Sunday, July 31, 2022

Sarah Bixler: Her Chance Chanced Upon a Field

“Gleaning and Hope”
Ruth 2; Matthew 1:1-6a; James 1:22-27

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Sunday, July 24, 2022

Jennifer Davis Sensenig: The Gospel of Ruth

“Loss and Loyalty”
Ruth 1:1-2; Matthew 5:3-9

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Sunday, July 17, 2022

Phil Kniss: A basketful of worship

“Time, Money, and Worship”
Deuteronomy 26:1-15

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We end our six-week series
    on the “sacred currencies” of time and money,
    with a focus on worship.
We could easily have started with it.
    But it doesn’t much matter,
        because this series does not make a straight line,
        it makes a circle.
    Our focus on worship today completes the circle,
        and connects all the dots.

Where we actually started was with the idea that God trusts us.
    God trusts in, depends on, and is counting on us,
        and on our partnership in the nurture of all things.
    We are God’s Trustees.
    I can’t say that too often.
    Being God’s Trustees
        is core to our identity as people of faith.
        It shapes how we live in this world.
        It’s a foundation for ethics—
            ethics for individual relationships, group relationships,
                economics, politics, creation care, and much more.
    God has given us the privilege and responsibility
        to love the world like God loves the world,
        and act as God’s hands, feet, and heart in the world.

All the stuff we have—
    the stuff we have individually,
        like money, shelter, food, furniture, and such;
    and the stuff we have collectively,
        the mountains and rivers and trees and flowers and
            all the creatures of this world,
    all this stuff is not ours.
        It is God’s property.
        And we are the trustees of it.

Keeping that relationship in mind
    is essential for us to approach the act of worship
        in the right frame of mind.

It is far too easy for us to be lazy in worship.
    Almost without realizing it,
        we slip into the false notion
        that worship is mostly about us.
    We turn the worship of God into a consumer product.
    And listen, we are all in danger of that.
        Not just people who do worship that looks like a stage show—
            who darken the auditorium,
            and use smoke machines and colored spotlights,
            who have singers pacing the stage and crooning into mics,
            and put worship into a package
                that looks like a concert.
        Yes, those of us who sing four-part hymns,
            with tasteful additions
            of organ, piano, and acoustic instruments,
            who sit and stand and recite litanies and confessions
                and Lords’ Prayers—
            we are also highly susceptible to the falacy
                that the whole point of worship is for us to enjoy it.

In actuality,
    we have a pretty compelling model for worship,
    that God gave to us, verbatim,
        at least according to Deuteronomy 26.

And the central act of worship,
    the high point in worship,
    is not the sermon, not the children’s time,
        not the hymns or worship songs,
        not even the scripture reading.

The high point is the offering.
    Without a literal offering of tithes and firstfruits,
        and other sacrificial giving,
        there was no worship for the people of Israel.

And it’s not just here in Deuteronomy 26
    that we get this picture.
    Nearly every place the worship of God is described,
        or is prescribed,
        it involves music and reading of scripture, of course,
        but it centers around a sacrifice—
            whether a burnt offering of a perfect ox or lamb,
            or a grain offering,
            or a wine offering,
            or a first-fruits of the harvest offering,
        a Hebrew worship ritual is unimaginable
            unless it culminates in the offering
            of something economically and materially valuable.

So, if we see the act of giving as the high point of worship,
    we cannot help but put God at the center,
    and not ourselves and our individual preferences.

So why did God direct our worship in this way?
    Does God need the meat and grain?
    Does God need a weekly emotional boost?
    Does God need to be validated?
    Does God need a whole bunch of people reciting in unison
        how great God is
        and handing over to God the first and best of the harvest
            and the livestock,
        in order for God to feel loved?

That’s another false idea, I think,
    that can easily muddy our thinking about worship.

I’ve mentioned two ways we can do sloppy thinking about worship,
    and either way distorts our acts of worship,
        and distorts our view of God and ourselves.

If we start thinking that worship is doing something we enjoy,
    we might turn worship into a display of performative art—
        the forms of art we like, of course,
        and God gets lost somewhere in the shuffle.

Or . . . if we start imagining God has a fragile ego,
    it will turn us off to the whole idea of God-focused worship,
        and again, we end up putting together a program
        with rituals and music and prayers
        that feed our needs.
    And the offering becomes a fund-raiser,
        to cover the costs of doing worship the way we like it.

In stark contrast to all that,
    we have Deuteronomy 26.

This worship is utterly God-focused, and God-initiated,
    and at the same time
        deeply communal and celebrative and hopeful,
        and meets the needs of us human worshipers,
            and our neighbors,
            helping us all become our best selves.

How does that work?
    By recalling that God trusts us
        to take care of everything that God owns.
    And by returning to God, in an act of gratitude,
        the first and the best of what we have and who we are.

I find it fascinating, and deeply ironic,
    that the more we make worship about us,
        the less satisfying it is to us,
        and the cheaper and thinner it becomes.

And the more we make worship about the greatness of God,
    the more likely we are to experience worship
        that is deeply fulfilling and moving
        and thirst-quenching for our own souls.

Because God designed worship to be that way,
    and created us that way.

This gets to the reason why giving is the heart of worship.
    Giving the first and best of what we have and are,
        is a reminder of our identity as God’s beloved Trustees,
        and it results in a celebrative overflowing of blessing
            to those around us.

God wants our worship not because God is selfish,
    but because it makes us better humans.
    It makes us better friends of God.
    It makes us better collaborators in God’s mission.

Notice how the liturgy plays out in Deuteronomy 26.
    In this highly ritualized act of giving the first-fruits,
        several things happen that make the givers’ lives richer.

    First, is that the story gets retold and remembered.
        The story of God becomes their story.
    As the offering basket is placed before the priest,
        the worshiper was instructed to recite their own history.
        “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor;
            he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien,
            few in number, and there he became a great nation,
                mighty and populous . . .”
        And the litany goes on retelling their suffering and slavery,
            and how the Lord delivered them with a mighty hand,
            and brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey,
                a fertile land, which produced a bountiful harvest,
                such as what is their basket right now!

But it doesn’t stop there.
    Not at all.
    After they let go of control of their offering—
        releasing it to God and the priest,
        the people gather these first-fruit offerings all together,
            and they hold a feast for everyone—everyone—
        including those who had no land for growing things,
        like the widows and orphans and foreigners among them.

    So the sacrificial offering becomes sort of like Jesus
        feeding thousands on a few loaves and fishes.
    Everyone eats to their fill.
        They all celebrate together as equals before God.
        The wealthy land barons and the poor immigrants alike.

Genuine worship is a great equalizer
    between those who have a lot,
    and those who have little.

Every gift is proportional to our means,
    is blessed, is consecrated,
    and is then shared equally with all.
In Deuteronomy, it was shared with the Levites (who had no land),
    and with the aliens, the orphans, and the widows.
    All ate.
    All were included.
    All had enough.
    And all worshiped God.

Left on our own, we forget where we came from,
    and where our stuff came from.
    We forget that it’s all God’s to begin with.
    We forget that we are only trustees.
    We will start acting like owners.

We don’t learn by default
    how to be good stewards of our sacred currencies.
    We learn by being intentional and disciplined.

The default mode is to act like owners,
    to use our resources according to what pleases us,
    what brings us comfort and security.

So we need giving rituals
    to keep our eyes and hearts tuned toward the Great Giver of all,
    and to help us become our best selves.

And we need habits and disciplines like the tithe,
    to remind us of who we are,
        in relation to the owner of all things.

    we have these rituals and practices embedded in our public worship.
    When a pandemic keeps us from meeting in person,
        or makes it less practical to pass a plate around the room,
        we don’t just do away with the ritual.
    We find a way to reshape it.
    But it’s still an important component of worship.
        A time to pause, to reflect on who we are and who God is.
    It is not a fund-raising gimmick.
        And if it ever feels like that, then “shame on us!!”
    No, it is a weekly reminder of our dependence
        on the Great Giver.

That ritual covers the money half of these two sacred currencies.
    What about our time?

The gift of time is also a grace that comes from the hand of God.
    And God is still the owner of that gift.
    We are entrusted with the temporary possession of it,
        and are invited to use it
            for the purposes and mission of the owner.

I’m sure we all accept that to be true in principle.
    We believe it, and strive to practice good stewardship of time.

But I wonder if we could do better in making a worship ritual out of it.

In this full-bodied liturgy in Deuteronomy 26,
    that involved setting down a basketful of worship before the priest,
    there was not literal money or time inside the basket,
        but the contents obviously were the result of both.
    The wheat or grapes or squash or whatever it was they harvested,
        represented a substantial investment of time and money.

For those of who don’t spend most of our working hours
    raising the food we eat,
    our offerings take a different form.

So maybe this is a question for further thought and discussion
    that you can take with you.
    Am I ready to commit to tithing my time,
        the way I tithe my money?
    Is time equal to money, as some say?
    How do I decide what tithing time looks like in my context?
    And is there a way we can ritualize and celebrate
        that kind of offering in our weekly worship?

Food for thought.

In the meantime,
    I am truly thankful for the model of worship we have in Deut. 26.
    Whenever we think about what makes worship life-giving,
        I hope we always start there,
            pondering the contents of our own basketful of worship.

Let’s sing our commitment to worship in that way.
    “Heart and mind, possessions, God, I offer unto you.”
        Voices Together #753.

—Phil Kniss, July 17, 2022

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Sunday, July 10, 2022

Lana Miller: Scarcity and Abundance: The Power of Enough

“Time, Money, and the Grace of Enough”
Psalm 104: 24-30; Exodus 16 (a retelling by Ranita Shenk)

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Lana Miller serves as an Everence® Stewardship Consultant from the Harrisonburg office. She works with churches, organizations and individuals, supporting them as they fulfill God’s work in our communities and around the world. Before joining Everence, Lana served for 5 years with Eastern Mennonite University as Undergraduate Campus Pastor. She is an ordained pastor and prior to her time at EMU, she and her husband, Andrew, served as Southeast Asia Area Representatives with Mennonite Central Committee. They provided program oversight and vision as well as supervision of more than 70 staff (local and foreign service workers). Miller earned her Bachelor of Arts in biology, chemistry and secondary education from Goshen (Indiana) College and a Master of Divinity from Eastern Mennonite Seminary. She is a member of Community Mennonite Church, where she serves as worship leader and Sunday school teacher. When she’s not working, she enjoys gardening, preserving foods, and engaging in her children’s activities. “I’m excited for my work to directly relate to God’s work,” said Lana. “It’s a blessing to help people and organizations in their missions.”


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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Phil Kniss: God’s thumb on the scale of justice

“Time, Money, and Justice”
Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Mark 12:41-44; James 2:1-9

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God isn’t fair.

Let me say that again,
    in case some of you think you misunderstood me.
    God isn’t fair.

The symbol of justice is often a balance scale,
    the kind with two sides,
    where you want the weight to be equal,
    and the needle to point straight up.

The statue of Lady Justice is often prominent on courthouses,
    including the U.S. Supreme Court,
    which has had some eventful weeks lately.

Lady Justice is nearly always holding a balance scale,
    and is blindfolded,
        to symbolize being impartial and fair,
        not letting emotions or passions or preconceived notions
            enter into the equation of what is just.

God is not like Lady Justice.
God is more like a shrewd merchant in a market.
    God keeps eyes wide open,
        reading the situation,
        and then putting a thumb on the scale whenever necessary.
    God is not unemotional.
    God has passions, and operates by them.
        Scripture could not be any more clear about that.
    God has a predetermined agenda,
        and actively works to see it fulfilled.

So God’s thumb is on the scale of justice.
    And we should all be glad of that.

Maybe that bothers you, to hear me say God isn’t fair.
    Let me tell you why you can relax about that.
    Well . . . that is, you can relax
        provided you’re already investing your sacred currencies
            where God is investing;
        if your time, your money, and all the other resources
            you have on loan from God—
            are being put on the same side of the scale,
                where God’s thumb is resting.
    But, if your investments are on the side of scale
        opposite God’s thumb,
        then maybe start worrying.
        Or, better yet, start shifting your investments elsewhere.

Scripture is really quite clear about God’s agenda.
    We are told countless times, from Genesis to Revelation.
        The texts we heard this morning,
            from the prophet Amos, and Mark, and James,
            are only a few examples of many.
    We are not left guessing
        about God’s fundamental nature,
        and God’s motivating principles.
    We know where God is invested.

We first learn it in the Creation story from Genesis,
    when God lovingly sculpted the universe
        and breathed life into it,
    when God made all living creatures,
        the pinnacle of which was the human creature,
        in whom God put God’s own image,
        into whom God breathed the Holy Spirit,
        and to whom God gave the holy calling
            of being God’s partners in taking tender care of
                the well-being of everything else in the world.

We know that God loves diversity,
    because God made the world that way.
We know there is a special place in God’s heart
    for the small, the least, and the most vulnerable.
And to the point of today’s service,
    we know that God loves justice.
Isaiah 61 could not be more clear:
    “For I, the Lord, love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”

But, precisely because of God’s tender heart toward the poor,
    and the oppressed,
    and the vulnerable and abused,
    and the sick,
    and the imprisoned,
    and the blind and the lame,
    God is about justice, not fairness.

Lady Justice is blind-folded,
    so that her passions don’t get in the way.
    There is this notion that a blind and impartial and formulaic
        application of a code of law,
        is always to everyone’s best interest.
    And it probably is in most cases.

But God, with a thumb on the scale,
    shows partiality toward the poor and the oppressed
        and the sidelined.
    God knows that embedded in the systems of this sinful world
        is a deeply-rooted partiality toward the large and powerful
            and wealthy and well-connected—
                people like me, relatively speaking.
        When this world grants privilege, or gives people a break,
            it’s usually people like me.

    So what might appear to be fair or equal, on paper, on a scale,
        might be anything but,
        once the poor and oppressed
            step off the scales and into the real world
            where everything is stacked against them.
    Those on the unfortunate side of the scale
        sometimes need God’s thumb,
        in order for God’s justice and shalom to triumph.

    And because of what we know from scripture
        about God’s nature and God’s purposes,
        we can be confident God’s thumb is on the scale.

I said something similar to this, using a different metaphor,
    in another worship service some months ago,
    when we were thinking about justice.

I quoted Martin Luther King,
    who was quoting a writer 100 years before him,
    “The arc of the moral universe is long,
        but it bends toward justice.”

I said then that we trust the gentle pressure of the hand of God
    to keep the arc of the universe bending toward justice.
    Just like in baseball,
        we know a high fly ball will not rise forever.
    Gravity is gently pressing it downward, and it forms an arc.
    That’s how God’s hand is bending the arc of the universe
        toward justice.
    And that’s how God’s thumb, resting on the scale,
        will bring about a deeper justice,
        than some cold, formulaic, impartial application of the law
            will ever bring about.

I mentioned the momentous few weeks our Supreme Court has had.
    I’m no expert on the judicial branch of our government.
    I’m not even an amateur student of our court system,
        so I’m not going to comment on the legal merits
            of these recent cases—
            on abortion, gun rights, climate change, immigration, etc.

    I do know there are competing judicial philosophies at work,
        that shape how we read and apply the Constitution,
            and the respective weight we give to
                its literal reading, vs.
                the intent of the original writers, vs.
                what we assume the writers would think
                    if they were facing today’s issues,
                    or had today’s body of knowledge.
    Incidentally, this debate is exactly parallel to the debate
        we have in the church about how to read scripture.
        And I do know a little something about that.

So without getting partisan about the multiple layers
    of dysfunction going on in Washington right now,
    I would just say that our worldly court system
        generally assumes that justice can be obtained
        by pure logic and intellect
            and an unemotional sticking to the script.

    But God’s justice is always driven by the heart—
        a heart that is inclined toward those who suffer,
            that is tender toward the poor,
            that is emotionally invested in
                the health of this earth and its ecosystems,
            that gets angry when there is human oppression,
            that is stubborn about seeing that every human being
                is shown compassion and given care,
                especially when they need it the most.

I don’t expect our court systems,
    and I certainly don’t expect our elected representatives,
        and our president,
    to shape everything they do and say
        after these passions and heart commitments
            of the God we worship.

    In fact, I tend to worry
        when our governmental leaders make the claim
            that God is on their side,
            or they are just doing what God wants them to do.

Being tuned in to the heart of God is our job,
    as members of Christ’s body, the church.

Now, we should certainly advocate for policies and rulings
    and executive orders
    that are more in line with God’s definition of justice,
        with God’s heart, as we understand it,
        even if we don’t put ultimate trust or faith
            in politicians to bring about God’s will.

We always have work to do in this world,
    to add our weight to the side of the scale where God’s thumb rests.
    We always have work.

We don’t like it when our senator or congress-person or president
    or federal judge makes a decision we think is harmful.

    But we should not despair,
        because our work as God’s trustees,
            God’s stewards of sacred currency,
            that work continues,
            and God’s thumb is on the scale.

    And neither should we shout too loud with songs of rejoicing,
        when politically-driven rulings go the way we think they should,
        as if they are somehow bringing in the Kingdom of God.
        Because our work as God’s trustees,
            God’s stewards of sacred currency,
            that work continues,
            and God’s thumb is on the scale.

Thanks be to God!

And we are going to sing our confession today.
    Find “Kyrie eleison, Have mercy,” in your bulletin.

We will sing:

Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy.

As we come before you with the needs of our world,
we confess our failures and our sin;
for our words are many, yet our deeds have been few;
fan the fire of compassion once again.

When the cries of victims go unheard in the land,
and the scars of war refuse to heal,
will we stand for justice to empower the weak,
till their bonds of oppression are no more?

If we love our God with all our heart, mind, and strength,
and we love our neighbors as ourselves,
then this law of love will heal the nations of earth,
and the glory of Christ will be revealed.

God, renew our vision to be Christ where we live,
to reach out in mercy to the lost;
for each cup of kindness to the least in our midst
is an off’ring of worship to the throne.

—Phil Kniss, July 3, 2022

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