Mended and Found

Mended and Found

Dear Friends,

All that is broken will be mended.

All that is lost will be found.

This is the refrain that sings in the heart of an elderly friend, who has suffered tremendous losses in his life.  Surviving disappointments and tragedies that would have ruined most of us, he is comforted by the thought that one day, perhaps not until his last day, all will be mended, all will be found.

I thought of him this week as we marked the 18th anniversary of the September 11 tragedy, a tragedy which shattered the lives of many whom we love.

I thought of him this week as I walked with a pastoral colleague who is considering early retirement from parish ministry—the last year has been so filled with death and trauma that he fears he can go on no longer.

I thought of him this week as I grieved with a friend whose parent died an untimely death.

I thought of him this week as I prepared for Sunday, and the Gospel promise that God searches for the lost until they are found. (Luke 15.1-10)  Though I have worked with this text for decades, I am always struck by the loving foolishness Jesus portrays in this pair of parables. You know the stories—99 obedient sheep are left to fend for themselves while the shepherd searches for one; 9 coins are left to gather dust while a frantic homeowner upends the whole house in search of one that rolled away.  (Don’t forget to look under the couch cushions.)

What foolishness.

A wise shepherd would never leave a whole herd unattended—better to lose one than allow his whole livelihood to wander off.

A frugal homeowner would never waste that much time in search of a single coin—time is money, after all.

But when it comes to loving us, God is neither wise nor frugal. God is relentless, tireless, expending enormous efforts to find the lost, to mend the broken. If you have never been lost or broken, you may mock such foolish love. You may imagine God has better things to do than chase after those who cannot seem to help themselves. But if you have ever been that frightened lamb, that tiny treasure, knowing that God will not rest until you are found may be the only hope you have.

We have so much for which to be grateful, in our own lives and in our congregation. If today is filled with joy for you, I pray that your joy spills over into the lives of all who are privileged to encounter you. And, if, like me, your heart is heavy with the sorrow for those you love, I offer you the wisdom of an old, faithful friend who is, himself, a weary sheep, a tarnished coin:

All that is broken will be mended.

All that is lost will be found.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Everyone Has a Price

Everyone Has a Price

Dear Friends,

“Is the priest in? I’d like to see him.” he asked our office manager.

She smiled and said, “No, I’m sorry. SHE’S in a meeting. Can I help you?”

He laid a realtor’s business card on her desk. “I represent a fast-growing Chicago congregation, looking for a new building on the North Shore. They’d like to buy your property. They have $4 million.”

She promised to share that information with me, and he drove further down the street—dropping his business card at every mosque, synagogue and sanctuary in the area.

Our office manager laughed when she told me about his query, assuming I’d laugh, too. I didn’t. Here’s why. To clear the air now: I’m not interested in selling our property. But all week I’d been working on Sunday’s gospel reading from Luke 14: hate your family; count the cost; give away all your possessions. Jesus’ expectations of disciples seem hypothetical and hyperbolic. Surely, he didn’t mean any of that.

But what if Jesus was serious? What if he really expected his disciples (and congregations) to give away all their earthly possessions and commitments in order to follow him freely, with open hands, unencumbered. And, to be honest, what congregation/mosque/synagogue doesn’t occasionally ponder giving it all away, freeing itself of utility bills and parking lot maintenance and snow removal and HVAC upgrades? Imagine the ministry we could do if we were free of that millstone.

I googled both the realtor and the congregation he claimed to represent. His story checked out. So, I called him. After all, what if this realtor was a gospel-bearing messenger, pressing us to consider how far we are willing to follow, how much we might give up if asked to do so; offering us an opportunity to be more faithful? Also, just two weeks ago the writer of Hebrews encouraged his congregation, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Perhaps he was an angel.

Our conversation indicated that he was not. (Unless angels are gravelly-voiced, impatient, humorless men with thick Eastern European accents.) But, he was serious. And so am I—from a theological perspective.

I shared this encounter with two different leadership groups later in the week, posing the possibility of selling our property simply as a thought problem, a theological exercise. In one case, before the words were out of my mouth, the response was “What? NO!” In another, people around the table started speculating about what our ministry might be like in another location or in another building or with no building at all.

Let me pose the question to you. If you had opportunity to let go the thing(s) that gets in the way of doing what you feel called to do, would you let it go? The soul-sucking job? The destructive relationship? The bad hip? The high-taxed house? The crushing debt? The lying-awake-anxiety? And, if you let it go, what would you do then? How would you follow? Where might Jesus lead you?

Please remember that on Sunday we are part of the ELCA’s churchwide “God’s Work Our Hands” Sunday. The morning begins with a Vitality Talk at 9:30, during which we will roll out a plan for thinking strategically about our ministry. Worship will be outside at 10 a.m.—casual, energetic. (Unless the great weather god Tom Skilling advises otherwise. Tuck a lawn chair or blanket in the trunk just to be ready.) After worship, we will treat you to an Indoor Picnic, and then move to three Service Projects—two for The Night Ministry (bake cookies!), and one with The Grove. Wear your canary God’s Work Our Hands shirt or another favorite t-shirt, and your most comfy jeans. It will be a grand day, no matter the weather.

Meanwhile, we ponder—hypothetically—giving it all away. Property. Family. Wealth. Work. Such pondering is a luxury. Because millions of people in the path of Hurricane Dorian have had that decision made for them. The devastation is unimaginable and crushing. So, in addition to your ongoing concern for the needs of the world, please consider making an extra financial gift to support the work of Lutheran Disaster Response. You may make a donation at www.elca.org or write a check to Ascension, memo “LDR” and we will forward your gift.

I wonder if the realtor looking for a ready-to-move-in church is having any luck? I wonder if some congregation will hear his offer and exclaim, “Yes! Our building is a burden to us!” I’ll let you know if soon we have new ministry neighbors.

See you Sunday. Rain or shine.

Pastor JoAnn Post

Loving the Kids’ Table

Loving the Kids’ Table

Dear Friends,

We called it The Kids’ Table, the assigned seats for children at large family gatherings. The Kids’ Table was stuck in a corner somewhere, where our shenanigans wouldn’t disturb the adults at their meal. When we kids were small, we ached to be finally released from The Kids’ Table, deemed old enough and responsible enough to be welcomed into polite company. But, now that I am rumored to be an adult, I often long to be seated at The Kids’ Table again. Being an adult isn’t all its cracked up to be.

Because of my husband’s work, I am often seated with him at the head table at seminary events.  It is a privilege, since, at the head table, we host the guests of honor, visiting scholars or diplomats, authors, artists, church leaders. But at such events, I sometimes sneak peaks back to the “cheap seats” where friends and colleagues enjoy the meal and one another’s company unencumbered by the responsibilities inherent in the head table.  Behaving can be such a bore.

Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 14.1, 7-14) finds Jesus at the head table at a Pharisee’s home. And he is anything but bored, or boring. True to form, Jesus was a terrible guest. Instead of politely passing the mashed potatoes, or listening raptly to his host’s long-winded stories, Jesus criticized both host and guests.

To the other guests who, apparently, desperately wanted to be seated with the adults. “Do not sit down at the places of honor in case someone more important than you has been invited and you get kicked down to the Kids’ Table.”

To his host, who prided himself on getting the feet of the city’s elites under his table: “Don’t invite those who will invite you in return. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, who can never repay or re-invite you.”

Like I said. Jesus is a terrible guest.

Jesus’ concern was not of the Miss Manners variety, ensuring proper use of cutlery and stemware. He worried that their atrophied meal practice—selfish, shoving, seeing-and-being-seen—revealed their atrophied faith. Perhaps they imagined they had to shove and butt and bully their way into God’s attention, without regard for those who had neither standing nor energy to fight their own way there.  Jesus preferred that they elevate the lowest guest to the highest table, and the more prestigious among them to the back of the room. This is, simply put, another verse of the song Mary sang when Jesus was conceived, “The poor will be lifted up and the rich will be tossed aside.” (Luke 1.46ff)

Imagine, instead of scrambling for seats at the head table, the Pharisees and their guests fought one another for places at The Kids’ Table. To paraphrase a former First Lady, “When they go high, we go low.” Biblically speaking.

Join me at the Kids Table?

Pastor JoAnn Post

Bent No More

Bent No More

Dear Friends,

I only knew my Grandma as an old, bent woman. Whether it was arthritis or osteoporosis or some other ailment, her posture was the same whether standing or sitting.  (Two of her sisters suffered the same.) From her post in her kitchen rocking chair, you would never know she was so terribly malformed. But when she stood, always with great effort, her back remained bent, her eyes necessarily trained on the floor. Because I had never known her any other way, I thought nothing of it, but now when I think of the serious limitations with which she lived, I wince. How much it must have hurt!

On Sunday, the gospel-writer Luke tells of a Sabbath healing.  He could have been writing about my Grandma. “And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up.” (Luke 13.1-17)

We’ll talk more about it on Sunday, but think about this. The Bent Woman was in synagogue in the sabbath. Whether approaching the women’s section to worship, or leaving it afterward, her posture was the same. Bent double. She did not see Jesus; she saw nothing but the tile floor under her feet. But Jesus saw her. And in spite of the fact that healing on the sabbath was a sin; in spite of the fact that the woman expressed no interest in being straightened; in spite of the fact that one more day of disability after eighteen years of pain would not have made a difference, Jesus called her out. He laid his hands on her and set her free. She stretched her no-longer-bent back, raised her eyes from the floor to heaven and shouted “Hallelujah!”

I think Jesus performed this healing on the sabbath just to irritate the synagogue leaders. They took the bait, yelling and carrying on about good sabbath practice. And the woman? The ensuing debate with synagogue leaders distracts us from the fact that we hear nothing more of her. She probably danced and sang all the way home, oblivious to the fact that her good fortune was just another nail in Jesus’ cross.

The last time Grandma made an appearance in public was in worship at my ordination almost 35 years ago. After the ordination, strong farmers carried her bent body down the narrow stairway of my home church, so she could be part of the reception in the church basement. I have a photo of her from that day, wearing a blue housedress with a red carnation on the collar. Shortly after that event she moved to the local care center, where she lived for another six years. When she died, after having been bed-ridden and blind for most of those years, those same strong farmers carried her casket from the church to the cemetery. When last I saw her, she was laying flat on her back in a modest oak casket, face raised toward heaven. She left worship that day straight and strong, like the woman in Sunday’s gospel. I imagine her now, dancing and singing with all the other saints who were freed from pain only in death.

When we emptied my parents’ home three years ago, I inherited Grandma’s wood rocker. The finish on the arms was rubbed off, the upholstered seat stained and sagging, a runner misshapen from her lopsided rocking. Though the rocker was unsightly and useless in its former condition, it was the way Grandma left it. It took all three years for me to muster the courage to turn that bedraggled chair over to a craftsman’s skilled hands. But just yesterday afternoon I retrieved Grandma’s chair from the shop and settled it in a place of honor in my home. It has now been made beautiful and strong again—just like her.

Jesus healed a woman “bent over and quite unable to stand up.” Many of us know what it is to be bent under burdens of body, heart or mind. Might it be possible that an encounter with Jesus would leave us dancing and singing, too?

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

Straddling the Gospel Divide

Straddling the Gospel Divide

Dear Friends,

The Continental Divide is a hard, mountainous spine running from the northern to southern borders of our country, the highest point of land from which, on both sides, “it’s all downhill from here.” The Continental Divide emerges from Canada on Montana’s northern border, running all the way to New Mexico and continuing south beyond the Rio Grande.  From the Divide, all rivers run down. It is a decisive structure, a clear geological demarcation, a feat to climb.

A friend once spoke of a decision that was his Continental Divide. A critical moment from which he could view the unchangeable “before” and the inevitable “after.”  Everything changed there on that hard platform, but he could not stay there. Nobody lives on that windy, rocky promontory—neither literally nor metaphorically.

On Sunday, our sister Eve straddles such a Divide. After two years of confirmation study and a lifetime of worship and service, she will stand before us to affirm her baptism. Eve is, at Ascension, in a class by herself. There are many students older than her and many younger, but, for some reason, not a single student shares her grade level. I am not surprised. Eve, though only 13 years old, is unique in every way—wise and thoughtful, courageous and honest. Her faith journey started at the baptismal font where her parents and sponsors promised to raise her in the faith. On Sunday, she claims those promises for herself, marking a clear “before” and a clear “after” in her pilgrimage. What will it be like for her, on the other side of the Divide?

I also noticed this week that, in lectionary-speak, we are at the Divide in Luke’s Gospel. (Luke 12. 49-56) The end of chapter 12 is the literary spine of Jesus’ ministry in Luke. What came before? Sweet things. Angels. Shepherds. Babies. Miracles. Sermons. But, straddling the Gospel Divide on Sunday, Jesus makes a claim that made his mother shudder. “I have come to bring fire. I have come to divide families—fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.”

What comes after, when he descends the hard spine of Luke’s witness? Challenges to his authority. A winnowing of his entourage. Not-very-subtle parables about the pitfalls of wealth and pride and power. Betrayal. Suffering. You know the rest.

For those who imagine following Jesus guarantees a life of ease and agreement, sunshine and puppies, the rocky peak of Luke’s gospel is a hard thwump upside the head. As Lutherans, we don’t espouse decisional theology—the belief that we need to decide where we stand with God for the sake of salvation. After all, salvation belongs to God; not to us.

Instead, we are asked to make the decision Eve has made. We are asked to choose a path through life that includes (to paraphrase the Affirmation of Baptism liturgy): life among God’s people, regular worship and participation in the Lord’s Supper, proclamation of good news, service to all people, a thirst for justice and peace. That’s a tall order for any disciple, no matter her age.

Unlike the Continental Divide, a singular geographical feature discernible from outer space, our lives of faith place us on many narrow paths, and at many decisive moments. Some enormous, others less dramatic. But Jesus’ disciples do not meander; they march. With purpose, with compassion, with the hand of other disciples clutched in our own.

Before I close, please be reminded that we are preparing for the start of the program year at Ascension. It opens with Fiesta! on Saturday, August 24. Tickets are on sale Sunday. It will be a blast. (When was the last time you took a whack at a piñata?) We are also signing up for God’s Work Our Hands projects on Sunday, September 8. Enjoy these last lazy summer days—we have wonderful work to do when you return.

Where was I? O, yes. Standing on the Gospel Divide of Luke with Jesus and Eve and You. I leave you with the prayer we will pray over Eve’s head Sunday, a prayer that summarizes the life God desires for us, the life the disciple chooses. Perhaps you could lay hands on one you love or embrace yourself with this Continental Divide of a prayer today:

Father in heaven, for Jesus’ sake,

stir up in Eve the gift of your Holy Spirit.

Confirm her faith.

Guide her life.

Empower her in her serving.

Give her patience in suffering.

Bring her to everlasting life. Amen.

(ELW Affirmation of Baptism liturgy)

Pastor JoAnn Post

All of Us, Strangers and Foreigners

All of Us, Strangers and Foreigners

Dear Friends,

The events happened almost simultaneously, though not by design.

At noon Wednesday, voting members and church leaders at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee marched to the headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to support pro-immigration policies.

Also on Wednesday, Homeland Security agents executed warrants and arrests of 680 employees of Mississippi food processing plants. These raids were part of a long-standing strategy to identify and deport persons working in the U.S. without proper documentation.

Also on Wednesday, in our own sanctuary packed with mourners, we read God’s promise to immigrants, refugees and exiles 5,000 years ago, “Do not be afraid. I am with you. I know you each by name. I will bring you home.” (Isaiah 43)

In locations miles and time zones apart, independent of one another, our eyes, our actions, our words were all about the Other. And, to add to the images with which we grapple, the writer of Hebrews in Sunday’s epistle reading writes regarding our ancestor Abraham: “He was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance, though he did not know where he was going.” (Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16)

Sometimes we forget, but even Abraham and Sarah, patriarch and matriarch of the faith, wandered in search of a home.

Questions about the “Other” have occupied us from the very beginning of human community. Whom do we trust? Who belongs here? How do we treat the stranger? What if the stranger is me?

Two of Sunday’s appointed readings open with the ominous, “Do not be afraid.” Those words always strike fear in my heart—we would not be waved away from fear if there was nothing to fear.

First we read of Abram whom God chided for doubting the promise of progeny. (Genesis 15.1-6) When God said, “Your reward shall be very great,” Abraham responded, “Really? Why would I believe that?” (translation mine)

The gospel reading opens with a similar admonition to be fearless. (Luke 12.32-40) What was it that Jesus’ disciple feared? They were afraid that Jesus’ promises were vapid, that the promised kingdom of God was a myth, that if they left everything behind to follow him they would be left bereft.

As a churchwide body, as a nation, as a congregation we wonder about the “Other.” And if, for a moment, we were able to put aside our assumptions about those with whom we disagree and looked honestly, faithfully at the biblical witness, we might discover that we share one thing in common. All of us are afraid. Afraid of being displaced. Afraid of being alone. Afraid of being abused. Afraid that we will be named “Other” by someone else. Afraid to acknowledge (again to quote the Hebrews text), “that we are strangers and foreigners on earth.”

Please join us Sunday at 9:30 a.m. when ELCA Churchwide Assembly voting member Vicar Julie Grafe and LSTC President James Nieman, both of whom participated in the march in Milwaukee, recap all the actions and discussions at the Assembly. Elections. Policies and Social Statements. Worship. Actions.

We re-convene in the Sanctuary at 10 a.m., where most recently we sang one of God’s saints into glory, to imagine the ancient Other, the contemporary Other, to put ourselves in the place of Jesus’ frightened followers who swallowed their fear of the stranger in order to serve them.

All over the ELCA, all over the country, all over the world, people are marching and praying and imagining the day when all refugees have a home, all orphans are loved, all disciples put aside our fear to follow, even if we don’t know where we are going.

Pastor JoAnn Post

 

 

 

 

Bigger Barns or Bigger Hearts

Bigger Barns or Bigger Hearts

Dear Friends,

It’s been three weeks since we’ve seen each other, you and I. I’d hoped to return with stories of lodging in Canadian towns with cool names like Moose Jaw, hiking in Banff, watching the sunset over Puget Sound, discovering some of my husband’s family history in Eastern Washington, catching up with friends and family from here to the West Coast and back. Instead, after only one day on the road, our trip was interrupted by the unexpected death of my mother.

So, after three weeks away, I return to you instead with stories of kindness and comfort, of love and gratitude, of hundreds of miles driven with tears in my eyes. Though the reality of Mom’s death will continue to unfold, and my new identity as a “middle-aged orphan” still doesn’t fit, I find myself remarkably grateful and at peace. There were, between Mom and me, no words left unsaid, no kindness withheld, no unfinished business. Her life was full; her death was peaceful.

I learned, again, that death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. A life that is pointless or angry or selfish or torturous is far worse. And, mercifully, not my experience.

Sunday’s preaching texts are only now rattling around in my brain, so all I can do at this point is direct them to you for your own preparation. Please read Ecclesiastes 1.2, 12-14, 2.18-23, Colossians 3.1-11, and Luke 12.13-21. On a first read, I’m noticing how the Old Testament and Gospel readings dovetail with my own recent experience about finding meaning in life—and in death. The writer of Ecclesiastes laments that life is ephemeral, vaporous, vain. The rich farmer in Luke’s parable imagines the goal of his life to be bigger barns. Join us for worship Sunday, to find out how these rich images, these hard questions come to life for us.

A few opportunities in our common life:

ELCA Churchwide Assembly Preview, Sunday, 9:30 a.m.

Vicar Julie Grafe and LSTC President James Nieman, who will attend the Assembly August 5-10 in Milwaukee, provide an overview of the business, challenges and opportunities that lie before our national body. They will provide a Review of the Assembly next Sunday.

“The Public,” Northbrook Public Library, Saturday, August 10, 2 and 7 p.m.

We have been waiting for this feature-length film to get to our area. “The Public,” directed by Emilio Estevez, is a film about the “occupation” of the Cincinnati Public Library by homeless persons during a cold snap. Please call the church office to let us know if you can join a group of us from Ascension (cost is free; reservations required). We might find a place for beverage and discussion afterward.

Fiesta!, Saturday, August 24, 5 -9 p.m.

Tickets are on sale for a festive gathering at the end of summer. We will spend time with Vicar Julie Grafe and her husband, Luther Grafe, enjoy Mexican food and beverage, play games, and raise money for new Fellowship Hall Furniture.

I am eager to see you again, after these weeks apart. Please join us Sunday.

Pastor JoAnn Post