Sunday, December 14, 2014

Phil Kniss: Finding joy in the muddled middle

Advent 3: O that you would reveal your joy
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126:1-6; 1 Thess. 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

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So today, my sermon is “Finding joy in the muddled middle.”
    And last Sunday I talked about finding peace in the wilderness.

This isn’t exactly the same sermon that I preached last week,
    but you will hear echoes.
    As well you should, during Advent.
        Each Sunday has its own focus,
            but the whole season has a common theme.

Advent is traditionally, a fasting season,
    where we name the continuing darkness
        in our world and in our lives,
    and where we express our hope in the light of Christ,
        that light which has come, is now coming, and is yet to come.

We don’t usually emphasize the fasting part of this season.
    I guess there are too many
        cookies and chocolates being passed around,
        party buffets being catered,
        and fruitcakes being re-gifted . . .
            to even consider a fast.
    If we fast, it won’t be until our New Years’ resolutions kick in,
        when it’s time to rehabilitate ourselves from seasonal excess.

But in the church calendar—
    which is quite different, I assure you,
        than the Hallmark calendar our culture and economy run on—
    this is not the Christmas season.
        It is Advent.
        And it is a time to slow down, not speed up.
            A time for listening, not noise-making.
            A time to reflect, confess, even lament
                the darkness that remains in the world,
                and remains lodged in our inner being.
            That is a darkness, a wilderness, a muddled middle
                that we dare not deny,
                that we can not wish away,
                that we can do nothing about, except wait,
                    and cry out for the light of God in Christ,
                    to keep showing up in our midst.

Now, having said that,
    I hasten to add that I don’t begrudge the merry-making
        that dominates December.
    I love to listen to, and sing, the joyful songs of Christmas
        from Thanksgiving on.
    If you attended the Christmas Coffeehouse on Friday or Saturday,
        you saw me up there on stage singing my heart out,
            about things joyful and merry and bright and silly,
        and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
    And tonight, here,
        you will witness a delightful, and joy-filled program
            of children’s Christmas music,
        and we are all going to receive those uninhibited,
            childlike expressions of joy
            as a precious Christmas gift to this community.
    So, please,
        no one accuse me of being a Scrooge,
            by talking about this
            as a season for fasting and contemplation.

But this time and space—Sunday morning worship in Advent—
    is different.
Yes, maybe we do feel just a tinge of spiritual whiplash,
    when we walk into this space
        and there are no Christmas carols being sung,
        and we are being invited to be still, and reflect,
            and name the reality of wilderness and darkness,
            and talk about waiting.
    Maybe, for some, there might even be a bit of discomfort,
        or impatience with the season.
        I’m fine with that.
    Consider this hour of worship
        a small, but necessary Sabbath from the frenzy of the season.
    Consider it a time to really remember the reason for the season.

Sometimes when I hear Christians saying things like,
    “Let’s keep Christ in Christmas,”
        or “Remember the reason for the season,”
    I get the sneaking suspicion that what they really mean,
        is let’s keep up everything we already do—
            like shop till we drop, and eat till we hurt,
                and party like there’s no tomorrow,
        but just add Jesus to everything,
            make sure Jesus’ name is prominent on Christmas cards,
            and that decorations have more baby Jesus, and less Santa,
            and that kids get to sing Christmas carols in schools,
            and that cashiers get to say “Merry Christmas.”
        Somehow, if we achieve those things,
            then Christ will be in Christmas, and all will be well.

To be honest, it would be hard for me to care less
    about keeping Christ in our culture’s version of Christmas.
    I appreciate that our culture embraces this season
        as a time to celebrate, and come together as family,
        and wish for world peace and good cheer.
    But when I see two-inch stacks of sales flyers stuffed in the DNR,
        or visit a local shopping center,
        or watch some TV,
        or see all the junk email in my inbox,
            I’d rather leave Jesus completely out of it.
            I don’t think he’d want to be associated with
                a lot of what passes for Christmas in our culture.

Coming to worship during Advent is my way
    to keep Christ in the season.
    It’s my way to have a Sabbath from the seasonal frenzy,
        whether that frenzy is focused on Santa or Jesus.

It’s a couple hours in the week for us to be together,
    away from the noise,
    and with each other, in honesty,
    remembering who we are, where we are,
        and how we are called to live in these days.
    Because we know, and we declare
        that things are dark in this world,
            yet we hope,
            yet we have peace,
            yet we will rejoice in the certain, but often hidden,
                light of God in Christ, Emmanuel,
                God with us.

Yes, I love singing the fun and joyful songs of Christmas,
    all month.
But even more,
    I love this hour of honesty.
    I love this chance to remember together.
        To name our wilderness.
        And to name our hope.

And we do it again today, as we ponder the meaning of joy.
    Advent may be a season for fasting,
        but we are not shy about expressing joy.
    We opened the morning singing,
        “Blessed be the God of Israel who comes to set us free,
            who visits and redeems us, and grants us liberty.”
    We lit the pink joy candle.
    We rejoiced in the good news of scripture.

        We heard Isaiah proclaim,
        “The Lord has anointed me
            to bring good news to the oppressed,
            to proclaim liberty to the captives,
            to comfort all who mourn;
            to give them a garland instead of ashes.”
        We heard the psalmist sing,
            “The Lord has done great things for us,
                and we rejoiced.”
        We listened to the words of Apostle Paul,
            “Rejoice always . . . give thanks in all circumstances;
                for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
        And we heard in the Gospel, John saying he
            “came as a witness to testify to the light,
                so that all might believe.”
        Good, positive, uplifting words of hope and joy in scripture.

    But even as we read, listen to, and sing these words of joy,
        we see something else being named here in the texts.

The very prophet Isaiah who was speaking words of hope,
    of the coming restoration,
        was standing ankle-deep in the muddy mess, with his people.
    In Isaiah’s very proclamation of the joy to come,
        he was naming the muddle, of which they were in the middle.
    Yes, you are oppressed. Yet, I have good news for you!
    Yes, you are captive. Yet, I say, be free!
    Yes, you are mourning. Yet, I say, wash off your ashes!
        This is the day of the Lord’s favor!

Likewise, apostle Paul, in his letter to Thessalonian Christians,
    sounded giddy with enthusiasm.
    “Rejoice . . . always!  Pray . . . constantly!
        Give thanks . . . in every circumstance!”
    But this was no cheery denial of reality.
    Earlier in the letter, he named,
        in all honesty and with the anguish of a loving parent,
        the deep suffering and persecution they were undergoing.
    And he wrote this out of his own context of suffering,
        nearly to the point of death.

What could cause a prophet and an apostle
    to be so confident of the joy to come,
    when all they could see around them was the mud of
        exile, persecution, suffering, loss, devastation?

We get a clue to this from the psalm of the day, 126.
    If you have your Bibles,
        it might be helpful to follow along here.

    Psalm 126 is a particular kind of song,
        in this Israelite hymnal, that we call the book of Psalms.
    Like our hymnal, it’s organized.
        Different songs for different occasions.
    There’s one section of 15 songs in this hymnal—
        Psalms 120-134—labeled, “Songs of Ascent.”

These were songs to sing while on pilgrimage
    to the temple in Jerusalem, high up on Mt.  Zion.
    Thus, songs of ascent.
    Songs to sing while walking uphill together,
        in procession, preparing for worship of some kind.

    These were not songs to sing back home,
        before they started on their pilgrimage.
    These were not songs to sing in the temple,
        after they arrived.
    No, they were songs to sing while they were halfway up the hill,
        still on the way.
    They were songs to sing while they were in the muddled middle,
        so to speak.

We see this in the structure of the Psalm.

It’s organized in three sections.
    One to help them see and remember the past.
    One to acknowledge the present reality.
    One to look hopefully into the future.
Or you might say,
    one is like an old photo album—recalling the past,
    one is like a mirror—naming what is,
    and one is like a telescope—revealing what’s ahead.

So the people begin singing the song,
    by essentially pulling out their family photo album,
    “Remember back when, the Lord first restored the fortunes of Zion?
    It was almost too good to be true.
        “We were like those who dream,” it says in v. 1.
    Back then, we laughed (v. 2), we shouted,
        we had others admiring us.
    Those were the good old days, literally.

Next, in the song, v. 4, the people hold up the mirror.
    They acknowledge the way things are right now, at this moment.
    And it’s not good.
    Their lives are like watercourses in the Negev Desert—
        dried up stream beds.
    They plead to God for relief,
        as they stand in this desolate, muddled middle.
        “Restore our fortunes” again, Lord.
            Make us like the stream bed in rainy season.
            Take our barren lives and restore them.
            “May those who sowed in tears,
                reap with shouts of joy.”

Finally, in verse 6, they pick up a telescope,
    and gaze into a future they know, somehow, by faith,
        will someday be theirs.
    And this is the song they sing,
        “Those who go out weeping,
            bearing the seed for sowing,
            shall come home with shouts of joy,
                carrying their sheaves.”
        Those are the words of the oldie-goldie hymn we sang earlier,
            “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
            Tho’ the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
            When our weeping’s over, he will bid us welcome,
            We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”
        Yes, they sang. There will be a harvest.
        They knew their God would come through someday.
            They knew it.

As God’s people today, we find ourselves, more often than not,
    in the muddled middle.
Most of the time we are not living the beautiful dream,
    where God steps in and makes everything right.
    Those times have happened in the past.
        We have the photo album to prove it.
        But it’s not where we’re at right now.

And we’ve not yet arrived at our golden future.
    We have a glimpse of it, thanks to the prophets describing it.
    We have an image of the peaceable kingdom to hold on to,
        where the wolf lies down with the lamb.
    But we’re not yet living that far away vision,
        that we can only see dimly, through the telescope.

Now, we live in the muddled middle.
    We are just halfway up the hill.
    At the bottom of the hill, behind us, are the glories of the past.
        Remembering them gives us strength.
    At the top of the hill is the glorious vision fulfilled.
        Seeing that gives us hope.

And yet, right now—right now—
    although things are a mess and a muddle,
    there is reason, because of what we see now, in the mirror,
        for us to have a deep and sustainable joy.
What we see is that we are not alone on this uphill journey.

The pilgrims in Israel gathered together at the bottom of the hill,
    and started up together,
    led by musicians,
    and sang these songs of ascent together,
        walking together, in rhythm to the drums and trumpets
            and maybe trombones, like we heard today,
        moving upward and onward together,
    taking their individual voices, their separate small strands,
        and weaving them together into something greater.

That brings me right back to the purpose of worship during Advent.
    Worship in Advent,
        fulfills the same function for the church today,
        that the Songs of Ascent did for the people of Israel.
    It names the reality of the present darkness,
        but places it in a larger context, that results in deep joy.
        Not cheeriness. Not seasonal merriment. Not fa-la-la-la-la.
            But a deep underground river of joy that flows from the past,
                into the present,
                and on into the future God has in mind.

    That’s why we come together to worship in Advent.
        There is time for being solitary,
            for the individual devotional life,
            for meditating in our prayer closet.
        But Sunday morning worship during Advent
            is not one of those times.
        This is the time for collective, corporate, declaration
            of our shared hope in the light of Christ.
        Advent worship is our public protest
            against the hopelessness embedded in popular culture.
        Our culture is not equipped
            to recognize hopelessness and despair, and name it.
            It does not know where to turn for hope, peace, and joy.
            All it can do is distract, and cover up, and drown out.
            So out come the tinsel and cheap ornaments,
                and cheesy carols,
                and buy-one-get-one-free deals in the shopping center.

        Advent worship is when we pause, together as a people,
            while we are halfway up the hill,
            in the muddled middle,
                and together declare,
                God, you are our joy.
                You are with us.
                We are not alone.
                We are together with each other,
                    in the your presence, God who loves us.
                You loved us enough to come in days past.
                You love us enough to come again someday
                    and set the world right again.
                And you love us enough to be with us now,
                    while we are in the middle of all this darkness.

Come, Lord Jesus.
    Come, be light for our eyes.
    Come, be the air we breathe.
    Come, be the voice we speak.
    Come, be the song we sing.

—Phil Kniss, December 14, 2014

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Phil Kniss: In the wild, and at peace

Advent 2: O that you would reveal your peace!
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:
[coming soon]

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

...or read it online here:

This is Advent. The word means coming.
    Because in Advent, we declare:
        God has come.
        God is come.
        God will come.
    These are the great truths of the Christian faith.
        And in Advent, we celebrate these truths.
        We worship the God who comes.
            Comes to be with us in Jesus Christ.
            And in the Spirit.
            Emmanuel. God with us.

But just declaring these truths begs some questions.
    When God comes to us, what does God find?

Our epistle reading from 2 Peter challenged us this morning,
    “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things,
        strive to be found by him at peace.”
    The invitation to us, is that when this God who comes, comes,
        we are to be found by God, at peace.
    So how are we doing on that?

I’ll return to that question, but for now,
    we’ll let it hang in the air a bit,
    while we reflect on the Gospel reading about John the Baptist,
        as told so well by Tara.

This concern about what God will find when God comes,
    is precisely the concern John was dealing with.
John was preparing the way for Jesus to come.
    Jesus the anointed one, the Messiah, was about to be revealed.
    John was getting the people ready for that coming,
        so that Jesus would find a people receptive to his coming.

That was no small task, given what John and his Jewish people
    were dealing with in the Middle East 2000 years ago.
    His Hebrew community, the children of Abraham,
        were losing their identity, their sense of peoplehood,
        the covenant was receding into the distance.
    Not their fault entirely.
        The political and cultural pressure was overpowering.
        The Empire of Rome was crushing them,
            and anyone who dared to resist it.
        The Roman and Greek culture, with its values and mores,
            was ever-present and influential.
        So not all, but many of the Hebrew people
            were losing their political and cultural identity,
            and they were losing the vitality of their Hebrew faith,
                and the covenant that sustained it.
        They were becoming more Roman and Greek than they realized.

    Now there were active parties within Judaism—
        Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots—
        who tried their best to resist this eroding of identity
            and the covenant.
        They used vastly different methods—
            from ritual purity to fasting to denial to violent rebellion.
        They operated out of different convictions,
            different assumptions about what God wanted for the Jews.
            So there was a lot of conflict between them.
            God’s people were losing their communal moral grounding.

Now . . . ponder that sort of people.
    A faith community once close, cohesive,
        of common mind, in common covenant,
        now fragmented, polarized,
        under cultural and political pressure.
    A faith community losing their peoplehood in a hostile culture.
    A faith community whose core is becoming less clear,
        who are beginning to forget
            who God called them to be in this world,
            because they have so acclimated themselves
                to the dominant culture’s way of being.

Now, am I describing 1st-century Palestinian Judaism?
Or am I describing 21st-century American Christianity?

Sometimes I think that the cultural context
    for the New Testament church,
    is not as distant from our own, as once it was.
    The social, spiritual, and cultural state of affairs
        in these two faith communities—
        have more in common
            than the 2,000-year gap would indicate.

Maybe John the Baptist’s wild and provocative witness,
    resonates with us more than we imagine.

But now remember, John wasn’t speaking out of a vacuum, either.
    His message wasn’t original,
        wasn’t unique to his first-century listeners.
    He was quoting Isaiah,
        a prophet to his people hundreds of years earlier,
        living in yet another place and time,
        in another period of floundering by the people of God,
            when they were in exile,
            and needed to come back into covenant.

So I guess we have not two, but three vastly different cultures,
    in vastly different eras,
    over a period of 2,500 years,
    to which the same sermon applies.
    And it’s fresh every time.

The sermon goes like this,
“People of God, get ready.
    The God-who-comes is coming.
    Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
    Remember who you are.
    Repent. Return to your God, to your covenant.
        God is full of mercy. God will abundantly pardon.
        God wants to meet you in peace,
            and form you as a new people.
        God wants to bring about what is right and just,
            to restore what has been broken.
        So repent, my people. Prepare for the God-who-comes.”

We read in the Gospel text,
    that John was proclaiming a “baptism of repentance.”
    That, of course, is a logical way to prepare for the God-who-comes.
        To repent, is to have a change of mind,
            it is to think differently about things,
            and thus, to act differently.
        Repentance is not sorrow.
            It is not remorse.
            It is metanoia (in Greek),
                a change in our way of thinking,
                to literally, “think again.”
            It is to “change one’s mind,”
                about who God is, who we are, who we are called to be.

    Thinking rightly, is the first step toward living rightly.
        It doesn’t guarantee behavioral change.
        But faithful thought, points toward faithful living.
        Right thinking prepares us for God’s coming.
        It makes us ready for the saving work God wants to do.

Advent, for us preachers, is the one time in the church year
    that we simply have to deal with apocalyptic scriptures,
        and their fantastical descriptions
        of God breaking into the world,
    scriptures that are easy to ignore if we had our druthers.
But they show up in the lectionary every year in Advent.
In these scriptures God’s coming is often depicted
    in a fairly intimidating way,
    in a foreboding, often cataclysmic way.
    At first reading, the imagery is even seems violent at times.

These are some of the words we heard today:
    “Every mountain and hill will be brought low.
        [God, the cosmic bulldozer.]
    The Lord God comes with might,
        and his arm rules for him.
    The day of the Lord will come like a thief,
        and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise . . .
        the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved,
        and the elements will melt with fire.”
And this year in the cycle the texts are even tamer
    than some of the other years.

So what do we make of a God who comes like this,
    a God we want to hide from,
        rather than welcome and greet?
Is this the same God we also welcome as a babe in a manger?
    who is sweetly sleeping?
    who no crying he makes?

Well, yes. It is the same God, we affirm by faith.

But what do we do with this God whose coming
    is a cataclysmic, earth-shaking, mountain-crushing
        display of power and judgment?

This year, when I was meditating on the scripture texts,
    I think received 2 Peter 3 in a different way
        than I have before.
    I received it as an unexpected gift.

I know a lot of it depends on where we’re sitting when we read.
    A text like this may be read very differently by Christians
        in Syria, or Iraq, or Sierra Leone, or Colombia,
            or plenty of other places more challenging than our own.
        They readily welcome a God who sends judgement,
            who crushes mountains and shakes the earth,
                and changes the landscape of things.

    But from where I sit, this year,
        in a world that looks a lot more fragile, and on edge,
            than a couple generations ago,
        in a world where wide-scale violent destruction is really possible,
            where deadly viruses can spread beyond control,
            where the earth teeters on the edge
                of environmental catastrophe,
            where religious extremism is spreading, rapidly,
            where new war-making technology makes possible
                human destruction by remote control . . .
                so that for the attacker,
                    going to war is almost like going to the office,
                making this war technology more likely to be used,
                    and more likely to be stolen & sold
                    to some enemy with cash, and desire to destroy.

    And we live in a country that, while we are relatively safe for now,
        there is greater fragmentation and polarization,
        there is more intense fear and reactivity,
        there is more isolation and hopelessness,
            all of which are recipes for an increase in violence,
                and a breakdown of social order.
        We see the evidence of this in the recent wave of racial violence,
            and sexual violence,
                mass shootings,
                incidents of police brutality.
        People are on edge, in the worst kind of way.

    We live in a social and spiritual wilderness, I think it’s safe to say.
        A desert.
        A wasteland, where life is a constant struggle to survive.

    And bringing it closer home,
        we might even say that the church we all love so much,
        is struggling in a wilderness,
            as some of our church family are losing hope,
                losing trust in each other,
                losing a sense of connection and belonging and purpose.

So it was while sitting in these particular places—
    in our world, in our society, and in our church—
    that I read 2 Peter with new eyes.

Yes, the cataclysmic imagery and metaphors are still there,
    plain as day—
        the elements melting with fire,
        the earth being laid bare,
        the heavens set ablaze—
    but even plainer than that,
        is the deep, and abiding, and irrepressible love of God
            for the world and for us.

Neither in 2 Peter, nor in Isaiah, nor in John the Baptist’s message,
    do we find a God who is out to get us.
    God is out to love us and draw us into God’s embrace.

    No, we don’t have it all together right now.
        We’re getting it wrong in the world,
            and in our nation, and community.
        And we’re getting it wrong, pretty often, I think, in the church.
        But God is full of love and longing.
        And God is patient.
            “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years,
                and a thousand years are like one day.”
    Yes, things seem kind of fragile,
        even a bit crazy and out of control sometimes,
        but God is coming, God is at work, God has an agenda,
            and that agenda is one of love and longing and restoration.

    God’s heart is for our salvation, not our destruction.
        God, the apostle declares, “is patient with [us],
            not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”
        That is God’s desire, and God’s work.

    I used to read texts like this differently.
        When I was young and impressionable, as an adolescent,
            and books like The Late, Great Planet Earth
                were Christian best-sellers,
            and Christian movies tried to scare us into salvation,
            and my favorite Christian rock star, Larry Norman,
                was singing, “a man and wife asleep in bed,
                    she hears a noise and turns her head, he’s gone
                    I wish we’d all been ready.
                    There’s no time to change your mind
                    The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.”
        I was never sure when God would strike,
            and I was afraid.
        I’m not there anymore.
            But memories of that line of thinking,
                has left me a little skittish of apocalyptic scriptures.

    Somehow, when I’ve read texts like 2 Peter,
        the parts that stood out, and stuck out,
            were the heavens on fire, and the elements melting.
        But the main logic and flow of this text is all about
            God’s patience, God’s long-suffering love for all the world,
            God’s deep desire that no one . . . no one . . . would perish.

    And the apostle encourages us, by reminding us of God’s promise.
        There is coming new heavens and a new earth,
            where righteousness is at home
            (or as the psalmist said,
                where righteousness and peace will kiss each other).
        No, that full restoration is not here yet.
            We are still in the wilderness.
            We still live in the wild,
                where danger lurks,
                where life is untamed and unpredictable.
            But we need not live fearfully, in the wild.
                We can be in the wild, and at peace.
            As it says in 2 Peter 3:15, we can
                “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

    There’s a thought to hang on to,
        in these uncertain, and nerve-wracking, and fearful times.
    The patience of the Lord is not something to resent.
        The fact that God is not, apparently, intervening right now
            to punish the wicked and bless the righteous . . .
        The fact that God is not, apparently, removing us
            from this state of affairs where evil seems to run rampant
                in the world, in our country, even in our church . . .
        The fact that God is not, apparently, stepping in
            to clear up all the ambiguity,
            but letting us live with perplexing questions . . .
        These facts are not reasons for us to despair or worry,
            or take matters into our own hands.
        These facts do not point to a need for us
            to take over responsibility from God,
            and to be judge and jury.
        These facts are not to be seen as God’s absence,
            or God’s apathy.
            Rather, they are evidence of God’s patience.
            And we “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

        We trust that God is working the angles.
        We trust that God is operating in God’s time,
            to bring about God’s purposes.
            I would like things to suddenly be clear.
                Or be just.
                Or be righteous.
                Or be life-giving, instead of death-dealing.

        But my trust in God’s deep and abiding love,
            and God’s ultimate desire that no one perish,
            will let me breathe easier in the wilderness.
            It will let me be found at peace in the wild.
            It will let me live, fully, in the desert.

O, we long for God to break through the heavens and come down.
    We cry out for hope, for peace, for joy, for love,
        this Advent, and in the approaching new year.
        “O, that you, God, would reveal your mysterious ways.”

    But . . . when God’s ways remain shrouded in mystery,
        in the world, in our nation, in our community, in our church,
        when God’s deeds are yet to be fully revealed,
        let us be content with some mystery.
        Let us not rush God, or seek to manage God.
        Let us, rather, trust God.
        And let us “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”

—Phil Kniss, December 7, 2014

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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ross Erb: Light Enhanced Vision

Advent 1: O, that you would reveal your hope!
1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

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...or listen to audio:
[coming soon]

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It’s an odd thing that here in the northern hemisphere advent,
 the beginning of the church year,
comes just as we enter a time of darkness.
The days are short and the nights are long and cold.
It doesn’t seem like a very auspicious time for a beginning.
It doesn’t match up with the calendar year as we keep it.
I would have arranged things differently if it were up to me!
I’d begin the church year when it is warm and bright,
when I’m full of optimism and hope.
But that is not how it is.

We mark this season as a time to become pregnant with hope,
but are we feeling it?
Where is hope now? Now, things feel oppressive.
I am reminded of how I felt before we moved to Virginia.
When I was employed as a child protection social worker in Ontario,
my job was rather intense.
I worked all day with families who were hurting.
It was children who were being hurt most,
but they were not the only ones,
and sometimes it was children who were perpetrating the harm.
I learned far more than I ever wanted to know
about physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and neglect.
My job began to shape my view of the world,
my understanding of people.

It crept into how I spent time at home.
Some evenings Cathy would begin to watch a tv show,
and if it was a crime show I would generally absent myself from the room.
If it was a crime show that involved children or domestic violence,
I was quick to leave.

It’s not that I wanted to deny the ugliness of the world.
I just could not handle seeing what I worked with every day
portrayed as entertainment.
I felt what the prophet spoke in Isaiah 64,
the basis for our call to worship this morning.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence –
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil –
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence.”

These days, it isn’t just tv dramas that disturb.
Who among us has not been unsettled by what is on the nightly news?
The shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Fergusen, MO in August,
and the subsequent decision by a grand jury to not bring charges against the officer
has raised racial tensions across this country.
The politics of the nation are marked by strident discord.
Partisan politics seem to have governments at a standstill.
Areas of this country are in the grips of a devastating drought.

Globally, Ebola is causing incredible suffering in West Africa,
and fear around the world.
Children are being kidnapped in Nigeria.
One Malaysian airliner disappeared this summer,
another was shot down in the Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine are fighting over territory.
ISIS seeks to carve out a new nation in the Middle East.
We hear from Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lybia.

Are we at risk of losing hope for humanity?
Are we at risk of despairing that God is at work to redeem this world?
We want God to swoop in to shake things up,
to get our attention in some big way,
to let us know that God is in control and everything will be ok.
We want the world to tremble in the presence and power of God!

And our church itself seems at risk.
Our witness is injured when we act in decidedly un-Christian ways.
I recently heard of a youth pastor at an independent church in Pennsylvania,
married less than a year,
who has been sentenced to years in prison
for sexually abusing young boys in his charge.
And of course,
we are often acting in a less than loving way
as we wrestle with questions of sexuality,
as we wrestle with how we understand scripture,
and as we wrestle with how we are church.
It sometimes seems as though Christ’s body is being torn asunder.

Today as a church we voice our cry for God to burst into the world.
And this is when I think that we have been given a gift
in that we celebrate Advent just as we approach the longest night of the year.
Perhaps in this darkness we are primed for Advent.
We understand that Jesus Christ,
the light of the world,
has been born, and lived, and taught,
and suffered, and loved,
and died, and rose again.

The Light of the World has come.
We look toward Christmas,
to celebrating the coming of the Christ-child.

And in this time of looking forward,
we are reminded that God is birthing something new in us as well.
Our focus on ourselves and on our world as it is,
shifts to anticipation of what will be.
In the midst of the darkness, the messiness of now,
our light-enhanced vision gives us glimpses of the new creation.
We shift from seeing the empires of this world,
and begin to look into the Empire of Christ.
While this world demands gratification NOW,
Advent lets us sit with the pregnant waiting,
filled with hope of what is to come,
witnessing the in-breaking of this Empire of Christ.

We are looking forward to the return of Christ the King.
We are waiting for that time when we see Christ coming
“in the clouds, with great power and glory” as we read in Mark.
That will be a time of darkness, Jesus says,
perhaps not unlike now.
I’m not interested in trying to make predictions of when this prophecy
found in Mark 13 will be fulfilled.
Christians have spent 2000 years,
making predictions and being wrong.
Jesus says we are to be alert, keep awake!
Advent is a reminder to us,
a wake-up call.
We are to watch for Christ,
to live in expectation.

So in the midst of our own darkness,
the Light of the World shines on,
and we wait.
Paul’s prayer for the church in Corinth speaks to us today,
calling us to be enriched in Christ Jesus,
so that we will be strengthened to the end,
to be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In Sounding the Seasons: 70 Sonnets for the Christian Year
Michael Guite wrote the following poem:

O Emmanuel
I cannot think unless I have been thought,?
Nor can I speak unless I have been spoken.?
I cannot teach except as I am taught,?
Or break the bread except as I am broken.?
O Mind behind the mind through which I seek,
O Light within the light by which I see,
O come, O come, and be our God-with-us?
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,?
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.?
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,?
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace?
And make a womb of all this wounded world.?
O heart of heaven beating in the earth,?
O tiny hope within our hopelessness?
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,?
To touch a dying world with new-made hands?
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

In my role as a child protection worker I sometimes edged toward despair.
But there were also times
where I saw the Light of the World at work.
God was working in ways that I could hardly comprehend.
I saw a 15 year old mother make an impossible decision.
This young mom,
a child herself, who had been abused and neglected,
decided to give her own new-born child,
a child she desperately wanted to keep
because this child would love her,
up for adoption.
This was not an easy decision,
and it did not make the young mother’s life any easier.
It did provide the chance for her daughter to be loved and nurtured
in a way the young mother could not do.

This Advent season,
can we, with the light of Christ aiding our vision,
find evidence of what God is birthing in us and in this world?
Is there evidence of God at work in Fergusen,
as people speak out against systemic racism
and as we look at advantages many of us have simply because of skin color?
I met a young man from Sierra Leone who was here this fall,
and who has gone back to his country to aid in his people’s fight against ebola.
Is there evidence of God at work in the people who are placing their own lives at risk
to try to save the lives of others who are sick?
While we listen to the news of violence around the Middle East,
there is an alternate narrative, a different story there as well.
A young woman from the congregation we attended in Ontario
is serving in Lebanon with the Mennonite Central Committee Program SALT.
I’d like to read a small portion from a blog post she wrote:

I do not expect to see her there,
but the church is right across from Our Lady Dispensary,
the refugee clinic where I first met her,
so lack of expectation does not turn into a great deal of surprise.
She does not speak a word of English, and I speak hardly any Arabic,
but she is a grandmother,
and though there is sadness lining not only her face but her bones
that sadness is laced with love and love cannot be limited by language.
I greet her with the traditional Arabic greeting (three kisses on the cheek),
and she begins speaking to me in Arabic.
I listen to her, not understanding, but listening.
The last time I met her, I had a translator,
so I could understand as she told me about her daughter,
still in Hasakah, her home town in Syria,
and as she talked about her many health problems,
about getting her medications at Our Lady Dispensary.
Later, a classmate translates some of what she says,
but sometimes it is enough just to listen.
A group picture is taken (a necessity for any class visit with the bishop at this church) and she joins us, standing beside me, holding hands.
A part of me wishes I could understand her words,
but as we prepare to leave, and she blesses me in Arabic,
pointing upwards to the sky and to the Lord,
and we leave each other with the phrase “ma’a salaama”
(peace be with you-one of the few phrases I do know in Arabic )
another part of me, the bigger part of me,
treasures the sacred place between two souls
where love transcends the necessity of language
and though nothing else is understood, that one thing is enough.
Can our Light-aided vision show us that God is at work in Lebanon?

And what is being birthed in our own church?
Our congregation is in the midst of working with a Safe Church policy
that is designed to prevent child sexual abuse from happening in our midst.
As we are educated to protect the weak and vulnerable among us,
might we become a more authentic witness to Christ’s message of love?
Some congregations are leaving or have left our conference and our denomination.
But some are choosing to stay despite deep differences.
In Virginia Conference pastors met recently for a whole day.
We wrestled with how we understand the Bible,
equipping ourselves to better engage the question of  how as a church
we talk about and understand our sexuality.

We enter a season where we watch for new things to be birthed.
Therefore, keep awake –
for you do not know when the master of the house will come,
in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!

May the darkness be dispelled, and may hope rise up within us this Advent season.

–November 30, 2014.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: A Prayer for the Church Today

Thanksgiving Sunday
Philippians 1:1-11

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While under house arrest in a secure place, probably in or near Rome around 60 A.D., the apostle Paul and his co-worker and scribe, Timothy, crafted a letter for the Christian believers at Philippi.  It is a beautiful letter that expresses deep affection and connection with this body of believers who were part of the first church Paul established on European soil.  It also included words of encouragement, gratitude, thankfulness, some admonition.  Overall the letter breathes JOY - CONFIDENCE - DEEP FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST.

This past summer (2014), I was not under house arrest, but was on a 3 month sabbatical in or near Harrisonburg.  One of my goals was to learn by heart the book of Philippians to ‘tell’.  I haven’t quite accomplished that goal, but I am still working on it.  As I immersed myself in this text, or ‘marinated in the scriptures’, as Dan Longenecker would describe it to ‘biblical storytellers’, I realized that these words were not only Paul’s words to his brothers and sisters at Philippi, but they felt more and more like my words, thoughts and prayers that I wanted to convey to my brothers and sisters here at PV, at least some of them.
So open your heart, mind and ears to hear Paul’s words from the first part of chapter 1 which are also my heart felt thoughts to you.

“From Paul and Timothy, (and Pastor Barbara), servants of Christ Jesus.
To all the saints, God’s holy people, in Christ Jesus at Philippi, (and Park View), together with the elders and overseers.
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all of my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel with me from the first day until now.  I am confident of this that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you since I have you in my heart, and whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace, God’s mission with me.  God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that you may be able to discern what is best and so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, those good qualities, that come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."

A paragraph of thanksgiving is pretty standard for Paul at the beginning of his letters, but this one is especially beautiful and shows deep connection with this body of believers.  It sets the direction and tone for the entire letter....sometimes it is referred to as “the Pauline thanksgiving”.  How appropriate that we remind ourselves of it this Sunday.

Paul was troubled by some things he heard about the Philippian believers.  For the most part they were doing well and supporting his mission, but he knew they were being pressured and influenced by outside forces to pay homage to the emperor. He senses they need some pastoral encouragement.  In a later part of the letter he gives thanks for the financial gift that Epaphroditus brought to him from the Philippian church during a time of need, but this opening part, this “Pauline thanksgiving”, is filled with joy and  gratitude, for them...his brothers and sisters for which he has deep affection.

These opening verses of chapter 1 unfold in a 3 part structure:
1.)  vs. 3-6 - expression of gratitude.  He remembers then often and prays for ALL of them, not just a select or favored few.  ALL seems to be repeated a few places...maybe there was a feeling that some were favored and he wanted to reinforce that he was including all of them, no exceptions!  He was reflecting on the PAST. His expression of gratitude was for their partnership in the gospel with him from the very beginning.  He experienced them as faithful partakers, partners, sharers in the ministry.  Not only did they receive the message, but they actively supported his ministry!  He was confident that God who began a work in them, would continue to do so into the future. God will complete, finish, bring to fulfillment that work, at the day of Christ Jesus. This was reason to rejoice.  This was reason for Paul to give thanks!

2.)  vs. 7-8 - expression of Paul’s affection for them.  It carries unusual strength.  It is a language of persuasion.  What he was feeling in the PRESENT as he was writing this letter shows a depth of intimacy and a deep yearning.  The intense compassionate love exhibited by Jesus is now fostered in Paul by his own union with Christ. The deep feeling Paul has for them comes from the heart of Christ Jesus himself.  He is justified in feeling this way.  They are all partners with him in this ministry no matter what happens to him or them.  All share in God’s grace/mission.

3.)  vs. 9-11 - expression of prayer for the church. Paul doesn’t stay in the past, nor dwell in the present with his thoughts, but brings the Philippian believers into the future, by offering his heart felt prayer for them.  He longs for them to have a love that continues to grow and mature.  A love that is not sentimental, shallow, easy.  This kind of love does not shrink away from tough discernment and discussion and dialogue.  It is a love that can withstand truth-telling and even debate, testing a decision in real life situations.  Growing in love, discerning wisely, making good choices...that is Paul’s prayer for the church. 

Isn’t that our prayer, as well?

As I learned and embraced Paul’s letter to the Philippians, especially this first chapter, I wanted to also share similar thoughts with you.

This summer, even though I did not worship with you for 3 months, my thoughts and prayers were often with you and for you.  I prayed with joy and thanksgiving for this congregation and the larger church.  I have felt your support of my work and ministry among you for these 13 years.  You have welcomed me, given me room to grow and mature.  You have respected and honored me for my gifts and affirmed me for who I am.  God has been at work in this congregation long before I became one of your pastors and I believe that God will continue to work here in the future, bringing it to completion and fulfillment at the day of Christ Jesus.

The longer I am here and the more we learn to know each other and to trust each other, our bonds of love are strengthened and I am encouraged by your support.  I have you in my heart.  No matter how we are being called to work and minister here in this community and beyond, we all share in God’s grace and are part of this larger mission.  We are partners in the gospel.  And because we are rooted and grounded in the love of Jesus Christ, our love for one another comes from that center.

And my prayer is similar to Paul’s prayer for the church.  For this congregation, PVMC, for the congregations belonging to VA conference and for the congregations belonging to MCUSA, I pray that our love for one another will grow and grow and mature in ways we can’t even imagine.  I pray that in the midst of these difficult and challenging times, as we face decisions regarding same gender marriages and relationships, and any other potentially divisive issues, that we can value others above ourselves, that we learn to listen respectfully, set our pride aside, discern and probe and work together, to move forward, empowered through the Holy Spirit and in a way that honors and glorifies God.

Can we allow God’s love to abound more and more in us, to “spill out”, to “spill over” into areas of our lives and congregational life to heal, to mend, to transform, to keep us moving forward with hope for the future?

Paul’s letter to the Philippians was marked by joy, confidence, unity, perseverance in the Christian faith and life.  If you were writing your letter to PV or another congregation, facing challenging times, how would you encourage and reassure?  Would your letter be filled with joy, with expressions of love and gratitude?   What would your prayer be for the church today?

And this is my prayer: that our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best and so that we may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ....To the glory and praise of God. 

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