce tenderness.

All John’s questions have been answered.

All his running stopped.

All his wounds healed.

All his sorrow turned to joy.

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

Hymn of the Day: Precious Lord, Take my Hand

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (7 July 2019)

Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (30 June 2019)

Luke 9.51-62

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

What is it with Iowa? Let me tell you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No home but the road.

“No allegiance but to me.

“No work but mine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday (16 June 2019)

John 16.12-15

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Festival of Pentecost

Festival of Pentecost (9 June 2019)

Acts 2.1-20

JoAnn A. Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, ultimately, the words wouldn’t matter.

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

Again, I have only similes.

The Spirit was like tanks rumbling down a city street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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