Sunday, October 26, 2014

Phil Kniss: Healing like Jesus

Church matters: Healing and caregiving
Isaiah 35:1-7; Psalm 146:5-10; Luke 9:1-6; Acts 3:1-16

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...or listen to audio:
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We are all, everyone of us today, in need of healing.
    Now don’t take offense.
    That is not a commentary on how any of us are feeling today.
        Some of us, I expect, are in deep agony.
        And some of us are full of joy, and light in spirit.
    And saying we all need healing
        is not a commentary on the present condition
            of our body or mind or spirit.
        Some are indeed suffering
            from physical illness, broken relationships, grief, abuse.
        And some show every sign of being
            healthy, fit, happy, and whole.

What I mean is that the fullness of shalom
    that our good Creator God intends for us,
        for the world and all creation . . .
        is now, and always has been, severely compromised.
    Our Creator’s primary mission in this world
        is to bring that shalom back—
            to restore, to heal, to reconcile, to save.

But right now, where we are,
    there is a fundamental brokenness in our human condition,
    and it exists right alongside a fundamental goodness.
    We are situated in the middle, in a dynamic tension,
        living with both brokenness and health,
            alienation and community,
            sin and shalom.

So no matter what you and I are experiencing at this moment,
    we are all in need of God’s healing work.

Even if we are personally feeling on top of the world,
    we are deeply tied up together with the brokenness of the world.
    Do not ever think that my next-door neighbor’s suffering,
        or an unspeakable war happening on the other side of the world,
        has no impact on my own well-being.
    All human beings are bearers of God’s image.
        So when the image of God is being suppressed,
            or violated,
            or destroyed in another,
            a shadow is being cast on my own well-being.
        Since we all share the same breath of God, the breath of life,
            then the suffering of even one,
            is tied in some way with own well-being,
                whether I recognize it or not.

So today,
    I rejoice in our God who is on a mission to heal and restore.
    I rejoice that death and destruction and violence
        do not have the last word.
    I rejoice in the good news that today’s scripture readings proclaimed.

I hope you are also rejoicing in it.
    If you are thinking this morning, even a little,
        about all that’s going on in our world . . .
        then today’s scriptures should be sounding
            pretty sweet in your ears.

From Isaiah, a sweet, refreshing word of hope
    for everyone in the world who needs it—
    “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
        the desert shall rejoice and blossom . . .
    waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
        and streams in the desert;
    the burning sand shall become a pool,
        and the thirsty ground springs of water.”

From the Psalmist—
    “[The Lord] executes justice for the oppressed . . .
        gives food to the hungry.
    The Lord sets the prisoners free . . .
        opens the eyes of the blind . . .
        lifts up those who are bowed down . . .
        watches over the strangers . . .
        upholds the orphan and the widow . . .
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”

When we see all the unspeakable cruelty
    we humans inflict on each other . . .
    we wonder,
        why can’t Isaiah’s dream come true now?
        when will the God of the psalmist actually show up,
            and execute justice,
            set the oppressed free,
            and bring to ruin the way of the wicked?
    When will that beautiful picture of the future
        come into focus, as present reality?
    We cry, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
        Hosanna! Save us all!”

This is why I say we all long for, we all need,
    the healing work of God today.

I know I’m not the only one who has heard more than enough
    in these last weeks, months, years,
    that proves how desperately broken is the human condition,
        and creation itself.
    The unspeakable things we humans do to each other,
        in the name of God, religion, ethnicity, or national pride—
        all the sick and twisted ways we make human life
            cheap and disposable.

    Religious extremists beheading persons
        who hold the wrong beliefs.
    Nation-states bombing other nation-states almost into oblivion.
    Some person gone mad, with a gun, yet again,
        shooting inside a school or workplace or government building.
    A very sick man trolling a university campus
        targeting young women, to manipulate, violate, and kill.
    Our own neighbors harming neighbors—
        two more murders in our county this past week.
    Parents or trusted family members or church members
        violating a powerless child.
    Husband abusing wife, father abusing daughter,
        daughter abusing mother.

    And that’s just the intentional cruelty
        that one human inflicts on another.
    There are many more signs of the deep, systemic brokenness
        that is our world today.

    A deadly virus kills at least 5,000 but maybe 15,000 . . . so far.
        Earthquake. Drought. Flood.
    Lord, come and heal us! Have mercy on us!

Truly, I’m not trying to discourage us all with this litany of suffering.
    What I’m trying to do in this sermon,
        as we think about the practice of healing and caregiving
            for our 21st century post-Christendom church,
        is to paint a larger picture,
            ultimately, a picture of hope.

    When we think about healing ministry,
        I think we often think too small, too narrow, too individually.
    When we think of the practice of healing in the church,
        we go right away to a picture of
        a minister praying over a sick person.
    Or we think of a group surrounding an individual,
        to pray, lay on hands, anoint with oil.
    And often, we stop with that picture.

I believe the healing ministry of the church includes that.
    But it is a whole lot bigger.
    And it should be a lot more prominent,
        and practiced more frequently,
        and in many different forms.
    And it should be considered central and essential,
        to the life of the church.

I think I know why we’ve kind of gotten stuck
    on praying for the individual sick person.
    It grows out of a misunderstanding of the Gospel itself.
    The Christian Gospel is not
        a Gospel of individual self-fulfillment.
        We confuse the Gospel with the American dream.
    The Christian Gospel is about Jesus, about the Kingdom of God,
        about God’s mission to restore the shalom of all Creation.
        It’s not primarily about me and my personal needs.

I think this misunderstanding leads to making the practice of healing
    a tool to try to bring about God’s plan
    for everyone to enjoy health and wealth and everything good.

I don’t think we can say it’s God’s plan
    that every single person, now,
        has a life free of disease and free of pain . . .
anymore than we can say it’s God’s plan
    that every single person, now,
        has a life of financial prosperity.

I’ve looked around and seen with my own eyes
    saints of God who have neither.
Those who preach a health and wealth Gospel
    not only have poor theology,
    they have poor eyesight, apparently.

But at the same time . . . let’s not make the opposite mistake.
    Let’s not make God into a dispassionate, uncaring God,
        who overlooks the individual.
    No, by faith we say,
        God knows and loves each person, in their uniqueness.
        God has an unshakable desire for their ultimate wholeness,
            but only within God’s larger agenda
            of restoring shalom for all things and all creation.
    Healing ministry with individuals,
        ought never be taken out of that larger context.

    When we pray for and with those who suffer,
        we don’t pray as though their suffering is the ultimate enemy,
        and pain is an unmitigated evil.
    We pray rather, that God’s mighty kingdom come,
        that the true enemy of God might be defeated,
        that God’s shalom might be reflected in their lives even now,
        within the specific situation they are facing.
    We honestly express our desire for healing of their cancer,
        for mending of their bones,
        for relief of their pain,
        for easing of their grief,
        for strengthening of their body.

    But even more,
        we pray that God’s purposes to heal and save
            and make all things new,
        not be thwarted by any of us, or by the evil one.
        We pray that God’s love and power and life
            be made manifest in our bodies, in our minds,
                in our lives here and now.
            In whatever way God wills.
            And we lay down our own wills, in yieldedness to God’s.

I think we will more likely see healing in this larger context,
    if we look more to the church as a healing community,
    and less to individuals with some special powers to pray and heal.

Healing is an integral part of the mission of the church.
    Kingdom communities are healing communities.
    God’s mission is the same as it was in the Gospels,
        to establish the kingdom of God on the earth,
        and to invite people into kingdom communities
            that proclaim and demonstrate
        the full and fruitful life God intended for us at Creation.

Look at any healing story in the Gospels.
    Jesus did not care for just one narrow slice of their well-being.
    He wanted them to live a full and fruitful life
        as a member of God’s covenant people.
    Jesus’ acts of healing
        were part of something much larger God was up to.
        Healing was not the end, but the means.

Matthew chapter 8.
    Jesus healed a man of leprosy, but not just by saying “be cured.”
        First, he broke the law by touching the man,
            confronting the social and religious system
            that isolated lepers from their own people.
        Then he told him to go to the priest to be declared clean,
            to be fully restored to his covenant community.

Luke chapter 8.
    After Jesus cured the demon-possessed man
        that lived outside of town in the cemetery,
        the man begged to go with him and become a traveling disciple.
    Jesus said, “No. Go back to your town. Tell people what happened.
        Find once again the life you were created for.”

Healing in the Gospels is much more than getting rid of disease.
    It nearly always means being drawn into a healing community,
        finding a full and fruitful life as one of God’s people
        living out God’s kingdom on earth.

And Luke 9, today’s Gospel reading.
    Jesus deputizes his disciples to go and heal,
        but not just to create a more efficient healing machine.
    Jesus told them to “proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”
        Their method was community-building.
    Jesus said,
        Go without bag, bread, or supplies.
        Be dependent, not self-sufficient,
            so people will share with you and build community.
        Find homes that welcome you, that extend peace.
        Then, and only then,
            share the good news of the kingdom, and heal.
        Healing was located within a kingdom-oriented community.

This approach continues with the disciples, in the book of Acts.
    We cannot separate physical healing
        from restoring relationships
        and being incorporated into a healing community.

This morning we heard the story of the crippled beggar, Acts 3.
    It wasn’t the healing itself that got Peter and John into trouble.
        It was the fact that Peter and John
            tried to put that healing into a larger context.
        They used the opportunity to point out that this healing
            was a direct result of the fulfillment of covenant,
            begun with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
            and fulfilled in Jesus, who the people had just crucified.
        And they used the chance to invite the crowd to repent,
            and turn to Jesus,
            and become part of the new community of the kingdom
            that God was bringing forth.
        And about five-thousand of them did.
    That’s the real reason Peter and John
        were dragged in front of the high priest and Council.
    The council didn’t really care that they healed the lame man.
        The problem was they connected the dots.
        They drew a straight line between this healing,
            and the larger story of what God was doing in Jesus.

Healing, divorced from a healing covenant community,
    can never be deep healing,
    because we were created by God
        for a life in covenant with others.

Thus, our ministry of healing is also not limited
    to individuals who are sick.
    We care about the brokenness in people, and systems,
        and in creation,
        wherever that brokenness appears.
        Even when it shows up in the church itself.
    And we call on God to move,
        to act in this world, and in our lives,
        in ways that heal and restore shalom.

So part of the practice of healing for the church in the 21st century,
    must include being the healing representatives of Christ
        in the culture and world around us.
    Healing must be central to what it means to be the church,
        in public, and in private.
    And it must include openness for God to heal our own wounds,
        and forgive our own sins.

Today, maybe more than ever,
    our culture needs, and we need,
    for the church to live out its calling
        to be healing communities of the kingdom.

So we are now going to pray toward that end.

This is a time to remember, in fervent prayer and hope,
    the places in our own lives,
        or in the life of our family,
        or in the church,
        or in our community,
        or in the larger world,
    that are crying out for healing and restoration of shalom.

You may pray for this healing and restoration
    in different ways, however you feel led.

In your bulletin, there is a small slip of paper,
    with some opening words
        to what may become your prayer this morning:
    “My prayer, longing, hope for wholeness is . . .”
        Finish it as you choose,
            in whatever area, or arena of brokenness,
            that is weighing on your mind and heart today.

    Then, you may bring that prayer to the cross,
        a symbol of the healing grace of God in Christ,
        and place it in the basket at the foot of the cross.
    The pastors and elders will read them later,
        and join with you in those prayers.

    Also, near the cross, and on the front table,
        are small bowls containing some healing salve,
            a symbolic balm for whatever wounds you carry today.
        Dip a finger in the balm,
            and prayerfully rub it into your own hands,
            or take it to a friend or loved one here,
            and share it with them, anoint their hands with it.

    Also, in several places near the front,
        we pastors are available to pray with you,
            and anoint you with oil if you wish,
        in whatever way you are longing for healing,
            for yourself, for another, for larger concerns.

This is a healing community gathered together today,
    and you are invited to bring your prayers, your longings, your hope,
        and offer them to God and to this healing community.

—Phil Kniss, October 25, 2014

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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Foot Washing--How Important Is It?

Church Matters: Foot-washing and Service
Luke 22:24-27; Philippians 2:1-11; John 13:1-17

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    In recent years, some TV quiz or game shows have requested audience participation to see what their reaction or opinion is on a certain topic or theme.  I wish today I could discover what your experiences have been and what many of you think about “foot-washing”.  No, not the foot washing that is part of your daily routine of personal hygiene, but the Biblical command to ‘wash one another’s feet,’ that Jesus gives and demonstrates to his disciples in John 13.  Since I am not aware that there is some new technology that has been added to our sanctuary pews by which you could buzz in an answer, I will do it my way and take a ‘straw poll’ of sorts.  Let me ask a few questions and if you are willing, raise your hand to answer, as appropriate.

1.)  If you were raised in a family that attended church on a regular basis, did your congregation observe the practice of ‘foot-washing’?
2.)  If you raised your hand, affirming that it was practiced, did you and your parents participate?
3.)  How many of you never participated in foot washing?

    When I came to Park View MC 13 years ago, we observed the practice of footwashing on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week.  We gathered in the fellowship hall for a simple supper, followed by a short service around tables that concluded with footwashing. Over the years, attendance and interest dwindled. We eventually dropped that service, added a Friday evening tenebrae service and encouraged small groups or Sunday School classes to plan something for Maundy Thursday that might include footwashing or another ritual that symbolized the idea of humility and servanthood. Some groups have done that.  In essence, we dropped the practice of footwashing as a communal experience and encouraged small groups to share together in that way. Has it worked? Are you relieved that we no longer observe that as part of a larger service as a congregation? I won’t ask you to raise your hand on that. If your response in your head and heart is, “Yes, I am relieved we are not doing that anymore?”, why are you relieved?

    Is it a practice that was for then, not now in our culture and time? Are we relieved because the idea of touching another’s feet or having someone else touch our feet makes us uncomfortable? Are we embarrassed that our feet aren’t perfect, that we might have callouses, bunions and curled up toes, or that we might have foot odor, untrimmed nails? Maybe you feel anxiety because no one ever explained how this works and how you decide whose feet you wash. Or maybe you fear you would have to wash feet with someone you really don’t like very well or with someone whose opinions and beliefs are so different from yours that you have a difficult time even conversing with them, and now you are supposed to be vulnerable and wash feet together? If some of these ideas have crossed your mind and you are honestly relieved that we have pretty much dropped it as part of the larger communal practice, let me pose this question.  “What have we lost by dropping this ritual? What might we be missing? Are we substituting other rituals and acts that replace foot-washing, that carry similar meaning for us?

    Let’s take a closer look at the text. John is the only gospel that contains this narrative of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  It is the beginning of what we refer to as Jesus’ Farewell Discourses. v. 1a, “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.” He is doing what he needs to do to prepare his disciples for his departure. It is a difficult time.  His actions are deliberate, intentional and instructive. He loved this band of men that surrounded him these years of his ministry, he loved them to the end!(to the utmost.)
    In the middle of the meal, Jesus gets up, takes off his outer garments, wraps a towel around his waist, pours water into a basin and washes and dries the feet of each disciple, one by one. It includes Judas, the one who would betray him,.  It includes Peter, the one who would later deny him..
    As Peter observed what Jesus was doing with his colleagues, maybe he literally got ‘cold feet’ for he blurted out, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” or maybe it was, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” The unattractive part of our body...dirty, dusty feet!
    Jesus tried to explain that even though he might not understand now what this means, later he would. But Peter, doesn’t want any part of this. “No, you shall never wash my feet.” Peter is resisting Jesus’ act of love. Was he confused or maybe felt strongly that this was socially inappropriate, absurd for someone like Jesus to undertake this task like a common slave. The gospel account does not give us clarity about Peter’s reason for resisting, but Jesus soon sets him straight with a demand, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” To share in Jesus involves being served by him. Jesus’ disciples must be washed by him!

    Now Peter ‘gets it’ or thinks he does. “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.” Jesus responds by basically saying, that’s not necessary, only your feet, Peter, only your feet.

    When Jesus finishes this incredible act of love with his disciples that shows humility and servanthood, he puts on his outer clothing again and returns to his place. Then turning to them, he says what any good teacher would do, after giving them an example, demonstrating this act to them in a visual way, in a way using the senses, (water poured into basin, water flowing over feet, rough towel rubbed on feet). He says, “Do you understand what I have done for you?”  Do you get it?
    Read vs.13-17, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater that the one who sent them. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

    I ask us, “do we know what  Jesus has done for us in this act?” Do we really understand? 
    In our Mennonite Confession of Faith, adopted in 1995, article 13 is on “Foot Washing.” The opening few lines state:
    “We believe that Jesus Christ calls us to serve one another in love as he did. Rather than seeking to lord it over others, we are called to follow the example of our Lord, who chose the role of servant by washing his disciples’ feet.”
    In this act, Jesus showed humility and servanthood. The article doesn’t say we must wash each other’s feet, but it does state we are called to serve one another in love and Jesus showed by this example what that looks like. The Luke 22:27 passage records these words of Jesus, “I am among you as one who serves!
    In a later paragraph in article 13, it states:
    “Believers who wash each other’s feet show that they share in the body of Christ. They thus acknowledge their frequent need of cleansing, renew their willingness to let go of pride and worldly power, and offer their lives in humble service and sacrificial love.”

    As I reflect on this statement, I believe that we are better at practicing the 3rd part of that statement, and not as good at the other two. As Mennonites we are strong supporters of service and mission projects and agencies. We purchase supplies for 1600 school kits and assemble them in an hour. We send teams to Kenya to help build sand dams or New Orleans to rebuild a church. Our youth go on mission trips and help with service projects in Georgia and Chicago. We raise thousands of dollars for MCC to help with worthy causes around the globe. We give money and time and resources in service and in love, “ in the name of Christ.” Do we do it humbly?  What have we sacrificed?  What is the cost?

    What acts or rituals do we do that help us with the first two parts of that statement from our confession. How or when do we acknowledge our need of cleansing, our need to wash away and clear out of our lives that which keeps us from a servant’s stance, things that block our way? What reminds us of our need to let go of pride and the desire to be the best, first, most accomplished? Can we let go of the need to be right! Can we practice humility and put others above ourselves?

    As we reflect on this text from John 13, maybe we need to revisit the practice of washing one another’s feet. What, exactly, is Jesus calling his followers to do? In kneeling before one another, we show our readiness to serve sister, brother, neighbor, friend, even enemy. Jesus teaches us to let our feet be washed! As we allow another to wash our feet, we open ourselves to many possibilities for cleansing and renewal. As we wash feet with one another, we are  exposing not only our imperfect bare feet, but also baring our souls and being vulnerable. Maybe part of this practice is showing the courage to ‘offer up our discomfort’ at baring our feet and touching and being touched in that way. As we display an attitude of humble service and selfless love, personally and in the life of our congregation, we are being a witness to the community and the world around us of the Jesus way. We are to share the kind of love that startles, surprises and maybe even shows up in unexpected ways and places! Together we can model a life where we treat one another with love even if it is difficult,  or if we cannot see the outcome, or even if doing so does not entirely make sense!

    About 20 years ago, I washed feet with an 80 year old woman at the church in Ohio where John and I worked as pastors. It was a deeply moving experience for me. Sadie was quite conservative in dress, slow and methodical in her movement. She taught me something about this practice that left an impression. She approached footwashing with reverence. I was concerned about her ability to get up and down from the hard floor, but she did it. She slowly and deliberatively took her nylon stockings off, one at a time. When I knelt down, I noticed her imperfect feet, calloused, rough, curled under toes. They told me a story of a hard life, of feet shoved into shoes that fit improperly. She obviously walked a few miles in her day. This humble servant washed my feet and it was holy space and a holy time.

For me, footwashing has been a significant and meaningful practice of the church. I leave you with this question: “How important is it for you?

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Sunday, October 12, 2014

Phil Kniss: What to do when it’s hard to be a Christian

Church matters: Discipling and mentoring
Matthew 28:16-20; Hebrews 10:19-25

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“It’s hard to be a Christian in America.”
    So said Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, of Durham, NC.
    His voice is worth getting familiar with.
        He is a white, southern evangelical
            with a seminary degree from Duke,
            who is an associate minister at a historically black
                Missionary Baptist church in Durham,
            who is a close friend to Virginia Conference Mennonites
                in the Chapel Hill/Durham area,
            who, with his wife and children,
                founded a new monastic community called Rutba House,
            who has lectured across the country,
                and published five books on church, spirituality,
                    and new monasticism,
            and who’s in his early 30s.

    Now why would this kind of radical, young Christian,
        who has embedded himself in such a supportive, intentional
            community of radical Christians,
        and who is smart and gifted and well-educated,
            say that it’s hard to be a Christian in America?

He recognizes what we as Christians, and the church, are up against,
    embedded as we are in a culture that not only misunderstands Jesus,
        but ignores the values of God’s kingdom, and
        actively undermines the way of life Jesus taught
            and demonstrated to his disciples.

So if we want to be a Christian in America,
    we must surround ourselves with other aspiring disciples,
    who support and encourage and empower us.

In an article Wilson-Hartgrove wrote,
    he called people to consider a radical path of life together,
        modeled after the monastics.
    And you might know that “radical” means “of the root.”
He writes, and I quote, “The roots of God’s kingdom are rhizomes.
    They spread beneath the surface, effecting change from below.
    Like the rhizome called kudzu
        that covers so much of the South where I live,
        God’s kingdom just won’t go away . . .
    Yes, it’s hard to be a Christian in America.
        But . . . with God, all things are possible.
    May we slip God’s kingdom
        into the cracks of this world’s broken systems.
        And may it spread like kudzu.”

He may be a southern, white, evangelical, new monastic.
But at least part of what he is saying,
    is a common theme that runs through all Christian traditions—
    Catholic, Episcopal, Protestant, Evangelical, Anabaptist.
I think the church everywhere, when we are doing our best thinking,
    all pretty much agree on this one thing:
    the most important work of the church is making disciples,
        for our particular time and place.

When our church disagreements aren’t stealing our attention and energy,
    when our priorities are not being misplaced,
    when the dominant culture isn’t dominating us,
        I think all churches, in our better moments,
            say that job #1 is making faithful disciples of Jesus.

How could we not say that? Jesus said it.
    In today’s Gospel, Jesus gave his parting words and mandate.
        “As you go, therefore, make disciples.”
    They are Jesus’ last words.
    They are the Gospel writer’s last words.
    They are the most potent summary of the will of God for the church.
Actually, “discipling” doesn’t belong in a series on church practices.
It’s not just one in a list of things to do as a church.
    It is the main thing.
    It is what it means to be church.

But sometimes the most obvious things are the easiest to neglect.
Sometimes, things that are just part of the landscape,
    are the easiest not to see when we look around.

I put discipling in this series, because I need to hear it said again.
    I think we need to be more intentional
        to develop structures for discipling,
        to grow a culture of discipling,
        to nurture habits that encourage discipling.
    I’m not saying we all must move into intentional communities
        in the broken parts of our cities . . .
            but I thank God for those who do.

I am saying, we all must be intentional
    about our life and growth as disciples of Jesus.
    Disciples of Jesus are not born.
        They are not delivered by storks.
        They do not just appear in the flesh, because, in a flash,
            they “have decided to follow Jesus,
                no turning back, no turning back.”
        I love that song, and sing it.
        Deciding is a necessary first thing.
            But don’t ever think deciding is what makes a disciple.
        Actually following Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit,
            and embedded in the community of Spirit,
            is what makes disciples.
        Following Jesus is hard.
        And it cannot be done alone. Ever.

Kyle Childress wrote in a journal article, “Ties that bind”—
    “If our people are going to live the Christ-like life,
        then they had better do it as a body or they will never make it.”
    “I want [us] to think in terms of God and each other,
        each other and God—
            that we cannot have one without the other—
            and to think like this so much that it becomes habitual.”
    “Jesus Christ calls us to a shared and common life in him.
        [But since most church members have no idea such a life exists,
            much less is desirable,
            it is imperative that we look around for glimpses and models
                of what a common life might look like.”
    And he points to the new monastic movement as one example.

    You might think words like that would come from some
        hippie-communal-Anabaptist-intellectual type person.
        But Kyle Childress, for 25 years and counting,
            is pastor of a Baptist church deep in the heart of Texas.

Along with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, he defies stereotyping.
    Like all good disciples of Jesus should do.

So I want to challenge all of us here this morning,
    with these words—
“How are we finding our place in a discipling community?”—
    a real down-to-earth, rubber-hitting-the-road, kind of community,
    where we not only allow, but actively invite each other
        to speak into each others’ lives with love and honesty
            and courage and clarity and charity
            and grace and forgiveness and healing
    and where, like we heard the epistle writer say in Hebrews 10,
        we “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess,
        for he who promised is faithful.
        And [where we] consider how we may spur one another on
            toward love and good deeds,
            not giving up meeting together,
            as some are in the habit of doing,
            but encouraging one another—
                and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

The New Testament church, in those early days
    when they were on the margins of a hedonistic society,
        and were persecuted for it,
        they knew they needed each other.
    No one had to tell them in a sermon or a journal article
        that it was hard to be a Christian.
        They knew it, and lived it, daily.

So they, quite naturally,
    came together to disciple each other in The Way,
    they broke bread together daily,
        listened to the teachings of the apostles,
        discussed and discerned, and often argued over
            what being a disciple meant for their time and place.

I know the world has changed radically,
    and the church has changed,
    since those early days we read about in Acts and Hebrews.
I’m not suggesting we have a precise model in the N.T.
    that we just need to copy from.

But, in other ways, not much has changed at all,
    in terms of the conflict between
        the values of the church living under the reign of God,
        and the values of the dominant culture
            which the church inhabits, and breathes in every day.
        It was hard then.
        It is hard now.

    To even have a chance,
        we must immerse ourselves in a discipling community.
    We need to be situated in such a way
        that we can both be discipled,
        and help to disciple others.

    We have a different sets of experiences that shape us.
    We have different perspectives,
        points of view that are valuable,
        but that need to be checked against the points of view of others.
    We have differing gifts and insights.
    We have differing levels of growth and maturity.
        Some have been at this for 60 years.
        Some for 6 months.
            And both have something to offer of real value to the other.

    We have our differing stories to share.
        We have accounts to give of our lives.
        That’s what being accountable means, really.
            It’s not heavy-handed or coercive.
            Accountability should not be something
                that gets dragged out of us against our will.
            Accountability is owning my story, the account of my life,
                and being willing to give account for my life
                    to one whom I trust.

    Where there is community,
        there has to be accountability.
    Choosing not to give account,
        is choosing not to be in community.

I’ve been a baptized follower of Jesus for well over four decades.
    I’ve been in pastoral ministry for three decades.
    But I am not now, nor will I ever be,
        above the need to be discipled in my Christian walk.
    If I call myself a disciple of Jesus,
        I will be in covenant with other disciples,
        and will be willing to give account of my discipleship.

How do I do that?
    For me, it happens in various ways.
    You’ve heard me talk about our small group experience before.
        That is one important way that I give account, every week.
        We don’t come together demanding account of each other.
            There is no one person, pastor or otherwise,
                enforcing honest confession and transparency.
        Instead, we have created a space, a group culture,
            where confession and transparency
                is beautiful and life-giving,
            where we each know what we share will be treasured,
                and held lovingly.
        And when there is some unintended hurt toward another,
            there will be forgiveness and reconciliation.
        I would not want to be without that in my life.

But as wonderful as that group is,
    it’s not everything I need for discipleship.
    I carry a lot of different responsibilities and roles,
        so I need to be creative and flexible
        in how I go about being discipled, and discipling others.

    I meet with one other pastor most weeks,
        for mutual sharing and counsel and prayer,
        and have been doing that for 17 years.

    I have a district minister who asks me questions regularly.

    I lead a monthly group of area pastors,
        in which I help us give account to each other
        for some practices we agreed upon.

    I walk with two other young pastors in the area,
        who have asked for some intentional mentoring in their roles,
        and as you might expect,
            I end up learning a lot from them, as well.

    And for the last two years, I’ve been in something we call a huddle,
        led by someone else—
        a group of about 10 followers of Jesus, including several pastors,
        who meet every two weeks for the express purpose
            of growing as disciples and leaders,
            as we follow the leadership of our discipler/mentor.

    And of course, here at Park View, I don’t walk alone.
        I’m part of teams of leaders.
            We three pastors meet every week for mutual sharing
                and discerning.
            The elders meet with us monthly for the same reason.

Maybe that sounds like a lot of meetings. It is.
    And I’m certainly not saying you need 5 or 6
        different accountability structures.
    But I have a variety of responsibilities and roles,
        and I therefore need a variety of ways to stay accountable.
        Responsibility, and accountability, need to be in balance.

    So yes, I do take seriously my need to give account,
        and to keep learning, and growing.
        I may be a leader, but I am still a disciple,
            an apprentice of Jesus,
            with much to learn.

So today my challenge to each of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus,
    is to ask ourselves, and be honest with ourselves,
    “To whom do I regularly give an account
        for my life and walk as a disciple of Jesus?”
    Who is actively discipling me?

And please, don’t say, “My pastors.”
    Because that is not our calling.
    We are not your disciplers.
        We are here to equip the discipling community.
    We are not here to walk beside you
        down the straight and narrow road that leads to life.
    We can be with you in certain limited ways, at certain times.
    We can teach and preach from the pulpit,
        in ways that might assist in your growth, God helping us.
    And there might be a very few we walk with closely,
        in a discipling relationship for a season.
    But you need more than we can give.

And please, don’t say, “My spouse, or significant other.”
    Oh, I do hope, if you have a spouse or partner,
        that you have the kind of relationship
            where you give honest account
            about all areas of life, including your spiritual life.
    But that is not the same as being in a discipling relationship,
        where you are inviting someone from an outside perspective,
            to help you examine your life,
            and to speak honestly and prophetically into your life.

And . . . it’s not only a question of “Who am I giving account to,
    and who is investing themselves in my life?”
    There is also the question, “Who am I investing in?
        To whom am I making myself available?”
        And maybe it’s not even someone asking for it, explicitly.
        Elijah, in the O.T., walked up to his protégé Elisha,
            and threw his mantle over his shoulders,
            without Elisha asking for it.

Perhaps, God is putting someone in your life right now,
    who can’t even articulate a need to be discipled,
    but who is open to the gifts of yourself that you have to offer them,
        and who would grow as a disciple, if you did.

I invite you to give careful, and prayerful, thought,
    about the persons in your lives right now,
        both the ones who are investing in you and your discipleship,
        and the ones in whom you are investing.

And may this be our prayer . . .
    Help us to help each other, Lord, each other’s load to bear,
    that all may live in true accord, our joys and pains to share.

    Help us to build each other up, your strength within us prove.
    Increase our faith, confirm our hope, and fill us with your love.

    Together make us free indeed--your life within us show,
    and into you, our living Head, let us in all things grow.

    Drawn by the magnet of your love we find our hearts made new.
    Nearer each other let us move, and nearer still to you.

Let’s sing together, HWB 362

—Phil Kniss, October 12, 2014

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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ron Byler: One body? Impossible!

World Communion Sunday
Ephesians 4:1-6

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Our guest preacher today is Ron Byler, Executive Director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. In this role he oversees the relief, development, and advocacy ministries of MCC U.S., and together with his counterpart at MCC Canada, oversees the international programs of MCC. Ron spoke in his message of Christ's call for unity in the body of Christ, drawing primarily from Ephesians 4:1-6.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Phil Kniss: Fasting and hope

Church matters: Fasting and Feasting
Isaiah 58:3-6; Luke 18:9-14; Psalm 36:5-10

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Of the many practices of the church—
    practices that can shape us as the people of God for the 21st century—
    fasting is probably the most misunderstood,
        and the most neglected.
I won’t ask for a raise of hands,
    but I certainly wonder how many of us,
        anytime in the last 12 months,
        chose intentionally to fast.
    And I don’t mean on doctor’s orders,
        or to prepare for a blood test or medical procedure.
    I mean for spiritual or religious reasons.

If I asked that question, with a raise of hands,
    to all kinds of religious groups all over the world,
    many groups would obviously have all hands raised,
        and would be dumbfounded that I even asked—
        Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus,
        Catholics, Eastern Orthodox,
            would all be in that category.
    I have a pretty strong hunch,
        that the group with the fewest hands raised,
        would be North American Christians
            who are not Catholic or Orthodox,
        that is, Protestants, evangelicals, Anabaptists.

Why would that be?
    One answer is that those groups give lesser importance
        to the Christian calendar,
            and its designated fast days and feast days.
    Another answer
        is that the call to these historic practices of the church
            has been drowned out by our cultural narrative—
            a narrative that glorifies excess, accumulation, consumption,
                individual freedom, and instant gratification.
    We live in a larger culture that bombards us continually,
        with overt messages, and hidden messages,
        telling us happiness lies in filling up our lives,
            with whatever we desire.
    The notion that we can find fulfillment through emptiness,
        is utter nonsense to the those outside our Christian narrative,
            and outside the narrative of most other
            great religions of the world.

But there’s another reason for our neglect of fasting, I think.
    Even when we do think about the discipline of fasting,
        or decide to engage in it, or experiment with it,
        we often do it for the wrong reasons.
    And when our expected results, don’t quite materialize,
        we are less likely to repeat the experiment.

I’ve been reading a book on fasting by Scot McKnight,
    part of the Ancient Practices series.

This book helped shake me out of my own apathy about fasting.
    I have been just as influenced as the rest of us,
        to think less seriously about fasting,
        because it’s just not a deep part
            of our regular rhythms in the Christian calendar,
        and because it just doesn’t seem altogether necessary
            to purposely deprive our body of its physical needs,
            in order to get God to do something for us.

But then I hear McKnight say, “Hold on a minute.
    Since when do we think fasting is primarily a means to an end?”
And I think to myself . . . well . . . isn’t it?

    That’s sort of what I gathered in my Christian upbringing.
        If I’m facing a major, life-changing decision,
            I should pray, and fast, so God will give me a clear answer.
        If I’m really desiring someone’s healing,
            I should fast, as well as pray,
                so God will be more likely to hear, and to heal.
        If I’m burdened about the state of someone’s spiritual life,
            I should fast, so God would listen, and intervene, and save.

    Fasting has usually been, in my mind, kind of like a megaphone.
        A prayer amplifier.
        I take my ordinary prayer,
            and speak it through the megaphone of fasting,
            so my prayer will be louder, and clearer,
                and so God will hear it better,
                and bump it up a few spots on his daily to-do list.

Scot McKnight says fasting is not an initiative, but a response.
    He calls fasting a person’s whole-body natural response
        to life’s grievous, sacred moments.
    The fact that it’s a natural response,
        is why it shows up in virtually every world religion.

    Choosing not to eat or drink is how a person naturally responds
        to a grievous sacred moment.
    I think we all have either experienced,
        or walked with a loved one who experienced,
        a prolonged loss of appetite in a time of deep grief and loss.
    That’s our body talking.
        It’s our body speaking what we feel in our spirits,
            and know to be true in our minds.
    There is a deep connection of body, mind, and spirit in our beings.
        So when the mind and spirit are struck deeply,
            with grief, or injury, or fear . . .
            fasting brings our body’s experience
                into alignment with our mind and spirit.

    Fasting may be spontaneous. Done without thinking.
        Fasting may also be a conscious choice.
    But in either case,
        we choose, with intention, to go without food or drink
        as a response to whatever the grievous, sacred moment may be.

People fasted in the Bible
    in response to death,
    in response to the realization of sin,
    in response to a serious threat,
    in response to national tragedy.

McKnight asks, “Does [fasting] bring results?
    Yes, but that’s not the point of fasting.
    Those who fasted in response to grievous sacred moments
        frequently—but not always!—received results,
        like answered prayer.
    But focusing on the results
        causes us to misunderstand fasting entirely . . .
    Fasting isn’t a manipulative tool that guarantees results . . .
    The focus in the Christian tradition is not ‘if you fast you will get,’
        but ‘when this happens, God’s people fast.’
    Fasting is a response to a very serious situation,
        not an act that gets us from a good level to a better level.”

McKnight says the trouble with thinking about fasting
    as a means to an end,
    is that it “becomes a manipulative device
        instead of a genuine, Christian spiritual discipline.”

Fasting, when it becomes a device, or tool,
    easily moves us toward self-righteousness and self-absorption.
That’s what the prophet Isaiah was upset about in today’s OT reading.
    If fasting does not lead us toward compassion for others,
        then it loses its meaning altogether.
    If fasting is seen as a tool to get what we want,
        while failing to grieve what God is grieved about,
        our act becomes detestable to God.

Isaiah, speaking about Israel, in God’s voice, says,
    “Day after day they seek me out;
        they seem eager to know my ways,
        as if they were a nation that does what is right.
    They ask me for just decisions
        and seem eager for God to come near them.
    They say to me, ‘Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it?
        Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

Israel is engaging in an instrumental fast, not a responsive fast.
    They are fasting, to try to convince God to relieve their suffering,
        to rescue them from whatever unfortunate state they were in.
    they themselves were the cause of other’s suffering,
        they were not feeding the poor,
        they were exploiting the laborers,
        they were quarreling among themselves.
    They were self-absorbed in their fasting.
    And they failed to grieve what God was grieving about—
        their own injustice and callousness and infighting.

It was a sham of a fast.
    The fast God desires,
        is a fast that comes from an encounter with the truth,
            an honest reckoning with the grievous, sacred event.
    In Israel’s case, the grievous sacred event
        was God on the move in the world,
            with a hand of justice and judgement,
            setting things right.
    But they didn’t see God’s hand moving among them,
        because they were fixated on what they wanted for themselves.

True fasting comes from an orientation toward the other.

Scot McKnight wrote,
    “Every generation needs an Isaiah
        to stand up in the middle of the action and say,
        ‘Hey, folks, this isn't about us!
            What we give up when we fast should be given to others.’”

It makes me wonder.
    What are the grievous, sacred events,
        which ought to be driving us to fast?
    If fasting is, in fact, a natural, whole-body response,
        to life’s grievous, sacred events,
        are we paying attention enough to notice, and respond?

    Do we allow ourselves to deeply feel and reflect on
        the grievous and sacred happenings around us, and in the world?
    And if so, are we attentive to how our own body
        may be calling us to respond,
        so that the experience of our body,
            is aligned with what we know in our mind,
            and feel in our spirit?

For instance,
    I don’t know how you are responding
        to the horrific events in Iraq and Syria,
        and the brutal indiscriminate killings by ISIS.
    Our news media, because it depends on advertisers’ dollars,
        is programmed to deliver bad news in small digestible doses,
            mini sound-bites, selected images,
            appearing and disappearing in seconds.
    It can’t afford—literally, it can’t financially afford—
        to let us viewers become overwhelmed with grief and sorrow,
        lest we are unable to mentally process
            the advertisements for Lexus and L’Oréal and Miller-Lite.
    We have to be able to laugh out loud at the Geico commercials,
        or the networks will lose millions of dollars in ad revenue.

So more than likely,
    the abject horror of the violence registers with us, barely,
        and but for a moment,
    so we can get on with our lives,
        and have a nice dinner out tonight.
    To consider that we might fast, for a day, or even one meal,
        in response to the devastatingly grievous events in the world,
        probably didn’t even occur to us.

How many of us, lately, have considered fasting, in response to the
    Ebola outbreak in West Africa, or the
    thousands of unaccompanied children detained near our border, or the
    increasing threat of climate change, or the
    racial tensions and violence here at home, or the
    conflict happening across the Mennonite church
        and other parts of Christ’s body, or the
    topic we’re dealing with in the second hour,
        child sexual abuse.

If we haven’t thought of fasting, as part of our response,
    maybe we should.
It would be easy, and relatively painless,
    to make all these things merely issues to be debated,
        and fought over rationally.
    Which is what we do, mostly.

What if we would allow ourselves to enter into God’s grief
    over these areas of deep brokenness—
        brokenness in ourselves, our families, our churches,
        our larger systems in the world, in which we partake.
    Perhaps, if we really felt God’s grief,
        a response of fasting might naturally, almost spontaneously,
            come to the fore.
        And we might be changed by it.
        And other results might happen because of it.
        God might move among us in new ways.

    Not because we pulled out one of the tricks in our book—
        fasting, to manipulate God to act in our favor.
    No, but because we opened ourselves anew to God’s grief,
        and sought to have integrity in ourselves,
        so that our mind and spirit and body would be aligned,
            and oriented toward God, and toward God’s purposes,
            in other words, oriented outward, rather than inward,
                toward the other, rather than ourselves.

This kind of fasting—responsive fasting—
    responding to a grievous sacred moment in time,
        or to a situation of deep brokenness or emptiness,
    is ultimately, a statement of our hope.
    By fasting, we are not only lamenting,
        but declaring our hope in the feast that is yet to come.

Fasting and feasting are closely related,
    in the scriptures,
    and in church tradition.
We enter the fast, in hope of the feast to come.
We embrace emptiness, in hope of the fullness God has prepared.

    Jesus reminded us that those who are first, will be last.
    Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.
    Those who grasp life, will lose it.
    Those who fill themselves, will find themselves hungry.

        And all of those . . . vice-versa.
            The hungry will be filled, etc.

    Like today’s Gospel, about the praying Pharisee and tax collector.
        the poor sinner left the temple justified,
        the self-justified was left in his sin.

Fasting is the way of Jesus,
    who emptied himself, even to the point of death on a cross,
        in hope that God would fulfill his greater purposes,
        in hope of the coming resurrection feast.

In the church calendar,
    we have seasons of fasting,
        as a way of declaring our hope in the feast to come.
    We have an Advent fast coming up in December,
        in hope of the Christmas feast;
        and the Lenten fast next spring,
        in hope of the Easter feast.

Many American Protestant Christians think of these seasonal fasts
    at least as optional,
    if not completely unnecessary for a Christian,
    and maybe even as a useless and empty ritual.
I’m quite sure that would not be the mind of Jesus,
    who regularly participated in the practices of his Jewish faith.
    Yes, on occasion, he decided not to fast, or not obey Sabbath law,
        as he listened to the Spirit,
        and to teach a lesson to the self-righteous leaders.
    But he was one who held together, without fail,
        his human body, mind, and spirit,
        in full alignment with the will of God.
    He fasted for 40 days in the wilderness,
        responding to the Spirit’s grievous, sacred act
            of “driving him into the desert” as one gospel puts it,
            and compelling a period of isolation and desolation.

    I think that was a period of hard work for Jesus,
        of deep aligning of his body, mind, spirit, and will.
    He fasted,
        not to get something good from God,
        but because it was the only response that made any sense,
            as he wrestled with God and Satan over his identity.

Would that we might enter more fully and deeply
    into the woundedness of this world,
        and feel physically compelled to fast, and pray,
        not to manipulate God into doing something for us,
        but to humbly empty ourselves,
            so we become fully aligned with God,
            and ready to then live out that alignment,
                with bodies that are ready to get into God’s action,
                to do God’s will, however costly.
    Genuine fasting and prayer is never a spiritual escape,
        it is preparation for deeper engagement.

May God give us courage to fast, often,
    with a full and joyful anticipatory hope
        in God’s abundant feast that is yet to come.

—Phil Kniss, September 28, 2014

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