Festival of the Resurrection

Festival of the Resurrection (21 April 2019)

Luke 24.1-12

JoAnn A. Post

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

Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 

But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

We waited anxiously for the report, wondering what the investigation would uncover. Collusion? Obstruction? Witness Tampering? Bribery? Any one of those conclusions could be cause for conviction. Or worse. Finally, on Thursday, the waiting was over. The truth was told. And it was worse than anyone had imagined.

Oh, you thought I was talking about the Mueller Report? Oh, no. The findings of that commission were sadly, not surprising. Nothing compared to what we’ve uncovered about what was done to Jesus.

Collusion? Without doubt. Religious officials and political appointees who ordinarily would have had no contact at all, secretly conspired to have Jesus killed.  Crucifixion makes for strange bed fellows.

Obstruction? Certainly. Neither Pilate nor Caiaphas wanted to take the rap for what they were about to do, so they pointed fingers, buried evidence, and falsified reports. “You do it!” “No, you do it!”

Witness tampering? Consistently. From the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry until the moment they nailed him to the cross, witnesses were paid to lie.

Bribery? Yes. And it didn’t take much. Just 30 silver coins pressed in Judas’ hand dropped the curtain on the whole Jesus Show.

Corruption in the halls of power is nothing new. But this time that corruption was leveled not at a political opponent or religious rival, but at God. Both priests and politicians tried to stop God’s work in the world—God’s work, in Jesus, of forgiving sinners and loving enemies and beating death into submission.  And their efforts seemed, at first, to have worked.

The Festival of the Resurrection is a liturgical field day: marvelous musicians and sneeze-inducing flowers and bright vestments. It’s also a boon for candy makers and restaurants serving Easter brunch. The Festival of the Resurrection is loud and bright and happy. “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!”

I love all that—the music and fragrance and joy and dessert. But it has nothing to do with what actually happened. It’s not exactly fake news, but it’s certainly not central.

Let’s take a look at the report. Unredacted. And distressing.

On the first day of the week at early dawn, women went to the tomb taking spices they had prepared. After all, Jesus was dead and his body needed aromatic attention.

But when they arrived at the tomb, the stone that sealed it had been shoved aside. Hearts in their throats, the women snuck up to the gaping mouth of the cave in which Jesus’ body had been so hastily stuffed.

Remember, they are at the tomb in the early morning—stumbling through that silent-as-death darkness that had yet to be interrupted by light. At that hour, shapes are indistinct and edges are fuzzy. All cats are gray in that dark. The inside of the tomb was darker than the sky behind them, more humid than the dew on the ground under their feet. They would have had to strain to see inside. They peered. And leaned. And leaned a little closer.

And then they saw it. That thing that defies the laws of physics and logic, that thing that changed the whole world forever. That thing that has bolstered both believer and skeptic. They saw it.

They saw . . . nothing. There was nothing there. No body. No burial linens. Not even a ransom note.

Angels, elegant as RuPaul on the runway, appeared confused. “What are you doing here? He isn’t here. He told you he wouldn’t be here. He has been raised. Remember?”

And then we receive the great Easter acclamation of faith. The women high-fived each other, jumped up and down. Oops, never mind. Wrong story.

No, the women looked at each other. They remembered Jesus saying something about being raised. Then they shrugged and went home. This is the fact of the resurrection, according to Luke. The women remembered. The women returned.

It seems they did stop by to report Jesus’ absence to the disciples, but they were deemed hysterical, disoriented, unreliable. (Though Peter did sneak off to check it out, and was similarly underwhelmed.)

So, what is the conclusion of the Resurrection Report?

We speak erroneously when we name the women: “witnesses to the resurrection.” There were no witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection; no one saw him escape the tomb. Instead, the women witnessed an empty hole, a dark dank cave. And a stranger’s scolding voice, “Don’t you remember?”

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School. For days, we have been hearing from survivors of the attack, most of them only teenagers when gunfire erupted. They have spent the last two decades making sense of that senseless day.

One survivor reported having fled the area and her memories for ten years, descending into depression and isolation, traumatized on a cellular level. But when the 10th anniversary approached, she and her sister decided to return to the scene of the crime, to face, together, the site of the events that had ruined their lives.

The woman described clinging to her sister, braced for flashbacks. “I was really scared. I thought I would be a wreck.” But, instead when she peered into that dark, empty building, there was nothing there. No body. No blood. No evidence of the tragedy. It was only a building. A building that held a painful past, but that had nothing to do with her future.*

As they say in the investment business, “past performance is no prediction of future results.”

It is true for survivors of trauma.

It is the heart of the Easter story.

The world had done its worst to both Jesus and those who loved him. Though no shots were fired as at Columbine, blood flowed and friends betrayed and witnesses hid and some simply ran away. The horrible events of Jesus’ last days traumatized his followers. They thought their lives were over—dreams shattered, hopes dashed, future closed.

But then the women peered inside those dark fears, that empty pit in their stomachs. And they discovered there was nothing there.

Life lay, not in a dark traumatic past, but in a sunlit, unexpected future. A future in which life was possible. A future into which light shown. A future into which Jesus had already marched.

Peering into the dark past is as futile as the dog who hopefully sniffs the spot on the kitchen floor where, two Thanksgivings ago, you spilled some gravy. The memory is there, but nothing more.

Death lies behind us. There is nothing there to see.

But life lies before us.

If only we have the courage to remember. Not the trauma or the disappointment or the fear. But the words.

Jesus’ words: “I will suffer. I will die. And I will be raised.”

The angels’ words, “He is not here. He has been raised.”

My friends, the tomb is empty.

The silence has been broken.

Death has no power over us.

But life? The resurrected life lies before us. And Jesus is already there.

 

*https://www.npr.org/2019/04/18/713567335/after-columbine-an-unlikely-friendship-bound-by-the-trauma-of-mass-shootings

 

 

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Good Friday Liturgy

Good Friday, April 19, 2019

 All gather in silence.

Prayer of the Day

Almighty God, look with loving mercy on your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, to be given over to the hands of sinners, and to suffer death on the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

 Musical Reflection: Ave Verum Corpus, W. A. Mozart

First Reading: Isaiah 52:13—53:12

See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.

Just as there were many who were astonished at him
— so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals —
so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?

For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.

When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

The word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Psalm 22

 Refrain:My God, my  God, o why have you abandoned me?

All who see me laugh at me, they mock me and they shake their heads:

“He relied on the Lord, let the Lord be his refuge.” Refrain

 

As dogs around me, they circle me about. Wounded me and pierced me,

I can number all my bones. Refrain

 

My clothing they divided, for my garments casting lots,

Oh, Lord, do not desert me, but hasten to my aid. Refrain

 

I will praise you to my people, and proclaim you in their midst,

Oh, fear the Lord and praise him, give glory to his name. Refrain

 

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to John

Reading: John 18.1-11

Song: O Bone Jesu, M.A. Ingegneri            

Reading: John 18.12-27

Song: Ah, Holy Jesus (ELW 349)

Reading: John 18.28-19.16

Song: O Sacred Head, Now Wounded  (ELW 351)

Reading: John 19.17-42

Song: “Pie Jesu,” from Requiem  by G. Faure

 

Bidding Prayer

 The assisting minister leads the invitations to prayer (the bids). Silence for prayer follows each bid. The presiding minister leads the prayers that conclude the silence.

Let us pray, brothers and sisters, for the holy church throughout the world.

Silent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, you have shown your glory to all nations in Jesus Christ. By your Holy Spirit guide the church and gather it throughout the world. Help it to persevere in faith, proclaim your name, and bring the good news of salvation in Christ to all people. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray for Elizabeth and Wayne, our bishops, for JoAnn our pastor, for all servants of the church, and for all the people of God.

Silent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, your Spirit guides the church and makes it holy. Strengthen and uphold our bishops, pastors, other ministers, and lay leaders. Keep them in health and safety for the good of the church, and help each of us in our various vocations to do faithfully the work to which you have called us. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray for those preparing for baptism.

Silent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, you continue to bless the church. Increase the faith and understanding of those preparing for baptism. Give them new birth as your children, and keep them in the faith and communion of your holy church. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray for our sisters and brothers who share our faith in Jesus Christ.

Silent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, you give your church unity. Look with favor on all who follow Jesus your Son. Make all the baptized one in the fullness of faith, and keep us united in the fellowship of love. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God.

Silent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and your teaching to Moses. Hear our prayers that the people you called and elected as your own may receive the fulfillment of the covenant’s promises. Bless them as they gather tonight to remember the freedom you provided through the Passover. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray for those who do not share our faith in Jesus Christ.

Silent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, gather into your embrace all those who call out to you under different names. Bring an end to inter-religious strife, and make us more faithful witnesses of the love made known to us in your Son. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray for those who do not believe in God.

Silent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, you created humanity so that all may long to know you and find peace in you. Grant that all may recognize the signs of your love and grace in the world and in the lives of Christians, and gladly acknowledge you as the one true God. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray for God’s creation.

Silent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, you are the creator of a magnificent universe. Hold all the worlds in the arms of your care and bring all things to fulfillment in you. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray for those who serve in public office. Silent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, you are the champion of the poor and oppressed. In your goodness, give wisdom to those in authority, so that all people may enjoy justice, peace, freedom, and a share in the goodness of your creation. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray for those in need.

Silent prayer.

Almighty and eternal God, you give strength to the weary and new courage to those who have lost heart. Heal the sick, comfort the dying, give safety to travelers, free those unjustly deprived of liberty, and deliver your world from falsehood, hunger, and disease. Hear the prayers of all who call on you in any trouble, that they may have the joy of receiving your help in their need. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Finally, let us pray for all those things for which our Lord would have us ask.

Our Father, who art in heaven,

            hallowed be thy name,

            thy kingdom come,

            thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread;

and forgive us our trespasses,

            as we forgive those who trespass against us;

and lead us not into temptation,

            but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,

            forever and ever. Amen.

Hymn: Beneath the Cross of Jesus (ELW 338)

Remain for reflection. Depart in silence.

 

 

 

 

 

From Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2019 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #24195.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

English translation of the refrain from the Lectionary for Mass, © 1969, International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. All rights reserved. © 1983 GIA Publications, Inc., Chicago. All rights reserved.

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday (18 April 2019)

John 13.1-17, 31b-35

JoAnn A. Post

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

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

“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The fire at Notre Dame in Paris Monday afternoon stopped the whole world in its tracks. I first learned of the fire when I stepped into a hospital room to visit, and the patient did not greet me—her eyes were, instead, glued to the wall-mounted TV opposite her bed. “What’s happening?” I asked. “Notre Dame. Its burning.”  I pulled a chair up beside her, and together we watched, wordlessly, as the spire crumbled to the ground.

I have never been to Paris, so the magnificence and scale of the cathedral is only theoretical for me. But many of you report that the sight of the cathedral with one’s own eyes is breathtaking, life-changing, awe-inspiring. Even those who claim no faith in Jesus Christ, speak with reverence of the cathedral named for Our Lady.

Now that the ashes are settling and the fear subsided, I have been modestly surprised at the attention paid to a particular work of art saved from the rubble—the Crown of Thorns, a relic.

I have always been curious about the concept of “relics,” the purported remnant of holy persons or objects. Objectively, we know that the hastily-woven headpiece of briars that scraped Jesus’ scalp raw could not have survived the chaos of those days following his crucifixion, let alone the ensuing centuries. But many want to believe it is so. And such belief does no harm.

I have recently found myself in a number of bracing conversations with people, both inside and outside the Christian faith, about what we believe, how we know, who we trust. The world’s fascination with the snatched-from-the-fire Crown of Thorns is just one more example of the complexity of faith. We want to believe. In something. But what? Who? On what grounds? By whose word? The things to which we cling and the things we doubt are both surprising to me.

Tonight, we recount the events of the first Passover, when the Angel of Death catapulted over Egypt, killing the first-born of both humans and animals as they slept, sparing the people of Israel. And what kept them alive? A brush stroke of lamb’s blood on the door post. Some find that hard to believe.

We read of Jesus’ embarrassingly intimate, inappropriate washing of the disciples’ feet. It made the disciples as squeamish when Jesus handled their feet, as it makes us to handle one another’s feet. Because Jesus, the Son of God, on the night before he died, adopted the posture of a slave. Some find that hard to believe.

But I believe them both. Not because of empirical evidence that proves the events of the first Passover, or because one of the disciples snap-chatted Jesus’ on his knees, but because of what these events reveal about the God in whom I have chosen to believe.

And belief, in anything or anyone, is just that: a choice.

I have chosen to believe that, like the ancient Israelites, I am free, enslaved to no one. Perhaps you believe that, too. We are not slaves to our past, or our fears, or our destructive habits. Like our ancestors protected from death and freed from slavery, God has protected and freed us.

I have chosen to believe that Jesus is the human face of God. Perhaps you believe that, too. Because in that face, we see forgiveness for sin, compassion for lost, protection for the weak, love for the unlovely. We know God loves us, because of the way Jesus loved.

Tonight we embark on what is, for Christians, the holiest of times. We recount the story of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection. There is no hard evidence for any of those events—the crown of thorns was tossed into the brush, Jesus’ tomb has been occupied by others, we have only the word of frightened women about the resurrection. In fact, on Sunday morning, we will be reminded that when the women told the disciples Jesus was raised from death, even they regarded it as “an idle tale.”

What we believe is sometimes hard to believe. But we choose to do so. Because, though the world is dark and dangerous, petty and punitive, we have experienced light and protection, forgiveness and hope. There is no power on earth that can provide those gifts. No cathedral than can contain them. They come from God, whom we know in Jesus.

Cathedrals will fall. Trust will be betrayed. Hardship will come. We cannot allow these things to have any power over us.

Tomorrow night, our Jewish brothers and sisters will gather to sing the song of salvation from death and slavery. It is the Passover of the Lord.

Tonight, we hear words of forgiveness over our heads, demonstrate selfless love, share a hasty meal, wait in the darkness knowing the darkness will not last.

We choose to believe in Christ crucified, dead and risen from death. Because he first freed, forgave, fed and raised us. Because he first chose us.

 

 

Sunday of the Passion

Sunday of the Passion (14 April 2019)

The Passion of Our Lord, According to Luke (Luke 22.14-23.56)

JoAnn A. Post

My youngest sister was only four-years-old when we took her to her first Fourth of July fireworks show. She had been anticipating the trip to town all day, agreed to a longer-than-usual nap so she would be able to stay awake. As darkness fell, we all tumbled into my parents’ old car, singing and laughing—we older kids doted on our little sister and couldn’t wait to share this moment with her.

The show started as all fireworks shows do—with a few sparkly showers in the sky, a few distant booms on the horizon. She sat up tall and straight, pigtails at attention, eyes trained on the dark sky. But then the pace picked up—the explosions grew louder, the lights brighter, the hooting and clapping from the crowd relentless. I looked over at my little sister, expecting to see “wonder” in her eyes. But instead she was frozen in place, a look of horror on her face. Before too long she buried her head in my brother’s shoulder, covering both her eyes and ears, and began to sob.

We didn’t wait for the show to end, but hurried her back to the safety of the car. When we got home, my Mom saw the look on her little face and said, “O, honey, what’s wrong?” My sister looked at her with tear-stained cheeks, her pigtails askew. “Boom! Boom! It was terrible!” And sobbed some more.

That little sister is all grown up now, and sometimes we tease her about that night. But she doesn’t find it funny.

The story that unfolds for us today and all this week is a loud one. Booming and terrible. All the way from Bethany to the gates of the city, crowds shouted and hollered, tearing off their coats and throwing them on the road. Offended Pharisees asked Jesus to get his disciples under control, but Jesus claimed that if they were silent, the stones would shout. Hosanna!

During a quiet Passover meal, Jesus announced to the twelve disciples that one of them would betray him. The dinner erupted into a fist fight, that stopped only when Jesus shouted them down.

In the Garden, as Jesus’ face ran with blood and sweat, a crowd of soldiers approached—marching feet and clanking weapons. Judas tried to kiss Jesus, but Jesus stopped him short. “Really, Judas. A kiss?” A rumble ensued—swords were drawn, accusations were shouted, a servant was maimed.

The scene grows only louder, surpassing any safe decibel level, defying any attempts to silence it.

Peter shouted his denial of ever having met Jesus.

Soldiers roared with mocking laughter.

Pilate tore his hair out in exasperation, “I’m done with him. He’s innocent. You do whatever you need to do.”

Women wailed.

Spectators drank.

A criminal on an adjacent cross mocked.

The mob screamed.

Even Jesus cried out: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Boom! Boom! It was terrible!

And then the world fell silent.

The crowd scattered. A stranger took his body from the cross and laid it in his own tomb. The women, stunned to silence, watched from a distance.

But first, before the fireworks start, we will hear from Isaiah (Isaiah 50.4-9a), who describes a flinty, resolute servant.

Then, in the Philippians text (Philippians 2.5-11), Paul quotes the text of an ancient hymn about Jesus who chose servitude.

And then the show really starts. Slowly at first—a few sparkly showers, a few distant booms on the horizon.  Boom! Boom! It will be terrible.

But the story ends in eerie silence—the sound of sadness and disappointment, confusion and grief.

Cover your ears if you must, but listen if you can:

Vespers in the Fifth Week of Lent

Vespers in the Fifth Week of Lent (10 April 2019)

“Woman, behold your son . . .” (Portions of John 19)

JoAnn A. Post

Home. For some it is an address, a building, a person. For others it is an elusive dream or a painful memory. In these weeks of Lent, as part of our Lent Challenge, we have been thinking and reading about what it means to be either “homeless” and “at home.”

Our texts included a reading from Exodus about the building of the Ark of the Covenant, a portable home for God while God’s people traveled the wilderness en route to the Promised Land.

We then read about the insufficiency of the Ark, and King David’s desire to build a permanent home for God. God laughed at the thought of a mortgage.  But God promised that David would, himself, be a house for generations of the faithful after him.

We then leaped many centuries to meet the virgin Mary, whose womb protected Jesus for nine months. She was his home. And he, the Son of God, took shelter in her tiny frame.

Last week we discovered that Jesus considered himself homeless: “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

And tonight, Jesus makes a home for his mother, collapsing under grief, and the dumbstruck disciple whom he regarded as a brother.

Before taking his rightful place at the right hand of the throne of God, Jesus had to make one more home. A home for the two who would miss him most. Listen.

[Portions of John 19]

The language in the text—“Meanwhile, standing at the cross”—makes it sound as though James Dean was lounging at the foot of the cross, a long-ashed, unfiltered cigarette hanging from his lips. Just hanging around at the cross.

That laconic description is too benign for the reality of what was actually happening on the ground. Three men writhed on wooden crosses staked in the ground. A crowd like those that once came out to watch public lynchings in the American South hooted and hollered, making bets on the dying men. Bored soldiers threw dice for souvenirs of the execution, waiting dully for the sun to set so they could go home. Somewhere, a bunch of cowardly disciples was keeping a low profile, fear for their own safety far greater than their concern for Jesus’ sorrow.

It was loud. And hot. And sweaty. It wouldn’t have taken much for the scene at the foot of the cross to have turned into a riot.

And above the voices of vendors hawking peanuts and the crowds shouting for blood, floated a piercing cry. A “keen.” “Keen” is the most vivid word I know for the sound that rolled own the hill, like sweat from Jesus’ brow.

A “keen” is a wordless wail, a piercing cry, the vocalization of grief sharp as a knife. And that keen erupted from the lips of Jesus’ mother, as she collapsed under the weight of her grief.

Where was Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father? Where were his brothers and sisters? Why was Mary left alone with only her two friends for support—all three of them named “Mary?”

Most artists portray a scene of calm, of Jesus smiling benignly from the cross as Mary and the Beloved Disciple beam back up at him.

But this is a painful story, a brutal scene. Jesus, dying by asphyxiation and massive blood loss, was worried about his mother and his best friend. He would not have had the strength to shout, let alone smile beatifically, so instead he whispered from high above them.

“Woman, this is your son now.”

“Friend, this is your mother now.”

Jesus, with his dying breath, built a home.

And the gospel writer reports that “from that hour, the disciple took her into his own home.”

Into that bloody, boisterous scene, Jesus carved a lacuna—a space. A protected moment. A quiet shelter.

For weeks we have been wondering what it would be like to be homeless—no place to go, no one to love us. Though we can imagine it on an intellectual level, homelessness itself is too horrible to contemplate, a place your brain won’t let you go.

But some people have to go there. LGBTQ youth. The abused spouse. The disabled. The addicted. The mentally ill. The veteran. The chronically unemployed. The convicted felon.

What would it mean for us to create that space, to be that space—that silent, safe pocket of love for those who, like Mary and the Beloved Disciple, would otherwise trudge down the hill at the end of the day with nowhere to be.

The Passion of Our Lord is a story filled with moments of crushing sorrow and unexpected joy, brutal betrayal and quiet kindnesses. Though none of us is the Son of God, we know recognize this story because it is, in a small way, not unlike our own. But, even in his dying, Jesus performed one last act of kindness, erecting a sheltering roof, a sturdy floor.

Perhaps, as this Lent draws to a close, we might do the same. Make a quiet space in a noisy world. Create safety in the midst of danger. Be home for the home-less. Care for one another well.

 

 

 

 

 

Fifth Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (7 April 2019)

John 12.1-8

JoAnn A. Post

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

It’s like being a little kid, watching your parents kiss. You remember that feeling? Covering your eyes with sweaty little hands, stomach in a knot. “Ewww,” you groaned. “Stop that.”

It takes most of us many years to get comfortable with the fact that our parents or grandparents, our favorite aunts and uncles might be that affectionate. Or worse!

I remembered that feeling this week as I peeked in on today’s gospel reading. Jesus visiting old friends in Bethany? Not a problem. Jesus lingering after dinner with a cigar? Cool with me. But then it got weird.

Mary, his best friend’s youngest sister, retrieved a pound-jar of expensive perfume from her bedroom, knelt in front of Jesus and poured it all over his feet. Ewww. Stop that. But it got worse. She set the jar aside and bent even lower, wrapping his oily feet in her long, dark hair to dry them. Double ewwww. Who does that?

I imagine the room, suddenly fragrant, was suddenly pretty quiet, too. Mary’s brother Lazarus and sister Martha exchanged quizzical looks. The other dinner guests checked their phones or studied their cuticles. And Jesus. What did Jesus do? Did he try to stop her? Was he startled? Embarrassed? Pleased?

We know what Judas did, but we’ll save that juicy tidbit for a little later.

The intimacy of Mary’s act continues to surprise. And unsettle. Ewww.

But here’s a little bit of backstory. I don’t know if you remember this or not, but we met Mary’s brother Lazarus a chapter ago. (John 11) We met him dead—wrapped like a mummy in a tomb. We met Mary and Martha that same day, as they rushed out to greet Jesus on the road. “If you had been here, our brother would not have died!” they sobbed on his shoulder.

In a gesture as surprising and unsettling as Mary’s, Jesus ordered Lazarus’ tomb opened, and then he shouted at Lazarus. “Come out!” Shouting at a dead person? What did Jesus think was going to happen?

As unlikely as it seems, Lazarus did come out, hopping because he was bound, head to foot, in burial linens. The stench of his rotting corpse was only barely disguised by the aromatic oil his sisters had applied the day before—the same nard Mary would soon use on Jesus’ feet.

Reviews were mixed. John tells us that many believed in Jesus because of what they saw him do for Lazarus, but that others were so unsettled they ratted Jesus out to the authorities.  We will learn later, the day after the dinner of which we read today, that the authorities hired someone to kill Lazarus (John 12.9ff)—he was as dangerous to them as was Jesus.

Perhaps it was that extraordinary gift—the gift of Lazarus’ life—that drove Mary to such outrageous, profligate intimacy. But whatever her motive, Jesus chose to see it his way. Though no one in the room that day knew that a short week later Jesus would be bound, hand and foot, in burial linens, Jesus did. And he turned Mary’s unexpected, embarrassing kindness into an even greater one: “She bought this oil so she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

Even Mary was surprised at this. But he said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would die.

Mary, who had anointed her brother’s dead body, who had anointed Jesus’ smelly feet, would soon have to buy another jug of nard to anoint Jesus again—in his tomb.

I promised to dish about Judas, too, so let’s look at him now.

Judas, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, was a thief. An embezzler. A liar. A user. A manipulator. While the other disciples covered their eyes as Mary bathed Jesus’ feet, his eyes bulged. The calculator clicked in his head. A pound of nard, apparently of good quality, in a beautiful jar. Ca-ching. 300 denarii: the equivalent of a year’s salary, which, in the US is, on average, $56,000.

If Judas had known, he could have confiscated the nard, sold it on the black market and retired to The Caymans. He didn’t even try to hide his lust. And disgust.

Who has ever known such love as Mary showed Jesus? Who has ever betrayed so cruelly at Judas?

I drove to visit my Mom last Sunday after worship. The seven hours flew by as I listened to an audio book, sipping on diet coke, fishing French fries out of the bottom of a McDonald’s bag, imagining this was just another trip to Iowa to see my folks. But it was not just another trip. I was facing the distinct possibility that my mother, who, 60 years ago, had named me, would no longer know me. Brothers and sisters had reported intermittent recognition, and I had been warned not to get my hopes up.

I got to the care facility where she lives now at about 7 in the evening. Though it was still light out, the staff was moving residents toward bed—a slow process. I think that sometimes they get the last one to bed about the time they need to start getting the first one up for the day. Mom was still up, sleeping in her chair in the front room. I looked at her for a while, absorbing the changes in her since I had seen her last. Then I knelt beside her on the floor, touching her arm. She opened her eyes, whispered my name, and went back to sleep. She didn’t open her eyes or speak again while I was there.

There is nothing I wouldn’t do for my Mom. But there are some things I can’t. In the time I was with her, relative strangers—the nursing home staff—cared for my mother as tenderly as for a child. Dressing. Feeding. Bathing. Carrying. And unlike glimpses of intimacy between my parents when I was a child, I was not embarrassed by this gentleness. I was awed.

This extraordinary kindness was happening against a backdrop of world news filled with stories of heartless depravity. The recently-released felon who pretended to be a long-missing boy, simultaneously thrilling and traumatizing the boy’s family. The mother who drowned her children because she wondered what it would be like. These characters make Judas look like Mother Teresa.

Which is harder to watch? Unexpected intimacy, or shameless sin? To discover that someone you love loves you more than you imagined, or that someone you trusted is unworthy of your trust? I think it’s a toss-up.

This will not be the last time we ask those questions in the next few weeks.  As Jesus nears the cross, we will see even more such acts of selfless love and of selfish cruelty. And Jesus—the recipient of all this love, the victim of all this deceit—will love them all. Shamelessly.

As Jesus nears the cross he will be cared for by strangers—Simon of Cyrene who will carry his cross for a time, a stranger who will donate his home for the Last Supper. And he will be betrayed by those closest to him—Judas (have you ever noticed no one names their son Judas?), Peter, the other disciples who hid while Jesus died?

And, to make sure we get the point, that Jesus’ expansive love incited epic hatred, he was killed in the most humiliating, excruciating way possible.

In Jesus’ dying, we witness love deeper than we have ever known, and wickedness that defies description.

Perhaps you have been loved that deeply.

Perhaps you have been betrayed that vilely.

But whether it was you was loved or who betrayed, whether it was someone else who loved or betrayed you, today we see that Jesus loves them, loves us, all. He portrayed Mary’s extravagant gesture more generously than she could have imagined. He kept Judas close for the remainder of his ministry, though Judas deserved not even a denarius worth of kindness.

It is hard to watch Jesus sometimes. We question his judgment. Forgiving sinners. Loving enemies. Acting against his own best interests. Making it as easy to be hated as to be loved.

Today we sing of that love—“My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me.”

This love is “unknown” not because we’ve never seen it before, but because it defies description or imitation. This unknown love is ours—we who have been loved much and forgiven even more. And we look on its face, not with embarrassment or horror, but with gratitude. We know this love. Its name is Jesus.

 

Vespers in the Fourth Week of Lent

Vespers in the Fourth Week of Lent (3 April 2019)

“In Life, No House, No Home” (Luke 9)

JoAnn A. Post

“Coming home.” This has been our theme for these Lent Wednesdays, as we delve into homelessness in our city. On these evenings, we have been walking through scripture, searching not for the places our homeless brothers and sisters rest, but for the places God has chosen to dwell.

First, we found God in the Ark of the Covenant, the bedazzled box containing the Ten Commandments, and on which God would settle in thick clouds—a sign to the people that God was near.

From there, we watched a crestfallen King David receive the news that God didn’t want a house of cedar, like David’s. God promised to make of David a “house,” a kingdom, a throne forever. But God was perfectly happy without a mortgage.

Last week we raced through the centuries to meet Mary, the teenager who would, for nine months, be home for the Son of God.

Tonight, that child whom she carried is grown, marching through the Middle East on a mission of hope. And though sometimes he veered off course, Jesus never took his eye off the end of his journey—the cross that waited for him in Jerusalem.

Tonight, we read of the home Jesus chose for himself and his disciples.  Where was that? The street. The alley. In strangers’ homes. In human hearts. Listen:

[A reading from Luke 9]

We find him everywhere in literature and popular culture. The wandering, romantic, homeless hero.

Odysseus, protagonist of the 8th century Homerian epic poem, wandered for a decade after his defeat in the Trojan War, encountering life- and soul-threatening obstacles at every turn, on this way home to Penelope.

In Connecticut, stories were told of The Leatherman, a nameless Union veteran who, for thirty years in the late-1800’s walked an annual 365-mile circuit that took him to a series of eastern New York and western Connecticut towns every 34 days.

I grew up watching “The Fugitive” on TV—Dr. Richard Kimble was a man wrongly accused of his wife’s murder. Escaping from captivity, he spent the next several years running from the law in search of the elusive “one-armed man” who had actually committed the crime.

Another television hero, Bruce Banner was forced into a peripatetic life because his alter ego, The Incredible Hulk, got him into all sorts of trouble. Poor Dr. Banner couldn’t catch a break, but he could rip through a cotton dress shirt in about 30 seconds.

Ah, the wandering, romantic, homeless hero.

It seems some of Jesus’ casual followers wanted to cast him in the same, soft light. From a distance, they watched Jesus wade into the crowds, healing, teaching, feeding, forgiving. Each night these casual followers retreated to their comfortable homes, waking the next morning to applaud Jesus again. Because they kept their distance, they were unaware of how hard Jesus’ life really was.

The crowds whom they interpreted as rapturous fans, were, in fact, persistently-unsatisfied, relentlessly needy, aggressively adoring, afflicted, conflicted, addicted pests. Like brain-hungry zombies undeterred in their quest for satisfaction.

Somehow, Jesus’ arms-length fans had missed Jesus’ instructions to his inner circle to travel light—no staff, no bag, no tunic, no food.

Somehow, they had missed Jesus’ reminder to his disciples that his own journey ended at a cross, and that any who would follow him must be similarly willing to give up their lives.

Instead, fawning, they fell at Jesus’ feet, “Jesus, we will follow you wherever you go.”

As if.

Ah, the wandering, romantic, homeless hero.

But Jesus wasn’t starring in a TV show, and his homelessness wasn’t romantic. It was thrust upon him by the urgency of his mission—so much to do and so little time. “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

It would make a great movie line. Except that it is so descriptive of a tremendously sad life, a life lived solely for the sake of others.

Perhaps you have been following news of the humanitarian crisis at our southern border. While used as a political ping-pong ball by some, these Central American migrants, huddled under bridges, running from smugglers, wearing the same clothes for months at a time, are desperate victims of an economic and political system gone horribly awry.

I have no idea what the answer to this crisis is, but I know that among those frightened, homeless souls wanders another just like them. After the news crews go home, after the pundits publish their stories, after the candidates deliver their clever conclusions, Jesus remains.

Jesus remains in the guise of aid workers who find blankets for babies, volunteers who prepare hot meals, physicians and nurses who care for the sick, writers who document their stories, priests who hear confession and offer communion, ICE and border patrol agents who stand silent guard through the dark hours of the night.

Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but too many have no place to lay their heads.

There is nothing romantic about homelessness.

But Jesus and his disciples abandon their own comfort for the sake of those who have none. We are those disciples.

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (31 March 2019)

LK 11.1-3, 11b-32

JoAnn A.  Post 

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’

I’ve been thinking this week about the difference among three words:

“Unlikely.”

“Unwise.”

“Impossible.”

“Unlikely.” Snow in March. Running into someone famous at Starbucks. My Subaru topping 250,000 miles—though my old one, which my older daughter now drives, just did.

“Impossible” came to mind as frenzy over last week’s Powerball jackpot escalated. The winner beat odds of 292 million to one.

“Impossible” is also the word sports betters are using about the chance of someone selecting a perfect March Madness bracket: a Duke mathematics professor calculated the odds at 2.4 trillion to one. More than 1,000 times less likely than winning the lottery, which is nearly impossible to win.

“Unlikely” and “Impossible” are things that can happen. Though they don’t often. Though differing in magnitude, these words are similar in that they describe things that happen to us. Being in the right place at the right time. Noticing a string of coincidences. Buying the car that never dies.

But “Unwise,” the other word-of-the-week for me? “Unwise” describes things we choose. Decisions we make. Chances we take. “Unwise” is usually avoidable.

All three words—unlikely, unwise, impossible—have been used of today’s ill-named “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Even people who don’t know scripture know this story because so many people have lived it. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but I imagine many in this room could tell a similar story of the parent who seemed to love the wild child more than the responsible one, of resentment in a family because of perceived unfairness, of estates that drove a permanent wedge in a family.

I once sat in an attorney’s office with an elderly member of a previous parish, as her adult children—three on one side and three on the other—tried to convince their mother that they, as teams, were each more deserving of her vast fortune, that it would be a travesty for the estate to be divided evenly among them. They yelled at each another; they pleaded with her. She clung to my hand, and I clung to the attorney’s eyes, which telegraphed: “Don’t react. Don’t react.”

Ungrateful wretches. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she left the whole works to the Baseball Hall of Fame or “Save the Everglades.” Much to her children’s dismay and disappointment, she lived many, many more years. And her will surprised them all.

Digging deeper into the parable we discover that, much like the heart-torn-to-shreds mother whom I accompanied into the Valley of the Shadow of Probate, this story is not about ungrateful children. The story is about a parent, pulled first one way and then another by children who wouldn’t recognize kindness if it walked up and kissed them on the cheek.

The father in Jesus’ parable was nothing more than a bank account to his sons. And while we try our hardest to make this turn out alright—imagining the younger son’s concocted confession was true and that he was a model citizen for the rest of his life, or that the older brother relented and joined the party—the rotten sons and their imagined rehabilitation are not the point. Dad is the point.

What he did for them was neither unlikely—parents make soft-hearted decisions every day—or impossible—we’ve all met this parent, or been him.

The word of the week that applies to the father is “unwise.” Though his sons tried to manipulate him into action on their behalf, every decision he made was his to make. He didn’t have to give the younger son a wad of cash and keys to the Corvette. He didn’t have to cajole his older son into having a heart. He chose to do those things. He decided that that best thing for his sons was for him to be “unwise.”

A little history lesson. The family in this parable would have been Jewish. A Jewish family would have been schooled in and lived by the ancient law of Moses. The law of Moses spelled out what ought to happen to children as disobedient and disrespectful as these two.

From Deuteronomy 21: If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.

Now, it seems, the father in this parable deserves another descriptor: “disobedient.” There could be no clearer answer to the question, “What do I do about my boys?” The law was unequivocal in its judgement.

Was this guy unwise? Absolutely. Not only did he let his sons run roughshod over him, the father, in loving and forgiving both sons, created a problem for every other Dad in the county. How would other fathers keep control of or discipline their sons now that this father had disobeyed the law and common sense. This guy, this unwise father, ruined it for everyone.

Who would do that?

Some would call the plot line of this story unlikely or perhaps even impossible, but these things didn’t just “happen” to this family; the father wasn’t a victim; the father chose his actions. The father chose to disobey the law. The father chose to ignore his neighbors’ advice. The father chose to neither change the locks nor the will. The father chose to open the door to both the runaway son and the one who stood pouting in the field.

Unwise. In the extreme. But is that all this is—a well-told tale of family dysfunction?

We need to remember now how the story really began: Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus was living this parable as he told it. Pulled on one side by public sinners unwelcome in any good home, and, on the other, by Pharisees, canon lawyers who had the law on their side. Jesus had no business in the company of the obviously unclean. Nor could he stomach the Pharisees’ smug pronouncements.

He had to choose. Sinners or Pharisees? Sinners or Pharisees? Sinners or Pharisees?

Unwisely, he chose them both. Never shutting the door on the possibility—however seemingly unlikely or impossible—that the sinners might repent and the Pharisees relent.

Who does that? Well, Jesus does. For every rebellious daughter, every disobedient son. For every heart-broken parent and every home-seeking child. For every public sinner and every private Pharisee. Unwisely, Jesus forgive us all, welcomes us all, loves us all.

Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? It may seem so.

I choose to regard Jesus as Unwise. And mercifully so.

How blessed we are that Jesus is so unwise as to open the door, even to us.

 

Vespers in the Third Week of Lent

Vespers in the Third Week of Lent (27 March 2019)

“God will Make of Mary a Home,” portions of Luke 1 and 2

JoAnn A. Post

We have been thinking a lot about it means to be “home” this Lent. Sparked by our Lent Challenge with The Night Ministry and their attention to homeless young adults, I’ve been intrigued by the ways we speak of home—for ourselves, for relative strangers, and even for God.

We are devoting these Wednesdays in Lent to a scriptural perusal of the places God has chosen to dwell. The first week we learned about the Ark of the Covenant, a portable shelter for the Ten Commandments, and a focal point of worship for Israel as they wandered the wilderness.

Once safely ensconced in the land they had been promised, the Ark was stored in a tent and King David ruled from a “house of cedar.” As you recall from last week, David had the bright idea that if he had a home, God should have one, too. Alas, God had no need of walls and a roof, but the disappointment on David’s face hatched a plan. God promised that David’s son, Solomon, would be given permission to build a grand edifice, a temple for God. And that David’s name, David’s rule, David’s throne would become a home for the people of Israel for all eternity.

I had thought that tonight we would peel the roof off that first Temple and poke around in the home Solomon would build for God, but Lent is short and we have a lot more real estate to visit.

So, tonight we leapfrog from David’s reign, around 1000 BCE, over the construction of the temple a generation later, to an even more unlikely home for God in the 1st century CE. It was a home made, not of gold and tapestry as was the Ark, nor of regal dynasty as was the House of David, but a home of flesh and blood. A home for the Son of God. A home named Mary. Listen.

A reading from Luke’s Gospel

Having lived in the Pacific Northwest, the American Southeast, and New England, I’ve grown wary of the question, “Where are you from?” Since most people don’t know Iowa from Idaho from Ohio from” HiHo.” I usually say, “I was born in the Midwest.”  If there is additional curiosity, I might say “Iowa.” Interest would have waned by then, but if they press, I say, “North central.” If my interlocutor persists, I say, “West of Mason City.” It is the truly rare and hearty individual (or a particularly nosy one) who presses me to say, “Titonka,” but every once in a while, when I admit it, they say, “I know where that is!” In fact, it happened here on a Sunday morning two weeks ago with a visitor who had gone to college with the father of a high school friend.

“Do you know D___ B____?” he asked. I felt like Dorothy clicking her heels twice and waking up in Kansas.

“Where are you from?”

Both humans and animals crave home—either to be from somewhere or going somewhere at the end of the day.  That home is a bird’s nest on a migratory path, a fish’s natural habitat in a river, a familiar wintering place for indigenous nomads, or the McMansions we build around here, or, in the case of The Night Ministry’s clients, home might be a borrowed bed or the back seat of a car.

Every one, every thing needs to be from somewhere. Every one, every thing  needs a home, at least once in awhile.

For as long as humans have believed in gods (lower case “g”) or God (upper case “G”) they have trying to find their gods/God on a map. Greek and Roman gods lived on mountains or in forests or atop the world. Early believers in the God of Abraham tried to locate God in a portable ark, or in a temple. We have tried to put faces on our gods—erecting idols, sculpting likenesses, painting icons—in attempts to locate those gods even more precisely.

Where does God live? What does God look like? Where is God from?

But all such attempts fail. God does not have an address. God moves about among us, sometimes leading, sometimes pushing, sometimes accompanying.

In the 1000 years that lapsed between David’s desire to build a house for God and tonight’s gospel reading, God has tried everything in God’s power to connect with, to relate to the humans God created. Promises to the prophets. Signs and wonders. But none of those promises, none of those signs and wonders convinced us that God was real, that God was near, that God was love.

Finally, God relents. God adopts an address. And her name is “Mary.”

We have heard the story of the annunciation and Jesus’ birth so often it no longer troubles us. But imagine hearing this for the first time. Angel announcement? Virgin birth? God in a human womb? God in a dusty stall? The story of God’s move to earth does stretch credulity.

But Mary’s womb, Bethlehem’s barn are not the only markers on God’s road home to Mary, God’s road home to us.

We don’t know where Mary was when Gabriel surprised her, but surprise her he did.  And then, after naming Mary’s womb as God’s preferred home, the story is filled with other locators.

Mary ran to visit Elizabeth in the Judean hill country.

Shepherds slept in fields.

The baby’s bassinette would look oddly like a manger.

Angels swooshed from heaven, and swooshed back after their song.

God who is in highest heaven brings peace to earth.

The shepherds raced to Bethlehem.

Mary took their words into her heart

All those places. Because places matter. Everybody needs to be from somewhere.

Perhaps you noticed that I’ve not named the human name by which God would be called after renting space with Mary for nine months. You’ll have to wait for next week to learn what Mary named her baby.

It is enough for tonight to know that God has found a home. In Mary. On earth. In human hearts.

Where is God from? I can’t say for sure. But I know where God lives.

 

 

 

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (24 March 2019)

Luke 13.1-9

JoAnn A. Post

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’

Suddenly, it seems homeless people are everywhere. Not on the streets, necessarily, but in my head.

My husband and I have been watching a Danish crime show on Netflix (“The Killing,” Season 3, 2013) that, this season, investigates a series of murders among homeless teens in Seattle. I don’t know how the casting department found so many young actors who so convincingly portray the poverty, the fear, the corruption and desperation of homelessness, but they are no longer actors to me. They accompany me everywhere I go.

I’m invested in learning more about The Night Ministry, and this week watched a series of videos they have produced about their work. The people they interview aren’t heavily-costumed, highly-paid actors but Chicago citizens whose lives are different from mine only by degrees. For example, my mother protected me but not all mothers do. For example, I had clean clothes to wear to school, but not all students do. For example, I had a bed to sleep in at night, not all teens do. Many of the Night Ministry’s clients suffered small slights that added up to catastrophic sorrow.

And this book, our All Ascension Reads selection (“Miles from Nowhere,” Nami Mun, Riverhead Books, 2008), has troubled my sleep too many nights. I’ve had to take it off my bedside table—its simple presence there is distressing. Though a work of fiction, it is too real, too heart-breaking, and supported as truth by all that I have been reading and watching and thinking about in other parts of my life.

Suddenly, it seems homeless people are everywhere. Not on the streets, necessarily, but in my head.

And, as you know, my other persistent mental companion is scripture, the texts appointed for each Sunday’s worship. Questions about context and translation, audience and intent, relevance and challenge hum in my head all the time. More this week than most, because the texts raise troubling contemporary questions.

Who is to blame for the trouble in our lives?

What does it mean that some falter and others thrive?

Where is God’s hand, Jesus’ protection when we suffer?

Is there a point of no return for amendment of life?

Please don’t hold your breath for answers. You’ll turn blue and pass out before there are any.

Today, Jesus engages a group of reporters who pushed a microphone in his face asking for comment after the governor had ordered the murder of gang members (the Galileans) and drained their blood. “What does it mean, Jesus? What should we do? Did those political rabble-rousers deserve it?”

Jesus countered with another tragic news story about a tower that had fallen in a nearby neighborhood, crushing eighteen people beneath it. “What about them?” Jesus wondered. “Do you think they were worse offenders than any others in Jerusalem? Do you think they ‘deserved’ what they got?”

Crickets.

You see, his interrogators wanted rationale, wanted Jesus to explain that the murdered gang members, the crushed tourists somehow had it coming.  Secretly, we have all wondered the same.

What is the difference between a toddler and a teen killed by gunfire?

What is the difference between drowned livestock in Nebraska and those washed away by a cyclone in Mozambique?

What is the difference between airplane passengers killed in the crash of a state-of-the art airplane and women and children tossed from an over-crowded ferry in Mosul?

Did some of them deserve what they got? Who is to blame? What does it mean?

Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

But the time I’ve spent pondering homelessness in Chicago and listening to Jesus has changed the question for me. Unlike natural disasters or disease that spring up overnight, some tragedies can be stalled. I’ve learned that gang members, homeless teens, truant students might have been able to take another path if small steps had been taken early on. If parents didn’t have to work three jobs to pay the rent. If a safety net caught an LGBTQ teen thrown out of the house. If the school had had text books and tutors. If an Indiana gun had been stopped at the state line.

Suddenly, the tired question “why do bad things happen to good people” seems selfish and small. We care only for those whom we deem morally righteous, worthy of protection? We imagine that if people we don’t like suffer, it makes karmic sense?

What if there was a way through, a small tweek, a simple step, an early intervention that could save a life? In some cases, there is.

Jesus offers two thoughts. One troubling. One comforting.

The troubling one.

Jesus understood that bad things happen to us all—even he would not be spared senseless suffering. Knowing that, he encourages us to repent.  To repent of our complicity in systems that cause suffering. To repent of the ways we have failed to respond to need. To repent of rationalizing wrong.

What does it mean to repent? It means turn our hearts, change our minds, alter our course.

Would such repentance change our lives or anyone else’s? It’s a complex question.

The comforting one.

Knowing that his hearers were either angry or confused. Or both, he switched to story.

A story about an orchard owner who wanted the fruitless trees in his orchard cut down. “Why should a fig-less fig tree draw nutrients, sun and time from the trees that are doing their jobs?” he shouted at the gardener. “It’s not fair! It’s costing me money!”  He had a point.

The gardener, a bemused man with dirt under his nails and a smile in his eyes, leaned on his hoe and offered another option.

“Time,” he said.

“Manure.” He proposed.

“Let me futz with it for one more season—a little digging around the roots, some strategically applied compost. It might not take much to make this fig tree grow.”

How kind. How wise. How very farmer of him.

The orchard owner wanted solutions, broad answers, immediate results, swift punishment. The gardener understood that though there might be a way through, a small tweek, a simple step, an early intervention that would save a life, it would take time.

Jesus would have us repent. We can do that. We can consider the ways our actions, our spending, our decisions, our conversations might harm rather than help. And we can turn away from that (often unintended or unknowing) harm. But it’s hard. And never completed.

Jesus would also have us give another chance. Goodness knows we‘ve all been given a second chance by someone who saw something worth salvaging in us, someone who forgave when we might not have deserved it, someone who spoke up for us, took us in, offered a hand. We’ve all been the beneficiary of a patient gardener.

We can be that gardener for some other fruitless tree. We can give a little time. Do a little digging. Spread a little encouragement. Who can know when the kind word to a person on the street, support for an agency that cares for the homeless, a listening ear for a troubled teen or addicted adult will be the small thing that makes a huge difference?

Homeless people are everywhere. Sad people are everywhere. Lonely people are everywhere. Victims of violence and circumstance are everywhere. Sometimes they are strangers. Sometimes they are us.

And though we might give up on or judge or dismiss those whose lives are different from us, we know that God never will. God always has time. God always forgives. God is always digging around our roots, finding life where it seems there is none.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. Repent. Wait.