Fascinating

Fascinating

Dear Friends,

Tomorrow morning I’ll rise early, donning a frilly dress and borrowed fascinator (thanks, Ruth!) to drink tea in dainty cups and watch the Royal Wedding with friends. I’m not particularly enamored with the Royal Family and don’t often leave the house on Saturday morning wearing a feathered hat, but who could resist the invitation? For Brits, a Royal Wedding is akin to a High Holy Day, cause for both reverence and delight. For me? It just sounds like fun.

I wonder if my Muslim neighbors will think me odd, flouncing out of the house as they consume a hurried Suhoor before the day’s Ramadan fast. Strings of colored lights festoon their front porch. Balloons bounce. An enormous star and crescent display beams from their front door. After sunset, their home is filled with friends for Iftar.  They are celebrating, as well.  Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, commemorating the first revelation of Quran to Muhammad. Silly hats optional.

Meanwhile, one of my Jewish neighbors drove into our cul de sac on Wednesday afternoon just as I was getting home from work. I was surprised to see him in his best black synagogue suit on a weekday.  He told me he was returning from sitting Shiva for a long-time friend, whose death had touched him deeply. We talked for some time outside our cars, reflecting on the gift of Shiva—a required period of mourning. Shiva is not a celebration, exactly, but a ritual gathering of the faithful that both honors the deceased and encourages the living.

Rituals—whether royal weddings or religious events—bind us to one another, to God, and bring order to our days.

We gather Sunday morning for our own ritual celebration. The festival of Pentecost is not original to Christianity, but is an annual Jewish harvest festival and marking of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.  In a shameless burst of cultural appropriation, the Holy Spirit chose Pentecost, a day when Jerusalem would be filled with merry makers, to blow and burn the Christian church into being. (Acts 2.1-21) The disciples had been cooling their heels in Jerusalem after Jesus’ Ascension, waiting for the promised gift of the Spirit. When? Where? How? No one knew, but they had been instructed to wait. So they did. Neither Pentecost nor they would ever be the same.

We mark Pentecost at Ascension with a raucous reading of the Pentecost story, complete with musical sound effects. The building will be dressed in red. Seven of our young people will affirm their baptisms, and nine households (with 19¾   children among them) will join Ascension as new members.  Will the Holy Spirit blow through our building as on that first hijacked Pentecost? Will our young men see visions and our old men dream dreams? Will our sons and daughters prophecy? Will the sun be darkened and the moon turned to blood? I don’t know. There is no telling what the Spirit will do with us when we let that holy wind ruffle our feathers. But I’m willing to find out if you are.

I am privileged to live in a wonderfully ecumenical and interfaith neighborhood. We are Jews, Muslims, Christians and a smattering of adherents of the Church of the New York Times. I am eager to learn how our new Korean neighbors might mix up the mix. Each of us from our own traditions celebrates and grieves, remembers and hopes. And though we may call on God by different names, we trust that God is at work in all our rituals, blessing all our gatherings with hope and courage and joy.

The Spirit sends us, specifically in Jesus’ name, with a particular word of witness. We proclaim that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Joel 2.28-32) Come, Pentecost with us. Like my Royal Wedding bonnet, it may prove to be a Fascinator.

Cheerio!

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

Advertisements
Happy Name Day

Happy Name Day

Dear Friends,

My previous parish celebrated “Name Day” on the Sunday nearest June 25, the anniversary day of the signing of the Book of Concord in 1580. The congregation’s name was “Concordia,” a name chosen with great intention to tie its ministry to core Lutheran confessions and Jesus’ desire for “concord” among his disciples, that “they may be one.” (John 17.6-19) Name Day included a reading from the Augsburg Confession, naming of the Concordian of the Year, choral selections from their deep library of Lutheran hymnody, and a celebratory meal.

To my knowledge, Ascension has never celebrated Name Day, though we have one. Ascension Day was yesterday, May 10, the 40th day after Easter.  Shortly after I arrived at Ascension, I queried long-time members about the selection of the congregation’s name, hoping for some grand theological explanation. Instead, one of our elders laughed and said, “No, it wasn’t a particularly theological decision. We started with nothing, and the only way to go was up!” (I trust there was more to the moniker than that.)

Ascension Day was once cause for celebration in congregations, a joyous day of sending and mission sandwiched between Easter and Pentecost. In Germany it is still a national holiday called Himmelfartsdag (Heaven Going Day). But Ascension Day celebrations have fallen from fashion in the United States, languishing as an obscure date on the liturgical calendar.

If we were to mark our Name Day, what would we do?

We might study great art about the event, like this woodcut (“The Ascension,” Albrecht Durer (1510):

Image result for albrecht durer ascension

We might dust off the lone hymn in our hymnal devoted to the day:

He who was nailed to the cross is ruler and Lord of all people.

All things created on earth sing to the glory of God.

Hail thee, festival day! Blest day to be hallowed forever;

day when our Lord was raised, breaking the kingdom of death.

(“Hail Thee, Festival Day,” ELW 394)

We might crane our necks loft-ward to admire the inscription carved in Ascension’s balcony rail: “Why do you stand looking? You shall be my witnesses.” (Acts 1.11 and 1.8)

Or we might pause to consider the implications of Jesus’ ascension, the message conveyed by the bottoms of his vanishing feet. Jesus did not leave them in the lurch, shouting “Hasta la vista, baby!” as he disappeared into the clouds. He expected the disciples to land on their own feet, to carry on his work in the world. They were to witness in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth about the saving love of God in Jesus Christ. Those ever-expanding circles of responsibility have also been entrusted to us. 1st century disciples could not have imagined “ends of the earth” beyond their own geographical region. That Jesus’ name, that God’s love, that Christ’s church would one day spread pole-to-pole and around the equator was unimaginable to them.

We may have dropped Jesus’ name on every continent and ocean, but the responsibility to spread Jesus’ love means that we go not only to all places, but to all people, as well—to those who look or worship or think differently than we do and those whose differences from us defy quantification.

Though the soles of Jesus’ feet have disappeared into the clouds, it is not too late to do a little Ascension Day musing.

  • Read the Ascension stories for yourself: Luke 24.50-53 and Acts 1.6-11.
  • Greet someone who is wildly different from you.
  • Pray for Christians “to the ends of the earth,” especially those Christians who suffer for the faith.
  • Get a pedicure, and give a little extra tip to the person who handles smelly feet for a living.
  • Lift your eyes to the sky in hope, rather down at your feet in despair.

Sunday is the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the last “Hallelujah!” before the Festival of Pentecost. In anticipation you might read the appointed texts:

Acts 1.15-17, 21-26 (Matthias is added to the disciples)

Psalm 1

1 John 5.-13 (Life in the Son of God)

John 17.6-19 (Christ’s prayer for his disciples)

Blessed Ascension Name Day to you. We continue to look up to the skies in hope, and out to the world with purpose.  Using our voices, our hands and our feet to do Jesus’ work in the world.

Looking up,

Pastor JoAnn Post

PS For a different approach to Mother’s Day, which is celebrated Sunday, I refer you to the Mother’s Day Proclamation, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1870. The original Mother’s Day was a call for peace, rather than for a brunch reservation.

 

 

 

 

What a Friend

What a Friend

Dear Friends,

I once served a congregation whose founding pastor had served there for 46 years. A life-size oil painting of him hung in the foyer. Older members of the congregation regarded him with enormous respect, and often quoted him on matters of theology or biblical interpretation.  He died long before I arrived, but even his elderly widow spoke of him in reverent tones, never using his first name.  When she died (at the age of 103) we were assembling an announcement to inform the congregation that our grand dame had died.  That’s when I learned that no one knew her husband’s first name. Older members didn’t have a clue—he had always been “Reverend.” I called the funeral home that had cared for him after death, and none of their records included his first name, only initials. Undeterred, I stopped by the cemetery where he was buried, certain that his headstone would include his first name. I was wrong. Only initials. Rev. R. R. Doering.

Though it may seem odd now, the use of only a title for a pastor was a sign of respect for both the office and the man who held it. The same pattern held true of the German immigrant pastors who served my home congregation in its early years. Rev. Kilian. Rev. Planz. Rev. Diers. No one used their first names. Did they even have first names? I once teased my mother, “Do you suppose that in moments of passion, their wives whisper, ‘O, Reverend. O, Reverend?” She was not amused.

Sunday’s gospel reading (John 15.9-17) signals a shift in address almost as significant as calling an elderly pastor by his first name. Jesus is deep in the Final Discourse, the four-chapter soliloquy that precedes the events of his betrayal, suffering, crucifixion and death. Gathered around the candlelit Last Supper table with his disciples, Jesus signaled a significant change in relationship among them.  “You are my friends,” he said. “No longer do I call you ‘servants,’ because the servant does not know what the master is doing. But I now call you ‘friends’ because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”

I’m sure they felt the earth shift under them as he spoke. Though Jesus and the disciples had traveled everywhere together for years, he was still “Lord” or “Master.” Respect for teachers and elders in the 1st century Middle East was unquestioned. Call me “Friend?” That they would consider Jesus “Holy Bro” or “Peripatetic Pal” was unthinkable. But they would soon discover it to be the least “unthinkable” event of the ensuing days.

Sunday’s texts are filled with relationship-shifting assertions.

In Acts, the Apostle Peter baptizes a Gentile soldier and his entire household (Acts 10.44-48) We will read only a portion of the story (for the whole tale read the whole of chapter 10), so it would be easy to miss the enormity of Peter’s action. The early Christians believed only Jews could follow Jesus.  Not anymore. Since the gift of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 2.1-20) the “old ways” had been ripped to shreds. Disciples evangelized Samaria. (Acts 8.4ff) The Ethiopian Eunuch was baptized at the side of the road. (Acts 8.26ff) Saul, tormentor of the early church, converted to faith in Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road (Acts 9.1ff) How could it be that a Gentile, and a soldier at that, could be a partner in the faith?

The reading from 1 John continues the assertion that love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. (1 John 5.1-6) To an audience reared on Ten Commandments, Jesus’ single commandment was an offense. “Love one another as I have loved you.”  What about adultery and idolatry, coveting and cursing? They took a back seat to Jesus’ unexpected summary: “Love God. Love Neighbor.” Boom.

Even though I am firmly entrenched in my middle years, there are some in my life who I still address by title.  No matter how many times a beloved professor says, “Call me Matthew,” or a now-elderly grade school teacher invites, “Call me Candace,” I simply cannot do it. “Yes, Professor,” I answer. “Certainly, Miss Dunn.” To me, honorifics are a sign of respect, an acknowledgement of hard work and dedication.

But Jesus will have none of it. “We are friends,” he says to his disciples. I’m still wrapping my brain around that.

I know these are busy days in all our lives, but if you find yourselves in the vicinity Sunday morning, please join us. Sunday School Children gather at 9:30 a.m. Worship commences at 10:00 a.m. I miss you when you’re not here.

One of the joys of our life together is that regardless of how the world addresses us (Doctor. Landscaper. Mom. Coach.) when we are here together we are “Friend.” Sinners unashamed to either lend or grasp a hand. Friends of one another and of Jesus.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

Succulent or Stunted

Succulent or Stunted

Dear Friends,

Jesus said, “I am the true vine; my Father is the vine grower.”

My first thought when reading Sunday’s Gospel (John 15.1-8) was of the rolling, undulating grape orchards in Tuscany.  To be a branch on one of those sun-kissed, succulent and sensuous vines sends my mind wandering to warmer climes and an easier pace. But the text also reminds me of a dead vine, a vine I killed.

My husband and I were renting a bungalow on a quiet tree-lined Decatur street while he pursued his PhD and I served a midtown Atlanta congregation. On the west side of the house was an enclosed yard that might have once been a dog run or a garden. It was clear that the garden gate had not been opened in years—it was trapped in the beautiful clutches of a flowering vine, thick as my forearm, heavy with pink blossoms in spring. The vine wound in and around the fence’s top rail and through the gate slats, lush as only Southern foliage can be. I did little more than admire the tenacity and beauty of that enormous vine.

Then we got a puppy.  Suddenly, that enclosed side yard sparked my attention—it was the perfect playpen for a fluffy energetic canine. But I would have to pry the gate open.

On a Saturday afternoon I found a rusted hack saw in the garage and gnawed away at the vine, the saw and my hands growing sticky with the sap that coursed through the vine. Once the vine was decapitated, I set about extricating its stubborn tendrils from the gate and fencing. The vine fought back like a living thing, clinging ever more tightly to the fence.  I was almost done with my sweaty, syrupy project when I realized what I had done. I had killed another man’s vine. I had stunted decades of growth. I had severed a beautiful plant from its life source. After that realization, the yard lost its allure as a playpen for my puppy. I closed the gate, disposed of the evidence, and said nothing to anyone. I cringe to imagine the landlord’s grief and anger when he discovered his victimized vine. My only consolation is that plants grow like wildfire under the steamy Atlanta sun—the vine would soon restore itself. (At least that’s what I told myself.)

“I am the true vine; my Father is the vine grower.” And us? We are branches that cannot thrive apart from the vine’s life force. Of course, we eventually find our way—sit up and take nourishment; breathe in and out. But to thrive—to course with life, produce succulent fruit, bring delight to the eye—we must be firmly connected to the vine which is Christ.

Attached to the vine, we bear fruits of love for others. (1 John 4.7-21) Beautiful vines don’t thrive for their own sake, but for the sake of others. Disciples of Jesus Christ don’t live for themselves, but for the sake of others.  And whether we extricate ourselves from the vine or are hacked off by a thoughtless and inept gardener, the result is the same. Both we and the world grow lifeless, hopeless, withered and wan.

Please join us Sunday as we read these provocative texts and another of my favorite lectionary picks: Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. (Acts 8.26-40) His is a story of being literally cut off—mutilated for the sake of service to a queen, but restored to wholeness be being grafted into Christ.

During Sunday School our children will sing, study and meet briefly with an executive with Boy Scouts, as we prepare for our inaugural meeting of Cub Scout Pack 460 Tuesday evening. Worship draws us together as branches on a common vine, thirsty for the word, the meal and fellowship. After Coffee Hour, our leaders, staff and prospective members meet for a Welcome Lunch to talk about the joys of clinging to the vine that weaves through Ascension.

I was surprised at the powerful memory of that long-ago backyard wrestling match. (In my memory, the vine bears more resemblance to a writhing boa constrictor than a plant.) Did it grow back? How long did it take for flowers to bloom? What did the landlord say when he discovered the carnage? And, if a creeping green vine provides such life and joy, how much more does the vine that is Christ produce life and joy in us?

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

Shepherd Us, O God

Shepherd Us, O God

Dear Friends,

Columbine. 19 years ago today two Colorado high school students committed mass murder in their own school building. I remember going slack-jawed at the violence they perpetrated, glued to the television in disbelief. Much has changed since then. Law enforcement officers now respond more strategically to mass shootings. School districts have instituted plans to increase both safety and surveillance. We are all more attentive to signs of trouble. People of good faith differ on the how and why and what-do-we-do about gun violence. How long before we know the “answer?”  Months. Years. Decades.

Chemo. Five years ago today I was unplugged from the last of twelve three-day chemotherapy treatments I had received over the course of six long months. I faced six more months of stepped-down treatment, but the worst was over. I remember the relief and tears as the oncology nurse removed the IV from my chest port, but I had been advised that the aftereffects of treatment would remain with me for a long, long time. Months. Years.

Confirmation. Wednesday night our confirmation students and I had spirited conversation about the being of God, the nature of Jesus, the particulars of what we profess in The Apostles Creed.  How do we wrap our minds about a pre-existent, omnipresent, omniscient God?  What does it mean that Jesus was both human and divine? Do we really believe all the things we say we believe in the Apostles Creed? At one point, one of the students leaned back in his chair, threw his arms in the air and announced, “My mind just exploded.” How long does it take to “understand” the faith we confess? Months. Years. A lifetime. Never.

Enter the Fourth Sunday of Easter, commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday. On Sunday, we take comfort in our not-knowing things—Jesus’ own disciples, who walked and talked with him, were totally befuddled by him and his teachings. We will step back from Easter season texts about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, to overhear a conversation he had with his disciples long before the events surrounding his death and resurrection. (John 10.11-18) Jesus finds himself surrounded by doubtful disciples, skeptical scribes and a man who once was blind. “I am the Good Shepherd,” he told them. The image of “shepherd” was far more relevant to them than it is to us. Shepherds roamed the hillsides of Galilee; their herds interrupted traffic on rural roads in the region. What was the task of a shepherd? Guidance. Protection. Assessment. Courage. It was hard, dirty, thankless work. But they all understood it. And Jesus claimed it.

“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus promises. His words ring hollow to some. “Where was the Good Shepherd when innocents were being slaughtered in Columbine, when cancer rages through an otherwise healthy body, when our questions far exceed any answers?

Please join us Sunday for more Easter Alleluia! and honest assessment of our lives and Jesus’ safe and loving shepherding.  We believe that the value of our shared faith is not that we have answers, but that we are encouraged to ask questions, trusting that the Good Shepherd will guide us in paths of righteousness and life.

As I write, another event is taking shape on this auspicious day, as high school students across the country engage in a National Walkout Day.  Will the event come to pass as organizers hope? Will the event move the needle on our national conversation about guns and violence and school safety? Will this event empower those whose frustration keeps them sitting on the sidelines, or embolden the conspiracy theorists who love to hate?

So many questions. So few answers. Except this one. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who knows all the sheep by name, even the ones who run away or try to hide.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

Dark Days Require Bright Witness

Dark Days Require Bright Witness

Dear Friends,

Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a dark but necessary observance for the whole world.  One of our building contractors first drew the day to my attention. A pastoral colleague then made the connection between the observance and Sunday’s gospel reading. (I am often amazed at the way in which the threads of the day are woven together.) What’s the connection? At the end of Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 24.36b-48) Jesus ordered his disciples: “You will be my witnesses.”

Jesus’ words are a direct quote from the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 43.10), which inspired the inscription on a black granite wall at the National Holocaust Remembrance Museum in Washington, D.C. How do we tie all that together—Isaiah, Jesus, Holocaust remembrance? It’s not that difficult.

God’s people have always been called upon to tell the story of God’s power in their lives. The ancient Israelites, after being freed from Babylonian captivity, were to witness. Jesus’ frightened post-Easter disciples were to witness. Survivors of human violence and trauma are to witness.  Witnesses stand as truth-telling, living, breathing examples of God’s power to overcome.  “You will be my witnesses.”  It is our primary work, as disciples of Jesus.

Recent dark days lend urgency to Jesus’ command.  The world continues to worry and argue over more than 20 million refugees and migrants—the largest number of unwilling itinerants since World War II.  Last week, scores of Syrians were subjugated to chemical poisoning by their own leaders. On Wednesday, one of our own members was instrumental in the passage of a bill that gives federal and state prosecutors greater power to pursue websites that host sex-trafficking ads and enables victims and state attorneys general to file lawsuits against those sites. Remembrances of Holocaust horror send a chill through our souls.

“You will be my witnesses.”  If we don’t witness, who will?

We have a full weekend at Ascension.  Our “One Tree Many Branches” concert series hosts Caudro el Payo Saturday afternoon. (I’ve never seen live Flamenco dancers!) Sunday morning brings our children together for Sunday School. We gather for Worship during which we witness with song and scripture, prayer and meal. After worship our Safety Team continues it work of developing plans for emergencies. We host an open house for K-5 children and their parents as we form Cub Scout Pack 460. (You’ve got to see the Monkey Bridge the Scouts are building in our back yard.)

All of these things—our music, our study, our worship, our community engagement—all these things are part of our Jesus-mandated, post-resurrection, characteristic-of-disciples, the world-can’t-live-without-us witness.

Let us be witnesses together,

Pastor JoAnn Post

What’s Next?

What’s Next?

Dear Friends,

The intensity of the Easter gospel does not diminish this week, as the early church grapples with what it means that Jesus conquered death.  Even though Jesus had spoken of “being raised,” the empty tomb left his disciples completely baffled. No one in human history had ever been resurrected. (Side note: there are stories of “resuscitation” in scripture—the dead brought back to life for a time, but not for eternity.)  Where did he go? What happened to his body? What’s next?

The Second Sunday of Easter is always devoted to the story of Doubting/Believing Thomas. (John 20.19-31) Thomas was a pragmatic man, his only “speeches” in John’s gospel having to do with logistics: “Let’s do this thing,” (John 11.16) or “What does this mean?” (John 14.5) In Sunday’s gospel Thomas asks to receive only what the other disciples had received—the opportunity to see Jesus with his own eyes.  And Jesus obliged.

The Sundays of Easter tell stories of early attempts to interpret the Jesus story for daily life. We read each Sunday from Acts and the first Christian community’s life together. This Sunday? (Acts 4.32-35) They organize themselves in a completely egalitarian fashion—all possessions, property and wealth are pooled so that all have what they need and no one has too much. It was a great impulse, intended to free them from their daily cares to focus on the ministry, but it was a short-lived impulse. Only one chapter from now a husband and wife will hoard the proceeds of a home sale. With disastrous results.

Here are familiar words: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1.1-2.2) The community to which this letter was written was coming apart over the question of Jesus’ body—was he really human or really God?  The “really human” camp was wildly honest about their responsibilities to each other in the flesh—food, clothing, shelter, fellowship, forgiveness. The “really God” camp had no concerns for day-to-day life, going so far as to believe they were incapable of sin.  Though we don’t debate the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body, we do differ on the way we, who are Jesus’ body in the world, carry out our work.

Jesus has been raised. What’s next?

Please join us Sunday for the Second Sunday of Easter and for the close of our Holy Family Lent Challenge.  Our Sunday School choir will sing. Holy Family Chaplain Leslie Hunter will preach. We will gift Holy Family with a check for the combined results of our Lent Challenge and Shine! Capital Campaign Tithe. At this writing, we are only $3,218 short of our $30,000 goal—an astonishing feat that will make an enormous difference in the lives of Holy Family’s students. Ascension is the most generous congregation I have ever served, always ready to meet any ministry challenge that we face. Thank you. Thank you. Thank God.

Jesus has been raised; death no longer has the last word; we have one another to lean on. What’s next?

Pastor JoAnn Post