Sunday, September 18, 2016

Jane Hoober Peifer: A rich man’s question

The Questions of Jesus...
Mark 10:17-31

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Jane Hoober Peifer, guest preacher for the morning, and resource person for our weekend church retreat at Camp Brethren Woods, preached from Mark 10:17-31, the story of the rich man who came to Jesus sincerely wanting to know what he needed to do to enter the Kingdom of God. He did not receive the answer he was hoping for. Jane challenged us to open ourselves to Jesus' questions, which often challenge our assumptions about the way things are.

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Phil Kniss: Two sides of one coin

Questions Jesus asked...
Matthew 5:46-47, 7:3-5

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So today, and next weekend at retreat, and the next Sunday,
    we are pondering the questions Jesus asked.

I think chances are good (at least if we’re paying attention)
    that we will react to these questions
        in much the same way
            that Jesus’ disciples and adversaries
            reacted to the questions when he first asked them.

Jesus was a master at asking questions.
    Most of the time,
        his questions were not meant to gather information.
        They were meant to provoke,
            in the good sense of the word.
        Yes, sometimes they got people mad,
            but provoking people to anger wasn’t the point.
        Jesus meant to provoke in the real sense of the word,
            he meant to “call forth,” to “elicit” something.

    Most of the people Jesus lived around and interacted with,
        were living a life based on mistaken assumptions.
    They were mistaken about who they were,
        who their allies and adversaries were,
        who God was.
        And most importantly,
            they were mistaken about Jesus,
            and the nature of his kingdom.

    So Jesus asked questions that got them to thinking.
    He didn’t often come right out and point fingers at their error.
        He asked them questions
            that helped them identify the error themselves.
        It didn’t always work,
            that is, they didn’t always immediately see their error.
        Sometimes, they dug in deeper.
            And they took offense.
            And in the end, Jesus paid for it with his life.

So we can’t go into this topic thinking we’re going to get off easy.
    That’s just not the nature of the questions Jesus asked.
    Yes, his questions were aimed at a particular audience
        in first-century Palestine.
    But I think we’ll discover they do just as good
        at confronting our reality today.

This morning we look at two clusters of questions
    in the Sermon on the Mount.
    One set of questions occurs in chapter 5 of Matthew,
        the other in chapter 7.
    They are different questions,
        but as I see it, they are speaking to the same dynamic.
    These questions reside on two different sides of the same coin.
    They confront our preferred way of relating to others.

Here are the questions on Side 1—
    Matthew 5:46-47.
        “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?
            Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
            And if you greet only your own people,
                what are you doing more than others?
                Do not even pagans do that?”

In four back-to-back questions,
    Jesus confronts one of our virtues head-on.
        The virtue of reciprocal affection.
    Maybe we don’t name it a virtue, exactly,
        but we live by this rule, and we call it a good way to live.
        We build relationships with those who are like us.
        We show love to those most capable of returning our love,
            and making it reciprocal.

    So Jesus asks his disciples to explain to him,
        how it is virtuous to love those most likely to love you back.
        He’s asking them to take one of their assumptions,
            and rethink it.

    He only asked the questions.
    He doesn’t even need to say out loud
        what he’s implying by the very questions.
    With his disciples at his feet, gathered on the mountain,
        Jesus gives them this message, without having to say the words,
        “You think you are doing a virtuous thing,
            showing kindness to your next-door neighbor—
                you know, the one who shares your culture,
                    your social status,
                    your religious doctrine,
                    even some of your bloodline.
            Well, if that’s virtue,
                then go congratulate every tax collector and pagan!
                Turns out they are just as virtuous as you are.”

    The answers to Jesus’ questions are obvious.
        Showing love to those who are sure to return it,
            is only default human nature.
            It’s not wrong!
            But neither is it virtuous.
            It’s what human beings naturally do.

These questions of Jesus reinforced some of the stories he told.
    Once Jesus was in conversation with an expert in religious law.
    Jesus said, “You’re exactly right when you said the heart of the law
        is to love God, and love your neighbor.
        So you want to know who your neighbor is?
            Let me tell you a story.”
    And he proceeded to tell about a despised Samaritan,
        who helped a man beat up by the side of a road,
        while respectable people passed him by.

    At the end of the short story, he asked a question.
        Not a single accusatory word.
        No confrontational tone.
        No statement or declaration.
        A question.
            Jesus let the leader come to his own conclusion.
        Jesus asked, “So who was the neighbor here?
            Who did you say you are supposed to love?”
        The leader could not bring himself to say “the Samaritan.”
        All he could say was, “the one who showed mercy.”
            That’s all he had to say.
            And it’s all Jesus had to say, except, “Go and live like that.”

There is in all of us a strong, natural, human desire
    to strengthen our identity and build our self-esteem,
    by forming around us all kinds of reciprocal relationships.
    Befriending those who will befriend us.
    Sharing things on social media that are mostly likely to be liked.
    Finding our neighborhood,
        selecting our friendship circle,
        and choosing our church,
            based on similarity, compatibility.
        That’s not wrong, per se.
        But neither is it virtuous.
        It is simply the normal way humans behave.
            We feel better about ourselves
                when we’re with people who affirm us.

    Jesus suggests we have a higher calling.
        Love those who won’t love you back.
        Give without recognition.
        Show compassion to those who don’t deserve it,
            and might even bite back.

    Not just because it’s a noble and counter-cultural and even exotic
        thing to do.
    And not because you will earn some righteousness points
        by being self-sacrificing and loving the hard-to-love.
    And certainly not on the off-chance
        that you’ll be made a saint someday
        if you take care of the poor and lepers in the slums of Calcutta.

    No, you love the practically unlovable,
        because God is probably wanting to get to you through them.
    You show mercy to the undeserving,
        because it’s what you do if you’re trying to find God.
        It may be the way God is trying to reach you.

    That’s the rationale behind the teaching we heard in James.
    James 2 tells us not to be partial in our public worship space.
        Not to give the well-dressed people more attention,
            and ignore the poor and smelly ones hoping they disappear.
            And the reason for this is not because we get points
                for being humble and self-sacrificing
                    and kind to the unfortunate.

    James asks the reader, in verse 5,
    “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters:
        Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world
            to be rich in faith and
            to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”
    We pay attention to the poor because we stand to benefit
        by staying close to those God is close to.
    Some of their rich faith,
        which God gives to the poor and lowly,
        might, if we’re lucky, rub off on us,
            if we spend more time with them.

    There’s a novel thought.
        It’s not do-gooders who inherit the kingdom.
        It’s we who genuinely love the poor,
            because we see how worthy they are of being loved.
            we see how much sense it makes to love them,
                if our motivation is to meet God.

    When we open our lives more fully, in love, to the other,
        we also open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, our gracious guest.

Let’s sing together, HWB #542


Then we flip over the coin to Side 2,
    and listen to the next set of questions Jesus asks.

From later in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:3-5
    “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye,
        but do not notice the log in your own eye?
        Or how can you say to your neighbor,
            ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’
                while the log is in your own eye?
        You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye,
            and then you will see clearly
            to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

This is the flip-side of trying to feel better about ourselves
    by building up our in-group identity,
    and surrounding ourselves with people like us.
The other side of the coin
    is that we also strengthen our identity
        by turning up the volume on judging others.
        by amplifying our condemnation—
            even toward neighbors and members of our faith family.

In our effort to justify ourselves,
    to help us feel good about our group identity,
        we draw those in who are like us,
        and we create distance from those who are not.
    We also do that in individual relationships.
        We move toward those who reinforce our own thinking,
            and we find fault with those who challenge us.
        The more we create distinctions between us, and them,
            and amplify those distinctions,
            the more likely we are to feel settled in our own thinking,
                and feel good about ourselves.

    Again, this is normal human nature.
    But it is not virtuous.

    Now, let’s be clear.
        Jesus does not suggest that we not be discerning.
        Jesus is not advocating lazy thinking,
            just saying everyone is equally right.
    In the very same sermon on the mount, Jesus calls for discernment.
        “Beware of false prophets,” Jesus says.
            “You will know them by their fruits.
                Grapes don’t grow on thorn bushes.
                And figs don’t grow on thistles.”
        “Beware of those who claim one thing,
            but produce a different kind of fruit.”

    But it’s one thing to perceive a difference,
        to take note of it,
        and to exercise reasonable caution in how we live
            in relation to that which seems false,
            and leave the consequences in God’s hands.

    It’s quite another thing to take God’s job,
        to be judge and jury and pronounce condemnation.
        Jesus does not ask us to cut ourselves off
            from those who offend us.
        Jesus does not ask us to make the decision,
            pronounce the sentence,
            and carry out the punishment.
        No, we are encouraged to be wise, and discerning.

    And in Jesus’ world, in the kingdom of God,
        discernment begins with what is stuck in my own eyes.
            I must first discern the logs in my own eyes
                before I get worked up
                about specks I see in the eyes of others.
            If we are going to be credible in our discernment of others,
                we must start with self-discernment.

So we will not turn away from our responsibility to discern, to inquire.
    But we will also persist in moving toward those who challenge us,
        we will refuse to engage in cut-off and condemnation.
    And we always start the discernment with ourselves.

We need this posture more than ever,
    as the presidential election draws closer
    and as pressures mount throughout the world,
    and throughout the church.

My prediction
    (which was a very easy prediction,
        I used up very few brain cells coming up with it)—
    my prediction is that things will not get more kind and civil,
        as Election Day draws closer.
    They will get worse.
    The battle lines will get sharper,
        people will go to even greater lengths
            to condemn their neighbor,
            and even in the church, to condemn their brother or sister.

That is why, and you’ll hear more about it,
    we are making plans to host an Election Day Communion service,
    just as we did four years ago at the last presidential election.
It will be even more important this year, I think,
    for us followers of Jesus to spend part of our Election Day—
        regardless of whether or not you voted, or who you voted for,
        to spend one portion of that day,
            gathered together as the body of Christ,
            celebrating what makes us one—
                the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

And when it comes to things that have amplified our divisions,
    and further separated us one from the other,
    we need look no further than the event of 15 years ago,
        that we are remembering today, the 9-11 attacks.
    And not just those attacks,
        but the ways we chose to respond to the attacks,
        that have made this world more polarized,
            more hate-filled and violent,
            and more dangerous to live in.

It seems to me,
    that all these points of separation and polarization
        and violence that we do to each other—
            from global terrorism,
            to political dogfights,
            to church wars,
            to interpersonal attacks—
        they all have different issues at stake,
            different motivations, different impacts, of course.
    But they are all tied together as well.
        Anxiety and fear spreads, from one arena to another.
        If we feel insecure in the world,
            we feel more unsafe at home.
        If we are angered by partisan politics,
            we are less likely to see the good in each other
            within our own Christian family of faith.
        We are the ones who need to hear, again,
            the words of James in chapter 4:
            “ Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another.”

I suspect that the first place to start,
    in resisting these multi-layered divisions,
    is to start in the arena closest to us.

This is one of the reasons I think it’s so important
    that at least once a year,
    the church family at Park View goes on retreat, together.

It’s an opportunity to practice the discipline of listening,
    of slowing down long enough to see and appreciate
        the humanity in each other,
    so we are not debating issues,
        we are struggling to know and love each other.

Our church retreat this coming weekend is a perfect opportunity,
    and I hope many of us use it,
    to engage in the practice of listening well,
        especially to those who we know only in part,
            or perhaps misunderstand.
    There is ample difference among us as a church family—
        enough to give us all a chance to exercise the muscles
            needed to resist human nature,
            and reach toward the other.

Those are the same muscles we’ll need
    to live civilly with our neighbor who supports the other candidate
    and to live as a peace-loving child of God
        in a world full of violence and hatred.

May God give us the courage to start the process,
    to start by loving, really loving, those closest to us.

—Phil Kniss, September 11, 2016

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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Phil Kniss: To seek God’s success

Labor Day Sunday 2016
Psalm 90:1-2, 14-17

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Who among us doesn’t want our work to last?
    I know I do.
    I’m not always sure, as a pastor,
        if I’ll ever know if my work will last,
        or even how anyone can determine if it did.
    Sometimes I envy builders of cathedrals and monuments,
        who know their work will still be there,
        long after they are forgotten.
    One of the things I love about the house we live in,
        is that I knew the man who had it built nearly 100 years ago—
            Harold Lehman’s father.
        It was built well, and to last.
    Someone crafted book shelves behind glass doors,
        and built them into the front room of the house around 1920,
            assuming they would be there for generations.
        And they are—as beautiful and functional and fine as ever.

    But I am also intrigued by, and deeply admire,
        people who put extensive time and painstaking effort
            into what they know, from the beginning, will NOT last.
        In fact, for some, the very im-permanence of their creation
            seems to be the point.

    My artist cousin, Eric Kniss, creates art in dust.
        Yes, he also created the massive concrete sculpture
            near the library circle at EMU.
        That’s not going anywhere. I’m quite sure it’s tornado-proof.

    But he also loves to create large and intricate works of art
        on the floor of an art gallery,
            by sifting clay dust into interesting forms and patterns.
        When the exhibit is over a week or so later,
            it’s removed with a broom and dustpan.

    For contemporary artists like my cousin, and Christo,
        and people who sculpt in ice or beach sand,
        at least their fleeting works are well-documented
            by high-res color photos and videos,
            and shared on Facebook and art websites,
            and will have some kind of life into infinity.

But since ancient times, long before cameras of any kind,
    there were Tibetan Buddhists and others
    creating intricate images with colored sand,
        sometimes working in teams for many days or weeks,
        and sweeping it up when they were done.
    Preserved only in their memory.

But the kind of persons willing to invest of weeks of labor
    into a project that will only exist in a moment of time, and be gone,
    those persons are rare, and are the exception that proves the rule.

    As a rule,
        we want our work to last.
        We want it to be remembered . . . enjoyed . . . used.
        We want it to hold its value, and even grow in value,
            long after we’ve put in the time.

So it’s worth pondering the prayer of the psalmist
    with which we opened our service this morning.
    We recited these words together:
        “Establish the work of our hands for us—
            yes, establish the work of our hands.”

It is an emphatic end to this Psalm 90.
    The psalmist doesn’t often repeat lines back to back,
        but when it happens,
        we know to pay attention.

But what, exactly,
    was the psalm writer trying to underscore
        in this double-ending to the prayer?
    That’s an interesting question,
        because the word the psalmist chose here
        gets translated a lot of different ways, with different meanings.
    The original Hebrew word is konnehu.
    The most common translation, in English versions,
        is “establish” the work of our hands.
    But some other versions render it “confirm” or
        “bless” or “make successful.”
    The more I thought about this,
        the more I thought this question was kind of important.

    Not because we are building doctrine here.
    The Book of Psalms is not a theological training manual.
        It’s a prayer book.
        These are heartfelt songs and prayers of God’s people,
            intended to express their love, devotion, or frustration,
                with God,
                in response to particular circumstances.

    So, keeping that in mind, I ask,
        What was the Psalmist trying to communicate with God here?
        What was on this poet’s mind?

    As a potential model for our own prayers,
        I suggest it really matters how we answer that question.

    For us, the phrase, “establish the work of our hands,”
        does sound like we are asking God to do something for us—
        to take what we have offered up in labor,
            and make it last.
            Establish it.
            Bless it.
            Make it productive and fruitful.
            Make it successful.

    So the idea here, is that I do the work,
        then pray over it,
        and ask for God’s stamp of approval.

    That’s not a bad prayer.
        Especially for those of us who want our work to last.
        It’s actually a noble prayer, to a certain extent.
            It’s saying, here is the best I have to offer.
            Now, God, take it the next step, beyond what I am able.
        How much better is that,
            than to pray with a selfish spirit—
                make me influential, make me famous—
            or worse, not to pray at all,
                and take all the glory ourselves for what we have done.

    So it’s not a bad thing to pray for God to take our work,
        and make it into something more.
    There should be more prayers like that.

    But I find in Psalm 90, upon closer inspection,
        an attitude even more profound, more humble,
            and more difficult to pray.
        And it’s a prayer I haven’t often had the courage to pray.

And it hinges on the meaning of this word konnehu
    that we translate “establish.”
Yes, the word can, and often does mean to make firm, to make lasting,
    to make permanent.
    But “establish” has another closely-related meaning,
        that puts a different angle on it.
    The word “establish” is also used to mean verify, certify,
        confirm, or substantiate what is true, and what is not true.
        In a court of law, attorneys seek to “establish”
            what happened, and what didn’t happen.
            In this case, to “establish” something, is to “prove” it.

Using “establish” as “prove” helps Psalm 90 make a lot more sense.
    That meaning seems most obvious and straightforward,
        given how the psalmist was using it.
    The psalms are always, primarily, about God.
    There are no more God-focused texts in scripture than the psalms.
        It makes sense, because they are prayers.
        They are usually written as a direct address to God.
    And no matter what the psalmist is going through—
        whether life is good and the psalms are overflowing in praise,
        or whether life is oppressive and the psalms are crying out
            with loud laments—
        always, in the end, they turn toward God.
    They either declare some confident truth about God
        and God’s character,
            or they seek to put God in the spotlight,
            or to put God on the spot,
                by reminding God of God’s own promises.

    But the thing that is really hard to find in the psalms
        is the kind of self-centeredness
        that we are so good at in our prayers.

    From the perspective of the psalms,
        if I’m asking God for help,
        I’m not asking in order to save face, or make my name great,
            or protect my agenda.
        I’m asking as an advocate for God’s purposes in the world.

        The argument to God is never,
            “God, don’t let them make a fool out of me.”
        No. It’s always,
            “God, don’t let them make a fool out of you.”
        Continually, the psalm writers pray in such a way,
            as to advance God’s agenda,
            to protect God’s reputation among the nations,
            to ensure God’s will prevails.
        Even when praying about their enemies,
            and asking God to destroy them,
            they don’t ask to take matters into their own hands,
                so they get vengeance for themselves.
        No, they point out
            how their enemies have wronged and offended God.
        They ask God to do God’s work of justice-making,
            and then they leave it in the hands of God alone.

    The psalms are written from a stance of humble yielding to a God
        who encompasses all things,
        and yet cares about the smallest things,
            even the modest work of my hands.

So when the psalmist closes out Psalm 90
    with this double plea about establishing our human labor,
    I think I am on solid ground to say
        this statement is still primarily about God,
        and not about wanting my work to last.

    Clues run all the way through the psalm itself.
        The psalm writer prays, repeatedly, and in different ways,
            for God to be preeminent.
        Lord, you have been our dwelling place since forever.
        Before the mountains were born
            from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
            It is your deeds that matter,
                your work that lasts,
                your activity that will shape this world and the next.

        So . . . why in the world would this psalm end
            with an emphatic focus on my own work and legacy?
        Well . . . it doesn’t.

    Here’s how I would translate, and paraphrase,
        the close of this prayer.

    God, here is the work I have done.
        Confirm that it’s true to the work you wanted me to do.
        Test it. Prove it.
        Establish it to be authentic,
            establish that it is work that fulfills your purposes.

    Implied in such a prayer, of course,
        is our willingness to yield to God’s assessment.
        Even if our work doesn’t pass God’s test.

That’s an important distinction, I think,
    and one that was missed by some of the translators.
    When the New Living Translation renders Psalm 90:17 as,
        “make our efforts successful”
    or when the International Standard Version says,
        “make our endeavors secure”
    or worse, when the God’s Word Translation puts it,
        “make us successful in everything we do,”
    I think they have missed an opportunity
        to express this prayer in the manner it was prayed.

The psalmist is not asking God for a legacy.
The psalmist is not expecting God to rubber-stamp his work.
The psalmist is not even praying for his work to have lasting value.
    The psalmist is praying,
        on his own behalf and on behalf of his people, thusly,
    “God, see to it that our labors advance your agenda.”
        Establish the truth of what we have done.
            If it’s true to you, let it stand.
            If it is untrue, let it be undone.

    And that, dear sisters and brothers,
        is the challenging and humbling part of this prayer.
    And it’s a prayer we might want to think twice before praying.
    Are you ready to pray this, in all honesty?
        “If it’s true to you, let it stand.
        If it is untrue, let it be undone.”
    I want to be ready to pray that, and truly release my work.
        But the fact is,
            I’m pretty invested in my assumptions
                that my work is God’s work.

        And, I suspect, so are most of you.
        And why wouldn’t we be?
        We want our work to be meaningful,
            beyond any immediate compensation.
        We all want our work to be God’s work.
        As to whether or not it is, that’s for God to assess.

    This prayer, on this Labor Day Sunday,
        is an opportunity for all of us,
        whether our work is explicitly connected to faith, as mine is,
            or whether our work is located entirely in a secular context,
        whether our work is compensated with a paycheck,
            or whether we do it as volunteers,
        whether our work is a source of joy,
            or a source of frustration and feelings of entrapment.

    This prayer is an invitation for us all to remember,
        that we are all, equally, called to fulfill God’s purposes.
        We all, as followers of Jesus,
            have a vocation beyond any job or place of employment.
        We all have a calling
            to invest our time and energy and resources
            into God’s big project of salvation and reconciliation.
        And all our efforts—paid or unpaid, religious or secular—
            are subject to God’s assessment,
            as to whether we are contributing to God’s cause.
        The question is not whether or not our work lasts,
            or our labor ultimately brings us success.
        For God’s people, the question must always be,
            Are we, in our labors, seeking God’s success?

    So can this be our honest and bold prayer this morning?
        If our work is true to you, let it stand.
        If it is untrue, let it be undone.

—Phil Kniss, September 4, 2016

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Moriah Hurst: Picking up stories of hope

Back to school Sunday
Joshua 4:1-7

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    Being able to cross the Jordan was a big deal for the people of Israel. They had been wandering in the desert for 40 years and finally getting to cross the Jordan River marked the end of their time in the desert and the start of their time in the Promised Land. Kind of like the 8 of you who started kindergarten this week, you have known it was coming for a long time and you might have been a bit afraid but also kind of excited for this change to something very new.

    The Jordan River was what lay between the people of Israel and the Promise Land. We have gotten a lot of rain this summer and you may have seen flooded rivers or fast flowing water. Well, as they came up to the Jordon it was at flood point with the water high. The people are told to be strong and courageous. The Ark of the Covenant went first, so that God would lead the way showing the path to follow. As the toes of the priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant touched the water the river stopped flowing from up steam and the water started to pile up on itself. The priest walked out into the middle of the river, which was now a dry riverbed, they stood there and waited until all the people had gone across safely.

    I can imagine the people being amazed at the water stopping for them and also so excited to be heading toward the Promised Land. Today we would stop and take a picture, or better yet get a video that could become a YouTube sensation.

    But not being able to take a picture they did what they knew best to mark that moment. 12 men went back into the river and picked up big stones and carried them to the shore. They placed the stones as a marker so they would remember what had just happened. And Joshua their leader said “when your children ask what these stones mean, you will be able to tell them the story of how God stopped the Jordon River and we walked through on dry ground”. The story of our hope being in God and God guiding us.

    Our culture and media try to get us to pick up all kinds of ideas and stories. We are told how to be and who to be and shown how we might be rejected if we don’t conform to this. We pick up lots of things and carry them around with us and I wonder what they mean to us.
    What are the stories we tell?
    What about ourselves do we need to remember?
    What do we pick up and carry?
    This is the backpack I used in high school and college. But it is not the backpack I started high school with. I was home educated until my last year of high school. So my first day of my senior year was my first day of traditional school. My Mom had ordered this backpack for me but it didn’t arrive until the second week of school so for the first week of school I carried around my childhood backpack which was bright pink and baby blue. Let’s just say I was pretty aware of what I was carrying for that first week because I almost glowed as I walked down the hall.

As we go into new experiences what do we carry with us?
    When I was in college and hanging out with a lot of other missionary kids we used to brag to each other about how much emotional baggage we had from being drug all over the world by our parents. But I came to understand some things as baggage and some things as luggage. We all have baggage we drag around with us – I have a box of toys from when I was a little girl that I just can’t seem to get rid of but really is just taking up space in my closet. I also have three quilts, one my mother and I made, one made for me by my grandmother and one that was given to me as a blessing when I first started as a missionary. These quilts move with me in my luggage  no matter how bulky they are because they remind me that I am loved, that I am grounded and that I come from a community and family who support me and are cheering me on.

(get text book out)
    Sometimes we are carrying around useless books that are never used but are dead weight in our bags. Yet, what are the stones we need to pick up and carry as markers, reminding us of the story of who we are? The stones that help us remember what God has done for us. And what are the things that are just dragging us down and are telling a story that makes us feel less. We have to be careful what we pick up.

(get another book out)
    I used to try and carry around books that I knew I needed to read but just wasn’t getting to. I hoped that by having the books with me, touching me I might learn by osmosis. Even though that didn’t work there is something to the fact that what we hold closest to us will teach us and inform the way we are.

(pull out a note pad and folder)
    When I started teaching I realized that I had to help my students learn how to take notes. There was so much information coming at them in class and they needed to learn what was important enough to write down and what would be helpful in assisting them to remember things. Maybe some of you share the experience that I had of getting ready for a test and as you look back over your notes realizing that you have some really creative doddles but no real content. As we look back at our stories we need to think about which parts we tell and what we hold on to. Do we take note of the times when God showed up and was active or do we have a lot more stories of when God felt distant and we felt alone. What do we pay attention to, what do we hold on to?

    Over the last 5 months since I’ve been back in the USA I have found myself coming away from a number of conversations with people and wondering – what were they so afraid of? When tensions are high politically, racial, and theologically there is good reason for some people to be afraid. But do we want our fear to be the story we tell and the thing we carry. Where is our hope? What is the promise that this new school year holds for us?
    The kinds of stories we tell effects us. When we only hear stories that Muslims are dangerous than of course we will approach them with some fear. But when children hear stories about how wonderful they are, then they can go into spaces assuming that they will be loved and welcomed. We have narratives about ourselves that we have learned from our families and our culture. There are ways that we tell our stories that help us define who we are.

    In my family we have a narrative of being outsiders, and we are because we have moved so much. But that narrative also cuts us off some times from the very people we long to connect with because we think “they will never truly understand our story and thus never truly accept who we are”. Because of my family narrative of being an outsider we don’t let ourselves become insiders. What stories do you tell yourself about who you are?

(take out pencil and colored pencils)
    As we look back through the Bible, which is our story woven with God’s story, we see God, or an angel showing up and often the first words out of their mouth are “Fear not” or “Do not be afraid”. We need this message to be repeated because we can get stuck in our fear, not realizing that our fear is coloring the way we tell our story. Our fear can grow and weigh us down. We need more stories written with colorful hope – praying that God will help us see creatively. Carrying the potential to let God transform our stories and us.

(pull out the erasers and white out)
            Sometime we want to block out and erase parts of our stories. The Israelites probably would have preferred to not wander for 40 years before they got to the Promised Land. They would have liked to erase the mistakes they made that got them into that situation. But we can’t just white out or erase parts of our story. I’m not advocating for us shying away from the hard parts. They are part of us and we need to be gentle with our stories.

(pull out a lunchbox)
            And last but not least, we need to be fed. What in our stories makes us laugh, reminds us of hope and sustains us. Too often we get so focused on our minds that we forget we are in bodies. We have to pause for snacks every once in a while to let our bodies, minds and spirits catch up with each other.

            Often in our lives we have threshold moments. We stand on one side of a door or possibility ready to walk or jump into what is on the other side. The start of the school year is one of those threshold moments as students, teachers and families’ transition from one way of being into something new. The staff and pastors here at church are also standing on a threshold, shifting how we are as a team and wondering what this new reality will look like. We stand with the people of Israel, our feet just about to touch the water waiting to cross over into new ways. We are poised on the cusp of change which can bring feelings of both excitement and fear. What will this be like? What is this new story we are stepping in to?
            And as we look to this new start we also put some rocks in place, milestones along the way – this is where we have been and this is the story of faith we can tell to help us on our way. Maybe we need to learn fresh ways but we will need to look back on the things that have shaped us.

    When I got to college they said that some things that were cool for kindergartens had become cool again. Things like having snacks, taking naps, going barefoot, and carrying your backpack on both shoulders again. Maybe we have to go back to hearing some of the basics we might tell our kids as we send them off to school – be kind, remember who you are, treat others how you would like to be treated, ask questions-listen well-learn lots.
    If you are starting a new school year or just continuing business as usual may what you carry with you sustain you for the journey and not drag you down. May you find space for bright colored dreams of hope, safe spaces to nestle your stories of pain, and enough room in your bag for snacks.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Phil Kniss: To walk unbent

"This is a story full of love...You are set free"
Luke 13:10-17; Isaiah 58:9b-14

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I wonder what picture you saw
    when you heard the Gospel story.

Maybe you’re not one to see a vivid image
    when you hear a story told.
But even if that’s not normal for you,
    I’ll bet—at least if you were listening
        to the story today from Luke 13—
        I’ll bet this time you saw something.
    Because this story is written to evoke a picture.

It describes, three times, what this woman looked like
    that Jesus met and healed in the synagogue.
    She was crippled, Luke said, for 18 years.
    She was bent over, Luke said.
    She was quite unable to stand up straight, Luke said.

And then Jesus called her over.
    Called her over.
    Did not go to where she was,
        but asked this bent over woman
        to get off her seat in the synagogue,
            and walk over to where he was.

We’ve all known persons with similar conditions.
    Some of you may deal with it yourself.

In the most severe cases,
    just observing it engenders sympathy.
It’s a picture of pain and struggle,
    not to be able to stand up straight, to walk bent.
    It often requires some equipment to help the person walk.

We understand, mostly, what causes this.
    It’s a spinal condition called kyphosis.

Some persons with the condition, can,
    by putting forth immense effort and energy,
    stand up straighter, at least momentarily.
        But they cannot sustain that.

    Anymore than you or I can hold our arms out straight
        for more than a few minutes.
    Soon, we are worn out with the energy required
        to keep going against the force of gravity.

I say all this to help us grasp the kind of ailment
    this woman truly suffered from,
    before Jesus touched her and freed her.

The Gospel writer, of course, doesn’t diagnose her condition
    as a chronic spinal kyphosis, as we might.
He describes her as
    “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.”

I won’t try to explain exactly what that means,
    because I don’t know.
I do know the world view of the Gospel writer
    included an understanding that the spirit world
        played an active and interactive role with the physical world.
    And I’m inclined to think that we modern westerners
        generally have an underdeveloped view of the spiritual realm.
    But I’ll let it go at that, except to say . . .

I think this woman’s physical condition
    had to have a profound impact on her spirit,
        her mind, her emotions,
        her relationships, her way of looking at the world.

Imagine if you can,
    living for 18 years without naturally being able to make eye contact,
        looking down at the ground,
        being unable to constantly survey your physical surroundings.
    You might have read how posture can impact emotions & attitude.

Experts suggest that simply striking a confident pose—
    shoulders back, hands on hips, chin tilted up—
    and holding it for three minutes,
        can have a profound impact
        on how confidently you think and act.
    They suggest you strike such a pose for a few minutes,
        before going into an important job interview, for example.

        Don’t know how well that works.
        I haven’t done a job interview for 20 years now.

But can you at least imagine how your whole being
    would be shaped by 18 years of being bent over,
        unable to stand straight?

    Can you grasp how that would profoundly impact
        the way you feel about the world?
        how you see your place in that world?
        how you might wonder if you even belong?

    This was a deeply burdened woman
        that Jesus met in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
    Deeply burdened. With multiple burdens.
        Her physical posture was, in all likelihood,
            a symbol for her whole life and way of being in the world.
        She was weighed down.
            Pushed down not only by gravity,
                but by the way others treated her,
                and by the way she saw herself.

    This is not pure speculation on my part.
        Yes, I know a chronic physical ailment
            does not always define one’s life.
        But the Gospel account specifically describes this ailment
            in terms of oppression.
            She was not only physically bent.
                She had a spirit that bent her.
                Whatever that means, exactly,
                I don’t think I’m speculating
                    to say she was bent over, and burdened,
                    in more ways than one.

And then Jesus met her.
    Jesus, the one who saw things differently than those around him.
        Not only could he see the world
            in ways this woman wasn’t able to see.
        He saw it in ways that other able-bodied, strong-spirited
            people around him were not able to see,
                or at least were not willing to see.

    This is a wonderfully-told story,
        that puts all the tension and conflict that surrounded Jesus
            directly into focus.

    Here Jesus was, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath,
        all eyes on him,
        all ears on him who already had a reputation
            for being a rabbi who saw things slant,
                who acted slant,
                who didn’t seem to value protocol.

    And the first thing to notice in this story,
        is that Jesus noticed the bent-over woman.
    This is significant,
        in that there is typically a segregation of men and women
            in Jewish worship.
        The temple had a physical and visual barrier,
            and so do orthodox synagogues, to this day.

    Further, not only did Jesus notice and take heed of her condition,
        he called her over to him.
        Presumably, he was in the position of the teacher,
            near the center,
            all the men gathered around.
        And Jesus asked this bent-over woman to get up,
            and walk over to him.
        Whether I’m entirely accurate, I don’t know,
            but my mental picture has this woman
                slowly hobbling toward Jesus,
                the crowd of men parting to let her through,
                until her interaction with Jesus is at the center,
                purposely being put on display by Jesus.

    His words were simple, and to the point.
        “You are set free,” he declared.
    His words were a performative speech act.
        That is, his words not only described a reality.
        They changed the reality they were describing.
    Upon his words, the woman straightened her back,
        stood upright,
        looked Jesus in the eyes,
        and gave praise to God.

    And from the other rabbis and synagogue leaders,
        Jesus got the reaction he expected,
            and maybe even, hoped for.
    I think Jesus wanted not only to cure this woman of her oppression.
        He wanted to see his people,
            his own community of religious leaders,
            cured of their tendency to oppress.

    The reaction was that the synagogue leaders
        shifted immediately into damage control.
    In their indignation over Jesus clearly breaking Sabbath law,
        they didn’t even address Jesus.
        They addressed the crowd of worshippers:
            “Look people,” they said.
                “There are six days for work.
                    So come and be healed on those days,
                    not on the Sabbath.”

    In other words,
        rather than confront Jesus directly,
        they took out their frustration on the people
            who were there hoping for Jesus to free them, too.

    But Jesus didn’t play their game.
    He didn’t continue the passive-aggressive indirect communication.
    He turned to the leaders directly.
        “You hypocrites!
            You are trying to prevent this woman, and anyone else,
                from being freed of their bondage on the Sabbath.
            Your treat your own donkeys with more compassion.
                When they are tied up on the Sabbath,
                    you untie them, and set them free to find water.
            But this woman, tied up by Satan for 18 years,
                you object to her being set free on the Sabbath?”

    And Luke ends his story with these words,
        “When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated,
            but the people were delighted
            with all the wonderful things he was doing.”

For Jesus, this is the measure of what is lawful and right:
    Does it set people free?
    Does it allow persons the freedom
        to live the life they were created to live?
    Or does it add to the weight they are carrying?

I suggest that is still good criteria for discernment.

The prophet Isaiah seemed to point in the same direction,
    in the O.T. passage we heard today.

Isaiah challenged Israel to “remove the yoke from among you.”
    Remove the yoke!
        Take that instrument intended for a beast of burden,
            that instrument that forces the wearer to bend at the neck,
            and get rid of it.
    And what is this yoke, according to Isaiah?
        It is the “pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil.”

A spirit of condemnation is not of the Spirit of God.
    Rather, God’s agenda is to free us all to be and become
        the persons we were created to be and become.
    Read through Isaiah 58,
        and look for those words that describe
            the yoke that burdens and oppresses,
        and look for those words that describe
            what frees and satisfies.
        It’s all through the passage.

        And, Isaiah addresses the issue of the Sabbath itself,
            the very concern that tripped up the synagogue leaders
                in Jesus’ day.
        The Sabbath, Isaiah reminded,
            was a cause for delight
                and (quote) “riding on the heights of the earth.”
                Talk about freedom!  Riding on the heights!
        The Sabbath is expressly not for
            serving your own interests,
            or going your own way.
        It is to be lived outwardly, and joyfully—
            exactly as Jesus was living it,
                by freeing people of their burdens on the Sabbath.

    God is pleased when we live in a way that honors
        our created purpose.
        And of course, discovering that purpose
            is a lifelong process of discernment.
        We won’t always agree what freedom should look like.
            And that produces some struggle as we figure it out.

    But God is still all about helping us walk unbent,
        unburdened by the condemnation of others,
        or any condemnation we heap on ourselves.

May these scriptures speak freedom to us today, as well.
    Because, Lord knows, we are bound, in many ways.
        Many of us, though physically we stand upright,
            we are walking through life bent over,
            weighed down by a spirit of condemnation
                that is not of God.

    I venture to say,
        we are living in a season of greater burdens than usual,
        more condemnation than is good for our spirits.

    Maybe we are not personally being condemned,
        or condemning ourselves,
        but we are swimming in a sea of condemnation.

    It may be our loved ones or dear friends who are being condemned.
    It may be a political cause or religious conviction
        we are passionate about, that is now under fire.
    It may be a group of people we are passionate about supporting—
        immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ persons,
        “Black Lives Matter” movement, or others.
    The condemnation we feel may be indirect.
        When inflammatory things are said
            about certain people or causes we care about,
            we end up carrying that burden ourselves,
                sometimes without even telling anyone.
        I confess that it is a daily discipline for me—
            and I am not always successful—
            to lay down my burdens,
                and bear what is mine to bear,
                and not bear what is not mine.

    Even apart from burdens that result from condemnation,
        there are so many other burdens weighing us down
            as a church, as a nation, as a world.

    We can barely get our minds around the lives lost,
        and the massive loss of property
            in the flooding in Louisiana,
                that will never be able to be recovered
                either by insurance or government aid.
    There are families who lost entire homes and all their belongings,
        and may get $10,000 . . . or less . . . in total relief.
    The utter devastation of the California wildfires overwhelms us.
    The chaos and violence in the Middle East and Africa.
    The millions of refugees and displaced peoples.
        These are also burdens we carry with us,
            to varying degrees,
            and they add to our heaviness, our despair.

    And then on the personal front,
        we have a whole other level of burdens—
            relationships strained or broken or abusive,
            chronic or terminal illness—our own, our loved ones,
            the continuing darkness of grief and all that goes with it,
            material loss or financial distress,
            loneliness and isolation,
            or something entirely different.

I simply want to name and acknowledge
    that no one here is removed from the impact
        of burdens we carry,
            our own,
            or on behalf of others.
And I want to name and acknowledge
    that many are here this morning bent over
        with the weight of it all.
    That many of us are not far removed
        from the experience of the woman in Luke 13,
        who Jesus noticed, and called, and freed.

Jesus also calls you, to come over, and be set free.
    It’s what God wants for you.

So I conclude by inviting the other pastors to join me at the front,
    and for Virginia to come, play some healing, freeing music.

Any of you are invited to come for prayer,
    and anointing with oil, if you desire.
    Bring whatever burdens you are carrying—
        whether they are your own burdens,
            or you carry them on behalf of another.
        whether the burdens are personal or communal or global
            if you are bent over, and need prayer
            for the freedom to walk unbent,
                you are invited to come,
                and we will have a brief prayer with you.

Come as you as willing and able.

—Phil Kniss, August 21, 2016

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