Sunday, December 27, 2020

Reflections from the pastors: Words from Mary, Simeon, and Anna

Christmas 1: God With Us
Luke 2:21-38

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The three pastors of Park View personify three of the main characters in today's story from Luke 2 -- Mary the mother of Jesus, Simeon, and Anna the prophetess.

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Sunday, December 20, 2020

Phil Kniss and Dr. Bishara Awad of Bethlehem: What love really looks like (the other side of the Christmas story)

Advent 3: LOVE
Psalm 113; Luke 1:26-56

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This is the time of year I talk out of both sides of my mouth.
I push back on the consumerism of the season,
and the saccharine-sweet pictures of Bethlehem,
and romanticized, star-lit manger scenes
that bear no resemblance to the Biblical story.
And I admit I love the nostalgic side of Christmas,
and have not one, but two
romanticized, star-lit manger scenes in our house.
I’m no scrooge about Christmas traditions.
I just want to be honest and call them what they are—
made-up culturally acceptable images that promote goodwill,
spark human connection and generosity,
and have a lot of other benefits.
I don’t begrudge anyone celebrating Santa or singing about Rudolph
or making up characters for the nativity story
that aren’t even in the Bible,
like the Three Kings and the innkeeper.
We shouldn’t fight that.
There is inherent goodness in it, so embrace it.
But then, when we gather as a worshiping community of the Book,
then it’s time to take the God of the Bible seriously,
and the biblical narrative seriously,
and see what hard and beautiful truths it might be telling us.
There is a difference between the cultural traditions,
and the biblical narrative in Luke,
as read by the Rhodes family this morning.
And nowhere is that distinction more sharp
than in the person of Mary.
Mary was a teenage girl—inexperienced, unknown, powerless—
legal property of her father,
soon to become legal property of the carpenter Joseph,
soon to become shamed and endangered,
because of her pregnancy before marriage.
God came to her first,
to use her as the means to bring
the saving Christ into the world.
It’s as unbelievable as it sounds.
But Mary believed the unbelievable,
and went to tell her elder cousin.
Elizabeth confirmed, “God is at work in you!”
And Mary broke out in a song of joy—
just not the kind of joy we expect.
It wasn’t “Oh joy!
God has blessed me with a wonderful gift!”
No, it was a song of revolution—
social, and political, and religious revolution.
Mary’s song could be a protest anthem.
She sings of the small towering over the big,
the weak defeating the strong,
the poor out-ranking the rich,
the nobodies surpassing the somebodies.
She sings about God taking the social order,
and turning it on its head.
This revolutionary anthem no longer shocks us.
It’s just part of the Christmas soundtrack.
The Magnificat is sung everywhere—
even in ornate cathedrals by elite choirs
to the delight of royalty and the top 1%—
the very people who are targets of the revolution
being sung about.
Oh, well, at least it’s being sung.
And it should be sung.
This song of Mary captures the essence
of the whole biblical nativity narrative:
Think of all the “little people” God used
to help unfold the story of cosmic salvation.
It wasn’t just the girl and her carpenter fiancĂ©.
It was lowly shepherds on the social margins.
It was the virtually unknown religious worker Zechariah.
The people in this story honored by an angel’s visit
were people of little or no standing,
in a small town in a tiny country
being occupied by a foreign power.
The story of a Bethlehem Christmas
is a story of the deep love of God being shown to people
in a state of emptiness, poverty, and danger.
At Christmas we are invited to bow in worship to a God
who loves this world,
and proves it by going to places that are off the map,
people that are out of sight,
and situations that others turn away from.
No, God is not anti-power and anti-wealth.
Quite the opposite.
God appreciates power, and its capacity to implement God’s agenda.
That’s why God is tender toward those
who have power taken away.
God is on the side of joy and beauty and abundance and freedom.
That’s why God moves toward the poor and oppressed,
to show them what they are missing, yet deserve.
God has no objection to wealth and power.
But when those who have it,
don’t use it for God’s purposes,
God turns toward those who will.
If we, the rich and powerful today—especially today,
in this suffering and out-of-balance world—
if we fail to side with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed,
if we fail to join God’s mission of bringing justice,
peace, goodwill, and shalom,
God will look for other partners.
When the powerful fail, as they often do,
God lets them get upstaged by the weak.
This is the essence of the Bethlehem story.
We heard the theme in the song of Mary.
We heard the theme in today’s Psalm, 113—
“Praise the Lord,
who raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
and seats them with princes.”
And if we look at the Old Testament prophet Micah,
we see this Bethlehem reversal named outright:
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel.”
When all the nostalgia clears away,
we must take Bethlehem seriously.
We must look for the Bethlehems in today’s world,
find the little ones that others overlook,
move toward the poor and needy,
notice where there is injustice, and raise our voices,
and show them the love of God.
There are many figurative “Bethlehems” we could name right now.
But for the remainder of my sermon time today,
let’s talk about the literal Bethlehem, in 2020.
Yes, the still little town just outside Jerusalem,
situated in Palestinian territory.
Bethlehem is on my mind,
because I read recently how the COVID pandemic
has decimated that community.
The livelihood of thousands of workers and families,
depends on the tourist industry,
which went from 2 million annual visitors to practically zero.
And then I remembered . . .
exactly 20 years ago, December 2000,
we connected with that Bethlehem during our worship service,
and spoke with Dr. Bishara Awad,
founding president of Bethlehem Bible College.
Bethlehem was under siege that year,
during the second intifada,
and suffering terribly.
One of our members, the late Calvin Shenk,
was a friend of Dr. Awad,
and helped make the connection.
We heard, in his own voice,
what our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem were experiencing,
and we prayed for each other.
As I remembered that,
I had the urge to reconnect with Bishara Awad.
20 years ago it took a 100-foot phone cord strung from the library,
down the aisle to this pulpit to a big speaker-phone box.
Today, I could just Zoom.
So in less than 24 hours after it occured to me,
I was on a video call with Dr. Awad.
We spoke for about 20 minutes on Friday morning,
and on behalf of all of us,
I asked him about life in Bethlehem today,
with COVID and the continuing injustice.
And once again, we prayed for each other.
We recorded the conversation,
with the intent to share it with you all this morning.
So now, 20 years after our first conversation,
we will again hear from our brother in Christ, Bishara Awad.
For sake of time,
I will share only 8 minutes of the conversation and prayer.
But after the service,
in an email to the Park View congregation,
we will send a link,
so you can hear the whole 20-minute conversation,
and everything that our brother had to share with us.
So here is our brother, Dr. Bishara Awad,
now President Emeritus of Bethlehem Bible College.
I trust we will continue to hold Dr. Awad
and his community in our prayers,
and that we will do as he asked,
and grow in our understanding of the situation they are facing,
and support them as fellow members of the body of Christ,
and with him, to hold to the hope we have in Christ,
and to lean in to the love of God that we celebrate together
at this time of year.
Let us join now together in a prayer of confession,
and a moment of silence,
during which I invite us to lift up in prayer
our sisters and brothers in Bethlehem.
one O God of love and justice,
who announced a re-ordering of the world,
make good your word,
and begin with us.
all Open our hearts and unblock our ears
to hear the voices of the poor
and share their struggle;
and send us away empty with longing
for your promise to come true
in Jesus Christ.
one The God who longs to be with us
is full of love, freely forgives,
and gladly comes and fills our open hearts.
—Phil Kniss, December 20, 2020

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Sunday, December 13, 2020

Moriah Hurst: Joy instead of mourning

Advent 3: JOY
Luke 4:16-21; Isaiah 61:1-11

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Joy instead of mourning - Isaiah 61:1-11 and Luke 4:16-21

Hope, peace and joy. We have celebrated these three themes in our Advent waiting. What is it that you are waiting for? Where is your desire and longing? Does it feel matched by these words and ideas of hope, peace and joy? Or does it seem hard to hope, peace feels allusive and joy is something we grasp at like trying to hold onto smoke.

In a time when our country is faced with upheaval and divisions these concepts seem hard. People across the country face evictions from their homes and have lost their jobs. Unemployment payments are running out. Covid rips through prisons and there is nowhere to run when you are trapped in a cell breathing the same infected air as the cells around you. Vaccines are going to be available but who will get them first and who will resist them? There are hearts breaking with grief, the pain of repeated and continuing loss.

We need to hear that God is sending one:

to proclaim good news to the poor.

 to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim freedom for the captives

    and release from darkness for the prisoners,


We cry out with advent longing: come O Lord, come!


The advertisements I see and hear tell me this is a season that should be marked by joy. The people who would have heard this Isaiah passage first might have felt similar dissonance to us today.

Overall, life has (not been great) for God’s people up to the point of our reading from Isaiah 61. The injustice and idolatry in the kingdom of Judah led to the destruction of the city and the temple, and then to a forced relocation of the people to a land not their own. The people waited for release and return to their homeland, but even when that happened, the city, the temple, and the land were still in ruins.” (

They are back in the Promised Land but their postexilic life isn’t living up to everything they had hoped it to be.

We hear this promise in the text:

 They will rebuild the ancient ruins

    and restore the places long devastated;

they will renew the ruined cities

    that have been devastated for generations. Verse 4

But the hard truth is the end of exile doesn’t mean happily ever after. “Make the promise land great again” just wasn’t cutting it. There was no going back to what was, only forward into what will be. Yet some of what led to the exile, in their theological understanding of it, was not doing justice or caring for the least of these and that injustice still existed. (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary -

As they would have heard Isaiah’s words they would have been wrestling with this hope promised but not yet a reality. In the same way that “emancipation didn’t end slavery, that the civil rights movement didn’t end segregation, and that 8 years of a black president didn’t end racism – we are still struggling with these things. There is not a switch flipped and it was the same with exile,” (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary -

Do we feel like we are in exile this year? Cut off from one another and separated. We long with the exiles to go back to what was, our shiny life before March 2020. But we can’t go back, only forward. Our difficulties didn’t begin with the COVID virus. “it didn’t begin our times of trouble. Economic disparity, educational divides, mental health issues didn’t start with the pandemic – they were there before but now they are magnified and brought to the forefront and a vaccine won't fix all of this.” (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary -

Isaiah’s prophesy that Jesus stands up and reads is one of present joy with the hope of a coming peace. This is a vision of a great reversal of outcomes and a grand reset. “Those who are oppressed go free, those who are brokenhearted are healed, those who are captives and prisoners are released, and those who are blind are given sight” (

Like many of you I work a lot on my computer right now. As I close the lid to my laptop it puts it to sleep but doesn’t shut it down. About once a week I find that things start getting glitchy. I can’t get sound on zoom or some keyboard command function stops working. I remember that I have to shut the whole thing down, step away from the computer for a while and then restart it all. When I turn it back on again things seem to right themselves, fixing their little bugs.

We see in the words of Isaiah the God of justice who will right the systems. A God who will do a hard reset, which I know I long for and we need.

Before we get too caught up in how beautiful and lofty these words sound and get misty eyed about a world to come, it is important to think about what is not being said here. This is not about me and I, not an individualized salvation but communal, society righting of wrongs. This is not getting joy from personal happiness or the glitz and glitter of a pretty manger scene but true comfort to those who are wronged, marginalized and caught in cycles of poverty and violence. This is good news!

 The Spirit of God comes to initiate a repair of society from the inside out, from the bottom rung to the top. And the ones called to partner in rebuilding are those who suffered in the former regime (economically, judicially, physically, and spiritually).” (

The renewing of cities is a picture of a new community and economy. This is a vision of foreigners as a vital part of us not only there to work for us or to be abolished from the land. (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary - The outsider is included, not cast out. God is calling us away from exploitation and into justice.

 For I, the Lord, love justice;

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing. Verse 8

And we respond with rejoicing knowing that we are wrapped in God’s salvation and righteousness. God is offering joy instead of mourning, praise instead of despair, rejoicing beyond our shame and disgrace. Because as this good news is proclaimed we are invited in as partners with the Spirit in this work of restoration.

Today's reading ends with an image. A seed planted in the darkness of the earth now, yet it will sprout and grow – a future hope that brings us present joy.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,

And as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,

So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise

to spring up before all the nations. Verse 11


I am reminded of the words: “they tried to bury us, they didn’t know that we were seeds”. What in us is falling to the ground and dying right now? What from us will be held in the earth, close to God’s heart, waiting to burst forth and be reborn. We wait as seeds for restoration – not just a return to normal.

I wonder what words Jesus would step up and read to us today. What is our contemporary message?

Welcome to the foreigner fleeing and waiting at our boarder.

Freedom to those hiding from cultural shaming of their sexual identity.

God’s strong hand of justice crushing racism and raising up those who have been hurt by the legacy of racial injustice in our land.

Homes for the homeless, security for those who don’t have enough to eat and can’t pay their bills.

Calm and stability for those whose mental health dips and dives as their isolation grows.


This good news not just for us, the insider or the chosen ones, but for all people and all nations. Being partners in this work calls us to joy.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,

My whole being shall exult in my God. verse 10

The Jesus we wait for in advent will fulfill these promises. Our coming savior brings hope, peace and joy. May we find God’s seeds of justice creatively planted in us in this time of waiting.

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Sunday, December 6, 2020

Phil Kniss: On plagues, peace, and penitence

Advent 2: PEACE
Joel 2:12-13, 28-29

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On the second Sunday of Advent we always highlight peace . . .
but with a little bit of an edge.
This call to peace comes along with a call to repent.
And “repent” is usually a one-word command!
with an exclamation mark!
or two or three!
plus maybe a few unspeakable squiggles!

When we follow the traditional Revised Common Lectionary,
that call to repentance comes out of the mouth
of a screechy and straggly prophet down by the Jordan River,
called John the Baptist,
a man whose idea of good preaching
is calling his congregation a “brood of vipers.”

This year, in the Narrative Lectionary,
we come to another prophet, in our Old Testament—
the prophet Joel.
Now, I like John the Baptist.
He’s a colorful character and I like preaching about him.
And we’ll get to him later, in January.

But I’m relieved to listen to Joel this year on Advent 2.
Joel was a prophet made for the times we live in.

Is it just a coincidence, or is it Providence,
that today, as a pandemic surges around us,
the lectionary gives us a prophet
who was sent to speak good news
to a people devastated by a plague?
In his case, it was a plague of locusts.

What Joel has to say, is pretty timely, it seems to me.
We heard just a few verses in chapter 2.
But the first chapter and a half are full of the most vivid
word-pictures of vast human and environmental suffering,
not unlike today’s world.
We probably can’t picture a locust plague on this scale,
but we have seen news photos and frightening video,
where wildfires or hurricanes swept through,
destroying everything in their paths.
Add then throw in a pandemic.

Joel writes,
“What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.”
Or as Phil Helmuth might paraphrase,
having been to St. Charles Parish recently
on Mennonite Disaster Service work . . .
“What Hurricane Laura left,
Hurricane Delta has eaten.
What Hurricane Delta left,
Black Mold has eaten.
What Black Mold left,
COVID-19 made worse by keeping people away.”

The prophet Joel goes on.
“Be dismayed, you farmers,
wail, you vinedressers.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
all the trees of the field are dried up.
Surely, joy withers away among the people.
Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests,
wail, you ministers at the altar.”

And it continues painting word pictures of utter devastation.

Until we come to today’s reading,
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.”

And Joel then offers,
“God will give you the early rain for your vindication . . .
I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten.”
And then, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions . . .
I will pour out my spirit.”

So what do we make out of this, for our times?
No, we’re not going to draw exact parallels.
Our context is entirely different.
Our nation is not a worshiping community
of God’s covenant people.
Our theology doesn’t interpret locusts and viruses
as God’s judgement for sin.
Nevertheless, what can we learn about God from Joel,
that might help in a pandemic and other widespread suffering?

What we learn is that God does not desire our suffering.
God is full of grace and mercy.
And God is longing for, and watching for
our openness and receptivity to God’s initiative.
Where there is any movement toward God,
where there is any willingness to humble ourselves,
to open ourselves,
to acknowledge our need, our dependency,
to be vulnerable before God,
where there is any of that, it warms the heart of God,
and God opens up the storehouse of mercy,
and forgiveness falls like the early rains.

That is the picture of God in Joel, and throughout scripture.
What’s needed from us is only a grain of trust,
a nod toward God,
a willingness to at least open our hearts to God.
I love Joel’s word choice: “rend your hearts, not your garments.”

The biblical symbol of repentance is tearing your clothing.
Sitting on the ground in sackcloth—
humble fabric made even more lowly by ripping it up.

That’s well and good, Joel says,
but even better, tear open your hearts.
No, this is not a violent image.
It’s not tearing apart in order to inflict pain or destroy.
It’s a rending that opens up,
pulls apart an opening that allows God,
invites God, to enter, to transform, to effect a true change,
a repentance,
and then, to heal and create a new and clean heart.

This is not unwelcomed punishment.
This is a welcomed rending that opens us
to the endless love and mercy of God.

I have a feeling this kind of repentance,
is what we all need right now,
to lead us down the path of peace.

Not saying we’re a degenerate “brood of vipers”
to be guilted into putting on sackcloth and ashes.
But . . .

Who of us is not guilty of harboring ill will
toward people on the other side of the political aisle,
or toward people who think the virus is a hoax?
Who of us does not find ourselves, at times,
being self-protective or self-interested,
rather than vulnerable and open to others?
Who of us does not give in to worry or dread now and then,
and fall short in faith and trust?
Who of us does not sometimes listen more closely
to the shrill voices of division, despair, and distrust,
than to the softer, deeper voices of compassion and empathy?
Who of us does not find ourselves
weary and worn and depleted; dried-up versions of ourselves,
unable to muster the energy or spiritual wherewithal
to boldly step out in faith,
or to give sacrificially of ourselves,
or even say or do much of anything that resembles faith?

Who of us does not struggle like that at times,
and stand in need of God’s mercy?

I know for certain that I do.
That list of human frailty and faithlessness that I just named?
I have owned everyone of them,
at one point or another during this past year.
And some I battle against daily.

So what response does God want of me?
What does Joel call me toward?

A word that means, literally, a change in my way of thinking.
I am being called to turn, or to return,
to rend my heart, even if just a crack,
and open up it to God.
To say to God,
“I open myself to you.”
And mean it.

And then let God do God’s work.
According to Joel, here is the kind of God
toward whom we rend our hearts—
a God who is “gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,”
a God who “pours down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain.”
a God who, in the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading,
“gives good gifts to his children, to those who ask.”

This kind of repentance is available to us all.
It’s not just for the despicable evil-doers of this world.
It’s also for us good-hearted and well-intentioned Jesus people,
who happen to have gotten the wind knocked out of us,
who are spent, and sad,
and struggling to make sense of life and faith.

We . . . are invited to rend our hearts.
It’s a gentle, and kind invitation.
It comes from a God of unconditional love.
This repentance is not about remorse or self-punishment,
or wallowing in guilt,
or adopting a “coulda-shoulda-woulda” mindset.

It’s about turning toward God, instead of away.
It’s about a positive choice to
honestly re-examine ourselves and our assumptions,
to open ourselves to a deeper truth,
to individually and collectively return
to that which makes us human—
being in a right relationship with our Creator.

So let us do that right now, 
in a prayer of confession.
You will find it in your order of worship.
I will read the light print,
and you will respond with the bold.
And we will observe a moment of silence in the middle.

one Gracious God, we humbly confess our utter need of you.
We too often carry our fear close to our chest.
We guard ourselves from discomforting vulnerability.
Help us to open ourselves to you more fully.
all We return to you. 
        We rend our hearts open before you. 
        We receive your grace.
one Still our minds. Calm our racing hearts. Fill our lungs with your spirit-breath of peace.
one Children of God, be of good cheer.
We have opened ourselves to a God 
who is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
all We come, we cry, we watch, we wait, we look, we long for you.

—Phil Kniss, December 6, 2020

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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Phil Kniss: Hope and power

Advent 1: HOPE
Daniel 6:6-27

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This morning no one can accuse me
of having an irrelevant sermon topic: “Hope and power.”

Right our nation, our political structures, indeed our culture,
is in a massive struggle over power.
The two major political parties in our country
are walking a knife’s edge
to determine who has just enough power
to make decisions to shape our common life.
Right now the fight is over who will own a tie-breaking vote.
In the Senate, the House, the White House, the court system,
every branch of government is trying to sort out who has the power.

At the same time, those outside the political power structures
are trying to make their voice heard.
They are using the power of the pen, the megaphone, the internet,
and in some extreme cases, lethal weapons.
In various ways, from top to bottom, from left to right,
we are in the middle of a wide-spread struggle for power.

And I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t struggle for power.
This is how oppressive systems break down—
when the cost of holding it all together
is greater than the cost of letting it fall.

So I’m simply naming what is.
This is where we are right now in our society,
and yes, in the church.
We are in a struggle for power.

And then the other word . . . hope.
Is that not relevant?
Who of you doesn’t struggle with maintaining hope.
We are still in the middle of a pandemic.
Daily deaths are going up instead of down.
The political chasm is getting wider and nastier,
with no reason to think that will soon change,
even with a new president in office.
Racial injustice is out in the wide open again,
and we see how little has changed.
Around the world dictatorships are getting stronger, not weaker.
The climate is changing faster than we thought.

All of this, at a time of extreme social isolation,
is causing irreparable harm to the mental health of all of us,
and especially the young and most vulnerable.

Sure, we know this will end someday.
We will move past this dark time in history.
But we don’t know what WE will be like on the other side of it.
We are grasping, blindly,
for hope that we are moving toward a better future.

So . . . hope and power.
These are twin concepts.
Joined at the hip.
They occupy the same space.

When I feel powerless,
I will tend toward hopelessness (and resignation).
On the other hand,
when I have some power, some self-determination,
or . . . when I know that the one with power
has my wellbeing at heart,
then I can find a reason to hope.

Which brings us to the prophet Daniel.
Daniel is a fascinating book in the biblical narrative arc.
It’s hard to pin down in terms of actual history and authorship,
and seems to be a two-part collection of various material.
The first half, chapters 1-6, is a series of so-called court tales,
stories about virtuous Hebrew characters
finding themselves in the courts of foreign kings,
and navigating life in a pagan empire.
The second half is a series of apocalyptic visions,
that read a lot like the book of Revelation.

Taken as a whole,
this book is an encouragement to God’s people,
to put their trust in God’s power,
and to find hope in seemingly hopeless situations
of persecution, of exile,
when everything is stacked against them.

The book of Daniel pokes holes in the power of kings and emperors,
who . . . when held up against moral power, or divine power,
they turn out to be tragically, and comically, weak.
So . . . relevant and contemporary, no?

Even when I was a little kid, age 6 or 8 or around there,
I remember being confused about King Darius’ power.
I listened to this story about Daniel and the Lions over and over
on a 12-inch vinyl record with a yellow and black cover,
called “Great Stories of the Bible.”
I know my brother Fred, if he’s listening, remembers it well.

Let me play a short sample from that record,
the part that really confused me as a kid . . . [play audio]

I heard that and wondered, how does a king, who makes a law,
not have the power to change the law to save a trusted friend?
Yet, the moment God delivers Daniel,
the king suddenly has the power again to un-make the law.
Didn’t make a lot of sense to me then, and still doesn’t.

But that’s really not our puzzle to solve.
This story shows how the power of God,
unmasks and shames the ego-driven power of human rulers.
It urges us to examine whose power we trust,
and where we place our hope.

Even though Daniel lived in the courts of the king,
even though he had the formal power
that went with being a king’s counselor,
even so, he did not ultimately trust that power.
That is not where he placed his hope.
He placed his hope in the God
to whom every human authority figure has to answer.

Granted, that might sound a little simplistic,
and it’s not always easy to distinguish and discern
between heavenly and earthly power.

But it’s always worth asking the question . . .
“In whose power are we placing our hope?”

In the middle of another presidential transition,
we are, as always, liable to misplace our hope.
Being caught in the various power struggles going on right now,
we are in danger of letting our hope—
our deep, undergirding hope—
rest on which way the political winds are blowing.

Believe it! . . . or not . . .
the powers of this world still answer to a higher power.

God does not micro-manage human political systems
when they act like they’re in charge.
But God is nevertheless enthroned, and observant,
and working out God’s cosmic purpose
of justice and righteousness and peace and shalom.
And God invites us, like Daniel,
to play active roles as partners in that mission of shalom.
Those who work against God’s purposes,
no matter how much they bluster or bluff their way through now,
will someday answer for their deeds,
and will answer for their use of power.
And it might not look pretty.

In the Daniel story,
it’s not only the ones at the top being held accountable.
It’s Daniel’s peers, his rivals,
those middle-echelon power figures,
the satraps and administrators,
who have just enough power to want more,
and to misuse the power they have.
We are the ones most like them, if we’re honest.

And in the story,
they were the ones who ended up as dinner for the lions.

King Darius came out looking pretty good,
because he acknowledged his own limitations,
even if it was after the fact.
I don’t know where else in scripture
a pagan king sings a song of praise
about the kingdom of the living God
being greater than his own.
But here we have it.

All that aside, there is something to learn here about hope and power.

Let us not misuse our power, or misplace our hope.
We have the power to do good or ill to those around us,
and to the world.
And we are given access to even greater power,
as servants of the living God.
Knowing that should both
make us humble about our own power,
and give us an unshakable hope.

So let us together, confess our sin.
You will find the confession in the order of worship.
Please join by reading the bold print . . .
and in the moment of silence

one Merciful God, we humbly confess our sin of misplaced hope.
We fail to trust you fully.
We put our hope in things of our own making,
We put our hope in people or systems
we bend toward our advantage.
all Forgive us, Lord, help us place our hope fully and only in you.
one We confess that our misplaced hope leads to hopelessness.
We lose faith—in ourselves, in others, in you.
We believe the worst about ourselves, about others, about you,
We sink into the darkness 
and we cannot find our way back to your light.
all Forgive us, Lord, help us place our hope fully and only in you.
one Restore our hope, O God. 
Strengthen our weak knees. 
Lift up our eyes.
Show us your light and your salvation.
one Children of God, we are forgiven, we are loved.
The Lord is our light and our salvation – whom shall we fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of our lives – 
of whom shall we be afraid?
all We believe that we will see the goodness of the Lord 
in the land of the living.

—Phil Kniss, November 29, 2020

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Sunday, November 22, 2020

Phil Kniss: The God who overdoes it

God’s New Covenant
Written on our hearts

Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 2728; 31:31-34

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The Bible is a story about a generous God.
Generous beyond our imagination.
A God who loves to overdo it,
when it comes to giving undeserved gifts and grace.
A God who is either loved or hated,
for being extravagant.

God overdoes it almost every week in our lectionary.
Remember Jonah two weeks ago?
He was so angry he wanted to die,
because God handed out undeserved grace to his enemies!
Remember the Hebrew slaves in Egypt?
It wasn’t enough for God to simply release them from captivity.
No, God arranged for their oppressors
to hand over all their gold and jewelry,
and beg them to leave.
Remember the widow of Zarephath?
She and her son were ready to lay down and die of starvation.
Then her oil jar and flour bucket refused to go empty,
and she kept feeding herself . . .
and her son . . . and the prophet of God
all the way through the famine.

It’s not enough that God does good.
God wastes goodness and blessing on us.
Lets it spill out everywhere on everyone,
like an overfilled milk bucket sloshing around,
without regard to its precious contents.
God is just, but is not judicious —
not very sensible and prudent and discreet about things.
God overdoes it.

There’s a disconnect between this picture of God,
and the austere Mennonite tradition that formed me,
and maybe some of you—
where we almost physically turn away
from talk about God’s abundance and generosity.
We are frugal and sensible people,
so obviously, God is too.

If we blather on too much about the abundance of God,
it might encourage us to live like
some of our worldly Christian neighbors,
who live lavish lives and are flashy and indulgent
and not-at-all sensible like us.

I actually appreciate this about my tradition.
Because I do think we find
deeper joy and closer communion with God
in lives that are simple and uncluttered
by possessions that tend to possess and entangle us.

But woe to us, if that frugality blinds us
from being flat-out overwhelmed
by our extravagant God who overdoes it all the time,
in grace and beauty and abundance.

God is prodigal, a word that means extravagantly wasteful.
Like the Father in that poorly-named parable of the prodigal son.
Yes, the son was wasteful,
with things he shouldn’t have been wasteful of,
but the Father, the God-figure in the story,
was extravagantly wasteful—
prodigal in love and mercy and forgiveness,
and caught flack for it, of course, from his other son.

Over and over our prodigal God stretches out, in love,
far beyond what God’s bargain with humans requires.
Lesser gods would walk away from the deal altogether.
Yet, after repeated and catastrophic failures on our part,
God just reaches farther for us.
God keeps restarting the missional project
of partnering with us humans for the sake of the world.

In today’s text from prophet Jeremiah, God does it again,
in an ultimate act of generosity—
offering to make a whole new covenant
unlike any that had gone before.
This covenant would be written not in legal code,
but on the hearts and minds of the people.
There would be a deeper divine-human communion
that surpassed anything known thus far,
and could not be undone.
There would be a deep knowing, we are told—
“from the least of them to the greatest”
and an everlasting bond
forged by complete and unconditional forgiveness:
“I will remember their sins no more.”

What God?—after repeatedly being spurned—
what God refuses to walk away,
but turns toward those who did the spurning,
offering an even greater gift?
What God does that?

This generous covenant on the heart
came to fulfillment in Jesus,
who embodied God’s extravagant grace and generosity.
In Jesus, God overdid it again,
coming to dwell fully among us
and participate fully in the human experience
including suffering and death.
In Jesus’ own words,
“this cup is the new covenant in my blood,
poured out for you.”

Furthermore, God’s radical generosity and abundance
is built into creation itself,
into the seasonal cycles of rest, planting, and harvest.

We remember, on this Thanksgiving Sunday,
that the earth—this planet loved by God—
is an expression of God’s abundance.
Against all odds,
against our continued mistreatment of it,
the earth is still extravagant—
still fruitful, and abundant, and beautiful, and resilient.

The planet mirrors this attribute of God—
of not giving up, not being put off its extravagant mission.

Our Jeremiah text is a great example.
I already reviewed the poetic section,
where God promised a new and everlasting covenant
written on the heart.
That’s especially remarkable, given the story part,
and thanks to Valerie, Gabe and Terry for reading it to us.

Remember the book-burning scene in that story,
where King Jehoiakim, God’s own anointed,
ripped up the words of the Lord
and threw them in the fire?

This was not a symbolic protest,
but destruction of costly property.

Long before the days of books and printing,
every manuscript was painstakingly written on expensive
hand-made parchment by highly-trained and patient scribes.
Any scroll was an object of inestimable value,
immense human time and love and skill
were poured into this artful labor.
But the words of Yahweh were so disrespected by the people,
that the king didn’t just throw the whole scroll in the fire—
he stretched out the pain . . . to make it last longer.
Every time the reader, Jehudi, finished reading
another few columns of text,
the king took a knife—a scribe’s knife, it says—
the tool of trade of the one who wrote it—
and cut off the strip of what was read, and threw it in the fire.
Every three or four columns, another cut to the heart.

So what did God do about such disrespect?
Did God take offense and walk away?
Did God tell Jeremiah, “I give up.
I’m going to start over with another people.”
No, God told Jeremiah, “Take another scroll” . . .
Take another valuable scroll!
Write it all down again.
Verbatim. Every single word that the king just burned.
Write it down again.

That’s why God’s promise in chapter 31 is all the more powerful.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel.
I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God, and they will be my people.
I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

This, dear sisters and brothers,
is the same God who sent Jesus to come and live with us,
and help carry our burden.

It’s this extravagantly generous God,
who overlooks our grievous offenses,
and says, here, let’s try again.
This time I give you myself.

The ball is now in our court, as to how we respond.
Even today, the gift is ours to respond to.
God is no less extravagant today.
Who are we to who hold back in austerity, or self-preservation,
or fear, or judgement, or unwillingness to risk?
Who are we not to just let go of ourselves,
in extravagant love and grace toward others,
including our political opposites,
including the cultural or religious “other”?

We worship the God came to us in Jesus,
who sat at a table with his disciples,
as he was walking into a deep and dark night of suffering—
said, here, let me give you some more of myself.
Over a cup of wine he told them,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
which is poured out for you.”

What God?
What God does such a thing?

And yet, we repeatedly fail to recognize
the God of extravagance and abundance,
and instead get lost in diligence and duty and fear
and scarcity of grace.

Let us speak aloud our confession.
You will find the confession in your order of worship.
Please respond each time with the words in bold print.

one Every day, we miss noticing God’s extravagant gifts.
Every day, we walk by the color purple,
or green, or yellow, or blue, and we don't notice it.
all Forgive us, and open our eyes.
one Every day, we fail to hear the sound of laughter,
or footsteps, or birdsong, or weeping.
all Forgive us, and open our ears.
one Every day, God’s extravagant gifts surround us
and fill us and connect us with every one and every thing,
and we don’t take in that beautiful truth.
all Forgive us, and open our hearts.
one Come and hear what God has done:
Even when we don’t notice,
God’s extravagant gifts continue to surround us
and fill us and connect us with every one and every thing,
showering our lives with grace. Thanks be to God!

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving,
when we celebrate First Fruits generosity and God’s abundance,
we come to the table of plenty.

This posture of God’s abundance is nowhere more evident
than at the Lord’s Table, in our ritual of communion.
Simple elements, but representing a lavish gift.
This communion was established by Jesus
when he and his disciples ate their last Passover meal together.
As it says in Luke 22,
19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it,
and gave it to them, saying,
“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
which is poured out for you.”

May God bless this bread and cup
to our physical and spiritual nourishment.
Let us celebrate God’s abundance together,
even as we are scattered far and wide.
Eat the bread and drink the cup at home,
while you meditate and listen to a song,
“Prayer of Praise,” the last hymn composed by John Horst,
paired with a text by Myron Augsburger,
and sung by Nathan May.

—Phil Kniss, November 22, 2020

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Sunday, November 15, 2020

Moriah Hurst: Great God, forgive us

God’s Holy Calling 

Psalm 119; Luke 5:4b-10; Isaiah 6:1-8

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Great God forgive us – Is 6:1-8   and Luke 5:4b-10

Sometimes when people approach the Old Testament they think that it isn’t relevant and has little to say to our current context. Let’s think a little about this time we are in. Unless you have been hiding under a rock you know that we have just had an election.  Even if your party won we are still a country deeply divided. We struggle now just as we have throughout history with racism, classism, homophobia, ablism and sexism that intersect and allow people to label each other rather than work with the other.

Our world today with floods and storms, peace treaties needing to be honored, and the constant fear, inconvenience, and growing grief related to the coronavirus.

There are dates throughout history we can look back on where things spring to mind. Where were you on 9/11, or when JFK or Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated – all of a sudden we are taken back to a time, a feeling, a deep remembering. Will 2020 be a year like that, a date that calls up a unique and impactful set of memories for each of us?

Our text today starts with one of these time markers “In the year that King Uzziah died”. When a king died and power changed hands there would have been upheaval and many unknowns as the authority shifted.

 “The first five chapters of Isaiah lay out the spiritual problem of the Judeans. They have forgotten and forsaken the Lord (1:4); their worship is futile (1:11-17); corruption marks their leadership (1:23). Greed has led to injustice (5:8). Isaiah 6:1 then describes the political crisis: the long-serving king who brought stability has died.” (

In the midst of this transition in political power, Isaiah has his vision.

An encounter in the Holy of Holies; the most sacred and set apart place in the temple. God is so big in this vision that Isaiah only sees God from the waist down. The bottom part of God’s clothes fill the temple. As if “God is too gigantic to be contained in the temple” (NRSV Study bible). Remember that looking at God face to face was thought by some that is might kill you, dangerous for unclean mortals. But even being in the presence of Gods legs here is overpowering enough.

The Seraphs, holy creatures that flank God, cover themselves in honor and reverence of God – they cry out in praise. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.

The picture that is presented in this vision is not a cuddly, loveable God but a God of vastness and grandeur. God’s very presence is awe-inspiring without God even saying a word.

When I was hiking in Tennessee a few weeks ago, we stood at the top of a mountain and looked out over the ranges that surrounded us. All I could keep saying was “wow, this is amazing”. It is in these moments where my breath is taken away by nature that I feel closest to understanding the kind of God that Isaiah encountered. But the God he saw also brought fear, the fear that comes from respect and knowing that this being is completely other to you and radiates power and majesty.

This isn’t the picture of God I normally focus on or teach to our young people. This picture of God demands our respect. At the sight of God and held in the shaking of the space that fills up with smoke, I can see Isaiah falling on his knees and calling out. I confess I might have turned around and run. But faced with the greatness of God, Isaiah sees himself for what he is, broken, unclean, lost and part of a people whose lips and lives are also unclean.

“We do not think that sin originates in our lips, but our words often betray our sinfulness.” (

I think of the words from Ps 19 - May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you our rock and redeemer. What is inside of us pours out our mouths.

Isaiah proclaims “yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts”. He knows that it is not King Uzziah who was in charge, it is God. What an encounter to remind you where true power lies.

How often are we knocked over by our own guilt? We think we have not done enough, been good enough, we feel inadequate and ashamed. Isaiah is with us on his knees, seeing his worth before this stunning God.

“Paradoxically, it is when Isaiah admits his great distance from God that the way opens for him to receive forgiveness.

Because we are not left there doubled over and crying out. A way forward from our guilt is provided. One of the multi-winged Seraphs brings a live coal. I can imagine it glowing hot as the creature approaches. That burning coal is touched to Isaiah’s unclean mouth. The Seraph not only brings this searing coal but delivers the words that I long to hear along with Isaiah. “Now that this has touched you, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out”. Isaiah’s fear that being part of an unfaithful people whose lips had spoken unclean words as well as acted in ways that went against God’s hopes and plans for the world, is cleansed by this act of purification. Do we worry that we are part of a people that has fallen so far away from God that we might not know how to even approach God? How would it feel for that guilt that we carry so heavy some days, to lift? What scar might that burning coal leave?

It is after this cleansing that we finally hear the voice of God. It is as if God is talking to God’s self and Isaiah is overhearing. “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” With renewed strength Isaiah steps forward, I can almost see him waving his hand in the air. Ooo Ooo pick me! “Here am I; send me”.

We shift to a more familiar picture. Jesus by the lakeshore calling disciples. The disciples too are amazed by the God who is revealed in Jesus. As they drag in a catch of fish so huge it could sink their boat, they realize that they are flawed standing before this man and they fall on their knees at Jesus' feet. Again from this place of knowing their own brokenness, Jesus reaches out and calls them. Don’t be afraid, work with me. Jesus calls them to fish for people and Isaiah is called to take hard and uncomfortable truths to an unhearing people. This is uncommon work. Yet using flawed and normal people seems to be the path God chooses over and over again. New Testament and Old Testament alike.

We, like Isaiah are in a time of political turmoil. Can we see past our fear and understand the intense and majestic power of God. God, who is the king. In the naming of what is holy are we confronted by the state of our world and our life and led to confession. God does not leave us in that fear but cleanses and gives a path forward.

Will we shoot up our hands saying pick me for this work of carrying uncomfortable truth. Of doing the uncommon work of fishing for people and calling an unhearing, unheeding nation back to God’s kingdom work? A work of receiving the outsider, feeding the hungry and calling other broken and forgiven normal people to follow in Jesus’ ways.

“God does not wait for us to "get clean" before appearing.

but this text reminds us that forgiveness is anything but ordinary.

Like Isaiah, we stand small and human before God, dependent on a gracious act for our restoration.

(but) There is a price to be paid for singing "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty" in the face of an oppressive force that thinks otherwise.”


May we have wisdom to kneel with prophets and disciples in confession and then understand how our majestic God is calling us.

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