Sunday, April 11, 2021

Mike Sherrill: Let Jesus be seen

New chapter, ancient story, same thread
"The Road to Emmaus"

Luke 24:13-35


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On April 11, 2021, Mike Sherrill, Executive Director of Mennonite Mission Network, preaches at a Park View Mennonite Church Sunday morning service on the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to two disciples on the Emmaus road from the Gospel of Luke.

Mike Sherrill is the recently appointed (Aug 2020) Executive Director of Mennonite Mission Network, our denominational mission agency. He is a graduate of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and holds a PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary. He and his family spent a total of 20 years in church and mission work in Japan, working in research, in education and youth ministry among the Hokkaido Conference of Mennonite Churches, and later as a professor and chaplain at Aoyama Gakuin University in central Tokyo. He returned to the US in 2017 to be Asia Director at MMN, and has now moved into the Executive Director role.


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Sunday, April 4, 2021

Phil Kniss: Are we there yet?

God’s Great Re-Weaving
Luke 24:1-12

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Good morning, all you beautiful . . . real . . . people!
Even with masks covering your faces,
you look a lot better to me than when I look at you through
a little camera lens on the back wall of the sanctuary.
Isn’t it wonderful to be together, in the flesh?
And to be here in the sunshine, and rising temperatures,
is like icing on the cake,
especially after those snow squalls we had on Thursday.
A blessed Easter Sunday to everyone of you!

You know, 
it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from,
we all share something in common today.
We are ready for a change.
We are poised for entering a new season.
Spring? Bring it on!
A new baseball season? Yes, we’re ready.
A season of more direct human connections?
Definitely yes.
And a season of living with hope for the future?
Yes, we are absolutely ready for that.

The question is . . . “Are we there yet?”
Yes, that age-old question that all of us started asking,
as soon as we were old enough to talk,
and go on road trips with our parents.
“Are we there yet?”
And we usually asked it with a whine.
In fact, let’s all ask it together 
in as whiny a voice as you can muster—
Ready? 1-2-3 . . . “Are we there yet?”

See, we’ve been apart so long,
but we haven’t forgotten how to annoy each other.
But seriously, whether we realize it or not,
we, collectively, as a culture, as a society,
are whining just about like that right now.
Everyone has had enough of sitting in the back seat,
on this road trip called COVID,
buckled in,
trapped,
unable to escape.
Actually, some people are trying to get out of the car,
while it’s still moving, if you know what I mean.

But it’s not just COVID we are weary of.
So much collective grief we carry.
We are deeply troubled by the recent uptick in violence—
the deadly insurrection and attack on our capital,
the mass shootings that have been happening 
at an astonishing rate—more than one a week recently.
We are pained by the continuing ugliness
we human beings are capable of showing to each other—
the random attacks on Asian-Americans,
just because of their ethnicity,
the systemic ways that white supremacy still
impacts and shapes our lives every single day,
and some of us still deny that it’s real.

And we should all take note,
that Easter Sunday in 2021 falls on the 53rd anniversary
of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr,
and comes while the nation watches a police officer on trial
for the murder of another black man, George Floyd.

So it should be obvious.
The social ills that weary us, 
that weigh us down on our journey,
are not about to disappear tomorrow—
COVID, white supremacy, abuse of power, gun violence,
political gridlock, the widening gap between rich and poor,
I could list many more.
But there is no need.
We carry this weight in our minds, our spirits, our bodies.
We feel it.

And that’s all on top of the very deep and personal losses,
that many in this community carry right now.
This has been an awful season of grief for this community,
and this congregation.
You all know it.
It just occurred to me the other day,
that so far in 2021,
I have preached as many funeral sermons at Park View,
as I have Sunday morning sermons.

So much loss . . . 
it’s only natural that we wonder, and ask the driver,
“Are we there yet?”
Is this tortuous season over?
Are we about to enter something completely new?
_____________________

Easter prompts this question.  Every.  Year.
In the Christian calendar 
Easter follows a 40-day season of shadows.
Whether or not we fast during Lent,
or give up something we enjoy,
we are all thrust into a deeper awareness of our frailty,
our sin, our weakness,
we come to terms with life in the wilderness.
So on Easter Sunday,
the biblical narrative reaches a joyful climax—
sin and death lost the battle!
Light and life and love have overcome 
everything that works against them.

So what does that really mean 
for the world we walk into tomorrow?
Does this really mark the end of the shadow season?
Are we really there yet?

Well, yes . . . and no.
Yes, we have reason to hope.
The empty tomb is a sign—a resounding sign—
that death does not have the last word.
Easter almost sounds like the end of the book.
However, it’s not.
It’s a pivot point in the biblical narrative.

The story continues,
wherein the followers of Jesus,
get in just as much trouble as Jesus did.
Just as much persecution and suffering and resistance
by all the powers that be.
See, resurrection constitutes a threat to the powers.
So expect resistance.

Powers of evil maintain their grip,
with the threat of violence and death.
So the notion of a God who might transform 
death into life
undermines their whole way of doing business.
So they push back . . . hard.
The agony of the journey of Jesus to the cross,
matches the agony of the journey of those who follow him.

This is not a new idea, folks.
The Christian tradition has always known this,
and even organized the church year around it.
In the biblical narrative, and in the Christian calendar,
Easter is not the end, but the pivot point.
Did you know that one-fourth of our whole calendar,
is oriented toward this day?
There is a forty-day period that precedes it—Lent.
And there is a fifty-day period that follows it,
lasting until Pentecost.
3 out of 12 months we spend either looking forward to today,
or looking back and pondering the implications of it for life in a world that continues to be steeped in 
grief, chaos, violence, evil, and treachery of all kinds.

The hope of Easter lies not in some fairy tale wish
that we are going to be rescued from all our suffering,
and not have to walk where Jesus walked.
No, the hope of Easter lies 
in knowing where the story is headed.
The early Christians, 
and every suffering Christian community that followed,
including our own ancestors the Anabaptists, 
16 centuries later,
all found hope in the resurrected Jesus,
because it gave meaning to their suffering.
They knew it was true, like the hymn says,
that God is working God’s purpose out,
as year succeeds to year . . . 
and the time is coming,
when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.
That’s where the story is heading.

When Easter people suffer,
it is hard, it is agonizing, it can be excruciating,
but the suffering is not hope-less suffering.
The apostle Paul wrote to the church in 1 Thess 4,
encouraging them that they do not grieve
as others do who have no hope.
Those are the words 
that John Martin wanted to be read at his graveside,
which is exactly what I did a week ago yesterday.

Because of this Easter day,
when suffering comes,
there are several truths that we can count on,
on which we can build a hope-filled foundation for life.

One truth is 
that God does not abandon us in our suffering,
even when we feel alone.
When we suffer, God sees. God knows. 
God moves toward us in love. Always.
Another truth is that death does not 
stop the forward movement 
of God’s love and life and light.

There is a trajectory 
that still charts the path of life in this world.
God’s purposes are to save, to transform, 
to redeem, to make whole.
The Hebrew word for all that is Shalom.
God is busy building shalom.
And we are invited to be part of that.

We have every reason to rejoice today,
although more of the same suffering lies ahead.
Because of Easter, we rejoice
that no matter what detours and roadblocks lie ahead,
the end point of our journey is not in doubt.
Our loving—and very patient—God 
turns around to us in the back seat and reassures us.
No, we’re not there yet. But we will get there, together.
_____________________

In a way, that’s the message we receive
anytime we come to the Lord’s Table, in communion.
The elements of the table—
the bread and cup . . . the body and blood—
are tangible reminders of how costly this journey can be.
But resurrection turned the story of suffering on its head.
When we partake, when we ingest these elements,
we are claiming, by faith,
that just as suffering is part of us,
so the Lord Jesus Christ, is part of us.
We ingest hope, when we ingest the risen Christ.
We become resurrection people,
who don’t stop grieving,
but we don’t grieve as those who have no hope.
We are people of the empty tomb.
Hallelujah!

—Phil Kniss, April 4, 2021

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Sunday, March 28, 2021

Daryl Byler: The things that make for peace

Palm Sunday: What kind of Savior?
Text: Luke 19:29-44

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During our years in the Middle East, Cindy and I twice attended the Palm Sunday procession from Bethany to Jerusalem.  It is a festive occasion. Christians from around the world retrace the route that Jesus took some 2,000 years ago – each pilgrim waving palm branches and singing hymns in their language.
Palestinian Christians are the local hosts and lead the procession. Many Palestinian Christians -- like Bshara Awad, who Pastor Phil interviewed the Sunday before Christmas -- live in Bethlehem, only six miles from Jerusalem. But they must get permits from the Israeli government to travel to Jerusalem. Those who can get permits walk with others from their village. Each village carries a banner saying how close their town is to Jerusalem – and yet so hard to reach.
The walk from Bethany to Jerusalem is about two miles – the same as walking from one end of College Avenue to the other. The crowd walks up the backside of the Mount of Olives, along the ridge, then down a path through the Garden of Gethsemane and up into Jerusalem. 
The story in Luke’s gospel begins with Jesus sending several disciples ahead to secure a colt. Matthew’s gospel says the disciples secured both a donkey and a colt for Jesus to ride.  But the point is this: It was a humble mount – not one typically associated with a powerful leader, certainly not a king.
I have witnessed many Presidential motorcades in Washington, DC. They are anything but humble. 
• First comes a posse of police motorcycles followed by police cars. Their job is to clear the path. 
• Then comes a phalanx of black Suburban’s filled with Secret Service agents surrounding two identical limousines -- one of which carries the President. 
• Then come more cars carrying White House staff and members of the press. Then comes a large communications van. 
• Next comes an ambulance with medical staff.
• And, finally, more police vehicles.  
Presidential motorcades are a far cry from the Palm Sunday procession. Jesus had no security detail. He rode a small colt through the middle of a shouting crowd – knowing that he was entering the city where he would be condemned to die.
While the crowds knew that Jesus was someone special, they were divided about his true identity. Some thought he was a prophet from Nazareth. Others believed he was a king. But they were united in recognizing that Jesus had come in the name of the Lord.  
In Luke’s account: “The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.”
This was too much for the religious leaders. They rebuked Jesus for not silencing the crowd. But Jesus would have none of it. “I tell you,” he responded, “if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Jesus knew that he was riding toward his death. But he was not focused on himself. As he descended the ridge from the Mount of Olives, he paused and wept over the city of Jerusalem.
“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”
So, what are the things that make for peace? 
God’s vision has always been for peace, for shalom – for the thriving of all people – for right relationships, health, and well-being. The prophet Micah summed up the essentials for shalom in this way: “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
The dominant narrative on Capitol Hill, where I served as Director of MCC’s Washington Office for 13 years, is that peace and security are the fruit of military might. Oh, some believe that diplomacy and development are also important. But the greatest of these is defense – military power. Indeed, our nation spends more than the next ten countries combined on national defense. 
I made many congressional visits with the late Marian Franz – former executive director of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund. Marian, better than most, melded the pastoral and prophetic in her advocacy. She showed genuine concern for legislators, but she was not soft when advocating for justice and peace.
Every session of Congress, the late John Lewis would introduce the Peace Tax Fund bill. The bill would allow conscientious objectors to war to designate their tax dollars only to nonviolent government functions.
Hill staffers sometimes told us that Mennonites were freeloaders who want the security of living in a nation with dominant military power --without paying for or participating in it.  
We responded that Mennonites believe in preventative defense. We mentioned the hundreds of MCC workers worldwide who contribute to human security by promoting relief, development, and peacebuilding projects that prevent conflicts from escalating into war.  And that Mennonites do this defense work at no charge to U.S. taxpayers.
So, what are the things that make for peace? To Micah’s list – do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly -- I would add “telling the truth.” Let me touch quickly on each of these.  Jesus modeled all four in his life – never more compellingly than during the Holy Week we are entering. 

1. Tell the trut
Peace begins by telling the truth. Telling the truth about harms caused, injustices committed, and relationships broken. Truth-telling is the first step of repentance. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus declared, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The good news begins with repentance. And repentance begins with telling the truth.
In 2004 – after things started unraveling badly in Iraq – then MCC Iraq worker Peter Dula came to Washington, and I took him to the State Department for a meeting. The Iraqi desk officer asked Peter a shocking question: “Peter, “What do we need to do to convince Iraqis that the United States may be stupid but that we are not mean-spirited?” Peter paused, then gave a great response: “I suppose we could start by posting billboards all over Iraq, saying, ‘We’re sorry, we blew it!’”
Apologies are rare in the political world. Sadly, like child’s play, politics has become a land of make-believe – spinning narratives that have little connection with truth and reality. 
But I am encouraged by some of the recent national efforts at truth-telling. They are planting seeds of peace: 
• The opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004 and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. 
• The increasing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement in more recent years. 
These seeds of peace tell a more truthful story about our nation’s history with dispossession, enslavement, and racism. 
We cannot build peace upon a foundation of falsehoods.  

2. Do Justice
It is not enough to simply tell the truth. We need to act on that truth. Jesus criticized the religious leaders for tithing down to the last sprig of mint while neglecting justice and God’s love. (Luke 11.42)
In 2004, five Iraqis attended the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at EMU. During this time, they came to Washington, where I set up visits on Capitol Hill. The most memorable visit was with Rep. Jim Leach – a Member of Congress from Iowa and the only Republican to vote against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.  Rep. Leach apologized for the damage that the United States had caused to their country, and he asked them, “What next steps are needed in light of the damage caused?” He spent 45 minutes listening to their responses. It was a sacred conversation. 
Truth-telling acknowledges the harm that has been done.  Justice seeks to heal the damage. Healing justice. Justice that restores.
Peace cannot grow where injustice abounds.

3. Love kindness  
The essence of Jesus’ ministry was empathy – healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching those who had lost their way.
We cannot build peace on a foundation of indifference and coldness.
The events of January 6th at the U.S. Capitol are a stark reminder of the deep divisions in our country. Studies from the Pew Research Center indicate that partisan gaps in the United States have grown dramatically over the past twenty years. Fund for Peace is an independent non-governmental organization that focuses on conflict early warning. They produce an annual Fragile States Index. While many states are improving, the U.S. is 12th on the list of “most worsened” countries over the past decade.
What an incredible opportunity for the church to model kindness that connects with the humanity in those with whom we sharply disagree.

4. Walk humbly with God
I always liked visiting the office of the late Rep. Andy Jacobs, Jr. – a representative from Indiana and a supporter of the Peace Tax Fund. Most Congress members plaster their office walls with pictures of themselves with the President and foreign leaders and celebrities. Andy covered his office walls with pictures of himself with children. 
What an important reminder to walk humbly, paying attention to the small ones, the vulnerable ones.
As we enter this Holy Week, are we paying attention to the things that make for peace -- in our relationships and our national politics? Or would Jesus still pause on the Palm Sunday to weep?
Following the example of Jesus, may we renew our commitment, to tell the truth, do justice, love kindness, and walk – or perhaps more appropriately on Palm Sunday -- ride humbly with God.


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Sunday, March 14, 2021

Phil Kniss: What to do at the edge of a great yawning chasm

Lent 4 - How far does love reach?
Luke 16:19-31


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Today’s Gospel story is about a chasm.
Several chasms, actually.
Great, wide, yawning chasms
that separate those on one side
from those on the other.
And the perplexing question of this story is,
“How far does love reach?”

A physical chasm, of course, means a break or crack
in the earth, or some other physical surface.
But the Oxford English dictionary further defines it as,
a profound difference between people, viewpoints, feelings, etc.
And the primary example of that usage is,
“the chasm between rich and poor.”

So Jesus’ parable in Luke 16 is the quintessential use
of the word chasm.

And to call it a “yawning chasm”—a common term
I used in my sermon title,
is actually to be redundant.
The root word for yawn and chasm are the same.
A “yawning chasm” is saying it twice
to emphasize how wide this opening actually is.

And this story is obviously not about a particular rich man,
and a particular poor man, Lazarus.
It is a parable with multiple levels of meaning,
and universal implications.

So we are entirely justified in using our imaginations here,
and seeing where this story takes us.
_____________________

Where we could go wrong,
is to take the story too literally.
It’s not meant to be a description of the afterlife,
or even a glimpse of heaven and hell, per se.

Paradise and Hades are like characters in this story.
They create a context to weave a story and lesson
that has everything to do with our earthly lives here and now.

The scene is this yawning chasm.
On one side is the formerly rich man in Hades,
in torment, in agony,
suffering from the lack of everything,
even a drop of water to cool his tongue.
On the other side of the chasm is Father Abraham,
pictured embracing, with affection,
the formerly poor man Lazarus,
once oozing with sores, and malnourished,
now awash in abundance and love and comfort.

And this yawning chasm cannot be crossed or bridged.
It’s a chasm created, essentially, by the rich man,
during his life of luxury on the earth.
He is now simply reaping the predictable consequences,
of a lifetime of making and maintaining chasms on earth.

Did you catch Jesus’ brilliant description of the rich man’s earlier life?
He dressed in purple and fine linen.
He lived in luxury.
He ate from a sumptuous table.
Outside his gate, lying in the dust, was Lazarus,
who the man paid no attention to.
Likely, Lazarus went altogether unnoticed.
He was simply not part of the rich man’s world,
and the rich man chose to keep it that way.
The poor man’s dream, his longing,
was only to be able to reach some of the crumbs
that fell off  the rich man’s table.
But that did not happen,
by choice of those in power.

The chasm was created, reinforced, and kept in place
by those who decided this is the way the world is meant to be.

God has a different vision for the world.
God’s vision is justice, equity, a world of enough.
Where all are fed and clothed and sheltered,
and allowed to thrive,
allowed to develop into the full and flourishing life
for which God created them.

The point of this story, it seems to me,
is that the chasms of life on this earth
are ones that we can address.
There are ways to face them.
There are choices we have about how to live life
at the edge of a great, yawning chasm.
We have not yet become eternal victims of our own cruelty,
as the rich man did,
when the damage had already been done,
and could not be undone.

This is much easier said than done, of course.
Because the chasm is yawning.
It is too wide to cross with good intentions.
It cannot be bridged with greater effort,
running faster and jumping farther.
But just to name it a chasm, implies a possibility.
A chasm is created
when something that once was together,
has opened up for some reason.
The physical chasms on the surface of the earth
tell the story of a long ago togetherness.
You can trace the contours on one side of the chasm,
and go to the other side,
and trace the same contours in reverse.

It raises the question of whether
the one who once held it together,
might be able to bring it together again,
might be able to heal the rift.

So here is the task of the living—
to turn toward the Great Creator, and Great Reconciler,
and ask how we might join in the work.
To ask God, “Where are you going next?
And how can we go with you?”

God knows there are a sufficient number of rifts that need healing.
The gulf separating the rich from the poor is still with us.
In fact, not only still with us,
but the chasm is getting wider.
As is the chasm between oppressed and oppressors,
the elite and the masses,
royalty and commoners,
those with formal education and those without.
Many other chasms divide us—
politically, culturally, racially, theologically.
_____________________

This fanciful vision of Abraham and the tormented rich man,
having a conversation back and forth
between the two edges of the chasm
separating Hades and Paradise,
is maybe not as fanciful as it seems.

This is precisely the kind of dialogue
that we Jesus-followers are invited into now,
standing on our edge of the chasm.
The role of the community of disciples of Jesus
is to first notice the ones we are separated from.
The rich man probably could honestly say,
I never noticed Lazarus lying there in the dust outside my gate.
The very reason the rich man had a gate,
was so he wouldn’t have to notice people like Lazarus.
Gate preserve the status quo,
preserve social blindness.
I wonder what gates we have knowingly or unknowingly put up,
so that despite our best intentions,
despite our most noble and righteous commitments,
we need not notice, or ever take in,
the real lives of those on the other side of the chasm.

If we were truly intent on crossing the chasm,
we would not just keep re-stating our noble intentions,
as we so often do.
We would invite God to lead us to fresh encounters
with the ones standing on the other side of the chasm,
who may well be looking at us
with longing, or suspicion, or just confusion.

We stand at the edge of not one, but many,
great yawning chasms.

What to do?
We ask the great reconciler for help.
God, grant us the courage simply to notice—
to see those we are separated from.
God, give us the humility to name
the fences that protect us,
that reinforce our privileged position.
And God, instill in us a deeper desire for communion,
with those on the other side of our chasms.

Friends, it is now yours to discern
where this parable touches your lives.
It is yours to discover which chasms are keeping you
from the full and flourishing life you were created for.
And then to ask God for help.
Now, before the chasm becomes uncrossable.

Pray with me, will you, this simple prayer of confession,
found in your order of service, taken from Voices Together.

May the Love of God
     which overcomes all differences,
     which heals all wounds,
     which puts to flight all fears,
     which reconciles all who are separated,
be in us and among us
     now and always.
Amen.

—Phil Kniss, March 14, 2021

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Sunday, March 7, 2021

John Stoltzfus: A Welcome Home

Lent 3: Why not celebrate?
Luke 15

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The power of a good parable is that it can meet us wherever we are whether in first-century Palestine or in twenty-first-century Harrisonburg. 

Our trilogy of parables from today include one of the most beloved and familiar of stories--the prodigal son. All three parables refer to something or someone being lost and the jubilant, if not excessive, celebration that happens when they are found. Yet it is the last one that packs the most powerful emotional punch. 

We all can resonate with the yearning for a home where the welcome mat is always laid out for us. We all can inhabit the complicated love of familial relationships when love is spurned, or when forgiveness is called for not just once but many times over. 

Depending on what title you give this parable can alter the focus. Is it the “parable of the prodigal son” or the “parable of the two lost sons”? Or is it the “parable of the extravagant father”, or even the “parable of the prodigal father”? It could be, as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, the parable of the dysfunctional family!

But no matter the title assigned, this parable looms large as a cultural icon. It is like the velveteen rabbit that is well worn from being inhabited by so many prodigals. Perhaps the challenge for us is to slow down enough to let it sink in anew. To recall or recognize the prodigalness or the lostness within each of us. Where do these parables ring true for you today? 

As a young lad, I had my own story of being lost with pigs. My family farm had a menagerie of animals at any given time but to my dismay we never had pigs. For some reason I loved watching pigs muck around in the mud in all their messy piginess. Fortunately, one of our neighboring farms, also the Stoltzfus’, had pigs. It was about ¾ a mile away by way of our back lane. So one morning, I found myself wandering back that lane to sit on our neighbors pig pen fence to watch the pigs in all their piggy glory. It must have been enthralling because I stayed there through lunch and into the waning hours of the afternoon. By that time, my parents had started calling around the neighborhood to see if anyone had seen a lost boy. Unfortunately, these Stoltzfus’ were Amish and didn’t have a phone and didn’t get the message right away. Eventually I was found and brought back home to my parents' great relief. I remember my mother saying something to the effect that she was worried that they had lost me. And in my young mind I wanted to object that I wasn’t exactly lost...I knew where I was and I was right where I had wanted to be. Obviously, unlike the prodigal son I hadn’t come to my senses yet. 

I suspect that if you asked the Pharisees that day who were listening to Jesus’ strange parables of lost things they would be equally adamant that they were not lost. I wonder if we are sometimes lost and do not know it. Or maybe we think we are doing just fine meandering the roads and villages far from home. Or maybe we do feel lost and don’t know how to get back home. We have lost our way. Being lost comes in many different forms. Hello to feeling lost. 

And to all who feel lost or to those who feel locked in a room of fear Jesus says 'Hello,' welcoming us to a place of deep encounter with ourselves, our fear, our shame, and to discover the incarnate God who is never far from us no matter if we travel to the far side of sea. 

One way to tell these parables is to focus on the “lost” and the extent to which the farmer, the woman and father will go to seek and find the lost. The economy of God’s grace knows no limits! This is a good and necessary story to tell.

Yet, if we are to focus on the event that precipitated these stories (And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”), maybe we are invited to locate ourselves at a different place. We are the older sibling who stands outside the house watching through a window and grumbling while a great feast is thrown for the formerly lost.

Rembrandt’s famous painting of the prodigal’s return offers us an opportunity to find ourselves in the scene. 
On the left, the elderly father, clothed in a robe of red, and his younger son, in tattered clothes (maybe not unlike our rough frayed Lenten sack cloth) reunite in a tender embrace. On the right, a large figure towers over them, thought to be the older son. He too is clothed in rich red robes and he appears to clasp his hands in displeasure. His eyes mirror puzzlement if not disapproval and judgment as he looks down on the unfolding reconciliation,

Henry Nouwen in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son: A story of homecoming wrote this in contemplating this painting and reflecting on Rembrandt’s life story:
 
Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt's painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home

From looking at a variety of encounters Jesus had with others in Luke from the woman who anointed his feet to the woman who touched his cloak in the crowd it seems like he responded more generously to people who were aware of their own needs. To those who came with agendas and traps concealed as questions, Jesus would tell these stories that exposed their own complicity, hostility, and prejudice. 

What was it that made the religious leaders so angry and bitter about Jesus associating with sinners?. Were they really concerned about Jesus’ reputation as a prophet? Probably not. They were more concerned about what it would reveal about themselves; their own place in the halls of power deciding who was in and who was out; determining who was right and who was wrong. Jesus was inviting them to come to terms with their own needs, shadows and unforgiven corners of their lives. 

Yet, the religious leaders were caught in a web of power that defined belonging in terms of who was excluded. They were not as interested in examining their own complicity or need for grace and mercy. Jesus exposed their games of power by throwing wide open the doors of welcome to all those who came with open hearts of humility and need. 

When they grumbled that Jesus ate with sinners, Jesus took it up a notch. He told a story of a father who disgracefully showered love and mercy on a wayward son who was welcomed back into the fold. 

Poet Padraig O’Tuama reflects that “belonging creates and undoes us both.” Belonging can be the most wonderful of gifts giving us identity, comfort, friendship and manna for the journey of life. But on the shadow side, belonging can also lead to hostility, unexamined bias, rigid boundaries and projecting our own fears on others.

Jesus was inviting the religious leaders to see the prodigal as an opportunity for learning about the generosity of God that was already available to them if they would but receive it.  

We are transformed as we are welcomed into God’s beloved community and we are not left the same as we are invited to be reconciled to all the other wandering souls who also belong. 

As a church community we have an incredible responsibility of helping create belonging to all who seek a home; to all who hunger and thirst for goodness, to all you seek the tender embrace of the One who welcomes us home. 

Perhaps the unspoken invitation that Jesus poses to the listening crowd at the end of telling these parables is the theme for this Sunday--”Why not celebrate?” In communion, let us humbly and gratefully celebrate the lengths to which God has gone to welcome each of us home around the table reconciled with ourselves, with one another and with God.


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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Phil Kniss: Gotta blame somebody

Lent 2 - Who is to blame?
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

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This is the Gospel story we need right now.
In this long, suffering season,
when grief is piled upon grief,
when violence is on the rise,
when our leaders fail us,
when it seems nature itself is taking aim at us—
from global weather systems,
to a microscopic virus—
this is a Gospel word that speaks to something
we spend a lot of emotional energy on—blame.

Luke 13 gives us the burning question:
“Who is to blame, for the terrible things that happen in life?”
The suffering in Jesus’ day was also ratcheting up . . . and up.
And people wanted to know who to blame.

As Jesus continued his steady march toward Jerusalem
in the Gospel of Luke,
he kept getting peppered with questions.

The questioners in Luke 13 were sincere,
unlike last Sunday’s “expert in the law” who tried to trap Jesus.
Today some people come to Jesus with breaking news.
Yet another tragedy took place in the nation’s capital, Jerusalem.
We don’t get details,
but it seems there was targeted violence
against innocent religious pilgrims from Galilee,
perpetrated by Governor Pilate himself.

Jesus had been talking lately about God’s judgment,
so people were curious.
Was this tragedy an example of that judgment
you were talking about?
Was God punishing the Galileans?
Jesus replied with a flat “no!”
Then quickly added,
“But nevertheless. You still need to repent.”

And to strengthen his point, he gave another example.
Not of violence, but a terrible accident.
A large tower in Siloam fell, and crushed 18 people . . . to death.
Same deal, Jesus said.
Were they more guilty than those that escaped?
“No! . . . But . . . you still need to repent.”

And then he told a short story.
A landowner was hungry for figs,
but his fig tree wouldn’t bear any,
for three years running.
He told his gardener to cut it down.
It was wasting the soil.
But the gardener begged for patience.
Give it another year.
I’ll fertilize it well, work some manure into the soil.
If it still doesn’t bear fruit, okay.
Then, you cut it down.
In other words, don’t blame the tree,
and . . . if you want it gone next year, you hold the axe.
Notice how he gave the responsibility back to the landowner?
I wonder if Jesus is the gardener in this story,
always patient,
always looking for redemption,
always waiting for a fruitful season,
slow to blame and condemn.
_____________________

Two truths.
We live in a world that is not the way it should be.
The world is broken.
The world is full of deep and profound suffering.
And . . . we live in a world full of people missing the mark,
that is, sinners,
people rebelling against the good work of God.

So the question still hangs in the air.
What’s the connection between the two?
How are sin and suffering related?

Truth be told, people aren’t quick to blame suffering on sin today.
In the ancient world, the world of the Bible, they were.
If a man was blind, his parents sinned.
If a person was crushed by a tower,
there was some god somewhere getting even.

Today we don’t explain tragedy as God’s punishment.
And the words of Jesus here would support us in that.
No, Jesus said, victims of disaster, and violence, and illness,
are no worse sinners
than those who happily escape that fate.
Jesus was pushing back against the world view of his community.

And since that is not our world view,
we might think we’re off the hook here.

But is something deeper going on here,
rooted in human nature,
that we also need to own up to.
Are we not also blamers?
Blamers, because we are controllers.
The attempt to explain, and point fingers at a cause,
is really an effort to control.
If we know why something happened,
or who caused it,
we’re in a better position to control our environment,
and get a better outcome.
Sounds innocent enough.

But there is a more insidious shadow side.
If we keep the finger always pointing away from us,
we can avoid our own discomfort, or shame,
or the cost of repentance and reparation.
If we consistently point our fingers at an evil out there . . .
we don’t have to come to terms with the evil in here.

When I point at easy targets—
the armed and violent white supremacists and haters,
then I don’t have to name and confess
the white supremacist leanings that reside in me
(and yes, they do).
I may get righteously angry at COVID minimizers,
who put their own freedom and convenience
above the welfare of others
(and yes, righteous anger is certainly justified here).
But I am also at risk of getting caught in a vortex of blame,
and never having to face my own independent streak,
or repent of the times I put my own agenda first.

And I can certainly be vocal and vehement in my opposition
to the hateful rhetoric of a conservative talk-radio host,
without becoming gleeful at his death,
or suggesting he got his just deserts.
The latter keeps me from being honest
about my own prejudice or vanity.

Whenever I say someone died because God was judging them,
I am skirting around the hard work of self-examination.

That’s exactly what Jesus was getting at here,
when he answered their questions, with “No, but . . .”
They wanted to fix blame, maintain their innocence.
They wanted to build a hedge around themselves.
They wanted to believe they were in control.
Jesus said, “You all need to repent.
You need to turn around.
You need to live in the world differently.”
_____________________

Jesus is not saying tragedy is punishment.

If Jesus were standing among us now,
and we asked him who is to blame—
for the ones who die of COVID-19,
or who are victims of killer storms,
or political or racial violence,
or tragic highway accidents,
or random ravaging illnesses
that take people in their prime of life . . .
who is to blame for all this, Jesus?
Are they being punished?
Did God pull the trigger?
I think Jesus’ response would be the same.
“No . . . but . . .”

No . . . these are no worse sinners
than those who come out unscathed.

But . . . we still live in a world steeped in sin,
and sin has consequences.
Not necessarily tit for tat on a micro level,
but on a broader scale, in God’s cosmic economy,
sin does, in fact, result in suffering.
In Paul’s words from Romans, “the wages of sin is death.”

Sin breeds death and decay.
Things go downhill when humanity rebels against God.
Creation itself is suffering from the sin of humanity—
there is a connection between sin and climate-related
hurricanes and wildfires and winter storms.
The earth is groaning.
Fig trees are not bearing fruit, so to speak.

Repentance breaks the cycle.
Repentance opens the door for God to act.
Repentance tells God, “We let go of our controlling ways,
work in us, loving Creator.”

I think that was Jesus’ intent in telling this parable of the fig tree,
right after a discussion of human suffering.

Jesus, in his mercy, urges us all to repent—
to let go of our need to control, to be strong.
If we do, we will be granted one more opportunity
for God to work through us
to produce the fruit for which we were planted.
So let us repent of all self-justification,
humble ourselves before our Creator,
and join whole-heartedly with God’s redemptive work in the world.

There’s a very appropriate confession for this moment
in the back of our new Voices Together hymnal, #898.
It’s also in your order of service.

You may either read along with me,
or simply listen, and join your heart with this prayer.

Christ our companion,
you came not to humiliate the sinner
     but to disturb the righteous.
Welcome us when we are put to shame,
     but challenge our smugness,
that we may truly turn from what is evil
     and be freed even from our virtues,
     in your name.
Amen.

—Phil Kniss, February 28, 2021

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