Sunday, October 31, 2021

Phil Kniss: The God-in-a-box temptation

Solomon builds a temple
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary
1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13

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“We are all tempted to put God in a box.”

Now, there’s nothing new or profound about that statement.
It’s a metaphor that can mean different things.
And preachers everywhere, including me, say it often.

But today’s reading takes it to a new level.
In 1 Kings, God-in-a-box is not a metaphor. It is literal.
And there are two very different boxes at the center of the story.
I mean . . . Rectangular.  Physical.  Boxes.
A big box and a little box.
Did you notice them in the reading?

The big box, of course,
is the temple that Solomon had an insatiable desire to build,
and finally achieved it.
The little box is the Ark of the Covenant,
something they’ve been schlepping around
everywhere they’ve wandered since Mt. Sinai.

Well . . . schlepping . . . is probably not the right word when we describe
carrying the Ark of the Covenant.
This Ark was considered so holy,
that even touching it the wrong way was instant death.
There is a story in 2 Samuel 6,
where the ark was being transported by oxcart
to a new place of worship,
and the oxen stumbled on uneven ground,
and the ark started to slip on the cart,
and the cart driver, Uzzah, touched the ark to steady it,
and he was struck dead.
I won’t try to exegete that Bible story today.
We’ll just let it sit right there.
I won’t even touch it, so to speak.

But here’s what I want to say:
Both these boxes—the big and the little one—
had the express purpose of housing the Divine Presence.
One of these boxes (the little one)
was built on God’s explicit and detailed instructions.
The other box (the big one) seems, at best, to be tolerated by God.

We have a detailed biblical account
of God giving the plans, details, and blueprint to Moses,
for building the ark of the covenant.
We’ll call it the Covenant Box,
to distinguish it from the Temple Box.
In Exodus, God gave Moses a precise set of plans,
with measurements,
a materials list,
and building specs
for making the Covenant Box,
and for constructing the tabernacle,
a big portable tent that sheltered the Covenant Box,
wherever they camped out.

In contrast,
building the temple was King David’s idea from the beginning.
David went to God for permission.
But it was only after he built himself a huge elaborate palace,
and then got embarrassed seeing God’s tent next to it.
God denied David’s application for a building permit.
On two major counts.
Read about it in 2 Samuel 7.

First, God said,
“Who am I to need a luxury cedar-paneled house to live in?
In all these generations I’ve traveled with the Israelites,
have I ever, once, asked for a permanent house to live in?”

Secondly, God said, “If I let someone build me a house,
it needs to be someone with less blood on their hands.
You have fought too many wars and shed too much blood,
for you to be a worthy builder of a Temple.
Wait till Solomon grows up to be King, and we’ll see.

Later, David handed over the already-drawn-up blueprints
to Solomon, saying, “Here, these are the plans God gave me.”
Right, David.
If we believe God dictated those plans to David,
we need to ignore the fact God made it very clear
he had no interest in a Temple Box.

If these were God’s detailed plans,
strange that the Bible tells us nothing
about how or when God gave them.
For the Covenant Box and Tabernacle, we get the whole story
of God laying out the blueprints in front of Moses.

All we get here is David saying,
“Here are the plans I drew up, as God gave them to me.”
A safer assumption is that David projected God’s inspiration
on these plans, after the fact.
It was David who was obsessed about building a Temple.
And, unsurprisingly, the floor plans and layout
resemble other temples of the same era,
in Phoenicia, Syria, and elsewhere.
We should always be suspicious if somebody tells us
that God told them exactly how to do something,
that they have been aching to do for the last 20 years.

Now, all this doesn’t mean Solomon’s Temple
served no useful purpose in Israel’s religious life.
But I do think we should be honest about how it came about.

The closest God gets to blessing the project,
without really blessing the project,
are the two recorded instances where God spoke to Solomon.

In 1 Kings 6, during construction, God says,
“About this house that you are building,
if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances,
and keep all my commandments, etc.,
I will live among the children of Israel,
and will not forsake them.”

And 1 Kings 9, after the Temple’s dedication,
and after a long, beautiful,
and maybe even heart-felt prayer by Solomon,
God said,
“I heard your prayer and plea.
So I have consecrated this house,
and I will live in it.
But only as long as you walk before me
with integrity of heart and uprightness,
doing according to all that I have commanded you.
But, if you turn aside from following me,
I will cast this house out of my sight.
Israel will become a taunt among all peoples.
This house will become a heap of ruins.”

So according to scripture itself, God’s acceptance of the Temple Box,
is ambivalent, and conditional.

And the biblical writers had other more subtle ways
of casting judgement on Solomon.
When the Temple was completed,
chapter 6 of 1 Kings ends with the words,
“Solomon was seven years in building it.”
The very next words (chapter 7, verse 1), are,
“Solomon was building his own house thirteen years.”

Chapter and verse divisions did not exist in the original.
So readers of the Hebrew Bible
always read these two sentences back-to-back.
Solomon spent seven years building a house for God.
And he spent thirteen years building his own house.

Not exactly a resounding endorsement of Solomon.
It also points out in the text that he used forced labor—
slaves—of his own Israelite people to get this work done.
And didn’t God warn the people,
when they first asked for a king, way back in 1 Samuel?
“Kings will enrich themselves at your expense,
they will make slaves out of your sons and daughters.”
Well, there it is. Spelled out in scripture.
Solomon is exactly the King God warned them about.

So what are we to make of all this?
Is this just interesting ancient history,
that doesn’t really impact our lives,
because we don’t have a state religion
with Kings and Temples?
Or is there a message for us?

Now, just to be clear, I like boxes.
I mean, the literal boxes we use for worship.
I am drawn to physical beauty and symmetry,
the aesthetic side of worship moves me.
I don’t want to diminish that.

The Covenant Box was a beautiful piece of furniture,
and although rarely seen,
was a tangible reminder and focal point of Hebrew worship.
It had value.

And the Temple Box was beautiful beyond compare.
For those gathered in its courtyards and inner sanctums,
it inspired awe,
and facilitated the worship of God in certain ways.
I don’t doubt that.
I understand why structures like these
become even larger than life,
because of how they move us emotionally and spiritually.
Christian cathedrals work the same way.
They inspire worship.
They draw our minds and heart toward the transcendent.
And we get attached to them.
That’s why the burning of the Notre Dame cathedral
a few years ago,
caused massive grief around the world,
and why crying people filled the streets of Paris.

So, yes. Let us allow for, and even affirm,
our human need to create beauty and permanence.
But . . . and you knew there was going to be a “yes, but.”

But boxes have a shadow side.
They create an illusion that we can contain God.
They can obscure the fact that God is on the move,
in ways we cannot predict or box in.
They encourage us to think we always know where God is,
and where God isn’t.

Let’s look again at the difference between the two boxes in our text.
The Temple Box was inescapably associated with permanence,
with wealth,
with political and economic power,
with worship rituals that could easily be corrupted,
with a whole Temple system
that worked to maintain the status quo,
that reinforced the power of the King,
whose palace was next door, in the same compound.

In stark contrast,
the Covenant Box was meant to be carried.
It had carrying poles attached to it at all times.
And the articles and objects inside the Covenant Box,
were all symbols of a single time or a moment,
in Israel’s history of wandering,
where God met them in a powerful way,
to provide for them in hardship,
and deliver them from bondage.
It contained Aaron’s rod that budded
(to recall their miraculous escape from Egypt).
It had a jar of manna
(to recall God’s generous provision in a time of need).
It had the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments,
(to help them remember the relational covenant
they had with Yahweh).

All of these were reminders of God’s faithfulness
to God’s people who were on the move,
because God was on the move.
They inspired not permanence and power and wealth.
They inspired dependence, trust, faith in God’s enough.

So how do the boxes we still build for God today, compare?

This sermon is by no means anti-box or anti-building,
or even anti-cathedral.
The question is how do we relate to the boxes we build?
Are we trying to squeeze God to fit entirely inside our boxes,
so that we always know where to find God—
in our box, in our words, with our rituals,
so we don’t have to be anxious when God seems absent,
we can always return to our box, and find God there?
And at what point do we start to slip from
the worship of God, to the worship of our box?

I think it’s fitting that this week,
Sam Petersheim and a friend are heading down
to New Orleans’ Ninth Ward on our behalf,
in order to help repair the roof of the box we helped to build
for our sisters and brothers at Christian Baptist Church.
That box—as simple and unadorned as it may be—
is highly important to them and their life of worship.
I’m glad we helped them rebuild it years ago,
and are still helping them maintain it.

The God-in-a-box temptation is a temptation for every church—
for Park View Mennonite, and for Christian Baptist Church.
And it’s a temptation for every religion, not just our own.
It is a temptation
both for the literal boxes or sanctuaries we build,
and the metaphorical boxes we create ourselves
to hold our experience of God.
We create boxes for God,
so we know where to find God and worship God.
But then we are immediately tempted to limit God to that box.

God is on the move, still.
And God wants to move in tandem with us.
God’s first desire, still,
is to make our boxes portable, like the Covenant Box.
Not meaning literal movable tents,
but committing ourselves to be a church on the move,
not a church that worships a God that we have somehow
nailed down to one place and one tradition.

May God give us the insight, and courage,
to be a people of the Covenant Box,
never forgetting our need to follow where God is moving.

Let us join together in confession,
with the words printed in your bulletin.

one Lord, we confess we often bend away from your purposes,
instead of toward them.
all We seek to contain the uncontainable,
one to predict the unchartable,
all to know the unsearchable,
one to master the mystery,
all to be sure of where we can go
to the find the God we want to have.
one God, give us the courage to free you from our own prisons.
Give us the willingness to let you run wild upon the earth,
carrying out your healing mission in all places,
and inviting us to run with you.

—Phil Kniss, October 31, 2021

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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Phil Kniss: Who God chooses: Breaking the code

God calls David’
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary
1 Samuel 16:1-13

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Here’s my sermon in 10 words—
New story.
Same question.
And the beginnings of an answer.

In our narrative lectionary this fall,
this new story from 1 Samuel 16
brings into sharp focus the same question
we have already pondered multiple times.

I asked the question a few weeks ago
when I noted all the shady characters God chooses
when God needs partners to help heal the world.

Jacob lied to his father to steal the blessing of the firstborn.
Abraham and Isaac, both passed off their wives as sisters,
putting them in harm’s way,
so as to gain a tactical advantage for themselves.

The question is, why in the world
does God choose the people God chooses?

That’s the precise question being asked in today’s story, too.
But this is a different sort of story.
It doesn’t involve morally questionable behavior,
that leads the reader to ask, in reflection,
“Why is God working with these scoundrels?”

Today, the question is not implied,
it’s the central point of the story.
And it’s not the reader asking the question,
every character in the story is wrestling with it.

This is a story about God choosing someone,
and about God’s rationale for the choosing.
It’s one of few places in scripture,
that openly examine God’s rationale.
Even Jesus’ selection of his 12 disciples
doesn’t get this investigative treatment.
It’s simply told matter-of-factly,
that Jesus said to them, “Follow me,” and they followed.

But here, there is an orderly selection process,
run by people who think they have a pretty good idea
about what God wants.
This is a search for a king of Israel.
And a highly unusual search,
in that it’s done in secret,
while the present king is alive and well,
and sitting on the throne.

God rejected the currently reigning King Saul,
because of disobedience, God tells Samuel.
And God directed Samuel to go to the family of Jesse,
and identify the king that God was going to choose.

Now there is a normal way to select ruling monarchs.
And this isn’t it.
Kings don’t campaign for office.
The throne is a birth-right.

So when Samuel was sent to the family of Jesse,
Both Samuel and Jesse knew how this would play out.
Jesse’s family had good DNA.
He was from a good tribe.
And he had a whole line of strong, handsome sons,
of leadership caliber,
all capable of leading an army into warfare,
which, in the Ancient Near East,
was the main job of the King.

Just by identifying the family of Jesse,
God’s work was already done here, so it would seem.
There was a code for this situation,
and Samuel and Jesse knew the code.
The first-born son was the first choice.
The only way it wouldn’t be him,
is if something glaring disqualified him.
In which case, it would be the second son,
and on down the line.
If Samuel just followed the code,
he wouldn’t need much help from God at this point.
But we already know something about Samuel.
He’s a listener.
Remember last Sunday’s story of the boy Samuel in the night?
“Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”
When Samuel listened for God’s affirmation of the #1 son,
the affirmation didn’t come.
Nor did it come for son #2.
Nor 3 through 7.

Son #8 was absent.
Sometimes we like to think of this as a kind of Cinderella story.
That son #8 was somehow despised by the rest of the family,
and therefore intentionally left out in the fields.
I rather doubt that.
At least, there’s no evidence of that in the text.
Fact is, someone needed to tend the sheep out in the fields,
and it was kind of a thankless job, so naturally,
the junior member of the family got stuck with it.

I assume father Jesse did not call David in from the fields
when he found out what Samuel came there to do,
because he was sure the oldest son would get picked,
or if (for some strange reason) it wasn’t him,
surely the second oldest.
This was a leader of armed forces being selected.
Jesse knew there was no way
it would go all the way down the line
bypassing all of the older seven strong and capable sons.
So it was an act of kindness, and practicality,
not to send his servants by foot
for many miles into the wild,
and drag David home for no good reason.

But when the unimaginable happened,
and the older seven were passed over,
Jesse stepped right up.
Yes, there’s a younger son.
And yes, we’ll go get him.

Then comes the best line in the story.
See, earlier, as they are going down the line of older sons,
and noting how strong and handsome they looked,
God spoke to Samuel,
“Do not consider his appearance.” . . . and . . .
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at.”
“People look at the outward appearance,
but the Lord looks at the heart.”

But the moment David appears,
the narrator of the story gushes, and I quote,
“He was glowing with health,
and had a fine appearance,
and handsome features.”
Clearly, King material, from all appearances.

And in fact, the Lord chose David.
The youngest.
Shaped by life as a sheep-herder.
Tough, and sensitive.
A poet, we would later learn.
One who must have,
after living a solitary life in the wild,
been deeply attuned to the rhythms of nature,
and attuned to himself,
to his inner life.

And . . . as the story of David unfolds,
we find out he was a passionate person . . .
one who felt, deeply . . .
one who was, you might say, a bit obsessive, and impulsive . . .
Whatever he decided to do, he was all in.
All in.
Whole-hearted, no holding back.

Now, as far as Jesse and the older sons were concerned,
and as far as Samuel was concerned,
and, it seems, as far as the narrator of the story was concerned,
those character traits were not even on the radar.

No, they were looking for physical health and strength,
suitable for leading a mighty army of fighting men.
They were looking for a kind of machismo
that would command a following,
a charisma that would attract people,
and keep them loyal as subjects.
And David checked off all the boxes.

But the reader is tipped off that God was looking for something else.
God was looking for a certain tilting of the heart,
a worshipful orientation toward God,
an all-in kind of love and passion for God.

And yes, I’m getting this from clues outside this story.
There’s only a hint of it here,
in what God tells Samuel.
But elsewhere, God calls David “a man after my own heart.”
And elsewhere, we read of David’s exploits—
and David’s passionate heart—
a heart he gives away to others quickly and freely—
to Jonathan, to Michal, to Abigail, to Bathsheba—
a heart which sometimes gets him into deep trouble,
when he acts before thinking things through—
a heart willing to repent when needed,
a heart that spills out with
some of the most emotional poetry ever written,
found in Psalms—
bitter laments and soaring high praise.
Nothing lukewarm there.
All passion.
All heart.

Nothing in today’s story makes us think
that anyone in the story broke the code—
the code that reveals God’s true rationale.
Neither Jesse, nor the older seven, nor Samuel,
nor even the narrator of the story
seems to get it.
They’re all focused on the capacity to lead an army.
The storyline itself assumes that was God’s rationale.

But the key to breaking the code,
the key to finding an answer to our burning question
of why God chooses the way God does—
that key is found in looking at the larger story.

It is found as we see David’s life unfold,
in Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, and in the Psalms.
And it is found most clearly in the person of Jesus,
who is sometimes called, not coincidentally, the “Son of David.”

We are familiar with the many hard teachings of Jesus,
that encourage his disciples, that encourage us . . . to go all in,
to hold nothing back,
to risk all for the kingdom—
to shed all restraint,
to turn the house upside down to find one lost coin
to leave 99 sheep alone, to find one stray,
to throw a lavish party, when the bad son returns,
and of course, to lay down our lives and carry our cross.

This was not new teaching by Jesus.
He was representing the same faith tradition
found throughout the Hebrew scriptures.
When someone asked Jesus about the greatest commandments,
he quoted, of course, the Torah.

We heard the quote in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 22:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God
with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your mind.’
This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
All the Law and the Prophets
hang on these two commandments.”

God is looking for people who can love like that!
When God looks for people to join with in common purpose,
God is looking for people who can love like that!

With all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength.
And with the same fervor we have in loving God,
we love our neighbors, and ourselves.
We even love neighbors
who happen to be enemies or adversaries.
We lay cold rationalism aside.
And we invest,
beyond what any market analysis would suggest.
We go in, with all our heart.

So who did God choose in the Bible?
And who does God choose today?

I am coming to believe that
God chooses those who have a fire in their belly.
Who are passionate.
Even slightly obsessed.

So, do people who lead with their heart sometimes fail?
Do the passionate occasionally misdirect their passions?
Do the obsessed every so often take the wrong fork in the road?
Do the fired up sometimes flame out?
Yes, yes, yes . . . and yes.

King David certainly did.
But he remained open in heart.
He learned, like Samuel, to listen.
And when called for, he repented, and changed course.

These are the ones God chooses.
I’ll bet the oldest seven sons of Jesse
would have made fine military commanders.
But if they lacked a humble heart tilted toward God,
they would have been long forgotten as leaders in God’s story.

Unlike the very flawed David,
who kept following his heart,
kept listening,
kept adjusting course,
kept seeking reconciliation with God.
And is remembered and admired, to this day.
Oh, for a heart like David’s.

one You see, O God, as we cannot see.
        You perceive the state of the heart, 
        and act according to your love and wisdom and mercy.
all Forgive us, O God, for judging others too quickly.
        Help us to see what you see.
one You look upon all of us whom you have created,
        and see reflected in us your own image,
        even when we have distorted or obscured that image.
all Forgive us, O God, for diminishing your image in us.
        Help us to love what you love.
one With the aid of your Holy Spirit, today we recommit ourselves to . . .
all Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, mind,
        and love our neighbors as ourselves.
one In deepest gratitude, we receive your forgiveness and grace.
        Renewed in spirit, we walk in your light and love.

—Phil Kniss, October 24, 2021

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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Moriah Hurst: Uncomfortable Callings

God calls Samuel: ‘Here I am!’
Listen! God is Calling!

Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary
1 Samuel 3:1-21

Watch the video:

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I am a sucker for videos on Facebook. I get mesmerized and drawn in by cake decorating. All the sudden I realize I’ve spend 10 minutes or more of my day watching flowers appear from the ends of piping bags and beauty crafted from butter and sugar. The thing is the algorithms learn what you like and they give you more of it. Lately, I watched a video of a young girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, playing a stringed instrument with gusto, backed by an orchestra. Thus my newsfeed has flooded with videos of talented children playing complicated musical pieces in front of large audiences long before we think they are old enough to manage the skill and the pressure of it.

But as much as we want to think of this story as a child protégée – Samuel so ready to respond to God’s call. A young man serving the Lord, even though he doesn’t know God yet. There is a mind bending clash here. This is more of a hard calling toward communal truths.

How many of us have heard sermons on Samuel’s calling and have held up our hands and sung with heartfelt commitment “here I am, Lord. Is it I Lord. I have heard you calling in the night…”. I know I have done that!

I’ve also learned - careful what you say “yes” to, God may take that “yes” seriously!

This is a story of deep listening, communal discernment and then speaking through trembling lips the words that will make our leaders and communities ears tingle. Words not for the individual direction but for the communal good. Its not an individualistic call of where am I going with my life – but God giving words that will not fall aside or to the ground. Words that we are scared to speak but that we know come from the deeper heart of something far beyond us.

Many of us have a stilted relationship with the Old Testament. We like some of the stories but it is also mixed in with a bunch of law and guts and gore and we don’t think we agree with it. So we dip in for the parts of the story we like. Cut it off when it gets to the verse that might complicate things. The gift of the narrative lectionary is that we get to put this in the context of the larger story and its also the challenge of not cutting it off when we like the ending, but reading the whole chapter. So often I have heard this story up to verse 10. We like the back and forth of Samuel jumping up at the sound of his name being called and finally recognizing that he needs to stay and listen to the voice of God. What God says to Samuel after God calls to him is not something life affirming, even though it does set Samuel on a vocational path. It is a message of punishment for those not respecting God and there is not a way out, sacrifices, confession and changed ways wont work here.

What God actually says gets difficult. There will be punishment and Eli, Samuel’s mentor, can’t make it better.

“Reluctantly, Samuel confirms what God already told Eli (in the earlier chapters of 1st Samuel). God would punish Eli, ending his family line, because Eli did not put a stop to his sons’ abuse of power. They raped the women who came to worship and seized the sacrifices people made there.” (

Throughout the Old Testament we zoom in and out. We hear the stories of individuals and then we zoom out and hear of the treatment of a people, their movements, their wars, their struggles and their decisions.
I listen to many commentators as we pick up this story from where we left off last week,

(slide The history of Israel)

“The wilderness lessons are over, and the people have settled into the land God promised Abraham. After Joshua, the Israelites are led by a series of judges who rise up in difficult times. As the book of Judges comes to an end, tribal wars threaten to tear the people apart. The promised land is not easy and without conflict.” (

“Samuel lives in a precarious time when “the word of the LORD was rare” (verse 1). This is a continuation of the problem at the end of book of Judges where “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Indeed, 1 Samuel 2 speaks of how Eli’s own sons did what was right in their own eyes in their work as priests (1 Samuel 2:11-17). The times are as dark as the night that falls at the beginning of the story.”

“The nation was falling apart. The system of judgeships had failed miserably. With all of the chaos, how could the community possibly continue? Would it die before it began? Would the promise God made to Abraham go unfulfilled? Who would God send to begin to deal with this mess? Samuel, Israel’s last judge and first prophet since Moses, is God’s answer.

(Slide Bible Time line)

Samuel was born at a pivotal point in Israel’s history. He represents Israel’s transition from a loose system of judges to a unified monarchy. The writer introduces the reader to Samuel by first introducing his mother, Hannah. Hannah’s story is the perfect segue for this transition because her story is diametrically opposed to stories of abuse and sexual objectification of women in Judges.

Since the Bible seldom tells women’s stories, it is noteworthy that 1 Samuel opens with Hannah’s story. With two chapters (1 Samuel 1:1– 2:10) devoted to her story, even before the narrator explains it, the reader instinctively knows that she and her son are significant characters in Israel’s story.”

Samuel doesn’t know who God is yet, but we do.
This is the same God who still gave Sarah a baby even after she laughed at God’s messenger.
The same God who had a conversation with Moses when Moses pushed back on his calling.
The same God who got angry at the People of Israel when they complained in the desert that they were hungry after they were miraculously freed from slavery.

Maybe we really are made in God’s image – complex, intense, emotional, compassionate and seeking out relationship even when that is not straight forward and holds disappointment.
This is a God who is a truth teller, calling folks to follow even through their fear, even as they get to know this voice and this character of who God is.

“Like Samuel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, God’s call often involves working to change human systems that are broken, and this can lead down difficult paths.” (

(Slide Bible Time line down) (Blank screen)

We are transitioning with the People of Israel into a difficult part of their history. A coming towards and then a falling away from God. Maybe this isn’t that unfamiliar to us and is also part of our story today. What are the misuses of power and the corruption that we need to confront? How is what we hold as important shifting and our leadership may need to shift with it? How do we keep listening deeply?

How do we honor young and old? Honor youthful energy and responsiveness like Samuel’s, and the discernment from years of a life like Eli’s. How do we make space to hear and hear again until we discern who and what is calling. Even if our eyes are dim, can we clarify our hearing so we recognize the voice of God saying our name or the name of a person we are walking with.

Just as Samuel’s calling and message were for Eli and the people of Israel. Eli’s discernment, that it was God’s voice and his insistence for Samuel to speak the directions aloud, helped Samuel step into his role as prophet and claim his voice in passing on the word of God. Callings aren’t just for us and we might not notice them without the work of the community. This is hard to hear because in our individualistic society we are focused on our selves. And we don’t want to speak hard words to another. If we are a good person we don’t judge, right??

Yet the prophetic voice of Samuel was for the community. Samuel was willing to be the vessels of God’s voice to the world. Willing to speak the hard and uncomfortable truth that had to be voiced.

(Slide of Malala)

I see those today who speak up for a better world for all. Malala, fighting for the rights of girls in Pakistan and for freedom of education.

(Slide of Greta)

Greta Thunberg, whose climate activism draws attention to the dangerous trajectory we are on in our relationship to the earth. And others who are lesser known but no less important.

(Slide of the three)

Autumn Peltier, a Canadian first nations water activist who started to speak out for clean water at age 8. Mari Copeny, who has the nickname Little Miss Flint. Mari spoke up about the intersection of state negligence and environmental racism that we still see playing out in places like Flint, Michigan. And Xiye Bastida, an indigenous young woman from Mexico who moved to New York City. Xiye saw droughts and floods in her hometown and now raises her voice for climate justice. Calling us all to care for the earth that we are part of just as it is part of us.

(Blank screen)

 “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and (God) let none of Samuel’s
words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that
Samuel was a trust-worthy prophet of the Lord.” V 19-20

God is still calling trustworthy truth-tellers into our midst.

“God’s call comes when we least expect it and often to those we least expect. God is always the God of surprises. We as the church need to be like Eli, encouraging all to hear the voice that calls them forth into all that they were created to be. At the same time, we help each other to tell the truth even when the truth is hard to hear.” (

Can we see and can we hear? May we embrace even God’s uncomfortable callings and speak out for a better world for all.

— Moriah Hurst, October 17, 2021

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Sunday, October 10, 2021

Phil Kniss: Open hands in the desert

Called To Trust In God: God provides manna and quail
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary

Exodus 16

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Without fail,
digging into the Old Testament
leads to wondering about the God being portrayed there.
Whether it’s a God who asks a father to sacrifice a son,
and then at the last second withdraws the request,
or it’s a God who seems to wink at, if not approve of,
people who lie and deceive their own family to steal a blessing,
or . . . just about anywhere we turn,
we run into stories not only of strange cultural practices,
but in many ways, a strange God . . .
at least, a God who doesn’t seem a lot like Jesus.
And we haven’t even gotten into the war and conquest stories yet.
What do we do about these pictures of God,
other than quietly avoid them,
which is a typical Christian response?
I get it why some people don’t read the Old Testament much.
They would rather read Gospel. Good News.
But . . . to turn away from the Hebrew Scriptures,
is to turn away from gold,
to miss the hidden treasure.
What we have here is a story of God through human eyes,
which of course, is the only kind of God story that we have.
And here we see what the people saw in God,
in retrospect,
through their own cultural framework.
A limited view, naturally.
But even in these rough sketches of God,
a beautiful picture begins to emerge.
We catch golden glimpses of the God we know in Jesus.
The Gospel can be found right here in these ancient stories.
But, like panning for gold,
we may have to stir up the waters a bit,
to find the piece that glitters.

All that is to prepare us to meet the God of Exodus 16,
who gets angry without good reason, or so it would seem.
The people of Israel, many thousands of them,
are making their way across the desert,
and need—need a safe and reliable source of food and water.
They cannot survive otherwise.
Without it, they die.
One chapter earlier,
they came across a spring, but the water was undrinkable.
They cried out to God about their situation,
and the water became sweet and safe to drink.
Then in today’s story, it’s a source of food they lack.
The Passover lamb they ate the night of their escape from Egypt,
had long ago been digested,
and they were now famished and near starvation.
They were having dreams (maybe hallucinations)
of overflowing stew-pots back in Egypt.
Slavery had an upside.
At least there was food to eat.
Now . . . wouldn’t an all-knowing and compassionate God
be anticipating exactly that response,
and exhibit some empathy for what they were experiencing?
Well, we’re told Yahweh does send them quail that drop from the sky,
and edible manna that settles on the earth like dew.
But, the way these acts of God are described,
we get the impression
God was angry at them because they grumbled,
and that God provided food only under duress,
as if God was just caving into their petty demands.
In fact, in the retelling of this story in the Book of Numbers,
it’s clear that God was deeply offended by the complainers.
So much so, that fire from heaven fell on some of them,
and they were consumed.
So it sounds like, at face value,
these stories tell of a people who cry out to God
because they lack basic necessities for life,
and God semi-reluctantly, if not angrily,
caves in to their demands and gives them what they need.
So what kind of God is this?
What if the people had not mentioned their dire straights?
How long did God want them to wait meekly in the desert,
dying for lack of food and water,
before God sent relief?
God could have rained down manna any time.
Why didn’t God take the initiative to provide,
before the situation got desperate?
And why would God be angry at such a legitimate complaint?
These are things I didn’t understand
when I first heard the story in Sunday school in Florida.
And I still have trouble with it today.

But . . . take heart!
There are some glittering pieces of gold in this story.
So let’s shake the pan a bit and have a look.
I see in here a glimmer of God’s extravagant mercy,
mercy undeserved by the recipient,
as always, a gift.
The gift of God’s presence in plenty or in want.
In fact, the long story of how they got to this place—
how an work-force of thousands of slaves
could escape from Egypt—
slaves on whose back Egypt built its economy—
that’s a huge glimmer of God’s grace.
God noticed their suffering,
and worked out an elaborate plan not only to bring them out,
but to have them leave with “good riddance,”
and piles of valuable jewelry and marketable goods.
That miraculous escape was fresh in their minds in today’s story.
It happened only days or weeks earlier.
Yet . . . many of them are longing to go back.
But we sort of get that, don’t we?
We still see that happen today,
when someone newly freed,
misses that shred of security and predictability
they had when they were in an abusive relationship
or lived in a country that oppressed them.
people would rather go back into abuse or oppression,
than face a frightening and uncertain future.
So maybe God’s anger is easy to understand.
Because we ourselves have known that kind of anger,
after we go to great lengths to help someone
find freedom from addiction, or from abuse,
or some other oppression,
and then we watch this person we care about so deeply,
and have invested so much of our love and life,
turn right around and go back into the arms
of that which held them captive—
choosing oppression over love and freedom.
At the very least, God’s anger here in this story
has less to do with people begging for food and drink,
and more to do with people who God loves
rejecting God’s generous gift of love,
and wistfully yearning for the scant benefits of slavery.
We see God here as a spurned lover,
a lover who poured out all his love and longing and power,
to carry out the greatest rescue operation in human history.
And they want to go back.
I guess some anger seems justified here after all.
But I see another piece of glittering gold.
The story of manna itself is rich with grace and Gospel.
God offers the former Israelite slaves a new and gracious gift—
it is called, “enough.”
Something they don’t have much experience with.
They knew all about having terribly little, as slaves.
Or having a great surplus, as they left Egypt
loaded down with riches and jewels.
But what was this concept called . . . “enough”?
Notice how the manna was dispensed, and I quote (vv. 16-18).
They were told, “Everyone gather as much as you need—
an omer for each person in your tent.”
The Israelites did as they were told;
some gathered much, some little.
And when they measured it by the omer,
the one who gathered much did not have too much,
and the one who gathered little did not have too little.
Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed.
Now, the text is a little ambiguous,
but to me, it sounds like getting manna wasn’t the only miracle.
God performed a miracle of wealth redistribution
as they scooped it up.
If a young man with a big scoop and a strong back
happened upon a spot with an extra heavy layer of manna,
and an old woman with a small scoop, & arthritis, & poor eyesight,
went out and found only a small amount of manna,
when they both returned to their house,
they both ended up with one omer per person.
Not too much, not too little. Exactly enough.
And the story gets better,
later in chapter 16, right after the part we read,
God comes through with another gift—Sabbath.
One day a week they could rest from the manna harvest.
The sixth day of gathering would yield a double amount,
and it would keep for two days.
If they didn’t prepare, and went out on the Sabbath anyway,
there would be no manna.
Furthermore, there would be no hoarding of manna.
Any other day, if they picked extra,
trying to stockpile it for the next day,
it would be full of maggots in the morning.
Except on the Sabbath,
it would stay fresh, for exactly one extra day, no more.
The gift of enough.
The gift of Sabbath rest.
These gifts came from the hand of a loving God—
a God of Grace and Gospel.
Pure gold!
When the community lived as God intended,
following God’s direction,
basic needs were met.
Some, who worked extra hard,
ended up with less than their labor produced.
And thus, persons less able to labor,
still had enough.
It’s a beautiful story, after all!
It’s a Gospel word for us still today.

Life isn’t always fair.
Some people work hard, and work well,
and don’t see the fruit of their labors.
Some people cannot, or do not, put in the time,
and their needs still get met.
God never struck a deal with the Israelites, or struck a deal with us,
that we would always get what we deserved, what we worked for.
Sometimes, work and results are out of balance.
Reminds me of a song by one of my favorite singer-songwriters,
Sarah Jarosz.
She was at the Red Wing festival this summer.
The song title is “Johnny.” Look it up sometime.
It’s not a religious song,
and I don’t know Sarah’s faith orientation,
but her words speak Gospel truth.
The refrain, which she repeats often, says,
“You might not get what you pay for,
you know that nothing’s for sure.
An open heart looks a lot like the wilderness.”
Our faith does not rest on God giving us what we pay for.
Our faith rests on God being with us, in the wilderness.
An open heart, as well as open hands,
sometimes still leads to disappointment.
I’m not saying anything we don’t already know, from experience.
Our open hands are not always filled
with what we expect, when we expect it.
Our open heart may get wounded.
But what we are promised by Yahweh,
is that we won’t be left alone in the desert.
The God who sets people free,
will not abandon them to their freedom.
God will stay with them,
looking for open hands,
looking for open hearts.
What God wants from us while we’re in the wilderness . . . is openness.
Not longing for old securities.
Not turning toward Egypt, to go back to old captivities.
Not hoarding the excess we unexpectedly end up with sometimes.
Just . . . open hands, open heart.
Yes, openness looks a lot like the wilderness,
but these strange stories from the Hebrew scriptures reassure us—
we aren’t the first ones in the desert to get a great gift—
a God who is loving, who is full of grace,
and who looks a lot like Jesus.

Join me, will you, in reading together, in response,
the confession printed in the order of worship.

one God who Provides, God who sees and knows our need,
we fail to rest, and trust in the God of enough.
all Forgive us, O God. Increase our trust. Open our hands.
one When our enough does not seem like enough,
when we claw and grasp and compete, out of desperation,
all Forgive us, O God. Increase our trust. Open our hearts.
one When we forget your provisions in the past,
and see only the emptiness facing us now,
all Forgive us, O God. Increase our trust. Open our eyes.
one When we descend into a spirit of entitlement,
when we fear walking into the unknown, 
without everything already in hand,
all Forgive us, O God. Increase our trust. Open our lives.
one Receive the Good News. 
God the Provider is with us, and that is enough.
We are forgiven. We are open. We are loved.

—Phil Kniss, October 10, 2021

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