Sunday, May 29, 2022

Stories of sacrificial love

“Belonging and Mutual Love - Pouring ourselves into others”
Luke 6:43-45; Philippians 2:1-13

Spencer Cowles, Donna Shank, Joe Lapp share testimonies guided by the prompt:

Where have you seen sacrificial love at work in the church community?

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Sunday, May 15, 2022

Phil Kniss: Poetic witness

"Belonging and Witness - finding where God is already at work”
John 1:16-18; Acts 17:16-31

Laura Yoder shares a testimony guided by the prompt:

Where do you see God at work in the world where you live? Where do you
see seeds of the Gospel?

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...or listen to audio:

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...or read it online here: 

In principle, I think we church people all agree,
it’s important for the church to give witness to the Gospel
to the world around us.

Scripture tells us clearly and often
that we are stewards of the Gospel, or Good News.
Of course, it can be Good News only if it’s distributed,
shared with others,
not kept as an in-house secret.

But church people do have vastly different ideas
about what faithful witness looks like in the world,
and how we do it.

I won’t resolve those differences today,
but I’ll share a metaphor for us to think about,
which might help our witness be more authentic.
The metaphor is poetry.
I think our witness should be poetic (in a manner of speaking).

Let’s first look at the story we heard from Acts 17.

Paul is in the intellectual epicenter of the Greek world—
Athens, named after Athena, a goddess of wisdom and war.
Paul was in Athens because he basically got dropped off there
by other church people concerned for his safety,
after he and Silas got into lots of trouble in the synagogues
in Macedonia.
Trouble, for the reasons I’ve talked about in recent weeks.

Jews had to do this delicate dance with the Roman Empire
to maintain the peace.
People of The Way, Paul in particular, disturbed the peace,
preaching about Lord Jesus,
who did not have to answer to Lord Caesar.
And, they disturbed Jewish law,
lax on required rituals,
sharing meals with Gentiles.

Jewish leaders in Macedonia
took their case to the Roman authorities.
Their accusation?
“These people are turning the world upside down.”
Which in many ways, they were.

In just a few days in Macedonia,
Paul and others managed to get severely beaten,
thrown into prison,
attacked by a mob,
and barely escaped under the cover of darkness.

So now Paul’s in Athens, one of the more tolerant cities of the Empire,
moving around the Agora,
an open marketplace of ideas, of gods, of goods.
Acts 17 says he was deeply troubled when he saw
a city full of idols and various deities.
He opened up conversation about it in the local synagogue,
both with the Jews,
and the Gentiles who worshiped Yahweh at the synagogue.
He also opened up conversation in the Agora,
among local Athenians.
Enough that he was causing a stir again.
But the authorities in Athens, being the tolerant city it was,
did not just throw him in prison and beat him.
Instead, they physically took him to the Areopagus,
a kind of court,
and compelled him to give verbal witness,
for this “foreign God,” Jesus, he kept talking about.
So . . . was this a trial? Was this a guest lecture?
Or was it something in between?
Hard to say.
But whatever it was, this was Paul at his best.

Paul could put up a good fight in just about any Jewish synagogue
around the Mediterranean.
Brash, harsh, argumentative, accusatory.
It’s no big surprise, the trouble he got into.

But here in Athens, a thoroughly pagan city,
standing in front of genuinely curious philosophers,
Paul represented a marginal minority,
so he needed a softer approach.
And he delivered.

He begins with a heartfelt compliment to the people and the city.
“I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
He noticed their yearning for the divine.
And he affirmed it.

“I went through the city
and looked carefully at the objects of your worship.”
He was there to understand them, not attack them.
He notes in particular, their shrine to an “unknown God,”
so he tells them, gently,
“I can introduce you to this unknown God.
Turns out this God is a lot closer to you than you think.”

Then, most amazing of all,
to introduce them to Jesus,
he did not pull out the Torah or quote Hebrew prophets.
He used the Athenians’ own literature.

This sermon in Acts 17 is full of images and metaphors
that were familiar to his audience.
He quoted their philosophers directly.
“In him we live and move and have our being,”
an apparent quote from Epimenides,
a poet philosopher from Crete.
“For we too are his offspring,”
a quote from Aratus, a Greek poet.
Paul knew and respected his audience.
He engaged them where they were, on their terms,
and then with respect, he said,
“You know, there’s something more.”
And then he proclaimed the Good News
embodied in the person of the risen Jesus.

And to be sure, his message about resurrection got mixed reviews.
Some laughed.
Some ridiculed.
Some were curious, and asked to hear more.
Some became believers.

This is timeless wisdom on display here by Paul.
Before we start dispensing the Gospel in any culture,
do we know them well enough to quote their poets?

In any given culture, our own, or Ancient Greece,
the poets are those who give voice
to people’s deepest longings, visions, hopes, and fears.

They might be literal poems,
that can be read, pondered, and memorized.
But not necessarily.

I’m using poetry as a metaphor here.
Poetry is whatever takes us out of purely head-space,
and helps us engage the whole person—
intellect, heart, body, emotions,
relationships, motivations, perceptions.
Until we know someone well enough
to not just think with them,
but to feel with them;
until we hope and yearn with them,
until we suffer and rejoice with them,
we may not have much to offer them of lasting value.
Unless we believe that God was already at work in them,
long before we got there,
we have no right to bring them the Gospel.

Poetic witness is embodied witness
that involves the whole person.
Poetic witness is shaped by the community.
It is forged in relationships.

So, as a church called to bear witness,
how do we inhabit the world around us?
and how do we bear witness to that world?

There is a wide variety of practice
among our diverse Mennonite family in this community,
from the Old Order Mennonites to this congregation.

Some believe in cultural separation,
and bear witness only through their life and practice,
and never send out mission workers, or practice evangelism.
Others strongly emphasize verbal witness,
and use overt evangelistic strategies
like tent meetings, and the like.
Others witness mostly through service,
and occasionally through word.

Regardless what form it takes,
whatever the means of our witness to the Gospel of Jesus,
I would ask,
does it touch the whole person?
is it embodied?
is it forged in community?
does it address our deepest longings, hopes, and dreams?
Then it is poetry.

Poetic witness can’t help but include word and deed and example.
It can’t help but be authentic and compelling.
Real people being real with others
with Jesus at the center,
that is faithful witness.

That is what Paul demonstrated in marketplace of ideas in Athens.
That is what we called to embody.

Join me in the confession, will you?
You’ll find it in your order of worship.

one God, we confess that our expressions of the Gospel often fall short
of authentic, embodied, and joyful witness to your Good News.
We settle instead for either awkward silence 
or arrogant posturing.
all Forgive us. Send us. Empower us.
one God who has already gone ahead of us into the world, give us
the eyes to see the Gospel seeds you have already sown,
the grace to embrace your goodness wherever it appears, and
the wisdom to speak and live your truth, and
partner with you to bring the seeds to maturity and fruitfulness.
all Send us. Empower us. Transform us.
one God of all peoples, and all creation,
let us rest in your promise to make all things new,
and to be with us wherever we go.
In you we live, and move, and have our being.

—Phil Kniss, May 15, 2022

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Sunday, May 8, 2022

Phil Kniss: Freedom is choosing to whom we are bound

“Belonging and Freedom - choosing whom we serve”
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”
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.

Watch the video:

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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.

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.

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.
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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