Sunday, November 27, 2022

Phil Kniss: When hope is hard to come by

Roots & Tendrils: God Grows A People
Shalom for All Nations
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; 17-19; Matthew 26:36-38



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Everybody awake?
    Hope so.
    It would be a shame to snooze through this sermon—
        not because it’s so good,
        but because it’s specifically about staying awake,
        the dominant idea in the scriptures we just heard.

    The prophet Habakkuk urged the people of God
        to “keep watch at the watchpost”
        to stay alert and aware and ready to hear
            the voice of God when it comes.
    And in a few verses in the Gospel of Matthew,
        Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane, about to stand trial,
            and he is deeply grieved and agitated and anxious,
            and begs for moral support from his closest disciples,
                Peter, James, and John.
        “Stay here,” he says.
        “Keep awake while I pray,” he says.
    And of course you know what happened.
    Even if you never read the story, you know what happened.
        They fell asleep.

So maybe this morning, we can manage to do
    what St. Peter, St. James, and St. John all failed to do—
    stay awake in the middle of a crisis of hope.
_____________________

This theme of hope comes around every season of Advent,
    so don’t expect me to be saying anything brand new today.
    You’ve heard it all before.
    But something this critical bears repeating. Often.
        Even more than once a year.

The question at hand is this: “Where do we find hope,
        when our help doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon?”
And the apparent answer to that question,
    according to Habakkuk and Jesus, is “Stay awake.”
    Which is harder to do than you think.

Habbakuk seems to be in a conversation with God about this.
    “How long shall I cry for help?” he asks God.
        Fair question.
        Anyone can hold on for a while. But there comes a point!

        In the children’s story today,
            Gerald the Elephant reached the breaking point.
                Pretty quick, to be honest.
                He was about to walk away from it all
                    after only a few minutes of waiting.
            In his defense, he had no idea what he was waiting for.
            If it’s hard to wait for something like Christmas,
                or a vacation,
                or a birthday,
                or a wedding,
                or a visit from your grandchildren,
                    when you know what’s coming,
                    and you know when it’s coming—
                if that’s hard,
                it’s infinitely harder to wait
                    without really knowing what’s coming,
                    or when it will show up.
                That was Gerald’s dilemma.
            But what he had going for him—the only thing really—
                was trust in his friend.
            He trusted the pig because they had a history together.
            He believed the pig would not disappoint him.

That story is really a whimsical variation on the prophet Habakkuk,
    even though I’m sure that’s not what the author intended.

Habakkuk asked God,
    “How long shall I cry for help?”
God replied:
    “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.”

And the conversation goes on, for chapters.
    “How long?”
    “I’ll keep waiting and watching, but how long before you act?”

Eventually,
    we hear these words of faith-filled hope from the prophet,
    when there was still no evidence:
        Though the fig tree does not blossom
            and no fruit is on the vines;
        though the produce of the olive fails
            and the fields yield no food;
        though the flock is cut off from the fold
            and there is no herd in the stalls,
        yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
            I will exult in the God of my salvation.
       
Okay, so what kind of hopeful dreamer
    says such a thing in the face of complete lack of evidence?

Some of us resist this kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking,
    for good reason.
    We don’t want to imitate just any kind of dreamer.

There are the kind of dreamers who engage in escapism.
    They’re trying to fool themselves.
    If they can convince themselves
        that everything will be great in the end,
        then they don’t need to face the painful reality
            that they actually are in a dark and desolate place,
                with no obvious way out.
    So they paint themselves a picture
        to convince themselves their suffering is light or temporary.
        Their favorite Gospel song is,
        “This world is not my home; I’m only passing through . . .”
    So dreaming may be a defense mechanism
        some people use to maintain their sanity.

I think there are other dreamers who’ve already lost their sanity,
    because of how dark their reality is.
    Maybe dreaming is the only way they can stay alive,
        and we should just let them keep dreaming—
        let them have their alternate reality, so they can survive.

But there are also faith-filled dreamers among us,

There are those who face their pain and shadows head on,
    who know exactly how dry the desert is where they live,
    but who still look at that desert with eyes of faith.
    What is faith, after all?
    What is faith, except the ability to trust
        in One who is making a world that is
            different than the one we live in now,
        One who makes gardens out of deserts.

    Faithful dreamers see farther ahead than the nose on their face.
    Faithful dreamers see beyond present circumstances.
    Faithful dreamers have a bigger frame of reference.
    No amount of hand-wringing by us who call ourselves realists,
        will change their mind.
    Faithful dreamers are a stubborn lot.
    Stubborn, joyful, and hopeful.

Faithful dreaming is not wishful thinking.
    The frame of reference for us who
        choose to be faithful, hopeful dreamers
        is not a big piece of pie in the sky.
    Our dreams are grounded firmly in a friendship with God.
    In who God is.
    In our experience of God.
    In the experience God’s people have had with God in history.

    We know God will not deceive us or lead us astray.
    So we wait.
    And wait.
    And watch.
    What comes might surprise us.
    But if we wait and watch, at least we won’t miss it.

These are hard times we live in.
    Excruciatingly hard.
    And frightening.
    And traumatic.
    And uncertain.

Threats against democracy,
    a rash of mass shootings,
    endless warfare,
    climate catastrophes,
    social injustices everywhere.

We hear the voices of many who are not willing to stay and to wait.
    People who, out of despair, take matters into their own hands.
        They cut off friendships that are too hard.
        They leave potentially nurturing communities behind.
        They quit a job abruptly.
        They leave a marriage prematurely.
        They may even try to find a new country to live in.
    We hear of whole faith communities who do the same.
        Cutting ties to avoid the hard work of building community
            in a polarized world.

Not implying that leaving a job or relationship or country or church
    is never the right choice.
    Sometimes it is.
    But giving up quickly because we are disappointed,
        is not the way to nurture hope.
    Hope grows by staying,
        by waiting,
        by being alert,
        by remaining awake,
        by cultivating the art of attentiveness to our surroundings,
            and attentiveness to ourselves,
            and what the Spirit of God may be doing in us.

There is no short cut to a life of hope.
    Hope is the fruit of the long journey.
    Let us pray for our own patience to stay, and wait,
        even while we lack any hard evidence of what is coming next.
_____________________

Mennonite and Brethren song-writer Jim Croegaert
    collaborated with David Adam of Scotland,
    and wrote a hymn that we first sang
        at one of our Mennonite General Assemblies,
        and it took root across the church.

    It’s an anthem of hope in the face of no evidence,
        except for the deep longing God planted within us
        that gives us the courage to wait.

We’ve sung it here a number of times.
    Let me read the words, as you reflect on them.

    Our hearts are empty without you;
        barren and cold, but for the bold hope
        that you yourself planted within.

    In the mighty name of God,
        in the saving name of Jesus,
        in the strong name of the Spirit,
        we come, we cry, we watch, we wait, we look, we long for you.

    Sometimes we long  for the morning,
        for a refrain from etchings in pain,
        yet our loneliness draws us to you.
        we come,
        we cry,
        we watch,
        we wait,
        we look,
        we long for you.


Let’s sing together of our longing, and our hope.

—Phil Kniss, November 27, 2022

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Sunday, November 20, 2022

Phil Kniss: A view from the hill

Roots & Tendrils: God Grows A People
Shalom for All Nations
Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4; Matthew 5:14



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Last Sunday I spoke about something
    that’s hard to find in our culture,
    or just about any human community.
So rare, in fact,
    that I’m at a loss to point to any good real-life examples.
    I’m sure they exist.
    They just don’t come to mind right now.

What I’m speaking of, is group humility.
    A social group, a human community,
        that has, as one its core values,
        of being humble about its own goodness
            and its status in relation to other similar groups.

Now, obviously, group humility would be disastrous in some arenas.
    Such as, literally, in arenas.
    Can you imagine a college basketball team
        practicing group humility on the court?
        “No, you all go ahead.
            We made the last ten points.
            Let the best team win,
                and that’s obviously you.”

    Can you imagine political parties
        practicing group humility at election season?
        “You know, we’ve been losing sight of our highest principles,
            why don’t you all take the majority for a while,
            until we get our act together?”

    No, group pride is actually a good thing in many ways.
        Standing up to show honor and take delight
            in your city, your neighborhood,
            your team, your country, your identity group,
                that can be healthy and life-giving.
            It strengthens your sense of belonging and self-worth.

But there’s a shadow side.
    As my mother used to always remind me when I was growing up,
        if I got a little too big for my britches,
        she’d say, “Pride goeth before destruction.”
    She was right.

And I think that applies to groups, as well.
    What sober and thoughtful American wouldn’t admit
        that political pride and partisanship has gone off the rails,
        and is doing our country real and lasting harm?
    When pride of one’s own group,
        requires that you demonize the members of the other group,
        we all pay the price
            of our inability to work together as a human community
            and solve the problems that vex us all.
        And typically, the most vulnerable suffer the most.

I think that when it comes to matters of religion,
    it’s even worse.

Vast and diverse communities of people
    have come together over many ages,
    and across many different cultures and world views,
        and formed religions.
    They have grouped together
        around a shared understanding of God,
        around common sacred texts,
        and common human values.

Well, practices that strengthen our sense of belonging and worth
    in a religious community,
    is a good thing.
    Strong attachments to the group translate to
        healthy individual and group identity.
    It makes us better humans and better neighbors.

But lack of group humility can be a very dangerous thing,
    when we’re talking about religious groups.

So much horrific violence this world has suffered through the ages,
    and continuing today,
    is a result of a lack of religious group humility.
    How many wars have been fought,
        and blood spilled,
        and cities and towns destroyed,
        over religiously-motivated arrogance and group pride?
    I shudder to think how many children
        have been psychologically and spiritually destroyed,
        because lack of group humility
            caused a religious power structure
            to cover it up
                and not speak the truth about its own failure.

Religious groups, historically, have been among the most likely,
    to cover up their sins,
    and to demonize their opponents or rivals.
And unspeakable evil has been the result—
    slavery, the holocaust, crusades, holy wars,
    all were done in the name of protecting the religious in-group.

I say all this,
    because the images and metaphors in Isaiah we heard this morning,
    can easily, if we aren’t careful, lead us to religious arrogance,
        and foster attitudes that promote prejudice and even violence.

And those very same images, when seen in the right light,
    can lead us to life and beauty and justice
        and shalom for all nations.
_____________________

Let’s take a look at Isaiah’s words again.

Our reading was actually in two separate sections.
First, from chapters 36 and 37,
    we have a horrific war story,
    where one of the world’s great powers—
        the Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib—
        led a scorched earth campaign against surrounding countries,
            including Judah, under King Hezekiah.
        Judah was way overpowered.
        Militarily, they didn’t have much of a chance to resist.

    A delegation from the Empire went to Jerusalem,
        to convince the people to surrender—
        promising a life of ease and independence,
            if they would forsake their king,
            and turn away from their God.

    King Hezekiah then cries out to God.
        In a rare display of royal humility and lament,
            he tore his clothes,
            and went to the temple to seek God’s blessing.

    When the prophet Isaiah heard, he sent a message to Hezekiah,
        reassuring him that God sees and hears what is going on,
        and will ensure that King Sennacherib gets his due.
        It will come to him, in time, in his own land.

And then, to reinforce Isaiah’s comforting words,
    we jumped way back to chapter 2 of Isaiah,
    and read these words of reassurance, well-known to all.

    In the days to come
        the mountain of the Lord’s house
        will be the highest of the mountains.
        It will be lifted above the hills;
            peoples will stream to it.
    Many nations will go and say,
        “Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
            to the house of Jacob’s God
                so that he may teach us his ways
                and we may walk in God’s paths.”
    God will judge between the nations,
        and settle disputes of mighty nations.
    Then they will beat their swords into plowshares,
        and their spears into pruning tools.
    Nation will not take up sword against nation;
        neither shall they learn war any more.”

Don’t you love these images?
    I do.
    They have captured the imagination
        of many a preacher and poet and artist over the years.
    They inspired the large “Guns into Plowshares” sculpture
        on EMU campus,
        created by our own Esther Augsburger, and her son Michael.
    They are behind the Raw Tools project,
        that’s spreading across the country,
        making garden hand tools out of weapons,
        a project our own Larry Martin in involved with.
    And according to the index in our Voices Together hymnal,
        at least 10 of our hymns in that book
        make reference to this passage.

But we should take care,
    lest we allow group pride
    to plant some dangerous seeds in our collective soul.

What exactly are we imagining when we read,
    The mountain of Yahweh’s house
        will be the highest of the mountains.
        It will be lifted above the hills;
            peoples will stream to it.
    Many nations will go and say,
        “Come, let’s go up to the Yahweh’s mountain,
            to the house of Jacob’s God.”

I have heard this text used in triumphalistic ways.
I have heard preachers imagine a future
    where Christians rule the world.
I have, myself, been tempted at times to read this
    as a sort of in-group validation.
Isn’t it great to be identified with that temple on top of the mountain?
Isn’t it great to picture every nation streaming to our place of worship,
    rejecting their false religions,
    and deciding our religion was the one true one after all?

What are we imagining about ourselves, in this vision of Isaiah?

And furthermore, what are imagining about ourselves
    when we hear the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount,
    read a few minutes ago?
Jesus said,
    “You are the light of the world.
        A city set on a hill can’t be hidden.”

Sounds pretty validating, doesn’t it—
    that we would be identified as the “light of the world”
        and a city on a hill.

Well, it can if we are not being careful,
    if we are lazy in our thought process
        and make the mistake of thinking these scriptures
        are about us and our religion.
_____________________

So what does it really mean,
    when we call ourselves “the people of God”?
In the Judeo-Christian tradition,
    this is a long-standing self-definition:
    We are God’s people.
    We are God’s chosen people.
    We are God’s people sent into the world
        to carry out God’s mission and message.
    We are God’s people positioned on a hill,
        for all to see and take notice.

There is truth in all of these faith claims that we make.
    I continue to make these faith claims.
    I believe God is calling me, calling us,
        to show God’s purposes to the world.

But…but…here is where group humility is so critical.
    These faith claims are not about us,
        but about the God who works in us and with us.

The notion of being God’s chosen people
    has been twisted and misused throughout history.
    It has led to unfortunate assumptions by the nation-state of Israel,
        that justify land seizures and oppression of Palestinians today.
    It has led to the dangerous pseudo-religion
        of white Christian nationalism,
        that inspired many of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists at the Capitol,
        and still animates many so-called Christians today.

So what do we mean when we say God has called us?
What does it mean to be a city on a hill before a watching world?
What is our view from the hill?

First and foremost,
    The hill is not a place of privilege and power.
    It is a place of visibility and accessibility.

God’s house is on a hill, not to dominate or intimidate.
It is on a hill so people more easily can see it,
    and more readily access the shalom life.

The God who made the hill
    calls us all there to live in humility and harmony and worship,
    not to exercise religious power or control over anyone.

The hill is a place for all people and all nations
    to worship the Creator, together.
    It is not a religious shrine of any sort.
    It is not a place of justification
        for any human religion or world view.
    It is a place where all creation comes to bow before their Creator,
        and to experience the shalom life
        that the Creator intended from the beginning.

The mountain of God is a place where all will one day come together,
    and in a universal massive act of group humility,
    bow in worship before the One who made them.

Here’s the bottom line:
    It’s a vision for God’s future, not for our present.

    There is nothing about this vision, in fact,
        that should make us swell with pride,
        or think our mission is to set everyone else straight,
            and help them see it our way.
    This is God’s mountain,
        and all religions . . . including ours, will bow before it one day.

May it be so.

—Phil Kniss, November 20, 2022

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Sunday, November 13, 2022

Phil Kniss: It takes a village to walk humbly

Roots & Tendrils: God Grows A People
Justice and Community
Micah 5:2-5a; 6:6-8; Matthew 9:9-13



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As usual,
    when we gather around the Hebrew Bible in worship or study,
    God’s love of righteousness and justice
        will come out front and center in the conversation.
    It was there a few weeks ago,
        when we looked at the story of the Exodus.
    And it’s there nearly every time we get into the prophets.

I’ve already made a case in several sermons this year,
    that God has a bias toward the poor and marginalized,
    that God’s anger is directed toward people who oppress others.

I could almost repeat one of those sermons today,
    and be true to this text.
Instead, I’m going to come at it from another angle—
    the role of the community in living out
    God’s vision of justice, peace, shalom.
_____________________

Micah 6:8 may be the most well-loved verse from the Hebrew prophets,
    at least for Mennonite readers.
    Even in the Mennonite church of my childhood,
        which didn’t spend much time talking about social justice,
        this verse was memorized and made to shine,
        in King James’ English, of course:
        “He hath shewed thee”—with “shew” spelled with an “E,”
            which always confused me as a kid—
        “He hath shewed thee O man, what is good;
            and what doth the Lord require of thee,
            but to do justly, and to love mercy,
            and to walk humbly with thy God?”

From then, until today,
    that verse has inspired and challenged us as individuals,
        to live a life that pleases God,
        one in which our personal behavior is fair and just to others,
        shows mercy in our interpersonal relationships,
        and exhibits humility in our walk with God.

This is an altogether good and appropriate way to read the text,
    to let it inspire us as we navigate our own daily lives in this world.

But . . . in this worship series this fall,
    we’ve been talking about our roots—
        the part of the plant that grounds us and nourishes us,
    and our tendrils—
        the part that keeps us attached to those around us.

God is all about growing a people, a deeply-connected people,
    who will demonstrate to a watching world
    what God’s love and justice and shalom look like
        in human community.

So let’s put that lens on as we look at the prophet Micah.

First, we go back a few verses before this famous one.
This morning, we read part of chapter 5,
    then hopped over the first part of chapter 6,
    so we could land on that golden verse I just quoted.

But the first part of six makes clear the source of Micah’s concern.
    The speaker is not always identified in the text,
        but it’s clear this is constructed as a three-way conversation
        between God, God’s people, and God’s prophet Micah.

First the prophet talks to the people in v.2.
    “Yahweh is bringing a lawsuit against you, Israel,” Micah says,
        “Listen to his argument.”

Then God, the plaintiff, says,
    “My people, what did I ever do to you?
        How have I wearied you? Answer me!
    I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
        I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
        I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.”

Yahweh is laying the groundwork for his court case,
    and the defendant is the whole people of Israel.
    Not one person. The entire community.

And I suspect the community has an idea what’s coming.
    They know they have not lined up well
        against God’s standards of justice and righteousness.

So their anonymous spokesperson jumps in, their attorney,
    and asks Yahweh, in the part we read today,
    “What would you like me to do?
        Shall I bow?
            Maybe lie prostrate before you?
        Would you like a burnt offering?
            Like a yearling calf, completely burnt to ashes?
        Or maybe a ram. Maybe thousands of rams?
        Or some oil. Not a little trickle, a flood!
            Ten thousand rivers of oil!
        Or how about I give up my first-born—
            the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

This is the people’s attorney, speaking on behalf of his own community,
    engaging in some desperate plea bargaining.
    In this trial, he’s an attorney who is also a defendant.
        He’s part of the group on trial.

The prophet Micah speaks next.
    Micah is God’s attorney.

“Why are you asking God about such things?
    Yahweh has already told you . . . mortal . . .
        what is good, and what God requires of you.
        Do justice.
        Embrace loving-kindness.
        Walk humbly with God.”

It’s safe to say these are words for the whole class of defendants.
    First, people, do justice.
        Structure your way of living in this world according to my laws
            that protect the poor, the widow, the orphan,
            that prevent human oppression of all kinds.
    Second, embrace loving-kindness.
        The Hebrew word here is “chesed”—steadfast love,
            love that never fails,
            love that survives against all odds,
            showing kindness even to those who don’t deserve it.
    Third, walk humbly with God.
        Walk humbly, together,
            as a community who knows who they are before God,
                beloved,
                and serving a cause greater than themselves.
_____________________

I find this idea compelling,
    that a whole community of God’s people
    are invited, together,
        not only to do justice and practice stubborn love,
        but they are asked to walk, together, humbly
            with God in this world.

I find it especially compelling in our present political climate.
And worthwhile reflecting on as we come out of mid-term elections,
    where the whole focus is on winners and losers,
        or to be more precise,
        winning parties and losing parties.

Micah is preaching collective, corporate, communal humility.
    The phrase “group humility” is an oxymoron today.
        The two words don’t go together.
        I can’t think of anywhere to point,
            to find an example of such a thing.
    We live in a world where one country after another
        elects extreme nationalists who are popular precisely because
            they refuse to show group humility toward other nations,
            and blatantly promote an us-first agenda.
    And back home in the USA,
        is there any room at all for group humility?
    We are led by a Congress where lawmakers are pressured
        to vote in lock-step with their party,
        and demonize their political opponents,
        or face the consequences of their disloyalty.
    And in our churches we are experiencing a resurgence
        of Christian nationalism,
            where Christians think it’s their calling to “take back”
            their country by controlling our institutions,
            from the national government down to local authorities.

What would it mean for the church of Jesus
    to exhibit public humility in our walk with God in society,
    instead of what has become the new normal for churches—
        to go on the offensive,
        trying to prove our significance and stature,
        fighting against people we are called to love,
        trying to stave off the inevitable decline in numbers,
            and decline in social relevance,
            by practicing muscular Christianity.

For that matter, groups of any kind in our culture
    don’t have much practice in being purposely, authentically humble.

As I think about our own congregation here,
    seems like we have ample reason for some group pride.
    We’re not perfect, by any means,
        but we’re strong, we’re healthy, we’re resilient.
    Some congregations have been thoroughly beaten up
        by years of pandemic and polarization
        and economic woes and culture wars.
        We haven’t.
    Some churches can’t even think about pivoting toward a new future,
        because they are hanging on by a thread.
        We aren’t.
        We have a dream team whose job it is
            to help us dream of new ways to form faith.

But as soon as I put words to thoughts like that,
    I hear God’s attorney, the prophet Micah, asking,
    “Who do you think you are? God’s gift to the Christian faith?
        Do justice.
        Be steadfast in your love of others.
        Walk humbly with God in your neighborhood.

    Do more listening than preaching.
        Love the unlovable, as a church.
        Make a home for the stranger.
        Be humble, as a community,
            about what you have and what you can do.
    Give yourselves away to those with less, with conditions attached,
        and without calling attention to how generous your church is.

We are in challenging times, for any institution,
    especially religious institutions.
    The institutional church has lost the public’s trust,
        for the most part.
    We are in an environment where every group
        jockeys for position,
        where they gather together their tribe
            and circle the wagons,
            look for strength in numbers,
            look for more influence and a louder voice,
            try to gain the tactical advantage.

Let’s model a different way of being God’s people,
    shall we, and demonstrate humble, steadfast, love and mercy.
    It won’t change all the corrupt power structures overnight.
    But it might start a small movement,
        it might spark the imagination of other groups,
        and it might be just what the prophet Micah is calling for.

It takes a village to walk humbly with God.

Join me in an act of group humility right now,
    by reading with me our corporate confession,
    printed in your bulletin, and shown on the screens.

one    God, we confess we are tempted by tribalism,
          showing solidarity with people like us,
          who share our faith, our family ties,
          our social and political loyalties.
all      Forgive us, God of all tribes and nations.
one    We also confess we are tempted by individualism,
          failing to see our need of others
          to form and shape us in your way.
all      Forgive us, God of all.
one    Where individualism creates distance from neighbors I need,
          Where tribalism creates distance between our people,
          and the large and diverse communities we need,
all      Forgive us.
          [silence]
one    The God of justice whose heart is for all tribes and nations
          forgives and loves us without condition,
          and invites us to join our lives with others,
          together doing justice, loving kindness,
          and walking humbly with God.

And now, let’s join our voices in song, Voices Together 392.
    Before we sing it, I’d like to just read the stanzas aloud,
        another wonderful hymn text by Adam Tice,
        inspired by some famous words of Menno Simons,
        “True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant.”

        The Church of Christ cannot be bound
        by walls of wood or stone.
        Where charity and love are found,
        there can the church be known.

        True faith will open up the door
        and step into the street.
        True service will seek out the poor
        and ask to wash their feet.

        True love will not sit idly by
        when justice is denied.
        True mercy hears the homeless cry
        and welcomes them inside.

        If what we have, we freely share
        to meet our neighbor’s need,
        then we extend the Spirit’s care
        through ev’ry selfless deed.

—Phil Kniss, November 13, 2022

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Sunday, November 6, 2022

Phil Kniss: The power of being present

Roots & Tendrils: God Grows A People
Healing and Community
ALL SAINTS DAY
2 Kings 5:1-15a; Matthew 8:2-3



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This healing story of Naaman the leper is a favorite of mine.
    I heard it in Sunday Schools,
        in Bible storybooks my mother read to me,
        and on a vinyl record we wore out, called,
        “Great Stories from the Bible,”
            narrated by Wendell P. Lovelace,
            with dramatic effects by a Hammond organ.
    This story is one of 12 tracks.
        One of the top 12 stories of the Bible,
            at least according to Word record executives.

But the high point of this story whenever it was told
    and the moment on the record,
        where the organ swells in a dramatic crescendo,
    was when Naaman stepped out of the Jordan River,
        his skin smooth as a baby, the Bible says.
That is, apparently, the miracle that puts this story in the top 12.
_____________________

But I have come to believe that is not the only miracle in this story,
    nor is it, even, the greatest one.

There is astounding power in being present—
    thoroughly, calmly, attentively, present—
    to God’s activity in the circumstances around you,
        and in the lives of the people around you.

And this great power was wielded in this story
    by a young slave girl who had been ripped away
    from her home and family and community
        in a violent raid that destroyed the life she knew,
        and left her traumatized on multiple levels.
    Now she serves as a slave
        inside the house of the military commander
        who was the leader and mastermind behind that raid.

To think she had it within her,
    not only to be present to the possibility
        that back home there was a prophet of God
        who had the power to heal her enemy captor’s disease,
    but to actually approach her owner, the wife of Naaman,
        and offer a pathway to his healing,
        is beyond amazing.

It is a miracle
    that strikes me as even more surprising and awe-inspiring
    than a skin disease that was healed by 7 dips in the Jordan.

A traumatized, displaced, and enslaved young girl
    becomes the primary catalyst for the healing
    of the most powerful military officer in Aramea.

There are at least five strikes against her having any power in this story:
    trauma
    displacement
    slavery
    ageism
    and patriarchy.

Nevertheless,
    she was grounded enough in her own identity
        as a person loved by Yahweh,
    that she could be present to the suffering of others—
        even the one responsible for the suffering of her people.
    There is amazing power in the ability to be present.

As the story unfolds,
    we see the prophet Elisha
    also exercise the power of presence.

He could see the possibility that God might be at work
    in the life of an arch-enemy of Israel,
    and was open to facilitate Naaman’s healing,
        without making any sort of power play.

When an enemy is against the ropes, so to speak, as Naaman was,
    that’s the time to reposition,
    take advantage of the enemy’s weak spot,
    use it to your advantage.

But no.
    Elisha observed the situation, was present to it,
        and opened himself to God doing something unexpected.
_____________________

The only way for us to be fully present,
    is to relinquish some control.
    I cannot, at the same time,
        be actively trying to exert my influence on someone,
        and be fully present and open to them.

    I may move back and forth between the two.
    And there may be legitimate times for both.
    But I can’t do them simultaneously, seems to me.

When it comes to healing of any kind,
    we need to let go of our urge to control
        either the process or the outcome.
    We need to open ourselves to the wholeness God has in mind.
    Which may or may not be precisely what we have in mind.

As we saw in scripture,
    there is a powerful connection
        between yieldedness and wholeness,
        between releasing and healing,
        between letting go of our pride and anxiety,
    and receiving God’s pure gift of wholeness of life.

Naaman would have never been healed,
    had he not been able, at least for a few minutes,
        to let go of his urge to control the circumstances,
        and give in to the muddy waters of the Jordan,
            and to the unknown God of Israel.
_____________________

On this All Saints remembrance Sunday,
    we are, as a community, and as individuals,
    revisiting some points of loss and pain and grief and woundedness.

The experience we had, or are having,
    in regard to the death of these persons—
        the 9 persons whose pictures are here on the front table,
        and 260 additional persons listed in our bulletin today—
    run the gamut from beauty to tragedy,
        from hurts that have healed long ago,
        to wounds of grief that are still gaping wide open.

The stories of our lives in relation to these persons
    also spans the spectrum
        from love and goodness and wholeness,
        to complicated pain and tension, and even abuse.

These 269 are not all saints, in its classical definition,
    that is, they’re not all paragons of purity.
    But they are real people loved by God, given life by God,
        and redeemed by God.
    And so we remember them, and name them.

The road to healing for us,
    in regard to those we have lost,
    can also be found in the power of being present—
        being present with our grief,
        being present with our anger, confusion, sense of betrayal,
            and other complicated feelings we may have,
        being present with our deep continuing love for these persons,
            and their ongoing impact on our daily lives.

It’s a powerful thing to be able to let the varied feelings come,
    without judgement, without pushing them away.
    It’s the same power of being present
        that we saw in the slave girl and the prophet Elisha.

So today,
    in the rituals we are about to undertake,
    I invite you to be present,
        whatever that may mean for you today.
_____________________

Be present to your pain and loss and grief.
Be present to God’s comfort and companionship.
Be present to each other.

Our time of remembrance has several stages.
    First, we will remember, and name aloud,
        all those from this congregation
        who have died since All Saints Sunday last November.
    Then the choral ensemble
        will sing the words of Romans 8, “Neither death nor life,”
        and you are invited to join with them on the refrain,
            the music is printed in the order of worship.
    Then all will be invited to make your way forward
        for candlelighting and communion.
        Instructions will follow.

Let us now hear the names of those who died in the last year.
    Read in unison the bold print of the scripture,
        as you see it projected on the screen.

We remember with thanksgiving those from this congregation whom we have entrusted to God and who now rest from their labors.


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Sunday, October 30, 2022

Phil Kniss: Such a wise man! (wink, wink)

Roots & Tendrils: God Grows A People
Wisdom and Community
1 Kings 3:4-28; Matthew 6:9-10



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Are you ever ambivalent about the Old Testament?
Do you question our spending time in the Hebrew Bible
    Sunday after Sunday this fall?
    (It’s okay if you say yes.)
    I have one simple aim this morning:
        to move you just a little bit,
        along the path from ambivalence toward love.
    Yes, love.
    I love the Hebrew Bible,
        so naturally, I want you, the people I love, to love what I love.

But the road to love of this ancient text
    might mean you give up some things you assumed,
    and even held sacred.
That can be hard, I grant you.
So, if you only move a little bit this morning, I’m still happy.

The first thing I had to give up
    on my path to loving this first part of the Bible,
    was the idea that it speaks with one voice—
        that God dictated it all to Moses and the prophets,
        that it’s a literal record of everything exactly as it happened,
        and that everything in it reflects God nature.

Those ideas are meant to reinforce the authority of the text.
    But they also raise troubling questions, if we’re honest.
        that make some people run fast and run far from it.

If the Old Testament speaks with one voice, the voice of God,
    Why does it say one thing over here, and the opposite over there?
    Why does a loving God torture his bosom friend Abraham,
        and terrorize Abraham’s boy Isaac
        with a child-sacrifice scare?
    Why does God bless the patriarchs
        with wealth and riches and livestock
            as a reward for outright deceit and manipulation?
        And why does that often come
            at the expense of the women in the family?
    And most troubling,
        why does God directly command
            mass murder and genocide and ethnic cleansing,
            not once, but repeatedly?

I’ve come to understand, and love,
    that scripture speaks with many different voices.
Human voices.
    Inspired by the Spirit of God, yes.
    But still deeply shaped by their humanity,
        and by their peculiar circumstances and culture and world view.
    These sacred stories still bear the unmistakable imprint
        of our limited and incomplete and frail humanity.
    They are told by people
        trying to make sense of God in their particular world.
        And they, like we, don’t get the full picture of God.

But I love mining for gold in the Hebrew Bible,
    those moments when the God we know in Jesus glimmers in glory.
I realize these broken stories from broken people are not solid gold.
    Their assumptions about God are incomplete,
        and sometimes miss the mark.
    But there is still a lot of gold, and it’s worth mining,
        even if we only find the nuggets some of the time.

Elevating the human side of this book
    does not diminish the divine nature of it.
    It does not make it any less a Holy Bible.
    I still believe the Spirit of God inspired and directed these stories
        to end up in our sacred book,
        as a record of humanity’s struggle to know and relate to God.
    We learn from these human experiences.
    We learn of God’s faithfulness in the face of our unfaithfulness.
_____________________

What we have to know about the Hebrew Bible
    is that it started out as many different oral traditions
        passed down through different communities of God’s people,
        at different points in their history,
        who had different agendas in their pursuit of God.
    Only later did these get put into writing,
        and compiled into a collection of scrolls.

I won’t get too technical, so stay with me now.
    There are different theories about how many sources there were,
        and how to identify them.
    But there is wide agreement among scholars,
        that different communities with different priorities
            shaped this collection of scripture.
    The period of Israel’s exile is a big factor here,
        because scattered communities of Israelites
        were all trying to make sense of why the exile happened—
            how God’s promise to them could crash and burn,
                and now they were stuck in Babylon!
            Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins,
                and they had little hope of resurrection.

Some of these communities passed on stories
    that seem to be from a priestly perspective,
    focusing on ritual law, the origin of shrines and temples,
        and the work of priests.

But there seems to be a major source we call “Deuteronomic.”
    It lies behind the book of Deuteronomy, of course,
        but also much of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Jeremiah.
    Its main concern is the covenant.
    The Deuteronomist, and his community,
        believe there is still hope for God’s people after the exile,
        if they return to God’s original covenant,
        if they order their lives around the worship of God
            and God’s priorities for the poor, the widows, the orphans.
    They understand that God loves the whole world,
        and that God’s promise to Israel is conditional.
        Stay faithful to the covenant, and you can stay in the land.
        Turn your back on the covenant, and you will lose it.

Now why do I say all this as background
    as we look at the Wisdom and Glory of Solomon?
    Because for some of you, I’m about to blow your minds
        with another way of reading this story
        that you may not have heard before.
    It’s a way of reading it that I love and embrace.
    It’s not my invention, of course.
        There are plenty of books and articles that expand on it.
_____________________

The traditional way to read this long
    nine-chapter treatment of King Solomon, 1 Kings 3-11,
        is to read it as unbroken praise of his glorious reign,
        highlighting his wisdom, wealth, and leadership savvy.

And perhaps, in some of its early, oral forms,
    that we assume emerged during the exile,
        it was entirely that.
    I mean, you can understand why Israelites
        living as lonely homeless exiles in Babylon,
        would be telling stories about their glory days.
    King Solomon was legendary.
    Of course, none of the exiles actually lived during Solomon’s time.
        That was 100s of years earlier.
        But they were longing for an image of the good old days.

Well, something funny happened
    on the way to writing these stories down, apparently.
    As the Deuteronomist got hold of these stories,
        and put pen to scroll,
        the covenant agenda of the Deuteronomist
            found its way into the story.
    It’s subtle, and it’s obvious.

Seems like the Deuteronomist is being careful
    not to take all the wind out of the sail of the people,
    who want to hold on to this legend of greatness,
        to give them courage during the exile.
But without a doubt, there is something subversive going on here,
    if you are paying attention.
    There is glaring irony here in this story.
    One journal article I came across about today’s text had the title,
        “Has the narrator come to praise Solomon or to bury him?”

Are you familiar with the concept of “Easter Eggs”
    in movies or video games or TV shows?
    An “Easter Egg” is kind of an inside joke or symbol
        hidden in a larger work,
        that’s obvious once you notice it,
            but is likely to go unnoticed.
    I like to think about the work of the Deuteronomist
        in this narrative on Solomon,
        as someone who’s hiding Easter Eggs in plain sight.
        Easy to pass by it, but obvious when you find it.

Remember, back in 1 Samuel,
    God only reluctantly gave in to Israel’s request for a king,
        to be like the other nations.
    But God’s permission
        came with a dire warning, and a prediction.

The warning was,
    “Stay faithful to my covenant, and I will bless you,
        but turn your back on my covenant,
        and you and your king will meet with disaster.”

And the prediction, to quote Samuel, was:
    “He will take your sons,
        and will use them for his chariots and cavalry.
    He will take your male and female servants,
        along with the best of your cattle and donkeys,
        and make them do his work.
    He will take one-tenth of your flocks,
        and then you yourselves will become his slaves!”

Well, what do we learn from this ode to Solomon’s glory and greatness?
Ch. 5, beginning at v. 13, and I quote:
    “King Solomon conscripted forced labor
        out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men.
    He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts;
        they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home;
    Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor.
    Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers
        and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country.”

Wow! But wait, there’s more!
Remember how Yahweh also emphatically said,
    “I don’t need a temple, or house of cedar, to live in.
        I’m perfectly happy traveling around in a tabernacle, a tent.”
    But Solomon used all this forced labor (i.e., Israelite slaves),
        to travel up to Lebanon to cut, harvest, and ship what?—
            massive amounts of cedar.

    And just in case the reader is still fooled,
        and thinks everything Solomon does is glorious,
    There’s this clever little Easter Egg,
        hidden at the chapter break between 6 and 7.
        And the original had no verse and chapter breaks.

So here are two back-to-back sentences in the Hebrew Bible.
    1. “Solomon was seven years in building the temple” . . . and . . .
    2. “Solomon was building his own house thirteen years.”
You think that wasn’t an intentional comparison?

Not only did Solomon use slave labor and kingdom wealth
    to build God a house God didn’t want or need.
He used almost twice as much slave labor and wealth—
    to build his own personal palace.

Solomon is exactly the kind of king Samuel warned Israel about.
    And this all come in the same narrative
        as today’s text about Solomon’s wisdom.
    So we should be looking for the writer’s “spin”
        when we read about Solomon’s remarkable wisdom.
    Because it’s the same story-tellers and interpreters
        who are telling us about his wealth and power and glory.

So, as we heard in chapter 3, two prostitutes come before Solomon
    with a dispute over ownership of an infant.
    Solomon’s way of determining the true mother was clever,
        to be sure.
        But maybe not as awe-inspiring as we think.
        I imagine most clear-thinking judges could have
            come up with a similar test of loyalty to the child.
    But more interesting, some Bible scholars point out,
        the two women were specifically identified as prostitutes.

    Hebrew law strictly outlaws prostitution,
    Deuteronomy calling prostitution an “abomination to Yahweh.”
    It’s worthy of note that the king says not a word
        about that law that he was there to uphold.
    It is also interesting to note, as other scholars point out,
        when we see prostitution mentioned in the Hebrew Bible
            it’s often a metaphor for Israel chasing after other gods.
        It’s at least worth pondering,
            are the women symbolic? is the child symbolic?

As a matter of fact,
    this story of Solomon’s glory ends on a sober note,
    with Solomon’s love for Yahweh being prostituted to other gods.

Listen to 1 Kings 11:1, and following:
    King Solomon loved many foreign women—
        Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women—
        from the nations concerning which the Lord had said,
        “You shall not enter into marriage with them,
            neither shall they with you,
            for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods.”
        Solomon clung to these in love.
        Among his wives were seven hundred princesses
            and three hundred concubines, and . . .
            his wives turned away his heart after other gods,
            and his heart was not true to Yahweh his God,
            as was the heart of his father David.”
_____________________

Bottom line on wisdom from these chapters—
    is that the wisdom of God looks different than human wisdom.
    Accumulation of power and wealth are likely to corrupt,
        and lead us away from the wisdom of God.
    God’s heart is always toward the poor, the widow, and the orphans.
        Those who forsake God’s priorities,
            and instead seek after wealth and power and pleasure,
            disappoint God,
            and undermine God’s purposes in the world.
    Right there’s the gold in this story,
        and why I love the Hebrew Bible.

Today it’s asking us: Who are we following?
    The Leader we think we want,
        may not be the Leader we actually need to be faithful to God.
    Just as leaders are called to be discerning in their leadership,
        so we are all called to be discerning in who we follow.

God, give us wisdom.

As a response, let’s sing a fitting hymn, that Sam chose as a response—
    a familiar tune, with a newer text,
    VT 201 – Hear the Turmoil of the Nations

—Phil Kniss, October 30, 2022

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Sunday, October 16, 2022

John Stoltzfus: Liberated to Choose

Roots and Tendrils: God Grows a People
“Saying Yes Again”

Joshua 24:1-26; Matthew 4:8-10

Watch the video:


...or listen to audio:


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If there is a soundtrack for our scriptures today, I suggest the song Gotta Serve Somebody by the poet and prophet Bob Dylan. His voice is in tune with Joshua’s pep talk to the people of Israel and Jesus’ response to the devil in the wilderness. 

If you listen to the whole song, Dylan lets no one off the hook, including the preacher when he sings, “You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride but you gonna have to serve somebody." Right on!

Dylan drives home the point that for everyone, who or what we will serve is a question that cannot go unanswered.

I confess that I was not inspired when I saw the texts for this Sunday after agreeing to preach. For one, the Joshua narrative of the conquest of Canaan is filled with troublesome language for our modern ears, suggesting near annihilation of a people and forced land displacement. We have to wrestle with difficult questions of interpretation, particularly in light of how this has been used throughout history to justify, by divine right, forced displacement of other peoples. With the recent marking of Columbus Day, we have to acknowledge that we are beneficiaries of displacement ourselves.

But this question will have to wait for another study or a longer sermon! I have appreciated our series with the narrative lectionary, so far, in asking some of the deeper questions about the why and the context of these stories in the Hebrew Bible, some of which are hard to interpret. In our journey through the Hebrew Bible, we’ve learned that we serve a loving God who is deeply committed to our liberation, who is biased toward the poor and their well-being, and a patient God who is in faithful covenant with us even when we fail.

Another reason I’m not drawn to this story is because it feels like the phrase “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” has been cheapened by its appearance on too many tacky wall hangings above a couch in a cozy living room. Do we really know what this declaration means, and do our lives give evidence of it?  Joshua’s clarion call to the people of Israel to make a decision of whom they will serve sounds very much like an evangelical preacher making an altar call. If only it were that easy to walk the sawdust trail to the altar in response.

As a child, I used to read these stories of the Israelites like it was a tragic novel. For a time the people would be faithful in worshiping Yahweh, then a period of falling away and worshiping idols, then a period of defeat at the hand of some enemies, and then a period of repentance and restoration. And repeat. I was perplexed as to why it was so hard for the people of Israel to do the right thing and stay focused.

One of the things that strikes me in this passage is that Joshua essentially dismisses the people's promise to serve the Lord by saying that they are going to go right back to doing whatever they want. He knows their wandering ways. Which begs the question: Are we being honest both institutionally and individually about the many ways we fail to live up to some of our stated ideals and values as followers of Jesus?

One thing that was helpful for me in researching this text is that this narrative of Joshua was most likely compiled much later on when the Israelites were in exile.  It is written from the perspective of a people who had seemingly failed in their commitment to follow Yahweh and had lost everything.

So maybe this story is asking the question: Do we only get one opportunity to do it right? The whole biblical narrative, in addition to the book of Joshua, is one of God’s constant steadfast love and persistent patience with God’s people. Yes, they do not get it right all the time; in fact, quite often they do not, but that does not keep God from pursuing them. This grand story shows God to be a relentless and creative pursuer of people who does not give up on seeking to liberate us to choose life and to flourish in all the abundance that God has given us. And that is good news indeed!

Whatever Joshua was trying to do to prepare the people for entering the land of Canaan, the editors of the scroll of Joshua are preparing its readers for the rest of the story. And now we add our own stories in the mix.  

Can we see that the challenges of idolatry are as present today as they were in Joshua’s time?  In whom or what do we place our security and hope?

Consider this:
When we see that there are more guns in this country than there are people and that our nation invests more in the military than the next 9 top countries of the world combined. Is this what we believe makes us safe? Is this not idolatry?
Many of us look for financial security in bulking up our retirement accounts, life insurance policies and investment portfolios. What does this indicate about what we trust for the future?
Today our political party of choice may indicate more about what we believe and value than our particular faith tradition. What does this tell us about our loyalties?
In the US the average amount of living space per person in a new house has doubled in my lifetime. What does that reveal about our deepest values?
In the US we continue to use fossil fuels at a much higher rate than our neighbors around the world yet it is the poorest in our world who are suffering the most from climate change. What does this say about our capacity to serve a God who cares the most for the vulnerable among us?
Are we any less distracted by idols or any more capable of following God than were Joshua’s listeners?

Who will we serve? We have choices at the intersection of everything that distracts us from that which is truly life giving for ourselves and our neighbor.

As a church, as families and as individuals, we have decisions to make everyday big and small. Can we with our choices reflect the purposes of God to our children and the watching world around us?

There is much in our world that would try to convince us that we don’t have a choice in living closer to our stated values saying “This is just the way things are.”
A recent revelation to Paula and me was our decision to replace one of our vehicles with an e-bike. For so long we simply assumed that with two drivers and kids we needed two cars. But after one of our cars stopped working we discovered that in our current situation we don’t need two cars. Granted we still drive a gas sucking minivan and this choice is an incredibly privileged and irrelevant one in comparison to the living standards of most of our neighbors in the world but I count it as one small step. And it makes me question what other assumptions about my choices in lifestyle need examination and liberation. I am inspired by the way I see many of you live out your values in generous and sacrificial ways.

We need good questions to help clarify our purpose and focus in this world of constant distraction that pulls us in so many different directions. We live in a smorgasbord of choices that often create more anxiety and stress than freedom. We need this liberating gift of God to choose life; to choose those things that are in tune to the character of a God who came close to us in the person and life of Jesus.

So, while I was not initially inspired by this story from Joshua, after sitting with a scripture text for a longer period of time, reading how others have interacted with this story (and listening to a bit of Bob Dylan), new insights and relevancy emerges. I'm drawn to this story in that it might help us to ask clarifying questions about the choices we make, big and small. What are the deeper values that guide us? How do our ongoing choices and decisions reflect the God we claim to serve?

I’m curious how you would respond to some of these questions. I’m very grateful that Christopher and Obie are going to offer some of their own reflections in wrestling with these questions.

What choices do you face in your household in saying "yes" to the values that reflect your commitment to following in the way of Christ and saying "no" to some of the temptations and distractions of the culture around us? Do you have a story to share about what these choices look like in your household?

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All of our choices and decisions reveal that we are a complicated mix of values and ideals. We need to hold our complicated stories reverently but lightly, to let them exist in creative tension with who we are seeking to become. We are not the sum of all our failures and weaknesses but the sum of a loving God who is liberating us to become a more just and merciful people in the image of Christ. I think this is part of what we are called to choose as Christ's followers. "Choose this day whom you will serve." May we choose a God who is unimaginably bigger than the stories we tell. A God whose every story begins and ends in love.


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