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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