Sunday, February 28, 2021

Phil Kniss: Gotta blame somebody

Lent 2 - Who is to blame?
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

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This is the Gospel story we need right now.
In this long, suffering season,
when grief is piled upon grief,
when violence is on the rise,
when our leaders fail us,
when it seems nature itself is taking aim at us—
from global weather systems,
to a microscopic virus—
this is a Gospel word that speaks to something
we spend a lot of emotional energy on—blame.

Luke 13 gives us the burning question:
“Who is to blame, for the terrible things that happen in life?”
The suffering in Jesus’ day was also ratcheting up . . . and up.
And people wanted to know who to blame.

As Jesus continued his steady march toward Jerusalem
in the Gospel of Luke,
he kept getting peppered with questions.

The questioners in Luke 13 were sincere,
unlike last Sunday’s “expert in the law” who tried to trap Jesus.
Today some people come to Jesus with breaking news.
Yet another tragedy took place in the nation’s capital, Jerusalem.
We don’t get details,
but it seems there was targeted violence
against innocent religious pilgrims from Galilee,
perpetrated by Governor Pilate himself.

Jesus had been talking lately about God’s judgment,
so people were curious.
Was this tragedy an example of that judgment
you were talking about?
Was God punishing the Galileans?
Jesus replied with a flat “no!”
Then quickly added,
“But nevertheless. You still need to repent.”

And to strengthen his point, he gave another example.
Not of violence, but a terrible accident.
A large tower in Siloam fell, and crushed 18 people . . . to death.
Same deal, Jesus said.
Were they more guilty than those that escaped?
“No! . . . But . . . you still need to repent.”

And then he told a short story.
A landowner was hungry for figs,
but his fig tree wouldn’t bear any,
for three years running.
He told his gardener to cut it down.
It was wasting the soil.
But the gardener begged for patience.
Give it another year.
I’ll fertilize it well, work some manure into the soil.
If it still doesn’t bear fruit, okay.
Then, you cut it down.
In other words, don’t blame the tree,
and . . . if you want it gone next year, you hold the axe.
Notice how he gave the responsibility back to the landowner?
I wonder if Jesus is the gardener in this story,
always patient,
always looking for redemption,
always waiting for a fruitful season,
slow to blame and condemn.

Two truths.
We live in a world that is not the way it should be.
The world is broken.
The world is full of deep and profound suffering.
And . . . we live in a world full of people missing the mark,
that is, sinners,
people rebelling against the good work of God.

So the question still hangs in the air.
What’s the connection between the two?
How are sin and suffering related?

Truth be told, people aren’t quick to blame suffering on sin today.
In the ancient world, the world of the Bible, they were.
If a man was blind, his parents sinned.
If a person was crushed by a tower,
there was some god somewhere getting even.

Today we don’t explain tragedy as God’s punishment.
And the words of Jesus here would support us in that.
No, Jesus said, victims of disaster, and violence, and illness,
are no worse sinners
than those who happily escape that fate.
Jesus was pushing back against the world view of his community.

And since that is not our world view,
we might think we’re off the hook here.

But is something deeper going on here,
rooted in human nature,
that we also need to own up to.
Are we not also blamers?
Blamers, because we are controllers.
The attempt to explain, and point fingers at a cause,
is really an effort to control.
If we know why something happened,
or who caused it,
we’re in a better position to control our environment,
and get a better outcome.
Sounds innocent enough.

But there is a more insidious shadow side.
If we keep the finger always pointing away from us,
we can avoid our own discomfort, or shame,
or the cost of repentance and reparation.
If we consistently point our fingers at an evil out there . . .
we don’t have to come to terms with the evil in here.

When I point at easy targets—
the armed and violent white supremacists and haters,
then I don’t have to name and confess
the white supremacist leanings that reside in me
(and yes, they do).
I may get righteously angry at COVID minimizers,
who put their own freedom and convenience
above the welfare of others
(and yes, righteous anger is certainly justified here).
But I am also at risk of getting caught in a vortex of blame,
and never having to face my own independent streak,
or repent of the times I put my own agenda first.

And I can certainly be vocal and vehement in my opposition
to the hateful rhetoric of a conservative talk-radio host,
without becoming gleeful at his death,
or suggesting he got his just deserts.
The latter keeps me from being honest
about my own prejudice or vanity.

Whenever I say someone died because God was judging them,
I am skirting around the hard work of self-examination.

That’s exactly what Jesus was getting at here,
when he answered their questions, with “No, but . . .”
They wanted to fix blame, maintain their innocence.
They wanted to build a hedge around themselves.
They wanted to believe they were in control.
Jesus said, “You all need to repent.
You need to turn around.
You need to live in the world differently.”

Jesus is not saying tragedy is punishment.

If Jesus were standing among us now,
and we asked him who is to blame—
for the ones who die of COVID-19,
or who are victims of killer storms,
or political or racial violence,
or tragic highway accidents,
or random ravaging illnesses
that take people in their prime of life . . .
who is to blame for all this, Jesus?
Are they being punished?
Did God pull the trigger?
I think Jesus’ response would be the same.
“No . . . but . . .”

No . . . these are no worse sinners
than those who come out unscathed.

But . . . we still live in a world steeped in sin,
and sin has consequences.
Not necessarily tit for tat on a micro level,
but on a broader scale, in God’s cosmic economy,
sin does, in fact, result in suffering.
In Paul’s words from Romans, “the wages of sin is death.”

Sin breeds death and decay.
Things go downhill when humanity rebels against God.
Creation itself is suffering from the sin of humanity—
there is a connection between sin and climate-related
hurricanes and wildfires and winter storms.
The earth is groaning.
Fig trees are not bearing fruit, so to speak.

Repentance breaks the cycle.
Repentance opens the door for God to act.
Repentance tells God, “We let go of our controlling ways,
work in us, loving Creator.”

I think that was Jesus’ intent in telling this parable of the fig tree,
right after a discussion of human suffering.

Jesus, in his mercy, urges us all to repent—
to let go of our need to control, to be strong.
If we do, we will be granted one more opportunity
for God to work through us
to produce the fruit for which we were planted.
So let us repent of all self-justification,
humble ourselves before our Creator,
and join whole-heartedly with God’s redemptive work in the world.

There’s a very appropriate confession for this moment
in the back of our new Voices Together hymnal, #898.
It’s also in your order of service.

You may either read along with me,
or simply listen, and join your heart with this prayer.

Christ our companion,
you came not to humiliate the sinner
     but to disturb the righteous.
Welcome us when we are put to shame,
     but challenge our smugness,
that we may truly turn from what is evil
     and be freed even from our virtues,
     in your name.

—Phil Kniss, February 28, 2021

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Sunday, February 21, 2021

Phil Kniss: When we can’t choose our neighbors

Lent 1: Who is my neighbor?
Luke 10:25-42

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Did you know Jesus was a sneaky story-teller?

Well, most any story telling is a bit sneaky.
Because we don’t tell stories just to pass the time.
We tell stories to teach and shape and change us,
through the back-door so to speak.

When you want to encourage change—
in a person, in a family, in a community, in a system,
in a whole nation—
stories are a wonderful change agents.
For a simple reason.

Give someone a rational argument
why they should act or respond in a certain way,
and two things usually happen.
They analyze your argument, to judge and decide.
And they stay emotionally unhooked from that decision.
Usually, since the change you want comes with a cost,
the listener has strong incentive
to find a hole in the argument,
so they can continue, unmoved, with status quo.

But if you tell them a story they can inhabit,
a story where they picture themselves as a character,
there’s a better chance they pause, from analyzing it,
and listen with their heart, with emotions engaged.
They may let the story carry them, rather than try to argue with it.
Suddenly, they can imagine themselves in a new future.

It’s true when it comes to how you respond to COVID-19,
or to white supremacy and systemic racism,
or to climate change,
or to reaching across the political aisle,
or to resolving any sort of conflict.
It’s usually not a superior argument that changes people.
It’s walking with people in life, and sharing the same stories.
It’s knowing someone who died of COVID.
It’s having family members who walk a different path.
It’s having a deep friend willing to speak hard truths
and stick with you as a friend.
And it works in matters of faith, as well.
Stories help us grasp what it means to be Christian
in everyday life.
They help us choose to take risks in following Jesus,
help us love and embrace the Bible.

I’m not knocking careful thinking.
We must exercise our minds.
We must think well, think deep, and think true.

But if we want to encourage change,
if we want to motivate someone else, or ourselves,
toward a new way of living,
we need to engage the matter with our whole selves,
mind, emotions, and body.
And the tool of choice is story.

Jesus was a master of this way of shaping people.
Someone would ask him a question
in order to catch him on a fine point of the law.
And instead of answering directly,
Jesus would tell a story.

We think we already know today’s Gospel story.
The phrase “Good Samaritan” is part of our English lexicon.
We assume the story encourages compassion, and it does.
It’s a lesson in not being too holy to help, like the Priest or Levite,
but to stop when we see someone hurting,
no matter who it is or how busy we are.

That makes for a good enough story to tell.
But maybe it’s not the story we need.
Humans are already pretty good at being compassionate—
seeing someone in distress,
and bringing aid and comfort.

That kind of story is a nice story.
But Jesus wasn’t known for telling nice stories.
Jesus was a tricky storyteller.
He told stories to transform people and challenge systems.

And did you notice what Jesus did here?
He was in a discussion with an “expert in the law” (it says)
about loving our neighbors.
And the expert asked,“So . . . who is my neighbor?”
That’s a boundary question.
Religious people want to know where the line is,
where religious obligation ends.
And like most religious groups,
1st-century Jewish leaders had their lines drawn up,
separating the deserving from the undeserving.

So instead of answering the question,
and giving the legal expert a point to argue over,
which is what he wanted,
Jesus told a story.

A poor man was beat up, and lying by the side of the road.
Two other religious leaders (of different groups)
walked by on the other side.
The legal expert could see how this would unfold.
This will be a lesson to love the wounded person as my neighbor,
to show compassion when your neighbor is wounded,
even when you are an important person
with other agenda.

I can hear him rehearsing his response in his head.
“Yes, Jesus, well-spoken.
The law does ask us to aid our wounded neighbors,
even when we need to sacrifice self.”

But the tricky storyteller threw a . . . small curveball,
when a Samaritan fulfilled his religious obligation,
and showed compassion to his wounded neighbor.
Samaritans were despised by Jewish leaders,
especially by experts in the law.
Because Samaritans were outside the line of obligation.
But okay, the legal expert could set that little fact aside.
Point still taken.
We need to love the neighbors we find on the side of the road.

But . . . Jesus had another trick up his sleeve.
He said, “Now that you’ve heard my little story, tell me.
Who do you think was the neighbor?
Who was your neighbor?”

Whoa, what just happened there?
The expert was so busy identifying with the religious leaders
walking down the road,
seeing a beat-up man as the potential neighbor to love.
And suddenly, the expert is the man on the side of the road,
and the travelers are the potential neighbors.
And the question becomes,
which of the travelers, is the neighbor you should love?

Well . . . that’s an awkward moment.
The story just got flipped on him.
And the question hangs in the air, framed in a story,
without a legal point to argue.
The question was simple.
The answer was simple.

“Who is your neighbor?” you asked.
Well . . . Poor Wounded Man . . .
who was your neighbor?
Who in this story should you be loving?

The expert couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan.”
He just mumbled, “I suppose the one who helped him.”
“Good,” Jesus said.
“You just answered your own question.”
And he walked to the next village.

There is nothing new or revolutionary about
Jesus teaching us to show kindness to neighbors in need.
We have been taught that since the time of Moses.
Kindness and compassion are universal moral goods.

The emotional hook in this story
takes us beyond generic kindness.
It exposes our prejudice.
It reveals the limit of our compassion.
It unmasks the false notion
that we can choose our neighbors.

Most of do choose where we want to live, based on various factors.
We might choose our neighborhoods,
but if we are followers of Jesus
we don’t get to choose our neighbors.

The neighbor is the one God places in our way.
The one we can hardly avoid . . . but wish we could.

Who is the Samaritan neighbor in your life? and in my life?
The one we are somehow attached to or beholden to,
even if we are slow to admit it, name it, embrace it?
Of course, I wouldn’t stand here and tell you who to love,
in so many words.
That wouldn’t be Jesus-like of me.
So I just leave you with this story Jesus told,
and ask you, dear beat-up-person-by-the-side-of-the-road?
Who is your neighbor?
And we can just let the question hang there,
while we move on to the next village,
in our slow and steady journey toward Jerusalem,
in the Gospel of Luke.

With that,
I think it’s appropriate to engage in the ancient church practice
of corporate confession.
There’s a traditional confession in the Book of Common Prayer,
that I have often found meaningful.
And our new hymnal, Voices Together,
includes it, with a few adaptations.
Let’s pray it together.
It’s in your bulletin, and the first part is in unison.

one Let us confess our sin in the presence of God and one another.
all Most merciful God,
we confess that we are captive to sin
     and cannot free ourselves.
We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
     by what we have done
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
     we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
Forgive us, renew us, and lead us,
     so that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways,
     to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
one God, who is rich in mercy,
     loved us even when we were dead in sin,
     and made us alive together with Christ.
By grace we have been saved.
In the name of Jesus Christ,
     our sins are forgiven.
Almighty God
     strengthen us with power
     through the Holy Spirit,
that Christ may live in our hearts
     through faith. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, February 21, 2021

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Sunday, February 14, 2021

Phil Kniss: When scarce is the shelter

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus is transfigured
Luke 9:28-36

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Today we combine, in one service,
two things you may think are unrelated.
But then, it happens every year on this last Sunday before Lent.

We set aside this day at Park View to recognize and welcome
new members of our community,
and hear their faith story, and bless them, and so on.

And in the larger church, it’s Transfiguration Sunday.
Every year we have this strange and mystical Gospel story
in which Jesus is glowing with glory on a mountaintop,
and Moses and Elijah show up, also glowing,
and three disciples stand by gawking.

This story didn’t get a lot of attention in the church I grew up in.
I guess because it wasn’t a practical story about following Jesus.
We can try to follow a Jesus who touches lepers,
who welcomes children,
who teaches nonviolence,
who shows grace to sinners,
who heals the sick,
who confronts the powerful.
But how do we follow a Jesus who . . . glows?

So what to do? Well we could just be practical on this Sunday—
ignore Transfiguration, and only welcome new members.

But I don’t want to do that.
I think this story is more practical than it seems,
and it relates to belonging.
This is not about having our heads in the clouds.
It’s the opposite.
Luke’s whole reason to include this story, is once again,
to show his early church readers,
that Jesus belonged to their own religious stream.
He was not trying to establish a new and strange religion.
He was not a threat to the tradition.
He was not undoing the law and the prophets.
In fact, the two people he met on the mountain
were shining object lessons to that fact.
They were the law and the prophets.
Moses the law. Elijah the prophet.
Both prototypes of the tradition.
And they were there to validate Jesus to his disciples.

This story is less about that mystical experience on the mountain,
and more about the difference it makes in life at the bottom.
It’s about followers of Jesus staying grounded
in their tradition, and walking in it.

See . . . a ministry of healing and teaching and trouble-making
that a charismatic figure like Jesus is engaged in,
is apt to spin off into something crazy,
because crowds get sucked into the moment,
and starting worshiping the man, like some new god,
and a cult is born.
We’ve often seen it happen in the Christian world, haven’t we?
And in the last few years, it’s happened in American politics.

This mountaintop experience with Jesus
was meant for life back on the ground.
It was to keep everyone clear about who they were,
where they had come from,
who they belonged to.

That’s why Peter’s impulsive offer was met with silence.
He said, “Let’s build three shelters here on the mountain—
one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
Luke tells the reader, as an aside,
“Uh...Peter didn’t know what he was saying.”
Jesus just ignored the comment and
walked back down the mountain with Peter, James, and John.
He said, “Don’t tell anyone what you saw,
until after the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”
To spread word now about that fantastical experience,
would make it more likely that the crowd
would misplace their worship of God,
and turn all this into a Jesus cult.
By waiting to tell the story until he was gone,
when the church would be navigating a hostile culture,
the event would have its intended impact—
it would encourage the church to stay true to the tradition,
to the law and the prophets,
and to renew it from within.

Now, that’s not exactly how Jewish and Christian history unfolded,
but that’s the fault of misguided humans.
It was not by Jesus’ design.

And now, to connect this story to Membership Sunday,
and to church in a pandemic.

So . . . Peter was misguided in trying to build a shelter
to house and contain and institutionalize, in a way,
their encounter with heaven.
And the church is always tempted in that same direction—
to take a meaningful spiritual experience,
and give it a physical structure to house it, handle it,
contain it, replicate it.
Then we become married to the form,
and not to the content of our faith.

We’ve done that with church buildings, for sure.
Early cathedrals were built, literally,
to house and protect certain sacred objects.
In Germany, the largest cathedral in Northern Europe
was built in the Middle Ages
to house the supposed bones of the three wise men.

Today, on the Mount of Transfiguration,
where Peter wanted to put up some quick shelters,
there’s a large, marble church building to remember the occasion.
It took a few centuries, but Peter got his wish.

Why is it that followers of this Jesus,
in a time of pandemic are suing state governments
to bypass legal and health restrictions against large gatherings,
and insisting they can’t properly be a church
without meeting inside their usual physical structure,
and engaging in their usual forms of worship?

It’s hard to find any biblical argument,
that any particular worship form,
in any particular place,
is essential to being the body of Christ in the world.
We can still be a community without the forms we adopted.

Every email you get, and every page on our website,
has in big letters, across the top,
“We are still a community.”
Those words are there because we believe them.
They are true, whether or not we have a structure to house us.
They are true, whether or not we have a way to institutionalize them.

We are part of a long stream of God’s people throughout history,
who keep seeking new ways to live out
our calling to embody Christ in the world we live in.
As the world changes, so do our ways of embodying Christ.

I sent out an email early this week to the congregation.
I asked individuals to respond to one question, with one sentence.
How do you nurture your sense of belonging to the church family,
while we are unable to meet together physically?

My main purpose in doing that, was to make you think about it.
And a lot of you did – I got 95 responses. Long and short.

This was no scientific study by any stretch.
I just tried to notice how often certain things got mentioned.
As you might expect, tuning in to live-streamed worship
was mentioned most, 40 times.
But tied for first, also at 40,
was meeting and interacting online, mostly by Zoom.
Other things that got a lot of mentions,
were writing notes and calling people on the phone, 25.
Praying for others was mentioned 13 times.
Having safe and distanced small gatherings or porch visits,
or chatting while walking, 13 mentions.
Reading the church newsletters and emails came up a lot.
Working on a project with others,
even if you worked by yourself.
Small groups and Faith Formation classes were appreciated.
And people are finding ways, even now, to join in singing.

Beyond the numbers, here are a few direct quotes:
I feel connected when I sing along with the hymns
I page through the church pictorial directory with warm thoughts and prayers
I send snail-mail cards with a personal note
When I’m in prayer I have mental images of those at Park View I’m praying for
I listen in to Shine Time and watch my kids participate
I know I still belong when I miss a Zoom meeting, and feel the loss
I call a friend once a week to talk about happenings at our church
I read From Across the Fence and I feel like I’m chatting with fellow church members in the fellowship time, coffee cup in hand. 
Our Advent small group decided to keep meeting, and now we are a Lenten small group.
And this more extended metaphor . . . I picture the congregation as a forest of trees of all sizes entwining our roots together underground. I feel the steady support of fellow root systems holding and touching me during these times of quarantine when outwardly my branches are being blown by the storms of life. We are all drinking from the water of life.

You see, we can be church even
when the physical structure and forms we enjoy
are taken away for a season.
Yes, there are losses to mourn.
We grieve the absence of sharing the same resonant space
while we are singing.
We are saddened by the eerie silence and emptiness
of our Fellowship Hall for a whole year.
We mourn the loss of gathering around tables full of food,
and sharing laughter and conversation in close quarters.
And we will notice, with heaviness,
another Holy Week going by
without an in-person Tenebrae Service, or Easter Vigil,
or a packed house on Easter morning.

But if we think these losses prevent us
from belonging to the people of God,
or functioning as the household of God,
or being the church in the world,
then we have been putting our faith in the shelter,
instead of the people who ARE the body of Christ to us.

So this Sunday, just before we enter into the season of Lent,
is meant to remind us of this.
Both the Gospel story of the Transfiguration,
and the celebration of belonging,
on this Membership Sunday.

We are still a community.
And we still belong to God and to each other,
even when shelter is scarce.

Join me in prayer.
God we confess our misplaced worship.
Our idolatry of comfortable forms and shelters.
Now, as we are bereft of much of this,
lead us on a new path toward belonging,
lead your church toward your mission and purpose.
Prepare us for the life you intend for us,
and give us courage to walk in it.
In the name of Jesus, who walked among us in glory,

—Phil Kniss, February 14, 2021

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Sunday, February 7, 2021

Moriah Hurst: Compassion—to suffer with

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus comforts and heals
Luke 7:1-17

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During this time of isolation I’ve become more aware of my steps and of getting out and walking the neighborhood. I see many of you as I do laps of familiar streets around the church. Jesus also spent a lot of time walking around. For him it was a main mode of transport. Today in our Luke text we see Jesus out on foot with his disciples and coming into contact with the people living around him. These are not people he sought out but encounters Jesus had on the way, like I wave at you from a safe 6 feet distance.

First Jesus comes into contact with a Centurion. Well, actually, he doesn’t. The Centurion sends first some Jewish elders like a PR team to tell of his need but also his merit and worth. Then later a group of friends is sent. Jesus never meets the Centurion. Another preacher suggested that we explore the idea of remote healing through this story.

The Centurion’s words do come through clearly. Even though he is an outsider to the Jewish faith and actually part of those who oppressively rule over the Jews, he respects them and has supported their places of worship. News of Jesus has reached him and he believes that even at a distance Jesus’ word has the power to heal. The Centurion could have ordered Jesus to come and heal, exerting his power and authority but instead he places Jesus not only as his equal but as his superior. Jesus does not take these words to puff himself up. No, instead he replies to the claims of unworthiness from the Centurion with amazement at this man’s faith. And Jesus judges his own people and followers compared to this outsider’s deep faith. Jesus says “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

The scene shifts as Jesus walks on toward the city of Nain. As he approaches the gate of the city he encounters the second hurting person. We hear first that a dead man is being carried out. Then we hear that he was his mothers only son and that she was a widow, as if piling on the grief and deepening her plight. Right away, without a word from her, Jesus responds with compassion. Some translations say his heart went out to her. “Of course it did!” we might think. But as a widow left alone without a male relative as a protector this woman’s status in the community had dropped almost as low as it could go. Jesus, who was just told by a member of the ruling class that he had power and authority, doesn’t let that go to his head but approaches the stretcher carrying the dead man. And without “drama, ritual or even a prayer,” (Interpretations) Jesus says, “young man, I say to you, rise!” and he sat up and began to speak.

When we hold these two stories next to each other I notice a few things. Jesus doesn’t let the power or lack thereof, of the hurting person change his compassionate response to heal. While the Centurion requests Jesus’ help, the widow never speaks a word and yet Jesus not only heals but raises her son from the dead. Neither the widow nor the Centurion make a request for their own healing it is for one they care about.

In our world held in the stranglehold of a virus we are met today with two healing stories in the Gospel. We are all too aware of the devastation that COVID brings and the current confusion around vaccines, who gets them and when.

A pastor, Mary Austin writes: “In our world, systemic injustice, poverty, underlying health conditions and age have a lot to do with who heals from COVID, and who does not.  Still, even with everything we know, we face a mystery in who lives and who dies.  These stories from Luke show us the same mystery.  We don’t see all of the other grieving widows who don’t happen to run into Jesus, and still have to bury their sons.  We don’t hear what happens to all of the other sick people in Capernaum.  Even for us, with all of our medical advances, illness and healing and death still hold deep mystery.”

Are we like the crowds, the friends, looking on with dread and grief and crying out with and for our hurting friends and world. The phrase “our thoughts and prayers are with you” may feel lame but maybe it is a powerful statement. We need community to rise up and to have that faith when it feels impossible for those who are sick or losing loved ones to hold on to hope. In our prayers we invite Jesus into that healing space with them. Holding out our breaking hearts and asking for God’s compassion.

Compassion, to feel with the other. The Greek word “Literally refers to having feelings in the bowels (or other inward parts). We tend to make the heart the seat of emotions, e.g., “his heart went out to her,” ” but think of this more as a gut reaction, deep down in the core of our being, that’s where compassion rises from. That’s where Jesus' healing comes from in these stories.

Commentator Michal Beth Dinkler writes about it in this way: 
“Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen describes Jesus’ life of compassion as the “path of downward mobility”1 — Jesus chooses pain, rejection, persecution, and death rather than the path of “upward mobility” toward power, authority, influence, and wealth. Jesus did not reach down and lift the poor up from above. He became poor — he suffered with — and according to Luke, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are precisely what enables redemption — indeed, relief from suffering — for all humanity.

Jesus’ “path of downward mobility” differs from the common notion today that compassion means helping “those less fortunate than we are.” It is a particularly privileged American notion to think that if we volunteer in a soup kitchen or donate money to help victims of natural disasters, we have been compassionate.

To be clear, these actions are important and valuable ways of serving others. But when we are able to maintain our distance or stay in a place “above” those we serve, such acts easily become acts of pity, rather than compassion. This is the problem with the idea of serving “those less fortunate”: we are somehow “more” and they are somehow “less.” We still have the power.

Real compassion, as embodied by Jesus, runs counter to our culture’s constant call to succeed, to impress, to be effective. Real compassion is a call to suffer with the powerless. To quote Nouwen again:

Compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation. 2

Though the story of Jesus raising the widow’s son is short account, Jesus — importantly — does not rush to action. Luke does not use Mark’s favorite word, “immediately.” Instead, Jesus first shares in the widow’s pain; this is the necessary prerequisite to compassionate action.”

Jesus could have come wielding power and bossing people around, holding himself above others. But instead he chooses to walk the dusty streets with people, to see their plight, hear their request and lets himself feel with them.

Jesus does not ask if we are worthy – but breaks bread and gives his own body and blood to his followers. We too join in that action of breaking bread today asking for compassion for ourselves and all those who are in need.

Please pray with me:
God of mystery, compassion and wonder,
At this and every table
You dissolve the distance between the ordinary and the holy;
You break the barriers separating
The common and the sacred.
We thank you for this thin place,
This holy space,
This well of grace.

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Sunday, January 31, 2021

Paula Stoltzfus: A life-giving vision of Sabbath

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus disturbs and heals
Luke 6:1-16

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Have you ever observed people in tension with one another?  Or had people watching you? Hushed side bar conversations. Looking out of the corner of the eye. Small groups huddled together with periodic peeks. Fidgeting hands.  Stoic face. There are social cues we pick up on when we are watching.

I imagine Jesus was absorbing cues all around him as he was beginning his ministry.  Leading up to our passage today was Jesus in the boat teaching and telling Peter where to fish.  Between that story and the one we heard this morning, Jesus was beginning to heal more, teach more, and all around gather more followers.  More eyes were on him.  More ears listening. Jesus was growing in his own authority. 

Some of these attentive eyes and ears were the Pharisees.  The past several Sundays we have been attuned to the unsettled socio-political and religious tensions of their day.   Judaism was experiencing the dis-ease and the Pharisees were working at advancing a form of Judaism that extended beyond the temple seeking ways to honor tradition while offering new ways of living out their faith.

So , this conversation we see emerging in Luke between Jesus and the Pharisees was a genuine interest in the leaders to be teaching a Jewish faith congruent with God’s commands.

What we have in Chapter 6 are two separate instances of the Pharisees questioning Jesus about Sabbath practices.  The first when Jesus’ disciples picked and ate grain on the Sabbath as they were walking through a field.  The second when Jesus healed a man’s hand in the Synagogue on the Sabbath. Each of these accounts address a different aspect of the Pharisees understanding and teaching of the sabbath.  Their concern was that Jesus was muddying the waters, confusing the Jewish people. 

So what was so threatening about Jesus’ teaching about the Sabbath?  If someone was hungry, then food should not be pushed off one day simply for the sake of the sabbath.  If someone is in need of healing, then healing should not be delayed another day. This makes sense, no?

The Pharisees were not able to see it this way.  There was a suspicion and growing fear of the young Jesus, teaching and preaching as if he had some greater authority over them.  They were losing their authority as Jesus grew in his. 

Fear and power, once in possession is hard to lose, especially if it is believed to be for the good of the faith.

I’ve had a number of conversations with area pastors discussing what church looks like now vs. what it was a year ago.  There are some discussions of what it will look like in another year.  We are being church together, sabbathing together in ways we wouldn’t have imagined, maybe would have feared would cause people to lose their faith. 

This time of pandemic has been one of shifting and changing what our daily rhythms and particularly sabbath looks like.

Fear and power can cause us to lose focus on what this time can teach us. For some us this time has opened up new times to be together as a family, exploring the mountains and the hills, time to sleep in and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea during the service, relish being in the cold outside gathering around a fire with a few people, appreciating a simple call or zoom meeting to hear and see familiar voices.

Our traditions have taken on different forms, some life-giving and others waiting to be restored.  Perhaps we are in this space of rediscovering what sabbath is in our day in age. 

What I find hopeful in this passage is that Jesus, the very form of God, was open to expressing sabbath in a way that gave life instead of withholding it. That extended God’s love and grace, especially on the sabbath.

How would Jesus imagine sabbath in a pandemic when we have varied levels of exhaustion and hunger?  Hungry for rest from the load of work, school, parenting.  Hungry for a break from the quiet loneliness.  Hungry for a hug from a caring friend.  Hungry for a full table of people with whom to share a meal. Hungry for healing and wholeness from diagnosis, illness, and grief.
Our scripture doesn’t end with Jesus talking about the sabbath. It includes Jesus experiencing his sabbath.

In verse 12 “Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer.”  

This isn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last.  Jesus returns again and again to a place of prayer, of his internal place of Sabbath.  Lest we think it was simply a place of simple rest, I believe he was returning to his place of wilderness he had not long ago come from. There may have been an element of rest, but certainly there was a mixture of wrestling with his identity as God’s son, wading through the wilderness of temptation, and filling his soul with God’s wisdom.  

Whatever happened during his times of prayer, it seemed to be a moment in which he came out with clarity, purpose, and renewed life, for he chose his 12 disciples amid a growing number of followers.

Jesus exemplifies for us that Sabbath is both an individual and communal experience.  It is caring for the self and one another.
Jesus embodies a commitment to God’s intent to bring about reconciliation, restoration, and wholeness.   

What gives you life right now?  What gives your neighbor life? What gives our community life?   What are the communal practices that we lament and long for?  How might we invite God into those places to help us reimagine, breathing new life into them.

There is no doubt that uncertainties abound, but what we can hold fast to is that God is with us. Jesus’ call to sabbath is an invitation to live into God’s rhythm of rest and restoration with God, self, and each other.

Prayer of confession:
God, we come longing for the sabbath rest that you invite us into which heals our bodies and souls, which fills our every hunger.  

We lament the ways in which we have made sabbath more about following a rule or law then tending to your life-giving spirit at work with us and the world surrounding.

We confess that we so often choose practices that distract us causing us to fall into fear, anger, hate, and despair.  

Teach us how to rest in your love.  Teach us how to see with your eyes.  Teach us how to live from the depths of our souls where you offer your love and grace to be outpoured.  Teach us to live freely in your spirit.


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Sunday, January 24, 2021

Phil Kniss: Whole-hearted, whole-bodied, whole-life disciples

Luke: God’s story fulfilled — Jesus invites followers
Luke 5:1-11

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I love these “call stories” that show up
near the beginning of the Gospels—
stories of fisherman, and tax-collectors,
and somebody’s brothers or cousins,
or seemingly random and ordinary Galileans,
being roped into Jesus’ inner circle.
All it seems to take is a few well-chosen words, a look,
a miraculous catch of fish,
or Jesus simply showing up and saying, “Come with me.”
And people DO it!

What makes them do it?
That’s the perplexing question.
How could two words, “Follow me,”
coming from a new itinerant rabbi,
cause otherwise sensible people
to close up shop and walk away?
Who does this?

Simon and Andrew were actually in the act of fishing, for income,
when they heard the words, “Follow me.”
And they immediately—immediately?—
left their nets . . . hanging over the side of the boat, I guess,
and signed on as disciples.
And their friends (and probably competitors) in the fishing business,
James and John, also left their two-generation operation—
Zebedee and Sons Fishery, Inc!
Only the words, “Follow me” and they walked off.
I wonder how Mr. Zebedee felt,
abandoned by his sons,
and left holding the nets.

What does it take to say that kind of yes to Jesus?

Of course, we don’t know the back-story.
This may not have been their first meeting.
Peter and company may have followed Jesus from a distance
for a while—and this was just the final leap of faith.

But still I wonder, from the disciples’ point of view,
what was at stake,
and what tipped the balance toward “yes?”

One of the things that Peter did—in the boat—might be a clue.

Not sure I thought about it before,
but I found Peter’s response to Jesus a bit curious.
After he spent all night fishing, without success,
and after he let Jesus sit in the boat
to preach to the people on shore,
and after he reluctantly followed Jesus’ post-sermon invitation—
I guess you could say, altar call—
to throw the nets in the water again,
and after he and his partners pulled in an astounding number of fish,
in a net that had been empty all night,
Peter did this:
He dropped to his knees right there in the boat,
in front of Jesus,
and begged him to leave.
“Go away from me,” he said, and I believe he meant it.
“For I am a sinful man.”

Why would someone who just saw a marvelous miracle—
a miracle resulting in a huge economic windfall for him—
turn around and tell the miracle-worker to leave?
Wouldn’t a logical response be,
“Hey, that’s cool, Jesus! Can you do that again?”
Give us a minute to dump out the nets,
then tell us where to throw next.

I think I always interpreted Peter’s response to Jesus
as one of just pure spiritual humility.
Jesus, you are powerful, wonderful, holy, good . . .
too good to hang around the likes of me.
I repent.
I bow before you in my sin.

But this is Peter we’re talking about here.
He’s not famous for his humility.

Well, maybe there is some humility here.
But when I think about it more, I see pride.
Huge pride.
In fact, throughout the Gospels,
pride is kind of the main stumbling block for Peter.
And here, his pride is on full display.

A person suffering from the sin of pride,
never wants their shadow side to be seen.
Peter knew his sins, the darker shadows of himself,
and tried to cover them up with bravado.
He was a seaman from Galilee, after all.
Projecting toughness came with the territory.

I wonder if Peter actually had a flash of insight
at that very moment in the boat,
that if he kept associating himself with this kind of rabbi,
who was clearly on the rise,
who spoke golden words that drew huge crowds,
and who had this kind of miracle-working power,
Peter’s shadow side would be found out.
If he followed this kind of man,
he wouldn’t be able to fake it anymore.
Bravado wouldn’t get him very far.
So, in the privacy of his boat, out on the water,
he asked Jesus to leave,
because he was too proud to be weak.

Of course, I don’t know, nor does anyone,
the inner workings of the mind of the disciple Peter.
I only suspect this was the case,
because the feeling seems all too familiar—
being too proud to be weak.

The thing is,
proud people make poor disciples.
The very notion of a being a disciple,
requires I admit I am not what I need or want to be. Yet.
A disciple says, unashamedly, I need a master to help me become.
Being a disciple is being an apprentice.
It is letting someone else direct the journey.

Dear church,
this is what it means to follow Jesus.
Following Jesus is not for the proud and self-sufficient
and self-taught and self-directed.
Following Jesus as a disciple is not weakness.
But it is meekness.
It is being strong enough to admit
our lives need some shaping and reshaping.

We throw around this phrase pretty loosely—“following Jesus.”
We think following Jesus means admiring Jesus—
that we look at Jesus from a distance,
size him up and think we know him,
and then try to act like him.
Nine times out of ten,
the Jesus we think we see,
the Jesus we are willing to imitate,
is the Jesus we created, conveniently, in our own image.

As a white, middle-class, 21st-century American male,
the Jesus I claim to follow, may very well turn out—
(surprise, surprise)
to value the same things I value.
Let’s be honest.
It’s not only right-wing Christian extremists
storming Capitol buildings and planting explosive devices,
who have distorted Jesus to their own twisted image.
We are also guilty of making a Jesus who looks like us.

True disciples are willing to have their lives confronted,
not confirmed.
They are willing to dig deeper for the real Jesus.
They will spend time studying the Gospel,
becoming familiar with who Jesus was in his own context.
They will listen for the voices of other Jesus-followers
who do not share their own experiences and culture
and language and traditions
and skin color and socio-economic status
and social and political values.

If we only huddle with Christians that walk in shoes like ours,
there will be parts of Jesus we all just fail to notice.
If all we’re doing is a half-hearted attempt to imitate
an abstract caricature of a person,
then I guess no big deal.
We go on living our lives as Jesus-admirers.
And we might even do a little good in the process.

But if we want to be a disciple,
we have to sign up to be a life-long apprentice.

Discipleship is a life-long process
of listening,
being willing to learn,
being willing to be directed,
being willing to share our lives, intimately,
with other Jesus-followers,
so that we might get a fuller and truer picture
of who we are following.

I just have a hunch that Peter,
on this first real test of his readiness to be a disciple,
saw that it was asking more of him than he was ready to give.

At least he was being honest, when he asked Jesus to go away.
But Jesus,
full of love, and patience, and grace beyond measure,
reached out to Peter where he was, and said,
“Don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
You are still who you are—a fisherman.
I take you as you are, Peter, and where you are.
I love you as you are, Peter the fisherman.
But if you’ll let me,
I’ll teach you to be a different sort of fisher,
the kind of fisher you were born to become.
You will gather people for God.
You can do it, if you will come with me,
and let me shape your life.

I believe it was that very loving, inviting, and yet challenging voice,
that lifted Peter out of his pride,
long enough to step out of the boat,
and say a whole-hearted, whole-bodied, whole-life
“YES” to Jesus.
Yes. He would follow.

I wonder what it might be that’s holding back me, and you,
from signing up for a life-time of learning,
and submitting ourselves to the master shaper.

God give us strength.

Let me read, on all our behalf,
our confession to God.
I found this in the back of our newly-arrived hymnal,
Voices Together.
And I think it fits this moment.

Let’s pray.
Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry,
too real to hide, and too deep to undo.
Forgive what our lips tremble to name,
what our hearts can no longer bear,
and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment.
Set us free from a past that we cannot change;
open us to a future in which we can be changed;
and grant us grace to grow more and more
in your likeness and image;
through Jesus Christ, the light of the world.

—Phil Kniss, January 24, 2021

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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Phil Kniss: When the lights came on for Jesus

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus’ mission announced
Luke 4:14-30

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Today again, I want to de-mystify Jesus just a bit.
What I mean by that is,
in so many Gospel stories,
our instinct is to cover up Jesus’ real humanity,
and explain his words and actions
as something he could only do because he was
the divine Son of God.
And in the process,
we lose the connection with Jesus, our brother, our sibling,
one who shared a full, embodied humanity with us.
We need both—the humanity and divinity.

Last Sunday’s story of his baptism by John in the Jordan
is a perfect example.
We focus in on the voice from above,
the descending dove,
the bright heavenly glow, maybe trumpets and angels.
But we need to remember he went to that river in a crowd,
as a member of particular social and religious group,
trying to live their lives at a particular political moment,
which, as I mentioned last Sunday,
has some parallels to our own political moment.

Without taking anything away from the Jesus who is Lord of heaven,
we can’t afford to lose sight of the Jesus who is like us.
This has never been more true than it is now,
with all the global, national, and personal suffering
going on right now.
We need a Jesus we can relate to.
Who knows what it means to struggle with life.
I mean, really struggle.
Who knows what red-hot anger feels like.
Who knows the exhilaration and hard work of loving someone.
Who has felt, in his gut, the wrenching pain of grief,
after losing someone way too soon.
Who has experienced, yes, even fear and doubt.

Otherwise, we might have a mystical Savior,
but we don’t have a Jesus to follow in life, as a disciple.

In today’s story from Luke we see Jesus in two scenes,
both in his hometown of Nazareth.
Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue,
and Jesus being confronted by an angry mob.

Now, if we see only Jesus the Divine Son of God,
the story goes like this—
He calmly enters the synagogue intent to declare
what he already knows,
that he is the Messiah, anointed to deliver his people.
But the people aren’t ready to accept that divine truth,
so they try to kill him,
but he miraculously escapes their grasp because, well,
because he’s God.

Certainly, there are elements of that in the story.
But let’s find the human Jesus in Luke 4,
the one who resembles us.

When Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah,
he probably did exactly what Erma Taylor did today—
read from the assigned lectionary text.
The scroll of Isaiah was handed to him.
I assume he did what synagogue worshippers often did—
took his turn reading the assigned text,
and then, as is customary,
made some comments about the text.
Synagogue readings often sparked conversation,
sometimes debate.

I think this Isaiah reading was a pivotal moment for Jesus,
not because the God in him
directed him to go in there and boldly announce his mission
and give his inauguration speech.

I think this was a pivotal moment
because the words of the prophet Isaiah spoke to him right then.
As he read them, the lights came on for Jesus.
I can’t prove it. But I believe it.

I think about all Jesus experienced in just the prior 2 months,
as a human—as a young man exploring his call and identity.
I bet his mind was churning.
The picture was starting to come together,
but a little blurry.
Isaiah brought it into focus.

In our text last week Jesus was baptized by John and heard the voice
that staked a claim on him—“You are my son.”
But what did that mean? Jesus surely wondered.
Then the next 40 days were torture.
He spent it in the desert, fasting,
struggling against his demons.
Or in the words of the Gospels,
being tempted by Satan.
He was being forced to choose between the easy road,
or the hard road.
Bread or hunger.
Glory or suffering.
Power or poverty.

He survived with his identity intact,
because he kept quoting his scriptures back to Satan,
kept reminding himself of who he was,
and where he came from.

Read all about those wilderness temptations
in the first part of chapter four.

Today’s story comes immediately after that.
Looks to me like it’s a 1-2-3 sequence,
river baptism — where his call and identity are announced
desert temptation — where his call and identity
are tested almost to the breaking point
and home-town synagogue — where the lights come on for him
and it dawns on him
what the river and the desert really meant.

On this Sabbath day, worshipping with people he grew up with,
people who knew him when he was an awkward teenager,
Jesus suddenly saw that his own emerging call
was bringing the call of Isaiah full circle.
“These words have been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In other words,
Luke brilliantly describes how Jesus—
his person and ministry—
grew organically out of his own tradition.
The early Christians, to whom Luke is writing,
were not making up some new and strange religion,
as some accused them.
No, there is this unmistakable line the connects
the work of God in the Torah and Prophets,
to the work of God through Jesus of Nazareth,
and to the work of God in the church.
There is one long thread of God’s saving history,
which they are all connected to,
including the church of today.

And that thread is summed up in the text Jesus read
that made the lights come on.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That was, as it turned out,
Jesus’ inauguration speech.
And it is ours, too.

There’s going to be another inauguration speech on Wednesday,
that a lot of us will probably listen to.
It might be a good one.
I hope so.
It might call us as Americans to rediscover our better selves.
I hope the people who most need to hear it,
will listen with even a slightly open heart.

But no matter how good it is,
it won’t rise to the level of these four lines from Isaiah.
This, sisters and brothers,
is what God is about, fundamentally.
And it is what we are to be about.

And truly,
those lines had an impact on everyone in the synagogue that day.
Especially after the lights came on for Jesus,
and he handed back the scroll,
and with all eyes on him, spoke these weighty words:
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

It was one of those moments.
His hometown audience was transfixed by what Luke calls
his (quote) “gracious words.”
They wondered, is this really the Jesus they grew up with?
Joseph’s son?

And then scene #2.
It took a sudden, and ugly, turn.
Because Jesus took an ugly turn.
He got too personal with them.
His words were “gracious,”
as long as he talked about injustice out there.
They assumed he was targeting their oppressors—
Caesar and Herod and the like.
But when he turned those gracious words against them,
his neighbors and cousins and people he did carpenter work for,
they went from being enchanted to being enraged.

He made statements that were hard to argue with
because they came straight from stories
out of their Hebrew Bible—
Elijah saving the widow of Zarephath from starvation,
and Elisha healing Naaman, the Syrian, from leprosy.
But he pointed out the obvious which theydidn’t want to see—
that those prophets ministered healing and compassion,
in God’s name, to Gentiles—
to those outside the fold,
while there were Jews who remained hungry,
or continued to live with leprosy.

Due to the fact the lights came on
for this charismatic carpenter-prophet from Nazareth,
he could cleverly, and provocatively,
undermine the narrative of his own neighbors—
who thought they were God’s privileged people,
with an inside track to God’s love and attention.

Without saying it in so many words,
Jesus condemned their narrow view of God’s love,
their practice of judging and cutting off
people like lepers and tax collectors and sinners
and Gentiles and Samaritans.

So his people turned on him.
So offensive were his words, there was a riot.
A deadly mob formed, intent on killing him.
People shouting and shoving,
to the point they almost threw him off a cliff,
but he managed to slip their grasp.
This time.

Now that’s quite a human and divine story Luke tells,
here at the front end of Jesus’ life of ministry.
This is Jesus.
Now, suddenly clear about what he is called to do and say.
Nothing will dissuade him.
Not just because he is God.
But because he a human being who says “yes” to God.

Saying yes is something we can also do.
Even in the face of seemingly hopeless situations—
globally, nationally, personally.
We can say yes, to staying connected to God’s saving history,
to proclaim freedom, release, healing, and restoration,
because that is God’s work.
God help the lights to come on for us, too.
Because God has chosen us.
Every bit as much as God chose Isaiah,
and God chose the carpenter from Nazareth,
to embody God’s very presence, in the flesh.
God has chosen you.
God has chosen me.

Let us say “yes.”

—Phil Kniss, January 16, 2021

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