Sunday, June 19, 2016

Phil Kniss: High-definition freedom

Summer 2016: This is a story full of love...
Luke 8:26-39; Galatians 3:23-29

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...or listen to audio:


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When we prayed for Orlando last Sunday morning,
    only a few hours after the attack,
    it was only with scant details of what was unfolding there.
    We heard there were 20 dead, and that was shocking enough.
    But it later became clear
        that 50 had died,
        that the victims were targeted because of their sexual identity,
        that the shooter claimed loyalty to the Islamic State,
        that he was known to be mentally unstable,
        and that he had legally purchased a military-style assault rifle.
    When we absorbed all those disparate facts,
        and considered the implications,
            our grief deepened,
            our anger intensified,
            our fears and anxieties were raw and on full display.

    Stories of courage and sacrifice emerged
        from those directly involved.
    Some profoundly compassionate responses came forth,
        even, unexpectedly, from some politicians
        not known for humility and vulnerability.
    Yet, there were others—political and religious figures—
        who did respond as we expected,
        with finger-pointing and blaming and hateful rhetoric.
    And those comments were strongly repudiated and condemned,
        as well they should have been.

    Meanwhile,
        real families were suffering,
        spouses and lovers were grieving,
        parents were in anguish.
    Any many of us, far removed from Orlando,
        moved about in a state of disbelief and numbness and weariness,
        not really knowing what to do,
        except lament, pray, and hope for a better day coming.

After a week of what we might call nationwide trauma,
    I can’t help but approach today’s lectionary scriptures
        with this in view.
    It wouldn’t much matter which texts were handed to us.
        They would be read in the light of this past week.
    We come to the text, as well we should,
        “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,”
            as theologian Karl Barth has been famously quoted.

So I went to this astounding Gospel story in Luke,
    of Jesus healing the demoniac,
    with the news from Orlando echoing in my awareness.

The connection may not be immediately apparent to you,
    but stick with me.
_____________________

When I go to the Gospels,
    I look, naturally, for Good News.
        Which is what “Gospel” means.
    So where is the good news in this story?
    Which characters are experiencing this
        as a welcome turn of events?

Perhaps it’s an easier question to ask,
    “Who’s having a bad day?”
    I can think of several.

Jesus, for one.
    At least humanly speaking.
    He’s trying to get away for some peace and quiet
        after a full and stressful week of ministry around Capernaum.
    Quick review of the week:
        healed the servant of a Roman commander,
        raised to life the dead son of a poor widow,
        fended off questions from John the Baptist’s disciples,
            and the Pharisees,
        told a bunch of parables,
        responded to the scandalous behavior of a woman
            in Simon the Pharisee’s house
            (which I talked about last Sunday)
        and dealt with his meddling mother and brothers.

Jesus needed a change of scenery,
    a break from his work,
    so he got into a boat with his disciples,
        and crossed the Sea of Galilee.
    Nothing like waves lapping up against a wooden hull,
        boat gently swaying as a gentle breeze fills the sail,
        to help a person relax and forget about work for a while.

    Except, that didn’t happen.
        A storm came up.
        His disciples panicked.
        So Jesus went back to work,
            miraculously calmed the storm,
            and taught them a lesson on faith.

So Jesus gets to the other side of the lake,
    maybe takes a deep breath . . . ahh! . . . rest at last!

And they are immediately confronted by a screaming naked man.
    Chaos breaks out.
    The whole town swarms on him, says go away and don’t come back.
        And the man begs to get in the boat with them.
        Never a dull moment!

Good News is scarce for the other characters in the story, too.
    It’s hard for them to appreciate what’s unfolding before them.

Need I point out what a terrible day it turned out to be
    for the owners and keepers of a herd of pigs?
    Suddenly they are bankrupt and have nothing to build from.

The townspeople as a whole are also upset.
    Maybe in part, because of the great economic loss
        sustained by one of their farmers.
    But also, no doubt,
        because they didn’t know what to do with a man
        who once had been chained in their cemetery,
            and probably functioned as the town scapegoat,
            filling his role as the “black sheep” of the community,
                now sitting fully clothed, and sane,
                and needing to be reintegrated into the community.
    The social order everyone had adjusted to was now out of order.
        With the healing of the one,
            the system was out of balance again.
        Nobody was sure who they were anymore,
            or where they stood.

As for the disciples of Jesus, they are silent.
    Shell-shocked, I imagine.
    They just survived sailing across the lake in a storm,
        and no sooner do they put their feet on solid ground,
        and another storm breaks out.

Well, surely, there is one character here,
    who has just had the best day of his life.
    Here must be where the Good News is to be found.
        In the life of the demoniac.

This man was bound, in every way imaginable.
    bound physically, in chains and shackles,
    bound spiritually, occupied by a legion of spirits
        that exercised complete control over him,
    bound socially, living in isolation in the cemetery,
        stigmatized, ostracized, marginalized to an extreme.

Everything that we assume is part of being human—
    being self-aware, having self-control, being in relationship,
        giving and receiving love—
        before Jesus came, this man had none of that.
    He even lost his name. At least he doesn’t get named in the story.
    He is just “the demoniac.”
        More beast than man, and treated as such.

    Well . . . after the chains fall?
        After his freedom from the demons?
        He was still rejected.
        His sudden sanity frightened his townspeople,
            to point he apparently still felt unsafe in town,
            had no home and begged to go with Jesus,
                but Jesus refused him.
    Where is the Gospel for him now?

Power that binds, is a fearful thing and hard to face.
    But sometimes, power that liberates is equally troublesome,
        and challenging to deal with.
    Freedom can mean a loss of security, loss of control.
    Freedom can mean letting go of a predictable future.

At least bondage is predictable.
    When we are chained to something,
        we know where we will be tomorrow.
        When we are free, it’s anyone’s guess.
    Maybe that’s why some persons who are abused,
        find it difficult to leave their abuser.
        It’s frightening to stay. But it’s more frightening to leave,
            and walk down a road you know nothing about.
            Even if everyone else says it’s a good road.
            It may not feel that way
                to someone contemplating freedom for the first time.
_____________________

Our modern western culture doesn’t give us much help in this regard.
    We’ve all been taught that freedom is the ultimate good.
        Freedom is what our forefathers fought for, we’ve been told.
        It’s the cause behind every war since then, we’ve been told.
        It’s why our enemies around the world hate us—
            they hate freedom, we’ve been told.
            Or are jealous of it, one of the two.

    But we grossly oversimplify freedom.
        Freedom is more than throwing off what binds us.
        Freedom is more than being able to shape our own destiny,
            with no one to stop us, restrict us, or restrain us.

I think we all agree, Jesus is a great liberator.
Jesus himself said it, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
    But I don’t think our culture tends to see freedom
        the way Jesus saw it.
    Our culture idealizes a free-for-all style of freedom.
    We like to say, the only thing that can limit our freedom,
        is if our freedom gets in the way of someone else’s freedom.
        If what I do, in the name of freedom,
            harms, or limits, or restrains someone else,
            I have violated the universal law of freedom.
        And we can agree, as far as it goes.

    But Jesus had more in mind than breaking chains.
        True freedom has a shape.
        It has definition, even high-definition.
            Just using the word “definition”
                is a form of limiting freedom,
                because definition draws a line,
                    and high-definition draws a finer line.
            When I define freedom,
                I restrict what can, and cannot, be called freedom.

        Freedom is not absence of all borders and boundaries.
        Freedom has a shape.
            And we who follow Jesus, say
                freedom is shaped like Jesus.
_____________________

One way I’ve found it helpful to talk about freedom,
    is to say that freedom is the capacity to be and become
        the person God created us to be.
    We were created in the image of God.
        All of us.
            No one here disputes that.
        We were all made to be God’s image bearers,
            to give glory to God,
            to reflect God’s glory with our lives.
        Freedom is finding our way clear to become that.

    But freedom is easily, and often, suppressed.
        I can lose my freedom in two ways.

        First, powers outside ourselves can prevent us from becoming
            the full and whole human being God intends us to be.
        This may be the power of an individual, a community, a society,
            or other powers beyond us,
                systemic powers, spiritual powers.
            Those in power over us may use coercion,
                or may exercise abusive power against us,
                or in some way violate our freedom to be the person
                    God intends for us to be.
            In other words, they do violence—
                they suppress our freedom to fulfill our created purpose.

        Secondly, we can undermine our own freedom.
            We may fail to recognize we have a created purpose.
                So while no one is coercing us, or violating us,
                    we still aren’t free.
            We may be floundering,
                because we resist letting our lives be contained
                    by any clear definition,
                    or disciplined life practices.

Christian freedom is more than breaking chains.
    The free Christian life is a journey of continual discovery.
        It’s finding out who God intends us to be,
            and opening ourselves to being transformed into that
                by the power of the Holy Spirit.
        And equally, it’s a journey of walking with others,
            to help them discover God’s intentions,
            help them open to God’s good purposes.
_____________________

Let’s be clear.
    We need to face up to chains that bind us,
        and bind others.
        Bondage is not God’s will. Ever.
            God’s will is to set us free from whatever or whoever
                is holding us bound.
            Chains—whether physical, emotional, spiritual,
                or some terrible combination of them all—
                must be resisted with all our might,
                    and with God’s help,
                    until they break.

    We just need to recognize that when the chains break,
        our work is not over.
        Freedom is more than absence of chains.
        Life can be complicated after the chains fall.
        The freedom we need, and seek, may still elude us.
_____________________

I think of myself as a free person.
    But I am also a middle-class, American, Christian,
        white, straight, educated, male.
    Most of that I got at birth. It wasn’t earned.
    And because of it,
        I have substantial legal, social, and economic standing.
        I am a person of privilege,
            where very little stands in my way,
            preventing me from living a full and peaceable life.
    The same is true for most people in this room.
        We are people of privilege,
            free to arrange a large part of our lives.
        Not entirely, of course. But largely.

But it’s still a matter of daily discipline to live free.
    There are any number of things that can bind me,
        to a life of resentment, bitterness, anger.
    As a person of privilege and power,
        I’m especially vulnerable to the sin of violence.
        It’s not hard for me to limit other persons’ freedom,
            to violate their capacity to be who God wants them to be.
    I may be one of the most likeable, peaceable, gentle,
        and unarmed Mennonite pacifists you’ll ever meet.
    But I am still at risk, at any moment, of doing violence.
_____________________

I don’t understand, and none of us do,
    how someone created to be God’s image-bearer,
    can become so disordered and broken and overtaken by such evil
        as to commit the kind of horrific crime against humanity,
        that Omar Mateen did in Orlando a week ago this morning.

    Everyone—
        from the president to news anchors to people on the street—
        is trying to figure out the answer to that question,
            so we have someone to blame,
            and a problem to fix.

    Even if today we all could agree which of the multiple factors
        was the main factor,
        and came up with the perfect solution to fix it tomorrow,
            we might feel better temporarily, because we did something.

    But tomorrow we still have the problem of evil to deal with.
    Tomorrow, we could just as easily sink down in a mire of despair
        over the pervasive evil in the world,
        and all the violence being done against innocent people,
        and all the unhinged and unbalanced and
            downright evil and abusive people there are,
                some of whom are famous and infamous,
                and some of whom live in our homes,
                    or next door,
                    or sit in our church pews.

And tomorrow we still have before us
    our fundamental calling as human beings—
    we are invited to live fully and freely into God’s intention for us,
        and to relate to others with the same love and understanding.

    We are invited to look to the model human being, Jesus,
        who demonstrated how to live in joy and freedom and hope,
            while surrounded by violence and all kinds of evil.

Even our modern equivalent of the demoniac—whoever that may be—
    who society decides to chain up and confine to the cemetery,
    even that one is endowed with the image of God,
        and deserves to be given love and dignity
            and a high-definition freedom.

    As followers of Jesus,
        we refuse to write off anyone as being less than human.
        We count and report all lives lost.
        We don’t publicly apologize for including the shooter,
            and change the death toll from 50 to 49.
        We are all created in God’s image
            and are all human beings who, by definition,
            by high-definition,
            deserve to live and thrive and have hope for tomorrow.

And speaking of high-definition freedom,
    let’s turn to HWB 411.
    The words of this hymn, “I bind my heart this tide,”
        may not sound a lot like freedom—
        binding ourselves, heart and soul,
            to Christ, to our neighbor, to the stranger,
            to God the Lord of all,
            to peace—
        this is the true, and challenging, and thick, and high definition
            of what freedom looks like.
        May we all devote every moment of our lives
            to pursuing this kind of freedom.

—Phil Kniss, June 19, 2016

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Phil Kniss: The downside of being upright

Summer 2016: This is a story full of love...
Luke 7:36-8:3; Galatians 2:15-21; Psalm 32

Watch the video:


...or listen to audio:


...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here


...or read it online here:

Seems like this sermon, is one I need to preach to myself.
    So as I talk to myself,
        you’re all welcome to listen in.
        There’s at least a slim chance it might apply to you, too.

Being found to be upright is pretty deeply engrained in my psyche.
    That’s due in part to family history and dynamics, no doubt.
        Both my grandfathers were Mennonite pastors,
            who later became Mennonite bishops,
            and who instilled in their children
                a strong sense of duty to live exemplary lives.

    They were deeply committed to Christ, first of all.
        But they were also deeply committed
            to upholding the rules and disciplines of the church.
            Their public roles required it.
        And it was important to have their own children,
            my parents, and aunts and uncles,
                set good examples.

    Add to this (at least on my mother’s side),
        a pretty strong family tendency toward perfectionism
            with a highly sensitive conscience…

    And add to this a natural theological bent among Mennonites
        to emphasize the “doing” side of the faith and works continuum.

Put all that together and it’s not hard to see
        why I’m deeply formed to see myself as an upright person;
        a faithful and holy disciple of Jesus.
    Not without fault, of course—
        I would never claim that—
            nor would my families of origin,
            but always a strong striving for doing right.

I don’t disparage my upbringing in any way.
    My parents, and both sets of grandparents,
        were loving, gracious examples
        of what it means to follow Jesus in life.
            They were humble and generous people.
    Furthermore, striving to be found upright
        is a praise-worthy thing.
    Who can argue against being good?
        To live life rightly and with integrity is a desirable goal.

But today’s Gospel story reveals a fly in the ointment.
    Jesus speaks words that can sting good people like me.
    Spiritually speaking, perfection has a flaw.
        Which is a paradox.
        If anyone ever reaches perfection,
            they have, by Jesus’ definition,
            developed a flaw.

Jesus delivers this stinging rebuke in verse 47 of Luke 7:
    “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Those of us whose lives seek to be paragons of goodness,
    are stunted in our capacity to give and receive radical love.
    Ouch!
        Why is this, and is there any way to avoid it?
_____________________

Well, let’s check a little deeper into this story of Simon the Pharisee
    and his little dinner party at which Jesus was the honored guest.

Simon was not a bad person.
    He was not conniving or manipulative or dishonest.
    Let’s get that straight at the start.

We immediately associate Pharisees and Sadduccees and the like
    with something inherently bad.
    We assume they were self-important, snobbish, hypocritical,
        and just all-around spiritually corrupt people.
        That’s just not the case.
        They were highly-regarded and admired by other Jews.
        They took the faith seriously,
            they were loving toward others,
            they valued community.

    Listen to the testimony of Josephus, an ancient historian:
    (Quote) “The Pharisees live thriftily, giving in to no luxury.
        For they follow what the Word in its authority
            determines and transmits as good.
        Now the Pharisees love one another
            and practice consensus in their community.” (unquote)

Josephus almost makes them sound like a good Amish community—
    thrifty, humble, disciplined, communal.
        Hmmm…

There is nothing whatsoever in scripture to indicate
    that Simon was corrupt, or conceited, or rude, or self-centered,
        or had any notable moral flaw.
    We can safely assume he was a good, decent, respectful, loyal,
        and devout human being.
        I like him.
        I could be related to him.

    As a career clergyperson who cares deeply about the church,
        I could be frighteningly identical to him.
        Like Simon and the Pharisees,
            I care about the renewal of God’s people.
        Like Simon and the Pharisees,
            I keep calling us to a communal and missional life.
        Like Simon and the Pharisees,
            I invite us all to live the kind of life we were created for.

Everything I know about the Pharisees would indicate that,
    like you and I, they were good folks with legitimate concerns
        about the welfare of their people.
        They were all about the spiritual renewal of Israel.

They believed that the only way they would be
    set free from brutal oppression and occupation by Rome,
    and restore David’s throne to the Jewish people,
        would be for them to be spiritually renewed.

    The Pharisees, like every other Jew alive, were waiting
        for the Messiah to come and deliver them from Rome.
    And they believed the Messiah would come
        when they achieved holiness as a nation.
        They weren’t politically active, like Sadducees.
        They weren’t plotting a revolution, like Zealots.
        They believed when they were spiritually ready,
            the Messiah would come.
    A careful reading of scripture led them to that honest belief.

The reason they were nitpicky about details of the faith—
    keeping Sabbath, washing hands, tithing mint and cumin—
        was not out of a pompous motivation to be “holier than thou.”
    They were trying to bring on the Messiah,
        and rid themselves of Roman oppression.

Different religious parties in Judaism
    had different means, but the same ends.
What the Zealots were trying to do with sword and armed rebellion,
    the Pharisees were trying to do with the practice of ritual purity.

No question, Jesus had major issues with Pharisees.
    But it wasn’t that they cared too much about being good and holy.
    Jesus chastised them because they overlooked other essentials,
        like justice and mercy for those on the margins.
    Jesus never accused them of not being
        holy and upright and well-intentioned.

I say this to help us understand the back-story of this Gospel story.
    This is in the 7th chapter of Luke.
        Jesus is just beginning to gather substantial crowds of admirers,
            and the word “Messiah” is being whispered among them.
        The notion that Jesus could be the Messiah, is gaining ground.


And Simon, being a good Pharisee,
    has reasonable doubts that Jesus could be the Messiah.
If the Messiah is to come after people purify themselves,
    Jesus is hardly moving people in that direction.
        He doesn’t make his disciples fast.
        He mingles with the unclean—tax collectors and sinners.
        He openly breaks Sabbath laws.

My assumption is that Simon wants to find out more.
    Rather than write Jesus off too quickly,
        Simon wants to give him a respectable hearing first.
    I see no ill intent or motives in Simon.
    He is a good man,
        with legitimate concerns about Jesus,
        a strong commitment to his people,
        honestly trying to find out more
            before he draws final conclusions.
    So he extends to Jesus a gesture of hospitality.
        Partly to learn more, and no doubt,
            partly to gently nudge Jesus in a more respectable direction.
_____________________

Unfortunately, this respectable evening fell apart pretty quickly.
    A sinful (that is, ritually unclean) woman enters the room,
        and approaches the table,
        probably making the whole dinner suddenly unclean.
    And she behaved in an utterly scandalous way toward Jesus,
        invading his personal space, weeping, letting down her hair,
        kissing his feet, and then anointing them.
    And Jesus sits there, doing nothing to stop her.

If there was any doubt before,
    now it’s perfectly clear to Simon that Jesus is no prophet,
        much less a messianic prophet.
    Otherwise, he would know what kind of woman this is,
        and make some objection.

    But instead of distancing himself from the woman,
        as he should have, Jesus turns and says,
         “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
        Simon says, “Speak.”
        And Jesus tells a two-sentence story.
            “A certain creditor had two debtors;
                one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
                When they could not pay,
                    he canceled the debts for both of them.”
        Then Jesus asks Simon,
            “Which of them will love him more?”
        Well, Simon replies, “I suppose . . .
            the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”
        Jesus says, “Right you are.”

If Simon took any comfort in giving Jesus the right answer,
    it didn’t last long.
    Jesus turned on his host,
        comparing Simon to the sinful woman,
        and suggested Simon came up short in the comparison.
    Simon’s gestures of hospitality toward Jesus
        were reasonable, but did not excessively show honor.
        After all, he was checking Jesus out.
    But the woman was excessive,
        she was extravagant, radical, and over-the-top
        in her expressions of love and affection toward Jesus.
    And Jesus praised her for it.

Now, we could try to explore what these actions really communicated,
    how they would have been seen by onlookers,
        but we are outsiders to that culture,
        and a lot would be speculation.

But I think at least three elements of the story are quite clear:
    (1) Simon was a respectable and sincere man of faith
        and was reserved in his approach toward Jesus.
    (2) The woman’s expression of love and affection for Jesus
        was over-the-top and scandalous.
    And (3) Jesus received the radical love the woman showed,
        and challenged Simon for holding back.

The one line in this story, from Jesus’ own lips,
    that leaves me personally shaken a bit,
    is his word of challenge to Simon:
    “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Upright people, who don’t seem to need so much of God’s grace,
    are more likely to be reserved in their love for God and others.
    That’s the downside of being upright.
Like Simon, and like me,
    good people are not in the best position
        to give and receive radical love and forgiveness.

    It’s harder to recognize and accept the gift of forgiveness
        when it is offered to us,
        because we don’t realize how much we need it.
    And it’s harder to give love and forgiveness to others,
        because it’s obvious how much they don’t deserve it.

I think, for my own benefit, I need to repeat that,
    so I understand what I just said.
    After all, I’m preaching this sermon to myself.

    It’s harder to recognize and accept the gift of forgiveness
        when it is offered to us,
        because we don’t realize how much we need it.
    And it’s harder to give love and forgiveness to others,
        because it’s obvious how much they don’t deserve it.

In Simon’s house,
    it was obvious which character was the good person,
    and which one was the sinner.
    Even Jesus didn’t dispute that point.
    But Jesus seemed more concerned
        about a person’s capacity to give and receive love,
        than about how long was a person’s list of sins.

Being satisfied with the state of our righteousness is a dangerous thing.
    It’s not only today’s Gospel reading that tells us that.

In Galatians 2,
    Paul was writing to Christians
        who once gratefully realized their salvation
            was a grace-filled gift of God,
        and of late, were beginning to back away from that grace,
            and trying to justify themselves by their own goodness.
    And he warns them not to go there.
        Don’t nullify the grace of God!

And in Psalm 32, part of which we read in our call to worship,
    the psalmist tells his own story in a prayer . . . (and I paraphrase)
    He writes,
        There was a time I was satisfied with myself,
            and kept silent, instead of confessing my need,
            and my body started wasting away.
        And then I let myself get in touch with my sin,
            I became vulnerable before God and others,
                and confessed,
            and I found joy, and forgiveness, and healing.
_____________________

I believe this dynamic described by the psalmist
    shows up in all kinds of ways . . .
        in my own life,
        in the lives of those I know and love,
        and in the life of the church.

    When we live in continual awareness of our need
        of God’s love and grace and mercy,
        nurtured by the practice of confession,
        cultivated by openness and vulnerability and willingness to risk,
            we are healthier people,
            we are people more capable
                of being in life-giving community with others.

    And when the opposite is true,
        when we live within a false, self-constructed world
            of perfection and holiness,
            thinking we’ve earned our place in the world,
                our social, spiritual, and physical health
                    starts getting compromised.
            We start passing judgement on others.
            We start creating distance, instead of moving toward.
            And our capacity for receiving and expressing radical love,
                is greatly diminished.
_____________________

So here is my considered commitment to myself and to God.
    Going against my genetic, familial, and theological formation
        to always present myself as upright,
        I want to listen to Jesus’ warning.
        I want to remember Jesus’ cautionary words,
            “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

    My desire is to be known first and foremost
        for my passionate love of God,
        and passionate love for God’s people,
        and my willingness to express that radical love
            with my life and deeds and attitudes toward others.

    So I will also embrace the spiritual practice of confession.
        Individually, daily.
        As well as communally, when we gather in worship.

So, to give me a chance to put that commitment into action,
    (since I’m preaching to myself)
    and to give you a chance to at least listen in,
        and maybe participate, if this resonates with you, as well,
    I invite us into the practice of confession.

It is in two parts . . .
First, let us contemplate our own need of God’s forgiveness and grace,
    by reading the first part of the prayer of confession in the bulletin,
        followed by a brief time of silence.
Then, I’ll invite us to pray the second part,
    which is the same,
    except we are speaking collectively, on behalf of the church,
        the things we need to confess as a body.
    Then another moment of silence.

Let us pray together.
        Forgive me my sins, O Lord,
        Forgive me the sins of my youth and the sins of my age,
        The sins of my soul and the sins of my body,       
        My secret and my whispering sins,
        The sins I have done to please myself
        And the sins I have done to please others.
        Forgive the sins which I know and the sins which I do not know.
        Forgive them, Lord; forgive them all in your great goodness,
        Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN
             (silent prayer)

Again, let us pray together for the church.
        Forgive us our sins, O Lord,
        Forgive us the sins of our youth and the sins of our age,
        The sins of our souls and the sins of our bodies,
        Our secret and our whispering sins,
        The sins we have done to please ourselves
        And the sins we have done to please others.
        Forgive the sins which we know
            and the sins which we do not know.
        Forgive them, Lord; forgive them all in your great goodness,
        Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN
             (silent prayer)

Now, together, let us proclaim God’s grace and forgiveness.
        Lord, our God, great, eternal, wonderful,
        Utterly to be trusted:
        You give life to us all, you help those who come to you,
        You give hope to those who cry to you.
        Set our hearts at peace, so we may live our lives before you
        Confidently and without fear, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN

—Phil Kniss, June 12, 2016

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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Phil Kniss: Love at the end of the road

Summer 2016: This is a story full of love...
1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

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It’s really tempting to approach this story from 1 Kings
    as a lesson in how not to treat destitute widows
        and their dependent children.

Read from our cultural vantage point,
    Elijah was behaving . . . to put it mildly . . .
        in an unseemingly way for a man of God.

    Elijah, a Jew, was in Sidon, Gentile territory,
        and calling on the good graces of this widow,
        for food and lodging.
    Just from the sight of her—
        her kind of clothing,
        her act of gathering sticks at the city gate—
        Elijah would have known she was a widow living in poverty.
    Knowing that, he asked her not only for a drink,
        but to bake him some bread and bring it to him.
    We might forgive him,
        because he didn’t know her truly desperate story,
            until she told him,
        “As Yahweh your God lives,
            I have nothing baked,
                only the last handful of flour in my jar,
                and the last spoonful of oil in a jug.
            I am gathering a couple sticks, to go home,
                and bake the last piece of bread for me and my son,
                    so we can eat it, and die.”

I’m sure I’m not the first one who
    had the question cross my mind—
    Wouldn’t this be a good time for a man of God to say,
        “I’m so sorry. Feed yourself and your son.
            I’ll find my bread somewhere else.
            You eat first.
            Then I’ll get you some help.”

    That’s not what Elijah said, of course.
    He said, “Go ahead and bake some bread,
        but bring me the first loaf.
        After that, bake something for yourself and your son.
        Trust me. You’ll have enough.
            My God says so.”

    He’s talking to a Gentile, a foreigner to the house of Israel,
        who explicitly does not have any allegiance to Elijah’s God.
        In fact, the story underscores that point,
            when it has her saying,
                “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing.”
            Not my God . . . your God, she says.
            And Elijah replies,
                “Don’t worry. It’s taken care of.
                    My God has your back.”

Which raises a second question—
    Wouldn’t this be a good time in the story,
        for the woman to calmly walk away
        from this brash prophet from another land,
            muttering under her breath, “Yeah, right!”?
    But the story has her doing the opposite.
        She listens to the prophet, does exactly what he asked.

    And we heard how that part of the story ended.
        She, and Elijah, and all her household,
            ate for many days.
        The jar of flour and jug of oil “did not fail,”
            to use the story’s own words.
_____________________

There’s more to the story,
    but let’s ponder what this first part is telling us.

On the one hand, this is a fairly typical
    Old Testament miracle story involving a prophet.
    There are many like it throughout the Hebrew scriptures,
        prophets calling fire from heaven to burn up water,
        turning sticks into snakes,
        raising the dead . . . and many more.
    They all serve the purpose of demonstrating to the people
        the power and authority of their God, Yahweh,
        in contrast to the dark arts of sorcery and witchcraft
            of other nations’ priests and prophets.
    So we could just put this in that broad class of biblical literature,
        and file it away.
            God is powerful, and can do mighty deeds.
            Lesson learned.

But when we look closer,
    we see more than a miracle tale
        that reveals the power of God in the deeds of a prophet.
    We see a deeper, more complex glimpse into the nature of faith.
    We see a woman who amazes us
        with her raw and honest trust in a God she barely knows.

See, Elijah the prophet was actually not acting like a pompous fool,
    when he asked a poor widow to feed him first.
    In that culture, at that time,
        there were deeply embedded values about hospitality
        that we don’t really get.
    It was entirely normal
        for prophets and sages and solitary figures like that
        to move about from town to town
            in full expectation of having house and food provided for.
        It was an honor to house a traveling prophet.
    Prophets had a well-established and valued role
        in that communal society.
    This was not an individualistic and independent culture, like ours.

    And it wasn’t just prophets who had the right to expect
        an available home and table of food.
        It was common practice to welcome strangers,
            to feed and house them,
            and send them on their way, when they were ready.
        It would have been a social insult,
            if you had a home,
            and refused to share it with those needing food and a bed.

    So Elijah was not being insensitive to a poor widow.
    No, he was responding to two specific impulses.
        First, God had told him in advance to move to Sidon,
            because God had ordained it
            that a widow there would feed him, and care for him.
            So Elijah was just following God’s direction.
        Second, Elijah was following his vocational calling as a prophet.
            He was acting in ways consistent with his vocation.
            His vocation was to call forth faith in God,
                from all people, paupers to princes.
            So he was only doing what he normally did.
            Seen in context,
                this wasn’t exploitation of . . . it was ministry to.
            He was ministering to this foreign, Gentile woman,
                by calling forth faith from her.

        She who was vulnerable in just about every way,
            without resources,
            without rights,
            without communal support—
            it was she whom Elijah was nudging toward faith,
                pointing her toward trust in a greater resource
                than what she had access to as a poor widow in Sidon.

    Knowing full well that her flour and oil were scarce,
        to the point of being life-threatening,
        Elijah essentially was inviting her to live as if there were more.
            “Don’t let these limits define you.
                Live like you normally do.
                Live as if there will be enough.
                Our God provides.
            Yes, by all indicators,
                you’re at the end of your road.
                But live as if the road goes on.”

    What is amazing,
        is this Gentile woman’s capacity to do that,
            in her desperate state,
            without any history with Israel’s God Yahweh.
_____________________

So, this summer worship series draws on many lectionary readings,
    Old and New Testament.
    The only unifying theme is scripture itself—
        this grand, sweeping story of God pursuing us in love.
    Our summer title is taken from the hymn we just sang,
        “This is a story full of love.”
    There are all kinds of stories in the scripture—
        from many and differing periods and cultures and contexts,
        and they each can be engaged in their own right,
            as we are doing with this story today.

        But together, they form a overarching narrative,
            a super-story about God reaching toward us in love,
            to redeem and reconcile and restore all things.
        So this book is a story full of love.
            In it we see love expressed in different modes,
                from different angles,
                exhibiting different characteristics.
        Today, we see love revealed at the end of the road.
        When we can see no other way forward,
            what does love reveal?
            what does God reveal?
_____________________

This story of love at the end of the road
    is a good example of a principle at work
    that renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann
        calls two competing ideologies—
        the liturgy of abundance and the myth of scarcity.

    The Bible starts out with a liturgy of abundance,
        the story of a good and bountiful creation,
        upon which God pronounces,
            “it is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good.”
        God’s creative Spirit overflows in goodness.

    But even in the early chapters of Genesis,
        we see the human tendency toward anxiety.
        We’re not quite sure it’s enough.
        We’re not content unless we can be sure of getting our share,
            of not missing out on something.
        That’s why Eve and Adam reached for the forbidden fruit.
        They were anxious about
            whether God would provide all they needed.
        They were afraid God was holding back something from them,
            so instead of receiving gratefully,
                they took.

    That’s the whole continuing human story, in a nutshell.
        Instead of receiving, and thanking,
            we take, and grasp, and anxiety takes root.
        We worry we’re still missing something.
        So we work a little harder and a little longer.

As Brueggemann writes (and I quote)
    The “ideology of scarcity says no, there’s not enough,
        so hold onto what you have.
    In fact, don’t just hold onto it, hoard it.
        Put aside more than you need, so that if you do need it,
            it will be there, even if others must do without.
[he continues]
    The fundamental human condition continues to be anxiety,
        fueled by an ideology that keeps pounding on us to take more,
            to not think about our neighbor,
            to be fearful, shortsighted, and grudging.” (unquote)

    So the myth of scarcity isolates us,
        while the liturgy of abundance strengthens community,
        by prompting generosity and sharing.

And I would add,
    this ideology of scarcity is universal and pervasive.
        It’s not just about material resources.
    It’s a life posture for many of us.
    It’s the mode of operation for a whole culture.
        And it’s the guiding principle for political campaigns.

In this crazy presidential campaign,
    it’s all too easy to blame a few crazy people with dangerous ideas.
    But seems to me,
        this myth of scarcity is driving the whole political bus right now.
    And sometimes, it seems to me,
        the more people have,
        the more likely they are to live by the ideology of scarcity.
    No matter how much we have, an ideology of scarcity
        leads us to grasp and hoard and be self-protective,
        which leads us to anxiety,
        which leads us to fear and defensiveness,
        which leads us to violence.

    Everyone acts out of fear.
        We’re all afraid . . . that what we think we need,
            is going to slip out of our hands,
            if we don’t reach out and grab it now.

    The Gospel word for today, coming out of this ancient prophet story,
        is do not be afraid.
        Do not be afraid.
            We don’t need to stockpile.
            We don’t need to fear the other.
            We don’t need to build walls at the border.
            We don’t need to circle the wagons—
                as a nation, as a political party, as a church.
            We don’t need to fight to the death
                to preserve everything we’ve come to think of as ours.
        God . . . will . . . provide.
            For me.
            For our family.
            For our church.
            For our human community.

        There is enough.
        Even when the oil is running low,
            even when it looks like we’re at the end of the road,
            we can choose to live like there’s more road left.
                If there’s anything we learn from the Easter story,
                    it should be that!

        We can live with an open generosity of spirit to everyone,
            regardless of their political or theological persuasion.
        We can even be generous of heart with those around us
            gripped by fear that the end is at hand,
                who are gathering their metaphorical sticks,
                to build a fire, and bake their last bread, and die.
        We can live openly, hospitably, vulnerably
            as if our jug is full,
            and the road lies open before us.

    Now, I do need to add a caution here.
        Let me say clearly, there are limits to vulnerability.
            I’m not saying we lay down our lives casually
                to whomever might ask us to do so.
            We need discernment.
            We must pay attention to, and honor,
                the boundaries that preserve our own well-being,
                and the well-being of the most vulnerable among us.
            I’m not talking about ignoring good boundaries.

    But I am calling us to live our lives with
        more openness and receptivity,
        more hopefulness and joy,
            than those who are not living in light of the resurrection.
    Because when we get to the end of the road,
        love will meet us there.
    God is there, extending love, extending grace,
        able to do more than we imagine.
    We need not be driven by anxiety and fear
        and all the ugliness that leads to.

In this story full of love—our sacred scriptures—
    from Genesis to Revelation and everything in between,
        time after time, God’s people arrive
            at what looks like the end of the road,
            and surprising things happen.

That is the case with pretty much every text we read this morning.
    I was most intrigued by part one of the Elijah story,
        so that’s what I focused on.
    But the story went on.
    In the very next verse,
        we see this same son,
        whose life was saved by the miracle oil and flour,
            suddenly die of another cause.
        The woman blames Elijah, Elijah blames God,
            everyone is crying out in desperation,
            at the end of their road.
        But then, a resurrection story.
        Even death is not the end,
            but an opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed.

    And likewise the Gospel reading from Luke 7.
        A Jesus story that parallels the Elijah story.
            A widow’s only son, her only hope for a future,
                dies and leaves her grief-stricken and desperate.
            But resurrection happens.
            Love shows up, at the end of the road.

    And in Galatians 1,
        Paul gives his testimony of his earlier life
            when, zealous for his faith,
            he became of violent killer of Christians.
                As far gone, from the grace of God,
                    as a person could be.
            But another kind of resurrection happened.
            Love showed up, at the end of his road,
                literally on the road to Damascus.

    And as we affirmed in Psalm 146, in our call to worship,
        we cannot put our trust in princes, or human beings,
            whose plans come to nothing
            the day their breath leaves them.
        But blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
            whose hope is in the Lord their God.
            Because at the end of the road,
                love is waiting for them.
            They don’t know, we don’t know,
                what form this love will take.
            It may not be rescue,
                like what the widow experienced.
            It may not be the kind of resurrection we would prefer.
            But at the end of the road, there is love.
                And there is plenty.
                Enough to share.

Turn to HWB 576 . . .
    If you but trust in God to guide you,
    and place your confidence in him,
    you’ll find God always there beside you,
    to give you hope and strength within . . .
(and in v. 3 . . .)
    doubt not your inmost wants are known
    to God who chose you for his own.

—Phil Kniss, June 5, 2016

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: An Unexpected Faith

Luke 7:1-10

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    When reading any of the gospels, it doesn’t take long before we realize that Jesus hung out with and ministered to all kinds of people. Some might even say he spent time with the ‘wrong kind of people’.  He reached out to people on the margins of society, people who were not welcomed, acknowledged, included.  We  tend to put them in categories or groups, forgetting that each one is unique, loved and created in God’s image.  So we say...the poor, the widows, the demon possessed, the crippled, the lepers, the blind, the broken in body and spirit, and so on.  We see them as needy, marginalized, without power, without a voice.  But Jesus noticed them, did not overlook them. He reached out to them.

    We also notice in the gospels that Jesus sometimes found himself among the powerful of his time, those with some means, influence and a voice.  In either case, whether it be with the marginalized or with those of some influence and status, faith shows up in unexpected ways!  in unexpected places in least likely people!  We are surprised, astounded, caught off guard!

    Luke 7, includes this amazing story of the centurion and the healing of his servant.  In previous chapters, Jesus had preached the Beatitudes in the “Sermon on the Plain”, telling the great crowd what it looks like to be a disciple.  A good summary of that would be “love your friend and love your enemy alike!”
    Now in chapter 7 we find Jesus is back in Capernaum. And the story unfolds.....  A centurion has a valued servant who is dying and wants Jesus to heal him.  The intriguing part of this story is that the request comes from a “centurion”, a Gentile, a commanding officer in the Roman army.  He had 100 foot solders (a “century”) under his command.  The centurions were considered the “backbone” of the army, the career men, responsible for discipline, inspection of the weapons, supervised executions, sometimes recruited for special tasks that  took them away from their troops.  They were the best informed and most experienced in the army.  It was a prestigious position that any ambitious soldier would aspire to.

    So the text says the centurion ‘heard’ of Jesus.  What he heard we don’t know exactly, but he, a Gentile centurion, sent elders of the local Jewish community to ask Jesus to come and heal his servant.  This group becomes a delegation to advocate or plead earnestly with Jesus.  And they do that, quite boldly.  “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”   These elders must have had knowledge of the centurion and respect for him and were willing to speak to Jesus on behalf of the centurion.  So without question or apparent hesitation, Jesus went with them.

    Before Jesus gets to the house of the centurion, a second delegation approaches Jesus...friends of the centurion, bringing a personal message.  Now the centurion is not wanting Jesus to trouble himself by coming to his house.  He is feeling unworthy to receive Jesus or to go to him personally.  And the message delivered by his friends is pretty simple and to the point. “But say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  The centurion understands authority.  He has it himself over others and he can tell this one, “Go” and he goes, and that one, “Come” and he comes, and to another, “do this” and he does it.

    When Jesus heard this, the text says, “he was amazed at him”, or “astounded” or “taken aback”...depending on your translation.  And turning to the crowd that was following him, Jesus says”I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”  Then the friends that had been sent, returned to the house and found the servant well! End of story!

    Now we could read this and say, “well, nice story..another healing by Jesus.”  And it is...a “nice” story and it is a “healing”, but it has some intriguing components that make it unique.  Here are a few thoughts/observations....
+the centurion “heard” of Jesus.  He had not met him nor seen his work healing, but on “heard” of Jesus, which apparently was enough to make him believe and have faith that Jesus could, indeed, heal his valued servant.
+it is surprising that a commanding officer, a Gentile, with power and authority would have such a positive relationship with the elders of the Jewish community that they were willing to speak to Jesus on his behalf with such passion and forthright manner. (This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue).
+the centurion seems to recognize at some point that he is unworthy to host Jesus and we see elements of deep humility, alongside his awareness that he also carries and understands authority and power.  We don’t always see people in positions of power taking on postures of humility.
+this is a healing story that happens without Jesus touching, taking by the hand or even meeting the person he healed!
+I wonder how the crowd reacted/responded to Jesus when he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”  (Message..”I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust anywhere in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know about God and how he works.”)

The centurion displays a faith that surprises and astounds Jesus.
1.) Does the story speak to us, as well, in any way?
2.)  Does faith sometimes ‘show up’, become evident in places and in people which we would least expect?  Any story or person come to you mind?
3.)  Do we see the centurion as a representative of the empire that is oppressing the nation, the “enemy”?  Or can we see him as a bridge builder between two worlds, Jew and Gentile, believing in the God who is the God of both and trusting the  word of Jesus had the power to move past any barriers between the two?  “But say the word...”

God will not be restrained by the boundaries we draw around one another.  God will surprise us!

Friday, around noon, I went on an errand across town. As I was waiting at a busy intersection for the light to change (took a long time), a man on a H-D motorcycle came along beside me.  I glanced over at him and made some observations.  Now I don’t like motorcycles and I know there are many fine people who ride them and love them and they are in this congregation, but I still don’t like them and in fact, are rather afraid of them and what they can do.(the motorcycles, that is, not the people) Nevertheless I realized that my thoughts about what I saw weren’t real positive, I confess.  Let me describe.... the man had a black vest on, filled with many emblems and insignias, some noting that he was a vet and possibly POW at one time.  It was over a black tee shirt.  There were several US flags here and there on his vest and flying from the back of his cycle.  He was smoking.  And then as he reved up the engine and drove off, I noticed on the back of his helmet, the words, “Powered by Faith”, and then a cross.  There were some other words in smaller print.  I couldn’t see them as he sped away.  I thought, wait a minute. Are you messing with me, Lord?  Are you trying to surprise me?  To help me re-think and examine stereotypes, attitudes, and maybe confess that I was wrong about this man and the negative thoughts I might have had because of the image?  Could this man indeed be ‘powered by faith’, faith in Jesus?  I have no idea what his story was and where he was headed, but it made me think that just maybe, he was one of God’s surprises.  I think I needed to see this man and have this experience before I could finish this sermon.  I was ashamed of my smugness and piety.


The centurion in today’s gospel story seemed to know that Jesus’ power was different from and unlike any power that Rome or any empire wielded.  He believed that Jesus’ power could heal people, including his valued servant.  Jesus’ power can turn the world upside down and inside out.  It can change our stereotypes, our attitudes, our skewed thinking.  The centurion recognized this power as the very essence of faith; “faith is seeing the world with God’s eyes, to see the possibilities of a world renewed by God’s love and God’s grace.” (Dr. Eric Barreto).

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