Sunday, February 4, 2018

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Stories of light and hope in dark times

Epiphany 5: Lifted up by God
Mark 1:29-39
Isaiah 40:21-30

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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Phil Kniss: Buried dreams, risen hope (meditation for Sandy Wenger licensing)

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Not sure who chose the “Red Sea Road” song 
for Maria and Christopher to sing,
but it was a new one for me,
so I read through the lyrics earlier this week.
I was struck by the song-writers’ provocative phrase
that “we buried our dreams,
but we won’t bury hope.”
And I wondered, how can our dreams lie dead in the ground,
but hope remain alive?

“Hopes and dreams” are words we often use as a pair,
inseparable,
interchangable.
“What are your hopes and dreams for the next ten years?”

This song says that we lay our dreams in the grave,
and leave them lying deep in the earth behind us,
as we walk down the road that lies ahead of us.
And that road is a Red Sea road,
a seemingly impassable road,
that we can’t see the way through, the way across.
But God asks us to trust that God will part the waves,
that we hold on to hope that a way will be found—
never walking alone, always with others—
crossing on the Red Sea Road.

I wonder . . . is the difference between dreams and hope,
where they come from?

Our culture promotes the idea of following our dreams.
There is an assumption that somewhere in our gut,
there are dreams that sometimes get released,
and come to the level of consciousness.
Maybe while we sleep, a dream comes to us,
and we pay attention to it.
Maybe while we are wide awake, out in nature, or the arts,
or immersed in Beethoven’s 9th,
as I was this afternoon.
Sometimes we just get seized by a dream,
a vision of some possible new thing,
and we are drawn toward it.

Now, if “following your dream” is the ultimate good,
then a dream is all you need.
A clear vision, a motivational impulse,
and you go for it, pursuing it with everything you have.

But . . . for us, who confess Christ as Lord,
there is another level of discernment that needs to happen,
before we start the chase.
Before we follow dreams, we are called to follow Jesus.
We are given a pattern for life from our Creator.
Not meaning everything is laid out for us,
or that there is only and ever one right choice.
No.
The pattern is dynamic, and rooted in love.
There is always freedom to choose,
to exercise the creative impulse that is the image of God in us.

But . . . we are not on our own to figure out what our dream is.
We are given a framework.
As in Psalm 139 which we heard today.
Our Creator shaped and formed us, from our mother’s womb,
we were “fearfully and wonderfully made.”
The psalmist said that “God’s eyes saw our unformed body,
and all our days were ordained for us.”

There is a God of love and purpose behind all of this.
When our dreams align with the purposes of God in creation,
then they are no longer mere dreams.
They become hope.

Dreams, that over time are openly examined and discerned,
and found to be part of God’s intentions for us,
become hope.
And we will not, we cannot, bury hope.

Dreams can emerge from all kinds of places.
Gut feelings.
Emotional highs.
Fleeting experiences.
Even cultural and material pressures.
We can have our “dream home” or “dream vacation”
or “dream job.”
Not all dreams are bad, necessarily.
But not all can be achieved.
And not all come from the place of God’s best intention.

Mere dreams can, and must, eventually die and be buried,
and be left behind as we journey on.
But hope we carry with us, and treasure, and hold,
especially when we encounter a Red Sea.
_____________________

Another way of talking about God’s dream for us,
is with this tree metaphor you chose, Sandy,
as the guiding image for this service.

In the very DNA of the tiny seed that is planted in the ground,
is embedded God’s dream, or God’s hope, for our lives.
There is a pattern established in that seed
that guides how that tree grows and develops,
what it becomes.
But identical seeds don’t produce identical trees.
There are many factors that shape what a tree becomes.
The soil in which it is planted.
The climate.
The storms of life that bend and break and injure.
External disease or attack by insect or animal or human.

Same with us.
We hold on to God’s hope for our lives,
by tending to the health of the tree,
by pruning, by amending the soil, 
by protecting the roots from damage.

Tending to the health of a tree is not a solo act.
It’s a collaboration, a partnership.
There is reciprocity.
The parts of a tree are in dynamic mutual relationship
with each other, and with their environment.

Think about the recent mudslides in California.
On those hills and mountainsides, 
the roots of the trees and undergrowth
drew from the soil,
depended on the soil for growth and well-being.
But the soil also depended on that vegetation,
for its own structure and stability and survival.

And all was well until the wildfires.
But after fire consumed the vegetation,
the earth could not hold up when the rains came.
Everything gave way,
leaving destruction in its path.

Jeremiah 17 promises blessing to
“the one who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Yahweh.”
That one will be like a tree planted by the water
that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
its leaves are always green.”

Life and strength come from healthy reciprocity.
As Romans 11 put it,
“if the root is holy, so are the branches.”

Sandy, if you are the tree in this metaphor,
remember that you do not stand alone.

Your licensing today is not about you being 
called out from this community of faith, 
in some way that separates you from it. 
You are being called more deeply into community.

God’s work in this world, above all,
is forming and empowering a people 
to live in this world in a different way, 
to bring about God’s divine purposes in the world, 
to be a healing, saving, and reconciling people, 
in the way that God is a healing, saving, and reconciling God. 

So Sandy, your work as a spiritual director, teacher, mentor, 
is ultimately the work of leading
in the spiritual formation of a people. 
Yes, you will focus your ministry of presence, often, 
on one person at a time. 
But your vocation, as a minister in the context of the church, 
is to bring the resources of the Christian church 
to bear into each individual situation. 
It is to help each one find their place 
in a community of followers of Jesus,
and thus to fulfill their calling as a Christian in community.
You are helping trees discover their place in the forest.

If you expend all your spiritual and emotional energy
taking care of individuals in isolation from each other, 
you might be acting as a good personal coach,
caregiver, counselor, or chaplain,
but you won’t be fulfilling your calling
as a minister of the Gospel serving the people of God.

And you won’t be able to fulfill your vocation,
if this licensing credential somehow sets you apart from this people,
as someone special,
or having a higher calling than other disciples of Christ.

You will be an effective minister
by being an exemplary disciple of Jesus yourself,
and inviting others to join you on the journey.

That means knowing your boundaries and limitations as a human being,
and embracing those boundaries as a gift,
even if some persons you work with
might wish you could be a little bit super-human 
and wave a spiritual wand 
and make their struggles disappear. 

Embracing your humanity as a minister, 
means placing your own walk with Christ 
as the first order of business.
It means taking care of the roots, 
so the roots can take care of you.

May you have the grace and courage to do so.
God bless you.

—Phil Kniss, January 28, 2018

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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Caleb Schrock-Hurst: The Multifaceted Call: Jonah After Jesus

Epiphany 3: Called by God
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Phil Kniss: The searching and finding God

Epiphany 2: Known by God
Psalm 139
John 1:43-51

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One of my favorite psalms, as long as I can remember,
is the one that begins with these words—
“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.”
For some reason, even as a child, and an adolescent,
I found those words greatly comforting, and encouraging.

The going message, for Christian young people,
in the evangelical waters I often swam in
during the 60s and 70s,
also emphasized this all-knowing characteristic of God,
but it was a message tinged with fear and dread.
As in, God knows your every thought and deed,
so . . . look out.

In contrast, this psalm’s particular angle,
on God’s all-knowing, pursuing nature,
was a deep comfort to me.

In the Bibles I read and marked in during my teenage years,
Psalm 139 was heavily marked with highlighting and underlining.
During my young adult years,
one of things I was known for among my friends,
was playing guitar and writing worship songs—
you didn’t know that about me, did you?
I remember putting almost the entire text of Psalm 139 to music.
That music still rolls around in my head
whenever this Psalm is read, as it was this morning.
_____________________

So what are we saying, really,
when we say God searches us?
pursues us?
knows us?

That image of God as pursuer strikes me as potentially
being a little unsettling,
maybe even off-putting,
at the very least complicated.

In human experience, we are generally not comforted
when someone who has infinitely more power than us,
knows every move we make,
sees every place we go,
even seems to read our minds.
Are we saying God is a like a cosmic stalker, only a good one?
The psalmist describes it this way.
“Everywhere I try to go to get away,
guess who shows up?
If I fly up into the sky, there you are!
If I go down to the depths of the earth, there again!
If I go to the other side of the ocean . . . hello!!
Where can I go from your presence?”

Those are images that could conjure up fear in us.
But clearly, for the psalmist, these are images of comfort.

“You know me, Lord. Ah . . . you know me.
You knew me while I was being formed in my mothers’ womb.
You know me when I lay down, and when I get up.
You know my thoughts.
You know my ways.
You know me.
And . . . you love me.

That makes all the difference.
Love is the reason for the search.
Love compels God to search and find and know.

Love compels us to know.
In a real way, this is what all of us are doing.
In any good, healthy, and close relationship,
we seek to know the other.
And we seek one who will know us.

In the psalm,
God was not pursuing the psalmist to the other side of the sea,
to prove to him, in some sick way,
that you can run, but you can’t hide!
I’ll always come after you, and find you, so beware!
No! This is a picture of a God pursuing in love.
God wants to be with the psalmist.
This is an Old Testament image of Emmanuel,
the incarnate God-with-us,
that we know in Jesus.
This is love personified.

I think that’s why I was so drawn to this psalm from my youth.
As many young people do,
I went through a stage (actually, stages)
where I was a bit confused about who I was.
I wasn’t sure I knew myself very well,
which, of course, makes it difficult to love yourself.
So especially in those seasons of self-doubt, of uncertainty,
of not being clear on which direction my life needed to go,
up to the skies?
into the depths?
to the other side of the ocean?
especially in those seasons of turmoil,
it was a comfort to open this psalm
and see that wherever I went,
God would already be there,
knowing me, and loving me.
Wow!
_____________________

This is the same sort of thing going on in today’s Gospel reading,
where Jesus called Philip and Nathanael to be his disciples.
Great story!

The key moment in this story, in my mind,
is Nathanael’s first face-to-face encounter with Jesus.
Philip was first called to follow Jesus,
then Philip went and got Nathanael,
and told him, “You’ve got to see this!
We have found the one!
Jesus of Nazareth.”
Nathanael was skeptical, hearing Jesus was from Nazareth!
But he went, at Philip’s urging.

And when Nathanael approached Jesus, this was the interchange:
Jesus: “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
Nathanael: “How do you know me?”
Jesus: “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree 
before Philip called you.”
Nathanael: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; 
you are the king of Israel.”
Jesus: “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree.
You will see greater things than that.”

These Gospel stories are collected and told
so we get a glimpse into the person of Jesus
and the nature of the Good News of God’s Kingdom.
I used to think this was a story about
Jesus’ miraculous telepathic powers,
to see Nathanael sitting under a fig tree far away.
But that’s not the point of the story, it seems to me.
In this story we see that even before
Nathanael started his journey as a disciple of Jesus,
Jesus knew him and loved him.
Jesus recognized him as a person of integrity,
someone in whom “there is no deceit.”
It’s a picture of God’s pursuing love and knowledge of us,
that God, in Christ, knows and loves us,
even before we know and love ourselves.
It’s demonstrated here in the earthly ministry of Jesus,
but it’s also an eternal part of God’s nature,
still present with us by the Holy Spirit.
_____________________

Both texts this morning underscore this reality.
God searches and finds, always,
in order to show us the depth of love God has for us.
We could say that God is the “hound of heaven,”
as the English poet Francis Thompson put it.
And that’s okay, as long as we don’t distort the metaphor.
Because God does not track us down,
like a bloodhound leading a troop of officers,
in order to catch the criminal and lay down the law.
God pursues us in order to be with us, Emmanuel,
because God loves us and longs for our company.
God may be more like a beloved pet hound,
who will do anything to find us and be with us
if we happen to wander away.

This picture of God is Good News for us today,
not only because of the benefit we ourselves receive
from a relationship with a searching and finding and loving God.

It’s also Good News because the picture is instructive for us.
It gives us a picture to model ourselves after.
It teaches us what authentic love looks like.
It gives us a glimpse into how we are to love God.
How we are to love our neighbor.
How we are to love ourselves.
How we are to love our enemies.

God’s love is persistent, just as ours should be.
We don’t give up the search
upon our first failure to find.
Just because what we were looking for,
didn’t show up where we thought it should be,
is no reason to stop looking.

And God’s searching pursuit of knowledge of us,
is not to condemn us,
but to bring us a full and rich life.
That way of loving is a model for how we might love.
We don’t try to get close to others,
and learn what makes them tick,
in order to advance our own interests.
That’s very easy to do, by the way.
And something we are all guilty of from time to time.

When we are trying to establish ourselves and our position,
or the legitimacy of our beliefs,
if we are trying to pursue an agenda,
or solidify our own reputation,
we are often tempted to use other people to accomplish that.

This can be true for both our friends and adversaries.
By gaining more knowledge of and about them,
we can make our friends
instruments of our own agenda,
and in the case of our adversaries,
we can use the dirt we find on them
to bolster our own position in the eyes of others.
We all are prone to do this.

It’s easy to see when others are doing it.
It’s glaringly easy to see when it happens in the political arena,
like it does nearly every moment of every day.
That’s the way the political game works.
Using knowledge to gain a political advantage.

But we are also guilty of using others in this way—
in the workplace,
in our neighborhood,
in our church,
in our families, and yes,
even in our marriages and other intimate relationships.

There, the pure pursuit of knowledge has been corrupted.
When we use our knowledge
to set ourselves above and apart from others—
we are not embodying the love of our all-knowing God.

But love modeled after the searching, finding, knowing God
that we see in Psalm 139,
is a love that pursues entirely for sake of the other.
It is a pure love, because it comes from God.
And that kind of unconditional and other-directed love
will elicit in the other a more generous response,
than anything we could ever manipulate from them.
One who is loved in this way,
is more likely to open themselves to us, in return.

We see that very thing unfold at the end of Psalm 139.
After reflecting on all these ways that God was pursuing him,
the psalmist concludes by saying to God,
“I’m yours! I’m all in, as I am.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”

That’s what God was after from the start.
That kind of vulnerability and receptivity.
That response was not coerced. It was invited.
And God’s loving pursuit brought it out of him.

This is the kind of knowledge contained in a song
that we have learned to love to sing at this church.
Turn to STS 121.
We’re going to sing it in a minute.

This song and today’s scriptures, articulate a view of God
that stands in contrast to two other popular views of God—
distorted views, in my opinion.

One view, that many hold,
is that God manages and controls every happening in our world.
That God sits at a big control panel in the sky, pulling switches,
causing . . . every circumstance people face in life.

The other popular view, the opposite one,
is that God is aloof, and unknowing, and uncaring.
That if anything good happens in the world,
it is purely by our human good will and good effort.
That if God was the original Creator,
now things are just taking their course,
with God watching from far away, if at all.
That God is a force or energy field, not a loving being,
interested and active in the world today.

This song, and Psalm 139, dispute both those views, powerfully

Nothing is lost on the breath of God . . .
no suffering, large or small, goes unnoticed.
No, God is not directing every feather and grain of dust,
causing every impulse of every creature,
making things begin too late, or end too soon.
But nothing is lost on God.
God knows, sees, loves,
no matter what happens in life, large or small . . .
God’s breath is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world forever.

Look at the end of the third verse.
This one pulls some people up short, because it is misread.
Some things do begin too late.
Some lives do end too soon.
This song does not say God pulled a switch too soon, or too late.
No, it says God knows, sees, and loves, in those situations.

There is no premature or tragic death,
but is gathered by God . . . and known.
God sees with love, and that love will remain.
God’s heart is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world, holding us,
no matter what.

Nothing is lost on the God
who searches, who finds, who sees, who knows, who loves.
We can be certain of that.

—Phil Kniss, January 14, 2018

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Sunday, January 7, 2018

Phil Kniss: The glory slowly rises

Epiphany: We have observed, and we have come to worship
Psalm 72:1, 2, 11-14
Matthew 2:1-12

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I can count on one hand
the number of New Years resolutions I’ve made,
my entire adult life.
I don’t remember the last one.
I may not make another.

Not saying everyone should be this cynical about resolutions.
But I know myself too well.
I try too hard already.

Don’t know whether to blame my inherent personality,
or my action-oriented duty-bound Mennonite upbringing.
But I can make a list of resolutions
blind-folded with one hand tied behind my back.
By nature, I’m a responsible do-er.

Every personality profile I’ve filled out, agrees.
In Myers-Briggs, I’m a J.
In the DISC profile, I’m a C.
In the Enneagram, I’m a 6.
I’m responsible, loyal, conscientious.
I’m a good Mennonite perfectionist
who finds it easy to identify things to work harder on.
Resolutions are a year-round activity.
I don’t need to turn a page in the calendar
to think of ways to do more and better.

But if that’s not your problem, by all means,
make some New Years resolutions.
But for me, and persons like me,
Christmas and Epiphany are a great reality check,
in the other direction.
_____________________

See, the main characters in these stories, the heroes we honor,
are not the ones who tried harder.
They were not the ones with the most daring New Year’s resolutions.

They just happened to have their eyes open when God showed up.
God chose them for important work,
not for being ambitious, but being attentive;
not for being obsessive, but being observant.

Mary did not make a New Years resolution
to be the mother of God.
Giving birth to a baby who would change the world,
was not on her list of things to do in the year 0 A.D.
God chose Mary because
her heart was open enough to notice the angel, and
her mind was open enough to believe him.

The Bible says nothing—zero—about Mary being dazzled by the angel.
The angel, and the message,
may well have been easy to miss.

Some of you saw the play DoveTales last month at EMU—
a remake of the original by Ted and Lee and Ingrid.
I love it that in the play,
Mary mistakes Gabriel for the plumber.
Even after Gabriel’s repeated urgent pleas,
insisting he’s an angel with a message,
she still thinks he’s there to fix their leaky pipe.

If an angel is someone with a message from God—
which is the literal meaning of the word angel, messenger—
then I suspect we have encountered more than one angel
in the form of a plumber, a teacher, a nurse, a barista,
a homeless neighbor, an immigrant.
And we may, or may not,
have realized what God was trying to get through to us.

Now, the shepherds in the story—they got the full song and dance.
But they deserved a spectacle!
Shepherds were usually the last to know anything important.

But they were the only ones.
Even the magi—those mysterious Eastern aristocrats
whose story is our focus on Epiphany—
even they did not get a spectacular heavenly light show.
Forget those pictures on your Christmas cards.
And for the moment,
ignore the picture I chose for the bulletin cover today,
and the one hanging from our banner.
The Christmas star was not a huge bright diamond-shaped
body of light with a long tail, hovering near the earth,
it was not “a star, a star dancing in the night . . .
with its tail as big as a kite.”

Those are stylized images,
and represent pure fiction.
It’s good fiction. I’m not knocking it.
Like the song I just sang from, “Do you hear what I hear?”
It’s a song for peace, written during the Cuban missile crisis.
A New York City couple wrote it together
as a response to their real dread of imminent nuclear war.
It’s a perfect juxtaposition
of the image of nuclear missile streaking across the sky,
and the Christmas star with an even bigger tail,
carrying a message of peace.
Great song. And we should listen to it again today,
with all the nuclear saber-rattling going on.
In fact, after we dismiss this morning,
I asked the sound crew to play a version I like,
so listen as you chat and walk out.

Yes, some images and traditions are pure legend,
but worth holding on to.
They represent a different kind of truth.

Having said that,
we still ought to know the more realistic scenario.
The trek of magi across deserts in search of a king,
after seeing a star,
is actually not a fantastical story.
To make such a trek would not be an irrational act on their part,
given their profession,
and the dominant world view at the time.
It made sense.

So let’s break down this so-called “Three Kings” story.
Of course, they were neither kings, nor three.
They were eastern astrologers,
and there could have been 2 of them, or 20.

They lived in a culture that believed, as fact,
that there were many gods in the heavens,
controlling earthly events.
So it only makes sense that there would be
a whole intellectual body of knowledge about this,
and a group of people whose profession in life
was watching the heavens for signs.
If gods up in the skies manipulated events on earth,
then it made rational sense to study the skies
for signs of what might be about to unfold on the earth.

I’m not arguing this story is historic or scientific fact,
as we understand science and history today.
That’s a different question, and not very interesting.
What I’m saying, is Matthew was not spinning a fantastic fairy-tale
for the fun of it.
This is a rational story within the larger story of Jesus.

The main characters
were real, educated, and visionary people
who lived outside the culture and religion of Judaism.
They were observant, foreign intellectuals,
who worked the night shift, studying stars and constellations,
looking for something new or unusual.

Their journey of thousands of miles on camel-back was a big deal.
But it was not surprising, to people familiar with their body of work.
Making the trip made sense in their world.
There was a connection between rising stars and royal birth.
This was a sign from the gods that needed investigation.

The magi made it their life’s work, to look for light,
to be expectant and observant for signs of the Divine.
So they noticed the star when it appeared,
probably a small blip in the sky that few other people saw.
They examined the body of knowledge available to them,
and when their own knowledge reached its limits,
they made a choice to look deeper.
They set out on a journey toward the unknown,
to see for themselves whether the sign in the skies
matched any events on the ground.
This was nothing spectacular and magical.
The magi aren’t in the story because their experience is so other-worldly.
It’s found in Matthew 2, because it’s part of the Gospel.
It’s a piece of the Good News for us readers.
Matthew assumes we will connect with it, personally.

The wise men earned a spot in this sacred story by being observant.
At least, that’s what Matthew 2:2 says.
“We observed his star at its rising,
and have come to pay him homage.”
“We observed . . . and we came to worship.”
_____________________

Almost everyone can see.
Not nearly as many . . . observe.
It’s possible that others back east also saw the star.
But only a few observed it.
Observing goes beyond seeing.
To observe, is to engage in active watching.
When we observe, we are attentive, expectant, reflective.
We wonder why.
We explore the reality behind the visible.

I suggest that the best way to begin a new year,
is to adopt the posture of these persons in the Christmas story.
Not make a long list of ways to try harder to be a better person.
But to decide to be more observant.

I can’t remember a year
when the power of observation was more important,
than this year, when the world is in such great turmoil.
Believe it or don’t believe it,
but our faith declares it true.
God is doing things in this broken world.
God’s saving grace is pouring down, even now.
God’s light is breaking out all over.
How many of us are able to observe it?

God is not threatened by evildoers in our world.
God will not suffer defeat at the hands of worldly powers.
If that is true, as our faith declares,
there is good reason to be observant.
Because what we see in this world,
is not all there is in this world.

As the prophet Isaiah said in today’s reading,
“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”
God’s glory that rises may not be blazing glory.
It may not immediately capture our attention.
Like a sunrise on a foggy morning,
the glory slowly rises.
We barely perceive its arrival.
But light is still there, just as real,
just as sure as when it comes in spectacular fashion.

God is still about hope, healing, and salvation.
But we have to observe, and open ourselves to it.
Like the shepherds and wise men,
we who witness signs of the grace of God,
will need to act on those signs,
to set out on a long journey with only some of the facts,
but a wide open heart.
And then bow down to the one who rules all,
and pay homage,
and worship.
_____________________

That’s why we celebrate the Lord’s supper again today,
on this first worship service of 2018.
We begin the year recognizing, and receiving God’s gift of grace,
and pondering what it means for us, here and now.

This is a table of grace,
spread with the bread and cup of God’s grace,
given to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s not an overwhelming or spectacular table.
It’s sparse and simple.
But it’s as real as any overflowing buffet
you may have eaten at over the holidays.

This morning we invite you to the table not only to taste and see,
but to observe more deeply,
to contemplate on it, reflect on it.

So as we begin . . . hear these words of scripture, from Matt. 26
26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

—Phil Kniss, January 7, 2018

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