Sunday, August 30, 2020

Moriah Hurst, Paula Stoltzfus, and Phil Kniss: Reflections

“Holding fast to the good”
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

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Jeremiah 15:15-21
15 Lord, you understand;
    remember me and care for me.
    Avenge me on my persecutors.
You are long-suffering—do not take me away;
    think of how I suffer reproach for your sake.
16 When your words came, I ate them;
    they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
    Lord God Almighty.
17 I never sat in the company of revelers,
    never made merry with them;
I sat alone because your hand was on me
    and you had filled me with indignation.
18 Why is my pain unending
    and my wound grievous and incurable?
You are to me like a deceptive brook,
    like a spring that fails.

19 Therefore this is what the Lord says:

“If you repent, I will restore you
    that you may serve me;
if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
    you will be my spokesman.
Let this people turn to you,
    but you must not turn to them.
20 I will make you a wall to this people,
    a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you
    but will not overcome you,
for I am with you
    to rescue and save you,”
declares the Lord.
21 “I will save you from the hands of the wicked
    and deliver you from the grasp of the cruel.”

This week we are thinking about some of the faith we want to hand on to our children. What is that big rock for us and for them? What do we cling to like holding onto a rock face or griping tightly as we climb over boulders along a ridge. Holding on for dear life.

When I think of “holding fast to the good” in this passage, I see us being held in God’s care and understanding. That sits next to the fact that we can tell God about our suffering. I want all of us to remember that, and for our children to hear that we can take our complaints to God honestly, even if it comes out in gripping language.

The next thing I want us to hear is that God’s word, God’s presence, God’s guidance is so good we want to gobble it up. How do we let ourselves and our children long for God? What joy and delight does that bring? As we approach faith together throughout the generations, how can we learn from each other how to see God in these complex ways, instead of a God who is just there when we want to ask for a favor.

Because we are known completely by God, named and held in God’s very image.

Can we repent of our misguided longings and distancing ourselves from God? This passage offers that with repentance comes restoration and in that restoration we are freed to serve God.

What do we need to put down so that we have space to pick up and hold this important rock?

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Paula Stoltzfus: Gift of Many

“There is one body with many members”
Psalm 138; Isaiah 51:1-6; Romans 12:1-8

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We are in the midst of our Rewilding the church series, reflecting on what church is about when it’s all stripped away. 

I don’t know about you, but it is exhausting work, this stripping away. I know I’m not alone. We have all been in this space of change, loss, and lament.  This work is necessary in any loss and grief journey. We experience the depth of painful loss and change.  A space of naming through tears and words,  experiencing the disorientation of the uprootedness, feeling the anxiety and stress of the jolting impact, standing in the shock of the magnitude of what has transpired, and allowing that which grounded us to lay before us while we catch our breath. 

Our neighbors have a yard that they have been rewilding for a long while.  In front of their house is a huge tree that fell down at some point. Instead of clearing it away they allowed it to remain.  It has been long enough now that the huge log is beginning to decompose and blend back into the landscape surrounding.  In fact it isn’t noticed driving by.  You need to either slow down or stop to see it.  What surrounds it now are ground cover and trees that have transitioned from sapling to young maturing trees.

We certainly have been feeling the impact of the pandemic much like a fallen tree. How we worship, gather, and operate is different.   I looked back and saw we started live-streaming our services on March 22.  We are one day more than 5 months in which we have been worshipping together in this new way. Our ecosystem of relating changed rapidly and now is beginning to feel vaguely familiar whether we like it or not.

I would describe our location on this journey as one in which we are in the beginning stages of looking up and around. We are beginning to ask, “What and who are we now that we are here?”

What has occurred to me as my eyes gaze over this scene is that we are not alone. As spoken of in our Romans text, God’s grace and members of this body remain intact.

Sure our landscape has changed, but as Phil spoke last Sunday and defined worship as the alignment of creation with God’s purpose, when we are in sync with God’s purpose of shalom, harmony, the ecosystem of our lives one with another is worship.

Paul speaks of this in the Romans passage as our full-bodied worship, that which happens beyond church walls, as in the way we interact and serve the world around us.  Where “each member’s identity and essence becomes intertwined with the other.” Where our worship is a kind of embodied gifts-sharing; a place where each gift is valued and each member uses their gift on behalf of the body as a whole. This body and its members are to be aligned with God through the renewing of the mind and not by conforming to this world.

The Isaiah text was written to a community of people in exile.  It calls the people to listen, look, and remember from where they came.  This voice challenges those experiencing the exile to not be conformed to the world in seeing devastation and destruction of a people but remember where they came from; “Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father,
    and to Sarah, who gave you birth. (Isaiah 51:1b-2a).”

In remembering and listening, their minds were to be transformed and renewed to see and hear that God’s steadfast love will live forever;
the heavens will vanish like smoke,
    the earth will wear out like a garment
    and its inhabitants die like flies.
But my salvation will last forever,
    my righteousness will never fail. (Isaiah 51:6)

Unlike the Israelites in exile who were living from a place of defeat, we have lived in a legacy of a Eurocentric telling of history where Anglos settled and established a patriarchal white order that was termed manifest destiny.  It was believed that Anglos were bringing civilization, democracy, wealth, individualism, political power and independent self-rule to an ungodly place and peoples. The language can make it sound like the settlers were the saviors.

The downfall is that when we look with the eyes of Jesus, we see that this way of rule has dehumanized indiginous, black and brown people groups. It has valued the wealth of a few rather than the thriving of the whole.  It has valued individual rights over a collective good.

Nevertheless, we are products of this way of life and our theology and image of God have been influenced by it.  We are tempted to worship “blessings,” health, wealth, and possessions, instead of God.  We are tempted to dehumanize those who do not “believe” as we do. We are tempted to use power over instead of empowerment at the grassroots.  We are tempted to impose our own image of God onto others instead of looking for where God already is present.

What does it look like to be transformed by the renewing of our minds when our minds are so immersed in a certain narrative?  Perhaps we need to be doing a bit of looking back to look forward like in Isaiah.  We need to look, listen, and learn anew from Jesus, from the people of Israel who experienced numerous exiles, from present day people groups who have lived the life of exile (African Americans, Indiginous peoples, Refugees, Asylum survivors). As we learn from others, we begin to see a fuller picture of the body of Christ. One that sees and engages every person as a child of God, to be valued, respected, and honored.

When we engage with one another in this way we worship God.  We become a living testimony of the gospel.  We become a part of a living and breathing ecosystem of God’s salvation story.  Our living becomes less about our own self and more about God’s glory and ongoing story.

It is comforting to know that we are not alone.  We are in this together offering our gifts one to another that sustain one another and offer true worship to the Creator of us all.

How might the act of remembering the story from which we have come inform where we go?  What are ways we can be transformed by renewing our minds in God’s spirit? How can we practice our many gifts together in our present reality?

Again, perhaps we need to look back to move forward.  One of those ways is to confess that we have been a product of conforming to this world and once again are in need of God’s grace.

Let us join in the confession together.

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Sunday, August 16, 2020

Phil Kniss: Worship as public works

“May all the peoples praise You!”
Psalm 67; Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

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How do we “rewild the church”
and what does it even mean?

When environmentalists “rewild” an area of land,
they restore it as much they can to its natural state—
how it was before non-native species came in,
before human beings messed with the ecosystem.

The church has been around for over 2000 years,
so understandably,
we have a few non-native forms and traditions
that Jesus and his disciples didn’t have in mind.
Some of those are probably life-giving
and still true to Jesus’ vision.
Some are probably not—
invasive species that choke out the life Jesus intended.

This series of worship and conversation
is meant to help us explore that idea together,
and figure out which is which.

It won’t surprise you
that in a worship series on the “native species”
or “big stones” of the church,
we start with worship, with the praise of God.

After all, worship is the big drawing card for churches today.
It’s the main thing churches put out there for public view,
in hopes of pulling in more worshippers,
and strengthening the base.
Worship is the engine that drives the church enterprise.

More compelling worship experiences
put more rear-ends in the pew,
more dollars in the offering plate,
which buys more staff and better programming,
and brings in even more people and dollars.

Browse a few church websites, and you won’t look far
before you see blatant marketing of the “worship experience.”
So I can’t help but be . . . just . . . a little cynical
when some churches now are
flouting public health guidelines, and even the law,
insisting on a religious right to gather in big groups
and create a “worship experience” for their consumers.
Is it really religious freedom driving that resistance,
or is it a need to keep the church enterprise humming,
keep the customer satisfied?

If we’re talking about a return to native or natural practices,
and if we’re trying to spot invasive species
taking over and choking out the good stuff,
then we don’t have to look further than this
hyped-up, consumer-driven, so-called worship experience.
It is one of the most pernicious invasive species
taking over the church today.

I do think worship is one of the big stones of the church.
And yes, it belongs on Day 1 of this series,
but maybe not for the reasons you first thought.

I’m here today to change your mind
about the purpose of worship.
But I realize that’s a tough sell.
We all suffer from the tendency to think of ourselves
as consumers of worship.
Even I fall into sloppy thinking about worship sometimes.
It’s a constant temptation for me as a public preacher,
whose words are not only amplified in this space,
but out on the airwaves.
And now, thanks to COVID,
all our worship is only getting to you,
because it’s piped to you
from microphones and cameras,
through cables and modems and cell phones
and TV and radio tuners.
So, it’s really hard for you,
not to think of yourself as a consumer of this worship,
and it’s hard for me,
not to think of myself as a producer of a product.
It was hard before.
And the pandemic makes it harder,
to reimagine the shape of worship, to de-consumerize it.

I’m going to try, anyway, and here goes.

This communal worship act is not primarily for us,
it’s for God.

That in itself is hard to swallow,
because it’s hard to think of God as someone who needs worship.

At first glance, it seems a little petty
and even narcissistic . . . and emotionally needy of God,
to be so insistent that we worship God alone,
and praise God and God only,
day and night, night and day.
And that God would get so jealous and angry,
when some of our worship gets misdirected
toward other objects of our affection.

Does God have an ego problem, or what?

Actually, it might be our problem to solve.
We need to stop making God in our image.

God designed creation to give God glory,
not because God has some egotistical need for love and attention.
That’s us projecting our ego-driven-self and putting it on God.
That’s us making God in our image.

God’s desire is not for psychological affirmation,
God’s desire is for shalom . . . harmony . . . alignment.

Creation was designed by God to work together in the same direction.
And when all creation is living into its created purpose,
there is shalom.
So when we creatures are aligned, are God-oriented,
we are giving praise to the creator,
we are fulfilling our role in God’s ecosystem.

And our primary role, our vocation as human beings,
as the pinnacle of God’s creative purpose,
as partners in God’s shalom project,
is to worship God and point the rest of creation
in the same direction.

When any part of creation—be that human or bird or tree or bacteria—
is fulfilling its divine purpose in the ecosystem,
the creator God is being worshipped.

Because worship IS alignment.
The worship of God in creation,
is the alignment of creation with God’s purposes.
When bees buzz, they worship.
When flowers bloom, they worship.
When people love and serve one another, they worship.
When all creation is looking in the same direction, toward Creator God,
we are aligned,
we are in sync with our created purpose,
and there is shalom.

So when we are a community in worship
we are modeling the proper alignment between creation and creator
we are modeling that for the rest of creation.

And I’ll be so bold to suggest that when we’re all together
our hearts aligned in the pure worship of God,
we’re saying to the rest of creation, in essence,
“Look at us, and do as we do,
align yourselves also, with your created intent.”

That is the work of worship.
We worship not for our enjoyment or inspiration.
We worship for the sake of the shalom of all creation.
That is theological bedrock,
and it is affirmed over and over in scripture.

Did you hear the psalm this morning,
“May the peoples praise you, God . . .
so that your ways may be known on earth”?
Did you hear the prophet Isaiah speak for God, saying,
“My house of worship will be called
a house of prayer for . . . all . . . nations.”

And in the church, we used to know that, instinctively.
It’s the modern Western church that got off-track,
and made worship a consumer product.

The ancient Greek word for worship,
appearing even in our New Testament . . . is liturgy.

Know what it means?
Literally, “the work of the people.”
Liturgy is “public works.”

Public works is something undertaken for the good of everyone.
Municipal water, sewer, and electricity are “public works,”
because they are specifically for everyone.
Not just for the deserving, or the elite. For all.

Worship is one of the primary “public works” of the church,
that we undertake for the good of all.
It is the core vocational calling of the church.
It is something, without which, the church could not be the church.

Shame on us for turning it into a product to sell!
Can we uproot this invasive species called
“the worship experience,”
and rewild the church back into this holy vocation?

Worship should be our way of saying to the world,
“Look at us looking at God.”
God’s vision of shalom is for all of us and all of creation.
You and we are all invited to align ourselves to that vision,
and watch God create a new world of shalom.

This is not about selling people on our religion,
certainly not on our particular brand of religion,
it’s about inviting the world to align
with the God who created it all, and loves it all.

Crushing the competition is not the vocation of Christians.
Winning the most theological arguments is not our vocation.
Giving people a satisfying worship experience is not our vocation.
Getting the most members in the door is not our vocation.
Gaining the most influence in the halls of power is not our vocation.

Our vocation is to worship God, and worship God alone.
It is to turn toward God, individually and collectively,
and say to the world, “Look at us looking at God.”

We are God’s representatives to the world—
we reflect to the world God’s love, goodness, holiness, and justice.
And we reflect back to God the praise of the world,
of all nations and creation.
It’s the “angled mirror” analogy again.
Our worship holds a mirror at a 45-degree angle,
so when the world looks at us,
they see God’s character and divine image.
It comes to us and reflects out to the world.
And the same mirror reflects back to God
the worship and praise coming from humanity and creation.
That is our vocation.
That is our public work.
That is our liturgy.

May we be called up short every time we get careless
and fall into the trap of thinking like a consumer.

So yes, let us keep doing communal worship and doing it well.
Let us sing and pray and laugh and weep
and read scripture and play our instruments
and sit in silence and exercise our minds
and bring our very best as an offering,
while knowing full well it is not for us,
but for God and the world that we worship.

—Phil Kniss, August 16, 2020

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Sunday, August 9, 2020

Reflections: Hearing God in the whispers

“God of wind and whisper”
Psalm 85:8-13; Matthew 14:22-33; 1 Kings 19:9-13a

Words from Holden Byler, Rebecca Shank, Shirley Yoder, Melodie May, John Wenger, Loren Swartzendruber, Harriet King, and Vi Dutcher.

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Sunday, August 2, 2020

Moriah Hurst: You give them something to eat

God of the hungry and thirsty
Psalm 145; Isaiah 55:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

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