Sunday, October 18, 2020

Paula Stoltzfus: What song are you singing?

“God honors the lowly”
Luke 1:46-55; 1 Samuel 1:9-11; 19-20; 2:1-10


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I enjoy listening and singing along to music. Right now, music is even more necessary to find spaces when it can be played. I like listening when I’m working in the kitchen and moving around with the rhythm.  Music so easily releases stress, expresses emotions, and connects me to the world around me. Making music is so rich and full of meaning.  

I have a deep appreciation for those who are able to compose songs matching the words to notes. It is a gift when the music matches my soul’s longings.

Hannah seemed to be able to match her words in this ancient poem with her soul’s song.

Hannah is one of two of Elkanah’s wives. The other wife mocked and degraded Hannah for not having any children.  They lived in a patriarchal society in which a woman’s value and identity was linked with whether she bore not just children, but specifically a son.  A son would ensure that she would be cared for in her old age.

The context surrounding Hannah finds growing dissent within the Israelites wanting to change their leadership to match those around them, which relied on monarchies for leaders. This would give them clearly defined leaders for the long-term instead of a cyclical pattern of Judges who would emerge as leaders in times of crisis.  

Eli and his two sons are mentioned as priests who carried out the religious roles. The sons are spoken of as corrupt and devious. They were actively abusing their powers as the people sought to be faithful to God.

Within this cultural milieu, Hannah found herself very alone.  She had a husband who didn’t understand, a co-wife who mocked her, a faith community that highlighted her lack of value (communal events highlighted the fact that she didn’t have any kids), and a priest, who in her hour of prayer accused her of being drunk.  

But Hannah was a woman of faith. She cried out to God in her deep sorrow and need doing what we sometimes do, bargaining that if God would give her a son, she would give him back into God’s service.

In our gospel text, we find another time when the culture is in turmoil.  A young engaged, virgin, Mary, is approached by an angel to bear God’s son.  She ran to her aunt's place to seek refuge.  Upon entering and receiving a hearty welcome, Mary sings a song we return to year after year, usually in advent. But listening to her prayer in the context of Hannah’s prayer is a reminder that Mary is one of other women in the Bible who are an integral part of God’s salvation story.

It’s as if these songs are singing God’s way into being. Those on the margins are raised in value in God’s kingdom.  Those with privileges are humbled.  Those that are hungry in body and soul are filled.  Those whose stomachs and pantries are full find the storeroom of their spirits empty.  Those without power are equipped with a power of faith.  Those with earthly power lead with a false power that easily fades.

Hannah’s worth couldn’t come from her earthly community. It was her faith in  God which allowed her to go to the depths of her vulnerability and pain, seeking healing.  In time, she experiences the presence of God in her life that allows her to see God’s work with different eyes.  She lives into understanding the upside-down nature of God at work, raising up the powerless, bringing down the powerful and so offers her only son at the time, into God’s service.

Last week I was able to listen to a PBS documentary on Howard Thurman, an African American theologian, educator, and civil rights leader who grew up in the far south in FL in the early 1900’s.  He was profoundly shaped by a repeated mantra his preacher in his early years ended every sermon by saying, “you are not _____, you are a child of God.”  Thurman returned to that phrase over and over as he grew and developed his own self worth.  To have those words repeated, that no matter what others called him, he was first a child of God, profoundly shaped his identity.

This is God’s redemptive spirit at work in the world and in our lives.  You are a child of God, valued, accepted, and loved.  When you or I stand internally from this place, grounded in God’s love, the things of this world, power, wealth, and identity begin to shift in their worth.

Both of our texts are encased in troubled times, where two women cry out to God from their depths. Out of these cries come songs of God’s revolutionary work and gracious providence.

We live in a time where we are offered every bit of information that we could ever want (or not), from politics to pandemic, natural disasters to demonstrations. It can seem like no matter what news source we turn to there is turmoil, devastation, abuse of power, producing layers upon layers of anxiety.

That is the world around us.  On top of our work and demands on our relationships around us; on top of continuing to navigate our health and well-being where we are constantly calculating our moves and practices. It is the mounting layers that can press in on every side.  Hope can seem elusive.

Perhaps that is the magic of music.  It can take us a world away.  Lift our spirits, we often say.  When we sing our songs of faith we lament, we praise, we sing God’s way into being, shaping our hearts and minds.

We need to remind ourselves that we are not defined by our skin color, but by being a child of God.  
We are not valued by whether we are single or married, but by being a child of God.
Our primary identity is not in a political party, but by being a child of God.
Our security doesn’t come from our paycheck or wealth management, but by being a child of God.

One of Paul’s prayers for the Ephesians (3) says it well,
16 I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

In Thurman’s years as educator and preacher he found silence and contemplation a life-line, drawing on God’s source of life to fuel him in his spirit and work in the chaotic swirl of the world around him. I learned that not only did he practice this in his private life, but also in his public, including silence regularly in his sermons.  I was inspired to hear that and so I invite you into a time of silence and contemplation today to consider a few questions.

As we do so, close your eyes or look out a window. Take a deep breath and listen. Allow this space for God to enter.

Consider where you are physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally?  
Do you need to offer a lament and cry out to God?
Where do you see God’s revolutionary care in action?
What song are you singing?

(silence)

Let us continue our contemplation as we read the confession together.

One: O God our King and our Maker,
forgive us when we try to make you in our image;
forgive us when we turn to earthly rulers
for the wisdom and strength
you have already shown us.
All: Fulfill your purpose in us,
that we may be your people,
your temples upon this earth,
your sisters and brothers in love and mercy.
One: Even the Most High God regards the lowly
with love and compassion.
Even the perfect Christ welcomes the sinful and lost
with open arms.
Come, we are the brothers and sisters of Christ.
All are forgiven by grace.
All: We are the family of God.
Praise be for forgiveness in Christ’s love!
(— Adapted from The Abingdon Worship Annual 2012, © 2011 Abingdon Press by Mary Scifres. Posted on the Worship Elements page of the Ministry Matters website. http://www.ministrymatters.com/)



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Sunday, October 11, 2020

Phil Kniss: It just came out of the fire!

“The people turn away”
Exodus 32:1-14


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This Old Testament story can be read as
a old strange tale from a land far, far away,
or, an essay on how to live with today’s news and social context.
. . . or . . . both.

If we open our heart and mind to it, this story more than most, I think,
easily straddles two very different worlds—
the Ancient Near East, and
our own 21st-century North America.

As Peyton pointed out to the children,
we first hear this story, and think “that’s strange!”—
worshiping a golden calf,
instead of God who helped them out of slavery.
But then we think some more,
and we realize we have things that distract us from God, too.

Let’s dig a little deeper into that line of thinking.
But first, we’ll look at a few details in the text.
There’s a little bit of ambiguity here.
It’s not exactly clear what’s happening—
is it worshiping a false god?
or worshiping God falsely?
Of course, neither one is a good thing,
but it’s interesting to ponder.
Does the Golden Calf represent some foreign or heathen deity,
and they’re turning their back on Yahweh?
Or, are they just trying to remake Yahweh
into something more sturdy and tangible and visible,
because pillars of cloud and fire are a little nebulous,
and this spiritual entity Moses keeps
walking up the mountain to visit,
they’ve never seen.

The people, in going to Aaron, used a generic word.
“Come, make us elohim. Make us “gods.”
Elohim can mean the gods of the nations, or their one God.
But in either case, they don’t call God by name.
Aaron does.
Once Aaron saw how things unfolded,
and the people get all excited about this calf,
and start bowing down,
Aaron seems to want to reframe the situation,
and bring it back to Yahweh.
So he built an altar in front of the calf,
but tells the people,
“Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh.”

It makes me wonder if he was thinking,
“This looks like we’re worshiping an idol,
but let’s say this stands for Yahweh,
and it’s all good.”

Aaron is a master of the art of self-justification.
He can dodge an issue as well as any politician on a debate stage.

We’ll get back to this scene in a moment,
but now the camera shifts back up the mountain,
to Yahweh and Moses in conversation.

Again, a subtle shift in vocabulary speaks volumes.
In this conversation Moses gets sassy with God,
and gets away with it.
Actually, he changes God’s mind.

God first says,
“Go back down the mountain, because YOUR people,
that YOU brought up out of Egypt,
have gone wild, and are worshiping a golden calf.
I’ve seen how stubborn and evil your people are.
So just step aside, and let me destroy them.
Then I’ll start over and make you into a great nation.”

It sounds like God is playing right into the greatest temptation
of prominent religious leaders—to make it all about them.

But Moses wouldn’t have it.
He turned God’s words right back in God’s face.
“Don’t be angry at YOUR people,
whom YOU brought out of Egypt!”
Don’t destroy them!  What will the Egyptians think of you?

So God took a deep breath.
It says, “the Lord relented, and did not destroy his people.”

Some more things happen in chapter 32,
horrible things that could take us
a whole seminary course sorting out how to make sense of
how God’s actions relate to our actions.
Read it yourself, but just to name it in 15 seconds, and then set it aside.
Moses goes down and somehow—between Moses and/or God—
the golden calf gets ground into dust,
the dust gets mixed with water and the people have to drink it,
and then there’s a violent massacre of the worst offenders,
and then, some kind of plague falls on the people.
Bad stuff.
Some of that falls into the strange and faraway category—
hard to read that with today’s world in mind.

But I do want to lift out one key comment from Aaron,
and reflect on that a bit.

When Moses came down the mountain,
and saw all the revelry taking place around the altar to the calf,
all in the name of a festival to Yahweh,
he turns to Aaron and says,
“What in the world have you done?”

And Aaron, ever the skilled politician,
minimizes, deflects, and blames:
“I just threw their jewelry into the fire,
and out came this calf.”

Even though, a few verses earlier,
the text was careful to tell us that Aaron fashioned this calf,
with tools, held by his hands.
So this was a little more than deflection.
This was really fake news.
_____________________

So let me recap,
in terms that are a little more general.
Listen carefully,
and see if you hear anything at all,
that sounds like it might possibly pertain to us—
something that we might have seen before,
or maybe even participated in.

So . . . the people are in a state of widespread ambiguity and anxiety.
They are sincerely trying to follow God’s way,
but God is hard to decipher.
Not much clear and tangible to go on.
Generalized promises of presence, and faithfulness,
but hard to pin down exactly what God is up to.
But the people are expected to keep waiting,
keep worshiping,
keep holding on to their unanswered questions.

But it gets old over time,
and so they start creating their own tangible representation of God.
Something they can point to and touch,
and say, this is it.
And doing that makes them feel better,
and the more they get used to this particular form of God,
the more it actually functions as God to them.
The form itself becomes sacred,
and they devote themselves to that form.

Then when someone comes along with a prophetic word
that’s hard to hear,
and accuses them of idolatry,
of putting more stock than they should in these forms,
the people, as well as their leaders,
defend themselves.
They say,
“Oh no, no, no! We are still worshiping Yahweh!”
This particular institutional or cultural form here
that you accuse us of worshiping,
it’s not an idol.
No.
We just gathered a bunch of stuff,
and put them together,
and it just . . . it, it, it just came out of the fire!
It just came out of the fire.
_____________________

Friends,
I think this strange story is lot more real than it seems.

Idolatry is not some rare and exotic sin that befalls
some poor benighted heathens far away,
who bow down before statues and offer them food.

In our journey of following God into the unknown,
into the unchartered wilderness of life,
idolatry is anything we create,
that gives us comfort and predictability and controllability,
that creates a tangible substitute for the intangible.
It’s anything we might create
that we say looks like God,
because it looks like what we wanted anyway.

Idolatry is something we engage in daily
as we put our trust in tangible things like
material possessions or retirement investments
or social status or other stuff of privilege.
Not saying those are evil in themselves.
The Golden Calf was not inherently evil.
It was how the people related to that object,
and how they let it replace
their worship of a God they could not control.

Idolatry is what moved them further away from their calling.
Their call was based on their ancestor Abrahams’ call,
when God told Abraham to leave his security behind,
and go to that place yet-to-be identified.
That call was affirmed when God sent the people out of Egypt,
into the wilderness,
and told them to watch and listen,
and keep moving in the same direction God was moving.

Turned out that wasn’t quite enough for them.
And often, it’s not enough for us.

It’s a constant temptation for us to make idols we can manage,
and worship them,
without ever admitting that we worship them.
We say, “It just came out of the fire.”

Especially in times of stress and uncertainty and risk,
we are prone to make idols.
We as individuals, and we as a church,
are both equally prone
to be involved in idol-making.
We all have the urge to manage and control God,
or create a God that looks and acts like us.
We all have to be on guard.

We are called, sisters and brothers,
to go all in with God,
to worship God alone,
to throw ourselves on the love and mercy of a mysterious God.

That is hard to do anytime.
It’s particularly hard when the world is trembling around us,
with political chaos, pandemic, climate change,
and with super-storms and super-fires,
adding suffering upon suffering.

We should give ourselves grace when we grasp for something solid.
But we should also keep reaching toward
the God that is beyond our control,
and who promises to be with us in the wilderness.

May God have mercy on us all.
Please join us now in a responsive confession,
which you will find in your order of worship,
as Laura and the singers lead us.

—Phil Kniss, October 11, 2020

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Sunday, October 4, 2020

Phil Kniss: Sitting at the table of a God on the move

“God delivers the captives”
Exodus 12:1-13, 13:1-8


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The narrative continues,
and God keeps running interference on God’s people,
as they veer off track this way or that . . . or
they get stuck in a terrible situation,
and need to be rescued.

This time, it’s the second one.
They’re stuck.
More than stuck, they’re enslaved.
Oppressed. Trapped. Powerless.
And this is what gets God fired up the most:
humans oppressing other humans.

It’s the worst way to fail our divine calling—
when human beings, loved by God,
use and abuse other human beings, equally loved by God.
It’s an insult to God.
It’s saying to God’s face
that God’s love is meaningless—
God’s love for those persons we oppress,
and God’s love for us.

This story of the Exodus from slavery
is the sacred text for understanding God as liberator.
This story has been a touchstone
for oppressed peoples across the ages—
for enslaved persons from Africa,
for Jews during the Holocaust,
for campesinos in Latin America.
Even Muslims revere this story.
Prophet Moses is named more than any other individual in the Quran.
His role in the Exodus is an inspiration
wherever Muslims are oppressed today.

So what happens in this story?
If you recall, from my sermon last Sunday,
Joseph, the ancestor of these enslaved Hebrews,
played into the hands of Pharaoh and the Egyptian Empire,
and helped them set up a system of oppression,
during the great famine.
Now Joseph’s actions have come back to bite his own people,
generations later.

Sure, Pharaoh would have been oppressive without Joseph’s help.
Nevertheless, by this time Pharaoh’s treatment of God’s people
is beyond the pale,
so God steps in to punish the oppressors,
and liberate the oppressed.

10 fantastic stories we call the great plagues
get the Hebrews to the place where we find them today,
in Exodus 12 and 13.

They are about to be pushed out of Egypt.
Egyptians see the Hebrews as the cause of their suffering,
and want them gone . . . as far away as possible.

So this story is about their last night in Egypt,
and last meal together as a community,
and the first Passover Feast.
God the avenger went through the land with the final plague of death,
but passed over, or spared,
those who splashed the blood of a pure lamb on their door jambs.

Strange ritual to us.
But made perfect sense to a culture that did animal sacrifice.

In the Passover, God is on the move.
Everything about the Passover story
points to a God that will not sit still,
and doesn’t want God’s people to, either.

They baked unleavened bread,
for the very practical reason they were in a hurry.
They couldn’t sit for hours and wait for dough to rise.
They had to mix, bake, eat, and run.
God was on the move.
God was doing something that night they would remember forever.
God was liberating the people of Israel
from the bonds of slavery.

Everyone—Hebrews and Egyptians alike—
were in a hopelessly stuck and static narrative,
where everyone’s survival depended on status quo;
depended on the oppressors staying in power,
and on the oppressed staying in bondage.

They had forgotten (or had never known)
the God that called Abraham and Sarah to become nomads,
to give up being rooted and stable,
and to go to a place God would show them.

The Exodus was kind of like Abraham and Sarah, revisited,
but a larger scale.
God was moving,
and the Hebrews were encouraged to join the movement,
go into the wilderness, only God knew where,
and discover how to be utterly dependent.

So in Exodus 12, the Israelites eat on the run.
They have fast-food for dinner.
Because God is moving quickly,
and they have to hurry to keep up.

Did you hear Moses’ detailed instructions?
Not only was the bread unleavened, for sake of speed.
Even the meat preparation had to be efficient,
no leftovers to hassle with.
If one household was too small to eat a whole lamb,
they had to share with a neighbor,
so there was enough, but not too much.
And eat the lamb and bread, Moses said,
“with your cloak tucked into your belt,
your sandals on your feet
and your staff in your hand.
Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.”

It’s not hard for us to picture that.
Think of the way enslaved people in this country
might have eaten their food on the Underground Railroad.
Food in one hand, knapsack in another,
eyes up looking for bounty hunters,
shoes on their feet,
almost crouched, ready to run.
_____________________

So what can we take from this, today?—
this notion of fast food and God on the move?
Does it relate to the Lord’s Supper?
Our ritual is different of course.
We might call communion a grandchild of the Passover,
since Jesus and his disciples were eating the Passover meal,
at their Last Supper.

One thing is similar.
At the communion table we also “eat on the run.”
The God who invites us to sit at this table,
is a God on the move,
as God always is.
God has a mission—
to restore shalom in a broken and sinful world.
The mission is urgent.

Not saying we should rush through the ritual.
But, the Lord’s table is not a place to take up residence.
It’s not a place to stay and overeat.
Here we eat lightly, and move on.
The Lord’s Table is a place to be refreshed and renewed
so we can leave the table immediately after the meal,
and go about our work
of sharing God’s liberation and salvation.
We “eat on the run” so to speak.

The focus of this meal is not inward, it’s outward.
The movement is “that way,” not “this way.”
We are a missional church.
And this is a missional meal.
We eat not to stuff ourselves, but to celebrate liberation in Christ.

So I invite you,
as you prepare to partake of this meal wherever you are,
to consider what it means to sit at this table with a God on the move.
Especially now.
With so much of the world and our lives in turmoil,
we crave stability and predictability.

Where is it in your own life,
or in the life of our church,
where you might be clamoring right now
to manage, control, to fix something into place . . .
but God might be saying, “Trust me.”
Stay with me.
I know the way we are going.

God is on the move,
and we are joined to God in mission.
So . . . come to eat and drink and be renewed.
But don’t come to stay.
Come to go.
Receive, then give.

And remember, we are not eating this meal alone.
Today is World Communion Sunday.
We join with Christ’s body everywhere
to celebrate God’s saving, liberating work in Jesus.
We are all on the move. All together.
Godspeed. God be with us.
_____________________

To help connect us to Christ’s body
that enfolds many cultures and tongues,
we will again read a bi-lingual Eucharistic Prayer,
as we have in previous World Communion Sundays.
This traditional prayer before communion
is in both English and Spanish,
and switches back and forth, but not always in translation.

And to help connect us to our own scattered body here at Park View,
we will be reading along with ourselves—
a recording of us last October,
last World Communion Sunday,
when this sanctuary was full of people.
So read along if you wish,
or if you just want to listen to the sound of our gathered voices,
that’s okay, too.

After this prayer Pastor Paula Stoltzfus will give you instructions
on how to partake of the communion at home.

Follow along now on the screen, or your printed order of worship.
You will hear me read the English light print,
and Peyton Erb read the Spanish light print,
and all of us read together the bold yellow print,
in both languages. Let us pray together.

—Phil Kniss, October 4, 2020

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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Phil Kniss: The family who kept God busy

“God’s providence toward all”
Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21


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As we keep turning pages through this narrative—
a story about God’s project to form a people
and build a right relationship with them,
for the sake of the world—
God’s project keeps running into roadblocks.

The particular story we look today
is unique among them all.
It’s one of the longest sustained singular stories in the Bible,
14 chapters on the life and adventures of Joseph
from his teenage years to his death.
It’s like a short novel.
In fact, some biblical commentators call it a “novella.”

There are unlimited lessons I could draw out of this story —
lessons on jealousy, pride, favoritism, narcissism,
family violence, sexuality,
loyalty, betrayal, revenge, restitution, forgiveness, greed,
working systems for personal gain,
growth of political power and empire,
treatment of immigrants and foreigners,
and a whole lot more.

But we are on this narrative journey through the Bible,
watching and listening for how this relationship unfolds
between God and the people God created and loves,
so that’s the angle we’ll take this morning.

How is God going to pull off this shalom project—
this restoration project to bring back what was lost
in the Garden of Eden?
this project to establish a loving and just covenant
between God and humanity
that fulfills God’s original intent
to have human beings tend and care for this creation,
and live in harmony and shalom with each other
and with their Creator?
How will God do it?

God cannot just reach down and slap people into shape
with violence or coercion.
God cannot pull our strings and make us dance just the right way,
like a puppeteer with a marionette.
God cannot . . . do those things.
God cannot . . . force our hands,
without violating God’s own nature,
which is animated by love.

God must work with what God has.
And God has us.

So this whole story of Jacob and his feuding sons,
and his spoiled favorite son,
and all the trouble they make,
has God constantly on the move to try to keep up.

At least in my imaginative way of thinking,
this is a family that keeps God busy.

If as I said,
God is not pulling the strings, but giving us genuinely free will,
and if God wants us to be partners in the shalom project,
then God has to keep doing a lot of adjusting and shifting,
to accommodate for the things we do to keep messing it up.

I think God’s #1 occupation here is running interference.
When you run interference on someone,
it means you do whatever you have to,
to keep someone out of danger.
You either block something that’s incoming,
or you purposely distract them from something
that would lead them off track.
They may not even know you are doing it for them,
until much later.

That’s kind of like God and Jacob’s family.

God stays busy re-grouping and re-acting to what’s coming next—
Jacob spoils his favorite son Joseph,
who then becomes a teenage narcissist.
Then his other sons get bitter and vengeful and ultimately violent,
and Joseph gets sold into slavery.
So God gets busy and uses that opportunity to mature Joseph a bit.
And his stint in prison also helps that happen.
Time doesn’t permit me to repeat the story,
but one thing happens after the other,
and the story ends with reconciliation in the family.
With the brothers and Joseph putting the past behind them.
_____________________

Seems to me there is a lot in common
between the sins of Jacob’s family,
and the sins of Adam and Eve . . .
and for that matter, the sin that ensnared the people
in most of the stories that come between
the Garden of Eden and Joseph.

The same thread runs through all of them,
the urge not to trust God,
not to put our lives in God’s hands and trust God’s providence,
the tendency to usurp the role of God,
to create God in our image,
to rewrite God’s agenda in a way that suits our desires.

So when God gave Abraham and Sarah and their descendants
the job of blessing the rest of the world,
bringing God’s goodwill to all the nations,
the continuing temptation for them—
and I suggest it’s still a temptation for us—
the ever-present temptation is
for us to mistake being chosen,
for being favored, or being more loved.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all had favorites.
God doesn’t.
God loves all.

It has always been God’s way to choose flawed human beings (like us)
as vehicles to work out God’s salvation plan for the world.
And our biggest flaw is thinking that makes us special.
We imagine that God is so committed to us,
that whatever our heart desires, God is good for.
We imagine that we are a team, against the world,
and God is on our team.

So isn’t it interesting,
when the family of Jacob—God’s chosen ones—
start to mess up in a big way,
God finds a way to work with that,
by bringing into play outsiders
who never heard of Yahweh—
like slave-traders and merchants from Midian,
like an officer in Pharaoh’s army,
like royal bakers and wine-tasters,
like the Pharaoh himself,
chief architect of an oppressive empire.

The net result,
after God was all said and done with Jacob and his family,
is that God’s purposes did not fall apart after all—
a devastating famine did not wipe out the Hebrews,
and the Egyptians, and many other people God loved,
the terrible family brokenness and dysfunction
that almost destroyed Jacob and his sons,
was transformed
by the power of repentance and forgiveness.

God loved Jacob’s family, of course.
But God loved all the human families.
So God has no qualms
letting anyone help out with God’s shalom project,
whether they meant to, or not,
whether they even knew about it, or not.

As Joseph said to his brothers, in the final verses of Genesis,
“You intended to harm me,
but God intended it for good
to accomplish what is now being done,
the saving of many lives.”
_____________________

Now, you might think—
what with all the hugging and kissing and crying in chapter 50
when Joseph and his brothers truly put the past to rest—
and extend forgiveness,
that this is one more sweet story with a happy ending.

Well, there were other dynamics going on
that will later come back to roost.
Not to mention, a new generation of Egyptians
will forget that the Hebrews saved their lives,
and they will enslave and oppress them for many years.

But the ironic and troubling fact about all that,
is that Joseph himself played into Pharaoh’s hand.
He aided and abetted the effort by Pharaoh
to amass wealth and power at the expense of the poor.

A part of the story we didn’t read (look at ch. 47 when you can)
is how Joseph actually operated
as chief administrator of the famine relief program.
But he didn’t just hand out the food, in MCC fashion.
No, he sold it, for Pharaoh, for the powers-that-be.
And when the people ran out of money,
he took their livestock as payment for the food.
And when that food ran out, and they had no livestock,
they offered their land and their very bodies for the food,
and they became slaves of Pharaoh.
Joseph was undeniably the mastermind and agent of Pharaoh,
in helping Pharaoh rise to even greater power,
and forced Egypt’s whole population
into indentured servanthood,
setting the stage for horrors yet to come.
In time, Joseph’s own grandchildren would pay the price.
The tables would turn,
and they would be the oppressed.
They would be slaves of the next Pharaoh.

It’s not a pretty picture, is it?
But that’s the picture.
God used deeply flawed people then, and still does.
But God’s dream of freedom and harmony
and shalom for all creation—
that dream survives and persists
in the face of the most horrific evil.

Even when God’s own people
make their bed with oppressors and dictators.
God’s dream doesn’t die.
_____________________

Maybe that’s a word of encouragement for us today,
as we see power abused everywhere we look,
including at the highest levels of our own government.
We may rightly point fingers
at certain parts of our Christian family,
who have forgotten who they are,
and are now in cahoots with Pharaoh.

But we all fall for this temptation.
Might have been a different time and a different emperor.
But we are all enamored with wealth and power.
We are all prone to act like we’re God, if given the chance.

But our calling is a more humble one than that.
We are God’s collaborators, God’s junior partners.
We have to trust God’s time.
Because this is God’s narrative.

If you recognize yourself—as I do—in this indictment
of our temptation to trust in the power of coercion and violence,
instead of the power of love and mercy and surrender,
then please join me in this confession.

You will find the confession in the bulletin.

one    We confess that we have failed to trust in your expansive providence,
           We have deemed your love too narrow,
           We have made our love too tribal.
  all     Forgive us, God the Provider.
one    Help us to love as you love.
           Help us to notice where your shalom is absent, and enter there, 
           expecting you to be present and provide what is needed.
  all    Help us, God the Provider.
[silence]
one    Hear these words of assurance:
           God our Shepherd is with us wherever we go,
           Taking us beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.

—Phil Kniss, September 27, 2020

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Moriah Hurst: Trusting the Promise

“God’s promise to a people”

Genesis 15:1-21; Luke 3:7-14



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Trusting the promise

Children love to ask questions. I love questions, so that may be part of why I love children. As parents or caregivers you may have heard “But why, why??” repeated over and over, like children are stuck as a broken record repeating their questions. Is it their curiosity for the world or the way the words sound in their mouth or the reaction in us that they learn they have some control over?

Abram, who will later in the story be renamed Abraham, so forgive me if I use the names interchangeably this morning, is not a child in this story. Abram was 75 years old when God called him, three chapters before this story.  We can assume that several years had passed between then and our text today. Yet Abram approaches God with questions in an almost childlike way.

“How will I know? What will you give me?” Abram pushes God with a somewhat complaining tone. Even the language of promise may feel like that of a child to many of us. “Do you promise you will take me to that event? Do you promise to keep it a secret? Pinky promise??”

And the dramatic change we see in Abram in this story may seem childlike in that he goes from skepticism to deep faith so quickly. But the faith we see in this story is not a simple faith but a sure faith. Abram eventually trusting that when God makes a promise, God is good for it.

God enters the scene of this text in a vision with the opening words “Do not be afraid” – we know this phrase, it normally means there is reason we should be afraid. God is not just appearing for the first time in Abram’s life here, God has already called Abram and made promises to him.

As Pastor Phil pointed out earlier we jumped from creation and the story of the start of God’s relationship with humanity last week to the story of God choosing one man, one family that will become a people who are God’s chosen ones. God called out Abram telling him he would be a great nation. God blessed Abram so he would be a blessing to others. But here Abram has a bone to pick with God, you promised! And nothing appears to be coming through on that promise!!

This response from Abram may be perfectly reasonable. One authors explains: “He has left home, family, and land in response to God’s outrageous call and promise. He has come to a new, unfamiliar land and now, it appears, his lineage will die there with him. God’s promises have not held true.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2980

 

Abram and God haven’t built up enough of a relationship yet for Abram to know that God is trustworthy. They are still building that rapport. “Clearly, the faith to which Abraham is called is not a peaceful, pious acceptance. It is a hard-fought and deeply argued conviction. Abraham will not be a passive recipient of the promise. He is prepared to hold his own.” (Interpretations, 141)

 

So Abram complains. Abram needs a child to be his heir and his wife Sarah is still barren. He enters a conversation with God where we see his mind changing.

One author points out that God isn’t arguing here like a lawyer, using persuasion and adding new data points. There is the promise and response –repeated. The promise is the same “But the two responses (from Abram) are very different. The first (v.2-3) is a disbelieving protest or lament. The second (v.6) is an act of faith.” The question is why? What moved Abraham?  What shifts so that we see that “he has come to rely on the promise speaker.” (Interpretations 143)

God leads Abram outside and directs his attention to the sky filled with stars. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them” says God. “So shall your descendants be.”

 

It is kind of ridiculous – You want me to count the starts?!? No way, that is impossible. Abram is holding onto the small hope of one small child, which seems so out of reach, and God says, nah that’s a little thing, I’m going to do so much more.

This is not a wishing on a star but a conversation with the one who created every star and the galaxies far beyond our sight. Our small concerns seem insignificant next to that God. Yet this is also a God who takes the time to listen, reassure and help change our minds and lives. God doesn’t make Abraham believe. God invites and offers. There is no force here, only care and conversation.

And Abram changes his mind and believes. Walter Brueggemann puts it like this:  “Abraham has repented. He has abandoned a reading of reality which is measured by what he can see and touch and manage. That new orientation is not a generalized religious notion that ‘everything will work out all right.’ He is not guilty of pious abdication. Rather, it is a quite specific response to a concrete promise from a known promise-maker. The faith of Abraham is certain of one point. There is a future to be given which will be new and not derived from the present barrenness. He believes that God can cause a break point between the exhausted present and the buoyant future. He believes in a genuine Genesis.”(Interpretations,144) end quote.

 

What I love here is that Abraham isn’t some superhero guy. He is a man that God chooses. Abraham makes mistakes and poor decisions. He complains to God, gets impatient and tries to make things work his own way. But Abraham is also a man who believes. God comes and invites him to go to a new land and Abraham goes. He listens to God and their knowledge of each other grows. This is the story we hear repeated through all of the bible. God calls normal, flawed, complaining and complex people to walk in God’s ways and we get to read the story of how that went. The people of God with all their foibles, pitfalls and triumphs captured in the pages of this book. And in that, there is hope that we can fit in too with this family, this people of God, this life of faith even in our imperfections.

The promise isn’t filled right away. We don’t get an instant pregnancy in this story. “The problem of faith is waiting, even when the delay seems unending…(there is a) way we have of immediately making our own future, we are not accustomed to waiting. In our impatience we are prone to conclude that if it is not given now, it will not be given. Abraham’s impatience reflects the same judgment. But gifts may not be forced. Futures stay in the hand of God who gives them.”(Interpretations, 149)

Where is the barrenness in us and what are we longing to have God birth into our lives?  What is the reinsurance that we are yearning to hear from God? How might God be responding in creative ways that we might be missing?

 

God reassures Abram of God’s protection and provision. For Abram that is enough for him to boldly confess his doubts and then trust that this promise is going to come through.

Will we let ourselves hear the words from God to us – Do not be afraid, I am your shield and reward. Can we trust in God’s comfort and shelter, knowing that that trust in God is the ultimate prize, better then any treasure we could ever win. Will we have patience to hear from God in God’s time not only when we impatiently call out our demands and wishes?

In this story “God is a promise-maker, Abraham is a promise-bearer, and the substance of the promise is land. Until the promise is kept, covenant is the way the promise is practiced.” (Interpretations,150)

What language would we use? Promise isn’t the word that seems to fit. How does commitment sound? Is it the building of trust in a relationship that we learn to know and trust the other in that commitment? The bible uses the language of covenant. This seems solemn and strong. Not a contract or a deal but a promise with weight behind it and trust on both sides that the commitment will hold.

We are called into this trust. Still bringing our concerns before God and airing our questions. Not a blind faith but faith that has a deep well of trust.

This kind of faith is not easy so I invite you to make this confession with me before God.




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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Phil Kniss: Falling toward redemption

“The relationship begins”
Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8; Matthew 6:9-13


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We’re delighted to begin a year
working our way through the biblical narrative,
in a sweeping arc from beginning to end.
And we’re delighted to do so
with other congregations in Harrisonburg and the surrounding area,
of various denominations,
and 100s more around the world,
who follow the Narrative Lectionary.

We begin the narrative today with a story everybody knows—
the creation and fall of humanity.
A lot of people are a little fuzzy on the details,
but most people know something about a snake that
tricked Adam and Eve into eating an apple,
which ruined everything for everybody,
although we’re not quite sure why.

The text doesn’t actually contain the words snake or apple,
but that’s beside the point.
We know this story,
and it’s gotten into our everyday vocabulary.
We use the phrase “forbidden fruit”
for just about anything we should keep our hands off of.
And the little bump that sticks out in our neck,
we all know as the “Adam’s apple,”
I guess because when Adam got caught by God,
he must have choked, and it got lodged partway down.
That’s also not in the text.

Everybody knows the Adam and Eve story,
but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking or talking about it.

I think it’s one of the most important stories in scripture—
I don’t even want to rank it.
Because along with some other Bible stories,
this one is essential for faith.
We should know it in a deeper way than we do.

And here’s a clue.
It has nothing to do with biological human origins.
So forget any argument you’ve ever heard about that.

This is about who we believe we are,
in relationship to who we believe God is.
This is where the story of our relationship to God begins.

And the relationship did not get off to such a great start.
God created us humans to be collaborators in creation.
Turns out we were more interested in being competitors.

See, the role of collaborating with God in creation—
or in the words of our text,
“to live in the Garden and work it and take care of it”—
that role of steward or keeper or caretaker
is a limiting role.
We are limited by the owners’ values and priorities and intentions.
We are limited by the owner’s definition of good and evil.
We don’t create our own morality.
We don’t get to invent our own reason for existence.
Those were all given to us by our Creator.

But due to God’s generous gift of freewill,
we are also not puppets.
We have the capacity to think for ourselves,
and choose for ourselves.
And when given the choice,
we tend toward wanting to take over God’s role
of judge,
of being the arbiter of good and evil,
of bending the world toward our desires.

And as soon as we take on the mantle of judge,
we notice our nakedness.

That’s what this wonderfully symbolic part of the story is all about.
It’s not about how human beings invented the first fig-leaf suit.
It’s about how we came to be ashamed of vulnerability.

Once we embrace the universal human temptation
to judge others and ourselves,
then we can’t tolerate our own nakedness anymore.
We realize we have something to hide.
Our own vulnerability is exposed.

Adam and Eve had no reason to hide from God
before they ate the fruit.
They walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day,
Naked and unafraid.

But once the fruit of judgment was tasted,
they learned to fear.
Intimacy with God now felt like a risk.
God became a threat.
So they hid.

That story gets lived over and over again in our daily lives,
to this day.
We human beings have learned the hard way
that vulnerability and baring our souls with others,
doesn’t always end well.
Because of the evil that resides in us all,
there is a temptation to take advantage of another’s weakness,
and use it for selfish purposes.
We have all been on the receiving end
of someone taking advantage of us, when our guard was down.
And we have all, at one time or another,
used that same power over another,
to our advantage.
So we have learned, correctly,
that it is safer to wear lots of armor.
Fig leaves make life easier.

And in our Narrative Lectionary this year,
we will see this story repeated over and over and over
on nearly every page of our Bible.
God’s people did not trust God with their nakedness,
with their vulnerability.
They weren’t comfortable being overly dependent.
They got self-protective, self-oriented, and self-determined.
Instead of basking in God’s love and provisions,
they instead struggled to control and manage,
and usurp God’s rightful place in the order of things.

Abraham passed off his wife as his sister for economic gain.
Jacob cruelly scammed his older brother out of his inheritance.
Jacob’s sons sold off their privileged younger brother into slavery.
And newly-freed Hebrew slaves
tried to turn back to the food security they had in Egypt,
instead of depending on God for daily manna in the desert.
The nation of Israel rejected the rule of God,
and asked for a human king like the other nations,
. . . and the stories go on and on.

And still today,
we keep falling for this ancient and perennial temptation.
For control over unpredictability.
For full-body armor over nakedness.

The temptation always comes in the form of
some variation on the words of the serpent—
“You . . . can . . . be . . . like . . . God.”

In the Lord’s Prayer, our Gospel text this morning,
Jesus wisely taught his disciples to
acknowledge the rightful rule of God,
and to conclude this model prayer with,
“And lead us not into temptation, 
but deliver us from the Evil One.”
_____________________

So did Adam and Eve die after eating the forbidden fruit?
The punishment was, in fact, a sort of death.
What died was a life of sustained and relaxed intimacy with God.
They were banished from Eden.
In the verses that follow today’s reading,
they were sent out of the garden through the eastern gate,
and cherubim took up flaming swords to guard the gate,
and keep them out forever.

“East of Eden”—is not just the title of a John Steinbeck novel.
It’s a metaphor for life in a wounded world.
We are still in the wilderness east of Eden,
needing to fend for ourselves,
tilling the land by the sweat of our brows,
having to continually fight against our enemies to survive,
thorns and thistles,
poisonous creatures and . . . deadly viruses.

If ever our lives were “East of Eden,” now would be that time.

Where is God East of Eden?
When we were in the garden,
God came to us, and walked and talked with us.
Are we destined to wander alone forever in this wilderness?

That is the big, vexing, existential question that
humanity has wrestled with
ever since the cherubim took up their swords at the garden gate.
The whole story of God’s people,
throughout the Old and New Testaments,
and throughout the history of the church,
is a story of seeking God where God is often hard to find.

Sometimes we remember why,
and we embrace the wilderness long enough
to look to God in deep trust,
ready to risk and obey, for the next step.

But other times we stubbornly cling to this deception,
that we can do this alone, on our own strength and wisdom.

We are still tempted to usurp God’s place in the equation,
and we still fall for it. We still bite the apple.
But this ongoing rebellion is only one part
of this big biblical narrative.
The other part is what God does—
continually reaching toward God’s people,
even when they fail to reach toward God.
In our survey of the biblical story,
there will be many more offers of redemption and forgiveness.
And many more falls.
And many more reconciliations.
God does not, and will not, give up on us.

We fall.
And we will keep falling.
But the end of this biblical arc is pointing toward redemption.
We are falling toward redemption.
Not because of our efforts, but because of God’s.

We need not despair. Ever.
God is still with us.
Even east of Eden.

I invite us into a response of confession,
since we know the sin of Adam and Eve is also our sin.
Let us, together, bring our confession to God.
You may follow along, and read along with us on the bold print.

one Creator God, you made us and all things for beauty and harmony.
        You put your trust in us as partners 
        to carry out your good purposes in the world.
        Yet, we have often squandered that trust, 
        and turned away from our calling,
        and have sought to replace or usurp 
        your role as sovereign in this world.
        We have hidden from you in shame.
all We repent of our sinful rebellion.
        Forgive us for trusting you less than you trust us.
        Hold fast to us in your everlasting love.
[silence]
one Our God remains with us in patience, love, and mercy.
        Our God generously extends forgiveness, 
        restores the relationship,
        and invites us to continue the journey.
        Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, September 13, 2020

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