Sunday, September 25, 2016

Phil Kniss: Jesus, you are...

Questions of Jesus
Mark 8:27-38

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This is the third of three Sundays we have reflected on
    the Questions Jesus asked.
    And he asked a lot.
    Last weekend at Retreat, on Saturday morning,
        Jane Peifer put Jesus’ questions on the screen—
            actually screen after screen after screen—
            a good portion of the 307 questions Jesus asked.
        It was remarkable to see them grouped together like that.

    One big impression from that list . . .
    Jesus cared a lot about what people thought of him.
        Oh, not in any insecure, ego-driven kind of way.
        He wasn’t worried about what people thought.
        He wanted to know what they believed about him as a person.
        He pushed people to declare where they stood.
            Whether they were with him, or not.
        His questions were the kind
            that provoked people to think deeper, to think again,
            and maybe—just maybe—come out and say,
                what they already knew in their gut was true,
                but were afraid to say out loud.
        Questions like, “Why do you call me good?”
            and, “Why are you asking me?”
            were another way of saying,
            “You could be asking a hundred different rabbis.
                What do you believe about me,
                    that you come to me with your question?”

    This thing of asking others about himself, happened over and over.
    None was more poignant,
        then when he directed it at his own disciples—
        the 12-plus who had followed him day after day.
        They witnessed his deeds, his acts of power.
        They heard his teachings.
        They saw him spar with the authorities.

    So one day, Jesus turned to them . . .
        And first, asked an easy, harmless question.
            “Who do people say that I am?”
                Tell me what you’ve been hearing.
        And the disciples were right on it.
        They knew this one.
        Like popcorn, the answers came back.
            “Some say John the Baptist.”
            “Oh, and some say Elijah.”
            “And others, they say one of the prophets.”

    Jesus probably nodded, paused, said, “hmm” . . . and then,
        “But what about you?  Who do you say I am?”

    Now the next thing in the text, is Peter’s ready answer.
    But I don’t think it came immediately.
    These crisply-written Gospel stories leave out a lot of detail,
        leave a lot for the imagination to fill in.
        I imagine . . . there was silence for a while.
        I think all the disciples knew the weightiness of that question,
            and their answer.

    Jesus had reeled them in like a master fisherman.
        They were on the hook.
        They had taken the easy bait—what do others say?
        Now, they were facing a moment of truth with their rabbi:
            What do you say?
                Are you following me, because I intrigue you as a rabbi?
                Are you following me, because of the miracles?
                Are you following me, because you have nothing
                    better to do with your life right now?
            Who do you say that I am?

They knew what answer Jesus was fishing for.
They were all thinking it . . . what Peter was about to say.
    But they hadn’t yet dared to put it to words.
    Because they knew what it meant,
        if Jesus really were the Messiah.
    At least, they knew what they thought it meant.
        It meant they were following the person
            who would soon confront the awful power of the Empire,
                and all its economic, political, and military structures.
        And they would be Jesus’ front line—his defense and offense.

So I imagine, as Jesus’ question hung in the silent air,
    they looked at each other,
    they looked at their feet,
    and then . . . they all looked at Peter.
        If anyone would have the nerve, it would be Peter.

And Peter gave the 4-word answer
    they were anticipating, and dreading: “You are the Messiah.”

And Jesus’ response only added to their dread, I imagine.
    He said, “Don’t tell anyone else . . . Yet.”

And then, as the story goes, he started teaching them
    about the necessity for his suffering and death,
    but that after three days he would rise.
    And they didn’t get it—even Peter.
    He took Jesus aside and tried to straighten out Jesus’ thinking
        about what the job of Messiah entailed.

The story moves on, with more interactions and confrontations.
    But in the Gospel of Mark,
        that one piercing question of Jesus, and Peter’s response,
        form a kind of pivot point,
            connecting everything before it,
            with everything after it.

And I want to suggest this morning,
    that Jesus is still asking that question
    of those who claim to follow him.
And that’s us.
    And our answer to that question
        is just as weighty, and just as risky,
        and just as life-transforming.

How would I answer that question?
    If Jesus stood before me, looked at me face-to-face,
        and asked, “Who do you say that I am?” how would I answer?

    Yes, I make the claim, without hesitation,
        that I am a follower of Jesus.
        It sounds so good, so right, and reasonably safe,
            to say I am a follower of Jesus.
        But if I’m following . . . why?
        What do I believe about Jesus,
            that I would be willing to pattern my life after him?
            that I would be willing, even, to worship him?
            that I would call him Lord over my life,
            that I would confess my complete allegiance to his cause,
                and to his reign on the earth and in heaven?

    And how would I answer
        if Jesus asked me that question directly?
            “Who do you say that I am?”

Let me get a bit personal.
    I’ve thought a lot about this question.

Eight years ago I was invited,
    along with 24 other Mennonite pastors
        and biblical scholars and church leaders,
    to prepare an 8,000-word essay essentially answering that question,
        and gather at a weekend conference at Laurelville,
        sharing these 10-12 page papers with each other.
    It was a powerful and memorable weekend.

The paper has been in my files ever since.
    And I thought about it again,
        as I pondered this question of Jesus in Mark 8.
    I won’t share it all in this sermon,
        or we’ll be here into the Sunday School hour.
    I’ll certainly share the paper with whoever wants to read it,
        but let me lift out a few highlights.

When I thought about who Jesus was to me,
    I thought about it through the lens of “need.”

And I also thought about Ricky Skaggs.
Earlier that summer,
    Irene and I heard Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
        at the Music Festival at Orkney Springs.
    I remember clearly, these undisputed masters of bluegrass,
        on stage burning up the strings on mandolin, fiddle, and guitar—
        playing and singing their hearts out on all the classics.

Once, just before breaking into a bluegrass gospel song,
    Ricky Skaggs talked to us for a couple minutes about Jesus.
    “I don’t know what I would do without Jesus,” he said.
        “He changed my life. I love him and I need him.
            If you don’t know Jesus,
                I sure hope you’ll come to know him soon.
                ’Cause he wants to know you.”
    Now this was a secular crowd.
        Not hoity-toity, but sort of edging that way.
        People come from all over, especially northern Virginia,
            and spread blankets on the lawn with wine and cheese.
        They came here to listen to a musical genius,
            not an evangelical message.

    I admit I squirmed a bit, as he went on about Jesus.
    But Ricky is as lovable as a teddy-bear.
        His pure joy and southern charm put everyone at ease.
        His mini-sermon was as natural and comfortable
            as someone bragging on their favorite brand of blue jeans.
        He said, essentially, “I need Jesus in my life.
            I hope you can find as much joy in him as I have.”
        Unexpected, yes. But authentic. It even drew some “amens.”
            I came away impressed with his candor,
                about his own inadequacy, and need.

And that’s what led me to write about Jesus in terms of need.
    My life journey with Jesus could be charted,
        in terms of need.
    My experience of need has shifted, at different life stages,
        and as a result, my understanding of Jesus has shifted.
        But my bottom-line conclusion remains:
            to be Christian is to need Jesus.

I came up with four statements of need,
    in my own developing journey with Jesus.

First, I need Jesus. I, Phil Kniss, need Jesus.
    When I was about 9 or 10, a pocket New Testament was my prize
        for memorizing verses in Vacation Bible School one summer.
    I recall one picture inside the front cover—
        the good shepherd Jesus cradled a lamb in his arms
            and held a steadfast gaze outward—
            scanning the horizon for any danger that might lurk.
        That image is still etched in my mind and heart.
            It powerfully represented the Jesus I needed as a child.
            I was that lamb—small and vulnerable.
            I needed a strong, tender shepherd!
        Yes, I had a loving and supportive family,
            but for many and various reasons,
            I felt, as adolescents often do,
                pretty weak, flawed, alone, and of questionable worth.
            Felt pretty good to have a personal shepherd in Jesus.
    So, I said then . . . and I still say . . . I need Jesus.

Second, I later came to understand that it wasn’t just me, individually,
    and others, individually, who needed Jesus.
    The world needs Jesus.
    Coming from a family of missionaries,
        having heard countless and colorful stories
            of spiritual heroism, faith, and sacrifice—
        I have always known that the world needs Jesus.
    The nature of that need became more nuanced,
        over the years, as I grew in my understanding
            of the world’s diverse beauty
                and the complexity of its need,
                and of the many ways people address spiritual need.
    I came to realize some Christian missionaries
        tended toward cultural imperialism and religious domination.
    Sometimes Jesus’ representatives
        misrepresented the generous and compassionate spirit of Jesus.
    But I have never let go of the conviction that,
        despite the complexity and nuance that faith requires,
        this broken world needs a Savior and Redeemer.
        And there is one, in Jesus.

Third, I came to understand that the church, as church, needs Jesus.
    As an Anabaptist-Mennonite I am deeply committed to the church
        as the essential communal expression of the body of Christ.
        So if the church is the body of Christ, with Christ as head,
            it’s not even a question whether the church needs Jesus.
        Of course it does.
        Salvation is more than an individual transaction
            between a person and his or her Savior.
        The saving work of Jesus, by definition,
            is to form Christian community.

    Yes, we get it wrong. A lot.
        But this church, universal,
            is the body of Christ called to represent
            the healing and grace-filled presence of Jesus in the world.
        So clearly, we need Jesus at the center of it all.

And the fourth statement of need, is like the third, only reversed.
    Jesus needs the church.

    This conviction about Jesus has taken root in me more recently.
        I think I have a deeper, richer, and more nuanced understanding
            of the relationship between Jesus and the church.
        “Need” runs both directions.
        If we stop at “the church needs Jesus,”
            we imply that God’s ultimate mission is to save the church
                and rescue it from the evil world.
        God’s activity does not revolve around the church
            and its agenda, its purity, its institutional interests.
            God’s purposes are cosmic.
        God’s mission is to see the whole world—
            all nations, all peoples, and all creation—
                saved, redeemed, restored, and reconciled.
        In God’s saving mission, the church is not the end.
            It is an agent.

    In God’s mysterious wisdom,
        God chose a particular people to point the nations toward God.
            And in so doing, God has chosen to have a need.
            God has chosen vulnerability.
                This is real need, not rhetorical.
                It’s a need God himself literally cannot fulfill.
                    At least, not without violating his own nature,
                        making himself less than God.

        God is love.
            Listen to that: God is love!
        God’s love and longing for connection with creation,
            especially God’s human creation,
            has required God to preserve human freedom, at all costs.
        There cannot be genuine love without genuine freedom.
            God “gave up,” literally,
                God’s own right to force allegiance to the Kingdom.
        So God has selected a people
            to winsomely demonstrate to the world
            what the reign and rule of God looks like, lived out.
        We are that people.
            Imperfect as we are, God needs us as willing partners.

        God, through Jesus Christ, the living Lord,
            needs us to complete God’s saving work.
        Jesus needs the church to be the church.
        We are the human agents of God’s salvation,
            not by violent coercion,
                nor by indoctrination,
                nor even moral pressure,
            but by being a visible, tangible, communal representation
                of what life under God’s rule looks like.
    And that makes a world of difference. I assure you.

So, my honest confession of faith today,
    is that I need Jesus, the world needs Jesus, the church needs Jesus,
        and Jesus needs the church.

At the end of our conference at Laurelville 8 years ago, we were told,
    go to a quiet corner and write, not 8,000 words, but 100 words.
    Imagine Jesus in front of us, asking,
        “And who do you say that I am?”
        Write it in second-person, like Peter did, and tell Jesus,
            “You are . . .”
    So we all did that, and shared our answers with each other.
    Here is my 100-word answer to Jesus that I gave then,
        and still would today.

    Jesus, you are the one I need to save me from a life that is less than the one for which I was created. You are the one the church needs to save it from narrow self-absorption and from failure to join in God’s mission in the world. You are the one the world needs to find true shalom. You are our only Lord, our only Savior, our only way to wholeness of life. Yet, astonishingly, you also need us to carry out your great mission of saving, healing, reconciling, and restoring all things to yourself. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Now . . . I give that assignment to you.
    I don’t expect your answer to be the same as mine.
        My answer is a reflection of my journey,
            and your journey is different than mine.
    And I am not asking you to do it now, on the spot.
    Think about it.
        There is a slip of paper in your bulletin.
        I invite you to take this slip of paper,
            and before the week is out,
            write 100 words on it, more or less,
            answering this question Jesus is still asking,
                “Who do you say that I am?”

    And once you have done it,
        before another couple weeks are out,
        sit down with somebody, or some group,
            and share your answer.
        And talk about what difference you think it makes.
            Because what we truly believe about Jesus
                and what we say about Jesus,
                has everything to do with how we prioritize our lives,
                and how we interact with the church and the world.

My prayer is, that no matter how we say it, Jesus will be our center.
    Let’s sing together STS #31.

—Phil Kniss, September 25, 2016

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Jane Hoober Peifer: A rich man’s question

The Questions of Jesus...
Mark 10:17-31

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Jane Hoober Peifer, guest preacher for the morning, and resource person for our weekend church retreat at Camp Brethren Woods, preached from Mark 10:17-31, the story of the rich man who came to Jesus sincerely wanting to know what he needed to do to enter the Kingdom of God. He did not receive the answer he was hoping for. Jane challenged us to open ourselves to Jesus' questions, which often challenge our assumptions about the way things are.

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Phil Kniss: Two sides of one coin

Questions Jesus asked...
Matthew 5:46-47, 7:3-5

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So today, and next weekend at retreat, and the next Sunday,
    we are pondering the questions Jesus asked.

I think chances are good (at least if we’re paying attention)
    that we will react to these questions
        in much the same way
            that Jesus’ disciples and adversaries
            reacted to the questions when he first asked them.

Jesus was a master at asking questions.
    Most of the time,
        his questions were not meant to gather information.
        They were meant to provoke,
            in the good sense of the word.
        Yes, sometimes they got people mad,
            but provoking people to anger wasn’t the point.
        Jesus meant to provoke in the real sense of the word,
            he meant to “call forth,” to “elicit” something.

    Most of the people Jesus lived around and interacted with,
        were living a life based on mistaken assumptions.
    They were mistaken about who they were,
        who their allies and adversaries were,
        who God was.
        And most importantly,
            they were mistaken about Jesus,
            and the nature of his kingdom.

    So Jesus asked questions that got them to thinking.
    He didn’t often come right out and point fingers at their error.
        He asked them questions
            that helped them identify the error themselves.
        It didn’t always work,
            that is, they didn’t always immediately see their error.
        Sometimes, they dug in deeper.
            And they took offense.
            And in the end, Jesus paid for it with his life.

So we can’t go into this topic thinking we’re going to get off easy.
    That’s just not the nature of the questions Jesus asked.
    Yes, his questions were aimed at a particular audience
        in first-century Palestine.
    But I think we’ll discover they do just as good
        at confronting our reality today.

This morning we look at two clusters of questions
    in the Sermon on the Mount.
    One set of questions occurs in chapter 5 of Matthew,
        the other in chapter 7.
    They are different questions,
        but as I see it, they are speaking to the same dynamic.
    These questions reside on two different sides of the same coin.
    They confront our preferred way of relating to others.

Here are the questions on Side 1—
    Matthew 5:46-47.
        “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?
            Are not even the tax collectors doing that?
            And if you greet only your own people,
                what are you doing more than others?
                Do not even pagans do that?”

In four back-to-back questions,
    Jesus confronts one of our virtues head-on.
        The virtue of reciprocal affection.
    Maybe we don’t name it a virtue, exactly,
        but we live by this rule, and we call it a good way to live.
        We build relationships with those who are like us.
        We show love to those most capable of returning our love,
            and making it reciprocal.

    So Jesus asks his disciples to explain to him,
        how it is virtuous to love those most likely to love you back.
        He’s asking them to take one of their assumptions,
            and rethink it.

    He only asked the questions.
    He doesn’t even need to say out loud
        what he’s implying by the very questions.
    With his disciples at his feet, gathered on the mountain,
        Jesus gives them this message, without having to say the words,
        “You think you are doing a virtuous thing,
            showing kindness to your next-door neighbor—
                you know, the one who shares your culture,
                    your social status,
                    your religious doctrine,
                    even some of your bloodline.
            Well, if that’s virtue,
                then go congratulate every tax collector and pagan!
                Turns out they are just as virtuous as you are.”

    The answers to Jesus’ questions are obvious.
        Showing love to those who are sure to return it,
            is only default human nature.
            It’s not wrong!
            But neither is it virtuous.
            It’s what human beings naturally do.

These questions of Jesus reinforced some of the stories he told.
    Once Jesus was in conversation with an expert in religious law.
    Jesus said, “You’re exactly right when you said the heart of the law
        is to love God, and love your neighbor.
        So you want to know who your neighbor is?
            Let me tell you a story.”
    And he proceeded to tell about a despised Samaritan,
        who helped a man beat up by the side of a road,
        while respectable people passed him by.

    At the end of the short story, he asked a question.
        Not a single accusatory word.
        No confrontational tone.
        No statement or declaration.
        A question.
            Jesus let the leader come to his own conclusion.
        Jesus asked, “So who was the neighbor here?
            Who did you say you are supposed to love?”
        The leader could not bring himself to say “the Samaritan.”
        All he could say was, “the one who showed mercy.”
            That’s all he had to say.
            And it’s all Jesus had to say, except, “Go and live like that.”

There is in all of us a strong, natural, human desire
    to strengthen our identity and build our self-esteem,
    by forming around us all kinds of reciprocal relationships.
    Befriending those who will befriend us.
    Sharing things on social media that are mostly likely to be liked.
    Finding our neighborhood,
        selecting our friendship circle,
        and choosing our church,
            based on similarity, compatibility.
        That’s not wrong, per se.
        But neither is it virtuous.
        It is simply the normal way humans behave.
            We feel better about ourselves
                when we’re with people who affirm us.

    Jesus suggests we have a higher calling.
        Love those who won’t love you back.
        Give without recognition.
        Show compassion to those who don’t deserve it,
            and might even bite back.

    Not just because it’s a noble and counter-cultural and even exotic
        thing to do.
    And not because you will earn some righteousness points
        by being self-sacrificing and loving the hard-to-love.
    And certainly not on the off-chance
        that you’ll be made a saint someday
        if you take care of the poor and lepers in the slums of Calcutta.

    No, you love the practically unlovable,
        because God is probably wanting to get to you through them.
    You show mercy to the undeserving,
        because it’s what you do if you’re trying to find God.
        It may be the way God is trying to reach you.

    That’s the rationale behind the teaching we heard in James.
    James 2 tells us not to be partial in our public worship space.
        Not to give the well-dressed people more attention,
            and ignore the poor and smelly ones hoping they disappear.
            And the reason for this is not because we get points
                for being humble and self-sacrificing
                    and kind to the unfortunate.

    James asks the reader, in verse 5,
    “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters:
        Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world
            to be rich in faith and
            to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”
    We pay attention to the poor because we stand to benefit
        by staying close to those God is close to.
    Some of their rich faith,
        which God gives to the poor and lowly,
        might, if we’re lucky, rub off on us,
            if we spend more time with them.

    There’s a novel thought.
        It’s not do-gooders who inherit the kingdom.
        It’s we who genuinely love the poor,
            because we see how worthy they are of being loved.
            we see how much sense it makes to love them,
                if our motivation is to meet God.

    When we open our lives more fully, in love, to the other,
        we also open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, our gracious guest.

Let’s sing together, HWB #542


Then we flip over the coin to Side 2,
    and listen to the next set of questions Jesus asks.

From later in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7:3-5
    “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye,
        but do not notice the log in your own eye?
        Or how can you say to your neighbor,
            ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’
                while the log is in your own eye?
        You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye,
            and then you will see clearly
            to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

This is the flip-side of trying to feel better about ourselves
    by building up our in-group identity,
    and surrounding ourselves with people like us.
The other side of the coin
    is that we also strengthen our identity
        by turning up the volume on judging others.
        by amplifying our condemnation—
            even toward neighbors and members of our faith family.

In our effort to justify ourselves,
    to help us feel good about our group identity,
        we draw those in who are like us,
        and we create distance from those who are not.
    We also do that in individual relationships.
        We move toward those who reinforce our own thinking,
            and we find fault with those who challenge us.
        The more we create distinctions between us, and them,
            and amplify those distinctions,
            the more likely we are to feel settled in our own thinking,
                and feel good about ourselves.

    Again, this is normal human nature.
    But it is not virtuous.

    Now, let’s be clear.
        Jesus does not suggest that we not be discerning.
        Jesus is not advocating lazy thinking,
            just saying everyone is equally right.
    In the very same sermon on the mount, Jesus calls for discernment.
        “Beware of false prophets,” Jesus says.
            “You will know them by their fruits.
                Grapes don’t grow on thorn bushes.
                And figs don’t grow on thistles.”
        “Beware of those who claim one thing,
            but produce a different kind of fruit.”

    But it’s one thing to perceive a difference,
        to take note of it,
        and to exercise reasonable caution in how we live
            in relation to that which seems false,
            and leave the consequences in God’s hands.

    It’s quite another thing to take God’s job,
        to be judge and jury and pronounce condemnation.
        Jesus does not ask us to cut ourselves off
            from those who offend us.
        Jesus does not ask us to make the decision,
            pronounce the sentence,
            and carry out the punishment.
        No, we are encouraged to be wise, and discerning.

    And in Jesus’ world, in the kingdom of God,
        discernment begins with what is stuck in my own eyes.
            I must first discern the logs in my own eyes
                before I get worked up
                about specks I see in the eyes of others.
            If we are going to be credible in our discernment of others,
                we must start with self-discernment.

So we will not turn away from our responsibility to discern, to inquire.
    But we will also persist in moving toward those who challenge us,
        we will refuse to engage in cut-off and condemnation.
    And we always start the discernment with ourselves.

We need this posture more than ever,
    as the presidential election draws closer
    and as pressures mount throughout the world,
    and throughout the church.

My prediction
    (which was a very easy prediction,
        I used up very few brain cells coming up with it)—
    my prediction is that things will not get more kind and civil,
        as Election Day draws closer.
    They will get worse.
    The battle lines will get sharper,
        people will go to even greater lengths
            to condemn their neighbor,
            and even in the church, to condemn their brother or sister.

That is why, and you’ll hear more about it,
    we are making plans to host an Election Day Communion service,
    just as we did four years ago at the last presidential election.
It will be even more important this year, I think,
    for us followers of Jesus to spend part of our Election Day—
        regardless of whether or not you voted, or who you voted for,
        to spend one portion of that day,
            gathered together as the body of Christ,
            celebrating what makes us one—
                the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

And when it comes to things that have amplified our divisions,
    and further separated us one from the other,
    we need look no further than the event of 15 years ago,
        that we are remembering today, the 9-11 attacks.
    And not just those attacks,
        but the ways we chose to respond to the attacks,
        that have made this world more polarized,
            more hate-filled and violent,
            and more dangerous to live in.

It seems to me,
    that all these points of separation and polarization
        and violence that we do to each other—
            from global terrorism,
            to political dogfights,
            to church wars,
            to interpersonal attacks—
        they all have different issues at stake,
            different motivations, different impacts, of course.
    But they are all tied together as well.
        Anxiety and fear spreads, from one arena to another.
        If we feel insecure in the world,
            we feel more unsafe at home.
        If we are angered by partisan politics,
            we are less likely to see the good in each other
            within our own Christian family of faith.
        We are the ones who need to hear, again,
            the words of James in chapter 4:
            “ Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another.”

I suspect that the first place to start,
    in resisting these multi-layered divisions,
    is to start in the arena closest to us.

This is one of the reasons I think it’s so important
    that at least once a year,
    the church family at Park View goes on retreat, together.

It’s an opportunity to practice the discipline of listening,
    of slowing down long enough to see and appreciate
        the humanity in each other,
    so we are not debating issues,
        we are struggling to know and love each other.

Our church retreat this coming weekend is a perfect opportunity,
    and I hope many of us use it,
    to engage in the practice of listening well,
        especially to those who we know only in part,
            or perhaps misunderstand.
    There is ample difference among us as a church family—
        enough to give us all a chance to exercise the muscles
            needed to resist human nature,
            and reach toward the other.

Those are the same muscles we’ll need
    to live civilly with our neighbor who supports the other candidate
    and to live as a peace-loving child of God
        in a world full of violence and hatred.

May God give us the courage to start the process,
    to start by loving, really loving, those closest to us.

—Phil Kniss, September 11, 2016

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Sunday, September 4, 2016

Phil Kniss: To seek God’s success

Labor Day Sunday 2016
Psalm 90:1-2, 14-17

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Who among us doesn’t want our work to last?
    I know I do.
    I’m not always sure, as a pastor,
        if I’ll ever know if my work will last,
        or even how anyone can determine if it did.
    Sometimes I envy builders of cathedrals and monuments,
        who know their work will still be there,
        long after they are forgotten.
    One of the things I love about the house we live in,
        is that I knew the man who had it built nearly 100 years ago—
            Harold Lehman’s father.
        It was built well, and to last.
    Someone crafted book shelves behind glass doors,
        and built them into the front room of the house around 1920,
            assuming they would be there for generations.
        And they are—as beautiful and functional and fine as ever.

    But I am also intrigued by, and deeply admire,
        people who put extensive time and painstaking effort
            into what they know, from the beginning, will NOT last.
        In fact, for some, the very im-permanence of their creation
            seems to be the point.

    My artist cousin, Eric Kniss, creates art in dust.
        Yes, he also created the massive concrete sculpture
            near the library circle at EMU.
        That’s not going anywhere. I’m quite sure it’s tornado-proof.

    But he also loves to create large and intricate works of art
        on the floor of an art gallery,
            by sifting clay dust into interesting forms and patterns.
        When the exhibit is over a week or so later,
            it’s removed with a broom and dustpan.

    For contemporary artists like my cousin, and Christo,
        and people who sculpt in ice or beach sand,
        at least their fleeting works are well-documented
            by high-res color photos and videos,
            and shared on Facebook and art websites,
            and will have some kind of life into infinity.

But since ancient times, long before cameras of any kind,
    there were Tibetan Buddhists and others
    creating intricate images with colored sand,
        sometimes working in teams for many days or weeks,
        and sweeping it up when they were done.
    Preserved only in their memory.

But the kind of persons willing to invest of weeks of labor
    into a project that will only exist in a moment of time, and be gone,
    those persons are rare, and are the exception that proves the rule.

    As a rule,
        we want our work to last.
        We want it to be remembered . . . enjoyed . . . used.
        We want it to hold its value, and even grow in value,
            long after we’ve put in the time.

So it’s worth pondering the prayer of the psalmist
    with which we opened our service this morning.
    We recited these words together:
        “Establish the work of our hands for us—
            yes, establish the work of our hands.”

It is an emphatic end to this Psalm 90.
    The psalmist doesn’t often repeat lines back to back,
        but when it happens,
        we know to pay attention.

But what, exactly,
    was the psalm writer trying to underscore
        in this double-ending to the prayer?
    That’s an interesting question,
        because the word the psalmist chose here
        gets translated a lot of different ways, with different meanings.
    The original Hebrew word is konnehu.
    The most common translation, in English versions,
        is “establish” the work of our hands.
    But some other versions render it “confirm” or
        “bless” or “make successful.”
    The more I thought about this,
        the more I thought this question was kind of important.

    Not because we are building doctrine here.
    The Book of Psalms is not a theological training manual.
        It’s a prayer book.
        These are heartfelt songs and prayers of God’s people,
            intended to express their love, devotion, or frustration,
                with God,
                in response to particular circumstances.

    So, keeping that in mind, I ask,
        What was the Psalmist trying to communicate with God here?
        What was on this poet’s mind?

    As a potential model for our own prayers,
        I suggest it really matters how we answer that question.

    For us, the phrase, “establish the work of our hands,”
        does sound like we are asking God to do something for us—
        to take what we have offered up in labor,
            and make it last.
            Establish it.
            Bless it.
            Make it productive and fruitful.
            Make it successful.

    So the idea here, is that I do the work,
        then pray over it,
        and ask for God’s stamp of approval.

    That’s not a bad prayer.
        Especially for those of us who want our work to last.
        It’s actually a noble prayer, to a certain extent.
            It’s saying, here is the best I have to offer.
            Now, God, take it the next step, beyond what I am able.
        How much better is that,
            than to pray with a selfish spirit—
                make me influential, make me famous—
            or worse, not to pray at all,
                and take all the glory ourselves for what we have done.

    So it’s not a bad thing to pray for God to take our work,
        and make it into something more.
    There should be more prayers like that.

    But I find in Psalm 90, upon closer inspection,
        an attitude even more profound, more humble,
            and more difficult to pray.
        And it’s a prayer I haven’t often had the courage to pray.

And it hinges on the meaning of this word konnehu
    that we translate “establish.”
Yes, the word can, and often does mean to make firm, to make lasting,
    to make permanent.
    But “establish” has another closely-related meaning,
        that puts a different angle on it.
    The word “establish” is also used to mean verify, certify,
        confirm, or substantiate what is true, and what is not true.
        In a court of law, attorneys seek to “establish”
            what happened, and what didn’t happen.
            In this case, to “establish” something, is to “prove” it.

Using “establish” as “prove” helps Psalm 90 make a lot more sense.
    That meaning seems most obvious and straightforward,
        given how the psalmist was using it.
    The psalms are always, primarily, about God.
    There are no more God-focused texts in scripture than the psalms.
        It makes sense, because they are prayers.
        They are usually written as a direct address to God.
    And no matter what the psalmist is going through—
        whether life is good and the psalms are overflowing in praise,
        or whether life is oppressive and the psalms are crying out
            with loud laments—
        always, in the end, they turn toward God.
    They either declare some confident truth about God
        and God’s character,
            or they seek to put God in the spotlight,
            or to put God on the spot,
                by reminding God of God’s own promises.

    But the thing that is really hard to find in the psalms
        is the kind of self-centeredness
        that we are so good at in our prayers.

    From the perspective of the psalms,
        if I’m asking God for help,
        I’m not asking in order to save face, or make my name great,
            or protect my agenda.
        I’m asking as an advocate for God’s purposes in the world.

        The argument to God is never,
            “God, don’t let them make a fool out of me.”
        No. It’s always,
            “God, don’t let them make a fool out of you.”
        Continually, the psalm writers pray in such a way,
            as to advance God’s agenda,
            to protect God’s reputation among the nations,
            to ensure God’s will prevails.
        Even when praying about their enemies,
            and asking God to destroy them,
            they don’t ask to take matters into their own hands,
                so they get vengeance for themselves.
        No, they point out
            how their enemies have wronged and offended God.
        They ask God to do God’s work of justice-making,
            and then they leave it in the hands of God alone.

    The psalms are written from a stance of humble yielding to a God
        who encompasses all things,
        and yet cares about the smallest things,
            even the modest work of my hands.

So when the psalmist closes out Psalm 90
    with this double plea about establishing our human labor,
    I think I am on solid ground to say
        this statement is still primarily about God,
        and not about wanting my work to last.

    Clues run all the way through the psalm itself.
        The psalm writer prays, repeatedly, and in different ways,
            for God to be preeminent.
        Lord, you have been our dwelling place since forever.
        Before the mountains were born
            from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
            It is your deeds that matter,
                your work that lasts,
                your activity that will shape this world and the next.

        So . . . why in the world would this psalm end
            with an emphatic focus on my own work and legacy?
        Well . . . it doesn’t.

    Here’s how I would translate, and paraphrase,
        the close of this prayer.

    God, here is the work I have done.
        Confirm that it’s true to the work you wanted me to do.
        Test it. Prove it.
        Establish it to be authentic,
            establish that it is work that fulfills your purposes.

    Implied in such a prayer, of course,
        is our willingness to yield to God’s assessment.
        Even if our work doesn’t pass God’s test.

That’s an important distinction, I think,
    and one that was missed by some of the translators.
    When the New Living Translation renders Psalm 90:17 as,
        “make our efforts successful”
    or when the International Standard Version says,
        “make our endeavors secure”
    or worse, when the God’s Word Translation puts it,
        “make us successful in everything we do,”
    I think they have missed an opportunity
        to express this prayer in the manner it was prayed.

The psalmist is not asking God for a legacy.
The psalmist is not expecting God to rubber-stamp his work.
The psalmist is not even praying for his work to have lasting value.
    The psalmist is praying,
        on his own behalf and on behalf of his people, thusly,
    “God, see to it that our labors advance your agenda.”
        Establish the truth of what we have done.
            If it’s true to you, let it stand.
            If it is untrue, let it be undone.

    And that, dear sisters and brothers,
        is the challenging and humbling part of this prayer.
    And it’s a prayer we might want to think twice before praying.
    Are you ready to pray this, in all honesty?
        “If it’s true to you, let it stand.
        If it is untrue, let it be undone.”
    I want to be ready to pray that, and truly release my work.
        But the fact is,
            I’m pretty invested in my assumptions
                that my work is God’s work.

        And, I suspect, so are most of you.
        And why wouldn’t we be?
        We want our work to be meaningful,
            beyond any immediate compensation.
        We all want our work to be God’s work.
        As to whether or not it is, that’s for God to assess.

    This prayer, on this Labor Day Sunday,
        is an opportunity for all of us,
        whether our work is explicitly connected to faith, as mine is,
            or whether our work is located entirely in a secular context,
        whether our work is compensated with a paycheck,
            or whether we do it as volunteers,
        whether our work is a source of joy,
            or a source of frustration and feelings of entrapment.

    This prayer is an invitation for us all to remember,
        that we are all, equally, called to fulfill God’s purposes.
        We all, as followers of Jesus,
            have a vocation beyond any job or place of employment.
        We all have a calling
            to invest our time and energy and resources
            into God’s big project of salvation and reconciliation.
        And all our efforts—paid or unpaid, religious or secular—
            are subject to God’s assessment,
            as to whether we are contributing to God’s cause.
        The question is not whether or not our work lasts,
            or our labor ultimately brings us success.
        For God’s people, the question must always be,
            Are we, in our labors, seeking God’s success?

    So can this be our honest and bold prayer this morning?
        If our work is true to you, let it stand.
        If it is untrue, let it be undone.

—Phil Kniss, September 4, 2016

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