Sunday, February 25, 2018

Fr. Daniel Robayo: The covenant with Abraham and Sarah

Lent 2: Living Between: Covenant between God and nations
Genesis 17:1-8, 15-16
Mark 8:31-38, 
Romans 4:13-18

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Father Daniel Robayo, rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Harrisonburg, is our guest preacher on the Second Sunday of Lent, as part of a pulpit exchange among a group of local pastors who meet weekly in an ecumenical text study group. Daniel reflects on today's Old Testament reading from Genesis 17.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Phil Kniss: God, Violence, and Creation

Lent 1: Living Between: Covenant between God and creation
Genesis 9:8-17

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Every time a high season of the church year rolls around—
Lent to Easter, Advent to Christmas—
we look for compelling biblical threads
to tie our worship service together.

Broad strokes are there already.
Advent is about waiting,
preparing for God’s salvation in Jesus,
and the mystery and wonder of Emmanuel, God with us.
Lent is a season of fasting,
repentance, embracing the wilderness,
moving from cross and suffering to resurrection and life.

But we always ask, what’s the particular emphasis this time?
What is the Gospel word for us, here and now,
in this season of this year?

One obvious thing shows up this year, the second year of the cycle.
There’s a lot about covenant.
God’s covenant with Noah, with Creation,
with Abraham’s descendants, and more.

So what is covenant?
Covenant is located in the “space between.”
In any relationship, there is some shared space between.
A covenant establishes how participants function in that space.
Covenant defines the space. Gives it a shape.

That’s why we’re calling the series, “Living Between.”
All the joy, and all the struggle,
occurs as we try to navigate life in the space between.
Between ourselves and God,
between ourselves and the church, the world, creation.
even, often, between parts of ourselves
that are at odds, within us.

At this particular time in our history as a culture and as a church,
the space between is often fraught with pain and confusion,
where chaos and violence often enter into that space,
so maybe this is a very good year for some rich biblical reflection,
and application,
about living between.

So today we look at this space between God and Noah,
or more accurately, between God and all creation—
when God established a covenant with Creation,
right after all but destroying it.

I’ve preached on this flood story before,
it comes around once every three years.
This is a new sermon,
but you may hear me say a few things I said before.
This year in particular,
the message of this story, as I take it, bears repeating.

I was feeling that, even before Thursday’s school shooting in Florida.
I feel it even more strongly now.

This flood story tells us a lot about God,
and it’s not what you might think.
And it’s a picture of God we need to grasp now, more than ever.

This story is, at the same time,
an endearing and whimsical children’s favorite—
with all the cute animals walking up the plank in pairs,
and going for a long boat ride—
and . . . one of the most horrific tales of destruction,
carried out at God’s hands, against humanity and creation.

It’s a challenge, for thinking people, to reconcile
these two stories, that are the same story.

I’ll put aside, for this sermon,
all the debates Christians love to have about this story,
about whether it happened, how it might have happened,
and where the ark is now,
and all manner of other silly questions.
My faith does not rise or fall
on whether I figure out a way to believe this was historical fact.
I’m sad that for some people, it does seem to rise or fall on that.
I think they are missing the beautiful heart of the story.

Let’s not make the mistake of reading this as history or science.
It’s not either one. It is theology.

This biblical story is one of many ancient stories
about a world-wide flood.
These stories came from many different ancient civilizations—
Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Hindu, and more.
Many of them are older than this Hebrew story of ours.
All of them, the Noah story included, attempt, through story,
to explain what kind of God or gods,
sit above the universe, and exercise control over it.

The stories have many similarities, and many differences.
We don’t say one is historically true, and the others not.
They all have they same purpose, and they all succeed.
They successfully give their civilization
a picture to help them make sense of their world,
in particular, how God, or the gods,
act in relationship to human beings and the earth.

The Genesis story grows out of the experience
of the Hebrew people with their God Yahweh.
Other stories grew out of other peoples’ experience of life.
They all teach about divine nature and human nature.
It’s what they teach that sets them apart.

Genesis 6-9 is divinely inspired holy scripture,
not because it teaches me good science.
But because it tells me the truth about God.
It tells me something that lines up with
the rest of the biblical witness about God.
And lines up with my experience of God.

The other stories do not . . . at least not for me, and not for us.
Let me tell you why not, and this is a gross oversimplification.
I’m lumping different stories together
for the sake of time.

In other ancient flood stories,
the gods seem more concerned
about their own struggle for power over each other,
and humanity is a mere annoyance
that keeps getting in the way of their cosmic plans.
In one story a Council of gods cooks up a plan for a big flood,
to destroy pesky humanity forever.
One lesser god sneaks away and spills the secret
to the human hero of the story,
who builds a big boat,
saving himself, his family, and the animals.
When they find out, the chief gods are furious that a human survived.
So other gods, who thought the chief gods went too far,
make the human survivor immortal, into a god himself,
and send him away to a new life in another world,
safe from the gods who want him dead.
End of story.

The underlying assumption in many of those stories,
is that the gods are mostly un-interested in us,
and are locked in eternal combat, with the other gods,
or with us.
So we humans must do all we can to appease the gods,
to calm them down by
burning incense to them, or feeding them,
or otherwise distracting them with something they like.
If we do that, they won’t lash out in anger and destroy us.

Now, what does Genesis 6-9 tell us?
There are some serious people who read it,
and what they see first and foremost is a violent God,
with a vendetta against the sinful world,
eager to destroy it.

But if we read it carefully,
with these other flood stories in mind,
we see that Genesis tells us a radically different story,
about a radically different God—
the One God who created all life,
and sustains that life out of everlasting love.

Here we see, not a God who was angry and resentful,
but a brokenhearted God.
The Hebrew word used to describe God’s feelings
about the earth before the flood,
is not the word for “anger,” but for “pain,” “hurt,” “grief.”

God was brokenhearted by all the wickedness on the earth,
all the violence, the corruption, the chaos covering the earth.
This was chaos humans brought on themselves,
it was not God’s doing, nor God’s desire.
Humans rejected the shalom God created and intended for them.
So in this flood story,
God does in the natural realm,
what humans had already done spiritually and relationally—
covered the earth with chaos.
Water, a symbol of chaos, overwhelms the earth.
And now the physical reality God wrought,
matches the spiritual reality humans wrought.

But then, when the flood goes down,
we see where this version of the flood story really stands alone.
We see the core character of the one God Yahweh most clearly,
in what happens afterward.

Instead of ending the story with the gods and humans
locked in mortal combat,
and the human hero escaping the earth,
escaping his humanity . . .
the Genesis story restores the divine and human communion.
It establishes a covenant—
a one-way covenant,
in which God takes full and complete responsibility
to sustain human life and help it flourish.

Because of love, God is deeply moved after the flood,
moved to anguish, and even regret at such massive destruction.
So instead of continuing to rage against humanity and creation,
God lays down a bow, as a sign for himself,
to never again destroy the earth.

Ch. 9, v. 13, “I have set my bow in the clouds,
and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,
I will remember my covenant that is between me and you
and every living creature of all flesh.”

God moves toward humans and the earth, in love,
and lays down his weapon.
Numerous scholars have pointed out that the rainbow
was not an arbitrary shape,
a random splash of color.
It was a bow, the weapon of war.

In other stories, the gods kept up their battle.
The God of the Bible laid down his weapon of war against creation,
and made an everlasting, unilateral, unconditional
covenant of love
that promised to sustain life and help it flourish.

When we read Genesis against the backdrop of the other stories,
and read it, not as history or science, but as theology,
we see how wrong we are
if we make this into a horror story about a violent God.
The best interpretation, taking everything into its known context,
gives us a Good News picture, a Gospel picture,
painted to show us a God of boundless love and mercy
and tenderness toward all humans, and all creation,
with no conditions attached!

The brokenness and chaos continues in this world,
as bad, if not worse, than it was before the flood.
But we have this story to give us hope.
God laid down his weapon, never to pick it up again.
The human story will end not with destruction,
but with the restoring of shalom.
The covenant, the space between, God and creation,
is still intact.
It is holding up, despite the rampant violence in our world.

Violent tragedies that still occur in our world,
such as the senseless shootings in Parkland, Florida,
carried out by a deeply broken young man . . .
such as the senseless wars around the world
carried out by legitimate world powers claiming to do good . . .
such as violent rhetoric toward people different from us . . .
such as the pervasive sexual violence that continues unchecked,
unspoken of, and without consequence . . .
such as the systemic discrimination that continues
in our culture and even in our church,
that make it more difficult for people of color,
for women, for young people,
to have a real say in how things get done.

The space between continues to be filled with chaos and violence.
Today’s covenant story reminds us
that we need not despair.
We are not left to our own devices forever.
We are not about to be forgotten by God
and left to oblivion.
Yes, we should be concerned. We should care. We should act.
But we should not lose hope.
And we should cling to the unconditional promise of God.

Every time we see a rainbow in the sky,
we should remember that God is seeing it, too,
and it is reminding God to keep the promise.
God will never again make chaos in creation,
as a way to combat the chaos we ourselves make.
God will stick with us, for life.

The image from the shootings in Florida,
that will no doubt become iconic for years to come,
has two weeping mothers comforting each other,
and one of them has ashes on her forehead,
in the sign of the cross.
I haven’t heard any journalist comment on the ashes,
but they practically shouted to me.
Here is a woman who just a few hours earlier,
was in a church, worshiping,
being reminded of our sinfulness and mortality,
and of God’s grace.
And now she stands in the middle of human chaos and sin,
with a cross of ashes on her head, clinging to hope—
a hope available to us who believe
that our Creator God keeps faith with creation.
Chaos will not have the last word.
That word belongs to God, and it is a word of love.

one God of love, God of shalom, God of salvation,
We recognize your rule over the Creation you love,
We acknowledge our failure to love as you love,
We confess our sin in not trusting your love and provision,
as we take matters into our own hands,
and seek to maintain our power through violence.
Forgive us for making your love too small.
Teach us to act with humility, grace, and mercy
as we seek to join you in making things right.
Words of assurance
all All the paths of God are loving and faithful
for those who keep God’s covenant and laws.

—Phil Kniss, February 18, 2018

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Phil Kniss: Readings and reflections on transfiguration and membership Sunday

Epiphany 6: Transfiguration and membership Sunday
Mark 9:2-9, 1 Corinthians 12:12, 24-27

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Today is our Membership Sunday, of course.
But it is also a significant day in the Christian calendar: Transfiguration Sunday. Here is Mark 9, our lectionary Gospel reading for today.

Mark 9:2-9
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

In 2012 Irene and I climbed Mt. Tabor, in Israel-Palestine,
a high hill that claims to be the Mount of Transfiguration.
As we neared the top, a large ornate church building towered over us,
called, “The Church of the Transfiguration.”
My first thought was, Peter got what he asked for, after all.
A permanent structure, to contain and protect the glory of God.

Ironic, that a giant marble building sits as a memorial—
to a moment when Peter was basically ignored by Jesus
for coming up with an ill-conceived idea
to institutionalize his experience,
to build a structure for something that cannot be contained.

I think this is an appropriate story to remember now in our congregation,
as we are focusing on some matters that might seem
somewhat institutional, at first glance.

Today we recognize some persons
bringing their formal membership to this congregation.
Today we also begin a time of ramping up our plans
to do some major repairs and renovations to this church building,
this shelter where people often come
to catch a glimpse of God’s glory.

Any connection between these earthly matters of ours, 
and this Gospel story?
What would Jesus say about church membership?
about church buildings in general?

Jesus is not against buildings, per se, or other structural matters.
What Jesus seemed most concerned about
was that structures not become idols,
but rather, tools for extending God’s reign, 
for moving out into God’s mission.
As soon as the glory faded on top of the mountain,
it was time to walk down the mountain,
and face the real world,
with all its pain and brokenness and beauty,
and to keep moving, with God.
Building a shelter, on the mountaintop,
would have been to create an idol out of a momentary experience.
They would have missed out on the activity of God
going on at the bottom of the mountain.

Maybe that’s how we should think of Membership Sunday.
And maybe that’s how we should think of our physical building.

What really matters in the Christian life,
is the act of following Jesus into God’s mission.
It’s the journey of being a disciple,
learning from Jesus,
being on the move with Jesus.
So when we join the body of Christ,
we join a dynamic movement more than an institution.

So Membership Sunday is not really about 
anyone’s formal status in the organization.
It’s not about the church roll,
or any other formal document.
The heart of this service is testimony.
It is bearing witness to a dynamic faith.
We will hear a few stories from pilgrims in faith,
people who are still trying to figure out, like the rest of us,
what it means to follow Jesus in life,
and what it means to be in covenant
with this particular group of Jesus followers,
and to be on the move with us.

And I also want to make this strong claim:
Movement and mission is at the heart
of any decision we need to make about our building.
There is nothing sacred about these bricks and mortar,
or anything else inside these walls.
What makes this physical space holy,
is a people using it to worship and serve God,
and to minister God’s healing and hope to the world.
What makes it holy
is making it safe and welcoming
for all our neighborhood children,
and giving shelter from the cold
for our homeless neighbors at times,
and providing a space 
for people to gather in weekly worship,
for immigrant neighbors to gather in fellowship,
for addicts to meet and support each other,
for knotting comforters and packing school kits for refugees,
for small churches to meet to worship in a different language,
for couples to publicly exchange vows,
and, though it happens all too often,
for the community to gather to celebrate a life that has ended,
to grieve, to comfort each other, 
and to hear the gospel of resurrection proclaimed.

To be a member of Park View Mennonite Church,
and to make this physical space a home,
is to say we are part of this movement—
we are a people moving, together, into God’s mission,
within these walls, and beyond the walls.
Where we are today, may not be where we are tomorrow.

The New Testament often describes the church with living metaphors.
One of the most frequent metaphors is the opposite of institutional—
the human body—alive, dynamic, growing, interactive.

Listen to part of 1 Corinthians 12 . . .
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ . . . God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

This is our high calling as followers of Jesus, to be part of the body,
and function in a healthy way within that body,
to the good of the whole,
and participate with the body in fulfilling its purpose.

That is what these new members will be doing today,
and what the rest of us will be reminded to do,
to offer ourselves, our hands, our heart, our all.

Let’s all reflect on that as we listen to Maria and Christopher
sing the U2 song, Yahweh.


As the song suggests, giving our all, and letting it go, 
may be our ideal,
but it’s one we often fail to fully live into.

So before we hear the testimonies of faith from new members,
I think it would be good for all of us current members,
to confess our sins, our failures to live fully into our calling.

Take your bulletin, and join with me in this prayer of confession:
one Lord Jesus Christ, we are your body, not because we have earned that name, but because you have given it to us. We marvel at this privilege, and we regret our failures.all Lord, have mercy on us, Christ, have mercy on us.   [silence]one God of extravagant mercy, with hands outstretched you poured out your very self  for our salvation and redemption. Restore us to your side,  that we may offer healing and hope to others.all Thanks be to God.

—Phil Kniss, February 11, 2018

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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Stories of light and hope in dark times

Epiphany 5: Lifted up by God
Mark 1:29-39
Isaiah 40:21-30

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