Sunday, March 27, 2022

Phil Kniss: Delegating the dirty work

Lent 4 – “Hero turns Criminal: Jesus and Pilate”
John 18:28-40

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Just a heads up.
This sermon is going to get political.
I have no choice.
This is one of the most baldly political Gospel stories that we have.

You know me well enough not to get too worried.
I don’t do partisan politics in church.
But actual politics is unavoidable in church, and in the Bible.
You couldn’t keep politics out of the church if you tried.
Because politics is the process of figuring out,
in any social group, including nations and churches,
who has power, what kind of power,
how that power is distributed,
and how decisions are made.

That, dear friends, is the main plot of the Gospel story today.

We do scripture an injustice,
if we read John 18 too simply and spiritually.
That’s how I grew up hearing this text.
The main reason for the story, it seemed,
was to have Jesus make pithy spiritual quotes,
“My kingdom is not of this world.”
“I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
But we can’t just pull out a few good Jesus quotes,
and say we’re done with this story.

So let’s get political, shall we?

Let’s review the political players in the story, and behind the story.
Palestine was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire.
There is no doubt, not a shadow of a doubt,
who has the political power here.
Caesar does, and all he represents.
The population of Palestine, of course, was mostly Jewish.
It used to be an independent state,
with a deeply religious identity and power structure.
Now, it’s basically powerless, and small,
and in service to the Roman Empire.
Because of its strategic location on the eastern Mediterranean,
multiple trade routes criss-crossed through it.

Rome had a huge stake in this small region.
It needed to keep the land in its control.
And, they needed to keep the people in the land
just happy enough not to revolt.
A revolt against Rome would not just
be inconvenient, or embarrassing.
It would disrupt international trade.
If those trade routes were no longer deemed safe,
merchants would stop shipping,
and Rome wouldn’t get the goods flowing their way
from other parts of the Empire.

These facts are not incidental to today’s story. They are central.

Rome set up Palestine in a way that made this system work.
The real Palestinian headquarters of the Empire
were in Caesarea, by the sea.
A town named, appropriately, after Caesar.
That’s where Pilate, the prefect, lived,
and apparently spent most of his time.
But as the chief Roman officer in Palestine,
Pilate would travel to Jerusalem at crucial times,
and set up shop in his branch office
in the religious capital.
It was especially important to do this
during Jewish religious festivals.
The streets would be full of Jews from all over the country,
and beyond.
They had lots of time for gathering and celebrating,
and . . . potentially . . . organizing for rebellion.
So Pilate made sure the Empire was visible,
to discourage anything from getting started,
and if something did, to quash it before it got out of hand.
Same thing, in big cities today—NY, DC—on major holidays,
whole platoons of uniformed, armed, law enforcement officers
are stationed everywhere—
to discourage violence from starting,
and stop it quickly before it escalates.
That’s why Pilate was in Jerusalem.
And you can be sure uniformed and armed Roman officers
were also in abundance.

The writer of John’s Gospel again,
weaves the narrative so that we see Jesus for who he is,
in relation to God, in relation to the world and its powers.
And John’s style is to advance the narrative with dialogue.
John is not an action-packed Gospel.
It’s a conversation-packed Gospel.

So let’s follow the dialogue a bit.
Kind of like last week,
there are two different conversations going on.
And the camera cuts back and forth between them.
Except here, the main actor, Pilate,
is also running back and forth between the scenes.

Because, being Passover, any Jew would become unclean
if they entered Pilate’s headquarters (a Gentile space),
and ritual purification would take too long,
for them to be able to eat the Passover meal,
so we have this almost comical scene,
where Jesus’ accusers are outside,
and Jesus is inside (no real concern about a prisoner
being able to eat Passover),
and Pilate, the most powerful one in the picture,
keeps running back and forth,
trying to accommodate needs on both sides.
Not the most efficient way to run a trial.
But remember, Pilate has to walk a very fine political line here.
Show his power, represent the strength of the Empire,
but also show enough deference to his subjects,
that they don’t get angry and revolt.
Yes, Rome had the power to quickly shut down any revolt.
But it would look bad if it happened on Pilate’s watch.

The way this arrangement worked with Rome,
was that the Jewish Sanhedrin had the power
to prosecute and punish for religious infractions;
and the Roman court had the power
to prosecute and punish for legal or political crimes.

So after Jesus was brought inside—
presumably presented to Pilate for authorization to crucify—
Pilate then went outside to the accusers to clarify the charge.
When he asked what the crime was,
they gave a non-answer, like political leaders tend to do:
“If this man were not a criminal,
we would not have handed him over to you.”
Pilate saw what was happening, and said,
“Judge him according to your law.”
They objected,
“We are not permitted to put anyone to death.”

That was half true.
They could not crucify.
Jewish law did allow for capital punishment by stoning.
But knowing how popular Jesus was among the people,
especially outside Jerusalem,
they were not about to lead a public religious execution.
The political fallout would be too great.

So both Pilate and the religious leaders are in a fix.
They all want the same thing, but no clear way to get at it.
Killing Jesus would solve problems on both sides.

It would benefit Rome,
because Jesus’ popularity,
and rumblings about this “King of the Jews”
had Rome on edge.
Rome didn’t want a war of rebellion.
So much easier to collect taxes in peacetime.
But it was politically dangerous for Pilate
to execute someone without legal cause.

And Jesus’ death would benefit the religious hierarchy,
because common folks were spreading the notion
that Jesus was the Messiah,
which the leaders knew to be false,
because Jesus broke religious laws.
They had to silence that talk, and quick,
because a needless popular uprising would hurt everybody,
and destroy the political arrangement.

So here is Jesus,
bound and imprisoned inside Pilate’s headquarters,
but still holding all the power in the equation.
And both the civil and religious power elite,
are outside, caught in the middle.

Pilate comes in again, and asks Jesus point-blank:
“Are you King of the Jews?”
If Jesus answers yes,
there’s a political crime worthy of crucifixion.
It’s treason, because there already was a Roman
King of the Jews—Herod.

Of course, Jesus knew why he was being asked.
He answered,
“My kingdom is not from this world.
If my kingdom were from this world,
my followers would be fighting.”
It’s like Jesus was saying,
“Pilate, there is no need for you to worry about the thing
you are worrying about.”
Not saying you have nothing to worry about.
But I’m not here to take Herod’s place.
My kingdom operates at a different level.”
“So you are a king?” Pilate says.

“You say I am a king.
I say, I came into the world to speak of truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth knows what I’m saying.”
Then Pilate said, “What is truth?”

Now, we don’t have the screenplay for this movie,
telling us how that line should be spoken.
Was it a deep, existential question, with Pilate’s hand on his chin,
“What is truth?”
Or was Pilate saying it in frustration and under his breath,
as he stomped back outside to the religious leaders?
“What is truth?!”
I’m guessing that was more likely.
Because he is truly caught here.
He knows what he wants,
but doesn’t know how to get it.

He offers the crowd Barabbas,
an actual criminal facing a death penalty,
thinking that might calm them down.
They didn’t take the bait.
They want Pilate to take Jesus off their hands.

So . . . this is where the story stops for today.
It’s a cliff-hanger.
We’ll pick it up again next week.

But I want to leave us with some questions again,
that make the Gospel not just about them, and there, and then,
but about us, and here, and now.
So we need to get political.

If we don’t see ourselves in this story—
ourselves in relationship to Jesus—
then we’re missing John’s main point in writing.

What I see here in John 18 are a lot of people
trying to delegate the dirty work to others.
And that is something we are also prone to do.
Maybe, especially, we in the church.
Delegating dirty work to others
is a constant and strong temptation for people of faith.

It’s part of our Mennonite heritage—
being the “quiet in the land” was not just a theological position.
It was politically convenient, if we’re honest.
We could enjoy the economic and political benefit
of living in a robust capitalist system,
while being careful not to object to any injustice
done by the nation-state in our name,
just so long as they left us alone to live in peace.

I think of Mennonites in Europe in the late 1700s
who were invited by Catherine the Great
to go to the Ukraine and raise crops for Russia.
They didn’t have to go to war.
They could accumulate wealth.
They could be religious and ignore politics and social issues.

I think also of Mennonites in North America,
about the same time,
invited by the English colony in Virginia
to migrate to the Shenandoah Valley
and farm the land being given away,
which had previously been occupied by native peoples.

Seems like that’s not a far cry from what was happening
in John 18 in Pilate’s courtyard.
People of faith preserving their peace and stability,
while delegating the dirty work of violence to others.

We could name other examples in history,
where people of Christian faith could not in good conscience,
directly carry out some deed,
but . . . were quite willing to stand aside
and let someone else do the deed,
and secretly enjoy the outcome,
while keeping their own moral purity intact.

Or to bring it close to home,
surely we can think of times
when we took delight in someone’s downfall or demise,
someone who represented something repulsive to us.

In our current political climate,
this happens, literally, all the time.
And people of Christian faith are not immune to joining right in.

I wonder how often we’d be brought up short,
if we determined not to delight in any outcome
that resulted from some action
we could not morally support or engage in ourselves.

It gets more than a little complicated in times of war,
such as in Ukraine.
We would love for everything there to just miraculously stop.
We would love for there to be a change of heart,
a repentance on the part of those waging war.
Short of that,
how do peace-loving and justice-seeking Christians
feel about escalating counter-violence to end warfare?

In any war, I realize there is a thing called “lesser evil,”
which for pragmatic reasons,
we sometimes need to reluctantly accept.
But it makes a difference
what we say about that, how we frame it,
how we react when our side starts winning a war
that we are morally opposed to participating in.
One place to start is to choose not to cheer,
either outwardly or inwardly,
when bombs drop on the enemy—
be that enemy a nation-state bent on evil,
or be that a personal adversary of some kind.
As hard as it might be to say in the heat of a conflict,
our enemies, Putin included, are human beings,
and are, by definition, loved by God,
and made in God’s image.
That’s a biblical truth we cannot skirt around.

Perhaps, instead of delegating dirty work to others,
and rejoicing when that work gets done,
a more faithful response might be this:

When dirty work is done that we benefit from,
we choose to gaze on the total human cost, the human suffering,
and genuinely mourn that it came to this.
To weep with all people who suffer,
and redouble our efforts to work for healing for all
and work for a world that is more just and life-giving.

Let’s begin with that commitment
by reading together our prayer of confession.
You’ll find it in your order of worship,
and see it on the screen.
It includes singing “Kyrie eleison,”
so let’s begin with that.

all [sing “Kyrie”]
one Almighty God, you empower us to do your will, 
even when the cost is great.
Jesus, you call us to walk in your way, 
even when the way is hard.
Holy Spirit, you accompany us at every turn and every obstacle.
all Yet, we confess,
we often choose a path of less resistance.
one God, we admit we often stand aside in the presence of evil,
relinquish our call to risk all for God’s kingdom,
and let the powers of this world have their way when it benefits us.
Forgive us when we delegate our kingdom work to earthly powers.
all [sing “Kyrie”]
one God of Grace and Truth,
you forgive our doubt and indecision.
Give us the courage to stand up and represent 
your kingdom of truth and justice and peace.

—Phil Kniss, March 27, 2022

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Sunday, March 20, 2022

Phil Kniss: Deny or dissent? When empire and discipleship clash

Lent 3 – “Disciple turns Denier: Peter’s Betrayal”
John 18:12-27

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Now we’re a little deeper into John’s passion narrative.
Last Sunday we looked at chapter 13, 
where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.
Today we pick up in the middle of chapter 18, 
and Jesus is already on trial.

We can’t cover the whole text in a limited series,
so do spend some time reading the sections of John
that we jump over from week to week.

I want to point out an interesting feature
in John’s passion narrative.
If you have a Bible with you, open it to John 13.
Remember what I said earlier.
John is less interested in telling a chronological story, 
and more interested in telling a theological story. 

John 13 is mostly story. Things happen.
They are at a table for Passover,
and Jesus washes his disciples feet.
Peter objects, but ultimately allows it to happen.
Then Jesus says in v. 21 that one of them will betray him,
and an anxious dialogue ensues,
and Judas quickly walks out into the night, verse 30,
to get ready for what he will do.

Then Jesus starts talking, in a foreboding way, 
about how he’s not going to be with them much longer.
Peter asks, “where are you going?”
And Jesus answers without really answering, 
“Where I am going you cannot follow.”
Peter says, “Why can’t I follow you? 
I will lay down my life for you!”
Jesus says, “Lay down your life, will you? 
Before the rooster crows in the morning, 
you will have denied me three times.”

Peter figures large in this John 13 story.
So keep this bantering between Jesus and Peter in mind.
It’s essential background for today’s story.

But before we get there,
and before we get to any action at all,
Jesus turns to the rest of his disciples who stayed at the table 
and has a four-chapter-long conversation with them. 
Actually, it’s more speech than conversation,
but the disciples do interject a few times.

In John 14 to 17, we have four whole chapters of Jesus talking—
famous speeches that we know well,
but don’t often think of them as happening 
at the Last Supper table:
In my Father’s house are many mansions;
I am the Way the Truth and the Life;
I will ask the Father, and he will send you an Advocate;
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you;
I am the vine, you are the branches;
This is my commandment, 
that you love one another as I have loved you;
No greater love has anyone than this, 
than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
(Which is a verse often quoted by our military leaders,
and was quoted by Russian President Putin
a few days ago at a huge rally
referring to what his soldiers are doing in Ukraine.)

These are Jesus’ most golden speeches.
Even if we do take his words and misuse and abuse them at times.
Then in John 17, Jesus looks into heaven and prays his 
famous prayer for his disciples,
“May they be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, 
that they may become completely one, 
so that the world may know that you have sent me 
and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

John puts all these words at this intimate moment at the table,
Jesus speaking, with his closest disciples leaning in.

Finally, the action picks up again, in chapter 18.
Today’s reading started at verse 12.
But some critical action happened right before that,
and, once again, Peter figures large in the story.

Jesus and the disciples got up from the table,
and went out in the night to the Garden of Gethsemane.
And Judas shows up, this time with soldiers, and religious leaders, 
in order to get Jesus arrested.
Peter bravely (or shall we say, stupidly)
starts swinging his sword wildly
to defend Jesus against the band of soldiers
and ends up cutting off the ear of high priest’s slave.
And Jesus reprimands him.

And then we have the story we heard today, of brave Peter—
the one who was going to lay down his life for Jesus,
the one who hours earlier was swinging a sword at soldiers.
This man of courage denied he knew Jesus, three times.

You know, as 21st-century disciples of Jesus in America, 
the land of religious freedom, 
it feels convenient to have a situation like this 
that’s so far removed from our lives 
that we can keep our questions theoretical and rhetorical.

How often have I heard us ask ourselves, 
“If I was Peter there in the courtyard, would I have denied Jesus?”

It’s an interesting question,
and a good question,
but a safe question.
We know the odds are pretty low 
that we will ever have to face off against armed soldiers 
or suffer a mock trial 
or nearly anything that resembles John 18, 
just because we identify as a follower of Jesus.

So let’s make this story real for us, shall we?

What this story is all about, seems to me,
is a dramatic collision between Empire,
and Kingdom of God.

We can see, with our 20-20 hindsight the disciples did not have,
that Jesus’ ministry is all about establishing an alternative politics.
A different way of being human,
and being in community,
and being in the world,
than what is offered to us by earthly empires and nation-states.
It is a kingdom of righteous, peace, justice, joy, and deep freedom.
It is not coercive, and greedy, and violent, and easily threatened.

Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was near.
And the nearer it came,
the more reactive earthly empires became.

And chapter 18 gives us two distinct examples
of how to function in this collision of Empire and the Jesus way.
Jesus dissented.
And Peter denied.

Let’s take a look.
In chapter 18 both Jesus and Peter get questioned
by representatives of Empire.
I use “empire” broadly speaking.
It can refer to Rome, of course, the literal Empire
who held the power of life and death over its subjects.
It can also refer to any human power construct
that operates by those values of control and coercion.
Such as . . . the religious leaders
who opposed Jesus and his followers.

So how did Peter respond when confronted by Empire?
He said he knew nothing about this Jesus.
He slunk deeper into the shadows, hoping to disappear.
He denied, deflected, and deceived,
in order to protect himself.

And how did Jesus respond when confronted by Empire?
He stepped forward, and dissented.
He begged to differ from the assumptions of the Empire.
He challenged the framework.
He creatively engaged.

In our story next Sunday, Jesus will be questioned by Rome.
But in our reading today, Jesus is questioned by the religious leaders,
Annas and Caiaphas.
There’s a little ambiguity in the text,
about whether one or both are high priests.
But either way,
Empire and the Kingdom of God are colliding,
Jesus is right in the middle,
and Jesus openly dissents. 

Look at his various answers to the interrogation.
I have spokenly openly to the world.
I have said nothing in secret.
Why do you ask me?
If I have spokenly wrongly, tell me what is wrong.
If I have spokenly rightly, why do you strike me?

Compare with Peter’s answers to his informal interrogation
in the courtyard.
I am not Jesus’ disciple.
No, I am not a disciple.
No, you did not see me in the garden.

Cleverly, John intersperses Peter’s Q&A,
with Jesus’ Q&A.
Like a movie,
the camera cuts back and forth
between these two scenes happening at the same time.

The one where Jesus confronts the Empire 
with an alternative and more truthful reality.
And the one where Peter tries to hide and blend in with Empire.

Now . . . if we think about ourselves again for a moment,
it won’t take a lot of imagination
to think of multiple ways that in our everyday lives,
the call to follow the way of Jesus,
collides with what Empire expects of us.
And it is always our choice how to respond—
to dissent from the claims of Empire,
to creatively confront Empire and its way
of coercive power over others,
or—in order to blend in—
to not mention that we answer to another Lord,
to essentially deny that we are disciples of Jesus,
that we are being formed to live in this world 
in a different way.

No, we may not have armed guards asking us to state our allegiance . . .
But don’t we already find ourselves 
in exactly the position Peter was in?

There are many ways we can bring this home right to where we are,
so do that, as you talk together about this.

But let me give you a striking example a little further away,
that was shared with us this past Wednesday from this pulpit,
when Drew Strait gave a public lecture on
the Bible and Christian Nationalism.
And I encourage all of you to go to our YouTube channel
sometime this week and listen to it.

He read a quote from a statement made 
by a group of Russian Orthodox leaders this past week,
in opposition to Putin’s war against Ukraine,
even while many of their Orthodox clergy colleagues
are supporting Putin.

Here are some disciples of Jesus choosing to dissent, rather than deny.
Just a few lines from their statement:
“We acknowledge the sole and ultimate authority
of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . 
We therefore condemn as non-Orthodox and reject any teaching
which would subordinate the Kingdom of God,
to any kingdom of this world seeking other 
churchly or secular lords who can justify and redeem us.
We firmly reject all forms of government that deify the state . . . 
We also rebuke all those who . . . replace their ultimate obedience
to the crucified and resurrected Lord
with that of any leader vested with ruling powers 
and claiming to be God’s anointed, 
whether known by the title of “Caesar,” “Emperor,” “Tsar,”
or “President.”

Powerful example of choosing dissent over denial.
A choice that is also in our hands,
nearly every day.
God, give us the power to dissent from the false claims of Empire,
and boldly proclaim our allegiance to you and your Reign.

Let us read together the confession, printed in our bulletin.
We will sing the Kyrie response twice through, 
two times, where indicated.
“Kyrie Eleison . . . Lord, have mercy.”
We begin with singing.

all [sing “Kyrie”]
one Sovereign God of all Nations,
we confess that when confronted 
with competing claims of earthly empires 
we disciples of Jesus do not always rise to the challenge.
all Forgive us for being mute.
Forgive us for retreating into silence.
Forgive us for our outright denials.
one We confess that our concern over what others think, 
and our impulse to guard our reputation 
and avoid costly consequences 
often keeps us warming our hands by the fire 
in the outer courts, 
instead of daring to confront injustice and oppression 
in places of power.
all [sing “Kyrie”]
one We are forgiven and freed by your grace.
Go with us, Jesus, as we continue the journey as your disciples
in a world that resists your kind
of upside-down power and love.

—Phil Kniss, March 20, 2022

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Sunday, March 13, 2022

Phil Kniss: A sustainable willing spirit

Lent 2 – “Master turns servant: Jesus washes feet”
John 13:1-17

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On this second Sunday of Lent, 5 weeks before Easter,
the Narrative Lectionary puts us in the final week of Jesus’ life.
This is unusual, but for me, a welcomed opportunity.

Holy Week is book-ended by Palm Sunday and Easter,
so in my binders of old sermons,
I have loads of sermons about the Triumphal Entry,
and the Resurrection,
but very few about 
all the other things that happened that week.
We always read through the Passion Story during Holy Week,
but rarely do we dive in deep.
Case in point, although I’ve often made comments 
on this John 13 text at Maundy Thursday services,
I have never preached a Sunday morning sermon on it.
So this is sermon #1,227 in my preaching career.
But about foot-washing, this is sermon #1.

And that is awfully strange, if not shameful.
since the very beginning of our Anabaptist movement in the 1500s,
this story from John 13 is in our Top Ten of all Gospel stories,
if not the top 3 or 4.

How many Mennonite church logos have you seen,
that include an image of a basin or towel? Lots.
How many Mennonite altar tables or foyer displays have you seen,
where a basin and towel had a prominent place? Lots.
One of the more prominent sculptures on EMU’s campus,
is that of Jesus washing Peter’s feet,
created by Esther Augsburger.
Of course, actually doing the physical ritual
is more rare these days.
Foot-washing has virtually disappeared from many churches.
We do it here at Park View only occasionally,
and often in smaller settings.

I’ll bet many of you,
especially among Millennials, and younger,
have never participated in a foot-washing ceremony.

Lucky for you, there will be a chance today,
during All-Age Faith Formation,
in case you want to “test the waters” so to speak—
to just get your feet wet in this ritual Jesus instituted.

But . . . back to my debut sermon on John 13.

Servanthood is central to Christian discipleship.
We know that, deep in our bones.
It’s part of the DNA not only of Anabaptists,
but many, many denominations and faith groups.

A willingness to humble ourselves,
and carry out acts of service that otherwise seem below us,
is how we demonstrate the love of God.
It’s how we show we are willing
to serve a cause greater than ourselves, 
and bigger than our agenda.
It is the essential posture of a disciple of Jesus.

It is why Mennonite Central Committee exists.
MCC started a little over 100 years ago,
in, of all places, the Ukraine,
where the combination of a Russian civil war
and widespread famine,
meant that our own Mennonite sisters and brothers there
were starving to death.
So we went to great lengths,
and great personal and financial sacrifice to serve them,
and to serve many other suffering people besides.
Some even laid down their lives for that noble cause.

Service still drives the mission 
of so many of our Mennonite institutions today—
Mennonite Disaster Service,
Mennonite hospitals, group homes, schools, camps,
mission agencies, financial aid organizations.
For the size of our denomination,
we have a huge, and I mean huge,
number of institutions whose mission is centered 
on servanthood.

Nevertheless, this is a challenging topic for us.

In John chapter 13,
we see Jesus, who (as John often reminds us)
is sent from God,
is one with God,
is God’s anointed one, the Messiah,
whose authority is supreme—
we see this God-figure stoop to our level,
take a basin of water and towel,
and make his rounds to his disciples.
This highly esteemed rabbi
washes the dirty and dusty feet of his disciples.
He does the duty usually relegated
to the lowest servants in the household.

And Jesus not only does this remarkable act,
and makes his disciples feel awkward and uncomfortable,
but he commands them—and us—to do the same.
Jesus intends for his followers to never forget
the primary place of humility and servanthood,
in the character of a disciple.

This idea is not easily embraced.
As we heard in the story,
Peter protested—vehemently—at the very notion
that Jesus would do this.

And why did Peter protest?
We tend to put this in the best possible light.
Well, Peter had such high esteem for his rabbi.
His own humility made him object.

Yeah? I don’t think so.
It was not humility, but pride,
that prompted Peter’s protest.

I say this partly because humility 
was not very apparent among Jesus’ disciples, most of the time.
Many of them—including Peter—
were rough, proud, and self-sufficient Galileans.
James and John angled for the top two positions
in the new government they thought Jesus would establish.

But I also say this partly from personal experience and observation.
We Mennonites who emphasize service and servanthood,
also suffer from a lot of pride
that masquerades as humility.

When we object to being served by others,
or protest when someone wishes to give us an undeserved gift,
or wants to perform some act of service or kindness for us,
we might imagine it’s our humility that gets in the way.
But no, let’s be honest.
It’s pride.

To be the recipient of a free gift, or an act of service,
makes us feel beholden to another.
And we don’t want to be beholden.
We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much.

When Jesus washed Peter’s feet,
Peter felt like he was losing control.
And he was.

Peter’s response actually reminded me
of a story in the Hebrew Scriptures, 2 Kings 5, 
when the powerful Aramean army commander Naaman,
came to the Israelite prophet Elisha,
to seek healing from his leprosy.
The cure Elisha offered, through a messenger
(to wash in the Jordan River seven times),
was so offensive to Naaman,
that he turned his chariot around in anger to head back home.
Elisha didn’t even do the favor of showing his face.
Naaman was too great and powerful,
to be told, by a messenger, to get in that dirty water.

Now, we don’t have trouble identifying this as pride.
But is it really much different than what Peter objected to?
Peter resisted the offer of Jesus,
because to accept it was to admit he wasn’t in control.

Jesus modeled the posture of authentic servanthood—
It was a self-giving and generous act 
that even at the moment he lowered himself,
he maintained a strong identity and selfhood.
Jesus was self-giving,
not self-destructing.
There is a big difference.

So why has foot-washing diminished among us in recent decades?
I’ve heard us blame it on our Western individualistic,
and self-oriented culture.
That’s probably fair.
But it’s also a little more complicated than that.
Maybe Mennonites have gradually come to see
there is a perverted form of yieldedness,
that shows up sometimes in the church.
It’s a form of self-yielding that veers into self-condemnation,
that keeps us from living our best self,
that makes it harder to see and affirm
that sacred and beautiful divine image in all of us
that must be celebrated and preserved.
And so . . .
seeing some people struggle to believe
they are worthwhile as they are, in the sight of God,
we have focused less on self-emptying servanthood.

So I understand this response.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
We have the authentic servanthood that Jesus modeled:
self-giving without self-abasement.

If we have a healthy sense of self,
or at least, a sense of self that is growing,
and being supported by our community of faith,
then we can safely be invited by our community
to a life of humility and servant-hood and even deep sacrifice,
because it is coming from a place of 
knowing God’s abundant and unconditional love.

Our inherent worth before God is not called into question,
when we say yes to radical servanthood and obedience,
even to the point of being willing to lay down our lives
for a cause greater than ourselves.

This is the paradox of Christian servant-hood:
In order to sacrifice ourselves,
we need to have a self to sacrifice.
We need a self that knows it is loved unconditionally by God.

In my study this week,
I came to a deeper appreciation of Psalm 51.
This is a beautiful penitential psalm I’ve read my whole life.
It is full of honest self-assessment
of our shortcomings and sin.
But the psalm really shines, 
when the psalmist gets in touch with his worth before God,
and of God’s love for him.
It’s summed up in verse 1:
“Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love.”

But I the real key is in verse 12.
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

There is the soul of Christian service:
A willing spirit, made sustainable by God’s own intervention.
That’s the prayer of the psalmist.
That God would sustain, in him, a willing spirit.

The word “willing” is so much richer in Hebrew.
We cheapen it,
when we think it simply means to be “agreeable.”
We can agree to do something, without being willing in spirit.

The original word in this Hebrew poem is nadib (נָדִיב)
It means to be inclined toward someone.
To be generous.
To be noble.
In fact, when used as a noun
it’s in the masculine form in Hebrew,
and translated elsewhere in the Bible as,
nobleman or prince.
Makes sense actually.
We think of a noble person or princely person
as someone who is generous, self-giving,
and inclined toward others.

So in the middle of confessing his deep sin,
the psalmist prays that God would enable him
to be noble, princely, generous,
that God would sustain in him a willing spirit.

I don’t know of a better prayer,
for those of us who choose a life of service.
Lord, would you make my generosity sustainable?
Help me give myself without losing myself.

I commit myself to praying this prayer more often.
I encourage you to do the same.

Lord, make me more generous, more open to others,
more inclined toward others,
including those I find difficult to understand or love.
And Lord, you sustain in me, that willing spirit.

Join me now in a prayer of confession
that begins to move us all in that direction.

one God of love and generosity.
We also want to be generous.
At the same time, we want to be respected,
to not be taken advantage of.
all Forgive us when we have closed the door too soon,
and kept ourselves from responding to your call.
one We acknowledge that we sometimes hold our willing spirit in check,
to protect ourselves from being used.
all Forgive us when we have closed our heart too soon,
and kept ourselves from giving and receiving your love.
one Do your work in our inner being,
sustain in us a willing spirit,
to go where you lead,
to give where our gifts are needed.
And restore to us the full joy of your salvation.

—Phil Kniss, March 13, 2022

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Sunday, March 6, 2022

Paula Stoltzfus: Turning towards the other

Lent 1 – “Word turns flesh: Jesus raises Lazarus”
John 11:1-44

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