Sunday, April 29, 2018

Phil Kniss: Grace with God in the Garden (meditation)

“Where resurrection leads us: Toward reconciliation”
1 John 4:7-12; John 15:1-8

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Thanks to this wonderful and worshipful music
from our guests from Broadway High School,
once again I have the blessing (and I do think of it as a blessing)
of condensing my thoughts on today’s scriptures,
into a few concise remarks,
that will help keep us connected to the church calendar
on this fifth Sunday of Easter,
and to the scripture and music
that comprised our worship today.

The question we ponder this season, is where resurrection leads us.
This act of God to overcome death, on that first Easter,
has a trajectory, an arc, it’s aiming somewhere,
taking us toward new realities.
Today, we note that it leads toward reconciliation—
reconciliation with God, with each other, with creation.
Or, to say it most broadly,
it reconciles us to the life God intended for us all along.

The Gospel reading from John 15 is the well-known and well-loved
parable of the vine and the gardener.
This metaphor of God as gardener,
and God’s people as branches attached to Jesus the Vine,
shows up everywhere in the Christian world:
There’s an international network of churches named Vineyard.
There are thousands of congregations named
“Vine Church” or “True Vine” or “Life on the Vine.”
The vine is prominent in the logo of Everence,
our Mennonite financial services organization.

It’s a wonderful, nurturing, life-giving image—
branches abiding in the vine,
bearing sweet and delicious fruit.
But the parable has an edge to it,
part of the picture we sometimes ignore.

The gardener in John 15 is depicted with a lopping shears,
walking around, cutting off under-performing branches,
and throwing them in the brush pile to burn.

I want to suggest this morning,
that the God which Jesus depicts in this metaphor,
is not vindictive or punitive or in any way out to do harm.
Rather, God the gardener is full of grace.

If you go by our house this afternoon
you will see lots of tender vegetables poking up
through freshly-tilled garden soil,
and in our flower beds,
bushes trimmed way back
with new shoots coming out at the base.
But to get those vegetable and flower plants to this point,
poised and ready to produce food to eat,
and flowers to beautify the neighborhood,
that is, poised to live the life they were created for—
I had to haul off a pick-up load of branches and other living matter
that needed to die and return to the soil,
so that the flowers and vegetables could grow into
the kind of life that would bless us and our neighbors.
I had no qualms or regrets about what I was doing,
nothing but love and joy in the act,
nothing but satisfaction and gratitude
for the life that I was partnering with God to create.

I think that’s the kind of joy God our gardener experiences,
when we open ourselves to God’s pruning work in our lives,
so that we might bear the kind of fruit we were created for,
to bless others.

God, in our garden, is engaged in the work of producing life and love.
This work is a work of grace.
It is gift.

We do not, and cannot, manufacture fruit.
We do not, and cannot, make healthy branches.
We do not, and cannot, save ourselves from the occasional pain
of lopping shears or bonfires or compost piles.
We just stick with God.
We abide in the Vine.
We open ourselves to the work of God the gracious gardener,
and life will follow.
Love will follow.

That is one of the wonderful words of life to us this Easter season.
God is love.
And if we abide in God’s love, God’s love will abide in us,
and we will be different people because of it.
We will be fruitful people because of it.

We will be a fruitful church because of it.
This image is not an individualistic one.
It’s a metaphor for the church.

As each branch finds its source in one vine,
we are all organically connected to each other,
every branch and leaf and tendril.
What comes from God flows
into us and through us,
into others and through others,
and back to us, and then to still others,
and we become an intertwined and interdependent
community of life and love and hope.
We become God’s fruitful garden.

John 15 is a parable of grace.
It’s a reminder that life in the kingdom of God is pure gift.
Life comes to us because we are attached to the Vine.
We can take a deep breath, and rest in this grace.

My deepest prayer for myself,
and for this family of faith at Park View Mennonite,
especially as we embark on a challenging journey
this summer and beyond,
will be that we open ourselves to the gift God is offering us,
the opportunity to draw life from Jesus the Vine,
to accept the act of pruning as an act of grace,
and to discover where God’s grace will take us next.

Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, April 29, 2018

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Seth Crissman: Following the Good Shepherd

“Where resurrection leads us: Toward laying down our lives”
John 10:11-18

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Seth Crissman, our guest preacher, is a VMMissions home mission worker who assists congregations establish and lead Kids Clubs in their respective neighborhoods. He is currently helping Park View Mennonite with our Kids Club. We invited him to preach, both sharing insights from today's lectionary readings, and also reflect on the work of Kids Clubs, here and elsewhere.

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Sunday, April 15, 2018

Phil Kniss: The Gospel in broiled fish

"Where resurrection leads us: Toward healing”
Acts 3:1-16; Luke 24:36b-48

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We heard two Easter stories this morning—from Luke and Acts.
The stories are entirely different, and entirely connected.
They make more sense alongside each other.
Not surprising.
Luke and Acts is really one unified book with one author.

But these stories make even more sense,
when we read them alongside Luke 2, the Christmas story,
and Genesis 1-2, the Creation story.

In this worship series, our focus is the trajectory of Easter,
where resurrection leads us.
But the shape of this trajectory, 
this arc of God’s action among us,
did not begin at the resurrection.

It can be traced back to the Christmas story,
when God chose to come and dwell with us, in flesh, in Jesus.
But it goes back further, to Genesis, 
where on the sixth day of Creation,
God did not create another life form like animals and vegetation,
God created human beings in God’s own communal image.
God said, “let us make them in our image.”
And God put them in a garden, 
established a way of being with them.
From the beginning of human existence,
God created relationship. 
God intended to be with us, in the most profound way possible.

Of course, human beings walked out of that relationship of shalom,
usurped the role of God.
And God’s aim ever since has been to set things right,
to show God great and boundless love for human beings,
to demonstrate God’s desire for a covenant relationship,
where love and presence is freely given and received.
That intent of God to be with us, seen in Creation, seen in Jesus,
that is the lens we need when we gaze on the Gospel stories,
and try to make sense of them.
If we lose sight of that when we read these stories, 
we go on all kinds of crazy tangents.

In today’s reading from Luke,
Jesus shows up in the upper room to frightened followers,
shows him his hands and his side,
then eats some broiled fish, while they gawk in amazement.

I’ve heard this great Gospel story used to make a point
about the biology and chemistry of Jesus’ resurrection.
As in, Jesus did these things, so his disciples then, 
and future disciples living in the age of scientific skepticism,
would believe that his body’s cellular structure and internal organs
had all returned to their pre-crucifixion state.
He ate fish, after all. His digestive system still worked.
And I guess we are to assume that at some point
he had to go somewhere to relieve himself.
Bodies that eat and drink have to do that.

There are good theological reasons to think of Jesus’ resurrection
as an embodied resurrection,
into a glorified, imperishable body—
a body I have no need or desire to try to describe.
I am drawn to the idea of a Jesus who even now 
is embodied, in some eternal realm,
in the kind of glorified body we will one day inhabit.
After all, Jesus represents our full and perfect humanity.

Whether or not we believe that, we must admit,
proving his post-resurrection biology and chemistry,
is not, by any stretch, the point of these post-resurrection stories.
These stories are not about the physiology of Jesus.
They speak to the most profound human need—
the need to be accompanied, 
to be loved, 
to not suffer isolation or abandonment.

From the dawning of Creation we are hard-wired
for being in communion with others and with God.

The questions pressing in on the disciples in the upper room were not,
“What is the physical composition of Jesus’ body?”
“What kind of bodily functions does he still have?”

The only pressing question for them right then, and for us right now, 
is, “Are we alone? Have we been abandoned?”

And all the post-Easter stories answer us with a resounding, “NO!”
God is still with us.
Hence, Jesus’ comforting, reassuring words,
“Peace be with you.” I am here.

In Luke, Jesus meets the disciples where they were,
terrified to the core.
They thought they had been abandoned.
So Jesus, to strengthen their faith, ate some fish.

If Jesus wanted to convince his disciples that 
his body had muscle and mass, biologically,
he could have rapped his knuckles 
on the closed door he just came through,
he could have lifted up the corner of the table,
he could have tapped them on the shoulder.
Any of those would have been easy and immediate proof.

But no, he asked for something to eat.
And he waited on them . . . to bring him a piece of broiled fish.
And he stayed there, with them . . . eating as he had always done.

To demonstrate his real presence, Jesus chose to eat with them.
Which is exactly what he did 
with the two disciples on the Emmaus road,
earlier in the chapter.
It was when Jesus broke bread with them,
that their eyes were suddenly opened to see him.

Same here. Eating fish, breaking bread.
By that act the powerful good news was proclaimed! 
I am here with you!
That is the core of the Gospel, 
made manifest in a piece of broiled fish.

Eating food is not a little incidental detail.
It is the whole point.
Sitting at table and eating was rich with significance in that culture.
Nothing offended the religious elite more,
than when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners.
Eating with them meant he valued them,
desired their company and communion.

Incidentally, we embodied this on Thursday, at Kids Club,
in our Fellowship Hall.
We demonstrated to 30 neighborhood children—
from Christian and Muslim families,
and all kinds of countries
that we valued them, and we valued their company,
when we invited them to sit and eat around 6 round tables—
1 adult and 5 kids at each table breaking bread together,
and having each child take a turn serving us.
It was beautiful!

Whenever Jesus wanted to people to know he was really with them,
to listen to them,
or teach them,
or heal them,
or forgive them,
or confront them . . .
he pulled up a seat to the table with them, and ate.
It showed presence, love, hospitality and humility.

Now, at this post-Easter moment, 
in their despair and sense of abandonment,
the disciples needed, more than anything, 
to experience Jesus eating with them again.
And that’s what he gave them.

At the moment he began to eat that broiled fish,
the healing of the disciples began.
They finally got it!
They were beginning to understand the Gospel.

We see that in the healing story from Acts 3,
which we also heard this morning.

Healing is much more than the physical repair 
of muscle and bone,
of tissue and bodily organs.
It is a restoration of human beings
to the kind of life God intended for them at Creation—
embodied persons able to give and receive love.

The lame man who sat at the temple gate
was broken in many more ways than one.
True, his feet and ankles did not work properly.
But he was also cut off 
from the inner life and communal life
that God intended for him.
He had no broad sense of self-worth or belonging.
His only recognized task in life was to help his body survive.
The only way to do that was to beg for money,
so he could pay for food and shelter,
and survive to the next day.
We know how his culture and religion
viewed people like him.
He was seen not as a person with inherent worth,
but a person who was paying for somebody’s sin—
his own, his parents’, somebody’s.

The apostles Peter and John, with the help of the Spirit,
were now learning about the true nature of the Gospel—
about God’s desire to restore persons in every way,
bringing them back into fellowship with God and others.
So these learners of the Gospel looked at that man,
and were able to see not just the malfunctioning ankles and feet.
They saw the full potential of that man
who was a beloved child of God, and a son of Abraham.
They made the connection between his illness, his disease,
and the “dis-ease” of the whole family of God’s people,
who would push him to the side of their community,
and tell him he was only worth 
what his ankles and feet were worth.

So they healed the man’s feet and ankles.
But that was only the beginning.
There was a ruckus in the crowd,
as people saw the man walking and leaping.
They found Peter and John, expressed their amazement.

And Peter was more than ready 
to proclaim this Gospel he was still learning about,
that began to come into focus when Jesus ate the broiled fish.

He said (and I paraphrase vv. 12-16), “Don’t be amazed at this!
It wasn’t our power that made this happen.
This is just a demonstration of what God wants for all of us—
a full human life in right relationship 
with God and people and all creation.
Jesus of Nazareth came among us as God’s representative,
showing us how a human life should look,
came to us as the Author of Life itself.
And ironically, you killed the Author of Life.
But that wasn’t the end.
God raised Jesus. We ourselves saw it.
And God is now wanting all of us to have this kind of life.
This man standing before you is now whole again.
You can be whole, too!”

A pretty amazing Gospel word,
from someone who only weeks earlier,
was skulking around in the shadows,
and denying he knew anything about this man Jesus.
That’s what healing can do to us.
That’s what Jesus eating that fish in Peter’s presence did to him.
It restored his life.
It reassured him that he was not abandoned by God.
That God still was, and always would be, with him.

It’s no secret that we all carry with us, in our bodies,
physical, emotional, spiritual, and other kinds of brokenness.
We are wounded beings loved by God.

And we worship a risen Lord, who is the Author of Life—
author of the full and flourishing human life
that God designed for us at Creation.

Will we always find our way through
that cures all our ills?
that heals all our diseases?
that removes all that gives us dis-ease of mind or spirit or body?

No, but remember the broiled fish!
In the moment of the disciples’ deepest despair and darkness,
when they felt alone and abandoned,
Jesus came among them,
and asked for something to eat.
He asked to be permitted to commune with them at the table,
to demonstrate, bodily,
his commitment to be with them, now and always.
Even when that which gives us dis-ease remains with us,
this we can be sure of:
we are being accompanied by the Author of Life.
God has not left us alone.

I declare that as Gospel truth—as the truth revealed in scripture.

Now . . . all of us, myself included,
must learn how to live into that truth,
and embody it in our own lives.

That requires a great deal of humility,
of admitting our need,
of asking for help,
of opening ourselves 
to the healing ministry of our church community.

I invite us into a period of response,
and prayers for healing.
Those who are helping with this,
please come and take one of the bowls of anointing oil,
and take your places.

We offer several ways to respond, as you prefer and are willing.

If you yourself are experiencing dis-ease, or dis-order,
of mind, or body, or spirit, or relationship,
and you can name that area of need . . . 

or if there is dis-ease or dis-order beyond yourself, 
in your extended family, the church, the larger community, 
or even globally,
that weighs heavy,
that keeps you from the full life that God desires for you,
and you can name that area of need . . . 

and want to bring it to the church for prayer and anointing,
you are invited to one of five persons—
three along the front,
and two in back corners of the sanctuary.

There they will listen to you,
pray for you and anoint you, if you desire,
on behalf of this healing community.

Or maybe there is a dis-ease or dis-order 
getting in the way of the life God wants for you,
and you can’t yet name it—
either you don’t know what it is,
or you know, but aren’t ready to name it.

I invite you to come to the front altar table,
where I am placing bowls containing healing salve,
a symbolic balm for whatever wounds you carry today.
Dip a finger in the balm,
and prayerfully rub it into your own hands,
or take it to a friend or loved one here in the sanctuary,
and share it with them, anoint their hands with it.

As we come,
Shekinah will be singing, and then we will all sing, 
HWB 377 Healer of our every ill.

—Phil Kniss, April 15, 2018

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Phil Kniss: Recognizing Jesus

"Where resurrection leads us: Towards seeing Jesus”
John 20:19-31

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Our sermon today has been primarily in song,
and we are grateful to the Rockway choir 
for sharing so generously and meaningfully with us.
Blessings to you all as you finish up the festival events today,
and make your way back home tomorrow.

I do want to make just a couple brief comments about our Gospel text,
so that we can keep this wonderful story in its larger context
of this Easter Season which we began last Sunday.
In the Christian calendar, Easter is not a day, it’s a season.
It is 50 days long and culminates in Pentecost.
And each Sunday, through the scripture,
we ponder the implications of Jesus’ resurrection.
Clearly, the implications for Jesus’ disciples is huge,
and that includes us.

Today’s Gospel text is often referred to the “doubting Thomas” story,
which is unfair, because the other disciples also doubted.
And it’s unfair to the story itself.

This is really a story about recognizing Jesus for who Jesus is,
and putting our trust in him.

This is not a story about condemning doubt,
or looking down on people who ask questions and seek answers.
This story is about a God who comes to us on our turf,
who enters our space, and our time,
and says, here I am, to be with you.

This is a story about God’s action through the Risen Christ,
to move in, with love and grace, 
taking initiative to restore and reconcile all Jesus’ followers,
all of whom need to be forgiven, and healed,
and loved back into a covenant relationship with him.

Contrary to what we think sometimes,
God doesn’t try to make it difficult for us to have faith.
God isn’t playing a cruel game of hide and seek.
God wants to be found. Wants to be recognized.

If some of us have a hard time finding faith,
we may be looking in the wrong places.
God is generous and gracious.
And ready to provide whatever we need for faith.

Some of us are like Thomas, God bless us.
We are persistent seekers.
We are stubborn pursuers of truth.
We’re not satisfied with easy or stock answers.
God honors that. Meets us where we are.

Some of us are more like Peter, the passionate disciple,
living more by the heart than the head.
God honors that, too. Meets us where we are.

The faith God is most pleased with,
is the faith that, even with unanswered questions,
trusts God enough to keep asking, keep seeking,
until we find and recognize the Jesus who wants to be found.

If we approach with an open heart,
when we encounter that Jesus, 
we will, like Thomas, know it and declare it.
“My Lord, and my God.”
There will be a spiritual harmony in our spirit, 
to use the words of the beautiful anthem the choir opened with.

Let me end with those words:
Thou shalt know Him when he comes
not by any din of drums,
Nor his manners nor his airs,
nor by anything he wears.
Thou shalt know him when he comes,
not by his crown or by his gown,
But his coming known shall be
by the holy harmony which his coming makes in thee.
Thou shalt know him when he comes. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, April 8, 2018

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