Sunday, January 26, 2020

Phil Kniss: When hope is on the mat

In It Together: The Church As Global Community of Hope
(Anabaptist World Fellowship Sunday)

Mark 2:1-12; Ephesians 1:15-19

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Anyone else notice that hope has come up in worship a lot lately?
It was our main theme two Sundays in a row a couple months ago—
the last Sunday of the “God’s Good Earth” series,
and the first Sunday of Advent.
But here we are again.
Anybody getting tired of hope?
Too bad.
We still need it.

Would anybody like to hear a long list of all the reasons
we still need to talk about hope?
. . . I didn’t think so.

Well, this Sunday, as we’ve already pointed out,
is Anabaptist World Fellowship Sunday.
It’s planned and organized by Mennonite World Conference,
and they gave us this topic this year—
“Jesus Christ: our hope.”

Mennonite World Conference,
for those of you not familiar with it,
is a world-wide fellowship of Anabaptist groups.

They are not a legislative body for the church.
They are a resource for relationships.
They don’t mandate things.
But they organize many different ways to help us connect,
as a global community of Anabaptist faith.
Everyone is invited to a global assembly once every six years.
In 2021, I hope to attend the assembly in Indonesia.
There are regional and continental gatherings in-between.
There are gatherings of the General Council more often.
There are young adult gatherings.
There are gatherings of mission agencies.
There are commissions for Peace, Missions, Faith & Life, etc.,
again, to provide resources and connections, not mandates.

So this year, as a tool for bringing us together across the globe,
they have provided worship resources—
scriptures, songs, prayers, stories, etc.
I think it’s pretty cool that Anabaptist-Mennonite churches
all over the world, like the ones pictured in our bulletin,
are, many of them, today, also reading from
Lamentations 3, Psalm 62, Mark 2, and Ephesians 1,
and may have also sung the Kenyan version of
“My hope is built on nothing less.”

So I’d like to invite us to use the scripture this morning,
to help us reflect on our place in this global community of hope,
and what it is about this community
that might help us grow in hope.

So let’s focus on the Gospel story from Mark 2,
wherein four good friends of a paralyzed man
brought him to Jesus for healing,
and when they could not reach Jesus because of the crowds,
went up on top of the house where Jesus stood teaching inside,
opened up part of the roof,
and lowered the man by ropes, on his mat,
where Jesus could not help but notice and respond and heal.
And heal, he did.
The man came in on ropes,
and walked out on his own two feet.

This is an amazing story on a number of levels,
and we could explore any number of them.
But what I want to think about is the hope—
what sort of hope,
who had it,
and where it came from.

We aren’t given details,
but assuming the level of medical care in the first century,
it’s probably safe to assume this case of paralysis was hopeless.
He had probably been paralyzed for years, maybe for life.
There was no known treatment.
But who knows how many times
some strange or dangerous kind of cure was attempted?
He was entirely dependent on everyone around him,
for his basic needs, day and night.
Yet, he had (at least) four
faithful and persistent and activist friends.
We don’t know if the man had hope.
But certainly the friends did.
Based on what they had already seen Jesus do,
and what they had heard Jesus did in other places,
they had hope that if they could simply get their friend
to appear at the feet of Jesus,
Jesus could, and would, do something about their friend.

So they acted on their hope.
They would put everything on the line.
They would move heaven and earth . . . and roofing tiles.
Nothing would stop them
until they had their friend at the feet of Jesus.

So that’s exactly what they did.
And Jesus’ response was a bit . . . unexpected.
Mark tells us,
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’”

Jesus completely ignores the presenting problem,
the man’s paralysis.
Instead, he notices the friends’ hope,
the friends’ faith.
And marveling at the depth of their hope,
he took his response to a deeper level.
“Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Now this is an interesting development in the story.
It’s a controversy story,
stuck in the middle of a healing story.
There are lots of examples of this in the Gospels,
where a story is being told of Jesus doing something
that everyone can feel good about, and applaud,
and then right in the middle of that feel-good story,
Jesus inserts some controversy, on purpose.
It throws people off-balance.
Reveals them for how they really are,
instead of how they try to present themselves.

So then, this story is suddenly interrupted by a big argument
between Jesus and the scribes (that is, the legal scholars),
over whether or not Jesus has the right to forgive sins.

Now, I don’t think the four friends saw this coming.
They did not climb on the roof and dismantle part of it,
and lower their friend on ropes,
in order to spark a theological controversy.
They wanted their friend whole.
They wanted their friend to walk.

But Jesus, perhaps seeing a bigger picture,
perhaps knowing there was a real, and powerful, connection
between physical and spiritual well-being,
saw beyond the immediate problem: paralyzed limbs.
He saw something else binding this man,
and his community,
and preventing them all from living fully.
There was unforgiven sin gumming up the system,
and his community did not have the wherewithal
to do anything with it.

Of course, we know nothing about the man’s life story.
We know nothing about what Jesus saw in him.
Perhaps the man knew of his sins and had long ago repented.
Perhaps, even, some of those standing there in the house
were harmed by the man’s sins,
and were still holding them against him.
Maybe no one in his community had yet extended forgiveness,
and it was paralyzing everyone,
figuratively, if not literally.

We don’t know the details, but we know this:
No one . . . until Jesus,
had the grace to communicate forgiveness to him.
The only message he ever got from others was judgement.
Disease was a direct result of sin, in their view.
Because of his paralysis, he carried a label, written in big letters:
And that label,
perhaps even more than whatever was going on physically,
was keeping him from living a full and joyful life.

And who knows which of Jesus words
were most responsible for the miracle,
for the strength to get up and walk—
the words, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
or the words, “Take up your mat and walk.”

To hope in Jesus Christ, is to have the hope of restoration.
Whether physical healing,
or spiritual deliverance,
or reconciliation of broken relationships,
or forgiveness of sin,
or redemption of creation,
or peace among nations.
Restoration Hope is what God is about.

So let’s think about this story in terms of community,
and specifically our global community
of Anabaptist sisters and brothers all over the world.

The first thing we notice in the story, of course—
the first thing Jesus noticed—
was the persistent hope and faith of the friends.
That is the remarkable thing, isn’t it,
that four friends would go to such great lengths,
to help their friend get to the source of his healing.
Such foresight,
such courage,
such boldness,
such faith and trust.
It is laudable. It is to be emulated.
May we have that much compassion and courage
to boldly go to any length
to lay that which is broken at the feet of Jesus,
and trust that Jesus will do what is right.

When it comes to putting ourselves in the story,
that is where we usually go, understandably.
We are the friends.
We are the strong.
We are the walking.
We are the ones with resources.
Let us be willing to put ourselves on the line,
to help those who cannot walk,
to assist those who do not have the strength or resources.

When we apply that idea to Mennonite World Conference,
our global faith family,
it’s also not hard to put ourselves in the same role in the story.
One of the gifts of MWC is its Global Sharing Fund.
We at Park View make regular contributions to it,
especially when it’s time for our global assemblies.
It is prohibitively expensive for many of our sisters and brothers
to travel to other parts of the world.
Especially those who live in the Global South
cannot get there on their own.
They need friends with ropes.
So the Global Sharing Fund
is a way to—at least in part—offset some of the expenses,
and allow more of our family to come to these reunions,
as full participants.
That’s a good thing.
And a moral obligation, I think.
We will continue to support that Fund,
and be there, persistently, for our paralyzed friends.

So we could stop there with the analogy.
But what if . . . we in the Global North
put ourselves . . . instead . . . on the mat?
What if we could see ourselves as needy,
as broken and needing to be made whole by Jesus?
And what if we could imagine our siblings in the Global South
as being our friends with ropes?
How does that change things, in regard to hope?

Yes, we seem to be among the walking and strong and whole.
But we may be paralyzed in ways we cannot perceive,
or perhaps do perceive,
but cannot see a way forward to healing.
There may be a paralysis of Spirit that we are hopeless about.
And it may be that our sisters and brothers in the Global South,
have some insight about our paralysis,
and have the courage and strength and persistent hope,
to use their ropes to get us to the feet of Jesus for healing . . .
and while Jesus is at it,
maybe for some forgiveness of our collective sin.

I believe this beautiful Gospel story about
healing and forgiveness is for all of us,
as communities and as individuals-in-community.

Sure, we can sometimes step into the role
of the courageous, heroic, and persistent friends,
who will take swift action to help our brothers and sisters in need
to get to Jesus for healing.

But will we be just as ready to find hope on the mat?
Are we willing to lay down our pride,
and be forgiven for our own wrongs,
and be restored into relationship with those we have wronged?

As I said, communities can be the person on the mat,
every bit as much as individuals.

Churches can hurt people,
can hurt other churches,
even within our own family of faith in Mennonite World Conference.
We can be prideful and presumptuous.
We can be racist in our institutional practices.
We can be inwardly-focused and protective of our interests,
at the expense of God’s mission in the world.

I wonder what sort of confession of sin might be needful.
I wonder whether some of those carrying us,
might be able to help us see.

It can also happen in our neighborhoods.
We can look at our ministries (like Kids Clubs, block parties,
and programs like New Bridges or Bridge of Hope)
as ways that we are carrying the paralyzed to Jesus.
But can we be with our neighbors,
and see ourselves as the needy partner in the relationship?
can we open ourselves to receive
their love and compassion and courage?
can we let Jesus heal and forgive us through them?

Sometimes, hope comes from being willing to lie on the mat,
and be carried,
and be dependent,
and be open for God to touch and heal our wounds,
through our least-expected neighbors.

Turn in your blue hymnals to #306,
“In Christ there is no East or West
in him no South or North.”
Globally, we are the West, and the North.
As we sing, let’s keep forward in our mind
those in the East, and the South.
Especially as we sing phrases like
great fellowship of love, and
high communion, and
golden cord, and
children of the living God, and
Christly souls.

And may the Spirit of Jesus bring to mind,
even as we sing, and as we go from this place,
the many gifts God is ready to give us
through the more distant members of our community.

So that (to use the words of Apostle Paul that we read earlier),
“ . . . so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened,
you may know what is the hope to which he has called you,
what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.”

May we find a new level of hope on the mat,
as we embrace our need for healing,
and our dependence on others.

—Phil Kniss, January 26, 2020

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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Phil Kniss: The Church: Troublemaker or Goodwill Ambassador?

In It Together: The Church As Witness
Acts 2:43-47; Genesis 12:1-3; John 17:20-23

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When we talk about the call of the church
to bear witness to the Gospel in the world,
we always have to start with a “Yes, but.”

When we claim the purpose of the church
is to show the world what the Gospel looks like,
we have to quickly qualify that statement,
make some apologies,
list some caveats,
and clarify our definitions.

Part of the reason for this is our long history of miserable failure
at doing this task the way God would have us do it.

The world has seen so many examples of bad witness,
has seen the Gospel distorted and poisoned
by the church’s lust for power and recognition,
by the church aligning itself too closely
with political power structures,
by the church engaging in cultural colonialism,
by the church in some cases even becoming the oppressor.

But there are other reasons to hesitate,
to qualify, to nuance,
our talk about church as witness.

Our witness can take many different forms.
So what kind of witness are we talking about?
Sometimes two different ways of being a witness,
both based solidly in scripture,
can seem like polar opposites.

We use very different metaphors to talk about our task.
Is the church a prophet or a pastor to the world?
A peacemaker or a provocateur . . . a divider?
Do we stir up the waters or calm the seas?

That’s what my sermon title is asking.
Are we trouble-makers in the world—
confronting a fallen world with a truth it isn’t ready to hear?
preaching costly discipleship, even if we lose numbers?

Or are we Goodwill Ambassadors of the Gospel,
seeking to make the way of Jesus seem as
winsome, attractive, and accessible as we can,
to get as many people as possible to sign on,
and join the movement?

The answer is, Yes.
Of course.

There’s a strong case for being trouble-makers.
Those of us who tend toward being activists—
as we look at the world around us
with all the brutal oppression and human exploitation
and war-mongering and greed and cruelty in the world,
we will naturally lean into this call to be trouble-makers.

And in fact, if we take the example of scripture seriously,
we are encouraged to be exactly that.
To call the oppressors to account.
To undermine and unmask the powers.

The church won’t make many friends doing this.
Or at least, not friends in high places.
The first Anabaptists in 16th-century Europe,
the movement our stream of Christians descended from,
found that out the hard way,
all the way to the executioner.

But it’s still true today, in the 21st-century world.
Fewer executions, thank God.
But Christian communities that start meddling in the way things are,
make trouble for themselves.
They get cast as the enemy of human progress,
or the enemy of patriotism,
or the enemy of economic success.
And many of the ordinary public, our neighbors,
join in with the criticism.
Maybe they are also invested in the status quo,
and feel threatened.
So they push back.

Many of us know and love Harvey Yoder,
local pastor and counselor,
and Brent Yoder’s dad.
Harvey is one of the kindest and gentlest
Christian souls on the earth.

But as he has exercised his voice in the public arena,
through his advocacy for criminal justice reform,
or against gun violence,
or for other public concerns,
he gets lambasted as a dangerous person with dangerous ideas,
with words I won’t even repeat from the pulpit.

Harvey is making trouble.
And since he is part of our local Mennonite church community,
we could say he is helping the church be a trouble-maker.
In the best sense of the word.
And whether or not you agree with every word he writes,
I think we can all say,
“More power to Harvey and his kind.”

But then . . . if we are supposed to be winsome witnesses to the Gospel,
shouldn’t we work hard to make friends and inspire people?
Why should we make enemies?

Shouldn’t we pay attention to what people are longing for,
what they want, what they need,
and then try to provide that,
to comfort them in their distress,
to draw them toward and into the church,
and to generally promote goodwill in the community?
Shouldn’t we be known for our kindness and humility and grace?
Shouldn’t we redouble our efforts to do good works?
to lend a hand to Mennonite Disaster Service,
and Mennonite Central Committee,
to visit the prisoner,
to feed the hungry?
Isn’t it to everyone’s benefit
when the public sees the church as being on their side?
Well, yes.
This is the other side of the coin.

And we find biblical support for this, too.
Isn’t this what the first church did, after Pentecost,
when it first “went public” so to speak?

We heard some verses from Acts 2 this morning. Listen again.
“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple,
they broke bread at home
and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,
praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
And day by day the Lord added to their number
those who were being saved.”

Further, Acts describes this early church as a community
who held their property in common,
who sold their possessions so they could give to those in need,
who healed the sick and cared for the suffering.

This was a good church, full of good people.
And the public noticed.
The church enjoyed wide public support and goodwill.
People were flocking to their community to join them in it.

So, is this two sides of the same coin?
Must we choose between them?
Can we have it both ways?
Or do we split the difference, find a happy middle ground,
and do each one, only half-way?
Do we speak just enough of the truth,
to do our religious duty,
but not too much that we anger the authorities?
Where is balance?
Where is discernment?
Where is wisdom?

I’m pretty confident in saying,
God is not a big fan
of people who devote themselves half-way.
When anything else gets in the way
of our whole-hearted love and loyalty to God,
God calls that idolatry.
The prophets had some strong words
for those who went half-way with God.
Joshua declared, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters . . .
you’ll hate the one and love the other,
or be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
And John the Revelator wrote this down,
as God’s message to the church in Laodicea,
“Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot,
I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Okay . . . then I guess can we agree?
It’s all in?
For both?
—making trouble for the powers,
and showering the people with love and goodwill?

So then we must discern which is called for, and when.
We do that discernment by drawing closer to God’s heart.
Our calling as God’s people, as we have often said,
is to be God’s image-bearers.
We reflect God’s image to the world.
It was our calling all the way back to Creation itself,
when God created women and men
in the image of God,
and then gave us the responsibility
to reveal Godself to the world.

Later, God reiterated that expectation to Abraham,
in our Old Testament reading today from Genesis 12,
when God told him go, where I show you,
and be a blessing to the world,
“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
It was never about Abraham and his line being “special.”
No, they were “chosen” for a deeply missional task,
to reflect the image of God to the world.

Jesus repeated this expectation,
in his prayer for his followers, that we heard from John 17:
He prayed for them, and those who would follow them,
that they would be unified in spirit and mind,
again, not for their benefit, not because they were “special,”
but . . . he prayed to his father,
“so that the [whole] world may know that you have sent me
and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Reflecting God’s face to the world.
That is still our task.
Do we reflect that image perfectly?
Of course not.
We fail. Often, and miserably.
But the wonder and mystery and beauty
is that God chooses us anyway, flawed as we are.
All we do is offer ourselves without pretense.
The Spirit works through our brokenness to reveal God’s glory.

So if we work in concert with God,
our activity in the world will be as diverse as God’s activity.
God did not always show the same side of his face to the world.
Neither will we.

Our task of discernment is to notice the person right in front of us,
to notice the people who may be suffering or discarded,
to notice systems of power that are oppressing people God loves,
to notice situations of brokenness and need wherever they exist,
and pray that the brightness of God’s glory will illuminate,
and reveal the truth that is there.

That task is meant to be carried out in community.
We, the body of Jesus Christ in the world,
in our particular expression at Park View,
embodied here, and now,
we must discern what kind of response looks like God at work.
Our task is observation, discernment, action, reflection.
When there are neighbors living near us
who are lonely and find our community intimidating,
and hard to access.
When there are many more homeless persons in our community,
than the 40-some who will stay here in our building this week.
When our prisons are full and overflowing.
When immigrants without documents live in constant fear.
When the state of Virginia is still roiling with white supremacy,
and systemic racism.
When our country is led by people
who have forgotten what selfless service looks like,
where money and power continues to corrupt.
When people are suffering all over the world,
because of hate, and greed, and all manner of evil.

With all this going on,
in our neighborhood and all over the world,
now is the time for the church to be the church.
We, as a community, are the embodied witness to God’s reign,
in the real and ordinary world.
We are “in it together.”
It is the way we live, and move, and have our being,
as a community,
that is a witness to the rule of God.

Sometimes we will look like harmless, loving service providers,
and everyone will praise our generosity and compassion.
Other times we will look like dangerous and naïve radicals
who don’t know when to just sit down and shut up.

Sometimes, for the very same actions,
we will be described in both ways,
by people with very different agendas,
and different vested interests.

We will be witnesses to the Gospel, one way or another.
Simply doing what genuine communities of disciples of Jesus do,
as we navigate the ordinary challenges of life together.
And as we are fond of saying at Park View,
we are a community of communities engaged in God’s mission.
Many times (actually most of the time)
these will be the smaller communities among us,
of two or three, or twelve, or fifty,
who will not be afraid to put their communal life on display.
Who will respond with hospitality,
who will extend the table,
who will knot comforters
who will fill snack packs for school children,
who will cook for and eat with their homeless neighbors,
who will walk the streets and notice people,
who will stand on Court Square holding signs and praying,
who will show up at City Council
and speak up on behalf of the voiceless,
who will write letters to newspapers and congress-people,
who will give rides to refugees,
who will go to the border,
who will care for the sick and dying,
who will teach children and young people in our schools,
caring for their whole persons, not just the right answers,
who will give money to non-profits,
who will start and run ethical businesses that provide jobs
and give back to the community,
who will spend years abroad in mission and service,
who will not despair when the world crumbles,
but will, whenever the opportunity presents itself,
explain the reason for the hope that is within them.

We may never know why God decided to save the world in this way,
why God would trust the likes of us, in the church,
to faithfully reflect God’s image in all these situations.

Nevertheless, the church is the real body of Christ,
sent by God into the world,
to identify with, to proclaim, and to live into
God’s mission to make this world right again.
And God has chosen us,
a community of human beings, warts and all,
to partner with the Holy Spirit,
and become, for the world,
the real expression of God’s presence in the world.

The question is, where have we bound up our future?
With the principalities and powers of this world?
Or with the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?

Let’s sing the answer to question.
“I bind my heart this tide to the Galileans’ side” (HWB 411)

—Phil Kniss, January 19, 2020

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