Sunday, March 31, 2019

Moriah Hurst: Hungering for God's approach

Lent 4: “God reaches out with open arms”

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Psalm 32:10-11

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There was a man who had two sons. No, this is not the start of a bad joke. It is a story that is well known to many of us with layers of meaning etched into it. But like someone who tells a good joke and wont explain the punch line, what this story means is not clearly explained to us.
            There was a man who had two sons. Our minds may jump to other sons we have heard about in the Bible – Cain and Able, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. There are lots of family stories to think back on. Unlike many of these other brother pairings in the Bible, in this story the younger son is not painted as the good guy but neither is the older brother.
            So instead of resorting to simplistic interpretations and letting our eyes glaze over because we’ve heard this one before. Go with me as we take on the challenge of seeing what this well-worn text might hold for us today, in this space and in your life.
            For those of you who prefer visual learning I invite you to gaze at the painting here at the front; a Rembrandt that tries to depict a piece of this story. Looking at this painting we ask together who are the character in this story? Where is God and where are we?
            Jesus often played on his listeners’ familiarity with something. He would take stories that made sense and felt like real life, drawing us in, taping into our own experiences.
            There are lots of characters here. The three main stars are the father, the younger son and the older son. As a youngest child, I can easily insert myself there. If you ask my brothers I was spoiled and I know how to get my own way. But there is more then birth order that may draw us to identify with one of these characters. Have you sown your wild oats like the younger son? Have you nurtured a child who has turned away from your love like the father? Do you harbor frustration, jealousy or judgments towards others like the older son, feeling like you have been overlooked and misused? What in this story calls to you and draws you in?
            There are others here with more minor roles. There are the slaves and hired hands. They are the message bearers, the workers, the ones the sons compare themselves to.
            As Jesus tells this story we may also see ourselves as the hearers of the parable – either the Pharisees and scribe pushing Jesus to justify his actions. Or there are the tax collectors and sinners –we may see ourselves with them. Sitting with Jesus sharing food yet feeling the disapproving eyes of those in power.
            There are those who are sidelined almost as props in this story. The citizen of whatever country the youngest son went to and the pigs. Do we feel like we are on the outside looking in on the parables of Jesus or on life itself?
            And there is one last group – those who are unnamed yet implied. The disciples who heard this message while sitting near Jesus and following him. And those in the story that are never named and we are left wondering about – like the mother. Where is she in this father/son drama?
           We are not told how we are to see this scene or who we are in it. So where do you see yourself?
            We may assume we know who God is in this story but that is never pointed out. Throughout time we have called this story “The Prodigal Son”, but who really is the Prodigal? Prodigal means “wasteful extravagance” or “one who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly”. If we look at this story with that meaning of the prodigal in mind, it could be the sons or the father. The reading we had today was three verses at the start of the chapter and then it skips over 8 verses that tell us the parables of the lost coin and the lost sheep. It makes me ask who is lost in this story?
            If we place ourselves with the youngest son for a minute, how do we feel? After he has taken his half of his father’s wealth, gone to a distant country and squandered it, he ends up feeding pigs and longing for someone to offer him something to eat. What I find most interesting here is that when he comes to himself he practices a phrase that he could say to his father. Once he returns home he says these words: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”
    What are the voices that we practice to ourselves? What do we repeat to ourselves about our own self worth or needs? Some think that this son was not truly repentant but slightly conniving knowing that his father would take him back. What words do we say to God because we think that is required, instead of the true confession we really need to speak?
            Luke is a master at capturing stories and relaying them to us. In this parable there are several repeated phrases and themes that emphasis things we may need to pay attention to. The father welcomes the younger son with a phrase he then repeats to his older son. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” The father does not repeat the wrongdoing but repeats his joy at new life and at restoration. Do we let that voice repeat in our heads – God celebrating because we have been found?
            If we do see God as the father then we see a God who keeps coming towards us. When the younger son approaches the father runs out to meet him. Filled with compassion the father puts his arms around his son and smothers him in kisses. And also with the older son, the one who has stayed, still working hard. The older son who hears the music of the party and instead of rushing in to join the excitement hangs back angrily. Here to, the father approaches with openness. The father goes out to the older son and pleads with him and then listens to his concerns.
            In this father we see images of God going out, God reaching out, God opening the door of welcome, God throwing an over-the-top party – God longing for reconciliation with us and for us.
            We are about half way through our Lenten journey. On this road through the wilderness traveling towards the cross and Easter. In Lent we are often invited to give up something or take up something. This intentional setting down of something is meant to allow space for us to focus on our relationship with God.
     As a woman I have often struggled with giving things up in Lent because I feel like our society asks or pushes me at every turn to be less, smaller, quieter – to give up more of myself and who God has created me to be. So the practice of taking up an activity has been much more helpful. How do I take up a practice of only speaking to myself positively, take up giving myself space just to be instead of always needing to do or produce.
            This Lent we have been asked to focus on our hunger. How are we in touch with our hunger – what we long for and asking why that hunger is there?
            Looking at this parable through the lens of hunger I can see why it is in the lectionary here in Lent. The younger brother hungers for possessions and getting away. Then the land itself has a famine – the earth mirroring the waste and lack of means in the younger son’s life, painting a dire situation. The son is in what feels like a helpless state as he looks at the pigs food eagerly and yet no one gave him anything. Then he can name his hunger and realizes that his father has enough bread. When the son gets home the father kills the fatted calf and they celebrate with meat and eating. Then enters the older son and part of his argument is that he has not been given even a smaller animal to host his friends and for them to eat. He even uses the language that his younger brother has devoured his fortune.
            Hunger and longing are things we can all relate to. Real hunger in our bodies but also longing like these brothers. Longing for freedom and adventure, longing to be seen, valued, affirmed and recognized. And the father is also longing. Longing to bring his son home – to welcome both his sons and draw them in to the warmth of his embrace. To reconcile them to himself and to each other.
    What in ourselves have we lost or surrendered that we are now hungering for?  How is God coming to us in our hunger? Are we welcoming God or pushing ourselves away from the table, staying outside the party.
    For both sons they have to find their confession. The father always comes towards them but what is the response. This is not answered in the text – we do not see how either son responds.
    I have been having conversations about baptism with several people lately. This past week as we talked we circled back to how baptism is a turning away from something and a turning towards God. How are we letting our hunger turn us in the direction of the God who comes towards us or is our hunger sending us to things that will not satisfy?
    As we keep looking at the characters in this story I wonder how it would feel to swap the genders. What would it feel like if this was a story of mothers and daughters. How does that change the feel or the resolution? Many fathers in the Bible welcomed their children, loved them, gave them bread instead of a stone. Yet we live in a world where macho attitudes are projected onto males that rob them of the emotional connections and depth that they have. How does it feel to see a daughter walking down the road and a mother running out to meet her? A mother’s love, a mother’s compassionate embrace both in our longing and in our pushing away. A mother’s understanding.
    As we look at this story – who are you and who is God?

The words of today’s Psalm are matched beautifully with this prodigal story.
“While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
And I did not hide my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
And you forgave the guilt of my sin.

And hear the response: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
Whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
But steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.

May we abandon stubborn selfishness and fall with trust into the arms of our loving parent as we find our confession.

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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Phil Kniss: Who can we blame?

Lent 3: “God pours out life-giving drink”
Luke 13:1-9

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It’s human nature to fix blame.
As soon as something bad happens—
from the merely annoying to the cataclysmic tragedy—
we try to figure out who or what to blame.

It’s understandable we do that.
The reaction is almost involuntary.
We humans have within us a sense-making reflex, seems to me.
We want the world around us to make sense.
We want to know where things fit in the larger scheme.
Mostly, we want to know where we fit.

So if something bad happens that impacts me,
directly or indirectly,
finding where to fix blame
helps me avoid the internal distress of wondering
whether somehow I participated in it,
whether I was complicit,
whether knowingly or unknowingly,
it happened on my watch,
and I maybe could have done something to prevent it.

This natural human reaction takes different forms.
Sometimes it’s what we call “survivors’ guilt.”
We don’t understand why a loved one died and we didn’t,
for instance,
so one way to deal with the guilt
is find a rational explanation
for why things unfolded the way they did.

Or it can take the form of blame-shifting.
When something bad or unfortunate happens,
there may be evidence we did play a part—
we, as in me personally,
or we, as in the group I’m part of,
my larger community, my church, my nation—
and one way to ease the burden,
is to wiggle our way out of taking responsibility,
to shift blame.

Take national wrongdoing, for instance.
We as a country do all we can not to take stock,
of the direct and indirect impact of our past policies—
heavy-handed economic practices,
or political alliances with oppressive regimes,
or other international foul play—
so when there is a major terrorist attack,
we can blame those evil radicalized individuals . . .
or when there is massive movement toward our borders
from violent countries to our south,
we can blame those running for their lives,
and call them a threat, or an invasion,
and refuse to even think about
how we may have helped create
the conditions they’re running from.

It’s far too costly for a whole nation to repent,
to turn around and change its ways,
so it’s understandable that we fix blame elsewhere.

Why do you think climate change denial is even a thing?
It’s for this reason exactly.
It’s too costly to change our ways,
so we do anything, including ignoring hard evidence,
in order not to take responsibility.

Why do you think so many people who are offended
by the words and behavior and policies of our president—
myself included—
are so quick to lay blame at the feet of that one man
for all the dehumanizing and uncivil behavior in society—
for all the polarizing conflict over race and immigration
and gender and a growing white nationalism?
Are we afraid there are ways we also might have contributed?
Ways we have conveniently ignored
what has been there all along,
and not done enough to combat it with the gospel of Jesus?

Now to move from the collective to the personal,
it’s painful for someone to bear the burden of responsibility,
even a small part of it,
when something goes horribly wrong in life.

This is why personal injury attorneys will never run out of work.
They have a whole population of people
who are constantly looking for others to blame.
Let’s not just accuse the attorneys
of taking out full-page ads and highway billboards,
in order to drum up frivolous lawsuits.
No, they are just catering to our instincts.
They know we are looking for someone else to blame,
someone else to pay,
for our accidents, illness, injury, and death.
Now of course,
sometimes people who have a responsibility to help,
end up hurting us,
due to their negligence, incompetence, or even ill will.
Those persons do need to be held accountable.
That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m just saying, not every bad thing that happens
is a direct result of someone’s negligence.
There are horrible accidents that are just that,
horrible accidents.
Blame is a hard thing to calculate and quantify.

But we want to . . . so badly.
It is this very aspect of human nature
that explains why we have, in scripture,
the texts we read this morning,
as well as many others like them.

There is a huge amount of scripture devoted to this question—
who can we blame?
Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes,
much of the law and the prophets,
the Gospels, and more, all asking,
Who can we blame?

The ancient world, out of which the Bible emerged,
had a different framework for thinking about cause and effect.

Most everyone understood . . .
events unfolding on the earth,
are closely linked to events unfolding in the heavens,
in the world of the gods.
This was true for nearly all cultures—Jewish, Christian, pagan.
Conflict between the gods,
was mirrored in the conflicts on the earth,
and often led to conflicts between the gods and humans.

So, it’s not surprising scripture sometimes reinforces this idea,
that if something bad happens to me, or my children,
or my children’s children,
it is God’s doing, as punishment for sin.
You see it throughout Old and New Testaments—
Suffering as retribution for sin.
Health and prosperity as reward for righteousness.

But it would be wrong to make a blanket statement,
and say this view is the view of scripture.
Because this is a question where the Bible argues with itself.
There is active debate going on in scripture,
about who is to blame for suffering.
And you see divergent views.
And you see these views being debated.
And you see certain views evolving, developing.
That’s the nature of the Bible,
which makes the task of interpretation
often interesting and challenging.

So with that in mind,
let’s listen in a new way to these challenging texts for today.

In Luke 13, people came to Jesus for some commentary
on a tragedy that had just occurred.
We don’t know the details,
but apparently Pilate had his soldiers enter the temple
and kill some Galilean pilgrims who had come to make sacrifices.
It was state-sponsored mass murder, in the Jews’ holy place—
violent repression at its worst.
Their “blood was mingled with their sacrifices,” Luke says.

Naturally, the people were wondering why?
Who sinned, and what was their sin?
What were these Galileans guilty of?
So they looked to Jesus to shed some light.
His comments confronted their view of the world.
“No . . . to what you’re thinking,” he said.
These Galileans were no worse sinners than
the Galileans who did not die in the massacre.
But . . . unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

And in case they didn’t catch what he said,
he brought up another example.
“What about the tower of Siloam
that fell and crushed 18 people to death?
Do you think they were worse sinners,
than those who were not crushed by the tower?
No . . . but . . . unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

And then Jesus tells a parable.
A landowner waited three years for his fig tree to bear fruit.
Three years. And nothing.
So he ordered his gardener to cut it down.
It’s useless, he said.
It’s taking up space. Wasting soil.
But the gardener—the one who looks after the tree—
says, “Please, no.”
Let me dig around it. Work some manure into the soil.
Let it be. Just one more year.
See if it bears any fruit.
Then we can cut it down if we have to.”

In light of the blame-seeking and blame-shifting world we live in,
this is a Gospel word about divine judgment and divine mercy.

I imagine the response of Jesus to these questions would be the same,
if we asked him today,
why at least 600 people, probably well over a thousand,
in poverty-stricken southeast Africa
died this past week in a cyclone and torrential flooding.
Did they sin?

Or why 50 Muslims died at the hand of a gunman in New Zealand,
or why 157 on board the Ethiopian jet died in a crash,
or why 44 people died in a chemical plant explosion in China,
or why 50 burned to death in a bus collision in Ghana on Friday,
or . . . (where should I stop, on just this weeks news?)

Were they being punished for their sins, or someone else’s?

Jesus’ answer would be the same:
“No . . . but . . .”
No, the ones who died
are victims of national tragedy,
or . . . had a tragic accident,
or . . . are repressed by violent regimes,
or . . . are suffering the effects of climate change . . .
They are no worse sinners
than those who come out unscathed.

But . . . sin does have consequences.
Sin does, in fact, result in suffering.
Sin kills.
To use Paul’s words from Romans, “the wages of sin is death.”

It is not a question of direct cause and effect.
No one—no one—suffering grief or loss or physical illness
or any tragedy outside their control,
should ever be blamed for the fix they are in.
The truth of the matter,
is that we all share the blame.

That’s not what the people wanted to hear,
who came to Jesus with that question.
But it’s what Jesus said.

They were looking to understand the suffering.
They were looking for some blameworthy explanation.
They were looking to be exonerated.

Maybe that’s the most powerful reason
why our human nature makes us
want to figure out who’s to blame for tragic circumstances.

If we can point our fingers at an evil out there . . .
we don’t have to come to terms with the evil in here.

If they died because they were sinners and God was judging them,
then I am innocent.
I am justified.
I am on the right side.

Or . . . if they died at the hands of evil people with evil intent,
then we still don’t have to examine ourselves.
We don’t have to ask complicated and painful questions
about how we contributed to the situation we’re in.
Or to say it like Jesus did, we don’t have to repent.

Jesus challenged his questioners head-on.
They wanted to fix blame, maintain their innocence.
They wanted to build this hedge around themselves.
They wanted to believe they were in control.
Jesus said, “You all need to repent.
You need to turn around.
You need to look at things differently.
You need to live in the world differently.

I gather from this passage, as well as from lots of other texts,
that God is offended more
by people who pretend to be strong and in control of life,
than by those who really blow it, and know it.

Sin—personal and collective sin—breeds death and decay.
Things go downhill when humanity rebels against God.
Creation itself suffers from the sin of humanity.
The earth groans.
Fig trees don’t bear fruit.
Cyclones devastate the poor.

Repentance breaks the cycle.
Repentance opens the door for God to act.
Repentance is telling God we let go of our controlling ways,
and allow God to work, in us and in the world around us.

Now the kind of repentance God is calling you toward
is not mine to say.
You will need to do your own discernment,
maybe with your own community of accountability.

But the Gospel truth today is that God is patient,
calling gently,
willing to wait yet another year,
to cultivate, soften, fertilize the soil some more,
and wait for our response of openness and vulnerability.

When we come with open and empty hearts,
God is ready to receive them, and fill them.
Let us confess again our hunger and thirst.

—Phil Kniss, March 24, 2019

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Sunday, March 17, 2019

Phil Kniss: When God Stands In

Lent 2: "God gathers us together in safe shelter"
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31-35

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When we bring up the subject of God
as one who gives us safe shelter,
we sit at a critical crossroads.

We are at the intersection of two divergent roads.

The one road is God as comforter, provider, protector.
Quite understandably, we find this road a precious path to cling to.
When storms of life buffet us to and fro,
when we feel threatened, 
at risk of losing ourselves, losing our life,
when we are under attack by enemies,
the metaphor of God as provider of safe shelter
is a metaphor we run to,
and find greatly comforting.

The epitome, the prime example of this notion of God 
was in our Gospel reading this morning,
where Jesus spoke tenderly about himself, or you might say,
about God as a mother hen,
who longs to gather her chicks under her wing,
when a predator comes along.

We also find biblical images along this line in the psalms of comfort,
such as Psalm 91:
“He will cover you with his feathers, 
and under his wings you will find refuge.”
Or today’s Psalm 27, certainly one of my favorites,
one I often turned to in my rocky adolescent years.
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

So that’s one road—
God who comforts and protects.

The other road is equally important, equally true,
but it runs perpendicular to the first one.

This is the God of the hard road.
God of the narrow, winding, uphill path fraught with danger,
where risking life is not only a possibility, it is assumed.
Jesus also gave us a paradigm, a prime example for this road.
Its metaphor is an instrument of torture and death.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple,
must take up their cross . . . and follow me.
Whoever wants to save their life, must lose it.”

So we can’t get very far into a sermon on God’s safe shelter,
without asking a very complicated question—what is safety?

What is safety?
I want to talk about that question in light of
our contemporary use of the term safety.
Because, in fact, we talk a lot about being safe.
So it bears examination.

But first, I want to ask that question of these texts for the day.

What does a God who offers us safe shelter really mean by that,
if that same God is asking us 
to give up our lives for the sake of the Gospel?

Let me start with Jesus and his mother hen metaphor.

In Luke 13, Jesus’ sworn enemies, the religious leaders, came to his aid,
they warned him of what would happen
if he got any closer to Jerusalem.

Jesus was working in and around Galilee, well away from Jerusalem.
But the Pharisees, to their credit, told Jesus,
“Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
The Pharisees were not fans of Jesus.
But there was someone else they despised more—King Herod.

Jesus responded to the Pharisee’s warning in a way
that must have confused them.
“Go tell that fox Herod,
‘I am casting out demons and healing, today and tomorrow.
Try to kill me if you wish,
but I’m too busy to run.’
I will not run from Galilee,
and furthermore, I will come to Jerusalem itself,
the city that kills its prophets,
and stones those sent to it.”

The Pharisees couldn’t fathom Jesus’ reckless desire
to walk straight into the front line,
to choose the path of certain suffering.
Jesus tried to explain.
It is for love of Jerusalem.
“Oh, Jerusalem, how often have I desired
to gather your children together
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,
and you were not willing!”
But . . . whether you accept me or not,
I am coming to you.
I will be with you in your time of distress.
I will stand in for you.
I will come between you and your attacker, the Fox-King.
I will be your fierce, protective, mother hen.
If you are willing.

Now, you, dear congregation, can ponder, and decide,
whether, in fact, this metaphor holds up 
as real protection against real attack.

In the face of a large predator—fox, wolf, coyote—
a laying hen is not much of a match.
Yeah, she’ll put up an energetic fight.
On some days, it might even persuade the predator
to find an easier target.

But when it comes down to it,
the jaws and claws of a hungry canine
will make quick work of the hen,
exposing the helpless chicks hiding underneath.

So what does this metaphor actually guarantee us?
Rescue? No.
Assured survival? No.
But . . . accompaniment? Yes.
Presence and advocacy? Absolutely, Yes.

And now let’s take a look at that odd and disturbing text from Genesis.
Is this even about safety?
It’s a weird and troubling story, full of blood and gore.
It could be a scene from a horror movie.
But actually, it’s a scene that makes perfect sense,
in the culture of the Ancient Near East.

In ancient times, binding contracts did not look like ours—
with 8.5x14 paper, lots of words in legalese,
signed and dated with ink, in triplicate.
But anyone in the Ancient Near East
would have immediately recognized this gory scene
as a covenant ritual,
that made agreements binding on both parties.

First, a quick review of Abram.
Back when Abram was settled in the land of his ancestors,
he was the heir apparent to vast land holdings.
But God told him to pack up everything—everything—and leave.
Didn’t say where. Just said go.
And gave him a promise that he would one day be a great nation,
with numberless descendants.

That was back in chapter 12 of Genesis.
Now it’s chapter 15, decades later,
and here’s how Abram’s new life has unfolded:
Still living in tents.
Camped outside Canaan,
because its fierce inhabitants won’t let him in.
A famine hits the land,
he goes down to Egypt for a while to beg for food.
His wife Sarai can’t get pregnant, 
and is now past child-bearing age,
making God’s promise of descendants kind of a non-starter.
He did succeed in business and got wealthy in flocks and herds,
but no son to give it to, so it doesn’t mean much.
No “great nation” on the horizon.

So . . . the promise of God—
for the sake of which Abram gave up everything—
that promise remains entirely unfulfilled.
And no hope on the horizon.
Everything hinges on one thing—offspring—
now an impossibility.

This is Abram, in chapter 15, when God shows up again.
And God cuts a covenant with him.
That’s the actual verb, “cuts a covenant.”
When important agreements were made in those days, 
animals were brought,
their carcasses cut in two,
the two halves placed opposite each other, in a line,
one half lined up here,
the other half there.
And in the middle, blood flowed from the carcasses 
forming a small river
commonly called the blood path.
Then, the two parties to the covenant,
walk between the two lines.
The party with the superior rank walks first,
and then the second party walks.
They walk the blood path, saying by that,
if I break my part of the covenant,
may what happened to these animals, happen to me.

Pretty serious stuff.
So the covenant ritual is set up in Genesis 15,
and it says that “a deep sleep fell upon Abram,
and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.”
This is, by far, the lowest point in Abram’s life,
God’s promise is out of reach,
and he is struck unconscious,
enveloped by a deep and terrifying darkness.
Now, if the ritual unfolded as expected,
God would have walked down the blood path,
then Abram would have.

That’s not what happened.
In the moment that Abram was incapacitated by terror,
God walked down the blood path . . . twice.
Once for himself, and once for Abram.
At least, that’s how many scholars interpret it,
and that interpretation makes wonderful sense to me.
Genesis 15:17 says a smoking firepot . . . and a flaming torch . . . 
both symbols of divine presence,
passed through the middle of the carcasses,
one after the other.
In the midst of Abram’s terror, God stood in for him.

God stood in.
Got between Abram and that which terrorized him.
Sounds like safety to me.

But what kind of safety, exactly?
Rescue? No.
Guaranteed success? No.
But . . . accompaniment? Yes.
Willingness to stand in, in your stead? Absolutely, yes.

I’m grateful we worship a God who is with us.
I can’t imagine a world (and don’t think I want to),
where everything goes my way
because I worship the right god or do the right things.
There is something more profoundly beautiful, I think,
about a God who gets down in the muck with us,
and is willing to stand in for us,
to face the same threats that we face,
and not abandon us.
I think I’m actually able to love such a God more,
than one who flips switches from a distance,
and makes everything work out for the faithful.

And that raises the more contemporary question
of what safety should look like for all of God’s children,
especially the most vulnerable ones.
So what is safety? And who defines it?

Do we who are members of the powerful class
get to define safety for those who on the underside of the system?
Because that’s what usually happens.

Marginalized or threatened people and their advocates
raise objection about unsafe environments or words,
and then we hear the counter-accusation,
that someone is being a snowflake,
that someone can’t handle a little tough talk or criticism.

Whether it’s persons of color
who experience actions of law enforcement differently than I do,
or whether it’s persons in the LGBTQ community . . . 
or in the #METOO movement . . . 
with experiences I can’t fully understand,
or asylum seekers at our borders
threatened at home in ways we know nothing about . . . 
or undocumented immigrants in our own neighborhood,
who keep their trauma to themselves . . . 
or . . . and the examples can go on and on and on.

There is often conversation around the notion of safety.

And those of us on the upperside of the power structure
often have a hard time getting it.
We look at our specific words and personal actions
and think,
well, I’m not threatening them.
I respect them as people.
I may be expressing ideas they don’t like or agree with,
but I’m not doing them harm.
How can they say I’m not safe?

Well . . . if someone is not feeling safe around me,
it probably has less to do with my actual 
specific words and gestures and actions 
that I am speaking or doing in that moment,
and more to do with underlying harms,
more to do with the strength of our relationship
and depth of trust that already exists, or doesn’t exist,
(apart from any of my specific words or deeds).

We are so quick to lob words at each other
without regard to the dynamics that lie underneath those words.
So when people march under the banner “Black Lives Matter,”
someone thinks they need to counter
with an “All Lives Matter” sign.
No one argues with the truth of that statement.
But when that sign is being held by someone of privilege or power,
they only prove how tone-deaf they are
to the real impact of generational trauma and injustice.

Think about it!
If persons in power, or their systems have, in the past, 
been repeatedly oppressive and discriminatory,
or if the people on the margins worried about safety
regularly live with a higher risk of attack,
or have been traumatized by powerful people and systems,
then we who are in the power position,
no matter how kind or well-meaning we are personally,
need to be very slow to try to make an argument
that we are, in fact, safe,
so there’s no need to worry.

It is far too easy for us who are members of the power-class
to define away our own words and deeds as safe.
We may indeed have a pure heart, with no intent to injure.
That’s not the point. 
We may believe we are being entirely non-violent. 
That’s not the point. 
We may indeed be able to make a rationale argument 
that our particular words or deeds are, by definition, 
safe and non-threatening. 
That’s not the point. 

Someone on Jeopardy just a few days ago 
was chatting with Alex Trebek 
about why they did not learn how to ride a bicycle 
until they were in their 30s.
It was because, he revealed,
at age five his foot got caught in the spokes of a bicycle.
And he just didn’t feel safe on a bicycle
until he took lessons from a professional in his adulthood.

Yes, I believe there probably is such a thing as a “snowflake.”
There may well be some persons who, beyond reason,
live in mortal fear of any kind of challenge or critique. 
There are some who seem to need to be coddled.

But it’s not really ours to say
whether their need to be coddled is legitimate or not. 
It does no one any good
to stand at a distance and call people derogatory names. 
We don’t really know the reason 
for their negative reactions to critique, 
until we establish some trust, 
until we engage with respect and deep listening . . . 
over a long period of time.
Maybe their feet got caught in the spokes dozens of times.

Yet how often have I heard persons, 
across the political spectrum, from left to right, 
attach a value descriptor to someone—
snowflake, redneck, hater, coward—
without ever having encountered them human to human 
in a context where both parties
were given a chance to ensure their safety, on their own terms.

Maybe here is where today’s scripture can help us.
If we want to express safety,
maybe we should do it the way God does.
How does God ensure safety,
in God’s efforts to build a relationship with us?

God stands in.
God sees our vulnerability.
God accepts that we have little to go on 
that gives us confidence to enter such a huge covenant.
God gets our limited point-of-view.

So rather than demand from us more than we are capable of giving,
God just stands in on our behalf—
even before we have a chance to hesitate, or ask for a reprieve,
God says, “I’m all in. Just watch me.”

And in the Gospel text—the image of God (Jesus) as mother hen—
the protection offered is not top-down or patronizing.
It’s the love of a mother,
invitational, non-coercive, based on being family together.
The offer of safety is extended as an invitation, not coerced.
“How often I have longed to gather you . . .”
But I’m willing to wait.
The offer of safety is just that—
an offer to lean in to the relationship, 
an assurance that we are all in it together—
no one is purposely left behind.

And if you’re not ready,
I’ll love and respect you anyway,
and consider you family.

—Phil Kniss, March 17, 2019

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