Sunday, April 7, 2019

Phil Kniss: Yeah, that makes sense

Lent 5: “God makes a way through mighty waters”
John 12:1-8; Isaiah 43:1-5; Philippians 3:4b-14; Isaiah 43:16-21

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“Yeah, that makes sense” is my sermon title today.
You can hear that phrase in two different ways.
And I mean it both ways.

“Yeah, that makes sense,” as in what I might say
when my friend who is deathly afraid of heights
and dreads climbing a ladder to clean his gutters,
tells me he just watched the movie “Free Solo”
and decided to take up rock climbing.
And I reply,
“Yeah . . . that makes sense.”
Meaning, it makes no sense whatsoever.
It’s called sarcasm.

But I also want us to hear this phrase as a statement of realism,
after having carefully considered something,
and finally gotten our head around it, and we say, in all seriousness,
“Yeah . . . that makes sense.”

In fact, throughout most of today’s scripture readings,
we could interject that phrase in multiple places.

In our voice, it would come out in the nonsense sense,
in the sarcastic, “No . . . what? . . . yeah, that makes sense.”
But simultaneously it could be God saying, in calm reassurance,
“Yes. That makes sense.”
In my economy, in my time, this is the way things work.

In the four scriptures we’re reading this morning—
Isaiah, Psalms, Philippians, and John—
there are surprising twists in the plot,
things no one could see coming.

Like, who would expect a dry path to emerge for God’s people,
right when they find themselves trapped
between Pharaoh’s army and the sea?
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
Who would expect spring water to bubble up in the desert,
and form a river where was none?
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
Who would expect seeds sown in the middle of a drought
to produce a bumper crop?
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
Who would expect death to be a harbinger of life?
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
Who would expect the senseless spilling of priceless perfume
to be declared a reasonable act?
“Yeah, that makes sense.”

In my sermon a couple weeks ago I made the statement that
we humans have within us a sense-making reflex.
We want the world around us to make sense.
And I would add,
when we are doing theology,
we want God to make sense.
That’s what the discipline of theology is,
seeking to make sense of God.

There is a lot of talk going around these days—
actually there always has been—
about God being responsible for this or that in the world around us.

From the political arena, to the sports arena,
accomplishments are often credited to God.
Some Republican politicians, and famous pastors, have said,
and I quote, “God raised up Donald Trump.”
And, liberal Democratic leaders have also said, and I quote,
“God is on our side.”

But this has been happening for a long time.
Back in September of 1862 another politician,
midway through his first term as president, said, and I quote,
“In great contests each party claims to act
in accordance with the will of God.”
Abraham Lincoln . . . then elaborated,
“Both may be—and one must be—wrong.
God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.”

And sports figures are just as guilty.
Ever see a Major Leaguer crush a home run to the upper decks,
and crossing home plate,
he lifts his eyes to heaven,
and jabs both pointer fingers at God—“You did this!”?
I’m guessing . . . if you asked a player on the other team
what kind of spiritual force made the ball go over the fence,
he’d have pointed in a different direction.

But lets not be too hard on the superstars.
We do it ourselves, in many more subtle ways.
We think we have God’s agenda figured out.
Generally that means if things fall into line . . . in our favor . . .
it was God working out God’s plan.

I hardly need to point out the trouble we get into,
if we follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion.

Our agenda and God’s,
our values and God’s,
our expectations and God’s,
don’t always line up, oddly enough.

So . . . are we left with nowhere to turn,
if we are trying to discern God’s will?
Is life a crap-shoot after all?

I hope not.
Because discernment is a core Christian communal practice.
It is our duty to look at the options before us,
and discern what God would have us do.

The church has believed and practiced this
from the very beginning,
ever since the disciples made their first group decision
without Jesus sitting in the circle with them.
After Jesus had gone into heaven,
they got together to discern who God was calling
to replace Judas Iscariot.
They ended up choosing by lot.
Matthias drew the short straw,
and they all accepted that as God’s doing.

And that’s the basis on which we Mennonites
used to always use the lot to choose ministers from among us.
And the more conservative and Old Order members
of our Mennonite family still do that.
It’s a heavy and holy moment when, as they deeply believe,
God moves the hand that chooses the hymn-book
with a slip of paper in it.

Is that faith-filled method any less in touch with God’s will, I wonder,
than our way of running a search process,
and praying our way to a consensus decision?

Or how about the way the Catholics choose the pope?
There the process of Christian communal discernment
gets center stage on all the cable news networks,
as the college of cardinals huddle together in the Sistine Chapel.
CNN and Fox News and everyone else, it seems,
keeps a little picture down in the corner of the screen,
with a live streaming shot of the chapel chimney.
The whole world waits for God to make a decision,
and for the smoke to turn white.
The crowds in St. Peter’s Square nearly faint with ecstacy,
at this tangible evidence that God’s will has been revealed.

So why do I say all this, on this fifth Sunday of Lent?
Because the lectionary readings for this day
are full of evidence of God leading and working,
and almost no one is ready to see it, or acknowledge it.
And it seems to me,
that if we intend to be a people who are responsive to God,
and to God’s leading,
that we need to become more adept at discerning
when God is trying to lead us somewhere.

Now some of God’s acts are just obvious.
Isaiah mentions the big one, in Israel’s history.
When God made a path through mighty waters,
the words that provided our theme this morning.
The path through mighty waters
is a reference to the Exodus event,
when God rescued them from slavery and oppression,
by a powerful act of deliverance,
parting the waters of the Red Sea.
Whatever it was that happened to the people that day by the sea,
it was so overwhelming that it has held up
in their collective memory, to this day,
as the greatest act of God in history.
And we all have a mental image of that scene.
For some, that image includes a likeness of Charlton Heston,
who played Moses in The Ten Commandments.

But in this same chapter of Isaiah 43,
the prophet gives us another image of water, easier to miss.
We’re going to read that part of the chapter
at the end of my sermon.

In fact, there the prophet calls them out
for not noticing what’s right in front of them.
The wall of water in Exodus was great, but that’s old news.
And I quote, “I am about to do a new thing.
now it springs forth, don’t you see it?”
Apparently they don’t, so God spells it out in plain—Hebrew—
“I am making a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.”

It’s one thing for God to make
a dry path through a watery sea,
and people get all excited about that.
But a watery path through a dry desert?
That needs someone to call attention to it.
God doesn’t want them to miss out on Deliverance V.2.
“There it is, don’t you see it?
Look where I’m pointing.”

It helps to understand,
that these words in the latter part of Isaiah, most scholars believe,
came from prophets in the Isaiah tradition,
but prophesying to the people
while they were in exile in Babylon.
It makes sense (really, not sarcastically)
because they’ve been in Babylon for generations,
for planting season and harvest, many times over,
they have built houses, gotten married, raised crops,
had children, added on to their houses,
exactly as prophet Jeremiah told them to, remember,
“Seek the shalom of the city where you are sent to exile,
for in its shalom, you will find your shalom.”
Well, they’ve done that. They’ve acclimated to the new normal.
Maybe to a fault.
They are now used to Babylon.
Yes, they are exiles and they know it.
They won’t call it the good life,
but it’s probably at least an okay life.
And they’ve gotten comfortable in it.

Too many years have gone by
without going to Temple,
without their national Feast Days and Fast Days,
without the regular communal practices of their faith,
practices that reinforce their identity,
practices that define and distinguish them, spiritually,
from their neighbors in Babylon.
So they are now stranded in a spiritual desert, but don’t know it.
God wants to deliver them from this desert,
but they’ll miss out if they don’t notice what’s happening.

Unlike Egypt, they will have opportunity to leave,
No army will chase them down.
Nehemiah and Ezra and others
will later work at rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple.
And the King of Persia will support resettlement,
provided they remain his subjects.

This is why God, through the prophet,
has to point out what they are missing—
that the life they are living in exile is only half a life . . . if that,
that there is deliverance waiting for them.
This is not the running-for-your-life-Exodus,
chariots and horses in pursuit,
exit route blocked by an impassable sea.
This is entirely different.

The prophet first has to convince them to want to leave exile,
then needs to call attention to the path in front of them.
At least, that’s how this poetic prophecy in Isaiah 43 sounds to me.

And sometimes I wonder if we are not in a similar state of affairs.
We are also exiles, in a manner of speaking.
But we’ve gotten so comfortable,
we no longer feel displaced.
We forget that we are sojourners.
Yes, like the Israelites,
we are called to love the world we live in,
to seek the shalom of the city where we reside, even in exile.
But if we look into the soul of 21st-century American culture,
taking note of the values and priorities of this culture
and do not feel a profound dislocation . . .
then we have gotten too comfortable in Babylon.

Not saying . . . we reject the world or turn away in disgust.
I don’t advocate isolationism, sectarianism, separatism.
No, we love the world like God does.

But that’s . . . just the point—like . . . God . . . does—
God, who wants to save and transform it, and make it new.

God invites us into full life, not a half life . . .
into deeper, more authentic life,
more abundant and joyful life
than what the dominant culture is selling us.

Creator God has a good and whole intention for us and all creation.
But look around.
Pay attention.
We have to admit, don’t we, that this isn’t it!
This is not God’s story being played out here.
But God’s story is still an option, if we are discerning.
There is a life of shalom and beauty and truth and compassion.
And God is saying to us, once again,
“There it is, can’t you see it ?”
That little spring bubbling up in the desert.
Over there.
Go for it.
Follow its flow.

Sisters and brothers, we, of all people,
should not be in despair when we look at the state of the world,
or even the state of our politics and civil society.
Oh, by all mean, let’s identity the evil,
and let’s hate the evil,
let’s openly resist the evil.
But despair?
God’s deliverance and restoration is at hand,
and already at work.
And no, it doesn’t make sense.
But there it is anyway, bubbling up . . . in this desert.
Don’t you see it?
Don’t you want to drink of that stream?
Don’t you hunger and thirst?

—Phil Kniss, April 7, 2019

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