Ride ‘Em!

Ride ‘Em!

Dear Friends,

I knew him as a diminutive, bow-legged, grizzled old man, but the yellowed newspaper clippings told a different story. A storied rodeo rider, he had ridden in and won events all over the country. There was not a horse he could not ride, a bull he could not conquer, an injury he could not survive. Though I imagine he reaped monetary rewards for his dangerous athleticism, it was the belt buckles of which he was most proud. Displayed in glass cases on every wall and every surface, the belt buckles gleamed as brightly as he did as he showed them off. Buckles of every size, every metal, from every state and province in North America. They were valuable to him because of the memories they carried, but some of them also had significant financial value.

As happens to most of us as we age, he reached a point where “things” no longer mattered to him, and he started giving things away.  Furniture. Photographs. Dishes. If you liked it, it went home with you. The belt buckles? One of his nephews had always admired them, and as the rider’s years drew to a close, he bequeathed all the belt buckles to this favorite nephew, who promised to cherish and protect them.

Imagine the old man’s horror when a neighbor called to say he’d seen belt buckles available for sale on EBay. And not just any belt buckles—the old man’s belt buckles, being auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Sunday’s scripture texts are rich and timely. We meet the prophet Jeremiah who prophesied—unsuccessfully—in a time of economic prosperity and growth. (Jeremiah 11.18-20) Jeremiah’s words were not welcome, even among his own family. In Sunday’s text he writes of betrayal and lying and plots against his life. The gospel reading picks up the theme of innocent suffering, as Jesus offers the second of three passion predictions in Mark. (Mark 9.30-37) Jesus’ disciples do not, cannot, will not understand his words—they are convinced Jesus is destined for greatness, not a cross. There is a lot to mine in those texts.

But it is the reading from James that catches my eye. (James 3.13 – 4.3, 7-8a)  James wrote a blistering letter to a young Christian congregation, eviscerating them for action-less faith, gossiping tongues, lust for power. Apparently, this congregation had also complained that they were not receiving from God all they asked.  “It’s simple,” James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly.”

Wait. Wrongly? Is that even a word? Is there a wrong way to ask, to pray?

Let’s read on: “You ask and do not receive because you ask in order to spend what you get on your own pleasures.”

Asking in order to spend the answer on oneself—that’s what it means to ask “wrongly.” It’s like pretending to love your uncle’s belt buckle collection, when, in fact, you want it only to sell it for personal gain. That’s asking “wrongly.”

But when we ask as God would have us ask—humbly, for the sake of the other, according to God’s will—we receive. God wants us to ask; God wants us to receive; God wants those gifts to be used for good.

Please join us Sunday, when we’ll study all these challenging texts. Yes, the smell of new carpet hangs in the air—along with a fair amount of dust—but progress is being made. We are also delighted to report that Godly Play, our new Sunday School program, was a wild success last Sunday. We invite children ages 3 – grade 3 (and older) to join us for Music with Minkyoo at 9:30 a.m.; Godly Play at 9:45. Our children will be returned to us in time to share the Lord’s Supper with us.

But, what about the Parable of the Belt Buckles? Here’s how that story ended. A phone call was made. The belt buckles were taken off EBay. The nephew returned the whole collection. Upon his death, the rodeo rider donated them to a rodeo museum, where they will be cherished and protected.

“You ask but do not receive, because you ask only for your own pleasure.”

Today, when you pray, imagine what it is God wants to give you, not only what you want. And then imagine how you will share the answer to that prayer with someone else. James would be proud. Jesus, too.

See you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

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Danger is all Around

Danger is all Around

Dear Friends,

What is the most dangerous place you’ve ever been?

I was in Jerusalem seven days after the assassination of a leader of the Knesset. Brusquely, in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day of touring, we were shoved onto buses that raced through the streets of the city to our hotel. We later learned that violent protests were planned outside the Knesset at the very hour the leader had fallen the week before. Lives were lost that day. Some of those lives could have been ours.

13 years ago, I lost control of my car on a slushy, hilly street during a freak spring snow storm. Unable to steer or stop, I braced myself in horror as my car careened toward a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. The only reason I am alive today is because of a low stone retaining wall that absorbed the force of my descent and stopped the car. My VW Bug was rendered an accordion, and I was badly damaged, but alive.

Where is it for you? The most dangerous place you’ve ever been?  This week’s events bring to mind those who survived the events of 9/11 , hurricanes, earthquakes, house fires, robbery. And those who didn’t. While, for most of us, those dangerous places are  a once-in-a-lifetime horror, there are some who live in danger every day. Do you suppose those three students at Chatham Academy, Chicago, imagined they would be fired on as they walked home from school Monday afternoon?

As is true of most of the “near misses” of our lives, if we knew danger lay ahead, we would choose a different path. Only a First Responder or a fool willingly steps into danger.

Jesus’ disciples had no idea they were being lured into the crosshairs of danger on a sunny Middle Eastern day. (Mark 8.27-38) They had recently witnessed Jesus cast out a demon and open the ears of a deaf man, and were looking forward to a leisurely stroll south toward Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus took them on a detour through the beautiful, but dangerous region of Caesarea Philippi. A river runs through that region; rocky cliffs erupt on its banks. The grassy valley was pocked with temples and altars to both Roman and pagan gods. Remnants of animal sacrifice clung to niches carved in the cliff walls. They were the only believers in the One True God for kilometers around. No observant Jew would willingly traverse terrain as antithetical to their beliefs.

Sunday morning we will pursue this text about Jesus’ challenge to the gods of Caesarea Philippi. We will wonder at the hutzpah that led to his declaration there, tripping over the bloody remnants of idol worship, that he was the Son of Man, the Messiah. We will consider his challenge to us—to leave the safety of our lives and the “gods” we worship behind in order to follow wherever he leads, even into danger.

On Sunday morning we will also wash Hattie Ann Owens in the baptismal waters, and welcome her parents and big sister into membership at Ascension. Baptism may seem benign to us, but Luther described it as a death, a drowning, as we turn our faces toward the road down which Jesus will lead. It may be that the font at Ascension is the most dangerous place Hattie has yet to encounter.

Speaking of danger, our attention has been riveted on Hurricane Florence prowling toward the Carolina coast. Our older daughter and her husband recently moved to North Carolina, and though they are far from the coast, they dread the rains that are sure to fall.  We pray protection for all those who will be affected by this storm, and for all the faithful, fearless helpers who willingly enter danger for the sake of others. If you are moved to provide financial assistance to relief efforts, log on to www.elca.org

As is typical of recent days, I have a few housekeeping matters to share:

Godly Play  launches Sunday for children ages 3 – grade 3 (and any other child who wishes to join). At 9:30 a.m., children will gather in the Music Room for Singing Time with Director of Music Minkyoo Shin, while their parents meet with Sunday School Coordinator Kate Berlin for an introduction to our new curriculum. At 9:45 children will enter the world of Godly Play, while their parents join us for worship in the sanctuary at 10:00. Children will rejoin us in time for communion.

Shine! continues to litter dusty progress all over Ascension. Carpeting is underway. The kitchen is officially a construction zone. Workers and equipment fill the building and parking lot. Fellowship Hall is bereft of tables and chairs because of work being done to the floor. (How will we host Coffee Hour? Who knows?) Please forgive the dust and chaos of this wonderful project. And if you’d like to help re-set spaces after the carpet layers have done their work, please let me know.

What is the most dangerous place you’ve ever been? Wherever it is—a place on a map or a frightened corner in your heart—know that Jesus’ disciples walk through it with you.

See you Sunday.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Make It Right

Make It Right

Dear Friends,

The restaurant had failed to reserve our reservation, ran out of the evening’s special just as we ordered it, and mixed up our drink order–twice. We weren’t angry—we are not that guy you see in restaurants who loves to humiliate waitstaff, complaining about everything from the viscosity of the salad dressing to the waitress’s tattoo. But we were disappointed. Hands outstretched in supplication, the restaurant manager approached our table apologetically. “I’m sorry. What happened tonight is not typical. What can I do to make this right?”

I was taken with his question. At other times when restaurant service has been less than ideal, we’ve been offered free dessert (not interested), a gift certificate for another visit (not interested), and once a manager threw his whole staff under the bus, complaining loudly about how hard it is to get good help and “heads will roll” (not interested). But this wise manager asked a simple question. “What can I do to make this right?”

Imagine if, every time you and I hurt or disappointed one another, we dispensed with “you always” and “I never” and “we’ll see about that,” responding instead with a simple, heartfelt question. “What can I do to make this right?”

Sunday’s gospel reading is often described as a pair of miracle stories. (Mark 7.24-37) Jesus raised a child from her death bed, and restored hearing and speech to a man who had neither. Surely these qualify as “miracles.” But, inspired by the restaurant manager’s humble question, I wonder if instead of performing miracles, Jesus was simply making things right.

After all, no parent should grieve the death of a child. Every person with a tongue and ears should be able to use them. The ill child’s mother, the deaf man’s friends weren’t asking Jesus to make it rain bowling balls or calico cats, but simply to restore things to their rightful order.  Life. Speech. Hearing.

(I’m thinking out loud here, unsure if there is any merit to this proposition. So, years from now, when I’m being questioned by a senate panel about my fitness to be a Supreme Court justice, please don’t ask me to defend this brain blip. God bless Judge Cavanaugh. What a memory he must have.)

There seems to be little “right” among us these days. I am as disturbed as you are by revelations that unelected officials in our nation’s capital might be circumventing the President’s work. Regardless of how you feel about the administration, this does not seem right to me.

My much-loved neighbor is dying, having moved from health to hospice at a heart-breaking pace. He is too young, too vibrant, too amusing to be taken from us so soon. Jesus, could you make this right?

The list of “not right” things in our country, community and lives is long.

Some pray for miracles. I wonder if instead, at least for now, we might pray for things simply to be made right. For children to grow into old people. For old people to live meaningful lives. For tongues to sing, and ears to hear, and the perfect gin and tonic at the end of the day.

Before I close, a few housekeeping matters.

God’s Work Our Hands Sunday

This Sunday we join congregations across the ELCA in a Day of Service. We had hoped to worship outside, but the rainy weather of late means our lawn is a swamp. So, we will worship in the sanctuary at 10 a.m., but as casually as though outdoors. Please wear your yellow “God’s Work Our Hands” t-shirts and jeans. Join us for picnic lunch inside. And stay for one of our two service projects. The nursery will be staffed for Little Ones.

Shine! Capital Campaign

Thanks to the dedicated and efficient work of many volunteers, our building is ready to be carpeted beginning Monday. 15,000 square yards of carpet at a cost of $52,000 will be rolled into place in a short two weeks. We will need a small crew of short-notice volunteers later in the week to move equipment from one end of the Education Wing to the other. If you like to move stuff around and have time to share, please let me or Office Manager Ami Frick know and we’ll send out the bat signal. Also, the kitchen was gutted this week in preparation for renovation—you’ll have to bring your own coffee for the time being.

Today I pray, not a miracle, but for God to make things right for you. For love and laughter, forgiveness and friends, a song to sing and a kind voice in your ears.

See you Sunday,

Pastor JoAnn Post

What comes out

What comes out

Dear Friends,

As a modestly public person, it is not unusual for people to put words in my mouth: “Did you hear what Pastor said?”  When the attribution is positive, when I am credited with something remarkably clever or insightful, I don’t mind. But when the attribution is negative or hurtful or flat-out wrong, I swell with righteous indignation.

It happened earlier this week—word got back to me that I had said something hurtful about someone, when, in fact, I have never had that thought, let alone speak it out loud. I stewed about it for about an hour, pacing around the church building in a funk, and then wrote a scathing e-mail to the rumor-spreader. My eloquence when angry is breath-taking. Just as I was about to hit “send” something in my brain instead said, “stop.” Even in my reptilian rage, I knew that an e-mail once sent cannot be un-sent. I lifted my fingers from my computer keyboard to consult wiser, calmer friends. The friends’ names were James and Mark:

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to learn, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (James 1.17-27)

And from Sunday’s gospel: “Listen to me,” Jesus said. “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within the human heart that evil intentions come.” (Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

Though the texts we read and study on Sunday mornings were choreographed by a dispassionate lectionary committee years ago, I am often surprised at how relevant a week’s texts might be. This is one of those weeks.

We have just completed the five week “Jesus, Bread of Life” series, which became increasingly obtuse and esoteric. It was sometimes difficult to bring Jesus’ words close enough to earth to catch them. But this Sunday we are plopped back into real-world concerns. How do we speak of one another? What do we do when wronged? What is the relationship between the faith we hold in our hearts and the actions of our hands, the words of our mouths?

For some in our society it has become a point of pride to be mean, to gloat over others’ faults or mistakes, to lob increasingly hurtful monikers or spread false rumors. Public figures—in politics, religion, education—spew hatred and vitriol for which we would send our children to their rooms. But rather than calling it out, we celebrate it with tweets and counter-tweets, prime-time coverage and t-shirts. How are we to trust that our leaders have good hearts, when the words that come from their mouths would make a sailor blush?

How much more this is true among us, among people of faith. Why would anyone want to know a God whose followers are wicked or unkind ? The world is watching. What do they see?

These texts remind me of a long-ago conversation with a stranger who found out I was a pastor. She was telling me about her “colorful” husband who had recently died. She said, “He swore like a truck driver with hemorrhoids; he growled at dogs and made them whimper; his best friend was Jack Daniels; he thought it was funny to wave his shotgun out the front door when school kids stepped on our lawn. But, oh, Pastor, don’t think poorly of him. His bark was worse than his bite. He had a good heart.”

I’m not particularly fond of people or dogs that bite. But I trust that, at least with her, his heart was good. But how would anybody know? I’m sad that she will spend the rest of her life convincing people that her foul-mouthed, threatening and intimidating husband “had a good heart.”

We who follow Jesus are instructed to live an “integrated” life, that is, for the “inside” and the “outside” to match. It’s one thing for a grieving widow to defend her harsh husband. But we cannot expect the world to try that hard with us, reconciling what we hold in our hearts with the destructive ways we sometimes live and speak.

Mercifully, my biblical colleagues James and Mark (and our wise Office Manager) encouraged me to dump that blistering e-mail in the trash, rather than drop it like a bomb in someone’s in-box. I cannot be responsible for the behavior or words of another, but I am responsible for mine. So, this week I let scripture put words in my mouth, this time from Psalm 15, which we will sing on Sunday:

Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?

Those who lead a blameless life and do what is right,

who speak the truth from their heart;

they do not slander with their tongue,

they do no evil to their friends;

they do not cast discredit upon a neighbor.

Thinking and speaking kindly of you,

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

What in the world is “gospel armor?”

What in the world is “gospel armor?”

Put on the gospel armor, each piece put on with prayer.

Where duty calls or danger, be never wanting there.

(excerpt of “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus,” Duffield and Webb, 1858)

Militaristic hymns like this were common in my childhood. God was our commander; we were soldiers; Jesus was our leader as we marched off to war. My Sunday School class learned to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as sturdily as we did “Jesus Loves Me.” I didn’t think much about the crusader, colonial, conversion implications of those hymns until I grew older and more world-aware, until I realized that these hymns emerged from particular times in our history, until I sniffed a hint of domination in that brand of discipleship.

But I didn’t realize how deeply lodged those lyrics were until I began studying Sunday’s texts. Framed by Joshua’s bold challenge to “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24.1-2a, 14-18) and Peter’s resigned sigh: “Lord, to whom can we go?” (John 6.59-69) lies the spark for that triumphant, lyric memory.

You may not have noticed, but during our five-week series “Jesus, Bread of Life,” we have also been reading weekly from Ephesians. Authorship unknown, the Letter to the Ephesians is a general letter to early Christians, encouraging them in this new life they have chosen.  “Do not let the sun go down on your anger,” the writer advises. “Jesus is our peace,” he reminds. And on Sunday, at the end of the letter, the reader is advised to dress for battle.  Odd, don’t you think, that these early believers, who had not ever donned a uniform or wielded a weapon, would be encouraged to “put on the whole armor of God?” They wouldn’t have known a helmet from a handgun, except for their exposure to the occupying Roman soldiers.

But we have to read more closely. “Put on the whole armor of God.” Of course, they couldn’t begin to know how to dress for battle, but God? God has been depicted as a warrior since the Israelites first punched “Promised Land” into their GPS. Of course, God would have a belt and breastplate, shoes and shield, a helmet and sword. And their work in the cosmic battle between God and the powers of evil? Stand firm. Proclaim. Pray. That is our role in the battle—to brace our feet and stiffen our spines while God goes before us.

There is so much more to discuss about Sunday’s texts. I want to tell you about my Aunt Marvella and Uncle Art, who had a plaque on their kitchen wall that read, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Joshua said it first; they lived it every day.  I want to consider the disciples’ decision to stay with Jesus, even though everyone else fled in the wake of his demand, “Eat my flesh. Drink my blood.” But those conversations will have to wait for Sunday.

Hymn texts and tunes have always been, for me, the most profound expression of the faith. That is why on Sunday we will sing, “In your service, Lord, defend us; in our hearts keep watch and ward, in the world to which you send us, let your kingdom come, O Lord.” (excerpt from “For the Bread which you have Broken, ELW 494)

The defense of which we will sing is not defense from an enemy, but for service. The kingdom for which we pray is not a stone fortress but a welcoming haven.

Come, sing with me,

Pastor JoAnn Post

Chew on This

Chew on This

Dear Friends,

“Why does anyone go to church anymore?”

Ongoing revelations about misconduct at a nearby mega-church, and stomach-churning reports of orchestrated abuse by priests in Pennsylvania prompted this question from a friend. The public face of the church of Jesus Christ is one of both anguished astonishment and intentional evil. I don’t even know how to think about this anymore.

When news of the so-called “priest scandal” first broke almost 20 years ago we were living in a predominately Roman Catholic town. It was so Catholic, in fact, that I once overheard a neighbor describe our neighborhood as “diverse” because “we even have Lutherans on our street.”  Gads!

My husband served on the archdiocese’s investigation and interview team—a significant and heartbreaking responsibility. The team heard stories from victims of clergy abuse, interviewed church leaders, and drafted new policy documents and press releases. The work was a burden of immeasurable weight. But, foolishly, I imagined the hard work was done. Everyone from local congregations to the Pope was taking action to root out the bad actors and protect children. How naïve I was to imagine the crisis was over, that nothing worse could be uncovered.

“Why does anyone go to church anymore?”

On Sunday we read the fourth of a five-part series of Jesus, Bread of Life texts in John. I lose patience with this series of lectionary texts—more bread? Really? But this Sunday’s gospel reading (John 6.51-58) could be “ripped from the headlines.”

Jesus’ Jewish hearers have grown increasingly agitated with him, but on Sunday they also turn on each other.  “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they snarl at one another.

Jesus presses the bread metaphor to offensive limits, “Unless you “trogo” my flesh . . .” The Greek word “trogo” translates not simply as “eat,” but as “chomp, chew, munch, crunch.” (Jesus’ followers would be accused of cannibalism because of this claim.)

This too-real Body of Christ—described simultaneously as bread and wine, flesh and blood— is not a theoretical construct, a philosophical exercise or a mind game. The Body of Christ is a physical reality that demands physical engagement. Jesus gets caught in our teeth, stuck in our craw, lodged under our fingernails. He offends and enrages us.

There’s more. The “Body of Christ” refers not only to Jesus’ body but ours, as well. We—the church of Jesus Christ—are the Body of Christ in the world.  That means that we who believe in Jesus have to contend with the physicality of the rest of the body, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our love for the rest of Christ’s body cannot be theoretical or spiritual. As Martin Luther wrote in 1521, “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners.”

Jesus’ Body is composed of real sinners who commit real sins, some of them criminal. As tempting as it is in these complicated times to turn our backs on those parts of the Body of Christ that cause egregious harm to others, we cannot. Though their odious actions get caught in our teeth and stick in our craw and lodge under our fingernails, we cannot disown them. They offend and enrage us. But they are part of us.

“Why does anyone go to church anymore?” It is an excellent question.

As you can tell, I am still grappling with these sorrows. So why do I go to church? Sometimes it is only because of you. When the hierarchy fails in its responsibilities, and my colleagues commit crimes, and congregations go rogue, and people I love wash their hands of God, and I wonder if my own work is nothing but a fool’s errand, I am strengthened by you.

I give thanks for your faithfulness to the Body of Christ, the sinful-yet-saved, flawed-yet-forgiven manifestation of Jesus’ dying love for the world. I give thanks for your faithfulness to this small outpost of the Body of Christ named Ascension. I am deeply grateful that you go to church anymore.

We have much to “trogo” together, much to grieve and much to celebrate. See you Sunday.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Strength for the Journey

Strength for the Journey

Dear Friends,

A friend and I were bemoaning a mutual friend’s messy life—a life complicated by both tough breaks and bad choices. In every arena of her life, her own questionable decisions compound circumstances that might otherwise be manageable.  A nice apartment was trashed by an “overnight guest” who stayed for a month. She loaned her car to an acquaintance who promptly wrecked it. Her job was jeopardized by chronic lateness—too many late nights dancing. A manageable health condition went rogue because she shared her medication with “friends” and didn’t get the proper doses herself.

She can’t seem to get out of her own way. Our circle of friends is as supportive as we can be, but we have limits. What more can we do? How do you protect someone from themselves?

Sunday marks the third week of a five-week lectionary series, “Jesus, Bread of Life.”  Though I should probably spend more time with the gospel readings in which Jesus speaks of himself as “bread,” my eye and mind keep wandering back to the Old Testament readings, some of which are hardly read in public worship. This week’s reading (1 Kings 19.4-8) is particularly poignant—Elijah, the prophetic protagonist, reminds me too much of my self-defeating friend.

A little context. God had given the prophet Elijah almost limitless power and authority. He was able to both cause a drought and then make it rain again (after three years). He sustained a woman and her son during the drought. He resuscitated a dead child. He challenged the priests of the god Baal to a fire-making contest and then slaughtered all of them without recourse. He challenged a wicked queen. Elijah was almost a force of nature—no one could overcome him. But Elijah could not get out of his own way. In spite of unmitigated success and a fearsome reputation, Elijah was in personal agony. He ran into the wilderness, and threw a tantrum: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” (Insert moping-face emoji here.)

It is interesting to me that God did not sympathize with Elijah, try to boost his spirits or improve his mood. God didn’t say, “O, Elijah, you know I love you best. You know you’re the best prophet. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Instead, God sent an angel to force-feed Elijah.  Why? Elijah was not done doing the work God needed him to do.  Rather than throwing a Pity Party for Elijah, God said, “O, get over yourself. Eat this; otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Elijah ate the small meal provided by the angel, dusted himself off and “went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights.”

Please join us Sunday as we study and consume Jesus, the Bread of Life. I’ll tell you more about Elijah, and the colossal kick-in-the-pants he got from God.

During worship we will bless our college-bound freshmen with these words:

May God bless your mind with curiosity and insight.

May God give you words of kindness and hope.

May God use your hands for service.

May God fill your heart with peace.

And, in the spirit of God’s impatient imperative to Elijah, we trust they will have courage to do the work placed before them—without fear, without self-pity, without self-defeating behaviors. I know—that’s a lot to ask.  But, like Elijah, God will give them what they need so the journey is not too much for them.

We all have days when we would prefer to sit alone and pout. We all make poor decisions now and then. But not today. Not in God’s service. Not when Jesus gives us bread to eat, strength for the journey.

I look forward to worshipping with you Sunday. And, if you are out-of-town and away from us, that God will give you strength for your journey.

Pastor JoAnn Post