Sunday, July 10, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Struggling with Tough Questions

Summer 2016: This is a story full of love...
Luke 10:25-37

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The story of the Good Samaritan, from the gospel of Luke. is familiar to many of us. We know it, we read it to our kids and grandchildren, we tell it, we teach it, we act it out in dramas!

It could be described as an ‘example story’, that is, it shows us how to live and be and act in our lives as people of faith. We are called to be imitators of Christ and to show love, care for others. Only one of the 3 men, the helpful Samaritan, acted compassionately. God and Do likewise! An example story, so we should pay attention.



But is that it? The challenge for any of us in using a very familiar story like this, especially preachers preparing a sermon, is to read it through fresh eyes, to ask new questions, to probe different angles. Is there anything at all that “afflicts” us, challenges us, or intrudes into our thinking that we didn’t see before?



Let’s step back, look at a slightly bigger context and get the fuller story. It starts with a lawyer, an expert in the law, asking Jesus the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The text states he is testing Jesus. Maybe he is just being bold and wanting to get right down to the deeper stuff, not shallow thought and theology, but what really is important. Jesus responds to the question with his own question, turning it back to the lawyer. “What is written in the Law?” Jesus asks. “How do you interpret it, understand it?”

The lawyer gives an A+ answer...he is right on. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your strength and with your mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus replies, “That is correct. Do this and you will live.”



But the lawyer seems to need more, maybe further clarification, and so asks another question? “And who is my neighbor?” ahhh..tough question! “How much love are we talking about Jesus?’, he might be thinking. Let’s get specific. Where can I draw the line? There are lines, aren’t there? This can’t be totally open ended and without some limits and boundaries, can it?”

As a lawyer he might have been interested in more dialogue and discussion on this matter, wanting to know the finer points of responsible neighborliness. Instead Jesus tells a story!

The man walking down the road between Jerusalem and Jericho gets beaten, robbed, stripped of his clothes and left to die. A priest and Levite, one at a time, come by and pass on the other side. When the 3rd man comes along, a Samaritan, he came where the man was, he drew close, and felt great pity. He bandaged the wounds, anointed them with oil and wine, put him on his donkey, took him to the inn, where he cared for him, paid the innkeeper and promised to return.

“Which of the three was a neighbor to the man beaten?” Jesus asks the lawyer. “The one who showed mercy” he replies.

“Go and do likewise,” Jesus says. Do this...do this!!!



Do this. Draw close. Show mercy. Extend kindness. ( The story,..... we know it, we read it, we tell it, we teach it, but do we live it?) Live out your theology in hands on care for other people. Get down on your knees. Get dirty, maybe even bloody, and bind the wounds. Don’t just Think love. Do it!

We may need to do something that makes us feel uncomfortable, or is inconvenient or puts us out of our comfort zone. It may be something major and time consuming or relatively small and a simple act of kindness.



(Example: tell stories of helping Ben and family move to Asheville, NC. Include hospitality and kindness shown by staff person at Lutheran Church, allowing us to come in and use restrooms, offering cold glasses of lemonade to kids, playground for them, etc. Also kindness/welcoming from their neighbor, who brought hot meal from Boston Market, plenty of food, a real feast, including a bottle of wine, as we were in state of chaos of unpacking and had not food or anything in house!!)



We ‘get it’, don’t we? We must do the same. It’s an ‘example’ story. At one level, this is the main point of the story, but is this enough? Might there be something else that is ‘afflicting’ us, even intruding into our thoughts that hasn’t before?



Two tough questions emerge!...



1.) In our context today, Who is our neighbor?



2.) Where do we find ourselves in this story? Does the story change depending on where we locate ourselves within it? 
 

Let’s look at that first “tough” question. Who is our neighbor? In the parable, during Jesus’ time, the ‘neighbor’ is the ‘other’, that is the enemy. The third man who came along and finally did something to help the beaten man was a Samaritan. There was bitter tension between Jews and Samaritans. The two groups disagreed about everything that mattered...how they interpreted the Scriptures, where and how to worship and honor God, they avoided social contact with each other as much as possible. They really hated each other, so for Jesus to make a Samaritan the hero of the story, must have been shocking to those hearing this story in the first century. Absolutely shocking! It was a scandal. You just didn’t put the word ‘good’ along with Samaritan!



So in our contemporary lives, who is ‘the Samaritan? who is the last person on earth we would want to have save our lives or be deemed the ‘good guy’? Might it be someone who is at the other end of the spectrum politically, you know....the staunch conservative Republican, or the liberal Democrat? Could it actually be a person on our block who has strong beliefs on abortion or the death penalty and makes it known? Is the ‘other’ for us today, the gay couple who rent our apartment, or the person who comes to us for a job with a known police record or is a registered sex offender? And what about the recent immigrants that settle in our communities and work in our factories and fields and food service, some accused of “taking ‘our’ jobs”? Yet are we willing to do that work when we need a job?



The enmity between the Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day was real. The differences were real and not easily negotiated; each was fully convinced that the other was wrong. Sounds familiar....I hear that today regarding our discussion and debates on same-gender issues. Faithful Christians studying the Bible using the same texts and coming to different understandings on issues of the day, each fully convinced that the other is wrong.

So when Jesus deemed the Samaritan ‘good’, it was radical, risky and probably stunned his Jewish listeners. He was asking them to think ‘outside the box’, to dream of a different kind of kingdom, to put aside the history they knew, the prejudices they carried, the hatred that was buried deep. He asked them to leave room for the divine, for God to work and for the possibility that old ways and ideas might need to be altered and even transformed.



So how would you answer the tough question, “Who is your neighbor?



Let’s look at the second tough question.

Where do we find ourselves in the story?

Where do you locate yourself?



Do we find ourselves identifying with the ‘religious leaders’? Many of us are in some of those roles? Do we find ourselves busy, preoccupied, doing ‘good’ work in the church, in ministries, in institutions, and most days can’t find the time, the energy to add one thing more? When needs arise, how do we weigh whether we get involved? When do we pass on by? and then sometimes feel guilty. How do we protect ourselves from taking on too many things and trying to solve and fix things and people? What are our limits? Are we like the lawyer who asks the question, Who is my neighbor? and wanting to know if there are some boundaries, some limits, some guidelines? Do we sometimes respond to needs that become more than we can handle, becoming overwhelming and then feeling trapped?



(Ex. I confess I have frequently felt like the priest who walked on by, especially when I receive calls at the office from someone in need, especially when it is close to 5pm and I am ready to leave the office after some stressful work, and I debated whether to answer the phone, but did, then found out I was listening to a person recount their situation and knowing I somehow had to respond with ??? money, pledge of payment, compassionate listening ear, or sorry, can’t help. What to do??)



Do we find ourselves identifying with the good Samaritan? offering what we can, mercy, compassion, support, money, food,.... On good days, maybe we see ourselves in that person, hoping we can in some way, large or small make a difference. Maybe it is enough to ‘draw near’ to the needy and not to pass by on the other side. Maybe we need to go where the need is, to draw close, to see, to bend down, to touch, to listen, to anoint, to carry, to be present! Maybe on some days, that is enough. We are not expected to carry the whole load, to fix all the parts that are broken in people’s lives. God is already at work and we find ways to join in that work, however we can.



Do we ever locate ourselves in the story, in the beaten and bloody man, dying on the road, or lying in the ditch? We don’t know his religious belief, or profession or social status. He is just beaten, bloody, broken, vulnerable and in desperate need. Have we ever been in that place? some of us have, maybe physically, emotionally, spiritually broken, grateful to anyone, anyone at all who will show mercy and kindness and compassion. All divisions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ disappear. Maybe this is more than an ‘example story’. You know, go and do likewise, like the good Samaritan. Maybe this is a ‘reversal story! When you think of yourself as the one lying in the ditch, bloody and bruised, it isn’t important if you have the same beliefs or faith, or sexual preferences or political views. What matters is whether or not anyone will stop to show you mercy, love, compassion, before you die. You may not have ever experienced that kind of desperation, maybe some of you have. It won’t matter if you interpret scripture the same way or like the person, or agree with her views. All that matters will be that someone is there to reach out and pull you up and hold you together. And you might have to swallow your pride and grab hold of a hand you thought you would never touch or a person you would never speak to, or the person you can barely tolerate!



Who is your neighbor?” the lawyer asked. Your neighbor is the one who turns things on end, reverses things, the usual categories no longer apply, and suddenly you might see the hand reaching out is the ‘other’ and it shocks you, for in that person you see the face of God. “Your neighbor is the one who mercifully steps over the ancient, bloodied line separating ‘us’ from ‘them’ and teaches you and me the real meaning of ‘Good’.

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Phil Kniss: Hurry up and wait

Summer 2016: This is a story full of love...
Luke 10:1-11; Galatians 6:7-10

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The notion that the world is going down the tubes,
    is getting so commonplace,
    it’s almost become common knowledge.
I don’t actually believe it myself,
    but seems a lot of people do.

I don’t know how you actually measure
    this level of global despair,
    but I’d say it’s as high as I’ve seen it in my lifetime.

Whatever common bond it is that provides stability,
    that holds together institutions, systems, nations, denominations,
    political parties, economic alliances, you name it . . .
        in many places, that common bond is dissolving,
        trust in each other as human beings is eroding,
        much of the fabric that holds us together is fraying.

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Cherry, of the Church of England,
    who, you might recall,
        preached here at Park View a couple years ago,
        just before he took his current post
            as the Dean of Kings College, in Cambridge,
    commented recently on Britain’s exit from the European Union.

    He wasn’t in favor of it,
        and he’s worried about its long-term implications.
    But the part of his comments that caught my attention
        were his talk of “granular politics.”
    That is, politics that get narrower and narrower,
        down to the individual grains . . .
        always preferring individual autonomy and independence
            over collaboration and community.

Today, on July 3, one day before our national holiday
    celebrating independence from Great Britain,
    and individual freedom in general,
        it might be apropos to listen to the wisdom
        of at least this one Brit.
    Having learned to know Stephen personally
        during his sabbatical among us in Harrisonburg,
        I know him to be compassionate, wise, humble,
            and a passionate follower of Jesus.

So . . . Dr. Cherry,
    in his written comments on the Brexit referendum,
    lamented the “absence of convincing political leadership
        (which is essentiality the art of selling principled compromise).”
    And he lamented “the desire for binary questions
        based on unsubstantiated promises . . .
        [which] panders to the deep desire we all have
            to believe things boil down to a simple yes / no
            and to believe that at last someone as noble and wise as ME
                is making the decision that counts.
        This is . . . foolish (he writes)—but also deeply seductive.”

Put simply, Stephen Cherry is calling us all to account,
    we who favor quick and simple and black-and-white answers,
    we who value individual autonomy over working hard together,
    we who are looking for strong leaders that like to “go it alone,”
    we who act out of ideology, rather than collaborate
        and hammer out a compromise for the good of the whole.

He is warning us all of the dangers of “granular politics.”

I resonate with him.
And it seems to me this rabid desire to “go it alone”—
    and to diminish the value of community,
    gets especially dangerous when you combine that thinking
        with pent-up frustration and anger,
        and a feeling that you are losing control.

All sorts of less-than-virtuous behaviors result,
    that further divide us and inflict injury on each other.

In the church, it gets expressed in all kinds of sub-Christian
    and even violent behavior—
        divisive and manipulative tactics,
        controlling maneuvers,
        mean-spirited discourse.

And in the larger world,
    it comes out in embarrassingly bad politics,
    divided neighborhoods and communities,
    and in the most extreme form—acts of terrorism,
        at home and abroad.

The more granular we get in our thinking and behaving,
    the more violent this world becomes.

No longer do we wonder how many months
    before the next incident of public terrorism,
    where scores of people lose their lives.
We wonder how many incidents will there be this month.

In the month of June we had the Orlando massacre,
    then two more this past week—
        at the Istanbul airport, and a Bangladesh bakery.
    In earlier months, there were the Hesston shootings,
        the Brussels airport attack, and more.

The sense of helplessness is pervasive, and contagious.
    It brings even more anxiety and more fear,
        and more hostile acts committed by fearful people.

The need in this world for the peace of Christ to come and reign,
    is obvious, and urgent.
_____________________

So I am here this morning to proclaim the Gospel,
    the Good News of Jesus.
    That’s my job as a preacher.
    And by God’s grace I will undertake it, even in these dark times.

Fortunately, the Gospels, in our written form, make it easy to do.
    These Gospels serve as our sacred compilation
        of Jesus himself living and proclaiming and demonstrating
            the Good News of God’s reign of peace,
            in the midst of one of the most fearful, anxious,
                and brutal periods in the history of God’s people.
    Think there is urgency for the Gospel of peace today?
    No more than there was for the people in Jesus’ day.

So let’s dig a little more into Luke 10
    and examine this urgency for the kingdom of peace,
    and see what it means for us.

Jesus lived in a period of occupation and oppression by Rome—
    an Empire known for its pure domination of the known world.
His people were ruled by one of the most brutal regional kings,
    Herod the Great,
    who terrorized everyone under his rule, including his family.
    Jesus’ own people, to whom he preached and healed and ministered,
        were under even more stress and distress, I believe,
        than we are under today.
The urgency for peace was obvious
    to Jesus, to his disciples, to all the people.

So Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs, to surrounding villages,
    to preach and proclaim the Gospel of peace,
        the Reign of God.
    And it was urgent.

The fields were white and ready for harvest, Jesus said,
    and the workers were few.
    Many of us have heard that text
        explained by contemporary evangelical preachers,
        as if it were referring to individual souls ready to be saved,
            like ripe heads of grain ready to be plucked,
            and all they need are more available Christians
                to lead them in the sinner’s prayer.
        Now, I’m not suggesting that’s a bad thing.
        If the Spirit leads you to pray with someone
            seeking reconciliation with God,
            by all means, pray, and expect God to do good things.

    But this text is not about that particular kind of harvesting.
        If all we see in this text is a way to advance the cause
            of individual witness and evangelism,
            we have ignored its original context and meaning.
        The fields are ripe, but in an entirely different way.
        Jesus spoke these words in a time
            of wide-spread stress and distress
                among the people of God,
                among the faithful and devout.

    Under the pressure of public persecution and violence,
        God’s people are fast losing their identity and calling.
        They are looking for salvation in the wrong places.
    In this time of social and spiritual upheaval,
        some seek redemption through violent retribution—
            confronting the Romans on their terms.
        Some seek salvation through ritual purity
            while ignoring the cries of the poor and widow and orphan.

    And in the middle of all these differences among themselves—
        different moral visions of how to live in this world,
        different understandings of what God wants of them—
            in the midst of that
                they are acting out their fears and anxieties,
                they are fighting among themselves,
                and they are losing their faithful witness to the world.
        Sound familiar?

    So into this wide-spread social and spiritual upheaval,
        ripe and ready for a new compelling vision,
        Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs,
            and gives them an urgent assignment:
            “Say to the people, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’”

    There is another way,
        beyond answering violence with violence,
        beyond ritual purity, or a spirituality of escape.
    There is the way of God’s Kingdom—and it is near us.
        Close enough to touch.
        God is calling his people to see, and embrace, and enter into
            the new order God is establishing—
                a real, present, and socially embodied peoplehood,
                where God in Christ rules, now and forever.
            And rules in peace,
                and with justice for the oppressed,
                    with healing for the broken,
                    with mercy for the sinner,
                    with salvation for the lost.

    It is a new way of living that few understand,
        and even fewer have experienced.
    It is a message of peace for a kingdom of peace,
        grounded in the life and work of Messiah Jesus.
    And it is available for all.
    It will keep God’s people from utterly perishing
        under the iron hand of King Herod.
    There is another king who demands their loyalty,
        who reigns not with violent threats,
        but through self-sacrificing love.

This is a radical message,
    and it is urgently needing to be shared.
        The time is now.
        The fields are white.
        And there are too few workers.

That entirely explains Jesus’ strange instructions:
    Go, now!
    Hurry!
    Don’t get distracted by sidewalk conversations along the way.
    Walk with purpose down the middle of the road,
        turn neither to the right or left.
    And don’t take anything with you
        that will weigh you down or slow you down.
    Get there!

And then, once you get to the place where you are being sent, stop.
    Stay.
    Listen.
    Receive before you give.

In other words, hurry to get there. And when you arrive, slow down.
    Hurry up, and wait.

    This message about the new order,
        about a new way of relating to God as a people,
        is simply too radically different
            for people to embrace it immediately.
        Earn their trust.
        Accept what they have to give you—
            eat what is set before you, Jesus says,
            don’t move around from house to house, Jesus says,
                as if lingering conversations and lasting relationships
                    don’t matter.
        Enter into the life of that community,
            but don’t leave it at that,
            and don’t leave them where they’re at.
        As you are led,
            heal the sick,
            do works of mercy,
            and proclaim the good news that
                “The kingdom of God has come near to you!”
        In other words,
            don’t imagine you can usher in the kingdom yourself,
                by wielding your own power
                    or trying to control outcomes,
                    or looking for some magical inner capacity
                        to be spiritually pure.
        No, the kingdom of God belongs to God alone,
            and to God’s Messiah.
            It is yours to receive.
            And it is, even now, near enough for you to touch.
_____________________

As I think about this crazy, over-stressed,
    and fragmented world we live in,
    that sounds like Good News.
    The kingdom of peace, the Kingdom of God, is near.
        Receive it.

    It doesn’t immediately answer all the questions
        about how we live in this world, in light of the kingdom.
    But it does provide an important, and necessary,
        spiritual posture of dependence.

    It might lead us to relate to current events
        in a dramatically different way.
    As a matter of fact, I’ve been pondering my own habits lately.
        Ways I habitually take in and process events
            that unfold in the larger world,
                in our political arena,
                and in the church.

    I have choices how to relate to these events,
        and how to respond.
        I can obsess over them.
        I can let anger and fear dominate.
        I can listen to every anxious voice straining to be heard.

    Or I can choose to stay informed and aware,
        while grounded and reflective,
            and dependent on God and God’s people
            for my sense of well-being.
    I can choose new practices and habits.

Recently I decided to limit—not eliminate, but limit—
    my exposure to network news and internet feeds,
    and other 24/7 sources of news and commentary and opinion,
        all of which are aimed at intensifying my emotional reactions,
        because that’s good for marketing.
    Sound bites, hyperbole, over-the-top reactions from talking heads
        stoke irrational fear and anxiety,
        more than provide meaningful information.

So I’m reading the newspaper more than I did,
    yes, the one made of paper.
    I’m sitting on our front porch more.
What do I really gain from being the “first to know”
    of the latest disaster or outrageous political remark?
Do I need continuous, real-time access to news,
    in order to be a good healthy citizen?
    Might I benefit just as much if I find out after a night of rest,
        from a more reflective and nuanced written piece
            by a thoughtful reporter or commentator
            (while sipping good coffee, of course).

Another intentional practice, lately, when driving in my vehicle,
    when it’s important to my own safety and to others
        for me to be grounded and attentive to my surroundings—
    is to listen to the news less, and to music more—
        jazz, classical, singer-songwriter, any good music.
    I let myself be moved by the art of song, the beauty of music,
        which often uplifts and inspires me.
    It’s not rocket science, but I think I finally figured out,
        that I function better when I arrive
            at my next meeting or appointment or hospital visit
            in a state of uplift and inspiration and gratitude,
            than in a state of tension and anxiety and despair.

And it kind of goes without saying
    that how we start off our day matters.
    I think and feel (and probably act) differently,
        when I begin in a quiet space,
            read some scripture, pray, meditate—
        before checking email, online news, and Facebook.

What we feed our minds with matters.
    As our Galatians text said this morning,
        “you reap whatever you sow.
        If you sow to your own flesh,
            you will reap corruption from the flesh;
            but if you sow to the Spirit,
            you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
        So let us not grow weary in doing what is right . . .
            whenever we have an opportunity,
            let us work for the good of all.”

Limiting or delaying exposure is not denial.
    I can be fully aware of the brokenness and horror in this world,
    but still choose to move through life
        with love and gentleness toward everyone,
        and in confidence that the future belongs to God in Christ.

    That is not denial.
    That is a choice to live in light of the kingdom of God near us,
        the kingdom of peace that is within reach.

    Yes, there is an urgency today
        to get a fresh glimpse of that kingdom
        and by the grace of God in Christ,
            to proclaim it, demonstrate it, model it,
            in a world where the fields are ripe,
                and more than ready for Good News workers.

    We are blessed to be recipients of Good News,
        that God is on a mission to restore, redeem, and reconcile.
        That what we see, is not all there is.
    Now, more than ever, the world needs this kind of Gospel.
        Let us do whatever we need to do, and do it quickly,
            to get to whatever place God is sending us.
        Let us rid ourselves of whatever distracts us,
            or weighs us down.
        And let us seek out persons and places
            who are open to our proclaiming peace,
            open to receive the peace we pronounce.

        And Jesus Christ who sends us, will also go with us.

—Phil Kniss, July 3, 2016



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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Phil Kniss and Moriah Hurst: Sermon and response for Moriah's installation

Installation service: Sermon and Response
On the occasion of the installation of Moriah Hurst as
Associate Pastor for Children, Youth, and Families

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

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The video above contain's only Phil's sermon and Moriah's response. To view the entire installation service, including the hymns, children's story, and installation rituals and prayers, please click here.
 

...or listen to audio:


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


...or read it online here:

I love having a prescribed lectionary to preach from,
    even on a special occasion like a pastoral installation.
    Or like last Sunday, when we were all thinking about Orlando,
        and we needed scripture to speak to us.
    I appreciated having lectionary texts last week,
        to listen for what the scripture wanted to say.
        And think I heard something worth sharing.

That’s the benefit of following a schedule of readings,
    not tied to topics or current events, but to a calendar.
    I’m not so tempted to decide first what I want to say,
        and then dig around for scripture to back me up,
        to reinforce what I would have said anyway.
    Instead, I go to the assigned texts and listen with an open heart.

So this week, I read the stories from 1 Kings and Luke,
    looking for a word that might speak to us, and to Moriah,
    on the occasion of celebrating her call to ministry among us.
And, as often happens, it was staring me in the face,
    as if I chose the text for the occasion.
_____________________

So in I Kings we have a story of a young person being called to ministry,
    to replace someone who had served long and well in the same role.
    See any parallels?

But there things that don’t parallel our situation.
    For example, when the prophet Elisha was called to replace Elijah,
        it was up to Elijah to name his own successor.

Clearly, that’s not the way we do things around here.
    We liked Ross well enough,
        but when he exited, we didn’t give him that much power.

But there is one parallel in this story I want to highlight.
    I want to point out something I see in the heart of Elisha,
        which I also see in Moriah,
        and which I commend to all of us,
        as a good way to approach work in the kingdom of God.

One thing I have learned about Moriah,
    in the short time I’ve known her,
    is that she is not half-hearted.
She’s all in.
    When she listens, she listens fully.
    When she speaks, she speaks honestly.
    When she expresses emotion, she expresses it freely.
    When she laughs, she laughs heartily.
    When she wants to build a relationship with people,
        especially young people,
        she won’t just meet them halfway.
        She’ll go the extra mile.

I imagine that’s how someone might have described Elisha.
    At least, reading this story, that’s what I see in this young man.

Elisha knew Elijah, of course. Everyone knew Elijah.
    Elijah had a well-known reputation for standing up to power,
        and often paying the price for it.
        He was on the run for much of his career,
            often with a price on his head.
            His was not an easy or desirable calling.

By contrast, Elisha was a farmer.
    Living comfortably at home, with mom and dad.
        Plowing straight rows.
        Plowing a predictable path,
            literally and figuratively,
            for his crops and his future.

Elijah then shows up and throws his mantle over his shoulder.
    Elisha knew what this symbolic act meant.
        It meant he was now being called to be prophet to the powerful.
        The burden that was on Elijah was now on his shoulders.

It’s hard to imagine any more radical, more life-altering call.
    From plowing on the home farm,
        to roaming the land and confronting kings and armies.
    I think I might have wanted to take some time to contemplate,
        pull together a discernment group,
        and make sure I knew what I was getting into.

Elisha just dropped the reins,
    left plow and oxen standing in the field,
    and started walking after Elijah.
But then he said to Elijah,
    “Let me go say good-bye to Mom and Dad,
        then I’ll pack up and go with you.”
Elijah obliged. Said he would wait.

But what Elisha did next is astounding.
    He took his two oxen and plow,
        and went back to the house.
        But he didn’t just say to his parents, “see ya later!”

    He slaughtered the pair of oxen, and butchered them.
        He took his wooden plow and equipment
            and chopped them up and burned them.
        And over the fire, he cooked the meat,
            and fed the meat to all the household and townspeople.
        Had a public going-away feast,
            comprised of the very things, that up to that moment,
            he depended on daily, for his livelihood.

    There was no turning back.
    Elisha heard the call, and decided to go all in.
_____________________

Now I’m the kind of person who likes to have a Plan B.
    And I have to say, I think there’s wisdom in that.

Those oxen and plow that Elisha just did away with
    were his perfect Plan B.

What if he found out he didn’t have what it took
    to be a bold prophet to kings and queens?
    What if he realized his mistake six months from now?
    It’d be awfully nice to have a plow and pair of oxen waiting for him.

Obviously, his family and farm were going nowhere.
    They would take him back anytime.

But, whoops. Too late for that.
    Elisha just obliterated Plan B.

This is even more foolhardy than this morning’s other story,
    of James and John walking away from their fishing boats
        when Jesus called them,
        leaving their father Zebedee holding the nets.
    At least they didn’t sink their boats and cut up their nets.
    If they changed their mind later on,
        they could go back to their father and go fishing again.
    Which, as a matter of fact, they did one time,
        in a moment of discouragement after Jesus’ death.
_____________________

Moriah, you didn’t cut all connections to your past ministry,
    and I’m glad you didn’t,
    that’s still part of who you are.
    But I do admire your courage in saying goodbye to your parents,
        and goodbye to a life you enjoyed in Australia,
        and picking up and moving half-way around the world.
    I think you can find a kindred spirit in Elisha.

But you know,
    that’s really what we’re all expected to do as disciples of Jesus,
        when we are called into service,
            as we all are.
    We are called by God, in Christ, to go all in.
        Not halfway in. All in.

When Jesus was moving about in ministry,
    he seemed quite concerned about the prospect
    of attracting half-hearted disciples along the way.
    So he actively pushed people away who wanted to follow,
        if he detected too much attachment to the status quo.
    Did you hear that shocking Gospel reading from Luke 9?

Someone comes up to Jesus and says,
    “I will follow you wherever you go.”
    Ah! What every rabbi wants to hear.
But Jesus answers, “Foxes at least have a hole in ground.
    Follow me, and you won’t even have that!”

When Jesus invites someone else to follow him,
    and the man says, “Yes, but first let me go bury my father,”
    Jesus gives him the cold shoulder.
        “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
    What’s with that??

When a third person says, “I’ll follow you,
    but first let me go home and say goodbye to my family.”
    Jesus replies,
        “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
            is fit for the kingdom of God.”
        Harsh!

There’s only one conclusion I can draw from these stories.
    When God calls us, and we hear that call accurately,
        and others confirm that call,
        there is nothing more important than obedience to the call.
    Nothing.
        Not personal security.
        Not self-fulfillment.
        Not the expectations of others.
        Not protecting other people from disappointment.
    When God calls us,
        when Jesus invites us to be disciples,
        we are expected to go all in for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
            All in!
    All our energy, all our time, all our relationships.
        All our talents, all our money,
            all we have and all we are.
            That’s all God wants. Everything.

That is the Gospel message we heard this morning in Luke 9.
    And it’s the message in every other Gospel.
        We can’t avoid it.
        We can’t water it down.
        We can’t reinterpret it to make it more comfortable.
    It keeps coming back to us in different words, in different shapes.
        “Take up your cross and follow me.”
        “Everyone who holds onto their life will lose it.”
        “Forsake all, if you want to be my disciple.”
_____________________

Now, having said all this, let me hasten to add,
    I am sharing this as an important message to all of us.
        Not just to Moriah.
    I don’t want her, and I don’t want you,
        to draw the wrong conclusion here.
    This is not in reference to Moriah’s employment
        as a pastor at Park View Mennonite.
    She is not being asked to sacrifice every other part of her life,
        in order to fulfill her rather extensive job description.
    She has a life beyond her employment contract.

    What she doesn’t have,
        is a life beyond her call as a disciple of Jesus.
        That call covers everything, and is everything—
            for her,
            for me,
            for you, and you, and you.

    Jesus is not interested in half-hearted workers for the kingdom.

    I believe that, in Moriah,
        we have a whole-hearted disciple,
            and a whole-hearted worker for God’s kingdom,
        and we have someone who will encourage us to be the same.

    Yes, Moriah will hold back something of herself,
        in doing her job at Park View.
    She will guard her life outside her work at the church.
        And we should insist that she do so,
            that she keeps Sabbath, even if not on Sunday,
            that she cares for herself,
            that she nurtures other interests and relationships.
    But I hope and pray, Moriah,
        that you are also graced with the fortitude
        shown by prophet Elisha and the first disciples of Jesus,
            who were called to go all in for God’s mission . . .
                all in . . . without setting up a Plan B.

    We pray God’s rich blessing on your ministry among us.

—Phil Kniss, June 26, 2016

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Sunday, June 19, 2016

Phil Kniss: High-definition freedom

Summer 2016: This is a story full of love...
Luke 8:26-39; Galatians 3:23-29

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When we prayed for Orlando last Sunday morning,
    only a few hours after the attack,
    it was only with scant details of what was unfolding there.
    We heard there were 20 dead, and that was shocking enough.
    But it later became clear
        that 50 had died,
        that the victims were targeted because of their sexual identity,
        that the shooter claimed loyalty to the Islamic State,
        that he was known to be mentally unstable,
        and that he had legally purchased a military-style assault rifle.
    When we absorbed all those disparate facts,
        and considered the implications,
            our grief deepened,
            our anger intensified,
            our fears and anxieties were raw and on full display.

    Stories of courage and sacrifice emerged
        from those directly involved.
    Some profoundly compassionate responses came forth,
        even, unexpectedly, from some politicians
        not known for humility and vulnerability.
    Yet, there were others—political and religious figures—
        who did respond as we expected,
        with finger-pointing and blaming and hateful rhetoric.
    And those comments were strongly repudiated and condemned,
        as well they should have been.

    Meanwhile,
        real families were suffering,
        spouses and lovers were grieving,
        parents were in anguish.
    Any many of us, far removed from Orlando,
        moved about in a state of disbelief and numbness and weariness,
        not really knowing what to do,
        except lament, pray, and hope for a better day coming.

After a week of what we might call nationwide trauma,
    I can’t help but approach today’s lectionary scriptures
        with this in view.
    It wouldn’t much matter which texts were handed to us.
        They would be read in the light of this past week.
    We come to the text, as well we should,
        “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,”
            as theologian Karl Barth has been famously quoted.

So I went to this astounding Gospel story in Luke,
    of Jesus healing the demoniac,
    with the news from Orlando echoing in my awareness.

The connection may not be immediately apparent to you,
    but stick with me.
_____________________

When I go to the Gospels,
    I look, naturally, for Good News.
        Which is what “Gospel” means.
    So where is the good news in this story?
    Which characters are experiencing this
        as a welcome turn of events?

Perhaps it’s an easier question to ask,
    “Who’s having a bad day?”
    I can think of several.

Jesus, for one.
    At least humanly speaking.
    He’s trying to get away for some peace and quiet
        after a full and stressful week of ministry around Capernaum.
    Quick review of the week:
        healed the servant of a Roman commander,
        raised to life the dead son of a poor widow,
        fended off questions from John the Baptist’s disciples,
            and the Pharisees,
        told a bunch of parables,
        responded to the scandalous behavior of a woman
            in Simon the Pharisee’s house
            (which I talked about last Sunday)
        and dealt with his meddling mother and brothers.

Jesus needed a change of scenery,
    a break from his work,
    so he got into a boat with his disciples,
        and crossed the Sea of Galilee.
    Nothing like waves lapping up against a wooden hull,
        boat gently swaying as a gentle breeze fills the sail,
        to help a person relax and forget about work for a while.

    Except, that didn’t happen.
        A storm came up.
        His disciples panicked.
        So Jesus went back to work,
            miraculously calmed the storm,
            and taught them a lesson on faith.

So Jesus gets to the other side of the lake,
    maybe takes a deep breath . . . ahh! . . . rest at last!

And they are immediately confronted by a screaming naked man.
    Chaos breaks out.
    The whole town swarms on him, says go away and don’t come back.
        And the man begs to get in the boat with them.
        Never a dull moment!

Good News is scarce for the other characters in the story, too.
    It’s hard for them to appreciate what’s unfolding before them.

Need I point out what a terrible day it turned out to be
    for the owners and keepers of a herd of pigs?
    Suddenly they are bankrupt and have nothing to build from.

The townspeople as a whole are also upset.
    Maybe in part, because of the great economic loss
        sustained by one of their farmers.
    But also, no doubt,
        because they didn’t know what to do with a man
        who once had been chained in their cemetery,
            and probably functioned as the town scapegoat,
            filling his role as the “black sheep” of the community,
                now sitting fully clothed, and sane,
                and needing to be reintegrated into the community.
    The social order everyone had adjusted to was now out of order.
        With the healing of the one,
            the system was out of balance again.
        Nobody was sure who they were anymore,
            or where they stood.

As for the disciples of Jesus, they are silent.
    Shell-shocked, I imagine.
    They just survived sailing across the lake in a storm,
        and no sooner do they put their feet on solid ground,
        and another storm breaks out.

Well, surely, there is one character here,
    who has just had the best day of his life.
    Here must be where the Good News is to be found.
        In the life of the demoniac.

This man was bound, in every way imaginable.
    bound physically, in chains and shackles,
    bound spiritually, occupied by a legion of spirits
        that exercised complete control over him,
    bound socially, living in isolation in the cemetery,
        stigmatized, ostracized, marginalized to an extreme.

Everything that we assume is part of being human—
    being self-aware, having self-control, being in relationship,
        giving and receiving love—
        before Jesus came, this man had none of that.
    He even lost his name. At least he doesn’t get named in the story.
    He is just “the demoniac.”
        More beast than man, and treated as such.

    Well . . . after the chains fall?
        After his freedom from the demons?
        He was still rejected.
        His sudden sanity frightened his townspeople,
            to point he apparently still felt unsafe in town,
            had no home and begged to go with Jesus,
                but Jesus refused him.
    Where is the Gospel for him now?

Power that binds, is a fearful thing and hard to face.
    But sometimes, power that liberates is equally troublesome,
        and challenging to deal with.
    Freedom can mean a loss of security, loss of control.
    Freedom can mean letting go of a predictable future.

At least bondage is predictable.
    When we are chained to something,
        we know where we will be tomorrow.
        When we are free, it’s anyone’s guess.
    Maybe that’s why some persons who are abused,
        find it difficult to leave their abuser.
        It’s frightening to stay. But it’s more frightening to leave,
            and walk down a road you know nothing about.
            Even if everyone else says it’s a good road.
            It may not feel that way
                to someone contemplating freedom for the first time.
_____________________

Our modern western culture doesn’t give us much help in this regard.
    We’ve all been taught that freedom is the ultimate good.
        Freedom is what our forefathers fought for, we’ve been told.
        It’s the cause behind every war since then, we’ve been told.
        It’s why our enemies around the world hate us—
            they hate freedom, we’ve been told.
            Or are jealous of it, one of the two.

    But we grossly oversimplify freedom.
        Freedom is more than throwing off what binds us.
        Freedom is more than being able to shape our own destiny,
            with no one to stop us, restrict us, or restrain us.

I think we all agree, Jesus is a great liberator.
Jesus himself said it, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
    But I don’t think our culture tends to see freedom
        the way Jesus saw it.
    Our culture idealizes a free-for-all style of freedom.
    We like to say, the only thing that can limit our freedom,
        is if our freedom gets in the way of someone else’s freedom.
        If what I do, in the name of freedom,
            harms, or limits, or restrains someone else,
            I have violated the universal law of freedom.
        And we can agree, as far as it goes.

    But Jesus had more in mind than breaking chains.
        True freedom has a shape.
        It has definition, even high-definition.
            Just using the word “definition”
                is a form of limiting freedom,
                because definition draws a line,
                    and high-definition draws a finer line.
            When I define freedom,
                I restrict what can, and cannot, be called freedom.

        Freedom is not absence of all borders and boundaries.
        Freedom has a shape.
            And we who follow Jesus, say
                freedom is shaped like Jesus.
_____________________

One way I’ve found it helpful to talk about freedom,
    is to say that freedom is the capacity to be and become
        the person God created us to be.
    We were created in the image of God.
        All of us.
            No one here disputes that.
        We were all made to be God’s image bearers,
            to give glory to God,
            to reflect God’s glory with our lives.
        Freedom is finding our way clear to become that.

    But freedom is easily, and often, suppressed.
        I can lose my freedom in two ways.

        First, powers outside ourselves can prevent us from becoming
            the full and whole human being God intends us to be.
        This may be the power of an individual, a community, a society,
            or other powers beyond us,
                systemic powers, spiritual powers.
            Those in power over us may use coercion,
                or may exercise abusive power against us,
                or in some way violate our freedom to be the person
                    God intends for us to be.
            In other words, they do violence—
                they suppress our freedom to fulfill our created purpose.

        Secondly, we can undermine our own freedom.
            We may fail to recognize we have a created purpose.
                So while no one is coercing us, or violating us,
                    we still aren’t free.
            We may be floundering,
                because we resist letting our lives be contained
                    by any clear definition,
                    or disciplined life practices.

Christian freedom is more than breaking chains.
    The free Christian life is a journey of continual discovery.
        It’s finding out who God intends us to be,
            and opening ourselves to being transformed into that
                by the power of the Holy Spirit.
        And equally, it’s a journey of walking with others,
            to help them discover God’s intentions,
            help them open to God’s good purposes.
_____________________

Let’s be clear.
    We need to face up to chains that bind us,
        and bind others.
        Bondage is not God’s will. Ever.
            God’s will is to set us free from whatever or whoever
                is holding us bound.
            Chains—whether physical, emotional, spiritual,
                or some terrible combination of them all—
                must be resisted with all our might,
                    and with God’s help,
                    until they break.

    We just need to recognize that when the chains break,
        our work is not over.
        Freedom is more than absence of chains.
        Life can be complicated after the chains fall.
        The freedom we need, and seek, may still elude us.
_____________________

I think of myself as a free person.
    But I am also a middle-class, American, Christian,
        white, straight, educated, male.
    Most of that I got at birth. It wasn’t earned.
    And because of it,
        I have substantial legal, social, and economic standing.
        I am a person of privilege,
            where very little stands in my way,
            preventing me from living a full and peaceable life.
    The same is true for most people in this room.
        We are people of privilege,
            free to arrange a large part of our lives.
        Not entirely, of course. But largely.

But it’s still a matter of daily discipline to live free.
    There are any number of things that can bind me,
        to a life of resentment, bitterness, anger.
    As a person of privilege and power,
        I’m especially vulnerable to the sin of violence.
        It’s not hard for me to limit other persons’ freedom,
            to violate their capacity to be who God wants them to be.
    I may be one of the most likeable, peaceable, gentle,
        and unarmed Mennonite pacifists you’ll ever meet.
    But I am still at risk, at any moment, of doing violence.
_____________________

I don’t understand, and none of us do,
    how someone created to be God’s image-bearer,
    can become so disordered and broken and overtaken by such evil
        as to commit the kind of horrific crime against humanity,
        that Omar Mateen did in Orlando a week ago this morning.

    Everyone—
        from the president to news anchors to people on the street—
        is trying to figure out the answer to that question,
            so we have someone to blame,
            and a problem to fix.

    Even if today we all could agree which of the multiple factors
        was the main factor,
        and came up with the perfect solution to fix it tomorrow,
            we might feel better temporarily, because we did something.

    But tomorrow we still have the problem of evil to deal with.
    Tomorrow, we could just as easily sink down in a mire of despair
        over the pervasive evil in the world,
        and all the violence being done against innocent people,
        and all the unhinged and unbalanced and
            downright evil and abusive people there are,
                some of whom are famous and infamous,
                and some of whom live in our homes,
                    or next door,
                    or sit in our church pews.

And tomorrow we still have before us
    our fundamental calling as human beings—
    we are invited to live fully and freely into God’s intention for us,
        and to relate to others with the same love and understanding.

    We are invited to look to the model human being, Jesus,
        who demonstrated how to live in joy and freedom and hope,
            while surrounded by violence and all kinds of evil.

Even our modern equivalent of the demoniac—whoever that may be—
    who society decides to chain up and confine to the cemetery,
    even that one is endowed with the image of God,
        and deserves to be given love and dignity
            and a high-definition freedom.

    As followers of Jesus,
        we refuse to write off anyone as being less than human.
        We count and report all lives lost.
        We don’t publicly apologize for including the shooter,
            and change the death toll from 50 to 49.
        We are all created in God’s image
            and are all human beings who, by definition,
            by high-definition,
            deserve to live and thrive and have hope for tomorrow.

And speaking of high-definition freedom,
    let’s turn to HWB 411.
    The words of this hymn, “I bind my heart this tide,”
        may not sound a lot like freedom—
        binding ourselves, heart and soul,
            to Christ, to our neighbor, to the stranger,
            to God the Lord of all,
            to peace—
        this is the true, and challenging, and thick, and high definition
            of what freedom looks like.
        May we all devote every moment of our lives
            to pursuing this kind of freedom.

—Phil Kniss, June 19, 2016

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