Hold on to Your Head

Hold on to Your Head

Dear Friends,

Sunday’s gospel reading is a troubling one. (Mark 6.14-29) Sandwiched between Jesus sending the disciples and reeling them back in, Mark spins a dark tale.

As you may recall, early in their ministries, Jesus and John the Baptizer vied equally for the public’s attention, each man drawing disciples and crowds. There was a great deal of confusion about which preacher/teacher/healer was the promised Messiah. Because we know the end of the story, we always put our money on Jesus, but in the moment it was not so clear.

John the Baptizer had also attracted the attention of King Herod, a regional ruler who thought more of himself than he ought. King Herod deposited John the Baptizer in a prison cell because John had publicly accused Herod of both murder and adultery. (Charges which were true.) By rights, Herod could have squashed John like a bug, but the selfish king found John simultaneously frightening and intriguing. Herod also had a thirst for liquor, debauchery and titillation, which led to a bad end for John. Please join us for worship on Sunday to hear how this horrible story ends. And don’t try this at home.

I am always struck by the contemporary nature of antiquity. We imagine sometimes that no period in history has known greater division, greater corruption, and greater danger than ours.  But we would be wrong.

In fact, the Old Testament reading for Sunday confirms that fact. (Amos 7.7-15)  Seven centuries before Mark wrote, the prophet Amos was called to speak truth to power in a wildly prosperous time in Israel’s history. The king to whom Amos prophesied—Jeroboam—bears strong resemblance to Horrid Herod. Wealthy. Powerful. Corrupt. Parallels to our current political and international circumstances are too easy to draw.

But most of us do not swim in that murky swamp. Most of us seek to live honest, hard-working, generous lives. Most of us seek to balance love of God with love of neighbor. Most of our elected and civic leaders strive to do the same. We continue to lift our voices and prayers in hope that the world may see and hear another way.

Trying to keep my head on my  shoulders (and off a platter),

Pastor JoAnn Post

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Do All Children Have to Ask?

Do All Children Have to Ask?

“Do all children have to ask before they get?”

A segment on WBEZ’s “Morning Shift” radio program this week included a discussion of summer food insecurity in Chicago. Scattered among interviews with food distributors and community organizers and non-profit organizations were snatches of interviews with children who live with food insecurity every day—that is, those for whom summer days are hungry days.

It was late afternoon when the interviewer met the little boy I quoted above, asking what he had eaten that day.

“Just the bag of chips you just gave me.”

The interviewer probed, “You mean that’s all you’ve had since breakfast.”

“No, I don’t get breakfast unless I ask for it, and I don’t ask for it because there isn’t any.”  Pause. “Do all children have to ask before they get?”

In Sunday’s gospel reading, Jesus sends his disciples out with nothing but a walking stick: “No bread, no bag, no money in their belts; sandals and only the clothes they were wearing.” (Mark 6.1-13)  Like the Chicago school child who didn’t get fed unless he asked, the disciples were to rely completely on the kindness of strangers.  But the chasm between them is wide. It is one thing for a grown adult to set out on a mission that might involve occasional hunger. But to be a child for whom hunger is a daily forced march?

All of Sunday’s texts address the frustrations and inequities baked into our common life.

God called Ezekiel to speak to the people of Israel with this description: “They have rebelled against me; they sin against me to this very day; they are impudent and stubborn.” (Ezekiel 2.1-5) God had zero expectation that they would listen to Ezekiel, so God set the bar to success remarkably low. “At least they will know that there has been a prophet among them.”  If showing up is half the battle, Ezekiel knew his batting average was 50%.  And it would never improve, no matter how hard he swung for the fences.

We continue to read in Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, as Paul lets them in on a secret.  “A thorn was given to me in the flesh to keep me from being too elated.” (2 Corinthians 12.2-10)  Almost worse than Ezekiel’s thankless mission, Paul limped every step of his journey.  And he credited his halting gait to God.

“Do all children have to ask before they get?”

Meanwhile, we live with a near-embarrassment of riches. On Sunday morning we celebrate an abundance of children, as we welcome two little ones in baptism. Our worship space is clean and well-lit, cool on these hot days. There is always food to eat and love to share. Haunted by the words of a hungry child, I know that these things are gifts—we do not deserve them, and we do not have to ask for them. So how do we live?

As Jesus’ disciples, we are steadied by one another as his first disciples were steadied by their walking sticks. And, as Jesus’ disciples, we know that we might be the strangers on whom the world relies for kindness.

I invite you to bring a bag of groceries with you Sunday morning for our Northfield Township Food Pantry collection.  I ask you to make an extra donation to an agency that cares for children. I challenge you to be more attentive to legislation—local, state and national—that impacts the welfare of children. I encourage you to notice the sorrow around you and wonder about it rather than dismiss it.

“Do all children have to ask before they get?” Not if we can help it.

Limping along with you,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

Justice Prevails?

Justice Prevails?

Dear Friends,

Some of you may recall the trip my husband and I took to Greece in 2016 to facilitate the return of Codex 1424 to its rightful monastery home. I’m attaching a link to a recent interview with George Tsougarakis, the attorney who coordinated the return. Hearing George’s voice brings back wonderful memories of that trip, but more importantly, fills me with hope that justice prevails–even if it takes a century.

Interview of Archon Mataxas with Archon Tsougarakis on the recovery of the stolen 9th century manuscript: https://bit.ly/2yHhziQ

As I wrote that simple phrase, “justice prevails,” I lifted my fingers from the keyboard for a moment. Do I really believe that to be true, or is it simply a mantra that helps me sleep at night?

As refugees bob on dangerous waters and immigrants press against our southern border; as dictators are miraculously “re-elected” to power; as political debates become ugly and personal; as more gun deaths are litigated in Chicago’s courts, I have to wonder. Does justice prevail?

Sunday’s gospel reading is among my favorite preaching texts. (Mark 5.21-43) Winkingly  dubbed a “Markan sandwich,” the gospel writer tucks one “justice prevailing” story into another, like bacon, lettuce and tomato nestled between two slices of wheat toast.

The first narrative is about a temple official who begged Jesus to come home with him, to heal the man’s daughter who was “at the point of death.”  But on his way to the man’s home, Jesus experienced a sudden expulsion of power from this body.  Whirling around he shouted, “Who touched me?” A middle-aged, menopausal woman crept from the crowd to admit it had been her.  Touching Jesus had been her last hope of healing from a twelve-year hemorrhage. I laugh at Mark’s comment, “She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all she had; and she was no better, but grew worse.”

Jesus immediately softened his tone, named her “Daughter,” and sent her on her way.  However, that momentary mercy meant that Jesus was late to his original errand.  By the time he arrived at the temple official’s home, the young girl had been pronounced dead. Ignoring the evidence, Jesus cleared the room, knelt beside the dead girl and touched her, called her “Little Girl,” and restored her to life. By the way, did I mention that she was twelve years old?

How are these “justice” stories? Jesus had no responsibility to either of these women—one too young and the other too old to be of any value. After all, of what worth was a 1st century woman who could neither bear nor raise children? Though his heart might have been touched by their circumstances, no one would have criticized Jesus for ignoring their requests. After all, as a member of the House of Representatives commented dismissively back in January about a deportation: “There are a bunch of sad stories.”  (“The Hill,” January 17, 2018)

But Jesus does not regard the world’s sorrows as “a bunch of sad stories.” We can’t either.

Such is Jesus’ “justice,” that every sufferer, regardless of perceived status or worth, is deserving of attention and compassion. The nameless are named. The outcast are welcomed in. Families are reunited. Power is shared. Jesus not only “cures,” but “heals,” making the wounded whole.

Though Jesus’ Justice may not make good political or economic sense, it gives us hope when all seems lost.

Codex 1424 languished as stolen property for a century before faithful sleuthing and generous gifting restored it to its rightful home.  A woman in Mark’s gospel waited twelve years for relief, and a father mourned his daughter before Jesus restored her to life. Justice takes time. But I have to believe that justice—Jesus’ justice—always prevails.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Frightened. Floating. Far from home.

Frightened. Floating. Far from home.

Dear Friends,

They were frightened, floating and far from home.

Sunday’s gospel reading blows into our lives on gale-force winds (Mark 4.35-41), as Jesus’ disciples fight for their lives on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had instructed them to row across to a less-populated side of the Sea to avoid the crowds, but the clamor of the crowds suddenly seemed far preferable to the punishing winds. Surprisingly, Jesus slept in the back of the boat, while the disciples threw themselves at the oars. When they finally decided it was to time to wake him (to row? to bail?  to pray?), Jesus sprang to his feet and started shouting, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Jesus wasn’t angry with the disciples, but at the wind and the waves.  “Shut up!” And they did. Mark writes, “Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.”

Only then did Jesus turn to his disciples, not with a shout but with a sigh: “Why were you so afraid? You still don’t believe in me?”

They are frightened, floating and far from home.

Thousands of terrified travelers clog both legal and illegal border crossings between the United States and Mexico. Contrary to what some say, these travelers are not murderers, or rapists, or freeloaders. They are fighting for their lives—fleeing the storms of violence and poverty in their home countries. And what do we say to these weary refugees? We shout at them. “Go home!” “Get a job!” “Leave us alone!” Friends, it is not they who deserve our anger.  We ought to be shouting at those who could remedy the conditions they flee. We ought to be shouting at policies that criminalize desperation. We ought to be shouting at ourselves for allowing conditions in neighboring countries to descend into chaos without a word or a hand from us.

Before you caution me about introducing politics into the church, let me remind you of an important distinction. If it is partisanship that you fear—the imposition of my political opinion on you or the congregation—fear no longer. People of faith have always differed on the best ways to accomplish shared civic goals. But we who follow Jesus Christ are decidedly and relentlessly political—taking on the powers of the world that stand opposed to God’s will. Jesus wasn’t crucified because of the way he voted in the midterms, but because he exposed religious and secular leaders’ pursuit of personal gain and power rather than faithful service.

People of evil intent profit from the torment of refugees across the world—drug cartels, human traffickers, power mongers. But people of faith are bound by the oldest of biblical mandates: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien; you yourselves were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9) Vote as you will, but we cannot forget our responsibility to the widow and orphan, the alien and oppressed.

We are frightened, floating and far from home.

Though the “storms” in our lives may be metaphorical, they buffet as wildly as winds on the Sea of Galilee. Families struggle. Marriages fail. Jobs are lost. LGBTQ teens run away from home. Gangs prowl. Health falters. Death knocks. Dreams die. The rough waters on which we float are as frightening and dangerous as the Sea of Galilee or the Mediterranean. And there is no “answer” to our troubled, tormented lives.

In the same way, there is no “answer” to the refugee crisis across the globe. Syrian asylum seekers, Sudanese war refugees, Rohingyas riding out monsoon season on the plains of Bangladesh—their circumstances defy credulity. Why do we shout at them? It is as pointless and cruel as shouting at a broken heart to mend itself.

Instead, we pay attention to the object of Jesus’ anger. Jesus doesn’t shout at his dispirited disciples. He shouts at the danger—atmospheric, international and interpersonal—“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” And in the stillness and dead calm that follows, we wait for another word. A word to us and to all frightened travelers. We await a word that will allay our fears, strengthen our resolve, guide us to safety. And then the order to “keep rowing.”

Please join us for worship Sunday, lashing your little boat to all of ours, as we listen for Jesus’ voice over the world’s winds. And take a moment to care, to pray, to imagine the lives of those who, at this moment, fight for their lives on the worlds’ rough seas. Frightened. Floating. Far from home.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

Jesus is a Terrible Farmer

Jesus is a Terrible Farmer

Dear Friends,

Jesus is a terrible farmer. My own cultivation credentials are puny, since my only claim to farming fame is that I grew up on one, but even I can tell that Jesus knows nothing about agriculture.

In Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 4.26-34) Jesus describes the kingdom of God using two seed propagation metaphors.  His first metaphor is that the kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed absolutely everywhere, and then sits back and waits for something to happen.  “Hmmm, I wonder what would happen if I dropped expensive seed here, on this four-lane highway?”  The second metaphor involves a mustard seed—a small seed that produces an enormous, branchy, blossoming, invasive, profligate weed. I know a thing or (maybe) two about mustard—back in the days when farm kids spent their summers hoeing weeds out of crops by hand, I despised mustard.

I know that parables are not to be taken literally, but that they make a single, often hyperbolic point. I also know that crop management practices are far more precise now than in the 1st century. But, really, Jesus? Seed sown everywhere? Don’t you know mustard is a weed? Really?

Last Friday and Saturday I was at the Metro Chicago Synod Assembly, an annual gathering of church leaders to do the business of the church in this urban ecclesial field. In Bishop Wayne Miller’s “state of the church” address he described five congregational types, each of which enjoys its own perils and possibilities. He called congregations like Ascension “community congregations,” the “sweet spot” of congregational life. Drawing from and serving locally. Connected to our community. Financially savvy and generous. Large enough to make a difference and small enough to be nimble. The most interesting of his descriptors was that congregations like Ascension have a “capacity for risk.”

His advice to congregations like ours who have everything they need for ministry? Take risks. Not foolishly, like planting seed on the White Cliffs of Dover, but hopefully and strategically, using our many gifts and areas of expertise to take ministry chances.

A management consultant once told me that nine of ten change efforts fail. After a pause he said that there are two typical responses to that fact. Some will say, “90% failure rate? Why bother?” Others will say, “10% success rate? How will we know what works unless we try?”

Where is the “sweet spot” of risk for us?  Jesus’ purpose was to highlight the need for confidence that seed planted will sprout, that tiny seeds can produce ginormous results. That doesn’t mean we take foolish risks, throwing money and time and energy and prayer around without a plan. But it does mean that when we plant seeds we cannot be sure which will grow where and what they will produce. Some will sprout explosively. Some will fail to thrive. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” Bishop Miller advised. “Trust the seed,” Jesus says.

Please join us for worship, where we weekly plant the seeds of hope and honesty, comfort and confidence. We will introduce you to a new hymn, which directly addresses Jesus’ intent in the Seed Parables.

As grain that is scattered your word has been sown

on rocks and on roadways, in good earth and sand.

Make fertile our soil that the good seed may grow

and ripen rich fruit to return to your hand.

(“As Rain from the Clouds,” ELW 508)

Lurking in my brain’s background is mixed reviews from the North Korea Summit, the anguish of North African migrants floating (unwanted) off the coast of Spain, scandalous lapses in Chicago Public School’s care for students, and news of a good friend’s cancer diagnosis. God’s field is in desperate need of faithful farmers. What seeds could we plant to bring hope and healing to fruition? How do we hoe out the weeds of deceit, selfishness and fear from the world’s fields? How are we being called to take risks with our resources?

One more thing. This will be my first Father’s Day without my Dad, a lifelong farmer and faithful father. He planted good seeds, both in the rich fields of our farm and in the lives of his children. I give thanks for him, and for my husband’s father, a faithful and kind man, who has always been like a father to me. Don’t miss the opportunity to say “thank  you” to the men who have been as fathers to you (even if they aren’t farmers).

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

Mom? Dad?

Mom? Dad?

Dear Friends,

We are a household of readers. Newspapers. Magazines. Cereal boxes. Billboards. Wine labels. Cook books. Select websites. But mostly books. Our bedside tables groan under the weight of yet-to-be-read novels. Every shelf and corner holds reading material that we either can’t part with or haven’t picked up yet. And though it may make me seem a Luddite, I prefer books made of paper and ink rather than of screens and digital texts. That’s why my daughters knew to give me heavy, hardbound, challenging reads for Mother’s Day.  I wept for joy—I raised them right.

I’m struggling through one of those gifts now: “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover. Struggling not because it’s poorly written or dull—the opposite is true. I’m struggling because the author writes honestly of her family of origin, an unbelievably complex conservative Mormon household filled with violence and mental illness and theological/religious rigidity and fear. That she physically survived her upbringing is something of a miracle. That she still holds affection for her family (though at a distance) is even more astonishing. Her life now as a celebrated academic and author could not be more different from her parents’ willfully ignorant lives. And though my own family of origin is Disney-esque compared to hers, some of her experiences touch sore spots for me. They would for you, too.

Would it be an overstatement to say that all families experience division on some level? We are affectionate or hands-off. Controlling or indifferent. Opinionated or spineless.  Combative or conflict averse. We erect high boundaries or no boundaries. We over-share or suffer-in-silence. Our goals differ. Our beliefs differ. And when we add addiction or abuse, mental or physical illness, unspoken needs and unmet expectations to the mix, the divisions become chasms.

It seems that Jesus has read my mind, when he asks in Sunday’s gospel reading, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters?” (Mark 3.20-35) Fresh from selecting his disciples, Jesus returned to his home town for a visit only to be accosted by old friends, familiar neighbors, curious tourists and religious opposition. All the while, Jesus’ mother and siblings were trying to get close to him, protect him from the crowds and from himself.  (Both the crowds and the religious leaders had opinions about his teaching. He was either “out of his mind” or demon-possessed.)

The text is rich with intrigue and challenge (and becomes absolutely mind-boggling when paired with the Original Family Division the Old Testament reading, Genesis 3.8-15) but at this moment, while every free moment finds my nose in a memoir about another woman’s family, I am taken by Jesus’ re-defining of that word.

Some like to use “family” as a metaphor for congregations, imagining it evokes an image of inclusion and affection, acceptance and warmth. But for some, “family” provokes memories of dysfunction or disappointment or distance.  I choose to use the image sparingly.

Though Jesus doesn’t reject his family outright, and we have no reason to believe they were any more dysfunctional than any other, he expands the boundaries of his family. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus’ family is not determined by DNA or legal documents, but by shared love for God and neighbor.

Please join us Sunday for Worship and Fellowship. We also offer a special event for all our families with children—Family Fun Day, hosted by Scout Pack 460 after worship. Games. Food. Challenges. And all with no obligation except to have fun.

If you were to drive by my house late tonight, you might see a light on long after a reasonable hour. I’ll be reading.  Reading about a family that breaks my heart for the author, for those whose families struggle; a family that makes me even more grateful for the gift of the home in which I was privileged to be raised and the home in which I now live.

Who are your mother and father, brothers and sisters? We are—in Jesus’ name.

See you Sunday,
Pastor JoAnn Post

PS Work on Shine! has begun with tuck-pointing and fresh concrete. We’ll get the whole schedule out to you soon.

Sabbath for All

Sabbath for All

Dear Friends,

What a gift to have had a federally-mandated day off on Monday. Personally, I was keenly aware of the reason for the day—my father was a Korean War veteran and this is the first Memorial Day when he was remembered as such at the cemetery.  I’ve always had tremendous respect for those who served in the US Armed Forces, but now my Dad is among those being remembered as a fallen veteran.

But I also got a boatload of work done around the house.  To have a whole day off with no work responsibilities? What a gift. To me. But my free day depended on others having to work. The checkout clerk at the hardware store. The line cook at Portillo’s. A shelf stocker at Target. The produce manager at my grocery store. The police officers who staffed the Northbrook parade route.

My leisure requires their work.  Am I the only one who finds that head-scratching?

The divide between my leisure and others’ work was heightened by the thumping soundtrack of Sunday’s gospel reading in my head.  In a 1st century game of “Gotcha!” the Pharisees twice took Jesus to task for working on the Sabbath. (Mark 2.23-3.6)  What was the unlawful work about which they were enraged? He helped his hungry disciples find something to eat, and he healed a man with a disability.  Though both his “works” were born of kindness, the Pharisees saw only disobedience.  They were smug—the Sabbath law is the Sabbath law. Jesus was angry—stunned at their hearts hardened in God’s name.

The origin of Sabbath-keeping is as ancient as Israel itself. Because God brought Israel safely out of Egypt, because they were unaccustomed to freedom, because they would forever live in close proximity to people who did not share their faith, because their lives were to witness to the amazing love of God, they were given Ten Commandments to guide their life together. The third of those commandments established the Sabbath—a day of rest for everyone in Israel. Citizens. Immigrants. Slaves. Livestock. “You shall not do any work—not even your male and female slaves, so that they may rest, as well.” (Deuteronomy 5.12-15)  If you have friends who are observant Jews, you know how carefully—and joyfully—the Sabbath is observed. It is a weekly gift of leisure and companionship in honor of God’s work on their behalf. (Even your kitchen range has a “Sabbath setting”—check out the user’s manual.)

Leave it to us to take a good gift from God’s hand—the gift of rest—and turn it into a burden.  Though Jesus won that round with the Pharisees, Sabbath-shaming them into silence, his victory would not last.  That very day they started the plot that would culminate in his death on the cross.  (A hurried crucifixion so that the Sabbath would not be violated by leaving bodies on the crosses.)

I’m not sure what to do about my discomfort with our collective re-writing of God’s intent for rest.  In order for me not to work, someone else must. Unless, next time the federal government gives me a day unencumbered by work, I spend it at home. With my family. Eating food already in the house. Doing projects that require no trips to the hardware store.

But, since that is a relative impossibility, I can do what Jesus did. Put no limits on kindness.  As God’s people, it does not matter what day it is or where we are or what the law demands. The law of love—feeding the hungry, healing the sick, comforting the grieving, strengthening the weak—is always kept.

Please join us for our Sabbath—a day to rest in the presence of God and one another, to lay all our burdens down.  See you Sunday. And if you can’t be with us, rest well—giving thanks for those who work so you don’t have to.

Pastor JoAnn Post