Sunday, May 8, 2022

Phil Kniss: Freedom is choosing to whom we are bound

“Belonging and Freedom - choosing whom we serve”
BELONGING & BEYOND
Senior Recognition Sunday
Acts 16:16-34



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So graduation is on our minds, right?
You high school seniors still have a month to go,
but you’re already tasting your freedom.
And EMU’s graduation
is just a couple of hours from now,
a couple of blocks from here.
Others are around the corner.

When we think of graduation we think of freedom, understandably.
No more required 8:00 classes.
No more assigned readings.
No more deadlines for turning in papers.
After we fling our mortarboards into the air
we have more choices than we did before.
We take on what we want to take on.
We set our own schedules and priorities.
_____________________

Thing is,
actual freedom is more complicated than that.
All of you soon-to-be grads, a word of caution:
When you graduate,
you gain some freedom, and you lose some,
you let go of some burdens, and you take others on.
Freedom is not an absolute value.
To be fully human,
is to be both free and bound, at the same time.
To be a healthy and joyful and whole
we need to learn how to navigate
the various freedoms and bonds
that make up our life in this world.

The story we heard from Acts 16 today
is all about this complexity.

There’s a host of different characters here
struggling to be free, while being bound.

The first one mentioned, and the most tragic, is the slave-girl,
a beloved daughter of God who was enslaved in multiple ways.
She had owners who made money off her,
controlled her every move,
and likely abused her in many different ways.
She also is described as being possessed by a spirit of divination.

But the owners themselves were also captive to their greed,
to their need to be in control,
to lord it over others,
so they lived in constant fear of losing control,
and losing their revenue source,
to the point that the healing of one young girl,
completely unhinged them,
and they were made captive to their rage and fear,
and acted accordingly, stirring up an angry mob.

The mob was also captive.
They did not each make an independent and free choice
to pick up clubs and attack Paul and Silas.
They were gripped by a collective fear
that their city was being threatened,
and mob psychology overtook and controlled them.

Then, of course, Paul and Silas were made captive,
with physical stocks and chains and shackles.

And the jail keeper was even captive,
since the security of that prison rested entirely on his shoulders,
to the point when the prison doors flew open
and the chains fell off the prisoners,
he was so controlled by the shame
he tried to kill himself,
until Paul and Silas intervened to prevent the suicide,
and bring him to faith in Jesus.

So . . . the most obvious captives in the story—
the slave girl and the prisoners—
end up being the most free.
And those who control the slaves and prisoners,
are shown to be the most captive.

Freedom is complicated.
_____________________

The God of the Bible is a God who is committed to our freedom.
From the Hebrew scriptures to the stories of the early church—
from the great Exodus out of slavery in Egypt,
to deliverance from evil spirits,
to release from prison,
to healing from diseases,
to resurrection from death—
God is always interested in our being free.

But . . . that does mean freedom to do
as we please when we please to whom we please.

Biblical-style freedom is more than escape from restriction.
God wants to free us to become fully human.
Free from whatever holds us back from God’s intent for us,
from anything that obscures the image of God in us,
from whatever prevents the light of God’s love
from shining through our lives,
from that which obstructs God’s purposes in this world.

In a real sense,
freedom is the capacity to choose to whom we are bound.
We as followers of Jesus
freely bind ourselves to Jesus,
and . . . we bind ourselves to other followers of Jesus,
and we bind ourselves to God our Creator,
and we bind ourselves to the well-being
of this world God created, and everyone in it.

That’s the connection between belonging and freedom.
Belonging to others means you create a bond with them.
We all need bonds to be healthy.
We all need attachments.
But bonds and attachments are, by definition,
in tension with freedom.
Bonds define the limits of our freedom.
We are free to make choices,
but we know some choices will test,
or strain, or even fracture those bonds.
So we choose accordingly.

So, graduates, enjoy your newfound freedom.
It’s real. Bask in it.
But . . . you will still be bound to someone or something.
Choose well who and what you bind yourself to.

Above all, bind yourself to the one who made you.
The one who loves you unconditionally.
The one who will continually delight in you,
as you live out of your best self,
as you fulfill your created purpose,
and help others do the same.

And I hope it’s clear by now to all of us,
no matter what our age and stage in life,
this message is not just for new graduates,
but is the challenge every one of us continues to face,
each and every day.

May our God help us.

—Phil Kniss, May 8, 2022

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Sunday, May 1, 2022

Phil Kniss: A funny thing happened on the road to...

“Belonging and Transformation - turning points on the journey”
BELONGING & BEYOND
Matthew 6:22-26; Acts 9:1-19a
 

Susan Bedell and David Brubaker share testimonies guided by the prompt:
Tell of a time when someone did or said something for you, that ultimately redirected your life path, or helped you see something you previously were unable to see.


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Acts chapter 9, in many of your Bibles, has a heading like,
“Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.”
That’s accurate.
Problem is,
we have a shallow understanding of “conversion.”

In the Christian world,
conversion implies one of two things happened:
either someone converted from one religion to another,
Buddhist to Christian, Hindu to Muslim, etc.,
or . . . someone converted from a life of evil, sin, and depravity,
to a new life of godliness, peace, and joy.

Acts 9 doesn’t fit the mold.
Saul of Tarsus had neither of those conversions.

Saul, later renamed Paul,
did not convert from one religion to another.
He was a Jew to the core,
and remained so after his “conversion.”
Saul did not become a Christian.
This was long before the schism
that separated Judaism and Christianity.
What happened was Saul joined a small Jewish movement
known as “People of the Way.”
He kept studying Torah, attending synagogue,
practicing Sabbath, and eating kosher food.
It’s just that he started doing those things
while hanging out with other Jewish disciples of Jesus.

Furthermore, Saul did not convert from depravity to godliness.
He did not once reject God, and now embrace God.
He didn’t turn from being self-centered to God-centered.

Saul had a sterling reputation.
He was righteous and religious.
Passionate and zealous, but a good man.

Both before his encounter on the road to Damascus,
and after his encounter,
Saul was a zealot for his faith,
for his people, for his God, for his tradition.
Before and after his “conversion,”
he believed deeply that his religious framework
was right and holy and God-breathed.
He believed it was essential for salvation.
It was a necessary good that needed to be defended.

That was why he was on the road to Damascus.
He was in an epic struggle on behalf of Torah, the Temple,
and the kingdom of God.
He was being obedient to God,
who had called him to this ministry.
In fact, he had a letter from God’s high priest that proved it.
Saul strongly believed, along with other religious leaders,
that the “People of the Way”
were a mortal threat to them as a Jewish people.

Saul had noble intentions.
The same noble intentions, incidentally,
that the religious leaders had a few years earlier,
when they turned Jerusalem against Jesus.

Both were motivated by the noble intentions of keeping the peace.
Palestine was still occupied by the brutal Roman Empire,
so it was to the everyone’s benefit to peacefully coexist
until the political situation changed.
If these radical “People of the Way” gained even more ground,
causing more unrest,
Herod and Caesar would turn against the Jews,
with all the military might of Rome,
and they could be wiped out forever.

Saul knew he was right about his mission.
He was doing God a favor by fighting for the right.
He had a pure heart and a clean conscience
as he went town to town leading the charge,
tamping down this resistance movement,
throwing disciples of Jesus in prison,
making sure they wouldn’t live to do it again.
He was on God’s side.
No doubt about it.
_____________________

But then, a funny thing happened on the road to Damascus.

Saul was converted to a different way
of seeing the reality around him.
And ironically . . .
or maybe not-so-ironically . . .
a new and keener vision emerged
after he was struck blind.

After a courageous pastoral visit by Ananias,
Saul’s blindness was healed,
and he was folded into the very community
he was trying to destroy—
the “People of the Way,” followers of Jesus.

His zeal for God and God’s purposes did not change!
It continued undiminished.
But it was redirected.
And, his motivation remained exactly the same—
to preserve the work of the God of Israel,
and help usher in the reign of God.
_____________________

Wow!
Just think about this for a minute!
This story both inspires me,
and it . . . I don’t mean this the way it sounds,
I mean it exactly the way I’m saying it . . .
it scares the hell out of me,
and it should scare the hell out of all of us.
I am not swearing. I am speaking literally.

So many religious people . . . and especially religious leaders . . .
have a righteous zeal for God and God’s agenda,
that can so very easily be co-opted and used by the devil,
by the powers of hell.
Our zeal for what we think are the priorities of heaven,
can sometimes have hellish consequences,
giving evil a stronger foothold in the world.

It doesn’t take much effort or imagination
to find countless examples in our world,
where this is precisely what is happening.
Religious warfare is a thing—
it has cost millions of human lives throughout history.
Nearly every major religion of the world,
has carried out a holy war, at one time or another.
There’s an interesting argument
that the war in Ukraine has some of those elements.

But we can’t point fingers only at the global stage.
On a much smaller scale, on a personal scale,
it’s something I need to guard against.
Does my zeal for God’s agenda (or what I assume is God’s agenda),
despite my most noble intentions,
ever end up getting co-opted by the powers of evil?
That should sober up any one of us.

Thankfully,
Saul’s eyes were opened.
He saw the light.
His religious framework was rebuilt,
and his zeal redirected.
Otherwise, this world may never have known
about this fringe movement within Judaism.

The other thing to point out here,
is that Saul was not persuaded
by hearing a more convincing argument.
For Saul, there was no rational pathway
that would lead him to a different point of view.
It took an existential crisis, a blinding and earth-rattling encounter,
for him to see.
Well . . . for him to be blinded . . . and then to see.
_____________________

You know, when it comes to present-day application,
this cuts across the whole theological spectrum.
This is no defense of liberalism against conservatism . . .
or vice-versa.
I am not arguing for uncritical openness to everything.
Of course, there is a place for being wisely discerning,
carefully discriminating between right and wrong.

But especially now, in a time where we are so deeply divided—
politically, culturally, racially, socially, theologically—
all of us, once in a while, need to take a deep breath,
and ask ourselves some hard questions.
We need to at least entertain the passing thought,
that we could be missing something.
That there might be a point-of-view we haven’t seen yet.

Then, if God is trying to reach us,
trying to open our eyes to
a new and more life-giving perspective on what is true,
maybe God can get through to us
with something a little gentler,
than knocking us to the ground and striking us blind.

We should always at least entertain the notion
that our perspective is limited.
We should get used to the sound of our voice saying
the most dreaded phrase in the English language:
“I could be wrong.”
When we say that out loud, we open up our lives just a crack,
enough to let some light in,
enough for the Spirit to get hold of us,
and do the real work of transformation.

If our aim is be transformed,
to become the whole human person God created us to be,
then we need to never stop listening,
to never stop thinking we have something to learn.

It’s good to have convictions.
It’s also good to hold those convictions with some humility.

Yes. Let’s name and affirm what we believe to be true,
and God helping us,
let’s live by what we believe to be true at this time.

But let us also nurture a holy openness of mind and spirit.
God still speaks.
So let us keep listening.

This isn’t a malady that effects only the young and brash.
It’s not automatic,
that the older we get,
the more we realize how much we don’t know.
Any of us, at any age, are likely to be living with some illusions.
Thing about an illusion is,
we never know when we have one.
Until we are given the gift of dis-illusionment.

Because we are human, the direction our lives are moving
should always be subject to change,
whether we are young and exploring many possible paths,
or whether we have already lived the biggest chunk of our life.

The stories we heard from Susan and David
both happened when they were in the first half of their lives.
I hope I am still practicing the art
of being willing to change direction when the Spirit speaks,
whether through an Ananias, or a Mary McClelland,
or a spiritual director,
or through one of you, my church family.
_____________________

Since we all fall short in this way,
let’s join together in some words of confession.

one God, we confess we are often a living contradiction.
        We outwardly project unquestioned certitude and conviction,
        while concealing from others and ourselves,
        our nagging doubts and lingering questions.
all God of the in-between spaces,
        meet us here, at the intersection of
        overconfidence and self-doubt.
one Show yourself to us on the road,
        not to dispel all doubt,
        but to reassure us of your love and presence
        as our journey turns in new directions.
all Heal us. Forgive us. Accompany us.
[silence]
one The God of Saul and Ananias is with us still.
        Jesus meets us where we are,
        shows us what we need to see,
        and promises to stay with us on the road, wherever it leads.

—Phil Kniss, May 1, 2022


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Sunday, April 24, 2022

Phil Kniss: The God who wants to be found

Easter 2 – “Peace be with you”
TURNING
John 20:19-31


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“Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas Deus ibi est.”

Thanks for helping start this sermon on the right note,
literally and figuratively.
Whether you knew it or not,
you sang the essence of my message this morning.
“Where charity and love are, there God is.”

I want you to know something about that song—
that pairing of an ancient Christian text,
with that particular melody.
That song grew out of a monastery
purposely built near the front lines of a long battle
between France and Nazi Germany during WW II,
in a part of France that was defeated and decimated,
and maybe looked like Ukraine does right now.

A Swiss young man with a deep spiritual burden,
decided to move away from his safe community
in neutral Switzerland,
and traveled into the heart of France in 1940,
as the war was raging.
He bought a house near the demarcation line,
and started taking in war refugees and helping them.
The Gestapo took over his house and occupied it for several years,
but as soon as France was liberated,
the man moved back into his house,
resumed his ministry to war refugees,
and established a monastic community
that included, from the beginning,
both Catholic and Protestant monks,
and whose mission was to build a community
that demonstrated reconciliation and peace.

That man was called “Brother Roger,”
and that community was known as the Taizé community.
It attracted young pilgrims from all over the world.
And developed a unique style of worship and music,
that influenced church music and worship
in nearly every Christian tradition.
22 of their songs are in Voices Together,
including the one we just sang:
“Where charity and love are, there God is.”

Now why would I start with this song,
on this last sermon from John’s Gospel?
In our story the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, then to Thomas,
in the room where they were hiding in Jerusalem.
This is a story about believing . . . or not . . .
that the living God is present with us in Jesus,
still, even after crucifixion and resurrection.

Jesus showed up for the disciples at their point of need.
They were hiding, fearful, behind locked doors,
afraid they would be found by the same authorities
who had just killed Jesus.

Jesus showed up, said “Peace be with you.”
And again, “Peace be with you.”
And then, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
And, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Now, a lot is made of this text, drawing attention to Thomas,
the so-called “doubting disciple.”
Completely unfair nickname, as I’ve said many times before.
Because all the disciples—every one of them—
received exactly the same evidence,
before they came to believe.
And Thomas’ belief was then accompanied
by a statement of faith more robust and profound
than any other disciple had spoken—
“My Lord and my God!”

Despite any lesson you ever heard
from a preacher or Sunday School teacher,
this is not a story about condemning doubt,
or looking down on people who ask questions and seek answers.

This is a story that highlights a God who comes to us on our turf,
who enters our space, and our time,
and says, here I am, to be with you.
Now. And in a way that you can see me.

This is a story about God moving in with us,
full of love and grace and restoration and healing and forgiveness,
and lots of other things we don’t deserve.

God does not try to make it difficult for us to have faith.
God does not play a cruel game of hide and seek.
God wants to be found.
God wants to be seen and recognized.

Yes, it is a fact that some of us do have a hard time finding faith,
some of us struggle with God’s apparent silence or absence.
But that is not a spiritual shortcoming on our part.
Maybe we are looking for evidence in the wrong places.

God is generous and gracious, and comes to us where we are.
God is now and always ready to provide what we need for faith.

So why do so many of us, so much of the time,
struggle to find a sense of God’s real presence with us?

Could it be that part of the reason
is our shallow definition of faith, of belief?
We’ve been formed by a faulty assumption
that faith happens in the head—
that it’s intellectual agreement with some
doctrinal formula or proposition.
No, faith is about trust. It’s about loyalty.
It’s about whole-bodied allegiance
to the way of Jesus in the world.
It’s about choosing to go where Jesus goes,
to follow God into the world,
and participate in what God is doing,
with our whole being.

If we get hung up on having to
sign-off, intellectually, on all the right formulas,
and perform all the necessary rituals, in just the right way,
in order to encounter God in Christ,
then we will have been defeated by duty-bound religion.

Sure, there are spiritual disciplines that many people find helpful.
There are some tried and true pathways
many have discovered that get us in a good space,
in an open frame of mind.
I’m not knocking any of that.

But as soon as we start thinking it’s up to us
to conjure up God’s presence in some deep devotional moment . . .
as soon as we start assuming that
30 minutes of daily meditation,
or contemplating the writings of ancient mystics,
or reading through the Bible in a year,
or praying the Lord’s Prayer in a certain way,
is the ticket to unlock the secret passageway
into God’s presence,
then let’s admit it.
We just invented another sophisticated form
of works righteousness,
trying to earn God’s favor with our good deeds.

Let me repeat.
God wants to be found.
God does not try to make it difficult.
God does not have a code we need to crack.
We can skip days of devotions,
weeks of worship,
go long periods without prayer,
miss months of meditation,
or (gasp) even break from our Bible reading habit,
and God will be no farther away from us,
than when we were doing all those things.

Not that I’m recommending we neglect spiritual disciplines.
Not at all.
I’m just saying,
let’s get over the idea that it’s up to us to
make God appear in our Upper Room, wherever that may be.
We don’t have to get it all right.
And we don’t get a prize
for having devotions five out of seven days.
God does not issue a Frequent Flyer Rewards Card.

We already know where God is, and we know what God is doing,
because God has told us and shown us,
in just about every page of scripture.

God is love.
God is mercy.
God is justice.
God is healing.
God is about whatever it takes to reconcile and restore and save.
So naturally, God moves toward those who suffer.
Where there are wounded people,
you will nearly always find someone
showing love and compassion.
Therefore, you will find God.
Maybe Brother Roger didn’t put it these terms,
when he left Switzerland in 1940 to head into a war zone,
but what he was doing was helping people meet God—
both the war refugees and himself.

And when Jesus showed up in the middle of room
of traumatized disciples, and said, “Peace be with you,”
he was helping those people he loved to meet God,
and to have faith.

So you want to meet God?
You want to have faith?
You want to move past your doubt?
Then don’t memorize a formula.
Don’t go through any contortions.
Just go to where there is suffering,
where there is woundedness,
whether they are the wounds of others . . . or your own.
And if you show love and mercy in that place,
to others, or to yourself,
God will be there.
Believe it.
Trust it.
Whether or not you see it or feel it.

Because where charity and love are found, there is God.
Join me in the confession, printed in your bulletin,
and on the screens.

one God beyond all knowing, we sometimes wonder where you are.
        In the shadows and pain of this wounded world, 
        we feel lost to your sight; and you seem lost to ours.
all We confess our fear of being left alone in this world.
one Help us rest in your promise to never leave or forsake us.
all We confess we depend too often on tangible evidence,
we fail to grasp that you want to be found,
we fail to notice signs you place in our path daily.
Forgive us.
[silence]
one Friends, we are loved and sought by God, the Hound of Heaven,
        We are fully seen and fully known 
        and fully in God’s gracious presence,
        when we realize it, and when we do not.
        The Risen Christ is with us. Alleluia!

“Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas Deus ibi est.”

—Phil Kniss, April 24, 2022

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Sunday, April 17, 2022

Phil Kniss: Is that a threat or a promise?

Easter Sunday – “The Whole World Turns”
John 20:1-18


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Lift your glad voices, indeed!
What a pure joy it is to be here today in worship.
What a pure, unadulterated joy to celebrate resurrection,
in a world full of death, and destruction, and violence,
and evil.
I don’t have to rehash the long list of sorrows
that are on our minds,
in our world of awareness,
even in our immediate experience.
From personal health, to grief, to politics, to disaster, to war,
we come this morning looking for relief.
For good news to outshine the bad.
And we get exactly that! Especially in the hymns we sing.

Just looking over the hymn text of what we just sang,
it’s like everything dark and death-like is obliterated.
Vain are the terrors!
Short is the dominion of death and the grave!
Burst are the fetters of evil!
Loud is the chorus of angels!
Full are the anthems!
Cheered is the deep valley of sorrow!
Jesus has risen and we shall not die!

And now you are expecting me to say . . . “but . . .”
But . . . I won’t.
I will say, instead . . . “AND . . .”

Because I do want to name another part of the image on the screen,
without deleting a single pixel of joy,
without darkening one bright and colorful dot of the picture
we have just been making with scripture, song, and prayer.

It’s obvious to all of us
that there is more to be said.
Because even though we proclaim today,
that all creation turns because of the resurrection,
we also know that Putin’s horrific war against Ukraine
is not going to go silent tomorrow,
the tornadoes are not going to stop,
our grievous losses are not going to be undone.

So here it is . . . 
“Jesus has risen and we shall not die! . . .”
AND . . . the resurrection should give us pause,
because is asks something of us that is not easy to give.
Yes, the world has turned, bringing us pure joy,
and bringing a new reality that not all of us are ready for.
_____________________

I hope, if you’ve been with us for our journey through John’s Gospel,
that you aren’t acting too surprised.
We’ve been looking at a whole series of turnings in John,
nearly all of which advanced God’s purposes in some way,
but also brought with them some new and painful reality.

The same is true with resurrection.
I won’t call it a “down side,”
because I really don’t think it is that.
But it’s a reality we need to face.

Resurrection means opening ourselves to a whole new horizon.
Resurrection means God is turning the world as we know it on its head.
Resurrection means saying goodbye to a world 
where we are familiar with the landscape,
and comfortable with its contours.

Parker Palmer, in his book The Active Life,
ends with a chapter entitled “Threatened with Resurrection.”
He got his inspiration from a poem of the same title,
by Julia Esquivel, a Guatemalan poet and theologian.

Palmer comments that sometimes we cling to our pathologies,
because in some way they are useful to us.
He calls our pathologies, our illusions, “little deaths,”
which we somehow prefer, over a new and transformed life,
because we benefit from our illusions.

Resurrection puts us to the test.
It tests our willingness to move into new territory,
to live a larger life than the one we are so familiar with.
We would never say death and defeat are good things, of course,
but at least they’re understandable.
They are part of the familiar landscape of life.
Resurrection forces us out of our comfort zone,
onto a whole new uncharted expanse of land.
_____________________

That probably explains the reaction of Peter and John,
when they confronted the empty tomb.
The resurrection story we heard from John 20
makes a point of the fact that Peter and the other disciple
(we presume John),
saw the empty tomb, and believed (v. 8)
They believed, but they didn’t understand the scriptures,
that he must rise from the dead (v.9)
So what did they do,
when faced with confusing evidence?
Their response is in v. 10.
“Then the disciples returned to their homes.”

They went back to the familiar. 
The safe environment of a house with doors that lock.
Standing in an open tomb,
in the presence of resurrection 
suddenly felt threatening, I think.
They couldn’t just stay there in that place,
where their world looked like 
it was about to be turned upside down.

By contrast, Mary Magdalene,
found it within herself to stay at the tomb.
To linger with this strange, threatening, and unknown reality.
It says in v. 11,
“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. 
As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb.”
And she was rewarded with an encounter.
By staying there at the empty tomb, despite her fear and confusion,
she met first the angels,
and then she met Jesus himself.
Because she persisted, 
she was the first one the risen Jesus appeared to.
And she was called by name.
And she was able to go back to the disciples,
and report with confidence, “I have seen the Lord.”
_____________________

Let’s be like Mary.
When we see signs of resurrection where we don’t expect them,
let’s linger.
Let’s stay with what frightens us, what troubles us.
When we detect the scent of new life, where we expect death,
let’s stay long enough to go deeper,
to step inside the empty tomb and look around.
If we are purposeful and attentive,
we might just encounter the risen Jesus.

To stay at the empty tomb
could mean different things, for different people.
It may mean we open the door to our grief a little wider,
show it hospitality instead of shutting it out.
It may mean daring to confront some darkness in our own lives,
instead of avoiding it.
It may mean a new level of vulnerability with someone.
It may mean taking a bold, and risky, action,
in relation to some injustice.

But probably in every case, it means daring to ask ourselves 
some challenging questions.

Parker Palmer asked himself these questions:
“If I lived as if resurrection were real,
and allowed myself to die for the sake of new life,
what might I be called upon to do? 
What strange and difficult tasks might be laid upon me?
What comforts might be taken away?
How might my life be changed?”

Believing the resurrection is only the beginning.
Peter and John were able to do that,
simply by seeing the empty tomb, and returning home.
We too can believe there is resurrection,
and go back home to life as usual.
It doesn’t require much risk or sacrifice.

May God give us the courage
not just to look quickly at the empty tomb, and believe . . . 
but to say “Yes” to God’s invitation to
stay and be transformed, 
to live the resurrection life.

In resurrection, there is both threat and promise.
The Risen Lord Jesus Christ,
not only asks us to lay down our own agenda,
and take the risk of walking toward an unknown horizon.
The risen Christ makes a promise to us.
I will walk with you.
I will never leave or forsake you.
You can trust me.
You can breathe in my Spirit.
My life is your life!

So let us rejoice, laugh, sing, and be glad that Christ has risen!
But let us never take it lightly.

Julia Esquivel, the Guatemalan poet I referred to earlier,
in her poem “Threatened by Resurrection,”
described resurrection this way:
“There is something here within us
which doesn’t let us sleep, 
which doesn’t let us rest,
which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside.”

If the idea of being resurrection people
keeps us awake at night, heart pounding,
we might just be on the right track.
May God give us courage.
May God give us grace.

—Phil Kniss, April 17, 2022


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Sunday, April 10, 2022

Phil Kniss: The Giving King

Lent 6 (Palm Sunday) – “Hosanna turns to Crucify: The Crucified Messiah”
TURNING
John 12:12-19


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Today we have one of the most interesting Gospel stories about Jesus,
and one of the most misunderstood.
It was grossly misunderstood by the crowds
watching Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.
And it is equally misunderstood by us modern readers of the story.

And to be honest, I probably greatly misunderstand it, too.
So take what I say this morning, and examine it, test it,
and then, still, take it with a grain of salt.

Let me first lay out a quick summary of the story . . .
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey,
permitting, if not encouraging, the crowds’ shouts of Hosanna.
The people want to make Jesus into a political King,
but Jesus subtly refuses by riding a humble donkey,
showing that he was a servant to the poor, not a mighty king.
Then in a matter of a few days,
this same crowd turns against him and try to crucify him,
because he is not going to rescue them from Rome after all.
And we find out,
after his trial, crucifixion, and resurrection,
that what he is after is a heavenly kingship,
not an earthly one.
And we are invited to
receive Jesus as our spiritual savior,
and worship him with a pure heart.

Does that basic summary sound familiar to you?
Now, let me explain why we need to take
virtually every element of that summary,
and rethink it,
because we have them all wrong—
mostly, if not entirely.

Let’s start at the beginning.
Why a donkey? And not a white horse?
I didn’t go back to my old sermons to confirm,
but I’m almost positive I’ve preached some sermons
that portrayed the donkey
as a humble animal of the working class, the farmer.
And that when Jesus choose a donkey,
a lowly working animal,
riding atop it with his feet almost dragging the ground,
he was rejecting the effort to make him an earthly King.
He was presenting himself not as King,
but as Servant to the poor.

All sounds good.
But it’s unquestionably bad biblical interpretation.
Because we have extensive evidence—
both in the Bible, and in other literature and archeology,
that donkeys were highly regarded in the Ancient Near East.
Maybe we’ve been led astray by Eeyore,
the donkey in Winnie the Pooh,
who hangs his head, and talks in a low voice,
as if he’s not worth much.
Today, for some reason, we associate donkeys
with being dumb or submissive or timid.

Not so in the time and culture of Jesus.
Because of their ability to provide
reliable transportation for long distances,
donkeys were sometimes even given semi-divine status.
And . . . they were often associated with royalty.
Jesus was by far not the only king to have ridden on one.
As a matter of fact,
it was customary, when a king returned to his city,
after victory in battle,
the steed of choice for the victory parade into the city
was a donkey.

So it is simply wrong to suggest
that Jesus was rejecting earthly kingship by choosing a donkey.

It would be more accurate to say
that Jesus was giving a signal, both to the Jews and the Romans,
that he was coming in peace, not to take over with violence.
Kings rode horses when leading their armies into battle.
They rode donkeys when they were coming in peace.

So it seems to me that what Jesus signals here,
is that he is coming into Jerusalem as a king,
but not a king who will seize political power by force.
Rather, a king who exercises his power by giving it away.
He is the Giving King.
As the week unfolds, that message in reinforced in many ways.
Jesus’ power is manifest by acts of self-giving.
Whether in the upper room, washing his disciples’ feet,
or in the garden, condemning Peter’s use of violence,
or in the High Priest’s chamber,
responding with transparency and wit,
without belittling his accusers,
or before Pilate,
sometimes silent,
sometimes answering with respect,
but always true to himself.
Ultimately, he gives up his own life—
not as a helpless victim,
but as a king—the Giving King.

A little reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree,
about the tree who gave its apples, its branches, even its trunk,
for love of the boy.

Jesus is the kind of king that is willing to give whatever it takes,
to bring life to those he loves,
and who are subject to his reign.

In contrast to the power of the Roman Empire—
whose power was expressed by acts of
taking and accumulating—
taking money, freedom, dignity from others,
and gathering it all to themselves,
so they could lord it over others . . .
In contrast to the power of the religious hierarchy—
whose power was likewise exerted on others by coercion,
in order to maintain what little power they still had . . .
In contrast to all that, Jesus enters Jerusalem—
the center of religious and political power in that region . . .
and says, let me show you the nature of royal power,
the power of God that has been shared with me.
This kind of power may not save my earthly life,
but can save the world.

So yes, true enough, there is humility in his choice to ride a donkey,
instead of a war horse.
But Jesus is by no means rejecting kingship.
He is redefining kingship.
And it’s still a political kingship, in the sense that
this divinely-ordained power of giving
is meant to be lived out in human community now.
It’s not just for some age to come.
Giving, rather than taking and accumulating,
is an organizing principle for Jesus’ disciples,
then and now.
It’s how we are called to be formed as a people,
as a community in this world.
Therefore, it’s inherently political—
in the best and truest sense of the word.
_____________________

And now let’s consider the notion
that these people shouting “Hosanna” are fickle,
that they turn on Jesus.
That the very crowd that one day
was shouting the praises of Jesus,
was now shouting just as loudly to crucify him.
I know I’ve suggested that from this pulpit.
I’m not so sure any more.

I won’t say some of them don’t do an about-face.
I’m sure some do.
We know that mob psychology is a real thing.
It can make people do something in the heat of the moment,
that they couldn’t have imagined doing,
even days earlier.

But this notion is at best a half-truth,
is not supported by direct biblical evidence,
and does not take into account the complexity
of the power struggle at work in Jerusalem.
I talked about this in a sermon a few weeks ago,
pointing out the clear social and political differences,
between the rural north (Galilee and its region),
and the powerful, more urban south (Jerusalem and Judea).

If there is one thing that stands out as a newer, stronger
impression on me in this journey through John,
it’s that the way Jesus was received varied widely,
according to culture, geography, and social status.

In John, there is this repeated back-and-forth
between Galilee and Jerusalem,
which reveals as much about the people as it does Jesus.

In Galilee, Jesus regularly crossed religious and cultural boundaries,
with very little push-back.
He offered healing to Gentiles and Romans and Jews alike,
and no one mounted an objection.
His popularity only grew.
The crowd size grew,
so much so he could hardly find a quiet spot to pray.
But back in Jerusalem, among the power elite
(both religious and civil powers),
it didn’t take much to get them upset.
A man unable to walk for decades was healed
when Jesus told him to pick up his mat and walk.
The ruling class of religious folk blew a gasket over that,
because Jesus told someone to carry their mat
on the Sabbath!
I can’t even imagine something like that happening in Galilee.

When Jesus returned to Galilee,
after his bold move
to clear the temple of the animals and moneychangers,
he was welcomed like a hero
by his fellow Galileans who heard what he had done.
While back in Jerusalem, in smoke-filled rooms (so to speak),
the elite were conspiring to find a way to kill him.

Here’s the thing—during big religious festivals,
Jerusalem streets were filled with all kinds of people—
both the rural northern folks who feel the brunt of oppression
and were angry at their oppressors (Roman and religious)
and are looking for someone to save them,
as well as local residents of Jerusalem,
many of whom, along with the priestly class,
along with scribes, Pharisees, and the Sandhedrin,
have found a way to thread the needle, politically,
to stay in the good graces of Rome,
and keep the peace,
so they can maintain their religious power structure.
It is any surprise that Jesus wasn’t popular
among residents of Jerusalem?
Most of them either had family in the religious ruling class,
or were neighbors to them,
or did business with them.
They were enmeshed with the power structures.

In today’s text, Jesus entered Jerusalem
during one of the biggest religious festivals—Passover.
People from every part of Palestine were there.

How do we know it wasn’t primarily his Galilee supporters
who came out en masse and waved their palms
and shouted “Hosanna,” which means, “Save us!”?
It would make perfect sense to me.

And how do we know that the crowds shouting “crucify him!”
a few days later, weren’t primarily residents of Jerusalem,
whose resistance was stoked by the religious ruling class,
who they were deeply connected to,
and easily influenced by?

Thing is we don’t really know.
But I’m beginning to assume
that is the most reasonable description of what was happening.
_____________________

This pivotal story in John’s Gospel,
which appears in all four of the Gospels in much the same form,
is a profound lesson to us as a people,
as a community of Jesus followers.

Who do we surround ourselves with?
Who do we shoulder up next to when we want something to happen?
What kind of power are we willing to wield
to get the outcome we want?

There is nothing inherently wrong
with holding positions that are politically powerful.
The question is how we are stewarding that power?
Is it the power of the empire—the take and accumulate kind?
Or is it the power of kingdom of heaven—
that reveals itself through self-giving love.

It’s a question I need to ask of myself, of course,
living as I do in one of the “Jerusalems”
of the Mennonite Church,
and being a 60-something white male senior pastor,
who has been in my role long enough
to have gathered a good deal of knowledge and influence.

Am I using my power to hold on what I have and what I want,
to secure my position?
or do I exercise my power and resources
by giving them away to others who need them more?

Am I surrounding myself with others in Jerusalem
who hold power like mine?
or do I open myself to what the spirit may be doing up in Galilee?
even if I don’t fully understand it or appreciate it?

I think many of us can ask the same sort of questions.
Just change the context a bit,
and you can probably find yourself in this story.
Are you with the crowd of outsiders shouting “hosanna”
at the beginning of the week?
Or are you with crowd of insiders protecting the status-quo,
and shouting “crucify” at the end of the week?
I imagine we can find ourselves in both places at times.
We are the ones who need to be humbled by this story of Jesus.

As you consider where you find yourself in this story,
let’s all join in calling on God’s mercy and forgiveness.
We will begin by singing again, the “Kyrie,”
translated simply, “Lord, have mercy.”
Then we will read the words of confession together, in unison,
Then repeat the Kyrie. Let us sing.

God of the foolish cross,
you are not the savior we expect.
     Your power does not look like the power
          we want our God to demonstrate.
     Your wisdom makes no sense to us.
We are happy to join the crowd,
          waving branches,
     but not so sure we want to follow you
          into the temple courts
          into the upper room
          into the garden of Gethsemane
          to the foot of the cross.
Forgive our false assumptions.
Clarify our clouded vision.
Free us to relax into the foolishness
     of your love and grace

—Phil Kniss, April 10, 2022

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Sunday, April 3, 2022

Moriah Hurst: The fear of power or the power of fear

Lent 5 – “Praising turns to Taunting: Jesus is Condemned”
TURNING
John 19:1-16a



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Our story opens mid stride. We are stepping in half way through this courtroom drama. Pilate and the Jewish leaders are in the middle of seven scenes going back and forth, inside and outside. With argument, reasoning, shouting and questions. Last week we started this long morning with Jesus early in the morning. By the end of today's text it is noon.
I’m reminded of my maternal grandma who used to have a large collection of VHS videos with movies on them. I loved going to her house to watch things, partly because we didn’t have a tv at home for most of my growing up years. The problem was that Grandma was the queen of spoilers. We would be 5 minutes into the movie and Grandma would walk in and say “oh did the mother died yet?” or “do you know that little boy has cancer?”, (dead pan) “No Grandma, we didn’t know that yet.” But like my Grandma, we know what happens here. We get the spoiler every year or any time we open our bibles to the end of any of the gospels. Yet we are suspended in this painful moment with Jesus. We are invited to witness the wrestling for power, the calling of names, and the cruel shouts for death by crucifixion. We see Jesus standing alone, beaten and mocked, yet still composed and thoughtful in his answers.

We start midmorning with Pilate ordering the flogging of Jesus. The soldiers make a show of mocking the title and role that Jesus has been accused of claiming. “Hail King of the Jews” they seem to spit in his face. After dressing him in the color of royalty and pressing the jabs of a thorny crown into his head, the soldiers approach and strike him on the face. Hitting the central place of our identity and recognition, with slaps that both challenge and demean.
The guards are an extension of Pilate’s power. He can order others to work under him, to do his dirty work and to enact violence on his behalf. But this very power to order violence and punishment is what the crowds and Jewish leaders work to subvert and use to their own ends.

We follow these two threads: what we call this man Jesus, his title and true identity and who has the power in this situation. As this scene unfolds we see different parties vying for power. Like a chess match trying to outwit the other. And our ideas of who holds power is thwarted.

Pilate offers that Jesus is a man but the Jewish leaders shout back that he should die because Jesus is claiming to be not just a man but the Son of God. Who is this Jesus? Is he human or is he God? Surely he cannot be both, can he? Yet, that is what we have gotten to know of Jesus in our journey through the gospel of John. Fully human and fully God, yes and not either or.

Pilate should hold the power here. He is the one connected to ruling bodies and given that authority by them to lead, but he is backed into a corner and we see him going from reasoning, to fear, to resignation that he may have to give into something he may not want to do. Saying “I find no case against him”.
Commentator Bishop Criag Satterlee say it this way:

“In both scenes, Pilate asserts that he finds no case against Jesus. In both scenes, Pilate tries to assert his power or use the system to escape the situation. And in both scenes, the Jewish religious leaders (who claim to be the powerless ones) win out.” https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/jesus-condemned-2/commentary-on-john-191-16a-3

The crowds hold an interesting line. They want to keep themselves pure for the celebration of the passover festival. Which almost humorously harkens back to scenes that mirror this back and forth reasoning with those who are ruling over them. Moses and Pharaoh squaring off against each other as Moses asks for the release of God’s people and Pharaoh suffers the plagues sent as he refuses. The passover comes before the Exodus when God’s great deliverance is shown to the children of Israel. Here, these Jewish leaders don’t want to defile themselves so that they can remember God’s great work among them at the festival and at the same time are yelling to kill God’s next great deliverance that stands before them in the man of Jesus.

But Jesus in his teaching, his perceived disrespect for their ways and laws, his challenge to their power and way of working, is seen more as a threat than as a savior. So they project this  threat onto those with more political power so that Jesus will be disposed of without the blood or responsibility falling on them. “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” They find what button they need to push in Pilate to make him do what they want. They tip the scales by playing on Pilate’s fears of losing control of the crowds or his position in the government. I wonder, In our fear who do we lend our power to?

We have seen the power of the crowds lately. For good and ill. Unions organizing workers at Amazon and Starbucks. A mob storming the capitol building making claims over an election. Protesters filling the streets trying to make their voices heard to change what they see as injustice. Ordinary people organizing so that their power is held together in their numbers.

Does this kind of power scare us? We as a congregation have committed to working as part of Faith In Action. On their web page they say: “Faith in Action is a coalition of faith communities and organizations in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County working together to enact change and justice in the Shenandoah Valley”. As Faith in Action has restructured over the last year and hired a community organizer, we have needed to have conversations around organizing people, money and power. It is not only those in political leadership or with lots of money who have power. We have to claim our voices, our relationships, and yes, even the power we hold. We tend to fear talking about power, especially the power we might have over others. But power in and of itself is not a bad thing. We have choices about how we use our power. When we feel powerless to change a situation might be when we can join with others to make changes in our combined strength.

While the Jewish leaders feared Jesus they did not fear stepping forward. In raising their voices they played on Pilate’s fears turning their power to a threat.  Maybe that is our fear too, that this group energy might go astray or be corrupted.
In contrast to the shouting crowds Jesus wields the power of silence, refusing to answer Pilate’s questions. And when he does speak his words resound. Just as Jesus has had choices on the way to Jerusalem, he has a voice and he chooses when to use it. Even after being beaten and mocked, Jesus looks in the face of the man who could have him killed and says “you would have no power over me unless it had been given from above”.
And here we are brought back to who this person Jesus is. He is a man standing before a ruler. Yet not only could he be a king but he is the son of God. Jesus calmly claims power beyond human ruling positions and reminds all there that he is descended from the divine.

Like the children of Israel crying out in the wilderness to go back to slavery in Egypt, these Jewish leaders would rather promote allegiance to the Emperor and maintain what little power they have then allow for Jesus to be part of God. They cut themselves off from the saving work that Jesus would offer them through true freedom. I wonder “How do we condemn ourselves by the alliances we make and the company we keep?”

As Jesus is led away to be crucified we are left with several soul searching questions. When have we refused to see God in our midst and instead tried to stay removed, pure and clean? Is our fear blocking us from the very thing that could free us? As we approach the cross with Jesus can we hold this tension of Jesus being fully human, fully God. A savior come to show us the way. And are we willing to follow the costly non-violent power that Jesus enacts in the week to come.


 

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