Sunday, December 24, 2017

Let it be with me according to your word

Yes! Let it be now!

Advent 4 reflections by Roxy Allen Kioko, Phil and Loretta Helmuth, Cathy Bowman, and Jackie Hieber

Romans 16:25-27
Psalm 116:5-9, 16-19
Luke 1:26-38

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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Mark Hurst: Mary’s song

Advent 3: Let it be whole
Luke 1:46b-55
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Phil Kniss: “The end is at hand!” (and why we should care)

Advent 2: Let it be so
2 Peter 3:8-15a

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I grew up in the Mennonite church of the 60s and 70s,
with lots of teaching and preaching about “end times.”
It was a frequent subject of Sunday sermons in church.
But revival meetings were also in their heyday,
and the second coming of Christ
was a common topic in revival preaching.
And at least once a year,
our church would invite in a guest preacher for revival meetings,
preaching every night of the week,
always including an altar call,
some appeal to be ready for the return of Christ.

I dug around some old Park View church files a while back,
and found we also did that here during those decades.
Park View often had these revival meetings
between Palm Sunday and Easter,
what we now call “Holy Week” (but we never used that term).
That was before Mennonites ever heard of Advent and Lent.

The late G. Irvin Lehman holds the record
for the most sermons preached in a week at Park View.
One year he preached 9 sermons in 8 days.
Started Palm Sunday morning,
then all seven nights that week,
and ending Easter Sunday morning.
I asked G. Irvin about that some years back, before he died,
and he sort of remembered it.

I would surmise that every one of those services was well-attended,
and every one of those services included
an invitation to be made right with Christ,
as a first-time commitment or a renewal.
Because, we needed to be ready,
since nobody knew when Christ would return.

I don’t speak of this era critically, in any way.
For its time, I think those methods made sense
for how we saw the world,
and for what we believed faithfulness looked like.
And revival meetings often did have good outcomes.
Persons became more dedicated to following Jesus.
They renewed their commitment to mission work,
or service abroad.
They deepened their life in the Spirit.
All good.

But this was also a time when some things,
at least as I see it now, got a little skewed.
That same time period saw the publishing of Hal Lindsey’s books
the “Late, Great, Planet Earth.”
Many of our Mennonite young people and adults ate it up.
Hal Lindsey in the 1970s,
and the “Left Behind” series of more recent decades,
all promoted a literalist, pre-millennial,
dispensational eschatology.
Those are technical terms, meaningless to many of you,
that the church used to argue over, vehemently.
And there’s more where those came from.
I won’t even mention the subsets of premillennialism,
like pre-tribulation, post-trib, and mid-trib
the cause of many a church split.

To say it in plain English, dispensationalists
believe we can divide God’s work in history
into distinct ages, or dispensations,
where God works in different ways,
with different moral expectations of us humans.

It’s a way to deal with the conflicts
between the Old and New Testaments.
It’s also a way to explain
what’s going on in the world now.
Hal Lindsey and others saw the world in 1970
as on the brink of the rapture, and the return of Christ.
Frequent famines, wars, and earthquakes were a sign.
International alliances were a sign.
The Communist threat was a sign.

1970 looked like the beginning of the last dispensation.
That’s the church I grew up in.
Any day . . . any day . . . Christ would come back
in a cataclysmic rapture,
and take the faithful up into heaven, if you were ready,
and then would come a 7-year period of
great tribulation on the earth.
That is, if you were a pre-trib premillennialist.
When I was a teen, our church showed the film Thief in the Night,
showing some Christians being taken in the rapture,
and some being left behind,
with Larry Norman on the soundtrack singing,
“I wish we’d all been ready.”
That film—and I am choosing my words carefully and accurately—
scared the hell out of me . . .
and presumably . . . the heaven into me.

It used fear of being left behind as a primary motivation
to live a faithful Christian life.
And my young mind and spirit were susceptible to this fear.
How well I remember some sleepless nights,
wondering if this would be the last one,
and worrying I might not be ready.

Since EMU’s Centennial history book just came out,
let me jump back a few decades earlier,
and point out that end times theology
was a source of great controversy and conflict
in the early days of Eastern Mennonite College.
Premillenialism was the dominant view, on campus,
and generally, among Mennonites in the east.

Bible prof C. K. Lehman was one of few a-millennialists
that did not buy into that popular time-line.
Harold Lehman could tell you more about his family dynamics.
As some of you know,
we live in the house on College Ave that Harold grew up in.
His father, professor and Bishop D. W. Lehman,
was a premillennialist.
And did not see eye-to-eye with his fellow professor . . .
and brother who lived next door, C. K. Lehman.
So the arguments didn’t happen only on the EMU campus.
They found their way into family gatherings,
probably around the table at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

These were not just abstract theological arguments.
They could determine how people prioritized their lives.
The belief that Christ would return in the near term,
before the millennium,
gave these early Mennonites strong motivation
to engage in mission work and evangelism,
and service overseas.
It was an act of compassion, not only to feed the hungry,
but to see that souls were saved before it was too late.

I imagine if it were not for this premillennial motivation,
some Mennonite hospitals in India,
may never have been built, over 100 years ago,
and inner-city mission churches in Chicago and Philadelphia
would not have been founded,
which gave us rural Mennonites a head start
on bridging some of divisive racial hostilities,
that boiled up in cities during the Civil Rights era.

So in today’s more enlightened way of thinking,
we might want to congratulate ourselves
that we’re not being so foolish anymore.
We’re not arguing and dividing the church over silly things
like whether we get raptured
before, during, or after the Great Tribulation.

But what if the way we look at the end,
actually did make a difference in how we live right now?
If so, how should we look at the end? And how should we live?
That seems like a worthwhile question.

And it’s precisely the question the writer of 2 Peter
was posing to the church of that day.
Did you hear this, a few minutes ago?
“Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be?” (v. 11)

In 2 Peter 3, that question shows up
in the middle of a section describing the end times—
“How, then, shall we live?”
And the writer summarizes,
“Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things,
strive to be found by him at peace.”

The date and authorship of 2 Peter are disputed.
But no matter when it was actually written down, and by whom,
the writer clearly intends us to read it as a letter
from the apostle Peter, in the mid-60s AD,
just before Peter was martyred by Nero.

The church during the time of the apostles
believed that the return of Jesus was just around the bend.
As in . . . maybe in a few weeks or a couple months,
but very, very soon.
They had good reason to think that.
They had a living memory of Jesus.
Jesus’ own words were still ringing in their ears.
“I’m coming back.”
Not only that,
they were suffering a time of severe persecution.
The sword of the Empire and the power of religious leaders
were pressing in.

So the idea that Jesus was about to come,
and whisk them away from the horror that was life on earth,
was a compelling idea, as you might imagine.
Their view of the end, determined how they lived.
Since the end was coming so soon,
some of them quit their jobs,
some of them walked away from marriages,
some of them sold homes and possessions,
and just hunkered down to wait it out together.
It was a reasonable response
to their time of suffering,
and their belief that the end was near at hand.

The letter of 2 Peter is specifically trying to change that mindset.
No, he writes, it’s not time to hunker down and wait it out,
and forget about your other responsibilities.
It’s time to keep discerning how to live faithfully,
and be at peace with your neighbors,
and with holiness and justice and righteousness NOW,
not just in a future age.
The Lord is not slow, as we regard slowness. (v. 9)
With the Lord, a thousand years are like a day,
and a day is like a thousand years.
God is patient.
So should you be patient, Peter says.

Things are going to get worse before they get better. (vv. 10-12)
But there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
The timing is not clear to us.
But God is moving, and is on a trajectory.
God is moving toward our salvation,
and the salvation of all whom God loves,
not wanting anyone to perish. (vv. 9 and 15)

Peter exhorts the church,
“This is not a time to pull back from engagement in the world.
This is a time to engage.
This is a time to live in holiness.
This is a time to be found blameless and at peace.”

The more I thought about these words to the early church,
who believed in the imminent return of Christ,
the more I saw parallels to our own context.
No, we don’t live with a day-to-day expectation of being raptured.
But think about this.
The world today is in turmoil.
And the church is under duress.

So how should a stressed and wounded church
live in a broken and desperate world?

Maybe, as in the days of Peter and the apostles,
what we believe about “the end”
will make a difference in how we live in turbulent times.
In our anxiety and fear,
do we get reactive and defensive
and lash out at those who threaten us?
Or, in our feeling threatened,
do we pull away from society and hunker down?
shutting out the pain of the world,
as if we were in some underground bomb shelter?
Or, do we say the only thing that matters is our spiritual wellbeing,
so just ignore the world that is falling apart around us,
and stay focused only on our personal relationship with Jesus,
and live in joyful oblivion?

Those are choices people make,
influenced by what they think about “the end.”
And those choices all seem to be either fight or flight.
I think there is a better choice than fight or flight.
Call it transformative engagement.

And it comes from a different way of thinking about “the end.”

I admit my sermon title has a slightly devious hidden meaning.
I did not mean “the end is at hand” as in,
Chicken Little’s cry that “the sky is falling,”
or that the world is about to blow up.
I mean “end” as in “purpose” or “agenda” or “mission.”
I mean God’s trajectory, where things are pointing.

That “end” is “at hand.”
It is here. It is knowable. It is accessible.
Scripture makes clear what God’s trajectory is,
what “end” God has in mind.
That end is for the restoration of all that God loves,
for the salvation of all that God created.

So if we stay focused on God’s ongoing agenda for us and all creation,
if we stay focused on God’s promise
to bring about new creation—new heaven and new earth—
and if we no longer obsess over a timeline for our escape,
I think it will lead us toward a more healthy engagement
with a deeply wounded and violent world.

2 Peter 3 asked the early church, “How do we live now?”

We have the same question.
How do we live in a dark world
where violence and all manner of evil continue to hold sway?
where the powerful oppress the vulnerable,
and get away with it?
where sexual and other forms of violence
are tolerated, excused, denied?
from the commander-in-chief to obscure state legislators
from clergypersons to public radio personalities?

I don’t need to repeat the litany of expressions of evil
that fill our newsfeed every hour of every day.

What I’m longing for, so desperately these days,
is a way to hold anger and hope simultaneously,
in creative tension with each other.

I want a way to maintain my righteous anger,
to name things for what they are,
to refuse to normalize evil behavior and evil systems.
At the same time, I want to live in the sure and certain hope,
that God’s end, God’s trajectory, is already at work now,
and moving toward its fulfillment, praise God!
And we, the church,
are invited, even urged, to join in this movement of God,
as 2 Peter 3 says,
“waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.”

Sitting it out is not a faithful option.
Hoping to escape it all is not what we are called to.
Rather, living lives of holiness, and peace, and justice,
participating in God’s work of “making things right”
is how we wait for, and hasten, the day of the Lord.

So let us be angry when evil rears its ugly head,
wherever it shows up,
and in whomever it shows up.
Let that drive us to acts of resistance against that evil,
and work for truth and justice and compassion.
Let us work in ways that lead to transformation.

But let us also rest in a deep trust in God’s unstoppable purpose,
God’s promised end,
God’s intention for this world that will one day be made new.

Let us be angry, but not lose ourselves in despair.
Let us lament, but not give up a life of joy.
Let us work hard, but not without rest and peace.

Because God is here now, and God is moving us toward his end.
Or as C. S. Lewis put it, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,
“Aslan is on the move—perhaps he has already landed.”

This work of overcoming evil is God’s work.
And our fervent prayer is, “Let it be so!”

Turn in the green book, Sing the Journey 54 —
Longing for light, we wait in darkness.

This song gives voice to our longing,
our dissatisfaction with the way things are,
and calls out to God to come with God’s light.
But it holds together our work and God’s work,
in a beautiful way.
Make us your people, light for the world.
Make us your living voice.
Make us your bread, broken for others.

—Phil Kniss, December 10, 2017

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Sunday, December 3, 2017

Phil Kniss: We are ready. Bring it on!

Advent 1: Let it be
Mark 13:24-37; Isaiah 64:1-4, 8-9

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Do you know how it feels to be utterly desperate for change?
for something or other to be radically transformed?
made new? restarted?
be that change in your personal life?
in your family?
in your church?
in our country?
in the world?
I imagine you do know what that sense of yearning feels like.
I imagine if I polled all of you this morning,
and asked what kind of deep change you are looking for,
and how intense your longing is for that change,
I would get a whole range of answers.

But answers, I would get!
That strong and hopeful, yet fearful, longing for radical change,
is common to the human experience,
and is our focus in worship this morning.
That is where these scripture readings take us.
Isaiah the prophet, the psalmist, the Gospel writer.
They all give powerful voice to this basic human longing
for all that is wrong in our world,
to be made right . . .
and soon!!

Isaiah put it in the strongest terms.
The prophet’s language is the most bracing, the most vivid,
the most disruptive, and even violent,
in the images it conjures up.
He expresses his own deep longing,
and the longing of his people,
when he asks God to break in and interrupt
what had become, for his people, a new normal—
a horrible, oppressive, new normal.

Verse 1: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!”

Isaiah is asking God to rip open the sky,
and shake the earth.
He is asking God to come down like fire
that burns up everything in its path,
to confront all the enemies of God with God’s fiery wrath,
to make the nations of the world shake in their boots.

Verse 2: “As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!”

I confess, these last few years, months, weeks,
I’ve had that sort of spirit in my prayers.
As I see terrorist attacks and extremist ideology
keep growing and expanding around the world.
As I watch powerful rulers
turn a blind eye to the suffering of the vulnerable.
As I take note that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
As I grieve the tidal wave of revelations of sexual violence.
As I see political cooperation,
and a basic trust in human goodwill
go down the tubes . . .
the more I am drawn to this prayer of the prophet,
“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”
Make it stop!
Make it new!
Shut down the workers of evil!
Heal this land!

We are approaching the end of autumn.
Winter arrives in a few weeks,
at least as measured by the calendar,
and the movement of our earth around the sun.
Measured in some other ways,
I could say we are in the dead of winter.
Those elements that make for a fruitful and joyful life together,
seem to be in a deep freeze.

That’s why this prayer of Isaiah speaks so powerfully to us.
Our situation is not too far removed from theirs.
The people of Israel were also stuck in winter.
This prayer comes toward the end of the book,
when the Exile is over, or nearly over,
and restoration is almost at hand.
But they have been through generations of back-to-back winter,
generations of suffering,
of being displaced and dislocated.
They have not known a fruitful season,
in their lifetime.
“If only,” is their prayer.
“If only you, Yahweh, would become our ally again,
instead of the God who left us to our sorrows.”
“If only you would tear open the heavens,
and show yourself again . . . For real.”

We, and they, in the midst of the long winter,
are praying for a great thaw.
Praying for the light and life and warmth of God
to break through.

But the question, of course, is not,
“How shall we pray, when the winter is long?”
We know how to pray, how to plead for a change in seasons.
Rather, the question is,
“How shall we live when the winter is long . . . and live well?”

How shall we live when the God we pray to seems to fall silent?

The first clue, is in Isaiah’s prayer itself.
Isaiah prays not with despair, but with hope and expectancy.
The prophet does not hide his bitter complaint,
“you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” —v. 7
But in virtually the same breath,
he praises God’s great faithfulness over time.
“There is no God like you, since the beginning of the age,
no God has worked for his people, like you have.
You meet those who seek you.” —vv. 4-5.

Expectant . . . but still empty-handed . . .
the prophet prays to a God who will come,
but whose coming is still hidden from view.

It’s a little like the simple visual element you see here on the pulpit,
and on the cover of the bulletin.
This represents a bulb underground,
before anything noticeable has happened to it.
Only a plain brown orb . . . of potential.

Yes, we know what it will become.
A preview of what’s coming is on the poster in the foyer,
but here in this worship space,
on this Sunday,
we are reminding ourselves that part of our calling,
is to wait . . . through the long winter.

We trust spring is coming.
Even when any evidence is still in hiding.

Sometimes our fervent prayers for spring
just echo in the darkness.
Sometimes, when we plead for God to rip open the heavens,
the skies stay gray and overcast.

So how do we live in the winter?
How do we live now, during a long hard winter?
Yes, we do believe, deep down,
that winter will someday give way to spring.
But we don’t know when,
or even if we will see it in our lifetime.

Here’s the advice of Jesus, from today’s Gospel.
“Stay alert . . . beware . . . keep awake . . .
for you do not know when the master of the house will come,
in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn,
or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Mark 13: 33ff.

The end of the winter that moves into spring,
the restoration of life as it should be,
the day of God’s great salvation—
it’s a surprise we know is coming.

It’s like when someone is throwing you a surprise birthday party,
and you accidentally overheard some whispers about it.
You didn’t hear when, where, or how it will unfold.
You only know something is going to happen.
So you go through your days with your antenna up.
Alert. Aware. Looking for clues.
It will be a surprise.
But you know it’s coming.

By using this image of the bulb during Advent,
we are proclaiming, again and again,
that God’s intent is clear,
God’s purposes are persistent.
Like a spring flower that pushes itself out of the hard earth,
with unstoppable strength, and a fragile tenderness,
God’s purposes will be fulfilled.

The force of life in the spring can be counted on.
In the same way, God, in the winter of human suffering and distress,
can be relied on to be present, to be active,
with tenderness and strength,
moving us toward life and fruitfulness.

The coming of the light of God into our darkness
can be counted on,
but it can be missed if we are not alert.

Advent is a time to remind each other not to doze off.
We can’t afford to be found sleepwalking.
It’s a time to live life on the edge of our seats,
to live life with eyes wide open.

what passes for life, especially this time of year,
in our consumeristic self-oriented culture,
are things that do the opposite . . .
things that put us into a dazed, semi-conscious stupor . . .
like the Christmas retail frenzy
that is not as advertized.
Yes, the ads tell a certain story—
that the world will be full of beautiful smiling people,
embracing, laughing, talking, crying,
long-lost friends will be suddenly reconciled,
when someone gets a great price
on the newest electronic gadget, tool, game,
fragrance, jewelry, or clothing.

Christmas shopping has devolved into emptiness.
Anyone who is paying attention to the bigger story of God,
will notice the sheer deceit going on there.
Buying trendy Christmas gifts is not
about strengthening ties to the people in your life,
or about building relationships.
It’s about giving a boost to the retail sector.

Living attentively, in the middle of the “winter of our discontent,”
means being the gift, not buying the gift,
means slowing down, not speeding up,
means spending real time with our children,
or sitting down with a neighbor,
means taking in the latest dire news
with a spirit of heartfelt prayer, instead of despair,
means taking a real personal interest
in the way people on the fringes of our community
experience the holiday season—
those living alone, in poverty, with chronic illness.

Seems to me that our responsibility in this world,
during Advent, and during any season of the year, for that matter,
is much the same as the responsibility
of bridesmaids and groomsmen in a wedding party.
For a good reason, these persons are called “attendants.”
They attend the bride and groom, literally.
They pay attention, which is the meaning of “attend.”
Their main job is to pay perfect attention
to the activities and words
and everything happening there at the center,
with the bride and groom.

Even their physical posture is an act of attending.
They stand facing the couple,
watching, waiting, paying full attention.
They serve as a powerful visual demonstration
of what the rest of the congregation should be doing.

The attendants are ones who are closest,
paying attention publicly, front and center,
while the rest of us in the congregation
are also attending,
but at a greater distance.

The congregation in the pews can get away
with not paying as close attention.
Congregants can get distracted,
and no harm will come,
no embarrassment to the couple.

A congregant can whisper to a fidgety child.
Or blow their nose quietly.
Send a text or tweet.
The wedding attendants can’t do that.
Their job is to attend
fully, completely, without interruption.

In the life God gave us, that’s our job.
In Advent, and all year long,
we are Christ’s attendants,
paying full attention on behalf of the rest of the world.

When we come together like this to worship—
we who believe in the God revealed to us in human form—
our job is to attend, fully,
to pay attention to what God is up to now
in God’s ongoing ministry of reconciliation and redemption,
to assume a posture of readiness to participate,
to keep our attention on Christ,
the one at the center.

That way,
when God does break through into our earthly reality,
in whatever form that takes, we will be ready.
We will be in a position to point it out to those who didn’t notice.
So that more might be ready to receive God’s good gift
of presence, of peace, of making all things new.

In fact, we will be more than ready.
We will be willing it on.
We will be hastening the day
(to quote a phrase from next Sunday’s scripture).

The title for this worship series is “Yes! Let it be!”
It comes from Mary’s words to the angel
who announced she would bear the Messiah.
Mary said, “Let it be with me, according to your word.”
But that’s no passive, “Let it be.”
It’s not a “whatever!”
It’s a strong, determined, “Let it be!”
That’s the force of the verb used there.
It’s as if Mary said, “Bring it on!”

Part of living out our role as attendants to God,
is the act of saying “We are ready,”
and praying, “Bring it on!”

This is why we engage in age-old Christian practices,
like gathered worship,
like reading scripture,
singing psalms,
This is how we do our job as attendants for God.

We invite God to break through the overcast sky,
rip a hole in the heavens, and come down.
Because we are ready for you.
We are ready to participate in whatever you have for us.
Bring it on!

As soon as we say that, however,
a predictable response is to pull back in fear.
We are never quite sure what God’s inbreaking will demand of us.
We say we are ready,
but are we, really?

And that brings us to another age-old Christian practice,
that of confession.

Let us now acknowledge both our anticipation of God’s coming,
and our fear of what that might mean for us.

Join with me in this prayer of confession.
one   O God of power and might,          we say, “tear open the heavens and come down!”all   yet we tremble at the   We confess that though we know the glory of your light,          we resist the dark, empty voidall   where your Spirit hovers over the   We shake like leaves in the wind,          fearful of what you might ask,all   afraid to trust you   Caught up in the swirling of our worldwe struggle to “let it be.”all   Forgive us, O God.
(pause for silence)
one   O God, Emmanuel,all   in Jesus the Christ you have come among us;          help us not to be afraid.

Let’s sing together from Sing the Journey 105 . . . Don’t be afraid.

—Phil Kniss, December 3, 2017

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