Sunday, January 25, 2015

Phil Kniss: God’s reign beckons

Where God reigns, there is welcome
Mark 1:14-20; Jonah 3:1-5, 10

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The Reign of God is calling us.
    Can you hear it?

Two weeks ago, on Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday
    I spoke of God’s reign in the world.
    I said we as a global Mennonite fellowship
        of many different cultures and languages and
            of different social-political contexts,
            and different histories,
        have one major point of connection.
    We voluntarily give ourselves over to a higher call
        as citizens of God’s kingdom.
    We have a common loyalty to the reign and realm of God.

Today, and the next two Sundays,
    we’re using the lectionary texts for Epiphany,
    and exploring three characteristics of the kingdom.

Our texts today affirm that where God reigns, there is welcome.
    Next Sunday, we see that where God reigns, there is obedience.
    And finally, where God reigns, there is wholeness.

Obviously, there are many aspects to God’s reign
    that would be fruitful to explore together.
    But as I looked at the lectionary readings for these three Sundays,
        that’s what stood out to me.
    And I think that welcome, obedience, and wholeness,
        are three things that are especially important
            to hold together, and not in isolation.

So let’s think a bit about the reign of God as a place of welcome.

You’ll notice I use different terms, interchangeably,
    for the kingdom of God.
    So I want to clarify.
        We are talking both about the reign of God,
            that is, the rule and authority of God,
                God’s nature and work of ruling,
            but also the realm of God,
                the place where God rules.

        This is not just a discussion about a mystical, spiritual, interior
            recognition of God’s authority in my life—
                as important as that is.
        We are talking about a real place,
            where God’s reign and authority gets fleshed out
                in the real life of real people and real systems,
                in real, embodied, socially-situated life together.

        So, maybe I’ll lean more on words like the “dominion of God.”
            I like “dominion” because it includes both
                the reign and the realm—
                    the authority and the place and people
                        where that authority is lived out.

This is especially important
    when we contemplate God’s welcome.
    God our Sovereign, welcomes us into God’s dominion
        with open and generous arms.
    The dominion of God is first of all, invitational.
        And we are all invited.

It’s easy to lose sight of that,
    because dominions and kingdoms,
        often call to mind boundaries and borders
            and emphasize the demands that the monarch
                places on his or her subjects.
        After all, a dominion is
            where a monarch exercises authority.
    We certainly won’t ignore that reality.
        I said next Sunday we focus on obedience,
            but I would argue that we need to begin
                with invitation and welcome.

    It’s core to our understanding of God
        that God invites us to become subject to God’s rule.
    God does not expand his realm by force,
    The Sovereign God—
        even though all power and authority and dominion
            are God’s alone—
        never enforces that dominion through hostile takeover.
    It is always invitational,
        always optional.
    The monarchy of God is unlike every earthly monarchy
        in that respect.
    The reign and realm of God is a reign and realm
        that welcomes all, and forces none.

Take today’s Gospel story, for instance.
    It’s a classic story of invitation.
All it took from Jesus was a word – well, two words: “Follow me.”
    And four fisherman immediately walked away from their profession.
    Peter and Andrew, James and John,
        literally stepped out of their fishing boats,
        and into a world they knew nothing about.
    Just because Jesus invited them to.
    For some reason, at some deep level,
        they felt beckoned into God’s rule and dominion,
            in the person of Jesus.

Let’s look at it again: Mark 1, beginning in v. 14.
    Mark says, “Jesus came to Galilee,
        proclaiming the good news of God, and saying,
        “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
            repent, and believe in the good news.”
    In Mark, the very first words that come from Jesus’ mouth
        announce the goodness and nearness of God’s dominion.
    This dominion is nothing but good news.
        God’s reign and realm are good, Mark says.
        So the upshot is, come to where the good stuff is.
        In the very next verse, 16,
            Jesus calls his first disciples with two simple words,
                “Follow me.”
        And . . . as if they can’t help but respond to such welcome . . .
            they get up and follow Jesus immediately.

I have no doubt,
    based on how the gospel writer tells the story,
    that it was not Jesus’ charming, magnetic personality
        that attracted the fisherman.
    Forget the Jesus of popular film,
        who always has a resonant voice
            and a handsome face,
            and personal charisma,
                that leaves women and men alike reeling in his wake.
    For all we know, Jesus had none of those things.
        He might even have been awkward and homely.

    I don’t think it was the sound of Jesus’ voice, saying “follow me,”
        that prompted them to act.
        They heard something else calling them,
            that they probably couldn’t put their finger on.
        I think it was God’s kingdom calling.
        I think they heard a dinner bell, so to speak,
            beckoning them to God’s welcome table.

And further, it was not just an invitation for them—
    Peter, Andrew, James, and John—
    to come into the welcoming embrace of God’s dominion,
        to join the new and exclusive community of King Jesus.
    No, they were being welcomed into that community,
        in order to extend the welcome even further.
    “I will make you fish for people,” Jesus said.
    They, four fisherman,
        were invited to be part of a new kind of fishing industry.
    Their function as fisherfolk would be altogether new.
        They would no longer be dragging in fish against their will.
        They would now be about the task of inviting, welcoming,
            drawing others into a different kind of net—
            where the catch . . . is held by the power of love
                and always free to swim away.

Where God reigns, there is love and welcome!
    There is good news! There is joy! There is freedom!
    There is healing! There is forgiveness! There is restoration!
        In other words, there is salvation.
    God’s dominion beckons those who want a full life,
        restored to God’s creative intent,
        located in a kingdom of peace,
            a dominion of shalom,
            a community of love and justice.
    God’s reign beckons and welcomes all.

    The kingdom that Jesus came to proclaim and to live
        was not a kingdom of condemnation.
    As another Gospel writer put it,
        “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world,
            but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

If we understand God’s mission to be a saving and reconciling mission,
    then the invitation into God’s dominion
        has the same compelling, beautiful, life-giving purpose—
        to save, to reconcile, to heal.
    God’s reign is a reign of welcome.

We see evidence of the same in our reading from Jonah today.
    Jonah, the reluctant prophet,
        announced the dominion that God intended to exercise
            over the wicked city of Ninevah.
    It was an announcement of doom, naturally.
    Ninevah was a city and people repulsive to the Israelites,
        full of unspeakable evil, idol worship,
        and the capital of the dominating, oppressive Assyrian Empire.
    From the perspective of any Israelite,
        Ninevites were the arch-enemies of God,
            and of the people of God.
        They were not worthy of God’s attention,
            much less, God’s love and mercy.
    So repulsive were they,
        that Jonah wanted no part of going there,
        even to carry a message of doom and destruction.

    But we know that’s not the way the story unfolded.
        Even here in the Old Testament—
            the part of the Bible where God’s dominion
                is often expressed with a heavy hand of judgement—
            we have this glimpse of God’s grace-filled welcome.
        Even the sworn enemies of God are welcome and invited,
            if they are willing,
            to come under the loving dominion of the God Yahweh.

    It’s an amazing picture of grace and welcome.
    It’s Old Testament Gospel.

So what does this picture of God’s dominion mean for us today?
    Here? At Park View?

This notion that God’s dominion is beckoning us, in love,
    to yield ourselves to the rule of God’s love,
    to voluntarily become subject to God’s authority,
        has everything to do with how we posture ourselves as a church.
    Our primary missional task
        is not to fortify and strengthen the borders,
        as important as borders often are.
    Our primary missional task
        is to embody the welcome extended by our Sovereign God.
        It is to open ourselves, and our community, to the other,
            so that we may invite—
                as an expression of the unconditional love of God—
            all who desire to enter into God’s reign and rule.
        Bar none!

Easier said than done . . .
    in a context where we in the church
        sometime feel under siege.
    We have external pressure
        from a materialistic, individualistic culture.
    We have internal pressure
        from conflicting visions and convictions.
    The temptation is with us always
        to move toward a fortress mentality,
        to act like other kingdoms that use force or coercion
            to reinforce their dominion.

    But we have an upside-down kingdom—
        God’s upside-down dominion—
            whose reign is established by the power of love,
                and invitation,
                and welcome,
            and whose dominion is truly good news
                for all humankind and all creation,
            and whose so-called “battle-cry”
                is shalom and justice for all!

I dream of the day that Christians in our culture
    are known primarily for their welcome
        and their unconditional love for those not of our tribe.
That’s not the case now, as you probably know,
    if you’ve heard public opinion research.
    Polls show that only 16% of non-Christians in their teens and 20s
        have a “good impression” of the church—16%!
    The most common impressions of the church
        according to non-churchgoing young adults,
        is that the church is judgmental, hypocritical,
            old-fashioned, political, and anti-gay.

    It’s easy to make excuses, and say well,
        these young people just don’t understand the church,
        and what we’re all about.
    But increasingly, it’s not just young adults who hold those views.
            more people see the church as judgmental,
            as more concerned about itself than the world around it.
    The bottom-line is . . .
        those looking in on us see judgment, more than welcome.
    That ought not to be if we align ourselves with God’s dominion—
        with this reign and realm of God,
        that draws, beckons, welcomes
            every soul on the face of the earth,
            inviting them to come into and under
                this dominion like no other,
            and be transformed by the unconditional love of God.

Then, as we walk together,
    we will address the truly demanding ethic of God’s kingdom,
        an ethic that invites us to give our all, to lay down all,
            and to walk in a new life-giving way.
    But our first call as a church is to faithfully represent
        the reign of God that beckons and welcomes all,
        that fulfills the vision of the prophet Isaiah,
            who described the kingdom as a mountain
                rising above all the hills,
            drawing and inviting all nations to it.
    Isaiah saw a dominion toward which
        the peoples of the earth would stream, would come in droves,
        saying, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
            that he may teach us his ways
            and that we may walk in his paths.’
        So compelling was God’s reign,
            that the nations longed to be subject to it.

May the dominion of God that we represent—
    here, at Park View, as one expression of the body of Christ—
    be just that compelling, that magnetic, that welcoming,
        to all who look in on us . . .
        to all seekers of God,
            from the deeply committed to the faintly curious.
    May it be so, God helping us.

—Phil Kniss, January 25, 2015

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Mitch Hescox: Hope for all Creation

Creation Care Sunday
Deuteronomy 10:12-17; John 10:7-10; 14:5-14

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Mitch Hescox, President & CEO of the Evangelical Environmental Network, gives this Sunday's sermon at Park View Mennonite reflecting on the joy of creation and the responsibility of believers in a changing world.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Phil Kniss: What in the world is the kingdom of God?

Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday
Matthew 6:9-13

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Today we think about and celebrate
    our particular tribe within the global church—
    Mennonites and Anabaptists.

Now, why focus just on Anabaptist-Mennonites on this Sunday?
    Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate the global Christian church?
    Why even have Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday?

Well, not because we believe we are God’s favorites,
    nor for any other theologically twisted reason.
We celebrate this Sunday only because we as Anabaptist-Mennonites
    have a common spiritual heritage,
    we can trace our history back to the same ancestors,
    we are family.
And it’s a good, healthy thing,
    to learn how to know and love other members of your family.

I think one of big benefits of gathering and celebrating, as family,
    like many of us do over the holidays,
    is that families are made up of many and sundry kinds of people.
    A family is a community, but a particular kind of community.

Sometimes when our families have a reunion,
    it’s hard to wrap our head around the idea
        that all these people came from the same source.
    They are as different as night and day.
        You have cousins and aunts and uncles,
            and even sisters and brothers,
            that if it weren’t for the fact you were family,
                you wouldn’t be in relationship with them.

    Or if you did find yourself put together with them
        for some happenstance reason,
            like working in the same office,
            or being neighbors,
            or being on the same sports team,
        you would have the convenience of
            not really engaging with them,
            being able to walk away whenever you wanted,
            or if things got too tense,
                even quitting the team, or changing jobs.

    It’s easy to avoid associating
        with people who are very different from us,
        unless you’re family.
    Yes, it’s possible to avoid family, but it’s harder,
        and when we do, it often comes with a lot of pain,
            so we choose to stay in relationship,
                and love each other across our differences,
                rather than face the pain of separation.

In our modern world we rarely organize into close, intimate groups
    unless we have a lot in common
        in those matters that are most important to us.
    The most successful civic clubs,
        business partnerships,
        professional associations, and the like,
            are those that begin with people
            who are basically on the same page,
            share the same values and view of the world.
    Makes sense . . .
        the less energy we spend sorting out differences,
        the more energy we have to focus on our common purpose.

This is also true in many local church congregations.
    Sure, there is plenty of diversity in a congregation,
        and I think ours is exceptionally diverse—
        but only to a certain extent.
    Despite our many, and significant, differences, we at Park View
        mostly share the same basic cultural vantage point, and are
        mostly within the same American middle economic class.
        And we’ve been shaped intellectually
            by a very similar educational system.
        And we share the same basic Christian faith commitments.
    That’s a lot of commonality.

    But when it comes to our global Anabaptist-Mennonite family,
        something happens like what happens at family reunions.

    We start to see how very different we are,
        but knowing we are related, we are family,
        we choose to walk toward those differences and engage them,
            rather than walk away.
        Engaging difference is a fundamentally important
            practice and skill we need to develop,
            to be a vibrant body of Christ in the world today.
        Because we all hear the Holy Spirit a little differently,
            depending where we are sitting,
            depending on our framework.
        So one of the primary tasks we have as a church community,
            and specifically as a church family,
            is to clarify our foundational identity—
                our common starting place—
                and then listen carefully to each other,
                    with open hearts and minds,
                    and discern the Spirit as we listen.

That’s why we do Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday.
    And I think that’s also why Mennonite World Conference,
        this year,
        has encouraged all of us Mennonites around the world,
        to focus on our foundational identity
            as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
        We Mennonites find ourselves
            in hundreds of different cultural contexts,
            with hundreds of different national and ethnic identities.
        But we share a common citizenship in the Kingdom of God,
            a citizenship that shapes our lives more profoundly
            than any national citizenship, or ethnic tribal identity.

        We are, together, members of God’s people,
            living under the rule of God in the world,
            in a reality that we call the “Kingdom of God.”
        What does that mean, and what does it look like?
        That is the question that Mennonite World Conference
            has put in front of all of us Mennonites on this day,
            from the U.S. and Canada,
                to Mexico and Guatemala and Colombia,
                to the Netherlands and England and Albania,
                to the Congo and Tanzania and Zimbabwe,
                to India, Japan, Vietnam, and Australia.
        What, in this world, is the Kingdom of God,
            and how do live in this kingdom?

Perhaps the simplest way to define the kingdom is,
    the kingdom is that place and that people where God’s reign
        is recognized, named, and submitted to.
    It is a real thing, now, in this world.
    And it points to something even greater yet to be realized.
        It is socially situated.
        That is, if God’s reign isn’t being worked out and embodied
            in the real lives of a real people,
            then God’s kingdom isn’t operational there.

    God’s kingdom does not exist in the abstract.
        It is made concrete in the lives of a people.
    So, we the church, a kingdom people, have a responsibility
        to faithfully represent God, the Sovereign,
            to demonstrate what kingdom citizenship looks like,
            and to invite others to come under God’s reign.
        That is our primary identity as followers of King Jesus.
        That is our calling, regardless of what national kingdom
            we live in and are subject to.
    Citizenship in the Kingdom of God
        always takes precedence.
        And sometimes, we must admit,
            it is direct opposition to the earthly kingdoms
            who also ask for our loyalty.
        We must keep choosing where to place our ultimate loyalty.
            And that is a challenge in today’s world.

And this brings me to the first Gospel reading of this morning,
    those glorious words from Matthew 6,
    that we often call, “The Lord’s Prayer,”
        and which we often sing or say together.

In the remainder of my sermon,
    I intend to help us change our minds about the Lord’s Prayer,
        to put it in a higher place among our Christian practices.

Matthew puts this prayer in the context of the Sermon on the Mount.
    The Gospel of Luke puts the prayer in a different context.
    It was an answer to a question the disciples asked Jesus,
    They said to Jesus, in Luke 11,
        “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

I grew up thinking the disciples meant,
    “Jesus, we don’t really know how to talk to God,
        how to give praise, or offer our petitions.
        Teach us how to do this.”
    But when I stop to think even a bit about the context here,
        the idea that the disciples had not already mastered
            the basic elements of prayer,
            is nonsense.
    They knew how to pray. They had been praying their whole lives.
        They were synagogue-attending Jews.

They knew the role of prayer, communally and individually.
    They knew that individual prayer kept them focused on
        who they were in relationship to God,
        and on God’s activity in their world.
    They knew that communal prayer was all about
        reinforcing their identity as a people of God,
        and communally bowing down to God in worship,
            and in expressions of obedience,
            and in yieldedness to God’s will.

So I think what’s going on in the disciples’ minds,
    is they realize their very understanding of who God is,
        and what God’s agenda is in the world,
        and what they, as God’s people, are expected to do, and to be,
        is being vastly broadened, and filled out, and changed,
            by what Jesus is teaching,
            and how he is living his life.
    There is something radically different
        about Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God,
        and their role in it,
            than what they were taught to think in synagogue.
    They are beginning to realize the old set of communal prayers
        they were taught from little up,
        are no longer adequate to sustain their life of faith
            in the Kingdom of God that Jesus is proclaiming.
        A new kind of kingdom needs a new kind of prayer.

    This then, is not an elementary lesson in prayer.
        Jesus isn’t teaching Prayer 101.
            This is an advanced course.
            This is Jesus saying,
                in the Kingdom of God,
                which is coming now,
                which God is beginning to establish, through you,
                this is the kind of prayer that will sustain you.
            This is the prayer for the Kingdom of God now,
                and the Kingdom of God coming.

That is what I think we American Protestants with evangelical leanings,
    don’t quite grasp about the Lord’s Prayer.
    We think of this prayer too individualistically,
        and too didactically.
    In other words,
        we think of it mainly as an elementary lesson in praying,
            that Jesus wanted his disciples to use
                as a kind of model or template,
                that they would use while in training,
                    until they got so good at it,
                they could pray their own spirit-led impromptu prayers,
                    and they wouldn’t need this one any more.

No, I’ve come to think differently about this prayer.
    I invite you to, as well.
    This is a specific prayer that we disciples need to pray . . . still.
        Often. Repeatedly.
    Because of the fact that this prayer captures
        the essence of the Kingdom in a few words,
        I need to let this prayer so fill my mind,
            and spirit, and even body,
            that it becomes part of my very breathing.
        This prayer locates me, locates us,
            in the community of the Kingdom of God.
        It is an essential discipline of the individual disciple.
        It is an essential discipline of the church.

I so much appreciate that we have made the Lord’s Prayer
    part of every Sunday worship at Park View.
    Many other Christian traditions also do this.
    They consider the Lord’s Prayer,
        or as some call it, the “Our Father,”
        to be an indispensable part of worship.
    That’s where I have come down.
    Not saying we can’t worship without it,
        but if God’s kingdom people gather to worship,
            and we haven’t heard the Kingdom Prayer,
            something seems incomplete.

It has become for me, a key part of my daily practice.
    Rarely a day passes that I haven’t said this prayer aloud at least once.
        Often twice, sometimes more than twice.
    In my own morning quiet time, I say it aloud softly.
    In our morning prayers here at the church office,
        we say it together, in unison.
    And if it’s a Wednesday
        when we’re having a TaizĂ© service in the evening,
        that makes it three times.

I’m not saying this to brag.
    I don’t think it’s much of anything to brag about.
    I’m not suggesting I can draw a straight line
        between saying this prayer,
        and any particular spiritual victory or achievement in my life.
    I’m simply saying that I have come to see it as necessary.
        As indispensable to my Christian life.
        I need to be reminded, often,
            where I am located, in relationship to God our Sovereign,
            and the people who name God as Sovereign,
                and live under God’s rule,
                in a world that largely rejects God’s sovereignty.

Repeating this Kingdom Prayer, often,
    is what I need,
    and what I think we all need,
        to locate ourselves in an anti-Kingdom world.

It’s not a magic formula to make God do certain things,
    or to influence God to do what we want to have done.
    It is a prayer of locating ourselves in the place where we belong.
    It is a prayer to orient us to where we are, and who we are,
        in relation to God
        and to God’s reign on the earth and in the heavens.

I have even come to pray this prayer
    with more than my voice, and my mind.
    In order to let it get embedded even deeper in my being,
        I have begun praying it with my body.

I demonstrated this in a sermon back in August,
    and a number of people asked me to repeat it.

First thing, is to notice the Kingdom Prayer
    can be divided into six parts,
    each highlighting a characteristic of our Sovereign God—
        God’s holiness,
        God’s rule and authority,
        God’s provision,
        God’s forgiveness,
        God’s guidance,
        God’s protection.

So I came up with six physical gestures,
    to help me pray with my body, as well as my mind and spirit.

So sitting or standing, anywhere, anytime, I can pray . . .
    praising God’s holiness—
        “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name...”
    and pray for God’s rule on the earth—
        “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
            on earth as it is in heaven...”
    and for God’s provision—
        “Give us this day our daily bread...”
    and for God’s forgiveness, a gesture of repentance—
        “And forgive us our sins,
            as we forgive those who sin against us...”
    and for God’s guidance to resist all that goes against the kingdom—
        “And lead us not into temptation...”
    and for God’s protection from all evil,
        “but deliver us from evil,” a gesture of freedom.

That’s the main part of the prayer,
    but I add the traditional ending,
    continuing with a sweeping gesture to indicate,
        “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

Quick review of the gestures . . .
    Our Father in heaven, holy be your name.
    Your kingdom come on earth
    Give us daily bread.
    Forgive us, as we forgive.
    Lead us not into temptation.
    Deliver us from evil.
        Forever, Amen.

Let’s pray the whole prayer together, if you will,
    with voice, heart, mind, and body . . .
        Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.
        Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
        Give us this day our daily bread,
        And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
        And lead us not into temptation,
        But deliver us from evil,
        For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

This is not so much a prayer to be dissected and exegeted.
    I could do that, but find it mostly unnecessary.
    It is rather, a prayer to be practiced,
        while open to the Spirit,
            seeing what God might be saying to you,
            what insight God might give you,
            what change God might work in you.

May God’s kingdom come among us here,
    in our context as Mennonites in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
May God’s kingdom come among our sisters and brothers
    throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

Let us now, in a time of prayer, meditation, and song,
    bring these petitions for the global church.

requests from Mennonite World Conference

  • To walk more closely in support of persecuted and suffering members
  • To grow in fellowship even across the sensitive and controversial theological issues where there are differences among our members
  • To reflect Jesus and the Kingdom of God to the world around us.

requests from MWC members around the world

  • with our African sisters and brothers, we pray for unity among church groups and leaders
  • with our Asian sisters and brothers, we pray for the ability of Christians and Muslims to co-exist in peace
  • with our European sisters and brothers, we pray for the effects of secularism on society and the church
  • with our Latin American sisters and brothers, we pray for the production of good Anabaptist teaching material for new churches

requests from North America, regional focus for 2015

  • For the MWC Assembly in Pennsylvania in July 2015, and particularly for the availability of visas for foreign guests
  • For the growing influences of secularism in our churches
  • For the tensions between wealth and the Christian faith
  • For the discussions in the churches and conferences regarding sexuality
  • For the assimilation of new cultures in our Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches
  • For faithfulness in financial stewardship in an age of materialism

—Phil Kniss, January 11, 2015

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

Phil Kniss: Was the magi’s journey rational?

Epiphany Sunday 2015
Matthew 2:1-12

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I think without a doubt,
    the most sentimental, magical, fairly-tale-like,
        exotic, and other-worldly part of the Christmas story,
        is the story of the magi in Matthew 2.

    At least, we’ve made it that.
    And there’s a big part of me that likes it that way.
        I’m glad this story has reached mythical proportions,
            and that nearly everyone in the world—
                from all languages and cultures,
                from east to west, young to old,
                Christian to Muslim to Buddhist
                    to just about any religion—
            when they see a picture of three camels,
                and three men in royal robes carrying gifts,
                against a hilly backdrop, with a big star in the sky,
            they will think, “Christmas!”

        This scene, or some variation on it,
            like Rachel Brown’s beautiful quilted rendition here,
            or literally millions of other variations,
                show up in movies and children’s books and paintings
                and Christmas cards, and decorations, and gift wrap.

        Around the world, this scene is just as recognizable
            as the iconic scene of Mary and Joseph
                and a couple cows in a cute and cozy stable
            peering into a manger built with legs in the shape of an “X”
                with straw just spilling over the edges,
                in awe of the tiny smiling baby.

    Like I said, I’m glad about this.
        Yes, I know neither of those scenes
            are based on any biblical evidence.
        They have become traditional, you might even say mythical.
        And they are completely stylized.
            The location was more than likely a dark and smelly cave,
                where animals were often sheltered at night.
            The manger was probably carved out of stone.
            And you can bet the animals were not enthralled,
                crowding around the manger worshiping the Christ child.
            They were probably cowering in the back corner of the cave,
                stressed out by the noisy intrusion
                and all the mess and commotion and screaming
                that generally accompanies human labor and childbirth
                    and newborn babies.

            As for the magi, as far as we know,
                the Three Kings were neither kings, nor three.
                They were eastern astrologers,
                    and there could have been 2 or 20 of them.
                And given typical travel times,
                    Jesus probably wasn’t even a baby
                        when they arrived.

    But that’s all perfectly fine with me.
        Stylized pictures of what might have been—
            that fill in details,
            that tug at the heartstrings,
            that make the story memorable and repeatable—
            this is why we are still telling the story today.
        It’s why the Christmas story is still a “thing” to be told,
            and painted and quilted and celebrated yearly.

        If we insisted on strictly historical accounts
            of a smelly cave and a screaming messy newborn
                with stressed out parents,
                    who were socially stigmatized,
                    and politically repressed,
                just trying to survive to the next day . . .
            and a story of a bunch of foreign astrologers
                arriving a year late,
                then I doubt Christmas would be a blip on our radar.
            We wouldn’t be reminded every year
                to marvel at the miracle of the Incarnation of God.
            And there wouldn’t be millions of secular people
                wondering every year,
                    now what’s that story about again?
                    and why are Christians so big on it?

        So bring on the carols about an unrealistically silent baby,
            and the gorgeous landscapes
            with three kings and three camels under a starry night sky.
        They may not hold up, historically.
        But they draw us, like magnets, into the real story.

So, this morning,
    I want to make this story of the magi as real as we can make it.
        Not to undo the stylized version of it,
            but to understand why it’s so important as a story,
            and why it needs to stay in our Christian narrative,
                and in our cultural anthology of tales that must be told.

I want us to explore what’s really going on in this story from Matthew 2,
    and to ponder how we might best, as a church,
        remember and celebrate this story.
    And I want to begin with a sort of strange question.

    This journey the magi made from the East—
        was it a rational act?
        Was traipsing across a continent, following a star,
            bearing gifts for a newborn who would be a king someday,
            a journey that would be undertaken
                by rational human beings?
        I am going to argue that we should answer that question
            with a resounding “Yes!”

It had better be a rational act that they undertook,
    or we shouldn’t be celebrating them as “wise men.”

The reason it doesn’t seem rational to us,
    is that we are hearing the story through the ears and eyes and minds
    of 21st-century Christians living in our particular Western world,
        governed by our particular world-view,
        shaped by our history and way of thinking about the world.

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, about 30 years ago,
    wrote an important work titled, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
    in which he basically said it’s a delusion
        that we can separate rationality from
            our particular history,
            and our particular tradition to which we socially belong,
        and arrive an isolated, pure rationality that all humans share.
    When we engage in any kind of enquiry or exploration,
        we cannot help but do so from our vantage point,
            which is derived from our specific
                social and intellectual and religious history,
            and defined by our affiliations and ties to a tradition.

    So when we talk about being rational,
        we must clear which rationality we are speaking of.
    So for the story of the magi,
        we must consider what their rationality was.

    They lived in a time and belonged to a culture
        that accepted, without question,
        that there were divine beings in the heavens, up in the skies,
            controlling earthly events.
    Therefore, it was rational, it made sense that there would be
        a whole intellectual class of people whose vocation in life
            was to watch the heavens for signs.
        If the gods were manipulating events on earth,
            and the gods lived in the skies,
            then it was entirely rational to study the skies
                for signs of what might be about to unfold on the earth.

Now, I am not commenting on the historical reliability
    of this story of the wise men.
    Whether events unfolded in history
        precisely as described in Matt 2 is an interesting question,
            but not very interesting to me,
            and I’m not even addressing that question here.

    What I am saying, is there is a reason Matthew includes it as it is,
        and that reason is not to spin a fantastic fairy-tale
            for people with colorful imaginations.
        He tells it as a rational story within his larger narrative.
    This is a story whose main characters
        are real, educated, observant, and visionary people
        living outside the geography and culture and religion
            of Israel and Judaism.

    These were not mysterious other-worldly kings.
        They were professionals, who studied the night skies.
        Their role in society was to look for signs in the heavens,
            that might signify something important
            going on in this world.
        That was their job,
            perfectly rational within their world view,
            a job they carried out in a fairly ordinary way.

    Their journey to Jerusalem, and the purpose of that journey—
        while it was a big deal, and maybe even groundbreaking,
        was not something that would have completely shocked
            their friends or family.
        Going to a far country to investigate
            a sign they had seen in the heavens,
            would not have been utterly strange within their rationality.
        And it was not a strange premise for Matthew’s audience,
            when the gospel was compiled.
            It was a wonderful and marvelous thing.
            But not irrational.

    You would expect that persons who believe
        that God gives signs in the heavens about earthly events,
        would be about the task of looking for those signs,
            and acting upon what they found.

So the point worth remembering, I think, and celebrating every year,
    is not the magical star-studded royal presentation
        of expensive and exotic gifts for the Christ-child.
    What we should celebrate is
        the magi’s exemplary way of living
            in a world where God is active and on the move.
    They were looking for the light,
        noticed it when it appeared,
        examined the body of knowledge available to them,
        and when their body of knowledge left some gaps,
        they decided to walk toward the unknown,
            in order to investigate it further,
            to see it for themselves,
                to see whether the sign in the skies,
                was consistent with what was happening on the ground.

    In other words, however they understood the Divine,
        they expected the Divine to show up in their world,
        and for the Divine to exert influence on their human world.
            And were prepared to act,
                when evidence of that Divine activity became known.

    They were astrologers by profession.
        But what they really cared about, ultimately, wasn’t in the sky.
        They looked to the stars for the express purpose,
            of figuring out what God was doing down here.
        And when they discovered something, they acted on it.
            They got involved.
            They walked toward the light of God.

Can you think of anything more important, and more relevant,
    for living faithfully as a follower of Christ in today’s world,
        than to emulate the magi?
        than to be like them, to be watchful, observant?
        than to look for and expect signs of God at work in the world?
        than to walk toward those signs,
            to get involved, to participate in the activity of God?

That is the irony of this magical story of the magi,
    if we cared to notice it.
    This other-worldly, magical story
        has been co-opted by the commercial Christmas industry,
        to sell more cards and decorations,
            and imply that buying expensive, exotic gifts
                comes straight from the Bible.
    But if we dig down to the core truth of this beautiful story,
        it the ultimate anti-consumerism story.

It’s a story that is decidedly not about
    buying and giving and getting more stuff.
    The so-called “spirit of giving” that Christmas has a reputation for,
        is often just a thin layer that covers over a much deeper,
            self-oriented consumerism.
    What really drives the commercialism of Christmas,
        is not the corporate headquarters of WalMart and BestBuy.
        It is our own unchecked base human desire
            to get all our needs and dreams and wishes fulfilled.
        And just in case what we got at Christmas
            didn’t quite fulfill our desires,
            hopefully the giver included the receipt
                so we can return it on Dec. 26
                for what we really wanted.

    That is the polar opposite of what drives this story of the magi.
        The magi had no concept of “what’s in it for me?”
        Their journey had nothing to do with self-gratification.
        They were motivated by a desire
            to be where the divine action was.
        If God was up to something,
            they wanted to be there to see it,
            to observe and learn from it,
            to be part of the action.
        No matter what it cost them personally.

That’s the core of this story of the magi.
    God has plans for this world.
        Saving plans. Redeeming plans. Reconciling plans.
    And those plans are way larger than any of us know.
    And we can do no better in life,
        than to look for signs of where God is moving,
        and move that direction ourselves.

Yes, the Christmas story began in the little town of Bethlehem,
    in a particular place, with a particular people, in a particular family.
    But the story of the magi blows it wide open.
    The Good News of God’s coming to us in the flesh,
        is good news for all people, all cultures, everywhere, for all time.

    And when we see that,
        the only right response is humble worship,
            it is to yield our will to the will of God,
            it is to go where God is,
                no matter the cost.

—Phil Kniss, January 4, 2015

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: She Made Room

Advent 4: O that you would reveal your love!
Luke 1:26-56

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Recently, as I was going through some old photographs, I came across a picture of myself taken on the morning of April 13, 1977. I know it was that day because I was 9 months pregnant. I looked big and uncomfortable. I was big and uncomfortable, and I was also one week overdue. John took the photo of me standing in front of our sliding glass door that went out on to our very small balcony in our apt. We were getting ready to head to the hospital so that my labor could be induced for the birth of our second child. Upon arrival at St. Mary’s Hospital the nurses prepped me for the delivery, and gave me the necessary drugs to start my labor. The doctor checked in on me, told me what to expect, then he went out jogging, taking his pager with him. Things moved slowly at first, but after I took a stroll back and forth in the hallway, the drugs began to work more effectively and I was soon in full labor. The doctor was paged and barely made it back in time for the delivery. I was doing my best to use what I learned in my Lamaze childbirth classes about breathing, while the doctor scrubbed up. The young intern doctor who was there to observe and maybe assist my doctor, looked frightened and probably thought I was dying, because I wasn’t doing any of this quietly. I was having this child naturally and with little, if any, pain meds. I wanted to say to him, “this is the real deal! This is labor.” Benjamin John was born that day.

The miracle of it all is that when that little baby is placed in your arms, red, wrinkled, warm and beautiful, you soon forget how miserable you were a few hours ago, how much you wanted to get this over with, how hard the labor was, and yes, even how painful it was. You know without a doubt that this baby you carried within your womb, nourished through your own body for 9 months, and now lying within your arms, is a gift from God! “O that you would reveal your love.” God’s love is revealed to us in so many ways, especially in the birth of children. Love came down at Christmas. God’s love was revealed most completely in the birth of Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and carried within Mary’s womb.

The gospel text for this, the 4th Sunday in Advent, from Luke 1 is so delightful. I love to read this story of Mary and Elizabeth. Two women whose bodies became the dwelling place for rich treasure, the gift of new life. One woman, old and wise, but past her child bearing years. The other, young , innocent, an ordinary peasant girl, engaged, but not yet married. What a conversation and visit they must have had!

Ken Medema, the gifted musician, whom many of us have seen and heard in concert in past years, wrote a lovely song about this story called, “Go Tell Elizabeth”. It is from the viewpoint of Mary.

So many things are happening that I don’t understand. Visions and angels and a baby named Jesus were not in my plans. My thoughts are all scattered, what should I do, how will I ever find saneness again…

I’ll go tell Elizabeth…she’ll understand…I’ll go tell Elizabeth…she’ll hold my hand.

“Go talk to Joseph”….I’ve talked to Joseph, he’s a man. There are so many things as a woman that a man can’t understand. Joseph is practical, worried with things of his own and sometimes talking to Joseph is no better than being alone.

So I’ll go tell Elizabeth….she’ll understand…I’ll go tell Elizabeth…she’ll hold my hand.

Sometimes I wish I would wake up and it would all be a dream. I ought to be shouting with joy, but things are coming apart at the seams. I am quiet, I keep things inside, but sometimes there is too much to hide and I just need a good cry.

So I’ll go tell Elizabeth…she’ll understand…..I’ll go tell Elizabeth…she’ll hold my hand.

*Elizabeth’s life is not going like she planned. So many things happening, where do we find saneness again….

So I’m coming Elizabeth…I’ll understand….I’m coming Elizabeth…I’ll hold your hand. I’ll hold your hand.”

Two expectant mothers, both trying to understand, comprehend and absorb what was happening to them….and Mary, still hearing those words from the angel, ringing in her ears…..”Nothing will be impossible with God.” (no word from God will ever fail.)

As Mary made that long journey from Nazareth to some obscure town in the Judean hill country, she probably had much time to think and ponder. And Elizabeth, remember she had been in seclusion for 5 months and her husband Zechariah was silenced by the angel, Gabriel, for having questioned the possibility of his wife becoming pregnant in her old age. I can imagine that both Elizabeth and Mary needed someone to talk to. When Elizabeth greets Mary at the door of their home, the baby within her leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice! Elizabeth exclaims in a LOUD voice to Mary, “God has blessed you more than any other woman…The Lord has blessed you because you believed that he will keep his promise.”

And Mary, full of great joy, sings her song of praise. Mary preaches as the prophet of the poor, representing their hope.

God chose Mary, a young servant girl, to be the willing body, the receptive space for the son of God to be nurtured. God noticed her humble position and chose her. And Mary made room.

Caryll Houselander in her book, Reed of God, refers to Mary as the ‘warm nest’, who received Jesus into her life and nurtured him. She writes that “we are receivers of that word made flesh, as nests are receivers of new life.”

Joyce Rupp, another writer, suggests that maybe we should call Advent the season of nesting. We prepare ourselves for the indwelling, for Emmanuel, for God with us. We sing, “let every heart prepare him room,” and “be born in us today,” and “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.”

During this time of year, high in the barren trees, stripped of leaves, we see nests. Empty now, swaying in the wind, we can see them clearly in winter, sometimes with thin twigs, feathers, strings, grasses hanging down, even icicles clinging. Come spring, we notice the robins, gathering everyday fragments, bits and pieces of ordinary stuff to refurbish the old nest, creating a hospitable place for eggs and new life. It becomes a warm, welcoming space, always with a ‘hollowed out center’, ready for the new life that will come.

Attention is given to what is important. Readiness is required. Preparation is needed. The mother robin knows what is needed, and makes room.

Several years ago, Issac Villegas, pastor at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship wrote an article in The Mennonite. He wrote, ‘Mary shows us how to extend hospitality to God…she made room for God’s life within her own. She opened her life, her very body, to bring Jesus into the world. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son received life in Mary’s womb.”

God wants us to be people who offer our lives and spaces and time in our lives where good news is born. A place out of which God’s liberating love can be proclaimed, and space where Jesus can live and dwell. Every Advent and Christmas season, we are reminded that God is no longer just ‘out there’. God is here, within us, going wherever we go, into every situation, relationship and experience. Jesus needs a home. We need Jesus! Jesus wants to abide with us, to make a nest in us, but we need to be willing to make a space, to prepare the place, to open up and hollow out a welcoming center.

What will it take for that to happen in our lives? As a faith community, as individuals, what needs to change? If our schedule is too full and our calendar controls our lives, it won’t happen. If our minds are too distracted with maintaining our homes and taking care of all of the stuff we have accumulated, it won’t happen. If our energy is depleted at the end of every day or week because we are spreading ourselves too thin, taking on more responsibilities that we can handle, neglecting self care, working overtime to earn more money to buy things we don’t need, then it just won’t happen!

When love comes down, enters in and we become the containers, holding the Divine Presence, how will it make a difference in our lives? How can you and I yield our lives, making a welcoming center within, as Mary did, for the purposes of God?

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