Sunday, September 3, 2017

Phil Kniss: Leaving room

On the Sunday before Labor Day, drawing on lectionary texts Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-28, pastor Phil reminds us that our labor is not for us alone, but is in the service of God and God’s purposes. Thus, we are asked to “leave room” for God to be in the midst of our plans, and allow God to set our agenda and priorities.

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Our European-American culture has an almost mythical work ethic.
Some call it the Protestant work ethic.
Call it what you will, but many of us seem to assume
that a person has a duty to achieve success
through hard work and good management and self-reliance.
In other words, if you want to get somewhere in life,
it’s up to you to make it happen.

You can be responsible, or irresponsible, as a worker.
It’s your choice.
And you reap the consequences.

Countless examples reinforce that ethic.
We know people—even people born into privilege—
who made bad choices,
were not responsible, were not industrious.
And they ended up in what could only be described as failure.

We also know people who started out with very little,
or were born into greatly disadvantaged circumstances,
but they found some internal motivation
to work hard, and sacrifice much.
And they achieved great success in life.

Sure, we admit there are counter-examples,
where hard work and sacrifice did not bring success,
or where success arrived on a silver platter, without much effort.
But we don’t focus on those.
They’re just exceptions that prove the rule.

Typically, we consider it our duty and privilege,
as Americans, as Christians, (and yes) as Mennonites,
to work hard and work smart,
in order to achieve the success that is ours for the taking.

So today, on Labor Day weekend,
I want to spend some time discovering
what scripture has to say about work and calling.
What the Gospel witness is, what the Good News is,
when it comes to the work ethic that runs so deep in our culture,
and in our Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition.

I’ll start with Paul, and move to Jesus.

Romans 12—one of my favorites.
In 34 years of sermons, I think I’ve referred to Romans 12
more than any other chapter in the New Testament.
But I can’t be accused of cherry-picking this text today,
because it’s what the lectionary called for.
Churches all over the world are reading this text today.

The lectionary texts have no connection to Labor Day.
It’s a secular holiday.
But we are reading the scriptures today aware of that context—
that our country is celebrating laborers tomorrow.
All scripture reading should be contextual—
that is reading while paying attention to what’s around us.
That’s what we’re doing today.

So, concerning work, and fulfilling obligations, and doing things,
Romans 12 is a goldmine.
There are more imperatives (commands) in this short reading,
than in any other passage I know in the Bible.
This even beats out the Ten Commandments.
For it’s length, there are more than twice as many commands here.

So this must be a favorite text for people with a strong work ethic,
for people who want clear directives,
so they know what to do,
and once they finish, can check it off as done,
and feel a sense of success, of being master of the list.

One would think that . . . until you actually read them.
These commands turn out to be a problem
for someone trying to manage their lives and labor.
Those driven by a strong work ethic,
who want clear direction,
so they can control the process and outcome, and be successful,
are going to get frustrated
as soon as they put their shoulder to the wheel
of this set of commandments.

As I read down this list of commands,
I see a lot more that ask me to let go, and step back,
than ones that ask me to take hold,
or assume control, or manage the situation.

Just look at the two commands in v. 10
“Be devoted to one another in love.
Honor one another above yourselves.”
When I am devoted to someone else, in love,
that, by definition, limits how devoted I can be
to controlling the outcome and managing my agenda.
Love embraces risk, for the sake of another.
It’s the classic line, “to love someone is to let them go.”
When you “honor someone else above yourself,”
you risk the possibility that the other
may make choices you did not foresee;
you may need to modify the ideal future you mapped out.

And a command like “be patient in affliction,” v. 12,
is no recipe for quick healing of the affliction.
The need for patience may last a lifetime.
If I think my future happiness depends on
my ability to rid myself of my affliction,
I may one day be forced to let go of that illusion,
and find peace with the idea of waiting, a long time.

And v. 13, “share with those who are in need, practice hospitality.”
We don’t get to dictate what needy people do with our compassion.
Whenever we give time, money, talents, or other resources,
we must remind ourselves that these are gifts we give.
A true giver lets go, once the gift is given.

And the practice of hospitality?
There is no spiritual practice that requires
more risk, more vulnerability, more relinquishment,
than the practice of hospitality.
Make no mistake.
Hospitality is not about setting a beautiful table,
and using your entertainment skills
to create a controlled environment
and manage the perfect event.
Hospitality is opening wide your arms to the other,
it’s a posture of vulnerability.
It’s saying my door is open, my life is open.
I am here to be with you,
to listen to you, to serve you,
to attend to who you are and what you need.

Go on down the list of commands in this chapter.
They are nearly all of this nature.
When it comes to blessing those who persecute us,
mourning with those who mourn,
living in harmony with others,
associating with the lowly, and . . .
as far as it depends on us . . . living at peace with everyone . . .
if I am under the illusion that the role of Christian faith
is to help me manage the way my life unfolds,
then these commands blow that idea to shreds.

I love the clarity of the phrase Paul uses in v. 19, about taking revenge.
Yes, you may rightfully be angry.
But, he says, “leave room for God’s anger.”
Leave room.
That phrase could be applied to almost all these commands.

You can make plans for your life; making plans are well and good.
But “leave room” for God’s agenda.
Literally, in the Greek, Paul asks the reader to “make a place.”
Clear out some space.
In whatever we undertake to do,
Paul tells us not to fill up the space
with whatever we think we need to manage the situation.
But clear a spot, make a place,
leave room for God to enter into the middle of it all,
because that’s where God wants to be.
In the middle.

That’s the Good News. That’s the Gospel word for today.
God wants to be with us in the midst of our chaos.
And invites us to leave room.

What I’m describing is the practice of hospitality toward God.

Yes, we have a task list.
Yes, we have a responsibility
to be good stewards of our time and talents and resources.
But ultimately, we fail in our mega-task, or macro-agenda
of participating in God’s saving and reconciling mission,
if we don’t hold lightly to our micro-agenda,
and leave room for God to move in,
and clarify what really needs to be done,
let God rearrange the furniture if needed.

That was the posture of Jesus that we saw
in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 16.

Jesus was given a clear vision of God’s macro-agenda for his life.
And it involved heading to Jerusalem,
and confronting the powers there.
That didn’t fit the picture of the future his disciples had in mind.
They tried to talk him out of it.
“Jesus, you don’t want to go there,” Peter said.
“Your death would derail everything we’re trying to do here.
It would destroy the plan entirely.”

See, they were trying to manage things.
They were not leaving room.

But Jesus left room. He replied to Peter,
“You do not have in mind the concerns of God,
but merely human concerns.”
In other words,
“You have no room for any agenda beyond your own.”

Then he laid down a huge challenge to all his followers.
If you want to be my disciples, you also need to leave room.
Take up your own cross, and follow me.

“Taking up our cross” is not about being morbid.
It’s not a death wish.
It’s not a blindly self-destructive sort of sacrifice.
No, it is a courageous act of faith and love,
that trusts in resurrection,
that trusts in the power of God to overcome evil,
and ensure that God’s purposes prevail.
It is a belief that there is a greater good
than the success of our personal agenda.
Taking up the cross does not diminish us, it completes us.

Because only in that act of leaving room for
God’s will, God’s love, God’s wrath,
God’s justice, God’s saving power—
only in that act of clearing out our overcrowded personal space
will we be able to live into the flourishing life
that our Creator God intends.

This idea of leaving room applies to multiple areas of life.

Can we leave room for God’s initiative, and the flourishing of the other,
when life unfolds in a way that doesn’t mesh with our plans?
when we encounter roadblocks in the workplace?
when we experience unjust treatment by those over us?
when someone treats us with undeserved and persistent hostility?
when we struggle with personal brokenness
and there is no quick fix?
when we face the end of life of a loved one, or even our own life?
when we crumble with grief, or go numb,
in the face of massive human suffering?
when we lose hope in an age of endless
war and terror and oppression?
when our political hopes and dreams,
and our political leaders, fail us?
when the church disappoints us, or doesn’t live up to its potential?

Whenever some aspect of our lives, or our world,
that we had thoughtfully designed and carefully managed,
starts to come unglued, and we are powerless to stop it,
will we be overcome with despair, and give up?

Or will we have the courage to clear out some space,
take some deep breaths,
hold our tongue,
wait . . . and wait,
and invite God into the midst of the chaos,
leaving room for God to move around,
and rearrange some things
to better suit God’s good design for our lives?

We all have a call from God.
All of us.
We were called, at our origins,
to reflect God’s image,
to order our lives around God’s purposes,
and to participate in God’s mission.

We are all called by God.
That is our vocation (which means, literally, calling).
That vocation orients us as Jesus followers.
But it needs room.
We need to clear a space if it has none.

God’s desire is that our daily labor reflects that divine vocation.
Whether that labor is paid or unpaid, full or part-time,
whether we are active in the workplace, or retired,
or still in training—
We are called to offer what we have and who we are
for God’s saving and reconciling mission in the world.

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