Sunday, September 12, 2021

Phil Kniss: Narrative Lectionary introductory meditation

Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary

Genesis 1:1—2:4a


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Today we begin another year of following the grand, sweeping 
narrative of scripture.
The Narrative Lectionary has an elegant design.
Every fall, for 3 ½ months, stretching into Advent,
we explore primarily the Old Testament,
beginning with the Creation story, and on through the prophets.
It’s known as the Hebrew Bible,
the story of God, told through the eyes of the people of Israel.
In each year of the cycle we cover the same span of time,
but we pick up on entirely different stories.
So after we finish the four year cycle,
we will have covered most of the major stories
in the Old Testament.
Same narrative arc every year,
but different stories to hear and think about.

This year, as I see it, the stories seem to highlight the Voice of God.
Beginning with this great Creation story,
God’s voice speaks the world into being, speaks us into being.
“Light and dark, be! . . . Land and sea, be! . . . 
Fish, swim! . . . Birds, fly! . . . 
Human beings made in our image . . . Be!”
And as the story keeps unfolding, God keeps using God’s voice
to try to get through to us, who are often hard of hearing.

I titled this series of worship services, “Listen! God is calling!”
It will be a listening exercise for all of us,
as we listen not only to the words spoken 
to the biblical characters long ago,
but we’ll listen for God’s voice speaking to us today,
through these stories—
spoken with a different accent, you might say,
a word that lives in our context.

Then, after Advent,
we will dive deep into another one of the Gospels.
Last year it was Luke. This year it is John.

And very fittingly, the Gospel of John will begin
with words that echo today’s story from Genesis.
“In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
And that Word is light and life for all.”

Do you hear the Creation story coming through?
Well, we’ll get to John later,
and see how the Word, how God’s Voice,
gets embodied in the life of Jesus.

Then after Easter, we finish out the year 
with texts from the Book of Acts and the Epistles.
_____________________

I just wanted to take this opportunity
to put today’s worship service 
into our larger context of worship this fall,
as we follow the Narrative Lectionary again.

And isn’t it a great way to begin a series focused on the Voice of God,
by celebrating our new hymnal, titled none other than,
Voices Together.
I believe this hymnal title speaks not only to 
the joining of human voices together into a human community.
I believe it goes deeper . . . 
that when we join our voices together in worship,
our voice joins with the voice of God.
Singing is divine-human conversation,
God’s and our voices . . . together.

So begins our year together where we
“Listen! Because God is Calling!”
Thanks be to God.

—Phil Kniss, September 12, 2021

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Sunday, September 5, 2021

Reflections on work that brings meaning

Labor Day Weekend: God-shaped Work
Ecclesiastes 3:9-15; 1 Corinthians 3:5-11; John 6:25-29

Phil Kniss, Christina Harman, Charles Hendricks, Lewis Yoder, Elizabeth Ochoa, Jason Rhodes, Sara Leichty, Melodie May, Shirley Yoder Brubaker, and Caitlin Miller reflect on work that brings meaning in their lives.


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Sunday, August 29, 2021

Phil Kniss: Just rest!

God’s Gift of Sabbath: Trusting God’s Justice
Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11; Luke 15:11-32


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Three weeks is not long enough
to explore all the implications of Sabbath in our lives today.
We are barely scratching the surface.

We often make the mistake of thinking about Sabbath,
purely in terms of individual rest from work.
Or we think about family Sabbath rules we grew up with.
Or about church rules or community expectations,
around doing anything on Sunday that could be construed
as non-essential work.
And that’s about the extent of what Sabbath theology we have.
What we do or don’t do on Sunday, as individuals.

But Sabbath goes infinitely deeper
than taking a personal break from work.
Yes, as I said last week, Sabbath is about work stoppage.
But that has implications far beyond personal rest.
Sabbath rest is good for us individually, of course. Very good!
It’s good for body, soul, and spirit, to get breaks from work.
Rest is a gift we should all be immensely grateful for,
and that we should all practice, individually.

But . . . if that’s where we stop in our thinking about Sabbath—
we are missing, maybe, the most important part.

For people of Jewish and Christian faith,
Sabbath is at the heart of community and social justice.
It addresses deep-seated and sinful tendencies we have,
as communities,
to consolidate power and wealth toward a privileged few,
to treat certain classes of people unjustly,
to act more out of anxiety, greed, and scarcity,
than out of joy, generosity, and abundance.
_____________________

That becomes obvious when we look at Sabbath commands in the Bible.
There are not only Sabbath Days,
there are Sabbath Years,
and there is even a Sabbath of Sabbath Years.
After 49 years (seven sevens) there is a Year of Jubilee.
The justice implications of Sabbath
are crystal clear when we look at the big picture—
a picture we might miss
if we only lock in on Seventh Day Sabbath rest.

But even weekly Sabbath has a communal justice orientation.
So let’s start there.
The weekly Sabbath is act of trust and freedom from bondage.

It is no accident that God introduced the Ten Commandments,
of which Sabbath is one,
with these words:
“I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

Therefore, God said, do these things that make for freedom.
When we worship a God who frees slaves,
we cannot simultaneously enslave or oppress others.
So, every seven days, Yahweh says,
stop work altogether,
stop producing wealth, and even
stop working your servants, or working your animals.
By doing so, you remind yourself and your community
that God’s provision is enough,
that even if you don’t lift a finger for a day,
God is faithful and will provide.
That undermines the myth of scarcity,
which in turn undermines selfish accumulation,
which undermines a wealth gap between rich and poor,
which undermines consolidation of power,
which undermines the use of violence and coercion
to maintain that power.

Practicing Sabbath is a radical act of social justice-seeking.
Let me say that again,
practicing Sabbath is a radical act of social justice-seeking.

And if you think I am making Sabbath into something it isn’t,
look with me at what a Sabbath Year meant,
and a Jubilee Year, a Sabbath of Sabbath Years.

Let me read again a few verses we heard earlier this morning,
from Deuteronomy 5.
“At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts.
This is how it is to be done:
Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made
to a fellow Israelite.
They shall not require payment from anyone.
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites . . .
do not be hardhearted or tightfisted . . .
Rather, be openhanded
and freely lend them whatever they need.”

And then, in a pre-emptive measure,
to keep people from finding a loophole in the law,
Yahweh explicitly commanded them
not to take advantage of the system,
by refusing to lend to poor people toward the end of year six,
because they almost certainly couldn’t pay it back
before the Sabbath Year arrived.
God called that kind of thinking “wicked” in verse 9.
Instead, and I quote, “Give generously to them
and do so without a grudging heart.”

This practice of cancelling debts
was done hand-in-hand with the practice of letting the land rest,
and lie fallow.
No planting or cultivation was to be done in the Sabbath Year.
And not only that—if plants grew and produced on their own,
without your labor,
for example, grapevines and olive trees,
or vegetables and grain that came up volunteer—
that produce was never to be bought or sold.
It could be used for personal use,
and you needed to let others pick it and use it, as well.

This was, in reality, a national economic adjustment,
to mitigate against a wealth gap.
And . . . it was an act of respect for creation.
The Sabbath Year was Creation Care,
allowing the land to rest and recover on its own.

And . . . if you thought the Sabbath Year presents
challenges for land-holding farmers,
who need to make some provision for their livelihood
in the Sabbath Year
then an event greater challenge faced them in the Jubilee Year,
the Sabbath of Sabbath Years.

In that year, not only were active debts to be cancelled,
all property was to revert back to its original owner.
Maybe a poor farmer going through hard times one year,
in order to survive, had to sell their land or property
to a wealthier landowner.
Or maybe persons voluntarily sold themselves into slavery,
in order to live,
because they had no land or property remaining.
In the Jubilee Year, the Sabbath of Sabbath Years,
slaves would be freed,
and land and property would go back to the first owners,
no matter how few or many years it had been.

Now, in Judaism today,
the Jubilee Year is no longer practiced—
one might say, because it is too hard.
But the stated reason is that the biblical mandate no longer applies,
because the majority of Jews no longer live in Israel.
Be that as it may,
the principle is still here, outlined in the pages of our Bible.

The Sabbath Year, however, is still practiced, thoroughly,
in many Jewish communities, especially the Orthodox.
They have debates among themselves,
as to whether alternate arrangements are allowed,
to lessen the economic hardship.
But still today,
many Jewish winemakers, for instance,
will bottle up their Sabbath Year wine,
and give it away, instead of selling it.
_____________________

My point here,
is that practicing Sabbath is hard,
because it is far more than taking a Sunday afternoon nap
instead of going to work.
It is challenging because it pushes back against our individual right
to earn the profits that come from our labor.
People like me, in the upper half of society, economically,
are never excited about any method of wealth redistribution,
because it is bound to leave our hands,
and end up in the hands of someone who did not earn it.
And who in their right mind
wants to give away a whole year of productivity?

That’s why we listened again to the parable of the Prodigal Son
this morning.
It wasn’t about Sabbath, per se,
but we can look at it through a Sabbath lens.
It’s not a coincidence the story is told in Luke,
immediately after Jesus sparked several Sabbath controversies,
when he healed someone on the Sabbath.

See, the father in the parable has a joyful, generous Sabbath spirit.
The elder brother does not.
His younger prodigal brother most definitely did not earn
the cancellation of his debts,
did not deserve his original stake in the family economy.
But he received it anyway.
The family economic scales were readjusted.

The deeper justice practice of Sabbath,
the one that hits our own balance sheets,
has nearly always been met with resistance,
or an effort to find a work-around.

Sure . . . we live in very different times than the people
who were first given these laws in the Torah.
The Torah was for the community of faith.
These are not laws we can easily lift off the page of our Bible,
and paste them wholesale onto our complex,
and secular, economic system.

But I will say this.
I think it is well worth considering
both what the Sabbath Day, and Sabbath Year,
and even Jubilee,
might mean for us who care about being faithful to
the God who loves and advocates for the poor,
the oppressed, and the captive.

Sabbath is an opportunity to reflect on
how we may be acting unjustly, or
how we are participating in unjust systems,
and what we might do about that.

In our practice of Sabbath rest,
there is unjust rest, and
there is just rest.
Let us choose “just rest.”
Let us choose rest that is not self-serving,
but mindful of those who are oppressed.

I’m not saying it’s inherently wrong
to indulge in a restful and comfortable vacation;
to splurge once in a while,
with expensive food and fine wine, and deluxe accommodations.
Not saying we should never engage in recreation
that others can’t afford.
I better say that since just last Sunday
I showed you pictures of me whitewater rafting,
which didn’t come cheap.

But . . . when I do, occasionally, invest significant resources
in my own personal enjoyment and recreation,
even if it is fairly restful—
maybe I should be slow in priding myself on “taking a Sabbath.”

At least, not until I have done deeper reflection,
along the line of the justice priorities of a biblical Sabbath.
Let me repeat my main point here.
Sabbath is far more than taking a personal rest from labor.
It is about joining God’s justice agenda of
release for the captive,
freedom for the oppressed,
food for the hungry, and
good news for the poor.
If our Sabbath practices are ignoring those priorities,
we need to revisit our practice of Sabbath,
and discern what God is calling us to do, here, and now,
to keep the Sabbath and make it holy.

Right now, incidentally, is a very good time to think about that.
In our Christian tradition,
we don’t keep track of when the Sabbath year
rolls around every seven years.
But our Jewish siblings do.
And it just so happens,
that in the Jewish Calendar,
the next Sabbath Year begins a week from tomorrow.
And I didn’t realize that until I looked it up yesterday.
This Year’s Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the Sabbath Year
at sunset on Monday, September 6.
So let’s get thinking, now, about how we might
participate in God’s justice agenda in this Sabbath year.

And let’s start by confessing our faith,
in the words of a new confession in the back of Voice Together,
#922.

We are not alone;
we live in God’s world.
We believe in God:
who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus,
the Word made flesh,
to reconcile and make new,
who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
to celebrate God’s presence,
to live with respect in Creation,
to love and serve others,
to seek justice and resist evil,
to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.

—Phil Kniss, August 29, 2021

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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Phil Kniss: Sabbath: When God savors and smiles

God’s Gift of Sabbath: Receiving God’s Joy
Genesis 1:31-2:3; John 15:9-15


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It’s great to be back here in worship again,
with you, my church family.
I missed you during my sabbatical.
I did have a wonderful time being on a different schedule,
with different rhythms of work and rest.
Even the work I did had a restful vibe.
I rested my pastoral muscles,
let them restore and rebuild,
while I exercised a different set of muscles.

I’m grateful for your gift of time,
granting me this sabbatical,
and I’m grateful for your warm welcome back,
and for the love you show all us pastors.

I also want to give special thanks to pastors Moriah and Paula,
for their faithful and steady leadership in my absence,
for Saloma, Jane, and April, in the office,
and many others — staff and volunteers —
who kept the wheels running.
Not for one minute did I wonder or worry how things were going.
And from what I’ve heard,
my total lack of concern was well-founded.
Things went well.
I already caught bits and pieces of your summer.
Today, you get a few bits and pieces of mine.
_____________________

And just so you know,
it was not a coincidence,
when I laid out the summer worship themes before I left,
that I scheduled a worship series on Sabbath
to be just starting when I got back from sabbatical.

You can see the obvious connection between
Sabbath and sabbatical, in the words themselves.
Sabbath is, in it pure definition, work stoppage.

Sabbath is something we’re all called to.
Not everyone has the privilege
to take a 3-month sabbatical, of course.
But there are many ways we can all engage
in the spiritual practice of work stoppage.

At the root of Sabbath is faith in God’s provision.
To choose to stop “being productive” is an act of faith.
Faith that we inhabit a grace-filled world of enough.
Faith that the really important work
ultimately belongs to God, and not to us,
and we don’t have to shoulder all the responsibility.

Paula opened this series last Sunday reflecting on Sabbath
as God’s gift of rest,
which brings communion with God and others,
brings freedom from that which binds us,
and thus forms us to be God’s people in the world.

True Sabbath work stoppage is a struggle, I think,
for anyone with a strong work ethic.
And we Anabaptist-Mennonites are known for our work ethic.
Maybe it comes from our theology of practical discipleship,
working out our faith in daily life.
Maybe some of it is purely cultural,
formed in the DNA of the early Mennonites
who were largely people who worked the land.

But I think there is more to it than that.
I think our struggle with Sabbath has a shadow side.
Our work ethic is not the problem.
There is nothing wrong with having a strong work ethic,
as long as we also have a strong rest ethic,
and a strong grace ethic and gift-receiving ethic.

I think the problem is that we feel too responsible for everything.
We don’t want to put our lives in someone else’s hands.
We don’t want to be beholden to someone.
Maybe . . . even . . . to God.
Lurking deep within our commendable work ethic,
is the deadly sin of pride.
The notion that we can fix things . . . ourselves.
That if we just worked a little harder,
a little smarter, a little longer,
then it all comes together . . . shalom happens.
_____________________

By the way, this is a sermon I need.
I planned it this way, ‘cause I had a hunch I might need to hear this
on my first Sunday back.
If it applies to any of you, as well, that’s icing on the cake.

But in just about every form of personality inventory
I have taken over the years—
Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, DISC, you name it—
I come out as a very responsible individual.
That is, I take on a sense of responsibility not just for myself,
but for the world and people and systems around me.

That’s a good thing when I actually do own the responsibility,
like when it’s in my job description.
It’s less of a good thing in a life of faith,
a life that requires trust in something or someone
beyond my control or responsibility,
a life of self-surrender.

For people like me (and maybe like 1 or 2 of you),
Sabbath goes against the grain.
It’s hard to imagine that the grindstone of my life,
(or for that matter, my family, my church, my world),
will keep right on going if my hand is off the handle.
When there is urgent work to be done,
how dare I take a Sabbath,
or a sabbatical?

This attitude not only robs us God’s gift of rest.
It robs us of God’s gift of joy.
If we can never lay down the heavy burden of responsibility,
we are going to be heavy people.
We will not know joy.
_____________________

It was a bit of a revelation for me,
as I began to work on this Sabbath series,
that the joy of God had such a prominent place
in the practice of Sabbath.

We don’t dwell that much on joy as a characteristic of God.
We know that God is righteous and just.
God has standards to be met,
has a will,
has expectations,
asks for our obedience and our alignment with God’s will.
But do we also know, and really believe,
that God is full of joy?
that God delights in all of us and in all of creation?
Do we grasp the reality that
when we, and other parts of God’s creation,
live into our created purpose
and participate in the world-as-God-intended-it,
that God beams?
that God takes in a deep breath,
and exhales with a “Yes!” and a big smile, and even laughter?

And, yes, I know, that’s me putting a human face on God.
I’m speaking in metaphors,
exactly like today’s scripture did.
The creation story in Genesis
is stock full of metaphorical pictures of a God we can relate to.
So let’s make the God of Genesis our starting point for Sabbath.

God made all things—
moon and stars,
mountains and oceans,
graceful pink flamingos, and awkward gray armadillos,
and us strange and beautiful and broken human beings.

And after every day of creation,
God looked over everything God had made,
and with a satisfied sigh, savored it, smiled, and said,
“This is good.”

I love how the The Voice Bible translates these moments.
You heard it earlier.
“Then God surveyed everything He had made,
savoring its beauty and appreciating its goodness.
Evening gave way to morning. That was day six.”

At the heart of our practice of Sabbath
is the realization that God delights in us,
and finds joy in all creation.
When we, or any other part of creation,
live into our created purpose,
we make God’s day.

God feels. God is passionate.
At least, that’s what the Bible says.
So if we ever talk about the wrath of God,
we better be talking even more about the joy of God.

We find God’s joy throughout the Old and New Testaments,
not just the creation story.

We read two other examples this morning.
There are many more.

In Psalm 16, the singer-songwriter exulted,
“You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

In one of Jesus’ speeches to his disciples in John 15, he said,
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and that your joy may be complete.”
_____________________

My season of Sabbath got a head start during the pandemic,
when Irene and I got into the habit of taking Sunday afternoon hikes,
after our work week ended.
We immersed ourselves in nature,
all around the Shenandoah Valley.
So it wasn’t a stretch to keep it up during my sabbatical.
In these last three months I hiked 18 different trails
in 6 different states,
and biked seven different rail-trails.

Now what’s going on when you and I get out in the natural world?
We often make the comment,
“I meet God out in nature.”
I believe that’s true, but we often say that,
with only a vague idea of what we mean,
that something more or less spiritual is going on.
We usually mean something along the line of,
“I find peace and beauty out there.
and peace and beauty are God things,
So I meet God there.”

But let me try to be more precise theologically.
And maybe your own thoughts can be more specific
next time you appreciate a sunset or see a scarlet tanager.

If our faith tradition confesses, which it does,
that God created and sustains and loves this whole world
and everything in it,
and that God finds deep joy when God’s creatures
live into their created purpose,
then what’s really happening when you stop and observe
and savor and delight in something in the natural world?

You are . . . literally . . .  sharing in God’s joy.
When you delight in creation, God delights in your delight!
And your joy is God’s joy, and God’s joy is your joy.
There is communion of joy, and that is a gift of God.

This can be true anywhere, not just in a remote forest.
It happened to me on my sabbatical
with a rainbow over the local grain elevator,
petunias in a sidewalk flower bed,
strawberries from our neighbor’s garden,
a sunrise outside our bedroom window,
plants we bought at Lowes,
neighborhood children delighting in a pick-up truck,
enjoying music in the shadow of chimney rocks,
a fascinating tree,
a simple wooden structure that fits its environment,
beach sunrises . . . and sunsets,
two out of a million seagulls, in flight,
mountaintop views that stretched for miles,
and being close enough to spot
a dragonfly on the eye of an alligator,
watch a roseate spoonbill go fishing,
or stare down a swallow on a farm fence,
marveling at the power of water to cut a gorge in the earth,
seeing that gorge and river from a distance,
and up close on a rafting trip with my two brothers,
and up closer, and closer, and closer.

You know,
Obviously, I wasn’t thinking in those lofty terms
when I encountered all these scenes you just saw,
certainly not while I was running the rapids.
But I realize now, without a doubt,
I was immersed in God’s joy at those moments.
Whether I delighted at a beautiful landscape
or an intricate insect
or a child’s laughter
or skillfully-played music
or was feeling the power of water . . .
that delight I had was shared equally by the Creator.
God saw my own smile,
and breathed it in, savored the moment with me,
and smiled with me.
I am sure of it,
as sure as those pictures that remind me of those moments.
That is the God we worship,
a God who is full of joy,
anytime and anywhere there is some part of God’s creation
fulfilling its purpose.

This is a transformative idea for me.
If God sees creation and all creatures that way,
why shouldn’t I?
It gives me a different lens through which to view our broken world.
When we allow our joy and God’s joy to merge in this way,
we will see the world differently.

Even badly damaged parts of God’s creation,
parts we ourselves have damaged,
even those parts can exhibit glimmers of the goodness
God created, and can elicit a smile from God.
Even badly broken people in this world,
people who harm themselves and others,
people who wreak havoc at any level of society,
even they, on occasion, are capable of a truly human act,
and if, even for a moment,
they do something they were created to do,
God savors that moment, and smiles.

It doesn’t mean we smile and look away
from the evil they do and ignore it.
But it does mean that our actions and attitudes
toward creation, and toward other people, even our enemies,
will be tinged with love,
and with the joy that comes from God.

Easier said than done, of course,
but we will be strengthened in our task
the more we practice Sabbath,
and open our eyes and heart and senses
to the things that bring God joy.

Let us confess our need of God’s help in doing just that.
Join me in the prayer of confession printed in your bulletin.

Confession
one  We confess we are often weighed down 
                with burdens of work, of duty, of obligation.
                We sometimes assume responsibility 
                for work that is yours, O God.
all Open our hearts to receive your joy.
one In our lives of worry and restlessness,
                we allow anxiety to blind us to the joy and beauty
                that spangles our world in plain sight.
all Open our eyes to see your smile.
one In our neglect of Sabbath rest, our senses are dulled,
                and we miss opportunities 
                to fill ourselves at your table of delight.
all Open our senses to savor your feast of joy.
one This we pray in faith and in hope. Fill us with your joy. Amen.

—Phil Kniss, August 22, 2021

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Sunday, August 15, 2021

Paula Stoltzfus: Communion.Formation.Freedom.

God’s Gift of Sabbath: Receiving God’s Rest
Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Matthew 11:28-30


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Communion.Formation.Freedom.

I have enjoyed baking bread for about 10 years now.  In the last number of years I have been learning and practicing baking two different types of sourdough bread.  I am fascinated by the science of sourdough which captures the yeast in the atmosphere to feed on the gluten to make dough rise into what we know as bread. 

Our rapid rise yeast makes it possible to produce bread in much shorter time. The yeast feeds on the sugar to raise the bread. I brought some here this morning for us to watch and serve as an illustration.

God’s rest and yeast, where am I going with this?

Photo 1: by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

In our Deuteronomy text this morning we have God giving the 10 commandments to Moses as a guide for the recently freed Israelites.  They have just escaped generations of enslavement under the tyrannical rule of the Egyptians.  Their religious and cultural patterns had been compromised as they lived under severe work demands. Egyptians were not allowing them to freely live out their faith.

Upon receiving the 10 commandments, God was offering for them guidance in living into God’s way of being. God reminded them that they were worthy of rest.

In the Biblical narrative, the beginning of creation, God established rest in the rhythm of God’s being.  The seventh day, God rested.  God stopped, looked around, and communed with all that had been created. God was not driven by endless creativity and work.  God saw the value in pausing and being in relationship with all that had been created.  Sabbath rest is God’s gift of grace for creation. It is living out a freedom to have bounds and limits. 

Contrary to a hard work ethic, Sabbath grace doesn’t come in completing everything on our list.  It isn’t given when we pass God’s “worthiness” test.  It is given because we are.  It is a gift of grace given to all that which is created. 

As humans, we have tangible rest through sleep and relaxation. We also have an invitation to rest in a relationship with God’s grace and love. That may not be as tangible.  This past year perhaps put that to test for some of us.  May I dare say we have grown in seeing ways in which we experience sabbath beyond the walls of the church.  Sabbath happens for some on a different day if Sunday is a work day.  Sabbath can occur everyday where we decide to stop, notice, be present with the Divine around us and in us.

When we commune with God, we acknowledge that we are more than a creature who toils on this earth. We are more than our friends and followers on social media.  We are more than our pay scale.  We are more than our work.  We are more than the kind of car we drive or the home we live in. We are more than our limitations.
 
Sabbath rest is a time when we connect with the core of who we are through the eyes of God’s grace.

As we get in touch with this grace, we are invited into the training ground of Jesus’ yoke he mentions recorded in Matthew.  We are invited to enter into a relationship with Jesus in which we learn, grow, and follow Jesus' leadership.

Photo 2: by Phinehas Adams on Unsplash

We are a couple generations away from knowing about the use of the yoke. The yoke linked two animals together to share the load together.  At times it was used to train a less experienced animal to learn the ways of farm labor. 

Jesus invites us in this passage to not go it alone in life. That is a lonely road. We can learn the ways of Jesus by spending time together, working alongside, and living into the common goal of loving justice, doing mercy, and walking humbly with God.

This kind of yoked rest is formational. Forming our spirit to be in step with God’s spirit. The mysteriously heavy weight becomes light as Jesus bears the load of life with us.

Both God’s rest manifested in relationship with creation and Jesus’ co-laboring model of formation invite us to lay down the heavy weights of our culture.  I believe some of these weights to be our focus on business and production, seeking top dollar, consumerism, corporate cultures operating at the expense of others, white supremacy hierarchy, and Christian nationalism.

Friends, that is a lot of weight to carry. All of it has one beginning from a place of needing to prove one’s worth.

God’s rest invites us into a relationship in which we begin with our worthiness.  In this relationship we have the choice to accept this gracious gift of rest and relationship.  In the accepting, comes freedom.  Freedom to say no and yes. Freedom to be more than what you do.  Freedom to be restored from fatigue. Freedom to be released from shoulds and oughts. Freedom to just be.

Photo 3: by Grant Ritchie on Unsplash

In this time of pandemic. We have lived with limits of masks, events being cancelled or adjusted, and travel restrictions. For some, work has been complexified times 10.  For others, the isolation has been so intense. And still others, it brought a welcome reprieve to a fast paced life.

As we peer ahead to decisions we have made or will make, what portions of what we have experienced in the past will we want to hold onto?  How might God’s invitation to rest and be in relationship, give you the freedom to choose the pace, involvements, and work that matches the co-labor model of the yoke?

This yeast before us is happy and active.  I like to see this vessel, a picture of each of us, where the yeast of God’s spirit joins our sugary passions to create something we couldn’t grow on our own.  When we accept God’s gracious gift of rest, we enter into the non-quantitative relationship which mysteriously grows beyond what we can ask or imagine.

May it be so as we offer ourselves in a prayer of confession as written in the bulletin.


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Sunday, August 8, 2021

Peyton Erb, Dick Alderfer, Carissa Gredler, Steve Shenk: Warm Relationships, Best Neighbors

Growing Young: Helping Young People Discover and Love the Church
Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Matthew 22:35-40
Luke 2:41-49



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Sunday, August 1, 2021

Moriah Hurst: Empathy Today, Prioritize Everywhere

Growing Young: Helping Young People Discover and Love the Church
Mark 1:9-13; John 11: 33-36; Mark 9:35-37; Mark 10:13-16


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With the heat of the last few weeks I can imagine a bit of the desert with Jesus. He is sent out into the wilderness. I can sense the parched feeling in my mouth and throat, the heat of the sun baking my skin. But this experience was so much more then the physical for Jesus, even though his body would have been pushed to its limits. Jesus faced mental tricks, emotional manipulation, pressure to figure out his way forward and how that would be guided by the tradition that had shaped him. “You are my son, the beloved”, still ringing in his ears. Yet in the desert I’m sure he felt alone. Pressure, emotions, transitions, loneliness and not being sure what is coming next but feeling like a lot is riding on it; these were true of Jesus’ testing and also true to the experience of many young people today.
(slide of Growing Young wheel)
This is where we pick up the Growing Young Core Commitments today, thinking about how we might empathize with today’s young people.
This core commitment challenges us to think about the space we create in our church and in ourselves to wrestle with young people’s doubt and questions as well as grappling with the pain of the world and the way young people experience it.
(slide down – black screen)
Close your eyes for a minute and picture yourself as a young person. When we discussed this book we talked about a favorite piece of clothing we had as a young person, how it made us feel and why we loved it. With your eyes closed picture yourself in that beloved piece of clothing. What feelings rise up for you? Ok, you can open your eyes. While we can say we were each young people once, the world that youth face today has some differences to what you might have experienced.
(slide finish line p. 98)
The journey to adulthood that young people are on today ends later. There is an extended adolescence. Some of the markers of adulthood happen far later…buying a house, getting married, having kids, financial independence. The median age for both marriage and baring a first child are at least 5 years later today then 50 years ago. The paths that young people can go down have multiplied and they are explorers often trying multiple jobs before they land on a career. Going to college isn’t enough. Now you need to go to grad school before entering the workforce.
(slide starting line p. 99)
But at the same time the journey begins earlier. Young people who blow us away by their maturity. For them biologically, puberty starting possibly 4 years earlier then you might have experienced it. Culturally, the pressure to succeed is immense. Children starting middle school, being encouraged to start building their resumes to get into a good college. “From highly competitive sports and extra curricular activities for kindergartners to college preparation courses for either graders, children have arguably seen more, heard more, and done more than almost any previous generation.” (Growing Young, p.99)
 “At 15, young people carry more access to the world via the mobile devices in their pockets (pull out phone) than their parents could ever fathom as teenagers. And yet at 25, they still rely on those same parents to fund the mobile plan that gives them that constant access to the world.
Fifteen is the new 25. Twenty-five is the new 15. Yes, it is that complicated.” (Growing Young, p.99)
(slide down – black screen)
So it is a long race for young people marked with what young people name as extreme stress starting as young as 13 years old. A tumultuous ride including academics, vocation, body changes, not to mention relational pressure and exploration.
The good news is that church involvement reduces stress for young people and they are not hostile to faith. Bad news is they just don’t care because it doesn’t seem relevant to the lives they are living.
(slide 3 questions)
Young people are wrestling with 3 ultimate questions: Who am I? Where do I fit? And What difference do I make? Identity, Belonging, and Purpose.
“While faith is ideally a central force in identity development, the bland faith offered by the typical church is missing a hefty enough gravitational pull” for those who are socially over stimulated and relationally under supported. (Growing Young, p103).
(slide down – black screen)
Because while we might criticize young people for the amount of time they spend on their phones, research shows that media is only magnifying cracks that are already there in young peoples support structures. At youth group I ask folks to put down their phones and they do. When adults care about and engage with them, young people want to be present. But sadly many young people view adults as “too busy or too self-absorbed to invest in them without an agenda.” (Growing Young, p 107)
We are called to connect with them, learn to know them, understand their lives before we pass judgment or offer correction.
Young people today are justice crusaders, selfless revolutionaries AND egotistical and entitled…just like us. Guess where they learned it from?
Can we step away from our stereotypes and ask curious questions of young people without judging them. Could we learn the names of young people in our congregation and find out something about their world?
This isn’t just about youth it is college age and young adults too. Might we consider: how does it feel to be single in our church? How could we pair younger couples with older mentor couples to support relationships in our congregation?
The invitation of this core commitment is to feel WITH young people.
We heard the story of Jesus being brought to tears. Jesus weeps. Jesus deeply cared for, walked with, loved, and grieved with his friends and community. Can we like Jesus sit down on the curb next to a young person, listen fully to them and enter into their life by caring about them?
(slide of GY wheel)
This leads us to the second core commitment we are touching on today: Prioritize young people and families everywhere. “Instead of giving lip service to how much young people matter, look for creative ways to tangibly support, resource, and involve them in all facets of your congregation” (handout).
I can hear you say…“but Pastor Moriah, we do support young people…we employ you!” Last week as Loren touched on key-chain leadership and the message of Jesus, he embarrassingly named and called out a number of things I have done with young people in the last while. That is all well and good, but it can’t just be me. We need all of you. A reorientation of the church towards young people. I can hear the question again “but what about the rest of us?”
The research for this book talked to over 250 churches who are growing young. And even when they found that they were doing well in many of the other areas. If they didn’t have this one in place they were still on the track to growing old. If you look at the wheel, there is an arrow exiting. One pastor named it this way.
(change to pie slide)
When you prioritize young people, it’s not that everyone else gets less. When young people’s piece of the pie gets bigger - the whole pie grows. Or as one youth volunteer said, “Young people are like salt. When they’re included, they make everything taste better.” (Growing Young, 203)
(change slide to question)
The game changing question for churches that needs to be asked in every meeting, as we plan for every event, and yes every church service. How will young people be involved? Talk to young people, empathize with them and involve them in your efforts. Not as cheap labor but calling out their gifting’s and giving them significant roles that matter. What would it be like to have young people so woven into our DNA as a church that we couldn’t do anything without them.
(slide down – black screen, NO MORE SLIDES)
This might mean shifting the way we think about authority and power and we might have to shift some of our long held non-negotiable. But this is the game changer if we want to grow young.
And this isn’t something we can just give our money to. While including young people in the church budget is essential, and we do that very well here at Park View. The harder challenge for us is that we may need to give of our time or the relational space in our lives. 
Again we come back to the life and teachings of Jesus as we realize we need young as much as they need us. We heard two stories of Jesus acting and teaching with his disciples. While crowds were pushing in to see Jesus, we see Jesus going out of his way to talk to and heal children, those who were overlooked and undervalued in society. The disciples hear this: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” This is the kingdom of God they are hearing about, but could Jesus really be serious? Surely children aren’t the equals of adults!
So Jesus circles around to this again, clearly the disciples didn’t get it the first time. I can almost see them rolling their eyes and saying, really Jesus, we already covered this! And Jesus become indignant and speaks sternly to them. This isn’t our nice friendly Sunday School Jesus. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
“Theologically, we stand on solid ground when we prioritize young people everywhere in our congregation. Jesus led the way for us in his shocking attention to children and his reorientation of the community around them. It was a disproportionate prioritization. What would it look like if our church took the same approach to children, teenagers, and young adults today?” (Growing Young, 221)
So we enter into an act of empathizing with Jesus through communion. We take part in the story of this special super. We come to this table ready to learn and be transformed. As we eat this bread and drink this cup may it nourish and also challenge us. I will stand in for all of you as I bless the children with the words of Jesus and in your name. How might you be invited into that reaching out and blessing of young people in the weeks and years to come?


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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Loren Swartzendruber: Key-chain Leadership

Growing Young: Helping Young People Discover and Love the Church
Matthew 5:1-2, 7:28-29; Philippians 2:5-8


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Sunday, July 11, 2021

Sara Wenger Shenk: Is talking about faith a lost art?

Proverbs 8:1-11
Ephesians 4:1-6; 14-16


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On July 11, 2021, theologian Sara Wenger Shenk preaches at a Park View Mennonite Church Sunday morning service from Ephesians 4:1-6; 14-16 and based on her book "Tongue-Tied: Learning the Lost Art of Talking About Faith".

Sara was named President Emerita by the AMBS Board of Directors in April 2020. She was a member of the faculty and administration of Eastern Mennonite Seminary for 15 years. She and her husband, Gerald, served as students and teachers in the former Yugoslavia. She has written extensively in both academic and church publications.


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Sunday, July 4, 2021

Sarah Ann Bixler: The "One Another" Exhortations

Romans 12:9-21


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Sarah Ann Bixler was ordained into the ministry of Virginia Mennonite Conference last year and was recently named associate dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Sarah spent a decade in ministry in the Shenandoah Valley before beginning studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. At Princeton, she was instrumental in launching new programs in church planting and revitalization and women clergy leadership education.

 
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Sunday, June 27, 2021

Paula Stoltzfus: Household Protection

Life in God's Household a Letter to the Ephesians
Ephesians 6:10-20


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A picture says a thousand words. This picture which was shared on many news feeds in 2016 came to mind as I was contemplating on this Ephesians text.  It is a stark contrast between two types of armor.  One of this world and one of the heavenly realm.

This is a picture of what Paul speaks of in the letter to believers in Ephesus. A picture familiar to his audience and us both. Physical armor used by the ruling Romans was heavy and used for protection in active battle.  The police in this photo are dawned with protective gear from head to toe and shield in between.

The recipients of this letter were a minority group and would have looked upon the Romans with fear. The “you” spoken here was also written in the plural form, meaning it was written to the Christian community in Ephesus, not an individual.

Although this picture shows Leshia standing alone, we  know it is a part of a bigger protest in which she was accompanied by others, standing firm with feet of peace.

The rulers, authorities, systems, and cultures have power that can’t be met by an individual. It can only be met by a community that stands firm in God’s love, peace, and pursuit of justice.

Paul speaks of this battle as being beyond the physical world. Thus, the armor matches it’s intended battle, speaking of ways of being vs. physical pieces.  Paul’s picture of armor was a way to empower them to survive in a hostile world through their faith.

Quite mysterious really.  How does one do battle with the powers that are not physical in flesh and blood? 

In the late ‘80s Frank Peretti attempted to imagine what a battle might be like in his two books, This present darkness and Piercing the Darkness. He tried to make sense of Paul’s words.

However, I think Peretti highlights temptations of viewing this passage as

justifying a battle of “us” against “them;”

of an individual battle we must fight on our own;

a mark of one’s faith;

or justification of actual force, pitting truths against one another, demonizing whoever the other may be.

 

We live with many messages, practices, and powers within systems and structures that surround us. I want to offer 5 powers that I see at work in our lives today.  These are in no particular order and I name these as a way to prime your thinking about what others you may add.

1. We live with a silent caste system in our country where races are treated differently. This began from the beginning, when those exploring intended to claim land, killing or enslaving indigenous people, dehumanizing them. Not only that, Africans were kidnapped for slave labor, a system of dehumanization and economic oppression. Although there have been movements to rectify this system, we are realizing that racism is a deeply embedded power that continues to permeate our society today.

2. Monetary wealth is valued over all other forms of resources.  In our structure, wealth is passed from one generation to the next.  Therefore, those who have wealth seem to accumulate more and those that don’t, have a hard time doing so.

3. Success is often seen in educational degrees accumulated, possessions obtained, and ability to live and retire when you desire.

4. Individualism values accomplishing one’s goals on one’s own and fulfilling one’s wants, even at the expense of others.

5. Fear is a motivating force that feeds insecurity, resulting in boundary making and division. It creates an “us” and “them” which allows battle lines to be drawn.

This list is not exhaustive, may be debated, but is meant to be added to.  What are the ways of thinking, believing, and knowing that we take for granted and veil us from seeing how it shapes us?

Why did I name these 5?  They are ones that have shaped me and give me power.  I have light colored skin.  We own our home and have a savings account. I have several diplomas.  I am confident enough in my own individuality and how I understand the world around me, which tempts me to look down on anyone who sees life differently.

Paul’s armor described here speaks of a power that is rather disarming to those with power. Standing firm in God asks for a surrendering of one’s own power and influence, placing trust in God’s righteousness, way of peace, love, and pursuit of justice for the vulnerable and powerless.  Security is given in God’s saving grace, not in reliance on our own physical strength.

This may be disarming to my earthly power, but it is a kind of armor that empowers the vulnerable.  Those with no power are given armor that they can wear. This picture exemplifies this power. They step into confidence instead of fear, love instead of hate, and trust instead of suspicion. It humanizes those often dehumanized.

A temptation for everyone is to see the evil and dark power “out there” when, in actuality, it can be deceptively present in here, as an individual and church.

I don’t know of a denomination yet that hasn’t dealt with a split. Somehow we have come to believe that in our search for truth we need to purge ourselves of who we see as heretical. 

I have observed that we seem to be able to accept differences with another denomination better than we can accept differences within our own denomination. It is so easy to divide rather than in God’s love and curiosity about the difference.

Virginia Mennonite Conference of whom Park View is a part of, released 3 congregations of their request, a couple of weeks ago at our summer assembly, due to theological differences. I don’t highlight that to point fingers, only to say we continue to find it challenging to know how to structurally hold our differences.

At the same time, earlier this year, the conference commissioned a Racial Justice Task Force to address racism in our conference structure.  The task force is already addressing some structural dynamics. 

Caleb Schrock Hurst who is riding across the country with Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions will begin the part time staff position at the conference as Racial Justice and Equity Leader, to work with the task force at furthering this work of anti-racism in the conference and congregations.  We are addressing the church’s complicity in racism which has gone on for far too long.

When we find our identity wrapped in God’s armor, we stand secure in God’s saving grace. We live with hearts of love for the other, different as each may be. We move with peace in every step, engaging with one another with curiosity and care, recognizing the complexity and mystery of the earthly and heavenly realms. 

We have work to do my friends.  Some of that work is to face into the dark places while standing in God’s presence.  And so we do just that as we enter into this time of confession.



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