Sunday, October 30, 2016

Phil Kniss: Uncalculated generosity

Between Exodus & Promised Land: Releasing our hold
Luke 19:1-10

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So we’ve been looking for the wisdom of Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel,
    on how to live well in the wilderness.
Today, the last of the series,
    we find this strange and memorable story of Zacchaeus—
    He’s a small character.
    Or, as the old children’s song puts it, “a wee little man.”

    Small maybe, but Zacchaeus has a large place in the Gospel story.
        I’ll bet the majority of persons on the streets of Harrisonburg
            would say they’ve heard a story
                about an elfish little man who climbed a sycamore tree
                    to get a better look at Jesus.
        They might not know much more,
            but they know that.

    When I get an overly familiar story to preach from,
        I dig a little deeper.
        There’s usually something fresh to uncover.

    This time, I’m looking at the story through a certain lens—
        the lens we set up for this series.
    It asks the question . . .
        What is there in Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings,
            that can give us some help, some insight,
            into living in this in-between time—
            between Exodus and the Promised Land?
        The land where we now live.
        The land where the Jewish people of Jesus’ day also lived.
            Not in outright slavery, like Egypt.
            But not with full human flourishing, either.
                In-between land.
                Social and political and spiritual desert.

    So if they lived there, and we live there,
        maybe there is more of a direct link than we think,
            between the world of the Gospels and our world.
        At least, enough of a link
            to take Jesus’ teachings and stories to heart,
            and ponder what it means for us today.

There are multiple angles I could take with the Zacchaeus story.
    But I’m being guided by this lens of life in the wilderness.

One of the things we know about wilderness,
    is how unmanageable it is.
    It’s a wild environment.
So when we find ourselves in a wilderness,
    our natural instinct is to take whatever measures we can,
        to insert at least some small semblance of security,
        in a place where everything else is insecure.

    And that, is precisely how Zacchaeus structured his life.
        His wilderness, and the wilderness of every first-century
            Palestinian Jew,
            was living under Roman occupation,
                and more specifically, the brutality of King Herod,
                Caesar’s surrogate in Judea.

    In a context where the Empire exercised absolute control,
        different people dealt with it in different ways.
            Some resisted. Some collaborated with Rome.
            Some just lived quietly, trying not to be noticed.

    But Zacchaeus was a man with a plan.
    Zacchaeus was a calculator.
        He probably weighed all his options,
            before he took this loathsome job
                of collecting taxes for Rome.
        He might have had some personal factors in his life
            that made him more likely to sidle up with Rome.
            Maybe his family system wasn’t there for him.
            Maybe he had few friends and loyal confidantes.
            Maybe he was already a loner,
                and didn’t have much to lose, socially.

    But for whatever reason, Zacchaeus was willing to cross over,
        to leverage himself and whatever good will he had,
        in order to get back at least some power and security for himself.

    Last Sunday I talked a bit about the Roman taxation system,
        when we looked at the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector.
    How the system was created to funnel money to the Empire
        by whatever means necessary.
        It was a brilliant political move by the occupying force
            to outsource tax collection to private entities,
            that employed locals.
        For one, it brought in more revenue,
            because it’s harder to hide money
            from people who know you, and all your relatives.
        And as a bonus,
            pitting one group of locals against another group of locals,
            inserts chaos in the system,
                makes it harder to unite against the Empire.

    I doubt Zacchaeus actually saw himself as a pawn of the Empire.
        But he probably did calculate personal cost and benefit.
            And for him, he came out ahead.
        By collecting taxes for Rome,
            he made his own financial position secure,
            ensured he would have a house and food and clothes,
                and a lot of other comforts money can buy.
        And he even rose up the ranks,
            to become a chief tax collector,
            which meant other tax collectors worked for him,
                and funneled their receipts to him,
                and he passed them on to the next level,
                    after taking his cut.
            It was a nice gig.
            Zacchaeus’ calculations were paying dividends.

        I’m sure he wasn’t a huge fan of Herod and Caesar,
            and all their occupying forces.
        He wasn’t an Empire man.
            But in this particular Jewish wilderness, he was making it.
                He was surviving.
            The way he calculated it,
                when it was all over, he’d still be standing,
                with money in hand.

    What Zacchaeus did is not an unreasonable strategy
        for wilderness survivors.
        When life is a bit wild and unpredictable,
            when things seem outside our control,
            one way to survive
                is to grab the little bit of control you have and hold on.

    I don’t blame Zacchaeus for this.
        He surely had his reasons.
    In fact, this strategy—
        of identifying and maximizing
            whatever small bits of control you still have over your life—
        that’s actually a strategy for health and wellbeing,
            especially in extreme wilderness environments.
        That’s how people manage to survive concentration camps,
            or kidnappings,
            or slavery,
            or abusive relationships,
            or other circumstances of extreme suffering.

    Although . . . we might consider those situations
        outright imprisonment,
        more than wilderness.
    The wilderness we all live in, daily,
        is after the Exodus, before the Promised Land.
    Those more severe situations are pre-Exodus,
        still back in Egypt,
        under violent oppression of slavery.
    While in Egypt, the Zacchaeus strategy
        of doing what we can to regain a little control,
        can keep us from dying in that state of oppression.

    But in this in-between state where we are,
        where the wilderness is not immediately life-threatening,
        but actually a life-long state in which we are called to live—
            maybe in this wilderness,
            another, less calculating approach is called for.

And that uncalculated approach,
    is what suddenly came to Zacchaeus, apparently,
    when he came face-to-face with the love and compassion of Jesus.

The text isn’t quite clear exactly when Zacchaeus had this revelation.
    Was it as soon as Jesus called him down from the tree?
    Was it during or after the meal in his home?
    Was it after long and agonizing conversations with Jesus,
        who taught his followers not to worry about what they will eat,
            or what they will wear,
        but to be like the lilies of the field, and the sparrows of the air,
            whom God cares for lovingly and generously?

Whatever the timing,
    whatever the context,
    whatever the motivation,
        this much is clear.

    A personal encounter with the love and acceptance of Jesus,
        caused Zacchaeus to do an about face.
    He turned away from a calculated strategy that benefitted him,
        and he turned toward an uncalculated generosity.
    He promised, publicly, to give half his possessions to the poor.
        And whatever he had taken unjustly,
            he would repay four times as much.

    Such a rash public promise was pretty uncalculated on his part.
        But we can calculate it for him.
        Let’s do the math.
            Assume only 1/8 of the taxes he collected
                were the result of overcharging or bribing
                    or other common practices.
            Zacchaeus would be left with nothing. Zero.
            Follow me? Divide his wealth into 8 equal parts.
                4 of those parts he gives away.
                1 of those parts he multiplies by 4, and pays out.
            Now he’s flat broke.
        Either, Zacchaeus was more honest than most tax collectors,
            and hardly ever overcharged.
        Or he took a huge uncalculated risk in making that promise.

Now, this all makes for a wonderful salvation story.
    We rejoice, with Jesus, and with the Gospel writer,
        that salvation came to that house that day.
    We rejoice with Zacchaeus,
        that he found his place of belonging again,
        within his family and community.
    We rejoice with the poor of Jericho,
        who benefitted from this sudden windfall,
        and maybe repaid some of their debts.

We rejoice . . . until we realize the obvious.
    That way of living, with uncalculated generosity,
        is the whole point of the story.
        It’s a way of life being commended to us,
            by Jesus and the Gospel.

The question we all need to face, if we take the story seriously,
    is “Are we prepared to release our hold
        on what gives us security,
        and live with uncalculated generosity?”

Now, I’m not suggesting the word of God for us this morning
    is that we all give until we’re broke, penniless, and dependent,
        not only in terms of money,
        but also in time, talents, relationships.
    I’m not inviting us to be stupid and reckless
        with everything we have.

But I am inviting us to be a little less calculating.
    I say this as a consummate calculator, myself.
    I like to weigh the cost.
    And I like to compare the cost to the benefit.
        And I do that before I decide something.

So I’m brought up short by Zacchaeus,
    who towers over me,
    in his willingness to be uncalculatingly generous.

Think about it, if I have structured my life in such a way,
    that it’s almost impossible to lose,
    haven’t I just eliminated the need for faith?

If I have made my own lot secure,
    by calculating what I need and when,
        and ensuring it’s there whenever I need it,
    am I leaving room for any new life-changing adventure,
        and the risk that inevitably goes with it?

If I have worked things out to my advantage in my wilderness,
    in order to be as secure in mine, as Zacchaeus was in his . . .
    then maybe I’m just as much in need of salvation as he was.

We all have different kinds of wilderness.
    And therefore, we have different kinds of security strategies.
    I don’t know where this story touches yours.
        You’ll have to ponder and reflect on that.

Some of you may right now be just as secure as Zacchaeus was,
    prior to his encounter with Jesus.
    So the challenge to you is to have the courage to release your hold
        on that security you are enjoying—
            be that financial, or professional, or relational,
                or psychological, or religious security.
        The word from this Gospel might be to let go
            of what is helping your wilderness
            be more predictable and manageable.

But others . . . might be at a very different place.
    You may be reeling right now
        with an overwhelming sense of in-security.
    In your wilderness, you might find yourself at a precipice—
            financially, professionally, relationally,
                psychologically, or spiritually.
    It might feel like you’re in a free fall right now,
        so letting go isn’t your biggest problem.

    Maybe it’s finding something solid to hold on to.
    In that case, maybe the word of today’s Gospel for you
        is to lean in to the love of Jesus in a deeper way,
            in the absence of other forms of security.

    At our most insecure, we’re not likely to claw our way back,
        or calculate our escape from the wilderness.
        Maybe the best thing we can do,
            is lean harder on the love of God that is ours in Christ,
            and watch that love take on flesh
                in the lives of our sisters and brothers around us,
            and then see where that love takes us.

    Maybe in this story,
        you can find comfort in a Jesus who pursues us,
            and meets us wherever we are in the wilderness—
            in the crowd, up a tree, at the table, in the temple.
        Jesus seeks us out, invites us to a deeper level of dependence,
            and brings salvation.

    Jesus’ last words in this story, to Zacchaeus, to the crowd, were,
        “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
    Those are words for us, as well, in our various forms of lostness.
        Jesus came to save, that is,
            to rescue, to heal, to make whole, to bring shalom,
            to make it well with our souls.

—Phil Kniss, October 30, 2016

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Phil Kniss: The path down to the mountaintop

Between Exodus & Promised Land: Yielding Oneself
Luke 18:9-14

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We continue along our path through the wilderness—
    both in this worship series,
    and (need I point it out?) in our daily lives in this world.
And again today I have the audacity to tell you,
    that God invites us to embrace the wilderness, not escape it.
    We are called not only to survive the wilderness, but to thrive in it.
        To find real life here.

And we continue to look to Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke,
    to ask the question,
        “How do we live well in the wilderness?”
        “What kind of posture will be life-giving?”

In these four Sundays, looking at Jesus’ life and teachings,
    we find four postures, or four life attitudes—
        gratitude, persistence, humility, and release.
    We’ve spent one Sunday each on gratitude and persistence.
    Now, humility.

Richard Rohr, the contemplative Franciscan friar
    who writes and speaks widely,
    coincidentally, this past week,
        focused his daily meditations, which some of you read,
        on what he calls, “The path of descent.”

Religion, he says, typically prefers the way of “ascent,” or attainment,
    and that is what our human ego is drawn toward,
    even though that sort of striving nearly always defeats us.

Jesus represented a different way,
    in what he taught, and how he lived.
    And it’s still hard to wrap our minds and heart around it.
    We argue our way out of believing Jesus,
        who tried to train his disciples in the path of descent,
        and ego-stripping instead of ego-attainment.

As Richard Rohr puts it,
    “Jesus tells us to love more,
        rather than to idealize anything except God.”

We are deeply formed by our Western culture’s ideals
    of progress and winning and gaining power over.
But the biblical model looks different.
    Throughout scripture, and culminating in Jesus,
        we learn that the true path of ascent is Jesus’ path of de-scent.
    Jesus reflects a “bias from the bottom,”
        he teaches that the “first shall be last,”
        he invites his disciples to “take up their cross,”
        and demonstrates ultimate vulnerability facing death himself,
            in his own downward path to the top of the hill.
    Jesus knew human beings
        need to be taught a different way of winning.
        We win by losing.
        Or, maybe more precisely,
            we win that which has eternal value,
            by losing that which has temporal value.

Rohr’s path of descent means letting go
    of self-image, titles, status, public persona.
    He points out that the first commandment teaches this,
        when Yahweh says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
    It’s not just false images of God we need to avoid.
    False images of ourselves also get in the way of worship of God.

This is not self-immolation. This is not self-hatred.
    This is the path to a more true self.
    It leads us to deeper and truer self-respect.

Realizing we are human (a word derived from humus, soil),
    and recognizing that this very earth from which we come, is sacred,
        has come from God and is returning to God,
    puts our true self in perspective.

We discover a different kind of power in ourselves,
    knowing we are God’s beloved creatures,
    that we come from God and return to God,
        and that’s enough.
    As humans, we are a small part of creation,
        only particles that reflect a fragment of God’s glory.
    And yet that’s enough.
        Enough to be loved by God.
        Enough to love ourselves.
        Enough to be loved by others.

The great spiritual illusion is that
    we need to accumulate and acquire and attain—
        more and more and more—
    in order to have self-worth.
    But Jesus says, we don’t need to acquire what is already ours.
        We have inherent value
            because we participate in God.

And speaking of what Jesus said, let’s turn to another one of his stories.
    Last Sunday, when Moriah opened up to us
        the parable of the widow and the judge,
        she pointed out that parables rarely comfort and reassure.
        They have a sting in their tail, she said.

    Or, as Will Willimon once said,
        Jesus’ stories are meant “more to dislodge than explain.”
        They dislodge us from our settled place
            of complacency and security,
            and take us into a journey
                of struggle and growth and discovery.

The same is true of today’s famous story,
    about the Pharisee and tax collector.
    On the one hand, it’s a very simple story.
        No plot. No twists. No tension. No crisis.
    Actually, it’s more a scene, than a story.
        Two men are praying in the temple.
            One man prays this way.
            The other man prays that way.
                One way is better than the other.
        End of story.

These two men were stereotypes to first-century Palestinian Jews.
    And all of Jesus’ listeners recognized them immediately.

They are stereotypes to us, too.
    Except, we get the stereotypes wrong.

We see the Pharisee as
    a stereotype of prideful arrogance and wealthy pomp and pretense.
And the tax collector as
    a stereotype of an earthy, humble, repentant, and pure heart.

You’ve seen old paintings and illustrations of these two—
    the Pharisee in regal robes, chin jutting out,
    and the tax collector in sackcloth, cowering in the corner.

Jesus’ listeners had a different picture in mind, I’m certain.

Let me paint their picture of the Pharisee.
He was a highly-esteemed,
    and beloved leader of their faith community.
    Public opinion toward Pharisees was consistently high.
        They were the heroes of the common people.
            Not like the Sadducees, who were more elite.
        Pharisees were in the line of Moses and the prophets.
        Sadducees were identified with priestly status and privilege.
    In fact, the priests—most of whom were Sadducees—
        would make special accommodations in temple worship,
        to stay on the good side of the Pharisees,
            because they knew Pharisees had the support of the people.

    Pharisees were respected, because they were thoroughly good.
    Pharisees cared deeply about purity and holiness,
        but not in a bad way,
        not because they were stuck-up or prideful or arrogant,
        and not because they hated those who were ritually unclean.
    They simply cared about honoring Torah, the scripture.
        They were all about spiritual renewal, returning to their roots.
        They believed if Israel could achieve true holiness,
            if they could attain to spiritual purity,
            then God would take notice,
                send the Messiah,
                and deliver the people from Roman occupation.
        They were good people.
        And they did it all for the people.
            They did it for the hope of salvation.
            And they were admired for it.

On the other hand,
    the tax collector was truly a scoundrel.
    When he called himself a sinner, he wasn’t kidding.

If you think our government’s tax system is burdensome,
    be glad you weren’t a subject of the Roman Empire.
    The Empire, spread out as it was,
        outsourced tax collecting.
    They contracted with big private entities,
        whose task was simply to deposit a certain amount
            of money into the Roman treasury,
            and to get it by whatever means necessary.
        It was a pyramid system.
            The one at the top made the deposits to Rome.
            And he had regional managers under him
                who had to come up with the money.
            The important thing was getting the money,
                not how it was gotten.
            So everyone, from the top down,
                had a lot to gain, and got wealthy.
            Overcharging, bribing, extorting their own people—
                that’s the way business was done.

    So this tax collector was the worst kind of sinner,
        and traitor to his own people.
    He was hated equally by everyone.
    He represented everything evil
        that the Pharisee spent his whole life working against.

Now, keep these two pictures in mind—
    the good, respected, honorable, God-fearing Pharisee,
    and the traitorous man who robbed his own people.

Is it surprising that the Pharisee
    would have prayed this heart-felt prayer?
    “Thank you, Lord, that I didn’t end up like that man over there.”

We hear that prayer, and take it to be the height of arrogance.
    I think the prayer was a sincere expression of gratitude.
    Kind of like saying, when you observe some unfortunate soul,
        “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
    That’s the same prayer.
        And a prayer you and I often pray,
            in thought, if not in words.

The Pharisee in this story is not a religious hypocrite
    who gets some kind of crude pleasure
    out of condemning other people.
        He really was grateful to God that he could live a good life—
            that he had ordered his life in such a way,
            that he kept himself from becoming a wretched sinner.
        He was—I must admit and so must you—
            a lot like us.

The Pharisee’s sin, and our sin,
    is how we position ourselves in relation to the other.
    This posture, and corresponding prayer—
        “thank you, God, that I am not like that”—
        is a way to separate ourselves from the other,
        to make a distinction between ourselves and sinful persons.
    When we do so, we cannot see the common human connection
        that might form a relationship,
        that might be trans-formative for us both.

If I thank God I’m not like someone else,
    I’ve just written that person off.
    I’ve undermined my ability to ever connect
        and have a transformative relationship with that person.

How often have we made that sort of comment?
    or at least had that sentiment?
    especially in this divisive political season?
    But doing so drives us away from the other,
        it creates distance, it reinforces our enmity,
        and worst of all, it blocks the grace of God.

To innocently say, as I often have, “There, but for the grace of God . . .”
    implies that this other unfortunate person
        missed out on the grace of God.
And I have done exactly what the Pharisee did,
    stood upright, back turned, created a safe distance
        between my own sin and depravity,
        and that of the other.

When I create spiritual distance between myself and those near me,
    I undermine the grace of God.
    And I participate in the same divisiveness and enemy-making
        that our secular culture is so good at.
    Our whole cultural discourse is built around that statement,
        “Thank God I’m not like them!”

    It’s a prayer we pray all the time.
        But it’s a prayer, I submit, that is spiritually toxic.
        It blocks the grace of God in our lives.
        It keeps us from, as Jesus put it, “going home justified.”

    That’s how Jesus described the tax collector,
        who lowered himself,
        who became vulnerable,
        who expressed his utter dependence on God’s mercy.
    That man—the one who chose the “path of descent,”
        the one who decided to cease acquiring and accumulating,
            and cease securing his own position—
        that man “went home justified.”

    The Pharisee remained in his place of isolation,
        in his pure, holy, and antiseptic state of . . . sinfulness.
        He went home unchanged.

I believe the prayer we must learn to pray—
    against our intuition,
    against the tide of culture—
        is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

That is the prayer that will not only put us right with God,
    but will be a foundation upon which we can build
    a transformative relationship with those around us
        who are sometimes so difficult to bear with,
        so hard to understand, or
        so challenging to love.
If we pray this prayer of repentance often,
    we will find ourselves more at home with it,
    and we will find ourselves increasingly at home in our wilderness,
    and we will find ourselves growing in respect of our true self,
    and we will find more joy in our connections with the other,
    and we will find a deeper and richer life immersed in God’s grace.

Sometimes, the path to the mountaintop, spiritually speaking,
    runs downhill.
    And that’s when Jesus’ words are fulfilled,
        the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

This is as much about attitude and posture,
    as it is about words.
    Our words may sound like mere fragments,
        not fully fleshed-out.
    That’s how prayers from the wilderness often sound.

So I invite us into a time of praying, and contemplating,
    by singing some words, and by offering some wordless song.

Let’s turn to HWB 347, “Through our fragmentary prayers.”
I’ll read two of the verses . . .
    Through our fragmentary prayers and our silent, heart-hid sighs
    wordlessly the Spirit bears our profoundest needs and cries.
    Let our jabberings give way to the hummings in the soul
    as we yield our lives this day to the God who makes us whole.

—Phil Kniss, October 23, 2016

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Moriah Hurst: Praying with Persistence

Between Exodus and Promised Land: Persistence
Luke 18:1-8

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    Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and to not lose heart. There are so many things that seem hard about this for me. First whenever Jesus tells a parable I kind of brace myself, because if I’m really listening and understand the context then this is going to hurt me a bit. Parables are those stories Jesus uses that have a sting in their tale. They are going to make the listener say “ouch” when they realize what is being said. We are given an insight into what this parable is about: the need to pray always and to not lose heart. When I look around at the world today there are lots of things I know I want to pray about but it gets overwhelming and I have to ask “are our prayers working, why do things seem to get worse instead of better?” But we are not to lose heart so there must be hope here in this story and teaching about a way forward. So lets look at this story.

            There is a widow and an unjust judge. We are not meant to like the judge because how he is introduced is that he doesn’t fear God and doesn’t respect people. Hmm…he sounds like a winning character. Enter character two: a widow. Ok we should all have an idea about what a widow means if we have been paying attention. Widows are the bottom of the barrel in the society that this is set in and yet they show up all the time as main characters in the Bible and they do really amazing things. Widows are cast as those with the least power and here we see her matched with judge who would have had a lot of power.

            Nagging, pestering and bothering are not normally seen as traits we want to affirm but here in this story the widow persistently brings her request before the judge. Finally he says “Enough”, and grants her what she wants before he become exhausted by her continual asking.

            In sitting with this text leading up to this sermon I kept asking “is this judge a representation of God?” Really, is God portrayed as the one who doesn’t care? But then I heard echoes of Matthew 7: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” and the end of the parable for today responds with “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” This judge is painted as the opposite to God, but even an unjust judge gives way under pestering, so wont God listen even more to God’s beloved people – to us.

            Who is this God that we are praying to? If we think of prayer as a conversation between us and God, than we need to consider who we think God is because it will change our conversation. If you are talking to a best friend or your parent you will have differing degrees of openness. If you are talking to a political leader with power or someone you idolize you want to come across in different way. Who do we think this God is that we are crying out to?

            A few years ago there was a National Study of Youth and Religion done here in the USA. This study found that for a majority of young people their picture of God was that of a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This understanding is that 1.God created and is watching earth. 2. God wants people to be good and nice. 3.The goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself. 4. God doesn’t really need to be involved in your life unless you need God to fix a problem. And 5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

            Before you write this off as just a young person thing, the research went on to say that this view of God was being shaped by what the adults in these young peoples lives who were teaching them and modeling this for them. What they were learning about God was this:
    “God is: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one's affairs--especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.”

    This is not the God who thunders from the mountain, nor a God who will serve as judge. This undemanding deity is more interested in solving our problems and in making people happy. "In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process."

            I tend to think about this God as a personal Santa Claus in the sky that we take a shopping list of wants to and who can soothe us into feeling better about ourselves. This is a God shaped by our dominant culture and almost completely divorced from the God we meet in scripture.

            What is the picture you have of God? What does a conversation with God look like for you? Who are you praying to? Does God in your prayer life reflect both the creator God who has the power to shake the earth but also speaks through silence?  A God who is a just judge and who mourns over the wrong doing of God’s people.

            The second big question that this passage asks us to consider is what is prayer? If what the widow does in this parable shows us how to pray, then we are being told to pester, to come back again and again and to continually repeat our request to God till God responds or gives in.

            This week I felt myself needing to go back to the basics asking questions like: what is prayer, who is it for, how should we pray, does prayer change anything? Can our persistence change God? I know as a pastor you think I have this all figured out but really as Christians we have to keep wrestling with these things and understanding them in new ways.

            When I was a seminary student I served as a camp pastor at a summer camp. One night as I was praying with a few young people by the fire a 12 year old ask me “why should I pray if nothing changes?” I think every seminary student should have to deal with answering that question to a 12 year old. How would you have answered? I know I stumbled and struggled.

            We are in a culture that pushes us to be an individual, to get results and to want thing immediately. If I have to wait two minutes for a website to load I am prone to deep sighing, eye rolling and wondering why the universe is against me. Two minutes of waiting! If our picture of God is that of a God who comes to our beck and call, then no wonder we think that pray doesn’t work if we don’t get answers.

            But do we get answers? Does prayer change things? We know that when we study something we have to go back and review and repeat things so we learn them yet with prayer coming back again, especially to pray the same prayer can feel empty and meaningless. Didn’t God hear us the first time? What kind of a God makes us repeat ourselves especially when we are crying out over a justice issue? But we are shaped in and by the praying.

    We want instant gratification, we want our own way! But one commentary tells us that we are “Being shaped through the long persistent prayer to be a vessel that can hold the answer that comes”. That same commentary told this story “an elderly black minister read this parable and gave a one-sentence interpretation: ‘until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is.”

            Prayer is giving up our idea that we have the power and can change everything and holding ourselves out to a God who can shape the world beyond our understanding. Prayer is us giving up the idea that we are in control. In prayer we are able to see where God is working in our world – learning to know God and thus that knowing shaping our desires and actions.

            As storms raged in Haiti this past week I was pestering God with my prayers. Why in a country where there is such poverty are they hit with something like this? I know that there are faithful people in Haiti who were praying even more fervently than I was so was God not listening to their prayers? If God is a God of care and justice how could God let something like this happen? Why is God waiting to answer while people are dying when the parable we heard today says “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

            But God isn’t a controlling and manipulating God. Our world is broken and as Phil talked about last week we are between the exodus and the Promised Land – we are in the already but not yet. God is present and acting but is not our fairly godmother waiting for our call to come fix things.

            The passage ends with a question: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Is this us having faith in the slow work of God’s justice. Us having faith that even when our pray is not answered the way we want it to be, that God is still working, still acting, still the just and loving judge and not the unfeeling unjust judge. We are not to lose faith and we are called to come back to God in prayer persistently, to be shaped by that process, to be part of how God is answering pray.

    What is the prayer you need to pray right now. Is it a prayer that needs to be prayed prostrate before God or in tears? Do you need to throw your hands up in the air with a loud cry or shake fists in frustration? Do you need to kneel with head bent letting your body take the shape of submission and concentration? Who are you crying out to God for and what situations do you need to keep banging on God’s door making sure your persistent knocking is heard? What is the prayer you need to pray in these wilderness times of injustice?

    In this parable, through this widow, Jesus is telling us to pray in hope and with persistence. Our faith is that we don’t lose heart even when that means coming back again and again to our God who is listening.

    Lets commit ourselves to prayer and action as we respond by singing together "How can we be silent?"

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Sunday, October 9, 2016

Phil Kniss: Out of Empire, into gratitude

Between Exodus and Promised Land
Luke 17:11-19; Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

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Today, and the rest of October,
    we’ll use the same lectionary scripture readings
    that many other churches use.

But we will read them through a particular lens.
    Focusing on the Gospel reading each Sunday,
        we will seek to be formed by the teaching and ministry of Jesus,
        as we learn how to live in the “between time”—
            between Exodus and Promised Land.
    And we will name this between-time “wilderness.”
    And we will embrace it as a gift and grace of God.
        I say that as a statement of faith, and of hope.

Now, how did I decide to read the Gospels—these chapters from Luke—
    through the lens of wilderness?
    There is no specific mention of wilderness in them.

Part of it is just where my mind naturally went,
    as I thought about the space we inhabit right now,
        as a culture, as a church, as God’s people.
    To me, it feels a lot like wilderness.
        We are walking through uncharted territory,
            over unmapped terrain.
        We don’t know where the world is taking us,
            in terms of the global threats of terrorism, climate change,
                economic meltdowns, nuclear war.
        We don’t know what the church is going to look like, as a whole,
            how it will be functioning in five years,
            much less, a generation from now.
        And we are a few weeks away from a presidential election
            that is getting more bizarre, and more horrifying, by the day.

        The news these last two days compels me to comment,
            from my platform as a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
        My comment isn’t about politics, per se.
            But as followers of Jesus,
                we should all take stock of the public discourse
                    happening right now.

        My comment is this:
            A sizable portion of our country and culture
                idolizes someone who is grossly immoral
                    in more ways than we can count,
                and wants to elect him to the highest office in the land.

            How is it that someone who has
                encouraged personal violence,
                insulted and objectified women,
                used his power and wealth to harm other people,
                made public statements stereotyping and demeaning to
                    Muslims, Latinos, and African-Americans,
                and now—we have learned—
                    boasted about engaging in behavior
                    that can only be described as sexual abuse—
                how is it that such a person
                    has not been relegated to the margins of society—
                        ignored, humiliated, or facing punishment—
                    but instead, is lauded as the people’s hero?

        Well, for one thing, Trump’s morally offensive behavior
            is not unique to him.
        Let’s not pretend this is about one immoral person.
            He’s not mainstream, thank God.
            But he’s not an outlier, either.
            Misogyny, racism, religious bigotry, violence, greed,
                and yes, sexual abuse,
                all are prevalent in our culture,
                    and even present in the church,
                and well-meaning people, like us,
                    too often look the other way.

        Don’t forget—Trump’s sickening, abusive comments
            were made in the company of another man
                who should have objected,
                but laughed like it was funny.
            How often does that very thing get repeated
                in private conversations among men in our community,
                    that never get leaked to the press?

            I am encouraged that now leaders of both parties
                are finally coming out
                and vigorously condemning his behavior.

        And of course, none of us are morally pure.
            Not Hillary. Not me. Not you.
            But enough of this craziness!
            Can someone push the reset button on our culture?

        How did a supposedly civil society get to a sordid place like this?
            Some of us feel like exiles in our own country,
                like we are wandering in a wilderness.
                I’m emotionally spent . . .
                    just having to say what I’ve said.

Which brings me back to my opening comment,
    that now you may be wondering about . . .
    when I said that wilderness should be embraced;
        that it can be, in fact, a gift and grace of God.

Note that I did not say everything that happens in a wilderness
    is beautiful and good.
    What I just described is a case in point.
        Wilderness can be dark.
            Evil can lurk there.
            Navigating wilderness requires wisdom,
                caution, discernment, and the strength of community.
        But wilderness is also where God calls us to live. Here. Now.

We spend too much of our time trying to avoid wilderness.
    Wilderness is not a thing we naturally embrace.
        Wilderness is, by definition, wild.
        There is little room for control or management,
            or even, stability—something most of us appreciate,
                and need, in order to thrive.

So let me launch this series with a disturbing claim—
    at least it’s disturbing to me—
    that we need to make our home in the wilderness.
        Not just put up with the wilderness.
        But embrace it, and become at home in it.

And I begin my case with the Exodus.
    The Exodus is at the core of our Judeo-Christian understanding
        that God is about liberating us from whatever binds us.
    God’s design for humankind, since the dawn of Creation,
        is that we flourish on this earth,
            in a relationship with God and others,
            characterized by freedom and love.

    But God’s people were enslaved by an oppressive Egyptian Empire.
        By definition, Empire is management and control,
            by way of domination.
        God’s design, on the other hand, is the opposite of Empire.
            God’s design is for human freedom,
                defined and sustained by sacrificial love.

    The people of Israel,
        whom God had chosen to demonstrate God’s love for the world,
        were being crushed by the forces of Empire.
    Pharoah and his Empire robbed the people
        of their worth, and their identity as God’s beloved people.
    They knew not who they were.
    They knew not they were loved by God.

    So 40 years in the wilderness, post-Exodus,
        were not just punishment.
        Yes, we read in the biblical narrative
            that the 40 years were punishment for their lack of faith.
        And that’s true.

    But I think we can see more in it than that,
        as we read the narrative in the light of the whole of scripture.
    I think we can see that God had in mind
        that the wilderness would be a place of spiritual formation.

    In the wilderness they would rediscover something, spiritually,
        that they had lost back in Egypt.
    They would come to re-learn how dependent they were on God,
        and how faithful God is in providing for the people God loves.

    Only in the wilderness,
        where being able to control things is not even an option . . .
    Only in the wilderness,
        where we can never survive alone . . .
    Only in the wilderness,
        where we grow deeply aware of our fragility, and dependence . . .
    Only there can we break free of the oppressive powers of Empire,
        and take the first real steps toward the Promised Land.

The Empire runs on what Walter Brueggemann calls
    the narrative of scarcity.
    That there is never enough for everyone,
        so those in power control access to resources,
        to make sure they get what they want.
    And access is controlled by violence, or the threat of violence.
        Empire is about management by domination.

The wilderness, at least the wilderness we encounter in scripture,
    runs by a different narrative.
    Ironically, in the wilderness—
        in the desert, a place of barrenness and nothingness—
        there God’s people learn the narrative of abundance.
        God provides what is needed.
            Manna. Bread. Sweet water.
        We can stop striving.
        We can enjoy Sabbath rest.
        We can open ourselves to God’s good gifts,
            and live in God’s good time.

    That’s the biblical story.
        It is told in the story of the Israelites,
            as they sojourned between Exodus and the Promised Land.

        It is told and retold,
            in the story of the prophets,
                who lived in the wilderness,
                depending on others for food.
            And it came to them.
                Sometimes from the hand of a poor widow.
                Sometimes from the beak of a raven.

        It is told in the story of Judah’s Exile to Babylon,
            which we heard today from Jeremiah,
            in which God’s people,
                carried away into the spiritual wilderness of Babylon,
                were urged to make themselves at home there.
            To open themselves to whatever God had for them there—
                homes, crops, families.
                They were urged to invest in life,
                    not waste away waiting for something to change.

        And the story is told again in the life of Jesus,
            who spent 40 days in the wilderness to prepare for ministry.
            There he learned to flourish in a state of dependence,
                not independence.
        At least in the case of the prophets, and of Jesus,
            we know God was not punishing them.
            God was helping to form them, spiritually.

    God does not want any of us bound by the powers of Empire.
        Because God hates bondage. Of all kinds.
            Physical. Political. Spiritual.
            Captivity is not God’s design.
        But sometimes—dare I say usually—
            the path that carries us
                from the captivity of Empire to the Land of Promise,
                passes through wilderness.
        In this wilderness, our task is to learn openness and gratitude.
        We need not strive, need not fear, need not be anxious,
            need not resort to violence to protect what we have,
                or to gain what we don’t have.

If we wish to be formed for a flourishing life in the wilderness,
    there are disciplines we are called to engage in,
        which give God something to work with.
    God is the loving potter working and shaping.
        God does the work of formation.
        But the disciplines soften the clay.

The discipline we focused on today,
    in scripture, song, and story . . .
        is gratitude.

We heard the story from the Gospel of Luke
    about Jesus healing ten lepers,
    one of whom was a Samaritan.

They were healed not immediately, but later, walking down the road.
    And the one who came back to thank Jesus was the Samaritan.

This is a remarkable story,
    one that I have heard my whole life,
    since I was old enough to listen to a Bible story.
When the story was told to us children,
    it was told as a lesson in saying “thank you.”
    We were encouraged to be like the one who came back to Jesus,
        and said “thank you.”
    And not like the other nine, the ungrateful wretches,
        who maybe—I sometimes wondered—
        got reinfected with leprosy
            because they failed to say “thank you.”

But this story isn’t really about the other nine.
    They may indeed have been grateful.
    We don’t know their motive, attitude, or circumstances.

The point Jesus makes, according to the Gospel writer,
    is that the only one who came back was the foreigner—
        the despised Samaritan.
    There was one in that group of ten,
        who, despite being doubly ostracized—
            as a leper, and as a Samaritan—
        lived with an open and receptive and appreciative spirit.

    Maybe this thing of being pushed to the margins,
        being forced, for years, to live in a wilderness,
        made him especially alert to God’s spiritual provisions.
    Perhaps he experienced the wilderness as a place of God’s grace,
        and instead of continually fighting against it,
        opened his heart to it.
    Maybe, as a Samaritan, he had the advantage
        of not going through life with a sense of entitlement,
        but of utter dependence.
    So when the gift came,
        his first response was gratitude.
    Rather than thinking, “Finally, the health I always deserved!”
        he may have thought instead, “Once again, God has provided.”

I can’t get inside the head of the Samaritan,
    any more than I can the other nine.
But the sheer fact that he stopped, turned around,
    went back,
    and fell face down in gratitude and praise to God,
        does tell us something about his spiritual formation.
    He was positively formed by his wilderness,
        I think it’s safe to say.
    He was formed to experience God as generous provider.
    And over the years,
        he cultivated of life of gratitude,
        by engaging in the practice of giving thanks.

This is not about finding some formula for a happy life.
    This isn’t about the power of positive thinking,
        although positive thinking can have powerful effects.
    This is about a choice to engage in a spiritually formative practice,
        while we are in the wilderness.
    It is about learning to live with an open heart,
        a receptive mind,
        an appreciative spirit,
        expecting God to be faithful,
        expecting God to show up in the wilderness.
    Whether the wilderness is personal, cultural, political, or spiritual.
    The spiritual practice of expressing gratitude
        can go a long way toward helping us thrive in our wilderness—
        whatever the cause of the wilderness may be.

Life is uncertain.
    Anywhere this side of the Promised Land—
        and to be sure, we are not there yet—
        we will, always, be unable to manage or control our lives.
    Management and control are the way things work back in Egypt,
        under the domination of Empire.
    Yieldedness and receptivity and vulnerability
        are the way life can flourish in the wilderness.

As we get closer to Election Day, and beyond,
    as the world keeps turning around and time passes,
    may the gift of gratitude be ours in abundance.

And may our prayer, our hope, our faith,
    be that God will meet us in the wilderness,
        in the very place of emptiness,
        and fill us with peace.

—Phil Kniss, October 9, 2016

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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Hang in there, keep calm and carry on

World Communion Sunday
Psalm 37:1-9

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          It is easy to become cynical and discouraged these days....about most anything. Just listen to comments and conversations of people around you.  John and I discussed Monday afternoon whether we were going to watch the first presidential debate later that evening.   I wanted to.  He didn’t want to, but we ended up watching it together.  At 11pm we turned the TV off and went to bed.  Sleep did not come quickly nor easily.  You could say we were ‘stirred up’.  Will we watch the next two debates?  I don’t know?  It is hard NOT to get ‘stirred up’, even angry or cynical when we hear what is coming out of the mouths of our politicians.  Where is truth and goodness and respect?  But then, I must confess, I found myself saying some things the next day that were not constructive nor edifying about the candidates.  God forgive me for being so pious, for I am no better than they are. (As I reminded the children last week in children’s time,  out of the same mouth comes good and it was, only two days later and I was guilty of not controlling my tongue!)

          It isn’t only what is happening in the political realm that causes us to feel the way we do.  We become distraught when we watch the evening news and see the violence and fighting going on in countries around the world.  Peace agreements are fragile and don’t last.  Convoys with humanitarian aid and workers are bombed!   Our hearts ache when we see the tears and bodies of children being rescued from underneath rumble because of the destruction on civilian populations.  We have come to anticipate another report on another shooting in another city almost daily in our own country. We read blogs on social media and hear stories describing situations of brokenness or abuse.  It seems to go on and on.

          So what do we do?  How do we live in a time and culture and world when we feel this way and are bombarded daily with things that we can and do worry about, “fret” about, things that stir us up?  I don’t think I am the only one here this morning that is challenged by this. 
           Some of us deal with it by processing our ‘stuff’ with a counselor, or reflecting together with a spiritual director.  Others of us take anti-anxiety pills, when we need them, or another pill to our regimen for high blood pressure.  Some of us try to work out more, running 10 miles)or two) or swimming 15 laps.  Maybe more of us need to spend time in prayer!

          So on Tuesday, day after the debate, I began, once again to pour myself into the texts for this Sunday, with the intention of focusing primarily on the passage from II Timothy 1:1-14, one of my favorite passages.  But it wasn’t working.  I found myself going back again and again to the Psalm for the day, Ps. 37.  Words popped out to me, almost as if they were in bold type.

Trust in the Lord
Take delight in the Lord
Commit your way to the Lord
Be still before the Lord
Wait patiently for the Lord
Hope in the Lord

I read it over and over, commit, be still, wait, hope.  And it is absolutely clear that the trust and hope we are to have is in the LORD, in YAHWEH, our God, not in anything or anyone else!  Not in any earthly king or ruler or president or political party or even religion.   But in the LORD!  I think it is the message for us today. 

          This Psalm, attributed to David, is not written by a young David, but by David with some years on him.  Verse 25: “I was young and now I am old...”  Maybe this is an old grandfather David, with words of wisdom born out of his long life and experiences, that he wants to convey and leave for his grandchildren, for the generations to come.  He seems to be saying, “don’t you be concerned, fretting about the evil in the world, or distracted by those evildoers.  The Lord will take care of them!”  It is clear from the very beginning there is a wrong way and a right way to respond to the wicked.  “Do not leads only to evil.  Refrain from anger and turn from wrath.”

          If you read the entire 40 verses of the Psalm, (which is worth reading), we find many places indicating the fate of the wicked...., “ they will be destroyed, cut off, their power will be broken, their own swords will pierce their own hearts and their bows will be broken.”  The psalm leaves no doubt the fate of their future.  James Waltner in his commentary writes, “Life with God is full of hope and strength.  Without God, it is doomed to destruction.” (p. 193)

          Part of our struggle is also that the psalmist uses words like, ‘soon’ and, ‘in a little while’, these things will be taken care of and God will be victorious, but here it is the 21st century!  How do we live in faith, in hope, in a world where it sometimes seems that evil is all around us and is taking over?  How do we build greater trust and confidence in God in a time when keeping faith is difficult?   We need to tell ourselves and remind others, “hang in there, keep calm and carry on”, when we are in the midst of the storm!  We know that in God’s time, God will be victorious and keep the promise.

             But how do we “wait for the Lord” and what do we do in the meantime?

          The psalmist seems to encourage us to take a long view of history.  We need to focus on the big picture, to look beyond our own little space and sphere and timeline.  We are part of something bigger than most of us can ever imagine.  On World Communion Sunday, we remind ourselves that the body of Christ includes our brothers and sisters from around the world speaking different languages, breaking different breads, observing communion in different ways, but thanks be to God, in Christ, we are one!

          So as we hang in here and ‘wait’, ...for whatever it is that we find ourselves waiting for..... test results, healing, reconciliation, direction for our lives, waiting for God’s promise to be realized, whatever we might be waiting for, I have 4 suggestions to make that may be helpful for us during this time.

1.)  LOOK for stories of hope and tell them.   Where is hope pushing through the pain or evil or brokenness?  Where is God at work in the world?  The story of hope may be part of your story or it may be something you read or heard from another.  Tell it to others to encourage and inspire and give testimony to God’s love and faithfulness and compassion that are new every morning.
2.)  LISTEN for words of wisdom.  Share them, write them down.  They may come from your grandmother, a church leader, a young adult.  The words might be something you read, even from a cryptoquote in the paper.  Psalm 37:30-31 states, “The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom, and their tongues speak what is just.  The law of their God is in their hearts, their feet do not slip.”
3.)  WATCH for opportunities to speak out, when your voice needs to be heard, when your insights and experience needs to be shared and when injustice needs to be confronted.  The passage from II Timothy 1 for today reminds us that the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline..   especially self discipline.  May we use what has been given to us wisely.
4.)  WORK in your own context to build bridges of peace and reconciliation.  As much as we know and see and care about the global community and what is happening around the world, we realize that we can do very little that has significant impact on the big problems, but we can do some things in our very own city, neighborhoods and state. (It’s happening in H’burg with Faith in Action, and the work of CWS and refugee resettlement)  One of the verses in Psalm 37 states: “Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.  For the lord loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones.” (vs. 27-28)

A story of Hope:
          Last week I read an article in the last issue of Canadian Mennonite that covered what is happening in the country of Colombia.  At the end of August a peace agreement was reached after 52 years of civil war, that took the lives of est. 220,000, and left over 8 million homeless.  That doesn’t include those who “disappeared”.  On Tuesday I was pleased that the DN-R, on page 2, also covered  the story of the signing of this peace agreement that happened on Monday, and included a wonderful photo of the leaders. The President Juan Manuel Santos and the top commander of the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, Rodrigo Londono, worked through 4 years of hard negotiations to reach this agreement.  Today, Oct. 2, the country of Colombia will vote on this national referendum that will determine if it takes effect.  Cesar Garcia, president of MWC lives in Bogota, and says that when this peace agreement was finalized, “the sense of relief in that country was huge.”  Colombian Mennonites have long been leaders in terms of Anabaptist peace practice.  During the civil war, several rural MC congregations were destroyed, other churches were persecuted from both sides, some served as refuge for the homeless.  Today the people decide whether a restorative vision will take hold in a nation with deep scars and open wounds?  Whether the prospect of peace will prevail after 52 years of struggle?  What will true justice look like in such a complex and bloodied situation that has lasted a lifetime for some citizens?  Paul Stucky, a Mennonite who is from Berne, IN and a former classmate of my husband, has lived and worked in Colombia for many years.  We talked with him last year at MWC.  In the CM article, he asks, “Will the ‘underlying distrust’ that is evident on both sides transform into something resembling reconcilitation?”
          In Tuesday’s paper, the commander of the revolutionary forces repeated the movements’ request for forgiveness for the war.  I apologize...for all the pain that we have caused.” That apology may not be enough for some people, but it is a huge beginning in the long process in implementing the promises, if it is passed by the people today.
          Cesar Garcia stated, “Many victims on all sides will need to forgive.”
I believe this is a story of hope.  For our brothers and sisters who may be observing communion today in countries around the world, especially in Colombia, may our prayers and thoughts be lifted up together, in gratitude for what God has done through Jesus, so that we can join together as one body in Christ, breaking bread and sharing the cup, at God’s table of grace, of peace, of love, of hope, of joy.  AMEN

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