Sunday, December 27, 2020

Reflections from the pastors: Words from Mary, Simeon, and Anna

Christmas 1: God With Us
Luke 2:21-38

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The three pastors of Park View personify three of the main characters in today's story from Luke 2 -- Mary the mother of Jesus, Simeon, and Anna the prophetess.

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Sunday, December 20, 2020

Phil Kniss and Dr. Bishara Awad of Bethlehem: What love really looks like (the other side of the Christmas story)

Advent 3: LOVE
Psalm 113; Luke 1:26-56

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This is the time of year I talk out of both sides of my mouth.
I push back on the consumerism of the season,
and the saccharine-sweet pictures of Bethlehem,
and romanticized, star-lit manger scenes
that bear no resemblance to the Biblical story.
And I admit I love the nostalgic side of Christmas,
and have not one, but two
romanticized, star-lit manger scenes in our house.
I’m no scrooge about Christmas traditions.
I just want to be honest and call them what they are—
made-up culturally acceptable images that promote goodwill,
spark human connection and generosity,
and have a lot of other benefits.
I don’t begrudge anyone celebrating Santa or singing about Rudolph
or making up characters for the nativity story
that aren’t even in the Bible,
like the Three Kings and the innkeeper.
We shouldn’t fight that.
There is inherent goodness in it, so embrace it.
But then, when we gather as a worshiping community of the Book,
then it’s time to take the God of the Bible seriously,
and the biblical narrative seriously,
and see what hard and beautiful truths it might be telling us.
There is a difference between the cultural traditions,
and the biblical narrative in Luke,
as read by the Rhodes family this morning.
And nowhere is that distinction more sharp
than in the person of Mary.
Mary was a teenage girl—inexperienced, unknown, powerless—
legal property of her father,
soon to become legal property of the carpenter Joseph,
soon to become shamed and endangered,
because of her pregnancy before marriage.
God came to her first,
to use her as the means to bring
the saving Christ into the world.
It’s as unbelievable as it sounds.
But Mary believed the unbelievable,
and went to tell her elder cousin.
Elizabeth confirmed, “God is at work in you!”
And Mary broke out in a song of joy—
just not the kind of joy we expect.
It wasn’t “Oh joy!
God has blessed me with a wonderful gift!”
No, it was a song of revolution—
social, and political, and religious revolution.
Mary’s song could be a protest anthem.
She sings of the small towering over the big,
the weak defeating the strong,
the poor out-ranking the rich,
the nobodies surpassing the somebodies.
She sings about God taking the social order,
and turning it on its head.
This revolutionary anthem no longer shocks us.
It’s just part of the Christmas soundtrack.
The Magnificat is sung everywhere—
even in ornate cathedrals by elite choirs
to the delight of royalty and the top 1%—
the very people who are targets of the revolution
being sung about.
Oh, well, at least it’s being sung.
And it should be sung.
This song of Mary captures the essence
of the whole biblical nativity narrative:
Think of all the “little people” God used
to help unfold the story of cosmic salvation.
It wasn’t just the girl and her carpenter fiancĂ©.
It was lowly shepherds on the social margins.
It was the virtually unknown religious worker Zechariah.
The people in this story honored by an angel’s visit
were people of little or no standing,
in a small town in a tiny country
being occupied by a foreign power.
The story of a Bethlehem Christmas
is a story of the deep love of God being shown to people
in a state of emptiness, poverty, and danger.
At Christmas we are invited to bow in worship to a God
who loves this world,
and proves it by going to places that are off the map,
people that are out of sight,
and situations that others turn away from.
No, God is not anti-power and anti-wealth.
Quite the opposite.
God appreciates power, and its capacity to implement God’s agenda.
That’s why God is tender toward those
who have power taken away.
God is on the side of joy and beauty and abundance and freedom.
That’s why God moves toward the poor and oppressed,
to show them what they are missing, yet deserve.
God has no objection to wealth and power.
But when those who have it,
don’t use it for God’s purposes,
God turns toward those who will.
If we, the rich and powerful today—especially today,
in this suffering and out-of-balance world—
if we fail to side with the poor, the hungry, the oppressed,
if we fail to join God’s mission of bringing justice,
peace, goodwill, and shalom,
God will look for other partners.
When the powerful fail, as they often do,
God lets them get upstaged by the weak.
This is the essence of the Bethlehem story.
We heard the theme in the song of Mary.
We heard the theme in today’s Psalm, 113—
“Praise the Lord,
who raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
and seats them with princes.”
And if we look at the Old Testament prophet Micah,
we see this Bethlehem reversal named outright:
“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel.”
When all the nostalgia clears away,
we must take Bethlehem seriously.
We must look for the Bethlehems in today’s world,
find the little ones that others overlook,
move toward the poor and needy,
notice where there is injustice, and raise our voices,
and show them the love of God.
There are many figurative “Bethlehems” we could name right now.
But for the remainder of my sermon time today,
let’s talk about the literal Bethlehem, in 2020.
Yes, the still little town just outside Jerusalem,
situated in Palestinian territory.
Bethlehem is on my mind,
because I read recently how the COVID pandemic
has decimated that community.
The livelihood of thousands of workers and families,
depends on the tourist industry,
which went from 2 million annual visitors to practically zero.
And then I remembered . . .
exactly 20 years ago, December 2000,
we connected with that Bethlehem during our worship service,
and spoke with Dr. Bishara Awad,
founding president of Bethlehem Bible College.
Bethlehem was under siege that year,
during the second intifada,
and suffering terribly.
One of our members, the late Calvin Shenk,
was a friend of Dr. Awad,
and helped make the connection.
We heard, in his own voice,
what our brothers and sisters in Bethlehem were experiencing,
and we prayed for each other.
As I remembered that,
I had the urge to reconnect with Bishara Awad.
20 years ago it took a 100-foot phone cord strung from the library,
down the aisle to this pulpit to a big speaker-phone box.
Today, I could just Zoom.
So in less than 24 hours after it occured to me,
I was on a video call with Dr. Awad.
We spoke for about 20 minutes on Friday morning,
and on behalf of all of us,
I asked him about life in Bethlehem today,
with COVID and the continuing injustice.
And once again, we prayed for each other.
We recorded the conversation,
with the intent to share it with you all this morning.
So now, 20 years after our first conversation,
we will again hear from our brother in Christ, Bishara Awad.
For sake of time,
I will share only 8 minutes of the conversation and prayer.
But after the service,
in an email to the Park View congregation,
we will send a link,
so you can hear the whole 20-minute conversation,
and everything that our brother had to share with us.
So here is our brother, Dr. Bishara Awad,
now President Emeritus of Bethlehem Bible College.
I trust we will continue to hold Dr. Awad
and his community in our prayers,
and that we will do as he asked,
and grow in our understanding of the situation they are facing,
and support them as fellow members of the body of Christ,
and with him, to hold to the hope we have in Christ,
and to lean in to the love of God that we celebrate together
at this time of year.
Let us join now together in a prayer of confession,
and a moment of silence,
during which I invite us to lift up in prayer
our sisters and brothers in Bethlehem.
one O God of love and justice,
who announced a re-ordering of the world,
make good your word,
and begin with us.
all Open our hearts and unblock our ears
to hear the voices of the poor
and share their struggle;
and send us away empty with longing
for your promise to come true
in Jesus Christ.
one The God who longs to be with us
is full of love, freely forgives,
and gladly comes and fills our open hearts.
—Phil Kniss, December 20, 2020

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Sunday, December 13, 2020

Moriah Hurst: Joy instead of mourning

Advent 3: JOY
Luke 4:16-21; Isaiah 61:1-11

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Joy instead of mourning - Isaiah 61:1-11 and Luke 4:16-21

Hope, peace and joy. We have celebrated these three themes in our Advent waiting. What is it that you are waiting for? Where is your desire and longing? Does it feel matched by these words and ideas of hope, peace and joy? Or does it seem hard to hope, peace feels allusive and joy is something we grasp at like trying to hold onto smoke.

In a time when our country is faced with upheaval and divisions these concepts seem hard. People across the country face evictions from their homes and have lost their jobs. Unemployment payments are running out. Covid rips through prisons and there is nowhere to run when you are trapped in a cell breathing the same infected air as the cells around you. Vaccines are going to be available but who will get them first and who will resist them? There are hearts breaking with grief, the pain of repeated and continuing loss.

We need to hear that God is sending one:

to proclaim good news to the poor.

 to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim freedom for the captives

    and release from darkness for the prisoners,


We cry out with advent longing: come O Lord, come!


The advertisements I see and hear tell me this is a season that should be marked by joy. The people who would have heard this Isaiah passage first might have felt similar dissonance to us today.

Overall, life has (not been great) for God’s people up to the point of our reading from Isaiah 61. The injustice and idolatry in the kingdom of Judah led to the destruction of the city and the temple, and then to a forced relocation of the people to a land not their own. The people waited for release and return to their homeland, but even when that happened, the city, the temple, and the land were still in ruins.” (

They are back in the Promised Land but their postexilic life isn’t living up to everything they had hoped it to be.

We hear this promise in the text:

 They will rebuild the ancient ruins

    and restore the places long devastated;

they will renew the ruined cities

    that have been devastated for generations. Verse 4

But the hard truth is the end of exile doesn’t mean happily ever after. “Make the promise land great again” just wasn’t cutting it. There was no going back to what was, only forward into what will be. Yet some of what led to the exile, in their theological understanding of it, was not doing justice or caring for the least of these and that injustice still existed. (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary -

As they would have heard Isaiah’s words they would have been wrestling with this hope promised but not yet a reality. In the same way that “emancipation didn’t end slavery, that the civil rights movement didn’t end segregation, and that 8 years of a black president didn’t end racism – we are still struggling with these things. There is not a switch flipped and it was the same with exile,” (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary -

Do we feel like we are in exile this year? Cut off from one another and separated. We long with the exiles to go back to what was, our shiny life before March 2020. But we can’t go back, only forward. Our difficulties didn’t begin with the COVID virus. “it didn’t begin our times of trouble. Economic disparity, educational divides, mental health issues didn’t start with the pandemic – they were there before but now they are magnified and brought to the forefront and a vaccine won't fix all of this.” (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary -

Isaiah’s prophesy that Jesus stands up and reads is one of present joy with the hope of a coming peace. This is a vision of a great reversal of outcomes and a grand reset. “Those who are oppressed go free, those who are brokenhearted are healed, those who are captives and prisoners are released, and those who are blind are given sight” (

Like many of you I work a lot on my computer right now. As I close the lid to my laptop it puts it to sleep but doesn’t shut it down. About once a week I find that things start getting glitchy. I can’t get sound on zoom or some keyboard command function stops working. I remember that I have to shut the whole thing down, step away from the computer for a while and then restart it all. When I turn it back on again things seem to right themselves, fixing their little bugs.

We see in the words of Isaiah the God of justice who will right the systems. A God who will do a hard reset, which I know I long for and we need.

Before we get too caught up in how beautiful and lofty these words sound and get misty eyed about a world to come, it is important to think about what is not being said here. This is not about me and I, not an individualized salvation but communal, society righting of wrongs. This is not getting joy from personal happiness or the glitz and glitter of a pretty manger scene but true comfort to those who are wronged, marginalized and caught in cycles of poverty and violence. This is good news!

 The Spirit of God comes to initiate a repair of society from the inside out, from the bottom rung to the top. And the ones called to partner in rebuilding are those who suffered in the former regime (economically, judicially, physically, and spiritually).” (

The renewing of cities is a picture of a new community and economy. This is a vision of foreigners as a vital part of us not only there to work for us or to be abolished from the land. (Pulpit Fiction Podcast, Narrative Lectionary - The outsider is included, not cast out. God is calling us away from exploitation and into justice.

 For I, the Lord, love justice;

    I hate robbery and wrongdoing. Verse 8

And we respond with rejoicing knowing that we are wrapped in God’s salvation and righteousness. God is offering joy instead of mourning, praise instead of despair, rejoicing beyond our shame and disgrace. Because as this good news is proclaimed we are invited in as partners with the Spirit in this work of restoration.

Today's reading ends with an image. A seed planted in the darkness of the earth now, yet it will sprout and grow – a future hope that brings us present joy.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,

And as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,

So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise

to spring up before all the nations. Verse 11


I am reminded of the words: “they tried to bury us, they didn’t know that we were seeds”. What in us is falling to the ground and dying right now? What from us will be held in the earth, close to God’s heart, waiting to burst forth and be reborn. We wait as seeds for restoration – not just a return to normal.

I wonder what words Jesus would step up and read to us today. What is our contemporary message?

Welcome to the foreigner fleeing and waiting at our boarder.

Freedom to those hiding from cultural shaming of their sexual identity.

God’s strong hand of justice crushing racism and raising up those who have been hurt by the legacy of racial injustice in our land.

Homes for the homeless, security for those who don’t have enough to eat and can’t pay their bills.

Calm and stability for those whose mental health dips and dives as their isolation grows.


This good news not just for us, the insider or the chosen ones, but for all people and all nations. Being partners in this work calls us to joy.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,

My whole being shall exult in my God. verse 10

The Jesus we wait for in advent will fulfill these promises. Our coming savior brings hope, peace and joy. May we find God’s seeds of justice creatively planted in us in this time of waiting.

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Sunday, December 6, 2020

Phil Kniss: On plagues, peace, and penitence

Advent 2: PEACE
Joel 2:12-13, 28-29

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On the second Sunday of Advent we always highlight peace . . .
but with a little bit of an edge.
This call to peace comes along with a call to repent.
And “repent” is usually a one-word command!
with an exclamation mark!
or two or three!
plus maybe a few unspeakable squiggles!

When we follow the traditional Revised Common Lectionary,
that call to repentance comes out of the mouth
of a screechy and straggly prophet down by the Jordan River,
called John the Baptist,
a man whose idea of good preaching
is calling his congregation a “brood of vipers.”

This year, in the Narrative Lectionary,
we come to another prophet, in our Old Testament—
the prophet Joel.
Now, I like John the Baptist.
He’s a colorful character and I like preaching about him.
And we’ll get to him later, in January.

But I’m relieved to listen to Joel this year on Advent 2.
Joel was a prophet made for the times we live in.

Is it just a coincidence, or is it Providence,
that today, as a pandemic surges around us,
the lectionary gives us a prophet
who was sent to speak good news
to a people devastated by a plague?
In his case, it was a plague of locusts.

What Joel has to say, is pretty timely, it seems to me.
We heard just a few verses in chapter 2.
But the first chapter and a half are full of the most vivid
word-pictures of vast human and environmental suffering,
not unlike today’s world.
We probably can’t picture a locust plague on this scale,
but we have seen news photos and frightening video,
where wildfires or hurricanes swept through,
destroying everything in their paths.
Add then throw in a pandemic.

Joel writes,
“What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.”
Or as Phil Helmuth might paraphrase,
having been to St. Charles Parish recently
on Mennonite Disaster Service work . . .
“What Hurricane Laura left,
Hurricane Delta has eaten.
What Hurricane Delta left,
Black Mold has eaten.
What Black Mold left,
COVID-19 made worse by keeping people away.”

The prophet Joel goes on.
“Be dismayed, you farmers,
wail, you vinedressers.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
all the trees of the field are dried up.
Surely, joy withers away among the people.
Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests,
wail, you ministers at the altar.”

And it continues painting word pictures of utter devastation.

Until we come to today’s reading,
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
and relents from punishing.”

And Joel then offers,
“God will give you the early rain for your vindication . . .
I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten.”
And then, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions . . .
I will pour out my spirit.”

So what do we make out of this, for our times?
No, we’re not going to draw exact parallels.
Our context is entirely different.
Our nation is not a worshiping community
of God’s covenant people.
Our theology doesn’t interpret locusts and viruses
as God’s judgement for sin.
Nevertheless, what can we learn about God from Joel,
that might help in a pandemic and other widespread suffering?

What we learn is that God does not desire our suffering.
God is full of grace and mercy.
And God is longing for, and watching for
our openness and receptivity to God’s initiative.
Where there is any movement toward God,
where there is any willingness to humble ourselves,
to open ourselves,
to acknowledge our need, our dependency,
to be vulnerable before God,
where there is any of that, it warms the heart of God,
and God opens up the storehouse of mercy,
and forgiveness falls like the early rains.

That is the picture of God in Joel, and throughout scripture.
What’s needed from us is only a grain of trust,
a nod toward God,
a willingness to at least open our hearts to God.
I love Joel’s word choice: “rend your hearts, not your garments.”

The biblical symbol of repentance is tearing your clothing.
Sitting on the ground in sackcloth—
humble fabric made even more lowly by ripping it up.

That’s well and good, Joel says,
but even better, tear open your hearts.
No, this is not a violent image.
It’s not tearing apart in order to inflict pain or destroy.
It’s a rending that opens up,
pulls apart an opening that allows God,
invites God, to enter, to transform, to effect a true change,
a repentance,
and then, to heal and create a new and clean heart.

This is not unwelcomed punishment.
This is a welcomed rending that opens us
to the endless love and mercy of God.

I have a feeling this kind of repentance,
is what we all need right now,
to lead us down the path of peace.

Not saying we’re a degenerate “brood of vipers”
to be guilted into putting on sackcloth and ashes.
But . . .

Who of us is not guilty of harboring ill will
toward people on the other side of the political aisle,
or toward people who think the virus is a hoax?
Who of us does not find ourselves, at times,
being self-protective or self-interested,
rather than vulnerable and open to others?
Who of us does not give in to worry or dread now and then,
and fall short in faith and trust?
Who of us does not sometimes listen more closely
to the shrill voices of division, despair, and distrust,
than to the softer, deeper voices of compassion and empathy?
Who of us does not find ourselves
weary and worn and depleted; dried-up versions of ourselves,
unable to muster the energy or spiritual wherewithal
to boldly step out in faith,
or to give sacrificially of ourselves,
or even say or do much of anything that resembles faith?

Who of us does not struggle like that at times,
and stand in need of God’s mercy?

I know for certain that I do.
That list of human frailty and faithlessness that I just named?
I have owned everyone of them,
at one point or another during this past year.
And some I battle against daily.

So what response does God want of me?
What does Joel call me toward?

A word that means, literally, a change in my way of thinking.
I am being called to turn, or to return,
to rend my heart, even if just a crack,
and open up it to God.
To say to God,
“I open myself to you.”
And mean it.

And then let God do God’s work.
According to Joel, here is the kind of God
toward whom we rend our hearts—
a God who is “gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,”
a God who “pours down for you abundant rain,
the early and the later rain.”
a God who, in the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading,
“gives good gifts to his children, to those who ask.”

This kind of repentance is available to us all.
It’s not just for the despicable evil-doers of this world.
It’s also for us good-hearted and well-intentioned Jesus people,
who happen to have gotten the wind knocked out of us,
who are spent, and sad,
and struggling to make sense of life and faith.

We . . . are invited to rend our hearts.
It’s a gentle, and kind invitation.
It comes from a God of unconditional love.
This repentance is not about remorse or self-punishment,
or wallowing in guilt,
or adopting a “coulda-shoulda-woulda” mindset.

It’s about turning toward God, instead of away.
It’s about a positive choice to
honestly re-examine ourselves and our assumptions,
to open ourselves to a deeper truth,
to individually and collectively return
to that which makes us human—
being in a right relationship with our Creator.

So let us do that right now, 
in a prayer of confession.
You will find it in your order of worship.
I will read the light print,
and you will respond with the bold.
And we will observe a moment of silence in the middle.

one Gracious God, we humbly confess our utter need of you.
We too often carry our fear close to our chest.
We guard ourselves from discomforting vulnerability.
Help us to open ourselves to you more fully.
all We return to you. 
        We rend our hearts open before you. 
        We receive your grace.
one Still our minds. Calm our racing hearts. Fill our lungs with your spirit-breath of peace.
one Children of God, be of good cheer.
We have opened ourselves to a God 
who is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
all We come, we cry, we watch, we wait, we look, we long for you.

—Phil Kniss, December 6, 2020

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