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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