Sunday, August 20, 2023

Paula Stoltzfus: Scattered, broken, known, and loved

Journey toward wholeness
John 4:4-26, 39-41; Genesis 32:24-30

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here: 

The last several years I have done some work on my genogram, looking back on my family’s history, seeking understanding on the kinds of relationships and stories held there. In the process I’ve come to understand there have been stories of mental health challenges, a death by suicide, stillborn infants, unresolved grief, difference in treatment of sons and daughters, unhealthy use of silencing, and passive aggressive communication.  Some of these stories I have known but others were new to me.  

I was more familiar with the stories of my family of deep faith, hard work, hospitality, and tight knit communities where love of each other, music, mission, and God were valued.  I had come to value the knowledge passed down through the agrarian roots that taught me how to grow a garden and preserve food. To see beauty in the wild wonder of creation. To value hard work and steadfast courage forged from a deep well of faith.

I’m grateful to know of all these stories.  And slowly these stories are becoming integrated into my story.  It’s so easy to talk about the positive, uplifting stories of our lives and push down the difficult and painful ones. But the truth is, if we are human, and last time I checked, I believe we all are human, every one of us has stories of complexity, interwoven with pain and joy, questions and answers, certitudes and uncertainty.

Jacob certainly carried complexity in his story.  Grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Second twin son of Isaac and Rebecca. The younger twin to Esau, his brother.  From the time they were born there seemed to be competition.  It couldn’t have helped that Esau was Isaac’s favorite and Jacob was Rebecca’s. Esau loved the outdoors, hunting and wild game.  Jacob liked being around home, learning to cook.

There were also the social practices and norms at the time to give the honor of the birthright, property, and favoritism to the oldest son.  But in this story, Jacob pressured Esau to give his birthright to Jacob and then ultimately Rebecca orchestrated Jacob to fool Isaac into giving Jacob his blessing reserved for the oldest before he died.  Favoritism, jealousy, hate, manipulation, were all in Jacob’s growing up years. All intertwined in a family that was seeking to be faithful to God.

Once Jacob received Isaac’s blessing, he left his family upon his parents' encouragement to escape Esau’s rage. He was also told to seek out a wife from Rebecca’s family. Thus began his story in Laban’s household where manipulation, lying, and trickery met him. And yet, he also encountered love, family, and prosperity.

After around 20 years, Jacob wanted to return to his family and in fact heard a message from God saying as much to do so. Once he was able to negotiate Laban, his father in law, into letting him go, he began staging his reunification with Esau.  Jacob was hoping to win back Esau’s favor through extravagant gifts, assuming Esau continued to hold resentment against him.

The night before Jacob was to meet Esau, Jacob wrestled with a man, declaring him God and demanding from him a blessing before he would let him go. It was as if Jacob finally was trying to come to peace with the different pieces of his past. As dawn was breaking, Jacob received his blessing and a new name, Israel.  He then continued on to see Esau. He was surprised when, instead of rage, Jacob was met with love and forgiveness through Esau’s embrace.

Michelle Van Loon in her book, Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma, she says, “each time we connect what may seem at first to be disconnected puzzle pieces, we are moving toward wholeness and growing in understanding of who we are and who God is.”

I liken Jacob’s wrestling as a pivotal moment, a puzzle piece, in his life where he grew in understanding of who he was.  It was in this new space of blessing from the Holy One that he was fully ready to meet Esau where he was surprised by love, freeing them both from the past rage and hate that lead them apart.

We also have complex relationships in our families. And not only in our families of origin but also in our religious and non religious culture.  This was a dynamic at play in the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well in Samaria.  

Samaritans and Jews had a complex historical relationship.  Pat McCloskey, a Fransiscan, states it like this, “Imagine the hatred between Serbs and Muslims in modern Bosnia, the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the feuding between street gangs in Los Angeles or New York, and you have some idea of the feeling and its causes between Jews and Samaritans in the time of Jesus. Both politics and religion were involved.”

So it was incredibly significant that Jesus and his disciples were traveling through Samaria instead of around it, as often Jewish travelers did in order to avoid the people of Samaria.

It was also significant that this Samaritan woman arrived at the well at around noon, nearing the heat of the day.  Maybe she couldn’t get there until then. Or more likely based on the history Jesus shares, she was on the social outcast list and wanted to avoid people as much as possible for the shame and guilt that  met her in other people’s gazes and actions towards her.

Shame is a manipulating force that finds its way into everyone.  No one is immune.  It has the power to influence relationships and patterns of behavior. Dr. Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist in Northern VA who also worships at Washington Community Fellowship, in his book The Soul of Shame, says, “To be human is to be infected with this phenomenon we call shame…We work hard to cover it up. And our coping strategies have become so automatic that we may be completely unaware of its presence and activity…Its power lies in its subtlety and silence.”  Shame gives us the message that we don’t measure up, we aren’t cool enough, smart enough, successful enough, good looking enough, experienced enough.  It is the message that we are not enough.

If you can identify with this sentiment and all the emotions that can be drawn to the surface, then you have a little taste into what the Samaritan woman may have been living with.

And so Jesus encounters this woman at the well. He doesn’t operate from the cultural pressures and requests a drink from her. She understandably questions him, for all she knew, it could have been a trap to take advantage of her.  Instead, their conversation becomes one in which Jesus speaks about living water that will quench all thirst. He divulges the woman’s relational history.  Then concludes with the vision of worship occurring not in just the sacred places (the mountain and Jerusalem) they knew but anywhere people worship in spirit and truth, insinuating that Samaritans and Jews may worship together. Once the Samaritan woman acknowledges her belief in the coming Messiah, Jesus then does the ultimate confession by saying that he is the One.

Needless to say, her encounter with Jesus was transformative! Jesus saw her; knew her history; was vulnerable, disclosing who he was. This act of vulnerability on Jesus’ part, leaning into the relationship, sheds light on the shame she showed up with.

The Samaritan woman comes face to face with an act of vulnerability filled with love instead of judgment. It is as if the power of shame disintegrated. Freed, hopeful, and joy filled, she leaves and becomes the bearer of good news to her community, where Jesus spends a couple of days teaching, bridging and perhaps being a pivotal part of healing the gap that had been there for centuries.

Jacob and the Samaritan woman both carried complex histories. Their scattered and broken lives encountered vulnerable spaces where wrestling and revealing occurred, stripping the shame of its power, where being known, seen and loved continued a path of healing and wholeness.

We are similar, holding complex stories, histories, and pasts. We also have been created for relationships.  These relationships are complex and difficult at times and yet also bring us much joy.  The same is so with our Creator.  We long for deeper knowing and acceptance, love and grace, beauty and belonging. When we truly live from a well of these elements, we know what living water tastes like.  It is what leads us on a journey towards wholeness.

I realize that sharing of ourselves is vulnerable and can be scary. I would like to encourage us to see it as Dr. Thompson puts it, “vulnerability provides the opportunity for discovery and creation, for the emergence of beauty and goodness.” Vulnerability, done in a safe relational or communal setting, creates space “for God to bring us to greater places of integration and resilience…creating within us undivided hearts…and where joy is the byproduct.”

It is a challenge to find those spaces where we are cared for to be courageous, vulnerable, and open to transformation.  In our scattered and individualistic society, we have a healthier acknowledgement of our need for counselors, spiritual companions, mentors, where we can find a presence to accompany us on our journey.  Every once in a while we find a group of people that we can journey closely together.  If you find yourself longing for a small community of support and sharing, let one of the pastors know.  We hope to nurture belonging whether it is in the form of a small group, Faith Formation class, Gestalt Pastoral Care Circle, Guess Who’s Coming events, or perhaps you have an idea yourself.

Our longings are real.  Our stories need care and a place to belong.

I offer a closing poem as a prayer for all our longings, written by John O’Donohue, entitled “For Longing.”

I invite you to take in these words with your eyes closed, noticing words or phrases, or perhaps a sensation you have in your body that you offer to God in prayer.

blessed be the longing that brought you here
and quickens your soul with wonder.
may you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
may you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
may the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –
be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.
may the one you long for long for you.
may your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.
may a secret providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.
may your mind inhabit your life with the sureness
with which your body inhabits the world.
may your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.
may you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
may you know the urgency with which God longs for you.


I invite you to join me in reading together the Confession.
all    God of wholehearted living,
            we wrestle with the realities of our scattered lives,
            striving to fulfill dreams and hopes.
            We feel the cracks within us,
            leaving us broken and confused, numb and fearful.
            We long for your streams of living water to flow within us,
            but confess we often get distracted.
            Forgive us when we allow our emptiness to lead us
            instead of your Spirit.
            Forgive us when our fear drives us more than love.
       one    We open ourselves, step by step,
            to forgiveness,
            to the stream of life,
            to the power that transforms our fear,
            to the love that heals our wounds.
            Breathe in God's radiant peace that is for all.

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Phil Kniss: It’s all for love

Patience both ways
2 Peter: True to the Root
2 Peter 3:1-11a, 14-15a, 17-18; Matthew 24:42-44

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here: 

It won’t surprise you to hear me admit
I’m not big into preaching about the apocalypse and the last days.
For most of my four decades of preaching,
I have held at arm’s length these NT apocalyptic texts
about the second coming
and the importance of being ready and alert
because Jesus will come like a thief in the night.
If there were other texts available,
and I was given an easy out, I took it.

Part of that, to be honest, is some spiritual trauma
I incurred in my childhood and adolescence in the 1960s and 70s.
I’ve told you some about that from this pulpit,
the movies we brought into the church, like Thief in the Night,
and some others about being left behind in the rapture,
and evangelistic preachers and books and Christian rock music
all reinforced our fear that we would miss out on the rapture.
I nearly wore out the needle on my turntable
listening to Larry Norman. Here’s a short clip [video].

In my early teens I endured more than one sleepless night,
worrying I would be left behind for some sin I committed
that I wasn’t even aware of.

So as a preacher, for many years, I just looked the other way
when these texts were given as an option by the lectionary.

Trouble is, when preaching from a lectionary,
it’s hard to keep avoiding, year after year and year,
the scriptures you’d rather not deal with.

Whether the old faithful Revised Common Lectionary,
or the newer Narrative Lectionary,
neither one cuts me a break,
they both keep shoving these apocalyptic scriptures at me,
saying, here, preach it, preach it.

So in the last 10 years or so, I’ve been doing it more.
I think I’ve preached as many sermons on the second coming
in the last ten years,
as I did my first 30 years of preaching.
Maybe I’m getting bolder, or maybe I ran out of excuses.
But I find the more time I spend in these texts,
and the more I immerse myself in the
social and religious context they emerged from,
the more I love them, and am actually drawn toward them.

It takes some adaptation, for our context,
but they are relevant, and needed, I believe,
if we understand them more deeply and authentically.

I’ll just be frank and say that we Mennonites,
and the most of Christian evangelical world,
have long been drawing the wrong conclusion from these texts.

Yes, there are many who find courage and hope
in the notion that Christ is coming, sooner rather than later,
to extract us from this evil world and take us away to heaven.
For those whose lives in this world are nearly unbearable,
I don’t fault them for holding on
to an escapist view of the end times.

But I would say, emphatically,
I don’t believe it was the intent of Jesus,
or the Gospel writers documenting Jesus,
to instill fear and dread into the psyche of the disciples,
nor to convince the church of Jesus that God’s #1 goal
was to safely remove them all from this earth,
before God obliterated the earth,
and condemned to hell all the people
who hadn’t accepted Jesus or prayed the sinners’ prayer.

A God that would do such a thing,
is not a God I recognize from the scriptures.
I think it’s a God we created,
prompted by the American church in the 60s and 70s
that felt highly threatened by all the
social and political turmoil and change going on.
It was our contextual response to a season of civil unrest
and the social decline of the church,
and then it got institutionalized in evangelical theology,
and it hasn’t gone away.
Apocalyptic Christian movies haven’t gone away, either.
This one, Heaven’s War, came out just three years ago.

In fact,
the continuing marginalization of the church in Western culture,
keeps on fueling this battle mindset of the church against the world,
and it still fires up the culture wars among Christians,
and stokes the fires of the political polarization
we are seeing even today.
We end up with Christian churches and preachers
obsessed with a God doing war against the world,
and calling us Christians to join the battle to the death.
Is it any wonder the close association of God and guns,
on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and placards
wherever there are angry people protesting
against the so-called deep state.

I want to suggest this morning,
that the best antidote for this violent mindset
and corruption of religion,
is a better and truer reading of these apocalyptic scriptures.

We start with the most basic affirmation of God’s character—
God’s love and compassion for this world and all humankind.
Can we all agree to make that our foundation,
and build on that?

So what was our God of love and compassion
most concerned about in the first century of the church
in the Roman Empire?

God sent Jesus into our world as an expression of love, not terror.
Jesus came for the healing and reconciliation of all creation. All!
John 3:16-17:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world
but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

As I said from this pulpit in my last sermon on this topic,
just a few months ago,
the resurrection of Jesus was evidence
to his followers that the hope
of a political deliverance from Rome wasn’t over.
The cross may have looked like a loss.
But Jesus defeated Herod and Caesar with the empty tomb.
Jesus would soon return with the angels of heaven,
they believed,
and would take vengeance on the evildoers who killed him.
He would sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem, as prophesied,
and execute justice and judgement
against the Empire and everyone responsible
for his crucifixion.
The real world, here and now, would be made right—
for the Jews, and for everyone else.

That’s what “salvation” meant, it seems,
for the first Jewish followers of Jesus.
But that definition of salvation made sense
only if Jesus’ return was very soon,
before winter turned to spring and summer.
So the imminent return of Jesus to set things right in their world,
was the dominant mindset of early Christians.

As the faith spread into new churches popping up
all over the Empire,
this view started to seem less realistic and relevant.
Not only were they far away from Jerusalem,
where this was all supposed to take place,
it didn’t seem as urgent to
Greek-speaking Jewish Christians in Asia Minor.
And even less urgent to Gentile believers.

So, Jesus started to fade in importance in the scattered church.
Some called him a fraud outright.
And one of their big arguments was, “See?
He didn’t return as he promised!
He’s dead and gone and irrelevant.”
Remember, this was before the Gospels and the Epistles
were familiar to the church,
long before they were considered to be scripture.
Before there was a well-established Christology.
So as Jesus and his teachings faded for some,
their ethical framework faded as well.
All manner of morally corrupt behaviors became commonplace,
even among leaders of the church,
including abuse of power, exploitation of others,
and they started looking more like their neighbors,
more like the Empire.

This is why the writer of 2 Peter wrote in v. 3 . . .
“In the last days (in other words, now) scoffers will come,
jeering, living by their own cravings, and saying,
“Where is the promise of his coming? . . .
Nothing has changed.”

You see, in its proper context,
that statement makes complete sense.
And so does the rest of 2 Peter, and the Gospel of Matthew.
They are speaking to present reality on the ground.

The point is not to scare people out of hell,
and whisk them off to heaven.
The point is to remind people
of God’s deep and everlasting love and patience.

Listen, v.9:
“The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness,
but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish
but all to change their hearts and lives.”
And v. 15:
“Consider the patience of our Lord to be salvation.
Therefore, dear friends, since you have been warned in advance,
be on guard so that you aren’t led off course
into the error of sinful people,
and lose your own safe position.
Instead, grow in the grace and knowledge
of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

It’s all for love, that God is being patient with us.
God’s heart, God’s deepest desire,
is to see the human race reconciled to each other,
and reconciled to God,
and all creation reconciled as well.
God big project is a shalom project—
where all are whole and complete,
and living the lives they were created to live.
God is not in a hurry to shut down the project.
And we should have the same mindset,
the same love toward our world today,
and keep our eyes on Jesus.

2 Peter is a call for Jesus-followers to be patient,
because God is patient.
And what looks like “slowness” or inaction
from a human point of view,
looks like love and compassion from a God point of view.

That kind of thinking is a great antidote
against the fear-based, church-against-the-world,
mindset that grips so many people today
who call themselves Christian,
and who resort to ways of violence and coercion
and political foul play
to bring about the kind of world they believe is the right one.

Let us, instead, because of love,
be patient,
as God is patient.
Let us be strong and bold in our witness,
but let that witness be steeped in love,
and look like love.
And let God be in charge of any timeline.
Yes, there is a place for accountability in God’s economy.
This doesn’t do away with the judgment side of God.
But love and reconciliation always come to forefront.
That is the message of scripture.

I think that attitude and point of view is entirely consistent
with a careful reading of these apocalyptic scriptures.
And it’s a truer reading,
than what Hal Lindsey and others gave us 50 years ago,
and which still shape Christianity today.

It’s all for love.

Let us confess our faith together.
Before we do, go ahead and turn to Voices Together #407.
Or just follow what’s on the screen.
We will go immediately into singing that hymn,
when we finish the confession,
in which I incorporated some phrases from the hymn.

one In a wounded world that often overwhelms us,
we are tempted to long for our escape to another world,
rather than wait for your promised restoration,
and your return to us, 
and to this world of ours that you still love.
all Come, Lord Jesus.
one Help us view the present through the promise,
all “Christ will come again.”
one Help us trust despite the deepening darkness,
all “Christ will come again.”
one May we let our daily actions witness,
all “Christ will come again.”
one May we make this hope our guiding premise,
all “Christ will come again.” (Phil Kniss, adapted from Thomas Troeger)

—Phil Kniss, August 13, 2023

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]

Sunday, August 6, 2023

Phil Kniss: It’s the gospel truth!

Telling true from false
2 Peter: True to the Root
2 Peter 1:16-2:2, 15-19; John 15:4-5

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here:

I promised last Sunday,
that in my second sermon from 2 Peter,
we would slog through some pretty harsh and polemical words
from the letter writer.
I also suggested there might be a way to better understand the context,
so that we could actually appreciate this text a bit more.
Let’s see how we do on that.

And just to up the ante,
let me read a few more verses from chapter 2
that our lectionary skipped over
for reasons that may become apparent as I read them.

Beginning at v. 12—
“These people [referring to the false teachers] . . .
are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct,
born to be caught and killed.
They slander what they do not understand,
and as those creatures are destroyed, they also will be destroyed,
suffering the wages of doing wrong.
They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime.
They are blots and blemishes,
reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you . . .
[etc, etc, then picking up at v. 21]
It would have been better for them
never to have known the way of righteousness
than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment
that was handed on to them.
It has happened to them according to the true proverb,
“The dog turns back to its own vomit,” and,
“The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.”

“The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.”
Do any of you still wonder why 2 Peter
doesn’t get preached from very often?

But what’s actually going on here?

Well, let’s start by just noting that there is a cultural difference,
between then and now,
in terms of the value of “polite discourse.”
In the church today,
we couldn’t speak like that publicly,
without being dismissed for violating basic norms
for acceptable public speech.
It sounds just mean-spirited to our ears.

But then, read some writings of our Anabaptist forebears.
Even in the 16th-century,
when gospel truth was at stake,
Anabaptists did not hold back their tongues.
They may not have picked up a sword.
They were not physically aggressive.
But their words were sometimes quite sharp.
So let’s just admit a cultural difference,
in what is an acceptable way to speak.

let’s think about what was likely happening
in these churches that 2 Peter was addressing.

To repeat briefly from last Sunday,
the recipients of this letter
were likely churches emerging in mostly urban areas
around the Mediterranean,
where Greek and Roman culture and values dominated.
These newer churches were being formed
by Hellenized Greek-speaking Jews
(that is, Jews who had already
drifted far from their roots in Jerusalem)
and by Gentiles who had no roots
in communal Hebrew and Jewish values.
And—most importantly—
this was when the written accounts of the life of Jesus—
our Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—
were only beginning to be written down and passed around.
No one, yet, thought of those writings as scripture.
Same for the letters of Paul.

So, the place of Jesus in the church was at risk.
It needed to be defended.
What did Paul mean by calling the church the “Body of Christ?”
And did everyone agree that “Christ,”
the Messiah being referred to,
was the very same Jesus of Nazareth,
the Jew from Galilee,
whose earthly life ended on a Roman cross?
Could the folks gathering around the Roman Empire,
continue to trust that Jesus had it right,
back there in Jerusalem?
Was Jesus, indeed,
not just a renowned prophet who paid with his life,
but also the Anointed One,
the Son of God?

The answer was disputed, especially in the heart of the Roman Empire,
far away from Jerusalem.
So yes, the place of Jesus in the church needed a vigorous defense.

Because, apparently, this was more than doctrinal drift.
These were communities, in some cases,
led by influential leaders who had lost their trust in Jesus,
and were enamored by their own growing wealth and power,
and began to lead the church with values and ethics
that resembled the excesses of the Roman Empire,
far more than the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

So at stake here in 2 Peter is not just something
you could describe as doctrinal heresy.
This was a denial of basic moral responsibility.
It’s one thing if the conflict is over theological differences only,
if you are contending over the exact words used
to describe the nature of God and humankind.
It’s another whole level of urgency,
if leaders are pulling people away from Jesus altogether,
denying the validity of his ministry, his claims,
and saying his promised return is a hoax.
If so-called Christian leaders
convince their followers that there IS no moral code
based on the Hebrew tradition of Torah,
and enhanced by the life and teachings of Jesus . . .
if they openly embrace the values of the Empire,
and use wealth and power and sexuality
to exploit others for their own gain—
then there is something to stand up against, strongly.

Strong forces of evil demand strong words and actions in response.

So let’s be clear that the “false teachers” being talked about in 2 Peter,
are not merely teachers the letter-writer disagrees with.
They are teachers who have rejected the way of Jesus,
and have embraced the way of the Empire.

Understanding that context—
that the church was facing a deadly threat from within,
and that harsh discourse was more culturally acceptable—
I think we can actually appreciate the passion and love
the letter writer has for the church of Jesus Christ.
So I think we should cut him some slack.

In fact, let’s ponder, together,
whether his letter might even be seen
as something we could look to as inspiration for today.

Is that going too far?
Maybe. But maybe not,
given the extremes that we see today,
that get put out there in the name of Christianity,
that do not in the least resemble Jesus of Nazareth,
but look an awful lot like purely
secular, self-centered, circling of the wagons . . .
or that slap the name of Jesus right on top of
the same pile of racist and patriarchal language
that white-supremacists have used for generations . . .
or Christian nationalists,
that push for a so-called Christian nation-state
to advance the Kingdom of God?
At what point do we just stop and call them out as false?
as Christian pretenders?

The Christian church today,
is no less at risk, than was the church of 100 A.D.
We are also growing up in places far away from our roots,
immersed in the values and practices of the Empire,
of a way of life that honors wealth, exploitation,
self-indulgence, abuse of power, and violence.
The church and the Empire are incompatible.
They are just as much at odds today in our world,
as they were in the first-century Mediterranean world.

Let’s not be fearful of calling a spade a spade.
If looks an Empire, quacks like an Empire, walks like an Empire,
it’s an Empire.
And we should be able to say so,
in the spirit of a biblical prophet.

But if it looks like Jesus, talks like Jesus, and walks like Jesus,
it’s Jesus, and we can embrace it.

And of course, caution is in order.
We should use words carefully, and judiciously.
We should use a tone of voice that people can actually hear,
instead of shutting us off prematurely.
And we should be humble enough to know
we sometimes don’t see the whole picture.
But there is a place for speaking truth, and not apologizing for it.

But let’s choose the right things to get urgent about.
These days, it’s easy to get fired up and mean-spirited
about anything we believe in.
Let’s reserve the open calling out of others,
for those so-called Christians who have actually,
and verifiably,
rejected the character of Jesus revealed in scripture,
not those we just have disagreements with.
Doctrine and lifestyle and political differences,
we can and should sort out,
with honesty, humility, clarity, and kindness.
But denying the life and witness and character of Jesus?
Using Jesus as a prop for violence, nationalism,
and racist ideology?
Then, bold, prophetic words and witness are much needed.
And we, as a church, should be ready to stand up and speak out.

Let’s bring our whole-hearted and whole-bodied commitment to Jesus
with us whenever we gather as a church.
And especially whenever we gather at the table of communion.

The table is a place steeped in symbols of conflict—
the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.
At the table, we are reminded of the cost
of standing up and speaking out.
We are also reminded of the new life and healing that is possible,
when the real human Jesus, and the risen Messiah,
is host at the table, and invites us to come and dine.

—Phil Kniss, August 6, 2023

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Phil Kniss: It’s not icing on the cake

The gift that grows
2 Peter: True to the Root
Matthew 13:44-46; 2 Peter 1:1-11

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here: 

2 Peter doesn’t get preached a lot from Christian pulpits.
At least not the pulpits most of us spend time listening to.
It’s pretty harsh and polemical at times.
It’s speaking to situations that might seem foreign to us.

So maybe that alone is a good enough reason
to spend three weeks looking at this book a little closer.
There may some gems in here we’ve been missing.
And maybe we can find a better context,
to help us better appreciate the harsher parts.

So before I get into the opening chapter,
a word about the book in general.
The author of this letter is widely disputed.
Few scholars attribute the whole letter to the apostle Peter.
Some parts of it make sense as potentially coming from Peter.
Others not so much.
The prevailing view is that this is a fairly general letter,
written in Peter’s name,
to a whole group of churches—
mostly churches in the Hellenized Jewish communities
throughout the Diaspora.

That’s a fancy way of saying,
churches made up of Jews far, far away from Jerusalem.
Far away geographically, but also far away in culture,
language, and religious values.
They lived all around the Roman Empire,
in cities and communities dominated by
Greek and Roman ways of thinking and living.

You can imagine some of the possible worries
that the pillars of the church back in Jerusalem, like St. Peter,
might have had about these groups of young Jesus-followers,
planting churches around Asia Minor and Greece.
In the face of cultural pressures and persecution,
and the tendency to conform to the dominant society,
and considering how new this Jesus movement was,
and how the first Gospels of Jesus
had only recently been written and circulated,
and were not yet considered scripture—
it’s not hard to imagine these churches, and their leaders,
getting off-track, morally and ethically,
losing trust in Jesus as Lord,
and looking like some pseudo-Jewish, pseudo-Greek,
new religious community that didn’t look like Jesus.
Apparently, there were churches and leaders
who openly behaved in ways that abused their power,
accumulated and flaunted their wealth,
and sexually exploited others.
They were living the values of the Empire.

So the thrust of this letter,
written in Peter’s name, with his weight behind it,
is to call out the false teachers leading them astray,
and to bring the churches back to Jesus of Nazareth,
as a reliable witness, who was God’s anointed son,
at the center of their life and faith,
and Lord of all things.

So in chapter 1,
the author begins with one of the most winsome invitations
to a faith-filled life in Jesus.
He’ll get nasty and polemical in chapter 2.
We’ll slog our way through that next Sunday.
But here, the Gospel is presented in its shining glory.

Just in case any of those hearing this letter
have been tempted to give up on Jesus,
and need a word of encouragement or motivation
to stay the course,
and not follow some other alternate religious path,
the letter-writer hands it to them.

First a warm greeting,
“To those who have received a faith as equally honorable as ours
through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:
May grace and peace be yours in abundance
in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.”

Then these glorious words:
“[God’s] divine power has given us everything needed
for life and godliness . . .
he has given us . . . his precious and very great promises,
so that through them you may escape from corruption
and participate in the divine nature.”

In other words,
God has not come with a list of demands
to make you earn your worth.
God has come with precious and great promises.
You already have all you need for life and godliness,
given to you by God’s hands.

That expression of God’s generosity and kindness,
is the basis on which our faith is built.

Now comes a list of virtues.
A virtue list is a literary form that shows up
several times in scripture,
and, interestingly, in ancient Greek and Roman literature.
Virtues are listed in a sequence,
each one being added on to the one preceding it,
so you kind of end up with a stack.

But I noticed something in this stack of virtues that stood out to me.
It was how the NRSV translated the verb at the front of the list.
They used the word, “support,” as in
“support your faith with excellence,
and excellence with knowledge,
and knowledge with self-control . . . etc.”
So many other translations,
including the NIV, King James, and others,
use the simple word “add,” as in
“add to your faith excellence;
and to excellence, knowledge;
and to knowledge, self-control . . . etc.”

So I dove into the Greek to find out what was up with that.
And the verb, which is ἐπιχορηγέω (epichorégeó)
means more than simply adding on,
like icing on a cake.
It has a much richer impact, that of “providing, lavishly,
or furnishing all that is needed to accomplish something.”

This is no optional sort of add-on,
that we could do with, or without.
where each layer adds another nice element to the whole.
When a chef makes a layer cake, or a parfait,
each layer added to the top makes it more interesting,
but they could stop anywhere, even after two layers,
and it could still be eaten, and be tasty.

This is not the kind of addition going on in 2 Peter 1:5.
It’s not icing on the cake.
It’s furnishing the essentials.
It’s critical support structure.

It is something needed to undergird what lies above it in the stack.
So each named virtue
is not something we slap on top.
No, with effort and intentionality,
we work it in under the structure,
in order to better support and accomplish
what lies on top of it.

So let’s look again at the virtue list from that vantage point,
and see if we can stack it up differently.

Faith is what needs support.
Our trust in God lies exposed to the elements, in a way.
By itself, it’s fragile.
It can be misdirected.
It can be misused, to the point of harm.
It can even fall apart, disintegrate.
I think that’s exactly what the epistle writer feared was happening,
in these scattered churches
who were fending for themselves against the forces of the Empire.

So, he writes, beginning in v. 5,
“make every effort to support your faith with excellence.”
Don’t settle for the easy way forward.
Do just go with the flow.
Strive for what is good and excellent and worthwhile.

“and [support] excellence with knowledge.”
Learn the truth about Jesus.
Excellence is hollow, if you don’t know
what Jesus stood for when he lived among us.
Know how Jesus fits into the larger story of God.
Don’t guess at it, or let your gut decide.
Listen and learn from reliable witnesses.

“and [support] knowledge with self-control.”
A life of faith requires respect and love for the self.
But don’t let your knowledge make you full of yourself.
Always yield to the greater good of God’s shalom project.
The Gospel is for us, but it’s bigger than us.

“and [support] self-control with endurance.”
Faith rarely gives instant results.
Reining in the self can be tiring work.
Patience is needed.
God’s timing is not our timing.
Trust that God’s arc is bending toward justice,
even when the arc is long.

“and [support] endurance with godliness.”
Godliness is tricky. We’ve been programmed to think
we create godliness by our doing good.
But godliness does not mean moral perfection.
It means being close to God.
We can cultivate a devotional stance toward God.
There are tried and true practices
for a life of devotion to God.

“and [support] godliness with mutual affection.”
Affection—toward God and toward others—
is the key to having a godly disposition.
It’s like spiritual warmth—wanting to be with God and others.

“and [support] mutual affection with love.”
Love is more than warmth.
It is a rugged commitment to orient ourselves toward another—
toward God, toward others, toward ourselves.
Willingness to set aside personal or self-oriented drives,
in order to invest in the well-being of the larger whole
of which we are part.
It’s not self-neglect. No, love seeks the good of all,
and it concludes this list of virtues.

See how these are stacked exactly opposite?

Love is most definitely not the icing on the cake.
It’s not the maraschino cherry on top of the parfait.
It is the foundation for a life of faith.

This fragile and tender thing we call faith,
can not only survive, but thrive,
when it’s built on a foundation of love,
that supports affection,
that supports godliness,
which supports endurance,
which undergirds self-control,
which supports knowledge,
which is the basis for excellence,
which results in a sturdy faith that can weather the storm.

And . . . get this!
We have already been given,
by the gracious and generous hand of God,
“everything needed for life and godliness.”

It is ours to make every effort to receive this gift from God’s hand,
and put it into use for the building up of faith.

Obviously, our world is a very different one
than the Greek and Roman-influenced
first-century Mediterranean culture.
But maybe not so different at the core.
There are still forces in society
that attempt to push us away from a Jesus-centered faith.
Our faith, on its own, is just as fragile today,
as the early Christians trying to find their way.
We have something important to learn from 2 Peter.

God is good.
God is generous.
It is not up to us to scrounge up the resources for faith.
We have been given them.
Now, let us open our hands, our lives, our bodies, our whole beings,
and offer them in the service of God,
whom we know in Jesus.

And let us confess our shortcomings.
Will you join me with the confession printed in the bulletin,
or on the screen?

one God of love and patience,
We confess we are sometimes indifferent to your lavish gifts.
We are burdened by believing we must earn your love.
all Forgive our failure to freely receive from you.
one We acknowledge we already have from you
all we need for a life of reverence and gratefulness.
all Forgive our ingratitude and self-obsession.
one The God of endless love and patience forgives us,
and continues to hold open hands toward us,
offering love, and life, and all we need to become
the people God created us to be.
all Amen. Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, July 30, 2023

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]