Sunday, September 25, 2022

Paula Stoltzfus: From Covenant to Blessing

Roots and Tendrils: God Grows a People

To Bless the Nations

Genesis 12:1-9; Matt 28:19-20

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A prayer practice I am engaging in presently is an imaginative contemplation group led by MaryBeth Heatwole Moore.  She has adapted Ignatian contemplation, created by St. Ignatius as a way to read and pray through scripture. MaryBeth gives some context to the scripture, reads it a couple of times slowly so we have the chance to imagine the scene, place ourselves in it, pay attention to how we experience it, and then in a 10 minute silence to enter into a prayerful conversation with God.  We end our time sharing our thoughts, questions, and experience. 

This has been a way for me to engage scripture allowing it to come alive in the spaces between the words and lines written on the page. The sights, sounds, emotions, and even smells become a part of the experience.  

As I entered into the story of Abram and Sarai we had read today, these spaces of imagination opened up more.  The Biblical text doesn’t always give the descriptive detail that often enhances the story’s meaning. This text is fairly brief in God's invitation and blessing followed by Abram’s response.

Before we go any further I want to lay a little groundwork for today’s story. The first 11 chapters of Genesis address all of humanity.  There is the creation account and the growth of humans in number. There are multiple lists of genealogies, the flood narrative, and the Tower of Babel. The flood narrative we looked at last week made evident God’s covenant of love to all of humanity.

Chapter 12 initiates a shift. God interacts with one family, initiating a call to be a people that would carry the priestly function to humanity.  God speaks and acts directly with Abram, calling him to leave family and home in order to be a blessing to the nations.  

There is a particular movement here, a flow, of a direct personal encounter with God, reception of God’s blessing, and then becoming a blessing to others.

First, this covenantal love is embodied in a personal call. God’s call wasn’t broadcast to all to see who would respond. It was to Abram and Sarai.

Some scholars ask the question, why did God choose them?  There aren’t many details given. The author doesn’t seem to highlight any particular reason. For all we know, Abram and Sarai were regular people.  Some experiences at the end of chapter 11 mention Haran, one of Abram’s brothers dying in Ur, leaving his son Lot and daughters Milcah and Iscah, fatherless. At some point Abram and Sarai were married as well as his other brother Nahor to his niece Milcah. Sarai is noted as being barren. Terah, their father, decided to move from Ur to Canaan with Abram and Sarai and Lot. On their way they came to Haran and settled there.  Haran is where Terah died.   

Now these two paragraphs jump through a lifetime of details, but perhaps give us a glimpse into what formed Abram, grief, barrenness, and an experience of moving from what he knew of as home.

So when we get to chapter 12, God spoke to Abram, giving a personal call. As one commentator puts it, “God seems here to be working with a stripped down version of the mid-twentieth century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, covering safety, belonging, and esteem/self-actualization.” 1

We don’t know when this call came but perhaps being fatherless and childless may have allowed Abram and Sarai open to this direct invitation for a place to call home, purpose, and descendants that would be as numerous as a nation.

So this blessing was personal, but it was also bigger than Abram and Sarai. God’s call is to be a blessing to those around them, offering an example of a people in relationship with God. This blessing was to flow from God, through a family to all the world. Sounds familiar to Jesus’ call in Matthew 28, to make disciples of all nations. This blessing wasn’t for an elite few, one family, or one nation. It was for the benefit of all.

The only way this blessing is possible is because God was covenanting with this family, marked by an altar. Through God’s reaching out, Abram in turn acts in faith, taking Sarai and Lot, all their possessions, livestock, and all they had acquired and began the journey. This covenant was remembered for generations to come and has become a clear marker within the salvation story.

Now, did this blessing keep Abram and Sarai from experiencing the challenges of life?  Clearly not, for they go on to experience a famine and live as refugees in Egypt where Sarai endured Abram’s plan to lie about their marriage. As a result, she was taken into Pharoah’s house as another wife. There was family discord with Lot. And then there was their plan to use Sarai’s slave, Hagar, to build Abram’s desendents, because God’s plan wasn’t coming to fruition in a timely manner as they thought should occur. So, yes they had their challenges believing that God was going to carry out the promise God made.

Through God’s grace, the flow of blessing continued.

A rock caryn has become a meaningful symbol to me on my faith journey, much like the altar Abram built and left on their journey.  On a trail, caryns are often built along the way to signal that one is on the path and in some instances, to signal where the path is. It is a signal that the trail has been passed by many before and invites use by others afterwards.

When we make a personal decision to step on this path of faith, we enter into this flow of blessing, which is personal, bigger than ourselves, and grounded in God’s commitment to all.

To close I want to invite you to do a faith imagination exercise with me.  You may close your eyes, look at the picture or outside, or have a soft gaze in front of you.
I invite you to imagine a stream of people of faith that stretches back to Abram and Sarai. This stream includes people of whom you have only heard stories.  It includes people known and unknown, seen and unseen.  
Listen to what it sounds like. What stories are they telling?
What does it feel like to be in their presence?
Notice where God is in the midst of the people.
Where do you place yourself in relation to this stream?
What personal invitation might be bubbling in you as you encounter this stream of God’s everlasting love and blessing?

Divine Creator, Giver of Blessing, we are in awe of the ways you use ordinary people with whom you co-labor to bring about your blessing of grace and love.  Open our eyes and ears to the invitation you have for us as individuals and community to step into the stream of faith where Your blessing flows through us to the world. AMEN

1 Wright, Rebecca Abs. Commentary on Genesis 12:1-9, September 18, 2022.

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Sunday, September 18, 2022

Phil Kniss: The Great Flood Story—The Original Whodunnit

Covenant with Creation
Genesis 6:5-22; 8:6-12; 9:8-17

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Today I preach on the world’s most famous story.
    Most famous. Of all stories. And I don’t think I’m exaggerating.
    Anyone in the world
        who has ever heard anything at all about our Bible,
        has probably heard about Noah and the Ark.
    And . . . if they haven’t been exposed to our sacred stories,
        they probably have their own set of sacred stories,
        and one of those is probably a story about a great flood,
            with striking similarities to ours.

But before I get to Genesis 6-9,
    I need to clear the table of some distractions.
    There are three ways Christians often deal with this story.

First, in just about every Christian audience,
    there will be some people who make the story acceptable,
    by turning it into something whimsical and romantic,
        child-friendly enough to decorate walls of church nurseries.
    And yes, you haven’t been in it for a while,
        our own church nursery is whimsically decorated
        with pictures of Noah and his family
            taking a boatload of cute animal couples
            on a long cruise.

Secondly, there will be those who do the exact opposite—
    who reject the story as repulsive and abhorrent,
        a story of a violent God that has no place in our theology,
        but sadly reflects
            the violent world view of the ancient writers.

Thirdly, there may be those who deal with this story
    as science and history,
    making it into something that actually took place in ancient times,
        and must be accepted as such to honor the truth of scripture.

Spoiler alert!
    None of those are the sermon you’re getting today.

Some of those approaches have their appeal.
    At least one of them makes great nursery wallpaper.
    And actually, there’s nothing wrong with talking to children
        about a God who goes to great lengths to save humanity,
            and save every living creature.
        That’s all good and true about God.

But none of those three approaches deal with the story
    fully and honestly.
    I think the only way to talk about this story honestly,
        is to see it as a shining example in a category of stories.
    This is one of many ancient primal flood stories.

Many ancient cultures used a story of a vast, overwhelming flood,
    to explain what kind of world they lived in,
        and what sort of God or gods inhabited their world,
        and the world beyond.

Noah’s flood story is one of several
    that emerged from the Ancient Near East.
And there’s a host of other flood narratives
    from ancient cultures in China and the Far East,
    and among indigenous peoples all over the world,
        including North and South America, Asia, and Oceania,
        many of them thousands of years old,
        all of them passing along a defining narrative
        about the nature and interplay of human and divine beings.

As one Bible commentator put it,
    if you are writing sacred stories for your people,
    the question is not IF you will tell a flood story,
        but HOW you will tell it.

And folks, this does not take anything away from our confession
    that scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
    I would say the Spirit rightly and wisely inspired people
        to use an established story form,
        to communicate truth about God, creation, and humankind.

Furthermore, talking about the other flood stories is not something
    we should leave to academic biblical scholars
    and their specialized research tools and in-house vocabulary.

No, everyday preachers need to be preaching to everyday persons—
    that’s people like me and you—
    that this story of Noah does not stand alone.
    It’s in a category.
    And it’s in conversation with the other stories in that category.
    We must know at least a little something
        about the other stories,
        to keep from getting all tangled up in this story
            twisting it out of shape,
            making it into something it’s not.

Comparing and contrasting helps us ensure the story is Good News!
    Yes, Gospel!
This is how we uncover a picture of God
    that’s consistent with the God of the rest of scripture.
    Make no mistake! This is a Golden Story of the Bible.

So first,
    just a very quick characterization of the other stories circulating
    around the time this one emerged for the people of Yahweh.

I won’t do the stories justice, by any means.
    I’m going to grossly oversimplify.
    So if you happen to be a scholar of the Gilgamesh Epic,
        or any of the Babylonian flood myths,
        I’ll just say I’m sorry,
            and make a sweeping generalization.

In many of the ancient flood stories,
    the gods seem more concerned
        about their own struggle for power over each other.
    Human beings were mostly an annoyance,
        kept getting in the way of what the gods wanted to do.

In one story, the Council of gods decides they are better off
    without humans messing things up,
    so they plan for a big flood to destroy humanity forever.
    One lesser god sneaks away and spills the secret
        to the human hero of the story,
        who builds a big boat,
        saving himself, his family, and the animals.

    When they find out, the chief gods are furious a human survived.
    So the lesser gods, who didn’t support the original plan,
        make the human survivor immortal, into a god himself,
        and send him away to a new life in another world,
        safe from the gods who want him dead.
    End of story.

    The repeated motif in many of these stories
        is eternal cosmic conflict.
    The gods are at war, either with other gods, or with us.

    Our role, as humans, is do all we can to appease the gods.
    We try to calm them, burn incense for them, feed them,
        do whatever we can to distract them
        so they don’t lash out in anger and destroy us.

We have a different kind of story in Genesis.
    A different picture of God.
    Here, Yahweh, the One God who created all life,
        relates to creation, especially the human creation,
        out of a deep and abiding love.

Here we see a God who is not so much angry and resentful,
    but brokenhearted at the world gone wrong.
The Hebrew word used to describe God’s feelings
    is not the word for “anger,” but for “pain,” “hurt,” “grief.”

God was brokenhearted by all the wickedness on the earth,
    all the violence, the corruption, the chaos covering the earth.
    This was chaos humans brought on themselves,
        it was not God’s doing,
        it was not God’s desire.
    Humans rejected the shalom God created and intended for them.
    So in this flood story,
    God does in the natural realm,
        what humans had already done spiritually and relationally—
        covered the earth with chaos.
    Water, the symbol of chaos, overwhelms the earth.
    And now the physical reality God brought about,
        exactly mirrors the spiritual reality humans brought about.

You’ll notice in my sermon title I called this story
    “The Original Whodunnit,” a bit tongue-in-cheek.
    I’m basically referring to the question,
        who is responsible for the chaos and destruction?
        Who done it?
    Traditionally, we point to God, of course.
        That’s why some people struggle with how God is portrayed.
        But it’s clear, especially when we hold this story
            up against the other stories,
            that humans shared the responsibility of destruction,
            even though God chose to be held accountable, alone,
                for it never happening again.

Matthew Lynch, an Old Testament professor in Vancouver,
    put it this way.
    Before the flood happened,
        there had already been a massive disruption
        in all the primary relationships of Creation.
    Relationships between humanity and God was disrupted.
    Human to human relationships were disrupted.
    The relationship between humanity and creation was disrupted.

The way God had designed creation to work,
    in beauty, diversity, and community,
    had all devolved into chaos.
    It was back to how things were before Day 1 of Creation,
        described in Genesis 1:2, where it says
            the earth was “formless” (to-hu)—
            a word sometimes translated chaos.

So Lynch uses the analogy of a potter working at a wheel.
    Remember the video of a clay pot being formed
        that Sarah Bixler shared last Sunday at Retreat?
    Lynch describes God the potter
        as pulling the clay of creation into the form God had in mind.
        But the clay had a mind of its own,
            and soon got so misshapen,
            that God decided to turn it to formlessness again.
        Like the potter cutting the mess off the wheel,
            putting it back into a ball in the center of the wheel,
                and starting over.
        No good potter does that gleefully, or out of spite or anger,
            It’s agonizing and heartbreaking,
                when a potter decides to go that route.

The God of Genesis is a God of love, whose heart breaks.

We see God’s nature most clearly in the Genesis flood story,
    when the waters go down.
    Here, the Hebrew flood story shines, in comparison to others.

Instead of ending the story with the gods and humans
    locked in deadly combat,
    or the human hero escaping the earth,
        escaping his humanity . . .
    the Genesis story restores divine and human communion.
    It establishes a covenant—a one-way covenant,
        where God takes full responsibility for the destruction.

Because of God’s deep love for creation and human beings,
    God is moved to anguish and regret.
    So instead of continuing to rage against humanity and creation,
        God lays down a bow, as a sign for himself,
        to never again destroy the earth.

Ch. 9, v. 13, “I have set my bow in the clouds,
    and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,
    I will remember my covenant that is between me and you
        and every living creature of all flesh.”

God moves toward humans and the earth, in love.
    and lays down the weapon.
Bible scholars like to point out that the rainbow
    was not a random splash of color.
    It was shaped like a bow, the weapon of war.

In other stories, the gods kept up their battle.
The God of the Bible laid down the weapon used against creation,
    and made an everlasting, one-sided, unconditional covenant,
        to never take up such a weapon again.
    God promised to sustain life and help it flourish.

This is not a horror story about a violent God.
This is Gospel.
This is a picture of a God of boundless love and mercy
    and tenderness toward all humans, and all creation,
    with no conditions attached!

As we all know, the chaos continues today.
    God has kept God’s side of the covenant.
    We have not responded in kind.
    God’s design for creation has not reached its fulfillment.
    Humanity continues to wreak havok.
    Things are as bad, if not worse, than before the flood.
    But God already surrendered the weapon.
    The human story will ultimately end
        not with annihilation and utter destruction,
        but with the restoring of shalom.
    The covenant between God and creation is intact.
    It is holding up, despite the rampant violence in our world.

We still have a lot of our own work to do.
God did not promise to keep us humans from destroying the earth.
God gave us the most wonderful, and dangerous, gift.
    Free will.

According to Genesis,
    we shared responsibility with God for earth’s destruction.
The good news is that we also share responsibility for its healing,
    and its future fruitfulness.
God invites us to be partners for the healing of all creation.
    What an awesome calling.
    Let us live into it.

And let’s turn to hymn #708.
One of many new hymns in our hymnal.
This one is mostly a lament about the ongoing destruction
    caused by climate change,
    and the toll it’s taking on the world’s poor.
But note the word of hope in verse 4:
    Gracious God, your strong compassion
        stilled the storm and parted seas.
    Free and lead us till we fashion
        worlds of justice, hope, and peace.

Let’s sing together.

—Phil Kniss, September 18, 2022

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Sunday, September 11, 2022

Sarah Bixler: Faith Formed in Intergenerational Community

Forming Faith in a Changing Church and World
Deuteronomy 6:20-25

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Sunday, September 4, 2022

Phil Kniss: Respecting God’s Space

Leaving Room for God
Reflections on work, responsibility, and faith for Labor Day weekend
Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

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As noted already, this is Labor Day Weekend.
We are also starting a new church year
    and will mark that with a blessing ritual.
We are also celebrating First-Sunday communion.
We are also collecting a Food Offering today.
We are also living in a time of intense political turmoil
    and culture wars and mutual hostility,
    which bleeds over into the church.
We are also inundated with news of natural disaster
    and drought and war and refugee crises and . . . and . . .

And . . . luckily we have a scripture passage today
    that speaks to everyone of these realities, equally well.
    I just love how scripture does that, again and again.
The Bible is culturally specific for the time, place, and circumstance
    for which it was written,
    AND it still speaks—frequently and pointedly and brilliantly—
        into the challenges of life we face today.

Scripture is a rich resource for the life God intends us to live.
So let’s open it to Romans 12.
    One of my all-time go-to passages.
    I have probably preached from this text more than any other.
        I didn’t count. But I’m guessing.

I’ll dive in to some of the details,
    but first, let me give you the wide view—in a phrase.
    This is a chapter about “respecting God’s space.”

Respecting God’s space.
    I think I’m coining that phrase.
    Because I searched for it on the internet,
        and appears nowhere.
        And we all know . . . if Google can’t find it, it doesn’t exist.

But this idea started for me,
    with verse 19 in Romans 12,
    “Beloved, never avenge yourselves,
        but leave room for the wrath of God.”

    “Leave room.”
    I have a hunch that “leaving room” can apply
        to many other attributes of God, besides wrath.
        And it can apply to God’s very being.
    But what does it really mean,
        for us to “leave room” for God?

    To not “leave room” for God to act, to do, and to be as God will,
        is to crowd in on God.
        It is to disrespect God’s space.

Respecting someone else’s personal space
    is a concept most of us easily understand.
    And I know different cultures define personal space differently.
    But every culture has some boundaries—
        some imaginary lines
        that define and protect one’s personal space.

To respect someone else’s space,
    is to acknowledge their legitimate personhood,
    their worth,
    their power,
    their agency, or in other words,
        their ability to choose and act on their own behalf.

To not respect someone else’s space,
    to encroach on their space,
    or to cross their boundaries without their invitation,
        is to violate their personhood,
        is to deny their worth and dignity,
        is to take their power from them.

We understand how this works between people.
Did we ever consider it might also apply to how we relate to God?

God, we say in our Confessions of Faith,
    is a being with infinite worth, and power, and agency.
    And we are created to be God’s junior partners,
        in service to God and God’s mission in the world.

But one of the most insidious and persistent of temptations,
    is our temptation to encroach on God’s territory,
        to usurp God’s authority,
        to get in God’s way,
        to undermine God’s intention for us and for others.
    We make ourselves out to be God.
        We make God into our image,
            instead of the other way around.

Whenever we do that,
    we are worshiping something that is not God.
    We call that idolatry.
    We call that sin.

So back to Romans 12.
    I began to see that this whole chapter is about
        leaving room for God,
        about respecting God’s space.
    And that idea turned the text upside down, in a surprising way.

Because it reads like a Christian To-Do List.
    Perfect for a Labor Day sermon.
    Nothing like a long list of biblical imperatives
        to inspire people who are proud of their work ethic!
    Do this and that and the other thing.
    And don’t do this or that or those things over there.
    It’s a blue-ribbon text for people like me
        with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.

But wait just a minute!
As I read down this list of commands,
    I see a lot that ask me to let go . . . to step back . . . to release . . .
    And nothing to tell me to grab hold . . . or assume control . . .
        or manage the situation.

Just look at this command in v. 10—
    “Be devoted to one another in love.”
    When I am devoted to someone else, in love,
        that, by definition, limits how devoted I can be
        to controlling my outcome and managing my agenda.
    Love embraces risk, for the sake of another.
        Like the classic line, “to love someone is to let them go.”

Or this command, also in v. 10—
    “Honor one another above yourselves.”
    If I do that, I risk the possibility that the other
        may make choices I do not personally like or approve of.
    But I honor their personhood anyway.

And the command in v. 12, “be patient in affliction,”
    is not about a quick fix for the affliction.
    Patience may be required for a lifetime.
    If I think my future happiness depends on
        my ability to rid myself of my affliction,
        I may be deeply disillusioned.

And v. 13 commands “share with those in need, practice hospitality.”
    We don’t get to dictate what needy people do with our compassion.
    Whenever we give time, money, talents, or other resources,
        we must remind ourselves that these are gifts.
        A giver lets go, once the gift is given.

And the practice of hospitality?
    There is no spiritual practice that requires
        more risk, more vulnerability, more letting go,
        than the practice of hospitality.
    Hospitality is opening wide your arms to the other.
        It’s a posture of vulnerability.
        It’s saying my door is open, and my life is open.
    It’s the opposite of grasping or seizing control.

Go on down the rest of the list of commands in Romans 12.
    They nearly all read the same way:
        Bless those who persecute you.
        Mourn with those who mourn.
        Live in harmony with others.
        Associate with the lowly, and . . .
            as far as it depends on you . . . live at peace with everyone.

These are all about leaving room for God,
    by respecting God’s space that we encounter in the other.
    That’s right.
    We affirm God’s real presence and image
        in the lives of our co-humans.
    Respecting God’s space requires that we show
        a deep humility and reverence in our interactions with others,
        especially those who we don’t understand, or agree with.

Otherwise, our confession of faith in God’s love for all people
    means nothing.

And back to v. 19, where this phrase is embedded,
    the apostle Paul writes, “leave room for God’s anger.”
    Leave room.

Anger is rampant today. Absolutely rampant.
    Almost anyone can get set off for anything.
    We are as prone to that as anyone else.

So this a challenge written for our age
    when we find ourselves at such deep odds with our neighbors,
        with other professing Christians,
        with members of our own family.

Are we ready to truly see God’s image
    in our political and theological opposites?
    And are we willing to respect God’s space in that other?
        To acknowledge their worth? their power? their agency?
            their inherent goodness?

    If we could all learn to respect God’s space in each other,
        what a different world we would be living in.
    But you know, I don’t need to wait
        until we all figure that out together.
    I can start today, noticing God’s presence in the other,
        and respecting God’s space in the other.
    And the world will start looking different today, I believe.

We all have our own convictions, beliefs, plans, and priorities.
    That’s all well and good.
    But let’s “leave room” for God, and for God’s work.


Leaving room for God is a challenge for us as individuals,
    and as a church community.

As we begin another church year together—
    begin our 70th year together, to be precise—
    it’s a good time to take a look at how we order our life together,
        and how we leave room for God to move among us.

There are different metaphors we have used to talk about this.
And one of them is a Garden Plot (slide?).

We see ourselves as a garden—
    and check out the language there at the top—
    a garden where “everyone is working together to create a space
        for God the gardener to work.”

I forgot those words were there
    until I finished preparing my sermon.
    At the heart of our church structure is the stated desire
        that we “respect God’s space,” so God can work.
    Let’s pray we can live into that.

At this start of a new church year,
    some people have moved into some new roles in the garden,
    and some others are continuing the roles they already had.

We want to bless and encourage and commission each other
    as we begin a new year together.

First, I want to help you find where you are in this garden,
    and where others are. So here’s a quick overview.

So today we want to bless and encourage and commission
    everyone who is actively working in the garden we call PVMC.
    Some of you carry multiple roles.
    Some of you just 1 or 2.
    But I don’t think anyone is excluded from the garden.
    If you are here this morning in worship,
        you are in the garden.
    If you smile and greet someone else you meet today,
        and help them feel part of the community,
        you are in the garden.
    If you offer a thought or a question in Faith Formation hour,
        you are in the garden.
    If you helped out with Kids Club,
        or served food at our recent Block Party,
        you are in the garden.
    And the list never ends.

So this prayer of blessing is for you. I will read the leader part.
    And all of us together, ALL of us, are invited to respond
        with a hearty and full-voiced, “Amen!” Ready?

  one    May God, who calls you to this ministry, grant you grace, joy, and endurance.
    all    Amen!
  one    May Christ guide and empower you for service and leadership.
    all    Amen!
  one    May the Holy Spirit fill you with the gifts you need.
    all    Amen!
  one    May the One whose love unites us as the body of Christ strengthen us to live and proclaim the gospel together.
        all    Amen!

—Phil Kniss, September 4, 2022

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