Sunday, April 15, 2018

Phil Kniss: The Gospel in broiled fish

"Where resurrection leads us: Toward healing”
Acts 3:1-16; Luke 24:36b-48

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We heard two Easter stories this morning—from Luke and Acts.
The stories are entirely different, and entirely connected.
They make more sense alongside each other.
Not surprising.
Luke and Acts is really one unified book with one author.

But these stories make even more sense,
when we read them alongside Luke 2, the Christmas story,
and Genesis 1-2, the Creation story.

In this worship series, our focus is the trajectory of Easter,
where resurrection leads us.
But the shape of this trajectory, 
this arc of God’s action among us,
did not begin at the resurrection.

It can be traced back to the Christmas story,
when God chose to come and dwell with us, in flesh, in Jesus.
But it goes back further, to Genesis, 
where on the sixth day of Creation,
God did not create another life form like animals and vegetation,
God created human beings in God’s own communal image.
God said, “let us make them in our image.”
And God put them in a garden, 
established a way of being with them.
From the beginning of human existence,
God created relationship. 
God intended to be with us, in the most profound way possible.

Of course, human beings walked out of that relationship of shalom,
usurped the role of God.
And God’s aim ever since has been to set things right,
to show God great and boundless love for human beings,
to demonstrate God’s desire for a covenant relationship,
where love and presence is freely given and received.
That intent of God to be with us, seen in Creation, seen in Jesus,
that is the lens we need when we gaze on the Gospel stories,
and try to make sense of them.
If we lose sight of that when we read these stories, 
we go on all kinds of crazy tangents.

In today’s reading from Luke,
Jesus shows up in the upper room to frightened followers,
shows him his hands and his side,
then eats some broiled fish, while they gawk in amazement.

I’ve heard this great Gospel story used to make a point
about the biology and chemistry of Jesus’ resurrection.
As in, Jesus did these things, so his disciples then, 
and future disciples living in the age of scientific skepticism,
would believe that his body’s cellular structure and internal organs
had all returned to their pre-crucifixion state.
He ate fish, after all. His digestive system still worked.
And I guess we are to assume that at some point
he had to go somewhere to relieve himself.
Bodies that eat and drink have to do that.

There are good theological reasons to think of Jesus’ resurrection
as an embodied resurrection,
into a glorified, imperishable body—
a body I have no need or desire to try to describe.
I am drawn to the idea of a Jesus who even now 
is embodied, in some eternal realm,
in the kind of glorified body we will one day inhabit.
After all, Jesus represents our full and perfect humanity.

Whether or not we believe that, we must admit,
proving his post-resurrection biology and chemistry,
is not, by any stretch, the point of these post-resurrection stories.
These stories are not about the physiology of Jesus.
They speak to the most profound human need—
the need to be accompanied, 
to be loved, 
to not suffer isolation or abandonment.

From the dawning of Creation we are hard-wired
for being in communion with others and with God.

The questions pressing in on the disciples in the upper room were not,
“What is the physical composition of Jesus’ body?”
“What kind of bodily functions does he still have?”

The only pressing question for them right then, and for us right now, 
is, “Are we alone? Have we been abandoned?”

And all the post-Easter stories answer us with a resounding, “NO!”
God is still with us.
Hence, Jesus’ comforting, reassuring words,
“Peace be with you.” I am here.

In Luke, Jesus meets the disciples where they were,
terrified to the core.
They thought they had been abandoned.
So Jesus, to strengthen their faith, ate some fish.

If Jesus wanted to convince his disciples that 
his body had muscle and mass, biologically,
he could have rapped his knuckles 
on the closed door he just came through,
he could have lifted up the corner of the table,
he could have tapped them on the shoulder.
Any of those would have been easy and immediate proof.

But no, he asked for something to eat.
And he waited on them . . . to bring him a piece of broiled fish.
And he stayed there, with them . . . eating as he had always done.

To demonstrate his real presence, Jesus chose to eat with them.
Which is exactly what he did 
with the two disciples on the Emmaus road,
earlier in the chapter.
It was when Jesus broke bread with them,
that their eyes were suddenly opened to see him.

Same here. Eating fish, breaking bread.
By that act the powerful good news was proclaimed! 
I am here with you!
That is the core of the Gospel, 
made manifest in a piece of broiled fish.

Eating food is not a little incidental detail.
It is the whole point.
Sitting at table and eating was rich with significance in that culture.
Nothing offended the religious elite more,
than when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners.
Eating with them meant he valued them,
desired their company and communion.

Incidentally, we embodied this on Thursday, at Kids Club,
in our Fellowship Hall.
We demonstrated to 30 neighborhood children—
from Christian and Muslim families,
and all kinds of countries
that we valued them, and we valued their company,
when we invited them to sit and eat around 6 round tables—
1 adult and 5 kids at each table breaking bread together,
and having each child take a turn serving us.
It was beautiful!

Whenever Jesus wanted to people to know he was really with them,
to listen to them,
or teach them,
or heal them,
or forgive them,
or confront them . . .
he pulled up a seat to the table with them, and ate.
It showed presence, love, hospitality and humility.

Now, at this post-Easter moment, 
in their despair and sense of abandonment,
the disciples needed, more than anything, 
to experience Jesus eating with them again.
And that’s what he gave them.

At the moment he began to eat that broiled fish,
the healing of the disciples began.
They finally got it!
They were beginning to understand the Gospel.

We see that in the healing story from Acts 3,
which we also heard this morning.

Healing is much more than the physical repair 
of muscle and bone,
of tissue and bodily organs.
It is a restoration of human beings
to the kind of life God intended for them at Creation—
embodied persons able to give and receive love.

The lame man who sat at the temple gate
was broken in many more ways than one.
True, his feet and ankles did not work properly.
But he was also cut off 
from the inner life and communal life
that God intended for him.
He had no broad sense of self-worth or belonging.
His only recognized task in life was to help his body survive.
The only way to do that was to beg for money,
so he could pay for food and shelter,
and survive to the next day.
We know how his culture and religion
viewed people like him.
He was seen not as a person with inherent worth,
but a person who was paying for somebody’s sin—
his own, his parents’, somebody’s.

The apostles Peter and John, with the help of the Spirit,
were now learning about the true nature of the Gospel—
about God’s desire to restore persons in every way,
bringing them back into fellowship with God and others.
So these learners of the Gospel looked at that man,
and were able to see not just the malfunctioning ankles and feet.
They saw the full potential of that man
who was a beloved child of God, and a son of Abraham.
They made the connection between his illness, his disease,
and the “dis-ease” of the whole family of God’s people,
who would push him to the side of their community,
and tell him he was only worth 
what his ankles and feet were worth.

So they healed the man’s feet and ankles.
But that was only the beginning.
There was a ruckus in the crowd,
as people saw the man walking and leaping.
They found Peter and John, expressed their amazement.

And Peter was more than ready 
to proclaim this Gospel he was still learning about,
that began to come into focus when Jesus ate the broiled fish.

He said (and I paraphrase vv. 12-16), “Don’t be amazed at this!
It wasn’t our power that made this happen.
This is just a demonstration of what God wants for all of us—
a full human life in right relationship 
with God and people and all creation.
Jesus of Nazareth came among us as God’s representative,
showing us how a human life should look,
came to us as the Author of Life itself.
And ironically, you killed the Author of Life.
But that wasn’t the end.
God raised Jesus. We ourselves saw it.
And God is now wanting all of us to have this kind of life.
This man standing before you is now whole again.
You can be whole, too!”

A pretty amazing Gospel word,
from someone who only weeks earlier,
was skulking around in the shadows,
and denying he knew anything about this man Jesus.
That’s what healing can do to us.
That’s what Jesus eating that fish in Peter’s presence did to him.
It restored his life.
It reassured him that he was not abandoned by God.
That God still was, and always would be, with him.

It’s no secret that we all carry with us, in our bodies,
physical, emotional, spiritual, and other kinds of brokenness.
We are wounded beings loved by God.

And we worship a risen Lord, who is the Author of Life—
author of the full and flourishing human life
that God designed for us at Creation.

Will we always find our way through
that cures all our ills?
that heals all our diseases?
that removes all that gives us dis-ease of mind or spirit or body?

No, but remember the broiled fish!
In the moment of the disciples’ deepest despair and darkness,
when they felt alone and abandoned,
Jesus came among them,
and asked for something to eat.
He asked to be permitted to commune with them at the table,
to demonstrate, bodily,
his commitment to be with them, now and always.
Even when that which gives us dis-ease remains with us,
this we can be sure of:
we are being accompanied by the Author of Life.
God has not left us alone.

I declare that as Gospel truth—as the truth revealed in scripture.

Now . . . all of us, myself included,
must learn how to live into that truth,
and embody it in our own lives.

That requires a great deal of humility,
of admitting our need,
of asking for help,
of opening ourselves 
to the healing ministry of our church community.

I invite us into a period of response,
and prayers for healing.
Those who are helping with this,
please come and take one of the bowls of anointing oil,
and take your places.

We offer several ways to respond, as you prefer and are willing.

If you yourself are experiencing dis-ease, or dis-order,
of mind, or body, or spirit, or relationship,
and you can name that area of need . . . 

or if there is dis-ease or dis-order beyond yourself, 
in your extended family, the church, the larger community, 
or even globally,
that weighs heavy,
that keeps you from the full life that God desires for you,
and you can name that area of need . . . 

and want to bring it to the church for prayer and anointing,
you are invited to one of five persons—
three along the front,
and two in back corners of the sanctuary.

There they will listen to you,
pray for you and anoint you, if you desire,
on behalf of this healing community.

Or maybe there is a dis-ease or dis-order 
getting in the way of the life God wants for you,
and you can’t yet name it—
either you don’t know what it is,
or you know, but aren’t ready to name it.

I invite you to come to the front altar table,
where I am placing bowls containing healing salve,
a symbolic balm for whatever wounds you carry today.
Dip a finger in the balm,
and prayerfully rub it into your own hands,
or take it to a friend or loved one here in the sanctuary,
and share it with them, anoint their hands with it.

As we come,
Shekinah will be singing, and then we will all sing, 
HWB 377 Healer of our every ill.

—Phil Kniss, April 15, 2018

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Phil Kniss: Recognizing Jesus

"Where resurrection leads us: Towards seeing Jesus”
John 20:19-31

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Our sermon today has been primarily in song,
and we are grateful to the Rockway choir 
for sharing so generously and meaningfully with us.
Blessings to you all as you finish up the festival events today,
and make your way back home tomorrow.

I do want to make just a couple brief comments about our Gospel text,
so that we can keep this wonderful story in its larger context
of this Easter Season which we began last Sunday.
In the Christian calendar, Easter is not a day, it’s a season.
It is 50 days long and culminates in Pentecost.
And each Sunday, through the scripture,
we ponder the implications of Jesus’ resurrection.
Clearly, the implications for Jesus’ disciples is huge,
and that includes us.

Today’s Gospel text is often referred to the “doubting Thomas” story,
which is unfair, because the other disciples also doubted.
And it’s unfair to the story itself.

This is really a story about recognizing Jesus for who Jesus is,
and putting our trust in him.

This is not a story about condemning doubt,
or looking down on people who ask questions and seek answers.
This story is about a God who comes to us on our turf,
who enters our space, and our time,
and says, here I am, to be with you.

This is a story about God’s action through the Risen Christ,
to move in, with love and grace, 
taking initiative to restore and reconcile all Jesus’ followers,
all of whom need to be forgiven, and healed,
and loved back into a covenant relationship with him.

Contrary to what we think sometimes,
God doesn’t try to make it difficult for us to have faith.
God isn’t playing a cruel game of hide and seek.
God wants to be found. Wants to be recognized.

If some of us have a hard time finding faith,
we may be looking in the wrong places.
God is generous and gracious.
And ready to provide whatever we need for faith.

Some of us are like Thomas, God bless us.
We are persistent seekers.
We are stubborn pursuers of truth.
We’re not satisfied with easy or stock answers.
God honors that. Meets us where we are.

Some of us are more like Peter, the passionate disciple,
living more by the heart than the head.
God honors that, too. Meets us where we are.

The faith God is most pleased with,
is the faith that, even with unanswered questions,
trusts God enough to keep asking, keep seeking,
until we find and recognize the Jesus who wants to be found.

If we approach with an open heart,
when we encounter that Jesus, 
we will, like Thomas, know it and declare it.
“My Lord, and my God.”
There will be a spiritual harmony in our spirit, 
to use the words of the beautiful anthem the choir opened with.

Let me end with those words:
Thou shalt know Him when he comes
not by any din of drums,
Nor his manners nor his airs,
nor by anything he wears.
Thou shalt know him when he comes,
not by his crown or by his gown,
But his coming known shall be
by the holy harmony which his coming makes in thee.
Thou shalt know him when he comes. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, April 8, 2018

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Phil Kniss: Life Unwrapped

Easter Sunday: Nothing between us
John 20:1-18; Isaiah 25:6-9

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I didn’t go back and look, but I have no doubt.
My most frequent way of opening an Easter sermon at Park View,
over the many years I’ve preached them here,
is to make some remark about how ready we are for this day!
About how we’ve never been as ready for Easter,
as this year.

I’m sure that’s the case,
because every Easter I feel that deeply,
in my Spirit and in my bones.
I am ready. Ready for the light and life of resurrection.

It has to do, in part,
because the rhythms of worship require
that we spend seven weeks in a fasting season of Lent.
Seven weeks is a long time to wait to break the fast,
come out of the shadows,
and enjoy the light,
and join in the feast.
And it has to do, in part,
because the rhythms of the natural world call for it.
The dark and frigid winter is beginning to thaw,
new life is pushing up out of the cold hard ground.
And we are always more than ready for that.

And it has a lot to do with the state of our world,
the darkness of our human condition.
Every year seems to be a little heavier than the last one.

I still remember the first Easter after 9/11,
the fear and anxiety that gripped the world in the spring of 2002.
The U.S. and our allies had launched a war in Afghanistan.
And the first invasion by ground forces
came just a couple weeks before Easter.
During Holy Week, in Israel,
a suicide bomber with Hamas killed 30.
It’s been known ever since as the Passover massacre.
And Israel responded with a massive military operation,
in which 30 more Israelis were killed,
and 497 Palestinians were killed, according to the U.N.
That was our world . . . on Easter Day of 2002,
when I’ll bet I stood in this pulpit, and said,
at least to myself, if not to you—
“Never before, and maybe never again,
will there be a year that we need the Easter message,
as desperately as we do now.”

But almost every Easter since then, for 16 years now,
a similar thought has crossed my mind.

So . . . if the Easter message is true—
and yes, I believe it’s truest truth I know—
then why isn’t the light and life getting the upper hand by now?
Why is there still so much darkness?
I don’t even need to recite the litany of despair that stays with us—
in a world of war and oppression,
in a country of increasing polarization and hatred,
in communities and churches and families
that are suffering from brokenness and division.
We humans continue to inflict unimaginable cruelty on each other,
and offense against God.

And yet, here comes Easter again . . .
with the persistent message of hope and the power of light and love,
and the defeat of death and darkness.
Every year, this word of Good News for the world
circles around again.
But does the world look any different for it?

I wonder if the prophets in the Old Testament ever felt that way.
After all,
their message was a little repetitive, too.
They also spoke of a bright, new day,
when God’s anointed would show up and set all things right.
And there were some times and seasons,
where the people would repent and turn to God,
and things seemed to shimmer just a little brighter,
for a while.
But eventually . . . it would flame out.
Human rebellion would rear its ugly head.
Violence and oppression and greed
would overtake the people of God.
And they would sink back into darkness.

During Lent this year, in the shadow season that preceded this day,
we have been reviewing a whole series of covenants
God made with God’s people.
We titled our worship series, “Living Between,”
because we were exploring this space between us and God,
and between ourselves,
and the covenants that help us navigate that space.

There was the covenant with Noah:
a promise God made to all creation,
never to destroy the earth again.
Then there was the covenant with Abraham.
“I will bless all nations through you and your descendants.”
Third, we looked at the covenant with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai,
written on stone that Moses brought down from the mountain.
Then there was a “covenant for healing,”
when God told Moses to lift a bronze serpent up on a pole.

Of course,
everyone of these covenants was deeply marred by rebellion—
on the part of the human partners in the covenant.

But . . . Covenant #5 would surely be the last,
in Jeremiah, the covenant written on the heart.

But no, even that one failed to usher in a golden age of human goodness.

As we look back . . . down the Lenten path that brought us to Easter,
we see . . . strewn along the roadside,
piles of rubble, the detritus of broken covenants.
None of these covenants turned the world on its head.

But God is a persistent one.
We celebrate a new covenant today,
one made possible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
This covenant was foreshadowed by the ones that came earlier.
And the prophet Isaiah was given a clear vision of it.

Remember the words we just heard? Isaiah 25.
7 The Lord of hosts . . . will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8 he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people
he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
Now there’s a striking metaphor.
“The Lord will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples.”

This shroud cast over all peoples . . . is nothing but a death wrap.
Not to be morbid,
but we’re talking here about a cosmic body bag.

This is a direct reference to the customary burial practice
of wrapping the dead in a shroud,
to create a visual and physical separation,
between the dead and the living.

We have a different cultural practice in North America.
We dress people up.
Put makeup on their faces.
Make them look like they’re sleeping peacefully.

In Jesus’ day, and in many middle eastern cultures still today,
the body is enshrouded,
from head to toe.
And an extra cloth is placed over the face,
as an extra barrier.
The shroud, and the face cloth,
are strong symbols of the finality of death.
When a body is shrouded,
that visual separation between life and death
is what defines that body.
At that point, death is the defining reality.
The person cannot be mistaken for being asleep.

So hold that metaphor in your mind,
as think again about what Isaiah said.
All peoples. All nations.
Are now, already, wrapped in their death shroud.
Death and destruction define the peoples,
and define creation itself.
There is no mistaking the situation here.
We are not peacefully sleeping.
The whole world is shrouded.
The whole world is under a covenant of death, you might say.

But . . . the Lord of hosts, says Isaiah,
the Lord of hosts is preparing a feast.
Not a funeral meal, a wedding feast.
A feast for all peoples,
“a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.” (v. 6)
And then . . . then . . . when the banquet is ready,
God is going to rip off that death shroud
that is covering all peoples.
And not just remove it—rip it to shreds!
God is going to destroy the shroud, says Isaiah.
It can never be used as a death shroud again.
It’s a forever kind of thing.
It’s a for all peoples and for all nations kind of thing.

The resurrection covenant was foreseen by Isaiah,
and sealed in God’s decisive action in Christ that first Easter.
We are asked to participate in this covenant.
We are invited to live in light of the resurrection.

Because of that ripped up shroud,
the covenant of death is no more,
we are under a covenant of resurrection.
Resurrection now defines us.

Of course, that does not mean we don’t . . . still . . . deal . . . head on,
with the ugliness of death.

Easter did not undo Jesus’ crucifixion.
Easter gave the crucifixion of Jesus its meaning.

Easter did not undo Jesus’ suffering and death.
Nor does Easter nullify the continuing suffering and death
in our lives and world today.

Rather, Easter is an invitation to us who believe,
to live full lives here in this broken and sinful world,
to actually move toward that brokenness, and pain, and death,
and meet the saving, death-destroying God
who is right there in the middle of it.

For Easter people, the death shroud no longer defines our lives.
The separation has been removed.
There is nothing between!
Believing in resurrection is not an escape from death.
It’s an invitation to live in genuine hope,
while surrounded by pain and suffering and death,
because we know who God is.

So as we look at all the evidence around us,
that the world is falling into a deeper and deeper darkness,
we will not be full of fear and despair.

As resurrection people, we will not shun death.
We will not conceal death under a shroud or a face-cloth.
We will not fear, deny, hide, or cover up death.
We will face it full on, and claim God’s power over it.

Resurrection does not make us turn away from death.
No, it allows us to incorporate death fully into the stuff of life
over which Jesus is Lord.
Death is not an ultimate power, it is a subservient power.
It is subservient to the power of God.

I love that the Gospel of John,
in its version of the Easter story,
makes a special point
about the linen wrappings left behind in the tomb.
John even mentions the detail about the face-cloth.

They were left behind by the risen Jesus.
No longer needed.
No more final separation between the dead and the living.
There is, now, finally, nothing between!

God’s intent, all through history,
from the very first covenants with Noah, with Abraham, with Israel,
until the present day,
God’s aim is life.
God’s purpose is wholeness.
God’s agenda is to restore and to save.
Easter is all the proof we need,
to live fully and joyfully,
even when death surrounds us.
Thanks be to God!

The communion we are about to celebrate
is about life in the company of death.

We will soon experience the joy of communing
with tangible symbols of Christ’s suffering and death.
It’s no accident that in these nourishing elements,
which we will eat and drink with thanksgiving,
in these very elements
are reminders of the death shroud,
of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood.
But we partake of these elements
knowing that shroud has been destroyed,
that death will never again have the last word.

Read together . . .
Lord, it is with great joy that we gather around this table.
It is with praise to you our loving Creator God,
who from the founding of the world
have been seeking us, drawing us toward you.
It is with thanksgiving for the work of your Son Jesus Christ,
who was born in the flesh, lived and walked among us,
and showed us how to live in the kingdom of God;
who suffered and died, taking on himself the burden of our sins
and the sins of the world, and who, by your might,
broke the power of sin and death
and rose to new life and lives still in your presence.
And it is with thanksgiving
for the work of your Spirit among us,
that we invite your Spirit to come among us anew,
to comfort us, convict us, shape us into your people.
So Lord, we come to the table,
Nourish us, strengthen us, sustain us, as we partake of this food,
and as we come into your real presence.
In the name of Christ who lives and rules,
and walks beside us. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, April 1, 2018

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