Sunday, September 26, 2021

Phil Kniss: The people God rolls with

Called with a promise: Jacob’s Dream
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary

Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23, 28:10-17

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It’s strange, the kind of people God chooses in the Bible.
When something must be done that’s really important,
that could make or break God’s whole cosmic project
of restoring shalom to all creation,
why is it that God ends up depending on
such a motley crew of sometimes-shady characters?
Makes you wonder who’s running the HR department
inside the pearly gates?
Did they even think of running a background check?

Sure, God’s chosen people have their shining moments,
and we appreciate them for their occasional acts of courage,
and self-sacrifice,
and humble service.
But on the other hand,
there are some really bizarre things going on in these stories.

Just the fact that these stories made the cut in our holy scriptures,
ought to convince any skeptic of the Bible’s authenticity.
If the Bible was only a collection of religious propaganda,
it would be mostly larger-than-life hero stories.
There wouldn’t be so many stories,
that make our religious ancestors look so flawed, so human,
look so much like . . . well . . . like us!

Jacob is in focus this Sunday.
And he, alongside his mother Rebekka,
is portrayed as a deceiver, and outright liar,
in order to get what he believes he has coming to him—
the blessing of the first-born.

Well, lying for the purpose of self-enrichment,
seems to run in the blood of this holy family.
Jacob got it honestly.
He is the grandson of Abraham,
who lied to a foreign king, saying his wife Sarah was his sister,
so they would treat him well,
which meant his wife was claimed by the king,
and likely not treated well,
and after the truth came to light,
the King, in order to avoid any public shame,
gave Abraham all kinds of privileges, wealth, and protection.

Any many years later, lo and behold,
Abraham’s son Isaac does the very same with his wife Rebekah.
Lies about their relationship,
watches his wife get carted away,
and then the king makes amends,
by giving him all kinds of privileges and access.
And he got so wealthy and powerful,
that the king asked him to leave that land,
and go live somewhere else.

I mention all this,
because there is a lot of back story to this narrative we heard today
in Genesis 27 and 28.
A lot of back story, and a lot of baggage.

By necessity,
we don’t have the luxury of covering the whole narrative this fall.
So we jump over large sections of the story,
and even in the story,
we jump over certain parts.

Let me remind us of what we didn’t read
in this story about Jacob and Esau and the birthright.

First of all, before they were even born,
God spoke to Rebekka, and gave her a prophecy,
“the older will serve the younger.”
And when the twin boys were born,
Esau came out first,
but Jacob was right behind,
and holding on to the heel of his first-born brother.
Hebrew scholars point out that even Jacob’s name
points to deceit.
Hebrew is a language of consonants,
with vowel sounds thrown in to alter the meaning.
So the same three Hebrew consonants
that make the name Jacob,
also make a word meaning “to come behind”
or “to supplant, or overreach.”
And . . . the same three letters make the word for “heel.”
So Jacob has come to mean, “heel grabber”or “supplanter.”

But setting aside Jacob for a moment,
think about Rebekah.
She had been lied about by her own husband,
and handed over to a king’s harem,
and according to Genesis 26:8,
it was a “long time” later,
that the truth came to light.

Perhaps we might be less harsh with Rebekah,
and the scheming and deceit she helped mastermind.
Yes, she developed the plan to have her favorite son Jacob
trick Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing of the first-born,
before Isaac had a chance to get it.
When you consider the multi-generational practice
of gain by deceit, with the men in this family,
and when you consider the years, perhaps,
or at least many months that Rebekah paid the price
for being lied about by her husband,
and when you consider she was only acting
to help fulfill a prophecy God had already given her,
then maybe we could at least admire her
for using her own strength and smarts and ingenuity,
to help bring about God’s plan for Jacob.

In any case, Rebekah and Jacob do not stand alone in their deceit.
This family system had a long, illustrious history
of using morally suspect ways to “help” God
bring about God’s plans.
And it plays out on the pages of our holy scripture,
in some sad and tragic ways.
Jacob and Esau become blood enemies.
Jacob is forced to relocate far away,
and Rebekah lives out her life separated from her favorite son.
And Jacob’s deceit comes back to bite him later,
when he gets similar treatment from his father-in-law.

At least, that’s how these stories are written.
Some argue these stories
were handed down orally for generations,
and served the purpose of explaining
how things turned out in the end,
like how Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, dominated
Esau’s descendants, the Edomites.
But this Jacob and Esau story, as it is written in Genesis,
is part of the Torah that shaped Jewish faith for all time,
and which continues to shape us.

So what do we gain from this story,
for our complicated and contemporary life?

Obviously, the key elements here are foreign to us.
We lack reference points
to understand an ancient patriarchal society,
where marital relationships were so
transactional and economic,
where the oldest son’s birth-right was all-important,
and gave him power and control over his siblings.

But maybe . . . God’s basic modus operandi
hasn’t changed all that much.

Maybe God still looks to flawed people to carry out God’s mission.
Maybe God still has the same HR director,
who doesn’t do background checks.

Because otherwise,
who of us would have been chosen?
We all have checkered pasts,
and a few skeletons in our family closet.

I’ve come to the conclusion that God is a very patient God.
More patient than we are.

The group of local pastors who meet weekly
to talk about the narrative lectionary texts,
includes a Lutheran pastor from Mt. Sidney, Derek Boggs,
who asked a question of us during our discussion of Jacob and Esau.
He asked,
“Do you think God intended to use all this lying and deceit
to accomplish his will,
or did God just roll with it?”

Thank you, Derek, for inspiring my sermon title,
“The people God rolls with.”

Yes, actually, I think God did not design it to unfold in this way.
But God rolled with it.
God rolled with Jacob and his whole dysfunctional family.
And God rolls with us.

That is who God is.
God has a primary motivation behind this whole project.
It is love.
And love is not possible without free will.
So God does everything possible to see that
those purposes are fulfilled.
Everything possible, that is.
Coercing us to be in a relationship,
is the one thing that is impossible for God.
Because to do so, would betray God’s core character of love.

Brothers and sisters,
we have disappointed God in the past.
And we still disappoint God today.
And I assure you, we will keep on disappointing God.
We miss the mark.
We also lie, to ourselves and to others, and sometimes to God.

The Good News is, God rolls with us.
The will and purposes of God are persistent.
They persist beyond our bumbling efforts to obey,
even beyond our sometimes purposeful disobedience.

And if that is the case with us, then let’s also remind ourselves—
God rolls with other people, too,
including those we’d rather God didn’t roll with.

As I said, God is more patient than we are.

We look around and we see dysfunction everywhere—
a dysfunctional political system,
a dysfunctional widening gap between rich and poor,
a dysfunctional society fueled by white supremacy and other evils,
and of course, dysfunction in our own
churches and neighborhoods and families.

We may well be tempted to throw in the towel.
“This cannot be fixed!”

But what is God’s response?
God rolls with us.
Now, this does not mean God approves of our dysfunction
or blesses it.
God hates injustice.
God does not turn a blind eye,
or ignore the evils we perpetrate on each other.
God lets the consequences play out.
Just as God let Jacob and his beloved mother
remain cut off from each other,
and let anger and hatred fester for years
between the twin boys.

Yet, even as these consequences are playing out,
God keeps showing up, again and again,
looking for a little receptivity.
That’s what happened to Jacob,
in the latter part of today’s story—
Jacob’s ladder, Jacob’s dream in the desert,
during a 500-mile journey to escape his twin brother.
He dreamed of a ladder stretching to heaven,
with angels going up and down.
God stood at the top and spoke to him.
Assured Jacob that the promise still applied to him,
despite the fix he was in,
despite his broken family,
despite everything.
I am still with you, Jacob.
I am still rolling with you.

The take-away, for us, seems to be—
God will not reject us, or refuse to work with us,
whenever we do open ourselves, even slightly,
to doing God’s work and will.

If God can roll with the likes of Jacob and Isaac and Abraham,
maybe God can roll with some people today
who call themselves Christian,
but whose values are so at odds with mine.

When I take into account the people God rolls with,
I am moved to gratitude and compassion.
Gratitude for God’s grace extended to me.
And compassion for those I am tempted to despise.

Let us say and sing our confession of faith.
Pick up your bulletin,
and also, turn to Voices Together #542, Christ Calls to Me.
We will read this confession together,
and then go directly into the song.

one We are less than perfect. Far less.
all Yet God calls us to join God’s work in the world.
one Like Jacob, we are impatient.
We try to hurry up God, and in so doing,
hurt ourselves and others.
all Yet God stays with us, for our sake, and for the world.
one We miss the mark,
our eyes are clouded, our senses dulled,
we do not see the path to heaven’s glory.
all Yet God bids us dream God’s dream.
one God throws open the gates of heaven,
we see what God sees, and we say,
all Surely the Lord is in this place, and we were not aware of it.
one Not because of our merit, but because of our need,
all God calls, welcomes, blesses.
Thanks be to God.

—Phil Kniss, September 26, 2021

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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Phil Kniss: Trusting God for our future

Called to go all in: The binding of Isaac
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary

Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-4

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In case you have trouble appreciating
today’s reading from Genesis 22, rest assured.
You’re not the first one . . . to read this story about
God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac,
and say . . . “What . . . ???”

This is a story well-known by Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
And since ancient times, even before the days of Jesus,
there has been a whole raft of a
different proposals for how to approach this story,
different tools to interpret it,
different far-out ways to get around the obvious difficulties.
Someone could teach a semester-long graduate course on this story,
(and they probably have)
and they would only scratch the surface
of the literature that’s already out there,
that tries to make sense of it,
and just as much literature giving reasons why
those other explanations really don’t work.
So . . . don’t expect me to solve your discomfort in 15 minutes.

If you want to engage this story this morning,
just expect to leave here with questions you will live with,
rather than answer.

We modern readers of Genesis 22
naturally are left to wonder about some things.
We wonder why Abraham didn’t issue more objections.
At least, no objections are recorded in the story.
Didn’t Abraham go to great lengths
to object and argue with God repeatedly, earlier,
after God announced plans to destroy a city
where Abraham’s nephew Lot lived?
We also wonder why a loving God
would have demanded such a violent act to begin with.
What this the only way God could give Abraham a test?
Why did God even have to gather this information?
Wouldn’t an all-knowing God, by definition,
already know how Abraham would respond?
Why put Abraham through such suffering?
And we wonder where Sarah was in this story?
Did she even know the sacrifice God asked of Abraham?
We wonder how she felt later,
knowing how far Abraham had gone toward that sacrifice.
The next chapter in Genesis tells about the death of Sarah.
Did she die still carrying deep heartache or anger?
Each question leads to another question.

So let’s dig in a little bit.
Obviously, a lot has happened in Genesis,
between last Sunday’s Creation story,
and today’s story about Abraham and Isaac.

After the creation story, there are six or seven chapters
of what we would call pre-history,
stories about the origin of human sin,
stories of how human society developed and spread over the earth,
the story of Noah and the Great Flood, etc.

Then there’s a couple dozen chapters about a specific family—
Abraham and Sarah and their clan.
In chapter 12, God calls Abraham for the first time,
promises to give him and Sarah
more descendants than they could count.
Then we learn of Sarah’s long barrenness, into her old age,
which made God’s promise seem like utter non-sense.
Then Abraham tries a work-around, with Sarah’s servant,
and had a son that wasn’t Sarah’s.
and finally, the miraculous birth of their own son Isaac,
born to them both in their old age.

So God’s original great promise to Abraham,
hinges entirely on God’s gift to them,
on their beloved Isaac.
Isaac is the one and only pathway through which
God’s promise of numberless descendants can be fulfilled.
There’s a lot to put on a boy, isn’t it?
Not only a lot of theological weight riding on Isaac.
But emotional weight—their only child, their only hope.
I wonder what it was like to be Isaac?

That’s the back story to God’s
surprising and absurd and deeply disturbing demand
that Abraham give up his son Isaac,
and sacrifice him on an altar.

What kind of cruel God does this? we wonder.
In fact, some ancient Jewish writings on this story,
written at least 100 years before Christ,
change the character that makes this demand of Abraham.
Instead of the one God Yahweh asking Abraham,
it’s Prince Mastema, a Satan-type figure.
But in the story itself, there is no doubt among scholars.
Yahweh is in focus.

But here is something intriguing.
Scholars also observe that in this Genesis 22 account,
the dialogue throughout is minimal,
and sometimes a bit vague and indefinite.
Some suggest that the very way the story is written
is a rhetorical device, intending not to explain in detail
what the characters were thinking.
Rather, it presses the reader into the shoes of those characters,
makes them feel the sharp horns of the dilemma,
gives them a taste of Abraham’s agony,
so they wonder to themselves,
how would I have reacted?
what would I have done?

I like that notion. Because, at the end of the day,
I can’t find satisfying answers to all my questions about this story.
But I can allow this story to be a catalyst
for going deeper,
and asking questions of myself.

Like . . . do I really trust God with my entire future?

That was the Big Ask of Abraham.
Isaac was his entire future.
Everything Abraham did his whole life was in response
to a promise of a future,
a future that could only exist if Isaac lived a long life.
Would Abraham be so loyal to the God who gave the promise,
that he would be ready to say yes, no matter the apparent cost?
Abraham passed this test.

So how are we doing on that score?
Has God ever asked something of us
that at least appears to be putting our future at risk?

I don’t know,
maybe you haven’t ever considered that as a question.
Maybe we are so accustomed to mapping out our own future,
and preparing thoroughly for that future,
and getting all our ducks in a row, and keeping them there,
that we have never seriously considered that
God might be nudging us toward something
that puts our future on the line.

And maybe it doesn’t come in the form of a voluntary sacrifice.
Maybe it comes as an unwelcome surprise from an un-Godly force—
a crisis we were powerless to prevent.
Not something we would ever to attribute to God,
just the harsh realities of life that occasionally happen
in an imperfect world, spinning through space.
Loss of property, loss of financial resources,
loss of a relationship,
loss of life,
loss of health,
loss of anything we were counting on as part of our future.

It’s not a direct parallel, of course, to this Bible story
about a voluntary sacrifice,
but maybe the same question is being asked of us by God,
“Do you trust me, with your whole future?”
Or, are you gripping so hard on the wheel,
that you are losing your joy, your hope, your faith in me?

It would be a good exercise for each of us sometime,
in some moments of reflection,
to make a short list of those things that we value,
those things we are banking on to carry us into
the future we think we are called to,
the future we may even think God has prepared for us.

In a way, it’s like taking inventory of our life insurance policies,
figuratively speaking.
What are those things we think ensure us a solid future?
And what is our attitude toward those things?
When God asks us to follow,
with all that we are, and all that we have . . .
which parts of “all” are we holding back in reserve?

It’s not only heroic stories of faith
from biblical giants like Abraham and Sarah,
that lead us to this question.

No, this was the same question
Jesus asked his very ordinary followers to consider,
in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 16.
“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world
but forfeit their life?”
And if this question applies to us individual disciples,
we can be sure it also applies to the church.
Can we as a church trust God with our whole future?
What if the church is asked to give up some form of our life
that appears to be essential for our future?
What if the church and its mission
starts getting pushed to the margins of our culture,
and politely ignored? (as it generally is)
What if some institutional pillar of the church starts to crumble?
Are we willing to trust God with our life and mission?

Those words of Jesus haunt me,
as much as the story of Abraham and Isaac.
“Those who want to save their life will lose it.
And those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

I don’t know exactly what that means for me, or for the church.
But I do believe this.
It is a question that is real, and that is now.
It is a question we would be wise to reflect on,
and live with for a while,
instead of ignoring and moving on to the next glittering thing.

Will you join me in making our confession before God?
one For when we have held back, out of fear for the future,
  all forgive us, Lord.
one For when anxieties lead us to hold on to what we must lose,
or lose what we must hold on to,
  all forgive us, Lord.
one For when our willingness to trust you falters,
because that which we hold dear is being threatened,
  all forgive us, Lord.
one For whenever we give you less than
our full selves and our whole future,
  all forgive us, Lord.
one The God who holds the future, also holds you, and holds us all,
in trustworthy, steadfast, and endless love.
Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, September 19, 2021

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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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