This space is devoted to sharing the sermons preached at Park View Mennonite Church, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Please feel free to read, listen to, or watch any of these sermons, and then offer your comments, questions, or reflections, using the "comment" link at the end of each sermon. May these sermons challenge you to think and to act in new ways, and to grow in grace and in faithfulness to God's call.
Is God on our side, or not? We would like to think so. Everyone would like to think so. People on opposite sides of almost any struggle would like to think God is on their side, the right side, and not the other. We can’t have it both ways . . . can we? Well, let’s look. What does the apostle Paul mean in Romans 8, when he talks about God being “for us”? “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Sounds like a battle cry to rally the troops. Have no fear! Victory is guaranteed! God is on our side! And God is most assuredly NOT on our enemy’s side! So, to quote Shakespeare, “Once more unto the breach!” I’m afraid that in the Christian world, this idea of God being on our side has been around for a very very long time, and has done a very lot of damage to God’s reputation. History’s worst example of this was the medieval Crusades, where Christian soldiers fought under the command of pope and bishop to serve the empire, and did battle with Muslim occupants of the Holy Land, with the cross of Jesus emblazoned on their shields. Apparently, they just knew whose side God was on. In the year 1095 Pope Urban II, in a fiery speech to the soldiers before one of the Crusades, told them to shout when they attacked their Muslim enemies, with the words, “It is the will of God! It is the will of God!” We aren’t usually that blatant about it anymore. Or that violent. But the mindset of conquest is deeply embedded in the Christian psyche. You still see that kind of religious language in most modern warfare, and in many aspects of everyday life. You see it in the culture wars. You see it in partisan politics. You see it in professional sports. We all love to imagine that whatever the struggle, God wants our team to come out on top. But is that what Paul meant when he said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Well, let’s assume this statement stands as-is: “God is for us.” Okay, then let’s dig deeper. What, exactly, is God for? Is God for our victory over every adversary, in every struggle? Is God for our health and wealth and prosperity? Is God for the fulfillment of our desires? Is God for our happiness? If our answer is yes to those questions, then, if we are honest, we have to admit that God is coming up short a lot of the time. God’s intentions are blocked, over and over. God’s plan is stymied. God’s will is outright foiled and spoiled. Or . . . there is something else going on. Paul tells us in Romans 8 that God does have an overarching purpose. There is an end-game. There’s a trajectory toward which God is moving. Paul never mentions that God’s end-game equals our success and happiness. Because it doesn’t. Take Romans 8:28, for instance. It’s commonly misunderstood. I grew up with this verse, thinking, “Ah!” “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” In other words, I was hearing, no matter what bad thing might be happening to me right now, someday I’ll see how it was actually a good thing. Because it was all part of God’s good plan. God’s hand was behind it, God was doing it, because God has a master plan, and—for those who love God—any disaster is part of it. Any, including a pandemic, theoretically. But I think that’s a misreading. Romans was written by a suffering apostle to a suffering church. There was no sugar-coating the horror befalling the people who loved God, and were called according to God’s purpose. The apostle was wanting the Romans to know, and by extension, wants us to know, that even in the middle of an unmitigated disaster, God is not walking away. God is in our circumstances, around our circumstances, and above and beyond our circumstances, to accomplish God’s will of shalom. Probably a better way to paraphrase Romans 8:28 is “In all things, God stays at it, working for good.” In all things, large and small, good and bad, God stays actively involved. God has not abandoned us in our suffering. God intends shalom and reconciliation for all. God is working for good, even while God’s loving nature prevents God from coercing us or manipulating nature or violating free will. It’s another way that God holds back, that we talked about last Sunday. When we accept this, the promise in Romans 8:26, two verses earlier, sounds even sweeter . . . and I quote. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And the One who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” There, dear friends, is what it means for God to be FOR us. God sent God’s spirit to be with us, dwell in us, even to the point of becoming—becoming— the wordless groans in our inmost being. When we run out of wisdom to know how to pray, When we run out of courage to pray what we’re really thinking, When we are so destabilized, we’ve run out of the ability to even know what we want, much less articulate it in coherent speech, We can trust our wordless, groaning prayers, because they are issuing from the Spirit of God, and they, according to Romans 8 will intercede for us in accordance with the will of God. I don’t even need to know how that all works. But it gives me courage to pray when words fail me. Because I don’t need words, I only need to be willing to let go and give the Spirit within permission to groan. Those groans may be audible as they work their way up through my vibrating vocal cords and then out of my mouth. Or they may be silent and completely internal. Either way, those groans vibrate at a frequency God hears, because they vibrate in God’s frequency. Or in Paul’s language, “in accordance with the will of God.” _____________________ We are in multiple pandemics right now. Coronavirus. Racism. Political demagoguery. And more. Disaster is rampant. But God is still FOR us. God is still for the shalom of all people and all creation. That theological affirmation . . . Has. Not. Changed. So this is not a time to forget how to pray, how to get on the same frequency as the one who is for us. Yes, of course, we keep acting. We keep working—working even harder, if that’s possible. We work in concert with each other, for what is right and just and good for all people and creation. But at the end of the day, we also need to know how to place ourselves in God’s care, how to find solace in the knowledge that God is for us. For that, we are invited to find a place of rest, of yieldedness, of prayer. A place where words are not required. A place to let the groans vibrate within, because scripture promises us that when we run out of words, the Holy Spirit of God intercedes for us, through wordless groans. God is with us. Our circumstances, no matter how desperate they are, are not unknown to God. Our suffering is not lost on God. In fact, nothing is lost on the breath of God, in the words of that song we love to sing. Those words, “nothing is lost . . .” do not mean God is the agent of our suffering, nor do they mean God will rescue us from it. They mean just that—our suffering is not lost on God. God knows and is right there with us in it. When these endings too soon, or beginnings too late, happen to us, and they will . . . we are still able to sing, either with anquished groans, or with full confidence, “Nothing is lost on the breath of God. God sees with love, and that love will remain, holding the world forever.” —Phil Kniss, July 26, 2020 [To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]
Don’t you wonder if God ever gets sick and tired of all that’s going on in this world? Whether God might be fed up with corruption on Wall Street, narcissism and deception in the White House, mean-spirited and hostile discourse everywhere we look, an economic system tilted against the poor, social structures that perpetuate inequity and racism, and on top of it all, a global pandemic made worse by a self-serving public led by self-serving politicians. You think God might be losing patience with humanity? Makes me think about Genesis, and how God felt about the people before the Great Flood. In a moment of exasperation, God said, in Genesis 6, verse 3: “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever.” And three verses later, God lost it all together: It says, “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” It’s a good thing rainbows still show up now and then. Because Genesis tells us the rainbow is there for God’s benefit. It’s there to remind God, never to destroy the earth again. So when God is troubled, thank goodness for rainbows— a little spiritual safety net for us. We can always point to them, and look up to heaven, and say, “Hey, God, check it out! What does that remind you of? Remember that time?” I know, I’m playing a little lightly with a complicated topic— the patience of God. We know God is a righteous judge. We also know God is patient. How we put those two together is the question at hand this morning. Jesus tried to address that very question in Matthew 13, and he did it . . . predictably . . . with a story. A wheat farmer planted his field with good seed, and at night his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat. Later, when both the wheat and weeds were growing together, the servants came to report on this situation, and asked if they should pull up the weeds. The farmer said, “No, if you do that, you’ll pull up the wheat, too. Let them grow together, and we’ll sort them out in the end.” A story of God’s patience in the Kingdom of God. And a story of God’s judgment. The ultimate fate of the weeds was still clear. They would be thrown on the brush heap to be burned. The wheat would be harvested for food. But, in the meantime, God will be patient. Very patient. _____________________ A year ago, at MC USA convention in Kansas City, Tom Yoder Neufeld did extensive Bible teaching for delegates, over several days. One day he expounded on the “patience of God,” and made the point that patience is not “letting things be.” It is “enduring with hope.” Patience hurts, he said. Patience hurts. It is pain. He said, and I quote, “You can’t exercise patience without suffering.” That makes sense, since the word suffer itself can mean patience. To suffer someone, is to put up with, to bear with, to show patience with someone. For how long, we might wonder? Tom asked, “How far does patience stretch? Well, how strong is love?” The love of God for us is expressed in patience with us, in suffering us. And it is the basis for our suffering each other, our bearing with, being patient with, each other. Patience is central to Christian faith. It’s not an add-on feature, not an option. It is the definition of walking by faith. It is the frame of mind that Christ has with us, and therefore, if we are to have the mind of Christ, we will do likewise. Be patient, even when it bring us pain to do so. If our aim is reconciliation, growth, change, and repentance. We cannot do other than be patient— with others, with ourselves, with God. Like another one of Jesus’ stories, “the Prodigal Son,” where the father never stopped checking the horizon, always waiting, suffering, longing to see his son return. _____________________ Today our lectionary gave an optional reading from the Apocrypha. We don’t give the Apocrypha quite the same authority for faith, as the rest of our scriptures, but there is a lot of wisdom there, that we shouldn’t ignore. One of those sources of wisdom is the book Wisdom of Solomon. We read today from chapter 12. Let me re-read a few lines. “For there no god besides you, whose care is for all people, Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with great forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose. Through such works you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind.” See, in our humanness, we are prone to self-righteousness. We are quick to judge and condemn others in their failings. I’m sure we can all identify times—even more so now— when we tend this direction. So much is going on in our world that does need to be confronted. Whether in the realm of politics, or of the pandemic, or of systemic racism. Obvious example— there are some who disregard and endanger the well-being of others, by not taking this pandemic seriously, refusing to wear masks because it is their right to refuse. Well, it is a fine line that separates those persons, from those of us who are so incensed at them, that we not-so-secretly hope they catch the virus themselves. If our heart is inclined toward the well-being of all people, then it needs to be inclined toward all people, including our adversaries. Sometimes our patience will be painful. But now, listen, patience does not mean just “letting it go.” It does not mean silence in the face of injustice. Ignoring something is not the same as being patient. “Agreeing to disagree” is just fine when the stakes are not high, like preference on drapes or football teams or music. But on matters that matter, like faith and ethics and justice, then patience with honesty may be called for. We may need to wait, possibly a very long time, for hard conversations to bear fruit. And the waiting can be painful. In the area of racial injustice and inequity— it’s nothing to be proud of— that we are just now starting to admit how deeply embedded racism is in our social fabric. This is the fabric we take for granted, and that we, the majority, wrap around ourselves and benefit from. And we just assume this fabric is for everyone, that it keeps everyone warm. But some can barely stick their toes underneath it, and still tremble from the cold. These are hard and long conversations, and those who have been waiting for them to happen, have suffered a lot of pain in the waiting. This week we lost two civil rights icons and moral beacons, when Rep. John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian died at 80 and 95, on the same day, in Atlanta. In the 60s, when they both marched and shouted and were arrested for demanding freedom now, and not later— that was not impatience. That was stating a moral imperative. Their patience was proven when they did not walk away from us in disgust, but persisted in the call, stayed in the fight, stayed in relationship, and worked for a better future. The day they died, they were still waiting for what they longed for. And it’s up to us who’ve been going along our merry way, to now stop and turn and face them, and to face our living neighbors today, especially those who are still waiting in pain, and say, “I’m sorry you had to wait. I’m sorry for the pain we caused you. Thank you for waiting for us. We’re with you now. We’ll try to keep up. We’ve got to get better at saying that to each other, on race issues and on all kinds of important things, if we want to learn from the parable of Jesus. Because in this parable, we aren’t always the wheat. We might well be the weeds that God, and others, have had to exercise patience with. We might be the ones God is just letting grow, and waiting on, so as not to destroy the good also growing alongside us. Our just and patient God is ready for us . . . whenever we . . . are ready. Jesus is calling . . . calling us to repent, to turn toward the good, to come home. —Phil Kniss, July 19, 2020 [To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]
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The relationship between sower and soil
Parables. Stories that evoke the imagination often used to make a point.
That same day before Jesus taught this parable, Jesus was healing people with the suspicious onlooking and questions from the Pharisees. They were making a valiant effort to try to trap Jesus in a theological quandary, so they could build a case to punish him.
The crowd that gathered in this setting must have been a mix of people, those who were inquisitive, those who wanted to be healed, those who were following, like the disciples, and those who were sceptical, like the Pharisees.
At times based on context, we can surmise to whom Jesus was directing this teaching?
What seems obvious from the beginning is that the sower is the source of abundance and is generous with the seeds, perhaps even careless, tossing them everywhere no matter the type of soil it fell on.
We know there are 4 kinds of soil that the seed falls upon that Jesus describes, with an explanation as to how the seed fairs. We have often heard this interpreted from a personal standpoint.The soil health within us determines how we are able to have God’s seeds of faith take root. We are exhorted to take care of the rocks and weeds, the sin in our own lives so our soil may be enriched and become more fruitful.
In light of our current cultural milieu I began to look at this with our cultural system in mind.
Our country’s history, guided by the religious mandate of the doctrine of discovery, has set in place a legacy that has cast aside rocks of self-righteousness and oppression, weeds of judgment, and created a path of racial inequity. Indigenous peoples, Africans and their descendants who were enslaved against their will, the Japanese internment camps, the Mexicans and other Latinos fleeing persecution, and Asians labeled as terrorists, to name a few, have endured many hardships as a result. In doing so, people of color are disproportionately living in poverty, experience police brutality, and are incarcerated. How can they experience the sower’s abundance of seeds when the system they live in makes daily living so hard?
Now I’m not saying that faith can not be rooted deeply in our brothers and sisters of color. In fact I find a deep resilient faith. But the cultural obstacles that are in their way at every turn can crush the spirit, distract the focused, and claim the innocent.
I recognize our history is difficult to reconcile. Hard to digest. Hard to acknowledge that I/you/we are a part of the devastation the path, rocks, and weeds have had in others lives and are toxic to our own.
Where is the hope? Where is a path forward?
Perhaps we can learn from a present day sower. Second Mountain Farm, where John is working, considers the health of their soil paramount.
They have dedicated garden beds that they are constantly amending, planting, weeding, harvesting, and amending again.
To begin with, the soil is worked up and a generous layer of organic compost and compost tea are applied. This provides a natural steroid, if you will, to the seedling as it is planted to give it the best chance of survival and ability to thrive.
They plant more than what they need. They measure in the fact that not all seedlings will produce what they want, bugs or weeds may affect one but not all.
Weeding is a regular practice. Pulling the weeds while young allows the seedlings space to grow which in turn doesn’t allow the life of the weed to take over.
Harvest. When these three steps are followed, harvest is full.
As the farm grows, more garden beds are developed. Any clearing of rocks, weeds, and thorns are composted or control burned as to not inhibit another future garden bed. The soil health of the whole farm is important, not only the health of the existing garden beds.
We too, need to not only take care of developing the health of our own soil, but the soil of those around us. Building an ecosystem for healthy soil. When our neighbor thrives, we thrive. When we thrive, they thrive. This could be seen on a one to one relationship, familial, neighborhood, organization, and cultural levels. The health of one affects the health of the whole. The health of the whole affects the health of one.
How might this practice of amend, plant, weed, harvest, amend inform us as we ponder the state of our own soil in relation to the generous sower?
Consider how we clear the rocks and weeds of judgment, resentment, racial superiority, self-righteousness, fear, and worry. Do we do the hard work of transformation or cast it off on others? This takes a posture of willingness to listen. Listen to God. Listen to yourself. Listen to others, especially those that are different.
Amend our own internal health. Consider life practices that enrich our well of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Plant more than what you need. How does this look? How about allowing yourself to bask in God’s limitless love for you? Give space for the sower to toss as many seeds of love and grace in your soul as possible. And let nothing hold you back from receiving it.
Weed. Weed. And weed some more. When judgment crops up, notice it, reflect on it, and pick it. When anger comes up in destructive ways, notice it, reflect on it, and pick it. When self-righteousness appears, the “I’m right and you are wrong” comes up, notice it, reflect on it, and pick it. Gather the weeds, thank them for what they’ve taught you and let them compost, transforming them into something that can be used again.
Harvest. When will you know the harvest is ready? Trust that the fruits of the spirit that you have amended your soul with will guide.
Lest we think we have arrived when we harvest, be aware (not beware), but be aware, it is time to amend the soil again. Consider the life practices that enrich your soil/soul and spend time there again.
As I conclude, I would like to invite you into a time of silence. Consider where you are at in your internal health. Do you find yourself with heavy rocks or choking weeds? Do you find yourself in a place where you want to share an abundance within? Are you in a place where you need to rest in God’s limitless love for you?
Listen. Sink into a deep listening, where is the sower in relationship to your soil? [To leave a comment, click on "comments" link below]
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We are a heavy-laden world longing for rest. If you happened to notice this morning’s photo on our bulletin, and video link, I’ll bet you felt a little wistful longing for that spot. An empty bench, just waiting for someone to sit, take a load off, stare off a while into that beautiful fog, breathe deeply of the misty, moisty, morning air. That’s what I felt when I found that photo. Thanks to the photographer, Aaron Burden . . . whose last name is ironically fitting.
You are probably feeling this need for rest, if not in yourself, in the world. Look to the right, look to the left. Everywhere we turn, there is a desperate and fearful striving, there is a heavy, troubled, and chronic exhaustion in the human race. Where is a bench when we need it? Where is the rest our souls long for?
Well, there are benches a-plenty, if we look around. There are literal benches in city parks, along trails off Skyline Drive, where you could find scenes just like that photo, and rest your feet a while . . . and your mind. And there are metaphorical benches, moments and places of rest, when you . . . Enjoy a leisurely visit with a friend outdoors. Grill some veggies from the market or your garden. Take a slow walk around the neighborhood. Watch the sunset or sunrise from a hill. Hike a fire road in the national forest. Go to an outdoor sculpture garden or take a virtual tour of an art museum. Skip the evening news for one night, and watch a live-streamed concert instead. Go to bed early.
Yeah, sit on any of those benches, and add your own. All those activities can give us a break from our restlessness, help us breathe deeper, and ease our mind and our body and our spirit.
But . . . what about . . . our souls? Is this where we find rest for our souls?
The practices I named will help us be a more rested human being. I wish everyone would live more like that, especially more of our political leaders. We would all be in a better place.
But I want to take this question one important step further. Is this what Jesus meant when he said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Is this what the psalm writers meant, when they wrote, and sang, such as in Psalm 62: “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. or in Psalm 116: “Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” Return, O my soul, to your rest. That phrase resonated so strongly with me, that I made it my sermon title.
Three significant truths, held in one simple line. First, that I can speak to my soul. My soul is an identifiable something within me, that I might converse with it, without fearing I’ve lost my mind. Second, that my soul has wandered. It’s away from home, perhaps even lost, and is invited to return. Third, that a return home is a return to rest. That when my soul is aligned, and at home, there is genuine and deep rest.
Now it’s fair to ask, what Jesus, or the psalmist, really meant, by the word “soul.” The soul has long been a favorite subject of philosophers and theologians. Is our soul distinct from our embodied selves? Can it exist outside of us? Is it just renting space in our bodies, preparing to move out to its real home after death? Is “soul” the same as “spirit” or “heart” or something altogether different?
This can all get fuzzy and incoherent pretty quickly. And I don’t need to parse out all the philosophy, in order to get to where the scripture is taking us today.
But I will quote New York Times journalist and thinker, David Brooks, in his excellent recent book, The Second Mountain, where he charts his journey from being a secular materialist, to someone learning to embrace faith.
He says the soul is the part of you that has infinite value and dignity. He talks about the soul as a deep yearning for what is good, and just, and righteous.
He remarks how powerful and resilient the soul is, even in the face of loss or injury, or years of being ignored or neglected. While you are blissfully unaware of the deeper life you are missing, your soul is out there far away, hunting you down.
He offers this vivid and memorable image, I’ll quote a couple paragraphs. “The soul is like a reclusive leopard living high up in the mountain forest somewhere. You may forget about him for long stretches. You are busy with the normal mundane activities of life, and the leopard is up in the mountains.
But from time to time out of the corner of your eye, you glimpse the leopard, just off in the distance, trailing you through the tree trunks.” “In the middle of . . . a sleepless night . . .” when “there’s trouble in your soul,” “you vaguely or even urgently feel his presence.”
“The leopard can visit during one of those fantastic moments, with friends or family . . . when you are overwhelmed with gratitude . . . and the soul swells with joy.
“And then there are moments, maybe more toward middle or old age, when the leopard comes down out of the hills and just sits there in the middle of your doorframe. He stares at you inescapably. He demands your justification . . . For what did you come? What sort of person have you become? There are no excuses at that moment. Everybody has to throw off the mask,” and answer to their souls.
Now . . . that’s the imagination of David Brooks. Jesus didn’t mention a leopard. But this metaphor resonates with what Jesus said in Matthew 11. Jesus was speaking to the same people he earlier called harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. These were lost souls. People who had forgotten who they were, who they were called to be, forgotten who had made and loved them, and given them purpose. And were wandering aimlessly, mere victims of the terrible circumstances that befell them.
Jesus’ invitation to come and rest, is an invitation to return home, to have a reckoning with your soul.
This is not just emotional or physical or psychological rest. Those are all good and important. But if these words of Jesus were only about stress reduction, they wouldn’t be called “Gospel.” This is about coming home to our deepest self, the self that God made and loves, and endowed with dignity, the self in which God implanted God’s own image. This is a Holy Homecoming.
“Come to me,” Jesus said. Not, “breathe deep, take a walk, and avoid the evening news.” No. “Come to me . . . all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Lay across your shoulders a new kind of burden, not one that weighs you down, but one that connects to your calling and to your God. Learn from me, Jesus said, because it is by your connection to me, that you will come to know who you are, “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
I suggest, dear sisters and brothers, that when our souls are troubled, we heed this Gospel word, and “come to Jesus, whose yoke is easy and burden is light.” It is in sitting at Jesus’ feet, that we will find rest, deeper than any mere bench can provide. And that is a rest that requires opening ourselves to what Jesus demands of us. Being willing to shoulder the yoke, and humble ourselves, and give account to God. It is like that leopard sitting in our doorway, waiting for an answer.
Soul rest has a cost. That cost is humility, and vulnerability, and openness, a willingness to turn ourselves over to another. Deep soul rest requires effort on our part, a yoke to shoulder. We must immerse ourselves in the Gospel stories of Jesus. No, I don’t mean memorize them by rote, or know the characters, context, and plot like we know the back of our hand. I mean . . . we must find ourselves in those stories of Jesus. We must face the leopard. We must reckon with the demands of being not just a follower, but a disciple, and obedient worshiper of Jesus the Christ. Yes, the very one who warned his disciples, in love, just a few chapters later in Matthew, “What good is it to you, to gain the whole world, and lose your soul.”
We were meant to be children of God, to find soul rest in our one Creator, and then turn to face this stormy and dangerous world knowing who we are, whose we are, and where we belong.
Our journey is not guaranteed to be serene, those benches in the beautiful fog may, in reality, be few and far between. But if we don’t know who we are in the deepest part, if our soul has wandered, Jesus invites us to come to him, and find rest for your souls.
—Phil Kniss, July 5, 2020
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