Sunday, September 15, 2019

Phil Kniss: It’s all connected … back to God

God's Glorious Creation
Gen. 1:1-5, 26-27, 31a

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I want to make sure you know this Sunday is the first of 11 weeks
that we are shaping our worship around creation.
And I want to make sure you understand why.

You might be thinking this is a narrow topical focus,
chosen specifically to focus on the urgency of climate change,
and the many other ways we are exploiting our environment . . .
to our own detriment
and the detriment of the most vulnerable of God’s creatures.

You might be thinking this is an effort to address
a current political hot issue,
but from a Christian point of view.

I’m not saying it would be wrong to spend 11 weeks on such a series,
but this is not that.
Yes, every week in this creation series we will ponder
biblical themes that have political implications,
as do most aspects of living in this world as followers of Jesus.

Never let me hear you say politics don’t belong in church.
Now . . . partisan political advocacy or campaigning
doesn’t belong.
But, you can’t say you are Christian,
and then say you won’t talk about things
that have political implications.
That’s a completely false dichotomy.
Choosing how we live together as a people,
how we treat each other as a society,
is a political question, and
a profoundly moral question
that the church needs to engage.
So we won’t shy away from moral questions,
just because they happen to also be political questions.

Having said that, this series is, theologically-speaking,
perhaps the most broad and expansive and integrated worship series
we have done in a very long time.
It touches the most important biblical themes
about understanding the nature and work of God
and our place in the world,
and what it means to be human,
and how to live in community with integrity.

I can understand how you might want to call it
a series on creation care.
If you do, I will lovingly correct you.

This worship series will focus on creation itself and the Creator,
and on the worship of God which creation engages in,
and how we live in faithful relationship
with the Creator and Creation.
So yes, of course, we will be talking a great deal
about caring for creation.
But every time we do, it will be deeply grounded
in our love for God, and God’s love for us and all creation.

There are many different motivations to care for this good earth.
Good (but different) people have good (but different) reasons
to care about our world.
We can and do gladly partner
with anyone who cares about our physical environment,
no matter their motivation.
But our motivation, to be perfectly clear,
is that God made it all,
God loves it all,
and God wants us to love it like God does.

So in this opening service for the series,
on “God’s glorious creation,”
I want us to embrace in a new and deeper way this idea
that the purpose of creation is to glorify God.

As an Anabaptist Mennonite people, generally,
we are known for our practical discipleship,
for trying to behave in ways consistent with the way of Jesus.
We are action-oriented.
All good. I don’t dismiss that.

But we might have a growing edge,
when it comes to the emotionality and aesthetics of worship.
We don’t spend an inordinate amount of time
talking about the majesty and glory of God.
Our worship spaces, historically, have been simple and spare.
It’s the people gathered inside that are important,
not our house of worship.
And we typically give a prominent place in worship
to the words we speak,
more than the beauty we embody or create around us.

So, on this theme of grasping creation’s call to give glory to God,
maybe we need to look outside our tradition for inspiration.

So I turn to one of the traditions best known
for emphasizing beauty and glory in worship—
the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
I am going to quote from a Russian Orthodox Archbishop,
known as the Metropolitan Tryphon,
who lived over 100 years ago,
and wrote these words of sublime worship,
inspired by God’s creation.

So just sit back, maybe close your eyes,
and bask in the images these old words may evoke.

How glorious you are in the triumph of the seasons!
Every creature awakes to new life
and joyfully sings your praises with a thousand tongues:
you are the source of life,
the conqueror of death.
By the light of the moon nightingales sing;
the plains and the woods put on their wedding garments,
white as snow.
Glory to you for bringing from the darkness of the earth
an endless variety of colors, tastes, and scents.
Glory to you for the warmth and tenderness
of the world of nature.
Glory to you for surrounding us
with tens of thousands of your works.
Glory to you for the depth of your wisdom:
the whole world is a living sign of it.
Glory to you;
on our knees we kiss the traces of your unseen hand.
Glory to you for setting before us
the dazzling light of your eternal beauty.
Glory to you for the hope
of the imperishable splendor of immortality.
Glory to you, O Holy God, from age to age.  Amen.

I trust those words spoke to something deep in you.
Maybe you thought, “that’s a little over the top.”
And if so, I hope you will change your mind
over the course of these next 11 weeks.
The most important work of creation is to give glory to God.
Creation’s very purpose is the praise of God the Creator.

You may wonder why.
Why does God want praise?
I often hear that question asked.
Sometimes with a pretty deep skepticism about the call to praise.
Questioning God’s apparent self-obsession.
But when we are dismissive of God’s command to praise God,
it says a lot more about ourselves than about God.

For some reason, we like to attribute to God,
our own very human emotional insecurities.
Which is, to be frank, short-sighted and silly on our part.
God is not an emotionally insecure heavenly being
who needs to have our constant praise,
in order to feel loved and validated.

No, we praise God as the Creator of the Universe,
because God, by the moving of the Spirit
and in collaboration with the Eternal Christ,
breathed this universe into existence,
out of God’s own deep and boundless love.

This is the biblical story: God, before the beginning of time,
was full of love, but had nowhere to direct it.
God needed a world, God needed creatures and creation
to be the recipients of God’s abundant and unconditional love,
so that they might return that love to God.

So God gave Creation one primary vocation—
to praise and glorify the Creator.
Not for God’s vainglory,
but for the love of all things!
If God created the world out of love, for love,
then when creation returns love to God,
it completes the circle.
It makes perfect God’s creative purpose.
It enacts the shalom God had in mind.

The praise of God by creation
is the cosmic intention of God, fully realized.
The praise of God by creation
is love and beauty and shalom
in a dynamic relationship with each other,
completing the divine electrical circuit.

Just like an electrical cord with a switch,
attached to a light bulb.
When the circuit is broken, when the switch is open,
there is darkness.
But when the switch makes contact, the circuit is whole.
There is light.
There is shalom.

Wherever creation praises God, there is a sign of shalom.
Wherever creation fails to praise and glorify its creator,
there is absence of shalom.

That is why we, who worship God in Christ, care for creation.
Not because we are moralistic do-gooders,
who think we can save the world single-handedly.
No, but since we love God,
we want to see God’s shalom vision fulfilled,
and we want to see every part of Creation
singing its God-given song of praise,
so it can fulfill the purpose for which God created it.

And of all the living and non-living things in creation
that are called to praise God—
mountains displaying God’s greatness,
and trees clapping their hands—
we are the chief praise-givers.
We are the ones who are able,
with thought and intention and hearts full of love,
to pour out our praise in word and deed
and in acts of creativity and beauty-making.
God loves it when we do that—
not because God feels validated,
but because we then live out our created intention.
We embody the love of God we were created to embody.

So it’s all connected . . . back to God.
Everything in creation is connected.
Yes, our care for creation has practical consequences.
It will help us live on this earth longer, and in better health.
But our care for creation is more than utilitarian.

Our care for the earth connects us to God.
Our care for the earth
enables creation to do its work unhindered.
That mountain you see out our east windows—
that was formed to glorify God.
Same for those glorious mountains to the west of us,
the Alleghenies.
When many of those mountaintops,
in recent decades,
had the tops blown off by dynamite and bulldozers,
in order to extract coal to run our powerplants
to support our rampant consumerism,
that was a sin against God.
Mountaintop removal strips the mountain
of its ability to praise the majesty of the Creator.
Clear-cutting wide swaths of forest land
to take a few valuable trees
destroys the capacity of that forest
to live out its purpose of praising God.

I’m not saying every time we take something living from the earth,
we sin.
Careful and respectful and reasonable
harvesting of trees and other living things
is not a bad thing.
Our lives can be enriched by using carefully-selected wood
in well-constructed homes and furniture,
and by consuming protein from animals
that we obtain with care, and with gratitude.

Cutting down trees and killing animals
can and must be done in a way
that respects them as living things
that were created by God for God’s glory,
not for our selfish pleasure or short-sighted gain.

Michaela Mast spent the last year or more working on a podcast project
connected with  Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions,
a joint project of EMU
and Goshen College and Mennonite Central Committee.
She and her colleagues traveled all over the country
interviewing all kinds of people.
You’ll hear more about that,
because we soon hope to have a short-term elective
during our Faith Formation hour focused on that.
But right now, I want to play you a 45-second sound clip
that Michaela recorded while interviewing Randy Green,
a pastor in Elkhorn, West Virginia.
He makes the point better than I can,
about the way we harvest resources. Just listen.
"I don’t mind `em logging, that’s, that’s the first thing. I’m not a tree-hugger . . . The problem is not logging, the problem is the way greedy people do it. If you want a tree 50 yards away, they took a bulldozer and pushed a road out and push all these other trees over, and they cut it down and get it, but you pushed over 50 more to get to it. And they leave `em laying. There was a place up here, that was a stand of river birch, and they cut every tree in the whole stand. Know how many of them they took? Nothing. Nothing. Some of those birch two foot in diameter. And they cut `em down, and left `em laying. I mean, that’s just, that’s not logging, that’s stupidity."

When we start thinking about the resources of creation
as objects for our consumption or domination,
we badly misunderstand God and scripture.
We need to go back and re-read the foundational scriptures,
like the ones we read this morning.
When God put human beings in charge of creation,
we were not being given permission to exploit it for our gain.
We were granted a trusteeship.
We were assigned a task by God—
God said, “Care for it with the same love and delight
that I showed in creating it.”

When God said in Genesis 1
that we humans were created in God’s own image,
I think we can assume we were meant to reflect that image,
to love what God loves,
to find delight in the things that delight God!
It is not anyone’s moralism or shaming or guilt-mongering
that will change the trajectory of our relationship with creation.
It will be learning to love.
It will be getting our theology right
about who God is and who we are,
and how much God loves us and the world we live in,
and how deeply God wants us to live into our created purpose.

If we can start loving and worshiping God rightly,
start giving God glory where glory is due,
and stop hindering creation’s ability to praise God,
then we might have a chance to see things set right again.

The psalmist says, “Let all creation praise the Lord.”
“Let it!”
Think about it!
That command is for us. “Let it!”
Get out of the way of creation.
Stop hindering it.
God’s glorious creation is intended to give glory to God.
Our job is to let it do what God intended it to do.

—Phil Kniss, September 15, 2019

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Sunday, September 8, 2019

Andrew & Karen Suderman: Loving Thy Neighborhood (thoughts and guided reflections)

Church Retreat: Love Thy Neighborhood
Luke 14:1-23

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This "sermon" is part of a more interactive event during our Sunday morning worship at our church retreat on Sept. 8, 2019. Andrew and Karen Suderman were our weekend resource people, and this Sunday morning portion of their time with us built on their Saturday morning session. However, what they shared on Sunday morning was significant and can also stand on its own. Enjoy! and be challenged!

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Sunday, September 1, 2019

Phil Kniss: With steady hearts

Labors of Love
Psalms 112; John 6:25-34; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

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That psalm we read a few minutes ago sounded pretty confident.
“Happy are those who fear the Lord . . .
They are not afraid of evil tidings;
their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord.
Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid.”

Steady? Our hearts are shaken.
We are afraid of evil tidings,
and there are evil tidings aplenty.
Just this week . . . the battle over Brexit blowing up in Britain,
nuclear troubles in North Korea and Iran,
rainforests ablaze in the Amazon,
U.S. and China trying to out-tariff each other,
hurricane bearing down on the east coast,
violent clashes in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Europe,
meanwhile, the meltdown of American politics
that gets more shameful and cringe-worthy every day,
and emboldens angry people who hate
and are heavily-armed.
It’s enough to make steady hearts quiver.

It’s enough to.
But it doesn’t have to if we believe the psalmist—
“Happy are those who fear the Lord.”

We people of the Book,
who put our trust in God the Creator,
are encouraged, urged, even commanded,
to stand firm, stay focused, to
“rise in the darkness as a light for the upright.”

To quote more of that psalm,
They who put their confidence in the Lord
“are gracious, merciful, and righteous.”
They embody the justice of God in their daily lives.
They “deal generously and lend . . .
conduct their affairs with justice.”
They “distribute their resources freely, they give to the poor . . .
The wicked see it and are angry;
they gnash their teeth and melt away;
the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.”

While the world around us is shaken to its foundation,
and others are spiraling downward into darkness,
we who trust God are rising up, as a burning candle.
Or . . . so says the psalmist.

But who would like to claim
that is actually happening these days?
Who would say that in our current cultural context,
the church is widely regarded by the public,
as a light in the darkness,
as a people who exude kindness and compassion for all people,
especially the most vulnerable and marginalized?
Who would say the culture sees in us, people of faith,
a shining example of how to live above the fray,
of how to live in hope and joy and lightness of being,
in these mean-spirited, dark, heavy, and polarized times?

No, if you listen to the word on the street,
if you pay attention to the portrayal of Christians
in the news or entertainment media,
or if you read the polling data,
you will see that a different kind of reputation precedes us.

We might want to lay the blame at the feet of white evangelicals,
say it’s their fault Christians have a bad rap,
what with their hard-right politics,
their strong anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-gay voices.
We might be tempted to wag our fingers
at several prominent white leaders of Christian institutions,
and say they are giving us all a bad name.

But who among us would say that, as a whole,
the rest of the Christian world has sounded a clarion call
of peace in the middle of the storm,
of hope in the deep darkness,
of joy in a time of strife,
of reasoned conversation amid all the shouting?
And who would say that the rest of us Christians
have been humble about our own failings—
abuse of power,
sexual abuse?
Who would say most churches readily repent
when these sins are brought to light,
instead of denying, deflecting, and covering up.

Sisters and brothers,
we Christians are in the world, and often, of it.
So let’s all exhibit some humility and honesty—
character traits that are in short supply these days.

But now . . . what does this have to do with Labor Day?
Don’t we usually take this Labor Day Sunday service,
and celebrate our work?
and bless each other in our vocation?
Why this focus on the public reputation of Christians?

A couple reasons.

First, let’s recall why Labor Day even exists.
We know it’s not a day in the church calendar.
It’s a national holiday brought about in the late 1880s
to call attention to the plight of the American worker.
At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S.,
as many people moved from farming into manufacturing,
many workers had 12-hour days and seven-day weeks,
just to make a basic living.
Children as young as 5 or 6—
despite some state laws against it—
worked in mills, factories, and mines across the country,
earning a fraction of adult wages.
The poorest workers, especially recent immigrants,
suffered the most,
facing extremely unsafe working conditions—
such as lack of fresh air, sanitary facilities, and rest-breaks.

So labor unions grew more prominent and vocal,
protesting poor conditions
and compelling employers to renegotiate hours and pay.

A lot has changed in the last 130 years.
Public opinion of labor unions has shifted.
There’s a more business-friendly social climate.
Thankfully, workplaces are generally safer.
But we should never forget the justice-driven origin of this day.
Labor Day was not a holiday to celebrate the end of summer,
and wax nostalgic about our vocational callings
that have us mostly sitting at desks in front of computers.
Labor Day came about
in a time of great political unrest and turmoil in our land
because people of faith and compassion
saw the poor and the immigrant
getting squashed by the rich and powerful.
Sound vaguely familiar?
Yes, I believe it’s right for those of us in the upper tier
economically and socially—
and that’s most of us,
when we compare ourselves globally—
it’s right to be humble and compassionate,
and ponder the plight of those today
who object to mistreatment—
immigrants at our borders,
refugees and asylum-seekers,
religious minorities,
racial-ethnic minorities,
sexual minorities,
the working poor who cannot afford health-care,
those whose bodies and souls are being trafficked,
and others being pushed out and away
from the safe-zone we have created around us.

So on Labor Day,
let us clearly, vocally, and with compassion,
stand with those who are being stood against,
in the name of God our Creator and Jesus our Redeemer,
who has bestowed the divine image on them all, and
who has poured out unconditional love on them all.
And let us do that, while opening declaring, with the psalmist,
that our worship of God in Christ is our prime motivator.
Then perhaps, other loud voices in our Christian family
will not be the only voices heard and quoted.

Another reason to use Labor Day
to reclaim our work of representing God’s justice and compassion,
is because that work is the core of our identity
as the people of God.

We cannot call ourselves God’s people,
and take a pass on representing God’s values
to the world around us.
If true evangelical faith consisted only
of choosing the right doctrinal formula to sign on to,
or choosing the right group to be loyal to,
or being on the right side of every theological argument,
then I might not be overly worried about the state of affairs
in the Christian world.
I might just say, okay, go at it!
And may the best doctrine win!

But that’s not the definition of evangelical faith.
As Menno Simons famously said, in part,
“True evangelical faith . . . cannot lie dormant,
but spreads itself out
in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love;
it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul;
it clothes the naked;
it feeds the hungry;
it comforts the sorrowful;
it shelters the destitute;
it aids and consoles the sad.”

Crushing the competition is not the vocation of Christians.
We are not called to win the most theological arguments,
or get the most members in the door,
or gain the most influence in the halls of power.

We are called to represent God to the world—
to reflect God’s love, and goodness, and holiness, and justice.
To use N.T. Wright’s analogy,
we are to hold an angled mirror to the world,
so that when the world looks at us,
they see God’s character;
they get a glimpse of the divine image.
The angled mirror reflects the glory of the living God
to all humanity and creation,
and it reflects back to God the worship and praise of God,
from all humanity and creation.
That is our vocation.
That is our work.
That is our labor, born out of our love for God and others.

That is what the apostle Paul referred to
in his letter to the church of the Thessalonians,
which we heard a few minutes ago.
Paul gave thanks to God for the Thessalonians’
“labor of love and steadfastness of hope”
in the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the face of severe persecution,
when times were hard,
they did not resort to attacking their persecutors
or back-stabbing each other.
They loved God and others so well
that the message of the Gospel was being proclaimed
not in word only,
but in their lives.
To the point that Paul said,
their character and kindness was widely known.
And “we have no need to speak about it.”

And our Gospel reading today came from John 6,
right after the miraculous feeding of 5,000 with fish and bread.
The crowd catches up to Jesus on the other side of the lake,
and Jesus warns them soberly.
“You followed me over here just because of the bread.
You ate your fill and wanted more.
Don’t be like that.
Don’t work for food that spoils.
Do the work of God that will feed you for eternity.”
“What is that work?” they asked him.
“It is to put your trust in the one God has sent.”
In other words, “Follow me.
Do as I do.
Along with me, reflect the character and image of God.”

That is the vocation of everyone of us here
who call ourselves followers of Jesus.
So we have a ritual of response that includes all of you
on this Labor Day.
Not just those who are currently in the workforce.
We are all called to offer our labors of love,
to the project that God is all about—
the healing, saving, reconciling of humanity and creation.
We each have different gifts to offer,
` and each one matters.
Together, they will build a new world,
when placed in God’s hands.

Each of you was given a stone as you arrived for worship today.
That represents your labor of love,
your capacity to contribute something, however small,
to God’s shalom project.

If you are willing to publicly offer it to God’s work,
come to the front and lay it on one of these two platters
on the front table.
Children, young people, adults of all ages.
Everyone has something that contributes to the whole.
You don’t have to come up in any order; come as you feel led.
There won’t be ushers directing the traffic flow.
But it might help things if you walk like you drive,
always walk on the right side of the aisle,
so traffic moving in the opposite direction has a clear path.
If you need to be cautious walking in a crowd,
just come up after the service and place your stone.

While this is happening, there will be music playing,
and at the conclusion, we will move right into singing.
Follow along in your bulletin.

When we finish there will be a couple nice stone monuments up here.
It represents our collective willingness
to give to God and to God’s project
our labors of love.
May God give us strength.

—Phil Kniss, September 1, 2019

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