Sunday, January 15, 2017

Phil Kniss: Putting down the remote

Epiphany 2: Come and see
John 1:29-46

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We live in a complicated world,
where we are called to “follow Jesus.”
But our world—
6000 miles and 2000 years away
from the world of Jesus of Nazareth—
is just . . . so . . . different.
When we set out to follow Jesus in our world
we have to do some translation . . . a lot of translation.
It makes following Jesus a complicated task.

So when we are faced with a complicated task,
we do what comes natural—try to simplify.
We take what seems un-manageable,
and try to make it manageable.
Naturally so.

Of course, the ever-present danger in this, is over-simplifying.
And we are all prone to this danger.

I mention this at the outset,
because I think today’s Gospel reading can help us.
In this ancient Gospel text,
we can find some clues for living today,
in our chaotic and complicated and globalized world.
We get these clues directly from Jesus and those who walked with him
in his relatively contained (and maybe . . . simpler?) world—
a world of Palestinian Jews
congregated on the eastern edge of the Roman Empire.

These clues come from the dialogue in this story—
or more precisely, series of short stories.

This narrative from John 1 takes place over a three-day period,
in four different scenes.

And if you look at the dialogue—
between John the Baptist and the crowds,
between John’s disciples and Jesus,
between Andrew and Simon,
Jesus and Philip,
Philip and Nathaniel—
they all have a common thread running through them,
summed up in three words, “Come and see.”

So here is my sermon in a nutshell:
the way to navigate the complexities
of a life of following Jesus today,
is to stubbornly commit ourselves to always “Come and see.”
To show up. See for ourselves.
To look. Take in. Observe.
To explore. Dig deeper.
And at the same time,
to stubbornly refuse to come to conclusions from a distance,
to resist, with all our might, the temptation to oversimplify,
and take the quick and easy path to reaching judgement.

That’s my singular point.
Now, let me try to flesh it out.
And this is my take on it.
You’ll need to tell me if you have a different take.

So how many times has someone run up to you wide-eyed,
talking a mile-a-minute,
trying to tell you something amazing . . . or scary or funny
that they saw happen with their own eyes.
And you don’t quite get it,
your face registers confusion,
they’re disappointed, and say, “I guess you had to be there!”

It’s a cliche, but it’s true.
There is no substitute for “being there.”
You only get the full impact of something
when you’re right there,
where it’s happening, when it’s happening—
seeing, hearing, participating.

Second-hand, and third and fourth-hand accounts,
don’t have enough emotional holding-power, typically,
to keep our attention for more than a few minutes.

It’s the reason TV stations label their news shows
Eye-Witness News.
Action News.
News Now.
It’s why camera crews find any excuse to come to you live,
from the scene of the action,
even for weather reports.
An NBC report on the California flooding last week,
showed a close up of the face of the reporter holding his mike,
talking about the high water.
Then the camera zoomed out,
you saw the reporter in that water, up to his waist.
It zoomed out more, and you saw the whole street full of water,
and his small figure in the middle of it all.

The producers know,
news is only partly about communicating facts.
A big part of it, is grabbing your emotional attention,
pulling you in,
making you feel like you’re there.
In less time, with less money, and less risk to their personnel,
they could easily give us more detailed and accurate data.
They could tell us the water on Main St.
is 37 inches at the center,
flowing 5 miles an hour,
and rising a foot every six hours.
They could get that data from local authorities,
and report it from a dry studio.
But no, they have to have someone wade out in the middle of it,
and come to us live,
for no good reason,
except they want that information to grab us emotionally,
and stay with us tomorrow and the next day.

John the Baptist had already told the crowds about Jesus,
many times.
He told them someone would soon appear
who was the anointed one, the promised Messiah.

But when Jesus finally showed up,
was there in the flesh,
then John said, with excitement, “Here he is.
Look! Behold the Lamb of God!”
This is the one I meant, when I said,
“I saw the Spirit descend on him as a dove.
I have seen and give witness that this is the one.”
John the Baptist, reporting live for Eye-Witness News.

The next day again, Jesus passed by,
and John said to two of his disciples,
“Look! Behold! The lamb of God.”

That’s Part 1 of this scripture reading from John 1—
the Gospel writer has John the Baptist urging us
to look, to observe, to see.
And John describes what he himself saw.

Then the narrative shifts to Scene 2.
John’s disciples, full of curiosity, start to follow after Jesus.
They want to learn more.
They ask where Jesus is staying.
And Jesus replies, simply, cryptically,
“Come and see.”
They went. They saw. They stayed.
They interacted with Jesus.

Scene 3. One of those disciples was Andrew.
He goes off and fetches his brother Simon.
“We have found the Messiah,” Andrew tells Simon.
So Simon comes. Sees. Observes first hand.
And Jesus gives him a new name, Cephas. Peter. The Rock.

Scene 4. Next day, Jesus invites Philip to follow him into Galilee.
And Philip goes and finds Nathaniel,
tells him basically the same thing Andrew told Peter.
“We have found him; the promised one.”
Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.
Nathaniel is skeptical. Nazareth? Really?
A Messiah from a backwoods place like that?
And Philip answered, with these now familiar words,
thick with meaning,
“Come and see.”

Come and see.
Be there.

Disciples don’t learn to follow their master by memorizing data,
by ensuring they digested the key points of their master’s teaching.
They learn to follow
by showing up,
by observing,
by noticing,
by paying attention,
by asking questions,
by experimenting,
by asking more questions,
by trying again,
by listening to their master,
by replicating what they see their master doing.

Being a true disciple begins with showing up.
In person.
Learning the truth about anyone, really,
especially about a group of people,
requires real presence,
requires us to Come and See.

If we disciples today—
trying to navigate a complicated world,
and be faithful followers of Jesus—
if we make a stubborn commitment to always Come and See,
before we Decide and Declare,
we will be in a minority position
in our 21st century American society.

That is true especially now,
in this anxious and fearful social climate,
where we are both hyper-connected and deeply divided,
where technology allows for,
and social patterns encourage,
immediate judgement,
and immediate response to that judgement,
delivered from a safe distance.

We are besieged by a rapid rise of outright Fake News,
and . . . news that gets leaked and broadcast and reacted to
before any normal, common-sense standards
of verification and balance and nuance gets applied to it,
only to find out later it was either entirely false,
or wrongly interpreted.
Now, we could write this off as political tricks and gamesmanship,
par for the course these days,
when people get passionate about one ideology or another.

Or . . . as disciples of Jesus, as people of Judeo-Christian faith,
we could see it as part of a larger moral crisis we participate in,
in which one of the Ten Commandments,
“Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor,”
is routinely ignored, and laughed into irrelevance.

But that’s just one small example
of how we all continually fail to “come and see.”
The seeds of our short attention span and distraction,
as individuals, and collectively,
those seeds were planted long ago,
and they are bearing fruit in nearly every part of our lives.

We are getting out of practice,
in one of the core spiritual disciplines:
showing up.

Our culture certainly doesn’t encourage us to practice it.
Life isn’t structured in a way that pushes us very often,
toward active direct engagement,
toward patient listening and observing,
toward thoughtful analysis,
toward hands-on collaboration,
toward face-to-face dialogue with our neighbors,
much less our opponents.

Technology has done wonders at making certain tasks easier.
So we can also get away with paying less attention.
It’s not just distracted driving that’s a problem.
It’s distracted walking.
It’s distracted talking.
It’s distracted living.

Maybe it started with the infrared remote control.
Some of you are too young to remember not having a remote.
I recall, in one of my very early sermons,
back in the mid-80's, actually making light of TV remotes.
We had a TV with a turn-knob and rabbit-ear antennas,
which was good enough for anybody.
To refuse to walk across the living room,
to change the channel or adjust the volume,
was the height of laziness, it seemed to me.
We were being sucked in by one of the 7 deadly sins—sloth.

Today, we’ve gone from zero, to an indeterminate number
of remotes in our household.
We recently replaced a car radio,
and the new one came with a remote. Really?
I’ll draw the line there.

The remote, to me, is not the epitome of evil.
But it is symbolic of how we approach life.
We want to remain at a distance.
We want to remain at ease.
We want to maintain control of our environment,
without actually engaging it very directly.
With as little effort expended as possible—the push of a button—
we’d like to turn down, or mute, that which disturbs us,
we’d like to switch channels, turn aside from,
anything that doesn’t immediately grab us.
We have developed . . . to perfection . . .
the art of impatience.

Remember the theme at our church retreat three years ago—
“Slow Church,”—the planter from that retreat
is still thriving in our foyer.
What I’m talking about here—
our addiction to remote control of life and relationships—
that is the opposite of Slow Church.

Slow Church is about patiently cultivating community
in the Body of Christ.
It’s about not even wanting to rush to judgement
or make a quick decision,
but to enter into the process
of listening and relationship-building,
of long conversations,
of choosing to live with tension,
rather than rushing to resolve it,
of moving toward those who are different,
and sitting with them, over time,
of allowing time for the Holy Spirit
to grow the fruit naturally,
instead of us trying to mass-produce it.

Speaking now in metaphor, the remote control is an addiction
from which we need to break ourselves free.
We need to put down the remote.
We need to swear off using this device to take the easy route,
the push-button approach to changing the world around us.
Maybe we should even lock it away in a cabinet,
along with other dangerous devices,
that we pull out only in the event of a true emergency.

Maybe, instead of deciding based on ideology—
who we ought to condemn and disassociate from, and
who we can embrace as part of our tribe—
maybe we should “come and see.”

Maybe, like Philip of Bethsaida,
we should invite the Nathanaels in our lives—
those who can’t believe anything good can come from Nazareth—
and gently, without argument or condemnation,
invite them to “come and see.”
Or maybe, if we are Nathanael,
we should listen to the brothers and sisters in our lives
whose witness we find it hard to believe,
and invest the time and energy required
to truly “come and see,”
to observe up close, and carefully, and over time,
to ask the questions, and listen to the answers,
to open our heart and mind
to what the Spirit may be saying.
That kind of openness is needed,
in all sectors of our society,
and . . . on all sides of virtually every debate
going on in the church today.

I think very little good
will come from depending on remote control,
to manage the tensions and discord in our environment.
We cannot mute or channel surf our way around them.
We must come and see and touch and interact.
We must learn from our master Jesus,
who sat at table with both tax collectors and Pharisees.
We must attend to what Jesus may be doing and saying today,
in our midst.
Where is Jesus, the Christ, at work in our world today?
In more places than we might imagine.
Let’s come and see.

And let’s sing from STS, #39, a wonderful song by John Bell.
There is nothing resembling a remote control in this invitation,
“will you come and follow me?”
It’s direct. It’s intimate. It’s interactive. It takes us places.
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?

—Phil Kniss, January 15, 2017

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Phil Kniss: Baptism as God’s yes and our yes

Epiphany 1: Baptism of the Lord
Matthew 3:13-17

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Every year, the first Sunday following Epiphany Day, January 6
is “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday in the Christian calendar.

There are a lot of Christian feast days in the calendar
we Mennos never observe—
like the Nativity of John the Baptist
Saint Joseph’s Day, Candlemas, Feast of Holy Innocents.
There are others we always observe, at least here at Park View—
Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints Day, and more.
Then we have the hit-and-miss Feast Days—
Christ the King Sunday, Ascension Day, the Baptism of the Lord.
Depending what else is going on at the time,
we might, or might not, mark the day.
We celebrate Baptism of the Lord Sunday,
probably half the time.

Which . . . I’ve decided . . . is not enough.

I usually have two thoughts when I think about
setting aside a whole Sunday to focus on Jesus’ baptism.
The first, and usually fleeting, thought,
is why bother with this one brief moment in the Jesus story?

No miracle performed.
No sick person healed.
No profound lesson taught.
No doctrine established.
Just a vague description of a mystical experience—
a voice from heaven
(and maybe a vision, depending on which Gospel you read),
dove descending, sound of thunder, or a deep voice saying,
“This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Establishing this as a Christian Feast
sounds a little like the church fathers seizing on an opportunity
to reinforce the doctrine of the Trinity—
Jesus is proclaimed God’s Son,
the Spirit-Dove descends,
and the Father speaks from heaven.
All three, right there!

But those dismissive thoughts don’t stay with me long,
because I remember what follows this in the Jesus story,
and how crucial this moment really is,
and how relevant it is for our ordinary day-to-day lives
as followers of Jesus in the 21st century.

Yes . . . that’s what I said.
This mystical and slightly “woo-woo” biblical scene,
I am saying is practical, contemporary,
and relevant to Mennonites who generally focus
on more down-to-earth matters
of being Jesus’ disciples.

And, I would add, even more so at the beginning of 2017,
this is relevant to our lives,
when our way of being in the world is challenged on many fronts.

When our wider church is facing fractious conflict,
when our culture is more polarized than ever,
when our national politics is in disarray,
when broad swathes of our culture
operate on high anxiety, and fear, almost constantly,
when violence is around every corner,
when the health of our planet is in serious jeopardy,
now is the time, and urgent is the need,
to get clear about who we are as the people of God.

No better place to look for help in that,
than Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River.

Why would I make such an odd claim?
Because of what I believe about baptism.

This ancient practice is, to my thinking,
the most important one in the life of the church,
and it’s the one we get most confused about.

There have been all kinds of debates about baptism over the years.
More than debates. Wars. Violence.
We Anabaptists know this.
My 11th-great grandfather, Hans Landis,
was beheaded in Zurich Switzerland,
over what he believed about baptism.

Churches have split over when to baptize,
what words to speak when baptizing,
how much water is needed, and on and on.

Most of those fights and splits and executions are old history.
That’s not the kind of confusion about baptism that worries me.
The most common problem today
is that we gut baptism of its real, and thick meaning,
and make it into something thin, and sentimental.

We had some beautiful baptisms here at Park View this past September.
Beautiful, on many levels!
It was a cool, clear Sunday on the North River in Bridgewater.
The four young women being baptized were full of joy,
they were surrounded by loving family, supportive friends.
A little disappointed there was no voice from heaven
or descending doves.
But there were ducks in the river.
And birds were singing.
The water was invigorating.
The towels wrapped around them on shore
brought warmth and comfort.
Many pictures were taken to mark the occasion.
Facebook was abuzz when some of them were posted,
people far and wide
offering their love and prayers and congratulations.

That was all great. All beautiful. All memorable.
But it wasn’t the most significant part of that day.
I’ll get to that in a moment.

But let me say, first,
I think many contemporary Christians misunderstand baptism
to be just a personal rite of passage.
Something we carefully stage
to make memorable and picturesque.
I don’t mean that’s what we did in September.

But I am saying it’s a pretty common view
among American Christians—
that a beautiful and memorable baptism
is somehow better, more effective, than an ordinary one.

This is the same kind of thinking that says a big beautiful wedding
is more significant than a small and simple one.

Now, I am a genuine lover of beauty,
who is willing to pay extra for things with aesthetic value,
who goes out of the way to find and appreciate beauty.
Let me say I love beautiful weddings and beautiful baptisms.
I support efforts to make them beautiful.
I love to see people getting into the moment,
and extracting from those moments
all the goodness and beauty they can.
But while a baptism can be aesthetically beautiful,
it is so so much more than that.

In terms of what it actually means, and what it does,
it doesn’t make one whit of difference
if you were immersed in the Jordan River, under a rainbow,
and have a DVD to remember it by . . .
with harp music on the soundtrack . . .
or if you had some water poured on you from a plastic pitcher,
kneeling in the front of a drab Mennonite sanctuary
with no worship arts, and cinder-block walls,
and barely remember it because you were 12 years old.

I’ll make you guess which of those two scenarios was mine.

The fact of the matter
is baptism is not about
a personalized, individualized experience.
It’s about your identity as an individual in community.

It’s not about where your baptism is located.
It’s about where your baptism locates you.

Take Jesus’ baptism as a prototype.
His baptism and ours share important elements.

So, “Why was Jesus baptized?”
Why was it necessary?
Even John the Baptist wondered, and objected at first to doing it.
It was not to have his sins washed away,
or to be cleansed and forgiven of his wretched human nature.
No, it was the day Jesus took on a new name.
He was re-Christened.

At the moment he came up from the water,
a voice from heaven pronounced his new name:
“You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
God spoke a resounding “YES” to Jesus,
and, in submitting to baptism,
Jesus spoke a resounding “yes” to the beckoning of the Spirit.
It was at that moment Jesus threw in his lot
with his God and God’s people and God’s purposes.
And he was re-christened, re-named.

There was only one who had the right to name him,
the one who gave him life. His heavenly parent.

The most important sentence a parent can speak to a child,
begins with the words, “You are . . .”
Not you should, you oughtta, you will, but you are.

The words that come after “you are,”
can build up or tear down.
They can create life or destroy life.
But words that articulate our identity
are the most powerful and important words a parent can speak.

In baptism, God is the first one speaking.
It was true for Jesus.
It was true for me in that cinder-block sanctuary.
It was true for our young women in the North River.
In baptism, God says to us,
“You are loved. You are mine.
You are worthy, because I have made you worthy.
I am with you. I am for you.
And I have an intention for you.”

It is not an accident that in the Gospels
the first event recorded after Jesus’ baptism
was an agonizing trial in the desert,
where Jesus new identity would be put to the test.

The way the Gospel story unfolds is intentional.
Jesus is told by God, “This is who you really are.”
And the next moment he is told by the great adversary,
“You can be whoever you want to be.”

And the rest of his ministry journey,
Jesus was pulled this way and that way,
by well-meaning friends
who thought he should behave in a certain way,
to out-and-out enemies
who tried to make him behave in another way.

He had to keep going back to what he was told
by the only one who had a right to lay claim to his identity.
No . . . this is who I am.
And this is how I am intended to live.

That’s the function baptism should have for us.
It is foundational to understanding who we are.
We start by hearing God’s “Yes!
You are my beloved.
You belong to me and my family.
I am with you. I am for you. And I have a purpose for you.”
And in baptism, we offer back our “Yes!
I am your child.
I am an integral part of your family.
I am all in with your will and purposes for me,
and for the world.”

Once we hear God’s yes, and respond with our yes,
we have a basis on which to act, and do, and behave.
We have a foundation for ethics,
for deciding between a right and wrong course for our lives.

I have to wonder whether all the chaos and conflict and confusion,
that seems to have the upper hand in the church,
in our community, in our political processes,
in our national and global state of affairs,
is because most of us are missing that essential grounding in life—
hearing and believing those defining words from our Creator,
“You are . . . You are my son, my daughter.
I have given life to you.
You belong to me, and I love you with an everlasting love.”

So many other things try to shape our identity—
our national citizenship,
our religious affiliation,
our political convictions,
our jobs,
our money,
our vehicles,
our clothes,
our body image,
our sexual persona,
And all these identities are foisted on us by a culture
that makes idols out of these various identities and affiliations,
and are reinforced by slick marketing of products
that promise to give us these markers of worthiness.

When our life choices are influenced more
by these thin and fleeting identities,
than by our God-given identity as a beloved child of God,
then we are not living the whole life we were created for.

And all kinds of dysfunction results—
we lash out in anger toward the other,
toward those who are different.
Since we’re not fundamentally clear and comfortable
with who we are,
that insecurity shows up in all kinds of unhealthy ways.
In the most extreme cases,
it results in violent behavior,
and even mass attacks like we see regularly.

It’s easy to write off attacks
like the one that took place in Fort Lauderdale Friday,
as isolated incidents,
by one poor deranged individual
whose wires got crossed in his brain.
It’s a little harder when we recognize those acts,
as an extreme expression,
that sits at one far end of the same continuum,
that includes everyday patterns of behavior
that I too engage in,
rooted in insecurity about my identity—
Like when I separate myself from, or disparage, the other.

Baptism is the best thing the church has going,
to set us on a different course.
It locates us in a community on a journey with God in the world.
In times of chaos and uncertainty,
it reminds us who we are,
and to accept and love who we are,
that we might love others
with more courage and more integrity.

I said I would come back to our baptism service in September,
to something more significant
than the picturesque moment in North River.

A few hours earlier those four women
stood in front of you at Camp Brethren Woods—
whether you were actually there or not doesn’t matter,
that gathering of people represented and included you. They stood in front of you and gave voice
to what was at the heart of this ritual.
They said to you, in essence,
“By this act we are saying yes to God,
and we are locating our lives, our faith journey,
here, with you, our sisters and brothers.”

So I leave you today, with some of their words . . .
I am directly quoting Asha, Genevieve, Jackie, and Lily.

I want to publicly declare my love and trust in Jesus.
I am ready to fully commit to being part of this faith community.
I invite you to challenge me and love me,
just as you already have been,
and I will accept each challenge and return the love.

When I find myself with more questions than answers,
I will wrestle with them, and struggle with them,
and explore them . . . here . . . with you.

I’m not saying that I know all the answers.
I’m saying that I want to join in community
with this family of believers.
I can’t wait for this journey forward.

Now, in response, let’s sing together #443 in the Hymnal.
A great sturdy baptism hymn,
locating this ritual of the church 
in the death and resurrection of Jesus,
and in the living body of Christ, the Church.

—Phil Kniss, January 8, 2017

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