Sunday, April 20, 2014

Phil Kniss: Laid open to infinity

Easter Sunday
John 20:1-18; Colossians 3:1-4

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Easter’s been a long time coming this year.
    A very long time.
    Easter has been later than this.
    But never this long coming.

I don’t need to remind anyone here, that it’s been a long, cold winter.
    Yes, I do mean the weather,
        the meteorological season
        of cold temperatures and long dark nights
        caused by the earth being tilted away from the sun.
    But I mean so much more.

It’s like the whole world has been tilted away from the sun,
    in a metaphorical sense.
This has been a season of unseasonable darkness,
    death, grieving, fear, anxiety.

This is true in our congregation.
    People we love have suffered more than anyone should.
It’s true in the wider church, embroiled in a conflict,
    bringing anxiety, uncertainty, and some would say, darkness.
It’s true in our local community,
    where neighborhoods have been traumatized by murder,
    friends of ours have had their lives upended
        by accident, illness, abuse, crime.
It’s true all around the world.
    Violent oppression, religious warfare, ethnic violence,
        earthquake, landslide,
        accidents of airplanes and ferries.
    So many lives lost,
        that numbers lose meaning, become incomprehensible.
Everywhere it is winter.
    This kind of massive loss of human life is cold and dark,
        be it by accident,
        by force of nature,
        or by the will of power-hungry and hell-bent tyrants.

Why do long, cold winters
    put us in such a state of longing for spring and new life?
The answer is obvious, in a way.

This much cold and darkness and evil
    over time, becomes nearly unbearable.
    We need a reprieve. A lifting of the burden.
        A Sabbath from suffering, so we can breathe again.

So a season of buds and blooms and warm sunlight helps.
So does this spiritual season.
Having journeyed with Jesus toward the cross,
    we were lifted in spirit by the explosion of light and color
        last night at the Vigil,
    and by hearing, once again this morning,
        the resurrection story of God’s victory over sin and death.
    We are lifted.
    We are filled.
    And we begin to heal.

But what kind of healing is it?
    Has death truly been conquered, once and for all?
    Have the wounds disappeared?
    Is the pain gone?
    Are tears a thing of the past?
    Will our Easter joy now last forever?
What kind of healing has Easter wrought?

If we are honest, of course,
    we have to admit that the bubbly optimism spring brings,
        and the high spirits of Easter,
        and the echoes of the “Hallelujah Chorus” today,
        may not be with us next week.
    Or tomorrow.
    Or for some, even this afternoon.

We look for, but rarely find,
    an Easter impact that lasts.
Where darkness fundamentally changes into light,
    where loss is undone, or at least transformed to gain,
    where warfare ceases, injustice is reversed.

Our faith confesses boldly that Death was conquered at Easter.
    And indeed, it was.
    But death . . . then continued.

So was God just teasing us with Jesus’ resurrection?
    Letting us know that, yes,
        there is something greater than death, in the great yonder,
        but none of us will experience it in our lifetimes.
            And probably not our children’s.
            Or our children’s children’s.
    In fact, countless human generations have, in spite of Easter,
        not seen death truly done away with.

    People still die, in droves,
        they die in body and mind and spirit.
        Evil is still on the move.
        Suffering and injustice and violence and grief
            still pierce our lives in the most unwelcome ways.

Sisters and brothers,
    we cheapen Easter,
    if we make it a mere psychological fix
        to the “winter of our discontent,”
        to borrow from Shakespeare.

That’s all our culture knows to do with Easter,
    and Christians, I’m afraid, generally don’t do a lot better.

    But if that’s all Easter is—a short-lived escape
        from our collective darkness and winter chill . . .
    If Easter’s only gift
        is another chance to psychologically and spiritually
        try to rise above the sin and suffering and death of this life . . .
    If the only real function of Easter
        is to push the pain away, out of sight and mind,
            until the next time . . .
        then, my friends,
            we are right now engaging in a gigantic waste
            of our time and energy.

    You could accomplish the same thing this afternoon,
        by taking the hand of someone you love,
        and going for a stroll around the arboretum across town,
            to marvel at the tulips and redbud.
    And that’s a good thing.
    Something you ought to do.

But I don’t believe people everywhere flock to Easter services,
    because they believe church is the best place
    for a little post-winter, psychological and emotional pick-me-up.
I think people are here today,
    and in countless churches around the world,
    because they deeply seek, whether they realize it or not,
        they seek some larger Gospel truth to stand on,
        in a world that seems ever more incapable of holding us up.

They want to hear what difference the Easter Gospel really makes,
    as they navigate the pain and suffering of this life.

And I believe that’s what you want to hear, so let me tell you.
    Not that I know something you don’t already know.
        But sometimes, we just need to hear it said again.

God, in Christ, came into this world of sin and violence and darkness.
    And through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
        unmasked and defeated the powers of death,
        showed those powers to be powerless
            to define our lives.

The miracle of Easter is not that death was crushed,
    never to be heard from again.
    Even Jesus carried with him, post-resurrection,
        the scars and wounds of his cruel death.
    When he appeared to his disciples, with his wounds,
        Jesus was saying,
        “Here I am, still human, still visibly wounded,
            still with you in your brokenness.
            Touch my wounded body.
            And peace be with you.
            I will be with you, always, in this way.”

The miracle of Easter resurrection is
    that God’s ultimate power over sin and death and evil was revealed,
        shaming the powers that dealt in death.
The Gospel truth of resurrection is that life itself, our life, any life,
    is larger than what we see here.
    Life has more meaning, more significance,
        than whatever evil currently limits, restricts,
            or impinges on the life we have now.
    In other words,
        suffering, death, pain, and injustice may well continue.
        But because of Jesus’ resurrection,
            those things do not, and cannot, define our lives.
        God has the last word, and only true word,
            on what life means, and what life is worth.

So how do we live in such a way that
    God’s resurrection power defines our lives,
    instead of the suffering and death that remains with us?

It means we stop living in fear.
    And we open ourselves up instead.
    There is nothing, even death itself,
        that can undo what love has already done.

Because of resurrection, we need not live captive to self-protection.
    We need not suffer under the tyranny of self-orientation.

Many people I know, people you know,
    consciously choose a life
        of open, generous, self-giving, hospitality, and vulnerability.
    Not because it guarantees them safe passage in this world.
        But because the resurrection gives them reason
            to live in hope and trust
            in a God who gives meaning,
            even to lives that are laid down, and laid open.

My sermon title, “Laid Open to Infinity,”
    comes from Wisconsin poet Elizabeth Rooney,
    a follower of Jesus who took up poetry late in life.

She wrote,
    “Now is the shining fabric of our day
        torn open, flung apart, rent wide by love.
        Never again the tight, enclosing sky,
        the blue bowl or the star-illumined tent.
        We are laid open to infinity,
        for Easter love has burst His tomb and ours.
        Now nothing shelters us from God’s desire—
        not flesh, not sky, nor stars, not even sin.
        Now glory waits so He can enter in.
        Now does the dance begin.”

Rooney imagines the resurrection
    as an act of divine love that tears open, flings apart
        the fabric that might otherwise shield us
        from the wild and wonderful work of God.
Now, because of Easter love, nothing shelters us from God’s desire.
    We are “laid open” to the whole universe.

So much of the human suffering this winter brought us,
    strikes deep fear and anxiety into our beings,
    precisely because of our normal posture
        of enclosing ourselves,
        protecting ourselves.
The same Easter love that burst open the tomb,
    desires to lay us open, too.
    So that God’s glory might enter in.

The poem resonates with the Epistle reading today from Colossians.
    The apostle calls us to live oriented to “things that are above,
        not . . . things that are on earth,
        for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

When we die to self—
    this personal and private self we try so hard to protect—
        we open ourselves to a new and deeper life.

That’s the Gospel Truth of Easter that most people completely miss.
    In our culture’s obsession with self-protection and self-fulfillment,
        we actually work against the God of resurrection.
    The God of resurrection invites us to lay down self,
        that we might truly live.
    Laying down self opens ourselves to others and to God and to life.
        That is how we live with personal suffering.
        That is how we live with a church in conflict.
        That is how we live in a world of war and tragedy.
    We do what’s counter-intuitive—we open ourselves even further.

    The God of Easter morning wants to see us laid open to infinity,
        so that the wounded Christ may enter in,
        and the healing dance might begin.

—Phil Kniss, April 19, 2014

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: A Different Kind of King

Lent 6 (Palm Sunday): Encountering God in jubilant praise and breaking bread
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11

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     Palm Sunday is a special Sunday in our liturgical calendar and in some ways
a unique one.  If we plan carefully, the service begins with praise, and includes a procession with children waving palm branches, but the service ends on a more somber, reflective tone, as we make the transition to Passion Week and our journey to the cross.  It is the only time in the church year, I believe, that we sing, “Hosanna, loud Hosanna”, and “All Glory, laud and honor.”  Two very old hymns that have been in most hymn books for many years.

    This journey that begins with hosannas shouted by the crowd ends in nails pounded into flesh, blood shed, suffering and eventual death for Jesus.
    This journey that begins with a joyful procession with crowds going before him and crowds following after him, ends in isolation for Jesus.
    This journey that begins with people wanting to see Jesus ends in people turning away from Jesus.

    All 4 gospels have an account of the ‘triumphal entry’.  Each writer paints a slightly different picture of this event.  For Matthew, the gospel we are using this year, this entry into the city is seen as a coronation procession proclaiming the coming of a new king, the Messiah.  Mark’s account makes no mention of a king and no reference to an O.T. prophecy!

    For those of you who have been in that part of the world and walked that road, literally, you will remember the scene.  Jesus and his disciples were  approaching Jerusalem, but several miles outside the city, near the vicinity of the Mount of Olives, near Bethphage, Jesus instructs two disciples to go to the nearby village and obtain a donkey and a colt, telling them exactly what they should do and say if questions were asked of them.  This was all done to fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy, “Say to daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, humble (gentle) riding on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”   It was important for Matthew to connect with the Old Testament story. Only Matthew records Jesus’ request for two animals.
    The disciples are obedient, the animals are obtained and they return to Jesus.  Cloaks were placed over the animals for Jesus to sit upon.  In Matthew’s account, large crowds were spreading cloaks and cut branches on the road, showing respect and honor for a famous person.  We read of shouts coming from the crowd of “ Hosanna to the Son of David”.  The original meaning of ‘hosanna’ was ‘save us’ or ‘help us’, but later it became just a shout of praise.
    What a sight it must have been!
(When we were there in 1999, I remember this scene so well.  On the one hand it was so exciting to be in that place, to remember this story from scripture and then to be able to see it in person.  Our tour leader, Loren Johns, was reading the texts as we walked along, as we tried to imagine this scene, winding our way down the narrow road, seeing the Kidron Valley ahead of us and the city of Jerusalem up the hill across the valley.  This was really it!  It felt surreal.  But then again, part of me saw it for real in that there were lots of people around, 20 college students ahead of me with their backpacks and water bottles and cameras.  And as I looked around there was trash along the way and it really wasn’t that spectacular and I found myself also saying, “Is this really it?”)

    As Jesus made his way across the Kidron Valley and up the hill to Jerusalem, something changes.  In fact it seems everything changes, for when Jesus enters Jerusalem, Matthew, and only Matthew records, “the whole city was in turmoil,” stirred up, in an uproar!.  The word used here is also used to refer to an earthquake or storm!  The residents of the city were asking, “Who is this?”  The crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  He was identified by his Galilean roots.  The title “prophet” was accurate, but not complete.  It wasn’t enough!  Jesus was the messianic healer, the King, the Son of David!  The One who comes in the name of the Lord!”
    Ride on, ride on King Jesus!  Show us your strength, exhibit some royal presence and majesty, make a statement, show the people what Kingship is all about!!  After all he had been performing miracles..they saw that, they had been following him.  Were they not hoping that this new king would be the one to deliver them from Roman occupation, from oppression?  Couldn’t this king defeat the enemy and restore the kingdom of David?  They wanted a strong king.  They wanted a HERO!

    But Jesus confuses them, confounds them.  Their dreams are dashed, their expectations unrealized, their hopes destroyed.  Jesus shows up riding into the city on a beast of burden, an animal of the common folk, a gentle, humble, dependable donkey!  They wanted their king, their hero, on a white stallion!  It just didn’t add up.  Jesus’ action confused the people.  They didn’t understand.  And sometimes neither do we.   Was what Jesus did subversive, radical, a counter procession, a deliberately provocative act?  Some scholars describe it that way.  Too often we tend to sentimentalize the text.  We focus too much on the Palm Sunday part and negelct or forget about the Passion and what happens the rest of the week.  And so we go from Palm Sunday to Easter morning and never take time to enter into the rest of the story or reflect on Jesus journey to the cross. But Jesus action and choice of animal made a powerful statement.  It conveyed that this king was different.  It conveyed that this king’s reign was not about power and might, not about a kingdom of violence and military conquest, not about using brutal force and coercive actions, but rather about humility and serving the common good.

    Jesus shatters our stereotypes, our preconceptions about things.  Sometimes we realize that what he models for us is something so radical and so upside down, so contrary to the way the world thinks and operates, that we don’t know what to do with it.  Jesus idea of kingship was so different.  It was about humility, gentleness, sacrificial love, self-emptying, serving others, being obedient.

    We have read and heard reported much recently about the new pope, Pope Francis.  From what we see, observe and hear about, he, too, is a ‘different kind of leader’, and a different kind of pope!  What he speaks of and his lifestyle models humility, simple living, care for the poor and those living on the margins.  People are watching and note who he speaks to, blesses, kisses, washes feet with.  A different kind of leader.  Robert Brenneman, in the recent issue of The Mennonite writes an article, “Habemus Papum Mennonitum”.  We have a Mennonite Pope. :-)

    The Apostle Paul instructs us in his epistle for this week, from Philippians 2, “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus”
    Jesus was one, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

    Some years ago in an essay, a scholar named Daniel Clendenin wrote, “Identifying with Jesus and patterning our lives after him results in endless subversions....divestment of wealth rather than accumulation, renunciation rather than gratification, self-sacrifice rather than self-satisfaction, humility rather than exaltation, and peace for all rather than security for a few.!”

    Following Jesus, a different kind of king, requires us to live a different kind of life.  Are we willing to do that?

     Sometimes we even glean similar thoughts expressed by one of our own.  Six years ago Jennie Rose Howard Davis died, wife of Abraham Davis.  I read a poem that she wrote at her memorial service and have kept it in my file She wrote several books of poetry.  She wrote: “The Crown, The Cross”

    Sometimes we’re caught up in self-exaltation
    In striving to accomplish earthly fame
    We lose sight of Christ and His service
    As we work to build our important name

    In this earthly world of opportunity
    Abandoning power may seem a loss
    Yet, how can we gain that crown
    Without the humility of the cross?

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Ross Erb: Catching some air

Lent 5: Encountering God in our need for renewal
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:1-27

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In Ezekiel 37:1-14 we hear the story of Ezekiel's encounter with God in the valley of dry bones. It is a barren and lifeless place where Ezekiel is called to speak the words that God commands. In John 11:1-27 the disciples, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus all face their own times of hard, dry places. Pastor Ross Erb spoke of the various “valley of dry bones” that we face in life. Can we choose to open ourselves to catch the breath of God that will lift us and turn us in new directions? Can we accept that even if our difficult situations do not change, God is present with us?

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Phil Kniss: When blindness goes viral

Lent 4: Encountering God through anointing
John 9:1-41

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Despite the title given to this morning’s theme,
    “encountering God through anointing,”
    you’ll have noticed there is an even stronger theme
        running through everything we’ve done so far.

The first thing we did, before the prelude,
    was sing a prayer, “Come and be light for our eyes.”

The 23rd Psalm has played a big role in the service,
    with its affirmation that God is one
        who leads us through dark valleys,
        guides us into a place of peace and knowing.
    We contemplated on that Psalm four times,
        in John’s prelude,
        singing “Shepherd me, O God,”
        listening to the children’s time,
        and reading it in unison.

And in our call to worship,
    we praised the brilliant light of God that leads us to sight,
        even while we stumble in the dark.

Then we experienced the telling of this amazing Gospel story,
    the healing of the man born blind, from John 9.

And now we just sang, in Spanish and English, this prayer,
    “Abre mis ojos!” “Open my eyes.”

So . . . I will come back to this matter of anointing—
    which comes from Jesus “anointing” the man’s eyes
        with a mud paste,
    and Psalm 23 saying, “you anoint my head with oil,
        my cup overflows”—
    but first I invite us to focus more on the obvious theme here,
        this move from darkness to light,
        from blindness to sight.

So I begin with John 9,
    the longest healing story in the Bible.
    It only takes 2 verses—6 and 7—to tell the whole healing story.
        Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud,
            smears it on a blind man’s eyes,
            the man washes it off,
            and he sees for the first time in his life.
    The rest of the story—all 39 verses—
        is people reacting to the healing, one way or another.
        This is a story driven by dialogue, not action.
            There are 31 shifts in the dialogue,
                back and forth, from one speaker to another.
            But Jesus has only a few words at the beginning,
                and a few at the end.

    This is unique in all the Gospels.
        No other major story is driven by dialogue,
            where the main speaker isn’t Jesus.
        Another way of saying it,
            this is a very long argument between people.

    So let’s see what the argument was about.
    There are six separate dialogues in the story,
        follow along in John 9 if you have your Bible.

    The first exchange, vv. 1-5, is prior to the healing,
        and is a theological discussion
        between the disciples and Rabbi Jesus.
        The disciples see the blind beggar, and ask,
            Was it sin that made this man blind?
            Jesus says no, it’s not sin.
            He’s blind so that the work of God might be displayed.

    In the next two verses, 6-7,
        the blind man gets healed.
        The one and only action sequence in the story.

    The second conversation is between
        the formerly blind man and his neighbors, vv. 8-12.
        The neighbors say, “That’s the man born blind.”
            “No, it isn’t, just looks like him.”
            “Yes it is.”
            “No, it isn’t.”
        The man keeps saying, “I am the man.”
        But the neighbors want proof.
            How can you see? Who did it? Where is he?

    The third interchange, 13-17, is when his neighbors
        take him to the Pharisees to get the facts.
        He tells his story again, and the Pharisees say,
            “Nope, something’s fishy here.
                The facts don’t add up.”
        See, it was the Sabbath when Jesus healed the man.
            So some said, obviously, Jesus can’t be from God,
                because he doesn’t keep the Sabbath.
            Others said, obviously, he can’t be a sinner,
                because God doesn’t listen to sinners,
                so there couldn’t have been a miracle.
            This was some kind of fraud.
            So they sent for his parents.

    Which sets up the fourth dialogue, vv. 18-23.
        “Is this your son? The one you say was born blind?
            Then how can he see?”
        “Well, we know he is our son. We know he was born blind.
            But as to how he can see? Ask him. He’s an adult.”
        The parents refused to be pushed into a corner.
        If they claimed Jesus cured their son,
            they would be accused of believing Jesus was Messiah,
            and they could have been expelled from the synagogue,
                “excommunicated,” so to speak.

    So we move to dialogue #5, vv. 24-34,
        the most remarkable argument of all.
            It takes 11 verses.
        The Pharisees drag the man back in again,
            and say, “Give glory to God!” Or in today’s English,
                “Give us a break! You know and we know!
                    Jesus is a sinner.”
        The man says, “The only thing I know,
            is that I was blind, and now I see.”
        And it goes on, and on.
        You don’t even have to embellish this.
            This is straight-up biblical comedy.
        “So what did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
        “I already told you . . .
            You sound awfully interested.
            You wanna be his disciples, too?”
        That was too much to take, and they start hurling insults.
        The man comes back with a little theology lesson
            which they can’t dispute.
        All they can say is, “How dare you lecture us . . . sinner?”
            and they throw him out.
        Don’t you love it?
        A blind beggar, who spent his life on the social trash heap,
            gets into an argument with religious scholars,
            and the beggar wins.

    Then we have the final interaction . . .
        we’re back to Jesus and the man born blind.
        The man confesses his belief in Jesus as Messiah.
            And bows down in worship.
        And Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world,
            so the blind will see and those who see become blind.”
        Some eavesdropping Pharisees then ask,
            “What? Are we blind too?”
        And Jesus has the last word.
        “If you were blind, you would not be guilty;
            but since you claim you see, your guilt remains.”

Six different dialogue scenes.
Six different debates.
    All talking about Jesus and his act of healing the blind man.

But . . . did you notice what was missing from all this dialogue?
    Nobody but Jesus showed any concern for the man himself.
    Everyone else looked straight through the man,
        as if he wasn’t even there,
        and tried to get their issues resolved.
    The disciples tried to resolve a theological issue
        about the connection between sin and birth defects.
    The neighbors had an issue with the evidence:
        was or wasn’t this the man who used to sit and beg.
    The Pharisees were obsessed about the issue that this healing,
        if proven,
        would unravel their tidy theological system.
    And the man’s parents said as little as they could,
        to avoid having an issue with the synagogue.

Nowhere, in these 41 verses of dialogue,
    did someone walk up to the man who was healed,
    and ask him, “What’s it like to see for the first time in your life?”
    No one seems interested.
    No one simply and sincerely praises God,
        for showing his love and mercy to this man.
    One would think even sworn enemies of Jesus,
        would find something positive
        in someone broken being made whole.

    But God’s action to save and heal
        completely escapes them.
    Instead, they turn inward, attending to their own needs and issues.

The story began with one poor blind man,
    surrounded by people who could see.
And it ends with one man who finally sees,
    surrounded by the blind.
It seems the man’s blindness spread like a virus.
    The blindness was going viral.

This story could hardly be more appropriate, and timely,
    given the conversations, debates, and conflict
    in our Mennonite churches over the ethics of same-sex relationships,
    and how we will live together in unity across our differences.
        How . . . or if.

As in the Gospel story, so it is with us.
    When fear takes hold, and anxieties rise . . .
        when categories and convictions are threatened . . .
        conversations tend to generate more heat than light . . .
        people move apart, instead of toward, each other,
        and this condition we all share, called “partial blindness,”
            gets worse, instead of better.
        One person’s fear intensifies another’s.
        One group’s anxious words or actions,
            spark counter-words or actions.
        And blindness spreads like a virus.

    This is true in families, among friends and neighbors,
        it is true in political discourse at every level,
        and it is true in the church.
    In the same way that a long, cold, and damp winter
        creates perfect conditions for the growth and spread
            of an influenza virus,
        so do high fear and high anxiety
            create ideal conditions for viral blindness.

For the Pharisees, who were genuinely good and righteous people,
    this miracle they witnessed created a theological crisis.
    Jesus did this healing work on a Sabbath.
        Some scholars have suggested this wasn’t a simple matter
            of the Pharisees being unreasonably picky.
        They suggest Jesus was intentionally being provocative.
            Many very precise physical activities
                were expressly prohibited on the Sabbath.
                One of those was kneading with your hands.
            Jesus could have quietly spoken a word, to heal the man,
                and perhaps the offense would have been overlooked.
            But in the sight of all,
                he got down in the dirt,
                and purposely engaged in an act of physical labor,
                    mixing and kneading the mud into a paste,
                as if to say, so what are you going to do about this?

    Whether or not that’s the case, doesn’t really matter.
        What I’m saying is that Jesus’ act, did, in fact,
            create a genuine theological crisis
            for people who were only trying to do the right thing.
    Because they believed—sincerely and without malice—
        that doing labor on the Sabbath was sinful,
        and because they believed—sincerely and without malice—
        that God does not listen to the prayers of sinners,
            the fact that this blind man claimed to be healed,
                as a direct result of a sinful act,
            created a moral and theological and intellectual crisis.
        Something did not add up.
        So questioning, examining,
            categorizing, insulting, and expelling . . .
            became the mode of operation.

Perhaps . . .
    if there is a lesson in this Gospel story for the church today,
        it is to walk with open hearts into the tension,
        in order to listen more deeply to all our brothers and sisters
            caught in this crisis,
        to hold onto this seemingly irreconcilable difference
            longer than may be comfortable for us,
        to be a C.O. in this battle—
            to conscientiously object to
                cutting off relationships, or
                condemning people categorically,
            to conscientiously object to
                turning people into issues,
                or making them into cardboard characters
                    representing a “position.”

    But rather . . . rather . . .
        to model a way to live together as the body of Christ,
            with sacrificial love and mutual respect,
            while we continue to listen to the Spirit,
                and discern what obedience looks like.
        No matter how long it takes.

There is a better way to deal with crises in the community of faith,
    than the tragic circus that unfolded here in John 9.
And there certainly is a better way to deal with our differences,
    than the way modeled for us by our culture.
    We don’t have to buy into any assumptions, or any methodologies,
        that have become par-for-the-course in the culture wars.
    We don’t have to, in fact, we must not,
        caricature people, and thus de-humanize them,
        which makes it far too easy to do violence to them,
            in words or action.

I am not, I assure you,
    implying the fault lies only at one end of the spectrum . . .
        or the other.
    Especially in this age of social media . . .
        at the slightest provocation,
        or in response to something we consider stupid,
            that some person said
            or some organization did,
        we feel justified when we respond
            by lobbing harsh and condescending words like a grenade,
                into the public square.

    From left to right and in-between, believe me,
        no part of the spectrum has a monopoly on being
            narrow-minded, mean-spirited,
            manipulative, and intolerant.
        And yes, I have to watch myself carefully,
            so I don’t follow my own tendencies in that direction.

    But that is not the way followers of Jesus are to behave,
        even on Facebook and Twitter.
        I think I’m going to invent a new Christian bracelet, WWJT,
            “What would Jesus tweet?”

    At every point on the theological and political spectrum,
        we all must—in no uncertain terms—reject all words and deeds
            that cut us off from each other,
            or that dismiss, demean, or bully others,
            or in any way undermine the grace-filled Gospel of Christ.

That won’t solve all the conflicts, of course.
    Because it does not remove the fact
        that serious and genuine theological differences remain.
    We do have different ways of reading scripture in the church,
        which result in different convictions and priorities.

This is why we, as the church, are called to the task of discernment.
    We are called to be in a body where we hold on to each other
        with a stubborn love,
        based on our baptismal covenant.
    We are held together
        not by a precise uniformity of doctrine
            or uniformity of behavior,
        but by a grace-filled covenant to walk with one another,
            in forbearance,
            come what may.

    Does doctrine matter? Of course it does!
    Does behavior matter? Of course it does!
        But the fact remains that in our particular body of Christ
            there are sincere variations on these things,
            held by sincere followers of Jesus.
        And we are, by virtue of our baptisms,
            in covenant with each other
            to stay on a shared journey toward
                God’s kingdom of truth, love, and justice.

    We are called to live in a body
        where genuine mutual discernment can take place,
        where life-giving mutual accountability can thrive,
        where we together engage in the practices that form us
            to be faithful, whole-hearted, disciples of Jesus.

This is what I believe was being modeled by our denomination’s
    Constituency Leaders Council nine days ago in Kansas,
        which Barbara spoke of so movingly last Sunday morning,
        and which was reported in a news release from MCUSA.
            Most of you got that by email.
            The rest have hard copies in your mailboxes.
                Extras are in the foyer.
    I think CLC has set a good example for the church.

    I also think there are ways we here at Park View Mennonite,
        can work at valuing our covenant with each other,
        while valuing the differences we bring to the table.
    Some of us in leadership have been talking specifically
        about what this might look like here.
        I think you’ll be hearing more in due time.
    As you know, we are deeply, deeply connected to the larger church.
        That is part of our congregational DNA.
        And being a congregation that embodies great diversity
            is also part of our DNA.
        So these stresses in the larger church do affect us.
            Can we both prize our differences,
                and strengthen our covenantal bond,
                at the same time?

Yes, I think we can.
But not without embracing two key elements of today’s Gospel story.
    We must all, each one of us,
        admit our blindness.
            It’s not that we can’t see anything.
            But we cannot see all things clearly.
        To be a human follower of Jesus,
            is to admit partial blindness.
        As Jesus said to the Pharisees,
            if we do not admit our blindness, our guilt remains.

    Secondly, as the blind man did,
        we must open ourselves to the anointing
            of the one who heals blindness.
        Our partial blindness will always be with us, in this life.
            That is a fact . . . but not a virtue.
        The light of Christ is, now, shining upon us through the Spirit.
            Jesus the healer, the bringer of light,
                seeks, continually, to anoint our eyes,
                and open them to ever-expanding sight.

I realize I’ve used up my 20 minutes.
    Bear with me for 2 more.

About this anointing.
    We aren’t going to have an anointing service here, this morning.
        But what I want to do,
            is invite us all to consider anointing—actual anointing—
            in the near future, in another venue,
                with whatever group of persons
                    we are in covenant with.

        Let’s consider how we might offer up, to the healing of Christ,
            our own partial blindness,
            including the blindness we don’t realize we have.
        Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing,
            if instead of girding for battle
                with parties in the church we are at odds with,
            we might instead, gather together to anoint each other,
                to offer up, for healing,
                our individual and collective blindness.

        Maybe this is something you can plan for, in the near future,
            in your Sunday School class,
            with your small group,
            or with any group of persons you wish to share this ritual.

        Anointing is nothing magical.
            You don’t need a duly ordained priest.
                We are a priesthood of believers.
                Any of you here can do this, together with others.
            You don’t need holy oil.
                Jesus did it with mud, made from road dirt and spit.
            You don’t need a formal liturgy.
                You only need to know how to be humble
                    and cry out for healing of our blindness.
        It’s not magical.
            But this kind of shared ritual is powerful.
            Because of the meaning and intentionality behind it.

    I would also add,
        maybe there is another kind of anointing you need—
            for reconciliation with someone, or with a group,
            or for healing of some deeper wound, or trauma,
                or illness of mind, body, or spirit.
        If you don’t feel you have the strength or resources
            to pull it off without help,
            speak to one of us pastors or Elders.
        We can help shape the ritual, and lead you through it,
            if you so desire.

Let us all, as a body,
    eliminate the conditions where viruses thrive,
    and instead, admit our blindness to each other,
        and offer it to God for healing.
    And let us all confess our deep and abiding desire
        to walk as a child of the Light.

Let us sing together from STJ 95, I want to walk as a child of the light.

—Phil Kniss, March 30, 2014

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Phil Kniss: Jesus. Solid rock. Fragile flower.

Lent 3: Encountering God through nourishment
John 4:5-42

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The personal devices people carry around
    are getting more and more sophisticated.
They can detect, and alert you to almost anything.
    So I thought I might just check before I begin . . .

If anyone is carrying a device that sounds an alarm
    when it detects . . . heresy . . .
    you might want to silence it . . . now.
        What I’m about to say could set it off.
        Although I assure you, it would be a false alarm.
            This will only sound like heresy.
            So bear with me, please.

I am going to talk about the fragility and vulnerability . . . of God.

We all know about, and are comfortable with, the Power of God.
    And I will not deny, or seek to diminish, God’s power.

But the very integrity of our Christian faith is at stake,
    if we do not also wrestle with the mystery of God’s vulnerability;
    if we do not also acknowledge that there is, in God’s nature,
        something fragile, something susceptible to being wounded.

I say this, because of the most central affirmation of our faith—
    that God is love.

What got me to thinking about this heretical-sounding idea
    of God’s vulnerability,
    was meditating on today’s Gospel reading,
        the well-known “woman at the well” story.

This is a shocking story at a number of levels.
    For one, it’s amazing how much respect this story gives
        to someone much maligned in Jewish religious culture.
    She had two major strikes against her.
        As a woman, and as a Samaritan,
            she was not thought to be capable
            of any act of faith or devotion that God would accept.
    Furthermore, she was marginalized in her own community,
        as someone with a shady and shameful marital past,
        who came to the village well at noon,
            when no one else from town would be there.

    Yet, this Samaritan woman is shown in the story
        to be one of the first evangelists,
        her words of witness leading a whole town to come
            and encounter Jesus,
            and be changed by him.
    There are at least a dozen possible sermons in that line of thought.

But there is another surprising element to this story.
    And that is how Jesus is portrayed.
    This is a far cry from the stereo-type of the holy Jesus,
        the strong and calm and charismatic figure
        that practically floats from place to place throughout
            Galilee and Judea,
        wowing the crowds with his profound wisdom
            and miraculous powers,
        working wonders everywhere he went,
            while never breaking a sweat,
                never losing an argument,
                never dirtying his pure white robe.

This story shows Jesus at one of his lowest points,
    at least, prior to his arrest and crucifixion.
    The story doesn’t make a big deal about it,
        but if you read it carefully and honestly,
            it’s apparent that Jesus is truly the needy person in the story.
        He is in need, to the point of desperation.

I speak from a little experience.
    I walked part of the Jesus Trail, in Galilee, in the summer.
        But I didn’t have to walk more than a mile or two,
            before I got back into an air-conditioned van.

    Jesus was traveling a great distance on foot.
        It was physically demanding, to an extreme.
        Demanding enough,
            that he and his disciples took the short-cut through Samaria.
        They didn’t take the long way around
            like other Jews trying to maintain their religious purity.
            Any social exchange between a Jew and Samaritan,
                would make the Jew unclean for worship.

    But I really doubt Jesus and his disciples made a strategic decision
        to pass through Samaria to make a religious point.
    I think they probably weighed their physical exhaustion,
        and the fact their supplies were running low,
        over against the religious motivation to go around Samaria,
            and they decided for very practical reasons,
            to take the short cut to water and supplies,
                and deal with the religious purification rituals later.

        I think, of everyone in the group, Jesus was in the worst shape.
        He was the one who plopped down in the shade by the well,
            while the rest of the group went into town to buy food.
    The Gospel text makes a specific point of telling us, in v. 6,
        that Jesus was “tired out by his journey.” Tired out!

    And I imagine the Gospel writer was putting it mildly.
        He was hot, tired, and thirsty. Maybe even a bit cranky.
            Unless you want to say that Jesus did not share
                our basic human experience—
                this connection of body, mind, and emotions—
                that Jesus was immune to the common human experience,
                    that when our bodies suffer,
                    our minds and spirits also suffer.
            And if you say that,
                you really want to be sure your
                heresy detector alarm is turned off.

    No, I don’t think Jesus floated up to the well in Samaria,
        in his pure white robe,
        because he knew he had a divine appointment
            with a Samaritan woman
            that would be recorded for the church throughout the ages.
    On the contrary,
        I believe it was deep visceral, human need,
            that made Jesus collapse by the well,
            and tell his disciples, “You go get the food.
                I can’t take another step.”

    It’s no surprise that a rabbi raised in the synagogue
        can’t keep pace with some fisherman from Galilee.
        So Jesus sat by the well, in need of help.
            Alone. Exhausted. And no bucket to draw water.

This is the situation that set up the interaction
    between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
    And of that whole conversation back and forth—
        that covered all kinds of topics,
        from marriage to worship to prophetic powers to eternal life—
        there was no statement more surprising and more significant,
            than Jesus’ first words to this woman,
            “Give me a drink.”
        The Samaritan woman understood how shocking that was.
            And she reacted as you would expect.
        She expressed utter disbelief
            that Jesus would ask someone in her position, for a favor.

    Jesus did not hide the fact that this unusual circumstance,
        actually put him in her debt.
        He needed her.
            The despised one.
                No one in her own town
                    would presume to ask a favor from her.
                But Jesus was willing to.
        He was willing to make himself vulnerable.
            He needed her, and didn’t hesitate telling her so.

    His act of vulnerability stunned the Samaritan woman,
        and rendered Jesus’ disciples speechless,
            after they got back from the market.
    This may be the only place in the Bible where we are told
        what the characters in the story did not say.
        V. 27 tells us the questions they did not ask.
            Because they were speechless.

Now, you might ask, is it fair to assume God is vulnerable,
    just because Jesus of Nazareth, as a human, shows vulnerability?

Yes, absolutely. For two main reasons.
    One, it would be heresy to suggest that
        Jesus’ human nature exhibited characteristics that contradicted,
            that were at odds with,
            his divine nature.
        Orthodox Christian doctrine states that, though it is a mystery,
            Jesus was both fully human, and fully divine.
            And both complete natures co-existed, with integrity,
                in one person.
    But the second reason is even more compelling, logically.
        There cannot be authentic love, without vulnerability.
        If God cannot be vulnerable, God cannot love.

What makes this story about Jesus so important,
    and what makes me sound like a heretic
    to suggest that God is vulnerable or fragile,
        is that we spend so much energy
        trying to deny or work around our own vulnerability.

So it’s comforting to worship God the Rock.
    We have a lot invested in our image of God
        as an unshakeable, immovable, rock of Ages.
When all the world seems to be trembling around us,
    how reassuring to worship God the Rock
        who never wavers or quavers.
    The Rock in whom we hide.

Indeed, that is a theological confession
    I am willing to stand on.
    “Jesus, Rock of ages, let me hide myself in thee.”

But that picture is less than complete.
    Because God loves.
    I also willing to stand on this confession: “God is love.”

Because Jesus showed his own vulnerability,
    a Samaritan woman—
        a religiously and socially marginalized Samaritan woman—
    was able to receive, and share in, the saving, healing love of God.

For God to chose love,
    as the primary way of relating to his human creation . . .
    for God to so love the world,
        that God gave up his only begotten,
        as John 3 declared last Sunday . . .
    for God to risk all, for the sake of love . . .
        is for God to be vulnerable.

There cannot be love, without trust.
    There cannot be trust,
        without at least the possibility of that trust being broken.
    If it were not possible for us to refuse God,
        if it were not possible for us to break God’s heart,
        there would be no love between God and us.

I’m not the only one saying these things that sound at first like heresy.
    There was a well-known Swiss priest and spiritual writer
        in the last century—Fr. Maurice Zundel.
    He was a good friend of Pope Paul VI,
        and occasionally preached at the Vatican.
    He wrote these words (translated from the original French):
        “If I could sum up my faith, I would do so as follows . . .
            I believe in the infinite risk taken by God,
            I believe in the fragility of God because,
                if there is indeed nothing stronger than love,
                there is also nothing more fragile.”

I’m also reminded of the now aged, but still active and wise
    Jean Vanier, founder of the l’Arche communities
        for persons with profound mental disabilities.
    He argued that we all need to come to terms
        with our own immense fragility,
        that we should not shun it.
    He said, “Hope stems from the acceptance of reality, as it is.”
    He said that living among the profoundly disabled
        has transformed him, and others,
        because it has a “mysterious way of breaking down the barriers
            which surround our hearts.
        The [weak ones in the community]
            awaken that which is most profound with us;
            our hearts and our desire for relationship.”
    Living among these weak and vulnerable ones, he says,
        leads us into compassion,
        and leads us into the heart of God.

As I was thinking these thoughts about fragility and God,
    Vi Dutcher posted an article this past week,
        that reinforced it even further.
    It was an article that quoted an interview from 1980s
        by the PBS journalist and ordained preacher Bill Moyers,
        who interviewed the philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

    Nussbaum speaks of a deep paradox in the human condition:
        that our capacity to be vulnerable,
            is an essential part of being able to trust others,
                and therefore love others,
                and therefore experience human goodness.
        But that very same vulnerability
            is what allows tragedy to befall us.
    “Being human,” she says, “means
        accepting promises from other people
        and trusting that other people will be good to you.”
    Even though sometimes that trust is violated,
        if we retreat inward, in order to protect ourselves,
        we are choosing not to be human anymore.
    She says, and I quote, “The ethical [human] life . . . is based on
        a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed;
        it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel,
        something rather fragile,
            but whose very particular beauty
            is inseparable from its fragility.”

When I read those words,
    I saw immediately the connection to the biblical images
        for God and for Christ.
    Yes, we worship God as immovable Rock.
        The one in whom we hide, and take refuge.
    But we also worship God, as the tender shoot
        growing from the root of Jesse,
            as the Rose of Sharon,
            as the true Vine,
            as the mother hen—
                each image portraying tender beauty and love,
                a beauty that is inseparable from its vulnerability.
        And none more so than the lamb of God,
            whose very bruises and mortal wounds,
            are the source of our healing.

God’s love for us, and for all the world, is so great
    that God chooses to take on vulnerability and fragility,
        as part of his essential being,
        and to open himself to the wounds of the world.
God’s love for us leads God to trust us—us frail human beings—
    gathered into a frail human organism, the church,
    trusts us to be true partners in God’s healing and saving mission.

Thus, God opens himself again, and again,
    to the possibility of being disappointed, wounded, hurt.

In the face of such overwhelming love,
    can we do anything, but reciprocate?
    How can we not also throw in our lot with such a God?
        And risk ourselves, our interests, our very lives,
            for the sake of such goodness and love.
        And how can we not also open ourselves to the other?
            Whether family member or church member.
            Whether neighbor or stranger or enemy.

    Yes, we make ourselves vulnerable,
        whenever we choose to love another.
    Yes, we risk being wounded,
        whenever we remove our self-protective armor
            that we like to wear for safety and certainty.
    And yes, that vulnerability is the very thing we need to be human,
        in the way Jesus showed us how to be human.
        Because, in his own humanity,
            Jesus revealed the character
                of a loving, beautiful, and vulnerable God.

    To live like Jesus,
        to live a flourishing life, in God and with others,
            requires a deep willingness on our part,
            to trust and to be vulnerable.

Singer-songwriter Jerry Derstine, son of Virginia Derstine,
    from this congregation,
    wrote a song we love to sing
        that celebrates God’s power and stability,
    “Jesus, Rock of Ages, let me hide myself in thee,
        Jesus, Living Water, let me drink from your flowing stream.”
    And then let’s expand that image,
        by adding a second refrain:
    “Jesus, fragile Flower, let me trust my life with thee,
        Jesus, living Water, let me drink from your flowing stream.”

As we sing,
    may we, sincerely and truthfully,
        be making both these requests of God the Rock, and the Flower.
        Let me hide myself in the security of your power.
        And let me trust my life to the vulnerable beauty of your love.

—Phil Kniss, March 23, 2014

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