Sunday, November 27, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Glimpses of peace and reconciliation in hard times

Advent 1: God's peace is at hand
Isaiah 2:1-5; Matt. 24:36-44

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On the first Sunday of Advent, Pastor Barbara draws on Isaiah 2 and Matthew 24 and on our own context, to reflect on how we see evidence of God's peace and reconciliation in hard times. Her sermon includes interviews with several members of the Park View congregation.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Phil Kniss: How the Grinch Stole Thanksgiving (and gave it back again)

Stewardship Sunday 2: It’s all gift: worship
Deuteronomy 26:1-11

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With apologies to Dr. Seuss,
    the Grinch in the sermon title is me.
    And this act of stealing (and returning) Thanksgiving
        will happen now, in the next 20 minutes.

See, I have this irritating inner conflict
    when Thanksgiving rolls around.
    So I’m going to dump all that angst on you,
        until you start to question your plans for Thursday.
    Don’t worry. In the end, you’ll get your holiday back.
        But it might look a little different.

From a national standpoint, Thanksgiving is great.
    Good to drum up positive vibes about life in these United States.
    Especially right now, don’t you think?

In the midst of national negativity and anxiety
    and uncertainty about the future,
    it’s good to remind everyone how prosperous is our land,
        and bountiful our harvest.
    It’s good to remind ourselves how blessed we are,
        and to thank God for those blessings.
    It sets the right tone for the citizenry in troubled times.

That’s the origin of the holiday.
    Something to boost national morale.
    A day of prayer for thanksgiving
        was declared by George Washington in December 1777
        during the Revolutionary War.
    But it was Abraham Lincoln in 1863,
        while the Civil War was still raging,
        who declared the last Thursday in November
            as a national day of thanksgiving,
            and started an annual tradition.

Part of Abe Lincoln’s declaration could have been written to us,
    in mid-November 2016.  Let me read some . . .

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the [thanks] justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

Good for Lincoln! My sentiments exactly.
    This is a good thing for nations.
    But as a feast day in the church calendar,
        I’m conflicted.

It’s ironic that the most sacred Christian feast days—
    Christmas and Easter—
        have been coopted by our consumeristic secular culture,
        and reinvented as
            seasons for shopping, decorating, and over-indulging.
        And their great theological core gets gutted.
    While Thanksgiving—
        an essentially secular and nationalistic holiday—
        has been coopted by the church,
        and wedged into our liturgical calendar.

Yes, harvest festivals are deeply embedded in religion, since forever.
    They are found in Hebrew scriptures,
        and in most world religions.
    But the fourth Thursday of November in the U.S.,
        is more than a religious harvest festival.
        It was instituted as a national holiday,
            is shaped by civil religion,
            and there are national interests behind celebrating it.
    But . . . I’m okay with that part . . . Really.
        It’s healthy for a country to look beyond itself, and thank God.
        That’s not what makes me a Thanksgiving Grinch.

My problem is that we in the church get a little sloppy, theologically,
    every Thanksgiving.
    The holiday tends to feed into a misunderstanding about God
        that many of us carry within us.
    Let me lay it out for you,
        but please don’t judge me as a total curmudgeon,
        until I finish.

    Here’s the crux of the matter:
        I think God gets a lot blame that is undeserved . . .
            and a lot of thanks that is misdirected.

    The phrase that gets bandied about a lot,
        is “count your blessings.”
    This is the season to stop, look around,
        and make a numerical list,
        to count all the good things we have in life.
        And as we count, presumably,
            we notice our list is long.
        And we are invited to thank God for these “many blessings.”
    But what are we really saying by that?

Are we saying that if the barn and pantry and closets are full,
    that God did that for us, directly?
Are we saying that God looked down upon us,
    and decided to make our barns full,
    and our blessings abundant?
Isn’t that what thanking implies?

So let’s follow the logic.
    If I thank God for giving me the blessings I have,
        doesn’t it follow that I should also blame God
        for the good things that don’t come my way?
    If full barns and abundant blessings are signs
        God is looking on me with favor,
        then I guess an empty barn—
            and disaster, loss, suffering, and grief—
        would be a sign that God is withholding favor from me.

Now don’t mistake me for saying we shouldn’t live with more gratitude.
    We desperately need
        more thoughtful and grateful people in this world.
    We’d all be better off if we were more thankful people.
    We need to open our hearts and minds
        and see life itself as gift,
        and notice and name all the gifts that surround us,
            all the time.
    That’s not what I’m talking about.

What bothers me is a transactional theology
    that assumes God specifically sends me blessings
        as reward for good deeds,
        or having enough faith,
        or for certain reasons known only to God.
    That leads us to trouble.

    When we make God entirely and directly responsible
        for the presence of the good things in my life,
        then God also needs to be responsible when they are absent.

    And if the good breaks we get in life,
        turn out to have disastrous consequences for other people,
            like having the eye of the storm pass a hundred miles north
                and hitting another town instead,
            or my cancer getting cured, and my neighbor’s not,
        then how do I thank God for blessing me,
        without saying God chose not to bless another?

Most of the good things
    we’re supposed to thank God for this Thursday—
        plenty of food, shelter, freedom, security,
        clean water, access to health care, material goods, education—
    we have to admit there is more to it
        than God pointing at us and deciding we get the blessings.

Lots of factors contribute to the fact that we have these things,
    and many other people in the world do not—
    illiteracy, chronic poverty, crime rates, disease, oppression,
        and all kinds of social ills
        impact certain classes of people more than others.

And in our own wealthy nation,
    if you are an immigrant,
    or have skin of a different color,
    or subscribe to a minority religion,
    or were born into certain neighborhoods,
    or can’t break into the world of higher education,
        then your odds of having an overflowing barn or closet,
        are infinitely smaller than those without those factors.

As I said last Sunday,
    I am a person of privilege, as are most of us here.
    We were born into that privilege.
    Not all our success can be attributed to our hard work.
    Nor can it all be explained by saying
        God had special regard for us, blessing us beyond others.

Saying that or implying that is not only theologically wrong.
    It’s offensive to most of the world.

Thanksgiving, if we’re not careful,
    takes us very close to that line.
We can end up casually thanking God for things we have,
    and stop there,
    ignoring the unequal economic system tilted in our favor.

Of course, the opposite also happens.
    In times of suffering, or loss, or illness,
        we can blame God for causing something
        that we ourselves contributed to, directly or indirectly.

God is not a candyman.
And God is not a thief.

When we Americans, in the most powerful nation—
    economically, politically, militarily—
    give our collective thanks to God for our blessings,
        we at least need to add a big footnote & disclaimer.
_____________________

And now, I think I’ve probably reached the end
    of your patience with my cynicism.
    You may be just as annoyed with me,
        as the residents of Whoville were with Mr. Grinch.

So I will slowly start giving Thanksgiving back.

First, let me assure you, I will do Thanksgiving this Thursday,
    and I’ll do it happily.
    Our table will be full to overflowing,
        and there will be leftovers on Friday and Saturday.
    We’ll be with family in Ohio, and it’s going to be great.
    I’m going to pray a Thanksgiving prayer.
    I’m going to express my deep gratitude
        for a loving and healthy family and a bountiful table.

    But I’m also going to be careful. At least I’ll try.
    I’m going to watch my words,
        so that I don’t give God credit that God would not own.
    I will try not to imply that God did something for me
        which God chose not to do for my more unfortunate neighbors.

I am going to attempt to make my prayer at the Thanksgiving table,
    an act of unconditional worship,
    rather than a transaction between God and me—
        a thank-you in exchange for God showing me special favor.

Deuteronomy 26 can help with that.
    We read this earlier.
    It’s a set of instructions, an order of worship,
        for how the people of Israel should approach God,
        after generations of wandering in the wilderness,
            eating food and meat that fell from the sky.
        Once they settle,
            and plant, cultivate, weed, and harvest,
            and bring in the first of the crop,
            they are to have a festival of worship,
                bringing the first and best.
        They are to remind each other where they came from,
            a nation of wanderers.
        They are to thank God with a gift from the harvest,
            present it publically in worship,
            and then have a feast with everyone together—
                including the foreigners living among them.

    It’s a beautiful, classic text about worship and first-fruits giving.

But take note.
    Even in the Ancient Near East,
        where the predominant world view was
        that the gods were directly responsible
            for everything that happened,
        and those gods were often capricious,
            giving to some, withholding from others,
            and our main agenda was staying on the gods’ good side,
        even in that cultural and religious context,
        a transaction with God was not the point of this liturgy.

The people were expected to feast and to celebrate,
    whether it was a good year or a bad year.

This first-fruits offering in Deuteronomy 26,
    the tithe set forth in the law, the first and best of the harvest,
    was not conditional, depending on how good the harvest—
        like if you are blessed, give thanks,
            and if not, you’re off the hook.

No, the assumption was, God was with them,
    and was on their side already.
    We all have gifts to give, because our gifts are proportionate.
    It didn’t matter if the tithe had to be hauled in
        with a team of oxen, with the wagon piled high.
        or . . . if the tenth of the harvest could be held in one hand.
    Either way, you brought it in, you celebrated, and you shared.

The focus of the offering, as far as I can tell,
    had nothing at all to do with how much they had been blessed.
The focus of the offering was solely on God as provider.
    God was the source of all life.
    God was creator and owner of everything they had.
    So God deserved their praise and thanksgiving. Period.

This was not American-style Thanksgiving—
    “Count your many blessings,
        then thank God for how many you have.”
No, the mandate is,
    “Worship God with all you have, and all you are,
        and return a proportion, no matter how small or large.”

We owe God everything, as the source of all life.
    The worship we offer is not conditional.
    In fact, worship itself a great equalizer
        between those who have a lot,
        and those who have little.
    Because every gift is blessed, is consecrated,
        and is then shared equally with all—
    In Deuteronomy, it was shared with the Levites (who had no land),
        and with the aliens, the orphans, and the widows.
    All ate.
    All were included.
    All had enough.
    And all worshiped God.

That’s the kind of Thanksgiving that the church is called to reclaim.
    So if I stole Thanksgiving in the first half of this message,
        sorry.
        Now I’m giving it back,
            and asking us to reshape it.
    Let’s reject the affluent American version of this holiday,
        and make it a celebration where all eat.
            All have enough.
            All are included.
            All are shown welcome and hospitality.
            And all are invited to worship God, the source of all.

    We have good reason to celebrate and give thanks,
        and to do so heartily.
    God is at work in the world, in all the world.
    God is with us, equally, in feast and famine,
        in blessing and suffering,
    It’s a tough Thanksgiving this year for some in our community,
        who feel alone and anxious and insecure.
    What better time to put even more leaves in the table,
        and share our abundance
        with those who need to be reassured they belong.

    It’s great to stick a sign in our yard welcoming our neighbors.
        I’ve done that.
        It says something important.
        But it’s also easy to do.
        Let’s find ways to risk including our neighbors in our lives,
            and entering into theirs.
            especially those on the edges of our community,
            and celebrate together
                the God who is the source of all that is good,
                and deserves our gratitude,
                    however little or much we have.


—Phil Kniss, November 20, 2016

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Phil Kniss: Stewardship and a Post-Election Christian Political Vision

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; Colossians 1:11-20; Mark 2:23-28

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It’s typical for us at this time of year—
    about the time we start working on next year’s spending plan
    and distribute the Faith Promise letters and forms—
        to plan a couple Sundays focusing on stewardship.
    We did that again this year.

That might sound a little self-serving, institutionally speaking,
    and you could make a credible argument that it is.
    But I say, we don’t talk about stewardship enough.
    Stewardship is a way bigger theological theme than we think.

Even so, maybe you’re skeptical of my sermon title,
    “Stewardship and a Post-Election Christian Political Vision.”

You hear me say we’re focusing on stewardship today,
    and then you look at my sermon title,
    and you assume I went through some major mental gymnastics
    to turn a stewardship sermon
        into a chance to preach about something
        we’re all thinking about anyway, the presidential election.

Well, you’re right that I’m turning a stewardship sermon
    into an opportunity to address the topic of Christians and politics.
    But you’d be wrong,
        if you think I went through any mental gymnastics whatsoever
            to do this.
    Stewardship and politics are intimately related.
    It’s entirely natural to speak of an election in stewardship terms.

Why?
    Someone has defined Christian stewardship as
        everything we do after we say, “we believe.”
    That’s become my working definition.

Stewardship is a core theological concept.
    It starts with an affirmation about God.
    It affirms that everything good has its origin in God.
        Hence, the tag line for this two-Sunday series—“It’s all gift.”
            And we receive it as such.

Christian stewardship also asserts that while our lavish God
    invites us to share in the abundance of these good things—
    God does not transfer ownership.
    God invites us into partnership.
    God shares access to all this goodness and beauty and creativity,
        and asks only one thing of us—
        after we receive them,
            we use them for God’s own good purposes,
            and not for selfish purposes that work against God’s agenda.

Our scripture this morning underscored this.
    In Ecclesiastes 3, we heard that “there is a time for everything,
        and a season for every activity under the heavens:
        for birth and death,
            planting and harvesting,
            laughter and tears,
        for construction and destruction,
            dancing and mourning,
            keeping and discarding, etc etc.

Everything has its time, and its season.
    We heard that God has made everything beautiful in its time.
    We heard that time itself is the gift of a generous God,
        as is eternity a gift.
        We cannot add to, or take from, this gift.
    We heard that God put into our minds a sense of past and future.
    Yet, whatever IS has already BEEN,
        and what WILL BE has BEEN BEFORE.

I’m not sure I grasp that entirely,
    but it sounds like a good way to look at stewardship of time.
    Every day is a brand new day, yes!
        Every year a new year.
    But whenever we take a step into an uncertain future,
        the good news is that God has already been there.

And this time is all a gift God graced us with.
    Time – “on the clock” time and Sabbath time –
        is a gracious gift for which we are receptive stewards.
    In the Gospel story,
        when the disciples broke a Sabbath regulation,
            and had a run-in with the religious police,
        Jesus responded,
            “The Sabbath was made for us, not vice versa.”
            It’s a gift for our enjoyment and stewardship.

And then from Colossians 1,
    we heard an eloquent and lavish declaration
        of the preeminence of Jesus Christ, God’s firstborn,
    who fills all things, in heaven and on earth,
    who is before all things, and in whom all things hold together.

All that is, and all that will be,
    are in the gracious and generous hands of God in Christ,
        the head of the body, the church,
        the beginning and the end.
    God is Sovereign, source, and starting point
        of all that is and will be,
        and has graciously invited us to receive and participate.

That’s the beginning point for stewardship.
And therefore, it must also be the beginning point of our political lives.
_____________________

So let me talk about politics, specifically Christian politics.
    Politics, in the full sense of the word,
        is how a community of people—a society, a nation, a church—
            choose to inhabit shared space and time,
        how they see themselves, as a group, in relationship to others,
        how they choose to live together, how they decide things,
        how they distribute authority and resources.

    The practice of politics is essential to being human
        and essential to being Christian.
    We must speak of politics in the church,
        because human beings are wired for relationship,
            and Christians are called into a body.
        Therefore there is (and always will be) the necessity
            to clarify the nature of Christian politics.

    Does that thought scare you?
        If it doesn’t, it probably should.
        Because we as a Christian community have a unique challenge
            when it comes to shaping our political life:
            We have more than one citizenship.
            We have a responsibility to be good citizens
                of whatever civil government has authority over us.
                Scripture speaks clearly about that. See Romans 13.
            We are called to work for the well-being of all.
                Even if we are aliens in Babylon, so to speak,
                    we work for the shalom of our society.
                See Jeremiah 29.

        But no authority on this earth is permitted to overrule
            the authority that God Most High has already laid claim to.
            As God’s people—and specifically as followers of Jesus
                called into a new community,
                and made citizens of the Kingdom of God—
                we have another, and greater, political mandate,
                sealed with one foundational confession—
                    a spoken vow of citizenship
                    that should strike fear into the heart
                        of every earthly empire, including our own.
                It is the confession, “Jesus is Lord.”
                    That means Caesar is not.
                    Nor is any president or president-elect,
                        or king or queen or emperor or dictator,
                        or Congress or City Council.
                Or as the apostles in the book of Acts put it,
                    “We must obey God before humans.”

        This is not just individual resistance I’m talking about,
            where certain brave individuals put their lives on the line
                for a cause they believe in,
                    and stand up for civil rights, or
                    for protection of water and sacred land,
            or where someone individually chooses,
                for conscience sake, to object to war.

        No, the church, collectively,
            is its own political body,
            organized around
                a very different set of political principles.
        And it functions as a real, social and political entity
            overlapping with other political entities where it lives.
        And as we do so, we have the theological nerve
            to say we represent Jesus Christ in this world.
            As part of that body of Christ,
                we have our own set of binding political mandates.

        These mandates are counter-cultural,
            and counter to partisan politics, in just about every way.
        They do not rely on violence or threat of violence.
        They do not permit coercion or practicing power over.
        They are biased toward the poor and the suffering
            and the excluded.
        They demand we stubbornly love all people,
            to point of self-sacrifice, even martyrdom.
        They call us to be uncalculatingly generous
            (a point I made a couple weeks ago).
        They invite us to serve and help anyone in need,
            with no thought to recognition or reward
                or tax breaks for doing so.

        Sisters and brothers, that is our political mandate
            as followers of Jesus.
        That mandate has not been modified one iota,
            or made any easier, or any more difficult,
            because of the results of the election last Tuesday.
        As a community of Christ, our political status
            is the same as it was on Monday, November 7.
            Our political identity is unaltered.

    What is changing, and changing profoundly, and disturbingly,
        is the political and moral landscape around us—
            that of our political leaders, and leaders-to-be,
            as well as many in our society who feel newly empowered
                to speak and act in violent ways,
        because violent speech is being normalized by our leaders.

    This election season was unbelievably toxic and violent.
        We will not recover from it soon.
        As far as President-Elect Trump is concerned,
            in recent days, thankfully, there has been
                less vitriol and bullying and sheer meanness
                than what we heard from him during his candidacy.
        I don’t take that to mean
            there’s been a sudden change in his moral center.
            I think he’s adjusting his behavior to fit a new situation.
        The rhetoric and behavior of President Trump is yet to be seen.
            I hope it’s radically different than Candidate Trump.

    But as troubling as Donald Trump may be to many of us,
        even more troubling is the hatred and anger and violent spirit
            that has been unleashed in our society.
    What we all assumed was “beyond the pale” just a few years ago,
        has now become commonplace.
        In no way do I imply that everyone who cast a vote for Trump—
            including the many who did it while holding their nose—
            support his immoral words and behavior.
        Among those who voted for him
            are people who I know to be kind and generous
            and hospitable to everyone.

        But, let us be clear. And honest.
        There are elements within our culture—
            often within white male Christian America—
            who have been emboldened by this campaign,
            and are now engaging in hate speech and violent acts,
                aimed at persons of other races, genders, religions.
        I’m not fear-mongering.
            I’m describing what is now happening. Daily.
            Read the newspaper.
        Persons have experienced real physical and emotional abuse
            from strangers on the street,
            because of who they are, and because of the election results.

    It is objectively true that many of our neighbors—many—
        immigrants (documented and undocumented),
        Muslims,
        women (especially the far too many
            who have experienced sexual aggression),
        people of color,
        and more—
            are right now feeling anxious and stressful, at best,
            and at worst, are paralyzed by fear and dread
                and isolating themselves because of it.
    In part, they are afraid of the president-elect, and what he may do.
    But even more, they are afraid now,
        because it seems to them that half of their country,
            must not want them around.

    As followers of our Lord Jesus—a Jewish man
        who reached out and touched untouchable lepers,
        who related respectfully and deeply with women,
        who ate with social outcasts,
        who confronted the hatred and injustice
            inside his own religious structures—
        we have a Christian political mandate
            to notice those in our orbit
                who are experiencing fear and dread and isolation,
                and to move toward them in love and compassion
                    and a promise of protection.

    We must stand with those are suffering right now.
        We cannot join with other voices I have heard,
            that demean those who suffer.

    A couple days ago,
        one of our prominent state political leaders
            who is very public about his Christian faith,
        openly criticized Virginia Tech for sending a letter to students,
            offering support for anyone in pain
            or stressed or afraid after the election.
        The message was basically, “You lost. Deal with it.”

    That kind of sentiment,
        no matter what you think about someone’s party politics,
        has no place in a Christian political framework.
        If someone is suffering, we move toward them in love.
            We stand with those who can’t find their own voice.
            We welcome the outsider and stranger and alien.
            We protect the vulnerable,
                even if we pay dearly for doing so.

    I am a person of privilege.
        In every category I can check,
            I’m on the side of privilege.
                White. Male. Christian.
                Straight. Financially comfortable. American.
            The majority of people here
                could check the majority of those boxes.
            As a church, as a Christian political body,
                we are on the side of privilege.
        We barely need to give a thought to our own safety.

        I’m not saying we apologize for who we are.
        But let’s recognize that privilege has a price tag.
            The onus is on us.
            We have a greater obligation to respond
                to those who are not safe and secure.

    Our political vision as Mennonites has long made that clear.
    For generations, North American Mennonites have said
        we have a duty to respond with compassion to the suffering.
        After an earthquake or hurricane or tornado,
            when people feel most vulnerable and alone,
            we go out, in droves, to where they are,
                and offer our help and protection and compassion.
            We help them rebuild their lives.

    If the storm happens to be a political one,
        and it leaves extensive human suffering in its wake,
        why wouldn’t we do the same thing?

    I wonder what a collective church response might look like now,
        after this political earthquake?
        What needs to be rebuilt?
        And how can we come together to rebuild it?

Believe me, all of what I’ve said has nothing whatsoever to do
    with the competing political visions of Democrats and Republicans.
    There is plenty of room for healthy and vigorous political debate,
        about how best to provide for the public good,
        and what our government should do or not do.
    That debate should continue.

    I’m talking about a very different, and destructive, phenomena
        coming uniquely out of this election,
        fueled by hateful and violent speech and behavior.
    The church has a Christian political mandate,
        no matter how you voted,
            to now represent the healing presence of Jesus
            in the midst of the rubble left behind by this election.

The stewardship issue here is that we have given, by our generous God,
    a good and life-giving moral and political framework
        as kingdom citizens.
    Our constitutional charter, you might say,
        is in the gracious words of Jesus
            summarized in the Sermon on the Mount,
        and the gracious life, ministry, and deeds of Jesus
            which we are called to emulate.
    This social and spiritual identity and life-giving framework
        is a gracious gift we are called to receive,
            and then to steward, to manage.

    How we live our lives with each other, and in the world,
        is fundamentally a matter of stewardship.

I call us as a church to continue to do what we do best—
    to live in hope within a broken world.
    And keep articulating and demonstrating that hope.

    And keep up with our Christian communal practices
        that reinforce our alternate political identity.

    If this election has done anything for us as a church,
        it should be giving us a deeper longing and hunger
            for coming together and doing what we normally do—
        that is, gather regularly to worship in public,
            to listen to our body-shaping narrative from scripture,
            to sing and pray together,
            to break bread and share the cup of the new covenant,
            to share with and support one another,
        and then to go out into the world
            carrying that hope and that identity with us,
            accompanying the stranger and foreigner
            sitting with those who are fearful or alone or oppressed.

    I wonder how we might do that not just individually,
        in our day to day life,
        but collectively, as a church acting like a body,
            with our alternate political vision on full display.

    Let’s talk about that together.
        As a church community,
            as our smaller communities within the community.
        And see where that conversation leads us.
            And where the Holy Spirit leads us.

—Phil Kniss, November 13, 2016

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Phil Kniss: Three All Saints Day Poems

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149:1-9; Luke 6:20-31; Ephesians 1:11-23

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On All Saints Sunday 12 years ago, 2004, a week after the Boston Red Sox broke their curse and won the World Series for the first time since 1918, and a couple days before one of the closest presidential races in history, between George W. Bush and John Kerry, I composed three poems inspired by the four scriptures for the day, and shared them here as my sermon.


I looked at them again recently and thought, with some revising and updating they could have a second life, and we have the same scriptures today.

I don’t fancy myself a poet. But I like using language imaginatively. It helps me enter into the text in a different way. Maybe you’ll hear the text differently as well.

We will sing a refrain, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the highest), hear a scripture reading, then I will share some poetic reflections on the reading. We begin with song.



Putting Powers in Their Place
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149:1-9

Daniel 7, Psalm 149.
Who would have guessed
This awkward pairing of text
For All Saints Day sacred reading?

Juxtaposed, I suppose, by
Learned lectionary selectors
Thinking apocalyptic scenes of Babylon
And Belshazzar and beasts in the sea

Would inspire preachers like me.
They did not know I was Mennonite.
In psalms, the 149th is no 23rd.
And that sixth verse–could there be worse?

I quote, “Let the high praises of God
Be in their throats and
two-edged swords in their hands.“
Must I preach this?

“Sing praise to God and
Slay the enemy”? or
“Praise the Lord and
Pass the ammunition”?

Do I tell these in Park View’s pews,
First sing, ‘Gloria
In excelsis Deo.’ Then
Execute vengeance on the nations.

Is there no other way to see this decree?
Are worship and war in such unholy alliance?
So let us see what the seer Daniel saw,
Lying in bed, visions in his head?

Did he dream a scheme to bump off
Belshazzar, for crimes against humanity?
No, the seer saw the Most High God
Put powers in their place.

Four winds of heaven, chapter seven,
Stirred up four beasts,
Four cold-blooded kings
Rising from the sea.

Yet take heart, have no fear,
to the holy ones of God Most High
God gives the kingdom in the end.
The Kingdom without end. Forever, amen.

Those kings get their due.
And we’re off the hook. But look, today,
The nations still wield awful powers.
Even ours, we deny our Ordainer’s aims.

Two days hence, November Eight,
Ballots cast will designate
Who will be the next appointed king.
Can hardly wait, but here’s the thing:

Regardless who we make our king—
Clinton, Trump, or Bruce Springsteen—
We must admit all kings that we esteem,
Emerge from earth, as in the seer’s dream.

Like us, they yield to force of gravity,
Pulled down by earth and our depravity.
Their might will melt before the kneeling throngs,
Someday, sometime…  but we can hurry it along.

Take heed to Psalm one-forty-nine.
You heard me right. The praise of God
In mouth, and sword in hand. No, I don’t infer
We stoop to use the weapons they prefer.

Listen carefully, I say
We do the deed another way.
We just refuse to bow to claims put forth
By any king that rises from the earth.

And by that brazen act of radical refusal
We rob our kings of what they’re used to.
Without our acquiescence, they’ve lost the essence
Of what they need to rule us.

Without a trace of violence, we drain the lifeblood
From powers of evil. The kings are bound
With fetters, every bit as much and more,
As if we’d taken them by force.

More awesome, more shocking than bombs
That shock and awe, and leave wicked ones
And innocent alike, to die or writhe in pain.
The way to gain the upper hand, is just to name

Whose power we choose to use.
I suggest that we consider the Most High God,
Whose kingdom matters more than any other,
And will last long past the term of our next president.

And as for All Saints Day, you get it now?
We who, past or present, bow to God Almighty,
Place our loyalty, identity with One who reigns
On High. And everyone who’s gone before—

Viola, Martha, Lois, Robert, Ruth,
Anita, Alice, Anna Kathryn—gone, but not
So far removed as not to claim them as our own.
We’re all part of one offbeat community

That worries kings in power,
Since we don’t bow to those who claim a place
reserved for God Most High, who named us saints.
Alive or dead, all kneel at God’s high throne together.

Now I’m glad those strange and awful verses
Were put together in just that way. It forces
Preachers such as me to see a deeper truth.
This sleeping text has blessed me, and I pray you.

So let us now commence to give allegiance
to the only One whose Reign will last.
Glory to God in the Highest.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
 


A Glorious Inheritance
Ephesians 1:11-23

Addressed to Asian churches, Ephesus especially,
It’s just a simple letter, nothing more, from Paul.
“Dear saints,” he starts the missive, “Grace to you
and peace.” Of course, that’s how he starts them all.

But reading chapter one again I’m struck full face
In every place how much Paul treats the church
As one whole entity. Community. Humanity in
Unity of faith. It never seems to dawn on him

When speaking of theology, to talk of God
And us in private terminology. In Greek,
The second person pronoun—“you”—
Shows up in plural only. Never singly.

Not “you,” but if you’ll pardon me, it’s “ya’ll.”
I can say that. We are southern, after all.
But not to take it lightly, grammar here is
Crucial to our understanding rightly, that the

Good news of salvation never was a private gift
For me and you and you and you and you.
God marked us all, by Spirit sealed (in v. thirteen)
God’s own people set apart (that’s fourteen)

To be redeemed, a new community
Of saints, recipients of glorious inheritance.
A whole society that, marching to a different beat,
Is bound to meet resistance, and generate some heat

Out in the world where thrones compete.
Which makes the church, it stands to reason,
Guilty of committing treason against the
Powers of this world, such as they are.

So do not tremble, Saints of Ephesus,
And Antioch, and Philippi, and north Park View.
Your saintly church is overseen by Christ its Head,
Seated on a throne that overshadows every other.

At God’s right hand, our Lord is in position
Above all rulers, powers, and dominions.
Resurrection power put Christ there, but
God will share, with us, the new community.

So saints of old, who’ve gone before us,
And all saints here, let’s join the chorus,
Glory to God in the Highest.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.
 


Reverse of a Curse
Luke 6:20-31

Jesus gave a sermon once, that I, the seasoned
Preacher that I am, doubt I would have the
Nerve to give. Or, truth be told, would want to.
He gave it not on mountaintop, but level place.

This sermon on the plain, is plainly ill-advised,
You see. It makes no sense to gather ’round you
Massive crowds enthusiastic, then to get bombastic,
Cursing them who came to hear you. Make them fear you.

“Woe to you who have enough! And curses, you who
Laugh with stomachs full! A curse to everyone of you
Who neighbors think the best of, and assume are blessed of
God!” I think it odd, to preach to folks in such a way.

And then to say, to those who lack in every way, the things
That everyone agrees you need—some food, some cash,
Some happiness, respect, and honor—to say to those
Who stand far off, beyond the borders of the crowd,

Eyes averted, heads just tilted slightly, toes that
Dig into the dirt, who know where they belong—
To say to those—“You over there, you’re blessed.
Yes you! Beyond the rest, you’re blessed if you are

Poor and hungry, weeping, or excluded,
Hated or defamed because of me.
Rejoice and leap though now you creep
Along not knowing that God holds you dear.”

The lowest ones who loiter, linger at the edge,
Long lived thinking they’ve been cursed, and
Destined to be losers, now discover that they
Won the only trophy worth its weight in love.

A simple sermon on a plain, reversed a curse,
Worse than any curse against the Cubbies,
This curse held them in a death grip, nothing they
Could see to free them. Until the day that Jesus said,

“Just don’t look at it that way. Be glad you
Don’t have what they do. Their stuff owns them,
So pity them, the self-incarcerated. You are free, indeed,
To let God do his thing and give you what you really need.”

Now today, this All Saints text, in context with the rest,
Doesn’t tell us what to do, but where to be. It shows us
Where to set our hope and home. Situated in that same,
Trouble-making, power-breaking, slightly offbeat . . . community

Of saints both past and present, who together chose another
Road to greatness. So let us once again confess and sing,
Glory to God in the Highest.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.


—Phil Kniss, November 6, 2016

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Phil Kniss: Uncalculated generosity

Between Exodus & Promised Land: Releasing our hold
Luke 19:1-10

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So we’ve been looking for the wisdom of Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel,
    on how to live well in the wilderness.
Today, the last of the series,
    we find this strange and memorable story of Zacchaeus—
    He’s a small character.
    Or, as the old children’s song puts it, “a wee little man.”

    Small maybe, but Zacchaeus has a large place in the Gospel story.
        I’ll bet the majority of persons on the streets of Harrisonburg
            would say they’ve heard a story
                about an elfish little man who climbed a sycamore tree
                    to get a better look at Jesus.
        They might not know much more,
            but they know that.

    When I get an overly familiar story to preach from,
        I dig a little deeper.
        There’s usually something fresh to uncover.

    This time, I’m looking at the story through a certain lens—
        the lens we set up for this series.
    It asks the question . . .
        What is there in Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings,
            that can give us some help, some insight,
            into living in this in-between time—
            between Exodus and the Promised Land?
        The land where we now live.
        The land where the Jewish people of Jesus’ day also lived.
            Not in outright slavery, like Egypt.
            But not with full human flourishing, either.
                In-between land.
                Wilderness.
                Social and political and spiritual desert.

    So if they lived there, and we live there,
        maybe there is more of a direct link than we think,
            between the world of the Gospels and our world.
        At least, enough of a link
            to take Jesus’ teachings and stories to heart,
            and ponder what it means for us today.
_____________________

There are multiple angles I could take with the Zacchaeus story.
    But I’m being guided by this lens of life in the wilderness.

One of the things we know about wilderness,
    is how unmanageable it is.
    It’s a wild environment.
So when we find ourselves in a wilderness,
    our natural instinct is to take whatever measures we can,
        to insert at least some small semblance of security,
        in a place where everything else is insecure.

    And that, is precisely how Zacchaeus structured his life.
        His wilderness, and the wilderness of every first-century
            Palestinian Jew,
            was living under Roman occupation,
                and more specifically, the brutality of King Herod,
                Caesar’s surrogate in Judea.

    In a context where the Empire exercised absolute control,
        different people dealt with it in different ways.
            Some resisted. Some collaborated with Rome.
            Some just lived quietly, trying not to be noticed.

    But Zacchaeus was a man with a plan.
    Zacchaeus was a calculator.
        He probably weighed all his options,
            before he took this loathsome job
                of collecting taxes for Rome.
        He might have had some personal factors in his life
            that made him more likely to sidle up with Rome.
            Maybe his family system wasn’t there for him.
            Maybe he had few friends and loyal confidantes.
            Maybe he was already a loner,
                and didn’t have much to lose, socially.

    But for whatever reason, Zacchaeus was willing to cross over,
        to leverage himself and whatever good will he had,
        in order to get back at least some power and security for himself.

    Last Sunday I talked a bit about the Roman taxation system,
        when we looked at the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector.
    How the system was created to funnel money to the Empire
        by whatever means necessary.
        It was a brilliant political move by the occupying force
            to outsource tax collection to private entities,
            that employed locals.
        For one, it brought in more revenue,
            because it’s harder to hide money
            from people who know you, and all your relatives.
        And as a bonus,
            pitting one group of locals against another group of locals,
            inserts chaos in the system,
                makes it harder to unite against the Empire.

    I doubt Zacchaeus actually saw himself as a pawn of the Empire.
        But he probably did calculate personal cost and benefit.
            And for him, he came out ahead.
        By collecting taxes for Rome,
            he made his own financial position secure,
            ensured he would have a house and food and clothes,
                and a lot of other comforts money can buy.
        And he even rose up the ranks,
            to become a chief tax collector,
            which meant other tax collectors worked for him,
                and funneled their receipts to him,
                and he passed them on to the next level,
                    after taking his cut.
            It was a nice gig.
            Zacchaeus’ calculations were paying dividends.

        I’m sure he wasn’t a huge fan of Herod and Caesar,
            and all their occupying forces.
        He wasn’t an Empire man.
            But in this particular Jewish wilderness, he was making it.
                He was surviving.
            The way he calculated it,
                when it was all over, he’d still be standing,
                with money in hand.

    What Zacchaeus did is not an unreasonable strategy
        for wilderness survivors.
        When life is a bit wild and unpredictable,
            when things seem outside our control,
            one way to survive
                is to grab the little bit of control you have and hold on.

    I don’t blame Zacchaeus for this.
        He surely had his reasons.
    In fact, this strategy—
        of identifying and maximizing
            whatever small bits of control you still have over your life—
        that’s actually a strategy for health and wellbeing,
            especially in extreme wilderness environments.
        That’s how people manage to survive concentration camps,
            or kidnappings,
            or slavery,
            or abusive relationships,
            or other circumstances of extreme suffering.

    Although . . . we might consider those situations
        outright imprisonment,
        more than wilderness.
    The wilderness we all live in, daily,
        is after the Exodus, before the Promised Land.
    Those more severe situations are pre-Exodus,
        still back in Egypt,
        under violent oppression of slavery.
    While in Egypt, the Zacchaeus strategy
        of doing what we can to regain a little control,
        can keep us from dying in that state of oppression.

    But in this in-between state where we are,
        where the wilderness is not immediately life-threatening,
        but actually a life-long state in which we are called to live—
            maybe in this wilderness,
            another, less calculating approach is called for.

And that uncalculated approach,
    is what suddenly came to Zacchaeus, apparently,
    when he came face-to-face with the love and compassion of Jesus.
_____________________

The text isn’t quite clear exactly when Zacchaeus had this revelation.
    Was it as soon as Jesus called him down from the tree?
    Was it during or after the meal in his home?
    Was it after long and agonizing conversations with Jesus,
        who taught his followers not to worry about what they will eat,
            or what they will wear,
        but to be like the lilies of the field, and the sparrows of the air,
            whom God cares for lovingly and generously?

Whatever the timing,
    whatever the context,
    whatever the motivation,
        this much is clear.

    A personal encounter with the love and acceptance of Jesus,
        caused Zacchaeus to do an about face.
    He turned away from a calculated strategy that benefitted him,
        and he turned toward an uncalculated generosity.
    He promised, publicly, to give half his possessions to the poor.
        And whatever he had taken unjustly,
            he would repay four times as much.

    Such a rash public promise was pretty uncalculated on his part.
        But we can calculate it for him.
        Let’s do the math.
            Assume only 1/8 of the taxes he collected
                were the result of overcharging or bribing
                    or other common practices.
            Zacchaeus would be left with nothing. Zero.
            Follow me? Divide his wealth into 8 equal parts.
                4 of those parts he gives away.
                1 of those parts he multiplies by 4, and pays out.
            Now he’s flat broke.
        Either, Zacchaeus was more honest than most tax collectors,
            and hardly ever overcharged.
        Or he took a huge uncalculated risk in making that promise.

Now, this all makes for a wonderful salvation story.
    We rejoice, with Jesus, and with the Gospel writer,
        that salvation came to that house that day.
    We rejoice with Zacchaeus,
        that he found his place of belonging again,
        within his family and community.
    We rejoice with the poor of Jericho,
        who benefitted from this sudden windfall,
        and maybe repaid some of their debts.

We rejoice . . . until we realize the obvious.
    That way of living, with uncalculated generosity,
        is the whole point of the story.
        It’s a way of life being commended to us,
            by Jesus and the Gospel.

The question we all need to face, if we take the story seriously,
    is “Are we prepared to release our hold
        on what gives us security,
        and live with uncalculated generosity?”

Now, I’m not suggesting the word of God for us this morning
    is that we all give until we’re broke, penniless, and dependent,
        not only in terms of money,
        but also in time, talents, relationships.
    I’m not inviting us to be stupid and reckless
        with everything we have.

But I am inviting us to be a little less calculating.
    I say this as a consummate calculator, myself.
    I like to weigh the cost.
    And I like to compare the cost to the benefit.
        And I do that before I decide something.

So I’m brought up short by Zacchaeus,
    who towers over me,
    in his willingness to be uncalculatingly generous.

Think about it, if I have structured my life in such a way,
    that it’s almost impossible to lose,
    haven’t I just eliminated the need for faith?

If I have made my own lot secure,
    by calculating what I need and when,
        and ensuring it’s there whenever I need it,
    am I leaving room for any new life-changing adventure,
        and the risk that inevitably goes with it?

If I have worked things out to my advantage in my wilderness,
    in order to be as secure in mine, as Zacchaeus was in his . . .
    then maybe I’m just as much in need of salvation as he was.

We all have different kinds of wilderness.
    And therefore, we have different kinds of security strategies.
    I don’t know where this story touches yours.
        You’ll have to ponder and reflect on that.

Some of you may right now be just as secure as Zacchaeus was,
    prior to his encounter with Jesus.
    So the challenge to you is to have the courage to release your hold
        on that security you are enjoying—
            be that financial, or professional, or relational,
                or psychological, or religious security.
        The word from this Gospel might be to let go
            of what is helping your wilderness
            be more predictable and manageable.

But others . . . might be at a very different place.
    You may be reeling right now
        with an overwhelming sense of in-security.
    In your wilderness, you might find yourself at a precipice—
            financially, professionally, relationally,
                psychologically, or spiritually.
    It might feel like you’re in a free fall right now,
        so letting go isn’t your biggest problem.

    Maybe it’s finding something solid to hold on to.
    In that case, maybe the word of today’s Gospel for you
        is to lean in to the love of Jesus in a deeper way,
            in the absence of other forms of security.

    At our most insecure, we’re not likely to claw our way back,
        or calculate our escape from the wilderness.
        Maybe the best thing we can do,
            is lean harder on the love of God that is ours in Christ,
            and watch that love take on flesh
                in the lives of our sisters and brothers around us,
            and then see where that love takes us.

    Maybe in this story,
        you can find comfort in a Jesus who pursues us,
            and meets us wherever we are in the wilderness—
            in the crowd, up a tree, at the table, in the temple.
        Jesus seeks us out, invites us to a deeper level of dependence,
            and brings salvation.

    Jesus’ last words in this story, to Zacchaeus, to the crowd, were,
        “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
    Those are words for us, as well, in our various forms of lostness.
        Jesus came to save, that is,
            to rescue, to heal, to make whole, to bring shalom,
            to make it well with our souls.

—Phil Kniss, October 30, 2016

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