Sunday, January 27, 2019

John Stoltzfus and Moriah Hurst: Stories from across the border

“Mennonite World Fellowship Sunday”
Leviticus 19:33-34; Luke 4:18-21

Pastor Moriah Hurst, and PVMC member John Stoltzfus, share stories fresh from the US-Mexico border, the morning after they returned from a week of accompanying people waiting to cross into safety.

We apologize for the frequent audio gaps in the video, due to technical difficulties. The audio link just below the video is fine, with no gaps. You might try playing the video, muted, while playing the audio link (good luck getting them in sync!)

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Phil Kniss: Lazy about love

“From sloth toward embracing love’s demands”
Luke 9:23-27

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

The first sin in this series is the sin of sloth
because it’s an easy one to misunderstand, 
and thus dismiss.

The most common mistake we make
is to think sloth is equivalent to idleness and inactivity,
so we assume its remedy, and corresponding virtue, 
is to strive harder—
have more ambition, more industry, more productivity.

Some well-known writers have said as much.
I’ll quote one: “...far from being a deadly sin, 
[sloth] is one of the world’s most amiable of weaknesses. 
Most of the world’s trouble seems to come from people 
who are too busy. 
If only politicians . . . were lazier, 
how much happier we should all be . . . 
The lazy person is preserved from committing 
almost all the nastier crimes.”
Harper’s Magazine once ran a cartoon that said, 
“If sloth had been the original sin, we’d all still be in paradise.”

The idea that being idle is being sinful
should resonate with Mennonites.
We have long had a reputation for being industrious. 
In late 1700s Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia,
invited Germanic Mennonites to settle in the Ukraine
and establish farms to help feed the nation.
She had heard how industrious and productive Mennonites were.

And thanks to Mennonite Central Committee 
and Mennonite Disaster Service, 
we are known the world over for our activism, 
especially in times of disaster and human need. 
We don’t sit back on our haunches, we get up and take action. 
David Myers, a former Mennonite pastor, 
and former leader within FEMA, 
the federal emergency mgt agency, 
said an in-house joke floating around during his time,
was that FEMA stood for “Find Every Mennonite Available.”

You might even say, given our spiritual DNA, 
we are inoculated against the sin of sloth.

So to all of you who have highly developed work ethics, 
and are always doing something, 
I guess I could suggest you just take a nap during my sermon. 
But I would hate for this sermon on sloth, 
in a bizarre twist of irony,
to cause you to commit the sin I’m preaching on.

So stay awake.
In fact, if you are an industrious do-er of good deeds,
pay special attention right now, 
because you are especially vulnerable 
to committing the sin of sloth.

Why is that? Glad you asked.
First, here’s a thought to ponder:
the word diligent . . .
the Latin root of that word means, to love.
To love.
So maybe the apathy that comes with the sin of sloth,
is not a general laziness 
or some preference for idleness, rest, contemplation, and sleep.
Maybe the root cause of sloth
is not being moved by the love of God,
not openly receiving and returning the love of God,
and thus not truly loving those who suffer,
rather than just having pity on them.
Maybe the sin of sloth is best described as a failure to love.

Love is, by definition, to feel a common bond with another,
and to choose to move toward the other.
If we have compassion and empathy for others 
(that is, feel with others)
we will be moved outward, we will be motivated to act.
If we are a-pathetic (literally, without feelings for the other) 
we will stay where we are,
not take risks for the sake of love.

Let me be clear.
The opposite of sloth is not hard work.
The opposite of sloth is not industry, or busyness, or workaholism.
In fact, workaholism may well be a symptom of sloth.

When the ancient desert fathers wrote about the sin of sloth,
they were not focused on inactivity, per se.
They saw sloth as being cold, spiritually—
failing to warmly embrace our calling and identity,
and the practices that rise out of that identity.
Sloth is a diminishment of our 
loving, devotional commitment to God and God’s purposes.
A slothful Christian would prefer to avoid their divine calling,
to run away and escape 
into some other form of excitement and personal fulfillment.
So they may well become workaholics,
escaping into their daily work,
so as not to have to face their deeper calling and identity,
not have to face their need of God’s grace.

How many devoutly Christian people do you know of,
who are hard-working, 
who are on the move from before sun-up to way past sun-down,
who make things happen by the sheer force of their will,
who seem to have boundless energy,
but who also, 
when you stop to reflect on the character of their lives,
seem to have forgotten how to practice loving presence?
who cannot be truly and deeply present with another?
They know how to cut a check and give to charity,
but seem to have missed the memo on loving the poor.

I believe these are those of whom Jesus spoke,
as in today’s Gospel reading from Luke:
“those who want to save their life will lose it, 
and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, 
but lose or forfeit their souls?”

There are an abundance of these hard-working, 
ambitious, and productive Christians,
putting in 70 or 80 hours of work every week,
who nevertheless, stand guilty of the deadly sin of sloth,
and don’t even realize it.

And I have seen plenty of pastors and church leaders—
especially those with a large public presence—
who are Type-A, driven, ambitious, prolific, and productive,
doing the good work of the Lord,
but whose souls are being drained daily . . .
who have lost any real connection with the God they preach about,
who don’t know how to slow down and listen and be present,
who are unable to love those who truly need someone
to embody the love of God, in word and deed and presence.

If we want to address the sin of sloth that threatens to encroach on us,
we will actively nurture our loving connection to our Creator God.
We will learn to love what God loves, and who God loves.
We will be motivated to move toward 
the people close to God’s heart,
and we will naturally, and beautifully, 
be moved to courageous action 
and even joyful sacrifice.

Love, true love, demands something of us.
It demands an active choice, active engagement, 
active movement toward the other.
Otherwise, it is not love.
It is only a passing emotion.
God’s love compels us to get off our haunches.
The love of God in us compels us to rise, 
and walk toward the objects of God’s love.

Sinking down into the sofa,
as we watch the ever-more depressing news night after night.
becoming increasingly dis-couraged, dis-engaged, and apathetic,
that, dear friends, is a temptation we all face 
in chaotic times like these.

And an equally insidious temptation is to let our righteous anger
turn into a deep hatred of the enemy,
a hatred that is foreign to the God who is love.
And we let that hatred blind us to the humanity in the other.
We are not lazy in general.
We are actively up and at them,
engaged in a battle that is spiritually destructive,
and leads to various forms of violence.
We are not lazy in general.
We are lazy about love.

I’m not pointing fingers of blame.
We have all succumbed to one or both of those responses,
from time to time . . . myself included.
But that doesn’t excuse us.
That doesn’t make us sinless.

This chief vice, or deadly sin, of sloth,
is a real and present danger to our spiritual life and well-being.
It distances us from our divine calling and identity.
It represents lies we would like to believe — 
that sitting it out is the only way to survive,
or that its on our shoulders to fight to win at any cost.

No, no. Those are both lies.
And the truth lives in the space between those lies.
The ultimate battle belongs to God.
But God does not want us to sit out this struggle against evil,
and watch it from the sidelines.
Nor does God want us to think that we own the battle—
or that no human suffering dare happen on our watch,
or that we must be there for every person in every situation.
That’s called a messianic complex.
And that is also folly.
And that is also a deadly sin, called pride,
which we will get to later.

There is a challenging, but hopeful, and joy-filled middle road.
We listen to the clarion call of love.
We obey the very real demands that love requires of us.
And then we are fully present with our loving and gracious God,
with our neighbors,
with ourselves,
and yes, with our enemies.

We who choose not to give in to the sin of sloth,
can, and will, name evil for what it is.
We can, and will, join in the struggle along with others.
And, we who are motivated by love,
who choose to embrace the demands of love,
will not lose ourselves in despair or hatred,
we will not fail to notice the humanity
even in those responsible for the evil we are struggling against.

We will continually be looking for, and finding, and rejoicing in,
the life and beauty that keeps popping up when God is on the move.

So . . . to use the three examples before us this morning,
we celebrate with, and 
we participate with, and 
we stand in solidarity with,
those who have chosen courageous action 
in the face of human evil and suffering.

Those of us who are not content
to let the outcast in our community 
sleep on the streets in the cold of winter,
are compelled by the love of God
to extend mercy toward those who suffer,
and be present with them, affirming their human worth,
as well as work for longer term sustainable solutions.
Thank God for Open Doors,
which gives us a manageable way to put our love into action.

And there are those who notice how diverse 
our North Park View neighborhood has become in recent years.
No longer a white, middle-class, mostly-Mennonite hamlet
clustered around EMU and other Mennonite institutions,
our neighborhood has changed around us.
We are a neighborhood of Christians, Muslims, other faiths, or no faith,
who speak English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Kurdish,
who come from differing racial and ethnic heritage,
who are very rich, and very poor, and somewhere in-between.
And having noticed that,
some of our number have decided to answer 
the joyful and challenging call
of learning to know our neighbors,
welcoming them, showing them basic kindness,
and sharing the love of God with them,
connecting first with the children, 
and then with the whole family.
Thank God for our Kids Club,
and our people here who have a vision and a heart for children,
and the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

And there are those who watch the news 
about the desperate humanitarian crisis at our southern border,
and decide love compels them to do more than rail against it,
but to go and be with those who are suffering.
So five in our community have formed 
a band of compassion and Christian love,
and are going to the border to work with others
who are also obeying the demands of love,
and many of us have joined with them in solidarity, 
and with finances,
and are part of this life-giving effort,
even as we stay home in Harrisonburg.

And there are those among us who have noticed other things 
in our community, in our nation, in the world,
and have gone to those places,
to engage in hopeful, courageous action,
because of the demand of love.

I think of Christina Buckwalter, just as one example,
who is “retired,”
but just left to spend some months with MCC in Chad,
to serve, and teach, 
and accompany people at their point of need.
This is at least her fourth trip abroad,
often to places of great human need, or even danger,
because love compels her to act.

That kind of story could be repeated a hundred times,
but the rest of you in this room.
What is the love of God compelling you to do?
As you notice, and receive, the gift of God’s boundless love,
how will you respond 
in the face of all the suffering and evil in the world?

Let us not be lazy about love.
And let us bless each other this morning,
as some of us are making real and immediate choices
to act on love.

—Phil Kniss, January 20, 2019

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Phil Kniss: Talking about sin in a world gone mad

On vice and virtue, sin and goodness
Isaiah 11:1-9; Romans 3:21-26

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

Today is the first in a series 
on what is supposedly the preacher’s favorite topic—sin.
It’s a well-worn cliche.
I always do a little eye-roll
when the daily crossword puzzle has the clue:
“sermon topic” . . . and it’s always a three-letter word. 
And the answer is never God.
It’s SIN.

That, despite the fact that most of our culture, 
including much of the church,
has moved pretty far beyond that stereotype,
the pendulum has swung in the other direction.

Not too many years ago, after a funeral, 
an out-of-town relative of the deceased, 
someone I assumed didn’t spend a lot of time in church,
came up to me afterward,
complimented me on the beautiful service,
but expressed dismay at the scripture I read,
which the family had requested.
I think it was actually Romans 3, the one we read today.
And she said to me, “Why did we have to read about sin?
I thought the church had gotten over all that years ago.”

I forget my response on that occasion.
But I wonder what she would think 
of my planning six Sundays to dwell on the topic.

Actually, I’m kind of stoked right now to be starting a series on sin.
Partly, but I haven’t done it in a long time.
My last sermon that focused entirely on the topic of sin 
was four years ago.
The last series I planned on the topic was 12 years ago.
So I don’t fit the old stereotype very well.
Whether that’s good or bad, you can decide.

But I think we Christ-followers have a lot to think about and talk about
concerning sin,
living as we are in a world that seems to have gone off the rails,
when it comes to matters of morality and integrity,
not to mention basic kindness and civility.
We live in an often good and beautiful, 
and often evil and cruel world.

So I hope this series gives us all an opportunity,
not just to name, accurately, the many offenses against God
that we observe in the world around us— 
but also to be honest about our own sin,
but not fall down some dark hole
and wallow in guilt and shame and self-hatred.

My aim is to find the right balance,
and give us the language we need
to speak honestly about the brokenness in us and in the world,
and to speak hopefully about the redemption that is available.

As we look at all the craziness in our world,
the jockeying for power at the expense of the most vulnerable,
the reliance on fear and anger to motivate people,
the sheer devastation we are wreaking on each other,
we need, as Christians, an appropriate language
so we can deal with it honestly, and without losing hope.

And we need a way to reckon honestly with the brokenness
in our own lives — 
brokenness that often goes deeper that we can easily assess.

And for that, I don’t think words like shortcoming, or error, 
or misjudgement, or even vice, 
are quite sufficient.
We need a theological word, like sin, if we want to be honest.

Those other words are helpful.
In fact, we will be using them often in the coming weeks,
as we look at the so-called “seven deadly sins”
and consider the sort of practices we might undertake
that cultivate a life of virtue, 
rather than reinforce our tendency toward vice.

Historically, this list of seven deadly sins
has gone by different names — 
cardinal vices
capital vices
mortal sins
deadly sins

Then, of course, we have their opposites — 
the seven corresponding virtues

It could well be worthwhile to spend our energy in this series
focused entirely on cultivating virtue
and ridding ourselves of vice.
It could be a good investment of our time
to focus entirely on practices that shape us for the good life,
and on practices that keep us from the good life,
however we choose to define that.

Virtue is formed by engaging in healthy practices.
And vice is reinforced by continuing unhealthy practices.

So we will, in fact,
be talking a lot about practices.
My aim is that this series will be practical and useful.

But before we get into all that,
in order to build a lasting house of virtue
we need a solid theological foundation.

We need to ask, “What kind of design does God have on us?”
What is God’s intention for us as human beings?
So we have to talk about sin.

Sin is more than a mistake.
More than a character flaw.
Sin is a spiritual state of affairs
that we must take seriously.


But today’s culture often trivializes the seven deadly sins,
takes a quick, surface look at them,
and declares them basically harmless, maybe even desirable.

For instance, some confuse gluttony with feasting,
so they laugh it off.
On occasion, stuffing yourself at a celebrative, abundant feast
can be a joyful and harmless thing.
So let’s get over this sin thing.

And some confuse sloth with rest,
and dismiss it as a sin.
Saying we are already overworked and overstressed 
and sleep-deprived,
and we need to stop, rest, breathe, 
and sometimes do absolutely nothing.
All true.

But that’s sloppy, superficial thinking.
In the classical Christian tradition
gluttony is not the same as feasting,
sloth is not the same as taking a sabbath,
lust is not the same as enjoying physical pleasure,
pride is not the same as having high self-esteem,
anger is not the same as a passion for confronting injustice,
greed is not the same as maximizing profit,
envy is not the same as admiring the success of others.

So whenever I hear someone dismiss one of these sins as outdated,
I say “not so fast!”
Let’s go a little deeper.
Let’s dig beneath the surface.

Yes, we are modern and enlightened,
but I suspect we all have to admit
there was wisdom even in the early centuries of the church.
Let’s at least try to understand more deeply
what our tradition has had to say about these matters,
and see whether the tradition has something of value 
for our present day situation.
There are no doubt some things we can leave behind.
But there is probably much more we should treasure, and even defend.

So let’s think a bit about what we even mean by the word “sin.”
If we can be as clear as possible in our definition,
we will be in a better position to see 
how this list of seven 
informs the way we live in a chaotic and broken world.

Whereas vice refers to some character trait 
or flawed habits or behaviors,
sin speaks to our connection with God.
Unfortunately (I think) for too long
we have made sin simply a category of behavior
and not much more.

So as a church, we have spent a gigantic amount of collective energy
on list-making,
on trying to properly categorize behaviors into one of two columns.
Does doing this act belong in the “sin” column
or the “not sin” column.
If it’s in this column, then repentance and forgiveness are the response.
It it’s in the other column, then I guess no response is necessary. 
It’s all good.

There are at least three problems with this approach.
Maybe more, but I can think of three right off the bat.

First, we will obviously never all agree 
on which column something belongs in.
Different denominations put the same behavior in opposite columns.
And different congregations do the same.
And different groups in the same congregation.
And different individuals in the same group, even the same family,
will have different lists in both columns.

And second, again rather obviously, 
moral discernment is always on a spectrum.
It doesn’t lend itself to two distinct columns.
No matter what behavior is in question,
there will always be the matter of greater or lesser goods,
and greater or lesser evils.
Context matters.
Lying to avoid facing the consequences of my own misdeeds,
is a different thing, morally,
than lying to the Gestapo in Nazi Germany, 
while hiding Jews in my house.

And third,
when we spend all our energy on the two columns,
it distracts us from the real issue.
how does this way of living, this way of being human 
impact my God-given vocation and identity?

We start with the assumption that our life has a purpose,
that we were created by God for a reason.
Yes, we have freedom.
We are not being coerced into serving God’s agenda.
We have choice.
We have agency.
But there is no doubt, within our faith tradition, 
we were created with purpose.
We are not self-determined or self-defined beings.
We have a Creator to answer to.

What is that purpose?
It is to join in God’s work, to engage in God’s mission.
We are God’s agents and ambassadors.
Or, to say it the way N. T. Wright describes it,
we were made to be God’s image-bearers.
When God created human beings,
and placed in us God’s own image or likeness,
from that moment it was our destiny, our purpose,
to let that image be seen.
We were made to reflect God to the world around us,
and we were made to return to God worship and praise.
It’s that angled-mirror metaphor that Wright uses,
we reflect God’s glory and image to creation,
we return worship and praise to God on behalf of creation.

So then, sin is a failure to worship.

The Greek word for sin, hamartia, literally means to miss the mark,
like an archer whose arrow flies wide of the target.

That’s a lot different than saying we didn’t check off 
all the right behaviors on the list.
It means we miss the main mark, 
the primary intention of our existence.
It means we fail to reflect God’s image to the world.
And when we fail to return our worship 
to the God who deserves it.

So sin, in every sense of the word, is idolatry.
When we sin,
we cause a break in our worship of God,
and give power to beings or forces other than God.

Another way of putting it, 
informed by the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans,
is that sin is breaking faith with God.

Yes, we put our trust (our faith) in God,
but God also puts trust (or faith) in us,
to be good stewards of the gift.
It’s a two-way faith connection.
Sin breaks that faith.

When we break trust with God,
we miss the mark of our created purpose,
we sin.
And all have sinned and come short.

The good news is that there is grace, there is forgiveness.
What has severed can be healed,
because God will do anything to heal the break.
God is motivated by that vision of shalom we heard in Isaiah,
and is steadfastly working toward that,
depending on us as partners and stewards.

Sin is a relationship problem between us and God.
Sin violates the shalom vision.
It makes the world “not the way it’s supposed to be.”
It severs an intended relationship
between Creator and creature.

But that’s not the end of the story.
God loves us. 
And God is determined to rescue us from that alienation,
to save us from our sin.
That is the story of the Bible in a nutshell.

There is redemption from our sinful condition, personally.
There is redemption from the sin 
that penetrates our systems and structures.
There is redemption from the sin that pervades the universe.
In Christ, in the cross,
we are saved from our state of alienation,
and saved for reconciliation and shalom.
We need not remain cut off from God, from others,
from ourselves, or from the earth.

That is good news for us Christian sinners.

The rest of the world may well take this Christian tradition
of the seven deadly sins and brush them off.
They may trivialize the idea of sin itself,
laugh it off,
consider it passe,
and ignore it in each other . . . 
until it gets just too flagrant and offensive.
Then the knee-jerk response is to condemn and isolate the offender,
treat them as a lesser class, and one of the untouchables.
And there is no clear pathway back.

But we Christian sinners, at least when we’re thinking straight,
we will openly acknowledge that we fall,
we expect that our actions will at times
distance ourselves from God and each other.
But then we proclaim the same Gospel story Paul proclaimed.
There is a pathway to redemption.
By the grace of God, and with the aid of the family of God,
we can get up again,
and move on, restored, redeemed.

Thanks be to God.
I assure you this series on sins coming up
will not be a downer.
Yes, we will be honest about the brokenness.
But we will not despair, because we have no reason to.

—Phil Kniss, January 13, 2019

[To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below and write your comment in the box. When finished, click on "Other" as your identity, and type in your real name. Then click "Publish your comment."]