Sunday, September 29, 2019

Paula Stoltzfus: Farming for the earth and soul

Farms and Human Flourishing
2 Corinthians 9:6b-11; Deuteronomy 8:7-10, 17-19; Psalms 107:35-43; Mark 4: 26-34

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Farming for the Earth and Soul

My Dad grew up on a dairy farm in rural Indiana.  His parents both grew up on Amish farms.  He had what I would consider a hobby farm growing up, raising beef cattle on occasion. I remember enjoying hearing him share stories of growing up on the farm, with two barn burning stories, mice in the corn bin, and the food a hard working family of 12 would eat.  

When the Stoltzfus family gets together, I hear stories of the farm they grew up on, a potato and dairy farm in Morgantown, PA.  Both sets of their grandparents also were farmers.  

Of my Dad’s 9 siblings, only 2 ended up farming until he retired.  I would have 2 cousins who continued farming.  Of John’s 5 siblings, 1 farmed until 10 years ago.  Meaning no one is actively farming in the family.

I’m curious as to how many of you grew up on farms?  And how many farm today?
Farming has changed with the modernization of equipment, the financial demands, and the urbanization of many areas. Many people are 2-3 generations removed from growing food off the land.

So, I’m curious.  How many of you are aware of farmers in your family 2-3 generations back?
Yet, farming is a backbone in many rural towns.  Farmers form a network for one another that help each other out, and build a network of relationships that creates a sense of community.    

Christina Harman lives on her family farm where they operate a dairy.  She testifies to this sense of taking care of one another.  When her uncle had a fall and broken ankle, farmers surrounding them offered time and resources to the family to help bridge the gap.

But within farming communities, those gaps are becoming larger and harder to fill.  The stresses of making ends meet, picking up second jobs, and family strain is great.  

Definition of wealth

Our passage in Deuteronomy speaks of a vision of what the Israelites will move into when they cross into the promised land.  A land with flowing streams and springs, wheat and barley, vines and fig trees and pomegranates, olive trees and honey.  A land that has resources and food available without scarcity.  

Imagine how this may have been heard from a people who had been relying on manna and quail, enough food for one day for decades while traversing in a dry and arid desert.  

They were moving into a land of bounty where they would have plenty for today and tomorrow.  Wealth was measured by nature’s bounty. They were instructed to give thanks, remembering where they had come from.

I can identify with the sense of wealth that comes from nature’s bounty.  Storing and preserving food has always been a part of my awareness.  I feel privileged to have grown up in a family that passed on the tradition of canning and freezing the garden’s yield.  I have memories of sitting on the front porch swing shelling peas, picking beans, shucking corn, and turning the food mill crank to make applesauce.  I did not consider this positive character-building or even educational work at the time, but I value the memories and skills it has taught me.  These are traditions and life skills I value and carry on.  So when we get to this time of year, I get a sense of fulfillment seeing the colorful display of filled jars on the shelves and full freezer.  This sense of bounty or wealth is different.    

Wealth in our present age has been defined differently than our agrarian history.  The American dream has come to value the dollar to buy as much as it possibly can, seeking commodities that can be bought at the cheapest price possible. 

Local farms are getting squeezed out by consumers demanding cheaper produce and meats even if they are shipped from hundreds and thousands of miles away.  We have become immune to seasonal produce, demanding that we have all vegetables and fruits available year-round.  We have lost a sense of eating with the seasons. I confess that I enjoy having avocados whenever I want them.  But this way of consuming is depleting our resources instead of making them sustainable.

There are people and places where this is changing in local communities, making the profession of farming a liveable wage.  

Consider the Community Supported Agriculture or CSA movement.  A program in which farmers sell produce  subscriptions to local patrons who then receive produce weekly for the growing season. 
The local farmers market or farm stands provides direct farm to table consumables.  A place where you can get to know the farms and their practices.  

Vine and Fig, Community gardens, and Willow Run, a farm supplying our neighboring retirement community with fresh produce, are all examples of initiatives that support small farms in our area.
There are a significant number of people who grow some portion of their food.  It may be a large garden and some animals, but it also could be in pots either inside or outside the house.

When we are intentional about the farms in which our food comes, we are speaking into the agricultural system around us.  When we consider what is sustaining the farms, we consider what sustains the earth.  When we consider what sustains the earth, we consider what sustains us.  And here in lies our relationship with God and one another.  The wealth of this web of relationship is not of this world, but it is the wealth that will sustain it.

Scattering seeds

In Mark, we hear Jesus speak of the kingdom of God being like a seed that is scattered, sprouts and produces.  This account parallels Matthew’s writing of Jesus sharing the parable of the sower.  It is assumed in these accounts that the seed’s life is impacted by the kind of soil it falls upon. The original audience would have been a part of an agrarian society that lived with the rhythm of the land.  They don’t speak of the work of farming but more the results of farming as the sower.  They would have been taught from early on about what makes a seed grow and the importance of soil.

Good soil is made up of over half the weight of organic material such as, worms, beetles, microscopic fungi, molds, ants, millipede, mites, and bacteria. Some of you might be thinking gross!  Some of you might be thinking fun!  Heather Dean and Tom Benevento, food justice activists and authors write that, “all of these creatures dance in a complex rhythm of consumption and excretion, life and death, and though this dance usually goes unnoticed in the human world, our lives depend on it.” 

I love this imagery.  Soil is biodiverse, providing a balance of organic matter that holds moisture, but also drains, feeds the seed while also fights off pests and disease, and holds its form but can also be shaped by what is around it.  In this environment, a seed can sprout, grow, and be harvested or like the mustard seed, can provide shade or home for another part of creation. Our lives and the lives of many of God’s creatures depend on this dance to sustain life.

Contrary to this picture, present day farms are placed under great pressure to get high yields for maximum profit at the expense of healthy soil.  Wendell Berry, farmer and author wrote, “industrial agriculture, built according to the single standard of productivity, has dealt with nature, including human nature, in the manner of a monologist or an orator.” In other words, farming has been shaped within the last 50 years by one telling of how agriculture needs to be raised, valuing quantity over quality, monocropping over variety of crops, and short-term gain over long-term sustainability. This telling of the farming story does not take into consideration the practices that would preserve the land, value its fertility and ecological health, for generations of farming.   

Yesterday I was down at my brother and sister in law’s farm in Waynesboro where they are transitioning to running the Wenger Grape farm for the 4th generation. I happened to run into my sister in laws Mom and talked with her a bit about her experience growing up and living on a farm all her life.  She grew up on a chicken farm north of here in Broadway and married into the Vineyard farming.  She highlighted that for her, growing up near the land has allowed her to know herself and God more fully.  There is something about working intimately with creation that we learn about our self and God.

Planting seeds

Have you ever planted something, vegetable, house plant, flowers?  If you have, I can guarantee you paid it more attention.  Whether it was a success is irrelevant.  We learn from planting and observing. 
Whether it might be figurative talk about planting seeds of faith or planting seeds in soil, I believe we have something to learn from this image Jesus uses of casting seeds.

That learning will take some reflection, observation, and contemplation.

I am challenged by our agrarian laced scriptures and the applications that may apply for our earth and our souls as we consider the church as a place for planting seeds of faith in God.

For instance:  

What kind of soil are we cultivating in our personal and corporate life that is encouraging growth in our faith in God?  

How have we allowed our biodiversity to become our enemy instead of our friend?

How are we holding our faith in Jesus in a way that allows it to hold its form while allowing it to be shaped by what is growing around it?

How have we bought into the definition of wealth in our culture that has depleted our ability to sustain the richness of life within community?

Land of plenty

On a local level, we live in a land that sounds much like the promised land written about in Deuteronomy.  A land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees, pears and apples and honey…a land where you will lack nothing.

We give you thanks God for the bounty which is right around us.  Give us eyes to see and ears to hear how we can sustain this bounty and share it with others. AMEN

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Sunday, September 22, 2019

Moriah Hurst: The physical universe

Awaken our senses: Isaiah 41:18-20

We give you praise: Psalms 148:1-13a; Matthew 6:25-29

We lament: Colossians 1:15-20

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A picture, grass and a stone:

Awaken our senses to know that God created

At the end of the spring I took my nieces to DC for the day and we visited the arboretum. As we walked through each area and garden the smells, temperature and humidity were almost overwhelming in their intensity not to mention the beauty and variety that our eyes we were taking in. This morning I wanted to turn the sanctuary into an arboretum to give you that immersion experience. But since I can’t open the roof of the sanctuary, we will have to live into our memories and imaginations as we think of gazing into the sky or having air brush against our cheeks.
            I want to take us on a walk over mountains, through forests and deserts. I want us to feel the power and spray of a pounding waterfall and majestic oceans, to drink in the intoxicating perfume of a flower, to notice the rich textures of our land – hallows, rivers, tree-covered mountains and rolling hills. Reach into your memory and find the places you love. Where is the wildest place you’ve ever been, the most remote, the furthest from the developed and built up world?
            My memory goes to hugging Redwoods or climbing a Karri tree, one of Australia’s tallest tress. I remember standing on tons of ice on a glacier in New Zealand, floating in the ocean as the waves carried my body, and camping where light pollution and cell reception couldn’t reach us. When have you felt the most in touch with nature – what did that feel like? Close your eyes a minute and hold that memory.
            (Showing pictures) Open your eyes and senses to sharp mountain rocks, the extravagant and wasteful beauty of sunrise and sunset, to rushing water, to the silence of solitary places, to moist moss and the smell of evergreen forest, to the fear and shock of weather we can’t control, to bird calls and the smell of rain, to deep jungle green, to the salt of ocean spray and smooth coastal stones, to arid boulders and sand, to the smell of honey suckle in early summer and fresh mowed grass, to laying on your back as the dew gathers and watching the light extravaganza of fireflies dancing against the stars, to crisp leaves, to the crunch of snow and the bite of cold on your skin, and all that is held in God’s good creation.
            I imagine God had joy in creating all of this. God wasn’t showing off or making it to impress someone or something. God just created. And God is still creating, creation was not a once and done and over thing. God is sovereign over all that is created.
Do we feel the grass under our feet or see the trees and plants around us? Do we drive by the mountains not even noticing they are there anymore? How much time do we spend outside or are we inside for much of our day in climate controlled buildings. We walk on gravel, cement and bricks – are we mindful of earth, grass, sand between your toes?
God, open our eyes to see, our ears to really hear, our noses to smell and take in air, our awareness of touch – we dull our senses so we don’t go into overload but lets wake up to the natural, created world around us.
Isaiah offers that the touch of God is like water renewing a parched land. May we accept the invitation to see, know, consider and understand that God’s hand has created.

We praise you with all of creation, beyond our worry

            When my niece Shawna was a little girl she would sing to the world as it went by. When I say sing she would name it as she saw it. “there’s a tree and some rock, oh I stepped on an ant. There are clouds in the sky”. As I hear this Psalm I hear her little voice yet around it a whole heavenly and earthly choir raise their voices as well. And this is a song of praise. It is a role call of every living thing that is, all that was known of the world. From the highest heavens and celestial beings to the darkest and murkiest depths of the ocean. Humans are there but just part of this list of created creatures.
            I hear from so many people that they go into nature to meet with God and to feel close to God. We enter nature and feel in touch with the awe, wonder and mystery of the creator and sustainer. And here all of that creation is called to praise the one who made them. We hear this list and I am touched by both the beauty and the bigness of God.
            In the midst of all of this I want us to consider for a moment grass. What is the purpose of grass – it covers the earth, holds in moister and secures the top soil. Each small blade, soft and tender beneath your feet or crunchy in the dry times of August. Ranging in colors from vibrant greens of new growth, deepening to a rich dark green. A flaky edge appearing as green fades to tans and browns as moister drains from its roots. And Oh its roots, those things we don’t see unless we try to rid a garden bed of grass. Small tendrils and webs of lacey roots intertwining, longer fatter roots that seem to go on forever with crabgrass, so strong and yet so fragile when we yank at them. Grass, this thing so common yet complex. Underfoot and everywhere, yet created by God and praising God. We could dive into this complexity with each part of creation.
Throughout the bible we hear of people going up on mountain tops or away into the desert or wilderness to hear from and feel close to God. Where is it that God reveals God self to you? Do we join in with nature as it praises God? Part of how we see the physical earth praising its maker is in it being the very thing God has created it to be. Not to be the best and compete but a call to praise – praise by doing what they were created to do – shine, stand tall, be fixed forever, storm, leave a slimy path behind them, blow, be grass underfoot – all of these praise, exalt and give glory to God.
This litany of praise by creation invites us to think about who this God is. So creative, incredibly detail oriented, not always practical, and wildly imaginative. God as a gardener, planting and tending. God as an architect dreaming, designing and crafting. God as a builder taking sand, rock, water, flesh and getting in to it, getting hands dirty and getting the work done.
If we know this creator God why do we worry? This is a God who takes time to care for the small things underfoot and yet creates craters and the burning ball that is our sun. Each complex and unique. If we stand before this God in praise can some of our worry melt away as awe takes its place?
God sees the beauty in each of us, our needs and concerns. When our lives feel small in this large world know that our creator God holds us close and for this we praise.

We lament the earth’s beauty cut short

            We cannot speak of the glorious wonder of the earth without seeing its destruction and hearing the earth cry out in pain. We seem ready to pollute rather than preserve, to abuse the atmosphere rather than believe the air is indeed the breath of God for us. We see the sorrow of land raped, plundered, and cry for the extinction of animals as our biodiversity shrinks. I remember standing on a mountain top and looking down over a valley where bush fires had gone through a year before. The trees had burnt but still stood like a tree graveyard, ashen white, lifeless reminders of the flames.
            Yet this Colossians text is another hymn. We are held together in Christ, created through him. In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Through Jesus reconciling and making peace. Everything lives in Christ. Jesus is the starting line, the finish and the glue that is holding it all together. He is the brains of this show. If Jesus knows and is known by creation this intimately, how Jesus must ache and morn with our planet.
            Have we become alienated from the earth, viewing this planet as disposable? Have we turned our greed into global warming and loved progress more then the planet that sustains us? In so doing have we cut ourselves off from the creator and Christ the reconciler?
            Christ brings heaven and earth together – making cosmic harmony. Have we created dissonant, distracting and destructive chords? No, not completely because Jesus is doing this reconciling work in and through us.
Ralph P. Martin writes that Christ is the image of the invisible – “He is not a copy or likeness of God but the ‘projection’ of God on the canvas of our humanity and the embodiment of the divine in the world.” (Interpretation, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, p. 108)  Jesus “is the agent in bringing the universe into harmony with the divine purpose, expressed as reconciliation.” (p. 109). God did not create and then abandon us, even though humanity has done its best to push God away. God continues to show up offering us relationship and reconciliation, hope and new work of restoration together as God’s people in the church.
            Longing for that work of reconciliation and restoration I close with excerpts from a poem by Robert O’Rourke:
My people took solace in
Wind whispers,
Coyote songs,
The silence of rocks and high-soaring eagles.
Today I return to this place where my ancestors
            Gathered medicine and herbs.
I stop to listen for the old melodies
            Running softly through the trees,
            For the beating heart of Mother Earth
            The rhythm of sparkling waters.
The sonorous sounds are no more!
What remain are
Lamentations of blasted boulders,
Clanking of chain saws,
Crashing trees, rocks crumbling into dust.
My spirit yearns for the long-ago, lost harmonies
The musing of insects,
Rustle of leaves,
The voice of the hawk.

Stooping down, I choose one tormented rock;
Holding it gently towards the sky;
Together we pray to the God-of-all-things
For the return of earth song,
The murmur of grass,
Butterfly wings and
The gentle silence of rocks
At peace

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Sunday, September 15, 2019

Phil Kniss: It’s all connected … back to God

God's Glorious Creation
Gen. 1:1-5, 26-27, 31a

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I want to make sure you know this Sunday is the first of 11 weeks
that we are shaping our worship around creation.
And I want to make sure you understand why.

You might be thinking this is a narrow topical focus,
chosen specifically to focus on the urgency of climate change,
and the many other ways we are exploiting our environment . . .
to our own detriment
and the detriment of the most vulnerable of God’s creatures.

You might be thinking this is an effort to address
a current political hot issue,
but from a Christian point of view.

I’m not saying it would be wrong to spend 11 weeks on such a series,
but this is not that.
Yes, every week in this creation series we will ponder
biblical themes that have political implications,
as do most aspects of living in this world as followers of Jesus.

Never let me hear you say politics don’t belong in church.
Now . . . partisan political advocacy or campaigning
doesn’t belong.
But, you can’t say you are Christian,
and then say you won’t talk about things
that have political implications.
That’s a completely false dichotomy.
Choosing how we live together as a people,
how we treat each other as a society,
is a political question, and
a profoundly moral question
that the church needs to engage.
So we won’t shy away from moral questions,
just because they happen to also be political questions.

Having said that, this series is, theologically-speaking,
perhaps the most broad and expansive and integrated worship series
we have done in a very long time.
It touches the most important biblical themes
about understanding the nature and work of God
and our place in the world,
and what it means to be human,
and how to live in community with integrity.

I can understand how you might want to call it
a series on creation care.
If you do, I will lovingly correct you.

This worship series will focus on creation itself and the Creator,
and on the worship of God which creation engages in,
and how we live in faithful relationship
with the Creator and Creation.
So yes, of course, we will be talking a great deal
about caring for creation.
But every time we do, it will be deeply grounded
in our love for God, and God’s love for us and all creation.

There are many different motivations to care for this good earth.
Good (but different) people have good (but different) reasons
to care about our world.
We can and do gladly partner
with anyone who cares about our physical environment,
no matter their motivation.
But our motivation, to be perfectly clear,
is that God made it all,
God loves it all,
and God wants us to love it like God does.

So in this opening service for the series,
on “God’s glorious creation,”
I want us to embrace in a new and deeper way this idea
that the purpose of creation is to glorify God.

As an Anabaptist Mennonite people, generally,
we are known for our practical discipleship,
for trying to behave in ways consistent with the way of Jesus.
We are action-oriented.
All good. I don’t dismiss that.

But we might have a growing edge,
when it comes to the emotionality and aesthetics of worship.
We don’t spend an inordinate amount of time
talking about the majesty and glory of God.
Our worship spaces, historically, have been simple and spare.
It’s the people gathered inside that are important,
not our house of worship.
And we typically give a prominent place in worship
to the words we speak,
more than the beauty we embody or create around us.

So, on this theme of grasping creation’s call to give glory to God,
maybe we need to look outside our tradition for inspiration.

So I turn to one of the traditions best known
for emphasizing beauty and glory in worship—
the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
I am going to quote from a Russian Orthodox Archbishop,
known as the Metropolitan Tryphon,
who lived over 100 years ago,
and wrote these words of sublime worship,
inspired by God’s creation.

So just sit back, maybe close your eyes,
and bask in the images these old words may evoke.

How glorious you are in the triumph of the seasons!
Every creature awakes to new life
and joyfully sings your praises with a thousand tongues:
you are the source of life,
the conqueror of death.
By the light of the moon nightingales sing;
the plains and the woods put on their wedding garments,
white as snow.
Glory to you for bringing from the darkness of the earth
an endless variety of colors, tastes, and scents.
Glory to you for the warmth and tenderness
of the world of nature.
Glory to you for surrounding us
with tens of thousands of your works.
Glory to you for the depth of your wisdom:
the whole world is a living sign of it.
Glory to you;
on our knees we kiss the traces of your unseen hand.
Glory to you for setting before us
the dazzling light of your eternal beauty.
Glory to you for the hope
of the imperishable splendor of immortality.
Glory to you, O Holy God, from age to age.  Amen.

I trust those words spoke to something deep in you.
Maybe you thought, “that’s a little over the top.”
And if so, I hope you will change your mind
over the course of these next 11 weeks.
The most important work of creation is to give glory to God.
Creation’s very purpose is the praise of God the Creator.

You may wonder why.
Why does God want praise?
I often hear that question asked.
Sometimes with a pretty deep skepticism about the call to praise.
Questioning God’s apparent self-obsession.
But when we are dismissive of God’s command to praise God,
it says a lot more about ourselves than about God.

For some reason, we like to attribute to God,
our own very human emotional insecurities.
Which is, to be frank, short-sighted and silly on our part.
God is not an emotionally insecure heavenly being
who needs to have our constant praise,
in order to feel loved and validated.

No, we praise God as the Creator of the Universe,
because God, by the moving of the Spirit
and in collaboration with the Eternal Christ,
breathed this universe into existence,
out of God’s own deep and boundless love.

This is the biblical story: God, before the beginning of time,
was full of love, but had nowhere to direct it.
God needed a world, God needed creatures and creation
to be the recipients of God’s abundant and unconditional love,
so that they might return that love to God.

So God gave Creation one primary vocation—
to praise and glorify the Creator.
Not for God’s vainglory,
but for the love of all things!
If God created the world out of love, for love,
then when creation returns love to God,
it completes the circle.
It makes perfect God’s creative purpose.
It enacts the shalom God had in mind.

The praise of God by creation
is the cosmic intention of God, fully realized.
The praise of God by creation
is love and beauty and shalom
in a dynamic relationship with each other,
completing the divine electrical circuit.

Just like an electrical cord with a switch,
attached to a light bulb.
When the circuit is broken, when the switch is open,
there is darkness.
But when the switch makes contact, the circuit is whole.
There is light.
There is shalom.

Wherever creation praises God, there is a sign of shalom.
Wherever creation fails to praise and glorify its creator,
there is absence of shalom.

That is why we, who worship God in Christ, care for creation.
Not because we are moralistic do-gooders,
who think we can save the world single-handedly.
No, but since we love God,
we want to see God’s shalom vision fulfilled,
and we want to see every part of Creation
singing its God-given song of praise,
so it can fulfill the purpose for which God created it.

And of all the living and non-living things in creation
that are called to praise God—
mountains displaying God’s greatness,
and trees clapping their hands—
we are the chief praise-givers.
We are the ones who are able,
with thought and intention and hearts full of love,
to pour out our praise in word and deed
and in acts of creativity and beauty-making.
God loves it when we do that—
not because God feels validated,
but because we then live out our created intention.
We embody the love of God we were created to embody.

So it’s all connected . . . back to God.
Everything in creation is connected.
Yes, our care for creation has practical consequences.
It will help us live on this earth longer, and in better health.
But our care for creation is more than utilitarian.

Our care for the earth connects us to God.
Our care for the earth
enables creation to do its work unhindered.
That mountain you see out our east windows—
that was formed to glorify God.
Same for those glorious mountains to the west of us,
the Alleghenies.
When many of those mountaintops,
in recent decades,
had the tops blown off by dynamite and bulldozers,
in order to extract coal to run our powerplants
to support our rampant consumerism,
that was a sin against God.
Mountaintop removal strips the mountain
of its ability to praise the majesty of the Creator.
Clear-cutting wide swaths of forest land
to take a few valuable trees
destroys the capacity of that forest
to live out its purpose of praising God.

I’m not saying every time we take something living from the earth,
we sin.
Careful and respectful and reasonable
harvesting of trees and other living things
is not a bad thing.
Our lives can be enriched by using carefully-selected wood
in well-constructed homes and furniture,
and by consuming protein from animals
that we obtain with care, and with gratitude.

Cutting down trees and killing animals
can and must be done in a way
that respects them as living things
that were created by God for God’s glory,
not for our selfish pleasure or short-sighted gain.

Michaela Mast spent the last year or more working on a podcast project
connected with  Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions,
a joint project of EMU
and Goshen College and Mennonite Central Committee.
She and her colleagues traveled all over the country
interviewing all kinds of people.
You’ll hear more about that,
because we soon hope to have a short-term elective
during our Faith Formation hour focused on that.
But right now, I want to play you a 45-second sound clip
that Michaela recorded while interviewing Randy Green,
a pastor in Elkhorn, West Virginia.
He makes the point better than I can,
about the way we harvest resources. Just listen.
"I don’t mind `em logging, that’s, that’s the first thing. I’m not a tree-hugger . . . The problem is not logging, the problem is the way greedy people do it. If you want a tree 50 yards away, they took a bulldozer and pushed a road out and push all these other trees over, and they cut it down and get it, but you pushed over 50 more to get to it. And they leave `em laying. There was a place up here, that was a stand of river birch, and they cut every tree in the whole stand. Know how many of them they took? Nothing. Nothing. Some of those birch two foot in diameter. And they cut `em down, and left `em laying. I mean, that’s just, that’s not logging, that’s stupidity."

When we start thinking about the resources of creation
as objects for our consumption or domination,
we badly misunderstand God and scripture.
We need to go back and re-read the foundational scriptures,
like the ones we read this morning.
When God put human beings in charge of creation,
we were not being given permission to exploit it for our gain.
We were granted a trusteeship.
We were assigned a task by God—
God said, “Care for it with the same love and delight
that I showed in creating it.”

When God said in Genesis 1
that we humans were created in God’s own image,
I think we can assume we were meant to reflect that image,
to love what God loves,
to find delight in the things that delight God!
It is not anyone’s moralism or shaming or guilt-mongering
that will change the trajectory of our relationship with creation.
It will be learning to love.
It will be getting our theology right
about who God is and who we are,
and how much God loves us and the world we live in,
and how deeply God wants us to live into our created purpose.

If we can start loving and worshiping God rightly,
start giving God glory where glory is due,
and stop hindering creation’s ability to praise God,
then we might have a chance to see things set right again.

The psalmist says, “Let all creation praise the Lord.”
“Let it!”
Think about it!
That command is for us. “Let it!”
Get out of the way of creation.
Stop hindering it.
God’s glorious creation is intended to give glory to God.
Our job is to let it do what God intended it to do.

—Phil Kniss, September 15, 2019

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Sunday, September 8, 2019

Andrew & Karen Suderman: Loving Thy Neighborhood (thoughts and guided reflections)

Church Retreat: Love Thy Neighborhood
Luke 14:1-23

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...or listen to audio:

This "sermon" is part of a more interactive event during our Sunday morning worship at our church retreat on Sept. 8, 2019. Andrew and Karen Suderman were our weekend resource people, and this Sunday morning portion of their time with us built on their Saturday morning session. However, what they shared on Sunday morning was significant and can also stand on its own. Enjoy! and be challenged!

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Sunday, September 1, 2019

Phil Kniss: With steady hearts

Labors of Love
Psalms 112; John 6:25-34; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

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...or listen to audio:

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That psalm we read a few minutes ago sounded pretty confident.
“Happy are those who fear the Lord . . .
They are not afraid of evil tidings;
their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord.
Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid.”

Steady? Our hearts are shaken.
We are afraid of evil tidings,
and there are evil tidings aplenty.
Just this week . . . the battle over Brexit blowing up in Britain,
nuclear troubles in North Korea and Iran,
rainforests ablaze in the Amazon,
U.S. and China trying to out-tariff each other,
hurricane bearing down on the east coast,
violent clashes in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Europe,
meanwhile, the meltdown of American politics
that gets more shameful and cringe-worthy every day,
and emboldens angry people who hate
and are heavily-armed.
It’s enough to make steady hearts quiver.

It’s enough to.
But it doesn’t have to if we believe the psalmist—
“Happy are those who fear the Lord.”

We people of the Book,
who put our trust in God the Creator,
are encouraged, urged, even commanded,
to stand firm, stay focused, to
“rise in the darkness as a light for the upright.”

To quote more of that psalm,
They who put their confidence in the Lord
“are gracious, merciful, and righteous.”
They embody the justice of God in their daily lives.
They “deal generously and lend . . .
conduct their affairs with justice.”
They “distribute their resources freely, they give to the poor . . .
The wicked see it and are angry;
they gnash their teeth and melt away;
the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.”

While the world around us is shaken to its foundation,
and others are spiraling downward into darkness,
we who trust God are rising up, as a burning candle.
Or . . . so says the psalmist.

But who would like to claim
that is actually happening these days?
Who would say that in our current cultural context,
the church is widely regarded by the public,
as a light in the darkness,
as a people who exude kindness and compassion for all people,
especially the most vulnerable and marginalized?
Who would say the culture sees in us, people of faith,
a shining example of how to live above the fray,
of how to live in hope and joy and lightness of being,
in these mean-spirited, dark, heavy, and polarized times?

No, if you listen to the word on the street,
if you pay attention to the portrayal of Christians
in the news or entertainment media,
or if you read the polling data,
you will see that a different kind of reputation precedes us.

We might want to lay the blame at the feet of white evangelicals,
say it’s their fault Christians have a bad rap,
what with their hard-right politics,
their strong anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-gay voices.
We might be tempted to wag our fingers
at several prominent white leaders of Christian institutions,
and say they are giving us all a bad name.

But who among us would say that, as a whole,
the rest of the Christian world has sounded a clarion call
of peace in the middle of the storm,
of hope in the deep darkness,
of joy in a time of strife,
of reasoned conversation amid all the shouting?
And who would say that the rest of us Christians
have been humble about our own failings—
abuse of power,
sexual abuse?
Who would say most churches readily repent
when these sins are brought to light,
instead of denying, deflecting, and covering up.

Sisters and brothers,
we Christians are in the world, and often, of it.
So let’s all exhibit some humility and honesty—
character traits that are in short supply these days.

But now . . . what does this have to do with Labor Day?
Don’t we usually take this Labor Day Sunday service,
and celebrate our work?
and bless each other in our vocation?
Why this focus on the public reputation of Christians?

A couple reasons.

First, let’s recall why Labor Day even exists.
We know it’s not a day in the church calendar.
It’s a national holiday brought about in the late 1880s
to call attention to the plight of the American worker.
At the height of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S.,
as many people moved from farming into manufacturing,
many workers had 12-hour days and seven-day weeks,
just to make a basic living.
Children as young as 5 or 6—
despite some state laws against it—
worked in mills, factories, and mines across the country,
earning a fraction of adult wages.
The poorest workers, especially recent immigrants,
suffered the most,
facing extremely unsafe working conditions—
such as lack of fresh air, sanitary facilities, and rest-breaks.

So labor unions grew more prominent and vocal,
protesting poor conditions
and compelling employers to renegotiate hours and pay.

A lot has changed in the last 130 years.
Public opinion of labor unions has shifted.
There’s a more business-friendly social climate.
Thankfully, workplaces are generally safer.
But we should never forget the justice-driven origin of this day.
Labor Day was not a holiday to celebrate the end of summer,
and wax nostalgic about our vocational callings
that have us mostly sitting at desks in front of computers.
Labor Day came about
in a time of great political unrest and turmoil in our land
because people of faith and compassion
saw the poor and the immigrant
getting squashed by the rich and powerful.
Sound vaguely familiar?
Yes, I believe it’s right for those of us in the upper tier
economically and socially—
and that’s most of us,
when we compare ourselves globally—
it’s right to be humble and compassionate,
and ponder the plight of those today
who object to mistreatment—
immigrants at our borders,
refugees and asylum-seekers,
religious minorities,
racial-ethnic minorities,
sexual minorities,
the working poor who cannot afford health-care,
those whose bodies and souls are being trafficked,
and others being pushed out and away
from the safe-zone we have created around us.

So on Labor Day,
let us clearly, vocally, and with compassion,
stand with those who are being stood against,
in the name of God our Creator and Jesus our Redeemer,
who has bestowed the divine image on them all, and
who has poured out unconditional love on them all.
And let us do that, while opening declaring, with the psalmist,
that our worship of God in Christ is our prime motivator.
Then perhaps, other loud voices in our Christian family
will not be the only voices heard and quoted.

Another reason to use Labor Day
to reclaim our work of representing God’s justice and compassion,
is because that work is the core of our identity
as the people of God.

We cannot call ourselves God’s people,
and take a pass on representing God’s values
to the world around us.
If true evangelical faith consisted only
of choosing the right doctrinal formula to sign on to,
or choosing the right group to be loyal to,
or being on the right side of every theological argument,
then I might not be overly worried about the state of affairs
in the Christian world.
I might just say, okay, go at it!
And may the best doctrine win!

But that’s not the definition of evangelical faith.
As Menno Simons famously said, in part,
“True evangelical faith . . . cannot lie dormant,
but spreads itself out
in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love;
it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul;
it clothes the naked;
it feeds the hungry;
it comforts the sorrowful;
it shelters the destitute;
it aids and consoles the sad.”

Crushing the competition is not the vocation of Christians.
We are not called to win the most theological arguments,
or get the most members in the door,
or gain the most influence in the halls of power.

We are called to represent God to the world—
to reflect God’s love, and goodness, and holiness, and justice.
To use N.T. Wright’s analogy,
we are to hold an angled mirror to the world,
so that when the world looks at us,
they see God’s character;
they get a glimpse of the divine image.
The angled mirror reflects the glory of the living God
to all humanity and creation,
and it reflects back to God the worship and praise of God,
from all humanity and creation.
That is our vocation.
That is our work.
That is our labor, born out of our love for God and others.

That is what the apostle Paul referred to
in his letter to the church of the Thessalonians,
which we heard a few minutes ago.
Paul gave thanks to God for the Thessalonians’
“labor of love and steadfastness of hope”
in the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the face of severe persecution,
when times were hard,
they did not resort to attacking their persecutors
or back-stabbing each other.
They loved God and others so well
that the message of the Gospel was being proclaimed
not in word only,
but in their lives.
To the point that Paul said,
their character and kindness was widely known.
And “we have no need to speak about it.”

And our Gospel reading today came from John 6,
right after the miraculous feeding of 5,000 with fish and bread.
The crowd catches up to Jesus on the other side of the lake,
and Jesus warns them soberly.
“You followed me over here just because of the bread.
You ate your fill and wanted more.
Don’t be like that.
Don’t work for food that spoils.
Do the work of God that will feed you for eternity.”
“What is that work?” they asked him.
“It is to put your trust in the one God has sent.”
In other words, “Follow me.
Do as I do.
Along with me, reflect the character and image of God.”

That is the vocation of everyone of us here
who call ourselves followers of Jesus.
So we have a ritual of response that includes all of you
on this Labor Day.
Not just those who are currently in the workforce.
We are all called to offer our labors of love,
to the project that God is all about—
the healing, saving, reconciling of humanity and creation.
We each have different gifts to offer,
` and each one matters.
Together, they will build a new world,
when placed in God’s hands.

Each of you was given a stone as you arrived for worship today.
That represents your labor of love,
your capacity to contribute something, however small,
to God’s shalom project.

If you are willing to publicly offer it to God’s work,
come to the front and lay it on one of these two platters
on the front table.
Children, young people, adults of all ages.
Everyone has something that contributes to the whole.
You don’t have to come up in any order; come as you feel led.
There won’t be ushers directing the traffic flow.
But it might help things if you walk like you drive,
always walk on the right side of the aisle,
so traffic moving in the opposite direction has a clear path.
If you need to be cautious walking in a crowd,
just come up after the service and place your stone.

While this is happening, there will be music playing,
and at the conclusion, we will move right into singing.
Follow along in your bulletin.

When we finish there will be a couple nice stone monuments up here.
It represents our collective willingness
to give to God and to God’s project
our labors of love.
May God give us strength.

—Phil Kniss, September 1, 2019

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