Sunday, January 13, 2019

Phil Kniss: Talking about sin in a world gone mad

On vice and virtue, sin and goodness
Isaiah 11:1-9; Romans 3:21-26

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Today is the first in a series 
on what is supposedly the preacher’s favorite topic—sin.
It’s a well-worn cliche.
I always do a little eye-roll
when the daily crossword puzzle has the clue:
“sermon topic” . . . and it’s always a three-letter word. 
And the answer is never God.
It’s SIN.

That, despite the fact that most of our culture, 
including much of the church,
has moved pretty far beyond that stereotype,
the pendulum has swung in the other direction.

Not too many years ago, after a funeral, 
an out-of-town relative of the deceased, 
someone I assumed didn’t spend a lot of time in church,
came up to me afterward,
complimented me on the beautiful service,
but expressed dismay at the scripture I read,
which the family had requested.
I think it was actually Romans 3, the one we read today.
And she said to me, “Why did we have to read about sin?
I thought the church had gotten over all that years ago.”

I forget my response on that occasion.
But I wonder what she would think 
of my planning six Sundays to dwell on the topic.

Actually, I’m kind of stoked right now to be starting a series on sin.
Partly, but I haven’t done it in a long time.
My last sermon that focused entirely on the topic of sin 
was four years ago.
The last series I planned on the topic was 12 years ago.
So I don’t fit the old stereotype very well.
Whether that’s good or bad, you can decide.

But I think we Christ-followers have a lot to think about and talk about
concerning sin,
living as we are in a world that seems to have gone off the rails,
when it comes to matters of morality and integrity,
not to mention basic kindness and civility.
We live in an often good and beautiful, 
and often evil and cruel world.

So I hope this series gives us all an opportunity,
not just to name, accurately, the many offenses against God
that we observe in the world around us— 
but also to be honest about our own sin,
but not fall down some dark hole
and wallow in guilt and shame and self-hatred.

My aim is to find the right balance,
and give us the language we need
to speak honestly about the brokenness in us and in the world,
and to speak hopefully about the redemption that is available.

As we look at all the craziness in our world,
the jockeying for power at the expense of the most vulnerable,
the reliance on fear and anger to motivate people,
the sheer devastation we are wreaking on each other,
we need, as Christians, an appropriate language
so we can deal with it honestly, and without losing hope.

And we need a way to reckon honestly with the brokenness
in our own lives — 
brokenness that often goes deeper that we can easily assess.

And for that, I don’t think words like shortcoming, or error, 
or misjudgement, or even vice, 
are quite sufficient.
We need a theological word, like sin, if we want to be honest.

Those other words are helpful.
In fact, we will be using them often in the coming weeks,
as we look at the so-called “seven deadly sins”
and consider the sort of practices we might undertake
that cultivate a life of virtue, 
rather than reinforce our tendency toward vice.

Historically, this list of seven deadly sins
has gone by different names — 
cardinal vices
capital vices
mortal sins
deadly sins

Then, of course, we have their opposites — 
the seven corresponding virtues

It could well be worthwhile to spend our energy in this series
focused entirely on cultivating virtue
and ridding ourselves of vice.
It could be a good investment of our time
to focus entirely on practices that shape us for the good life,
and on practices that keep us from the good life,
however we choose to define that.

Virtue is formed by engaging in healthy practices.
And vice is reinforced by continuing unhealthy practices.

So we will, in fact,
be talking a lot about practices.
My aim is that this series will be practical and useful.

But before we get into all that,
in order to build a lasting house of virtue
we need a solid theological foundation.

We need to ask, “What kind of design does God have on us?”
What is God’s intention for us as human beings?
So we have to talk about sin.

Sin is more than a mistake.
More than a character flaw.
Sin is a spiritual state of affairs
that we must take seriously.


But today’s culture often trivializes the seven deadly sins,
takes a quick, surface look at them,
and declares them basically harmless, maybe even desirable.

For instance, some confuse gluttony with feasting,
so they laugh it off.
On occasion, stuffing yourself at a celebrative, abundant feast
can be a joyful and harmless thing.
So let’s get over this sin thing.

And some confuse sloth with rest,
and dismiss it as a sin.
Saying we are already overworked and overstressed 
and sleep-deprived,
and we need to stop, rest, breathe, 
and sometimes do absolutely nothing.
All true.

But that’s sloppy, superficial thinking.
In the classical Christian tradition
gluttony is not the same as feasting,
sloth is not the same as taking a sabbath,
lust is not the same as enjoying physical pleasure,
pride is not the same as having high self-esteem,
anger is not the same as a passion for confronting injustice,
greed is not the same as maximizing profit,
envy is not the same as admiring the success of others.

So whenever I hear someone dismiss one of these sins as outdated,
I say “not so fast!”
Let’s go a little deeper.
Let’s dig beneath the surface.

Yes, we are modern and enlightened,
but I suspect we all have to admit
there was wisdom even in the early centuries of the church.
Let’s at least try to understand more deeply
what our tradition has had to say about these matters,
and see whether the tradition has something of value 
for our present day situation.
There are no doubt some things we can leave behind.
But there is probably much more we should treasure, and even defend.

So let’s think a bit about what we even mean by the word “sin.”
If we can be as clear as possible in our definition,
we will be in a better position to see 
how this list of seven 
informs the way we live in a chaotic and broken world.

Whereas vice refers to some character trait 
or flawed habits or behaviors,
sin speaks to our connection with God.
Unfortunately (I think) for too long
we have made sin simply a category of behavior
and not much more.

So as a church, we have spent a gigantic amount of collective energy
on list-making,
on trying to properly categorize behaviors into one of two columns.
Does doing this act belong in the “sin” column
or the “not sin” column.
If it’s in this column, then repentance and forgiveness are the response.
It it’s in the other column, then I guess no response is necessary. 
It’s all good.

There are at least three problems with this approach.
Maybe more, but I can think of three right off the bat.

First, we will obviously never all agree 
on which column something belongs in.
Different denominations put the same behavior in opposite columns.
And different congregations do the same.
And different groups in the same congregation.
And different individuals in the same group, even the same family,
will have different lists in both columns.

And second, again rather obviously, 
moral discernment is always on a spectrum.
It doesn’t lend itself to two distinct columns.
No matter what behavior is in question,
there will always be the matter of greater or lesser goods,
and greater or lesser evils.
Context matters.
Lying to avoid facing the consequences of my own misdeeds,
is a different thing, morally,
than lying to the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, 
while hiding Jews in my house.

And third,
when we spend all our energy on the two columns,
it distracts us from the real issue.
how does this way of living, this way of being human 
impact my God-given vocation and identity?

We start with the assumption that our life has a purpose,
that we were created by God for a reason.
Yes, we have freedom.
We are not being coerced into serving God’s agenda.
We have choice.
We have agency.
But there is no doubt, within our faith tradition, 
we were created with purpose.
We are not self-determined or self-defined beings.
We have a Creator to answer to.

What is that purpose?
It is to join in God’s work, to engage in God’s mission.
We are God’s agents and ambassadors.
Or, to say it the way N. T. Wright describes it,
we were made to be God’s image-bearers.
When God created human beings,
and placed in us God’s own image or likeness,
from that moment it was our destiny, our purpose,
to let that image be seen.
We were made to reflect God to the world around us,
and we were made to return to God worship and praise.
It’s that angled-mirror metaphor that Wright uses,
we reflect God’s glory and image to creation,
we return worship and praise to God on behalf of creation.

So then, sin is a failure to worship.

The Greek word for sin, hamartia, literally means to miss the mark,
like an archer whose arrow flies wide of the target.

That’s a lot different than saying we didn’t check off 
all the right behaviors on the list.
It means we miss the main mark, 
the primary intention of our existence.
It means we fail to reflect God’s image to the world.
And when we fail to return our worship 
to the God who deserves it.

So sin, in every sense of the word, is idolatry.
When we sin,
we cause a break in our worship of God,
and give power to beings or forces other than God.

Another way of putting it, 
informed by the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans,
is that sin is breaking faith with God.

Yes, we put our trust (our faith) in God,
but God also puts trust (or faith) in us,
to be good stewards of the gift.
It’s a two-way faith connection.
Sin breaks that faith.

When we break trust with God,
we miss the mark of our created purpose,
we sin.
And all have sinned and come short.

The good news is that there is grace, there is forgiveness.
What has severed can be healed,
because God will do anything to heal the break.
God is motivated by that vision of shalom we heard in Isaiah,
and is steadfastly working toward that,
depending on us as partners and stewards.

Sin is a relationship problem between us and God.
Sin violates the shalom vision.
It makes the world “not the way it’s supposed to be.”
It severs an intended relationship
between Creator and creature.

But that’s not the end of the story.
God loves us. 
And God is determined to rescue us from that alienation,
to save us from our sin.
That is the story of the Bible in a nutshell.

There is redemption from our sinful condition, personally.
There is redemption from the sin 
that penetrates our systems and structures.
There is redemption from the sin that pervades the universe.
In Christ, in the cross,
we are saved from our state of alienation,
and saved for reconciliation and shalom.
We need not remain cut off from God, from others,
from ourselves, or from the earth.

That is good news for us Christian sinners.

The rest of the world may well take this Christian tradition
of the seven deadly sins and brush them off.
They may trivialize the idea of sin itself,
laugh it off,
consider it passe,
and ignore it in each other . . . 
until it gets just too flagrant and offensive.
Then the knee-jerk response is to condemn and isolate the offender,
treat them as a lesser class, and one of the untouchables.
And there is no clear pathway back.

But we Christian sinners, at least when we’re thinking straight,
we will openly acknowledge that we fall,
we expect that our actions will at times
distance ourselves from God and each other.
But then we proclaim the same Gospel story Paul proclaimed.
There is a pathway to redemption.
By the grace of God, and with the aid of the family of God,
we can get up again,
and move on, restored, redeemed.

Thanks be to God.
I assure you this series on sins coming up
will not be a downer.
Yes, we will be honest about the brokenness.
But we will not despair, because we have no reason to.

—Phil Kniss, January 13, 2019

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

Paula Stoltzfus: A LIGHT for all

Epiphany Sunday: “Light”

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Matthew 2:1-12

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A Light for All

In my twenties I assisted a number of trips with EMU’s wilderness seminar in the mountains of West Virginia.  One of the memories of those trips was peering up at the diamond speckled sky on the clear cold nights.  I could easily get a stiff neck just from looking up so long.

I know some of the basic constellations like the big and little dipper, which isn’t much in the world of constellations.  If one knows the stars well enough to point out the north star, one can get oriented in direction and place. Mostly I’m in awe of a clear night sky.

When our oldest son was 13, we took a road trip, during which one stop was to see my brother and sister in law who were living in the western part of NY at the time.  We were talking about shooting stars together, in which Justin exclaimed from his 13-year-old experience, that he thought shooting stars were a “scam.”  He had never seen one before and thought they were just a figment of the viewers imagination.  The rest of us, having witnessed a shooting star at some time in our lives, were trying to convince him through our stories that shooting stars were real.  We gave scientific explanations of what caused the light to shoot in the sky.  We weren’t convincing enough.

It happened to be a clear crisp night outside when we were talking about this, so we all looked up, deciding to look in the sky for a while and enjoy the stars we could see.  Soon after peering up, not one, but two shooting stars shot through the sky.  Shooting stars were no longer a scam!

Sometimes it is the case that we don’t believe it until we see it.


The wise men in our Matthew passage this morning seem to have seen a great star and did believe.

The wise men, also called Magi, were not of Jewish decent. From what we know they were from the east, beyond that scholars speculate as from exactly which part of the east.  They were known to be very wise, astrologers, interpreting dreams, and some may have predicted the future based off both.  Point being, they would have known the sky, and the stars well. 

The star that announced Jesus’ birth must have been a star like none other.  It caused this curious group of people to be on the move to discover what this star was all about.  

The wise men in Matthew are pointed as fulfilling verse 3 of chapter 60 in our Isaiah passage, that nations, indicating other than Israelites, will also come and acknowledge God’s light. 

The context of Isaiah 60 is of a time at the end of the Israelite exile from Jerusalem. They were moving back into the war torn desolate city.  When Isaiah 60 is read apart from the surrounding passages it sounds like a hopeful time.  But within the context of the preceding chapters which are characterized by gloom and despair  with a call to repentance, chapter 60 is an abrupt change to announce that “the light has come and the glory of the Lord is present” regardless of what the evidence was in front of them.

It’s like living in a deep depression and someone saying there is hope for a better tomorrow.  

Or like an immigrant family at the border seeking refuge from deep seeded systemic violence in their homeland met with a hostility and closed doors.  Then someone saying, there is hope for a better tomorrow. 

Or like an addict that has relapsed, breaking trust and relationships around them, and someone saying, there is hope for a better tomorrow.

Sometimes it is the case that we don’t believe it until we see it.  So the words of a hope for a better tomorrow can feel hollow.

For the Israelites, the significance of this announcement was that even in the midst of darkness and despair, that God was still present.  God’s presence wasn’t in the things around them.  For if that were the case, God would have appeared defeated.  No, God was shining in spite of the devastation and destruction, in spite of the despair, in spite of the appearance of no way forward.  God’s light was presence.

This is a different kind of hope.  Not a hope of what will come, but what is now.  God is in the darkness, in the hopelessness, and in the despair through God’s presence.  God with us, not God with us when we get our city rebuilt or our act together.


It is curious that the wise men knew that this new birth was the “king of the Jews.” I can only imagine that they were seekers, on a quest to discover the significance of this star.  Perhaps they knew enough about the Jewish faith that they were aware they were awaiting a king to emerge.  Or maybe they inquired with community folk or shepherds along their journey and discovered the significance of this baby’s birth, hearing he was to be the king of the Jews.  

However they discovered the significance of Jesus’ birth, they didn’t seem to clue in right away on the threat this may pose on Herod, the political leader of the area.  There was no google to seek out direction.  They had to go where information was held to find where they could locate this significant person.

Herod, perceiving the possible threat of a rising king of the Jews, elicited information from the Jewish scribes and priests, to tell him more.  And so we see Jesus’ birth become a threat from the beginning to the powers that be.

Power is a funny thing.  It can be addicting. The more one has the more one wants.  When there is a perceived threat, the temptation is to coerce, deceive, and expend others at all costs in order to maintain control.  An appetite for power can lead one to do immeasurable harm.  Herod, as a result of hearing about this kings birth, ordered the death of all the children 2 years and younger in Bethlehem causing Mary and Joseph to find refuge in Egypt with baby Jesus.

We the church like to think of ourselves as in the world but not of it because our allegiance is to God and not to humans.  But we fall to the same temptations in our use of power.  We are tempted to use our power to set rules to preserve order and uphold righteous living. This semblance of order maintains who is in and who is out, who is faithful and who is not.  It is predictable, neat, and tidy.

Now order and righteous living are not bad in and of themselves, but if their ideals are used to dominate instead of serve, silence instead of give voice, hold one in place instead of empower, hoard rather than give, then we are operating in the worldly kind of power and not the empowering relationship that God exemplified through Jesus’ faith and life, which was anything but neat and tidy.


In Isaiah, God came despite the plight of the Israelites.  God’s coming in glory was unconditional, not conditional on making it right.  

Repentance, mending of ways, and living out of justice is a response to God’s coming, not a requirement to be in God’s glory.  It is a message to draw people from all people groups, backgrounds, lifestyle, mindset, religion, into God’s light, not exclude them from it.

In Matthew, the only gospel that includes the Magi, seems to want to communicate this same message. God’s coming is for all, not just a select few. God reached out and spoke their language and they noticed.  God reached beyond the “insiders” in order that all nations may come to know the light of Christ.


We live by different calendars.  The new liturgical calendar began in Advent.  We now experience our new calendar year when the culture around us is steeped in new years resolutions.  Whether you find that practice helpful or not we are always in a moment of remembrance and new beginnings.

The Magi were well versed in reading the stars. They spent time studying and learning about them.  God reached out and spoke in a language they knew and they took notice.  

What language are you present with?  The seasons, art, music, silence, social justice, caring for others, the written or spoken word, interacting with people?  

What draws your attention?  What do you wonder? What stirs you up or generates a holy anger or passion?  What might God’s invitation be for you in this moment and time to notice?

I don’t ask these questions with the intent that you will have an answer to them, simply to get you pondering.

Communion is a time to recommit, reconnect, remember, and re-orient us to God’s light.  Appropriate for the new year, but more importantly, appropriate as we consider that God’s presence, God’s glory is right here and right now, no matter where you consider yourself on this journey of faith. 

God reaches out to the nations, to you and to me, and says, “No matter what the reality of life may be, my light has come for you.  Repent from being lured into the power of the world.   My light will overshadow your darkness.  My presence will be with you.  As you dwell in my love, my light will be made brighter in you. As you bask in my grace, my light will be made brighter in you.  And as you are filled with my Spirit, be empowered to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly as you interact with your friends and enemies. For I am with you always.”



Blessed are you, bountiful God,

for you made the fruit of the vine to nourish us;

you gave us this cup as a sign of your blood.

Let our sharing be a taste of the wine we shall drink

in your joyful feast. Amen.

Let us now drink the cup together.

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Sunday, December 23, 2018

Phil Kniss: Love and revolution

Advent 4: “LOVE: Blessing and restoration”
Luke 1:39-45

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Fourth Sunday of Advent—Love Sunday.
Wait! Isn’t every Sunday Love Sunday?
I think we rarely, if ever,
get through any Sunday worship service,
without specifically naming and appreciating, the love of God.
As it should be.

Love is central to who God is…
Love is one word, and I think the only word,
that scriptures actually say defines God.

Yes, there are many different adjectives that describe God in scripture.
The Lord is righteous, is just, is compassionate,
is merciful, is patient, etc.
And there are many different titles attributed to God.
The Lord is the Creator, the Ruler, the Judge,
the Provider, and lots more.
But if I’m not mistaken, correct me if I’m wrong,
Love is the only noun, the only concept by which God is defined.
It says it in exactly those words, multiple times.
Not just God is loving. That’s a description.
Not just God is a lover. That’s a title.
But God is love. That a definition.

So if love is so essential to understanding who God is,
and we talk about the love of God every time we worship,
then in a way, it’s a little odd
that we designate one Sunday out of four,
in this one season out of many,
as a Sunday to think about love.

So don’t expect me, in this sermon,
to say something entirely new or novel about love.
But I do hope to challenge us anew,
to help us think more deeply, more clearly,
and maybe from a fresh angle,
about the love of God, as demonstrated in Jesus Christ.

One other preliminary observation . . .
We didn’t really set out to do this as we planned our Advent series,
but every Sunday in Advent, in every sermon,
we have lifted up the word for the week—
hope, peace, joy, and now love—
and made a direct connection between that word, and justice.
Justice is like a thread that has wound its way through this series.

On Hope Sunday,
I said how Jeremiah, and Jesus, and the mad farmer Wendell Berry
all saw, against all evidence to the contrary,
that the God of justice was coming to set things right again.

On Peace Sunday,
we examined Isaiah’s vision of the mountains being brought down,
and the valleys raised, so that the God of Justice
could come in without hindrance, and set things right.
And we heard justice in the preaching of John the Baptist,
and the song of Zechariah.

Then last week, on Joy Sunday, Moriah perhaps most explicitly
named the relationship of joy to justice.
Even her sermon title, Just Joy, made that clear connection,
and called us to do the same,
with our actions as well as words.

Well, today I want us to understand how the love of God,
is an expression of God’s promise
to turn our world order upside down and bring about justice.

And much of it comes down to Mary’s song of revolution—
a song we like to soften by giving it a lofty Latin name,
the Magnificat.
I guess it helps us keep our mind off
the disturbing, revolutionary aspect of this song,
and focus on sweet Mary magnifying the Lord,
with her humble words of praise and adoration.

But the Magnificat is anything but a sweet song.
It ought to elicit strong reactions, from everyone,
like any call to revolution would.

The Magnificat is a prediction
that the entire social order as we know it will be undone.
Will be turned on its head.

It is more than strange, don’t you think, that this song
has been written into the greatest musical compositions,
and sung in the world’s largest cathedrals,
and performed by the world’s most elite choirs,
and in the audience, applauding loudly,
have been members of royalty, the military elite,
and giants of global wealth and industry?
I guess they just don’t pay attention to the words.
The song is all about God humiliating the rich and powerful,
tearing them down from their thrones,
and sending them away empty-handed.
And putting the poor and lowly in their place instead.

This song has been set to music
by Bach, Bruckner, Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff,
and is performed frequently during the holiday season.
And, every time an Anglican or Episcopal church
holds an Evensong service,
this song about social and economic revolution is reverently sung.
Every time.
Every high-church evening vespers—Catholic, Lutheran, and more—
incorporates Mary’s song in the prescribed liturgy:
“My soul magnifies the Lord . . .
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”

How many sitting U.S. presidents,
or pompous politicians or greedy Wall Street barons,
have gone to an evening service in any high church,
and were so oblivious they weren’t even offended?
The irony in that is almost beyond belief.

This song describes a world that doesn’t yet exist,
and would never exist,
if those in power, had any say in the matter.

So what does it have to do with love?
What’s love got to do with it?

It’s not hard to find love in this song . . . if you are Mary,
or if you can put yourself in Mary’s shoes.

Mary, the unwed teenager, engaged to a carpenter,
is called to be the host for God,
and is now, obviously . . . and scandalously . . . pregnant.
Mary had always lived under the radar in her quiet hometown.
An unremarkable person,
with no wealth or power or legal standing,
in a small town,
in a little country,
under military occupation.

And here they are in Bethlehem,
sneaking around hoping for an out-of-the-way place
to deliver a baby, where it wouldn’t draw attention,
and add to the scandal.

I guess you realize the Bible never mentions an innkeeper.
We don’t know that they were sent out back to the barn.
That part is only legend.
The Bible doesn’t even say all the inns were full.
It only says, and I quote, “there was no place for them in the inn.”
That phrase could also be read to mean,
“the inn was no place for them.”
Sure, maybe all the rooms were booked.
But maybe an unmarried couple about to have a baby in public
knew that a bustling inn was “no place”
for them to quietly do what they had to do.
Maybe they never even knocked on any doors.
Maybe, on their own accord,
they were scouting around for any safe and quiet place.
A livestock barn would have been perfect.

The fact that Joseph even brought Mary along, says a lot.
Joseph had to pay the tax, not Mary.
He didn’t have to put her at this kind of risk.
But leaving her home alone in Nazareth was not safe, either—
living in shame and social isolation, about to give birth.

Not safe at home, not safe on the move.
If you want to get close to the real human experience here,
forget every picturesque manger scene
you’ve ever laid your eyes on.
Nostalgia is well and good.
But those pictures are entirely made up,
by people who don’t want an uncomfortable Christmas story.

Picture instead,
one of many hundreds of families at our southern border—
the families Moriah was talking about last Sunday.
Picture a family at the mercy of total strangers,
on the move because they have no better, safer, choice,
picture them huddled in a makeshift tent,
hoping someone might have the heart not to judge them,
but provide them food and shelter instead.

I assure you.
That picture is factually, much closer to the real Nativity of Jesus,
than any Christmas card image you have ever seen.

No wonder Mary could sing such a song of revolution.
She was living life on the underside of the social structure,
the most vulnerable side.

So of course, that song sounds like love, to her.
A loving God sees her plight,
and the plight of her people,
and shows tender mercy to them—
provides for their needs,
removes the oppressor from them,
and fills their empty stomachs.
What a beautiful expression of God’s love!

But what about us, and I mean most of us,
who live on the upper side of our social structure,
who don’t have to worry very much about safe shelter,
or where the next meal is coming from,
or when the next person will take cruel advantage of us,
exploiting our labor,
exploiting our bodies,
robbing us of our dignity.

What about us,
the ones with power, privilege, prestige, and protection?
Does God love the rich and powerful?

Well, if we believe scripture, that God . . . is . . . love,
then God’s actions cannot be a denial of God’s character.
So all of what God does must be motivated
by God’s core defining nature—that of love.

So clearly, God loves all people, including the rich and powerful.
Sometimes we are tempted to take a story like this,
and use it to vilify the rich and glorify the poor.
That’s not what’s happening here in this story.

God is not acting out a cruel vendetta,
God is not executing punishment for the sake of humiliating anyone.
God is setting things right again.
God sees where things went wrong,
and is upsetting the structure,
so as to save and restore ALL the people.

God affirms wealth, and its capacity to do good.
That is why God has such compassion on those without wealth.
God appreciates power, and its ability to enact God’s will.
That is why God feels so tender toward those
who have power taken from them.
God is on the side of joy and beauty and abundance and freedom.
Which is why God loves the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden,
and seeks to show them the kind of life they deserve.

God does not ruthlessly seek revenge against the wealthy and powerful,
just for the sake of vengeance.
God is setting them free of the very thing that has enslaved them,
and made their lives less than
the good whole life God created them for.
The rich and powerful are also, in a real way, imprisoned.
They are captive by their own making.
They are shackled by the very injustices
they have foisted on others,
those injustices have kept the powerful from living fully.
They have lost the joy-filled, beautiful, and abundant life
God created them for.
In oppressing others,
they have oppressed themselves, without realizing it.

God is about setting everyone free.
When those with the capacity to do good,
don’t do it,
they find themselves enslaved by their own greed and anxieties,
and they fail to live out God’s purposes.
So God upsets the order of things,
and turns to those
who still have a chance of seeing a better way.

God allows
the strong to be upstaged by the weak,
the big to be shamed by the small,
the high and mighty to get lost in the shadows
of those who formerly were invisible.

I can’t think of a more poignant present-day example, again,
than our southern border.
How is it that one of the
richest and most powerful countries in the world,
would feel so threatened and anxious and angry,
that we feel it necessary to send 6,000 armed military troops,
to meet a caravan of 1,000 Central Americans
living in abject poverty,
fleeing violence in their home country,
carrying little more than the clothes on their back?

We have made ourselves captive by our own wealth and power.
We also need liberation.
A different kind, but liberation nonetheless.
We need to be freed from our anxious, fearful,
half-way kind of living,
and be freed, by love,
to open ourselves to the full life God made us for,
a life of self-emptying, generosity, hospitality.

Sadly, the number of times these days,
that the powerful have this kind of epiphany,
and voluntarily free themselves from this anxiety,
and choose love and vulnerability—
those times are few and far between.

Occasionally, this kind of love gets exhibited.
And we can point to it as a sign of God at work,
to enact restoration and salvation,
showing love for all God’s creation,
from the least to the greatest.
But more often, it’s those on the underside
that can see and name what’s really going on.
And when those persons speak,
it would be wise for the rest of us to listen.
Again and again in scripture,
the small ones shame the great ones.

This is the dynamic at work in our hymn of response,
if you’ll turn to your bulletin,
It highlights Mary and the Magnificat,
but also names other women without power and standing,
who spoke necessary truth to the powerful.

“With Mary sing Magnificat, with Miriam dance in praise,
with prophet Anna, speak a word of faith . . .”
Then it names Rizpah, a woman who suffered horrors in 2 Samuel,
and the Hebrew midwives who stood up to Pharaoh.

And I love the third verse
that invites us all into the song of love and justice—

With confidence we may proclaim Love’s liberating power,
bear witness to the saving Grace still with us every hour,
and sing with thanks, delight, and praise a new yet ancient song,
together sing Magnificat with voices clear and strong.

Let’s sing this together, in voices clear and strong.

—Phil Kniss, December 23, 2018

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