Sunday, September 27, 2020

Phil Kniss: The family who kept God busy

“God’s providence toward all”
Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

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As we keep turning pages through this narrative—
a story about God’s project to form a people
and build a right relationship with them,
for the sake of the world—
God’s project keeps running into roadblocks.

The particular story we look today
is unique among them all.
It’s one of the longest sustained singular stories in the Bible,
14 chapters on the life and adventures of Joseph
from his teenage years to his death.
It’s like a short novel.
In fact, some biblical commentators call it a “novella.”

There are unlimited lessons I could draw out of this story —
lessons on jealousy, pride, favoritism, narcissism,
family violence, sexuality,
loyalty, betrayal, revenge, restitution, forgiveness, greed,
working systems for personal gain,
growth of political power and empire,
treatment of immigrants and foreigners,
and a whole lot more.

But we are on this narrative journey through the Bible,
watching and listening for how this relationship unfolds
between God and the people God created and loves,
so that’s the angle we’ll take this morning.

How is God going to pull off this shalom project—
this restoration project to bring back what was lost
in the Garden of Eden?
this project to establish a loving and just covenant
between God and humanity
that fulfills God’s original intent
to have human beings tend and care for this creation,
and live in harmony and shalom with each other
and with their Creator?
How will God do it?

God cannot just reach down and slap people into shape
with violence or coercion.
God cannot pull our strings and make us dance just the right way,
like a puppeteer with a marionette.
God cannot . . . do those things.
God cannot . . . force our hands,
without violating God’s own nature,
which is animated by love.

God must work with what God has.
And God has us.

So this whole story of Jacob and his feuding sons,
and his spoiled favorite son,
and all the trouble they make,
has God constantly on the move to try to keep up.

At least in my imaginative way of thinking,
this is a family that keeps God busy.

If as I said,
God is not pulling the strings, but giving us genuinely free will,
and if God wants us to be partners in the shalom project,
then God has to keep doing a lot of adjusting and shifting,
to accommodate for the things we do to keep messing it up.

I think God’s #1 occupation here is running interference.
When you run interference on someone,
it means you do whatever you have to,
to keep someone out of danger.
You either block something that’s incoming,
or you purposely distract them from something
that would lead them off track.
They may not even know you are doing it for them,
until much later.

That’s kind of like God and Jacob’s family.

God stays busy re-grouping and re-acting to what’s coming next—
Jacob spoils his favorite son Joseph,
who then becomes a teenage narcissist.
Then his other sons get bitter and vengeful and ultimately violent,
and Joseph gets sold into slavery.
So God gets busy and uses that opportunity to mature Joseph a bit.
And his stint in prison also helps that happen.
Time doesn’t permit me to repeat the story,
but one thing happens after the other,
and the story ends with reconciliation in the family.
With the brothers and Joseph putting the past behind them.

Seems to me there is a lot in common
between the sins of Jacob’s family,
and the sins of Adam and Eve . . .
and for that matter, the sin that ensnared the people
in most of the stories that come between
the Garden of Eden and Joseph.

The same thread runs through all of them,
the urge not to trust God,
not to put our lives in God’s hands and trust God’s providence,
the tendency to usurp the role of God,
to create God in our image,
to rewrite God’s agenda in a way that suits our desires.

So when God gave Abraham and Sarah and their descendants
the job of blessing the rest of the world,
bringing God’s goodwill to all the nations,
the continuing temptation for them—
and I suggest it’s still a temptation for us—
the ever-present temptation is
for us to mistake being chosen,
for being favored, or being more loved.

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all had favorites.
God doesn’t.
God loves all.

It has always been God’s way to choose flawed human beings (like us)
as vehicles to work out God’s salvation plan for the world.
And our biggest flaw is thinking that makes us special.
We imagine that God is so committed to us,
that whatever our heart desires, God is good for.
We imagine that we are a team, against the world,
and God is on our team.

So isn’t it interesting,
when the family of Jacob—God’s chosen ones—
start to mess up in a big way,
God finds a way to work with that,
by bringing into play outsiders
who never heard of Yahweh—
like slave-traders and merchants from Midian,
like an officer in Pharaoh’s army,
like royal bakers and wine-tasters,
like the Pharaoh himself,
chief architect of an oppressive empire.

The net result,
after God was all said and done with Jacob and his family,
is that God’s purposes did not fall apart after all—
a devastating famine did not wipe out the Hebrews,
and the Egyptians, and many other people God loved,
the terrible family brokenness and dysfunction
that almost destroyed Jacob and his sons,
was transformed
by the power of repentance and forgiveness.

God loved Jacob’s family, of course.
But God loved all the human families.
So God has no qualms
letting anyone help out with God’s shalom project,
whether they meant to, or not,
whether they even knew about it, or not.

As Joseph said to his brothers, in the final verses of Genesis,
“You intended to harm me,
but God intended it for good
to accomplish what is now being done,
the saving of many lives.”

Now, you might think—
what with all the hugging and kissing and crying in chapter 50
when Joseph and his brothers truly put the past to rest—
and extend forgiveness,
that this is one more sweet story with a happy ending.

Well, there were other dynamics going on
that will later come back to roost.
Not to mention, a new generation of Egyptians
will forget that the Hebrews saved their lives,
and they will enslave and oppress them for many years.

But the ironic and troubling fact about all that,
is that Joseph himself played into Pharaoh’s hand.
He aided and abetted the effort by Pharaoh
to amass wealth and power at the expense of the poor.

A part of the story we didn’t read (look at ch. 47 when you can)
is how Joseph actually operated
as chief administrator of the famine relief program.
But he didn’t just hand out the food, in MCC fashion.
No, he sold it, for Pharaoh, for the powers-that-be.
And when the people ran out of money,
he took their livestock as payment for the food.
And when that food ran out, and they had no livestock,
they offered their land and their very bodies for the food,
and they became slaves of Pharaoh.
Joseph was undeniably the mastermind and agent of Pharaoh,
in helping Pharaoh rise to even greater power,
and forced Egypt’s whole population
into indentured servanthood,
setting the stage for horrors yet to come.
In time, Joseph’s own grandchildren would pay the price.
The tables would turn,
and they would be the oppressed.
They would be slaves of the next Pharaoh.

It’s not a pretty picture, is it?
But that’s the picture.
God used deeply flawed people then, and still does.
But God’s dream of freedom and harmony
and shalom for all creation—
that dream survives and persists
in the face of the most horrific evil.

Even when God’s own people
make their bed with oppressors and dictators.
God’s dream doesn’t die.

Maybe that’s a word of encouragement for us today,
as we see power abused everywhere we look,
including at the highest levels of our own government.
We may rightly point fingers
at certain parts of our Christian family,
who have forgotten who they are,
and are now in cahoots with Pharaoh.

But we all fall for this temptation.
Might have been a different time and a different emperor.
But we are all enamored with wealth and power.
We are all prone to act like we’re God, if given the chance.

But our calling is a more humble one than that.
We are God’s collaborators, God’s junior partners.
We have to trust God’s time.
Because this is God’s narrative.

If you recognize yourself—as I do—in this indictment
of our temptation to trust in the power of coercion and violence,
instead of the power of love and mercy and surrender,
then please join me in this confession.

You will find the confession in the bulletin.

one    We confess that we have failed to trust in your expansive providence,
           We have deemed your love too narrow,
           We have made our love too tribal.
  all     Forgive us, God the Provider.
one    Help us to love as you love.
           Help us to notice where your shalom is absent, and enter there, 
           expecting you to be present and provide what is needed.
  all    Help us, God the Provider.
one    Hear these words of assurance:
           God our Shepherd is with us wherever we go,
           Taking us beyond our wants, beyond our fears, from death into life.

—Phil Kniss, September 27, 2020

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Moriah Hurst: Trusting the Promise

“God’s promise to a people”

Genesis 15:1-21; Luke 3:7-14

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Trusting the promise

Children love to ask questions. I love questions, so that may be part of why I love children. As parents or caregivers you may have heard “But why, why??” repeated over and over, like children are stuck as a broken record repeating their questions. Is it their curiosity for the world or the way the words sound in their mouth or the reaction in us that they learn they have some control over?

Abram, who will later in the story be renamed Abraham, so forgive me if I use the names interchangeably this morning, is not a child in this story. Abram was 75 years old when God called him, three chapters before this story.  We can assume that several years had passed between then and our text today. Yet Abram approaches God with questions in an almost childlike way.

“How will I know? What will you give me?” Abram pushes God with a somewhat complaining tone. Even the language of promise may feel like that of a child to many of us. “Do you promise you will take me to that event? Do you promise to keep it a secret? Pinky promise??”

And the dramatic change we see in Abram in this story may seem childlike in that he goes from skepticism to deep faith so quickly. But the faith we see in this story is not a simple faith but a sure faith. Abram eventually trusting that when God makes a promise, God is good for it.

God enters the scene of this text in a vision with the opening words “Do not be afraid” – we know this phrase, it normally means there is reason we should be afraid. God is not just appearing for the first time in Abram’s life here, God has already called Abram and made promises to him.

As Pastor Phil pointed out earlier we jumped from creation and the story of the start of God’s relationship with humanity last week to the story of God choosing one man, one family that will become a people who are God’s chosen ones. God called out Abram telling him he would be a great nation. God blessed Abram so he would be a blessing to others. But here Abram has a bone to pick with God, you promised! And nothing appears to be coming through on that promise!!

This response from Abram may be perfectly reasonable. One authors explains: “He has left home, family, and land in response to God’s outrageous call and promise. He has come to a new, unfamiliar land and now, it appears, his lineage will die there with him. God’s promises have not held true.”


Abram and God haven’t built up enough of a relationship yet for Abram to know that God is trustworthy. They are still building that rapport. “Clearly, the faith to which Abraham is called is not a peaceful, pious acceptance. It is a hard-fought and deeply argued conviction. Abraham will not be a passive recipient of the promise. He is prepared to hold his own.” (Interpretations, 141)


So Abram complains. Abram needs a child to be his heir and his wife Sarah is still barren. He enters a conversation with God where we see his mind changing.

One author points out that God isn’t arguing here like a lawyer, using persuasion and adding new data points. There is the promise and response –repeated. The promise is the same “But the two responses (from Abram) are very different. The first (v.2-3) is a disbelieving protest or lament. The second (v.6) is an act of faith.” The question is why? What moved Abraham?  What shifts so that we see that “he has come to rely on the promise speaker.” (Interpretations 143)

God leads Abram outside and directs his attention to the sky filled with stars. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them” says God. “So shall your descendants be.”


It is kind of ridiculous – You want me to count the starts?!? No way, that is impossible. Abram is holding onto the small hope of one small child, which seems so out of reach, and God says, nah that’s a little thing, I’m going to do so much more.

This is not a wishing on a star but a conversation with the one who created every star and the galaxies far beyond our sight. Our small concerns seem insignificant next to that God. Yet this is also a God who takes the time to listen, reassure and help change our minds and lives. God doesn’t make Abraham believe. God invites and offers. There is no force here, only care and conversation.

And Abram changes his mind and believes. Walter Brueggemann puts it like this:  “Abraham has repented. He has abandoned a reading of reality which is measured by what he can see and touch and manage. That new orientation is not a generalized religious notion that ‘everything will work out all right.’ He is not guilty of pious abdication. Rather, it is a quite specific response to a concrete promise from a known promise-maker. The faith of Abraham is certain of one point. There is a future to be given which will be new and not derived from the present barrenness. He believes that God can cause a break point between the exhausted present and the buoyant future. He believes in a genuine Genesis.”(Interpretations,144) end quote.


What I love here is that Abraham isn’t some superhero guy. He is a man that God chooses. Abraham makes mistakes and poor decisions. He complains to God, gets impatient and tries to make things work his own way. But Abraham is also a man who believes. God comes and invites him to go to a new land and Abraham goes. He listens to God and their knowledge of each other grows. This is the story we hear repeated through all of the bible. God calls normal, flawed, complaining and complex people to walk in God’s ways and we get to read the story of how that went. The people of God with all their foibles, pitfalls and triumphs captured in the pages of this book. And in that, there is hope that we can fit in too with this family, this people of God, this life of faith even in our imperfections.

The promise isn’t filled right away. We don’t get an instant pregnancy in this story. “The problem of faith is waiting, even when the delay seems unending…(there is a) way we have of immediately making our own future, we are not accustomed to waiting. In our impatience we are prone to conclude that if it is not given now, it will not be given. Abraham’s impatience reflects the same judgment. But gifts may not be forced. Futures stay in the hand of God who gives them.”(Interpretations, 149)

Where is the barrenness in us and what are we longing to have God birth into our lives?  What is the reinsurance that we are yearning to hear from God? How might God be responding in creative ways that we might be missing?


God reassures Abram of God’s protection and provision. For Abram that is enough for him to boldly confess his doubts and then trust that this promise is going to come through.

Will we let ourselves hear the words from God to us – Do not be afraid, I am your shield and reward. Can we trust in God’s comfort and shelter, knowing that that trust in God is the ultimate prize, better then any treasure we could ever win. Will we have patience to hear from God in God’s time not only when we impatiently call out our demands and wishes?

In this story “God is a promise-maker, Abraham is a promise-bearer, and the substance of the promise is land. Until the promise is kept, covenant is the way the promise is practiced.” (Interpretations,150)

What language would we use? Promise isn’t the word that seems to fit. How does commitment sound? Is it the building of trust in a relationship that we learn to know and trust the other in that commitment? The bible uses the language of covenant. This seems solemn and strong. Not a contract or a deal but a promise with weight behind it and trust on both sides that the commitment will hold.

We are called into this trust. Still bringing our concerns before God and airing our questions. Not a blind faith but faith that has a deep well of trust.

This kind of faith is not easy so I invite you to make this confession with me before God.

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Sunday, September 13, 2020

Phil Kniss: Falling toward redemption

“The relationship begins”
Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8; Matthew 6:9-13

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We’re delighted to begin a year
working our way through the biblical narrative,
in a sweeping arc from beginning to end.
And we’re delighted to do so
with other congregations in Harrisonburg and the surrounding area,
of various denominations,
and 100s more around the world,
who follow the Narrative Lectionary.

We begin the narrative today with a story everybody knows—
the creation and fall of humanity.
A lot of people are a little fuzzy on the details,
but most people know something about a snake that
tricked Adam and Eve into eating an apple,
which ruined everything for everybody,
although we’re not quite sure why.

The text doesn’t actually contain the words snake or apple,
but that’s beside the point.
We know this story,
and it’s gotten into our everyday vocabulary.
We use the phrase “forbidden fruit”
for just about anything we should keep our hands off of.
And the little bump that sticks out in our neck,
we all know as the “Adam’s apple,”
I guess because when Adam got caught by God,
he must have choked, and it got lodged partway down.
That’s also not in the text.

Everybody knows the Adam and Eve story,
but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking or talking about it.

I think it’s one of the most important stories in scripture—
I don’t even want to rank it.
Because along with some other Bible stories,
this one is essential for faith.
We should know it in a deeper way than we do.

And here’s a clue.
It has nothing to do with biological human origins.
So forget any argument you’ve ever heard about that.

This is about who we believe we are,
in relationship to who we believe God is.
This is where the story of our relationship to God begins.

And the relationship did not get off to such a great start.
God created us humans to be collaborators in creation.
Turns out we were more interested in being competitors.

See, the role of collaborating with God in creation—
or in the words of our text,
“to live in the Garden and work it and take care of it”—
that role of steward or keeper or caretaker
is a limiting role.
We are limited by the owners’ values and priorities and intentions.
We are limited by the owner’s definition of good and evil.
We don’t create our own morality.
We don’t get to invent our own reason for existence.
Those were all given to us by our Creator.

But due to God’s generous gift of freewill,
we are also not puppets.
We have the capacity to think for ourselves,
and choose for ourselves.
And when given the choice,
we tend toward wanting to take over God’s role
of judge,
of being the arbiter of good and evil,
of bending the world toward our desires.

And as soon as we take on the mantle of judge,
we notice our nakedness.

That’s what this wonderfully symbolic part of the story is all about.
It’s not about how human beings invented the first fig-leaf suit.
It’s about how we came to be ashamed of vulnerability.

Once we embrace the universal human temptation
to judge others and ourselves,
then we can’t tolerate our own nakedness anymore.
We realize we have something to hide.
Our own vulnerability is exposed.

Adam and Eve had no reason to hide from God
before they ate the fruit.
They walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day,
Naked and unafraid.

But once the fruit of judgment was tasted,
they learned to fear.
Intimacy with God now felt like a risk.
God became a threat.
So they hid.

That story gets lived over and over again in our daily lives,
to this day.
We human beings have learned the hard way
that vulnerability and baring our souls with others,
doesn’t always end well.
Because of the evil that resides in us all,
there is a temptation to take advantage of another’s weakness,
and use it for selfish purposes.
We have all been on the receiving end
of someone taking advantage of us, when our guard was down.
And we have all, at one time or another,
used that same power over another,
to our advantage.
So we have learned, correctly,
that it is safer to wear lots of armor.
Fig leaves make life easier.

And in our Narrative Lectionary this year,
we will see this story repeated over and over and over
on nearly every page of our Bible.
God’s people did not trust God with their nakedness,
with their vulnerability.
They weren’t comfortable being overly dependent.
They got self-protective, self-oriented, and self-determined.
Instead of basking in God’s love and provisions,
they instead struggled to control and manage,
and usurp God’s rightful place in the order of things.

Abraham passed off his wife as his sister for economic gain.
Jacob cruelly scammed his older brother out of his inheritance.
Jacob’s sons sold off their privileged younger brother into slavery.
And newly-freed Hebrew slaves
tried to turn back to the food security they had in Egypt,
instead of depending on God for daily manna in the desert.
The nation of Israel rejected the rule of God,
and asked for a human king like the other nations,
. . . and the stories go on and on.

And still today,
we keep falling for this ancient and perennial temptation.
For control over unpredictability.
For full-body armor over nakedness.

The temptation always comes in the form of
some variation on the words of the serpent—
“You . . . can . . . be . . . like . . . God.”

In the Lord’s Prayer, our Gospel text this morning,
Jesus wisely taught his disciples to
acknowledge the rightful rule of God,
and to conclude this model prayer with,
“And lead us not into temptation, 
but deliver us from the Evil One.”

So did Adam and Eve die after eating the forbidden fruit?
The punishment was, in fact, a sort of death.
What died was a life of sustained and relaxed intimacy with God.
They were banished from Eden.
In the verses that follow today’s reading,
they were sent out of the garden through the eastern gate,
and cherubim took up flaming swords to guard the gate,
and keep them out forever.

“East of Eden”—is not just the title of a John Steinbeck novel.
It’s a metaphor for life in a wounded world.
We are still in the wilderness east of Eden,
needing to fend for ourselves,
tilling the land by the sweat of our brows,
having to continually fight against our enemies to survive,
thorns and thistles,
poisonous creatures and . . . deadly viruses.

If ever our lives were “East of Eden,” now would be that time.

Where is God East of Eden?
When we were in the garden,
God came to us, and walked and talked with us.
Are we destined to wander alone forever in this wilderness?

That is the big, vexing, existential question that
humanity has wrestled with
ever since the cherubim took up their swords at the garden gate.
The whole story of God’s people,
throughout the Old and New Testaments,
and throughout the history of the church,
is a story of seeking God where God is often hard to find.

Sometimes we remember why,
and we embrace the wilderness long enough
to look to God in deep trust,
ready to risk and obey, for the next step.

But other times we stubbornly cling to this deception,
that we can do this alone, on our own strength and wisdom.

We are still tempted to usurp God’s place in the equation,
and we still fall for it. We still bite the apple.
But this ongoing rebellion is only one part
of this big biblical narrative.
The other part is what God does—
continually reaching toward God’s people,
even when they fail to reach toward God.
In our survey of the biblical story,
there will be many more offers of redemption and forgiveness.
And many more falls.
And many more reconciliations.
God does not, and will not, give up on us.

We fall.
And we will keep falling.
But the end of this biblical arc is pointing toward redemption.
We are falling toward redemption.
Not because of our efforts, but because of God’s.

We need not despair. Ever.
God is still with us.
Even east of Eden.

I invite us into a response of confession,
since we know the sin of Adam and Eve is also our sin.
Let us, together, bring our confession to God.
You may follow along, and read along with us on the bold print.

one Creator God, you made us and all things for beauty and harmony.
        You put your trust in us as partners 
        to carry out your good purposes in the world.
        Yet, we have often squandered that trust, 
        and turned away from our calling,
        and have sought to replace or usurp 
        your role as sovereign in this world.
        We have hidden from you in shame.
all We repent of our sinful rebellion.
        Forgive us for trusting you less than you trust us.
        Hold fast to us in your everlasting love.
one Our God remains with us in patience, love, and mercy.
        Our God generously extends forgiveness, 
        restores the relationship,
        and invites us to continue the journey.
        Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, September 13, 2020

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Sunday, September 6, 2020

Phil Kniss: Big rocks and bedrock

“No debt but love”
Romans 13:8-10

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Speaking of “big rocks”—
this metaphor we’ve been playing with in this re-wilding series—
where “big rocks” are those core essentials
we have to put in the container first,
because we can’t squeeze them in later,
after we’ve filled it up with little stuff . . .
speaking of big rocks, love is not just a big rock—it’s bedrock.

We call ourselves a “people of God.”
And scripture tells us, over and over, “God is love.”
So we could hardly call ourselves a church,
if we are not known by our love.
As Paul told us, in Romans 13,
“Owe no one anything, except to love.”

I think it’s safe to say there isn’t a church anywhere
who would say they aren’t acting out of love.
It’s also safe to say when non-church people
are asked what they think about churches,
their top answer is not that churches are so loving.
In fact, social research has proven that.

But the ironic thing about saying “love” is the bedrock,
is that the meaning of love is so squishy.

When I say, “I love coffee.  I love my wife.
I loved Ralph and Lucinda’s Barnyard Boogie
in the variety show last night,”
I am saying three very different things.
. . . I also loved Tristan’s hats.

This week I saw the word love in a sentence that really struck me,
“Food made with love can connect us all.”
Now, there you go. Truth!
Made me think of my grandmother’s kitchen,
and a bountiful church potluck,
where food is a tangible expression of our love for others,
and brings us closer together.

But the reason that sentence stuck out to me,
was that I read it in large bold print on a KFC flyer
in our mailbox on Wednesday.
Really? . . . “Food made with love can connect us all.”
Now I love southern fried chicken now and then.
But to find out . . . that the cooks at KFC love me,
and want to feel closer to me . . . Who knew?
An industrialized fast-food multi-national corporation
does it all for love.

Love can mean so much, it can mean very little.
But since love is bedrock for the church,
we need to use it, but use it well.

Theologically, love is not squishy at all.
It’s specific.
It’s demanding.
And it’s hard. Hard as a rock.

Our rock-solid starting point as a church,
is that we are bound in a covenant relationship.
We are in covenant with the God of the universe, who IS love,
who embodied love in Jesus Christ.
And we are bound into a covenant community of love,
a covenant that will outlast any emotion.

There is nothing casual or squishy about a covenant
that commits you to the total well-being of another.
Anyone who enters into a covenant to love,
enters it with great resolve and great trepidation.
We assume love will be hard work.
We assume we will change in the process.
We assume the covenant will survive
past disappointment, pain and resistance.

That’s true in a church covenant,
it’s true in a covenant between individuals.

And it’s certainly true in the covenant
which God had the guts to make with us.
God’s persistent covenant to love us is the main story of scripture.
We human partners in the covenant fail—miserably, and often.
But God keeps faith, keeps covenant,
keeps reaching to close the gap.
I think this covenant must bring God a lot of pain.

You will soon be hearing about a new narrative lectionary
we are launching next Sunday,
that will follow this story-thread through all of scripture,
God’s persistent and tireless effort to draw us into covenant.

Biblical scholar Scot McKnight talks about three moves
in any covenant of love,
the move to be WITH,
the move to be FOR,
and the move TOWARD.
WITH is all about presence.
God promises, and wants, to be with us, Emmanuel,
to share our world and our reality.
FOR is about advocacy.
God stands up for us, defends us, shows solidarity,
forms an alliance with us.
TOWARD is about direction toward transformation.
God does not intend us to be static,
but to grow in God’s likeness,
to be continually transformed, and transforming.

We could page through our Bible right now,
and I could point out story after story,
where God, in love, was doing one of those three things.
We will get to many of those stories in our Narrative Lectionary.

But it is also a model of how we, as human beings,
love one another.
In the church, we love other members of the body,
by being WITH, FOR, and TOWARD each other.
And the church shows its love for its neighbors,
and for the world, in the same way,
by being WITH, FOR, and TOWARD them.

But here’s the thing.
The order matters.
First, it’s WITH. Then it’s FOR. Then it’s TOWARD.
A musical piece, like a concerto,
has movements that are written to be played in a certain order.
You can play them out of order,
but the music will stop making sense,
it will lose its power,
and lose its connection with the heart of the composer.

Only after I am willing to be WITH someone,
will I have credibility when I act FOR them,
and claim to be their advocate.
And only after the potent combination
of being radically WITH and FOR someone,
can they experience my love as true.
Then, when I do offer DIRECTION, as the Spirit may lead,
they can receive it as an act of genuine love,
even when I challenge them.

We see this played out every day in our broader culture.
Take racial injustice for example.
So many white people jump at the chance
to be FOR their neighbors who are people of color.
They gladly raise their voices, and hoist their signs.
Then they retreat back into their safe white world
and wait for the next noble cause to come along.
Their lack of desire to truly be with their neighbors,
to be immersed in their reality,
to share in a world where their own lives are at stake,
can make the advocacy sound a bit hollow.
And even worse,
are those who come out with simplistic solutions
and easy-to-take prescriptions.
All you have to do, dear people of color,
is be more like this or that (in other words, more like us),
and all will be well.

Those words won’t get heard,
because they aren’t worthy of being listened to.
There’s no free lunch here.
Pay the price of being WITH . . . for a long time.
Then make the sacrifices required
to move into a position of solidarity,
of taking the same hits they are taking . . . long-term.
Then . . . we might have some level of believability,
if we have a challenge to offer.

Same thing is true in family life.
You who are parents, or have had parents,
know this to be true.
A parent cannot shape the moral direction of their child,
without first having established a relationship of love and trust,
by being WITH and FOR their child.

So isn’t is obvious? It should be.
Same principle applies in the church.

But the temptation, always,
is to jump straight to giving direction, and call it love . . .
without establishing WITH-ness or FOR-ness.

Direction, without prior, long-term presence and advocacy,
will not be experienced as love, but as coercion, as violence.
Think the church has ever missed it on that one?
We’d be na├»ve if we didn’t admit that we’ve missed it,
time and again.

This is hard stuff!
To love with presence, advocacy, and direction.
All three are hard!

Sometimes, to be WITH someone, we have to go a great distance.
The choice to go the distance can be costly.
It’s even harder to be FOR the other,
especially when that other is weird, troublesome, or offensive.
Anyone have relatives or neighbors or Facebook friends these days
who fall in that category?
Kinda hard to love and support and stand up for them as persons,
when we don’t agree, and maybe don’t even understand.

But WITH and FOR are both a piece of cake,
in comparison with the hard work
of calling others TOWARD transformation,
in a way that has integrity and can be heard.

This way of showing love is not for the faint of heart.
It should be entered only with fear and trembling
and a huge dose of humility,
and in a spirit of mutuality.
Our call is not to fix the other.
We are called to love each other into Christlikeness.
We are called to seek the hard path
of obedience and transformation . . . together.
Our own need for transformation
can never take a back seat, even temporarily.

In the church we say we’re “speaking the truth in love.”
Just thinking.
If we have to specifically point out that we are speaking in love,
then maybe we aren’t.
Maybe we should hold our tongue, when giving counsel to others,
if they don’t already know, in the depths of their being,
that we are for them, that we got their back.
There are people who need a particular kind of guidance.
We might even know what that guidance is.
But if we aren’t in a position to give it,
maybe we should wait for someone to come along who is.

Not saying we never speak words that are likely to be resisted,
or never step in when there’s an emergency.
But in general,
let’s not speak where we don’t already have relational depth,
where the other one already knows and feels
that we are WITH them and FOR them.

As we keep working at Re-Wilding the Church,
let’s be clear about this—
whatever new or revised forms of church might emerge,
they must reflect God’s way of loving,
they must resemble God’s die-hard commitment
to be WITH us,
to be FOR us,
and call us TOWARD transformation.
Otherwise, it will not be worth our time and effort.

As I pointed out, we often err in our attempts to love.
In light of that, there is no better confession I know
than the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer.

I recite this one on a regular basis,
and I invite you to recite it with me now.
You’ll find it in your printed order of worship.
one Most merciful God, 
we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
all We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Now a song of great comfort—“Savior Jesus, enfold me.”
—Phil Kniss, September 6, 2020

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