Sunday, January 12, 2020

Phil Kniss: Making neighbors of strangers

In It Together: The Church As Neighbor
Ephesians 2:8-22; Matthew 5:1-16

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There’s a reason neighborhoods form the way they do.
Remember that satellite view of our church neighborhood,
with boundary lines drawn around
all the smaller neighborhoods within the neighborhood?
We projected it on the screen at our church retreat last fall.
I wish I could just have it projected behind me now,
during my whole sermon,
as a visual demonstration about how we human beings
go about being neighbors.

The fact that we are sitting in a building right now,
that is located precisely at the intersection of four or five
distinctly different and definable sectors or neighborhoods
is not just an interesting coincidence.
It was entirely predictable, from the beginning.

When this building was built in the late 60s
it was in the middle of open pastureland.
Park Road out there ended just before it got to us.
There was no Park Road entrance to our parking lot out there,
because there was no Park Road out there.
That’s why our building is oriented toward College Ave.

Everything around here at one time was oriented toward College Ave—
between here and EMU, and just south of EMU.
College Avenue was like a Mennonite Main Street.

Nearly all our neighbors were connected,
in one way or another, with EMU and the Mennonite Community.
It was only as the neighborhood grew northward,
past this church building,
that people NOT like the EMU-connected Mennonites
began moving in.

Others, especially those with some financial resources,
found the western ridge up there, that runs north,
with views east and west,
a very attractive place to live, and so they settled on it.
It’s understandable.
Those lots and homes were developed
in the way almost all suburban neighborhoods are developed,
with lot-size and house-size parameters, and deed restrictions,
that ensure the only households who end up living there,
are households roughly similar
to the households already living there.

It works that way all along the socioeconomic spectrum.
We now have 8 and 10-unit lower-income apartment complexes,
clustered in a specific area
around Buttonwood, Burkwood, Birch, and Harmony Dr,
because the way that area is zoned and laid out,
makes it virtually impossible
to build a good-sized single-family home in the middle of it.
Further, we assume (and maybe rightly assume)
that persons who will rent these smaller
and more densely-built apartments,
would rather have neighbors
who are generally similar economically and socially.

This dynamic is not unique to this neighborhood.
Wherever you live, you can map out similar dynamics.

But let’s just name it—our own congregational story,
and where we sit today,
is all intertwined with this common human impulse,
to build community with people like us.
Left on our own, we are birds of a feather who flock together.
Neighboring is just easier that way.

So, on the one hand,
we could argue, and many have argued,
why should churches be any different than that?
We’re here on the north side of Park View.
And at the south end of Park View is another church
that meets in a former auto parts store.
98% of us would feel out of place in their church.
And they in ours.
They worship in a different language,
have a different culture,
have a different style of worship and music . . . and preaching,
have a different theology,
and have less wealth and social status than we do,
individually and collectively.

This reality is entirely predictable,
and actually, not all bad.
It’s important, for building a cohesive community or society,
to have a shared language,
shared culture,
shared understandings,
shared life experiences.
If these two congregations attempted to merge into one,
the members of both would be greatly challenged,
maybe to the point of giving up and walking away,
and hindering the mission of both groups.

But . . .
that is all due to the factors of human nature and sociology.
It is not due to Gospel factors.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ,
which we seek to proclaim every Sunday,
and which that other congregation seeks to proclaim
every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon,
is that in Christ,
dividing walls are abolished,
strangers are made into neighbors,
two groups are made into one,
and Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ
calls us all to transformation,
calls us all to a place that is beyond our borders and boundaries,
and invites us into a new community, where currently none exists.
_____________________

We heard Ephesians 2 read this morning,
a text saying, among other things, that Christ made
“both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall,
that is, the hostility between us.”
We have no idea how revolutionary and mind-blowing
that text is,
because we did not live in a world
where Christ-followers were trying to make one church
out of Jews and Gentiles.

This would be a little bit like trying to start a church
made up equally of whites and blacks
in the world of the 1950s Jim-Crow South.
Only about 10 times harder,
because in New Testament times,
for a Jewish-initiated movement
to invite Gentiles into community with them,
was not just breaking long-held social norms
and cultural expectations
and ethnic values—
it was breaking foundational, foundational,
theological and religious beliefs and practices
handed down since Moses.

But that’s what makes the Gospel the Gospel.
It does what we cannot do through human effort.
It is a work of a loving, reconciling God.
It is the end result of a power
that was let loose in the world at Pentecost,
the reconciling breath of the Holy Spirit,
that forms genuine community and helps it thrive,
in soil where it otherwise would wither and die.

This is a worship and sermon series on the church as community.
And I just want to make perfectly clear here at the outset,
that this will not be a moralistic worship series.
This will not be about shoulds and oughts.
This will not be about how we all need to try harder and do better,
and thus achieve the unachievable—a utopian community.

No, this is about recognizing, and receiving, with gratitude,
a gift of God handed to us by no merit of our own—
that is, the gift of community and oneness in Christ.

We will look at this gift of community from a variety of angles.
(You may want to reference the worship schedule
listed on your half-sheet bulletin insert.)
Today, we see how the gift can build bridges between people,
and people groups,
can make neighbors out of strangers,
both within the congregation,
and between the congregation and our neighbors
outside these walls.

In subsequent weeks,
we will see how the very existence of this God-created community,
is a public witness to the reign of God in the world;
we will note how the community spans the globe,
with a message of hope for all people groups everywhere;
we will reflect on the role of the community
in giving shape and definition to the moral life;
we will think about the metaphor of church as family,
and what that means for all of us,
in our various family configurations;
we will celebrate the beauty of combining our voices into one,
as a singing community;
and we will welcome and celebrate
those entering into a covenant relationship with us
as new members in this particular community.

But at no time in this series, I pray,
will any of us get the impression
that this sacred gift of community is something we can create
through human effort alone.
Yes, yes. It involves work on our part.
Tremendous work and effort.
But without the wall-crushing work that has already been done
by God in Christ through the Spirit,
our efforts would surely fall short.

Listen again to these words in the letter to the church at Ephesus:
“For Christ is our peace; in Christ’s flesh he has made
both groups into one
and has broken down the dividing wall . . .
that Christ might create in himself
one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,
and might reconcile both groups to God
in one body through the cross,
thus putting to death that hostility through it . . .
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,
but you are citizens with the saints
and also members of the household of God.”

God in Christ did that.
Made neighbors from strangers.
The apostle was only trying to help the Ephesian Christians
to notice it, and embrace it.

Even German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
famous for his small book, Life Together,
said community driven by human ambition is a lost cause.
And here I quote,
“Every human wish dream that is
injected into the Christian community is a hindrance
to genuine community and must be banished
if genuine community is to survive.”

Community is the gift of a saving and reconciling God.
Our work is to open ourselves to the work already done.
To live into the new reality already conceived and created
by our reconciling God.
And that is enough work for us, for a lifetime.

And, you know, in these times in which we live,
this work is world-changing work.
If we accept the reality that God makes strangers into neighbors,
and find creative ways to live into that reality,
it will stand out, it will be noticed.
It will be precisely like the salt of the earth,
and light of the world,
and city on a hill,
that Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount,
in today’s Gospel reading.

We live in a season
where blind loyalty to parties and tribes is all-important,
where the strange other is always the enemy,
and winning means proving ourselves stronger than the other.
So it will be noticed—maybe not always appreciated, but noticed—
when people choose not to defeat the unknown stranger,
but welcome them into community.

There is a reason why churches—
despite the bad reputation many of them have, deservedly so—
there’s a reason churches are still at the forefront
of some of the most courageous and game-changing initiatives
of welcoming the stranger and alien,
offering them sanctuary,
calling them sister or brother,
much to the consternation of the powers that be.
It’s because the church recognizes and receives the gift of God,
the gift of a community of opposites,
of misfits,
and of strangers.

I invite us, at Park View Mennonite,
to be counted among those churches
that are a thorn in the side of the powers.
Not just because we talk tough or protest loudly
(although verbal protest is often needed).
But the greatest threat to the powers—
the greatest challenge to the status quo in our culture—
is to actually live like the church,
to live as if Christ has abolished the dividing wall,
and made peace with the stranger—
because he did—
to live as if this beloved community already exists—
because it does.
Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, January 12, 2020

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Sunday, January 5, 2020

Moriah Hurst: Same, Same but relevant

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Matthew 2:1-12


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Same, Same but relevant
 
One of the things I love about this sanctuary is the light. Natural light that comes in from many sides. From my years of being in theater I know that the stage lights shining on you can be blinding. It is often hard to make out the faces of audience members sitting in the dark, which can be nice so they aren’t distracting. 


As we walk kids home from Kids Club we hand out flashlights so that as they walk through the neighborhood they can see and be seen by others. Bonnie Stutzman often brings her huge flashlight strapped over her shoulder, helping both to illuminate the path and keeping her little flock safe walking on our dark streets.


Kids shining their flashlights in your eyes can be blinding but many lights are more helpful. Think of that moment between the darkness of night and the sun cresting the horizon sending its rays across the land. It is easier to walk in the light then in the darkness.


And honestly I’m very aware of the heaviness of darkness right now. As leaders speak of war, as Australia burns and people are traumatized, as people still approach our boarder only to be dehumanized, as a new year starts and already we hear of stabbings and violence, buildings collapsing in Cambodia, and floods in Indonesia. I feel the heaviness.


This is the transition Sunday from Advent and our time of waiting to Epiphany and a season of light. Epiphany’s literal meaning is “to manifest, show forth, or clarify. We celebrate that the Messiah has come, and we now find ourselves in the season of illumination.” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/epiphany-sunday/epiphany-sunday-year-a-lectionary-planning-notes/epiphany-sunday-year-a-preaching-notes)
The star rides above us showing us the way.


            These texts are old and these story well worn and familiar. We have built up layers of meaning to try and explain a situation that we only have snapshots of. Yet hearing the texts for today it is hard not to draw parallels with our lives and particularly our political leaders now. In this way it feels like we can look at these texts and think it’s the same same but still very relevant.
In this time of year when people are looking back on the year that has been and looking ahead to the year to come, we also look back. Back on the year that was for our church and back to the texts and the prophets that weave their way through our stories. We reflect here at the start of a new decade.


I want us to think about three kings and some wise men. One king who is silent but he is the main point of it all. One king who is prayed for to be the ideal king. And one king who is filled with fear and murderous jealousy. And in this story there are wise men – some who are outsiders, gentiles traveling from afar, crossing borders, following a star and searching out the new king. And wise men who have been waiting for this baby king and yet don’t jump to worship this child that was foretold.


King number one. Jesus. Jesus has been our theme for weeks. Hearing of his coming. Telling the stories of his birth. Sharing the joy and the longing for what he will bring. Jesus, born king of the Jews, who is silent here yet causes such a storm.


The next two kings are set in contrast to each other as the lectionary can do so well at times.


Psalms 72 is a prayer of intercession for the king and a calling out of what a king should be. The job of the king was to administer justice, conduct warfare, and oversee the provision of well-being for the people and kingdom.


“Justice and righteousness became the first and organizing responsibility of the king upon which all else depended” this was the royal vocation (Interpretation: Psalms, Mays p.237). For the prophets of that time, justice and righteousness were the primary criteria for the use of power in their society.


This psalm prayer is all about protecting the needy, the weak and the poor. Their blood is precious in the sight of the king.


And then there is King number three: Herod. Herod responds with fear to this news that the wise men bring. So much fear that all the people are frightened with him. Herod consults his wise men but then responds with plotting, keeping secrets and killing innocents to protect himself. Last week as we read the Matthew passage about Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing to Egypt and we stopped reading before Herod starts massacring children when he realizes he has been tricked by the wise men. This story of Jesus’ birth with all of its warm fuzzies has a darker side that we like to overlook and avoid.


The wise men show up at the start of the story, full of hope in following the star and they go to the leader of the land to ask directions. We know this to be a foolish move but it seemed to make sense to them. Wouldn’t the leader of the land want to welcome and honor so great a child entering their land?
One commentator writes: “The wise men are compared and contrasted with the chief priests and scribes that Herod calls together. The wise men are traveling, seeking something they know nothing about. The scribes and priests have knowledge, but they aren’t seeking. They don’t move from their comfortable seats of wisdom and leadership, even when presented with the news that fits the knowledge they claim to prize. Knowing and seeking aren’t necessarily the same thing.”(https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/epiphany-sunday/epiphany-sunday-year-a-lectionary-planning-notes/epiphany-sunday-year-a-preaching-notes)


Which of these kings will we follow? What does each one of these characters invite us to reflect on in our own lives?


Can this light of epiphany help us to see the other, ourselves and the world differently? Isaiah invites us to lift up our eyes and look around.


How in the last year have we been people of justice and righteousness? Have we called that out in our leaders and have we prayed for them that they would deliver the needy, have pity on the weak, and redeem the oppressed from violence. Have we made the same mistake as the wise men, thinking that those in power would know the way ahead and by trusting in them, have we endangered the vulnerable?


We may need to hear our directions from our hopes and dreams, from a silent infant who we know deserves our worship. How do we go a different way instead of treading the well-worn paths we know, just because they are that, well worn and comfortable.


Will we follow the king who is filled with fear and murderous jealousy when someone breach’s his borders and threatens his power? Or like the scribes and chief priests will we sit contented with looking at the texts and prophesies of old and miss the new thing that God is doing right in front of our eyes?
Or will we be like the wise men who upset the balance of power? Even when we find ourselves as outsiders can we like those wise men encounter Jesus, “joyfully share our gifts, and be inspired toward civil disobedience against a fearful regime that takes its thirst for power out on children in its own land?” (Alissa Bender)


The wise men “didn’t travel from wherever they traveled just to give the baby some gifts. No, theirs was a journey to worship, to fall on their faces to worship the one who was a light to all the world. Remember, they were outsiders; they were the ones who saw. The insiders, the ones who knew, never bothered to look.” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship-planning/epiphany-sunday/epiphany-sunday-year-a-lectionary-planning-notes/epiphany-sunday-year-a-preaching-notes)

“Epiphany pushes us beyond the boundaries of religion, race, and revelation. Non-Christians as well as Christians encounter God.” 

(https://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2018/12/the-adventurous-lectionary-the-feast-of-epiphany-january-6-2019/)
 

In all of these texts they are working towards praise, overwhelmed with joy and worshiping the Lord.

Maybe like those Isaiah was writing to, you may feel like there is a thick darkness.  What does it mean for our light to shine – light as bright as the dawn. We are called to lift up our eyes, arise and shine. Let peace be your overseer and righteousness your taskmaster. Are we eagerly looking for signs that the divine promise that was proclaimed has begun to unfold? Or are we caught up in knowing that this will not be a smooth path.


The light of epiphany is not only a shining light but maybe a burden lifted so that we feel lighter. God’s “light breaking forth in the darkness as an image portraying God’s saving entry into the brokenness of human bondage and suffering” (Interpretation: Isaiah 40-66, Hanson)


I see glimpses of this light in our neighborhood as one immigrant single mother opens her home over and over to other families who arrive in this community and cannot find a place to live. Her hospitality puts my Mennonite sensibilities to shame. Or families in Australia who put signs on their houses saying “if you are fleeing from the fires feel free to camp in our yard, there is water around the back and come in and share our food.”


God will renew our languishing spirits – look! A table of sustenance for that journey is spread before us. We are invited to take in this light and be sustained for the path ahead.


Are we blinded by this light or is it showing us a way forward. Will we raise up our heads with hope to see the new thing that God is doing? 


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Sunday, December 22, 2019

Phil Kniss: Putting fear (and love) back into Christmas

Advent 4: Worth the wait
Psalm 80; Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25



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As we get close to Christmas,
it’s time for a little counter-cultural protest.
And no, I’m not going to say, put Christ back into Christmas.

I’m really glad this sanctuary does not have
little red “heresy alert” buttons installed in the pews.
Because you’d all reach for them right now.
Brace yourself.

If we’re talking about our cultural celebrations of Christmas,
I say, let’s keep Christ out of it.
I think Jesus Christ,
and our typical cultural Christmas traditions are both better off
when they keep their distance from each other.

Yes, we all like to say, and it’s true:
“Jesus is the reason for the season.”
But hear me out.
Don’t push the red button . . . yet.

Christ, on the one hand,
and our cultural Christmas holiday celebrations on the other,
are both inherently good, in and of themselves.
But they both get compromised,
and lose their punch,
when they get all mixed up with each other.

And for the moment,
let’s put the whole over-commercialization of Christmas
on the sidelines.
That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Let’s not make Christmas consumerism the bad guy.
Consumerism is with us 365 days a year
in every aspect of our culture, including in the church.
It is the water we all swim in.

Even if we could take consumerism out of Christmas,
it wouldn’t go away.
That’s like attacking a tall thistle growing in our yard,
by wacking off the top two inches.
Yeah, that’ll get it!

All cultural celebrations have been commercialized.
Easter, Mothers Day, July 4, Back-to-School,
Halloween, Thanksgiving, you name it.
Even birthdays and weddings!
Whole industries depend on us buying our way into happiness,
all year long.
Christmas isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom.
So . . . end of commentary on Christmas and consumerism.

Here’s my real point.
I actually like our secular cultural celebration of Christmas.
I like it a lot.
I participate in it. Happily. And without guilt.
The carols, the cheesy movies, the over-the-top decorations,
the food, the gift-giving.
Our secular Christmas produces a lot of good, positive,
emotionally-rich social capital.
Think of all the joy and beauty and wonder and whimsy and
goodwill and generosity
that get pumped into our communities at this time of year.

Nobody can attend Harrisonburg’s downtown Christmas parade,
and go away feeling pessimistic about this community.
It’s just a positive and uplifting community festival.
Our cultural Christmas is a gift and opportunity
we should all celebrate without hesitation.
“Santa Claus is coming to town!”—and we should welcome him.
There. I said it.
Push the red button.

Christians who get on a moral high horse—and I used to be one—
who object because Santa Claus is more visible than Baby Jesus
are missing something important.
Their objection is well-intended, even noble, but misguided.
Secular celebrations are good for society,
there’s no reason for us to go all Scrooge about it
for religious reasons.

I saw an article in the food section
of the Washington Post on Wednesday.
It was written by an American Jew who grew up in the Soviet Union,
and she said Christmas was her favorite holiday of the year,
even beating out Hanukkah.
Because Christmas had better food.
She mentioned that the old Soviet New Year
was basically Christmas without the religion.
She grew up with a New Years Tree,
and traditional foods and festivities,
and Grandpa Frost who went around
giving gifts to all the children.
And we have variations on that theme all over the world.
More power to them all, I say.

Two unfortunate things happen
when we force baby Jesus onto
what has become a largely secular cultural celebration.

First,
we exclude those of other religions
who are a valued part of our culture.
They start to feel this time of year is not for them.
But everyone benefits when the whole culture
celebrates joy and peace and goodwill.
We sideline religious minorities the whole rest of the year.
Why add insult to injury and
exclude them from this celebration, too?

The second reason I don’t like to impose Jesus
on what is a mostly secular holiday,
is that the only kind of Jesus the public is willing to accept—
many Christians included—
is a white-washed, sanitized, sweet and sentimental Jesus,
one that bears no resemblance to the biblical one.

So why should we committed Christians
feel like we’ve achieved some moral victory
by “putting Christ back into Christmas”
if—when it’s all said and done—
the plastic Jesus that we’ve put there
is not actually worthy of our worship?

May I say that again?
Why do we think it’s a victory for Christianity
to put Christ back into Christmas,
if after we’ve successfully done it,
the hollowed-out version of Jesus that’s there,
is not a Jesus we would lay down our lives for in worship?

So here’s what I propose instead:
Let our culture and other cultures have their Christmas,
with all the secular trappings—
the Santa Claus bits and the sentimental plastic Jesus bits.
Let’s be thankful for any generosity and goodwill,
no matter where it shows up, and why,
and let’s join in with it, not boycott it.
_____________________

But . . . and here’s the kicker . . .
let us Christians also dive deeper into our biblical story,
and let’s own that story, every beautiful and earth-shaking part of it,
Let’s shape our Christian worship and Christian formation
around this vitally important and theologically essential
season of the Advent fast
that leads to the feast of God’s Incarnation,
that we call Christmas, the “Christ Mass.”

In the world all around us I don’t mind hearing Christmas carols—
even the ones about Rudolph and Santa Claus—
even if they start before Thanksgiving.
It’s good music (well . . . mostly).
And it’s good to make music and make merry,
as long as we want, starting as early as we want.
Let’s not hold that against anyone!

But . . . here, where the church gathers in worship,
as a Christian community wanting to be formed in the way of Jesus,
this is a different sort of space.
We operate on a different calendar.
We have a different purpose in mind.
Worship is serious business.
We are here to worship the God of heaven and earth
who is bringing righteous judgment to the earth,
and who will bring the false rulers and powers to their knees.
Are we up for that?

And no, I’m not saying we hide out here in a private sanctuary.
Worship can and should be public,
we worship before a watching world.
But, while we gather here,
we are clearly and unapologetically a Christian community
shaped by Jesus, and shaped by the cross of Christ.

So here we will sing and tell stories in a different frame of mind.
The reason we sing Advent and Christmas carols here
is not because they remind us of good old days
sitting by the fireplace at Grandma’s house.
This is not an exercise in sentimentalism.
This is about the earth-shaking and fear-inducing
Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And sometimes the Gospel is hard to understand,
and hard to accept.

This is especially true on the fourth Sunday of Advent,
where we light the candle with a prayer for love to show up.
In our calendar, we are still in the fast.
The feast is three days away.
We are still waiting.
Still asking questions of God and each other.
Still wondering, “What are you waiting for?”

And today we have a story of love showing up
in a person and form outside of our control . . .
it’s a story of “Emmanuel,” God with us.
That name, Emmanuel, was given to a child awaiting birth,
in two of our scripture readings today,
in stories set in the same region, same ethnic group,
but 700 years apart.

First, in Isaiah 7,
as a sign to King Ahaz of Judah,
to his people besieged and oppressed by the Syrians.
Then in Matthew 1,
as a sign to Joseph and his people
besieged and oppressed by the Roman Empire.

Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is different than Luke.
Whereas Luke gives us lots of picturesque details,
about shepherds and stables and heavenly choirs and such,
Matthew is spare with words.
It mentions almost in passing that Mary bore a son,
and he was named Jesus.
But Matthew uses lots of ink in the verses leading up to that,
to tell us of Joseph’s fearsome dilemma.

Without going into details of first-century Jewish laws
about engagement and marriage,
suffice it to say, the news that Mary was having a baby was,
for Joseph, a moral crisis of huge proportions.
It put Joseph’s reputation at risk,
but even worse, it would cause Mary—
a vulnerable teenage woman—
to suffer an even worse fate:
public disgrace and (probably) a lifetime of poverty.
So Joseph decided to do the honorable thing,
really, a courageous thing,
since Joseph believed Mary was being unfaithful.
He planned not to shame her, but break the engagement quietly.
But an angel appears in a dream to Joseph,
and says, “Don’t be afraid.
Take Mary as your wife.
She was conceived of the Holy Spirit.”
So Joseph takes an even greater risk,
steps into the great unknown,
and completes the marriage arrangements as directed.

This is the hard and costly road of faithfulness
that Jesus would later teach his disciples about.
But here it was being modeled by his earthly father-to-be.
Joseph was willing to act,
without his questions being answered.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes,
a United Methodist pastor and poet and blogger in Massachusetts,
just posted a poem he wrote about Joseph a few days ago.
Thanks to Ken Nafziger for pointing me toward it.
Here is the poem, titled, simply, “Joseph.”

Listen to it not only as a word to Joseph.
Listen to it as words to us who are also asked to take leaps of faith
in times of darkness and dread and uncertainty.

The question is not whether you love her.
The question is whether you will marry her.

You have been given only glorious ambiguity,
darkness marbled with starlight,
possibility breathed in silence.
You seek assurance; none is given.

Your life will not be as you wish it.
Those you love will let you down.
This world is full of flaws and disappointment.
It is also full of the Mysterious One.

Give yourself without knowing.
Betrothed, beloved, to uncertainty,
pledge your loyalty to this one you cannot know.
Do not pray to understand:
pray to be present, to be faithful, to be loving
when you cannot know what will come of it.

Do not be afraid to take this life and marry it.

Maybe that, sisters and brothers, should be our new mantra.
“Do not be afraid to take this life and marry it.”

Daily, we are asked to walk forward in life—forward—into ambiguity,
as followers of Jesus:
in our life of faith,
in our families,
in our close relationships,
in our public lives,
in our professional lives,
in our political lives as members of a divided society.
Jesus directed his disciples, and directs us,
take up your cross and follow me,
into the darkness, into uncertainty, into ambiguity.

It’s just as ambiguous as the sign given King Ahaz in Isaiah 7,
and given to Joseph and his people 700 years later in Judea.
The sign of hope is a woman with child,
a vulnerable child yet to be born named “Immanuel.”
Ambiguous, yes. But still reason to hope.
God is with us in this life.
This life.

Let me repeat the last lines of the poem . . .
Give yourself without knowing.
Betrothed, beloved, to uncertainty,
pledge your loyalty to this one you cannot know.
Do not pray to understand:
pray to be present, to be faithful, to be loving
when you cannot know what will come of it.
Do not be afraid to take this life and marry it.

I am so thankful for our hymn writers over the centuries,
who were not distracted by the plastic Jesus,
but immersed themselves
in the earth-shaking and fear-inducing Gospel story,
and wrote about it in profound poetry.
These are the songs that either
never show up on pop radio stations and shopping malls,
or they do without anyone, ever,
thinking about what the songs are saying.

I’m glad we have a place like this
that is not satisfied with sentimentalism.
A place to join our voices, and our minds,
and sing this faith that not only challenges our own complacency,
but that truly threatens
the power of politicians in Washington,
and the power of Wall Street,
and every other false and temporary power our culture bows to.

Read the words sometime of
“It came upon a midnight clear” or
“Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light” or
“My soul proclaims with wonder” that we opened with today.
Or the two we’re about to sing.
Where is our hope?
Where is the source of our peace?
What brings us joy?
Where will love show up?

In a helpless and hungry child who in Mary’s lap is sleeping.
Let’s sing, as Ken directs us.

—Phil Kniss, December 22, 2019

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