Sunday, October 29, 2017

Phil Kniss: How do I love thee, neighbor? Let me count the ways

The defining ethic of love
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matthew 22:34-46

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Again, I found an unexpected treasure in the biblical text,
by approaching it in the most simple way I know.

I didn’t decide ahead of time,
on a topic to address, and a point to make,
and then search and find scripture verses
to support my topic and make my point.

These texts were handed to me, on a platter, by the lectionary calendar.
I started with them,
and tried to read them while paying attention
to their context, and mine.

Whenever we read scripture,
we read two worlds in conversation with each other—
the world of the text, and our world.
We try to understand what was written,
by whom, to whom,
on what occasion, and for what purpose.
And we try to read our own world,
aware of its wounds, its troubles, its violence,
and noticing its beauty, its goodness, its complexity.

So as I read the designated scriptures for this Sunday,
I brought to mind things already swirling in my mind and heart.

I’m sure I’m not the only one lately,
dealing with heaviness of spirit
as we navigate daily life in this broken world.
If you have your eyes open at all,
you can’t help but notice the emotional toll its taking
on our society, our culture.

There’s no letting up.
The many-layered woes of the world keep piling on.

Intractable global conflict threatens the peace of our planet,
from North Korea, to Afghanistan, to Nigeria,
to Israel-Palestine, to you name the place.

Natural disasters—superstorms, drought, wildfires—
are made more devastating because of climate change.
The loss of human life and community from this, is mind-blowing.

Political discourse in our society keeps hitting new lows,
from the White House on down.
Distortions, lies, insults, and plain old nastiness
is excused, and now so commonplace, as to appear normal.

And churches—local congregations and denominations alike—
struggle to maintain unity and keep up missional momentum,
in the face of a polarized and disillusioned membership.
All across the church, people are leaving in droves,
weary of all the divisive rhetoric,
grasping for some way forward
that embraces both radical truth-telling
and unconditional love and mutual respect for all.

Those are all the things going on in the background of daily life,
virtually all the time.

And as if that weren’t enough . . .
as if everything in the universe wasn’t already aligning itself
against any semblance of healing and hope for the future,
it got worse recently.

A couple weeks ago, as I began to think about these scripture texts
we were confronted anew by the shameful reality
that there continues to be widespread violence against women,
perpetrated largely by men in positions of power,
and covered up, kept in the shadows,
by people and systems that seem to have too much to lose,
to speak the hard truth, and break the cycle of violence.

And the scourge of white supremacy bubbled up again,
this time at the University of Florida, in Gainesville,
where our family spent seven years.

So it was that this preacher—
as I held in recent memory the hateful and violent actions
of white supremacists in Charlottesville, and elsewhere . . .
as I followed, with horror,
the revelations about Harvey Weinstein
and the code of silence that protected him so long,
as I saw millions of women
break the silence on sexual violence
by saying “me too” on social media—
so it was that I went to today’s texts,
especially the Old Testament reading from Leviticus,
and found what I think we need to hear today.

Leviticus is another one of those sections of scripture
that don’t show up very often in my sermons.
But this week, this passage, Leviticus 19,
practically shouted out to me.

Let me read it again, slowly,
as you hold in your awareness all these things I just named . . .
the emotional, physical, and sexual cruelty
we human beings inflict on each other,
the hatred and bigotry, and demeaning behavior on display
in the public arena,
and all manner of other ways we harm each other in this world.

Hear the word of the Lord . . .

1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel
and say to them: ‘Be holy . . . because I, the Lord your God, am holy.

15 “‘Do not pervert justice;
do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the powerful,
but judge your neighbor fairly.
16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people.
“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.
I am the Lord.
17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart.
Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt.

18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge
against anyone among your people,
but love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the Lord.

In those few verses,
there are words that speak to any and everyone,
whatever their role, in these woes that we named.
There are words to challenge . . . confront . . . disturb . . .
and at times, comfort.

Leviticus is not to be dismissed, as a book.
I know, Leviticus is kind of the poster child
for irrelevant and arcane biblical material,
like details on how to cut meat when doing burnt offerings,
on why we may not eat rabbits and pigs,
but may eat locusts and crickets,
on how to treat skin disease,
on rules not to plant your field with two kinds of seed,
or make clothing of two different fabrics.
. . . and many, many more laws that make us scratch our heads.

But looking at the larger view,
Leviticus tells us that holiness matters, because God is holy.
This is about removing anything that would cut us off,
as a people,
from a vibrant relationship with the holy God
who loves us dearly.
It’s not so much about naming individual sins,
so individual sinners can be identified and punished.
It’s more about maintaining holiness in the community.
It establishes a ritual order for the people of Israel,
that mirrors the cosmic order that a holy God created.
Maintaining right order allows life to flourish,
chaos to be kept at bay,
and creates a space for God to dwell with God’s people.

Leviticus does not make a big distinction
between religious and secular concerns.
All of life matters—
what we eat, how we do business,
who we sleep with, how we care for the land,
how we relate to family, neighbors, and strangers.
Some of the specifics we are wise to set aside in our context,
as culturally-specific or time-limited.
This is why we observe, and hold with care,
the world of the text in one hand,
and our world in the other,
and do good discernment.
But ethics in daily life still matter.
There is still a holy God we relate to,
who asks us for a holy place in which to dwell.
So there is still “Gospel” in Leviticus.

Yes, when we speak of holiness,
there is a risk—a high risk—
that we fall into a legalistic score-keeping mentality,
and think of God’s love as a reward for good behavior,
and spend our time and energy keeping score on each other.
We have fallen off the wrong side of that ledge many times,
in our Mennonite history and tradition.

But we need not give up on holiness.
It is a core characteristic of God,
and a characteristic God wants us to also embody.

Holiness is how we can become whole persons,
as in, holistic, as in experiencing deep shalom.
Our lives before God are a unified whole.
God cares how we live, always, and in every arena.
And God is equally concerned with how we deal with God,
and how we deal with others.

As Jesus said, famously, in today’s Gospel reading,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . .
and . . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Those are the two core commandments.

And of course, in that second command,
Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19.
This passage from Leviticus, ending with
“you share love your neighbor as yourself”—
gives details about what love of neighbor looks like, in life.
How do I love thee . . . neighbor?
How do I love thee?  Let Leviticus 19 count the ways.
(Sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning)

So it seems to me, that since Jesus quotes this chapter directly,
and the chapter gives us concrete examples of how we love,
then here is stuff from Leviticus we better pay attention to.

Parts of this text seem to point to opposite values.
But I don’t think they are conflicting ideas.
I see them as ideas that clarify and help interpret each other.

For instance,
Do not go about spreading slander . . .
and . . .
Rebuke your neighbor frankly.

If we only read the one, “do not go about spreading slander,”
we might be tempted to keep quiet in the face of evil.
And I think we often have erred on that side of the equation,
and gone silent when we should be speaking,
especially in the area of sexual violence,
and racial bigotry.
That’s why we also need the command,
“rebuke your neighbor frankly.”

Of course, if we only highlight the command to rebuke,
and ignore the rest of the passage—
commands like “judge your neighbor fairly”—
we might end up adding to the injuries already inflicted.
Even in rebuke, there must be justice, and truth, and yes, love.

Holding these together might help us find a way forward.

I especially am drawn to the command in v. 16.
“Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.
I am the Lord.”

When one of these commands is followed by the statement,
“I am the Lord,”
it bears paying special attention.
It’s like an exclamation mark. Or all CAPS.
Here this now!!
Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life!

What is so tragic in the area of sexual violence,
and racial bigotry,
and many other forms of human cruelty,
is that these acts of violence—
whether physical, sexual, verbal, or otherwise—
do, in fact, endanger life.
Every bit as much, and maybe more,
than an injury that draws blood or leaves a physical scar,
these acts keep someone created in the image of God—
for whom God desires wholeness, and joy, and freedom—
they keep them from living fully into God’s intention.
They endanger the life God gave them to live.

There is no room in my life as I aim for holiness,
and no room in a community that values holiness,
for us to use our power over another to
injure, demean, objectify, categorize,
or otherwise make another feel less than whole.

And those of us who hold the most power,
bear the most responsibility,
for changing the culture, and stopping the violence.

It’s up to all of us, of course,
but I feel a particular burden, as an older, white male,
given a position of leadership and authority in the church—
an institution where historically,
there has been a shameful amount of racial discrimination,
of gender inequity and injustice,
of sexual harrassment and abuse—
that I have a responsibility to lead us down a different path.

So let me make a few commitments to you, my church family.
Four, actually. And I was helped in articulating these four
by a recent blog post from MaryKate Morse,
a Quaker seminary professor.

My first commitment: I will—we will, as a church—
accept and believe the magnitude of the problem.
Racism is an evil that still deeply and widely infects our culture,
and expressions of racism, both personal and systemic,
are still alive and well in the church,
and in our minds and hearts, individually.
Sexual violence perpetrated by those in power,
against those in a place of lesser power,
is still an evil scourge that plagues our society,
and shows up everywhere there are people in power—
especially (although not only)
where men are in power over women.
Gender power imbalance is still a reality in the church,
so, predictably, sexual violence is still present in the church.
It is a pernicious sin, that we can never assume
is someone else’s problem, and not our own.
So we will accept and believe there is a problem
outside and inside the church.

Second, I commit to keep these problems on the table, and not under it.
I will not shy away from naming them
when I speak publicly.
And I will encourage smaller venues to keep these matters
out in the open,
in Faith Formation classes, small groups,
facilitated conversations, retreats, etc.
Doing so may help those already wounded,
from thinking they are alone,
or that the topic is not acceptable in church.

Third, I’d love to see the work we have done for protecting children,
in our Safe Church policy,
to be a model for developing a broader set of guidelines,
with clear and open channels of communication,
so if any woman, man, youth, or child
experiences any inappropriate touch or comment, or worse,
whether inside or outside the church,
they know where to go and what to do.

Fourth, I’d like us to be proactive
in providing some safe places where individual stories can be told,
and believed, and honored,
and where some healing can happen.
I’m open to ideas about what that might look like.
Talk to me, if you have thoughts on that.

Those are my commitments. Hold me to them.

Now, finally,
a few more comments on “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
What does that mean when many of us
are not particularly good at loving ourselves.
How does self-love become a model for neighbor-love?

I think loving neighbor as self
has something to do with embracing our human complexity.

Even those of us who have trouble loving ourselves fully,
are nevertheless able, I believe,
to see ourselves as complex, multi-faceted beings.

Yes, we know that some parts of ourselves
are more praise-worthy than other parts.
Some parts we might readily love and embrace.
Other parts we might struggle with.
But we recognize our complexity.
We see the beautiful mystery of becoming fully human,
even though we have yet to arrive.
We know ourselves all too well,
to make the mistake of seeing ourselves one-dimensionally.
We don’t take a flat view of ourselves.
We look at ourselves from all kinds of angles.

Now, it will never be possible
to see as much complexity in our neighbors,
as we see in ourselves.
But I think loving our neighbor, as ourselves,
requires that we accept the fact, up front,
that our neighbors are just as beautifully complex as we are.
The constant temptation in human relationships
is to de-complexify, if that’s a word,
to reduce the other to categories.
It takes less energy to live that way,
because if we only see one dimension,
then we know how to respond,
we don’t have to agonize over someone’s complexity,
we don’t have to keep renegotiating the relationship.
It’s set, and done.

But it’s precisely that kind of one-dimensional thinking
toward the other,
that becomes the foundation for racist ideology,
and objectifying others sexually,
and leaves the door open for committing violence.
One-dimensional thinking is what creates enemies.

Sexually suggestive comments, or racist inuendo,
even those comments we might consider mild,
chip away at the humanity of the other.
They diminish our ability to love.

So let us all, I exhort you,
love each other, and love our neighbor, as ourselves.
And let us love the Lord our God, our holy God,
with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.

Being confronted with these two core commandments,
leads us, naturally, toward confession.
Because we recognize many ways we have failed to love like that.

I have come to appreciate and use,
the classic prayer of confession in the Book of Common Prayer—
printed in your bulletin this morning.
It’s a confession used in many traditions,
whenever the people gather to worship.
I have begun to use it in my own daily prayer time,
and it’s good to have it committed to memory.

I invite us to pray it together now . . . in unison.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Almighty God,
you freely pardon all who repent and turn to you,
now fulfill in every contrite heart the promise of redeeming grace;
forgiving our sin, and cleansing us from evil,
through the sacrificial work of Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, October 29, 2017

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Phil Kniss: Learning to kiss the scroll

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-17, Psalm 19:7-11, Matthew 5:17-20

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There is a ritual in Jewish worship that has always intrigued me.
It involves the Torah—what we call the five books of the Law—
or Genesis to Deuteronomy.
Those books are written on a large scroll
and wrapped in an elaborate covering,
and stored in the front of their worship space,
in a beautiful cabinet called the ark.
And when it is taken out, before they read from it,
they walk it all around the congregation,
for the worshipers to kiss the scroll.
They generally do it by touching it with the tips of their fingers,
then touching their fingers to their lips.
So in a way, it’s the scroll kissing them.

I’ve witnessed this multiple times.
In synagogues from Israel to Harrisonburg.
As a ritual, it’s tangible,
And it’s foreign to us—this emotional, relational connection
between the worshiper and the scroll.

We don’t have anything quite like that.
At least most Protestants don’t.
Mennonites don’t.

Catholics sort of do.
When a Catholic priest reads from the Gospel,
he makes the sign of the cross on the book,
then on his forehead, lips, and heart,
symbolizing a prayer that the scriptures be
in our mind, on our lips, and in our heart.

But even that doesn’t quite carry the emotional impact . . .
of a kiss.

What is behind this affection,
that Jewish worshipers have, for the law?
For Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy?

We Christians understand commitment to the Bible.
We understand earnest defense of the Bible.
We understand that large segments of the Christian community,
are fiercely loyal to the text.
Many of us can identify with that kind of rock-solid commitment
to the integrity of the written word of scripture,
contained between the leather covers of our Bible.
But do we ever think of kissing it?

And those of us who read the Bible on our phone,
more than in a book,
well, kissing it is kind of out of the question.

But what I’m reaching for here,
is a deeper understanding of why the affection?
Why this mystical, emotional attachment to a document?
Is there something in our understanding of God, of Yahweh,
and God’s relationship to us,
that our Jewish cousins have retained,
and that we have lost?

Now . . . Jews are just as good as Christians
when it comes to arguing over scripture.
In fact, they probably argue more than we do.
They argue like family.
But their emotional attachment to the scroll is never in question.
Their love and longing for the law is a constant.
Rabbis can argue vehemently
over what a certain verse in the Torah means.
But I suspect they rarely, if ever, accuse a fellow rabbi,
of not loving the law.

But in contrast, I have often heard one group of Christians
accusing another group of Christians,
of not caring about, or being committed to scripture.

I wonder—it’s just a thought, but I think it’s worth pondering—
if we could possibly kindle, across the Christian family,
a deep love and emotional affection for scripture,
a love so deep that kissing it wouldn’t strike us as odd . . .
if we could do that, would our disagreements
over the meaning of certain difficult texts
take on a different flavor?
Maybe we would fight more like family.
(Or at least like Jewish . . . or Greek and Italian families . . .
who argue loud and long,
and then sit down at the dinner table
and laugh at the same jokes,
because their love was never in doubt.)
Maybe we could fight like that in the church,
where our emotional attachment would be unshakeable,
and our shared love for scripture would be assumed.
We’d just realize that some of us take different meanings from it.
Important meanings—
worth arguing over, but not
worth staying away from the dinner table.

So why do Jews kiss the scroll?
It’s all about their story with Yahweh.
I think at the root of this ritual—
even if sometimes it’s just a habit, done without thinking—
at the root of it
is remembering the freedom and identity
that comes from the law.
They do not know who they are without Torah.
And the heart of Torah is just as much the narrative,
as the commandments.
The commandments only make sense
because they are embedded in the story
of a God who set them free from slavery.

That’s truly what is different
from our Christian reading of the Ten Commandments,
and a Jewish reading of Exodus 20.
Our reading is a list of dos and don’ts.
Their reading starts with story.

Let me show you what I mean very specifically, in the text.
If you have your Bible (paper or phone edition),
you might find it helpful to follow along in the text in Exo. 20.
There are a couple versions of the commandments,
in Exodus, and Deuteronomy,
but the Exodus version is what we generally go by.
And even with the Exodus list,
there are several different ways of numbering the ten.
I suppose you know that the stone tablets
did not come down the mountain already numbered,
as illustrated in most pictures you have seen,
with 1 through 5 on one stone tablet with an arched top,
and 6-10 on the other,
in Roman numerals, no less.
The way of numbering the 10 commandments
actually depends on your religious tradition.
I personally favor the Jewish numbering system.
We Christians jump right to “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.”
In Jewish tradition, they start with story.

Look now at Exodus chapter 20.
Number 1 in the Jewish list, is verse 2.
It’s not even a commandment.
It’s a summary of a story—the Jews’ most important story.
“I am the LORD your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery.”
Before we can dive into a list of dos and don’ts,
we have to understand who we are,
and who the person is giving us the list,
and what sort of relationship we have with this person.

Exodus 20, verse 2 is a defining word about this person,
and about the relationship.
The person speaking these words of commands is our God,
the God who brought us out of bondage.
These commandments come from a liberating God,
a God who gave us freedom . . . think of it! . . . freedom!

These commands are not meant to bind us,
they are meant to set us free.
God did not bring God’s people out of the house of slavery,
only to put them in bondage again.

So then, of these ten commandments,
or, as they are more accurately called,
the Decalogue, or Ten Words,
if we start with Word #1,
that the giver of these words is our God,
who brings people out of bondage,
then the rest of the Words, have a different accent.

When we hear the Word,
“You shall have no other gods before me,”
we hear not a burdensome new rule.
We hear . . . “Ah! God frees us from bondage
to a life of endless and hopelessly divided loyalty.”

When we hear the Word,
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to the trivial and profane,
that would rob us of the beauty of the sacred.

When we hear the Word,
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to a life of compulsive busyness,
of constant, anxious, and life-draining pursuit.”

When we hear the Word,
“Honor your father and your mother,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to a shallow, root-less life of individualism,
and a loss of heritage.”

When we hear the Word,
“You shall not kill,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to a life of reciprocal, and escalating violence.”

When we hear the Word,
“You shall not commit adultery,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to a life of insecurity and lack of commitment
in our most intimate human relationships.”

When we hear the Words,
“You shall not steal,
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,
You shall not covet your neighbor’s property,”
we hear . . . “God frees us from bondage
to a life of empty self-interest,
to a false and perverse notion
that life is all about me and my needs.”

These Ten Words are not sterile commands given from on high
by an angry, fearsome God trying to whip people back into shape.
When our spirituality is shaped more by a to-do list,
than by a story of a liberating God,
we start to distort things.
These commandments are the gracious gift of a loving, liberating God—
a God who not only wants to free us from the physical bondage
of suffering as slaves, and
of social oppression of every kind . . .
but who also wants to free us from inward bondage,
wants us to freely enter into a community of
love and freedom and justice,
into a free and right relationship with God and each other.
The Ten Commandments are a gracious gift of love.
They are sweet.
They actually can be the objects of our affection.
We have often lost sight of this fact.

The Psalm writer didn’t.
Take Psalm 19, which we read.
The psalmist is giddy with delight in the law of God,
“The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul . . .
the precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart . . .
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
They are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.”

The law of God gives us a home, a place of belonging,
a place of security, of knowing who we are and whose we are.
The law of God gives a safe and secure home to freed slaves.
The God who brings us out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery,
welcomes us into the house of love and security and freedom.

These commandments do not constrict us,
they free us to be whole people,
they free us to be the people God intended us to be.

Let me repeat. The people God intended us to be.
That phrase points to a core truth for people of faith.
We believe that God has an intention for us,
and for all creation.
Maybe you take for granted that everyone believes that.
That’s not the case.
Not even all Christians seem to grasp this.

It’s one of the legacies of Western late modernism.
We’ve been shaped by a secular view of life
that asserts we are autonomous beings.
We have been led to believe that human freedom means
we are free to be a law unto ourselves,
so long as we don’t infringe on somebody else’s right
to be law unto themselves.
Freedom is not only about being able to choose our own
way of living in this world, to choose our means.
Freedom is being able to choose our own ends,
to choose our own life purpose.

Well, that runs straight up against one of our core theological claims:
we believe our purpose has already been determined by our Creator.
We were created in love, created by love, created for love.
It was God’s gift to us to make us with purpose.
Which is to say, God has a will for us,
and God makes that will known to us.
We are called to obedience,
not as a way to restrict our freedom,
but as a gracious pathway to find the life we were made for.

That may seem radical and counter-cultural to some,
to be given a purpose, rather than to choose our own.
We equate freedom with a pure freedom of choice—
we construct our own ends
and manufacture our own vision of a flourishing life.
The fact that I assert there is a moral law outside ourselves
is a scandal to the modern mind.

Oh, we do have plenty of choice in life.
We can choose any number of paths
toward our God-given purpose.
We can even choose to reject that purpose,
and live in complete rebellion to our Creator.
But what we cannot do, is choose a different purpose.
We can’t choose our purpose,
any more than we choose our species.
Our purpose, our end, our telos, if you will,
is given to us by the only one who has the authority to do so.

These commandments—the Big Ten, and the rest of them—
were intended to help us find our way
toward the life we were meant to live.
They are a gift of God’s grace,
to not leave us floundering alone in the dark.
They lead us home.
That is a truth that might very well
make us want to embrace these commandments,
to kiss the scroll.

At the very least we can proclaim our love for them.
And proclaim the love God expressed for us, in them.

Let us do that now, in song.
HWB 315.

This is a story full of love, a song to set us free,
of God, the Wisdom and the Word, the Keystone and the Key.

—Phil Kniss, October 8, 2017

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