Sunday, January 16, 2022

Phil Kniss: Selling faith

The conflict begins: Cleansing the temple
The Word became flesh and lived among us
John 2:13-25; Isaiah 56:6-8

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Last Sunday my job was to try to make sense (or not)
out of Jesus first miracle,
where he used water to make 180 gallons of fine wine,
at a wedding party where they already drank enough
to be under the influence.
If you missed my attempt, go to our website and watch the video.
Spoiler alert: I did not make any sense out of it.
I made some meaning, hopefully, but not sense.

Today’s story is even more attention-getting than water into wine.
Same chapter, different location.
Not in a remote village this time,
but at the center of religious and political power,
the Temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus—peace-loving, gentle, turn-the-other-cheek Jesus—
walks into the temple not to worship,
but to engage in a dramatic one-person protest
involving a hastily-made whip,
turning over tables,
and chasing out the sacrificial lambs and oxen,
and offending pretty much everyone in sight.
The primary targets of his protest,
and the ones most deeply offended,
were the religious leaders of that temple.
But there were others left in his wake.
The sellers of the animals and doves,
the money-changers facilitating the sales,
the worshipers who just bought a lamb to sacrifice,
only to have it scurry away free.

John doesn’t say how Jesus’ disciples reacted in the moment.
He only writes about what they remembered, later,
in some post-resurrection analysis.

I rather imagine the disciples
were trying to make themselves invisible,
maybe slinking into a corner,
wondering what they had gotten themselves into,
following someone as unpredictable as Jesus.

If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you know this story well.
It’s in all of them.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke put it late in Jesus’ ministry,
in the week before his crucifixion.
John puts it almost at the beginning of his story.
If you’re bothered by that . . . don’t be!
John’s intent is not to lay out a precise timeline.
It’s to tell a story in a way that leads people
to encounter Jesus as God in the flesh,
and commit themselves to believing and following.

For John, it’s important to show, early on, how Jesus’ mission
fundamentally challenged the authorities,
especially the religious elite
who were invested in the way things were.

It’s only happenstance that this story shows us in the lectionary
on the weekend of Martin Luther King Day.
So let’s talk about nonviolence vs. violence with regard to this story.
This story is often brought up as evidence that
Jesus would approve of violence in some circumstances.

Many classical artists have painted Jesus
actively flicking the whip in the direction of people,
terrorizing them, knocking them to the ground.
It’s interesting that John is the only Gospel
to even include a whip in the story.
But what does John actually say about it?
There’s no mention of any act of violence
directed toward human . . . or animal.
It doesn’t say he struck any living creature.
Jesus’ goal was to empty the temple
of the desecrating livestock market.
A whip is how you get livestock to move somewhere.
It wouldn’t work against caged doves, of course,
so Jesus simply told those sellers to remove them.
Was Jesus disruptive? Absolutely!
Confrontational? Of course!
Did anyone get hurt?
No biblical evidence of that . . . at all.
The whip did have the effect of letting some animals
live to see another day.

So using this Gospel story as an argument
that Jesus used violence to bring about change,
is a flimsy argument, at best.
It simply doesn’t stand up under scrutiny.

At the same time,
anyone who thinks Christians should always be
quiet and non-confrontational in the face of evil
or injustice or religious hypocrisy,
needs to reckon with the Jesus of John 2—
or for that matter,
the non-violent and confrontational Jesus
of many other Gospel stories.

Now, bottom line, what was so upsetting to Jesus here?
Was it the fact that money was being exchanged in a holy place?
If so, is Jesus also unhappy when our youth group
sells brownies in the foyer?
Some people actually have qualms about that,
based on this story.
To repeat what I said earlier.
If you’re bothered by that . . . don’t be!

I don’t think there is any connection between
mission-oriented fund-raising,
and the crass commercialization of worship
that had infected the temple,
and had actually become economically oppressive.

What was happening inside the Temple—
this growth of an “animal sacrifice industry”—
was deeply offensive to,
and actively undermining the purposes of God.

What do I mean?
The first Passover, when the Israelites escaped Egypt,
showed the spirit of sacrifice God had in mind.
Families were told to choose their own best lamb for the sacrifice,
and to share it,
in case one lamb was more than they needed,
and they had neighbors whose families were too small or too poor,
to have a whole lamb to themselves.
Animal sacrifice, even when practiced individually,
was a ritual that discerned, respected, and cared for the community.
But as worship transitioned from a portable tabernacle,
to an elaborate and costly Temple,
so did the worship industry.

And this industry helped establish and maintain
a religious and social hierarchy.
Favor with God was, essentially, for sale.

So, it seems likely that
at least two offensive things were going on in the Temple,
that made Jesus’ anger bubble up.

First, the poor were being economically exploited
by the merchants and money-changers.
Those without means to provide their own unblemished animal
had to buy them on the spot, probably at elevated prices,
instead of having the community share with each other.

Secondly, this court where the livestock market was set up—
the Court of the Gentiles—
was specifically designed to provide a space
for anyone at all to worship God freely—
no matter your race, gender, or bloodline.
You didn’t have to be a ritually clean, circumcised Jewish male,
to worship in this space.
This is what the prophet meant in the Isaiah text we read today,
that “my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations.”
All nations!

So this livestock market was taking over the very space
designed to welcome all nations to worship.
It was crowding out the Gentiles.

This was more than Jesus could take.
So . . . carefully, deliberately, and with forethought, I believe,
he walked into that desecrated space,
and acted on behalf of the God who was offended by it.

John sees this as another window into understanding Jesus,
as someone who acts on behalf of God, in God’s place,
as God in the flesh.

So, let’s bring this story home.
How does it connect with our story, our lives?
It’s so easy to hear John 2 condemn things that already offend us:
TV evangelists begging for money
to support a gilded lifestyle.
Megachurches marketing themselves like a big box store
to bring in more religious consumers.
Or whatever it may be that offends our sensibilities about church.

Surely, we are not the money-changers, are we?
We are not the ones running the temple and taking a cut . . . are we?

As I sat with that question for a while this week,
I started to feel more and more uncomfortable.
I suspect we all would have a little . . . pause,
if we owned up to the various ways our own worship
can start to look like a transaction—
a quid pro quo so to speak.
Maybe, more than we care to admit,
our worship is for sale.
Maybe, at least some of the time, if not most of the time,
we bring ourselves to worship with an expectation
we will be rewarded.

We invest an hour of our time once a week,
we help out when we’re asked,
participate in the service, drop money in the plate,
sing along with the hymns,
and then expect a certain return on investment.

We expect to hear words of encouragement and comfort,
reassurance that God looks on us with favor,
prayers that resonate with us,
readings that reinforce our beliefs,
songs we like, in the style we like,
sermons that only mildly challenge us, but mostly inspire.

No, we may not have a corrupted temple system,
and there are no livestock blocking the way to our sanctuary.
But let’s not assume our worship is morally superior
to the first-century Jews
who prompted Jesus’ angry protest.
I imagine Jesus is pained whenever people show up
at a house of prayer for all nations,
and end up not making room for the nations,
or reinforcing a social hierarchy.

We are invited to come to worship with a posture
of radical openness to God,
and radical openness to our neighbor,
ready for whatever will happen when the Spirit of God shows up.
When we come to worship with any . . . other . . . agenda,
we share something in common with
the money-changers and animal merchants.

The same can be said of faith itself.
Faith is openness and yieldedness to God.
Faith is not a bargain with God.
It’s not a sales transaction.
It’s openness.
We come, open to an uncertain future.
Open to mystery and unsettled questions.
Open to having our world view challenged.
Open to being transformed.
Open to disappointment.
Open to trying and failing.
Open to being forgiven.
Open to loving and being loved by God.

Let us offer a prayer of confession
to the God who invites us to worship.

one God of love and justice,
you desire honest worship with pure motives.
We confess that what we often bring
is worship with conditions attached.
all Forgive us, God. Take us as we are.
one God, too often we expect something in return for what we bring.
We offer you our worship, for a price—
In exchange for your blessing and approval,
In exchange for our comfort in worship,
In exchange for keeping our lives from being too disturbed.
all Forgive us, God. Take us as we are.
one The God of love and justice
gladly receives our confession, clears the slate,
welcomes us just as we are,
and invites us to be transformed into something more.
all Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, January 16, 2022

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Sunday, January 9, 2022

Phil Kniss: Nonsense and Glory

Glory Revealed: Wedding at Cana
John: The Word became flesh and lived among us
John 2:1-11; 2 Corinthians 3:7-8, 18 and Isaiah 60:1-2, 19

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Usually . . . my sermons try to make sense of a text.
But what do I do when I start with a text that makes no sense?
No logic. No rationality.
Let me just say it. Today’s story is non-sense.
In a good way, I think.
At least, I hope I can convince you of that.

This miracle at Cana defies logic.
And I don’t mean the actual miracle of turning water into wine.
That’s the least of my worries.

How does this strange miracle tale begin to fit with Jesus’ mission?
We know from every Gospel
that his mission is to proclaim God’s Kingdom,
a kingdom of raising ethical standards,
turning the other cheek,
loving enemies,
going the second mile
healing people,
overcoming evil and oppression,
welcoming the outcast,
touching lepers,
and yes, raising the dead.

So one would think . . . that for Jesus’ first miracle,
the first public exercise of his power to usher in God’s kingdom,
that he might do something more . . . well . . . useful,
than turning water into wine.

Not to be anti-wine, but
no one at this wedding, as far as we know, was healed by Jesus.
No one had their sins forgiven.
No one was cured of blindness.
No one was given words of wisdom about the kingdom.
. . . But they did get plenty of wine.

And adding to the non-sense,
why was Jesus’ mother so worried about the wine shortage,
that she felt responsible, as a guest, to fix it,
and pressure Jesus into playing his God card?
Maybe she thought Jesus’ Messiah clock was ticking, at age 30,
and he should move out of the house and start getting to work?
Like some other 30-year-old sons,
Jesus did not receive his mother’s advice very well.
He got a little . . . attitude . . . in verse 4, and I paraphrase,
“Mom! It’s not your business!
It’s not mine, either.  Let’s just stay out of it.”

So Mary stepped right into the Jewish mother stereotype,
ignored Jesus, went to the servants and said,
“Okay! I got it all worked out. Jesus will take care of everything!
Just do whatever he tells you.”
And Jesus caved.
Is this Gospel story? Or is it comedy? a nonsense narrative?

And then, the miracle itself is almost cartoonish.
Six 30-gallon jars?
I mean . . . sure this was a big party and all.
But Jesus made, out of water, nearly 180 gallons of wine!
This was after everyone already drank
all the wine the wedding planners
anticipated they would drink.
180 more gallons of not ordinary wine, but fine wine.
I’m with the steward here.
The wine steward objected to the groom when he tasted the wine.
“Why now? Everyone’s already tipsy.
They can’t appreciate this!”

So what’s the point here, Jesus? Why this miracle?

I’m not the first person to wonder this.
I’m in good company.
In 400 A.D. St. Augustine wondered about it.
Of course, he came up with an answer that made sense to him.
The six water jars signified the six ages.
from Adam to Noah,
Noah to Abraham,
Abraham to David,
David to the Exile,
the Exile to John the Baptist,
and finally, from John the Baptist to the present age.
A perfect six!
Augustine further explained that
each age was an empty vessel until it was fulfilled in Christ.
Augustine even took several pages to explain
that the capacity of the jars—30 gallons—
signified the Holy Trinity . . . okay!

Others have also tried to make sense of it,
like, leaving the best wine till last
means the real rewards of life come
only after Christ has transformed us.
I don’t know . . .
That’s cute and all . . . but I’m not buying it.

This is a story about Jesus and what he did in real life.
Nothing wrong with finding symbolism there.
If you like it, go for it.

But I want to know why John put this story in his narrative.
Well, John tells us why.
The Gospel writer says in v.11, and I quote,
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee,
and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
Ah, okay . . .

A little aside here.
See, John explains near the end of the Gospel,
that the reason for writing the whole book
is “that you might believe
that Jesus is the Son of God,
and believing, have life in his name.”

Belief, for John, does not mean agreeing with
a rational proposition about Jesus.
No, John means “belief” in one’s gut.
John wants us to be “wowed” by Jesus,
to be taken by, be seized by the truth
of Jesus’ union with God,
so that, being seized by this beautiful truth,
it takes over our own lives,
and we end up living the life we were meant to live.
The goal is not completing a checklist of doctrines.
The goal is full life!

John says, in a hundred different ways in this book,
that the God who created you with a word,
the Logos who spoke the world into being,
who filled your lungs with breath,
and your heart with rhythm,
that is the very same God you meet in Jesus.

So we can expect every well-told story in this book
to point in that direction,
to seize you with wonder and awe and trust in Jesus,
who is God in the flesh.

So . . . going back to this story, does it work?
The story is not supposed to “make sense.”
When we are told a story that “makes sense,”
we might nod our head, or quietly say, “ah...yeah.”

Stories that “make sense” help us understand things.
This is not that kind of story.
It’s not meant to “make sense.”
It’s meant to seize us, to get us in our gut,
to motivate us to put our trust in Jesus.

These stories early in the book?
John calls them “signs”—signs!
A sign is not main thing. It points to the main thing.

The glory of God, that shows up in Jesus,
through a miracle at a poorly managed wedding in Cana,
does to us what it did to the wedding guests.
Like nearly all of Jesus’ miracles,
it catches us off guard,
throws us off balance.
shows us there is something bigger going on,
than what we can see in front of our faces.

Miracles were signs pointing to a bigger thing.
It wasn’t Jesus’ intent to heal every sick person in the Middle East,
or wipe out leprosy or poverty or blindness,
or argue his case so well, that everyone became a disciple.
No, Jesus was sent to be a sign of God’s reign.
A foretaste of the kingdom.
A witness to what God was doing in the cosmos.

And the best way to do that,
was catch people’s attention
somewhere other than in their gray matter,
on the left side of their brain.
The Gospel is not entirely rational.
We need to be willing to be seized by the Gospel.
To open up our defenses,
to let ourselves be knocked off our feet by God’s glory.

Glory is what moves us.
Glory and good sense both have a place.
But if we want movement, and motivation,
all-out commitment, and risk-taking sacrifice,
I’ll put my money on “glorious,” more than “sensible.”

Why do we all get a little giddy at the sight of new-fallen snow?
or run to the porch every time a rainbow appears?
or hike up a mountain to the same overlook,
sometimes week after week, year after year?

No, not because we’ve finally figured out
how snowflakes form in the atmosphere and stick to branches,
how sun rays gets bent by water droplets and separate into colors,
or how the layout of the valley can be plotted on a map.

We do those things because they put us in touch with Glory!
Glory grabs us by the heart, and moves us!
We can’t help but smile at the snowscape,
run to see the rainbow,
and pound our body into submission to make it to the peak,
because the reward is, simply . . . glorious.

This story in John 2 ends by saying what the miracle did.
It “revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
A few had already begun to follow Jesus around,
with curiosity, with an open mind,
hoping Jesus might fulfill their expectations of a Messiah.

But this miracle at the wedding threw them off balance.
This irrational, unexplainable, superfluous, and extravagant
demonstration of the power of God,
hit them like . . . well, like 180 gallons of wine.
God was doing something beyond their ability to imagine.
It called their assumptions into question.
And at the same time, it made them say to Jesus, “We’re in!”

That’s what God’s glory will do to us when it shows up.
It knocks us off balance.
It makes us take notice.
It makes us believe something
we previously wouldn’t have dared to believe.

Maybe some nonsense, like we find in this story,
is how we get to see glory,
how we sit up and take notice,
how we realize that the world as it is,
is not necessarily the world as it can be
when we throw our lot in with Jesus.

With Jesus, we need not settle for “the way things are.”
We need not look around and say “This must be as good as it gets.”

This gospel story is good news for everyone in this world
for whom the wine has run out, so to speak.
It’s good news for anyone suffering from “the way things are.”
Those grieving loss of loved ones.
Those hanging on to the edge of exhaustion.
Those who feel alone in the world.
Those who believe their fate is sealed and nothing will change.
Those afraid to walk away from an abusive relationship.
You name the way your wine has run out.

Here in John 2, we meet, in Jesus, the God of Glory,
the God who does the unexpectedly beautiful thing.

Mother Mary was not expecting what Jesus actually did.
I suspect Mary wanted Jesus to do a “little something”
to help the host save face,
to make things stretch till the party winded down.
A little extra cheap wine in the vats would have been perfect.

What happened instead was a bit of non-sense,
over-the-top, extravagant, excessive, beautiful, and glorious.
It caused the first disciples
to move from the curious to the committed.
May God’s glory today, wherever it shows up,
do the same for us.

—Phil Kniss, January 9, 2022

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Sunday, January 2, 2022

Phil Kniss: Searching in the dark

Epiphany Sunday: Who are you looking for?
Matthew 2:1-12; John 1:19-51

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Last Sunday, we read the poetic prologue to the Gospel of John:
The Word became flesh, and lived among us,
full of grace and truth.
And in him was life. And this life was the light for all people.

Right after the poetry, John tells a story.
A story of a search—
John the Baptist was searching,
the whole Jewish community was searching—
Galileean fisherfolk, farmers,
the religious elite and blind beggars.
Everyone was searching for the Messiah.

The people lived in darkness and despair.
As a nation they were small and powerless,
occupied by a brutal foreign power.
King Herod built four different palaces,
had military headquarters scattered everywhere,
and streets crawled with Roman soldiers.
Just in case that didn’t remind people every day
who was in charge,
Herod terrorized the people
with harassment, torture, and crucifixion.

So everyone was searching for the Messiah—
this religious and political liberator they were promised,
who would rid them of Herod,
restore the throne to David’s line,
and return self-rule to the people of Judah.

John 1 brings that search immediately into focus.
But hold that thought, and hold your finger in John 1, so to speak,
and turn back three Gospels, to Matthew chapter 2,
for today’s other search story.

30 years earlier
many miles and cultures away from Judea,
another group of searchers was at work.
The magi. Stargazers.

Let’s be clear about this colorful Christmas story.
This is not a mysterious and mystical and magical tale.
We have made it so,
in song, art, and nativity scenes.
Half our Christmas cards have camel-riding kings, in silhouette,
and a stylized pointed star,
with a tail reaching down to the earth, like ours,
All because of what we have done to Matthew 2.

Sentimental legend is great. I enjoy it, and I love this star.
But the real biblical story is not mystical.
It’s political, and makes logical sense.
In the world view of the magi and their culture,
the movement of stars, and earthly events, were connected.
The magi worked the night shift,
studying the skies carefully,
to understand what was happening, or about to happen,
in their world, and then act on it.

They understood that a new rising star meant a royal birth.
It was logical, not magical,
to pack up the camels and trek across the desert
to investigate who the new king was,
and take him gifts fitting for royalty.

Their long-distance search in the dark, was predictable,
given their understanding of the world.
Of course, King Herod’s response was also predictable,
given he was a tyrant with absolute power.
He took it as a threat,
that the heavens were pointing toward a new Jewish king.
There was only one king in Judea.
And Herod wanted to keep it that way.
Thankfully, the magi were warned in a dream,
and did not return to Herod with the intelligence briefing.

So that’s Matthew’s “search in the dark” story.

Returning to John 1,
here that baby king sought by the magi, and by Herod,
is now an adult, emerging on the public scene in Judea.
Jesus is starting to move about and do what he was sent to do.
But just like in Matthew 2,
people all around are still searching for the Messiah,
and the powers that be are still threatened by the search.

John the Baptist is at the center of this search.
He offers a new baptism, for repentance,
to prepare and purify the people for the coming of the liberator.
People flock to him from all over—hungry for liberation.
It’s now a movement. A troubling movement.
Noticed first by religious authorities,
they worried that John was going to claim to be Messiah.
So they sent agents to question John.
“Who are you?” they asked.
John knew what they were really asking.
“I am not the Messiah,” he said,
“I’m only preparing the way.”
He quoted Isaiah.
John believed that any day the Messiah would appear.

See, everyone, religious authorities included,
was searching for Messiah.
All with their own motivations and assumptions.
Many of them mistaken.

For me, the thread connecting all these search stories,
is that even when we search in the dark,
even when we’re not entirely clear what we’re searching for,
even when we come up empty-handed at first,
the act of searching, in itself, gets us a bit closer to the truth.
Every empty lead narrows the search.

I’m especially moved by this story in John 1,
where Jesus’ first disciples almost accidentally run into Jesus,
and aren’t quite sure what they found.

Two of John the Baptist’s disciples,
standing along the road with their teacher,
watch Jesus go by, and John makes the now famous declaration,
“Behold, the Lamb of God!”

And the two men just start tailing along behind Jesus.
Out of curiosity.
At what they thought was a safe distance.
But Jesus stops, turns around,
and asks the most poignant question,
“What are you searching for?”

I like to read that as an existential question.
“What are you searching for . . . in life?”
I like to think Jesus meant,
What is your aim?
How is walking behind me, curiously,
helping you fulfill that aim?
And what is your next step?
I bet John’s disciples were caught off guard
by this deep and simple question, “What are you searching for?”

Maybe they stammered, before they answered,
“Uh . . . R-r-rabbi . . . Wh-where are you staying?”
Now, what were they really asking—“where are you staying?”
Did they just want to know how to find Jesus later?
Or was it, perhaps, a question that dawned on them
only as it came out of their mouths?
May we come stay where you stay?
May we begin studying at your feet?
John prepared us for this. Will you have us?

Jesus’ answer to the question, “Where are you staying?”
was just as simple and profound,
“Come and see.”
That’s how Jesus opened the door for these two to become disciples.
No demand.
No conditions.
Not even a real ask.
Just words of permission.
“Come and see.”
Find out as you go.
Discover whether you are willing to stay where I stay
and walk in my shoes.

Jesus didn’t give the answer. He encouraged the search.

Jesus did not, at that moment,
offer a 7-point summary of what discipleship would mean.
They had to search.
They had to put themselves in a position to find,
even if they didn’t know, yet, what they were looking for,
even if they weren’t sure they were in the right place,
even if the night was still dark.

There is the good news, dear friends,
for us who live in a world divided, broken,
and shrouded in darkness.
We are invited by the God of light and life,
to join the search,
even if we aren’t entirely clear what we’re searching for,
or where to find it.

There are too many people today, who,
like Herod, and like the religious elites,
prefer their reality to be completely settled, secure, and sure.

We would not be in the situation we are in today—
with regard to COVID, with regard to political chaos,
to spikes in violence,
to threats of climate change,
to you name it—
if it weren’t the sad reality that we all tend to assume
that our truth is settled, secure, contained, and watertight.
How would our social discourse and daily lives change,
if we all . . . all acknowledged what we don’t know,
and embraced the search.

Yes, John’s Gospel makes a number of clear declarations,
which we happily stand on.
But at the heart of this Gospel
is an invitation to stick close to Jesus,
to “come and see,”
to abide . . . and to go.
We will find what we are looking for.
The proof will be in the journey.

—Phil Kniss, January 2, 2022

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Sunday, December 19, 2021

Moriah Hurst: This is how God loves

Love...while we wait  
Advent 4  
Luke 1:39-56; Micah 5:2-5a 

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Two different practices have been giving me life lately and providing invitations into spirit filled spaces. One practice is contemplation or as the leader of the group calls it “playing and praying with scripture”. You sit with a passage and imagine what could be going on in it. We have used today's passage over the last few weeks and there is so much here! Just the first verse offers a treasure trove for the imagination. Mary would have traveled between 80-100 miles to get to Elizabeth. Days and days of travel at that time.  Mary was young, maybe around 15, would she have traveled alone? On foot? Did she have morning sickness while she traveled? She was in her first trimester. Did Elizabeth have any idea that Mary was coming or that Mary was pregnant? You can see there is a lot here to consider.

As we read the start of the Magnificat or Mary’s song I was struck by the word Magnify. (slide of little girl) My brain went quickly to a little kid with a magnifying glass excitedly investigating nature. Intrigued by a leaf, an insect, or bark. The glass allowing them to get closer and see in more detail. (slide) Maybe I’m drawn to this because this is me as a little one.

I can almost hear a child calling out in wonder all they are noticing. “Look, the grass has a hairy edge. This bark has like 10 shades of brown. I can see all the parts of this grasshopper's legs!” (slide down) Mary starts this poem song with “My soul magnifies the Lord”. To magnify, to make larger and see closer. Maybe this song is doing that for God’s heart. Mary is staring intently and deeply at God and calling out what she sees there.

A thread of joy and song bubbles up from Mary in response to Elizabeth. It’s not a fluffy song of how good it feels to be a mother or how proud she is that this gift was given to her. Not much of it is about Mary at all. It is thanks and praise to God. Naming God’s surprising, power upsetting, consistent, justice filled, motherly love for God’s people. (slide Mary and Elizabeth)

God chooses unexpected people to be the bearers of this good news and these baby boys who will change the world. Elizabeth was old, had been barren and childless, making her worth in that time even less. Mary was young, descended from no one worth mentioning, and is pregnant outside of marriage. But Mary’s song emphasizes that God is acting well within God’s character in choosing her. Because this God brings down the powerful and raises up the lowly. God takes lowly outsiders and plunks them right at the center of the story. (slide down)

Mary’s words here echo Hannah’s song just after God had granted her a son, Samuel, and Hannah had given him back to God’s work in the temple. Mary must have known these words, maybe take them to heart. I memorized the Magnificat in college for a Lessons and Carols style service. The problem was I’m not great at putting whole passages to memory. I got on stage and delivered all the words but the verses weren’t in the right order. While mine was a fumbling mistake, Mary draws upon the words of her foremother Hannah and sings her own, re-imagined song.    

 (slide two women laughing) Mary is overflowing with praise and thanks. I wonder if it had been welling up inside her needing to burst forth. Finally, with Elizabeth's prophetic words of greeting, Mary hears a human naming her coming son as Lord. Full of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth blesses Mary in great joy. For Mary, she is faced with someone who might understand both the miraculous nature of this pregnancy and the mix of emotions that comes with it. Feelings of gratefulness and honor but also the complex situation and possible communal shame. (slide down)

And Mary sings from this topsy turvy situation about a God who turns power structures on their heads. Scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting people up, filling hungry folks with good things and sending the rich away empty handed. No wonder Jesus could preach a good sermon when his mother was singing lullabies like this over him. This is how God shows up on earth bringing justice through the generations. This is not a fluffy hallmark movie folks. This is a mother’s love, giving of her very flesh. Showing a love that both embraces by acting in mercy and also correcting.

(slide world embraced) This kind of agape love is active, a choice as much as a feeling. It's the love that Jesus goes on to live out by seeking the wellbeing of the other without expecting anything in return. Loving the forgotten ones who usually fall through the cracks. People like old women and young unmarried mothers. (slide down)

My parents taught a course with leaders from the Pacific Islands. As part of their time together Mum taught them a few songs, one being a setting of the magnificat, that many of you might know. After singing, a few of the participants came to my parents and said “We can’t sing these songs, people will get upset”. They knew that these words would challenge their social status quo and offend the rich and powerful in their congregations. Does hearing this shake us up? Should it?

The Women’s Bible Commentary put it this way “The Magnificat is the great New Testament song of liberation - personal and social, moral and economic - a revolutionary document of intense conflict and victory… Key themes for the Gospel that follows are introduced here, especially the proclamation of good news to the poor. Mary’s song is precious to women and other oppressed people for its vision of their concrete freedom from systemic injustice.” (Jane Schaberg and Sharon Ringe, Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 504)

Mary’s song captures the already but not yet of God’s kingdom in its use of tenses. Mary speaks about the future of God’s work as if it is already completed. This God who has been faithful from generation to generation and will be into the future. God who made promises to the Hannahs and Sarahs of the past and is working through the Elizabeths and Marys in this story and will continue to be faithful to the Paulas and Sabirinas of the future. Not what God will do but what God has done.

(slide) What is the song of thanks and praise rising up for you as we approach Christmas? How can we look back and forward at God’s love. Where is that love turning things upside down today and choosing the unexpected players? (slide down)

The second practice that has been helping me remember God in my life is guided meditation and mindfulness. In one practice a few weeks ago the leader invited us to still our bodies and then hold a moment of calm as we let God look at us in love. May you find time this week to become aware and let God look at you in love. May you then turn that gaze, and the work we do, towards love for those who are in the heart of God.

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Sunday, December 12, 2021

Phil Kniss: The grace of joy

Joy...while we wait
Advent 3
Isaiah 55:6-13; John 15:10-11; Romans 15:12-13

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I ended my sermon on hope last Sunday
by saying, several times, that we “choose hope.”
I suggested we cultivate hope,
by cultivating a healthy imagination.

So in terms of joy, we might ask,
what do we do to cultivate joy?
Is joy also a choice?

Well, some very wise people have said so.
The likes of the late Joseph Campbell, who wrote,
“We cannot cure the world of sorrow,
but we can choose to live in joy.”
Or the late Henri Nouwen, who is quoted as saying,
“Joy does not simply happen to us.
We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

I agree with both of them.  Sort of.
It kind of depends what you are meaning to say.

Nouwen and Campbell are not saying something altogether different
than what I was saying last Sunday.
Choosing joy is like choosing hope,
in that we decide where to look for our orientation.
Like hope, joy also requires some will and some imagination,
some ability to look beyond what is in front of us,
and see something we can’t yet see.

So while I don’t disagree with Nouwen and Campbell,
that’s not exactly what I am meaning to say, today, about joy.
I’m meaning to say that joy, to a large degree,
IS beyond our ability to simply choose it,
or to make it happen,
or to manufacture it out of the hard stuff of life.

In a slight counterpoint to the words of Henri Nouwen,
joy does, in fact, happen to us,
because of where we place ourselves in relationship.

Today I want to explore the concept of joy, as grace.
Grace is really a synonym for gift.
The Greek word charisma means “favor” or “gift,”
from which we get the word charismatic.
Gifts come from someone who loves us.
Receiving gifts from people
result from being in relationship to them.

I want to suggest that joy is a charism, a gift,
and the source of joy is God’s presence.
So if we want to increase the odds of receiving this gift from God,
if we want to put ourselves where the grace of joy is,
then we will want to cultivate our relational connection
to the God who is joy.

I’ll come back to that in a minute,
but let’s first examine the scripture readings from today.

Our reading from Isaiah takes us directly
to what I was just trying to say:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near.”

There is, of course, human choice involved in the seeking.
We aren’t forced to seek.
We have free will not to seek a connection with God.
But the prophet suggests it is to our benefit
to actively seek.
God is accessible, is near, the prophet says,
and to those who seek God,
God is ready and eager to dispense grace.
God wants warm table fellowship with us.
Wants a clear table to sit at across from us.
So if we bring all that we are to the table,
all that we have, all our junk and our baggage,
and plop it down on the table in front of us,
God will happily clear a spot at the table,
sit down with us,
and serve up a huge helping of grace, forgiveness, and joy.

God says to us, through the prophet Isaiah,
beginning in verse 8, and I’m paraphrasing—
I don’t think like you do.
I don’t see what you see.
I understand you are burdened,
you are weighed down with everything you are carrying.
I see your burden, but I also see past it already.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways and thoughts higher than yours.
I already see beyond what you bring to the table.
I see the table cleared of your burden,
and replaced with a feast.

As dependable as the rain and snow that waters the earth,
and produces fruit from the seed,
so can I be counted on to pour out my grace of joy.

You will walk away from this table in joy,
and return to it in peace.
Look around, and you’ll see all nature celebrate with you,
at your newfound freedom.
The mountains and hills will burst into songs of joy.
The trees will clap their hands in delight.
The thorns and briers will shrivel,
and in their place, cypress and myrtle trees will thrive.
That is my free gift to you,
just for showing up at my table.

This is the God of joy speaking to us through the prophet.
The same God who rested on the seventh day of Creation,
and just looked around at everything in the world,
with the giddy delight and pleasure and laugh-out-loud joy,
of someone who just finished making something
so good and so beautiful and so amazing.

I like to think of the God we worship
as being that Seventh-Day God,
the God who overflows with joy.
That is not to deny the God who also experiences grief and anger,
when God’s human creatures rebel against that goodness,
and do things to destroy it.
But at the core of who God is, at the core,
is this Seventh-Day God,
the Sabbath God who is full of joy,
and invites us into that fullness of joy,
which is found sitting at the table of God.

Our invitation to a life of faith,
a life in relationship to God,
is not a daunting invitation.
Yes, the road of a life of faith is hard.
But then, the road of life without faith is hard. Or even harder.
No one should ever shy away from approaching God,
out of fear for the demands God is making of them.
If it seems intimidating to anyone,
it means we’ve done a poor job representing faith to them.
No, our invitation to obedience, is an invitation to a party.
At least it is according to Jesus,
in the words of John 15 that we heard today:
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments
and abide in his love.
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.”

Can we even grasp that—
we who like to emphasize the hard teachings of Jesus,
as well we should?
Can we grasp Jesus’ astounding claim here?
He is saying to his disciples,
“Everything I have told you,
every commandment,
every law I have taught,
every directive to carry your cross and follow,
I have said all these things,
so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.”
It’s all for joy, folks. It’s all for joy.
I wonder if Peter, James, and John,
and the rest of the 12 sitting at the Passover table,
really caught the gist of what he was saying.

The writer of John’s Gospel
has Jesus giving a long discourse at the Last Supper,
giving them all a heads-up about the resistance
they will all face in the world after he leaves them,
the hatred and persecution they will encounter,
and other things that are just too hard
for them to hear right now.
It is in the middle of that long, sobering discourse,
that Jesus says the surprising words we just heard:
“I have said all these things,
so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.”

And to think—wealthy Western Christians sit here today,
in comfort and plenty, and a privileged place in the world,
and have the nerve to create a joyless religion,
that gets more mileage out of boundaries and restrictions
and rule-following,
than out of the pure and deep joy being offered freely to us
who approach God’s table.

The Apostle Paul, in today’s Romans reading, ends with this prayer:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

In these two short quotes from Jesus and Paul,
all four themes of Advent—Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love—
get wrapped together in one package.
Here is the God who comes to us in Advent.
Who says to us, “Abide in my love . . .
that your joy may be complete.”
And, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace.”

This is the religion I strive for—
one that pulls us, by sheer magnetism, by God’s charisma,
toward the table of the God of joy.

Yes, there is a sense in which we choose joy,
or at least, choose to come to God’s table.
But we are not told to will ourselves into being joyful.
Joy is not created, it is received from the Creator.

And this joy does not blind itself to the harsh realities of life
in a broken and grieving world.
This kind of joy is honest.
Brutally honest.
It names the pain.
It faces the grief.
It acknowledges the injustices, the sins and the shortcomings.

Even so, it moves us toward the table where the God of joy sits,
the God who sees and knows and respects the baggage we bring,
but who gently, in our presence, and with our permission,
clears away a space at the table,
where the grace of joy can be received,
where the feast can be served.
The joy and the pain can both be held, together.

We are called into joy by the God of joy.
Our responsibility, our choice, is to put away our defenses,
and receive it,
as the precious gift that it is.

Let us make our confession together.
I invite you to turn to the confession in your bulletin.
And, at the same time,
turn to Voices Together #629 – “Here by the Water,”
a wonderfully appropriate song by Jim Croegart.
I’ll be reading Jim’s words at the end of the confession.
After which, we will sing them.

one God of joy, Lord of the Dance, we confess that we allow fear 
                to bar the gate that holds us back from entering your joy.
all Forgive us, encourage us, release us from that which binds us.
one We look for joy in the wrong places,
                straining to grasp for that which glitters, 
                yet is fleeting and empty.
all Forgive us, encourage us, release us from that which binds us.
one The God of all joy invites us to freedom and fullness of joy,
                here by the water, as we pray and sing . . .
Soft field of clover, moon shining over the valley,
joining the song of the river to the great Giver of the great good.
As it enfolds me somehow it holds me together.
I realize I’ve been singing. 
                Still, it comes ringing clearer than clear.

I think how a yearning kept on returning to move me
down roads I’d never have chosen, half the time frozen, 
                too numb to feel.
I know it was stormy; hope it was for me a learning.
Blood on the road wasn’t mine, though. 
                Someone that I know walked here before.

And here by the water I’ll build an altar to praise you
out of the stones that I’ve found here.
I’ll set them down here, rough as they are,
knowing you can make them holy . . .

—Phil Kniss, December 12, 2021

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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Phil Kniss: God only knows

Hope...while we wait
Advent 2
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:17, 22-27; Romans 8:10-12

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Let’s all think about the future for a minute.

First, think about your own foreseeable future,
as in, the next 5-10 years of your life . . . . . .
Now think about the future of our country,
our democratic institutions . . . . . .
Now think about the future of the church . . . . . .
Now think about the future of our planet . . . . . .

So how many of you, when you stop to contemplate the future,
find it a bit challenging, at least sometimes, to feel hopeful?

These days hope seems to be in short supply.
And we can’t blame this on the supply chain.
We can only blame ourselves.

But as soon as I say that, I have to qualify my statement.
Sometimes loss of hope is tied to things entirely beyond our control,
like catastrophic loss,
or extreme injury,
or acute mental illness.
Sometimes people dangling over the precipice of life,
are, in fact, completely devoid of any hope for rescue.
All too often, they are not rescued.

When they fall, we do not need to assign any blame.
These are simply tragic realities to be grieved.

But that’s not the kind of hopelessness I’m talking about right now.
I’m talking about when a person . . . or a community or a country
has the necessary resources for life,
but still suffers from a generalized, widespread, and chronic
inability to imagine a hopeful future,
and act accordingly.

When we lack that kind of hope it is not only sad, it is preventable.
And it’s in our collective hands to do something about it.

Lack of hope stems from lack of imagination.
And our lack of imagination may stem
from looking for hope in the wrong places.

If our hope depends on the likelihood
that a set of unpleasant concrete circumstances
will change in a particular way . . . well,
sometimes it’s so hard to imagine them ever changing,
that we are hard-pressed to muster any hope.

But what if our hope lies in something beyond the circumstances?

Here, perhaps, is one place people of faith have a natural advantage.
Now that might be disputed by some happy, hopeful people,
who claim not to have faith of any kind.
But that argument’s for another time.

I do believe that virtually all faith traditions
orient people to put their hope
in something that transcends circumstances,
that is larger than us,
that is forward-looking . . . and requires imagination.

A healthy faith-filled imagination is the seed-bed for hope.

And it took a lot of imagination for Ezekiel
to see and write down this amazing prophetic oracle we have
in Ezekiel 37.
This is a favorite text of mine,
because I like to think of myself as imaginative.
And Ezekiel had a healthy imagination.

If anyone ever tries to tell you to reign in your imagination,
when it comes to matters of faith,
pay them no mind.
Imagination is essential for faith.
Hebrews 11 tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things . . . not seen.”
Imagination is drawing a picture of something we can’t see.

And faith is holding on to that imaginative picture,
so that it fills us with a sense of hope,
and has a direct impact on how we live in this world.

Some Christian traditions (and I’m sad for them)
seem to think their faith rises or falls,
on whether we can prove that something did or didn’t happen
the way it is described in the Bible.
That might be an interesting mental exercise.
But it doesn’t build hope.
Good imagination is the seed-bed for biblical hope.

Ezekiel 37 begins with,
“The hand of the Lord came upon me,
and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord
and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.”
Now did the Spirit literally lift up Ezekiel,
and physically transport him, and drop him into a valley of bones?
Or was it a dream in the night?
Or was it some imaginative daytime vision?

I assume it was the latter.
The prophets often say simply, “the word of the Lord came to me.”
I like to think the prophet Ezekiel put himself, intentionally,
into a space of openness and attentiveness to the Spirit.
I imagine that Ezekiel was a practitioner of some kind of
regular spiritual listening and watching.
Maybe it was a daily discipline.
Maybe it was a certain place in his house,
or a favorite tree he liked to sit under.
And probably most of the time, nothing happened.
Be he kept on doing it. Kept opening up his mind and heart.
And occasionally words would come.
Or pictures would come.

And one day, as he let his imagination go,
God gave him this picture.
Only in retrospect, he would say, God took him to this valley,
and God told him to prophecy to the bones,
and he watched God bring life to these bones,
and he listened to God explain what it all meant.

Ezekiel’s imaginative picture was a picture of hope,
in a circumstance where all hope was lost . . . long ago.
This was about the exiled nation of Israel, that in fact,
had ceased to exist.

Ezekiel 37 is a brilliantly composed prophetic oracle.
I would say, not only did Ezekiel have a great imaginative mind.
He was deeply reflective, and when it came to writing it down,
he was a rhetorical genius.

I won’t take apart the whole text right now,
but spend some time in Ezekiel 37 later,
and discover its gems for yourselves.
For instance, how many times did God address Ezekiel as “mortal”
which means literally, someone who is going to die.
“Hey, You-who-are-going-to-die, do you see these dry bones?
You-who-are-going-to-die, can these bones live?
You-who-are-going-to-die, prophesy to these bones.”

In this portrayal of Ezekiel’s imaginative vision,
he gives God a perfect answer to one of God’s questions.
When God asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
The obvious answer was, No—
especially given the detail that the bones were not only dry,
but “very dry.”
But rather than challenge God with the obvious,
Ezekiel replied, “O Lord God, you know.”
I think that’s only more evidence of Ezekiel’s healthy imagination.
He had spent enough time listening to the Spirit,
and imagining possibilities beyond the present reality,
that he knew better than to limit God.
I’m guessing he came to the conclusion long before,
that he was not the best judge of what was hopeless.
God only knows what is truly hopeless.
God only knows.

Who else but someone with a healthy prophetic imagination
could see such a fantastic vision
of a valley of bones not only becoming embodied,
but receiving breath and spirit, and living again!

A similar scenario unfolded in Jesus’ ministry,
described in the John 11 reading today.
We’ll encounter this story again on March 6 next year,
as we work through the Gospel of John.
But I wanted to highlight just a few verses
to underscore that God only knows what is hopeless.
The two sisters of Lazarus knew their brother’s death
was the end of the story,
and they pointed fingers of blame at Jesus,
who arrived late to the scene.
But Jesus calmly asserted, “I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
And he promptly spoke a word, and Lazarus came out of the tomb.

The apostle Paul was also gifted with a good imagination.
He could see life where there was only death.
In today’s reading from Romans 8, he wrote,
“If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin,
the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

Over and over in scripture, someone’s imagination gets stirred,
and hope emerges.
Motivated by God’s mission of healing and saving the cosmos,
they are able to see what others cannot see.
They allow themselves to touched, to the core,
by this healing vision of God,
and let that vision shape their way of living in the world-that-is,
rather than giving in to despair.
Attitude shapes reality.
And no, we’re not just playing a psychological game here,
trying to muster up positivity as a coping mechanism.
No, we are making a conscious choice about
what we will allow to shape
our real-life decisions and behavior.

Despair is not something confined just to our head.
Despair will shape how we live and interact and behave,
thus, it will shape the institutions we are part of,
and it will shape our culture and society.
And so will a biblical, prophetic imagination that nurtures hope.
Holding onto and contemplating and believing
God’s healing mission—often, regularly, and intentionally—
will also shape how we live and interact and behave,
thus, it will shape the institutions we are part of,
and it will shape our culture and society.

We get to choose which one we live by.
Today, like Ezekiel, like Jesus, like Paul,
like many who have gone before me,
I choose imaginative hope.
When God is in it, nothing, ultimately, is hope-less.
Imagine God’s future.  And choose hope.

Coming to the communion table is one way we choose hope.
These elements are symbolic, yet they are more than that.
They symbolize the broken body and shed blood
of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
But partaking of them is a real act of hope.
When we partake, we say, by our action,
that we choose to ingest, to internalize, to become one with,
the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus.
We enact our trust that there is more life to come.
We imagine healing and peace and shalom. 
We choose hope.

—Phil Kniss, December 5, 2021

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