Safe in God’s Heart

Safe in God’s Heart

Dear Friends,

Perusing the Valentines Day card display at my local Hallmark, I searched the racks for clever cards for my family and friends. Without thinking, I realized I was also searching for the elusive Valentine Birthday card for my Dad. (He was born on Valentines Day, 1932.) As happens so often these days, I have to remind myself (or am reminded) that my father has died, that I no longer have to hunt for the lone dual-purpose card suitable for my Dad’s sweetheart birthday.

My father and I never quite “got” each other. Though I never doubted his love for me, I often wondered about the way it was expressed. And he, in turn, couldn’t quite understand my life choices, the decisions I made. There were too many times when we did not speak, or when we exchanged harsh words, or when battle lines were drawn. But I know he loved me, in his way. And I, in turn, loved him in mine.

As I slowly, sadly, live into my status as a middle-aged orphan, I find it increasingly difficult to remember what it was we argued about, why we were so often at loggerheads. The details of our disputes, the rationale for our wrangling no longer seem to matter. Perhaps it is the gift of time that softens so many hard edges, or the gift of a faulty memory that can barely remember what I had for breakfast. Or maybe it is that he and I grew up in the same faith community, were shaped by the same faithful leaders, were schooled by the same scripture. Though separated by a generation, and wildly divergent in the paths we chose, we shared a common faith in the God of our ancestors and the Lord of life. And that common faith changed the way we viewed the world and each other.

On Sunday we continue our sermonic slog through the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5.21-37) Jesus abandons his broad-brush musing on his relationship to the law and the prophets to address specific issues about which we, brothers and sisters in the faith, still wrangle and argue. Dissatisfied with the then-common, often-simplistic interpretations of the Ten Commandments with regard to murder, adultery, divorce and duplicitous speech, he drills down on the specifics. Four times in Sunday’s gospel he begins his remarks with “You have heard it said, but I say to you . . .” In other words, Jesus will leave everyone offended.

He defines murder (commandment 5) as more than the “mere” taking of a life, but also as unrepentant anger. That is, slaying with speech is as destructive as with a weapon.

He defines adultery (commandment 6) as not only sexual infidelity, but also as a wandering eye or heart.

He defines divorce (commandment 6) as more than a legal proceeding, but as a decision with life-long consequences for all involved.

He defines the commandment against wrongful use of God’s name (commandment 2) by saying, “Let your yes, be yes. Your no, no.” In other words, be true to your word.

What does this have to do with me and my Dad? With you and those you love? With us in our life together?

The commandments still stand. As Jesus said just last week, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”  We do the commandments—and one another—a disservice when we limit their intent, soften their impact, exempt ourselves from their truth. We do equal damage when we torture ourselves about the particulars, punish ourselves for failing to live up to both the letter and the spirit of the law.

Here’s what Jesus asks of us: that we view the commandments as both a loving gift and a piercing light, a protective boundary and an honest mirror, a community decision and a personal quest.

I always look forward to our time together on Sunday mornings. Though during the week, we walk many different paths, grieve private failures, celebrate small victories, we come together as disciples willing to sit at Jesus’ feet. To listen. To learn. To be convicted. To be forgiven.

We have all violated both the broad intent of the law, and the daily challenges of life in community. Today I give thanks for my parents, for their faithfulness to one another, to our family, and to God. Today I give thanks for you and our community’s deep desire to live faithfully in large and small ways. Today I give thanks for God’s poor memory for sin, and long patience with us sinners who, inexplicably, have found our way into God’s heart.

See you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

Like church?

Like church?

Dear Friends,

“It was like church.”

A grieving pastoral colleague was reflecting on the first LA Lakers game after the death of Kobe Bryant last week. I didn’t see the game on TV, but I understand it was deeply emotional and moving. The lights were lowered. Testimonials were offered. Songs were sung. Photos were displayed. Sorrow was shared. I can imagine that the event might have hinted at some elements of worship, and perhaps was as close to “church” as many had experienced in a while.

My colleague is not the first to compare a sports event to congregational worship. Years ago, a social scientist (whose name and research has been lost to me) observed that if we were to count “worshippers” on Sunday mornings by virtue of cars in parking lots, most people “worship” at the shopping mall or the sports stadium. There are lots of reasons—cultural, generational, economic and personal—for shifting attendance patterns from centers of worship to centers of commerce or sport. And while I don’t begrudge people the decisions they make on Sunday mornings, I hesitate to say that shopping or sporting is “like” church.

So, with no disrespect to Mr. Bryant, or professional sports, or my colleague’s very real grief, there are differences between shared grief over a significant public figure and shared worship of the unique person Jesus Christ.

On Sunday Jesus will also challenge the “like church” metaphor, with definitive statements about the true identity of his followers.

Here’s what Jesus sees when he looks at us. “You are salt. You are light.”

Centuries of ink have been spilled describing how Jesus’ disciples are LIKE salt, and LIKE light, but that’s not what Jesus says. Jesus doesn’t give us metaphors. He gives us identities.

We ARE salt.

We ARE light.

Those are bold statements. A Marvel Comics friend would call these our Super Powers. What does Jesus mean?

Jesus means that his followers (and his church) are unapologetic and unambiguous about their true purpose, their true identities. Salt’s primary characteristic is saltiness. Light’s primary characteristic is luminosity. Jesus’ followers’ primary characteristic is faithfulness. To his mission. Without hesitation. Without hedging. Without humiliation.

This “super power” does not give us permission to be judgmental, or rigid, or small-minded. Instead, our super power, our identity as Faithful, opens us to the world in all its variety, hope in its transformative power, sorrow in its heart-breaking depths.

On Saturday, we open our hearts and ears to the next concert in our One Tree, Many Branches series: Keri Johnsrud and the Kevin Bales Quartet singing the songs of Mr. Rogers. Ms. Johnsrud styles children’s tunes into smooth jazz for all ages. Please join us for the concert at 4:30 p.m., and a reception afterward.

Please join us Sunday. In addition to Children’s Music (9:30 a.m.), Godly Play (9:45 a.m.) and Worship (10 a.m.) we will participate in Scout Sunday. All scouts, current and former, are invited to wear their uniforms (or the parts that might still fit) and to be honored for their commitment to scouting’s promises.

While other organizations, individuals and activities meet important needs in peoples’ lives, they are not “like church,” any more than, because we provide food, beverage and seating, we are “like Panera.” We are Jesus’ body in the world.

We are like salt.

We are like light.

We are like disciples—faithful to the one in whose name we are privileged to serve.

See you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

No Yelling Names, Please

No Yelling Names, Please

Dear Friends,

I have been thinking about anger.

The impeachment hearings play quietly in the background at my office, and I am distressed by the sarcastic, demeaning accusations lobbed from both sides of the aisle.

If all goes according to plan, Brexit will launch today, with unanticipated consequences. Though the withdrawal may go out with a whimper, you may remember that it began with a murdered journalist and complete turnover of parliamentary leadership.

Speaking of Great Britain, regardless of what one thinks about the Royal Family, it is disappointing to know that, among the reasons Harry-Formerly-Known-As-Prince and the Duchess of Sussex are leaving public service is that she has been the victim of persistent racially-motivated threats and hatred.

On a busy afternoon at my local grocery store this week, one of the managers caught my eye and invited me over to a register marked “closed.” I was suddenly joined by a glowering, shoving, muttering Angry Shopper who slammed groceries down on the conveyer belt and stared silently at me until I fled the store. I feared for the future of my Brussels sprouts.

Why are we so angry at one another? Why are our fuses so short? And, if anger is warranted, do we also have to be mean?

On Sunday we mark the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Though the texts are rich with possibility, I am struck by the anger simmering below the surface of two of the texts, and the kindness that bubbles up in the other.

The Old Testament reading (Micah 6.1-8) portrays a courtroom scene in which God contends with Israel for its faithlessness. After reminding Israel of all God has done for them, Israel responds with hyperbolic defensiveness—sarcastically raising the ante, hoping to shame God into silence. But when Israel shouts, “What do you want me to do? Kill my oldest child? Will you be happy then?” (translation mine), you can almost hear God sigh. Not in anger, but with parental patience. “No, here’s what I want . . .” You can read the answer for yourself. You’ll recognize it right away.

As we continue reading through 1 Corinthians, Paul turns positively pugilistic. (1 Corinthians 1.18-31) Though the English translation of the text accuses his audience of being “fools,” that Greek word can also be translated “idiot,” “moron,” “dullard.” In his attempt to highlight the extraordinary wisdom of God, and the wimpiness of theirs, Paul resorts to name calling and shaming. Did he have to be so harsh?

Jesus, on the other hand, is the model of restraint. (Matthew 5.1-12) Gathering both disciples and diseased crowds around him, he offers them a welcoming vision of the kingdom he will bring. He reinterprets the hardships of their lives as “blessings,” not in a naïve manner, but out of hope. After all, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is ruler of a kingdom in which weakness is strength, the outcast is a friend, persecution is an opportunity.

Here is something I have learned about anger. When we are angry with someone about whom we care, we measure our words and actions. After all, no matter how angry we might be at the moment, the relationship is infinitely more valuable than the momentary adrenaline rush that comes with unbridled hostility. And when, on occasion, our tongues get ahead of us, the next words out of our mouths have to be, “I’m sorry. Forgive me.”

However, if we don’t care about the person or the relationship, if, like the Angry Shopper, our goal is simply to glower, or to inflict unexamined, indiscriminate harm, we give ourselves permission to say any hurtful thing we want. We can leave an angry outburst feeling smug and satisfied, with no concern for the broken, bleeding victim on whose soul we stomped.

Sometimes anger is justified, as when an injustice has occurred, or a misunderstanding grows. That is why God is sometimes ill-tempered with God’s people, and the Apostle Paul so frustrated with the church at Corinth. Not to be mean, but to be clear. But it is never justified to eviscerate a political opponent for the sake of theater, to lob anonymous threats at public figures, to take a day’s frustration out on an innocent bystander, or to unload a lifetime of unspoken frustration in a single verbal assault.

Have no fear. You will not be greeted with anger at Ascension. We are well aware that God’s wisdom is greater than ours, God’s kindness more enduring than ours, God’s patience without end. Please join us Sunday for Children’s Music (9:30 a.m.), Godly Play (9:45 a.m.) and Worship (10 a.m.) We will open these texts together, seeking both an honest assessment of our lives, and a vision of a more faithful, more gentle way.

As I write, I am remembering a nursery school student from a previous parish. Though she went by “Abbey,” the name card over her coat hook was “Abigail.” On the first day of nursery school, she saw her formal name on the card, looked at her mother and cried, “Why did they use my yelling name?” (Her mother was horrified; we changed the name card immediately. No yelling names in our nursery school!)

Today I pray for peace in your home and heart, for a cessation of anger and frustration, and for an unexpected kindness in your life. And no Yelling Names.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With healing in his hands

With healing in his hands

Dear Friends,

A chilling headline crawled across my computer screen yesterday afternoon: “China quarantines 11 million people in an unprecedented attempt to contain coronavirus.” The lockdown comes only two days before the official start of the Lunar New Year, a major, weeklong holiday during which hundreds of millions normally travel within and outside China. (Imagine quarantining and restricting travel for all of North America two days before Christmas.) Some describe China’s disease-containment efforts as a “state of war.”

It is not hard to imagine the fear and distress that enveloped the world during the Black Death of the 14th century, which killed almost 200 million people. Or the 1918 international Flu Pandemic that sickened 500 million persons, and killed 50 million worldwide. I remember the terror of the United States HIV/AIDS crisis 40 years ago, which touched the lives of more friends and colleagues than I dare count. Ebola. Zika. What’s next?

We like to imagine that pandemics and health scares and quarantines have been eradicated because of advances in medical science. Surely, discoveries in pharmaceutical science and naturopathic initiatives have made the world a safer place. But instead, illness and disease are as ancient and pervasive as bad hair days and human sin.

Sunday’s gospel reading (Matthew 4.12-23) seems, at first glance, to be a simple re-telling of Jesus’ ministry immediately after his baptism and the temptation in the wilderness. Preaching. Teaching. Calling Disciples. Blah. Blah. Blah. But as I worked with the text, something whispered to me from the bottom of the page. Something about illness and disease and misplaced hope.  Suddenly, the seemingly throw-away line: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming good news, and curing every disease and sickness among the people,” shouted its shock.

Maybe this text is not about the Blah, Blah, Blah of Jesus’ early ministry, but about a disease eradicating, life-restoring, miracle-working ministry unlike anything the world has seen before or since. Could it be true that Jesus cured every disease? Every sickness?

Our eagle-eye intern has been studying this text, as well, and discovered this analysis of the health crisis enveloping Jesus’ world in the 1st century, a health crisis exacerbated by the crushing occupation of the armies of Rome. “Roman imperial structures and practices were bad for people’s health. Some 70-90% of folks in Rome’s empire (this includes Israel) experienced varying degrees of poverty—from the very poorest to those who temporarily fell below subsistence levels.” (William Carter, “Working Preacher,” 2017)

If this analysis is correct, the coronavirus is, by comparison, about as consequential as the common cold. If this analysis is correct, virtually everyone Jesus met was either infected, hungry or homeless. Jesus waded into that toxic sea of need every single day of his ministry. That he died on a cross and not of a virus is a miracle in itself.

As our congregation continues to wade into the world around us, we encounter disease and depression, sorrow and suffering we never imagined possible. But we have also been surprised by hope and resilience, life and possibility. Though we are not miracle workers with healing in our hands, as is Jesus, we are witnesses to the possibilities of health and wholeness for people and communities that previously seemed lost.

Assuming none of us is felled by a stray germ, we will gather on Sunday as we always do: Children’s Music (9:30), Godly Play (9:45), Worship (10 a.m.) This Epiphany season reveals Jesus as healer of our every ill, and reveals us as his hands and hope in a world trapped in disappointment and disease.

Together, we continue to find a way to travel fearlessly, though not foolishly, through a world infected, not primarily with death and mayhem, but with the love and mercy of our Lord.

Stay well!

Pastor JoAnn Post

Its Oscar Season!

Its Oscar Season!

Dear Friends,

Its Oscar Season!

The nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were released on Monday. As soon as the list was posted, I received a panicked phone call from one of my sisters. For years, she has viewed every film in every category (yes, every one) in anticipation of an Oscar Party with similarly Oscar-obsessed friends. Her phone message? “The season is shorter this year! I only have four weeks!” Her next phone call was to a friend to start scheduling trips to the theater, and an on-line search for viewing options for the more obscure nominees.

A podcast I frequent is also obsessed with Oscar. They are airing interviews with the directors of nominated films, and I glommed on to an interview with Martin Scorsese, director of “The Irishman.” (10 nominations) Though I am not always a Scorsese fan, I have to give him credit for consistency. Even his Wikipedia page agrees with me: Scorsese’s body of work explores themes such as Italian-American identity, Catholic concepts of guilt and redemption, faith, machismo, crime and tribalism. Many of his films are known for their depiction of violence, and the liberal use of profanity and rock music.

You can spot his films at a hundred paces because of the steady drumbeat of these ubiquitous Scorsese themes.

Its Epiphany Season!

If there were Oscars for consistency in biblical story telling, the Gospel writer John would win in every category. His Wikipedia page might go something like this: John’s body of work explores themes of light and dark, sight, identity, sacrifice, commitment, truth, love, and omniscience. Many of his narratives are known for their negative depiction of religious and political leadership, and his preoccupation with death.

In this Epiphany season, the season of “revealing,” John does not disappoint. Last Sunday we read about Jesus’ baptism in Matthew’s gospel. This Sunday we get a first-person account of that event from John the Baptizer himself, as narrated by John the Gospel Writer. (John 1.29-42) The text introduces us to many of the themes with which we will become familiar. This particular text is preoccupied with the Greek concept of “meno,” to abide, to stay, to remain. Jesus’ true identity is revealed—sort of. On flimsy evidence, disciples commit themselves to Jesus’ cause. The invitation to “come and see” is extended. (As it will be numerous times in the gospel.)

Throughout this season (two weeks longer than Oscar-viewing season), other gospel writers will also attempt to reveal Jesus to us. And, in the process, we will be “revealed,” as well. Are we faithful or fickle? Determined or doubting? Bold or blind? Will we invite others to “come and see,” or, by our lives, discourage their curiosity about the Christ?

Please join us Sunday for Children’s Music (9:30 a.m.), Godly Play (9:45 a.m.) and Worship (10 a.m.) Through scripture and song, meditation and meal, we will watch the story of Jesus’ life and our ministry unfold before our eyes.

For some, this is Oscar Season. (Go, “Little Women”!) For us, it is Epiphany Season.

Come and see!

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

All Words Matter

All Words Matter

Dear Friends,

I greeted the new year in a movie theater watching the latest cinematic adaptation of “Little Women.” Based loosely on both the book and the author’s life, I was intrigued by the attention paid to the publisher of Louisa May Alcott’s first novel. In the film, the publisher expresses reservations about the trajectory of Alcott’s autobiographical novel. Mr. Dashwood said, “If the main character is a girl, make sure she is married by the end. Or deadEither way.”

I suppose a writer needs to write what readers are willing to read.

This morning’s Chicago Tribune included an editorial by Eric Zorn, who offers advice about how to navigate the sure-to-be-bumpy political season ahead. Zorn and other political writers expect (and relish) pushback for their opinions, but they also report being routinely subjected to unwarranted harassment, ridicule and even threats. In the past, Zorn responded even to his most virulent critics, but has this year adopted a new policy with regard to the threatening words that land in his inbox: ignore, delete, block.

I suppose a writer doesn’t need to respond to every reader.

Multiple studies have proven that we tend to read only those words with which we resonate. We know that, left to our own devices (pun intended), we reject words that might alter our world view, challenge our conventional opinions, or offer a contrary word.

I suppose it is human nature to choose our words selfishly.

But it is not the nature of God to offer only pleasing words, gentle nudges, bland guidance. On the Second Sunday of Christmas, God comes at us with a WORD! (John 1.1-18) Not an opinion, or a suggestion or a clever turn of phrase, but a WORD! And that WORD is Jesus—God in human likeness. Jesus was not edited to please his readers. Jesus incited his followers to faith and his critics to violence.  Jesus challenged the prevailing political and theological wisdom. Jesus baffles, offends and intrigues us to this day.

In a world awash in carefully curated words intended alternately to soothe or slash, we willingly gather around the Word that speaks truth that we sometimes struggle to receive. Please join us Sunday to worship this Word that simultaneously comforts and angers, promises life and challenges death.

We welcome our children back to Children’s Music (9:30) and Godly Play (9:45) after a brief hiatus. Worship (10 a.m.) offers a last opportunity to enjoy Christmas carols and texts, and closes with a nod to Epiphany (January 6) as we bless our church home for the new year.

In the coming year, a year sure to bring joys and sorrows we cannot now imagine, I trust our words to one another will be offered in love and hope. That we will neither offer only words that fall softly on our hearts, nor ignore/delete/block words that make us uncomfortable. Perhaps in this new year we can commit to hearing God’s WORD and then sharing it with a word-weary world.

Blessed New Year,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the third day of Christmas . . .

On the third day of Christmas . . .

Dear Friends,

Christmas is a 12-day festival celebrating the birth of Christ, with neither a pear tree nor a partridge anywhere in sight.

Hanukah is an 8-day festival, marking the re-dedication of the Second Temple in 165 BCE, after it was desecrated by the armies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a land-hungry Greek ruler.  (Sorry. No potato latkes.)

In both cases—Christmas and Hanukah—the celebration is filled with light.

In both cases—Christmas and Hanukah—the quest for political and economic power were pivotal factors.

In both cases—Christmas and Hanukah—the origins of the festival have been largely overshadowed by legend, custom and commercial opportunity.

Some of our congregation’s families are celebrating the festivals simultaneously this year, as the Christmas (December 25 – January 6) and Hanukah (December 22 – 30) calendars coincide. I asked the mother of one of our Jewish-Christian families how she was holding up under the celebratory pressure. “Oh, it’s so much easier,” she sighed.  Imagine the candles in their home!

If you are at all intrigued by a 12-day Christmas, consider including the following Christian commemorations and more contemporary events in your daily devotions this weekend:

December 26: Stephen, Deacon and Martyr (Acts 7)—pray for a world free of religious persecution AND remember that in 2004, over 225,000 people died in a tsunami that swept through Indonesia and Thailand—pray for those harmed by natural disasters

December 27: John, Apostle and Evangelist (John 1)—pray for writers, visionaries and theologians AND remember that in 1994 the Rwandan genocide began to unfold—pray for victims of civil war and violence

December 28: The Holy Innocents (Matthew 2)—pray for children harmed or abused in any way, AND remember that in 1860 Harriet Tubman completed her last mission to free slaves—pray for freedom for those enslaved

And on the First Sunday of Christmas, December 29, we celebrate the season by inviting our ministry partners at Northfield Community Church and St. James the Less Episcopal Church to join us for worship. All those Christmas carols you’ve been longing to sing? We will be singing them Sunday! Please join us for worship at 10 a.m., and a festive reception afterward.

On this, the Third Day of Christmas, I am forgoing the customary three French hens, and avoiding any eye contact with the plate of Christmas cookies on my kitchen counter. Instead, I am giving thanks for you, and the light of Christ that shines in you and through you. Your generosity this Christmas has provided shelter, clothing and comfort for those experiencing homelessness, and offered safety and welcome for all who joined us for Christmas Eve. Thank you for the daily gift you are to me and to our community. You shine even more brightly on these dark winter days.

Blessed Christmas Season,

Pastor JoAnn Post