Sunday, June 26, 2022

Phil Helmuth: God’s Partnership of Care for the Poor

“Time, Money, and Compassion”
Psalm 90:1-4; Deuteronomy 15:7-11; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

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Sunday, June 19, 2022

Phil Kniss: God is a Jealous God (fortunately)

“Time, Money, and Idolatry”
Exodus 20:1-3, 5b; Deuteronomy 8:11-14, 17-18b; Matthew 6:19-33; James 4:13-16

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I’m sorry I need to join you remotely today,
    instead of in person.
    I’ve been having cold symptoms the last several days.
    Thankfully, it’s not COVID
        (I’ve tested three different times to be sure).
    So to avoid coughing or sneezing around any of you,
        and to set a good example to us all—
        since we ask any of you with cold or flu-like symptoms
            to stay home—
        I will do the same,
            and share my message from my home office.

I wonder how many of you are like me, in that,
    while reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament,
    we have a slight mental hiccup whenever we read God saying,
        “I, Yahweh, am a jealous God.”

We might even silently substitute the word for something
    more fitting for the Creator of the Universe,
    than this immature emotion called “jealousy.”

But . . . we can hardly overlook or dismiss the biblical notion
    that God gets jealous.
    It comes up at least two dozen times in scripture.
    And in today’s reading,
        it shows up right in the Ten Commandments,
        the most universally affirmed scripture in the Bible.

So how do we make sense of
    a God who gets jealous and possessive of our affection?
    Does this really paint a picture of God as an insecure deity?

    Is the kind of jealousy God feels
        anything like what we remember from our school days,
            when a certain star athlete got more attention than we did,
            and more perks,
            like having a seat saved at a certain table in the cafeteria—
                back in the corner—
                where we were NOT welcome to sit.
            Not implying that ever happened to me!

    Or is it the jealousy one partner in a couple feels,
        when a third party starts infringing
        on protected space in that relationship?

So who is God jealous of, actually? other gods? other lovers?
    Is God jealous of all the attention going to Baal?
    Does God feel threatened by a golden calf?
    Is God afraid of being bumped from a spot at the lunch table,
        in the cafeteria of the gods?

No. No. And no!

This is the sort of trouble we get into
    when we try to make God in our image.

Of course, God is not insecure.
    God does not get riled up about idolatry,
        because it hurts God’s fragile ego.
    No, that’s our issue.
    In psychological jargon,
        that’s taking our dysfunction, and projecting it onto God.

Let’s look at the word “jealous.”
    It actually has the same Latin root as “zealous.”
    Other potential synonyms are,

But even more to the point,
    what, exactly, is God jealous for?
    To what end is God impassioned, protective, and vigilant?
    In other words, what gets God riled up?

If we look at the question from a wide angle,
    considering the whole narrative of scripture,
    the answer comes more easily.

God is jealous, or protective,
    of a gift God has given us—
    a precious gift,
    a priceless gift that the whole future of God’s shalom project
        is riding on.

As our Creator, God gave humanity a precious gift—
    the possibility of a full and flourishing life
    that reflects the image of God in us.
And God put us in charge, trusted us, as I mentioned last Sunday,
    with the job of taking care of all creation,
    with all the love and regard that God had for it.
The priceless gift is that we are God’s partners, God’s co-workers,
    in the project of seeing that creation returns to its original intent,
        to reflect the shalom of God—
        in all its abundance, diversity, beauty, and harmony.
God trusts us humans, even though we are responsible, primarily,
    for messing things up.

God’s great gift is that we have the means—
    the authority, the power, and the resources—
        to do what God trusted us to do:
            to live into our honorable calling,
            and pour ourselves into this shalom project.

When we worship gods of our own making,
    we reject, discredit, and undermine
    God’s whole shalom project of restoring and reconciling creation.

God is jealous for the shalom of all creation!
    Can we all hear that?

God is not jealous for God’s own sake.
God is not trying to preserve a fragile ego.
God is jealous, passionate, vigilant, and protective
    of the shalom of all creation.

That’s why we should all stop and consider how fortunate we all are,
    how fortunate the human race is,
    how fortunate all creation is.
God is a jealous God (fortunately).

Because the worship of gods that are not the Creator God,
    results in the very opposite of what the Creator has invested in.
    Idolatry breeds human self-interest.
    Idolatry breeds fear of scarcity,
        fear of the other,
        and all manner of other evil impulses.

The God we worship has a heart of compassion for
    the poor,
    the downtrodden,
    the oppressed,
    the dispossessed.
God’s intention is deliverance,
    full and abundant human flourishing.
    God is jealous for our well-being,
        and for the shalom of all creation.
    And that, is a precious gift,
        for which we should all be grateful.

The other thing we learn about idolatry, from reading our Bible,
    is that idolatry is most likely to crop up
        in unsettled times.
        In times of crisis, when survival is being threatened.

    There are many examples,
        but the most well-known is probably the Golden Calf story.
    That happened when the people were all stranded, together,
        in the desert,
        and the leader who brought them there, Moses,
            had disappeared.
            He had gone up a dangerous, remote desert mountain,
                and after weeks went by,
                he seemed likely not to return.

    So in the face of uncertainty,
        in the face of a leadership vacuum,
        in the face of having nothing tangible or secure to lean on,
            they created a god to fit their needs.
        A god they could see and touch and feel,
            one that would accept their worship,
            and never run off and disappear on them.

I think that describes pretty well
    the way idolatry creeps into our experience, as well.
A golden calf is more relevant to our experience than you might think.

The worship of idols is not unusual or exotic.
    This is not about poor benighted heathens
        bowing down before statues and trying to feed them.

No, idolatry is about us.
And it is a real and present problem for us.
As we follow God into the unknown,
    into life’s unchartered wilderness,
    idolatry is anything we create or depend on
        for comfort, for predictability, for controllability—
        anything that’s a tangible substitute for the in-tangible.
    It’s whatever we create, and say “it looks like God!”
        because it looks like what we wanted in the first place.

We are tempted daily to misdirect our worship,
    to misspend the sacred currencies of our time and money,
    on tangible things that give us
        some degree of security or satisfaction,
        like material possessions or investments or social status
            or entertainment or food or sex
            or you name it.

    These things are not evil in themselves.
    Just as a Golden Calf is not inherently evil.

    It’s how we relate to these substitutes,
        that determines whether it’s an idol.
    Are we spending time and money on these
        in an effort to remove the risk of faith?
        or to calm our anxiety for an unknown future?
        or to give us the comforting illusion of control?

    If so, we may well be engaged in the practice of idolatry.
    And God is jealous.
    Jealous for our well-being.
    Jealous for our ability to receive the life God wants for us.

Especially in times of stress and uncertainty and risk,
    we are prone to spend our sacred currency on idols.
    And we should be on guard against it.

This is terribly hard to avoid,
    and we should give ourselves plenty of grace when we do it,
    and give plenty of grace to others, as well.

It’s especially difficult to put our trust
    in the unknown and unseen and mysterious,
    when the world is trembling around us,
        when the church is changing,
        when a recession and inflation looms,
        when there is political chaos, a pandemic,
        and climate-induced super-storms and super-fires,
        and a sharp rise in gun violence and mass shootings,
        and a scorched-earth war in Ukraine.

So yes . . . let’s give ourselves grace
    when we grasp for something (anything) solid to hold onto.
    But let us also keep reaching toward
        the God that is beyond our control,
        and who promises to be with us in the wilderness.

We are all in need of grace,
    and it can be ours in abundance, as we repent.
    So let us read together the confession,
        printed in the bulletin,
        as Moriah leads us.

        one    God, we confess we fall short of full trust in you,
                especially when the world around us shakes.
                We are captivated by new and shiny substitutes,
                we are tempted by hollow promises of security and success.
        all    Forgive us. Redirect us. You are the only God we need.
        one    God, we are grateful for your jealousy,
                for your impassioned and fiery and single-minded
                commitment to our wellbeing, and to the shalom of all creation.
        all    Draw us to yourself. Hold us in your embrace.
                You are the only God we need.
        one    The God of steadfast love forgives us. Again.
                God always welcomes our whole-hearted worship.
                Thanks be to God.

—Phil Kniss, June 19, 2022

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Sunday, June 12, 2022

Phil Kniss: The God who trusts us

“Time, Money, and Being God’s Trustees”
Genesis 1:26-28; Matthew 25:14-30

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Today we begin a series of services, and sermons,
    focused on a different kind of currency.
    No, not Bitcoin. Not cryptocurrency.
        I’d be out of my depth very quickly.

I came across this term, “sacred currency,”
    in a recent workshop led by Everence.
    It wasn’t really expanded on very much,
        but it caught my imagination,
        and I kind of ran with it.

The writer was referring to time and money as “sacred currencies.”
    To me, it made a lot of sense,
        from a stewardship standpoint.

And keep in mind, stewardship is a central theological theme.
    It’s not at all confined to
        personal money management,
        or personal time management.
    That’s only a small part of the picture.

If any theological affirmation grounds us
    in who we are in relation to God,
        and who God is in relation to us,
    it’s that we are God’s stewards.
Stewardship starts in the first chapters of Genesis,
    and continues almost non-stop to Revelation.

In this series we will, in fact, narrow our focus a bit
    to time and money, as particular sacred currencies
        that we steward.

But this bigger picture will always be in the backdrop:
    Whether time, money, talents, or the natural world,
        everything under the sun belongs to God.
    God is Creator, and ongoing owner.
    We are graced with these things by God,
        in order to care for them on God’s behalf.
    It is up to us to relate to them in a manner that honors the owner.
    And the main point for today,
        is that the owner trusts us to do that.

God trusts us!
    Just think about that big idea for a while,
        and see where it takes you.
God trusts us
    to care for the thing God cares about most,
    the well-being and shalom and reconciliation
        of all creation.

That makes us God’s stewards, or . . . God’s Trustees.

The role of a Trustee is generally quite clear.
    A Trustee has remarkable power.
    And has distinct limits.

Trustees are given the authority and the resources
    to act on behalf of the owner,
    to carry out the wishes and priorities and mission of the owner.
But trustees don’t invent the mission.
    The owner has already defined the mission,
        and relies on trustees to implement it.

It’s true whether you are appointed as a Trustee for a person,
    for a church,
    for a foundation,
    for a university,
    for whatever.
As trustees, we are given all the power and resources we need
    to carry out the wishes of the ones who appointed us.

If we could only grasp that one principle,
    it would define this arrangement we have with God,
        and with the world we live in,
        and with our money and time and talents.
    And what a difference it would make!

I don’t have to decide my life mission.
You don’t have to decide your life mission.
The God who gave us life, and called us beloved,
    already decided that.
    It’s up to us now
        to measure our decisions and actions
        against that larger purpose,
            and see if they’re aligned.

Trusteeship is not a burden.
    It’s a gift.
    And the gift of being God’s Trustees
        is so great, so astoundingly generous,
        that it should amaze us all,
        and make us bow in joy and gratitude.

Jesus told a story to illustrate just how generous this gift is—
    the parable of the talents from Matthew 25.
    Quick summary . . .

A master goes away on a trip,
    calls three of his slaves to care for things while he’s gone.

One faithful slave is given five talents of gold—
    an astounding amount of wealth—
    and he invests it well.
        Doubles on the investment.
        Returns it all to his master.
        Gets a reward.

Second servant gets two talents—still astounding wealth—
    and he doubles it, returns it, gets his reward.

The third servant gets one talent—still astounding.
    But servant #3 is short-sighted & self-centered.
    He buries it.
    Master comes home, servant returns the talent exactly as he got it,
        saying to his master, “I didn’t trust you.”
    And the servant is taken to task, and pays the price.

Okay. What do we see?
    First off, this is not a story about investment.
        Preachers like to make this a moral lesson
            about managing our resources wisely.
        That might be a good lesson to teach.
        But it’s totally off topic for this parable.
    This is not about money management.
    This is about trust, or lack thereof.

And it’s a powerful, over-the-top,
    metaphor of our relationship with God.

You realize it’s a wild metaphor,
    and not a realistic life lesson,
    as soon as you do the math.

One talent was equal to about 15 years wages
    for the average paid worker.
    And these were not workers, they were slaves—
        servants legally and financially bound to the man.
    And one of them got 5 talents—
        a lifetime of average earnings.
    It’s a non-sense scenario.
        Because . . . it’s not trying to make sense.
        It’s a metaphor for something else.

In today’s economy, if $15/hour is a base living wage,
    five talents would be about 2 and half million dollars.

That is the kind of trust the master exhibited to—
    not his firstborn heir to his estate—
    but to one of his servants.

Knowing those outlandish numbers,
    keeps us from mis-interpreting this parable.

Back when I thought this was a story about money management,
    I felt kind of sorry for the third servant.
    He only got a fifth of what his fellow servant got.
    Maybe he didn’t have enough to generate the kind of return
        that five talents would have given him.

But that’s simply not the case.
    Because the story is not about return on investment.
    It’s about what we do with someone else’s trust.

The profound trust that the owner of this estate
    placed in even his third most trustworthy slave,
    is beyond belief.
This #3 slave had just been shown the kind of trust,
    that certainly no one else in his lifetime had ever given him.
He had been given a half-million dollars by his master,
    and he had the audacity to turn around and
        accuse his master of being harsh,
        and the half-million not worth even drawing interest.
    It’s non-sense. Because it’s metaphor.

The offense of slave #3 was not that he mismanaged the wealth.
The offense was his mean-spirited violation
    of the profound trust that he had been given.
    His accusation against his master rings hollow.
    It’s simply unbelievable,
        that a harsh and self-serving task-master
        would entrust such wealth to his slaves.

Just on the face of this story,
    we can’t let the servant off the hook.
    He didn’t just make a mistake.
    He, a trustee, spat in the face of the one who trusted him.
        And for that, he paid a steep price.

God has entrusted us with much more than we deserve.
    A half-million is nothing,
        compared to the treasure our Creator entrusted to us,
        and to all God’s people.

God’s lavish trust in us started in Genesis.
God created us humans
    and placed in us God’s own divine image, and breath,
    and then said,
        I trust you to take care of everything I just made.
        Tend it with the same love and care I have for it.

That’s still the deal God has with us humans.
    God trusts us.
    We can accept that as the amazing gift it is.
    Or we can ignore it.
    Or we can outright violate it.

And God will still love us.
    When we violate the trust,
        when as trustees we spit in the face of the owner,
        we will also pay the price.
We see examples of that everywhere we look.
    We are all paying the price today, for example,
        for our violation of the trust God placed in us
        to care lovingly for creation.
    We’re paying the price for violating God’s trust in us
        to cultivate shalom in all our private and public relationships.

    But the good news is,
        that the same generous character of God
            that prompted God to trust us with so much at the start,
        is still present when we turn to God in repentance,
            and own up to our failures.

    God is also generous with forgiveness.

    After all the ways we have violated God’s trust in us,
        God still trusts us.
        God is not ready to give up.
        There is always another opportunity,
            to live in a manner worthy of God’s trust in us.

Join me, please, in a prayer of confession, found in your bulletin.

   one    For the times we betray the trust you place in us,
     all    God forgive and heal us.
   one    For the times we deny our calling,
            and think we own that which you place in our trust,
     all    God forgive and heal us.
   one    For the times we simply fail to understand your trust in us,
            and miss out on the great joy and deep rest you intend for us.
     all    God forgive and heal us.
   one    After all that, God still trusts in us!
            And forgives and heals. Thanks be to God!

 —Phil Kniss, June 12, 2022

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Sunday, June 5, 2022

Osheta Moore: God’s Expansive Family

“Belonging in the Spirit - Embracing God’s expansive family”
Acts 2:1-21; Philippians 4:4-7

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Osheta Moore is a pastor and author of Dear White Peacemakers: Dismantling Racism with Grit and Grace (Herald Press). The book argues that “a commitment to peacemaking requires white people to step out of their comfort and privilege and into the work of anti-racism . . . Rooted in the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus, this book is a challenging call to transform white shame, fragility, saviorism, and privilege, in order to work together to build the Beloved Community as anti-racism peacemakers.” More about Osheta and links to purchase her book are at

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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Stories of sacrificial love

“Belonging and Mutual Love - Pouring ourselves into others”
Luke 6:43-45; Philippians 2:1-13

Spencer Cowles, Donna Shank, Joe Lapp share testimonies guided by the prompt:

Where have you seen sacrificial love at work in the church community?

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Sunday, May 15, 2022

Phil Kniss: Poetic witness

"Belonging and Witness - finding where God is already at work”
John 1:16-18; Acts 17:16-31

Laura Yoder shares a testimony guided by the prompt:

Where do you see God at work in the world where you live? Where do you
see seeds of the Gospel?

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In principle, I think we church people all agree,
it’s important for the church to give witness to the Gospel
to the world around us.

Scripture tells us clearly and often
that we are stewards of the Gospel, or Good News.
Of course, it can be Good News only if it’s distributed,
shared with others,
not kept as an in-house secret.

But church people do have vastly different ideas
about what faithful witness looks like in the world,
and how we do it.

I won’t resolve those differences today,
but I’ll share a metaphor for us to think about,
which might help our witness be more authentic.
The metaphor is poetry.
I think our witness should be poetic (in a manner of speaking).

Let’s first look at the story we heard from Acts 17.

Paul is in the intellectual epicenter of the Greek world—
Athens, named after Athena, a goddess of wisdom and war.
Paul was in Athens because he basically got dropped off there
by other church people concerned for his safety,
after he and Silas got into lots of trouble in the synagogues
in Macedonia.
Trouble, for the reasons I’ve talked about in recent weeks.

Jews had to do this delicate dance with the Roman Empire
to maintain the peace.
People of The Way, Paul in particular, disturbed the peace,
preaching about Lord Jesus,
who did not have to answer to Lord Caesar.
And, they disturbed Jewish law,
lax on required rituals,
sharing meals with Gentiles.

Jewish leaders in Macedonia
took their case to the Roman authorities.
Their accusation?
“These people are turning the world upside down.”
Which in many ways, they were.

In just a few days in Macedonia,
Paul and others managed to get severely beaten,
thrown into prison,
attacked by a mob,
and barely escaped under the cover of darkness.

So now Paul’s in Athens, one of the more tolerant cities of the Empire,
moving around the Agora,
an open marketplace of ideas, of gods, of goods.
Acts 17 says he was deeply troubled when he saw
a city full of idols and various deities.
He opened up conversation about it in the local synagogue,
both with the Jews,
and the Gentiles who worshiped Yahweh at the synagogue.
He also opened up conversation in the Agora,
among local Athenians.
Enough that he was causing a stir again.
But the authorities in Athens, being the tolerant city it was,
did not just throw him in prison and beat him.
Instead, they physically took him to the Areopagus,
a kind of court,
and compelled him to give verbal witness,
for this “foreign God,” Jesus, he kept talking about.
So . . . was this a trial? Was this a guest lecture?
Or was it something in between?
Hard to say.
But whatever it was, this was Paul at his best.

Paul could put up a good fight in just about any Jewish synagogue
around the Mediterranean.
Brash, harsh, argumentative, accusatory.
It’s no big surprise, the trouble he got into.

But here in Athens, a thoroughly pagan city,
standing in front of genuinely curious philosophers,
Paul represented a marginal minority,
so he needed a softer approach.
And he delivered.

He begins with a heartfelt compliment to the people and the city.
“I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
He noticed their yearning for the divine.
And he affirmed it.

“I went through the city
and looked carefully at the objects of your worship.”
He was there to understand them, not attack them.
He notes in particular, their shrine to an “unknown God,”
so he tells them, gently,
“I can introduce you to this unknown God.
Turns out this God is a lot closer to you than you think.”

Then, most amazing of all,
to introduce them to Jesus,
he did not pull out the Torah or quote Hebrew prophets.
He used the Athenians’ own literature.

This sermon in Acts 17 is full of images and metaphors
that were familiar to his audience.
He quoted their philosophers directly.
“In him we live and move and have our being,”
an apparent quote from Epimenides,
a poet philosopher from Crete.
“For we too are his offspring,”
a quote from Aratus, a Greek poet.
Paul knew and respected his audience.
He engaged them where they were, on their terms,
and then with respect, he said,
“You know, there’s something more.”
And then he proclaimed the Good News
embodied in the person of the risen Jesus.

And to be sure, his message about resurrection got mixed reviews.
Some laughed.
Some ridiculed.
Some were curious, and asked to hear more.
Some became believers.

This is timeless wisdom on display here by Paul.
Before we start dispensing the Gospel in any culture,
do we know them well enough to quote their poets?

In any given culture, our own, or Ancient Greece,
the poets are those who give voice
to people’s deepest longings, visions, hopes, and fears.

They might be literal poems,
that can be read, pondered, and memorized.
But not necessarily.

I’m using poetry as a metaphor here.
Poetry is whatever takes us out of purely head-space,
and helps us engage the whole person—
intellect, heart, body, emotions,
relationships, motivations, perceptions.
Until we know someone well enough
to not just think with them,
but to feel with them;
until we hope and yearn with them,
until we suffer and rejoice with them,
we may not have much to offer them of lasting value.
Unless we believe that God was already at work in them,
long before we got there,
we have no right to bring them the Gospel.

Poetic witness is embodied witness
that involves the whole person.
Poetic witness is shaped by the community.
It is forged in relationships.

So, as a church called to bear witness,
how do we inhabit the world around us?
and how do we bear witness to that world?

There is a wide variety of practice
among our diverse Mennonite family in this community,
from the Old Order Mennonites to this congregation.

Some believe in cultural separation,
and bear witness only through their life and practice,
and never send out mission workers, or practice evangelism.
Others strongly emphasize verbal witness,
and use overt evangelistic strategies
like tent meetings, and the like.
Others witness mostly through service,
and occasionally through word.

Regardless what form it takes,
whatever the means of our witness to the Gospel of Jesus,
I would ask,
does it touch the whole person?
is it embodied?
is it forged in community?
does it address our deepest longings, hopes, and dreams?
Then it is poetry.

Poetic witness can’t help but include word and deed and example.
It can’t help but be authentic and compelling.
Real people being real with others
with Jesus at the center,
that is faithful witness.

That is what Paul demonstrated in marketplace of ideas in Athens.
That is what we called to embody.

Join me in the confession, will you?
You’ll find it in your order of worship.

one God, we confess that our expressions of the Gospel often fall short
of authentic, embodied, and joyful witness to your Good News.
We settle instead for either awkward silence 
or arrogant posturing.
all Forgive us. Send us. Empower us.
one God who has already gone ahead of us into the world, give us
the eyes to see the Gospel seeds you have already sown,
the grace to embrace your goodness wherever it appears, and
the wisdom to speak and live your truth, and
partner with you to bring the seeds to maturity and fruitfulness.
all Send us. Empower us. Transform us.
one God of all peoples, and all creation,
let us rest in your promise to make all things new,
and to be with us wherever we go.
In you we live, and move, and have our being.

—Phil Kniss, May 15, 2022

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