Sunday, January 17, 2021

Phil Kniss: When the lights came on for Jesus

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus’ mission announced
Luke 4:14-30

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Today again, I want to de-mystify Jesus just a bit.
What I mean by that is,
in so many Gospel stories,
our instinct is to cover up Jesus’ real humanity,
and explain his words and actions
as something he could only do because he was
the divine Son of God.
And in the process,
we lose the connection with Jesus, our brother, our sibling,
one who shared a full, embodied humanity with us.
We need both—the humanity and divinity.

Last Sunday’s story of his baptism by John in the Jordan
is a perfect example.
We focus in on the voice from above,
the descending dove,
the bright heavenly glow, maybe trumpets and angels.
But we need to remember he went to that river in a crowd,
as a member of particular social and religious group,
trying to live their lives at a particular political moment,
which, as I mentioned last Sunday,
has some parallels to our own political moment.

Without taking anything away from the Jesus who is Lord of heaven,
we can’t afford to lose sight of the Jesus who is like us.
This has never been more true than it is now,
with all the global, national, and personal suffering
going on right now.
We need a Jesus we can relate to.
Who knows what it means to struggle with life.
I mean, really struggle.
Who knows what red-hot anger feels like.
Who knows the exhilaration and hard work of loving someone.
Who has felt, in his gut, the wrenching pain of grief,
after losing someone way too soon.
Who has experienced, yes, even fear and doubt.

Otherwise, we might have a mystical Savior,
but we don’t have a Jesus to follow in life, as a disciple.

In today’s story from Luke we see Jesus in two scenes,
both in his hometown of Nazareth.
Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue,
and Jesus being confronted by an angry mob.

Now, if we see only Jesus the Divine Son of God,
the story goes like this—
He calmly enters the synagogue intent to declare
what he already knows,
that he is the Messiah, anointed to deliver his people.
But the people aren’t ready to accept that divine truth,
so they try to kill him,
but he miraculously escapes their grasp because, well,
because he’s God.

Certainly, there are elements of that in the story.
But let’s find the human Jesus in Luke 4,
the one who resembles us.

When Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah,
he probably did exactly what Erma Taylor did today—
read from the assigned lectionary text.
The scroll of Isaiah was handed to him.
I assume he did what synagogue worshippers often did—
took his turn reading the assigned text,
and then, as is customary,
made some comments about the text.
Synagogue readings often sparked conversation,
sometimes debate.

I think this Isaiah reading was a pivotal moment for Jesus,
not because the God in him
directed him to go in there and boldly announce his mission
and give his inauguration speech.

I think this was a pivotal moment
because the words of the prophet Isaiah spoke to him right then.
As he read them, the lights came on for Jesus.
I can’t prove it. But I believe it.

I think about all Jesus experienced in just the prior 2 months,
as a human—as a young man exploring his call and identity.
I bet his mind was churning.
The picture was starting to come together,
but a little blurry.
Isaiah brought it into focus.

In our text last week Jesus was baptized by John and heard the voice
that staked a claim on him—“You are my son.”
But what did that mean? Jesus surely wondered.
Then the next 40 days were torture.
He spent it in the desert, fasting,
struggling against his demons.
Or in the words of the Gospels,
being tempted by Satan.
He was being forced to choose between the easy road,
or the hard road.
Bread or hunger.
Glory or suffering.
Power or poverty.

He survived with his identity intact,
because he kept quoting his scriptures back to Satan,
kept reminding himself of who he was,
and where he came from.

Read all about those wilderness temptations
in the first part of chapter four.

Today’s story comes immediately after that.
Looks to me like it’s a 1-2-3 sequence,
river baptism — where his call and identity are announced
desert temptation — where his call and identity
are tested almost to the breaking point
and home-town synagogue — where the lights come on for him
and it dawns on him
what the river and the desert really meant.

On this Sabbath day, worshipping with people he grew up with,
people who knew him when he was an awkward teenager,
Jesus suddenly saw that his own emerging call
was bringing the call of Isaiah full circle.
“These words have been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In other words,
Luke brilliantly describes how Jesus—
his person and ministry—
grew organically out of his own tradition.
The early Christians, to whom Luke is writing,
were not making up some new and strange religion,
as some accused them.
No, there is this unmistakable line the connects
the work of God in the Torah and Prophets,
to the work of God through Jesus of Nazareth,
and to the work of God in the church.
There is one long thread of God’s saving history,
which they are all connected to,
including the church of today.

And that thread is summed up in the text Jesus read
that made the lights come on.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That was, as it turned out,
Jesus’ inauguration speech.
And it is ours, too.

There’s going to be another inauguration speech on Wednesday,
that a lot of us will probably listen to.
It might be a good one.
I hope so.
It might call us as Americans to rediscover our better selves.
I hope the people who most need to hear it,
will listen with even a slightly open heart.

But no matter how good it is,
it won’t rise to the level of these four lines from Isaiah.
This, sisters and brothers,
is what God is about, fundamentally.
And it is what we are to be about.

And truly,
those lines had an impact on everyone in the synagogue that day.
Especially after the lights came on for Jesus,
and he handed back the scroll,
and with all eyes on him, spoke these weighty words:
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

It was one of those moments.
His hometown audience was transfixed by what Luke calls
his (quote) “gracious words.”
They wondered, is this really the Jesus they grew up with?
Joseph’s son?

And then scene #2.
It took a sudden, and ugly, turn.
Because Jesus took an ugly turn.
He got too personal with them.
His words were “gracious,”
as long as he talked about injustice out there.
They assumed he was targeting their oppressors—
Caesar and Herod and the like.
But when he turned those gracious words against them,
his neighbors and cousins and people he did carpenter work for,
they went from being enchanted to being enraged.

He made statements that were hard to argue with
because they came straight from stories
out of their Hebrew Bible—
Elijah saving the widow of Zarephath from starvation,
and Elisha healing Naaman, the Syrian, from leprosy.
But he pointed out the obvious which theydidn’t want to see—
that those prophets ministered healing and compassion,
in God’s name, to Gentiles—
to those outside the fold,
while there were Jews who remained hungry,
or continued to live with leprosy.

Due to the fact the lights came on
for this charismatic carpenter-prophet from Nazareth,
he could cleverly, and provocatively,
undermine the narrative of his own neighbors—
who thought they were God’s privileged people,
with an inside track to God’s love and attention.

Without saying it in so many words,
Jesus condemned their narrow view of God’s love,
their practice of judging and cutting off
people like lepers and tax collectors and sinners
and Gentiles and Samaritans.

So his people turned on him.
So offensive were his words, there was a riot.
A deadly mob formed, intent on killing him.
People shouting and shoving,
to the point they almost threw him off a cliff,
but he managed to slip their grasp.
This time.

Now that’s quite a human and divine story Luke tells,
here at the front end of Jesus’ life of ministry.
This is Jesus.
Now, suddenly clear about what he is called to do and say.
Nothing will dissuade him.
Not just because he is God.
But because he a human being who says “yes” to God.

Saying yes is something we can also do.
Even in the face of seemingly hopeless situations—
globally, nationally, personally.
We can say yes, to staying connected to God’s saving history,
to proclaim freedom, release, healing, and restoration,
because that is God’s work.
God help the lights to come on for us, too.
Because God has chosen us.
Every bit as much as God chose Isaiah,
and God chose the carpenter from Nazareth,
to embody God’s very presence, in the flesh.
God has chosen you.
God has chosen me.

Let us say “yes.”

—Phil Kniss, January 16, 2021

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Sunday, January 10, 2021

Phil Kniss: In holy and in hopeless place

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus’ identity announced
Luke 3:1-22; Micah 6:6-8

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Let me start with a quiz.
I’ll give a scenario, then ask you a question.

Imagine you’re part of a religious group—
a large, well-organized, influential, long-standing religious group.
But your group is living completely within
an even larger, and secular, Empire.
And your group is losing ground against the Empire.
Whereas your religion and way of life
used to be prominent and protected,
now it’s under pressure, threatened,
in a minority, and maybe won’t survive.
To make matters worse,
your group is splintering into all kinds of factions,
groups with completely different values and priorities,
and polar opposite visions of what the problem is
and how to fix it.
Got it? Now here is the question:

Was I describing (A.) the Jewish community of Luke chapter 3—
the family of faith of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth?
or (B.) our faith family—North American Christians of 2021—
a family in which some members
gathered in mass protest at the Capitol on Wednesday,
and some of those engaged in a horrific, violent insurrection?

Correct answer? (C.) Both of the above.

As I prepared this sermon,
I thought I might have to stretch a bit
to have our prescribed text speak to present realities.
Then I realized, no stretching is needed.

You could lay side-by-side
the Gospel of Luke and the Jan 7 edition of the Washington Post,
and find all kinds of points that connect to each other.

But wait! you object. They are not us.
Yes, it’s tempting for us peace-loving Anabaptist Christians,
to think we have nothing whatsoever to do
with the violent chaos that descended on Washington last week.
But surely you noticed all the signs saying “Jesus Saves,” didn’t you?

You might argue, “They’re not talking about our Jesus.”
And maybe I’ll grant that . . . but only to a point.
Because they also read the Gospel of Luke.
They sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at church this time of year.
Their children learn Bible stories the same way ours do,
from loving, tender Sunday School teachers.
They pray.
They fast.
They take communion.

And some of them joined the Jericho March on DC last week.
The Jericho March is a Christian movement,
that does not promote violence, to be clear.
They publicly disavowed the physical attack on the Capitol.
But they were praying for an overthrow.

They did organize hundreds of Christians
to march 7 times around the Supreme Court on Tuesday,
and 7 times around the Capitol on Wednesday,
while all that was going on,
singing, shouting, and blowing rams’ horns,
and praying for the same result—
that the walls of Washington would miraculously fall down,
that God’s enemies—Joe Biden and Democrats—
would be defeated,
and that God would reverse the illegal election,
and keep God’s man, President Trump,
in office another four years.

I point this out not to ridicule them,
or distance them from us,
but to speak the painful truth that they also worship Jesus.

That should not surprise anyone who reads the Gospel of Luke.
The Jewish world of Jesus also felt threatened and fearful
and oppressed by God’s enemies.
Even though they all read the Torah,
kept the Sabbath,
followed the law,
and honored Abraham as their father,
they were entirely splintered over different political visions.

Some were collaborators with Rome.
Some tried to secretly rebel against Rome,
but not in a way to draw attention or get in trouble.
Some believed a spiritual victory would come,
if everyone could somehow achieve purity under the law.
And some plotted insurrection.
They carried short swords under their robes,
in case they ever had an opportunity to use them
against Roman authorities.

Yet, they were all part of the same beleaguered Jewish community.
And Jesus had disciples from various of these groups.

This is what happens when a once-powerful religious group
starts losing a grip on its power and privilege.  It reacts.
It might fight (with sword, or prayer, or both).
It might accommodate.
It might just give up and join the oppression.

In Luke 3, down at the Jordan, John the Baptist preached
a baptism of repentance to all these groups—all of them.
He said, “Return to God’s vision of justice and faith!”
Your future does not depend on what Caesar does or doesn’t do.
Remember who you are!
Reclaim your identity as children of Abraham.
Return to the God of your ancestors.
Repent—together—of the practices of injustice
that pervade this community.

Don’t mistake John as someone preaching
only an individualistic repentance and salvation.
Luke, the historian, sets the date of this story about John the Baptist
by naming all the political leaders currently in office—
leaders of both Empire and religion . . . in the first verse.
“It was while Tiberius Caesar was Emperor,
and Pilate was Governor,
and Herod was tetrarch,
and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests,
that the word of God came to John.”

That’s an obvious signal.
While all these hifalutin office-holders thought they spoke for God,
God instead spoke to John, Zack’s boy,
who dressed in camel-hair and lived off the land.

I wonder who the camel-haired prophets are today?
In today’s divided and anxious politics of fear,
and antagonism, and white supremacist ideology,
that extends directly into and throughout the Christian community,
who is standing up for the whole Gospel of God,
revealed in Jesus,
a Gospel people who refuse to bow to an Empire,
but also refuse to bow to fear,
and to the practice of enemy-making,
and self-protective violence.
Who are the prophets who will look, with real love,
into the faces of their own religious family members,
and invite them, like John the Baptist did,
to “produce fruit in keeping with your faith.”
or say, “I see you have two shirts.
I know someone who has none. Might you share?”

And who will, in the name of Christ,
unmask the powers that continue to oppress
the poor, the immigrant, and the outcast—
whether those powers are of the State,
or of our own Christian community.

Who will steadfastly refuse to dehumanize anyone—
including true believers in Q-Anon or Trumpism
or Christian Nationalism?
And who will steadfastly refuse to deify anyone—
to not worship any human person
or institution or political party?
But will instead, with courage and clarity,
witness in word and deed to God’s kingdom of
peace and compassion and justice for all?

Who will take up the prophet’s mantle?
Who will look to John the Baptist and to Jesus,
as shining examples of how to live a whole life of protest,
in the midst of Empire,
while staying true to the faith, and to the community?

You know . . . just like the people who flocked to John
to listen, to repent, and to be baptized,
we are also called to change our way of thinking,
to reorder our lives,
and to publicly align ourselves
with the non-violent, non-fearful, non-egocentric,
and non-vindictive, Gospel of Jesus.
And to mark that commitment publicly.

Even Jesus did that, by requesting baptism.
Jesus was not so much repenting of personal sin,
as he was making a public declaration.
He was openly turning away from any selfish agenda,
and aligning his life with God’s larger agenda.
That’s what we are called to do as well,
in our baptism,
and in our Christian life.

It is the kind of clarity offered by the prophet Micah
in today’s other reading.
The priorities of the religious life are clear.
Not burnt offerings, or a thousand rams, or rivers of oil, Micah says.
But God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Walk humbly, with the God who loves us.
Who is with us.
Who is for us.

Because along with this call to clarity and courage,
I also call us to show compassion, and to comfort each other.
These are hard times.
Excruciatingly hard.
And frightening.
And traumatic.
And uncertain.

We get tired. Too tired to move.
Much less, get organized and start a new kind of movement.
That’s why we are in community.
We have differing gifts.
Some preach. Some pray. Some plan.
Some just try to ease pain.
And some just rest, so they can heal.
We start by repenting, and remembering who we are,
and what God’s vision of justice looks like.
And then we support each other in whatever way we can.

Let’s sing a song that’s new to us,
but written some time ago by John Bell, of the Iona Community.
It could have been written for this week.

“When trouble strikes and fear takes root.”
Receive this song as both honest lament, and word of hope.
Sung to the familiar tune of “when I survey the wondrous cross.”
Sing with us, will you?

When trouble strikes and fear takes root
And dreams are dry and sense unsound;
When hope becomes a barren waste,
The doubts like mountains soar around.

Our wandering minds believe the worst
And ask, as faith and fervour fade,
“Has God now turned his back on us
forsaking those he loved and made?”

God says “See how a woman cares.
Can she forget the child she bore?
E’en if she did, I shan’t forget:
Though feeling lost, I love you more”

“My dearest daughter, fondest son,
My weary folk in every land,
Your souls are cradled in my heart,
Your names are written on my hand.”

Then praise the Lord through faith and fear,
In holy and in hopeless place;
For height and depth and heaven and hell
Can’t keep us far from God’s embrace.

—Phil Kniss, January 10, 2021

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Sunday, January 3, 2021

Phil Kniss: Jesus the inquisitive

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — The Young Jesus
Luke 2:41-52

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So, are you ready for our deep dive into the Gospel of Luke?
For the next four months,
we will move thoughtfully and thoroughly through this book.

But before we start the journey,
we should survey the landscape.
Whenever I go on a hike,
I study the terrain ahead of time with a topographical map.

One day last week I hiked in the George Washington National Forest,
with two of my daughters and a son-in-law.
It was a hike none of us had done before.
So eager were we to get into the woods,
that we all forgot to download the map to our phones
before we got out of cell phone range.
We had only a general idea where we were heading,
and figured we could depend on signs.
Sure enough, we found a well-marked sign,
pointing up a well-worn trail,
so off we went.

Now, if any of us had looked at the map first,
before walking half a mile on that beautiful, but wrong trail,
we wouldn’t have climbed about 1,000 feet higher than we wanted,
and in the wrong direction.
But then—we’d have also missed a great aerobic workout,
and a perfect sermon illustration.

So let’s pause a minute, and study Luke’s topographical map.
We just spent a couple weeks in the first two chapters,
stories around Jesus’ birth narrative.
Now, from here through chapter 9,
we’ll follow Jesus all around Galilee—
his home territory,
as he goes from town to town preaching, teaching, healing,
proclaiming God’s reign.
That will take us up to the beginning of Lent.
And then fittingly, in chapters 9-19,
Luke gives us a good long look
at Jesus’ good long journey from Galilee toward Jerusalem,
as he walks away from home,
toward the center of religious and political power,
with a message that will trouble the powers,
and cause a lot of trouble for him,
during an eventful final week of his life,
in chapters 19-24.
That takes us up through Easter,
and then we’ll look some at Acts, and the early church.

This is all very well organized and laid out by Luke.
He tells us so, in the first couple verses of the book:
“I have decided to write an orderly account . . .”

Luke doesn’t tell a story in the abstract.
He places it in a context.
For his mostly Jewish readers,
Luke wants to draw a line connecting Jesus with their tradition,
with their Torah,
with their scriptures,
and to draw that line straight through Jesus to the church,
a new people of God.

Like other Gospels,
Luke was written down during the church age,
written by and for the church.
So to his church audience, Luke says,
the Jesus story is trustworthy
because it fulfills what God has said and done all along.

His church community was likely in distress and struggling.
At best, they were labeled a fringe group.
At worst, dangerous heretics worthy of death.
Luke reassures his troubled church.
Tells them they are in the right place.
He validates them.
He says, the church is in continuity with Israel of old.
God always had this purpose,
and Jesus fulfilled it, Luke says.
“You Jesus followers are in that same stream.
You are right where God wants you!
Be strong.
Be courageous.
This is the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.
Believe it. Live it.”

That’s why so much of the birth narrative these last few Sundays
kept referring to the prophets.
Luke was drawing that connecting line.

And in today’s story, about the boy Jesus left behind in the temple,
same thing.

And by the way, in case you’re worried,
this is not a story about bad parenting.
Joseph and Mary had every reason to assume Jesus was with them.
They were traveling as a large community.
Like most pre-teens in that culture,
Jesus was accountable to the whole clan,
not just to his nuclear family.

In any case, this story spotlights Luke’s main literary agenda.
Jesus is connecting with his faith heritage, early on.

Now, what exactly was Jesus doing back at the temple?
We should not conclude that Jesus was super-human,
being something other than a 12-year-old boy.
Yes, we’d like to think Jesus, the all-knowing Son of God,
engaged the priests and Torah scholars on their level,
or even, that he instructed them,
correcting their errors.

I don’t think so.
I do think there was something stirring in him.
No, he did not yet grasp his peculiar role
in God’s cosmic salvation story.
But at 12, it was enough that the Spirit was stirring in him,
and he was being attentive and inquisitive.
He inherited that trait from his mother.

Yes, the Mary who pondered.
The Mary who treasured things in her heart.
In the temple that day,
we see a boy being his mother’s child.

And maybe we should take even more mystery out of this story,
and admit Jesus was being a fairly normal 12-year-old.
Okay, maybe not all 12-years-olds have the maturity
to ask searching questions of religious leaders.
But 12-year-olds are by nature, inquisitive.
Jesus was being a healthy human 12-year-old.
Like his age-peers,
he had his eyes and ears wide open.
He had his senses keenly tuned.

And speaking of attentive 12-year-olds,
here’s another line that connects Jesus
to the Old Testament prophetic tradition.
Remember the story of the boy Samuel,
sent to live and work alongside the priest Eli?
He heard a voice in the night that Eli couldn’t hear.
Because Samuel has his ears tuned and attentive.
He heard the voice, moved toward it,
and asked good questions.

It’s adults who think this is unusual.
Many of us, I fear, grow up to be less inquisitive.
We grow less comfortable with unanswered questions.
We survive by putting the world into neat categories.
And once we have it categorized,
we can put away our unsettling ambiguity,
and heave a sigh of relief,
and stop listening.
At least we used to.
Maybe 2020 will have cured us of the impulse
to make our world neat and tidy.

But children never stop listening.  They never stop looking.
There is very little that children miss.
They notice.
They live with their eyes and ears wide open.
They pay attention to what’s happening around them.
Usually, they aren’t afraid to get up close,
so they can hear better and see better.

That, dear friends . . . dear adult friends,
is what we need to learn better how to do.
I think if I were to make only one
New Year’s Resolution for myself,
having survived 2020 and preparing for 2021,
it is to keep my eyes open.
Not just my literal eyeballs.
The eyes of my heart.
The eyes of my soul.
The part of me that moves toward
that which grabs my attention,
not blindly, but with open eyes.
Ready to let my reality be examined,
even as I examine the reality of the world around me.
And with nuance.

I’ve had enough of dividing ourselves into red and blue,
rural and urban,
educated and uneducated,
and on and on.

There is no such thing as a red state or blue state,
unless you are counting votes.
Otherwise, let’s be honest.
Every state is a multi-colored and multi-cultural
shade of purple.
In every rural community,
you will find some degree of sophistication
and enlightenment and worldly wisdom.
And in every hip urban community,
you will discover shades of ignorance and rigidity,
and unwillingness to learn something new.

I do not want to be lulled into thinking
that a change of political party in the White House . . . or the Senate,
will mean a fundamental change in our human condition.
We will still fumble and stumble through life.
We will make mistakes.
And to put it theologically, we will sin.

I want to be like Jesus.
That is, the 12-year-old boy Jesus,
who didn’t yet fully know who he was.
I want to ask good questions.
I want to wonder about things.
I want to imagine a better world.
I want to keep my eyes and ears open,
even, or especially, when
the one right in front of me is someone I don’t understand.

So here we are on the first Sunday of 2021,
still worshipping together while scattered,
still trying to figure out how to be a real body,
when our bodies can’t share the same space.

The Lord’s Table can help us in this regard.
The table always, always, represents
something we have not yet fully realized.
God has done God’s work.
But on our part, the table is an aspiration, a hope,
not a done deal.
Today the body of Christ is fractured in many different ways—
culturally, economically, theologically,
and now COVID keeps us apart physically.
That does not change the reality of what this Table means.
Jesus Christ is the host at this meal.
And Jesus has one body—the church,
in all its varied expressions,
in all its frail imperfections.
Jesus makes us one, because of who he is and what he did.

That story will unfold for us in Luke, for many weeks to come.
But today we celebrate the end point—
the oneness we can have with God and each other,
because of the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

So, thank you, 12-year-old Jesus,
for living your life with eyes wide open.
And help us, Risen Christ, to live the same way today.

Let us now come to the table,
from wherever you are,
join us in Spirit and in action,
as we partake of the bread and cup.

Near the end of Jesus’ ministry journey,
he and his disciples ate their last Passover meal together.
It says in Luke 22,
19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it,
and gave it to them, saying,
“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
which is poured out for you.”

May God bless this bread and cup
to our physical and spiritual nourishment.  Amen.

Now, if you wish, as the singers sing,
please join us
by partaking of the bread and cup at home,
or wherever you find yourself this morning.

—Phil Kniss, January 3, 2021

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Sunday, December 27, 2020

Reflections from the pastors: Words from Mary, Simeon, and Anna

Christmas 1: God With Us
Luke 2:21-38

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The three pastors of Park View personify three of the main characters in today's story from Luke 2 -- Mary the mother of Jesus, Simeon, and Anna the prophetess.

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Sunday, December 20, 2020

Phil Kniss and Dr. Bishara Awad of Bethlehem: What love really looks like (the other side of the Christmas story)

Advent 3: LOVE
Psalm 113; Luke 1:26-56

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This is the time of year I talk out of both sides of my mouth.
I push back on the consumerism of the season,
and the saccharine-sweet pictures of Bethlehem,
and romanticized, star-lit manger scenes
that bear no resemblance to the Biblical story.
And I admit I love the nostalgic side of Christmas,
and have not one, but two
romanticized, star-lit manger scenes in our house.
I’m no scrooge about Christmas traditions.
I just want to be honest and call them what they are—
made-up culturally acceptable images that promote goodwill,
spark human connection and generosity,
and have a lot of other benefits.
I don’t begrudge anyone celebrating Santa or singing about Rudolph
or making up characters for the nativity story
that aren’t even in the Bible,
like the Three Kings and the innkeeper.
We shouldn’t fight that.
There is inherent goodness in it, so embrace it.
But then, when we gather as a worshiping community of the Book,
then it’s time to take the God of the Bible seriously,
and the biblical narrative seriously,
and see what hard and beautiful truths it might be telling us.
There is a difference between the cultural traditions,
and the biblical narrative in Luke,
as read by the Rhodes family this morning.
And nowhere is that distinction more sharp
than in the person of Mary.
Mary was a teenage girl—inexperienced, unknown, powerless—
legal property of her father,
soon to become legal property of the carpenter Joseph,
soon to become shamed and endangered,
because of her pregnancy before marriage.
God came to her first,
to use her as the means to bring
the saving Christ into the world.
It’s as unbelievable as it sounds.
But Mary believed the unbelievable,
and went to tell her elder cousin.
Elizabeth confirmed, “God is at work in you!”
And Mary broke out in a song of joy—
just not the kind of joy we expect.
It wasn’t “Oh joy!
God has blessed me with a wonderful gift!”
No, it was a song of revolution—
social, and political, and religious revolution.
Mary’s song could be a protest anthem.
She sings of the small towering over the big,
the weak defeating the strong,
the poor out-ranking the rich,
the nobodies surpassing the somebodies.
She sings about God taking the social order,
and turning it on its head.
This revolutionary anthem no longer shocks us.
It’s just part of the Christmas soundtrack.
The Magnificat is sung everywhere—
even in ornate cathedrals by elite choirs
to the delight of royalty and the top 1%—
the very people who are targets of the revolution
being sung about.
Oh, well, at least it’s being sung.
And it should be sung.
This song of Mary captures the essence
of the whole biblical nativity narrative:
Think of all the “little people” God used
to help unfold the story of cosmic salvation.
It wasn’t just the girl and her carpenter fiancĂ©.
It was lowly shepherds on the social margins.
It was the virtually unknown religious worker Zechariah.
The people in this story honored by an angel’s visit
were people of little or no standing,
in a small town in a tiny country
being occupied by a foreign power.
The story of a Bethlehem Christmas
is a story of the deep love of God being shown to people
in a state of emptiness, poverty, and danger.
At Christmas we are invited to bow in worship to a God
who loves this world,
and proves it by going to places that are off the map,
people that are out of sight,
and situations that others turn away from.
No, God is not anti-power and anti-wealth.
Quite the opposite.
God appreciates power, and its capacity to implement God’s agenda.
That’s why God is tender toward those
who have power taken away.
God is on the side of joy and beauty and abundance and freedom.
That’s why God moves toward the poor and oppressed,
to show them what they are missing, yet deserve.
God has no objection to wealth and power.
But when those who have it,
don’t use it for God’s purposes,
God turns toward those who will.
If we, the rich and powerful today—especially today,
in this suffering and out-of-balance world—
if we fail to side with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed,
if we fail to join God’s mission of bringing justice,
peace, goodwill, and shalom,
God will look for other partners.
When the powerful fail, as they often do,
God lets them get upstaged by the weak.
This is the essence of the Bethlehem story.
We heard the theme in the song of Mary.
We heard the theme in today’s Psalm, 113—
“Praise the Lord,
who raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
and seats them with princes.”
And if we look at the Old Testament prophet Micah,
we see this Bethlehem reversal named outright:
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel.”
When all the nostalgia clears away,
we must take Bethlehem seriously.
We must look for the Bethlehems in today’s world,
find the little ones that others overlook,
move toward the poor and needy,
notice where there is injustice, and raise our voices,
and show them the love of God.
There are many figurative “Bethlehems” we could name right now.
But for the remainder of my sermon time today,
let’s talk about the literal Bethlehem, in 2020.
Yes, the still little town just outside Jerusalem,
situated in Palestinian territory.
Bethlehem is on my mind,
because I read recently how the COVID pandemic
has decimated that community.
The livelihood of thousands of workers and families,
depends on the tourist industry,
which went from 2 million annual visitors to practically zero.
And then I remembered . . .
exactly 20 years ago, December 2000,
we connected with that Bethlehem during our worship service,
and spoke with Dr. Bishara Awad,
founding president of Bethlehem Bible College.
Bethlehem was under siege that year,
during the second intifada,
and suffering terribly.
One of our members, the late Calvin Shenk,
was a friend of Dr. Awad,
and helped make the connection.
We heard, in his own voice,
what our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem were experiencing,
and we prayed for each other.
As I remembered that,
I had the urge to reconnect with Bishara Awad.
20 years ago it took a 100-foot phone cord strung from the library,
down the aisle to this pulpit to a big speaker-phone box.
Today, I could just Zoom.
So in less than 24 hours after it occured to me,
I was on a video call with Dr. Awad.
We spoke for about 20 minutes on Friday morning,
and on behalf of all of us,
I asked him about life in Bethlehem today,
with COVID and the continuing injustice.
And once again, we prayed for each other.
We recorded the conversation,
with the intent to share it with you all this morning.
So now, 20 years after our first conversation,
we will again hear from our brother in Christ, Bishara Awad.
For sake of time,
I will share only 8 minutes of the conversation and prayer.
But after the service,
in an email to the Park View congregation,
we will send a link,
so you can hear the whole 20-minute conversation,
and everything that our brother had to share with us.
So here is our brother, Dr. Bishara Awad,
now President Emeritus of Bethlehem Bible College.
I trust we will continue to hold Dr. Awad
and his community in our prayers,
and that we will do as he asked,
and grow in our understanding of the situation they are facing,
and support them as fellow members of the body of Christ,
and with him, to hold to the hope we have in Christ,
and to lean in to the love of God that we celebrate together
at this time of year.
Let us join now together in a prayer of confession,
and a moment of silence,
during which I invite us to lift up in prayer
our sisters and brothers in Bethlehem.
one O God of love and justice,
who announced a re-ordering of the world,
make good your word,
and begin with us.
all Open our hearts and unblock our ears
to hear the voices of the poor
and share their struggle;
and send us away empty with longing
for your promise to come true
in Jesus Christ.
one The God who longs to be with us
is full of love, freely forgives,
and gladly comes and fills our open hearts.
—Phil Kniss, December 20, 2020

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Sunday, December 13, 2020

Moriah Hurst: Joy instead of mourning

Advent 3: JOY
Luke 4:16-21; Isaiah 61:1-11

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Joy instead of mourning - Isaiah 61:1-11 and Luke 4:16-21

Hope, peace and joy. We have celebrated these three themes in our Advent waiting. What is it that you are waiting for? Where is your desire and longing? Does it feel matched by these words and ideas of hope, peace and joy? Or does it seem hard to hope, peace feels allusive and joy is something we grasp at like trying to hold onto smoke.

In a time when our country is faced with upheaval and divisions these concepts seem hard. People across the country face evictions from their homes and have lost their jobs. Unemployment payments are running out. Covid rips through prisons and there is nowhere to run when you are trapped in a cell breathing the same infected air as the cells around you. Vaccines are going to be available but who will get them first and who will resist them? There are hearts breaking with grief, the pain of repeated and continuing loss.

We need to hear that God is sending one:

to proclaim good news to the poor.

 to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim freedom for the captives

    and release from darkness for the prisoners,


We cry out with advent longing: come O Lord, come!


The advertisements I see and hear tell me this is a season that should be marked by joy. The people who would have heard this Isaiah passage first might have felt similar dissonance to us today.

Overall, life has (not been great) for God’s people up to the point of our reading from Isaiah 61. The injustice and idolatry in the kingdom of Judah led to the destruction of the city and the temple, and then to a forced relocation of the people to a land not their own. The people waited for release and return to their homeland, but even when that happened, the city, the temple, and the land were still in ruins.” (

They are back in the Promised Land but their postexilic life isn’t living up to everything they had hoped it to be.

We hear this promise in the text:

 They will rebuild the ancient ruins

    and restore the places long devastated;

they will renew the ruined cities

    that have been devastated for generations. Verse 4

But the hard truth is the end of exile doesn’t mean happily ever after. “Make the promise land great again” just wasn’t cutting it. There was no going back to what was, only forward into what will be. Yet some of what led to the exile, in their theological understanding of it, was not doing justice or caring for the least of these and that injustice still existed. (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary -

As they would have heard Isaiah’s words they would have been wrestling with this hope promised but not yet a reality. In the same way that “emancipation didn’t end slavery, that the civil rights movement didn’t end segregation, and that 8 years of a black president didn’t end racism – we are still struggling with these things. There is not a switch flipped and it was the same with exile,” (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary -

Do we feel like we are in exile this year? Cut off from one another and separated. We long with the exiles to go back to what was, our shiny life before March 2020. But we can’t go back, only forward. Our difficulties didn’t begin with the COVID virus. “it didn’t begin our times of trouble. Economic disparity, educational divides, mental health issues didn’t start with the pandemic – they were there before but now they are magnified and brought to the forefront and a vaccine won't fix all of this.” (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary -

Isaiah’s prophesy that Jesus stands up and reads is one of present joy with the hope of a coming peace. This is a vision of a great reversal of outcomes and a grand reset. “Those who are oppressed go free, those who are brokenhearted are healed, those who are captives and prisoners are released, and those who are blind are given sight” (

Like many of you I work a lot on my computer right now. As I close the lid to my laptop it puts it to sleep but doesn’t shut it down. About once a week I find that things start getting glitchy. I can’t get sound on zoom or some keyboard command function stops working. I remember that I have to shut the whole thing down, step away from the computer for a while and then restart it all. When I turn it back on again things seem to right themselves, fixing their little bugs.

We see in the words of Isaiah the God of justice who will right the systems. A God who will do a hard reset, which I know I long for and we need.

Before we get too caught up in how beautiful and lofty these words sound and get misty eyed about a world to come, it is important to think about what is not being said here. This is not about me and I, not an individualized salvation but communal, society righting of wrongs. This is not getting joy from personal happiness or the glitz and glitter of a pretty manger scene but true comfort to those who are wronged, marginalized and caught in cycles of poverty and violence. This is good news!

 The Spirit of God comes to initiate a repair of society from the inside out, from the bottom rung to the top. And the ones called to partner in rebuilding are those who suffered in the former regime (economically, judicially, physically, and spiritually).” (

The renewing of cities is a picture of a new community and economy. This is a vision of foreigners as a vital part of us not only there to work for us or to be abolished from the land. (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary - The outsider is included, not cast out. God is calling us away from exploitation and into justice.

 For I, the Lord, love justice;

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing. Verse 8

And we respond with rejoicing knowing that we are wrapped in God’s salvation and righteousness. God is offering joy instead of mourning, praise instead of despair, rejoicing beyond our shame and disgrace. Because as this good news is proclaimed we are invited in as partners with the Spirit in this work of restoration.

Today's reading ends with an image. A seed planted in the darkness of the earth now, yet it will sprout and grow – a future hope that brings us present joy.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,

And as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,

So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise

to spring up before all the nations. Verse 11


I am reminded of the words: “they tried to bury us, they didn’t know that we were seeds”. What in us is falling to the ground and dying right now? What from us will be held in the earth, close to God’s heart, waiting to burst forth and be reborn. We wait as seeds for restoration – not just a return to normal.

I wonder what words Jesus would step up and read to us today. What is our contemporary message?

Welcome to the foreigner fleeing and waiting at our boarder.

Freedom to those hiding from cultural shaming of their sexual identity.

God’s strong hand of justice crushing racism and raising up those who have been hurt by the legacy of racial injustice in our land.

Homes for the homeless, security for those who don’t have enough to eat and can’t pay their bills.

Calm and stability for those whose mental health dips and dives as their isolation grows.


This good news not just for us, the insider or the chosen ones, but for all people and all nations. Being partners in this work calls us to joy.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,

My whole being shall exult in my God. verse 10

The Jesus we wait for in advent will fulfill these promises. Our coming savior brings hope, peace and joy. May we find God’s seeds of justice creatively planted in us in this time of waiting.

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