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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Sunday, January 10, 2021

Phil Kniss: In holy and in hopeless place

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus’ identity announced
Luke 3:1-22; Micah 6:6-8

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Let me start with a quiz.
I’ll give a scenario, then ask you a question.

Imagine you’re part of a religious group—
a large, well-organized, influential, long-standing religious group.
But your group is living completely within
an even larger, and secular, Empire.
And your group is losing ground against the Empire.
Whereas your religion and way of life
used to be prominent and protected,
now it’s under pressure, threatened,
in a minority, and maybe won’t survive.
To make matters worse,
your group is splintering into all kinds of factions,
groups with completely different values and priorities,
and polar opposite visions of what the problem is
and how to fix it.
Got it? Now here is the question:

Was I describing (A.) the Jewish community of Luke chapter 3—
the family of faith of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth?
or (B.) our faith family—North American Christians of 2021—
a family in which some members
gathered in mass protest at the Capitol on Wednesday,
and some of those engaged in a horrific, violent insurrection?

Correct answer? (C.) Both of the above.

As I prepared this sermon,
I thought I might have to stretch a bit
to have our prescribed text speak to present realities.
Then I realized, no stretching is needed.

You could lay side-by-side
the Gospel of Luke and the Jan 7 edition of the Washington Post,
and find all kinds of points that connect to each other.

But wait! you object. They are not us.
Yes, it’s tempting for us peace-loving Anabaptist Christians,
to think we have nothing whatsoever to do
with the violent chaos that descended on Washington last week.
But surely you noticed all the signs saying “Jesus Saves,” didn’t you?

You might argue, “They’re not talking about our Jesus.”
And maybe I’ll grant that . . . but only to a point.
Because they also read the Gospel of Luke.
They sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at church this time of year.
Their children learn Bible stories the same way ours do,
from loving, tender Sunday School teachers.
They pray.
They fast.
They take communion.

And some of them joined the Jericho March on DC last week.
The Jericho March is a Christian movement,
that does not promote violence, to be clear.
They publicly disavowed the physical attack on the Capitol.
But they were praying for an overthrow.

They did organize hundreds of Christians
to march 7 times around the Supreme Court on Tuesday,
and 7 times around the Capitol on Wednesday,
while all that was going on,
singing, shouting, and blowing rams’ horns,
and praying for the same result—
that the walls of Washington would miraculously fall down,
that God’s enemies—Joe Biden and Democrats—
would be defeated,
and that God would reverse the illegal election,
and keep God’s man, President Trump,
in office another four years.

I point this out not to ridicule them,
or distance them from us,
but to speak the painful truth that they also worship Jesus.

That should not surprise anyone who reads the Gospel of Luke.
The Jewish world of Jesus also felt threatened and fearful
and oppressed by God’s enemies.
Even though they all read the Torah,
kept the Sabbath,
followed the law,
and honored Abraham as their father,
they were entirely splintered over different political visions.

Some were collaborators with Rome.
Some tried to secretly rebel against Rome,
but not in a way to draw attention or get in trouble.
Some believed a spiritual victory would come,
if everyone could somehow achieve purity under the law.
And some plotted insurrection.
They carried short swords under their robes,
in case they ever had an opportunity to use them
against Roman authorities.

Yet, they were all part of the same beleaguered Jewish community.
And Jesus had disciples from various of these groups.

This is what happens when a once-powerful religious group
starts losing a grip on its power and privilege.  It reacts.
It might fight (with sword, or prayer, or both).
It might accommodate.
It might just give up and join the oppression.

In Luke 3, down at the Jordan, John the Baptist preached
a baptism of repentance to all these groups—all of them.
He said, “Return to God’s vision of justice and faith!”
Your future does not depend on what Caesar does or doesn’t do.
Remember who you are!
Reclaim your identity as children of Abraham.
Return to the God of your ancestors.
Repent—together—of the practices of injustice
that pervade this community.

Don’t mistake John as someone preaching
only an individualistic repentance and salvation.
Luke, the historian, sets the date of this story about John the Baptist
by naming all the political leaders currently in office—
leaders of both Empire and religion . . . in the first verse.
“It was while Tiberius Caesar was Emperor,
and Pilate was Governor,
and Herod was tetrarch,
and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests,
that the word of God came to John.”

That’s an obvious signal.
While all these hifalutin office-holders thought they spoke for God,
God instead spoke to John, Zack’s boy,
who dressed in camel-hair and lived off the land.

I wonder who the camel-haired prophets are today?
In today’s divided and anxious politics of fear,
and antagonism, and white supremacist ideology,
that extends directly into and throughout the Christian community,
who is standing up for the whole Gospel of God,
revealed in Jesus,
a Gospel people who refuse to bow to an Empire,
but also refuse to bow to fear,
and to the practice of enemy-making,
and self-protective violence.
Who are the prophets who will look, with real love,
into the faces of their own religious family members,
and invite them, like John the Baptist did,
to “produce fruit in keeping with your faith.”
or say, “I see you have two shirts.
I know someone who has none. Might you share?”

And who will, in the name of Christ,
unmask the powers that continue to oppress
the poor, the immigrant, and the outcast—
whether those powers are of the State,
or of our own Christian community.

Who will steadfastly refuse to dehumanize anyone—
including true believers in Q-Anon or Trumpism
or Christian Nationalism?
And who will steadfastly refuse to deify anyone—
to not worship any human person
or institution or political party?
But will instead, with courage and clarity,
witness in word and deed to God’s kingdom of
peace and compassion and justice for all?

Who will take up the prophet’s mantle?
Who will look to John the Baptist and to Jesus,
as shining examples of how to live a whole life of protest,
in the midst of Empire,
while staying true to the faith, and to the community?

You know . . . just like the people who flocked to John
to listen, to repent, and to be baptized,
we are also called to change our way of thinking,
to reorder our lives,
and to publicly align ourselves
with the non-violent, non-fearful, non-egocentric,
and non-vindictive, Gospel of Jesus.
And to mark that commitment publicly.

Even Jesus did that, by requesting baptism.
Jesus was not so much repenting of personal sin,
as he was making a public declaration.
He was openly turning away from any selfish agenda,
and aligning his life with God’s larger agenda.
That’s what we are called to do as well,
in our baptism,
and in our Christian life.

It is the kind of clarity offered by the prophet Micah
in today’s other reading.
The priorities of the religious life are clear.
Not burnt offerings, or a thousand rams, or rivers of oil, Micah says.
But God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Walk humbly, with the God who loves us.
Who is with us.
Who is for us.

Because along with this call to clarity and courage,
I also call us to show compassion, and to comfort each other.
These are hard times.
Excruciatingly hard.
And frightening.
And traumatic.
And uncertain.

We get tired. Too tired to move.
Much less, get organized and start a new kind of movement.
That’s why we are in community.
We have differing gifts.
Some preach. Some pray. Some plan.
Some just try to ease pain.
And some just rest, so they can heal.
We start by repenting, and remembering who we are,
and what God’s vision of justice looks like.
And then we support each other in whatever way we can.

Let’s sing a song that’s new to us,
but written some time ago by John Bell, of the Iona Community.
It could have been written for this week.

“When trouble strikes and fear takes root.”
Receive this song as both honest lament, and word of hope.
Sung to the familiar tune of “when I survey the wondrous cross.”
Sing with us, will you?

When trouble strikes and fear takes root
And dreams are dry and sense unsound;
When hope becomes a barren waste,
The doubts like mountains soar around.

Our wandering minds believe the worst
And ask, as faith and fervour fade,
“Has God now turned his back on us
forsaking those he loved and made?”

God says “See how a woman cares.
Can she forget the child she bore?
E’en if she did, I shan’t forget:
Though feeling lost, I love you more”

“My dearest daughter, fondest son,
My weary folk in every land,
Your souls are cradled in my heart,
Your names are written on my hand.”

Then praise the Lord through faith and fear,
In holy and in hopeless place;
For height and depth and heaven and hell
Can’t keep us far from God’s embrace.

—Phil Kniss, January 10, 2021

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Sunday, January 3, 2021

Phil Kniss: Jesus the inquisitive

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — The Young Jesus
Luke 2:41-52

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So, are you ready for our deep dive into the Gospel of Luke?
For the next four months,
we will move thoughtfully and thoroughly through this book.

But before we start the journey,
we should survey the landscape.
Whenever I go on a hike,
I study the terrain ahead of time with a topographical map.

One day last week I hiked in the George Washington National Forest,
with two of my daughters and a son-in-law.
It was a hike none of us had done before.
So eager were we to get into the woods,
that we all forgot to download the map to our phones
before we got out of cell phone range.
We had only a general idea where we were heading,
and figured we could depend on signs.
Sure enough, we found a well-marked sign,
pointing up a well-worn trail,
so off we went.

Now, if any of us had looked at the map first,
before walking half a mile on that beautiful, but wrong trail,
we wouldn’t have climbed about 1,000 feet higher than we wanted,
and in the wrong direction.
But then—we’d have also missed a great aerobic workout,
and a perfect sermon illustration.

So let’s pause a minute, and study Luke’s topographical map.
We just spent a couple weeks in the first two chapters,
stories around Jesus’ birth narrative.
Now, from here through chapter 9,
we’ll follow Jesus all around Galilee—
his home territory,
as he goes from town to town preaching, teaching, healing,
proclaiming God’s reign.
That will take us up to the beginning of Lent.
And then fittingly, in chapters 9-19,
Luke gives us a good long look
at Jesus’ good long journey from Galilee toward Jerusalem,
as he walks away from home,
toward the center of religious and political power,
with a message that will trouble the powers,
and cause a lot of trouble for him,
during an eventful final week of his life,
in chapters 19-24.
That takes us up through Easter,
and then we’ll look some at Acts, and the early church.

This is all very well organized and laid out by Luke.
He tells us so, in the first couple verses of the book:
“I have decided to write an orderly account . . .”

Luke doesn’t tell a story in the abstract.
He places it in a context.
For his mostly Jewish readers,
Luke wants to draw a line connecting Jesus with their tradition,
with their Torah,
with their scriptures,
and to draw that line straight through Jesus to the church,
a new people of God.

Like other Gospels,
Luke was written down during the church age,
written by and for the church.
So to his church audience, Luke says,
the Jesus story is trustworthy
because it fulfills what God has said and done all along.

His church community was likely in distress and struggling.
At best, they were labeled a fringe group.
At worst, dangerous heretics worthy of death.
Luke reassures his troubled church.
Tells them they are in the right place.
He validates them.
He says, the church is in continuity with Israel of old.
God always had this purpose,
and Jesus fulfilled it, Luke says.
“You Jesus followers are in that same stream.
You are right where God wants you!
Be strong.
Be courageous.
This is the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.
Believe it. Live it.”

That’s why so much of the birth narrative these last few Sundays
kept referring to the prophets.
Luke was drawing that connecting line.

And in today’s story, about the boy Jesus left behind in the temple,
same thing.

And by the way, in case you’re worried,
this is not a story about bad parenting.
Joseph and Mary had every reason to assume Jesus was with them.
They were traveling as a large community.
Like most pre-teens in that culture,
Jesus was accountable to the whole clan,
not just to his nuclear family.

In any case, this story spotlights Luke’s main literary agenda.
Jesus is connecting with his faith heritage, early on.

Now, what exactly was Jesus doing back at the temple?
We should not conclude that Jesus was super-human,
being something other than a 12-year-old boy.
Yes, we’d like to think Jesus, the all-knowing Son of God,
engaged the priests and Torah scholars on their level,
or even, that he instructed them,
correcting their errors.

I don’t think so.
I do think there was something stirring in him.
No, he did not yet grasp his peculiar role
in God’s cosmic salvation story.
But at 12, it was enough that the Spirit was stirring in him,
and he was being attentive and inquisitive.
He inherited that trait from his mother.

Yes, the Mary who pondered.
The Mary who treasured things in her heart.
In the temple that day,
we see a boy being his mother’s child.

And maybe we should take even more mystery out of this story,
and admit Jesus was being a fairly normal 12-year-old.
Okay, maybe not all 12-years-olds have the maturity
to ask searching questions of religious leaders.
But 12-year-olds are by nature, inquisitive.
Jesus was being a healthy human 12-year-old.
Like his age-peers,
he had his eyes and ears wide open.
He had his senses keenly tuned.

And speaking of attentive 12-year-olds,
here’s another line that connects Jesus
to the Old Testament prophetic tradition.
Remember the story of the boy Samuel,
sent to live and work alongside the priest Eli?
He heard a voice in the night that Eli couldn’t hear.
Because Samuel has his ears tuned and attentive.
He heard the voice, moved toward it,
and asked good questions.

It’s adults who think this is unusual.
Many of us, I fear, grow up to be less inquisitive.
We grow less comfortable with unanswered questions.
We survive by putting the world into neat categories.
And once we have it categorized,
we can put away our unsettling ambiguity,
and heave a sigh of relief,
and stop listening.
At least we used to.
Maybe 2020 will have cured us of the impulse
to make our world neat and tidy.

But children never stop listening.  They never stop looking.
There is very little that children miss.
They notice.
They live with their eyes and ears wide open.
They pay attention to what’s happening around them.
Usually, they aren’t afraid to get up close,
so they can hear better and see better.

That, dear friends . . . dear adult friends,
is what we need to learn better how to do.
I think if I were to make only one
New Year’s Resolution for myself,
having survived 2020 and preparing for 2021,
it is to keep my eyes open.
Not just my literal eyeballs.
The eyes of my heart.
The eyes of my soul.
The part of me that moves toward
that which grabs my attention,
not blindly, but with open eyes.
Ready to let my reality be examined,
even as I examine the reality of the world around me.
And with nuance.

I’ve had enough of dividing ourselves into red and blue,
rural and urban,
educated and uneducated,
and on and on.

There is no such thing as a red state or blue state,
unless you are counting votes.
Otherwise, let’s be honest.
Every state is a multi-colored and multi-cultural
shade of purple.
In every rural community,
you will find some degree of sophistication
and enlightenment and worldly wisdom.
And in every hip urban community,
you will discover shades of ignorance and rigidity,
and unwillingness to learn something new.

I do not want to be lulled into thinking
that a change of political party in the White House . . . or the Senate,
will mean a fundamental change in our human condition.
We will still fumble and stumble through life.
We will make mistakes.
And to put it theologically, we will sin.

I want to be like Jesus.
That is, the 12-year-old boy Jesus,
who didn’t yet fully know who he was.
I want to ask good questions.
I want to wonder about things.
I want to imagine a better world.
I want to keep my eyes and ears open,
even, or especially, when
the one right in front of me is someone I don’t understand.

So here we are on the first Sunday of 2021,
still worshipping together while scattered,
still trying to figure out how to be a real body,
when our bodies can’t share the same space.

The Lord’s Table can help us in this regard.
The table always, always, represents
something we have not yet fully realized.
God has done God’s work.
But on our part, the table is an aspiration, a hope,
not a done deal.
Today the body of Christ is fractured in many different ways—
culturally, economically, theologically,
and now COVID keeps us apart physically.
That does not change the reality of what this Table means.
Jesus Christ is the host at this meal.
And Jesus has one body—the church,
in all its varied expressions,
in all its frail imperfections.
Jesus makes us one, because of who he is and what he did.

That story will unfold for us in Luke, for many weeks to come.
But today we celebrate the end point—
the oneness we can have with God and each other,
because of the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

So, thank you, 12-year-old Jesus,
for living your life with eyes wide open.
And help us, Risen Christ, to live the same way today.

Let us now come to the table,
from wherever you are,
join us in Spirit and in action,
as we partake of the bread and cup.

Near the end of Jesus’ ministry journey,
he and his disciples ate their last Passover meal together.
It says in Luke 22,
19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it,
and gave it to them, saying,
“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
which is poured out for you.”

May God bless this bread and cup
to our physical and spiritual nourishment.  Amen.

Now, if you wish, as the singers sing,
please join us
by partaking of the bread and cup at home,
or wherever you find yourself this morning.

—Phil Kniss, January 3, 2021

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