Sunday, January 31, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Go fish

Epiphany 4: “Summons to follow”
Luke 5:1-11

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I love this text from Luke’s gospel. I love “telling” it. It also brings back memories of the childhood song from Sunday School days, “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me. If you follow me, if you follow me. I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.”

But after studying and working with the text, I always end up with 3 questions that I’m not sure how to answer. Each of us has to answer the questions individually, but we also need to ask how do we interpret and answer communally, collectively?

1.) What does ‘fishing for people’ (bringing in people - CEV)look like in the 21st century? Don’t be afraid, from now on you will fish for people! Jesus told Simon.
(What does it mean for us in this time and culture?)

2.) What might we be asked to ‘leave behind’ in order to do that ( fish for people)?

3.) What are we being summoned to do?

Let’s look at these questions and think about them together.

1.) What does ‘fish for people’ look like in the 21st century?
We know it was appropriate for Jesus to use the metaphor of ‘fishing’ to teach in that culture and time. They could identify with and understand what was involved with the job of ‘fishing’. It was hard work! It involved spending long hours catching fish, sometimes all day, sometimes all night. The job required many tasks, salting and drying fish, carrying them to market in large baskets, mending and washing sails and nets, repairing boats, working together in groups or guilds, days of success and days of failure, hard calluses on the hands, weathered skin, weary muscles, and always the smell of fish! It wasn’t a rod and reel and pulling in one fish at a time. It meant standing in the shallow shores of a sea and throwing out heavy nets, or pushing boats out into the deep and tossing the nets over board. Day to day the weather was unpredictable and so was the ‘catch’.
Does ‘fishing for people’ today look any different? Isn’t it often hard work, long hours, unpredictable outcomes, requiring patience. Sometimes it might mean disappointment and weariness (we fished all night and caught nothing!) or try one more time...put the nets into deep water, and suddenly nets are breaking, boats are sinking...unexpected outcomes! Miracles!
Some days fishing for people might be as messy and unpredictable as fishing for fish!
Does fishing for people in this time and culture mean going out there and bringing people in, and in to where? Our homes, our communities, our congregations? And who are these people we want to ‘bring in’? Who are we fishing for or hoping to catch?
I hope if we ‘go fish’, we find people with hearts wide open, willing to learn and grow together, willing to take risks, willing to offer grace and extend forgiveness to one another. I hope we can find people and be people who can sit together at table and celebrate with bread and wine, or over a potluck meal or even with a community fish fry!

The hymn we just sang, vs. 2 states: You call us, Christ, to gather the people of the earth. We cannot fish for only those lives we think have worth. We spread your net of gospel across the water’s face, our boat a common shelter for all found by your grace.”

When we toss out our net over the water’s face, or into the deep, do we hang over the boat and pick and choose a few select fish, ones we think will ‘fit’ our fish pond and toss the rest back into the deep? Do we look only for the kind we think will get along with the rest of us, so we don’t have to change too much or make major adjustments? (Kate fishing at SML and the excitement of the ‘big fish’, but the big fish was a carp..not a desirable fish to catch)

Maybe we need to re-think the imagery of fishing and fishing for people. Instead of ‘go fish for people’, we might say, ‘go have breakfast at The Little Grill’ or ‘ go spend some time at Our Community Place’ or ‘go meet your new neighbor at Mr. J’s’, or ‘go volunteer for SA or Open Doors shelter’, or ‘go sit with an elderly person who just suffered loss’, or.... well you get the picture.

2.) What might we be asked to ‘leave behind’ in order to ‘fish for people’?
The text states they ‘left everything’ to follow Jesus. Jesus’ words were directed to Simon Peter, but they all apparently heard those words and acted together to pull the boats ashore, leave there ‘stuff’ and follow Jesus. Did that mean everything was left, even those two boats full of fish! I wonder what happened to that catch? Maybe we are asked to give up those things we are pretty attached know what I mean. They are different for each of us. Do we leave behind those things we always want to control, feel we need to control or that control us? What gives us security? Do we have to loosen our grip on those? Do we give up some traditions or change the way we worship or sing or play, when ‘new fish’ join our pond? And who decides what and how much to leave behind?
Joyce Rupp writes in one of her books that one day as she was going through her stuff, she came across a journal she had written in years ago when going through a time of pain and transition. She was responding to these questions: What do you wish to tear give wear? And this is how she had responded to those questions in her journal:
“I am tearing up old behavioral patterns of judging others, being too busy and anxious, of not having enough solitude and communion with the earth. I want to give away whatever keeps me from being my true self, from living freely and simply, from being rooted in God. I wish to burn old memories and experiences that wound myself and others. I want to remove any obstacle that keeps me from being a loving person. I long to plant seeds of kindness, a deep reverence for our planet, a healthy spirituality, to plant these seeds in myself and in all I meet. I want to sing the song of my soul, to create the books waiting in my heart, to wear freedom and love. “ (p. 124-125 - Open the Door by Joyce Rupp)
Leaving behind stuff so we can go fishing might mean needing to unlearn some things that are holding us back, loosening the grip on things or people we hold too tightly. We might need to leave behind regrets and self blame over what we did or did not do. We need to let go of those old tapes that keep playing in our head, that tell us we are not good, or valued, or worth anything. Remember Jesus’ words to Peter: “Don’t be afraid.” Courageous steps forward will be accompanied by Jesus’ presence ‘under us, over us, by our side on our left and our right.”

3.) What are we being summoned to do?
Jesus words to Simon are not a casual invitation. They are a mandate, a summons, a command to respond. “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will fish for people.”
So what kind of actions or steps do we take to reach out, to move out, to engage people, to interact with others, to ‘go fish’?
Last week’s speakers at SLT at the seminary had some good suggestions:
a.) Where are the ‘currents’ flowing in your community? Where is there energy and passion being shown?
b.) Where are the longings in our community, in our families?
c. ) In what ways are our communities and congregations coming together and responding to the needs and challenges of our day? (Think of New Bridges, Bridge of Hope, Pleasant View Homes, Open Doors, Patchwork Pantry) Everyone of these started with the vision of a few people at a grass roots level that gained interest and momentum as people came together , crossed lines of faith, education, economics, denominations to work together.

Instead of focusing on “Who is my neighbor?”, as if there is a right way to answer that and, look at in a personal way, “Who are my neighbors?” right around me. (snowstorm brought some of us together as we shoveled snow and leaned on shovels to get through the task of getting out of our driveways) This event brought some people together in a different way from ever before. And maybe even more important than asking ,”Who are my neighbors?” , we need to GO and Be a NEIGHBOR!

I think we are summoned to respond in some way, to be obedient, and each of us needs to figure out what that might look like for ourselves and our faith community.
Here is my list of 10 thoughts I think we are summoned to.. The list is not exhaustive!
We are summoned to:
1. listen and learn from one another, and nurture our children.
2. create and care for beautiful things.
3. make peace through service
4. give testimony of God’s faithfulness in our lives
5. take risks and challenge the unjust ways we see
6. give money and wash dishes
7. mend relationships and ask for forgiveness
8. plant seeds of kindness
9. build sand dams and Habitat houses
10. share our gifts to help others.

Closing example: from last issue of Canadian Mennonite.
Jay Siemens, a 23 year old from Altona, Manitoba Canada was traveling last Nov. when he saw an article that his small hometown was going to welcome 5 refugee families from Syria. He wanted to help. He is a self taught, amateur photographer. He got the idea of putting together a calendar of some of his photos taken as he traveled in different countries. He partnered with Friesens Corporation who printed 1,000 copies of his calendar featuring 24 of his photographs. Charging $20 a piece, within several weeks he sold the calendars earning $20,000 for the families of Syrian refugees settling in his hometown.

I think this young man was summoned to share his gifts to help others. When Jesus commands or summons us, he empowers us with what we need. We can and, with God’s help, we will rise up and follow, with Christ before and beside us.

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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Clyde Kratz: The transforming moment

Epiphany 2: Jesus' first sign
Isaiah 62:1-5, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, and John 2:1-11

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Guest preacher Clyde Kratz, Conference Minister for Virginia Mennonite Conference, leads us in thinking about the power of Christ to transform our lives.

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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Phil Kniss: You are who God says you are

Epiphany 1: The baptism of Jesus
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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I’m a baseball fan.
    In baseball, statistics are a very big deal—unlike in pastoring.
    Pastors focus on things hard to measure,
        like spiritual well-being.

    But for 33 years, since my first pastorate in Gainesville, FL,
        I’ve been keeping stats on one thing.
    I’ve been counting my sermons.
    I give every sermon a number.
    The first was #1, the second #2,
        and so on ever since.
        I have them all in binders in my office.

I know this fact is apropos of nothing,
    in terms of my actual sermon today,
    and you may or may not be interested,
    but I thought I’d tell you anyway,
        because it’s interesting to me,
        and in some way satisfying,
        that I gave this morning’s sermon the number . . . 1,000.

In baseball terms, that’s not 1,000 hits.
    Just 1,000 at-bats.
        Some hits, maybe a few home runs,
            and a lot of strike-outs, I’m sure,
            especially early in my batting career.
    Speaking of which . . .
        besides Irene,
            there is one other person in this congregation,
            who was there for sermon #1, and 2,
                and most of the first 100.
            You can try to guess who.

But enough about that!
    On to the sermon.

“You are who God says you are.”
    Let me unpack that astounding statement.
    “You are who God says you are.”

We are a culture of name-callers and labelers.
    And becoming more-so.
    We seem to just want to give labels to people.
        It helps us know where people belong.
    If we can somehow reduce the complexity of being human
        down to a one-word label, or an acronym,
        then we get to put other persons in a class or category—
            most importantly,
            a category we are not, in any way, associated with.

    Then it’s easy—amazingly easy—
        to dismiss the other, and not really engage them.
    And we can do it guilt-free.
        We never have to come right out and say,
            “I don’t want to engage with you.”
        We never have to openly admit that we think of the other
            as someone who is unworthy of interacting with us.
        We merely apply a commonly-accepted label.
            And voila!
            We have explained away whatever it is that offends us.
            And with that simple explanation in hand,
                there is no need for us to go any deeper.

    In this presidential campaign season,
        we see this more and more,
        as candidates apply labels to each other—
            not just conservative and liberal,
            but lots of colorful labels,
                including some I can’t mention in polite company.

    But don’t think for a minute that this phenomenon
        is limited to blatant name-callers like Trump and his ilk.
    We are all prone to apply labels.
        I am not innocent.
        Yesterday morning,
            making a run to the hardware store,
            I followed a pickup truck,
                whose driver painted his entire tailgate
                    as a Confederate flag,
                    plus had a Confederate flag bumper sticker
                        with the slogan, “We know the truth.”

            I found it offensive.
            So in my mind,
                I immediately applied several labels to the driver.
                Racist. Uneducated. Bigot.
            It may be that those labels fit perfectly,
                if not in whole, at least in part.
            And conveniently for me, I will never know.
            Because in my mind,
                I immediately created distance between him and me.
                    I shielded myself in moral superiority.
                    So I will never need to confront him,
                        nor confront any prejudice in me.

    Labeling is a problem,
        not only because we are in a season of political posturing,
        but because this way of relating to others in the world,
            or not relating, as the case may be,
            is becoming normalized.

So I call upon us as the church to chart another course.
    And to help us walk a different way in the world,
        I call us to deeper reflection on today’s biblical texts,
            on this Sunday in the church year
            that we remember the Baptism of Jesus.

Now how can the story
    of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River 2000 years ago,
    help us in regard to this very current problem in our culture?
Let’s take a look.

People were coming to John the Baptist to be baptized.
    They came in droves, attracted by John’s bold preaching.
    John announced the coming of the anointed one, the Messiah,
        whose winnowing fork is in hand,
        and who would clear away the chaff,
            get rid of what had little value,
            and get us back to the core of God’s purposes.

    Then Jesus came along with the rest, to be baptized by John.
    And at the moment of his baptism,
        at the moment Jesus was throwing in his lot with his people,
        a voice from heaven came,
            and told Jesus, in so many words, who he was.
            “You are my Son, whom I love.”

Some preachers and scholars have called this baptism
    Jesus’ “ordination for ministry.”
    They say he was being commissioned for service.
        It’s not wrong to say that.
        His work was ordained and commissioned by God,
            and after his baptism,
            and then 40 days in the wilderness,
                Jesus did kind of launch his public ministry.

    But I don’t think “commissioning” is the best word
        to describe Jesus’ baptism.
    I think a better word is “christening.”
        It was in this baptism
            that Jesus was named by his heavenly Father.

    Yes, he had a valid naming ritual earlier,
        as all Jewish babies did.
        On the eighth day he was named Jesus,
            and blessed by Anna and Simeon in the temple.
        But this was a re-naming, in a way.
        Before Jesus was sent into what would become
            an onslaught of resistance, and temptations, and hardships,
            Jesus needed to be reminded who he was.
        And that reminder, that renaming,
            needed to come from the only one who has a right to name.
            The parent.

    The God who gave Jesus life made a pronouncement
        the began with two words “You are . . . !”
        Not, “you should” or “you will”—
            words of duty, of ordination for service.
        But, “You are!”—
            words of identity.

    In his baptism Jesus came to understand more deeply
        who he was then,
        who he was called to be,
        and who he would yet become.
    I’ve made the comment before, that at his baptism
        Jesus was not given a to-do list, he was given a name.
        His ministry grew out of accepting that identity.
        He didn’t allow anything else to rob him of that identity,
            or to redefine him
            and make him into someone he was not.

    Soon afterward, in the wilderness of temptation,
        remember Satan’s line of attack?
            “If you are the Son of God . . .”

    On his baptism, the voice from heaven said, “You are my son . . .”
    In the temptations immediately afterward, another voice said,
        “If you are God’s son . . .”
        Interesting choice of words, and not coincidental.

    Jesus withstood the temptation
        because he had clarity, through his baptism, about who he was.
    If only we all had that kind of clarity.

    Perhaps that’s part of the reason so many of us today
        are quick to call others names,
        or to affix derogatory labels on other people.
    Maybe there is insecurity on our part,
        about our own identity.
    Maybe we’re not so sure about who we are.
        So if we pigeon-hole and label others,
            as people who are completely unlike us,
            it somehow makes us feel more secure.
        I may not know who I am,
            but at least I’m not that.

    And I am assuming, from what I know of human nature,
        that in the field of partisan politics,
            there are a lot of powerful people,
            who are also insecure about their identity at a deeper level.
        That’s true in many other fields,
            including the church and church institutions.
            Among the most powerful and influential people,
                you will also find some of most insecure people.

    We are immersed in a culture, 24/7,
        that does a great job telling us lies, such as,
            we are what we drive, or
            we are what we wear, or
            we are what we look like, or—
                the most insidious and subtle—
            we are what we accomplish.
        And we believe those lies.
        We make decisions based on those lies.
            More than we want to admit.

But the voice of God comes, saying something different.
    If we take heed of what God said to his son Jesus at his baptism,
        or if we take heed of what God said to all his children,
            through the prophet Isaiah,
            in the other text of the morning,
        we will understand a deeper truth about ourselves.
    We are who God says we are.

There is only One—the one who gives us life—
    that has the right to name us.
    And I choose to believe that what God says about me is true.
        And what God says about you is true.
        And what God says about being human is true.
            If God made us, God ought to know.

Through the prophet Isaiah,
    we hear God’s voice to his beloved children of Israel,
        and by extension to all his beloved children, of all nations,
            for whom Israel was a prototype.

    “I have redeemed you,” God says to them.
    “I have called you by name, you are mine.
        I am the LORD your God, and I will be with you.
        I love you.”
    That voice still pronounces love and affection on us,
        God’s good creation.
    Notice how the prophet underscores who the speaker is,
        “the one who created you, Jacob,
                the one who formed you, Israel.”

Ultimately, there is only One with the right to speak to my identity,
    the one who gives me life.
    There are other voices out there,
        clamoring for my attention,
        who would like to tell me who I am.
    Those voices are, by definition, unqualified to speak on the subject.

    So whose voice will I listen to,
        when it comes to how I see myself.
    And just as importantly,
        as I encounter others around me,
        whose voice will I reinforce for them?
        The voice of the one Creator God who says to them,
            “You are mine, and I love you,”
            or the voice of the adversary,
                who sows seeds of doubt about their human worth,
                echoes of judgement beginning with, “If you are . . .”

    Will I help others see themselves as God sees them?
    Or will I add to their sense of unworthiness,
        by giving them a label and walking away—
            like I do, in essence, to Confederate flag-wavers
            and lots of other kinds of people easy to label.

    I have the option of applying a label.
    I also have the option of honestly framing what it is that offends me.

    I could say to myself (or others)
        that someone is a racist and a hateful bigot.
    Or . . . I could start by reciting my sermon title, in my head,
        “You are who God says you are.”
    That could bring me up short just long enough to say things
        that are probably more truthful about them, and me.

    Without taking the easy way and slapping on a derogatory label,
        I can still honestly name the ugly truth
            that needs to be named about some people—
            that their speech or behavior is deeply offensive,
                is threatening to others,
                and is morally wrong.
        I can speak truthfully about how a culture of white privilege,
            and an dangerous ideology of white supremacy,
            shapes and forms people who engage in racist speech
                and violent behavior.

    Yes, there are times that identifying certain persons in certain ways,
        is simply being clear and being honest.
        Some labels have a useful place,
            when they accurately describe certain behavioral patterns,
            or certain mental or physical states.
        But I need not usurp God’s authority,
            and pronounce who someone is at a deeper level,
                at a constitutive level,
                who they are as a human being.

I would that we all do the same . . . in reference to others,
    and in reference to ourselves.

We are who God says we are—
    human beings created in God’s image,
        persons who God loves,
        persons who God desires to fully redeem.

We are capable of doing heinous wrongs to one another.
    We are persons who may injure each other deeply,
        and may need to pay the price for those injuries.
    But still, “we are who God says we are.”

If there is any New Year’s Resolution I undertake it is this—
    to be slow to affix labels on myself or others,
    and rather engage people at the precise point of offense,
        to name the offending behavior,
        and let God be the one to name the person.

And here is how God names people, according to Isaiah . . .
    “You are precious and honored in my sight . . .
        I have called you by name . . .
        You I created, you I formed and made.
        I love you, and you are mine.”

Let’s hear those reassuring words in song,
    as we sing from the purple book, Sing the Story, #49.

—Phil Kniss, January 10, 2016

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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Christ as a light, illumine and guide us

Epiphany Sunday
Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

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

...or read it online here:
Many preachers find good stories and sermon illustrations from two reliable
sources: cartoons and grandchildren. Or if you are a young preacher, it may even be your children! But it does get a bit tricky when the kids are in your congregation or audience. Therefore I will stick with the cartoon.
In the DNR for December 26, day after Christmas, we find this Classic Peanuts cartoon strip.
Linus is outside working on his snowman. Charlie Brown comes up behind him and says, “Well, Linus, did you have a good Christmas?” Linus replies, “What do you mean by ‘good’? Do you mean did I get a lot of presents? Or do you mean did I give a lot of presents? Are you referring to the weather or the Christmas dinner we had? Do you mean was my Christmas good in a spiritual sense? Do you mean was my Christmas good in that I saw new meaning in old things? Or do you mean.....”
Charlie Brown turns, walks away and leaves out a big, “sigh”.

I can understand that Linus was trying to clarify what Charlie Brown meant by a “good” Christmas. It is all relative. We have different expectations. What are we comparing? It is a little like when parishioners leave the sanctuary after worship and say, “Pastor, thank you for that really good sermon!” And so we leave, scratching our heads and wondering, “Now what did he mean by ‘good’? Did he mean that it was well- crafted, clearly outlined? Did she mean that it was intellectually challenging or that it spoke to her present need and situation? Did he mean it was “good” because it was entertaining or honest or that it was inspiring, heartfelt, deeply moving? Was it “good” because it was short and easy to understand?

So did you have a ‘good Christmas’? Truth is....Christmas is not over. It is not over on the evening of Dec. 25 when the gifts are opened, the food is consumed, the house is tidied up after the relatives have gone home. Christmas is more than a day. It is a season...and we are still in it!. But I must confess that I look forward to what happens after the 12 days of Christmas, when we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany on Jan.6, and enter what we call the season of Epiphany, or season after Epiphany, that takes us to Ash Wednesday (Feb. 10 this year) and the beginning of Lent.
I am guessing that many of you grew up in similar circumstances as I did in that we knew little or nothing about Epiphany! We could be described as ‘liturgically challenged’! Christmas and Easter were the big deals and maybe, Palm Sunday and Pentecost, were known, but Epiphany, probably not. When I became ‘enlightened’ about Epiphany, I began to look forward to this time of the year, even more so than Advent and Christmas.

Epiphany means ‘shining’ or ‘showing forth’, an appearance or manifestation of the divine. January 6, the feast day of Epiphany commemorates the coming of the Magi and the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (Matthew 2:1-12). Many of us probably have used the word ‘epiphany’, (small letter e) when we have had a sudden , illuminating moment or discovery (a-ha), but Epiphany is really this feast day followed by a season where we seek, search, discover and proclaim how God is being revealed to us in Christ, in the here and now, in the every dayness of our lives. And it includes how we experience and respond to those encounters.
The feast of Epiphany was first celebrated in the 4th century. This season recalls 3 events in which Jesus was made known. The lectionary texts during this time of year always include: 1.) the story of the Magi and how Jesus’ birth was made known to them, these wise men/astrologers from the east, representing the Gentiles (found only in Matt. ), 2.) the announcement of Jesus’ identity at his baptism, found in all 3 of the synoptic gospels, where the ‘voice from heaven announces, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased”, 3.) Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, where Jesus turned the water into wine, and the text records that what Jesus did at Cana was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory... his nature, his character. Who Jesus was is now being made known, revealed for the purpose of illuminating the minds of people and bringing them to faith! Up to that time, his ‘glory’, his nature had remained concealed, now it was revealed/illuminated.

In 412, Augustine (church father and philosopher) delivered a sermon on this Matthew text of the Magi and their journey to Bethlehem. He described Epiphany as a ‘noteworthy celebration...throughout the world...and added that “the whole Church of the Gentiles has adopted this day as a feast worthy of most devout celebration.” His sermon on this text, even 1600 years later reminds us of 3 Epiphany truths relevant for today.

1.) God continues to be present in our world - always, even though we may feel abandoned and cry out in our suffering, our pain, our anger, our disappointment, “Where are you God?” God is always present, even when he seems hidden.
Our experience of God is not easy to discern. But God leaves hints, signs, a trail, to be discovered by those who seek to pursue the Holy in the midst of life. Too often we want quick answers, clear, immediate responses flashing across our computer. Too often we are too busy to pause and reflect on what we see and hear as we listen to the pain in our friend’s story, or child’s experience of daily activities. God’s presence is sometimes made known and illuminated to us through a nudge, a whisper, an interruption in your work day, a stranger at your door. God’s presence doesn’t always come as a shout, or logo or brand flashed across a billboard or TV screen. Those who hear or see the Holy One, who see the Christ light do so because they are seeking. The Magi scanned the stars, studied the skies, discussed together what they saw and then took a risk as they set out on a journey.
Christ as a light illumine and guide us...

2.) The gospel is for everyone, not just a few. Jesus was made known to the Gentiles. He is for those serving in the royal courts and the shepherds in the fields. He is for East as well as West, global as well as local. Rich and poor, educated and uneducated. The season of Epiphany reminds us to move out of our provincialism, to move beyond what is familiar to us, and to get rid of our tunnel vision! Jesus is Lord of all, not just a few.
Christ as a light illumine and guide us...

3.) Epiphany reinforces that meeting Jesus leaves us altered, changed, different persons. (Augustine knew this well..His life up to the time of his conversion at age 33 was often in shambles. He was not a model of faithfulness and fidelity, for sure, but his conversion changed him and the course of his life.) The Magi saw the child, bowed down before him, paid him homage, presented him precious gifts. It most likely changed the course of their lives. They could not return by the same route. They had to find another way!
One person wrote, “Epiphany reminds us that Jesus, the light of the world, has arrived in all his rule-breaking, table-turning glory, helping us to see all things, and even ourselves, in new ways.
Augustine, and many others in the Biblical narrative, (Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Paul..) learned that an encounter with God changes one’s life forever.
Christ as a light illumine and guide us...

In this season of Epiphany can we STOP - LOOK - LISTEN - PAY ATTENTION , in order to see how Jesus continues to reveal himself to us now, in the 21st century?
1.) Where is God ‘showing up’ in our lives, in the trials and tragedies of daily living? Even in the midst of what feels like dark and depressing times in the world, and maybe in our personal lives, where is a flicker of hope being revealed?
2.) Are there tiny sparks of the Divine that keep us going, that prevent us from walking away when things get tough, or walking out on a difficult relationship or work situation? Are there tiny sparks of the Divine that help us find the energy and courage to stand up, to speak out, when our voice is needed and injustices need to be made right? Are there tiny sparks of the Divine that are revealed to us so that we don’t give up or give in when pressured by peers, friends, society to live in ways that compromise our values and beliefs?
3.) How is Christ as light of the world illuminating a new path, a new way for us, for our congregation, for our church, as we enter a new year?

At the beginning of every week day, our pastoral and office staff meet for morning prayers at 9am. Others are always invited to join us in the conference room. It is a time of scripture reading, silence, prayers. As part of that ritual we say these words together:
Christ as a light illumine and guide me.
Christ under me; Christ over me;
Christ beside my on my left and my right.
This day be within me and without,
lowly and meek, yet all powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
Christ under me; Christ over me;
Christ beside me on my left and my right.

In 2016, may we seek together and search diligently for how the Christ light is being made known and revealed to us.

Epiphany (poem/prayer) by Walter Brueggemann
On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear, anxiety, brutality, violence, loss–
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
Lord, we are—we could be— people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness
that will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day and season.
We submit ourselves in this season to you and to your rule
with deep joy and high hope.
(Prayers for a Privileged People, Brueggmann, Nashville:Abingdon, 2008, p. 163)

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Phil Kniss: The path of love goes through Bethlehem

Advent 4: Freedom Bound: the path of love
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55

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We had an unusual event in our worship this Sunday, Advent 4,
    fifteen years ago, Dec. 24, 2000.
    It was three months after the beginning of
        the Second Intifada in Israel-Palestine.
    Violence had erupted all over the country,
        thousands had died.
    Access to and from Bethlehem
        was a challenge for Christian pilgrims,
        and for local Palestinian Christians, and everyone in fact.
    In Bethlehem, there was no sleeping in heavenly peace.

So we arranged to make a phone call during the worship service,
    to Bishara Awad,
        founder and president of Bethlehem Bible College,
        and a leader among the Palestinian Christian community
            in Bethlehem and the surrounding area.
    He was a friend to some in this community,
        especially to Calvin and Marie Shenk.

Making a phone call in a worship service
    was a little more complicated 15 years ago,
        before the proliferation of smart phones and Skype, and all.
    We ran a 100-foot phone cord from the pulpit to my office,
        attached a big converter box here, hooked to our mike system.
    But we had a clear connection.
        I gave him and the church there our greetings,
            then he shared for a few minutes
            what life was like for them there in Bethlehem right then,
        And then we prayed together.
            Calvin Shenk prayed first for peace,
            then Mr. Awad added his own prayer for peace,
                and prayer for us.
        It was a special moment.
        I’d give anything to play a clip of that right now.
            But that was in the days we recorded on cassette tapes,
                and being the frugal Mennonites we are,
                we re-recorded over them after a year.
                So there is no audio record.
            But I remember clearly
                his gracious and heartfelt prayer for us,
                his brothers and sisters across the ocean,
                and how grateful he was
                    that Park View was thinking of them at Christmas.

I want to suggest to you that our interest in Bethlehem
    should be no less front and center today, than it was then.
    And I say that both from the standpoint
        of what the political situation is there now
            (which we should care deeply about),
        but also from what we hear in the biblical story,
            part of which we read this morning.

I think the way our culture experiences the Christmas story,
    the images of Bethlehem we hold in our collective consciousness,
        based on manger scenes and Christmas carols,
            and picture books and holiday pageants,
    are so distorted,
        we’ve abandoned most of the essential elements of this story.

    There’s a place for the mythic and nostalgic, I grant you.
        They serve a worthy purpose.
    But let us not, dear church, forget the real story.
    That’s one reason why engaging in Christian worship during Advent
        is so important to our spiritual well-being.
    It’s our best chance to hear the story without embellishment,
        and reflect on what it actually means.
    It’s our best chance to quiet the chaos
        and unmask the blatant heresy
        that passes for an American Christmas.

That’s what grates me so much about our yearly Christmas controversy,
    where we hear so many Christians get militant
        about “keeping Christ in Christmas.”
    They would be satisfied if more big box retailers
        told their clerks to say “Merry Christmas” to customers,
        and coffee cups weren’t just a plain red,
        and we had more pictures of sweet baby Jesus in a cozy stable.
    The Christmas symbols many Christians long for,
        are actually a cultural fiction we have swallowed
        in place of the actual biblical story of Bethlehem.

So I’m going to tell the real story today, and I warn you.
    It won’t be quaint, picturesque, or serene.
    It will look nothing like Hallmark, or Currier and Ives.

Let’s start with Mary.
    We read and sang part of her story this morning.
    Mary was a teenage girl—inexperienced, unknown, powerless—
        legal property of her father,
        soon to become legal property of Joseph the carpenter.
        And soon to become socially shamed and endangered.
    God chose to come to her first,
        to use her as an agent for the salvation of the world.
        It was exactly as absurd as it sounds.

    When she finally allowed herself to believe the unbelievable,
        she went and told her elder cousin.
    Elizabeth confirmed that God was at work in her,
        and Mary broke out in a song of joy.
    It was not the song we imagine—
        “Oh how happy I am that God has given me
            this wonderful gift!”
        Mary took the angel’s news as a sign of revolution—
            real social, and political, and religious revolution.
        Mary’s song is a revolutionary anthem.
        She sings of the little triumphing over the big,
            the weak over the strong,
            the poor over the rich,
            the nobodies over the somebodies.

        Mary sang of a reversal of fortunes,
            a political, social, economic, and religious uprising,
            where God would take the accepted order,
                and turn it on its head.
            Unimaginable, you would think.
            But she imagined it.
                She saw it beginning to happen in her own little life,
                    which she had always lived under the radar.
                She believed in a God who loved little people, like her.

    So she sang her heart out:
        He has shown strength with his arm;
            he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
        He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
            and lifted up the lowly;
        he has filled the hungry with good things,
            and sent the rich away empty.

How could we interpret this song any other way?
The Magnificat is a prediction that the entire social order as we know it,
    will be undone.
    Isn’t it odd it has been
        written into the greatest musical compositions,
        sung in the world’s grandest cathedrals,
        performed by the world’s most elite choirs,
        and applauded by kings and queens and barons of industry?
    And it’s all about God bringing down the rich and powerful!
        Do they even hear what they are singing?

It defies common sense.
    The whole story does.
    It’s outlandish God would launch the greatest project in history,
        in a place like Bethlehem,
        with people like Mary and Joseph.
    Just the geography makes you scratch your head.
    Bethlehem, we heard the prophet Micah said,
        was one of the little, insignificant clans of Judah.
    And Nazareth, Joseph and Mary’s home town, was a running joke,
         “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Ha, ha!)

    Think of all the “little people” God used
        to help unfold the story of cosmic salvation.
    Mary, the unwed teenager, engaged to a carpenter,
        was the host for God.
    Shepherds, scorned as dirty and smelly and lowest of low,
        were the appointed messengers of God.
    And take John the Baptist’s parents.
        We read the story of Priest Zechariah,
            as if he were a holy man in regal robes,
            spending every day in the holy place,
            revered by all for his distinguished service in the temple.
        Not so. He was a nobody.
            Did you realize this was not his regular gig?
            He was one man in a large division of priests,
                and there were 24 divisions.
            Each division had two weeks a year
                when they left their day job
                and put in their time at the temple.
        Zechariah was in the holy place
            when the angel appeared to announce John’s birth,
            only because is it was during the two weeks
                his division was on duty,
                and he drew the short straw to light the incense that day.
        On the streets in Jerusalem nobody knew Zechariah.
            And Elizabeth was only Mrs. Zechariah.
    All the heroes in this story—all of them—
        were people of little or no standing,
        in a tiny country being occupied by a foreign power.

Okay, but we still have that beautiful Bethlehem story,
    the simple and serene parents,
        the kindly innkeeper who put out fresh straw,
        a rustic manger that made a perfect crib,
        the admiring animals and the star overhead,
        and the cute little baby that warms all our hearts.

Yes, we’d have that story, if it were in the Bible.
    But it’s not.
    All those parts are made up.

The Bible story is neither quaint nor heartwarming.
    It is a pathetic story. Pathetic, in every sense of the word.
        Miserable, deplorable, gut-wrenching.
    Stables for livestock were crude, often in caves.
    Mangers were feeding troughs, often carved out of the floor.
    The Bible never mentions an innkeeper.
        It doesn’t even say all the inns were booked.
        It says, literally, “there was no place for them in the inn.”
        But it could also carry the connotation that,
            “the inn was no place for them.”
        Maybe all the rooms were booked.
        And maybe an unmarried couple about to have a baby
            thought it wise to stay invisible.
        Maybe they never knocked on the door of an inn.
        Maybe they were sneaking around after dark,
            trying to find any safe place out of the way.
            A smelly livestock cave would do the job.

    It’s amazing Joseph had the guts to bring Mary.
        He had to pay the tax, not Mary.
        But leaving her alone in Nazareth was not safe, either—
            shamed and cut off from her friends, about to give birth.

    Not safe at home, not safe on the move.
    If you want to get close to the real human experience here,
        don’t go to those artificial pictures in your head.
        Picture a Syrian refugee family,
            at the mercy of total strangers,
            on the move because they have no better, safer, choice.
        Or picture a poor Mexican couple without documents,
            wandering around a border town in Arizona,
            hoping someone might have the heart not to judge them,
            but provide them food and shelter instead.

    That’s closer to reality than any Christmas card you’ve ever seen.

The story of a Bethlehem Christmas
    is nothing but a story of the love of God coming to people
    in a state of utter emptiness, and poverty, and danger.

    So what does it mean for us, to bow in worship to a God, who,
        when something really important needs to be done,
        when he wants to show deep love and affection for humankind,
            goes to people that are out of sight,
                places that are off the map,
                and situations that smell bad.
        Why does God’s path of love go through Bethlehem?

    It can’t mean that God hates the rich and powerful.
        Some are tempted to take a story like Bethlehem
            to vilify the rich and glorify the poor.
            That’s not what’s happening here.
    God affirms wealth, and its capacity to do good.
        Which is why God has such compassion on those without it.
    God appreciates power, and its ability enact his will
        Which is why God feels so tender toward those
            who have power taken from them.
    God is on the side of joy and beauty and abundance and freedom.
        Which is why God loves the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden,
            and seeks to show them the kind of life they deserve.

God has no vendetta against the wealthy and powerful.
    But when those with the capacity don’t live out God’s purposes,
        God simply turns to those who will.
    If we, who are the rich and powerful today,
        fail to side with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed,
        if we fail to join God’s mission of establishing
            justice and peace and goodwill among God’s people,
            then God will simply give the job to someone who can do it.

    When the powerful fail, as they often do,
        God lets them get upstaged by the weak.
        The big people get embarrassed when they are exposed
            as being less significant than the little people.
            They get shamed out of power.
        On those occasions we see that happening today,
            rare though it may be,
            we have biblical precedent to rejoice.
        We can see it as a sign of God’s justice at work,
            and sing a song like Mary’s.

It’s happening now, in microcosm.
    One day, it will happen in a final way,
        throughout the whole cosmos,
        because God will put things right again.

We who are not little, should pay close attention to those who are.
    It might just be one of the little people,
        maybe one of you young, quiet, faithful,
            under-the-radar persons among us this morning,
        who will be invited by God to be the bearer of the good news
            of God’s salvation which came in Jesus of Nazareth,
            and which continues to come today by the Holy Spirit,
                the Spirit of Jesus continuing God’s work.

    And when God invites you, say yes.

        “No Wind at the Window” by John Bell.

        No wind at the window, no knock on the door;
        No light from the lampstand, no foot on the floor;
        No dream born of tiredness, no ghost raised by fear:
        Just an angel and a woman and a voice in her ear.
        “O Mary, O Mary, don’t hide from my face,
        Be glad that you’re favored and filled with God’s grace.
        The time for redeeming the world has begun;
        And you are requested to mother God’s son.

        “This child must be born that the kingdom might come;
        Salvation for many, destruction for some:
        Both end and beginning, both message and sign;
        Both victor and victim, Both yours and divine.”

        No payment was promised, no promises made;
        No wedding was dated. No blue print displayed.
        Yet Mary, consenting to what none could guess
        Replied with conviction, “Tell God I say yes.”

—Phil Kniss, December 20, 2015

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