I See You

I See You

Dear Friends,

Bill had been blinded by napalm in Vietnam. He left for the war a fully-sighted teenager and returned from the war a sightless man. When I met him he was middle-aged, married and a father. He had never seen the face of his wife or his children; he couldn’t admire the roses he tended in the backyard or wave at neighbors passing by his porch on a summer evening. I visited him during one of his many hospitalizations—the napalm had scorched his insides, too—and I asked him, naively, “If you had the chance to see, would you take it?”

I’ve been thinking about him all week in the context of the scripture texts for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. They are all about sight and blindness, light and dark, life and death.

The Old Testament reading (1 Samuel 16.1-3) pits the prophet Samuel against Saul, the first king of Israel. You may recall that God was not a big fan of kings, warning Samuel, “The people who want a king have not rejected you; they have rejected me. Listen to them, but solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” (1 Samuel 8.8ff) God’s reticence was well-warranted as the first king, though tall and handsome, turned out to be a complete bust.  So while Saul still occupied the throne, God undermined his authority, sending the prophet Samuel in search of the next king. That king’s name? David, who was only a boy when Samuel (secretly) anointed him. Samuel was not impressed with David, but God reminded him, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

We take a break from the book of Romans to study a brief passage from Ephesians for our epistle (Ephesians 5.8-14). The letter to the church at Ephesus was meant to encourage new Christians to live faithful lives in anticipation of the return of Jesus. Apparently, the city of Ephesus offered many opportunities to sin, so the writer of the letter warns them not to be Darkness, but to be Light. “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.” What does light do? Light refuses to be part of “impurity of any kind.” Light shines. Light wakes. Light reflects the light of God.

In the second of the Gospel Scrutinies for Lent (John 9.1-41) Jesus encounters a man born blind who, by the end of the encounter, sees more than he cares to. Jesus told the man born blind that his blindness was an opportunity to reveal God’s glory (sometimes I disagree with Jesus’ theology). Jesus made mud out of dirt and spit, rubbed it on the man’s eyes, and sent him off to wash his face. No one was more astonished than he when the mud was washed away and he could see. “”The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes and said ‘go and wash.’ I went and washed and received my sight.”

Sight turned out to be an unpleasant experience. He saw the faces of neighbors whose voices he had always known, but who distanced themselves from him because of this unheard of miracle. He saw the faces of Temple leaders who accused him of blasphemy and perjury. He saw the faces of his parents who (metaphorically) threw him under the bus: “We do not know how he sees. He is of age. Ask him.” By the time the dust settled, both the formerly blind man and Jesus had been thrown out of town. When asked if it was worth it, the man said only, “Lord, I believe.”

Before I tell you more about Blinded By War Bill, let me invite you to join us Sunday. We know that many schools are on spring break, so we have decided not to offer Sunday School this week. We will however, offer Sunday Forum, continuing our viewing and discussion of Rick Steves’ “Luther and the Reformation.” During Worship we will again offer a sung version of the Gospel reading.  As part of our Lent Holy Family Challenge, we will welcome Ruth Newman, long-time faithful volunteer at Lucille’s, a consignment shop whose profits support Holy Family School. (Please remember that, any day of the week, you can contribute financially to our Lent Challenge through Realm. Just go to our website and click on “on-line giving.” We have not yet reached our $13,000 scholarship goal.)

If you are traveling this weekend, we pray for your safety and refreshment. If you are in town, we’d love to see you. (No pun intended.)

Now, the rest of the story. From his hospital bed, Bill turned his head toward me and said, “I can tell what sort of person you are by the sound of your voice. And I trust you. I know how my wife smells and I can feel the wrinkles around her eyes when she smiles; I feel my sons’ hands grow larger and hear the deepening timbre of their voices. I know the birds in the trees by their song and my roses by their thorns. Why would I need to see?”

For Bill, physical blindness was no impediment to a joyful life. But I know many who are sighted, but live blind to the joys and sorrows around them. Is that what God meant by saying, “the Lord looks on the heart?” Is that what the writer of Ephesians meant by, “The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true?” Is that what Jesus meant when he said to the Pharisees, “Now that you say ‘we see,’ your sin remains.”

We see with the eyes on our faces and the eyes of our hearts. But only God knows who we truly are. And, miraculously, loves us still. And to us those who choose to live in God’s light, Jesus says, “Work the works of God who sent me while it is day.” Will you blame me if I hum, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

Amazingly graced,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Well, Well, Well

Well, Well, Well

Dear Friends,

I always have a song in my head. This week it has been a spiritual I first learned at my home church, Immanuel Lutheran Church, rural Titonka, Iowa more than 40 years ago. “Like the woman at the well I’ve been seeking for things that cannot satisfy.” (“Fill My Cup,” words and music by Richard Blanchard, 1925-2004.) As a middle school student who attended choir rehearsal mostly to see my friends, I could not have known the pathos and longing embedded in that lyric. But now that I am grown and deeply aware of the prejudices and practices that divide, the plight of the Woman at the Well moves me deeply.

Another critical matter about which we read in Sunday’s texts is the matter of Water. In many parts of the world fresh, clean water is still a rare and precious commodity.  In antiquity, a deep well belonged to the whole community, serving both as source of water for daily life and a gathering place.  Thus, the term “watering hole” for neighborhood bars—the well has always functioned as a meeting place.

Each of our scripture texts for Sunday takes us to the water.

The Old Testament reading (Exodus 17.1-7) tells of a conflict that occurred early in the wilderness wanderings of the people of Israel. Just two chapters after being freed from slavery in Egypt, the people began to whine. The place at which they were camped had no easy access to fresh water. They complained to Moses, accusing him of tricking them into death by dehydration. Moses complained to God about the “this people!”  God provided water. In an odd way.  God invited Moses to tap his Nile River/Red Sea Parting Rod on a rock from which water gushed—water enough for people and herds alike.  (For another telling of this story with a darker outcome, consult Numbers 20.1-13).

Psalm 95 recounts that conflict in the wilderness, a place which was later named Massah (Prove It) and Meribah (Conflict). “Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the desert.” The whining and complaining in the desert was legendary as a sign of faithlessness and impatience.

We continue reading in Romans, as Paul nudges his Jewish and Gentile readers about their propensity to boast (Romans 5.1-11). Rather than boasting in their own wisdom or power, they were to boast of the suffering they endured for the sake of the gospel. And in spite of their unwarranted high self-regard, Paul reminded them that when Jesus had died for them they were still sinners. Paul employs the familiar “how much more” argument to remind them that if Jesus loved them while they were steeped in sin, how much more he loved them once reconciled to him.

Now, come with me to the well. On Sunday we read the first of what are called The Gospel Scrutinies—three gospel texts used in the early church to instruct those new to the faith. Following the miracle of turning water into wine and sparring with Nicodemus, Jesus began the travels that would bring him finally to Jerusalem (John 4.5-42). The story is long and complex, but here is the kernel—Jesus risks his reputation and standing for the opportunity to bring hope to a woman.  A sinful woman. At a well. In the middle of the day. In Samaria. Alone. Everything is wrong with this story, as Jesus violates every rule about “engaging the enemy.” This gospel reading is especially poignant as our country grapples with our relationship to the Outsider, whether that person is “outside” because of  race, religion, gender, political party or our own prejudice.  Standing at a well in the noonday heat, Jesus offers the woman Living Water that will never run dry. She was both intrigued and wary.

Please join us Sunday to hear more about Water and Outsiders and Sin.

Our Sunday School children are working on our Lent Holy Family Challenge and preparing a number of songs for worship leadership in coming weeks. Sunday Forum begins a four-week viewing and discussion of Rick Steves’ PBS documentary “Luther and the Reformation.” (Some of us were privileged to be at the world premiere of this film—it’s worth seeing.) During Worship, we welcome an alumnus of Holy Family School and his father to tell us about the life-changing gift of the school.  If you have not yet friended Ascension’s Facebook page, you may want to do so. Yesterday we posted a brief “Welcome to Ascension” video in what we plan as a weekly feature. (You will see why friends tease that I have “a face for radio.”)

Meanwhile, that spiritual is singing in my head, and I am reminded of all the women and men of our acquaintance and around the world who long for both liquid water and living water. We can lead them to both.

Fill my cup, Lord.

I lift it up, Lord.

Come and quench this thirsting of my soul.

Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.

Fill my cup; fill it up and make me whole.

Well, well, well,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Framed

Framed

Dear Friends,

I have been keeping my favorite framer in business.

As we empty my parents’ home in anticipation of putting it on the market this spring, I salvage tangible memories of our family’s life. And every time I return from a trip to Titonka I visit my local framer to lay another precious memory in his hands. One of the things he recently framed for me was my mother’s baptism certificate, a large ornate hand-calligraphied document that had been rolled up in her cedar chest for decades.  My mother is a descendant of Prussian immigrants who fled Europe because of poverty and mandatory conscription.  But even after three generations in this country, when she was born in 1930 her family spoke and worshipped exclusively in German. The beautifully-framed document—written in German—is evidence of the deep desire for immigrants to retain something of their culture, something familiar, something that feels like home.

Yesterday afternoon I had a conversation with the communications director for Refugee One, an agency with whom Ascension has long been affiliated. I have been in touch with them regularly since the first immigration ban was signed in January, pledging our support of their work and our concern for them and the would-be immigrants they serve. After I hung up the phone, I had to wonder how my poor, illiterate, draft-dodging ancestors would be received if today they knocked on our door for refuge.  I think I know the answer.

Sunday’s scripture texts find their root in another refugee, the first documented immigrants in the Biblical story—Abraham and Sarah. They could not have known, when they set out from the land of Haran for parts unknown that millennia later Jews, Muslims and Christians would claim them as a common ancestor.  And thank God for their faith.

In Sunday’s Old Testament text (Genesis 12.1-4a) God calls a heretofore unknown nomad named Abram to leave his home and family. The goal of the journey, the reason for their travel, the rationale for choosing them—all of these things are unknown. But God promised that when they went they would be blessed by God, with children, and for all time. Oddly enough, Abram and Sarai went. With nothing but a promise to guide them.

The Apostle Paul does a riff on the itinerant faith of Abraham and Sarah (Romans 4.1-5,13-17) with the fledgling Christian congregation in Rome. The congregation was composed of Jews, who insisted that any that would join them in following Jesus would have to become Jewish first, and Gentiles who were captivated by the Jesus story but were unwilling to be circumcised. What to do? Paul went out on a theological limb to claim that the reason Abraham followed so faithfully was not because he was a strict follower of the Law, but because he trusted God completely. “The promise that Abraham would inherit the world did not come . . . through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” To follow by faith alone was a new concept then. And still difficult today.

The Gospel reading (John 3.1-17) leads us into seemingly-familiar territory with the inclusion of the “most famous verse in the Bible”—John 3. 16. But nothing in this text is at it seems. That often misunderstood verse is embedded in a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was nocturnally curious about Jesus and his mission. Nicodemus was a fan of fact; Jesus the founder of faith. In a circuitous conversation filled with rhetorical questions, non sequiturs and elusive images, Jesus impressed on the law-abiding Nicodemus the need to simply believe. Believe as we believe in wind, which though invisible to our eyes is evident all around. Believe as the ancient Israelites believed that a snake on a pole could save their lives (Numbers 21.9ff).

On Sunday before worship our Sunday School children will pursue the Prayer Buddy program which is part of our Holy Family School Lent Challenge. I will conclude a four-week class in Sunday Forum about The Apostles Creed.  On Sunday afternoon  we host the fifth in our “One Tree Many Branches” concert with “Jazz Meets the Classics.” During worship we will sing and pray and study texts that challenge us to welcome the immigrant, to trust the unknowable, to set our feet on God’s road.

Last night on my way home from work I stopped to pick up yet another artistic artifact from my framer. For as long as I can remember, my parents slept under a 19-century German painting of an angel guiding small children across a bridge in a storm. It is not great art. The frame was flimsy. The print is nicked and smudged. But I was always comforted to know that my parents slept peacefully, imagining an angel following their children through the world, guiding lost little ones when they could not. That faded five-dollar print is now protected in a $150 frame.  And it is worth every penny.

Our ancestors in the faith were immigrants—children lost in a storm. As hard as it might have been for Abraham and Sarah to trust that God would lead them safely home, I fear it is even more difficult for us to believe that the immigrant and the refugee is sent to us by God for safe-keeping. But if we trust that, the Apostle Paul might reckon it to us as righteousness, as well. And lost children might find their way home.

Framing the Faith,

Pastor JoAnn Post

PS Don’t forget that Daylight Savings Time begins Sunday, as we turn our clocks ahead an hour.

 

 

So Tempting

So Tempting

Dear Friends,

My husband and I went out for dinner after worship Ash Wednesday, still bearing the ash cross on our foreheads. I’d been wearing ashes all day, and had completely forgotten about them. That’s why when a woman did a double-take as she walked by our table, I was a bit worried. What had she seen that had stopped her in her tracks? Of course. It was the ashes.

She said, “I like the cross.” Seemed an odd way to start a conversation (and theologically suspect), but she continued. “I received my ashes this morning, but had to wash them off immediately afterward. I teach preschool children and I knew that if I came to school with a black smudge on my forehead, the children would talk of nothing else all day. You’re lucky you can wear them so easily.”

When she walked away, my husband said, “That was odd. Do you know her?”

“Nope, I’ve never seen her in my life.” I took a sip of my Old Fashioned and ordered dinner.

But I’ve been thinking about her since, about the truth of her concern for her pupils. Three-year-olds are so easily distracted by something new, so curious about something they’ve not seen before. It would not have been enough for her to tell them about her ash cross at the beginning of the school day. They would have pestered her all day long.  Children are so easily tempted to distraction.

But so are we. Our fascination with “fake news” and Oscar Errors and The Dangerous Stranger routinely draws us away from attention to things that really matter. Distraction is a daily temptation.

The Season of Lent always begins with the gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The stage for that reading is set by the Old Testament reading (Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7) which recounts the first temptation—the Serpent in the Garden.  You know the story. God created Man and Woman with great care, giving them access to everything in creation, everything but a single tree. While God was away, the Serpent planted doubt in the mind of God’s new creatures.  Twisting God’s words. Imputing selfish motives to God. Making promises that would soon prove to be false. How sadly typical of the Man and Woman to disregard God’s clear word for the sake of an easier, sinister one.

In the Epistle (Romans 5.12-19), the Apostle Paul does a riff on that first temptation, offering an a minore ad maius argument, a “lesser to greater” or “how much more” argument. Paul writes, “If the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have grace and the free gift of Jesus abounded for many.” That is, if Man and Woman could so thoroughly mess up God’s intentions, how much more completely can the Son restore them. It’s a complicated argument (and a real challenge for Sunday’s reader).

Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 4.1-11) finds Jesus still dripping from baptism, wandering in the wilderness where the Spirit led him. In a vision quest at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. He was, understandably, weak and hungry at the end of his fast. Enter The Tempter, who offers enticing distractions from Jesus’ resolute purpose. Though The Tempter’s offer holds no allure for me, imagine how appealing a starving Jesus might find the offer of Easy Bread, Obvious Power, Global Worship.  But Jesus resisted, not by his own power, but by reliance on the words of another, the words of scripture in which he had been trained at sabbath school.

Sunday’s texts offer three examples of temptation, temptations strong enough that even Jesus paused: the temptation to doubt God’s wisdom, the temptation to over-exaggerate our own sinfulness, the temptation to pursue personal satisfaction. Perhaps none of those temptations whispers in your ear, but, like three-year-olds, there is always something shiny to draw us away from that which is sure.

Might I offer an alternative temptation? Join us. Join us for Education, Service and Worship during the season of Lent.

Our Sunday School children will be working on a prayer project as part of our Holy Family School Lent Challenge. Sunday Forum is working its way through the Small Catechism—a document you might have once known, but have probably forgotten.

Sunday worship introduces a Lent liturgy we have done before, contemplative with an Argentinian beat. During worship we will install our Congregation Council, welcome international students through the ELCA’s Women Leaders and International Seminarian program, and hear more about our Lent Challenge.  Not all temptations are bad, after all. To be tempted to study, to worship, to care—that’s a temptation worth pursuing.

Today my unnamed Preschool Teacher is reading books and singing songs with her students. I admire her. In spite of her obvious devotion to her faith practices, her greater concern was for her students—that they would have a full day of exploration and play and peace, undistracted by a practice that even many adults don’t quite comprehend. She gave in to the temptation to do what was best for her students. That’s a temptation I can admire.

Allow yourself to be tempted today. Tempted to kindness. Tempted to faithfulness. Tempted to trust. I’ll be pursing those enticing options with you, as I do every day.

Trying to be tempted,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thin Places

Thin Places

Dear Friends,

They are called “thin places,” those geographical or spiritual places where God is most near. The phrase originated with pagan Celts, who believed there are a few places in the world where the distance between the gods and humans is almost completely erased. The Isle of Iona. The craggy peaks of Croagh Patrick. Though the Celts may have named the phenomenon, the belief in places that are “nearer my God to thee” is as ancient as humanity itself. Most often, “thin places” involve soaring mountains, distant peaks where the air is thin and the sky is near and the earth falls away beneath our feet.

An aside. The idea of “thin places” makes me wonder if there are also “thick places,” geographical locations or circumstances of the human heart that make it difficult for God to reach us, or us to reach God. I’ll let you ponder where such “thick places” might be.

It is no accident that so many biblical stories take place on mountains. We trek to two “thin places” in Sunday’s readings for the Festival of Transfiguration.

The first locale is recorded in Exodus 24.12-18 where we witness the hand-off of the Ten Commandments’ tablets to Moses. You remember that Moses and the Israelites had fled Egypt, lived as refugees in the wilderness, had wandered aimlessly in search of water and shelter, and had begun to fight among themselves—a common reaction to uncertainty and in a perceived vacuum of leadership. The Ten Commandments, and the six chapters of instructions that surround them (Exodus 25-31) were a gift from God for the people’s life together. God and Moses had a lot to talk about. The mountain air during the forty days and forty nights of Moses’ conversation with God was not thin, but thick with cloud and fire and smoke.

The epistle reading references another “thin place” (2 Peter 1.16-21). Written in the first century of the church’s life, the author feared that the early church was being torn apart by conflicting voices and competing claims. He names them “cleverly devised myths” whose intent was only to confuse and destroy. The writer reminds them of the event in Jesus’ ministry which we will read in the Gospel (Matthew 17.1-9) in which Jesus ascends a mountain with three of his followers. On that mountain Jesus was transfigured before them, revealed to be an equal with Moses and Elijah who had joined him. From the cloud we hear the voice that first spoke at his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

In both cases—the giving of the Ten Commandments and the Transfiguration—the space between heaven and earth, God and humans, despair and hope was thin. Is there a “thin place” in your life, your heart? A place where God is most clearly seen, where Jesus most powerfully speaks?

Transfiguration marks the end of the season of Epiphany and opens the door to the Season of Lent. We will sing our last “Alleluia” before silencing it for Lent’s penitence. We will put away the green of Epiphany for the white of Transfiguration, and immediately after worship dress the church Lent purple.

Please join us for a full morning of activity. Our Sunday School children will help burn last year’s Palm Sunday palms for this year’s Ash Wednesday ashes. If you have a desiccated palm lying around your house, bring it with you at 9 a.m. Sunday Forum will begin the first of a three-week study of the Apostles Creed.

During worship our Sunday School Choir will sing the prelude, and Holy Family School Chaplain Leslie Hunter will be our preacher. We have invited him to bring the Gospel because he is a wonderful, provocative preacher and to help launch our Forty Day Lent Challenge for Holy Family School, about which you will be hearing soon. We also delight to welcome Paige Leanna Nathaus to the Lord’s Table for the first time.

I am always grateful when you are able to join us for worship. To paraphrase your favorite flight attendant, “We know you have a lot of options on Sunday morning. We thank you for choosing to spend your Sunday with us.”

Thin Places. Those places where God’s presence is palpable, God’s voice unmistakable, God’s desires crystal clear. In these complex days in our nation’s life and our own, I ask that you consider our common life at Ascension a “thin place.” Though neither a mountain nor an exotic hideaway, God is always here. I can feel it.

Trusting the clouds will clear,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

In our Right Hearts

In our Right Hearts

 

Dear Friends,

 

I admired Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson the first time I heard him speak. He is the model of cool competence, careful listening, honest assessment and passion for the people he serves. That is why on Wednesday, during a press conference about the deaths of three Chicago children due to gun violence, I  jumped when Superintendent Johnson pounded the lectern in frustration. “Enough is enough! How many children do we need to lose before the promises made by some legislators are kept? How many?”

 

There is no simple solution to the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago. Anyone who has been paying attention at all knows that any change to the statistics will require broad-based commitment to an intricate network of laws and practices with regard to employment, education, economics, housing, guns, incarceration, rehabilitation, race and social structures. Superintendent Johnson recognizes these complications, but knows we cannot “police” our way to change. Any change will require an almost unimaginable level of compassion, commitment and courage from all parties involved.  I worry that such concerted cooperation may not be possible.

 

Sunday’s texts call us to such herculean commitment, as well. The focus of the texts is not on Chicago’s gun violence, but on behaviors and attitudes that have led to violence, mistrust and brokenness for centuries. The short answer to society’s ills? “Be like God.”

 

In an Old Testament textual run-up to the Gospel reading, we read a portion of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 19.1-18). God passed wisdom along to Moses about God’s expectations of the People of Israel in their new land.  Those expectations included a willingness to take a financial loss to provide for the poor, attention to the integrity of the name of God and the names of God’s people, kindness to the disadvantaged, fair judgements in legal disputes, and, most difficult, a refusal to allow one’s heart to harden against another. Should the people commit to those counter-intuitive, counter-cultural behaviors, they would be like God—holy.

 

Our continued reading in 1 Corinthians re-introduces the issue of factionalism among God’s people (1 Corinthians 3.10-11,16-23) Vying for position, pinning all their hopes on a single human leader, boasting of their superior knowledge, they bore no resemblance to the “temple” God had created them to be.  Competition and disdain were tearing the church apart.  The only solution? Remember that “you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”

 

Meanwhile, back at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ instructions about the disciples’ actions have become ludicrous (Matthew 5.38-48). Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other cheek. Walk a second mile with someone who demands only one. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Who in their right mind would do that? It doesn’t matter–Jesus expects us to be in our right heart. His expectations are impossible to meet. Except that they come in the same spirit as the Holiness Code in Leviticus. How is it possible to overcome all our native self-protection, self-righteousness, self-promotion and self-concern? Imitate Christ—who demonstrated all these behaviors toward us. Be holy as God is holy—loving the neighbor, caring for the poor, softening one’s heart.

 

Such expectations from God are as outrageous as imagining Chicago’s leaders can come together for the sake of endangered children and young people.  But “outrageous” is not the same as “impossible.”  God isn’t giving up on us yet. Nor should we give up on each other.

 

Before we meet for worship Sunday morning, we offer Sunday School for our children and Sunday Forum for adults.

 

We also look forward to our Annual Meeting, which will be called to order after worship.  We held a Sunday Forum last week during which we entertained questions and comments about the report; Sunday’s meeting will be “just the facts.” Since the annual report was published a few questions and omissions have been brought to our attention. Let me mention them here.

 

Worship attendance was a bit lower in 2016 than in 2015.

 

Our membership is stable, but the small shift in worship attendance is primarily due to the fact that our members live busy lives, traveling on weekends and sometimes for whole seasons. On any given Sunday our members are wintering in Colorado or playing lacrosse in Arizona or working in Washington or visiting friends and family in other places. I know that most of our members are in worship when they are in town, and I am grateful.

 

There were few personal “thank you’s” in the written report.

 

There was a time when Ascension kept careful records of every volunteer service hour, and published that list at the end of the year. Even with that close attention to record-keeping, volunteer’s names were inadvertently omitted and feelings unintentionally hurt. For the most part, we have chosen not to name volunteers in the annual report, except for those who hold elected or official positions, to avoid the very real possibility of failing to name someone whose service is valuable.

 

Two groups were not named in the report.

 

Due to an oversight on my part, we failed to name Night Ministry as one of our vital community engagement projects, and the Kitchen Committee as an active part of our property team. I apologize for those unintentional omissions and any others that may have not been brought to my attention.

 

Back to the texts. Imagine for a moment that we attempted to live as God instructed in the Holiness Code, as Jesus instructed in the Sermon on the Mount. To live completely for the sake of the other, to lay aside personal concern for the good of another, to hold both enemies and friends close to our hearts. Would such behavior stop the slaughter in Chicago? Would such behavior make our congregation and communities prosper?  Would such behavior heal the growing rift in our nation? It is not clear. But I do know that we are called to a higher standard, a greater righteousness, a deeper compassion. And if it does not come naturally, we work at it. Training like athletes for a race, like police officers for community service, like disciples for ministry.

 

Seeking to be in my right heart,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

Quarter Turning

Quarter Turning

Dear Friends,

My friend has been “dry” for years, having struggled with an addiction to alcohol for much of his adult life. We talked recently about the temptation of alcohol and drugs, the daily decision to leave it behind. He told me about an image he had learned at an AA meeting years ago, about the insidious allure of old habits. He said, “I was never tempted to fall all the way off the wagon, but I was tempted to make quarter turns.” My quizzical expression forced him to go on. “We get in trouble not with fabulous failures but by quarter turns—a small slip there, a minor misstep there—until, a quarter turn at a time, you’ve turned completely around.”

That powerful image describes the direction of all three of Sunday’s texts.

The Old Testament reading is the end of Moses’ sermon to the people of Israel before they stepped into the Promised Land. (Deuteronomy 30.15-20) Moses promised them that if they remained faithful to God—loving God, walking in God’s ways, observing the commandments—they would live long and prosper. But if they took “quarter turns” away from God, allowing their hearts to be turned, their eyes to wander, their feet to stray, they would be subject to death.  Faithfulness was a simple, bold way of life: obedience, faithfulness, choosing. Failure was more simple still—small steps that would lead from abundant life to certain death.

We continue reading Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. (1 Corinthians 3.1-9) In what seems to me an insult, Paul described why he had to be so pedantic, so simplistic in writing to them. They were not ready for solid food, but only for milk. They were not ready for rigorous instruction, but only for ABC’s. Why? They were immature. They were infants. And how did Paul make that assessment? Because they fought among themselves—quarrelling and coveting, claiming allegiance to competing leaders. Though bound together by a common faith in Jesus Christ, the commonality ended there as they put the lie to the faith by their words and actions. Biting words. Prideful smugness. Envying eyes. Small things, perhaps, but deadly.

In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus’ disciples can’t catch a break. (Matthew 5.21-37) After climbing a mountain to get away from the crowds, Jesus had instructed his disciples to exceed the Pharisees and scribes in righteousness. That was a nearly impossible task, since the scribes and Pharisees were rabidly rigorous about their attention to the law. But Jesus was not interested in mere adherence to the ancient laws—don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t use God’s name in vain. Jesus was interested in broad-spectrum faithfulness that permeated their hearts, their marrow, their dreams. For example, most of us can say with confidence that we will never murder, but we can have no such confidence if “murder” is a wide net that includes angry words, name calling, grudge holding, libelous intent.  Most of us can say with confidence that “adultery” is not on our to-do list. But we commit such unfaithfulness every day when we long for what is not ours, when we allow our hearts to be turned from those who trust us.

Failure to launch as disciples is not measured by the Big Sins, but by the small ones, the quarter turns that lead us, oh so insidiously, from God and from one another.

I need to think more about my friend’s Quarter Turn Theory. Relationships often fail not because we burn our bridges with a flame thrower, but because we fail to be kind, we refuse to forgive, we let something or someone else turn our hearts. Discipleship often fails not because we dramatically turn our backs on God and all God has done, but because we sin in small ways that erode our ability to look God in the eye, that make us question God’s love. The road of faithfulness—to one another and to God—is clearly marked. Obedience. Honesty. Commitment. And that same road is littered with enticing detours of deceit and doubt that eventually take us so far off course we cannot find our way back.

Of course, there is forgiveness for all our failures—the epic and the insignificant. But the availability of forgiveness is not permission to fail. Jesus calls us instead to bold faith and decisive action, strong steps and unwavering discipleship. And if this seems harsh, too much to ask, perhaps you would consider quarter steps for yourself—tiny steps that bring you, little by little, back to the One who loves you best.

Holding the course,

Pastor JoAnn Post