Sunday, November 28, 2021

Paula Stoltzfus: Coming home to love

Peace... while we wait
Advent 1
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14; John 14:25-27; Romans 12:9-18

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We are at the beginning of Advent. A time of waiting to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel. This mysterious act of God making home on this earth.

There are different aspects for what home may mean. Home can be an address, family or people group, or possessions that provide comfort.  Another aspect may be as a place where one can feel most oneself. And still another, home is an internal place where one can be totally honest with oneself and the others around them.

It is so easy in our culture and even faith community to put up a facade, imparting a message that all is well, when it very well may not.  What is it that keeps us from being at home with each other? With ourselves?

There are three distinct communities of people in our scriptures read this morning who were in a quest for home, a sense of meaning and belonging.

Jeremiah was speaking to the Israelites of Judah, the southern kingdom who had been overtaken by the Babylonians, under the rule of Nebuchadnezzer.

To place this into context, Israel, the northern kingdom, had already been destroyed by the Assyrian empire and time had passed enough to cool some of the conflict down. While things were cooling down for the Assyrian empire, things were heating up for the Babylonians, for they grew in strength. and took control of Judah.  As a result, the Israelite elite of Judah were taken into exile in Babylon and the poor fled as refugees to Egypt.  Jerusalem, the Holy City and Temple, were destroyed. Judah was thrust into political, social, and religious upheaval. Their home as they knew it was no more.

Jeremiah, priest and prophet, was a lone voice in the mix of a people trying to create meaning out of their chaos. His message was one that offered both judgment and hope. In the text read today we hear him trying to be a voice of encouragement, giving the Israelites in exile a message from the Lord.  It was a promise that God was still with them where they were.  It was because God was with them that they could settle down and create a home.  It would help them stabilize themselves in community and faith.  Seeking peace in the city where they had been exiled would benefit them and their neighbor. Sounds like good news, right?

What wasn’t such great news is that Jeremiah was carrying a message that the exile was to last 70 years. There were other prophets who were preaching revolt and a short time of exile so as to encourage the Israelites to be ready to move back to their homes. Thus, Jeremiah was not a voice they wanted to listen to.

As so often is the case, God’s timing was not their desired timing. Perhaps their invitation, whether they wanted it or not, was to slow down, settle down, and tune in to God’s way of being with them, which wasn’t tied to an external place, not to Jerusalem or the Temple. It was a message to trust in God’s promise of presence with them no matter where they were.

John 14:23-27
The second community was the disciples in the Gospel of John. The disciples were like a small community who were living an intensive faith formation class right beside Jesus. That provided them with intimate space to ask questions, witness, listen, and learn from the One they were believing to save them and usher in the new kingdom of God’s reign.

The context of this particular conversation was during the last supper as the disciples were with Jesus. They were full of questions about Jesus’ confusing words foreshadowing his death.

John paints Jesus’ words with poetic imagery of Jesus being one with God and anyone who was one with God, was one with him; anyone who loved Jesus, God would also love.

Once Jesus would leave, the Holy Spirit would come to be God’s presence. Out of this triune interweaving of love would come peace, that is (1) otherworldly, and can speak louder than (2) fear.

Jesus wasn’t speaking of a concrete place in which the disciples would find this love.  It was to be found internally.  An abstract place, not easily absorbed by the disciples.

This teaching of Jesus was an invitation to seek God beyond Jesus' own flesh and to know God’s love from within one’s very own being.

Romans 12:
The third community was a divided church in Rome where Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians were at odds with one another. Paul wrote the letter addressing the two communities as one.

Paul called out both groups of Christians. The Gentile Christian’s were boasting that they were not bound by the Jewish law and the Jewish Christian’s were using their heritage as an advantage for boasting their credibility.  Paul was challenging both of them to put aside their stakeholder in identity and in its place hold the centrality of Christ’s reconciling love, which would unify them in living out their faith.

Paul was challenging each people group to see that Jesus was not solely found in their own respective heritage and traditions, but rather that tradition was transcended and transformed by the Jesus way, of love, devotion, joy, hope, patience, sharing with those in need, practicing hospitality, and living at peace with everyone.

The formation of our sense of home (faith) can both literally and figuratively look or feel like any one of these communities.

We may find ourselves:

  • in a place where we feel uprooted from our homeland, 
  • scattered from our people, 
  • faced with losing that which has anchored our faith in the past, or 
  • suddenly at odds with those we have intimately connected to

These places are ones that can cause disorientation, crisis of faith, and stoke a renewed quest for God’s presence.

We are challenged as these communities were challenged,

  • to embrace God’s presence not only around us but most importantly within us,   
  • to claim that God’s presence doesn’t rely on a building, 
  • to trust that God’s love is interwoven in our being and that when we say ‘yes’ to that love, the troubles and fears of this world lose their power. 
  • to know that the centrality of Christ’s love is what binds us together in unity, despite our differences.

We each are tempted to separate ourselves from God’s love,

  • to seek after bolstering our own ego, 
  • buy into the idolatry of money and power, or 
  • breed bitterness and ill will towards others.

Doing so influences our outlook, view of God, community, and world.  For this we confess when we fall short in living out God’s peace and shalom in ourselves and those around us.

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Sunday, November 21, 2021

Phil Kniss: Living under the arc of God

God's eternal reign - Those living in darkness have seen a great light
Listen! God is Calling!
Thanksgiving and Reign of Christ Sunday
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary 
Isaiah 9:1-7

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It’s about time for some good news.
Anybody up for good news?
I’m saying that about the biblical narrative we’ve been following.
And I’m saying that about our life in the world today,
surrounded as we are by so much despair and desperation
and distress and disgust and dis-ease and dis-trust
and dis-couragement,
and a bunch more words beginning with “dis.”
The prefix D-I-S implies the undoing of whatever follows it.
A lot of what we took for granted in life,
has been undone lately.

But . . . good news we have in our scriptures today.
Good news in abundance.
But is it too good to believe, we wonder?

Take Isaiah.
The preceding chapters were full of judgement and doom.
But turn the page to chapter 9,
and Isaiah pours forth one of the most
beautiful and encouraging passages in all of scripture.
It’s one of those texts I can’t read without singing.
I see two or three beloved pieces from Handel’s Messiah in it,
and some lines that show up in other hymns.

We are drawn to this kind of poetic scripture,
like hummingbirds to sweet nectar.
In the late fall, hummingbirds load themselves with lots of calories,
so they have the strength for the long, grueling journey south.
That’s kind of like us, when our journey gets long.
We’re drawn to sweet, energizing high-calorie
words of encouragement.

Isaiah 9 is high-calorie scripture.
It is bound to give us a boost for the journey.
So go ahead. Indulge. Feast on it.

But it still begs the question.
Is it for real?
Are these just sweet words that give us a quick sugar high?
until we notice the ugliness all around us again,
and our glucose drops and we crash?
Or is there some meat here?
Some sturdy protein that will take us further down the road.

I figured those food metaphors would be appropriate for this week,
given the high-calorie feast some of us will have on Thursday.
We all want Thanksgiving to be more than a sugar high,
but something to sustain us down the road,
physically, emotionally, relationally, even spiritually.

So how do we digest these words from Isaiah:
“There will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.”
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”
Every soldier’s muddy boot and blood-soaked shirt
is headed for the burn pile, fuel for the fire.
A new ruler is on the horizon,
who will rule with perfect peace, and justice, and compassion.
And it ends with,
“God Almighty will do this!”

And where are the people now, as Isaiah speaks these sweet words?
Well, they are in political upheaval.
They are in distress.
The Hebrew Kingdom is divided between north and south.
The southern kingdom, Judah, with Jerusalem its capital,
is where Isaiah is speaking from.
They are under mortal threat by the north,
their own Hebrew family,
who formed a military alliance with Syria,
and brutally attacked Judah.
So there are threats from without and within, so to speak.

Of course,
we read this text much later, with Christian eyes and ears,
and we see a foretelling of the Messiah,
who we understand to be Jesus.
That’s good biblical interpretation.
A biblical text—any text for that matter—
can carry more than one meaning at the same time.
So it’s good to see Jesus in this text,
and rejoice, along with Handel’s Messiah,
that for unto us a child is born (bum, bum),
unto us (bum, bum) a son is given,
and the gov-ern-ment shall be up-on his shoul . . . ders!
[and his name will be call-ed
“Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God!
The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!”]

(You had it in your head anyway, I know you did!)

This is a sweet prophetic word,
that moves Christian musicians and poets and preachers
to think about Jesus.
But it’s good to remember that it was also spoken
to the southern kingdom of Judah around the 730s BC,
while they were under siege,
and can be seen as a reference to the birth of King Hezekiah.

Judah survived that onslaught,
but not without more suffering,
and not without becoming vassals of a foreign empire.
The Kingdom survived maybe another 100 years,
before disappearing for good.

So how were they then . . . and how are we now . . .
supposed to read words of Good News,
while we sit in the darkness?

Are these high-calorie texts empty calories,
or can they sustain us for the long haul?

The same can be said for the other readings we heard today.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaimed,
“I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me . . . will NEVER walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life.”
Sweet words of reassurance.
But have you, dear follower of Jesus,
ever “walked in darkness”
since you began following Jesus?

And the master encourager, the Apostle Paul, in 2 Cor. 9,
promised the beleaguered church in Corinth,
“God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance,
so that by always having enough of everything,
you may share abundantly in every good work.”

I wonder if those sweet words were always borne out
in their real lives under the Roman Empire.
Did they, forever after, have every blessing in abundance,
and always possess enough of everything?

The questions that come to mind for us today,
when we are given good news by God that seems improbable,
I suspect also came to mind
for the Kingdom of Judah in Isaiah’s day,
for the disciples of Jesus on their road to the cross,
and for the persecuted church in Corinth and through the ages.

What good thing is God up to right now?
And when, in the world, are we going to see the fruit of it?

Not an easy question to answer
in the remaining few minutes of my message.
But I want to suggest something that might help.

The promise of God is not a promise of immediate rescue.
God does not guarantee absence of suffering.
But! It seems to me that there are two things, consistently,
that God does, in fact, promise.
One. I will not abandon you to your suffering,
but accompany you through your suffering.
And Two. I will be patient with my saving work.
My time . . . is not your time.

God is with us, and for us.
Over and over, throughout the biblical narrative,
God reassures us, saying,
I am healing and restoring creation.
I am making all things new.
I am recreating shalom—
bringing wholeness, righteousness, peace, and joy—
. . . But I am constrained by love!
Because I love you, and love all creation,
I will not coerce you.
I will wait for you.
But be of good courage.
I am at work.
And my saving purposes will not, ultimately,
be thwarted.

We’ve all heard the phrase,
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Those words were famously spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
but the words had already been circulating for 100 years,
first published in a book of sermons by Theodore Parker in 1853.
Parker wrote,
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe,
the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways.
I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure
by the experience of sight;
I can divine it by conscience.
But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

A few years later, as the US Civil War was raging,
and the morality of slavery was being contested around the world,
a book of morals published in Scotland quoted Parker,
and then added,
“Justice will not fail,
though wickedness appears strong,
and has on its side the armies and thrones of power . . .
and though poor [people] crouch down in despair.
Justice will not fail and perish . . .
nor will what is wrong . . . continually endure.”

That’s pretty optimistic, given the persistence of slavery at that time.
But the idea keeps popping up over the next 100 years,
especially, it seems,
when oppression and injustice seem insurmountable,
during slavery, the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement.
especially those on the underside of injustice and their allies—
keep coming back to this trust in the moral universe.
And we who confess faith in God,
keep clinging to trust in a loving, moral, and active God.
We know the change may not be soon.
We may not live to see the change.
But the arc of God, we say, is bending toward justice,
toward healing,
toward shalom.

Now . . . critics may call this a mere coping mechanism.
When real life doesn’t line up,
with what we say is God’s will,
we prop up our faith by saying
God is moving in that direction,
just not on our timeline.
But this is not just good coping strategy.
It’s good theology.
It’s the story of a good God.

God is good, and does good.
It’s good news that God does not coerce us, or anyone.
I trust God’s way of love and invitation, instead of coercion,
to one day bring about the result God wants.
I trust that God’s goodness is more powerful than our evil.
I trust that the gentle pressure of the hand of God,
keeps the arc of the universe bending toward justice.
When a baseball player hits a high fly ball,
we know . . . we know . . . the ball will not rise forever.
Gravity presses it down, and it forms an arc.
We are certain that ball will land on the ground
somewhere, sometime.
That’s how I trust God’s hand to bend the arc of the universe
toward justice.

To live life, is to take a chance, to make a bet.
No matter what kind of religious or secular framework we choose.
No matter our belief system.
If we try to live life with intention, with meaning of any kind,
we take a chance.
Because we know we cannot control how life unfolds.
We are at the mercy of a power greater than our own.

I’m placing my bets on a God who loves us unconditionally,
and is at work to bring about justice in our universe.
I want to live my life under that arc.
I want to trust that God is not coercing anyone,
but God’s gentle hand is on the arc.

When we live under the arc of a God who loves justice,
who delights in abundance,
who revels in beauty and peace and joy,
it frees us!
It frees us to put away anxiety and fear of scarcity,
and instead live lives of lavish love and generosity.
Thanks be to God!

The context of Paul’s words to the church in Corinth,
was to urge them to loosen their grip,
open their hands,
and in gratitude for God’s provision for them,
share freely with others.

This is why we do Thanksgiving.
The just-completed harvest reminds us of the arc of God.
It reminds of God’s steadfast love and faithful provision.
And it frees us to live lavishly, and put on a rich feast.
Instead of getting stuck in a myth of scarcity and anxiety.

This is also why we use a Faith Promise process
to build our annual spending plan here at Park View.
We operate on an assumption of trust in a generous God.
We don’t just pick a random big number to aim for each year,
and then beg and plead at the end of each year,
or wring our hands in anxiety that we won’t make it.

We start with an assumption of God’s generosity now,
and invite you all to reflect on God’s generosity,
and, by faith, choose how you will respond to that generosity.

Still, we all struggle, myself included,
to live under the arc of our generous and justice-seeking God.
We fear scarcity, we obsess over the present ills of the world.
We don’t trust that the arc actually bends in the right direction.

Let us confess that struggle.
Read with me the prayer of confession found in your bulletin.

one God whose arc is abundance and peace, joy and justice,
        we confess we often see only scarcity and strife, suffering and sin,
        and we get stuck in a spirit of anger and fear, 
        of mourning and dread.
all Help us see your arc of justice, and move with it.
        Help us trust your arc of peace, and rest in it.
        Help us believe in your arc of abundance, and take delight in it.
        Help us sense your arc of deep joy, and let it wash over us.
one Let us give thanks to the God 
        who provides, who loves, who accompanies,
        who leads us into a bountiful, whole, joyful, and just future.

—Phil Kniss, November 21, 2021

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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Caleb Schrock-Hurst: Prophetic Voice, Prophetic Vision: Imagining and Building a New Way

Let Justice Roll Down - like a river
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary
Amos 1:1-2; 5:14-15, 21-24

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Sunday, November 7, 2021

Phil Kniss: Surrounded and alone

God speaks to Elijah - A still, small voice
Listen! God is Calling!
Fall 2021 Narrative Lectionary 
1 Kings 19:8-13a

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The experience of feeling alone
is painfully real, and all too common, these days.

Of course, we can point to the pandemic as a cause for much of this.
It’s entirely understandable that after 20 months
of navigating various degrees of physical separation,
that the feeling of being alone, isolated from others,
has touched almost every human being on the planet.
And for some, that feeling has become deep and chronic.

Add to that the partisan political divide and acrimony,
and opposing convictions about what is factual
on everything from election results to vaccine science,
even family members are being pushed apart from each other.

And furthermore, three-quarters of a million people
have died from COVID-19 in our country alone,
and though numbers are falling,
still 1,200 are daily dying of this preventable disease,
leaving husbands and wives and children and mothers and fathers
alone in the world, without their spouse, or child, or parents.

And in our own congregation,
we have had a year of unimaginable loss, not all from COVID,
as this front table so vividly illustrates.
Many of our congregational family,
are dealing with the pain of being alone, in some real way.
And in the last several years,
death has taken far too many, far too early,
which intensifies the shock for loved ones left behind,
and adds to their sense of being alone.

So here we are as a church family,
bringing together three different things in one service.
Our much-loved All Saints Sunday service of remembrance,
our monthly First-Sunday communion service,
and another story in our Narrative Lectionary
journey through the Hebrew scriptures.

Not surprisingly, as often happens with scripture,
they all come together in a beautiful and unplanned way.

I first reflected on this story of Elijah,
who met God—not in the earthquake, wind, or fire—
but in a still, small voice,
and I wondered to myself how it tied into
a service of remembrance, or communion.
I didn’t have to wonder long.

The first thing I noticed in this story about Elijah,
was his intense feeling of being abandoned, of being left alone.
We often focus more on the couple of verses
that describe how he heard God in the whispering voice,
and we jump right away to making it a moral lesson,
about quieting ourselves and listening.
Nothing wrong with that. That’s a good lesson.
But really, the story is about abandonment,
and how God responded to Elijah in that abandonment.

We know that’s the core point of the story,
because it gets repeated twice.
In our shortened reading, we only heard it once.
But twice, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?”
And Elijah answers, but indirectly, with a lament.
“I have been faithful.
But the rest of Israel has rebelled, killed all your prophets,
and I am the only one left.
I am here, alone in the world.”

That same exchange: “What are you doing here?”
and, “I am all alone,”
happens twice, before and after Elijah meets God at the cave.

Elijah is at his lowest.
And at his lowest is the very place God meets Elijah.
Rather than scolding him for his complaining,
or lack of faith,
God provides Elijah exactly what Elijah needs.
Reassurance of his belonging, and of his worth.

As I thought about that,
I remembered a similar time in the life of Jesus himself.
The crucified Jesus,
whose suffering we remember in communion,
moments before his death on the cross,
also felt truly abandoned, and alone.
And he cried out,
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani.”
Meaning, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And the people jeering him at the foot of the cross
misunderstood his Aramaic words.
“Eli”—E L I—sounded to them like Elijah.
They thought he was calling out to Elijah.
Isn’t that fascinating?
the prophet famous in scripture for feeling abandoned.
They thought Jesus was calling for him.

And then I thought about it all a bit longer,
and I remembered the passage often read on All Saints Day,
where the author of Hebrews writes to
a church under persecution,
a church losing beloved family members right and left.
The writer reassures them, over several eloquent chapters—
“You are not alone.”
You are not the only ones going through this horror.
And the writer reviews centuries of biblical history,
recalling all the saints who had gone before them,
and gone on to glory—
and uses that very history as a word of comfort.
You are not alone.
You are surrounded, by this very cloud of witnesses.
And this cloud, this crowd, is urging you on.
They are cheering you from the sidelines.
So, “let us run with perseverance
the race that is set before us,”
the writer says.

And then it dawned on me.
Elijah, and the crucified Jesus,
and the saints who have gone before us,
all knew the same sense of abandonment,
and were all ministered to by God,
whose primary gift to us is presence,
in the midst of our suffering.

How beautiful that these three scriptures,
these three stories,
can come together on this particular day,
giving us exactly what we need.
Comfort, reassurance, presence, belonging,
and an urgent word to keep running the race,
“looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the sake of the joy that was set before him
endured the cross, disregarding its shame,
and has taken his seat
at the right hand of the throne of God.”

On this day, my prayer is that
we may all receive this word as Gospel,
as Good News to any and all who feel abandoned or alone.
May the Holy Spirit comfort you, be your companion,
and lead you to a place of healing, and of deep community.

—Phil Kniss, November 7, 2021

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