Sunday, December 19, 2021

Moriah Hurst: This is how God loves

Love...while we wait  
Advent 4  
Luke 1:39-56; Micah 5:2-5a 

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Two different practices have been giving me life lately and providing invitations into spirit filled spaces. One practice is contemplation or as the leader of the group calls it “playing and praying with scripture”. You sit with a passage and imagine what could be going on in it. We have used today's passage over the last few weeks and there is so much here! Just the first verse offers a treasure trove for the imagination. Mary would have traveled between 80-100 miles to get to Elizabeth. Days and days of travel at that time.  Mary was young, maybe around 15, would she have traveled alone? On foot? Did she have morning sickness while she traveled? She was in her first trimester. Did Elizabeth have any idea that Mary was coming or that Mary was pregnant? You can see there is a lot here to consider.

As we read the start of the Magnificat or Mary’s song I was struck by the word Magnify. (slide of little girl) My brain went quickly to a little kid with a magnifying glass excitedly investigating nature. Intrigued by a leaf, an insect, or bark. The glass allowing them to get closer and see in more detail. (slide) Maybe I’m drawn to this because this is me as a little one.

I can almost hear a child calling out in wonder all they are noticing. “Look, the grass has a hairy edge. This bark has like 10 shades of brown. I can see all the parts of this grasshopper's legs!” (slide down) Mary starts this poem song with “My soul magnifies the Lord”. To magnify, to make larger and see closer. Maybe this song is doing that for God’s heart. Mary is staring intently and deeply at God and calling out what she sees there.

A thread of joy and song bubbles up from Mary in response to Elizabeth. It’s not a fluffy song of how good it feels to be a mother or how proud she is that this gift was given to her. Not much of it is about Mary at all. It is thanks and praise to God. Naming God’s surprising, power upsetting, consistent, justice filled, motherly love for God’s people. (slide Mary and Elizabeth)

God chooses unexpected people to be the bearers of this good news and these baby boys who will change the world. Elizabeth was old, had been barren and childless, making her worth in that time even less. Mary was young, descended from no one worth mentioning, and is pregnant outside of marriage. But Mary’s song emphasizes that God is acting well within God’s character in choosing her. Because this God brings down the powerful and raises up the lowly. God takes lowly outsiders and plunks them right at the center of the story. (slide down)

Mary’s words here echo Hannah’s song just after God had granted her a son, Samuel, and Hannah had given him back to God’s work in the temple. Mary must have known these words, maybe take them to heart. I memorized the Magnificat in college for a Lessons and Carols style service. The problem was I’m not great at putting whole passages to memory. I got on stage and delivered all the words but the verses weren’t in the right order. While mine was a fumbling mistake, Mary draws upon the words of her foremother Hannah and sings her own, re-imagined song.    

 (slide two women laughing) Mary is overflowing with praise and thanks. I wonder if it had been welling up inside her needing to burst forth. Finally, with Elizabeth's prophetic words of greeting, Mary hears a human naming her coming son as Lord. Full of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth blesses Mary in great joy. For Mary, she is faced with someone who might understand both the miraculous nature of this pregnancy and the mix of emotions that comes with it. Feelings of gratefulness and honor but also the complex situation and possible communal shame. (slide down)

And Mary sings from this topsy turvy situation about a God who turns power structures on their heads. Scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful, lifting people up, filling hungry folks with good things and sending the rich away empty handed. No wonder Jesus could preach a good sermon when his mother was singing lullabies like this over him. This is how God shows up on earth bringing justice through the generations. This is not a fluffy hallmark movie folks. This is a mother’s love, giving of her very flesh. Showing a love that both embraces by acting in mercy and also correcting.

(slide world embraced) This kind of agape love is active, a choice as much as a feeling. It's the love that Jesus goes on to live out by seeking the wellbeing of the other without expecting anything in return. Loving the forgotten ones who usually fall through the cracks. People like old women and young unmarried mothers. (slide down)

My parents taught a course with leaders from the Pacific Islands. As part of their time together Mum taught them a few songs, one being a setting of the magnificat, that many of you might know. After singing, a few of the participants came to my parents and said “We can’t sing these songs, people will get upset”. They knew that these words would challenge their social status quo and offend the rich and powerful in their congregations. Does hearing this shake us up? Should it?

The Women’s Bible Commentary put it this way “The Magnificat is the great New Testament song of liberation - personal and social, moral and economic - a revolutionary document of intense conflict and victory… Key themes for the Gospel that follows are introduced here, especially the proclamation of good news to the poor. Mary’s song is precious to women and other oppressed people for its vision of their concrete freedom from systemic injustice.” (Jane Schaberg and Sharon Ringe, Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 504)

Mary’s song captures the already but not yet of God’s kingdom in its use of tenses. Mary speaks about the future of God’s work as if it is already completed. This God who has been faithful from generation to generation and will be into the future. God who made promises to the Hannahs and Sarahs of the past and is working through the Elizabeths and Marys in this story and will continue to be faithful to the Paulas and Sabirinas of the future. Not what God will do but what God has done.

(slide) What is the song of thanks and praise rising up for you as we approach Christmas? How can we look back and forward at God’s love. Where is that love turning things upside down today and choosing the unexpected players? (slide down)

The second practice that has been helping me remember God in my life is guided meditation and mindfulness. In one practice a few weeks ago the leader invited us to still our bodies and then hold a moment of calm as we let God look at us in love. May you find time this week to become aware and let God look at you in love. May you then turn that gaze, and the work we do, towards love for those who are in the heart of God.

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Sunday, December 12, 2021

Phil Kniss: The grace of joy

Joy...while we wait
Advent 3
Isaiah 55:6-13; John 15:10-11; Romans 15:12-13

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I ended my sermon on hope last Sunday
by saying, several times, that we “choose hope.”
I suggested we cultivate hope,
by cultivating a healthy imagination.

So in terms of joy, we might ask,
what do we do to cultivate joy?
Is joy also a choice?

Well, some very wise people have said so.
The likes of the late Joseph Campbell, who wrote,
“We cannot cure the world of sorrow,
but we can choose to live in joy.”
Or the late Henri Nouwen, who is quoted as saying,
“Joy does not simply happen to us.
We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

I agree with both of them.  Sort of.
It kind of depends what you are meaning to say.

Nouwen and Campbell are not saying something altogether different
than what I was saying last Sunday.
Choosing joy is like choosing hope,
in that we decide where to look for our orientation.
Like hope, joy also requires some will and some imagination,
some ability to look beyond what is in front of us,
and see something we can’t yet see.

So while I don’t disagree with Nouwen and Campbell,
that’s not exactly what I am meaning to say, today, about joy.
I’m meaning to say that joy, to a large degree,
IS beyond our ability to simply choose it,
or to make it happen,
or to manufacture it out of the hard stuff of life.

In a slight counterpoint to the words of Henri Nouwen,
joy does, in fact, happen to us,
because of where we place ourselves in relationship.

Today I want to explore the concept of joy, as grace.
Grace is really a synonym for gift.
The Greek word charisma means “favor” or “gift,”
from which we get the word charismatic.
Gifts come from someone who loves us.
Receiving gifts from people
result from being in relationship to them.

I want to suggest that joy is a charism, a gift,
and the source of joy is God’s presence.
So if we want to increase the odds of receiving this gift from God,
if we want to put ourselves where the grace of joy is,
then we will want to cultivate our relational connection
to the God who is joy.

I’ll come back to that in a minute,
but let’s first examine the scripture readings from today.

Our reading from Isaiah takes us directly
to what I was just trying to say:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near.”

There is, of course, human choice involved in the seeking.
We aren’t forced to seek.
We have free will not to seek a connection with God.
But the prophet suggests it is to our benefit
to actively seek.
God is accessible, is near, the prophet says,
and to those who seek God,
God is ready and eager to dispense grace.
God wants warm table fellowship with us.
Wants a clear table to sit at across from us.
So if we bring all that we are to the table,
all that we have, all our junk and our baggage,
and plop it down on the table in front of us,
God will happily clear a spot at the table,
sit down with us,
and serve up a huge helping of grace, forgiveness, and joy.

God says to us, through the prophet Isaiah,
beginning in verse 8, and I’m paraphrasing—
I don’t think like you do.
I don’t see what you see.
I understand you are burdened,
you are weighed down with everything you are carrying.
I see your burden, but I also see past it already.
As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways and thoughts higher than yours.
I already see beyond what you bring to the table.
I see the table cleared of your burden,
and replaced with a feast.

As dependable as the rain and snow that waters the earth,
and produces fruit from the seed,
so can I be counted on to pour out my grace of joy.

You will walk away from this table in joy,
and return to it in peace.
Look around, and you’ll see all nature celebrate with you,
at your newfound freedom.
The mountains and hills will burst into songs of joy.
The trees will clap their hands in delight.
The thorns and briers will shrivel,
and in their place, cypress and myrtle trees will thrive.
That is my free gift to you,
just for showing up at my table.

This is the God of joy speaking to us through the prophet.
The same God who rested on the seventh day of Creation,
and just looked around at everything in the world,
with the giddy delight and pleasure and laugh-out-loud joy,
of someone who just finished making something
so good and so beautiful and so amazing.

I like to think of the God we worship
as being that Seventh-Day God,
the God who overflows with joy.
That is not to deny the God who also experiences grief and anger,
when God’s human creatures rebel against that goodness,
and do things to destroy it.
But at the core of who God is, at the core,
is this Seventh-Day God,
the Sabbath God who is full of joy,
and invites us into that fullness of joy,
which is found sitting at the table of God.

Our invitation to a life of faith,
a life in relationship to God,
is not a daunting invitation.
Yes, the road of a life of faith is hard.
But then, the road of life without faith is hard. Or even harder.
No one should ever shy away from approaching God,
out of fear for the demands God is making of them.
If it seems intimidating to anyone,
it means we’ve done a poor job representing faith to them.
No, our invitation to obedience, is an invitation to a party.
At least it is according to Jesus,
in the words of John 15 that we heard today:
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments
and abide in his love.
I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.”

Can we even grasp that—
we who like to emphasize the hard teachings of Jesus,
as well we should?
Can we grasp Jesus’ astounding claim here?
He is saying to his disciples,
“Everything I have told you,
every commandment,
every law I have taught,
every directive to carry your cross and follow,
I have said all these things,
so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.”
It’s all for joy, folks. It’s all for joy.
I wonder if Peter, James, and John,
and the rest of the 12 sitting at the Passover table,
really caught the gist of what he was saying.

The writer of John’s Gospel
has Jesus giving a long discourse at the Last Supper,
giving them all a heads-up about the resistance
they will all face in the world after he leaves them,
the hatred and persecution they will encounter,
and other things that are just too hard
for them to hear right now.
It is in the middle of that long, sobering discourse,
that Jesus says the surprising words we just heard:
“I have said all these things,
so that my joy may be in you,
and that your joy may be complete.”

And to think—wealthy Western Christians sit here today,
in comfort and plenty, and a privileged place in the world,
and have the nerve to create a joyless religion,
that gets more mileage out of boundaries and restrictions
and rule-following,
than out of the pure and deep joy being offered freely to us
who approach God’s table.

The Apostle Paul, in today’s Romans reading, ends with this prayer:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

In these two short quotes from Jesus and Paul,
all four themes of Advent—Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love—
get wrapped together in one package.
Here is the God who comes to us in Advent.
Who says to us, “Abide in my love . . .
that your joy may be complete.”
And, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace.”

This is the religion I strive for—
one that pulls us, by sheer magnetism, by God’s charisma,
toward the table of the God of joy.

Yes, there is a sense in which we choose joy,
or at least, choose to come to God’s table.
But we are not told to will ourselves into being joyful.
Joy is not created, it is received from the Creator.

And this joy does not blind itself to the harsh realities of life
in a broken and grieving world.
This kind of joy is honest.
Brutally honest.
It names the pain.
It faces the grief.
It acknowledges the injustices, the sins and the shortcomings.

Even so, it moves us toward the table where the God of joy sits,
the God who sees and knows and respects the baggage we bring,
but who gently, in our presence, and with our permission,
clears away a space at the table,
where the grace of joy can be received,
where the feast can be served.
The joy and the pain can both be held, together.

We are called into joy by the God of joy.
Our responsibility, our choice, is to put away our defenses,
and receive it,
as the precious gift that it is.

Let us make our confession together.
I invite you to turn to the confession in your bulletin.
And, at the same time,
turn to Voices Together #629 – “Here by the Water,”
a wonderfully appropriate song by Jim Croegart.
I’ll be reading Jim’s words at the end of the confession.
After which, we will sing them.

one God of joy, Lord of the Dance, we confess that we allow fear 
                to bar the gate that holds us back from entering your joy.
all Forgive us, encourage us, release us from that which binds us.
one We look for joy in the wrong places,
                straining to grasp for that which glitters, 
                yet is fleeting and empty.
all Forgive us, encourage us, release us from that which binds us.
one The God of all joy invites us to freedom and fullness of joy,
                here by the water, as we pray and sing . . .
Soft field of clover, moon shining over the valley,
joining the song of the river to the great Giver of the great good.
As it enfolds me somehow it holds me together.
I realize I’ve been singing. 
                Still, it comes ringing clearer than clear.

I think how a yearning kept on returning to move me
down roads I’d never have chosen, half the time frozen, 
                too numb to feel.
I know it was stormy; hope it was for me a learning.
Blood on the road wasn’t mine, though. 
                Someone that I know walked here before.

And here by the water I’ll build an altar to praise you
out of the stones that I’ve found here.
I’ll set them down here, rough as they are,
knowing you can make them holy . . .

—Phil Kniss, December 12, 2021

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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Phil Kniss: God only knows

Hope...while we wait
Advent 2
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:17, 22-27; Romans 8:10-12

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Let’s all think about the future for a minute.

First, think about your own foreseeable future,
as in, the next 5-10 years of your life . . . . . .
Now think about the future of our country,
our democratic institutions . . . . . .
Now think about the future of the church . . . . . .
Now think about the future of our planet . . . . . .

So how many of you, when you stop to contemplate the future,
find it a bit challenging, at least sometimes, to feel hopeful?

These days hope seems to be in short supply.
And we can’t blame this on the supply chain.
We can only blame ourselves.

But as soon as I say that, I have to qualify my statement.
Sometimes loss of hope is tied to things entirely beyond our control,
like catastrophic loss,
or extreme injury,
or acute mental illness.
Sometimes people dangling over the precipice of life,
are, in fact, completely devoid of any hope for rescue.
All too often, they are not rescued.

When they fall, we do not need to assign any blame.
These are simply tragic realities to be grieved.

But that’s not the kind of hopelessness I’m talking about right now.
I’m talking about when a person . . . or a community or a country
has the necessary resources for life,
but still suffers from a generalized, widespread, and chronic
inability to imagine a hopeful future,
and act accordingly.

When we lack that kind of hope it is not only sad, it is preventable.
And it’s in our collective hands to do something about it.

Lack of hope stems from lack of imagination.
And our lack of imagination may stem
from looking for hope in the wrong places.

If our hope depends on the likelihood
that a set of unpleasant concrete circumstances
will change in a particular way . . . well,
sometimes it’s so hard to imagine them ever changing,
that we are hard-pressed to muster any hope.

But what if our hope lies in something beyond the circumstances?

Here, perhaps, is one place people of faith have a natural advantage.
Now that might be disputed by some happy, hopeful people,
who claim not to have faith of any kind.
But that argument’s for another time.

I do believe that virtually all faith traditions
orient people to put their hope
in something that transcends circumstances,
that is larger than us,
that is forward-looking . . . and requires imagination.

A healthy faith-filled imagination is the seed-bed for hope.

And it took a lot of imagination for Ezekiel
to see and write down this amazing prophetic oracle we have
in Ezekiel 37.
This is a favorite text of mine,
because I like to think of myself as imaginative.
And Ezekiel had a healthy imagination.

If anyone ever tries to tell you to reign in your imagination,
when it comes to matters of faith,
pay them no mind.
Imagination is essential for faith.
Hebrews 11 tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things . . . not seen.”
Imagination is drawing a picture of something we can’t see.

And faith is holding on to that imaginative picture,
so that it fills us with a sense of hope,
and has a direct impact on how we live in this world.

Some Christian traditions (and I’m sad for them)
seem to think their faith rises or falls,
on whether we can prove that something did or didn’t happen
the way it is described in the Bible.
That might be an interesting mental exercise.
But it doesn’t build hope.
Good imagination is the seed-bed for biblical hope.

Ezekiel 37 begins with,
“The hand of the Lord came upon me,
and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord
and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.”
Now did the Spirit literally lift up Ezekiel,
and physically transport him, and drop him into a valley of bones?
Or was it a dream in the night?
Or was it some imaginative daytime vision?

I assume it was the latter.
The prophets often say simply, “the word of the Lord came to me.”
I like to think the prophet Ezekiel put himself, intentionally,
into a space of openness and attentiveness to the Spirit.
I imagine that Ezekiel was a practitioner of some kind of
regular spiritual listening and watching.
Maybe it was a daily discipline.
Maybe it was a certain place in his house,
or a favorite tree he liked to sit under.
And probably most of the time, nothing happened.
Be he kept on doing it. Kept opening up his mind and heart.
And occasionally words would come.
Or pictures would come.

And one day, as he let his imagination go,
God gave him this picture.
Only in retrospect, he would say, God took him to this valley,
and God told him to prophecy to the bones,
and he watched God bring life to these bones,
and he listened to God explain what it all meant.

Ezekiel’s imaginative picture was a picture of hope,
in a circumstance where all hope was lost . . . long ago.
This was about the exiled nation of Israel, that in fact,
had ceased to exist.

Ezekiel 37 is a brilliantly composed prophetic oracle.
I would say, not only did Ezekiel have a great imaginative mind.
He was deeply reflective, and when it came to writing it down,
he was a rhetorical genius.

I won’t take apart the whole text right now,
but spend some time in Ezekiel 37 later,
and discover its gems for yourselves.
For instance, how many times did God address Ezekiel as “mortal”
which means literally, someone who is going to die.
“Hey, You-who-are-going-to-die, do you see these dry bones?
You-who-are-going-to-die, can these bones live?
You-who-are-going-to-die, prophesy to these bones.”

In this portrayal of Ezekiel’s imaginative vision,
he gives God a perfect answer to one of God’s questions.
When God asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
The obvious answer was, No—
especially given the detail that the bones were not only dry,
but “very dry.”
But rather than challenge God with the obvious,
Ezekiel replied, “O Lord God, you know.”
I think that’s only more evidence of Ezekiel’s healthy imagination.
He had spent enough time listening to the Spirit,
and imagining possibilities beyond the present reality,
that he knew better than to limit God.
I’m guessing he came to the conclusion long before,
that he was not the best judge of what was hopeless.
God only knows what is truly hopeless.
God only knows.

Who else but someone with a healthy prophetic imagination
could see such a fantastic vision
of a valley of bones not only becoming embodied,
but receiving breath and spirit, and living again!

A similar scenario unfolded in Jesus’ ministry,
described in the John 11 reading today.
We’ll encounter this story again on March 6 next year,
as we work through the Gospel of John.
But I wanted to highlight just a few verses
to underscore that God only knows what is hopeless.
The two sisters of Lazarus knew their brother’s death
was the end of the story,
and they pointed fingers of blame at Jesus,
who arrived late to the scene.
But Jesus calmly asserted, “I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”
And he promptly spoke a word, and Lazarus came out of the tomb.

The apostle Paul was also gifted with a good imagination.
He could see life where there was only death.
In today’s reading from Romans 8, he wrote,
“If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin,
the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

Over and over in scripture, someone’s imagination gets stirred,
and hope emerges.
Motivated by God’s mission of healing and saving the cosmos,
they are able to see what others cannot see.
They allow themselves to touched, to the core,
by this healing vision of God,
and let that vision shape their way of living in the world-that-is,
rather than giving in to despair.
Attitude shapes reality.
And no, we’re not just playing a psychological game here,
trying to muster up positivity as a coping mechanism.
No, we are making a conscious choice about
what we will allow to shape
our real-life decisions and behavior.

Despair is not something confined just to our head.
Despair will shape how we live and interact and behave,
thus, it will shape the institutions we are part of,
and it will shape our culture and society.
And so will a biblical, prophetic imagination that nurtures hope.
Holding onto and contemplating and believing
God’s healing mission—often, regularly, and intentionally—
will also shape how we live and interact and behave,
thus, it will shape the institutions we are part of,
and it will shape our culture and society.

We get to choose which one we live by.
Today, like Ezekiel, like Jesus, like Paul,
like many who have gone before me,
I choose imaginative hope.
When God is in it, nothing, ultimately, is hope-less.
Imagine God’s future.  And choose hope.

Coming to the communion table is one way we choose hope.
These elements are symbolic, yet they are more than that.
They symbolize the broken body and shed blood
of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
But partaking of them is a real act of hope.
When we partake, we say, by our action,
that we choose to ingest, to internalize, to become one with,
the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus.
We enact our trust that there is more life to come.
We imagine healing and peace and shalom. 
We choose hope.

—Phil Kniss, December 5, 2021

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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Paula Stoltzfus: Coming home to love

Peace... while we wait
Advent 1
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14; John 14:25-27; Romans 12:9-18

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We are at the beginning of Advent. A time of waiting to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel. This mysterious act of God making home on this earth.

There are different aspects for what home may mean. Home can be an address, family or people group, or possessions that provide comfort.  Another aspect may be as a place where one can feel most oneself. And still another, home is an internal place where one can be totally honest with oneself and the others around them.

It is so easy in our culture and even faith community to put up a facade, imparting a message that all is well, when it very well may not.  What is it that keeps us from being at home with each other? With ourselves?

There are three distinct communities of people in our scriptures read this morning who were in a quest for home, a sense of meaning and belonging.

Jeremiah was speaking to the Israelites of Judah, the southern kingdom who had been overtaken by the Babylonians, under the rule of Nebuchadnezzer.

To place this into context, Israel, the northern kingdom, had already been destroyed by the Assyrian empire and time had passed enough to cool some of the conflict down. While things were cooling down for the Assyrian empire, things were heating up for the Babylonians, for they grew in strength. and took control of Judah.  As a result, the Israelite elite of Judah were taken into exile in Babylon and the poor fled as refugees to Egypt.  Jerusalem, the Holy City and Temple, were destroyed. Judah was thrust into political, social, and religious upheaval. Their home as they knew it was no more.

Jeremiah, priest and prophet, was a lone voice in the mix of a people trying to create meaning out of their chaos. His message was one that offered both judgment and hope. In the text read today we hear him trying to be a voice of encouragement, giving the Israelites in exile a message from the Lord.  It was a promise that God was still with them where they were.  It was because God was with them that they could settle down and create a home.  It would help them stabilize themselves in community and faith.  Seeking peace in the city where they had been exiled would benefit them and their neighbor. Sounds like good news, right?

What wasn’t such great news is that Jeremiah was carrying a message that the exile was to last 70 years. There were other prophets who were preaching revolt and a short time of exile so as to encourage the Israelites to be ready to move back to their homes. Thus, Jeremiah was not a voice they wanted to listen to.

As so often is the case, God’s timing was not their desired timing. Perhaps their invitation, whether they wanted it or not, was to slow down, settle down, and tune in to God’s way of being with them, which wasn’t tied to an external place, not to Jerusalem or the Temple. It was a message to trust in God’s promise of presence with them no matter where they were.

John 14:23-27
The second community was the disciples in the Gospel of John. The disciples were like a small community who were living an intensive faith formation class right beside Jesus. That provided them with intimate space to ask questions, witness, listen, and learn from the One they were believing to save them and usher in the new kingdom of God’s reign.

The context of this particular conversation was during the last supper as the disciples were with Jesus. They were full of questions about Jesus’ confusing words foreshadowing his death.

John paints Jesus’ words with poetic imagery of Jesus being one with God and anyone who was one with God, was one with him; anyone who loved Jesus, God would also love.

Once Jesus would leave, the Holy Spirit would come to be God’s presence. Out of this triune interweaving of love would come peace, that is (1) otherworldly, and can speak louder than (2) fear.

Jesus wasn’t speaking of a concrete place in which the disciples would find this love.  It was to be found internally.  An abstract place, not easily absorbed by the disciples.

This teaching of Jesus was an invitation to seek God beyond Jesus' own flesh and to know God’s love from within one’s very own being.

Romans 12:
The third community was a divided church in Rome where Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians were at odds with one another. Paul wrote the letter addressing the two communities as one.

Paul called out both groups of Christians. The Gentile Christian’s were boasting that they were not bound by the Jewish law and the Jewish Christian’s were using their heritage as an advantage for boasting their credibility.  Paul was challenging both of them to put aside their stakeholder in identity and in its place hold the centrality of Christ’s reconciling love, which would unify them in living out their faith.

Paul was challenging each people group to see that Jesus was not solely found in their own respective heritage and traditions, but rather that tradition was transcended and transformed by the Jesus way, of love, devotion, joy, hope, patience, sharing with those in need, practicing hospitality, and living at peace with everyone.

The formation of our sense of home (faith) can both literally and figuratively look or feel like any one of these communities.

We may find ourselves:

  • in a place where we feel uprooted from our homeland, 
  • scattered from our people, 
  • faced with losing that which has anchored our faith in the past, or 
  • suddenly at odds with those we have intimately connected to

These places are ones that can cause disorientation, crisis of faith, and stoke a renewed quest for God’s presence.

We are challenged as these communities were challenged,

  • to embrace God’s presence not only around us but most importantly within us,   
  • to claim that God’s presence doesn’t rely on a building, 
  • to trust that God’s love is interwoven in our being and that when we say ‘yes’ to that love, the troubles and fears of this world lose their power. 
  • to know that the centrality of Christ’s love is what binds us together in unity, despite our differences.

We each are tempted to separate ourselves from God’s love,

  • to seek after bolstering our own ego, 
  • buy into the idolatry of money and power, or 
  • breed bitterness and ill will towards others.

Doing so influences our outlook, view of God, community, and world.  For this we confess when we fall short in living out God’s peace and shalom in ourselves and those around us.

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Sunday, November 21, 2021

Phil Kniss: Living under the arc of God

God's eternal reign - Those living in darkness have seen a great light
Listen! God is Calling!
Thanksgiving and Reign of Christ Sunday
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary 
Isaiah 9:1-7

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It’s about time for some good news.
Anybody up for good news?
I’m saying that about the biblical narrative we’ve been following.
And I’m saying that about our life in the world today,
surrounded as we are by so much despair and desperation
and distress and disgust and dis-ease and dis-trust
and dis-couragement,
and a bunch more words beginning with “dis.”
The prefix D-I-S implies the undoing of whatever follows it.
A lot of what we took for granted in life,
has been undone lately.

But . . . good news we have in our scriptures today.
Good news in abundance.
But is it too good to believe, we wonder?

Take Isaiah.
The preceding chapters were full of judgement and doom.
But turn the page to chapter 9,
and Isaiah pours forth one of the most
beautiful and encouraging passages in all of scripture.
It’s one of those texts I can’t read without singing.
I see two or three beloved pieces from Handel’s Messiah in it,
and some lines that show up in other hymns.

We are drawn to this kind of poetic scripture,
like hummingbirds to sweet nectar.
In the late fall, hummingbirds load themselves with lots of calories,
so they have the strength for the long, grueling journey south.
That’s kind of like us, when our journey gets long.
We’re drawn to sweet, energizing high-calorie
words of encouragement.

Isaiah 9 is high-calorie scripture.
It is bound to give us a boost for the journey.
So go ahead. Indulge. Feast on it.

But it still begs the question.
Is it for real?
Are these just sweet words that give us a quick sugar high?
until we notice the ugliness all around us again,
and our glucose drops and we crash?
Or is there some meat here?
Some sturdy protein that will take us further down the road.

I figured those food metaphors would be appropriate for this week,
given the high-calorie feast some of us will have on Thursday.
We all want Thanksgiving to be more than a sugar high,
but something to sustain us down the road,
physically, emotionally, relationally, even spiritually.

So how do we digest these words from Isaiah:
“There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.”
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”
Every soldier’s muddy boot and blood-soaked shirt
is headed for the burn pile, fuel for the fire.
A new ruler is on the horizon,
who will rule with perfect peace, and justice, and compassion.
And it ends with,
“God Almighty will do this!”

And where are the people now, as Isaiah speaks these sweet words?
Well, they are in political upheaval.
They are in distress.
The Hebrew Kingdom is divided between north and south.
The southern kingdom, Judah, with Jerusalem its capital,
is where Isaiah is speaking from.
They are under mortal threat by the north,
their own Hebrew family,
who formed a military alliance with Syria,
and brutally attacked Judah.
So there are threats from without and within, so to speak.

Of course,
we read this text much later, with Christian eyes and ears,
and we see a foretelling of the Messiah,
who we understand to be Jesus.
That’s good biblical interpretation.
A biblical text—any text for that matter—
can carry more than one meaning at the same time.
So it’s good to see Jesus in this text,
and rejoice, along with Handel’s Messiah,
that for unto us a child is born (bum, bum),
unto us (bum, bum) a son is given,
and the gov-ern-ment shall be up-on his shoul . . . ders!
[and his name will be call-ed
“Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God!
The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!”]

(You had it in your head anyway, I know you did!)

This is a sweet prophetic word,
that moves Christian musicians and poets and preachers
to think about Jesus.
But it’s good to remember that it was also spoken
to the southern kingdom of Judah around the 730s BC,
while they were under siege,
and can be seen as a reference to the birth of King Hezekiah.

Judah survived that onslaught,
but not without more suffering,
and not without becoming vassals of a foreign empire.
The Kingdom survived maybe another 100 years,
before disappearing for good.

So how were they then . . . and how are we now . . .
supposed to read words of Good News,
while we sit in the darkness?

Are these high-calorie texts empty calories,
or can they sustain us for the long haul?

The same can be said for the other readings we heard today.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaimed,
“I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me . . . will NEVER walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life.”
Sweet words of reassurance.
But have you, dear follower of Jesus,
ever “walked in darkness”
since you began following Jesus?

And the master encourager, the Apostle Paul, in 2 Cor. 9,
promised the beleaguered church in Corinth,
“God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance,
so that by always having enough of everything,
you may share abundantly in every good work.”

I wonder if those sweet words were always borne out
in their real lives under the Roman Empire.
Did they, forever after, have every blessing in abundance,
and always possess enough of everything?

The questions that come to mind for us today,
when we are given good news by God that seems improbable,
I suspect also came to mind
for the Kingdom of Judah in Isaiah’s day,
for the disciples of Jesus on their road to the cross,
and for the persecuted church in Corinth and through the ages.

What good thing is God up to right now?
And when, in the world, are we going to see the fruit of it?

Not an easy question to answer
in the remaining few minutes of my message.
But I want to suggest something that might help.

The promise of God is not a promise of immediate rescue.
God does not guarantee absence of suffering.
But! It seems to me that there are two things, consistently,
that God does, in fact, promise.
One. I will not abandon you to your suffering,
but accompany you through your suffering.
And Two. I will be patient with my saving work.
My time . . . is not your time.

God is with us, and for us.
Over and over, throughout the biblical narrative,
God reassures us, saying,
I am healing and restoring creation.
I am making all things new.
I am recreating shalom—
bringing wholeness, righteousness, peace, and joy—
. . . But I am constrained by love!
Because I love you, and love all creation,
I will not coerce you.
I will wait for you.
But be of good courage.
I am at work.
And my saving purposes will not, ultimately,
be thwarted.

We’ve all heard the phrase,
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Those words were famously spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
but the words had already been circulating for 100 years,
first published in a book of sermons by Theodore Parker in 1853.
Parker wrote,
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe,
the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways.
I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure
by the experience of sight;
I can divine it by conscience.
But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

A few years later, as the US Civil War was raging,
and the morality of slavery was being contested around the world,
a book of morals published in Scotland quoted Parker,
and then added,
“Justice will not fail,
though wickedness appears strong,
and has on its side the armies and thrones of power . . .
and though poor [people] crouch down in despair.
Justice will not fail and perish . . .
nor will what is wrong . . . continually endure.”

That’s pretty optimistic, given the persistence of slavery at that time.
But the idea keeps popping up over the next 100 years,
especially, it seems,
when oppression and injustice seem insurmountable,
during slavery, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement.
especially those on the underside of injustice and their allies—
keep coming back to this trust in the moral universe.
And we who confess faith in God,
keep clinging to trust in a loving, moral, and active God.
We know the change may not be soon.
We may not live to see the change.
But the arc of God, we say, is bending toward justice,
toward healing,
toward shalom.

Now . . . critics may call this a mere coping mechanism.
When real life doesn’t line up,
with what we say is God’s will,
we prop up our faith by saying
God is moving in that direction,
just not on our timeline.
But this is not just good coping strategy.
It’s good theology.
It’s the story of a good God.

God is good, and does good.
It’s good news that God does not coerce us, or anyone.
I trust God’s way of love and invitation, instead of coercion,
to one day bring about the result God wants.
I trust that God’s goodness is more powerful than our evil.
I trust that the gentle pressure of the hand of God,
keeps the arc of the universe bending toward justice.
When a baseball player hits a high fly ball,
we know . . . we know . . . the ball will not rise forever.
Gravity presses it down, and it forms an arc.
We are certain that ball will land on the ground
somewhere, sometime.
That’s how I trust God’s hand to bend the arc of the universe
toward justice.

To live life, is to take a chance, to make a bet.
No matter what kind of religious or secular framework we choose.
No matter our belief system.
If we try to live life with intention, with meaning of any kind,
we take a chance.
Because we know we cannot control how life unfolds.
We are at the mercy of a power greater than our own.

I’m placing my bets on a God who loves us unconditionally,
and is at work to bring about justice in our universe.
I want to live my life under that arc.
I want to trust that God is not coercing anyone,
but God’s gentle hand is on the arc.

When we live under the arc of a God who loves justice,
who delights in abundance,
who revels in beauty and peace and joy,
it frees us!
It frees us to put away anxiety and fear of scarcity,
and instead live lives of lavish love and generosity.
Thanks be to God!

The context of Paul’s words to the church in Corinth,
was to urge them to loosen their grip,
open their hands,
and in gratitude for God’s provision for them,
share freely with others.

This is why we do Thanksgiving.
The just-completed harvest reminds us of the arc of God.
It reminds of God’s steadfast love and faithful provision.
And it frees us to live lavishly, and put on a rich feast.
Instead of getting stuck in a myth of scarcity and anxiety.

This is also why we use a Faith Promise process
to build our annual spending plan here at Park View.
We operate on an assumption of trust in a generous God.
We don’t just pick a random big number to aim for each year,
and then beg and plead at the end of each year,
or wring our hands in anxiety that we won’t make it.

We start with an assumption of God’s generosity now,
and invite you all to reflect on God’s generosity,
and, by faith, choose how you will respond to that generosity.

Still, we all struggle, myself included,
to live under the arc of our generous and justice-seeking God.
We fear scarcity, we obsess over the present ills of the world.
We don’t trust that the arc actually bends in the right direction.

Let us confess that struggle.
Read with me the prayer of confession found in your bulletin.

one God whose arc is abundance and peace, joy and justice,
        we confess we often see only scarcity and strife, suffering and sin,
        and we get stuck in a spirit of anger and fear, 
        of mourning and dread.
all Help us see your arc of justice, and move with it.
        Help us trust your arc of peace, and rest in it.
        Help us believe in your arc of abundance, and take delight in it.
        Help us sense your arc of deep joy, and let it wash over us.
one Let us give thanks to the God 
        who provides, who loves, who accompanies,
        who leads us into a bountiful, whole, joyful, and just future.

—Phil Kniss, November 21, 2021

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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Caleb Schrock-Hurst: Prophetic Voice, Prophetic Vision: Imagining and Building a New Way

Let Justice Roll Down - like a river
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary
Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24

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Sunday, November 7, 2021

Phil Kniss: Surrounded and alone

God speaks to Elijah - A still, small voice
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary 
1 Kings 19:8-13a

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The experience of feeling alone
is painfully real, and all too common, these days.

Of course, we can point to the pandemic as a cause for much of this.
It’s entirely understandable that after 20 months
of navigating various degrees of physical separation,
that the feeling of being alone, isolated from others,
has touched almost every human being on the planet.
And for some, that feeling has become deep and chronic.

Add to that the partisan political divide and acrimony,
and opposing convictions about what is factual
on everything from election results to vaccine science,
even family members are being pushed apart from each other.

And furthermore, three-quarters of a million people
have died from COVID-19 in our country alone,
and though numbers are falling,
still 1,200 are daily dying of this preventable disease,
leaving husbands and wives and children and mothers and fathers
alone in the world, without their spouse, or child, or parents.

And in our own congregation,
we have had a year of unimaginable loss, not all from COVID,
as this front table so vividly illustrates.
Many of our congregational family,
are dealing with the pain of being alone, in some real way.
And in the last several years,
death has taken far too many, far too early,
which intensifies the shock for loved ones left behind,
and adds to their sense of being alone.

So here we are as a church family,
bringing together three different things in one service.
Our much-loved All Saints Sunday service of remembrance,
our monthly First-Sunday communion service,
and another story in our Narrative Lectionary
journey through the Hebrew scriptures.

Not surprisingly, as often happens with scripture,
they all come together in a beautiful and unplanned way.

I first reflected on this story of Elijah,
who met God—not in the earthquake, wind, or fire—
but in a still, small voice,
and I wondered to myself how it tied into
a service of remembrance, or communion.
I didn’t have to wonder long.

The first thing I noticed in this story about Elijah,
was his intense feeling of being abandoned, of being left alone.
We often focus more on the couple of verses
that describe how he heard God in the whispering voice,
and we jump right away to making it a moral lesson,
about quieting ourselves and listening.
Nothing wrong with that. That’s a good lesson.
But really, the story is about abandonment,
and how God responded to Elijah in that abandonment.

We know that’s the core point of the story,
because it gets repeated twice.
In our shortened reading, we only heard it once.
But twice, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?”
And Elijah answers, but indirectly, with a lament.
“I have been faithful.
But the rest of Israel has rebelled, killed all your prophets,
and I am the only one left.
I am here, alone in the world.”

That same exchange: “What are you doing here?”
and, “I am all alone,”
happens twice, before and after Elijah meets God at the cave.

Elijah is at his lowest.
And at his lowest is the very place God meets Elijah.
Rather than scolding him for his complaining,
or lack of faith,
God provides Elijah exactly what Elijah needs.
Reassurance of his belonging, and of his worth.

As I thought about that,
I remembered a similar time in the life of Jesus himself.
The crucified Jesus,
whose suffering we remember in communion,
moments before his death on the cross,
also felt truly abandoned, and alone.
And he cried out,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani.”
Meaning, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And the people jeering him at the foot of the cross
misunderstood his Aramaic words.
“Eli”—E L I—sounded to them like Elijah.
They thought he was calling out to Elijah.
Isn’t that fascinating?
the prophet famous in scripture for feeling abandoned.
They thought Jesus was calling for him.

And then I thought about it all a bit longer,
and I remembered the passage often read on All Saints Day,
where the author of Hebrews writes to
a church under persecution,
a church losing beloved family members right and left.
The writer reassures them, over several eloquent chapters—
“You are not alone.”
You are not the only ones going through this horror.
And the writer reviews centuries of biblical history,
recalling all the saints who had gone before them,
and gone on to glory—
and uses that very history as a word of comfort.
You are not alone.
You are surrounded, by this very cloud of witnesses.
And this cloud, this crowd, is urging you on.
They are cheering you from the sidelines.
So, “let us run with perseverance
the race that is set before us,”
the writer says.

And then it dawned on me.
Elijah, and the crucified Jesus,
and the saints who have gone before us,
all knew the same sense of abandonment,
and were all ministered to by God,
whose primary gift to us is presence,
in the midst of our suffering.

How beautiful that these three scriptures,
these three stories,
can come together on this particular day,
giving us exactly what we need.
Comfort, reassurance, presence, belonging,
and an urgent word to keep running the race,
“looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the sake of the joy that was set before him
endured the cross, disregarding its shame,
and has taken his seat
at the right hand of the throne of God.”

On this day, my prayer is that
we may all receive this word as Gospel,
as Good News to any and all who feel abandoned or alone.
May the Holy Spirit comfort you, be your companion,
and lead you to a place of healing, and of deep community.

—Phil Kniss, November 7, 2021

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