Vespers in the Second Week of Lent

Vespers in the Second Week of Lent (20 March 2019)

“I Will Build You a House” (2 Samuel 7)

JoAnn A. Post

This Lent we have committed ourselves to The Night Ministry—a partner in addressing homelessness in our community. In addition to the Lent Tree, our financial challenge, All Ascension Reads and other activities, we take this opportunity of Lent Vespers to read about, pray about, think about “home.” What it means to have one. And what it means to be without.

Last week we celebrated the first “home” for God—a carefully crafted, fully-blinged portable repository for the Ten Commandments. This vessel was called the Ark—like the ark that floated Noah and his family to safety—but this one traveled on dry ground. God made a deal with Moses that the Ark of the Covenant, as it was called, would be a sign to him and to all the people of Israel as they worked their way toward the Promised Land that God was with them.

Last week we read from Exodus that the evidence of God’s residence in the Ark of the Covenant (here named “The Tabernacle”) was a thick, impenetrable cloud: Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. (EX 25)

When tonight’s reading from 2 Samuel opens, the people have arrived and settled in the Promised Land, King David has been established as their king, and the Ark has been stored in a tent. It suddenly dawned on David that he had a lovely house in which to live, but the Ark of the Covenant—the sign of God’s enduring presence—languished under a canvas canopy. David sets about to rectify that inequity: A Reading from 2 Samuel.

My parish in Connecticut was only an hour’s drive from Long Island Sound, and its loud, cold, wide sandy beaches. We could easily load our younger daughter and her friends in the car for Hammonasset Beach or Rocky Neck, spending the day screaming in the Sound’s frigid water, or sunning while we protected our snacks from seagulls. A day at the beach was just that for us—a day at the beach.

But a number of families in my parish had, in previous generations, made the beach their summer home. When school let out, women and children packed up the pop-up trailer or old Army tent and enough swim suits and supplies for a whole summer. They claimed a spot on the sand, and called it “home” from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Fathers and husbands drove out on Friday evening to spend the weekend, and drove back to town Sunday night. It sounds glamorous. But while it was fun for children, it was enormous work for their mothers. And, unlike wealthy families who summered in their mansions on the Cape or on their yachts at Watch Hill, the Beach Moms I knew summered at the beach out of necessity.

I first learned of this blue-collar East Coast practice from an elderly member of the parish. I asked, “Was it fun?” She smiled. “For the kids. Absolutely. For me? It was a lot of work. But cheaper than keeping them at home all summer.”

These were families that couldn’t afford summer camp or field trips to New York City or even three meals a day for a houseful of children. It was cheap to eat at the beach—hot dogs, cheese sandwiches, fish they caught and fried. No utility bills. No car expenses. Sun and sand provided endless, free entertainment.

Did the children know they were poor? Probably not.

Living in a tent is fun, if you have a house to go to at the end of the day. But if you are poor? Not so much.

I thought of those sandy, sometimes desperate days as I read about the parking lot in which the people of Israel dropped the Ark of the Covenant once they were settled in the Promised Land. The Ark had served a powerful purpose while they wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, but they weren’t wandering anymore. They weren’t living on cheese sandwiches anymore. They weren’t living in tents anymore.

And King David? The King who had once been a shepherd, now a mighty warrior and wealthy man? King David had a palace. Of course he did. Where else would a King live?

It started to bother David that the Ark of the Covenant, the “home” in which God’s presence had traveled in the wilderness, was stuffed in a tent. So David had a bright idea. “I have a house! God needs a house, too!” And David began the design phase of a grand, holy building project.

But God wanted none of it.

Using David’s prophet Nathan as a go-between, God mocked David’s high-minded efforts. “Did I ever, even once, whine, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ No! I didn’t want a house then; I don’t want one now.”

David was crest-fallen—he really wanted to do something nice for God. So God made two promises.

The first promise was that, after David’s death, David’s son Solomon would be made king, and Solomon would be given permission to build a home for God—the first Temple. Next week we will explore that Temple, that “home” for God.

But, more important than a mansion fit for a King, God would make of David a house. God said, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever; your throne will be established forever.”

It was not the edifice David had hoped, but a legacy that endures to this day. God didn’t need a house. David would be a house. Seems a fair compromise.

Tonight we gather in the quiet of this house, dedicated to God. Though God does not live here, we learn of God here, we experience God here, we seek God here. In this lovely space, in these kind faces.

But, as we learned last week in Christchurch, New Zealand, even the houses we build in God’s name cannot protect us from danger, will not stand forever.

And, as we are reminded every time we open a newspaper or see our Lent Tree lighting the darkness, some have no home at all.  Not a tent. Not a pop-up trailer. Surely not a palace or a temple.

God does not need a house. But many do.

In these contemplative weeks of Lent, in the safety of this place, I invite you to ponder what it means to have a home. And what it means to not have a home.

Like Beach Moms who provided home for children who did not know they were poor, God would have us do the same for others. We are called to be that house, to be that shelter, to be that temporary wind break for people whose lives are hard.

God promised David, “I will make of you a house.”

Can we make the same promise to the homeless poor among us?

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Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent (17 March 2019)

Luke 13.31-35

JoAnn A. Post

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 

He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

“This never happens,” he muttered to himself, from underneath the baptismal font.  Only an hour before we had frantically mopped five gallons of water off the cherry floor. “This valve never cracks.”

“This never happens,” he announced from atop a ladder at the front door. Our beautiful new fully-accessible front doors had fallen out of alignment—sometimes they opened, sometimes they didn’t. “This door never shifts.”

“This never happens,” he mused from his hands and knees, studying our frozen safe lock. The reason there is no update on our Lent Challenge is because we haven’t been able to get into the safe to count it. “This mechanism never freezes.”

Well, all three of those things that “never happen” happened here. Friday. (I won’t even mention that I had discovered that morning at 6 a.m. that someone had phished my debit card, making fraudulent charges that sent me scurrying to the bank. Sadly, that does happen.)

An occasional hitch in the giddy-up, an odd hiccup in a system is to be expected. But for three things that never happen to happen all at once? Apparently, Friday was that kind of day.

Because 49 people were murdered as they prayed in a New Zealand mosque. Violence in houses of worship can happen, but in New Zealand, one of the most peaceful countries in the world? In New Zealand? A country that has opened its doors to immigrants from all over the world and made them part of its common life? In New Zealand? It can’t happen. But it did. And the ripple of that hate-filled rampage has touched every corner of the world, and every heart. Well, almost every heart.

This morning’s gospel opens with an equally unusual occurrence. Jesus was approached by Pharisees who wanted to tip him off to trouble. “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Biblical scholars differ on the intent of this warning. Were these otherwise religious antagonists actually concerned about Jesus’ well-being, or were they hoping to scare him off, shut him up so they could go back to the way things used to be before he stirred the pot? We don’t know. But we do know the danger was real.

The King Herod in question was the son of the King Herod who ordered the slaughter of innocent children in Bethlehem following Jesus’ birth. This is the same Herod who had his brother Phillip murdered so he could marry Phillip’s wife; the same Herod who ordered John the Baptizer’s head on a platter. Herod made a New York mob boss look soft-hearted. If he wanted to kill Jesus, he would find a way.

Regardless of the Pharisees’ intent, here’s something else that never happens. Jesus never runs from trouble.

Instead of crafting a quick Plan B, Jesus dug in. First, he made fun of Herod, and then he disregarded the then-most powerful city in the world with a wave of his hand. “O Jerusalem, awash in blood, I could have saved you from yourself, but you wouldn’t have it. You’ll soon get what you have coming.”

And with that sarcastic dismissal, he continued his cross-shadowed mission of offending the powerful and protecting the weak. You see, when Jesus is in the room, that always happens.

The baptism font technician and I had ample time to strike up a conversation while he worked. First, I learned about ultraviolet pumps and blown GFI. Then he told me all about the fish tank pump that had failed at a doctor’s office in the city that morning, and the children who wailed as he scooped belly-floating fish into a bucket.

Then, when he offered to fix the font that night, if only I could wait an hour or two for him to pick up the parts, our conversation turned to his weekend plans. (He didn’t want to stay late any more than I did.) Apparently, he wanted to get to sleep early Friday night because his St. Patrick’s Day observance began bright and early yesterday morning. A round of bar hopping for shots would lead to more shots at the river while it was dyed green. Then he and his buddies would stake out their favorite corner to watch the parade—outside another friend’s pub. After that he was headed to his father’s 90th birthday party and, you guessed it, more shots.

“So, St. Patrick’s Day is a big deal for you?” I summarized.

“The biggest,” he grinned.

“So, you’re Irish?” I pursued.

“Nope. Polish.”

“So you’re Catholic?”

“Nope. Well, used to be.”

Huh. I wonder how St. Patrick would feel about this mostly-pagan observance of his feast day. You see, Patrick was not known for his ability to out-drink everyone in the room.

Patrick was a 5th century Irish bishop who spent his teen years as a slave. Hard labor far from his home in Britain afforded him time to study, and when he escaped his captors, he devoted himself to the study of the Irish language and scripture. Ordained a priest in 415, he joined a team of missionaries to Ireland, where pagan religions had enslaved the Irish in dark rituals and sacrifices.

Though the legend about Bishop Patrick expelling snakes from Ireland is pure fiction, it is true that he baptized hundreds, established churches, schools and monasteries all over Ireland and, most notably, challenged the Druid King to a dual. With fire.

On the night of an annual Druid sacrifice which called for complete darkness across Ireland—even home cooking fires had to be extinguished—Bishop Patrick lit an enormous bonfire high on the Hill of Slane, opposite Tara Hill where the pagan observance would reach its apex. (Fun fact: the tune we will sing after the sermon is named Slane for that fire-lit hill. “Be thou my vision . . . “)

Enraged, the Druid king’s armies rushed down their hill toward the small band of singing Christians on the opposite hill, but Patrick and his companions were turned into a herd of deer that fled safely into the woods.

Patrick and his compatriots risked their lives to restore light to a dark land. It is in the name of this once-enslaved, fearless, nearly-skinned alive bishop that we dye ourselves green and drown ourselves in Guinness? It happens.

Here’s something that isn’t supposed to happen, but does.

Light overcomes darkness.

Love overcomes hate.

Courage overcomes fear.

The power of the Gospel overwhelms the powers of this world.

Sometimes, things that never happen, do.

On Friday, Muslims all over the world flocked to their mosques for Friday prayer under the watchful eye of compassionate neighbors and unflinching police officers.

On Friday, a friend traveling in a Muslim-majority country, joined hands with Christians and Muslims to pray publicly for peace.

Today, we give thanks for a long-dead Irish bishop who overcame the powers of darkness with the light of Christ.

Today, we hide under Jesus’ protecting wings as he taunts the powerful who have no power over him.

Things that never happen, do. In Jesus’ name. When we follow Jesus into the world the darkness grows lighter, our songs are louder, our family grows larger, and the weak are made strong.

Some things never happen. But they can. They do. In Jesus’ name.

 

 

 

Vespers in the First Week of Lent

“Coming Home”

Vespers in the First Week of Lent (13 March 2019)

The Ark of the Covenant

JoAnn A. Post

This Lent we have challenged ourselves to pray over, read about and act on issues surrounding homelessness in our community. Partnering with The Night Ministry, we have pledged to raise $20,000 toward the needs of The Crib—a no-barrier-to-entry emergency shelter for young adults, ages 18-24. In addition to raising funds, baking cookies, purchasing gift cards, and doing The Night Walk, we will gather each Wednesday of Lent to pray over, read and act on texts about “home” OR “homelessness” in scripture.

This first week we study God’s first “home”: the Ark of the Covenant (EX 25.1-31.18, 35.4-40.38). The Ark of the Covenant provided sacred space for the tablets containing the Covenant between God and God’s people. The Ark was built in response to the peoples’ faithlessness evidenced in the debacle of the Golden Calf (EX 32) It was to be a portable repository for the tablets on which the covenant was written, and a moveable worship center—a place for gathering around the word of God as they traveled the wilderness. (This is the same Ark pursued by Indiana Jones in “The Raiders of the Lost Ark”  Spoiler alert—Indiana Jones was not a real archeologist, and the Ark has never been discovered, though the movie was great fun to watch.)

Tonight read only portions of God’s lengthy and details instructions about the construction of the Ark.

I grew up on the farm where my father grew up, four miles from the place of my mother’s birth. We were remarkably rooted people, both owning and being owned by a plot of earth that remains in my family to this day.

Over the years, many of us have left that land to pursue educations and careers in other places. Though I think my Mom might have been curious about where her children lived—she even visited us each once or twice—my Dad was not. At some point he said to each of us, “If you want to see me, you know where I live.” He could not imagine leaving his home for even a weekend, let alone living somewhere else.

And though I have lived in five different states and owned as many houses, though my home and heart are with my own little family, wherever we happen to be, when I speak of visiting my extended family, I still sometimes slip and say “I’m headed home.”

It has been 40 years since I lived on the family farm. I have been away from it as long as the people of Israel were without a home in the wilderness. But just as four decades of relative absence have not dimmed my sense of my true home, four decades of wandering did not diminish their desire to go home.

After all, if they had no home, how would God find them? How would they know God to be near? Everyone needs a home.

God understood their need for permanence, for place. So though a home was not in the immediate future for them, God promised to dwell among them, in an unconventional, portable, temporary way.

No one has ever seen the face of God, nor could anyone ever visit God, as though God lived in a neighborhood, in a house with a picket fence and a dog.

Adam and Eve once heard God walking in the Garden in the cool of the evening (GN 3.8ff), but knew only the “presence” of God. Both Noah (GN 6-9) and Abraham (GN 12ff) had conversations with God, but only in visions or dreams—never face-to-face. Moses, the general contractor for the Ark of the Covenant, was most familiar with God, but even he was denied a one-on-one.

Moses once went so far as to challenge God’s invisibility (a bold move), and God gave—an inch. “You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live. But there is a place by me where you shall stand on a rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in the cleft of the rock; and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (EX 33.20-23)

It might have been enough for those old men who had virtual contact with God to believe without seeing, to trust God’ s presence when there was no sign of it, to be satisfied with the image of God’s rear end. But it was not enough for the people of Israel. If they had to live without an address for the foreseeable future, they wanted to know that at least God had an address, that God could be found, that God had a home.

So God made a home, decided to dwell among them. Thus the Ark of the Covenant—a meticulously crafted, beautifully appointed, portable “home” for God, a habitation worthy of the One who had freed them from slavery.

The Ark itself was stunning, but its contents were even more precious. For the Ark contained the tablets of the law, the Ten Commandments, the tangible sign of God’s love for them and presence among them.

Still, they could not see God. As we read earlier, when God was about to enter the Ark, a cloud would descend over it, obscuring it from human view. When the cloud covered the Ark and God was “in the building,” the people camped and waited. And when the cloud lifted, it meant God was on the move, and they were to move, as well.

It was in this way, for 40 years, that Israel learned to trust God—trusting that though they were homeless, God was at home among them, always before them, leading them from slavery in Egypt to freedom in a new land, in their own home.

We all long for home. Farmer’s daughters. Ancient Israelites. Young adults who, at this moment, wander the streets of Chicago in search of a safe place to sleep.

Home.

For Israel—it was a gold-embossed, jewel-encrusted, cloud-covered box. At least, for a time.

For me—it was  120 acres of Iowa farm ground. For a time.

For the homeless of Chicago? Home is a street corner, or a seat on a bus, or a borrowed bed. For a time.

Even when we don’t have a home, a place to lay our heads, God makes a home among us. First, it was the Ark of the Covenant. There were other addresses we will visit in the coming weeks—other addresses that include a virgin’s womb. But tonight we trust that dwells among us in the Ark. For a time.

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (10 March 2019)

John 4.1-13

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, 
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
and
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Such stories rarely end well, stories of journeys undertaken on the advice of a seemingly-benign companion.

The Big Bad Wolf, disguised as Grandma, lured Little Red Riding Hood close enough to her bed to make a meal of her.

A crafty, cookie-baking witch enticed Hansel and Gretel into her gingerbread home, intending not to feed but to fatten them.

The gleaming city of Oz on the horizon caused Dorothy and her canine/metallic/straw-stuffed/leonine friends to sing themselves straight into disappointment and danger.

With those travelling terrors in mind, I am tempted to jump in front of Jesus, to divert him from this can’t-end-well sojourn into the wilderness. Led by a shape-shifting (“like a dove”) Spirit. Newly baptized. Freshly minted. Boldly named: “This is my Son.” Jesus would have been better off ignoring this illusive Spirit, and going straight to work. What harm would have come of skipping the scary parts of Luke 4 and going straight for the miracles?

But what sort of story would that be? More important, what sort of Savior would that be—jumping from success to success like a frog in a pond, rather than wading through the wilderness where most of us live.

Lent always begins in a wilderness. In all three lectionary years, our 40-day journey opens with our heretofore “hero” wandering skeletal, disoriented, famished in a wind-whipped desert. Not unlike tribes that require a significant rite of passage before attaining adulthood, this 40-day fast was something Jesus had to do. And it was initiated by the same Spirit that had dropped from the sky at his baptism, who now dropped him at the door of the wilderness and said, “See ya’ later.”

What happened in those 40 isolated days; how did he spend his time? We have no idea. But we know that Jesus was not alone. Though the Spirit may have been hovering just off-screen, we know that the Devil—again, form unknown—lurked in the shadows. Waiting to pounce at Jesus’ weakest moment.

And pounce, he did.

From an outsider’s perspective, the devil’s taunts seem foolish. Bread from stones? Own the world? Fall without falling? Nobody in their right mind would be tempted by those foolish, selfish, impossible things.

But Jesus wasn’t in his right mind.

So, unable to debate the devil with his own wisdom, Jesus borrowed the wisdom of another. Rather than trying to stand on his own two feet, Jesus leaned. Leaned into the strength of scripture. Leaned into an ancient faith. Leaned into words he had learned at his parents’ knee.

To the temptation to make bread Jesus replied, “Bread is not enough.”

To the temptation to worship another, Jesus replied, “God is enough.”

To the temptation to fall into angels’ arms, Jesus replied, “That’s just stupid. Why would I do that?” (translation mine)

Even Jesus, son of God, could not withstand temptation on his own. So he leaned on another. And when the temptation passed, he hit the road again.

A professional acquaintance has struggled with drug addiction for most of his adult life. In and out of rehab; in and out of relationships; in and out of work. The lure of that chemical comfort is often more than he can withstand. He uses a variety of tools to stay straight, to stay clean. Exercise. Meditation. But when he can no longer stand on his own, in his darkest moments, in that wilderness of death-dealing desire, he leans. Leans into his sponsor. Leans into is oldest friend. Leans into his pastor. Leans into ancient words. His own strength is not enough, but their borrowed strength, their wise words, their steady love can often protect him until the danger passes.

His life will always be a journey in and out of the wilderness. A journey he cannot survive alone. So he leans. And then keeps on walking.

We are, all of us, in and out of the wilderness, tempted to despair, or doubt, or even death.

I don’t need to warn you against those who would lead you there, those who, like the Big Bad Wolf, make an offer too good to be true. Most of the time, when we are strong and confident, we see them for who and what they are. And run the other way.

But sometimes, when we are weak and frightened we cannot. What do we do then? Who do we trust then? On whom do we lean then? What words fill our ears?

But more important for us is that we become those on whom the world leans. We become the strong shoulder. The sturdy faith. The defining word. When we are strong, we are strong not for our own sakes, but for the sake of all those who, like Little Red Riding Hood, cannot overpower the seduction of danger.

We remind the world and each other that we need more than stuff, that God is enough, that somethings are not worth falling for.

Our Lent Challenge calls us to venture into the wilderness, to be a strong shoulder, a sturdy faith, a defining word for brothers and sisters who suffer homelessness. It is not a simple thing.

What does it mean to a hungry teenager to assert that “we do not live by bread alone?” Have you ever been so hungry you would eat anything?

How do we counter the promise made to a young adult on the street that “all this can be yours, if you  . . .” What would it mean to them to, instead, “worship God alone?”

And when someone has fallen so far they have no farther to fall, who will be the angels who protect them?

The wilderness is more than a concept, a literary device for too many. It is a truly dangerous place, populated with tempting voices and alluring vices. Will those wilderness wanderers hear the voice of God through the din, will they recognize us as fellow travelers, and not the Wicked Witch of the West? Will our words and wisdom, our love and strength be enough to sustain them, to carry them to safety?

As we journey through this 40-day wilderness of Lent together, we will take turns. Needing to lean, and being leaned on. Speaking and listening. Feeding and being fed.

And when the world’s wilderness wanderers catch our eye, we remind them that Jesus knows that wilderness, as well. Jesus would not have survived the wilderness intact had he not had tools at the ready.

Words. Wisdom. Confidence that there is always a way through.

We journey together this Lent, with Jesus as our companion.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday (6 March 2019)

Joel 2.1-2, 12-17

JoAnn A. Post

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near —
a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes;
their like has never been from of old, 
nor will be again after them in ages to come.Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the LORD, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
and leave a blessing behind him,

a grain offering and a drink offering
for the LORD, your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast;
call a solemn assembly; gather the people.
Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged;
gather the children, even infants at the breast.
Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
Between the vestibule and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep.
Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD,
and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations.

Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”

“Banner.” “Flint.”

Two bricks are nestled under an Arborvitae near our garage. Each gray brick inscribed with a name. “Banner.” “Flint.”

I took note of the bricks when we first moved into our home on a cold November day five years ago, but didn’t think much about them, assuming they were remnants from the building of the house itself. It was only the next spring as I knelt to plant flowers in that small plot of dirt, that I saw names etched into the bricks. “Banner.” “Flint.”

The previous owner of our home was a cat lover, and had entertained many cats during the years she lived there. Evidence of them lingers in claw marks on the back of a door, in the faint smell of kitty litter in the basement on humid days. I have come to believe that each brick is a headstone, a marker where a much-loved, deeply-grieved cat’s ashes are buried.

The bricks get in the way of my spring planting each year. The bricks have dinged more than one shovel as we clear a heavy snowfall. They are mostly a nuisance, and of no use to me. Who would know, who would care, if I either moved the bricks or even threw them away?

But I just can’t do it.

Here lie ashes. Ashes of cats. Cats with  names. Names given in love. Love that prevents even me, a determined dog person, from dishonoring the memory of Banner and Flint.

Here lie ashes. On our foreheads. Ashes are a reminder, a mnemonic device, a souvenir of our mortality. All cats die. All dogs die. All people die. And before we die we are inscribed by sin, immersed in failure, humbled by grief—our own sin, our own failure, our own grief, and the sin, failure and grief of the whole world.

In our confession on this solemn night, we ask forgiveness for a host of sins—some obvious, some elusive. Some of what we confess is personal—hurtful words or hateful thoughts. But some is global—failure to care for creation, our participation in war, our bigotry toward those different from ourselves. Tonight we confess for ourselves and for the whole world.

Smaller than a brick headstone, there is not room on our foreheads to write all those sins, to name all those faults, so instead we make a mark, a smudge, an inscription that reminds us of our common sin, our colossal failure, our communal grief.

The prophet Joel encourages us to be public about our failure:

Return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.

The prophet Joel invites us to trust that God will hear our weeping and mourning, will see the smudge on our foreheads and will remember. In the same way an inscribed stone causes us to remember the dead, God will see this inscription and remember to let us live. God will remember to be gracious. Merciful. Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

All of that remembering the result of this smudged signature

For a brief moment tonight we remember all the death and disappointment, the sin and sorrow of our lives. Like names carved on a headstone, these ashes remind us of sin, certainly. But also of love.

Once a year, in the spring, I kneel at a cat’s grave, trowel in hand. Once a year, in the spring, my hand reaches out to move those modest markers out of the way of my planting. But I cannot. Their names inscribed in stone remind me of love; their ashes infuse the soil with life.

Once a year, in the spring, we kneel at the graves of our lives, sin in hand. Once a year, in the spring, our hands reach out to erase the evidence of that sin. But we will not. Not yet.

These ashes are a kind of headstone, evidence of our death. But they inscribe us also with evidence life, God’s life in us, and God’s steadfast love for us.  We have been inscribed with words that carry us through both death and life: Grace. Mercy. Love that will not let us go.

Transfiguration Sunday

Transfiguration Sunday (3 March 2019)

Luke 9.28-36

JoAnn A. Post

Now about eight days after these sayings, Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they stayed awake, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men who stood with him.

Just as they were leaving, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and there were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

We visited my grandparents in town almost every Sunday. We cousins would run in the house, holler our greetings at whoever happened to be in the kitchen, throw our coats on Grandma’s bed, and then be banished from the house to play or, in winter, to the basement where the playing cards and board games were stored.

All Sunday afternoon, the adults drank tea in the haze of blue smoke from Grandpa’s hand-rolled cigarettes. Sometimes they fiddled with the TV’s rabbit ears in search of a wrestling match. But mostly they talked. Apart from the children. What did they talk about? State secrets? Confidential plans? Horrible illnesses we were too young to understand?

I snuck up on them one winter afternoon, eager to overhear their mysterious conversations. What did I overhear? Speculation about crop prices and the new teacher at the high school, critique of pastor’s sermon and snorting about the neighbor’s fancy new car. That was what they talked about when we weren’t around? Hardly seemed worth the trouble it took to shoo us—we would have died of boredom eventually anyway.

Now that I’m mostly an adult, I understand that they just wanted to tell a story without having to explain it, finish a sentence without having to wipe a nose or change a diaper.  What a gift it must have been for them—a few hours of uninterrupted conversation with their peers, with people they trusted and had known all their lives.

Was it like that when Jesus hiked up the mountain to pray, dragging whiney disciples behind him? Was it like a Sunday afternoon at Grandpa and Grandma’s house? Jesus banishing the disciples to go play while he talked with his peers—Moses and Elijah. Jesus hand-rolling a cigarette with nicotine-stained fingers while Elijah poured the tea, and Moses adjusted the rabbit ears on the television.

Did they discuss state secrets? Commodities? The neighbor’s unruly dog? No, they stood just out of earshot from Jesus’ sleepy disciples, talking about things only they understood, things they didn’t have to explain. They talked about Jesus’ “departure”—something his disciples would not understand, would, in fact, fight. But something that Moses and Elijah had already experienced. Moses who had departed slavery in Egypt (EX 14), and Elijah, who departed this earth in a whirlwind (2 KG 2).

What a gift it must have been for them—a few hours of uninterrupted conversation with their peers, people they trusted.

It’s still a bit unclear to me why Jesus would have wanted this to be a private conversation. It was no secret that trouble lay ahead. After all, only verses before this text, Jesus had made his first passion prediction: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (LK 9.22)

He taught all day every day, wading through crowds of people who wanted more, always more. The disciples didn’t have sneak up to “overhear” Jesus, they could hear him any day, any where, any time.

There must have been something different between the conversation he had with the disciples about his inevitable suffering, and the conversation about his “departure” he had with Moses and Elijah Why couldn’t the disciples be part of that conversation, too?

Sometimes, as at Grandpa and Grandma’s house, what we overhear is dull. Sometimes, as when overhearing gossip, we unearth significant dirt. Sometimes—think FBI wire-tapping—we overhear a crime. And sometimes we simply aren’t old enough to receive what the grown-ups have to say.

Think about how often you’ve kept something to yourself for a while, telling no one.

A friend’s husband went off to work every day for three months before he told her he no longer had a job, that he’d not been going to work but to the public library.  He didn’t know how to tell her.

A middle school friend didn’t tell her parents she was being bullied at school, until one of her friends let it slip. How long would it have gone on before she confided in them?

A “millenial” friend who would have been the third generation in the family business, took the LSAT, applied to law school, was accepted and signed an apartment lease before he told his parents he wasn’t joining the business.

Why do we withhold information from people we would otherwise trust with our lives? Why don’t we allow some things to be even overheard, let alone blurted out loud?

Sometimes we withhold information because ashamed or unsure.

Sometimes we fear hurting or disappointing people who have counted on us.

And sometimes the news is too much to tell all at once. Sometimes we need to shoo the world off to play while we think it over, talk it over, pray it over with a trusted friend.

Over the years I overheard my parents confide important things, painful things to one another when they didn’t know we were listening. A neighbor’s troubled marriage. A farm foreclosure. I would learn those things from them, eventually, when I was ready.

I think Jesus’ disciples simply weren’t ready to hear it all. That Moses and Elijah were his peers, that he was God’s Son, that Jesus’ death was not the end of him? They simply weren’t ready to receive that news. The most they could do was listen in, watch from a distance.

Sometimes I think we’re too hard on ourselves, expect too much of ourselves. We find it hard to believe in Jesus. Believe it or not, the disciples who walked and talked with him struggled the same way. Jesus was too much for them. He is too much for us.

Most days the best we can hope for is to overhear the truth of Jesus, a little at a time. In a crumb of bread and a sip of wine. A fleeting promise of peace. A whispered prayer. Someday we will understand; someday it will be clear to us.

But for now, in the way loving parents protect their children from hard truths, the best we can hope for is to overhear. Whispers of mercy. Echoes of love. Truth that takes a lifetime to understand.

 

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (24 February 2019)

Luke 6.27-38

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus said: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Unreasonable requests.

Many years ago, in another congregation, I greeted visitors at the door who had just that weekend moved into our town. In an abundance of unthinking Iowa Nice I said, “O my. If there’s anything we can do to make the move easier, just let us know!”

They called the next day. “You said you’d be happy to help make the move easier? We want to go skiing next weekend. Could you take care of the children while we’re gone? Thanks so much.”

Unreasonable requests.

A friend tortures restaurant wait staff with add-ons, substitutions and special requests. Chicken salad but only if it’s made with free-range white chicken breast. French onion soup without the onions. Coffee please, but only if its freshly brewed from medium grind Himalayan beans, with a dash of unsweetened oatmeal milk.

Unreasonable requests.

Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. Let them hit you twice. Strip to your skivvies and give your clothes away.

It would be easier to babysit a stranger’s children or hike the Himalayans in search of virgin coffee beans than acquiesce to Jesus’ demands. A regular reader of my Friday blog wrote back to me about this gospel reading, “Jesus wasn’t serious, was he? Who would do that?”

Well. Jesus would.

In the second installment of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, he scrambles his disciples’ brains like organic eggs from the elusive Peruvian guinea fowl. Last week he redefined the words “blessed” and “cursed.” This week he describes a life no one wants to live—a life seemingly devoid of self-defense, self-respect, or self-care. Who would do that?

Jesus didn’t lack for attention; it’s not as though he had to beg people to be his friend. Everywhere he went, the crowds mobbed him. Touching him. Making demands. Throwing themselves at his feet in desperation. They all wanted something from him. And he gladly gave it. No matter what they asked, when they asked it, no matter how outrageous the request, he obliged. Later in Luke, he will even grant the request of a bereaved father to raise his daughter from death. And, even more audaciously, he will continue to love the disciple who betrays him with a kiss. There’s nothing Jesus won’t do for people in need.

Of course, it’s one thing for the only Son of God to take the punches, love his enemies, give it all away. It’s another thing for his disciples to do that. It seems, for mere mortals, an unreasonable request.

But Jesus was not joking. Nor were his words intended to fall softly on every ear.

Jesus knew his audience. Luke names three distinct camps in the crowd at the beginning of this story. Jesus knew that some followed him simply because they had nowhere else to turn—the group Luke names “a great multitude.” Others were considering Jesus, kicking his tires, taking him out for a test drive—Luke calls them “the great crowd of disciples.” (“Disciple” being a generic word for “student.”) But these instructions, this very specific, head-spinning description about a completely alternative way of life were addressed to the twelve hand-picked students whom Luke names “HIS disciples.” (LK 6.17)

Jesus knew that not just anyone could live as he did. But he expected HIS disciples to do so. He expected the 12 whom he had culled from the thousands who auditioned to take up the Disciples’ Challenge.

Would they? Could they? Seems an unreasonable request.

In a time in our common life when selfish behavior and thoughtless words are daily fare, this week stands out for its malignant, menacing and malevolent character. A much-loved Chicago actor ruined his own life and the lives of real victims by claiming a fictitious hate crime. Funerals for five victims of preventable gun violence in our suburbs made national news. The president of Venezuela ordered violence against his own people because they want to eat and he refuses to allow aid into his country. Predatory priests are finally being outed by the Pope’s sexual abuse summit—about four decades too late.

We know the world to be cruel and cold, but this week set records. Who does these things?

Well, everybody, it seems. Everybody but those of us who have chosen to be HIS disciples.

In response to my faithful reader who hoped Jesus was kidding, I have to respond, “Nope. No joke.”

Jesus is not asking us to be, as a friend describes a favorite relative, spineless vertebrates, caving to every fickle friend, every corrupt-coworker, every predacious perv. He is not consigning us to a lifetime of forced servitude, a life devoid of self-defense, self-respect, or self-care, as some imagine.

The disciples’ life is a life we choose, a life pressed down, shaken together, running over with kindness, generosity, gentleness.

Jesus’ requests may seem unreasonable to others, but not to us. After all, how will the world get even a glimpse of grace, a measure of mercy, a whiff of forgiveness, if not from us?

Pray for your enemies. Bless those who curse you. Turn the other cheek. Forgive. Give. Who gets to do that? We do.

 

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (17 February 2019)

Luke 6.17-26

JoAnn A. Post

Jesus came down with the twelve and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.


Then he looked up at his disciples and said: 
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile 
you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.


“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
“Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

 I was four and a half hours into a seven-hour drive home to Iowa to see my mother, when my cell phone rang. It was my oldest brother, who farms the family farm, who sees my Mom every day.

“Where are you?” he said.

“More than halfway,” I replied.

Silence on his end.

“The roads are bad here,” he said. “Schools are closing. I can’t see the barn from the kitchen window.”

Silence on my end.

“Should I keep coming?” The answer was obvious.

One of the many blessings of a large family is that almost anywhere I am in Iowa I’m related to someone there. And it was true on Thursday afternoon. I quickly called another brother, who lived just fourteen minutes from where I was having this discouraging phone call by the side of the road.

“I’m just a few minutes from your house. I can’t go on because of weather.”

Before I could finish my ask, he said, “Come, stay with us.”

And I did. He and his wife are wonderful people, generous and kind. They expanded their Valentine’s Day dinner reservation to include me, and we had a lovely—if unexpected and not very romantic—evening together.

Intending to continue my drive north Friday morning, I was up well before dawn. Only to be greeted by news that roads in northern Iowa were still virtually impassable. What to do? The answer was obvious.

With a lump in my throat and a weight on my chest, I turned my trusty Subaru toward home—my home. I had so hoped to see my Mom, but it was not to be. But the disappointment of that missed opportunity was almost completely offset by the unexpected gift of a visit with family I hardly ever get to see.

Ah, the curse of an Iowa Winter. The blessing of a large and loving family.

Blessings and curses. Gains and losses. Joys and sorrows.

They happen to us all. But which is which? The answer is not always obvious. But I know Jesus has an opinion.

We are six chapters into Luke’s gospel, and already Jesus is a rock star. Even without Twitter or Instagram, his reputation as a healer and exorcist raced through the countryside. Everywhere he went, crowds pressed around him. Though he was a popular teacher, it was not a lesson they craved. It was a miracle. It was a touch.

Luke makes a claim that other Gospel writers aren’t quite so bold to assert—that the sick could be healed, the demon-possessed freed, simply by touching Jesus’ clothing. Luke goes so far as to assert that power emanated from Jesus like sparks.

What a blessing for those fortunate enough to get close to him. Leprosy? Gone. Disability? Healed. Cancer? Cured. Any who could lay their hands on Jesus were unexpectedly and suddenly blessed with health. Good for them.

But what was that like for Jesus? Thank God he wasn’t an introvert; the press of human flesh would have sent him running for a cliff. Did it deplete him, this endless and unwitting healing, this constant emission of energy? We can’t know. But we know that Jesus was never alone—and would not be again until all those who loved his miracles abandoned him at the cross. That’s a curse to be examined another day.

It was in this setting—this chaotic, confusing, claustrophobic press of human flesh—that Jesus turned to his disciples. With his own definition of blessings and curses. It would seem an obvious distinction, a pointless discussion. The people who were strong and wealthy and smart and safe were “blessed.” Unlike the pathetic schmoes who oozed need and sorrow who were, by any measure “cursed.”

But the disciples were new at this business; they did not see or understand Jesus’ world view or his mission. So, he paused to recharge and to teach them. To teach them what was, to him, obvious.

In a contrast that confounds us still, Jesus laid opposites next to one another—poor and rich, hungry now and full now, weeping and laughing, persecuted and popular—and shifted their definitions, in a whole Freaky Friday reversal.

Jesus claimed that the poor would receive an eternal inheritance, and the rich already had all they would receive.

Jesus claimed that the hungry now will be satisfied, and the satisfied now will be emptied.

Jesus claimed that those who mourn would soon laugh out loud, and the carefree would break under grief.

Jesus claimed that persecution was a sign of God’s favor, and that to be popular? Jesus warned the well-loved to look over their shoulders, to view the crowds who fawned over them as self-serving sycophants rather than faithful friends.

“Nothing is as it seems,” he said to his disciples.

Those things the world regards as punishments may, in fact, be gifts. And those things the world craves? Beware of their allure.

I will never forget a scene at a hospital bedside long ago, as family huddled around a dying woman. The woman whose life was coming to a close had been suddenly stricken with illness that could not be cured. Her impending death left her stunned children gasping for air, her many brothers and sisters speechless with grief. The illness that afflicted her was brutal, painful, rare.

Who could have imagined such a stunning turn of events, the speed at which a vibrant person could be stopped, almost literally, dead in her tracks.

In such moments, I have learned, as the pastor, to say little. To wait. To watch. To read the room. Besides, I was as stunned as they.

The first time we gathered at her bedside, I asked, “For what shall we pray?” Without hesitation and more than a little irritated, one of her sisters said, “For a cure. What else?”

Only two days later, the answer to my question was very different. “For what shall we pray?” With tears streaming down her face, the same sister said, “Death. Ask God to release her. Ask God to call her home.”

Life. Death. Which is the blessing? Which is the curse?

Jesus viewed his limping, gasping, aching audience differently than did his disciples. To Jesus, they were the poor soon to be rich, the hungry about to be filled, the grieving soon to laugh, the hated about to be loved.

And those who imagined the wealth of their lives—wealth measured in dollars and girth and wine and song—would one day discover that none of that mattered, none of that could last, none of that could save them.

Blessing? Curse? The answer is not always obvious.

We sometimes come around to Jesus’ point of view slowly, reluctantly.  But, as disciples, we have no choice.

I had to make that shift, in a small way, for myself on Friday. I did not get to see my Mom, but I had a wonderful visit with my brother. My circumstance hardly qualifies as either blessing or curse, but it was a reminder that things are not always as they seem, that sadness can be offset by joy, that tears are shed for many reasons—sometimes at the same time. And I know that small upsets, turn-overs like this are training, practice for larger upsets, turn-overs to come. Practice for the blessings we do not recognize; the curses we could avoid.

Blessing? Curse? Only God knows for certain.

But blessed are they, blessed are we, who are willing to learn.

 

 

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (10 February 2019)

LK 5.1-11

JoAnn A. Post

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4hen he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So, they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

I’ve just returned from a four-day conference in Las Vegas—a gathering of pastors and church leaders from across the country to talk about “vitality.” The schedule was full, so we didn’t have much time to take in the sights, but one evening our synod team decided to Uber down to the Strip to do some strolling. My very first time.

Of course, you have to remember what I do for a living—no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’m a pastor, and my mind is perking with scripture texts, in search of sermon fodder. And, at this conference loaded with others pastors, the same was true of everyone—I often overheard conversations about today’s gospel reading among small groups of preachers, all trying to squeeze in time to think about and write today’s sermons.

So, what was I thinking about as I strolled the Strip, eyes as big as dinner plates and mouth hanging open? I was thinking about Jesus and today’s enormous catch of fish. Exciting, I know.

Some of you have probably been to Vegas a hundred times, and are no longer surprised by it. But, it was all new to me. Towering neon billboards. The fountains at the Bellagio. Beautiful, extraordinarily friendly women, under-dressed for the weather. Limos as long as football fields. Music escaping from the doors of nightclubs and bars. A man in a tuxedo stepped in front of me and asked if I was looking for a party. (I wasn’t.) The soothing aroma of tobacco and cannabis in the air. I can pass for a cool person when I have to, but I fear my Inner Rube was on display Thursday night. I was like Gomer Pyle in the Big City. Golly.

And who was there with me? Jesus. Simon. Fish. And a funny thing I had learned about the text earlier that day.

So, let’s take a look at the text, and then we’ll go back to Strip Strolling.

You know the story. Teaching. Rowing. Fishing. The giving of unsolicited advice: “Row out deeper! Drop your nets on the other side of the boat!”  Fish throwing themselves at Simon’s nets, begging to be caught. Simon falling at Jesus’ feet, winded and wondering to say, “You caught me.”

Jesus looked down at Simon’s ropy arms and calloused hands, his sunburned neck and bleached hair and said, “Get up, Simon. From now on, you’ll be catching people.”

What? Drop the anchor! Catching people?

Commercial fishing was and is violent business. Whether tangled in thickly knotted seines or snagged with sharp barbs, fishing is bad for fish. And this is the image Jesus used with Simon? That he was to sneak up on unsuspecting people with nets and hooks and drag them to Jesus? That’s what we do—drag people flopping and dripping to meet Jesus, playing a game of holy bait and switch?

But it’s not as bad as it sounds. Because of the difference between two little words. The text today uses two different words for the “catching” of these fish—both the finned and the footed kinds, two different images of the work of Jesus’ crew.

When, in verse 6, Simon “caught” fish, Luke used a violent commercial fisher’s word—snag, snare, surprise, subdue.

But, in verse 10, when Jesus promised Simon he would catch people, Luke used a different word. Simon was not to drag people out of their beds to meet Jesus, but instead to “capture” them, “captivate” them, “fascinate” them. “Catch” them as a teacher captures a student’s interest or an idea captures the imagination or a lover captivates the heart—that’s the fishing Simon would turn to.

Jesus wants people to come to him because they were enthralled, not because they were tied down and dragged there.

All this while I was walking the Strip, a place whose sole purpose is to captivate, capture, fascinate, entice us into doing things we ordinarily wouldn’t do.

I know I think about these things too much, but I couldn’t help but wonder, as we meandered down crowded streets that offered every enticement imaginable, who on the Strip was there because they were captivated, and who because they were caught?

Who was there because they were “taken” with it all, and who was there because they had been literally “taken?”

Every public space I entered, including the church building that hosted our conference, was plastered with signs offering assistance to girls and women caught up in sex trafficking, addicted to drugs, or run-away from home.

I know that most of the people working the casinos and gas stations, restaurants and hotels of Las Vegas earn an honest wage for work they willingly do. But I also know there are some there who are not captivated, but captured. Frightened fish tangled in a dark net. They’ve been on my mind.

The conference I attended was focused on new strategies for being church in a culture changing faster than we can row. We all know the statistics about changing patterns of faith practice. Left un-interpreted, one would assume this boat we call “church” is soon to sink.

But, like Simon Peter, frustrated at a lack of fish in his favorite fishing hole, our frustration is mostly because we’re fishing the same way, in the same places, with the same tattered nets we’ve always used. When Jesus shouted at Simon to go deeper and fish differently, it wasn’t because he had some magical knowledge about where the fish were hiding. It’s because he knew that sometimes the old ways don’t work. Simon had to go to the fish, rather than wait for the fish to come to him.

I come away from events like the one I attended this week exceedingly grateful to be in this boat with you. We are not immune from the pressures and patterns around us. But slowly, we are learning to fish differently, row farther, cast our nets in new water. And the goal of our shifting strategies is not to catch people unware, luring them in because our coffers and pews are empty. The reason we are to fish differently, row farther, cast deeper is because Jesus wants to capture hearts, captivate the imagination, invite into a way of living, a way of believing that frees rather than snares.

Jesus had a soft spot in his heart for all the frightened fish he encountered, all the sinners snagged in nets they could not escape. Jesus fished among the hungry, the homeless, the sinful, the sick not to harm them, or to sell them, or to consume them, but to protect them. And, we know from other gospel stories, that people threw themselves at Jesus the way the fish threw themselves at Simon’s nets.

That is our work. Both here in this not-very-glitzy community of ours and in the world into which we row every day. Like fish that fight the hook, the people to whom we are sent will run from us, from Jesus, if we threaten or accuse or shame or use them for our own ends. But if we offer them a place that is safe, a word that is kind, a shelter from the storm, they will leap at the chance—caught up in love that will not let them go.

Rowing into deeper water. Casting in unfamiliar places. Capturing rather than catching. This is the work to which Jesus calls us. Captivating, isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (3 February 2019)

1 Corinthians 13

JoAnn A. Post

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

It started with a little drip in the Volunteer Center ceiling on Tuesday morning. By afternoon it was a steady faucet, and we hop-scotched with buckets and wastebaskets to catch the drops. Wednesday and Thursday were spent with a watchful eye on the dry wall above us, but there was nothing else to do—we couldn’t ask anyone to go up on the roof to investigate in that weather.

On Friday morning, we opened the front door to the melodious sound of rushing water—a pipe had burst in the education wing and we suddenly had our own indoor swimming pool.  We were exceedingly grateful for the volunteers who answered my fumbled text messages for wet-vacs. But our safety suddenly depended on strangers who had not slept in three days, the roofers and plumbers who responded to our frantic phone calls with ladders and tools and unbelievable patience.

There was no time for introductions. They worked with little comment, enormous speed, and tremendous skill. By day’s end the roof no longer leaked and the toilets no longer gushed. I don’t know what we would have done without them. But they rushed off to another emergency, leaving us behind, dry and grateful.

As a pastor, I live in a world of ideas and organizations, words and relationships. My fingernails are clean. My desk is buried in papers. I think for a living—who else gets to do that?  Of course, I have a few useful skills.

As a homeowner, I wash my own clothes and make my own bed and walk my own dog—hardly hard labor. My life really depends on an army of mostly unseen, unnamed people who maintain my car and deliver my mail and pick up my dry cleaning and clean my house. I could not function without them, though mostly I don’t even know their names.

There is occasional need for the gifts I carry—agility with words and listening ears. But this week we needed far greater gifts—gifts that involve Carhartt coveralls and tool boxes. After all, when your basement gushes like Old Faithful, who would you most like to see at your door? Mr. Rogers or Rosie the Riveter? I thought so.

The Apostle Paul has been trying to get our attention on this front for three weeks now. He wrote to a congregation in ancient Corinth much like ours—highly skilled, highly verbal, highly competitive. They pestered him for praise, asking him to adjudicate their debates about which gifts were more important—speaking in tongues or interpreting tongues, working miracles or the ability to heal, the utterance of wisdom or of knowledge.

Apparently, they had no leaky roofs or bursting pipes, no freezing rain or drifting snow.  If they had, the answer to their question would have been clear. The most important gifts, and in no particular order? Plumbing. Snow plowing. Roof repair. But they had the luxury of having to worry about none of those things.

Paul spent all of chapter 12 talking them off the competitive ledge, soothing their easily bruised but clean-under-the-fingernails egos. But today, in chapter 13, he catapults all their self-centered caterwauling off a cliff. Because among all the precious gifts they carried and compared, there was one gift greater than all the rest. And it was not theirs to have.

How many of you had this text read at a family wedding? Most, I would guess. These lovely, lyrical words describe the sort of love we all long for our in our families and friendships. Love that is patient, kind, content. But the love Paul describes is not ours to either have or to hold. Love that is endless, strong, hopeful is beyond our ability, a gift too great for us. A pastor friend prides himself on being something of a troll when, at weddings, he punctures their bucolic nuptial bliss by saying, “This text? This text about love? Nope, not about you!.”

Paul opens his argument by insulting them and the very gifts he had so carefully ranked only verses before. Speaking in tongues? Cacophony. Wisdom and knowledge? In the trash. Generosity? Useless. He punctuated his point by describing their relationships in the most unflattering of terms (something he did wisely in writing rather than in person): they weren’t loving–they were envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, self-righteous, irritable, resentful; they delighted in finding fault.

Wouldn’t you love to be in that relationship? You probably are.

Because, at the end of the day, in our moments of deepest need, all those precious gifts—wisdom, knowledge, miracle-working—were as useless as my clever wit and calm demeanor were on Friday.

The greatest gift? When pipes are bursting all around, the greatest gift is the ability to wield a wrench. When life is crashing all around, the greatest gift is the gift of love. God’s love, not ours.

With no disrespect to any of your weddings, I find this text much more compelling not at the beginning of married life but at the end of our physical life, or the death of a relationship.

If you have ever sat at the bedside of one who was suffering, kept vigil with one whose life was drawing to a close, you know that our words and our wisdom quickly elude us.

The same is true when, in spite of all our best efforts, a relationship we treasure comes to an end. A marriage fails. A parent forsakes. A child disappoints. A friend proves faithless.

What is there to say to the one whom we have loved who will soon be taken from us? Either by death or by defeat?

We cannot make promises. We cannot make it better. We cannot right past wrongs or paint a rosy future. No matter how deeply, passionately, faithfully we love one another, our love is not enough. We cannot not stave off death or hold on to one who does not want to be held. Our love always ends. (And if that sentence feels too final for you, perhaps we could at least entertain the notion that our love has limits?)

Paul writes instead with an unspoken, implied subject of each sentence. Whose love is patient? God’s. Whose love is kind? God’s. Whose love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things? Whose love never ends? There is only one.

The congregation at Corinth clearly had nothing of importance to ponder, or they would not have wasted Paul’s time with their prideful, petty disputes. We live that same way most of the time ourselves. Worrying about things we can’t change, getting angry over things that don’t matter, holding grudges over slights whose particulars we have mostly forgotten.

When the pipes burst, and the roof sags and the house is cold we cry out for the hard-working, never-tiring, always-responsive tradesperson who can stop the leaking, shore up the ceiling, re-light the fire. Those are gifts that belong to only a few but are critical to us all.

And when our hearts are near to bursting, our patience thin and our affection grown cold, we cry out for the hard-working, never-tiring, always-responsive love of God, who will never fail or forsake.

I can temporarily repair a leaky pipe, but when the water rushes I need someone with a greater gift.

In the same way, we can aspire to love one another patiently, kindly, endlessly—but ultimately we have to rely on someone with a greater gift. The greatest gift. The gift of Love which we can do nothing but receive. A gift which God gladly gives.