Sunday, June 14, 2020

Phil Kniss: Taking stock when the market is crashing

“Raising Hope”

Psalm 100; Matthew 9:35-10:8; Romans 5:1-8

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Evaluating is what we do.
    Without a moment’s thought, we assign value—
        to money, to things, to circumstances, to people.

We do a calculation whenever we
    glance at a store display,
    glance at a pop-up ad,
    watch the stock market go up and down,
    watch the evening news,
    consider marriage,
    consider raising a child,
    contemplate a move,
    contemplate a job change,
    lose a job,
    lose a loved one,
    meet a friend,
    meet a stranger,
    encounter a threat,
    encounter an opportunity.

Every time, we ask, consciously or subconsciously,
    What do we open ourselves to?
    What do we close ourselves to?

Now is a time in our lives, and in our world,
    that everyone is evaluating,
    continually and frantically . . .
        and the stakes are high.

Should I walk into that store or restaurant, or not?
Should I go to this demonstration, or not?
Should I read this article or watch this newscast, or not?
Should I undertake this hard conversation with a relative, or not?

Which activities are worth my limited time and energy?
Which sorts of people are worth investing in?

Under normal circumstances,
    these calculations are hard enough and weighty enough.
But now, they have gotten to be downright critical.
    And they are fraught with
        emotional, social, spiritual, and moral implications.

We all feel, especially now I believe,
    that we are morally obligated to respond
    to the desperate human suffering caused by the pandemic,
    to the gaping, bleeding wound of systemic racism
        that has always been there but especially obvious now,
    to the continuing collapse of morally-grounded political leadership,
    and to the escalating hostility and enmity between social groups.

But how do we evaluate?
What is the relative good, and the cost involved,
    for me to move forward in a specific direction and action?

Today I don’t offer easy answers to complex choices.
    But I have a Gospel word that I want to proclaim,
        because that’s my job.

Here it is:
    We don’t need to evaluate ourselves or any other human being.
    God has already done that calculation.

God has determined that our value, their value, is inestimable.
    Worth any cost.
    God treasures and loves each and every one of us . . . to the end.
    And we belong to God.

If only we could all grasp and sink into the truth of that,
    our lives, and our world, would be changed.

I’m not just spouting platitudes.
    This is a foundational truth of scripture,
        laid out in concrete ways in today’s readings.
    Let’s take a look.

In today’s psalm, the beloved Psalm 100,
    we are called to praise.
    Because life turned out well for us?
    Because we were prosperous or blessed?
    Because we belong to God.
    We are the prized possession of the supreme ruler of creation.
    The psalmist sings, “Know that the Lord is God.
        It is God who made us, and we belong to God.
        We are God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture.”

The psalmist drew on his own faith tradition,
    a covenant forged in the wilderness
        between God and Abraham and Sarah and their descendants.
    Here, in what we call the Old Testament, is the Gospel:
    God made you, and values you,
        and will even sacrifice Godself for you,
        as a shepherd does for a sheep.
    And not just the chosen few . . . all people.

And in Romans 5 we heard this sublime Gospel message:
    We are justified by grace, through faith, not by earning God’s favor.
    We are inherently embraced by God,
        even before we turn toward God,
        even before we realize we are invited.
    God’s love for humankind is not contingent
        on our proving ourselves worthy.
        The worth is already established,
            and summed up in this glorious phrase:
    “God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
        While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

    There’s how we take stock, when everything comes crashing down.
    We are of such worth in the eyes of God,
        that God himself would suffer abject humiliation and even death,
        if it meant our lives would be preserved.
    That’s the Gospel, folks.

And in case you didn’t see it there,
    then go to the Gospel text itself, to Matthew,
    read to us beautifully by the Gredler children today.
    It’s about Jesus calling his disciples, giving them a mission.
    “Jesus went through all the towns and villages . . .
        proclaiming the good news of the kingdom
        and healing every disease and sickness.
    When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them,
        because they were harassed and helpless,
        like sheep without a shepherd.
    Then he said to his disciples,
        “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.
        Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore,
            to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Western Christianity, specifically Protestant Evangelical Christianity,
    has been shaped by a hyper-individualistic
        understanding of faith, sin, and salvation.
    So typically, when we hear this text,
        we go straight to the individual and personal.
        We ignore the social context.

If Jesus only wanted his disciples to go out
    and find individual sinners lacking inner peace with God,
    and offer them a doctrinal formula for peace and forgiveness,
        then he chose a really strange metaphor.
    This is not about sinful sheep needing forgiveness!

No, after he traveled the countryside, the rural towns and villages,
    healing all kinds of disease,
    observing daily life and social ills of his own Jewish people,
    he looked at all those people, as a whole,
        and he was filled with compassion.
    He saw they were harassed—harassed!!—
        as unable to defend themselves
        as a flock of sheep without a shepherd.

This phrase—“harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd”—
    why do we read it as a metaphor for individual and personal sin?
    It is collective oppression.
    It is a people who are harassed, as a group,
        and unable to defend themselves.
        No shepherd.
        No one in the system to advocate for them.
        No one willing to stand between them
            and those who would do them harm.
    Why do we think the sheep need to be forgiven for that?

That is what Jesus would have seen—
    his Jewish people occupied by the brutal Roman Empire.
As a people,
    they were small potatoes on the edge of a huge empire.
    They had no allies.
    There were no counteracting systems in place
        to get between them,
        and the iron hand of King Herod.
    And after being oppressed for so long,
        they lost their collective sense of worth and value as a people.
    They had a confused self-identity.
        They were lost as a people.
        Harassed and helpless.

So Jesus turned to his disciples and said,
    “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”

Jesus is not launching a program of personalized spiritualized salvation.
    He is talking about justice. About putting things right.
    Harvest is often a metaphor for judgment.
    Remember Jesus’ own parable of the wheat and the weeds?
    At the harvest, there would be judgment.
    The wheat and weeds would be separated, and the weeds destroyed.
        Judgment against the oppressors.
        Justice for the oppressed.

That’s why Jesus said a few verses later, “Don’t go to the Gentiles!”
    Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
    He wasn’t being exclusive and elitist.
    Obviously, Jesus often crossed those boundaries himself.

But here, and now, and in this context,
    he was identifying those who needed an advocate
        and did not already have one.
    When a whole group of people is harassed and helpless,
        that is who you move toward.
        You prioritize the oppressed.
        It’s not that all lives don’t matter.
        That’s obvious, but it’s not what needs to be said right now.
    So he told his disciples, “Prioritize the harassed.
        Go into the fray and stand with those who need to know,
            that they are loved, and valued, and prized by God himself.”

There are many people right now in our neighborhoods, and cities,
    and all over our land and around the world,
    who are like a flock of sheep under threat,
    harassed by others, oppressed by the system,
    who need to be told their lives matter.
    They matter to us, and they matter to God.

In a time when our black and brown neighbors are
    brutalized by police far more often than white people,
    discriminated against by banks and zoning boards,
    fined and imprisoned way out of proportion,
    locked out of jobs and housing,
    and still attacked by racist mobs—
        as just happened to a black pastor a few miles up Route 11
            two days ago—
    if we followers of Jesus cannot look
        at what’s happening in our world, and our community,
        and say, with conviction, that black lives matter,
        then we don’t understand Jesus,
        and we don’t understand the Gospel of Matthew.

No, we don’t have to agree
    with every position of every person in a movement,
    before we affirm this basic truth of the Gospel:
    Jesus prioritized the harassed and the oppressed.
    It’s not that Roman lives didn’t also matter.
    But Jesus said, “Don’t go to the Gentiles.
        Go to the harassed ones.
        Remind them they are not alone.
        That they have allies who are willing to
            help with the harvest of righteousness and justice.

Here’s my Gospel challenge.
    Look around you . . .
        Who do you notice?
        Who is suffering?
        Who is harassed?
        Who is afraid for their lives, for their future?
        Who is uncertain whether their life even has value?
    Go to them.
        Listen to them.
        Sit with them.
        Stand with them.
        Help them take stock—
            to re-evaluate the worth of their lives.
        To raise their hope.

That is what Jesus calls us to do.

Join with me in praying this prayer, in unison.
    I invite you, wherever you are, if you have the order of worship,
    to read and follow along.
        God of love and justice,
        we long for peace within and peace without.
        We long for harmony in our families,
        for serenity in the midst of struggle,
        for commitment to each other’s growth.
        We long for the day when our homes
        will be a dwelling place for your love.
        Yet we confess that we are often anxious,
        we do not fully receive your love,
        or fully rest in our belonging to you.
        We are not willing to take the risks
        and make the sacrifices that love requires.
        Look upon us with kindness and grace.
        Rule in our homes and in all the world;
        show us how to walk in your paths,
        through the mercy of our Savior. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, June 14, 2020

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