Sunday, May 24, 2020

Moriah Hurst: Get your head out of the clouds

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 7 – “In the time of testing”

Psalm 68; 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11; Acts 1:6-14 

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     A few weeks ago my parents and I set our alarms for the wee hours of the morning, awoke in darkness and bundled ourselves up to go out into the night. We were looking, as I know some of you also did, for the meteor shower. We walked down my parents’ long driveway searching the sky.

    I wonder if the disciples looked a bit like our motley crew, sanding together staring into the sky, the space where Jesus was taken up. Were they longing as some of us might be, to be taken away with Jesus. Get us out of this moment in time. This world all feels too much for us. Jesus, we would like to escape with you!

    As we made our way back up the driveway we all started getting kinks in our necks from looking upward. We didn’t want to tear our eyes away from the sky; scared we might miss a blazing trail of light. We walked backwards so that we could keep our gaze fixed on the part of the sky where the flash of light might come.

    Was this the fumbling moment for the disciples when the angels showed up, two men in white robes? But instead of adding to their enthusiasm for looking upward the two men direct the disciples eyes in a different direction. They steered their minds away from a cloudy heaven and onto the task that awaits them here on earth. They remind us that our feet are firmly grounded here. We are not to get too engrossed by the sky but to look to the task Jesus sets for us. Jesus had just said: You will receive power from the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses here on earth.

    The disciples left that mountain moment and went back to the upper room to pray. Acts tells us that they “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer”.

    As we think of these disciples praying, I want us to consider another group of followers of Jesus, as we look at the 1st Peter passage. We hear in verse 12 “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you”. Wait, is the author of this letter talking to us, here in 2020 in the middle of a pandemic that has turned our lives upside-down – it feels very current to our situation.

But the first hearers of this letter were dealing with suffering of a different kind. They would have been part of scattered communities of believers, possibly with many women and slaves in their number who were seen as inhabiting the bottom rungs of the social hierarchy. They would have truly felt like resident aliens, having a minority status and living in a “truly oppressive and hostile environment” (1-2 Peter, Jude; Believers Church Bible Commentary, page 20).

    Do we need to have a reality check on our suffering – to get our eyes and feet back on the ground?
    I have been sitting with the idea of holding our current state in two hands. In one hand we hold out to God the reality of our situation, how it truly makes us feel and how it is affecting us. All of our disappointment, the fear of the unknown and what confined isolation does to us. There are days when this feels like suffering.

Then we hold out our other hand, realizing our power and privilege. Naming how much we have to be grateful for. I have an income, internet, a non-abusive home life, health care professionals who are willing to care for me, the beauty of nature around me and space that I can work. I cannot look away from either of these realities. I know that what others are holding may look vastly different and that some day these things we carry may cause us to slip into feelings of aloneness.

    As I read 1 Peter I started singing a camp song: cast your burdens on Jesus, for he cares for you”. The next part of the song gets a little more theologically dicey. “higher, higher, life Jesus higher. Lower, lower, stomp Satan lower.” A group of campers approached me one evening at camp after I had led this song. They were concerned about the violent imagery and wondered why at a Mennonite camp we were talking about stomping or crushing something or someone as if it were a good thing. “Isn’t that song too violent for children” my campers asked.

    I’m not well versed in talking about Satan or the devil so these campers had picked up on something that makes me uncomfortable too. While this passage doesn’t say to stomp on Satan it does say to stay alert, to resist the power of evil and stay steadfast in your faith.

What I have been wrestling with during this isolation are my own demons – my cutting words that so quickly hurt others, my temper that flares as I rush to blame, my fears of what life might look like especially if I loose loved ones, my grief and guilt that send me into self doubt spirals to the point that I want to curl up in the fetal position and sob. I have tried not to shrug these things off but have attempted to turn and face them. I want to listen to the words of my spiritual directors who have counseled me to let myself hear and to feel the strong emotions. To humbly notice them and say “welcome, what do you have to teach me”.

This is hard work and not work for everyday. We need to remember that we do not face our suffering alone but with God by our side and in community. By the grace of God maybe I can face a little of what is ugly and in need to redemption within me. This is the place I find myself on my knees before God crying out in honest prayer. I find myself with the disciples in the upper room and listening to the words in the Psalms calling us to cry out to God.

This is where I come back to the Bible and find that it is not just some holy book with stories of long ago times. It is the story of God with God’s people through their tough times, their times of testing and the mundane ins and outs of everyday life. In the little details of the Bible, of who was in the room, what people were wearing and how long it took to walk some place, I see that God is in the little moments of my life as well as the big emotions. And that is where I need to see God right now. In the hugeness of this virus, how it is effecting so many all over the world and yet in the smallness of my little life.

We are called to examine ourselves in our suffering.

I’m drawn to the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer in her poem The Invitation that ends with:

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.


We are told to cast out burdens on Jesus. Verse 7 “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you”. Will we throw ourselves into God’s arms fully trusting our savior and creator?

    I have been helping my Dad carry fallen branches and trees down their steep hill from the woods so we can cut them as firewood. After half carrying, half dragging a huge log, when I drop it I feel first the huge relief but then the wobble in my body as I try to recover from casting off my load. Can we pray like this and are we ready for the adjustment in our minds and spirits to the heavy weight being lifted.

Jesus doesn’t leave us staring into the sky, just longing for a better future, waiting for some bright light and the passing joy that follows. We are left with the hope of the Spirit – spoiler alert we are being prepared for Pentecost – 1 Peter’s blessing for us is restoration, support, strength and that we will be established.

May we hear these words in our own situation – with one hand extended, grounded in our own reality of day-to-day life. And also with our other hand extended, holding a reality much closer to the suffering and hardship of those first hears of Peter’s letter.

What do God’s promises mean not just for us – this promise is for poultry workers, those in meat packing plants, for indigenous communities where the virus is striking hard, for essential workers who still have to use public transport, for African American brothers and sisters who are too well acquainted with the fear of something or someone who will hurt them entering their homes and lives unbidden. This is also for those in refugee camps, prisons and trying to cross a border that is rejecting them. What do these words of Jesus and the breath of the Spirit mean for them.

With our feet firmly planted on earth we say we see you. We look into the eyes of the other and say we hear you. We notice what has been pushed to the margins of our lives and the world; we pledge to use our power to amplify the voices of the outsiders. It is standing in that space with an open posture that we hear God’s promise to restore, support, strengthen and establish.

We need to be heavenly minded for the earthly good. We don’t have control but we are given the power of God’s Spirit to witness to the world. Lead us to prayer. Help us to trust in the God of all grace, who has called us to God’s eternal glory in Christ. Amen

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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Testimonies: “Putting in a good word for God”

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 6 – “Toward the object of our worship”

Psalm 66:8-20; Acts 17:22-28; John 14:15-21

Sharing by Betty Brunk, Art Borden, Miriam Rhodes, Jane Eanes, Saloma
Furlong, Hannah Mast, Roy Bergey, Elizabeth Rohrer, Tristan Nussbaum, Greta Ann Herin, Ervin Stutzman

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We asked 11 people from our congregation to put in a good word (that is, to praise) God for what they have noticed God doing in their lives or in the world around them during these difficult times.

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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Phil Kniss: Housebound: Living and loving the tension

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 5 – “While being house-bound”

1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

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I think there are many people these days,
    maybe you are among them,
    who have kind of a tense relationship with their house.
Peyton talked some about that with the children.

It would be an overstatement to call it a love-hate relationship.
    Because I think, for most of us, we love our house.
        It’s more than a house.
        It’s more than a precision-built structure that meets code.
        It lives. It breathes.
        We have poured ourselves into it.
        We have attended to it lovingly,
            helping it express our personality
            and reflect our sense of beauty.
        In some cases, we’ve even blessed it and prayed over it.
        So we could say our house has spirit—
            the same as saying it breathes.

    But in the last two months
        some have become restless in their house.
    In it’s most innocent form, it’s a condition we all get in winter.
        Cabin fever.
    But what I am seeing these days
        is a more insidious form of cabin fever.
        Many have lost a sense of what home is about.

    If home is a place where we are grounded, secure, and safe—
        not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually, relationally—
        then there a huge population of people right now,
        who are not at home in their houses.

    For some, sadly, the reason is something they have no control over.
        Either the house isn’t doing it’s job to protect them,
            because it is poorly built or dangerously in need of repair.
        Or the people in that house with them are dangerous.
            Domestic abuse is on the rise right now.
        Or, they have no house of their own.
        In all these cases, we who have houses and resources
            have a moral obligation to help, and advocate for justice.

    But others with adequate houses should be at home, but aren’t,
        because they are not at home with themselves.
        At one extreme, some are packing protest rallies,
            or carrying guns,
            or breaking into fights over wearing a mask.
        But in much milder forms,
            many of us struggle to be at home with ourselves.

Today, our lectionary readings help us examine
    our spiritual state of affairs, through the window—if you will—
        of life in a house.

As I looked at these scriptures,
    I couldn’t help but see the contrast between
        what many housebound people
        are feeling and experiencing now
    and the high view of house we have in the scriptures.

To be house-bound is assumed to be a negative state.
    It restricts us. Limits our freedom. Reduces our options.
    And too much of that can create anger and resentment,
        especially among those who
            value individual freedom and autonomy, at any cost.

But there is more than one way to look at being house-bound.
    I see one in 1 Peter 2, and another in John 14.

But first, what does the word “house” mean?
    It can refer to the building,
        the structure that protects and shelters what’s inside—
            whether it’s people, or a greenhouse, or carriage house.
    It can be a governing body—
        house of representatives, house of delegates
    It can be a business establishment—movie house, fish house.
    It can be a long family line, like the House of Windsor,
        or a biblical example, the House of David.
    But in all these examples, in fact, the house contains something,
        keeps it from spilling out everywhere.
        It helps give definition, helps protect, shelter,
            create continuity, preserve a value or a tradition.

So in the example of 1 Peter,
    we are told that God the builder is taking us, like living stones,
        and constructing a container for the living Good News.
    God is creating a “spiritual house” it says,
        a “holy priesthood,”
        in order to faithfully represent the divine,
            to be a conduit between God and the world, to (quote)
            “declare the praises of him who called you
                out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
        And as members of a household of God,
            we are not alone, not at all!
            We are bound to each other.
            Linked for life!
            We are house-bound, in the best sense of the word—
                we find our purpose, our identity, our best self,
                when we bind ourselves to this household of God.

    This is not an odious restriction of freedom.
    In this house we are free to be all that God ever intended us to be.
    Being house-bound in this sense,
        actually prepares us to live fully and gratefully
            with the kinds of physical restrictions
            many people are angrily rebelling against right now.
        Being bound together in God’s household,
            nurtures our love for all God’s people,
            it helps us love people the way God loves them,
                especially the most vulnerable.
        With love and compassion,
            we take up our cross and follow Jesus,
            choosing the servant’s place at the table.
        This is what puzzles me most
            about churches and church leaders who are strong and able,
            who resist the physical distancing
                that protects the most vulnerable people that God loves.
        In a church of Jesus,
            having our lives linked to the lives of others,
            should come natural,
            because we are bound to the household of God,
                because we are house-bound.

And then there is John 14.
    Here we see another take on the word “house” and “bound.”
    Here, Jesus encourages his disciples about where life is headed.
        Jesus is naming the trajectory of a disciple.
        So here, the “bound” is directional.
        We are bound toward a house where God lives.

In the translation, The Voice, Jesus says to his disciples,
    “Don’t get lost in despair . . .
        My Father’s home is designed to accommodate all of you.
        I am going to make arrangements for your arrival.
        I will be there to greet you . . . welcome you home,
            where we will be together.
        I am the path, the truth, and the life.”

In other words, relax.
    Life is challenging here.
    It always will be.
    But one thing you don’t have to worry about, now or ever,
        is where it’s all heading.
    You don’t need to worry about where you are bound.
        You are bound to a house where we will be together, always.
        You and me and everyone else who I will welcome.

This passage has unfortunately often been misused.
    This is not an excuse to check out of life here and now.
    This is not the escape clause,
        so we don’t have to invest in this life.
    This is not an explanation about who’s in and who’s out,
        so we can make those determinations now,
        and know who to love and accept, and who not to.
    No, this is a deeply encouraging and life-giving word.

Jesus is saying to us,
    “Stick with me, and I’ll get you there.
        There’s not a whole lot more to worry and fret over.”

Now, believe me,
    leaning on these scriptures today doesn’t resolve the tension.
    In any house, including our own beloved homes,
        the place we live.
    There is a benefit to being inside a closed-up house.
    And there is a cost.
        We gain protection.
        We lose connection to the outside.
        We gain security.
        We lose some freedom.
        The walls give us definition and stability.
        The walls also keep out the sounds of the birds,
            and the refreshing breeze.

    Same with a spiritual house.
        On the plus side, we know where we belong,
            our household gives life a definition and purpose.
            Our forebears in faith worked out a lot of things for us,
                what was good, and what was not good,
                and passed that down through the generations.
            That gives us a sense of who we are,
                and the values that shape our existence.
        But it also means we know who we are not.
            It can distinguish us from others.
            Keep us from being someone else.
            It can even create some distance from others.
        Not saying that’s always bad.
        I’m saying that’s a cost.
        That’s part of the tension
            of living in any house—
                either a spiritual house,
                or a house like the one we live in
                    on College Avenue in Harrisonburg.

So my prayer today is,
    “Thank you, God, for the houses we live in—
        the physical ones and the spiritual ones.
      Thank you for the protection and shelter they offer.
        Help us extend that shelter to others.
        Thank you, also, for the definition they give our lives.
    May we always live in our houses with grace,
        with compassion, in hope, and in love.

—Phil Kniss, May 10, 2020

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Sunday, May 3, 2020

Phil Kniss: The shoving shepherd

Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 4 – “In the manner of sheep”
Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

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Anyone tired of being in lock-down?
    Weary of the quarantine life?
    Had enough of being forced into a life you didn’t choose?

So . . . this would be a good Sunday to talk about the good shepherd,
    wouldn’t it?
    We can all escape, in our minds eyes,
        to those greener pastures,
        with still waters,
        and peaceful paths,
        where life is lush and abundant,
            and where we can, like a lamb,
            nestle safely into the crook of our Good Shepherd’s arms.

I can’t begin to tell you, in my 37 years of ministry,
    how often someone said Psalm 23 was important to them,
        in a time of loss, of distress, of chaos, of danger.
    And speaking of those times, we’re in them.

It’s not enough we’re dealing with COVID-19
    and lives are being upended.
    We still experience life’s routine stress and grief.
        Death of loved ones.
        Loss of income.
        Social instability.
        Serious illness.

So let’s all wrap ourselves around with this comforting image—
    Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

And as we do, let’s ask ourselves . . .
    what makes Jesus a Good Shepherd (capital G, capital S)
    and not just an average run-of-the-mill shepherd?
    Why do we call Jesus’ shepherding practices . . . good?

    Because Jesus protects us from every harm and danger?
    Because he scares off every wolf and foils every thief?
    Because he cradles us gently, comforting and calming us,
        that we might always live in peace. . . ?

    If that is why Jesus is a Good Shepherd,
        we might wonder if our Shepherd is on vacation right now,
            or walked away from the sheep pens and gone AWOL,
            leaving us to fend for ourselves.

No, the Good Shepherd does not guarantee either safety or comfort.
    Even this comforting Psalm 23 assumes hard times.
    It explicitly says we will
        walk through the valley . . . of the shadow . . . of death.
    It says there will be times that we find ourselves surrounded . . .
        in the presence of . . . our enemies.
    Life does not cease to be challenging or dangerous
        just because the shepherd is with us.

So what makes Jesus a Good Shepherd?
    Well, one place to look for an answer to that question
        would be today’s Gospel reading from John 10.
    Because here Jesus spells out the metaphor, in some detail.
    He identifies himself, right off the bat, as the Good Shepherd.
    And he paints a picture of sheep inside a sheepfold,
        a place to protect them overnight.

    The true shepherd of the sheep—that is, Jesus—enters by the gate.
    Others show up as imposters—
        thieves and bandits, Jesus calls them.
        They don’t use the gate, but climb in another way.
    But when the good shepherd comes to fold, he comes in the gate,
        he calls the sheep by name, they recognize his voice,
            and he brings them out for the day,
            and leads them wherever he wants them to go.

Just a little aside . . . Jesus mixes his metaphors here.
    In John 10, he says one place, “I am the Good Shepherd,”
        and at another, says, “I am the Gate.”
    So if anyone criticizes you for mixing metaphors,
        just say, “That’s okay. I’m following Jesus.”
    One image can’t say it all.
        Jesus used many different images to describe himself.

Here, I think Jesus the Gate . . . and Jesus the Good Shepherd
    is saying, “Come into the Kingdom through me,
        attach yourself to me,
        and I will lead you where you are meant to be.”

I thought about that, and figured,
    well, that ties this lesson up all very nicely.
    And then I found out something a little unsettling.

You see,
    we are very comfortable with the image as it appears—
    a sheepfold keeping us safe through the dangers of the night,
    until our shepherd comes calling in the morning,
        and gives a cheerful whistle or sheep-call or something,
        and then walks out the gate
            and all the sheep gladly trot after him.

    But there is a word in this passage that changes the picture.
    It’s the verb Jesus chose for “bringing them out” of the sheepfold.
    In v. 4, it says,
        “When he has brought out—brought out all his own,
            he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him.”
        After they are out in the open,
            then he gets in front of them,
            and leads them to pasture.

And by “brought out,” he meant “shoved out.”
    The verb Jesus uses here is “ekballo.”
    It’s used all through the New Testament,
        but never in the sense of gently walking in front
            and saying, “Yoo-hoo, here we go, come along now.”
    No. It’s the same verb used when it says
        that Jesus “cast out” an evil spirit.
    It’s the same verb used when it says Jesus took a whip
        and “drove the money-changers out of the temple.”
    It’s the same verb used when it says the Holy Spirit
        drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil.

Virtually everywhere this verb is used in the New Testament,
    it implies pushing someone somewhere they don’t want to go.

That is not only interesting.
    It is disturbing.
    It is upsetting to our mental image
        of Jesus as Little Bo-Peep
            and the sheep wagging their tails behind them.

And here’s the problem.
    We sheep, if left to our own devices,
        might rather prefer to stay where it’s safe.
        Secure in the sheepfold. Behind sturdy walls.
        Far from the reach of wolves and other who do us harm.

But Jesus is pointing out an important truth here.
    As sheep, staying in a sheepfold is not
        where abundant life is found.
    Abundant life is found in coming in and going out of the gate,
        coming in and going out,
        coming in and going out.
    Seeking nourishment where there is some risk involved.
    Eating only out of a feed trough in a barn,
        will not result in strong healthy sheep.
        Sheep need to graze.
        On the same pastureland where live the wolves.

So out of love for us sheep,
    out of a strong and fierce love for us,
    Jesus shoves us out of the sheepfold.
    Jesus is a loving shepherd.
        And therefore, is a shoving shepherd, if you will.
    Jesus shoves us out from where we feel safe and secure,
        and into a broken and dangerous world
        that desperately needs what God’s kingdom has to offer.
    A world that needs the healing and reconciling
        and peace-building and justice-seeking of kingdom people.

And we need that, too!
    If we are to “have life, and have it abundantly,” to use Jesus’ words,
        we need to live into our created purpose.
    We were not created to live our lives behind stone walls.
    We were created for an active, dynamic life in the wide open,
        and dangerous, world.

So what does this mean for a people in quarantine?
    The answer might confuse us a little,
        because isn’t this what all the protests are about right now?
    People want to break out of their cocoon of safety,
        and explore the wide open world.

    Well . . . maybe not.
    It might seem that way on the surface.
        But I honestly wonder whether it’s the opposite.
    I wonder . . .
    Whether, for the protestors,
        and those yearning for crowded beaches and malls
            and theaters and sports arenas,
        that the secure sheepfold . . . is the frenzied life that was.
    Whether there is actually comfort in losing ourselves
        in a life of constant distraction.
    Whether the busy, striving, self-protecting, approval-seeking life,
        actually shields us from the wolf of self-examination.
    And whether the scary wilderness
        is being held inside our own homes,
            in a space too close for comfort,
            forced to confront the darker side of ourselves,
            unable to prove our worth by our productivity,
            being more raw, exposed, and helpless.

Maybe to apply this parable to our current situation,
    we should say those following the shepherd into the wild,
        and taking risks out of love for the shepherd,
    are the ones staying home,
        inconveniencing themselves, by choice,
        finding other ways to be present with others,
    or the ones assuming great risk to help those in need—
        like the first-responders, health workers,
        grocery-store employees, and others who serve us.

And then we might very well conclude,
    that those protesting the stay-at-home orders,
        or refusing to wear masks,
        or crowding the beaches,
        or taking automatic weapons into state capital buildings,
    maybe, in this parable, they are the ones
        resisting the shove of the Good Shepherd.
    They may be resisting the fuller life, the riskier life,
        of grazing in the open fields where the wolves are.

It remains up to each of us to apply this where it fits in our own life.
    You know where your sheepfold is.
    You know where the wild life-giving pastureland is.
    The Good News for today is that our loving shepherd
        not only shoves us out there with the grass and the wild things.
    That loving shepherd still walks out in front,
        still picks up the traumatized lamb,
        still walks with us all the way to where this life leads us.

    Sometimes we need to be cradled.
    Sometimes we need the shove.
    Both images are true.
    And both are love.

The other piece of Good News is that we are a flock!
    We are not solitary sheep.
    When one of is overwhelmed with the wilderness,
        there are other sheep nearby.

Right now is a time when there are many among us,
    who need some others of us to step into the gap,
        and give us courage to take another step,
        or to hold on to life a little longer.

Maybe you find yourself in the position of needing someone
    to hold on for you,
    maybe you are the one holding on tightly, on behalf of another.
In either case, maybe this song will be some encouragement to you.
    Join with us in singing, please,
        “When pain or sorrow . . . hold on”

—Phil Kniss, May 3, 2020

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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Paula Stoltzfus: Observe. Abide. Trust.

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 3: “With opened eyes”

Psalm 116; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

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Observe. Abide. Trust
You have just heard read a passage that we come to often in the Lectionary, recounting Jesus’ steps after his resurrection.  I thought it appropriate to walk this path with together, considering Jesus’ own walk, his presence, intention, and invitation to these two individuals.  You are welcome to follow along in the text or as you listen and meditate on the steps that were taken.
In this account, Jesus was headed to Jericho.  He met in his path two people deeply engaged in conversation.  Instead of Jesus interjecting with certainty into the conversation, he observed and asked questions.  “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”  He was curious.  As if surprised by the question, the two stood still, had he not heard what had happened?  Was his head in the clouds?
Jesus responds with yet another question, “What things have happened?” 
Jesus could have very easily declared who he was at this point,“look it’s me,” but he didn’t.  
Instead, Jesus observed these men deep in conversation, eavesdropped, and gently entered in a way that did not call attention to himself.
Jesus’ presence strikes me in this story.  We are told that Jesus’ final destination was Jericho, but he was yet walking towards Emmaus when he intersects with Cleopas and one other.  Jesus very well could have seen the time and asked for a lift on a donkey, did some long-distance running, or asked for a wagon ride.  Instead, he chose to walk.  And not only walk, but walk with people while talking.
I don’t know about you, but when I walk with people I tend to go a bit slower than my fastest gate so that we can talk.  If Jesus really had wanted to get to Jericho by days end, he would have needed a faster way.  Instead, Jesus chose the least efficient, that allowed him to observe, converse, and pay attention to that which was around him.

Encouragement to revelation:
After the men are given a chance to share their disbelief, their grief, and expression of deep sadness, Jesus reminds them of what the prophets have taught throughout the story of their faith.  He interprets for them the prophets words, that God is a part of even this unfolding of the story of the Messiah.
A connection between the three of them was made through this encounter.  Once they reached Emmaus, the two men insisted that Jesus stay with them for a meal and night because darkness was coming soon.
It was in the act of breaking bread together, communing together, that Jesus’ self was revealed to the men.  The veil of mystery was made clear in stopping, eating, and looking into the eyes of the other.
Trust in God’s spirit:
Throughout this entire encounter, Jesus took his time, observed, engaged, and trusted ultimately in God’s spirit to do the work of revealing.
Our path in a pandemic:
We are in a time of where life as we knew it has changed. We are between the yesterday and tomorrow in a way that calls the landscape of tomorrow into question.  Richard Rohr calls this liminal space. He says, “It is a graced time, but often does not feel “graced” in any way. In such space, we are not certain or in control.” It is a place where we feel vulnerable and uncomfortable.  “It takes time but this experience can help us reenter the world with freedom and new, creative approaches to life.” 
A few weeks ago we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection and yet as some shared last Sunday, it still feels like we are in the shadow of death with a hope that feels elusive.  
I can identify with our story today.  We, like the two men, have experienced Jesus’ death and yet look for the resurrection.  Where is Jesus in this pandemic?  Where is new life?  Where is our hope? Where are these new and creative approaches to life that Richard Rohr talks about?
Like the two men on the road to Emmaus, we are saddened, grieved, downcast, not sure how this is all going to unfold.  We too have many questions.
Our presence in a pandemic:
Within our own faith community we are being asked to enter different aspects of this pandemic.  Those in the healthcare field or in emergency management are being asked to give of themselves far beyond what they imagined.  Fatigue is great.  Burnout is real.  The stress and strain on personal and family life is exhausting.
Those in other areas of work are being called to set up office at home.  Schedules have shifted, demands have changed, and expectations are constantly changing.  
Parents are juggling a different family life.  Sure some aspects that Susan mentioned earlier are no longer. There aren’t the evenings running the kids around to their activities, but kids are around all the time.  Where is there time to work? How do they help their kids navigate this time of lost dreams of graduations and birthdays?  Keep engaged in peer relationships? Navigate school demands?
Retirees find their places to volunteer closed down.  Once active and able to give back in fulfilling ways, now are considered high risk and told to stay home.
This reality of a new rhythm is sinking in deep.  Some of us want to run, race to the end.  “Let’s get this done and over with so we can move on with our lives, so we can get back to the way things used to be.”
Encouragement and Invitation:
Yes, we are in uncertain times.  Yes, there are different paces we are being asked to move. 
I want each of us to consider Jesus’ pace. 
A pace that allows us to be open to who and what is going on around us. 
A pace that allows us to observe people and creation. 
A pace that allows us time to feel the discomfort and vulnerability.
A pace that allows conversation to occur.
A pace that takes into consideration the needs of others around us.
A pace that allows us to stop occasionally and hear words of encouragement that feeds, sustains, and grows us into a resilient people of faith.
It is at this pace that I heard people’s experiences of hope grow out of as individuals shared last week.
As Jesus shared encouragement through scripture, I too close with words of our faith.  
Receive these words of encouragement.
Psalm 46
God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present[a] help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.[d

Isaiah 43:18 
Do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Romans 8
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in[o] hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes[p] for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes[q] with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God,[r] who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit[s] intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.[t]
Trust in the Spirit:
Friends, God is with us on this path.  We are not alone.
As a closing I offer this heartfelt prayer from Paul to the Ephesians.  May it be our prayer as well.
Ephesians 3
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,[g] 15 from whom every family[h] in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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Sunday, April 19, 2020

Mediations on “In search of resurrection and living hope”

Easter to Pentecost: Following the Light of Resurrection
Easter 2: “In living hope”

1 Peter 1:3-5

Speakers: Laura Yoder, Lloyd Mast, Gloria Diener, Merle Herr, Bruce Stambaugh, Vic Buckwalter, Sara Leichty, and Josh Wenger

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This morning in worship we heard the Gospel story from John 20, where, due to an appearance by Jesus, the disciples’ fear and foreboding were replaced with peace and a living hope, culminating in Thomas’ strong statement of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

Then, we heard the writer of 1 Peter proclaim that resurrection ushers in hope. I took a key phrase from that text, “By God’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” and I sent it out to eight persons, asking each one to look at their own lives and circumstances right now, or look at the world around them, and tell us where they see signs of living hope and resurrection.” These are the responses I got.

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Sunday, April 12, 2020

Phil Kniss: Beyond terror, toward hope

Easter Sunday: “Show us your resurrection power and love”
Matthew 28:1-10

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These past weeks we’ve all done things we never did before,
    and never imagined doing.
Well, I’ve never preached an Easter homily
    with the world in quarantine,
    and human beings dying by the tens of thousands.

I have, however, preached into the darkness on Easter Sunday.
    Last year, I preached
        two days after the untimely death of Norah Brubaker.
    Three years ago,
        I preached resurrection two days after we bombed Afghanistan
            with what our military called “the mother of all bombs.”
    As I look back at old Easter messages,
        I notice a pattern during Holy Week—
            typhoons, wars, plane crashes, suicide bombers.
        Easter comes and goes and evil keeps rearing its ugly head,
            as if the universe is taunting,
            “Oh, so your God is all about love and life?
                Well take a look at this!”

So in light of the devastation that is COVID-19,
    what is the true and deep Gospel word of Easter,
    that will hold up in the face of all this suffering?

Surely, we’ll find that Gospel word in the Gospel reading, right?
    We heard the resurrection story according to Matthew, chap. 28.
    This is where we will find words to ease our fears,
        calm our anxiety,
        comfort us in our state of unease.

Except . . . that’s not what Matthew gives us.
The resurrection scene Matthew paints for us
    is not deep peace and comfort and reassurance.
    The main characters in the story are panic-stricken.
    They are filled with fear—intense and paralyzing.

The scene at Jesus’ tomb was not the peaceful forest on our bulletin.
    Not like any typical Easter picture.
        No sun peeking through the trees,
            or edging up over the horizon,
                painting the sky red and orange and purple.
        No angel relaxing on the tombstone.

Matthew says, while it was still mostly dark,
    “suddenly there was a great earthquake . . .
        an angel of the Lord, whose appearance was like lightning,
            came down from heaven and rolled away the stone . . .
        For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”
    Did you get that?
        Highly-trained armed guards were terrorized,
            and fell over in a dead faint.

    In some other Gospel versions, disciples arrive after the fact,
        and they calmly explore their surroundings,
        wondering what just happened.

    Not in Matthew.
        Here, resurrection happens after the two Marys arrive.
        What they experience is a fear-inducing, earth-shaking,
            cataclysmic eruption.
        They saw, and felt, the “violent earthquake.”
        They saw the angel remove the stone with a rumble.
        They saw the guards convulse and faint.

    The angel tries to calm them,
        “Do not be afraid;
            I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
            He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”
            Take a look, they say. God is in this disruption.
            Now, go.
            “Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. Go meet him.”

        The angel gave the women a missional message—
            go where Jesus is going,
            do what Jesus is doing,
            be about what Jesus is about.
        This is the new order of things.
        The powers of evil and death
            have been conquered by the powers of love and life.

    After all is said and done,
        after this earth-shaking event,
        the bottom line of Matthew’s message is,
        “Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid.”
            Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid!

Then after they listen to the angel and follow directions,
    on their way to find Jesus,
    the two Marys are gifted
        with the first human encounter with the risen Jesus.
    Before they ever got to the other disciples,
        Jesus met them on the road, and repeated the same message—
            “Go where I am going, and don’t be afraid.”

“Don’t be afraid” were the first words out of the mouths
    of the angel and of Jesus.
    I guess they figured those words of caution,
        were the most appropriate thing to say at that terrifying moment:
        “Don’t be afraid!”
    From our safe distance,
        resurrection might feel purely joyful and happy.
        But for those in the middle of it,
            if it was joyful, it was a terrorizing sort of joy.

    Now, if it had only been a loved one coming home,
        then yeah, joy and delight would be the reaction.
    But this was a new reality crashing in, violently, on the old reality.
        Any life-change is difficult.
        But world-shifting change is fear-inducing . . .
            Always, I think it’s safe to say.

    I think we all realize,
        we are now in a world-shifting time of change.
        And it is frightening.
        We are afraid of death—our own, or of masses of people.
        We are afraid of an economy in a death spiral,
            and what it might mean to our future quality of life.
        We are afraid that it might make the world more dangerous,
            and people more cruel,
            and political leaders more oppressive.

No, I am not trying to equate
    the life-affirming resurrection of Jesus
    with the death-dealing global pandemic of COVID-19.
These two realities are on opposite sides
    of the cosmic struggle between good and evil.

But this observation that both resurrection and COVID-19
    are fear-inducing events,
    reveals something important to me, on further reflection.

I should not look to Easter
    to provide merely psychological comfort and calm.
    The power of Easter
        does not lie in its ability to make things feel
        better and calmer and more palatable.
    The beauty of Easter and springtime—
        captured in the gorgeous flowers up here,
        and splashed all over creation right now,
        and spoken of so eloquently by Heidi in the children’s story—
            that beauty is a symbol of something bigger.
        It’s a reminder of the persistence of life.
        It’s a sign pointing to a larger reality.

But Easter doesn’t stop at symbol.
    Actually embracing the earth-shaking message of Easter,
        actually believing that God’s invitation to life,
        will overpower and decisively defeat
            any cheap substitute for life the world is throwing at us,
        that truth should turn our world upside-down.
    It should feel like an earthquake in a cemetery,
        that makes armed guards keel over.

    Think about it!
    Those guards were posted in the garden to protect the status quo.
        They were there to ensure that the powers that be—
            the political and religious empires—
            didn’t get knocked off their feet
                by whatever Jesus might do next.
        So they guarded the tomb.
        Just the fact that a tomb was guarded,
            ought to be a clue to how dangerous and frightening
                the Jesus agenda was to the powers.

    See, when we embrace the resurrection of Jesus,
        we embrace the great unmasking of every lesser power.
    And that is not a comforting thing.
        That is a shaking-in-your-boots kind of thing.

I get it that right now,
    most of us would be happy with normal.
    We’d be content if we could only go back to the year 1 B.C.—
        Before Coronavirus.
    But the world has changed, and we cannot go back.
        The notion that human beings are fragile
            is no longer theoretical, it’s real.
        We and all the powerful systems we create
            can be laid low by a microscopic life form
                that no one really understands.

    And we who pledge our allegiance to the Risen Lord Jesus,
        have a similar sobering reality to reckon with.
        The Gospel of Easter is also little understood,
            and can lay low all the powers and systems of this world,
            and can make them all tremble in fear.
        The big difference is
            that Resurrection Power leads to life, and not death.
        It moves us beyond terror, and toward hope.

    If today we wish to align ourselves with the God of Easter,
        with the God of persistent life,
        then be prepared to meet resistance from the powers.
        Be prepared to pay a price,
            in order to live the life God created us for.
        It might, at first, strike fear and dread into our beings.

    But the words of the angel spoken to the two Marys,
        are now, today, also being spoken to all of us
        feeling caught by the forces of death.
    “Don’t be afraid.
        Find Jesus.
        And don’t be afraid.”

As on other Easter mornings,
    we come to the Lord’s Table to partake
        of the very elements that filled the disciples with fear—
            Jesus’ broken body and shed blood.
    But today we partake not in fear, but in hope.
        Because of Resurrection,
            we can eat and drink in hope
            that the world is being turned on its head,
            that God is making all things new.
        This we can do, even when the world is dark outside.

Be prepared now to participate with us,
    wherever you may be.
    This communion is different than most,
        but it is still communion.
        It is a coming together spiritually, as one body.
        We are partaking in a manner that cares for the body.
            We leaders here in this space,
                are partaking exactly the way you are.
            We are using our own elements,
                and partaking of them in our own personal space.
        By doing it this way on this occasion,
            we are acting in love toward the larger body.
            We are showing care for each other,
                and for our larger community and world.
            This dear friends, is not a symbol of isolation.
                This is a beautiful act being done in community.
                Thanks be to God.
        Join us, will you?

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed,
    took a loaf of bread,
    and when he had given thanks,
        broke it and gave it to them saying,
    “Take. Eat. This is my body broken for you.”
In the same way he took the cup after supper,
    and when he had given thanks,
        gave it to them saying,
    “Take. Drink. This is the blood of the new covenant.
        Do this in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup,
    you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

—Phil Kniss, April 12, 2020

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Sunday, April 5, 2020

Phil Kniss: Singing a hushed hosanna

Lent 6 (Palm Sunday): “Show us how to balance celebration and grief”
Matthew 21:1-11; Psalm 31:9-16

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As each day unfolds, living with COVID-19,
    we get to have some new experience or insight or loss
        or grief to wrestle with.
    We could spend all day, if we were together right now,
        swapping stories of how our particular part of the world
            has been turned upside-down,
            where the old patterns or rules or expectations
                simply don’t apply anymore,
                and we have to make it up as we go along.
    We all share that experience right now.
    Including pastors and preachers and worship planners.

One of the biggest points of conversation
    among pastors the last couple weeks
    has been, how are we going to celebrate Holy Week and Easter?
        This is the High Season of our Faith.
        It’s the pinnacle of the saving story of Jesus.
        It’s when we pull out the stops in joyful celebration,
            and affirmation of Resurrection.
        How do we do this during a global pandemic?

I have been saying, and still say,
    time is moving at a different pace right now.
    Our season of Lent will be much longer than usual.
        If Lent is a season for fasting,
            then we have all been fasting—
                voluntarily or involuntarily.
            We are all giving up something important for us,
                as an act of love for others, and love for God.
        And the giving up will continue.
            There will be more and bigger and weightier things
                that we will need to give up
                in the weeks and months to come.
        Fasting will go on, through Holy Week,
            through Easter weekend, and beyond.

So how does this reality change how we walk through Holy Week?
    One new insight for me this week,
        is that suddenly the spiritual essence of Holy Week
            is a lot easier to grasp.
    As a preacher,
        I don’t have to persuade or cajole or remind people,
            to embrace the darkness of Holy Week.
            We know it intuitively.
            We can’t avoid it.
            We are all in the deep darkness together.
        I often say to the church around this time
            that we won’t be able to fully know the joy of Easter,
            if we don’t spend time in the darkness,
                of Jesus’ passion and suffering and death.
        This year, those are unnecessary words.

    Resurrection Sunday is made for times like these.
        Yes, Easter is going to be different next Sunday.
            We are going to delay some of the exuberant aspects
                of the celebration.
                Our songs will be softer.
            We are going to fast from singing
                the Hallelujah Chorus next Sunday morning,
                    one of our beloved Easter traditions.
            We will save that one for our first Sunday back
                as a face-to-face worshiping congregation,
                when we celebrate the victory of life over death.
                I promise you we will sing it then.

        But a week from now, it will still be Easter Sunday.
            We will still marvel at the beauty of springtime blooms.
            We will still read and sing about God’s triumph over death.
            We will still celebrate communion together.
        But we will do all these things while
            being trapped together in a very dark place.

When we stop to think about it,
    our lived experience right now,
    takes us at least a little bit closer to the lived experience
        of the Jewish people living in the time of Jesus.
    The so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem,
        by Jesus and the noisy crowd that followed him,
        was not the kind of event we often think it was.
        It was a dark time,
            when the people were feeling lost and hopeless,
            when they were up against an enemy
                that they knew could easily wipe them out.
        This was not a happy-go-lucky kind of parade,
            this was a daring, and dangerous, confrontational march.
        It was the people living in darkness,
            choosing to boldly face off against the source of darkness.
        It was more like the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama
            across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

    And their shouts of “Hosanna, hosanna” did not necessarily mean
        what we think they meant.
        The word “hosanna” means “save us!”
            It’s not simply a shout of praise.
            It’s a cry for help.
        Yes, it can certainly have the connotation of praise.
            And it is often used with that connotation.
            That crowd of people were really shouting it in both ways!
            They were saying, “Help, we need to be rescued!
                We need to be saved from our oppressors!
                Down with the Roman Occupation!”
            And they were also praising Jesus
                as the anointed and appointed Messiah
                who was there to save them!
        They meant it both ways.
            “Help, save us!” . . . and
            “Here is the one who saves!”

    So, when we joyfully wave our palm branches,
        as many of you did in the video
            at the beginning of our service,
        we can also mean it both ways!
        “Jesus, Savior! We welcome you!
            Thank you for coming to save us.
            And we can also mean it as a yet-unfulfilled
                cry for help.”
        The meaning of the word can change,
            according to what we feel and experience at the time.

    So today, in this time of human suffering and catastrophe,
        we don’t take this procession of palms lightly.
        We do it out of a deep sense of need, and of hope.
        We cry out, with all our heart and soul and being,
            “Lord, save us! Hosanna! Save us, please!”
        And we cry out,
            “Lord, you are the One who will save us!
                You are our one and only Savior!
                You are the source of our hope!
                And you are here!
                Hosanna! Savior!”

This year on Palm Sunday,
    just as the crowds did that day in Jerusalem,
    we dare to shout “Hosanna!”
        in the face of the enemy—
            whether Rome, or COVID-19,
                or other enemies we face in our daily lives.
    We are marching in the light,
        even though it is dark all around us.
    We don’t know how long the darkness will last.
        We don’t know if our earthly, physical lives
            will even survive this darkness.
        But we will not stop crying “Hosanna!”
        We will still proclaim our hope in God’s salvation.

This is a time when the cries of Hosanna
    may in fact sound very different to our ears.
    They may not be as loud, or confident, or boisterous,
        as they do sometimes.
    They may sound more like whimpers than shouts.
        Each of us are experiencing this darkness in different ways,
            and our hosannas will be spoken
            in different tones of voice.
        In our voices, whether loud or soft,
            we may hear grief, or sadness, or anger,
                or even hope, or gratitude.
        Whatever the tone of voice, the word is the same,
            “Savior! Save us!”

Maybe we aren’t up to shouting and singing a loud hosanna this year.
    And that’s fine.
    A hushed hosanna means the same thing: “Savior! Save us!”

    In a minute, we are going to pray and speak a poem of confession,
        in which we acknowledge our hosannas
            are hushed, whispered,
            broken, betrayed, tortured,
            scourged, and crucified.
        But they are nonetheless “hosannas!”
        We are singing a “hushed hosanna” this year.

This is a poem by Roddy Hamilton called
    “Let the stones remain silent.”
    I love that phrase, let the stones remain silent.
    It’s a reference to the Gospel of Luke’s version of this story,
        when the Pharisees were worried about all the noise,
        They didn’t want the Roman authorities to crack down,
            so they told Jesus to quiet down the crowds.
        Jesus replied, “If they are silent, the stones would shout out!”
        In other words, this injustice will be addressed.
            If not by the people, by nature itself.

    So when this poem ends with the line,
        which you will all read together,
        “ . . . and let the stones remain silent,”
            you will be saying, by faith, it won’t come to that.
            We won’t be silent.
                So the stones won’t have to speak.
            We will speak aloud our hosannas,
                even if they are broken hosannas,
                even if they are in hushed tones.
            We will sing hosanna.

Now, before we speak that confessional poem together,
    hear these words of lament from the Psalmist,
        from Psalm 31:9-16.
    But I will make one change.
        I’ll change the first-person singular to first-person plural.
        Because we are all in this place of distress, together.
        This is a time of communal lament.
        Afterward we will sing together,
            “When Jesus wept, the falling tear.”
        And then, together, we will read the poem,
            “Let the stones remain silent.”

    Here are the words of the psalmist—
            9 Be gracious to us, O LORD, for we are in distress;
                our eyes waste away from grief,
                our souls and bodies also.
            10 For our lives are spent with sorrow,
                and our years with sighing;
            our strength fails because of our misery,
                and our bones waste away.
            11 We are the scorn of all our adversaries,
                a horror to our neighbors,
            an object of dread to our acquaintances;
                those who see us in the street flee from us.
            12 We have passed out of mind like those who are dead;
                we have become like broken vessels.
            13 For we hear the whispering of many—
                terror all around!—
            as they scheme together against us,
                as they plot to take our lives.
            14 But we trust in you, O LORD;
                we say, “You are our God.”
            15 Our times are in your hand;
                deliver us from the hands of our enemies and persecutors.
            16 Let your face shine upon your servants;
                save us in your steadfast love.

—Phil Kniss, April 5, 2020

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