Sunday, March 17, 2019

Phil Kniss: When God Stands In

Lent 2: "God gathers us together in safe shelter"
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31-35

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When we bring up the subject of God
as one who gives us safe shelter,
we sit at a critical crossroads.

We are at the intersection of two divergent roads.

The one road is God as comforter, provider, protector.
Quite understandably, we find this road a precious path to cling to.
When storms of life buffet us to and fro,
when we feel threatened, 
at risk of losing ourselves, losing our life,
when we are under attack by enemies,
the metaphor of God as provider of safe shelter
is a metaphor we run to,
and find greatly comforting.

The epitome, the prime example of this notion of God 
was in our Gospel reading this morning,
where Jesus spoke tenderly about himself, or you might say,
about God as a mother hen,
who longs to gather her chicks under her wing,
when a predator comes along.

We also find biblical images along this line in the psalms of comfort,
such as Psalm 91:
“He will cover you with his feathers, 
and under his wings you will find refuge.”
Or today’s Psalm 27, certainly one of my favorites,
one I often turned to in my rocky adolescent years.
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

So that’s one road—
God who comforts and protects.

The other road is equally important, equally true,
but it runs perpendicular to the first one.

This is the God of the hard road.
God of the narrow, winding, uphill path fraught with danger,
where risking life is not only a possibility, it is assumed.
Jesus also gave us a paradigm, a prime example for this road.
Its metaphor is an instrument of torture and death.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple,
must take up their cross . . . and follow me.
Whoever wants to save their life, must lose it.”

So we can’t get very far into a sermon on God’s safe shelter,
without asking a very complicated question—what is safety?

What is safety?
I want to talk about that question in light of
our contemporary use of the term safety.
Because, in fact, we talk a lot about being safe.
So it bears examination.

But first, I want to ask that question of these texts for the day.

What does a God who offers us safe shelter really mean by that,
if that same God is asking us 
to give up our lives for the sake of the Gospel?

Let me start with Jesus and his mother hen metaphor.

In Luke 13, Jesus’ sworn enemies, the religious leaders, came to his aid,
they warned him of what would happen
if he got any closer to Jerusalem.

Jesus was working in and around Galilee, well away from Jerusalem.
But the Pharisees, to their credit, told Jesus,
“Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
The Pharisees were not fans of Jesus.
But there was someone else they despised more—King Herod.

Jesus responded to the Pharisee’s warning in a way
that must have confused them.
“Go tell that fox Herod,
‘I am casting out demons and healing, today and tomorrow.
Try to kill me if you wish,
but I’m too busy to run.’
I will not run from Galilee,
and furthermore, I will come to Jerusalem itself,
the city that kills its prophets,
and stones those sent to it.”

The Pharisees couldn’t fathom Jesus’ reckless desire
to walk straight into the front line,
to choose the path of certain suffering.
Jesus tried to explain.
It is for love of Jerusalem.
“Oh, Jerusalem, how often have I desired
to gather your children together
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
and you were not willing!”
But . . . whether you accept me or not,
I am coming to you.
I will be with you in your time of distress.
I will stand in for you.
I will come between you and your attacker, the Fox-King.
I will be your fierce, protective, mother hen.
If you are willing.

Now, you, dear congregation, can ponder, and decide,
whether, in fact, this metaphor holds up 
as real protection against real attack.

In the face of a large predator—fox, wolf, coyote—
a laying hen is not much of a match.
Yeah, she’ll put up an energetic fight.
On some days, it might even persuade the predator
to find an easier target.

But when it comes down to it,
the jaws and claws of a hungry canine
will make quick work of the hen,
exposing the helpless chicks hiding underneath.

So what does this metaphor actually guarantee us?
Rescue? No.
Assured survival? No.
But . . . accompaniment? Yes.
Presence and advocacy? Absolutely, Yes.

And now let’s take a look at that odd and disturbing text from Genesis.
Is this even about safety?
It’s a weird and troubling story, full of blood and gore.
It could be a scene from a horror movie.
But actually, it’s a scene that makes perfect sense,
in the culture of the Ancient Near East.

In ancient times, binding contracts did not look like ours—
with 8.5x14 paper, lots of words in legalese,
signed and dated with ink, in triplicate.
But anyone in the Ancient Near East
would have immediately recognized this gory scene
as a covenant ritual,
that made agreements binding on both parties.

First, a quick review of Abram.
Back when Abram was settled in the land of his ancestors,
he was the heir apparent to vast land holdings.
But God told him to pack up everything—everything—and leave.
Didn’t say where. Just said go.
And gave him a promise that he would one day be a great nation,
with numberless descendants.

That was back in chapter 12 of Genesis.
Now it’s chapter 15, decades later,
and here’s how Abram’s new life has unfolded:
Still living in tents.
Camped outside Canaan,
because its fierce inhabitants won’t let him in.
A famine hits the land,
he goes down to Egypt for a while to beg for food.
His wife Sarai can’t get pregnant, 
and is now past child-bearing age,
making God’s promise of descendants kind of a non-starter.
He did succeed in business and got wealthy in flocks and herds,
but no son to give it to, so it doesn’t mean much.
No “great nation” on the horizon.

So . . . the promise of God—
for the sake of which Abram gave up everything—
that promise remains entirely unfulfilled.
And no hope on the horizon.
Everything hinges on one thing—offspring—
now an impossibility.

This is Abram, in chapter 15, when God shows up again.
And God cuts a covenant with him.
That’s the actual verb, “cuts a covenant.”
When important agreements were made in those days, 
animals were brought,
their carcasses cut in two,
the two halves placed opposite each other, in a line,
one half lined up here,
the other half there.
And in the middle, blood flowed from the carcasses 
forming a small river
commonly called the blood path.
Then, the two parties to the covenant,
walk between the two lines.
The party with the superior rank walks first,
and then the second party walks.
They walk the blood path, saying by that,
if I break my part of the covenant,
may what happened to these animals, happen to me.

Pretty serious stuff.
So the covenant ritual is set up in Genesis 15,
and it says that “a deep sleep fell upon Abram,
and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.”
This is, by far, the lowest point in Abram’s life,
God’s promise is out of reach,
and he is struck unconscious,
enveloped by a deep and terrifying darkness.
Now, if the ritual unfolded as expected,
God would have walked down the blood path,
then Abram would have.

That’s not what happened.
In the moment that Abram was incapacitated by terror,
God walked down the blood path . . . twice.
Once for himself, and once for Abram.
At least, that’s how many scholars interpret it,
and that interpretation makes wonderful sense to me.
Genesis 15:17 says a smoking firepot . . . and a flaming torch . . . 
both symbols of divine presence,
passed through the middle of the carcasses,
one after the other.
In the midst of Abram’s terror, God stood in for him.

God stood in.
Got between Abram and that which terrorized him.
Sounds like safety to me.

But what kind of safety, exactly?
Rescue? No.
Guaranteed success? No.
But . . . accompaniment? Yes.
Willingness to stand in, in your stead? Absolutely, yes.

I’m grateful we worship a God who is with us.
I can’t imagine a world (and don’t think I want to),
where everything goes my way
because I worship the right god or do the right things.
There is something more profoundly beautiful, I think,
about a God who gets down in the muck with us,
and is willing to stand in for us,
to face the same threats that we face,
and not abandon us.
I think I’m actually able to love such a God more,
than one who flips switches from a distance,
and makes everything work out for the faithful.

And that raises the more contemporary question
of what safety should look like for all of God’s children,
especially the most vulnerable ones.
So what is safety? And who defines it?

Do we who are members of the powerful class
get to define safety for those who on the underside of the system?
Because that’s what usually happens.

Marginalized or threatened people and their advocates
raise objection about unsafe environments or words,
and then we hear the counter-accusation,
that someone is being a snowflake,
that someone can’t handle a little tough talk or criticism.

Whether it’s persons of color
who experience actions of law enforcement differently than I do,
or whether it’s persons in the LGBTQ community . . . 
or in the #METOO movement . . . 
with experiences I can’t fully understand,
or asylum seekers at our borders
threatened at home in ways we know nothing about . . . 
or undocumented immigrants in our own neighborhood,
who keep their trauma to themselves . . . 
or . . . and the examples can go on and on and on.

There is often conversation around the notion of safety.

And those of us on the upperside of the power structure
often have a hard time getting it.
We look at our specific words and personal actions
and think,
well, I’m not threatening them.
I respect them as people.
I may be expressing ideas they don’t like or agree with,
but I’m not doing them harm.
How can they say I’m not safe?

Well . . . if someone is not feeling safe around me,
it probably has less to do with my actual 
specific words and gestures and actions 
that I am speaking or doing in that moment,
and more to do with underlying harms,
more to do with the strength of our relationship
and depth of trust that already exists, or doesn’t exist,
(apart from any of my specific words or deeds).

We are so quick to lob words at each other
without regard to the dynamics that lie underneath those words.
So when people march under the banner “Black Lives Matter,”
someone thinks they need to counter
with an “All Lives Matter” sign.
No one argues with the truth of that statement.
But when that sign is being held by someone of privilege or power,
they only prove how tone-deaf they are
to the real impact of generational trauma and injustice.

Think about it!
If persons in power, or their systems have, in the past, 
been repeatedly oppressive and discriminatory,
or if the people on the margins worried about safety
regularly live with a higher risk of attack,
or have been traumatized by powerful people and systems,
then we who are in the power position,
no matter how kind or well-meaning we are personally,
need to be very slow to try to make an argument
that we are, in fact, safe,
so there’s no need to worry.

It is far too easy for us who are members of the power-class
to define away our own words and deeds as safe.
We may indeed have a pure heart, with no intent to injure.
That’s not the point. 
We may believe we are being entirely non-violent. 
That’s not the point. 
We may indeed be able to make a rationale argument 
that our particular words or deeds are, by definition, 
safe and non-threatening. 
That’s not the point. 

Someone on Jeopardy just a few days ago 
was chatting with Alex Trebek 
about why they did not learn how to ride a bicycle 
until they were in their 30s.
It was because, he revealed,
at age five his foot got caught in the spokes of a bicycle.
And he just didn’t feel safe on a bicycle
until he took lessons from a professional in his adulthood.

Yes, I believe there probably is such a thing as a “snowflake.”
There may well be some persons who, beyond reason,
live in mortal fear of any kind of challenge or critique. 
There are some who seem to need to be coddled.

But it’s not really ours to say
whether their need to be coddled is legitimate or not. 
It does no one any good
to stand at a distance and call people derogatory names. 
We don’t really know the reason 
for their negative reactions to critique, 
until we establish some trust, 
until we engage with respect and deep listening . . . 
over a long period of time.
Maybe their feet got caught in the spokes dozens of times.

Yet how often have I heard persons, 
across the political spectrum, from left to right, 
attach a value descriptor to someone—
snowflake, redneck, hater, coward—
without ever having encountered them human to human 
in a context where both parties
were given a chance to ensure their safety, on their own terms.

Maybe here is where today’s scripture can help us.
If we want to express safety,
maybe we should do it the way God does.
How does God ensure safety,
in God’s efforts to build a relationship with us?

God stands in.
God sees our vulnerability.
God accepts that we have little to go on 
that gives us confidence to enter such a huge covenant.
God gets our limited point-of-view.

So rather than demand from us more than we are capable of giving,
God just stands in on our behalf—
even before we have a chance to hesitate, or ask for a reprieve,
God says, “I’m all in. Just watch me.”

And in the Gospel text—the image of God (Jesus) as mother hen—
the protection offered is not top-down or patronizing.
It’s the love of a mother,
invitational, non-coercive, based on being family together.
The offer of safety is extended as an invitation, not coerced.
“How often I have longed to gather you . . .”
But I’m willing to wait.
The offer of safety is just that—
an offer to lean in to the relationship, 
an assurance that we are all in it together—
no one is purposely left behind.

And if you’re not ready,
I’ll love and respect you anyway,
and consider you family.

—Phil Kniss, March 17, 2019

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Phil Kniss: When the hunger is hard

Lent 1: “God’s hand delivers us”
Luke 4:1-13

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So what do you think of our Lent worship theme—
“Blessed Hunger, Holy Feast”?
Holy Feast—I think we can all grasp that fairly well.
But what makes hunger “blessed”?

And let’s get something straight before we get very far into Lent.
The hunger we speak of is not my 3 p.m.
craving for a handful of snack mix.
It’s not even the intense hunger pangs I might feel
when it’s time for dinner and I was too busy to eat lunch.

But then, you’d hardly expect me
to compare my afternoon hunger pangs
with the sort of hunger we speak of
on the first Sunday of a 40-day fast?

I doubt many of us, if any,
have ever managed a 40-day fast from food,
even if slightly modified.

But in Lent, it’s hard hunger we speak of.

The kind of hunger we are calling “blessed”
and which scriptures speak of in many ways and in many forms,
is hunger that threatens to lay us low,
it’s a deep void, when we are empty of what we long for most,
it’s a hunger that is not easily and quickly remedied,
at least not usually.

Even you haven’t fasted from food for 40 days,
I happen to know that many of us, most, in fact,
have at some point in our lives,
hungered in the way we speak of.

There are those who grieve, deeply,
having lost a loved one—a spouse, a child, a parent,
a sibling, a dear friend.
And it’s been long enough that other people
seem to have moved on and nearly forgotten your grief.
But you . . . daily . . . carry within a painful, aching, searing hunger,
a void that for some reason refuses to be filled.

There are those living with deep hunger and pain
at the ending of an intimate relationship.
Life did not unfold in the way you had expected,
or in the way that was promised as much.

There are those experiencing confusion and even paralysis,
because you stand at a life-changing fork in the road,
and both choices hold opportunity,
and both hold loss.
And you hunger for peace of mind and clarity.

There are those who have been deeply wounded—
maybe by a stranger, but more likely by a friend or family member.
The anger and bitterness has settled into a deep hunger for justice,
but it’s unlikely the in-justice will ever be acknowledged,
much less repaired.
So you live with the hunger.

There are those living with a spiritual void—
what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”
There is a loss of faith,
loss of hope,
loss of joy in life,
which is beyond you to know how to regain and refill.

If you identify with any of these,
the season of Lent is for you.

And even if you don’t identify right now,
the season of Lent is still for you.
Lent is a time for us all to embrace hunger,
and to stay in that state for a time.

So briefly, let me locate us in time,
according to the church calendar.
Last Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday.
We didn’t celebrate it because we were celebrating membership.
But it always falls the last Sunday before Lent.
Today is the First Sunday in Lent.
And in seven weeks we celebrate Easter.

I want to make sure we see ourselves on the timeline.
We are between Transfiguration and Easter
in more ways than one.

On the Mount of Transfiguration,
Jesus and his disciples had a shimmering mountain-top encounter
with Moses and Elijah,
and a voice came from heaven with a blessing on Jesus.
On that mountain, the disciples, and, by extension, we,
got a clear vision of this close connection
between heaven and earth.
There’s not much that separates them,
we are led to assume.
In fact, a couple of the disciples try to create a separation.

At least, that’s how I interpret it.
Peter pipes up.
Master, let’s put up three shelters,
one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.
Let’s institutionalize this moment.
He didn’t use that word, but that’s what he meant.
He meant,
Let’s take this shimmering experience,
this gauzy curtain that barely separates heaven and earth,
that lets the God-light through,
and let’s make a permanent, substantial home for it,
so we can always point to that structure and say,
See? this is where God is, and this is what God is up to—
and down there . . . in the valley . . . is not.

Luke 9 doesn’t tell us
that Jesus gave Peter a big eye-roll.
But I like to think he did.
What the Bible actually says is,
Peter “did not know what he was saying.”
In Bible-speak, that’s an eye-roll.

So that’s the Transfiguration.
And the Resurrection is a little bit like that,
in the sense that this separation we try to maintain
between earth and heaven breaks down.
It was symbolized, in fact, when at the moment of resurrection,
the curtain in the temple was ripped in two,
the curtain supposedly separating the holy from the ordinary.
Again, a shimmering experience was afforded the disciples,
this time, first to the women,
and soon afterward to the men.
God was putting them on notice that,
“I choose to be with you here, in the ordinary,
in your human experience of suffering and death.
I will make your ordinary the stuff of the holy,
by being with you in it.
Suffering and death don’t get the last word.
I do.

I talked about the Tree of Life yesterday,
in my meditation at Allen Brubaker’s memorial,
and how that tree formed bookends for the Bible,
in Genesis 3 and Revelation 22.

I’m saying something similar today,
about the mountain tops that bookend the season of Lent
in our church year—at least the calendar we follow—
the Mount of Transfiguration, right before Lent, and afterward
the Mount of Olives,
the central hub of the passion of Jesus,
and all the glorious and terrible events that unfolded near it.

Some traditions put the Transfiguration at a different time,
but our church calendar is perfectly suited, seems to me,
to help us embrace life between the mountains,
when there is no shimmering gauze separating us from the holy,
only a deep, dark, and expansive wilderness,
a bottomless void,
and sheer emptiness.
It’s where the separation seems most distant,
most difficult to cross,
most un-likely to find fulfillment.
That’s Lent.

But . . . Lent does not paint a picture of hopelessness.
Not at all.
That’s why it is bookended with two mountaintop encounters.
Calendar planners, I’m guessing, were trying to preempt
the season from going off the deep end,
where Lent just becomes a time to wallow in despair.
No, the emptiness of Lent is more like a spiritual discipline.
We choose to enter the fast.
We choose to embrace emptiness and wilderness.
We choose to name and acknowledge the suffering.
And we have the courage to do so,
because we see the shimmering light before and after,
we know, despite some appearances to the contrary,
the space between earth and heaven is a thin space.
God is with us in the ordinary.
And we can trust God to provide.
There is Blessed Hunger,
and we can be sure of a Holy Feast to follow.

So with that backdrop,
let’s look at today’s Gospel reading, from Luke 4.
which takes us straight into the void.
It’s the story of Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness.

This is a test.
By that, I don’t mean a pop quiz.
This is a grueling spiritual workout for Jesus.
It's a story of Jesus finding out how deep he can go into hunger,
and how much he trusts God to provide the feast.

Jesus had just been baptized by John, in the Jordan River.
He has just been proclaimed, in public, by a voice from heaven
that he was the very Son of God, God’s own beloved.

Then, oddly, at the very moment Jesus should have been
most prepared to begin his mission,
at his point of greatest clarity about his identity,
on the heels of this public affirmation by God,
when he could have launched the first annual
Son of God, Son of Man, Preaching Campaign and Miracle Tour,

. . . the Holy Spirit sent him into the void.
“Sent” him, it says.

It’s hard to imagine the depth of suffering,
excruciating physical and emotional and spiritual isolation—
pure nothingness.
Try surviving 40 days in your own house,
all alone, with no phone, no connection to the outside world,
you cannot leave, you cannot have anyone join you.
Most people would crack or break under the strain.
Now, take away the stocked pantry and fridge,
the roof and walls,
the HVAC system,
and move into the desert.

That was Jesus, alone in the wilderness for 40 days,
sent there by the Holy Spirit . . .
met there by the devil . . . of course.
Who else would be in such a god-forsaken place?

In the desert, Jesus’ emerging identity was tested.
And it was hard.
As I said, it was a grueling spiritual trial.
It’s easy, if we’re not careful,
to dismiss these temptations as superficial—
that Jesus really didn’t struggle with them.
That they’re only symbolic.

But Jesus might beg to differ.
When Jesus was tempted
to use his power to turn stones into bread
and satisfy his intense physical hunger and emptiness . . .
when Jesus was tempted
to make things happen by his own political power and influence
rather than wait for God to move and act . . .
when Jesus was tempted
to attract attention and glory to himself
and force God’s hand to save him on demand . . .
the real underlying temptation—in all three of those—
was to reject the blessed hunger,
to scorn emptiness,
to deny being needy,
to shun vulnerability,
and take a short cut to the feast.

The real temptation was to disbelieve
what he heard at his baptism—
to shed his identity,
to release himself from his dangerous calling,
to forget who he belonged to,
and to grab hold of the intoxicating power
of controlling his own destiny,
satisfying his own desires,
and using power over others to accomplish his agenda.

Don’t think for a minute those weren’t real temptations.
And don’t think for a minute those same temptations
didn’t haunt him over and over and over
during his whole ministry,
most of all at the end.

We who are called by Christ,
are in exactly that position.
We, too, are given a name by God.
God calls us his own children,
adopts us,
calls us into a new community.

And we are constantly tempted, like Jesus,
to short-circuit the hunger, and go straight to the table.
We are tempted to satisfy our own desires on our own time-table.
We don’t much like hunger, truth be told.
We don’t much like wilderness.
We’d rather hop from mountaintop to mountaintop.

Now is the time to refocus, rethink, repent . . .
to reorient ourselves God-ward.
Now is the season for embracing the unfulfilled hunger,
and waiting with it for a while,
trusting God to provide the feast, in time.

Today, and every Sunday during Lent,
we choose to openly name, confess, and even embrace
the various ways we hunger,
and to sit with that hunger.

Yes, we will also, every Sunday,
acknowledge and worship God,
the preparer of the feast.

But an essential part of each worship service
will be the confession of our hunger,
symbolized by an empty bowl.
Let us now enter into that time of confession.

—Phil Kniss, March 10, 2019

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