Sunday, October 4, 2015

Phil Kniss: Many families, one table

What if the church worshiped like a family?
Luke 22:14-23; Acts 2:41-47

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Today, around the world,
    churches large and small come to the Lord’s Table.
    Wouldn’t it be great if we could peek into all those services
        as they issue the invitation to communion?
    I think we’d be amazed at the
        beautiful variety of families gathering at the Table, and
        beautiful variety of ways they share the meal.
    There would be some walking forward reverently,
        in tall, echo-y cathedrals
        with priests in regal, gold-trimmed robes serving them.
    There would be some serving each other
        sitting in a circle on the ground,
        under a tree in the tropical sun.
    For the bread, there would be homemade multigrain loaves,
        there would be paper thin wafers that taste like cardboard,
        there would be tortillas, injera, and chapati.
    For the cup, there would be tiny plastic cups that hold a sip,
        there would be large chalices from which everyone drinks;
        there would be grape juice in some, wine in others.

Some of these table times would overflow with joyful celebration,
    even laughter, maybe shouting in the spirit.
Some would be somber, silent, evocative, even tearful.

Today there will be as many table experiences,
    as there are churches meeting.
Yet, we say—
    “There is only one table of the Lord.”
    Thus, the word, “communion.”—common union.
But how can that be?

In this sermon series we make the claim the church is a family.
    We claim that we are, both in metaphor, and in fact,
        brothers and sisters in Christ.
    And I believe there is no practice we undertake
        more central, more foundational to our unity
            as a family of sisters and brothers,
        than the practice of gathering around the table,
            to eat the bread and drink the cup.

    So how can we take communion, like a family?
    How can we worship like a family?
    How can we, as an oikos—
        the biblical word I introduced last Sunday,
            meaning a household, an extended family of faith—
        how can we sit around one table here,
            as diverse as we are,
            much less with brothers and sisters elsewhere
                who live and worship and speak and believe
                so differently than we do?

I’ll tell you how.
    It’s a miracle.
    A true, honest-to-goodness,
        supernatural, act-of-God, miracle.
    We cannot find unity through heroic efforts on our part.
        It is God’s work, it is the work of Jesus Christ,
            memorialized in the bread and cup.

Remember Ephesians 2, that we looked at a few months ago?
    In Christ . . . in Christ . . . “you are no longer strangers and aliens,
        but you are citizens with the saints
        and also members of the oikos (or household) of God.
    In Christ, and only therein,
        we who are far apart are brought together.
    In Christ, the wall of hostility is dismantled.
    In Christ, we are made one.

And the primary tangible symbol of that unifying work of Christ,
    is the bread and the cup.
    So rich is this meal, so nourishing,
        I can scarcely come to the table enough.

Which is why I commend it to us,
    as a core family practice in this, our extended family,
    the oikos of Park View Mennonite,
        in our varied expressions,
        in our varied smaller family groupings,
            in classes, small groups, fellowship groups,
                even biological families.
    It’s time we return this ritual of the bread and cup,
        to the regular day-to-day life of the people of God.

Like what we heard from Acts 2,
    after the Holy Spirit fell on the early church.
They gathered daily in each other’s homes.
    They broke bread together
        and ate with “glad and generous hearts.”
    They regularly ate a common meal,
        with high thanksgiving,
        and in memory of Jesus.

    There is no doubt, among any Bible scholar,
        that a common meal,
        was central to the practice of worship in the early church.
    That probably included a simple well-rounded meal.
        But it certainly included a ritualized breaking of the bread,
            and drinking of the cup—
            a partaking of the Lord’s Supper with thanksgiving.
        That word thanksgiving is the word “Eucharist” in Greek.

If we make the argument, as I do,
    that the church of Jesus Christ must see itself as a family—
        not a family for its own end, and own purposes,
        but a family on mission with God for God’s purposes—
        then what better practice for us to renew and revive,
            than the practice of pulling up chairs to the table,
            and sharing the bread and cup of Jesus?

    I think we do a disservice to this meal, and to Jesus who gave it,
        when we make the meal into something
            so formalized and rarified,
            so magical and mysterious,
                that we’re almost afraid to approach the table.
    We miss the mark
        if we make the meal into such a production,
            or set the bar so high,
            that we keep parts of our family away who desire to take it.

Now, I’m not speaking against certain Christian families—
    brothers and sisters of ours, like Catholics, Eastern Orthodox,
        conservative Baptist and Anabaptist groups, and others—
    who practice closed communion,
        who don’t serve the bread and cup to non-members.
I have deep respect for groups seeking to be faithful to their tradition,
    but who practice radical hospitality in other ways.

    But what I suggest for our context,
        in our practice of open communion,
        is to open it even more, to take it out beyond the sanctuary.
    It need not be administered by credentialed clergy
        to call it the “Lord’s Supper.”
    Let’s return the meal to the household, the oikos,
        the extended family of God wherever it gathers.

    This meal is for every disciple
        who seeks to follow Jesus in truth and transparency,
        everyone who lives under the new covenant.
    And if we take Jesus seriously,
        we will celebrate it often.
        In fact, Jesus implied that every time we ate bread, period;
            and every time we drank from the cup, period;
            we should remember Jesus.

It’s a God-thing, a good thing, to make the ordinary sacred,
    to make something so everyday as bread and wine
        an occasion for remembering and naming
        the sacrifice Jesus made on our behalf, out of love.

    I think I’ve mentioned before that our small group does this,
        once a week when we share a meal.
        At the beginning, after we sit,
            and before we dig into the rest of the meal,
            we distribute the bread and the wine,
            and we give thanks to Jesus.
        We explicitly name and call to mind the work of Jesus
            to lay down his life on our behalf,
            to reconcile us to God, and to each other.
        It takes all of 2 minutes. It’s high worship.
            And we all take our turns to lead.

    There is nothing keeping any of the rest of you,
        in your respective gatherings,
        in your extended family of faith,
        in your oikos,
            to act like a family united in Jesus Christ,
            and celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
        In case you were afraid that would offend me,
            or offend my ecclesiastical higher-ups,
            let me release you, be free!

    I commend this practice to you,
        just as Jesus himself broke bread and shared the cup
        with his ragtag dysfunctional family of disciples,
            including his betrayer.
        And in Luke’s version of the story,
            Jesus explicitly pointed that out, when he said,
                “the hand of him who is going to betray me
                    is with mine on the table.”
    I say, if Jesus was willing to share the table with Judas,
        who are we to dismiss anyone seeking to follow Jesus
            with integrity, and in truth?

In that Spirit, we will eat and drink
    at the One Table of the Lord this morning.
    We read this scripture a few minutes ago,
        but let me repeat it in part . . .
    “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it,
        and gave it to them, saying,
        ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’
    In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying,
        ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
            which is poured out for you.’”

May God bless this bread and cup as we partake this morning.

—Phil Kniss, October 4, 2015

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Phil Kniss: Church ecology

What if the church was really an extended family?
1 Peter 2:4-10; Luke 10:1-9; Psalm 22:9-11, 22-28

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Let me start with a grammar lesson,
    and the theological implications thereof.
    It all began Tuesday morning,
        when the title of this morning’s worship service
        was posted on the sign out by the road.
        “What if the church was a family?”

    One PVMCer coming through the building that morning,
        a retired nursing prof (and you know who you are),
        mentioned to me in passing, “I’m not an English major,
            but some little bells went off when I saw the sign.
            Shouldn’t it be ‘were’ instead of ‘was’?”

Frankly, at that point, I hadn’t given the verb form much thought.
    And I kind of passed it off for the moment.
    But just hours later another PVMCer,
        a former congregational chair
            who used to work with MCC in Lebanon,
            (and you know who you are)
        sat down in my office for a chat,
            but before addressing the subject of our meeting, he said,
        “About that sign by the road . . .
            I think when asking an “if” question like that,
                we should use the subjunctive form.”

He made it sound so authoritative
    I knew I had to get to the bottom of it.
    Should it be “was” or “were,” and does it really matter?
    Since it was the title not only of this Sunday,
        but a whole eight-week sermon series,
        I thought maybe we should get it right.

    So I went down the hall to chat with the staff who were present.
        One of them, who is married to the CEO
            of a certain local Mennonite publishing agency,
                (and you know who you are)
            suggested she call her husband,
            who tends to know and care about things grammar-related.
        When who should walk in the door,
            but our former office manager,
                who is also a former English teacher
                (and you know who you are),
            and I posed the question to her.
        I knew she had opinions about grammar in the church,
            because I worked with her for 15 years or so.

    She said it’s a matter of whether the if statement
        is actually true,
        or only hypothetical.
            If it’s only hypothetical, then it’s “were.”
            If it’s actually a true condition, then it’s “was.”

    That was basically the answer I got
        when I finally summoned the courage to approach
        the Supreme and All-Knowing Fountain of Truth, Wikipedia.
    It said, “the subjunctive mood is used
        for statements that are contrary to fact,
        such as ‘If I were a giraffe’ . . .”

    So here’s where it gets theological.
        Is the church actually a family? Or is it not?
        Is the statement “the church is a family”
            a hypothetical statement?
            Is it only an opinion?
            Is it only sentimental metaphor?
            Is it contrary to fact?

So where I finally came down on this,
    is I’m sticking with “was.”
        “If the church was a family . . .”
    Because I believe scripture asserts
        that the church actually is a family,
        in fact, not in wishful thinking.

    The only reason this is a grammatical issue,
        is that we don’t act like a real family that much.
        So the question seems hypothetical, when it’s not.
        We don’t really organize like a family,
            or function much like a family.
        Most of the time, we organize and function
            like a formal organization.

    The point of this sermon series,
        is to remind us that we are in fact,
        sisters and brothers in a family,
        and that renewing our vision as family,
        will help us live into that reality more and more.

    So, with apologies to any grammar police
        that I will offend over the next eight weeks,
        and with thanks to those of you who know who you are . . .
            I did not change the sign, or the bulletin cover.
    And I pose this question,
        “What if the church really . . . was . . . a family?”

And today, on the first Sunday of the series,
    I am specifically looking at family through a biblical lens.
    The New Testament concept of family
        isn’t necessarily what we might assume.
    When family is referred to in scripture,
        it’s usually closer to what we call an “extended family”
            than our modern norm, the nuclear family.
    The history of the nuclear family is a fascinating study,
        and we could talk a long time about that,
            its rise, its fall,
            its potential, its limitations.
        But my main point, for the purpose of today’s sermon,
            and for this series,
            is that in the New Testament, repeatedly,
                in multiple books and epistles,
            the church is referred to as an “oikos”—
                the Greek word for household.
        Oikos assumes an extended family network
            of people related through a variety of connections,
                biological and otherwise,
            who share their lives in a variety of ways, day to day.

    And oikos, even though it’s a Greek word, is familiar to you.
        You know it already.
        You can’t say it’s “all Greek to me”—
            unless you mean it literally.
        Because we use the word all the time. Or a form of it, anyway.
        Anytime we talk about the economy, or economics,
            anytime we speak of ecological concerns,
            or an ecosystem,
            we are using the word “oikos” or household.
        An “economy” is literally, “household management.”
        “Ecology” is literally,
            the study of how a household relates internally.
        An “ecosystem” is the whole system
            that supports these household relationships.

    So when we in the church ask ourselves,
        “How are we being good stewards of the relationships
            within our household of faith?”
            we are asking an ecological question,
            a question of church ecology.
        And since I spend a good deal of my time
            working at that very question,
            I guess that makes me a church ecologist.
            And I’m fine with that.

So, let’s assume the primary local church unit is an oikos,
    a household of relatives—biological and spiritual—
        who know each other face-to-face
        and share their lives together in significant ways.
    Let’s assume that’s the kind of church
        Paul was writing letters to all the time.
    Let’s assume that. Because it was.
        “Greet Priscilla and Aquilla and the church in their oikos,”
            Paul writes in Romans 16.
        “Give greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea,
            and to Nympha, and the church in her oikos,” Colossians 4.
    And he wrote to Timothy about how he should conduct himself
        “in the oikos of God, which is the church of the living God.”
    He wrote to Philemon, and “the church that meets in your oikos.”
    And in 1 Peter, a text we heard this morning,
        the apostle encourages the church,
        reminding them they are living stones,
        built up as a spiritual oikos and a holy priesthood.

Oikos—an extended family in one household—
    is both metaphor and reality for the church of New Testament times.

    a lot has changed in the church since New Testament times.
    I’m not so na├»ve as to think we have to drop who we are now,
        and structure ourselves to look exactly like the church
            in a very different time, culture, and context.
        To do so would be wrong-headed.
            We are asked to proclaim and demonstrate
                the Good News of Jesus in our context, not theirs.
            So it will look different.
                It needs to look different.

        I’m not focusing on form and structure
            when I call for a renewal of the oikos.
        I’m calling for us to take seriously
            the character of Christian lives and relationships
                that were exemplified by the early church,
                    in their many and various oikoi
                        (that’s just the plural of oikos).

    The church is a household in which
        we are not just metaphorically sisters and brothers,
        but are actual brothers and sisters by the Spirit.
    To see the church as household,
        is to see the church as more than a place and program,
            organized to do good works,
            and perpetuate itself and its institution.
    To see the church as household,
        is to see the church as God sees us—a peoplehood,
        an extended family devoted to honoring the family name.
        It is to see ourselves as bound to each other
            by love and common ancestry,
            by Spirit and water and blood.
        It is to see each other
            as persons we may not agree with on everything,
            but who we’d be willing to die for if called upon.
    To see the church as household, God’s oikos,
        is to identify ourselves with Christ,
        and cling to each other for dear life.

    That’s what healthy families do.
        They live together in ways that honor the family name.
        They live with an outward, missional purpose.
        They live with sacrificial loyalty to each other, come what may.

    And what good news this is for our times!
        How many people do you know,
            in our fragmented, polarized, and materialistic culture,
            who go through life struggling to find a real home,
                a place where they belong,
                    and are known,
                    and are safe,
                    and are loved unconditionally.
        Church as oikos is not a new demand placed on us,
            it is a grace, a gift of God.
            It is good news that we get to be an oikos.

Jesus modeled life in a spiritual oikos.
    When he brought a group of disciples around him,
        he wasn’t rejecting his own mother and siblings.
        But he was creating another kind of family
            that would be just as formative for him
            and those who followed him.
    Some of Jesus’ words and actions, vis-a-vis his family of origin,
        when looked at through our cultural lenses,
        appear to be dismissive or disrespectful.
    I don’t think that was the case in his context.

    But he was clearly prioritizing the oikos of God,
        in how he structured his life and relationships.
    “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asked one day.
        “They are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”
        Jesus’ oikos
            consisted of those willing to put their lives on the line.

Jesus didn’t give us a blueprint for church structure.
    He modeled life in a spiritual family,
        and then asked his disciples to replicate that life.
We just heard the story from Luke 10.
    When Jesus sent out his 72 disciples in pairs, empty-handed,
        to find households who would receive them, and feed them,
        he wasn’t saying all future church communities for all ages,
            must be planted without the aid of money, food,
                shoes, or an extra pair of pants.

    What he was pointing toward was a core characteristic
        of life in the oikos of God:
        He wanted his followers willing not only to give to others,
            but to be dependent on others,
            even needy.
        He wanted them ready to take what they were given,
            by whoever gave it,
            and consider it grace.

    Only after they showed such humility, and readiness to receive,
        were they then ready to offer their gift,
        which was the Gospel Word, “the Kingdom of God is near you.”

That kind of work may not look exactly like what we call
    “doing evangelism” or “doing missions.”
    But it’s a necessary step to building a missional household
        that has any integrity.
    Luke 10 is about church as oikos.

A church that cares about its ecology,
    its ecosystem,
    its character of life as an oikos, or household of God,
        will prioritize God’s mission above all else,
        will shape itself around obedience to God’s will and way,
        and will seek the flourishing of every member of the household.

A church tending to its ecology
    will not pour its energy into self-preservation
        or self-protection or self-promotion.
    It will, through its household practices,
        embody and give voice to the reign of God in its midst.
    It will welcome the stranger,
        share bread, share resources,
        and share the good news
            of God’s love and salvation and healing,
            with everyone.

The bottom line is this:
    God loves all his people with an unfathomable love.
    God longs for the healing of all peoples and nations
        and of the earth itself.
    God wants wars, of all kinds, to cease.
    God wants the lion and wolf and calf and lamb and toddler,
        all to lie down together in peace.

    And God has formed families,
        made up of the likes of us to join the effort to get it done.
    In this cosmic peace plan, this restoration project,
        we are invited as bona-fide partners with God.
    God invites ordinary people to gather together in households,
        to gather in faith, in hope, in trust,
        and in mutual covenant with each other and God.
    And God will be in their midst,
        and God will heal and save them,
        and God will collaborate with them
            for the healing and salvation of the world.

Brothers and sisters of mine,
    this is the best news you will hear today.
    You are not alone in this world.
        You have been drawn into God’s oikos,
            you have been embraced by God and God’s people—
                not only as a metaphor,
                but in real life.
        You are among family.
        Thanks be to God!

Take a look at Psalm 22, in your bulletin insert.
    This is God’s intimate, and expansive, idea of family, in a prayer.
        We will soon chant this Psalm, as Ken leads us.
        But notice, before we do, the family imagery throughout.
    Starting at the smallest scale, our beginnings with family,
        “womb . . . mother’s bosom . . . lap.”
    And notice the family references on the next larger scale,
        the people of Israel—
        “sisters . . . brothers . . . daughters . . . sons.”
    And when the prayer ends with the global, it’s still family,
        “all the families of the nations.”

This is the gift of God! Let’s sing and say it with gratitude.

—Phil Kniss, September 27, 2015

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Phil Kniss: On refuges and refugees

MWC Peace Sunday 2015
Jeremiah 29:1-7; Numbers 35:9-15; Isaiah 16:1-5; Luke 14:12-14; James 2:1-17

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Much earlier this year,
    long before the current refugee crisis made banner headlines,
    Mennonite World Conference developed worship resources
        for this annual Peace Sunday on September 20.
    They decided on the topic of how we as followers of Jesus
        are called to respond to refugees seeking safe shelter.

    That might look like a beautiful coincidence.
        It is not.
    It might look like the Holy Spirit inspired them to choose a topic
        that, unknown to them,
        would become relevant in September 2015.
        It’s not that, either.
    Not saying the Holy Spirit wasn’t at work.
        But the planners chose this topic a long time ago,
            because it was relevant then.
            It was a major humanitarian crisis then.
            It’s just that media outlets in the West,
                weren’t making a huge deal of it then,
                because the refugees weren’t crossing borders into
                    Western countries at the rate they are now.
            It wasn’t hitting the front page of the big papers,
                or leading the stories on the evening news,
                or sending news alerts to our smart phones.

But believe me,
    the refugees knew this was a crisis long ago.
    So did people on the ground working to relieve the crisis.
    So did just about everyone in the countries
        immediately surrounding Syria.
    Even we knew it.
        It’s been in our bulletin prayer list, repeatedly, off and on,
            for the last three years and more.
        In February 2013 we mentioned the refugees leaving Syria
            at the rate of 5,000 persons a day.
            That number adds up awfully quick.
            Where do you think they were piling up?
        Neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey.
    For years now, these countries, and more,
        have been trying to give safe shelter to Syrians
            fleeing for their lives from war in their homeland.

But let’s rejoice it’s finally getting some global attention,
    and global resources.
And let’s educate ourselves,
    and step up our own response and commitment.
We will all have a chance to do that, at the end of my sermon.

But first, before we just jump into action mode,
    and do what we are already good at,
    that is, doing good . . .
        let’s do some thinking and reflecting about God,
        who is the source of all that is good.

What is God’s commitment to refugees?
    And how might getting closer to the God
        who is our refuge and strength,
        make our response to refugees
            one that has more integrity,
            is not motivated by political expediency,
            and creates a space
                for the Reign of God to appear among us?

We just heard a series of scripture readings
    that shed light on the question of God’s commitment to refugees.

God, who is the creator of all things,
    and who especially loves and is devoted to us human creatures,
        never leaves us guessing
    about God’s special love and commitment to
        those whose lives are in jeopardy.

In Numbers, we heard God instruct the Israelites to establish
    six cities of refuge,
    so that if someone accidentally killed a person,
        they could flee to a city of refuge,
        and be safe from those who would otherwise want to kill them,
        to take blood vengeance,
            an acceptable practice in that culture.
    But God says, wait a minute.
        Not everyone who has a price on their head is guilty.
        Some people’s lives are in jeopardy
            without any moral failing on their part.
            You are obligated to give them refuge and safety.
    In fact, apparently God went to great lengths
        to give the refugees a special advantage over their pursuers.

    Deuteronomy 19 tells them to build roads leading to these cities.
        Other ancient Jewish sources go even further.
            They say these roads were to made very broad—
                thirty-two cubits wide—
                twice the normal width,
                and they were to be kept in good repair.
            For the sake of someone running for their life,
                their way should be made as easy as possible,
                there should be nothing to hinder them.

And in Isaiah 16, we heard God instruct the pagan nation, Moab—
    “Hide the fugitives,
        do not betray the refugees.
    Let the Moabite fugitives stay with you;
        be their shelter from the destroyer.”

Matthew Henry, an English Presbyterian minister,
    wrote a set of Bible commentaries over 300 years ago.
    Not the best source for contemporary scholarship,
        but he had a way with words.
    I found his comments on this passage quite moving,
        written long before our modern debates over immigration,
            and all our talk about immigrants
            being a drain on national resources.

    Here’s what he wrote in the early 1700s, responding to Isaiah 16,
    “Nay, do not only hide them for a time, but, if there be occasion,
        let them be naturalized:
        Let my outcasts dwell with thee, Moab;
            find a lodging for them and be thou a covert to them.
        Let them be taken under the protection of the government,
            though they are but poor, and likely to be a charge to thee.
        They are outcasts, but they are my outcasts.
        God will find a rest and shelter for his outcasts;
            for, though they are persecuted, they are not forsaken.
        God can, when he pleases, raise up friends for his people
            even among Moabites, when they can find none
            in all the land of Israel that can and dare shelter them.”

That commentary has enough to ponder,
    without any further commentary on my part.

And Israelites themselves knew what it meant
    to be outcast, to be refugees and immigrants.
The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon,
    giving them a word from the Lord,
    “Build houses and settle down;
        plant gardens and eat what they produce.
    Marry and have sons and daughters;
        find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage,
        so that they too may have sons and daughters.
    Increase in number there; do not decrease.
    Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city
        to which I have carried you into exile.
        Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers,
            you too will prosper.”

In other words, permanence on your land is not a given.
    No matter where you live—
        on land where you hold the papers, where you have the deed,
        or on land belonging to another—
        I am for you, as I am for all peoples.
        I am for your well-being and prosperity (or literally, shalom)
            and the well-being and prosperity
                of the city where you happen to dwell.
        Shalom is my intention for you and for all people.
    Right now, you are the refugees and exiles.
        Live as though you belong where you are.
        Then, in later generations,
            you will know how to treat the aliens
                who live with you in your homeland.

And then, it can almost go without saying,
    because Jesus said it so often—
    our treatment of the poor is a moral issue.
    It’s all throughout the Gospels, and the rest of the New Testament.

How many times did Jesus speak about God’s regard for the poor?
How often did Jesus, in his actions, cross boundaries
    to lift up the poor, the young, the women, the widows,
    the Samaritans, the Gentiles, the tax collectors, the lepers?
How often did Jesus directly command his followers
    to treat the poor and outcast with respect?
    Often, indeed.
    We heard one of his teachings this morning from Luke’s Gospel,
        urging his disciples, when they prepare a feast,
            not to invite their respectable friends and neighbors,
            ones they could most easily relate to, and socialize with.
        But rather, to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,
            and “you will be blessed.”
And let’s not forget that Jesus himself, as an infant and toddler,
    along with his parents Mary and Joseph,
    were outcast refugees, in Egypt for some years.

And in the epistle of James,
    one of the most practical set of teachings on social ethics
        that we have in the scripture—
    James says if you discriminate between the rich and the poor,
        if you give special attention, or advantage, to those with money,
            (and who among us doesn’t do that?)
        then you are working against God’s own purposes.
        “God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world
            to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom
            he promised those who love him.”

And if you see someone suffering,
    and show only pity, but not compassionate action,
        then your so-called “faith” is dead.

Our moral obligation—
    when it comes to the poor, to refugees,
        to any persons who through no fault of their own,
            leave their homes and communities of origin
            because their lives and their well-being are in danger—
    our moral obligation is to protect them.
    If we have the means to provide shelter,
        and refuse to do so,
        we are rebelling against God.

Mennonite World Conference shared some inspiring stories
    where God’s people are responding with compassion,
        specifically to the Syrian refugee crisis.
    A Syrian refugee woman named Ibrahim, now living in Switzerland,
        was invited to join a group of Swiss Mennonite women quilters
            to help make quilts to send back to her home country.
    She happily joined them,
        after convincing them to branch out in their color schemes,
        to stop using typically Swiss colors,
            which were understated and monochrome,
            and use the bright multi-colored look that Syrians prefer.

    German Mennonite churches recently resurrected the practice
        of offering Church Asylum
        to immigrants or refugees who otherwise face deportation.
        This angered some German officials,
            like the Interior Secretary,
            because these actions are in a kind of legal “twilight zone.”
        They’re afraid churches are operating under
            a parallel legal system.
            In a sense they are, if they take seriously
                that God’s commands have greater authority
                    than human commands.
            But now they report that the Ministry of the Interior
                and national office for Migration and Refugees
                is taking a more friendly stance toward Church Asylum.
                It is proving successful, in safely protecting people
                    from being deported into situations
                    where their lives would be threatened
                        or their human rights violated.

There are countless more stories we could tell this morning.
    Many of you have walked alongside,
        with deep compassion, and patience, and persistence,
        refugees who have come into our community
            and become our neighbors, and friends,
            and in some cases, fellow church members.
    You have stories that can spur us all to greater compassion.

But it all begins with seeing God as the One
    who is refuge and strength,
    who is help in time of trouble,
        and who calls his people to be the same,
        whenever we have opportunity.

Scripture is clear.
    And the stories are compelling.
    And the continuing need is great.
At this point, I don’t need to add any more words to the argument.
    It’s time to discern, and commit, and act.

So I’m going to give you the last five minutes of my sermon time,
    for you to contemplate, reflect, pray,
        and consider what God is asking of you.

I invite you to take out the half-sheet insert in your bulletin.
    And take out a pen or pencil,
        or borrow one from someone nearby.

The first three items are straight-forward,
    and won’t take you long to discern and decide.
The last two, not so much.
    There, I invite you to consider ways in which you are right now
        being asked to offer refuge (literally or figuratively)
        to a neighbor or stranger whose well-being is in jeopardy.
    And I invite you to consider ways in which you yourself
        are in need of refuge.
        How are you acknowledging that? denying that?
        Who are you seeking out for refuge,
            to protect you from losing your way or your well-being?
        How are you opening yourself to God’s refuge?

While we all do this together,
    we will be hearing a song,
        sung by a Christian artist Sandra McCracken,
        entitled “All ye refugees.”

    The repeated chorus is God’s invitation, and says,
        “Welcome home, gather round
            all ye refugees, come in.”

So take time now to listen, pray, reflect, commit,
    and write down your commitment.
    This paper will be yours to keep, and take with you,
        and follow-up on, with action.

May God speak clearly, and may we have the courage to listen and obey.

—Phil Kniss, September 20, 2015

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Controlling your tongue

“Controlling the tongue”
Psalm 19:1-4a; Luke 6:43-45; James 3:1-12

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          Please join me in prayer: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.”  (Ps. 19:14.) 
          Those words I just prayed might be familiar to some of you. Maybe you memorized them as a child, or heard a preacher begin a sermon with them.  They are words uttered to God by the Psalmist that whatever words came out of the mouth and whatever thoughts were in the heart, may they be acceptable!  The prayer is the last verse of Psalm 19.
          We sometimes here the popular expressions, “It’s not what you say, but what you do that counts.”  OR “Actions speak louder than words.
Yet we know that words ARE important, words matter, words are powerful!  And what comes out of our mouths often reveals what is in our hearts.  The Luke 6 passage, words of Jesus, makes clear that what one says reveals what one is as surely as the appearance of fruit announces the nature of the tree.  “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.  Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.”
          Our speech reveals a lot about who we are and what is in our hearts and whether the Holy Spirit is present.
          “Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in their heart, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in their heart.  For out of the overflow (abundance) of the heart the mouth speaks.”  (Luke 6:43-45)

          So what is coming out of your mouth and mine?  Each week day morning our staff has morning prayers together.  Part of that litany includes these words:
                             “Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
                             in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.”

What we say, how we say it, what is said to us and how we receive what is said to us.......  all of that is important!

(Story: When I was a young child, maybe in 3rd or 4th grade, I had an experience that left a huge impression on me, in more ways than one.  I don’t remember all of the details, but I remember enough.  I was very upset, angry about something, and getting ‘mouthy’ with my mother...You know talking back, being disrespectful.  Maybe I was asked to do something and disobeyed, maybe I didn’t do something I was supposed to do, maybe I was just arguing and fighting with my brother.  Like I said I don’t remember all of the details. What I remember is that I said to my mother, “Shut up!  Not a good thing to do!!!  I was standing close to my father with my back to him while he was reading the newspaper.  The next thing I remember is feeling the sting of his open hand across my bottom.  It was swift,  accurate and it hurt!  I quickly learned that what I had done was wrong, hurtful and disrespectful to my mother.  I never did that again.  It left an impression on me in several ways!  As I reflect on that, I think it was so significant because my parents were never harsh, punitive or abusive in their discipline.  It was always appropriate, in my memory and if discipline needed to happen, it usually came from my mother, at least for me.  But this time my dad, who was quite easy going and had a tender heart, was the one who let me know that the words that came from my mouth and directed to my mother were harsh and inappropriate. That never happened again.)

In the passage from James 3:1-12, we read, “With the tongue we praise ourLord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.”
          How true that is.  We know from our own experience that out of the same curse mouth, our mouth, can come good and evil, the best and the worst, blessings and curses!  Joyce Rupp, wrote in a devotional book, “I am always appalled at how verbally nasty human beings can be toward one another.  That is, until I find myself doing the same things!”

                   What else does this text from this small book of James tell us?

          Since we have so many educators, teachers, professors in this congregation, we certainly should look briefly at the opening verses of this chapter 3.  Now keep in mind that teaching was highly valued and a respected profession in Jewish culture and many Jews who embraced Christianity wanted to become teachers. Apparently there was a tendency to self appoint and give advice.  James writes that not all should be teachers!
          “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.  We all stumble in many ways.  Those who are never at fault in what they say are perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” 

          So teachers are given greater responsibility and will be judged with greater strictness!

          Then James picks up an important theme of how Christians should live and exhibit wisdom on a daily basis and that is they/we need to pay attention to our speech.  We need to ‘control our tongue”!  This very small part of our whole body gets us into trouble!
          A bit placed into the mouth of a horse allows the rider to give direction to a large animal like the horse.  A small rudder underneath the ship of a sailing vessel allows the captain to steer a ship to safety.  A small bit, a small rudder used to control a larger entity...that is good! “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts!”  (It brags about big gets us into trouble).
          A spark from a forgotten campfire, a carelessly tossed match or cigarette butt can start a huge forest fire that rages out of control for days and weeks.  And we have seen evidence of that in the NW part of the US in recent months.  An uncontrolled tongue can do the same kind of damage.
          Words have power.  They can ruin a reputation, destroy a career, damage a marriage, break up a friendship, alienate a son or daughter or parent, take down a company, destroy trust with a business colleague.
          We can soon think of examples of an untamed tongue:

complaining, lying, bragging, gossiping, putting others down, belittling, false teaching, manipulating, speaking too much, boasting...

James is pretty negative in these verses when he writes that,...  all kinds of animals can be tamed by human beings, but no one can tame the tongue!  That is not very encouraging.  So what do we do?
We do what we need to do in so many areas of our lives..... we accept that we can’t do these things in our own strength.  We may not ever achieve perfect control of our tongues, but the Holy Spirit can and does help us learn self-control.  The Holy Spirit will give us increasing power to monitor and control what we say, how we say it.  The Holy Spirit will remind us of God’s love when we are offended by what someone might say about us or to us and help us restrain ourselves from reacting in a negative manner.  The Holy Spirit can and will bring healing when we have been hurt by the words of others and can help us practice restraint and not lash out.  But it is hard.  It is often painful.  I have personally experienced some of this and know it to be true.

How do we work at ‘controlling or taming’ our tongue?

1.)  We need to examine our heart.  Ask ourselves, what is our heart full of?  Is it full of love, anger, fear, resentment, cynicism, pain, bitterness?  Jesus spoke from the fullness of his heart, out of love.  He spoke words of wisdom, of care and compassion, of challenge and exhortation.  Words spoken out of love. (When we speak to another, we usually know whether we are speaking out of love and compassion OR out of anger, pain and resentment.
2.)  We need to search out our own motivations and desires.  Ask ourselves ‘what do we want our speech, our words to do?  Do we want our words to encourage, to impress, to build up and edify, to praise, to compliment, to hurt, to put down another’s thoughts or ideas, to confront, to challenge?
3.)  We need to practice restraint!  That is before speaking, or sending that e mail or text message, ask,”Is what I want to say true?  Is it accurate?  Is it job necessary?  Is it kind?  Is it important enough to risk a broken relationship, loss of job, a damaged reputation? (How many of you have said some things to another that you wish you could take back?  How many have sent an e mail or text that as soon as you sent it, you regretted it?  How many of you have received something from another that was hurtful?)  We know that when these hurtful things happen, apologies can be offered, relationships restored, to a certain extent, but often scars remain.  A few words spoken in anger can destroy a relationship that took years to build.  Practicing restraint might mean waiting for a day before replying to an email that has been hurtful.  It might mean having a trusted friend or partner read over your words to offer some advice and feedback, before sending off that message that you may later regret sending.  It might mean practicing some ‘time out’s for yourself when you know you are stirred up, hurt, bitter...maybe taking a cooling off period, taking some deep breaths, meditating, praying, practicing some mindfulness, before you re-engage in conversation with the other person.
4.)  We need to become more aware of the presence of God in the other...they too are part of God’s created order, made in the image of God, as you and I are, imperfect and in need of God’s grace.
5.)  We need to speak from a calm heart, out of the overflow, the abundance of the heart.  The tongue problem is really a heart problem.  If we are filled with God’s love and live our lives with the assurance that the Holy Spirit is present within us, then we can trust that the Spirit will give us strength for what we need for daily living, including how to control our tongue and how to use our speech to glorify God and to build up people around us.
          When I leave my office at the end of each day, I face a small piece of paper taped to my file cabinet, where I have written, “Is it well with my soul?  I am thinking maybe I need to ask myself at the end of each day, “Did my words and actions today come from a loving heart?

Closing hymn is verse 4 of the earlier hymn we sang:

“Words today are cheap and many, used for ends both good and ill.  How we need Your Word for living with its words that heal and fill! God, we praise You for the message you have given us to share, as you offer, now as always, Living words to answer prayer.”
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