Just As I Am

Just As I Am

Dear Friends,

In the Dark Ages, when I was a child, we had a single television in our home. It was the size of a lunar landing craft, receiving distant rays from an antenna array bolted to the roof. The word “remote” referred to distance rather than television, but it didn’t matter. We had only three channel choices and somebody was always willing to jump up to change channels during commercial or bathroom breaks.

Then as now TV is a powerful tool to shape perceptions and attitudes. What did I learn from TV? The aw-shucks kindness of Andy Griffith, and the “good guys always win” narrative of Matt Dillon resonated with me. The Robinsons, always lost in space, frightened me. The Douglas family (“Green Acres”) and the Clampett’s (“Beverly Hillbillies”) confused me—they weren’t “rural” the way we were “rural.” (Though I still nurse a crush for Jethro Bodine.)  Archie Bunker and my Dad bore striking resemblances. We kids didn’t watch a lot of television—we had a whole farm to explore—and my mother watched even less.  But when “The Billy Graham Crusades” aired, we watched nothing else. I can still hear my Mom singing along with Ethel Waters’ “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” and George Beverly Shea’s “How Great Thou Art.”

Rev. Graham’s death this week (at the same age as the patriarch Abraham of whom we will read Sunday) brought a rush of memories. And respect. Though Rev. Graham was part of the evangelical strand of the church, his message about God’s relentless grace and mercy transcended denominational boundaries. I read an obituary in a secular news source that said (my paraphrase), “Rev. Graham was unlike all other evangelical preachers of his time. Their God was angry and judgmental. The God Rev. Graham knew loved sinners and forgave them.”

How fitting that Sunday’s texts would reacquaint us with Abraham and Sarah, the elderly couple to whom God promised progeny and power. (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16) The God who led Abraham and Sarah from the safety of their homeland to a new land was characterized not by demands or judgements, but by magnanimous grace. Without putting any expectations on Abraham, God promised, “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations; I will make you exceedingly faithful.”  As in so many of the biblical covenants, God does all the heavy lifting with Abraham and Sarah, asking only that they walk with God. (And not giggle. They each laughed to think they would have a child “though as good as dead.”)

Sunday’s epistle reading delivers that same message of grace, but with a hammer. (Romans 4.13-25) Contrary to the assumptions of the Christians in Rome, Abraham was to be revered by them not because he upheld legal commitments but because he trusted God to the point of foolishness—“hoping against hope.” Abraham was a model for the early church of trusting God when there was no evidence to support that decision.

Jesus veers from the path of grace and mercy after Peter completely misreads Jesus’ intent and mission. (Mark 8.31-38)  Accusing Peter of being in league with Satan, Jesus turns to the crowds and invites them to submit to death. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What? This would have seemed a bizarre request on the face of it, but to ask them to pick up a cross? The cross was an ancient method of execution, like the firing squad or lethal injection in our time. “Take up your electric chair and follow me,” would be a fair corollary. I’d like to hear Rev. Graham soften and shape that message.

Please join us this Sunday, if you are in town. Our Sunday School children will be singing and beading prayer bracelets during Sunday School. We will extend Worship modestly to call our annual meeting to order. We will invite you to take up our Holy Family Lent Challenge to provide a full year’s education cost for three students. And we will learn again of God’s grace and mercy, God’s relentless love of and welcome for sinners.

In another week over-full of news about violence and corruption, the endless capacity of human beings to harm one another and shame themselves, I’ve been grateful for the gift Rev. Graham gave me and my Mom and millions of others—the gift of grace.  If you need to be reminded of the mercy of God and share the song in my heart today, log-on to “Just As I Am Billy Graham Crusade Choir” on YouTube.

God welcomes sinners and forgives them. Though unverifiable and completely counter-intuitive, I believe it. Me and Abraham and Sarah.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

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Sometimes the boat barely floats

Sometimes the boat barely floats

Dear Friends,

I laugh at odd things. Like this verse from Sunday’s story of Noah and the Ark: “God said, ‘Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.’” (Genesis 9.8ff)

What’s funny about that? God hedges bets. God never says, “Wow, that whole ‘destroy all living creatures’ was a bad idea. I’ll never do that again.”  No, God says it won’t happen again by water.  Catch the difference?  I may be reading too much into that verse, but over the years I’ve tried to imagine other ways the world might be destroyed: fire, earthquake, asteroid, volcano.  But not by water! And it makes me laugh. Or at least, it used to.

The murder of a Chicago police officer in the Loop on Tuesday and the slaughter of school children in Parkland, FL on Wednesday (the 18th school shooting this year) make me wonder if the aforementioned hypothetical destruction of all living creatures might come at our own hand.  The mother of a child who witnessed the shooting in Parkland said, “Who do I blame? Not the shooter—he is irrelevant. I blame the NRA. I blame politicians. I blame greed. I blame everybody who forgot about Columbine and Sandy Hook.”

Whether you agree with her assessment or not, she is on to something. The most insidious of all the dangers that lurk in the world fester in the human heart. Today, as a Chicago family grieves the death of a father and husband, and Florida parents start the day without their children, I wish God had said something a bit more definitive, “Never again shall all flesh be cut off by willful apathy or faux compassion or blatant self-interest.”

The First Sunday of Lent always finds Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. (Mark 1.9-15)  What would tempt him in our time, in this wilderness? The list is long (and doesn’t include flood). We also read the rainbow conclusion of the Noah story, and the lovely credal statement of 1 Peter 3.18-22: “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous.”

As people of faith, we always seek to see the ways God is at work in both our joys and sorrows. One of the ways we see God’s hand here is in our Lent Challenge to raise $30,000 for Holy Family School. That we have both the will and the capacity to make such an enormous difference in the lives of children is nothing short of breathtaking. Please join us Sunday as we launch the challenge. Holy Family Chaplain Leslie Hunter will preach. We will tell you more about ways to meet the challenge. During coffee hour you’ll be asked to sign up to be a Prayer Buddy with a second-grader at Holy Family, and purchase “thank you bracelets” made by our Sunday School children. The theme for our challenge is “Grateful for it all.” And we are. (We are looking for those who might be willing to make a challenge gift, or to offer incentives–sports tickets, dinner out. If you want to hear more about those opportunities, please talk to me.)

At 9 a.m. Sunday we’ll offer a preview of our February 25 annual meeting. Though Sunday School is not officially in session because of the Presidents Day hiatus, we invite children and parents to the education wing at 9:30 a.m. Sunday to string beads into bracelets. And, of course, on Saturday afternoon I hope you’ll join us for “Pipes, Hammers and Strings” which features the remarkable gifts of our Director of Music Minkyoo Shin on both organ and piano.

Might I urge you to take some action with regard to the pervasive violence and shoulder-shrugging around us? Write your congressperson. Take great care with firearms in your home. Pay attention to those who are troubled. Refuse to accept evasive or easy answers from our elected leaders. And pray. Pray for victims of violence, for the perpetrators of violence, for those sworn to protect us, and for all who could move the needle a little closer to peace.

I wish my mood was brighter, my words more hopeful, my heart less heavy, but the self-inflicted wounds of the world weigh heavily on me, as I know they do on you. But we know what Noah knew, that God floats our boat and nothing can overwhelm us.

Pastor JoAnn Post

What If?

What If?

Dear Friends,

When I turned 50 (almost nine years ago now), a friend announced that I had officially entered Middle Age. I hope his prediction is not true. If 50 is “middle,” 100 is “end” and, as a wizened old friend once said, “Who would want to get that old?”  I suppose we are only able to identify the mid-point of our lives when they have ended. But I think it is safe to say the mid-point of my life is long past—you really don’t want to imagine me at the age of 116.

Speaking of middle age, a therapist of my acquaintance deals almost exclusively with “middle-aged” men. He didn’t start out counseling only soft-in-the-middle men, but word has spread that he “gets it.”  One of his observations is that men who struggle most in the middle years of their lives are those who have regrets, those who look back on their lives through a lens of “what if.” What if I had chosen a different career, married a different spouse, invested in a different fund, driven a different (aka faster) car, believed in a different god? He spends hours each week with men who wonder what might be different now if they had chosen a different then. It is an unanswerable question, but haunting nonetheless.

This Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, marks a definite midpoint. Exactly half-way through the gospel of Mark, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain outside Jerusalem serves as a hinge in Mark’s narrative. (Mark 9.2-9)  The story began for Mark with Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, when a heavenly voice announced, “You are my Son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased.” Mark’s version of Jesus’ ministry ends at the cross when an unnamed centurion, a pagan soldier, recognizes Jesus and grieves, “Surely, this man was God’s Son.”

And in between Jesus’ watery beginning and his bloody ending lie multiple attempts to name him, understand him, to “get” him. Demons know him. Sinners know him. Haters know him. Pagans know him. But those closest to him haven’t got a clue. So how is it that, in the very middle of Mark’s gospel Jesus ascends a mountain and is transfigured there his disciples leave scratching their heads: “Gosh, I wonder what that was about?” Even though, as at this baptism and his crucifixion, a voice names him, “My Son. My Beloved.”

Even when clues as obvious as Hansel’s breadcrumbs dropped on their path, Jesus’ disciples failed to recognize him. And they would spend the rest of their lives asking the regret-filled question: What if? What if we had known? What if we had asked? What if we hadn’t been such dunder-heads?

Please join us Sunday at 9:15 a.m. (before Sunday School) as we burn last year’s Palms into Wednesday’s Ashes. During Worship, our Sunday School Choir will sing. We’ll bellow our last “Alleluia” before Lent. We will wonder, with worshippers at all points in their lives of faith “what if?” What if that event was God’s doing? What if this stirring is God’s nudging? What if these tears are God’s sorrow?  What if this thing that looks like an ending is really a beginning?

I write this on Thursday afternoon, in anticipation of the office being closed Friday because of the Monster Storm headed our way. (We were going to be closed anyway because of an off-site continuing education event, but that has been cancelled, as well.)  What if, as you read this, the snow failed to fall, and everything was cancelled for no good reason?  Oh, well.

Here’s a “what if.” What if you chose to Lent with us this year—Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday, the Sundays and Wednesdays of Lent? How might your heart, your outlook, your life be changed? I’d be happy to answer those questions with you.

Let it snow! See you Sunday.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

Unbelievable

Unbelievable

Dear Friends,

The phone rang after midnight on a crackling-cold February night in Alaska in 1985. Since nothing good comes of a midnight phone call, I was surprised to hear the chipper voice of a member of my congregation, “Go outside,” she said. “Get dressed and go outside.”  More confused than curious, we fumbled for slippers and winter coats and stumbled sleepily onto the small balcony outside our bedroom. We gasped. The sky was on fire.  Ribbons of color writhed and raced across the dark sky.  Air so cold we could barely breathe, we gaped wordlessly at the celestial spectacle.

Aurora borealis. Northern Lights. Though astronomers are able to explain the phenomenon, the Lights incite something primal in us. Wonder. Fear. Curiosity. Our indigenous ancestors regarded the Lights as the dancing souls of the dead, or the camp fire of the gods, or a celestial sporting event. But whether informed by superstition or science, the Northern Lights speak of a power greater than our own.

In the waning days of the Epiphany season, Sunday’s scripture texts speak of that same wonder, that same curiosity, that same fear. From deep in the bowels of Babylon, God begs the exiles to submit themselves to mystery. (Isaiah 40.21-31)  God sits high above the earth, “its inhabitants like grasshoppers.” God destroys the rulers of the world with a breath.  God asks them to crane their necks skyward to admire the stars: “I number them, and call them each by name.” To people who feared they would die on foreign soil, God urged a broader horizon, a higher vision, a greater curiosity. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Apparently not.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus does battle with demons and disease. (Mark 1.29-39) After restoring Simon’s mother-in-law to health, he found the front lawn of Simon’s home filled with people. Sick people. Sad people. Possessed people. They had heard of Jesus’ power over the demonic in the Capernaum synagogue, and longed for a display of power in their own lives. Mark provides no explanation for the phenomenon, but Jesus “cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” Though we might quibble with Mark’s innocent acceptance of the diagnosis (Demons? Really?), his intent is clear. Jesus’ power exceeds all the powers of earth. No one and no thing is outside his ability to either restore or destroy.

Christians mark today, February 2, as Candlemas—the day on which Jesus was presented at the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2.22ff) and Mary visited the mikveh (ritual bath) after childbirth. Astronomers mark the day as the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox—the annual triumph of light over darkness. Punxsutawney Phil is the ancestor of ground-dwelling creatures in northern Europe who offered clues as to the severity of the remaining weeks of winter. Each of these festivals is a mix of fact and fiction, lore and longing, mystery and history.

One of the delights of the faith for me is its willingness to entertain mystery. Have you not known? Have you not heard? No, and it’s okay. We come together on this Fifth Sunday after Epiphany to read of celestial wonders and vanishing demons. We come together in worship to see God in Word and Sacrament, and in each other.

The aurora borealis still crackles across polar skies as it has done for millennia, long before human eyes beheld it. It was worth crawling out of a warm bed to view it that first time. I trust we are not too old, too jaded, too tired to entertain mystery and wonder in the heavens, on earth, or in our hearts.  If I may borrow a sentiment from a secular tale of mystery and wonder, “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.” (The Polar Express, Chris Van Allsburg, 1985)

I still believe, too. Not in magic trains or Northern Lights or sleepy groundhogs, but in God whose power still amazes.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

How does it know?

How does it know?

Dear Friends,

My Grandpa Post told only one joke in his life (that I recall). Perhaps you know the joke—it’s as old as my Grandpa was.

On his 100th birthday, an old man was asked by a young grandchild,“Grandpa, what was the greatest invention you saw in your long life? The automobile? The computer? Space flight?”

Without hesitating, he said, “The Thermos.”

The grandchild was baffled, “The Thermos? How so?”

“Well, the old man said, “It keeps hot things hot and cold things cold.”

Blank look from the grandchild.

So the old man clarified, “The Thermos! It keeps hot things hot and cold things cold. How does it know?” (Cue the rim shot)

We can now add to the great mysteries of the universe The Thermos, and its uncanny ability to differentiate hot soup from iced tea. How does it know?

My mind often wanders surprising places as I read and study, and after yesterday morning’s Bible study, I was surprised to find that old joke bumping in my brain.  So I followed its trail and realized that the punch line of the joke could be the title of a sermon. “How does it know?”

Sunday’s Old Testament reading finds God’s people standing on the brink of the Promised Land, biding their time as Moses reminds them of all that has transpired and all that lies ahead for them. (Deuteronomy 18.15-20)  One of their concerns is about leadership—Moses would not be going with them into the Promised Land. “Who will lead us?” Both Moses and God promise them that a prophet will be appointed to lead them, a prophet who will speak truth and provide wise leadership. But how will they know if the prophet’s words are God’s words? If the prophet’s ways are God’s ways?

The apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth about their responsibility to be sensitive to the sensitivities of others. (1 Corinthians 8.1-3) The congregation was at odds about whether or not they could eat food that had been offered to idols at the various temples in the city and then put in the local market for sale. Some refused to eat food that might have been “contaminated” by pagan practice; others ate it without hesitation, since pagan gods had no power, “It’s just meat!”  What was the best practice for those early believers? And how would they know?

Jesus continues his march through Mark, stopping to worship in the wealthy seaside city of Capernaum on the Sabbath. (Mark 1.21-28) As he taught, a man leapt from his seat and started yelling at Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Jesus immediately recognized that the man was demon-possessed.  But questions remain. How did the man know Jesus’ true identity, since no one else in synagogue did? And how did Jesus know the man was demon-possessed and not just a jerk?

How do we know? How do we know truth from falsehood? How do we distinguish best practice from destructive temptation? How do we discern God’s activity in our lives from the random good and bad that happen each day? Sunday’s texts beg The Thermos Question: How does it know?

Please join us Sunday for Children’s Education at 9:30 and Worship at 10 a.m. And enjoy these quiet January days—when we turn the calendar page to February, there will not be an idle moment here at Ascension.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying memories of my Grandpa Post in his striped bib overalls, slyly telling the only joke he knew.  He might be pleased to know that his wry wisdom amuses me still. Or horrified that I remember him to you for telling a dumb joke. But how do I know?

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

 

The End Is Near?

The End Is Near?

Dear Friends,

Friends were in Hawaii on Saturday when they learned that a missile strike on the islands was imminent. A year ago the threat of nuclear annihilation was little more than a theoretical proposition. But now that world leaders boast about the size, speed and lethality of their weaponry, a missile strike seems a very real possibility.

What did my friends and millions of others do upon receiving notice of their demise? They sought shelter. They made last phone calls. They hugged their loved ones. They knelt to pray. Some headed for the beach, determined to meet their destruction face-to-face. What would you have done?

Though in antiquity the phrase “nuclear weapon” did not exist, annihilation can be accomplished in a variety of creative ways.  In a fit of frustration, God destroyed the world by flood. (Genesis 7) God’s people were dragged into exile during Babylonian captivity, forced to abandon everything they held dear (6th century BCE). The Roman Empire once owned all of the Mediterranean Basin, dominating the military, shipping, commerce, culture and religion (2nd century CE). But we need not reach that far back to find examples of destruction. The Middle Passage. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. Stalin’s Gulags. The Holocaust. Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Might history add our country’s current rabid fascination with the deportation of millions of “illegal” or “undocumented” persons to this ignoble march of cultural carnage?

Sunday’s scripture readings attest to the fact that fear of the Inevitable End has been a constant in human history.

Jonah makes an appearance Sunday, as God gives him a second chance to warn the people of Nineveh that their end was near. (Jonah 3.1-5, 10) You may recall that Jonah’s first encounter with God ended with Jonah being puked onto the beach by a whale, but given another opportunity, Jonah did as he was told. Marching through the massive city of Nineveh, he was rendered speechless when the whole city repented when asked to do so. Faced with wrath of God, everyone from the King of Nineveh to his Corgis knelt in sackcloth and ashes.

Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, encouraging them to remain calm in the face of “the impending crisis.” (1 Corinthians 7.29-31) His advice to those new Christians as they waited for “the present form of the world to pass away” was to continue. If a slave, remain enslaved. If married, remain married. They were to avoid anything that caused them anxiety, whether that anxiety was caused by grief or joy, wealth or poverty, so that they might be able to meet the Lord when he came.

The Gospel reading finds Jesus on the move. (Mark 1.14-20) Strolling the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he picked disciples the way we pick fruit.  Simon and Andrew, James and John walked away from their “worlds” without question when Jesus asked them to follow. What did they leave behind? Boats. Beds. Parents. Saturday night dates. I don’t entirely understand their actions.

Whether your world ends dramatically with a missile strike, or quietly with a change of heart and mind, we know that it will end. In the time that remains (may it be long), why not surround yourself with caring community, stirring song, hopeful prayer, intentional service, honest conversation? We offer all of that here.  (Sunday School at 9:30 and Worship at 10 a.m.)

These Sundays of Epiphany are devoted to “revealing.” Revealing Jesus’ true nature. Revealing ours. What does that look like. As Jesus beckoned Phillip last Sunday, so now I invite you—come and see.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

 

I Can See Clearly Now

I Can See Clearly Now

Dear Friends,

I first wore corrective eyeglasses when I was in fourth grade. Until the moment I put on those stylish pink cat-eye frames, I didn’t know how little I was seeing. The visit to the optometrist had been prompted by a casual question to my Mom after Sunday worship, “How do people know which hymn to sing next?” To which she responded, “The hymn numbers are on the hymn board.” When I asked, “What’s a hymn board?” she knew we had a problem.

Though I donned those stunning spectacles almost fifty years ago, I still remember stepping out of the optometrist’s office and viewing the world as though for the first time. Leaves on the trees had defined edges and patterns. The sign in the department store window across the street said, “Sale Today!” The yellow line down the middle of the street was sharp and distinct. When we got home, the cattle in the feedlot were individual creatures rather than an undulating brown mass.

Seeing is one thing. To see and understand is another.

On Sunday, we are invited to both see and understand.

The Old Testament reading features the prophet Samuel as a child, learning the “priest trade” from the elderly priest Eli, “whose eyesight had begun to grow dim.” (1 Samuel 3.1-10) Neither Eli nor Samuel could see the person who called from the darkness: “Samuel! Samuel!” Though Eli could not see clearly with his eyes, he understood that it was God calling the young boy. He said, “Go, lie down. If he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” (This text is the basis for the hymn “Here I Am, Lord,” which we will sing Sunday.)

Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth tackles a difficult issue about how we, as Christians, see ourselves under the law. (1 Corinthians 6.12-20)  Members of the Corinthian congregation understood themselves to be liberated from the religious laws that had governed their lives before they came to believe in Jesus.  They boasted to Paul, “All things are lawful for us,” a misunderstood truth that opened the door to all sorts of scandalous behavior on their part. Paul tried to explain to them that though everything might be legal, not everything is helpful. He took particular offense at their sexual promiscuity—“Don’t you see that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit!”

And in the gospel reading, we learn that Jesus didn’t look like God when he walked down the street; he looked like everybody else. (Mark 1.43-51) When newly-minted disciple Philip invited his friend Nathanael to meet Jesus, Nathanael took one look at Jesus, recognized him as a native of Nazareth and dismissed him. “Nothing good ever came out of Nazareth.” Though Jesus’ appearance may have been unimpressive, he persisted with Nathanael, “Come and see.” Nathanael did both.

To see and understand.

Recent sightings of moving lozenge-shaped objects on military radar have prompted some to believe the “alien invasion” is beginning.  In an interview with Stephen Colbert, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson laughed at the conjecture.  “Yes, we saw something, but we don’t know what it is. That’s what the ‘u’ in UFO stands for.”

US military intelligence recently revealed a complex series of tunnels near the Demilitarized Zone in Korea. The tunnels are so deep and intertwined, that there is currently no readily-available visual technology to explore them.  “We think we know what we’ll find there,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told NPR, “but we can’t see it.”

Sometimes we see. Sometimes we understand. The goal of faith is to do both at the same time.

Come and see us at Worship Sunday at 10 a.m.  Sunday School will not meet—many of our parents and teachers will be away for the extended Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.

Humming in my head as I write is the Carly Simon classic, “I can see clearly now. I can see all obstacles in my way.” Though not a hymn you’ll find in our hymnal, it is a sentiment we share. We see both the opportunities and obstacles in our way, and trust God to guide us through.

Come and see,

Pastor JoAnn Post