Sunday, May 15, 2016

Phil Kniss: The rearranged life

Pentecost: The Spirit Transforms
Acts 2:1-21; John 14:12-17

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

Full disclosure, before I launch into this Pentecost sermon . . .
    This is not my favorite day in the Christian calendar.

Of all the Christian holy days,
    Pentecost is not one
        I always look forward to with joy and an open heart.

Advent and Christmas? Certainly. Always.
Lent and Easter? By all means.
Even the darker days in the Christian calendar,
    like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday,
    are compelling to me, and have a natural appeal.
    Their goodness is immediately apparent.
    Their themes of forgiveness, reconciliation,
        hope and resurrection in the face of suffering!
    Who doesn’t welcome all that?

Not so, Pentecost.
    Pentecost, I have decided, is not for the faint of heart.
    And sometimes, I admit, I’m a little faint of heart.

Pentecost is not for those who want their Christian faith
    to always be a comfort,
    to always have their way of seeing things be reinforced,
    their way of living supported,
    their priorities underwritten,
    their agenda signed off on.

Pentecost is a day that can only be fully embraced
    by Christians who are ready to have their lives rearranged.

If we are going to take the work of the Holy Spirit seriously
    (and I think we should),
    then hang on for dear life!
    Our lives are about to be rearranged.

Now, if you resist this idea, I don’t blame you.
    As I said, that’s my posture, 99% of the time.
    I confess, when it comes to the Spirit,
        much of the time I’m in the resistance mode.
    No, I don’t deliberately say to the Spirit, “Get lost”
        I don’t consciously choose to say “no.”
        It’s just that I spend a good deal of energy and time
            arranging my life.
        Why would I want someone outside of my control
            to re-arrange my life, according to their liking?

Well, I’m about to help us explore that together,
    to help convince you, and convince me, for that matter,
    that we ought to submit our lives for rearranging.
    To do that, we need to examine what the Holy Spirit’s job is,
        the job given to the Spirit by the Triune God.

But before I do that,
    let me give you something to do.
    Listen to the Spirit, as you are listening to me.
    Ponder this question,
        as your mind moves back and forth
        between my words and your thoughts.
    Ask yourself if there has been a time
        when your life was rearranged,
            transformed by the Holy Spirit.

Maybe you didn’t know it at the time,
    but looking back, you can see the Spirit of God,
        the breath of God,
    breathing into you new life, transformed life, rearranged life.

A few of you will have a chance to share that experience with us.
    Because I’m going to invite you to do so,
        at the end of my sermon, as the Spirit leads.
    I’ll invite you to give brief testimony,
        about how the Spirit rearranged
        your thinking, your commitments, your relationships, your life.

So what does transformation by the Holy Spirit look like?
    How can you tell it’s the Spirit?
    Obviously, each story will be different.
    The Holy Spirit’s work is, by necessity,
        shaped by the context, culture, occasion, and person.

    Clearly, the events in Acts 2 are particular
        to what needed to happen in that context,
        as thousands of Jews gathered from around the world
            for a religious festival,
            right after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
        The Spirit enabled Peter’s sermon
            about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection,
            to be heard in everyone’s native language.
        And the Spirit gave them all a convincing experience,
            of seeing flames and hearing wind.

        Throughout the book of Acts,
            there were many different manifestations of the Spirit,
            each one suited to the context and people.

    Today, the Spirit is still at work.
    But we know a movement of the Spirit in an East African village,
        looks different than it does in an Amish community,
            or on the streets of Chicago,
            or in the halls of Congress.
        If the Spirit is the continuing presence of God among us,
            then God is in all of those places, and more.
            But the manifestations will be different.

    But I wonder, is there still a defining characteristic . . .
        a common thread that runs through
            everything the Spirit does,
            everywhere the Spirit shows up?
        Is there an identifying mark that will help us attribute
            some activity to the Holy Spirit,
            or are we completely on our own to decide?
        If it feels like the Spirit, do we just call it the Spirit,
            and leave it at that?

    Well, let me assert, there is an identifying mark.
        We aren’t left entirely on our own to decide,
            or to make it up as we go along.
        We are given a framework.
    Yes, it still requires a lot of discernment,
        and we won’t always agree
            whether a new revelation was the work of the Holy Spirit,
            or something we ate.

    But Jesus himself gives us some important insight
        when it comes to properly discerning the Spirit.
    And it comes from a text that we often misread, from John 14,
        where Jesus promises to send the Spirit, as an Advocate.
        We mistakenly read that to mean
            the Spirit is coming to Advocate on our behalf,
            to be on our side, our loyal sidekick.

        No, Jesus says to his disciples—
            these persons he’s been walking with daily,
            training for life in the Kingdom,
            he says to them,
                don’t worry about my absence,
                don’t be afraid you’re going to forget what I taught you.
            I will send one who will be my Advocate,
                who will represent the Kingdom and its values.

        The word Advocate here, is the same word as “lawyer.”
        The Spirit is standing in for Jesus.
            That is the Spirit’s one, and only, mission.
            The Spirit is an attorney, so to speak.
                And the client is God.
            The Spirit will always speak up for, and represent,
                the purposes of God as lived and taught by Jesus.

        Somewhere we got the notion that the Spirit
            is always on our side,
            to give us power to do what we wanted to do already.
        No, the Spirit is not our private spiritual battery pack.
            The Spirit is not our unconditional cheerleader.
        As often as the Spirit might comfort us,
            just as often, and more, the Spirit is apt to confront us.

        Every time we start distorting Jesus’ message
            and slap a Christian label on it,
            the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ attorney, will stand up in court,
                and say, “Objection!”

So that’s one identifying mark of the Spirit.
    What the Spirit does, will look like what Jesus did.
    What the Spirit says, will sound like what Jesus said.
    The Spirit’s work will be in perfect alignment
        with the priorities of God
        revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.
    If some movement or person departs from the way of Jesus,
        and claims the backing of the Holy Spirit,
        we have good reason to doubt them.

The other point I’d like to lift up here
    is about transformation itself.
    It’s not superficial.
    Transformation doesn’t just mean we become better people—
        a little nicer, kinder, more spiritually aware.
    Transformation means our lives get rearranged.

One of the enduring metaphors of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit
    is the flame.
    It’s what the disciples and the crowds observed in Acts 2.
    Flames appeared to dance on their heads.

Fire rearranges things.
    Fire doesn’t really destroy physical matter.
        It transforms it.
        It rearranges it.
        It forces a radical chemical change.
    The heat of fire changes the molecular structure
        of whatever is burning.
    Molecules are set free of old bonds, and make new bonds.
    Molecules making up the wood or fiber or what have you,
        are transformed into molecules of
            carbon, water, oxygen, hydrogen,
            and other stuff I never learned about in chemistry.

That’s what Holy Spirit transformation does to our lives.
    The Spirit won’t destroy our lives.
    But the Spirit will rearrange us.
        Perhaps radically, entirely, rearrange us.

Spirit transformation is not to be taken lightly.
    It can have all sorts of unintended side effects.
    It can undo what we formerly thought to be true
        about ourselves, about God, about the world.
    It can result in a heightened state of chaos and confusion,
        as those things we used to cling to,
        start crumbling around us.
    It can result in significant loss—
        loss of job security, loss of some relationships,
        loss of identity, loss of order, loss of income.
    For our Anabaptist ancestors,
        and many other Christians throughout history,
        and even today,
        it can result in loss of life.

This is why I approach Pentecost with as much fear and trepidation,
    as I do joyful anticipation.
    It’s a real challenge for me to have an entirely open heart,
        when thinking about what it might mean,
        to submit my life to the Spirit for transformation.

And I imagine that’s true for most of us.
    We all have our own transformation stories,
        our stories of a time when our lives were rearranged.
    And when we were in the middle of it all, it was pretty unsettling.
        Maybe our way of thinking was rearranged.
        Maybe our beliefs and convictions were rearranged.
        Maybe our lifestyle and behaviors were rearranged.
        Maybe our community was rearranged,
            our whole network of relationships transformed.

Looking back on my life, there were a couple times
    when the future I thought I could see got rearranged.

    When we were a family of three,
        new parents in our 20s, and a babe in arms,
        we moved to Gainesville, Florida as church planters,
            without a paying job in hand.
        That was not the plan we mapped out.
        It required immense risk-taking,
            and often-repeated efforts to submit our future to God.
        But looking back, Irene and I both see the Spirit at work
            transforming us,
            turning our chaos and uncertainty and loss,
                into a richer form of life.

    I also think about my decision
        to start Doctor of Ministry studies 12 years ago,
        when all three of our children were in college the same year.
        It was a costly decision in many ways.
            And there were times I wondered if the Spirit was in it.
            But it transformed the way
                I thought about my calling as a pastor,
                and thought about the church and the world.
            My life and ministry were rearranged.
            Had the Spirit not transformed me through that,
                I doubt I would still be your pastor today.

Now, as I hinted at earlier,
    I’m going to go against my nature,
    which is to carefully arrange just about everything,
    and I’m going to pick up this microphone,
        and walk around the sanctuary.

You just heard me give two stories,
    about two sentences each,
        where I can now see, looking back,
        that the Holy Spirit rearranged my life,
            transformed my way of thinking,
                my way of being.

I know there are countless stories like that,
    represented in this sanctuary full of people.

Passing around the mike
    is more risk than I’m used to taking in a sermon.
    Maybe no one will say anything. Awkward!
    Maybe someone will want to say too much.
        But I trust you can monitor yourselves,
            and keep your stories brief and to the point,
            so more people can make a contribution.

I am inviting you, in the space of a few short sentences,
    to give testimony to a time when your life was rearranged—
        when your thinking was transformed,
            your commitments
            your lifestyle
            your actions were transformed,
        and you can now attribute that to the Holy Spirit.

It might have been triggered by a momentous earthshaking event,
    or by one brief conversation.
    But whatever started it,
        the Holy Spirit made it into something more.

What are your testimonies?
So I don’t have to run back and forth,
    I’m going to start here on the west side,
        and gradually move across.

Now many of you had stories you didn’t tell.
    Some of you have stories you are in the middle of.
    We now give you opportunity to share those without words.
        Come and light a candle at one of these four stations,
            and return to your seat.
    By that simple act of bringing flame to candle,
        in itself a physical transformation of the wax,
        you are symbolically bringing your transformation story
            into this space,
            before God, and before this community,
            and inviting the Holy Spirit to do its work.
    Come, now, as John provides some music for contemplation.

—Phil Kniss, May 15, 2016

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Phil Kniss: From God's hands to ours

Easter 7: God who invites all to life
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

Perhaps the best news
    the book of Revelation has to offer us Jesus-followers
    is that life is ultimately in the hands of God.

Remember this book is being written to persecuted Christians.
    Horribly, brutally persecuted Christians.
        Not talking your garden-variety 21st-century America
            so-called persecution of Christians,
                like banning prayer in public school,
                or other laws some Christians resent.
        No, we’re talking about genuine persecution,
            where Christians were thrown to lions in a public arena,
            or burned at the stake,
            or drowned.
    It’s that Christian community Revelation was first written for.
        This book of heavenly visions was meant to help them
            get a clear picture of God,
            and a more hopeful picture of the future.

Maybe the vision that encouraged them most,
    was this picture of God holding life itself in his hands.
    The epitome of this is the image of the Tree of Life
        thriving on the banks of the River of Life,
        that flows from the throne of God.

    The message here in Revelation 22
        is that God holds the one and only claim on their lives.
    God alone gets to define what a life is worth.
    Their enemies may decide to kill them.
        But only God gets to decide the significance of their lives,
            and the ultimate meaning of their suffering and death.

Then, and now, imposters try to stake a claim on life.
    Would-be gods, false gods try to assert the right
        to define life on their terms.
    But, as the book of Revelation assures us,
        since God has the last word on life,
        these usurpers of God always come up short.
    They wind up on the losing side.

Today, there are people who set themselves up as demi-gods.
    Powerful individuals
        who are never content with the power they already have,
        and keep angling for more.
    From Asian dictators, to African warlords, to American politicians,
        there is a persistent narrative of human beings attempting
            to seize control,
            to advance personal agenda,
            and to twist the definition
                of what a flourishing life looks like.

And not only individuals, there are powerful systems and forces at work.
    Economic and social and spiritual forces of all kinds
        act out of their own vested interests
        to distract us from God’s claim on our lives.

    They all stand to benefit if they succeed.

    Systems feeding off greed and materialism
        stand to benefit if they convince us that
        we are what we drive, or eat, or wear, or live in,
        or that we are what we own.

    Systems feeding off militarism
        stand to benefit if they can convince us that
        our lives have greater value than the lives of our enemies.

    Systems feeding off political power
        stand to benefit if they can convince us that
        they are the only ones on our side,
        the only ones who will defend our rights,
        and that everyone else—everyone who is other—
            another party, another country, another religion—
            is a mortal threat to us and our American way of life.

    Systems feeding off self-gratification and indulgence
        stand to benefit if they can get us to buy into the myth
        that pleasure is a right to pursue at any cost.

    But God remains unmoved by these systems
        who would like to usurp the throne of God.
     The Creator of all things living
        watches over us all,
        and maintains the right to set the parameters on life.

That’s the picture Revelation gives us.
    This is the divine work of art being unveiled today.

    Life comes from God, only.
    Life belongs still to God, and to no other.
    All the criteria that define what a flourishing life looks like
        are purposefully laid out by God alone.

Then, as we read this text more carefully,
    and look closer at this picture being unveiled,
    we see God doing an astonishing thing.
    God takes this life that is entirely in God’s hands—
        this life defined, owned, and initiated by God alone—
        and hands it over to us as a gift.

    A gift that we have the power to appropriate as we choose.
        With freedom.
        And . . . with consequences.

    This is a re-gifting of life.

In a way, this text from the last chapter in the Bible,
    it’s an undoing, a reversal,
    of what we read about in the first chapters of the Bible.

Remember, if you will,
    the scene when God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden.
    After their disobedience,
        in which they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
        they paid the price in several ways.
    The worst of which,
        is they were sent far away, out East of Eden,
        far away from that lush and comforting garden,
            and most especially, far away from the Tree of Life.

    In order to ensure they not get access to the Tree of Life,
        God puts guards at the gate,
            angels wielding flaming swords,
            which, according to Genesis 3:24,
            they “flash back and forth
                to guard the way to the tree of life.”
    The picture in Genesis 3 is clear.
        God has total control of the Tree of Life,
            and human beings aren’t getting near it.

Now, in Revelation 22, we read these astonishing words:
    “Blessed are those who wash their robes,
        so that they will have the right to the tree of life
        and may enter the city by the gates.”
    John is saying here, the curse is being reversed.
        You will have the right to the Tree of Life.
        And you will have the right to walk through the open gates.
    God is saying, essentially,
        life—both present and eternal—belongs to me,
            and I invite you into it,
            I share it with you.

    Some of us could read Revelation 22 a dozen times,
        and not catch this remarkable allusion to Genesis 3.
    I imagine John’s audience, early Jewish Christians,
        got it immediately,
        and experienced the full shock value of the picture.
        They were intimately familiar with the Torah.
            Probably knew the lines from Genesis 3 by heart.

    And what they saw here in John’s vision gave them great joy,
        as Christians who had oppressors breathing down their necks,
            telling them their lives had no meaning,
            threatening to take their lives from them.
    The Gospel word to them, from God, is,
        “Life has always been mine, but I’m sharing.”

    Furthermore, I’m not limiting my gift.
        “Let everyone who is thirsty come.
          Let anyone who wishes . . . take the water of life as a gift.”

This is also a Gospel word we need to hear today,
    and the whole world needs to hear.

We humans, and our power structures,
    are so quick to seize God’s responsibility—
    to assign value and meaning to the lives of others,
    and to assume it’s on our shoulders
        to give our own lives meaning and value.

But God has done that already.
    And we are so quick to forget.

This dynamic shows up constantly,
    in the many forms of brokenness in our world.
    Individuals and systems
        continually attempt to diminish the value and meaning
            of the lives of those who get in their way.

There are glaring examples everywhere today.
    We need only scratch the surface.
        We’d run out of time trying to list them.
    Not to mention, if we looked back on how often this has happened
        in the darker pages of human history.

So, we are in the middle of a presidential campaign cycle.
    In normal years, presidential candidates often
        try to diminish the worth of others, to win votes.
    But that practice reached new lows this year.
        Not commenting on any actual policy matters at stake.
        Just saying that candidates, as persons,
            have regularly insulted the personhood of their opponents.
        And that is shameful.
        And for candidates claiming to be Christian,
            it’s especially shameful, and clearly un-Christian behavior.
        Yes, Trump gets the most press, and is the most quoted,
            and without a doubt, he’s been the most egregious,
            at calling names,
            and insulting the human dignity of his opponents,
                and of whole classes of people who aren’t like him.
        He may be the worst, but he’s not alone.
        His opponents have often responded in kind.
        Our politicians have set the tone
            for what’s permitted in public discourse.
            And it’s ugly.
        Someone needs to push the reset button.

And the same dynamic is happening on a worldwide scale,
    and in far more devastating and violent ways.
    This thing of diminishing the human dignity of an opponent,
        of undermining the humanity and value of others,
        is the stock-in-trade
            of nations at war,
            of violent religious extremists,
            of tyrants and dictators,
                and it’s been happening since time immemorial.

It’s what allows one group of human beings
    to kidnap, torture, and/or kill other human beings
        who offend them or threaten them.
    ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram, you name the group.
        They convince themselves,
            and they convince their vulnerable recruits,
            that the lives of a whole ethnic or religious class of people—
                have less value, less meaning, less worth,
                than their own.
        So they feel justified in determining the end of those lives.

And it’s what allows racism and sexism to thrive close to home,
    in an otherwise civilized society.
    It’s what encourages things like police brutality,
        mistreatment of prisoners,
        anti-immigrant rhetoric,
        bullying of sexual minorities,
        and all kinds of other social ills.

But all those things I named are easy targets
    for us comfortable, compassionate, enlightened Christians.
    It’s easy to get righteously angry
        at highly visible politicians and dictators and movements
            that are so clearly offensive and wrong,
            and so unlike us.

But if I reflect, even a little,
    on the way I look at myself,
    and look at others I encounter,
        I have to admit the temptation is real for me, too.
    I also sometimes stoop to this tactic.
    I also diminish the value of the life of the other,
        in order to inflate the value of my own, in comparison.

How often? I shudder to think.
    I do it whenever I approach someone on the sidewalk downtown,
        who appears homeless, or intoxicated, or poverty-stricken,
            or otherwise difficult to encounter,
        and I pass by while purposely not making eye contact.
    Sure, my sin is less visible, and certainly less impactful,
        than the sins that offend me so greatly
            in Donald Trump and his ilk.
        But it’s on the same spectrum of sins.

    Making eye contact, and offering a smile and a nod,
        is the most simple and immediate way to say to someone,
            “I see the human in you. And I share it.”
    And to purposely avoid eye contact,
        with someone I clearly see in my field of vision,
            and who may well be looking at me as I walk by,
        is the most simple and immediate way to say the opposite:
            “I am ignoring you, because I can,
                because you are not worth the effort
                of a human encounter.”
    In doing so, haven’t I committed the very offense
        of those I so loudly condemn?

And if this happens often on the street, and it does,
    think how often it happens online.
    Think how many times, online,
        you’ve seen someone’s human worth cheapened,
            through insults or shaming or character attacks,
        whose humanity has been diminished
            because it’s so easy to do,
            because others cheer when you do,
            and it makes you feel validated . . . for a moment.
    And many of us here,
        even if we would never directly engage in this kind of
            humanity-diminishing discourse,
            at some level approve and participate.

This scripture from Revelation is for us.
    There is good news, encouraging news!
    God retains the right to value a life, any life,
        however diminished it may be in our eyes.

    That includes our own lives.
        Many of us live with a diminished view
            of the worth of our own lives.
        God confronts that with one word—“Come.”

    God’s word to us, to our neighbor, to those we fear,
        and to those who offend us,
            is, “Come.”
        “Let everyone—everyone—who is thirsty, come.
          Let anyone—anyone—who wishes,
            take the water of life as a gift.”

    Today God says to us,
        “Life in its fullness, at its most flourishing, belongs to me.
            And I’m sharing it with you. For free.
                No matter what others say.
                No matter what you say.
            You have worth. You are loved.”
    Can you hear the voice of Jesus inviting us
        to a fuller, more flourishing life?

I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Behold, I freely give
    the living water; thirsty one, stoop down, and drink, and live.”
    I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life giving stream;
    My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in Him.

Turn in HWB to #493.

—Phil Kniss, May 8, 2016

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Phil Kniss: On where to bring your glory

Easter 6: God who radiates light
Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

During this Easter season,
    as we dip in and out of the book of Revelation,
    we keep unveiling new works of Divine Art.

This is art with a singular purpose—
    to let a suffering church see God.

I want to begin, again, with this important reminder, and disclaimer.
This letter, called the Revelation of John,
    which is full of imaginative apocalyptic visions,
    was not written by John to give raw material to
        fear-mongering end-times predictors, or
        to Christian fantasy writers and film-makers, or
        to those wishing for a dramatic escape from a violent world.
    Those who use this book for those purposes, are mis-using scripture.

No, this letter was written to give hope—in the here and now—
    to followers of Jesus living out their calling,
        and suffering for it, on the margins of society.
    This letter was written to help early Christians see God more clearly,
        during a time when their vision was being clouded by persecution.

Our preachers these last three Sundays—
    Pastor Barbara, David Boshart, and Moriah Hurst—
        not only gave me a nice little break from preaching,
        but they did, beautifully, what I hoped this series would do.
    They unveiled different pictures of God
        that gave us encouragement,
        that proclaimed Good News for our times.
    Three weeks ago, Barbara reminded us
        that the suffering of Jesus, the lamb of God,
        made it possible to sing a new song that transcends our suffering.
    Then David Boshart unveiled a picture of hope and joy
        because God goes with us across boundaries,
        and because salvation belongs to God.
    Last Sunday, Moriah encouraged us with the image of God
        as one who moves into the neighborhood with us,
        and dwells among us, on our turf.

Today, this metaphor of unveiling a work of art, is especially fitting.
    It works well for today’s visual image of God as light.

So John writes about a vision, in which he is taken to a high mountain,
    and sees the city of God, the new Jerusalem,
    coming down out of heaven, from God,
        which connects to Moriah’s emphasis last Sunday,
            of God bringing heaven to us.

    This vision makes a huge impression on John,
        and we know what specifically grabbed his attention,
        because he repeats it so often, in the retelling.
            He says it at least seven different ways.
        What impressed John was the powerful light
            emanating from the center of that city.
            The kind of light that puts the sun in its place.
    He writes, “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it,
        for the glory of God is its light,
            and its lamp is the Lamb.
        The nations will walk by its light,
            and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.
        Its gates will never shut, because there will be no night there.
            People will bring into it
                the glory and the honor of the nations.”
    And a few verses later, again,
        “There will be no more night;
            they need no light of lamp or sun,
            for the Lord God will be their light.”

    It’s pretty obvious.
        If we want to understand this passage of scripture,
            we need to explore what this light is all about.
        And the first thing I noticed, when I started studying it,
            is the direct link between light, and glory.

    John talks a lot about glory.
        The glory of God.
        And the glory of the kings of the earth.
        And the glory of the nations.
    Glory is a prominent theme in scripture, Old and New Testament.
        Almost every New Testament book refers to glory at some point
            and three books practically dwell on it—
                the Gospel of John, Romans, and Revelation.

    I think we Mennonite-Anabaptists
        could stand to think a little more, and a little deeper, about glory.
    We aren’t naturally drawn toward it.
        With our history of simplicity and humility
            and being “quiet in the land,”
            “glory” seems a bit assertive for our taste.
        It’s a little bit “out there” for us.
        Glory smacks of pride.
        Glory also seems to be related to power and fame
            and ostentatious displays of wealth.
            It might conjure up images of the glorious cathedrals
                that our ancestors protested in the 16th century,
                and that, despite their glorious exterior,
                    were the power center for our oppressors,
                    and were spiritually empty at the core.

    It’s in our Anabaptist spiritual DNA,
        to be wary of glory.
        And that’s not all bad.
        But it doesn’t give us reason to ignore
            such a major biblical theme.
        Rather, we ought to explore the theme more deeply,
            see how to redeem it,
            see what we might be missing.

The Hebrew words that get translated as “glory” in the Old Testament
    imply “weight” or “heaviness.”
        Weight, as in . . . importance . . . honor . . . majesty.
The Greek word used in the New Testament, is doxa.
    This also carries with it the sense of honor,
        or more specifically, “good reputation.”
    When we give glory, we show high esteem, we give praise.

So with that in mind,
    let’s look again at this Revelation text,
    and let’s picture in our minds what is going on here
        in the city of God.
    The “glory of God” is the light for the city.
    It is overwhelming, to say the least,
        this glorious light of God.
    This light is so compelling,
        it magnetically draws into its orbit,
        every other lesser light, sun and moon included.
    Its glory puts into perspective all lesser glories,
        including the glory of the kings of the earth,
        and of all the nations.
    These kings and nations “bring their glory” into the city of God,
        where they get outshone by the glory of God.

    Now chew on that for a minute.
        What’s more important for the “kings of the earth,”
            what’s more essential for political power structures,
                than glory?
        Rulers cannot rule, at least not for long,
            without their power being held in high respect,
            without being granted “glory” by their subjects.
        Ideally, respect is born out of positive esteem and affection.
            But it can also be born out of fear.
            In either case, the power of the ruler is respected.
            Their subjects are fully aware of the good, or the evil,
                they can accomplish by their power.

    Now think about this.
        Think about the audience John was writing to—
            persecuted Christians,
            who were marginalized, oppressed, imprisoned, exiled,
                and in the most extreme cases,
                thrown to the lions for public entertainment.
        Their persecutors are these,
            whom John pictures as “bringing their glory into”
                the city of God,
                and having their glory overwhelmed
                    by the glory of God and of the Lamb.

    This picture of God in Revelation 21 and 22
        is not a picture of God having pity on the oppressed
            by whisking them away to safety in heaven.
        This is a picture of the powers being put in their place,
            of kings being toppled,
            and their victims being emancipated.
        This is a picture of a revolution on earth,
            being initiated by God in heaven.
            Things are going to be set right by God.
    I don’t know of any other honest way to read these words:
        “The nations will walk by its light,
            and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it . . .
            Nothing accursed will be found there any more.”
        And then there’s this beautiful tree image thrown in there—
            the tree of life growing by the river, with
            “the leaves of the tree for the healing of the nations.”

    This is the art being unveiled—
        the light and glory of God
            as THE orienting light and glory of the nations.
        Every other expression of light and glory
            is subordinate to it.
        God says, through John,
            that every king, every nation,
                is one day going to answer
                to the glory that overshadows them all.
        The kings are going to bring in their puny pretense of glory,
            and that glory will evaporate in the blinding glory of God.

    This work of divine art was created to inspire those being crushed
        by the kings of the earth, and by the nations.
    John the Revelator says to them,
        Your God, the Sovereign God who rules earth and heaven,
            is going to hold all kings and nations accountable
        “People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”

And of course we also have to admit,
    that goes for any personal claims of glory we might cling to.
    Our glory also finds its proper place, it proper orientation,
        when we bring it into the city of God, so to speak,
        when we allow the light we carry
            to be subsumed into the light of God.
        I think that’s what this text calls us to do.
            It doesn’t put out our light.
            It doesn’t diminish the worth of our own light and glory,
                which is a good gift of God.
                We are created in God’s image, after all.
                    God’s glory is reflected in all of us.

    But what this text calls us to do
        is to bring our glory into the city of God.
        Our light and glory finds its fullness, its beauty,
            when it is brought into, included into, subsumed into,
            the light and glory of God.
        When our purposes line up with God’s purposes,
            when our posture toward the world looks like God’s posture,
            when our identity is formed by the identity God gave us,
            when our loves are shaped by what God loves,
            then we can say that we have
                brought our glory into the city of God.

Now, I don’t want this to be lost in pious generalities.
    This text was written to real followers of Jesus in a real world.
        They were in a complex web of beauty and brokenness
            that comprised their lives on the margins of the empire.

    So this text also needs to speak to us, today,
        in the complex and beautiful and broken realities we live in.
    And it needs to speak in terms
        just as life-giving and encouraging to us,
        as it would have been to them.

This perspective on God’s glory and ours,
    needs to speak to our posture and behavior as followers of Jesus,
    when circumstances in the world around us
        feed our fears,
        or stoke our righteous anger.

It needs to speak to what we say and how we act,
    when the Middle East teeters on the edge of collapse,
        and even more human beings suffer,
    when the presidential campaign gets more insane by the day,
        playing on our insecurity and prejudice,
    when climate change predictions get even more worrisome,
    when a third conference votes to leave Mennonite Church USA,
    when the reality of sexual abuse is named by our denomination
        as a cancer in the church,
        and the ripple effect of abuse shakes our own churches,
            and families, and people we love.

This call to bring our light and glory
    into and under the light and glory of God,
    also needs to speak to how we live in hope and joy
        in a world that holds such brokenness and such beauty
            at one and the same time.

The beauty I refer to is often right there in the middle of the brokenness,
    precisely because someone chose to lean in toward the light of God
        instead of giving in to hopelessness.

You know, there are sincere Christians who hesitate,
    when we lift up these pictures of a future
    where God will one day make all things right again.

Some worry it might lead to inaction, or escapism.
    That if God is going to fix everything in God’s way and God’s time,
        then what is there for us to do,
            except be patient,
            and wait for the day God will come to take us away?
    To think that way misunderstands God and scripture and history.

    Revelation was written to generate hope
        in the lives of suffering Christians.
    And I believe we need to read it in precisely the same way.
        We should be able read these texts about the Lamb’s triumph,
            and be more hopeful,
            than before we read them.
        In Christian faith,
            hope is never an excuse for inaction or passivity.
        Hope is what we need to start living into
            the very future that God envisions for us.

Scott Hoezee, a Christian Reformed pastor, preacher, and author,
    wrote about the relationship between hope and action.
This is what he wrote, and I paraphrase it slightly . . .

Hope is what got Mother Theresa to bathe the putrid flesh of lepers in Calcutta. Hope is what made Martin Luther King and others walk across the bridge in Selma. Hope is what let Nelson Mandela get out of his prison bed every morning. Hope is what moves every volunteer in a soup kitchen to ladle out bowls of chicken and rice . . . It is not the hopeless who establish hospices and Ebola clinics in Africa, or stand in the breach when rival drug gangs threaten to shoot up neighborhoods, or boldly stand up to power. It is the hope-FULL who do all that, precisely because even now they serve a risen Savior, who even now has all the power to accomplish what will fully come, when the vision of Revelation 21-22 becomes every creature’s everyday reality.
That is the impact of Easter on us followers of Jesus.
That is the impact of our light being overwhelmed by the Light of God.
    It gives us hope.
    It moves us toward a world that needs this hope.
    It puts us exactly where God wants us.

—Phil Kniss, May 1, 2016

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Moriah Hurst: God being home with us

Easter 5: God who brings us heaven
Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

Moriah Hurst, anticipated new Associate Pastor for Children, Youth, and Families at Park View Mennonite, gave this morning's sermon in our series based on the book of Revelation. From the text of Revelation 21:1-6, she expounded on the good news that we are not awaiting being whisked away to a far-away heaven, but God is bringing heaven to us. God promises to "move into the neighborhood" with us, and live in our territory, and "dwell among us."

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]

Sunday, April 17, 2016

David Boshart: Boundary Crossings

Easter 4: God who saves
Acts 9:32-43; Revelation 7:9-12

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

Today’s guest preacher, David Boshart, is Conference Minister for Central Plains Mennonite Conference, and the Moderator-Elect of Mennonite Church USA. David brought a challenging and hopeful message of holding on to joy in the midst of crossing difficult boundaries, by remembering the good news that "salvation belongs to our God."

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: What new song are we singing?

Easter 3: God who suffered
Revelation 5:11-13; Psalm 30

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

            Word has it that by the year 2020, the Mennonite Church will have a new hymnal in some shape or form.  Steps are being taken to secure a few key persons to give leadership to this endeavor called, “Project 606”.  That’s exciting!  What new songs/hymns/choruses will be chosen and included?  What old, familiar, beloved songs will not make it into this new collection?
            Some of us are old enough to remember when this one came out, if you were in the ‘Mennonite Church’.  1969!  John and I were serving with MCC in Kenya, East Africa, from ’70-’73, and received a brand new copy from an aunt of his, who sent it to us as a gift.  It took 3 months by boat mail. We learned new songs together and treasured it for those years.  It came home with us in our trunk in 1973.  This is it!
            In 1992 when our blue Hymnal Worship Book came out, we were living in Orrville, OH and served as co-pastors of Orrville Mennonite.  I remember the excitement and curiosity when we purchased them for that congregation, wondering if our favorites were still in it and what new songs we would learn to enjoy.  What a rich resource it has become to us and many other congregations.  The very well worn hymnals in these pews attest to the heavy use by this congregation!
            What new songs will we be singing in the next several decades?  What will be the themes, the styles, the genres of music?

            Please take out your blue hymnal, HWB, and note the symbol on the front lower right hand corner…..a lamb, a traditional Anabaptist symbol.  The note on the inside states, “The lamb in the midst of the briars illustrates the Suffering Lamb of God, who calls the faithful to obedient service.  Since in the past it has been used to represent unity among believers, it is an appropriate symbol for this cooperatively produced hymnal.”

            The suffering Lamb of God is a central part of the theme for today.  The God who suffered!  (Turn in the back of HWB to 689..part of the scripture text for today from Rev. 5:11-13.  I will ask you to read that in a few minutes.)
            Last Sunday Phil began the new sermon series that dips into the book of Revelation, with all of its rich symbols, imagery and different levels of meaning.  We move back and forth from earthly settings to heavenly settings throughout the book.
            In chapter 5, John the Revelator, is standing in the throne room.  He sees in the hand of God a scroll with 7 seals!  It contains top secret information!  God’s plan for the culmination of history.  What will be the future?  A mighty angel asks who can break the seals and open the scroll?  No one in heaven, on earth or under the earth was worthy to open it or even look inside.  John wept and wept.  If no one can open the scroll, the destiny, the future of the world will remain a mystery.
            Then an elder speaks up.  One is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll.  It is the Lion of Judah, the root of David.  The weeping prophet raises his eyes to see the Lion of Judah, but all he sees is……is a Lamb, looking as if it were slain, slaughtered!  This was not what John was expecting.  The Lamb that is worthy to reveal God’s future for the world is himself a victim of violence.  Nelson Kraybill writes in his book, “God’s fullest self revelation has not come with brawn and bluster to match the muscle of Rome, but with the seeming weakness and vulnerability of a Lamb.”
            Yes, the Lamb is the one worthy.  And the creatures and the elders bow down in worship, and they sang a new song, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation.”

            (HWB 689 read dark print, me light print)
            Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice.
            Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth, wisdom and might, honor and glory and blessing!”
            Then I heard every creature in heaven on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
            To the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

(And the 4 living creatures said, AMEN or YES, the elders fall down and worshipped. V. 14)

            The angels break forth in joy singing a new song.  It is a song of jubilation and a newfound certainty.  They are aware that the struggles are not over but they believe that God has the last and final word and as such worship belongs to Him alone!
            The Lamb of God served, suffered, died.  What emerges out of suffering?  What new song emerges out of the deep valley of pain and struggle?  What song transcends the present pain and reaches into the divine future?...where God is in control.
We are going to reflect on a few questions together as we look at and sing one of the hymns.  Turn in HWB to 405, “Where cross the crowded ways of life”. (We will sing this one instead of the one listed in the bulletin following the sermon.)

               This is a hymn that helps us reflect on what was or is and then we ask, and where should it be taking us?  What is the new song, the new creation, the new reality?

Sing together HWB 405 (one verse at a time with some space between)
Vs. 1 “Where cross the crowded ways of life, where sound the cries of race and clan, above the noise of selfish strife, we hear your voice, O Son of Man!”
            Our lives are full, busy, crowded, noisy.  It’s the nature of our world and society. We seldom experience silence, solitude.  How can we hear your voice in the midst of selfish pursuits and pursuing our dreams?  What is the new way of being you are calling us to?  What new song can we sing?

Vs. 2 “In haunts of wretchedness and need, on shadowed thresholds dark with fear, from paths where hide the lure of greed, we catch the vision of your tears.”
            We are needy, all of us, sinful, yes, that too.  Fears plague us, anxieties about everything and anything weigh us down, and greed, temptations lurk around every corner.  When we take the time to actually glimpse your way, Lord, do we see the vision of your tears?  Are you weeping with us because you know our struggles, pain, fears, sin?  Are you weeping for us, wondering how we lost our way?  What new song will bring us back to you?

Vs. 3 “From tender childhood’s helplessness, from woman’s grief, man’s burdened toil, from famished souls, from sorrow’s stress, your heart has never known recoil.”
            You have never abandoned us, Lord.  From childhood through our adult struggles, in times of anguish and spiritual dryness when our souls are starving for you, you have never pulled away.  What new songs can keep us close, nourish our souls?  What new way of being and new way of living will restore us again?

Vs. 4 “The cup of water giv’n for you still holds the freshness of your grace.  Yet long these multitudes to view the sweet compassion of your face.”
            We are pretty good at service, Lord.  We give the cup of water.  We offer grace, but many still long for more…to see the face of Jesus and feel the compassionate arms embracing them.  What new song, new deed, new action will help to bring hope into their world again?
            In Revelation many things are new….. the new heaven and the new earth, the new universe, Christ’s redemption which brings about a new covenant and a new era.  The new song is sung because of the new deliverance brought about through Jesus’ suffering and death.  Worthy is the lamb that was slain!  The whole universe and the people of God celebrate Christ’s redemption with a new song.
 (Let these last two verses be our prayer.)

Vs. 5 & 6 “O Master, from the mountainside, make haste to heal these hearts of pain.  Among these restless throngs abide..O tread the city’s streets again, for all the world shall learn your love, and follow where your feet have trod, till glorious from your heav’n above shall come the city of our God.”

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]