Sunday, February 15, 2015

Phil Kniss: Love and belonging

Membership Sunday reflections
1 Corinthians 13:1-13

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Most of the time when 1 Corinthians 13 is read aloud in church,
    there are two very well-dressed young people
        standing up front holding hands,
        with stars in their eyes.

But when the apostle Paul wrote these words,
    a starry-eyed couple in love was the last thing he had in mind.
    He was writing to a church community—
        a church in chaos and conflict.
    I think it’s important to read it with that in mind.

This scripture describes what
    loving, covenantal, and communal relationships look like.
And today, on this Membership Sunday,
    11 persons are committing themselves
    to walk with us in love and covenant.

This, despite the less than stellar reputation of the church in society.
    Sometimes churches are accused of being a haven for hypocrisy,
        judgement, bigotry, legalism, and the like . . .
    But many churches are also known by their love.
        Despite our own imperfections at Park View,
            this congregation is often noted for its love.
        That is owed to the grace of God, thanks be to God.

    That was wasn’t the case for Corinth,
        to whom Paul wrote this letter.
    In Corinth, they were divided by partisan politics.
    They had trouble accommodating both Jew and Gentile,
        and respecting the cultural and theological integrity of both.
    There was blatant sexual misconduct going on in the church,
        and no one had the courage to address it.
    Their worship services were a free-for-all,
        where everyone said what they wanted when they wanted,
        whether or not it contributed to worship or built up the body.
    Communion services were feeding frenzies,
        where gluttons ate up all the food, and left others hungry.

Those aren’t the issues in this church, or the broader church.
    At least, not exactly.
    But we are a church with relationship challenges.
        And we are not always at peace.
    We need to be reminded, as the Mother Teresa quote does,
        on our bulletin cover,
        that in this body we call the church,
            we belong to each other.
    We are not members in the way people are members
        of a civic club, or Fitness Center, or Costco.
    We belong to each other, as part of the same body.

And the body has one dominant, overarching rule,
    that trumps all others: “Love rules!”

Love trumps everything else we value.
    It trumps worship, v. 1—
        “If I speak in tongues of humans and angels . . .
        and don’t love, I’m a gong and clanging cymbal.”
    It trumps theology, v. 2—
        “If I could prophesy and understand
        all secrets and all knowledge . . .”
    It trumps faith, v. 2—
        “If I had faith that moved mountains . . .”
    It trumps radical discipleship, v. 3—
        “If I gave away all that I owned
        and let myself be burned alive . . .”
    Without love, those things of great value become worthless.

And the obvious question is, “What is love?”

Love is known by how it is seen.
    Love is visible, because it is concretely expressed in community.

Paul ticks off a list of 13 visible signs of love at work in the body.
    In verses 4-7—

Love makes the body patient—
    its members love each other now,
    and let God work, in God’s way, in God’s time;
Love makes the body kind—
    members don’t do random acts of kindness,
    kindness is a way of life;
Love makes the body one that is not jealous—
    where members rejoice when others are honored;
    a body that is never boastful—
    that is not arrogant—
        but listens to all with interest, respect, humility;
    nor is it rude.
Love makes the body one that does not insist on its own way—
    it values differing gifts and viewpoints;
Love makes the body one that never keeps record of wrongs—
Love makes the body rejoice wherever it finds truth—
Love makes the body always protect—
    surrounding the most vulnerable with a shield of love;
Love makes the body willing to trust each other—
    where its members can be vulnerable,
    because they know they won’t be taken advantage of.
Love makes the body stubborn in hope—
    a body that always perseveres—
        that doesn’t waste time with hand-wringing, worry,
            and fearful reactivity.

A church where love rules is not without challenges.
But when challenges come,
    love is the unstoppable urge to move toward others,
    instead of protecting our own space,
        our own interests,
        our own needs.
    Love is the instinct to turn toward others,
        an instinct born in us by the Spirit of God.

Love empties the self, so as to be fully directed toward the other.
    John 15:13—“Greater love has no one than this,
        to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

That is the heart of what we are doing this morning,
    in hearing the testimonies of our newer members,
    and renewing our own faith in God
        who calls us together, in love, into one body.

—Phil Kniss, February 15, 2015

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Sunday, February 8, 2015

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Practicing Persistent Hope

Where God reigns...there is wholeness
Psalm 147:1-11,20c; Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

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Today we conclude our 3 part series on “Where God reigns…”. (We are on the third ‘dot’.!) Phil preached the first Sunday on ‘Where God reigns, there is welcome.” Last Sunday was on, “Where God reigns, there is obedience”. Today we look at “Where God reigns, there is wholeness”. 
I got stuck for a few days on trying to figure out what ‘wholeness’ is. The dictionary tells us that to be WHOLE, means “not having any part or element missing, not broken, defective or damaged, to be complete, not divided into units or sections, to be in good health or good condition.” Do we see ourselves as ‘whole, human beings’ when we are born, but something less than whole, when we are close to death, after all, our bodies start to break down, parts stop functioning. Are we on a continuum of whole…. (at 50 or 65) partially whole, and then at 95, pretty far gone? Or does it go the other way? As we age, we mature, we gain wisdom, understanding, knowledge, insight, and maybe we move more towards being whole. I stumbled through the week, wondering where this was going to go. In the process I had some interesting conversations with a few of you and so this sermon has been a collaborative effort.

What does ‘wholeness’ look like in the gospel text for today from Mark?
4 brief scenes and my titles for them:
  1. The healing of Ethel (Simon’s mother in law). No, there is no Ethel in your Bible or mine, but sometimes I like to give a name to the ‘nameless’ women and men whose stories are included. (Psalm 147 “God determines the number of stars; and gives to all of them their names. If stars have names, people should also!) When Jesus and the men show up at Simon and Andrew’s house after the services at the synagogue, Jesus is told immediately that ‘Ethel’ is in bed with fever. Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand (touch!) and raises her up. The fever leaves her body and she begins to serve them!
What does wholeness look like in scene 1? A women’s health is restored. Physical healing takes place, but she is also restored to her place and role in the household of extending hospitality to guests, taking care of necessary details of managing the kitchen, preparing and serving food, an important ministry and place of service, especially for women.
  1. Mass healing at sundown – Jesus’ reputation and ministry was already becoming known and his fame had spread. All who were sick or possessed with demons were brought to him. The text reads that “he cured many of various illnesses and cast out many demons.”
What does wholeness look like in scene 2? Physical healings took place of various diseases…many, but not all?? Many demons were cast out, but maybe not all?? Wholeness looks like physical healing of many, but also a release from bondage of the demonic spirits that kept people in darkness. In Mark’s gospel we see highlights of various ways that Jesus’ presence brings people to wholeness. By casting out demons, Jesus robs Satan’s house. When Satan’s power and influence over people is taken away and replaced with God’s power and influence, wholeness is possible and God’s reign is established.
  1. Give me a break – after a long day of healing and casting out demons, Jesus was exhausted, depleted. Early the next morning he leaves the house, seeking solitude and a place to pray, to be renewed in body and spirit. Jesus practiced/modeled a rhythm of work, rest, solitude and prayer.
What does wholeness look like in scene 3? Practicing good self care, maintaining a healthy and balanced rhythm of work, rest, activities that renew and restore, prayer—acknowledging limitations. Jesus needed a break, so do we!
  1. Time to move on… Simon and his companions hunted for Jesus and found him, interrupting his time of prayer and solitude. The crowds were clamoring for more of his attention. There was still a need for him to return for another day of healing and casting out demons! (Accessed the situation, took a few deep breaths…) Jesus said…, ‘Let’s move on…’ Jesus knew what his priority was…to proclaim the message…that is what he came to do, and within the proclamation of that message, clarity and understanding would happen as to the significance of and need for all of the other ministries that took place.
What does wholeness look like in scene 4? Setting some limits, clarifying priorities, establishing boundaries, accepting what can and can not be accomplished. And then moving on!

Every one of those insights about what wholeness looked like in those few verses from Mark’s gospel, could be applied to today. (Physical healings, release from bondage of all kinds of things, restoration of one’s self esteem in fulfilling work, finding balance in a busy life that includes time for rest, renewal, prayer, setting boundaries, acknowledging limits, clarifying priorities, letting go, moving on……)

What might wholeness look like for you? Is it something that we work for, or achieve by doing certain things, and know when we have attained it? Does wholeness happen with a few specific, momentary experiences OR is it more like a journey that we are on and a direction that we are moving toward?

Two wise people in separate conversations this week expressed similar thoughts about wholeness, when they said, (paraphrasing): wholeness is more a state of becoming, than a state of being.
Is it more of a vision that we are moving toward as we live out our lives? Are we somewhere on a continuum, moving from brokenness to wholeness?

An exercise that I encourage you to do and maybe the sermon discussion classes might also want to try is to write two words at the top of a paper or white board: Brokenness (left side) and Wholeness (right side). Then under each word write all of the words that you can think of that might be classified under each word.
Brokenness         Wholeness
Dis-ease             oneness
Alienation          restoration
Separation         fullness
Resentment       reconciliation
Factions             forgiveness
Fragmentation   maturity
Jealousy            release from bondage
Then think about the different areas and relationships in your life. Are your actions, attitudes, thoughts and words moving you toward greater wholeness or toward brokenness. (Give some examples) What needs to change and are you willing to take the risk to work at making it happen.

A second exercise would be to do this with the same two words and process, but think about this congregation, our faith community, our VA conference and the larger MCUSA. What events, activities, happenings are moving us to greater wholeness? Where might you be on the continuum between brokenness and wholeness in your relationship to the church and the faith community? And what do we do when one activity or decision is seen by some to be moving the church or conference in the direction of wholeness/health and the same decision/activity is seen by others as moving the church toward fragmentation/brokenness?

Wholeness is a vision towards which we move…an on-going growth process and dynamic movement of ‘becoming and belonging’. Are there things that distract us in our personal lives from moving toward and experiencing wholeness? What about in the church?

If we believe that “where God reigns, there is wholeness”, what are some of the signs? Do we see evidence of this in our churches, our faith communities, our families? I would hope that we would see and experience generosity, compassion, humility, respect for others, among other things.
When I feel that my life is leaning more to the wholeness side than it is to the brokenness side, it usually means I have found a good balance in my daily activities and that I haven’t neglected my spiritual disciplines. It is hard to maintain that in the midst of busy schedules, stressful situations at work or in the family, health challenges and loss. I usually know what the triggers are for me that bring tears, anger, high blood pressure, tension headaches, and move me toward the brokenness side. What are those things for you?

Living in a world where we continue to see on a daily basis the violence and suffering on the news, where we have our own personal struggles and past agenda to deal with, where we have fears and anxiety over whether our church will stay together, it is extremely difficult to keep before us a vision of wholeness, a vision of hope, a vision of shalom.
In our faith communities we need to do a lot of ‘one anothering’, that is, bearing one another’s burdens, encouraging one another, loving one another, forgiving one another, praying for one another, listening to one another.

We need to be persistent and develop good habits and healthy disciplines that move us toward wholeness. We need to discover what is life-giving for us. God’s presence brought wholeness to those persons in Mark whom Jesus touched and ministered to.

Where does God bring wholeness into our lives? On this journey we need to recognize the demons along the way that weigh us down, bind us up, hold us back, the distractions that get in our way and prevent us from seeing the signs of the Kingdom, the signs of wholeness and health. And then we must have our eyes wide open to recognize and give great attention to the MESSENGERS FROM GOD, who encourage us and guide us and show us the steps to take toward wholeness, well being, shalom! The messengers, the carriers of God’s word are among us, often in human form…..through the voice of a friend, a child, a dying saint, a beloved parent. The messengers of God can come through the words of a hymn, a handwritten note, the beauty of a sunset.
May God bring light into our darkness.
May God give us peace beyond our fears.
May God give hope beyond our sorrow.
May God give us courage to walk toward wholeness.
Give us all your vision…God of love.

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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Phil Kniss: God’s reign demands

Where God reigns, there is obedience
Psalm 111; Deuteronomy 18:15-20; John 14:15-21

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First thing I need to do
    in a sermon where I’m talking about obedience,
    is to tell you what I’m not talking about.

The topic of obedience is fraught with danger.
    It is been so misused, so often, by so many,
        that there will be many of my listeners
            who might hear me say one thing,
            but feel something else deep in their gut.
    So I want to say a few things at the outset.

When human beings who are Christian believers
    organize themselves into Christian communities,
    and name God as their authority,
        we have a problem to deal with.
    It’s an important problem.
    Christian communities, and all other religious communities,
        have this problem.
    We have this problem by definition, by necessity:
        the problem of sorting out the difference
        between divine authority and human authority.

If I lead a religious community (as I do)
    and if I claim (as I do) that this community is under God’s authority,
    then I am always one hair-breadth away from abusing my authority.

    I am always at risk of blurring the line
        between God’s authority and my authority.
    Yes, I accept my high calling as a pastor and preacher of the Gospel.
        I admit I am called by God
            to study and discern and proclaim the Gospel.
    And yes, I understand my task as a pastoral leader
        to include a priestly function, being God’s representative,
        to represent the character and priorities of God’s reign,
            in my acts of public and private ministry
    I accept all of that . . . with fear and trembling.
    Because I am always at risk of conflating my authority and God’s.

    And my own risk is even greater because of the
        privilege our culture gives me, as a white male.
        Not apologizing or diminishing who I am.
        Just recognizing what is,
            and the added risk of misusing my authority.

    If I’m not careful, I can say things in such a way
        that you don’t feel free to raise questions,
        or don’t feel invited to discern the Holy Spirit
            in my speech or behavior,
        or aren’t encouraged to take the next step
            of turning sermons into conversations.
    Human nature being what it is,
        sometimes the human authority gets it wrong.

I shudder at the thought of how often pastors like me,
    or other religious leaders,
    use their power carelessly, or abusively,
        and the harm done is made worse,
        because God gets drawn into the equation.

We all know this happens, and we see it all too often.
    It gets played out in religiously-motivated wars,
        and acts of terrorism done in the name of God.
    It shows up in church systems
        where racist or sexist or other oppressive systems
        are propped up by appealing to God and the Bible.
    It shows up when sexual abuse or other forms of abuse in the church
        are covered up or glossed over,
        to protect persons in authority.
When this happens,
    whatever injuries were suffered in the original abuse,
        are made worse by the spiritual abuse piled on top of it,
        when one is made to believe that God is connected to it.

We Anabaptists were at the receiving end of violent persecution
    in the 16th century,
    all in the name of God and scripture.

In the 19th century, in our own country, many preachers
    used the Bible to justify slavery, and buying and selling humans.
Like the one who said
    it was “written by the finger of the Almighty” in scripture,
    and that God not only approved, but commanded
        the buying and selling of slaves.
    In the mid-1800s a pastor just over the mountains in Culpeper,
        published a work on the scriptural view of slavery,
        saying that slavery was an act of “mercy to the heathens.”

We could spend all day citing examples where God’s people
    were exhorted to be obedient to the Word of God,
    in ways that we would all now admit
        were a corruption of scripture,

So what do we do these tragic facts?
    The temptation is to avoid the problem
        by turning away from the whole notion of God’s authority.
    The temptation is to focus entirely
        on the open, welcoming, hospitable character of God . . .
        and ignore the rest.

While it’s tempting, to do that is illogical.
    It makes no sense to even speak of the reign of God
        without asserting that God has authority over us,
            as God’s subjects.
    All kingdoms, dominions, realms—whatever word we use—
        have some sovereign entity
        with a claim on the lives of its subjects.

The scriptures of the morning assume God’s ultimate authority.
In our call to worship, from Psalm 111,
    we praised our sovereign Lord together.
    We exalted God for God’s glorious and majestic deeds,
        and for God’s faithful and just laws,
        for God’s precepts (i.e., rules),
        and for the sacred, binding covenant to obey God.

Then we heard a text from Deuteronomy 18:15-20,
    that needs a little unpacking.

I’ve been reading recently in Numbers and Deuteronomy.
    It’s striking how God’s authority is portrayed,
        as absolute and exclusive, and even fearsome.

    When Moses, the great prophet-leader,
        was getting ready to depart from this life,
        another prophet-leader was being raised in his place.
    So Moses stood in front of the people and said,
        “Now remember, you yourself asked for a prophet
            to intervene with God on your behalf.
        You didn’t want direct contact with the voice of God,
            you were afraid you’d be consumed by the fire.
        So I’ve been that go-between for you.
        Now, another one will take my place,
            and this is what God says to you,
            “I will give you a prophet,
                and I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet,
                and the prophet will speak my words to you.
                And you must obey the words of the prophet,
                    or I myself will hold you accountable.
                But if any prophet who speaks in my name,
                    speaks something I did not say to him,
                    or speaks words from some other god,
                        that prophet will die.”

In Hebrew scriptures God often acts visibly and speaks directly.
    But God’s authority is still mediated
        through one in whom the people trust.

Then we heard Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John (14:15-21):
    “If ye love me, keep my commandments.
        And I will pray the Father,
            and he will give you another advocate
            to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.”
    It seems Jesus is pointing to a new era
        in the way God’s authority is mediated.
        God’s will is no less authoritative.
        But instead of one prophet,
            who relays God’s words to all the people,
            the Holy Spirit is sent to all who believe.
        In the absence of Jesus, we are given the Spirit of Jesus,
            who will be an advocate for the way of Jesus.
        The Spirit represents to us the will and way of God—
            as we open ourselves to the Spirit,
            and actively receive what the Spirit has for us.
    The Spirit of Truth is with us . . . forever.

That’s certainly encouraging,
    if we can figure out what it looks like
    to hear the voice of the Spirit in human community.

So to repeat the problem we have in the church—
    the necessary, the inevitable,
        and yes, I would even say, the good problem we have—
    is that God’s authority is always mediated
        through human authority structures.

God’s authority is not just an idea.
    It’s a real thing,
        if the rule and reign of God is a real thing.

Yes, it’s true, as I emphasized last Sunday,
    God’s rule is invitational, and non-coercive,
        and loving, and generous, and welcoming, and full of grace.
    God gives us second, and third, and fourth, and umpteenth
        chances to say “yes.”
    But God does invite us into a life of obedience
        and submission to God’s authority.
    My sermon titles from these two weeks, are equally true.
        God’s reign beckons.
        God’s reign demands.

But because of the fact that the only way
    we can live under the reign and realm of God now,
    is to embody that reign in a community of flawed human beings,
        we are left with this uncomfortable tension.
    We bow to God’s authority,
        mediated through human authority structures.
    So there is always the question . . .
        did the human authorities get it right?
        did they hear God’s voice accurately?
    That’s the question no matter our theology,
        no matter the shape of our authority structure.

    Of course we can answer that question the good ole’ American way,
        and say “Every individual for themselves!”
        God’s in authority,
            but I’ll decide what it means for me,
            and you decide what it means for you.

    In a way, it would be nice if God’s authority was unmediated,
        was made directly available to me and you.
        we might wish that God was right now, right here,
            in our midst, in plain sight,
                unambiguously pointing God’s finger,
                directing the affairs of each individual and of the church.
        But that is not the case.

        We are always left to work it out on the ground,
            in our human frailty,
            with our blurry vision,
            from our limited perspectives,
            through our sinful and broken human vessels.
        But . . . wasn’t the Holy Spirit given to all of us?
                Yes, indeed.
            Can’t we trust the Holy Spirit to speak?
                Yes, we can.
            Don’t the Scriptures speak truth?
                Yes, they do.
        But then I have to ask,
            who gets to determine what the Spirit said,
                and what the scriptures mean,
                    for this time?
                    in this context?

If we want Christian community,
    and if we expect order and stability in community,
    it comes down to what forms of human authority
        a particular Christian community is willing to accept,
        and to trust to hear the Holy Spirit accurately.

This question of authority and obedience to God
    is at the heart of the struggles in our denomination these days,
    and in all kinds of denominations,
        and in fact, in conflicts within other religions—
            in the various sects of Judaism,
            in the various parties in Islam,
            and on and on.
    The disequilibrium in Mennonite Church USA
        is more profound than our disagreement over a few hot issues.
    What is at stake is how we, as a church body,
        hear and obey the voice of God,
        and how we relate to each other in the larger body,
            when we are hearing different things.

Some church bodies, and church traditions,
    have one clearly appointed representative of God—
        be it pope or bishop or ayatollah or rabbi—
        who decides for everyone under their authority.

Other church traditions, like Anabaptists,
    trust the Spirit to speak to all members of the community,
    as we submit our will to God as a body,
        seeking truth together in the scriptures, by the Spirit.
    That makes things more challenging, of course,
        when different bodies hear different things,
            and all believe it’s the Spirit speaking.

Yes, God speaks, with authority, by the Holy Spirit.
Yes, God speaks, with authority, through Holy Scripture.
    But that doesn’t make it simple and straightforward.
    We still need to listen and discern and decide what we are hearing.

So how do we know true hearing, from false hearing?

The same question was asked in Deuteronomy 18,
    about the prophet of God.
Immediately after the section we read earlier,
    where it said that if the prophet spoke words not from God,
        that prophet would die . . .
    we have these words, in verses 21 and 22, and I quote.
    “You may say to yourselves,
        ‘How can we know when a message
            has not been spoken by the Lord?’
        If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord
            does not take place or come true,
            that is a message the Lord has not spoken.
        That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed.”

Now that’s interesting!
    And not a whole lot of help, actually.
    We only know after the fact?

    So the prophet speaks,
        and we won’t know for sure if the prophet spoke truth,
        unless the words spoken do not come true?
    So if the prophet says, “Obey the Lord by doing A, B, and C,
        or else X, Y, and Z will happen,”
            we still need to decide whether to listen,
                because the proof only comes later,
                after we’ve decided what to do.
        Even God’s iron-clad test of authority,
            requires discernment, and trust,
            and patience to see how it pans out.

    We have nothing more iron-clad and fool-proof than they did,
        when we are discerning the truth of what the Spirit is saying,
            through the church, through the scriptures,
            through the evidence we see around us.
        We still must listen to the Spirit,
            as we listen to the scripture,
                listen to the church,
                listen to our context,
                listen to the world around us,
            and do the best we can,
            and be humble,
            and be patient as things play themselves out.

        Of course, we all want to know the truth.
            Let us never accuse each other
                of not valuing the truth,
                of not honestly seeking the truth,
                of not respecting God’s authority.
            Let us assume the best in each other.
                And let us patiently stick with each other,
                    as we keep working at it.

    Is the way of communal discernment more messy,
        more ambiguous,
        more difficult,
        and more time-consuming
            than a single authoritative interpreter
            of God’s will at the top?
    Of course it is.
    But since all authority is mediated through human filters anyway,
        I’d still rather throw my lot in with a church
            where every member enters into a lively covenant
                with God and with the Spirit and
                with the community of disciples,
            and that covenantal relationship trumps everything.
        It demands that we do the work necessary
            to discern the will and way of God for our time,
            even when our own sisters and brothers in covenant,
            are hearing something different than we do.

        Oh, I imagine things would be very different
            in a church where all of you agreed in advance,
                when you became a member,
            that I would be the primary authority
                of what God’s will is for us in this community,
                and that you would submit to it.
            And where I (and a hundred other pastors like me)
                would submit our authority entirely to one super-pastor
                    higher up than us in the structure,
                and on up the ladder to Almighty God.

        But that’s not the kind of covenant have with each other.
            Thank God!
            Because that one’s ripe with the possibility
                for the spiritual abuse I spoke of earlier.
            We are in this together.
            And by God’s grace,
                we will stay in it together,
                as we continue to sort out what God’s will is for us,
                and together commit ourselves to obey
                    even as we are continually discerning,
                    by God’s help.

Let us pray for the courage to listen to God and each other,
    as we pray this prayer, in song,
    “Teach me, O Lord, thy way of truth . . .” [HWB 487]

—Phil Kniss, February 1, 2015

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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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