Sunday, October 30, 2022

Phil Kniss: Such a wise man! (wink, wink)

Roots & Tendrils: God Grows A People
Wisdom and Community
1 Kings 3:4-28; Matthew 6:9-10

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Are you ever ambivalent about the Old Testament?
Do you question our spending time in the Hebrew Bible
    Sunday after Sunday this fall?
    (It’s okay if you say yes.)
    I have one simple aim this morning:
        to move you just a little bit,
        along the path from ambivalence toward love.
    Yes, love.
    I love the Hebrew Bible,
        so naturally, I want you, the people I love, to love what I love.

But the road to love of this ancient text
    might mean you give up some things you assumed,
    and even held sacred.
That can be hard, I grant you.
So, if you only move a little bit this morning, I’m still happy.

The first thing I had to give up
    on my path to loving this first part of the Bible,
    was the idea that it speaks with one voice—
        that God dictated it all to Moses and the prophets,
        that it’s a literal record of everything exactly as it happened,
        and that everything in it reflects God nature.

Those ideas are meant to reinforce the authority of the text.
    But they also raise troubling questions, if we’re honest.
        that make some people run fast and run far from it.

If the Old Testament speaks with one voice, the voice of God,
    Why does it say one thing over here, and the opposite over there?
    Why does a loving God torture his bosom friend Abraham,
        and terrorize Abraham’s boy Isaac
        with a child-sacrifice scare?
    Why does God bless the patriarchs
        with wealth and riches and livestock
            as a reward for outright deceit and manipulation?
        And why does that often come
            at the expense of the women in the family?
    And most troubling,
        why does God directly command
            mass murder and genocide and ethnic cleansing,
            not once, but repeatedly?

I’ve come to understand, and love,
    that scripture speaks with many different voices.
Human voices.
    Inspired by the Spirit of God, yes.
    But still deeply shaped by their humanity,
        and by their peculiar circumstances and culture and world view.
    These sacred stories still bear the unmistakable imprint
        of our limited and incomplete and frail humanity.
    They are told by people
        trying to make sense of God in their particular world.
        And they, like we, don’t get the full picture of God.

But I love mining for gold in the Hebrew Bible,
    those moments when the God we know in Jesus glimmers in glory.
I realize these broken stories from broken people are not solid gold.
    Their assumptions about God are incomplete,
        and sometimes miss the mark.
    But there is still a lot of gold, and it’s worth mining,
        even if we only find the nuggets some of the time.

Elevating the human side of this book
    does not diminish the divine nature of it.
    It does not make it any less a Holy Bible.
    I still believe the Spirit of God inspired and directed these stories
        to end up in our sacred book,
        as a record of humanity’s struggle to know and relate to God.
    We learn from these human experiences.
    We learn of God’s faithfulness in the face of our unfaithfulness.

What we have to know about the Hebrew Bible
    is that it started out as many different oral traditions
        passed down through different communities of God’s people,
        at different points in their history,
        who had different agendas in their pursuit of God.
    Only later did these get put into writing,
        and compiled into a collection of scrolls.

I won’t get too technical, so stay with me now.
    There are different theories about how many sources there were,
        and how to identify them.
    But there is wide agreement among scholars,
        that different communities with different priorities
            shaped this collection of scripture.
    The period of Israel’s exile is a big factor here,
        because scattered communities of Israelites
        were all trying to make sense of why the exile happened—
            how God’s promise to them could crash and burn,
                and now they were stuck in Babylon!
            Jerusalem and the temple lay in ruins,
                and they had little hope of resurrection.

Some of these communities passed on stories
    that seem to be from a priestly perspective,
    focusing on ritual law, the origin of shrines and temples,
        and the work of priests.

But there seems to be a major source we call “Deuteronomic.”
    It lies behind the book of Deuteronomy, of course,
        but also much of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Jeremiah.
    Its main concern is the covenant.
    The Deuteronomist, and his community,
        believe there is still hope for God’s people after the exile,
        if they return to God’s original covenant,
        if they order their lives around the worship of God
            and God’s priorities for the poor, the widows, the orphans.
    They understand that God loves the whole world,
        and that God’s promise to Israel is conditional.
        Stay faithful to the covenant, and you can stay in the land.
        Turn your back on the covenant, and you will lose it.

Now why do I say all this as background
    as we look at the Wisdom and Glory of Solomon?
    Because for some of you, I’m about to blow your minds
        with another way of reading this story
        that you may not have heard before.
    It’s a way of reading it that I love and embrace.
    It’s not my invention, of course.
        There are plenty of books and articles that expand on it.

The traditional way to read this long
    nine-chapter treatment of King Solomon, 1 Kings 3-11,
        is to read it as unbroken praise of his glorious reign,
        highlighting his wisdom, wealth, and leadership savvy.

And perhaps, in some of its early, oral forms,
    that we assume emerged during the exile,
        it was entirely that.
    I mean, you can understand why Israelites
        living as lonely homeless exiles in Babylon,
        would be telling stories about their glory days.
    King Solomon was legendary.
    Of course, none of the exiles actually lived during Solomon’s time.
        That was 100s of years earlier.
        But they were longing for an image of the good old days.

Well, something funny happened
    on the way to writing these stories down, apparently.
    As the Deuteronomist got hold of these stories,
        and put pen to scroll,
        the covenant agenda of the Deuteronomist
            found its way into the story.
    It’s subtle, and it’s obvious.

Seems like the Deuteronomist is being careful
    not to take all the wind out of the sail of the people,
    who want to hold on to this legend of greatness,
        to give them courage during the exile.
But without a doubt, there is something subversive going on here,
    if you are paying attention.
    There is glaring irony here in this story.
    One journal article I came across about today’s text had the title,
        “Has the narrator come to praise Solomon or to bury him?”

Are you familiar with the concept of “Easter Eggs”
    in movies or video games or TV shows?
    An “Easter Egg” is kind of an inside joke or symbol
        hidden in a larger work,
        that’s obvious once you notice it,
            but is likely to go unnoticed.
    I like to think about the work of the Deuteronomist
        in this narrative on Solomon,
        as someone who’s hiding Easter Eggs in plain sight.
        Easy to pass by it, but obvious when you find it.

Remember, back in 1 Samuel,
    God only reluctantly gave in to Israel’s request for a king,
        to be like the other nations.
    But God’s permission
        came with a dire warning, and a prediction.

The warning was,
    “Stay faithful to my covenant, and I will bless you,
        but turn your back on my covenant,
        and you and your king will meet with disaster.”

And the prediction, to quote Samuel, was:
    “He will take your sons,
        and will use them for his chariots and cavalry.
    He will take your male and female servants,
        along with the best of your cattle and donkeys,
        and make them do his work.
    He will take one-tenth of your flocks,
        and then you yourselves will become his slaves!”

Well, what do we learn from this ode to Solomon’s glory and greatness?
Ch. 5, beginning at v. 13, and I quote:
    “King Solomon conscripted forced labor
        out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men.
    He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts;
        they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home;
    Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor.
    Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers
        and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country.”

Wow! But wait, there’s more!
Remember how Yahweh also emphatically said,
    “I don’t need a temple, or house of cedar, to live in.
        I’m perfectly happy traveling around in a tabernacle, a tent.”
    But Solomon used all this forced labor (i.e., Israelite slaves),
        to travel up to Lebanon to cut, harvest, and ship what?—
            massive amounts of cedar.

    And just in case the reader is still fooled,
        and thinks everything Solomon does is glorious,
    There’s this clever little Easter Egg,
        hidden at the chapter break between 6 and 7.
        And the original had no verse and chapter breaks.

So here are two back-to-back sentences in the Hebrew Bible.
    1. “Solomon was seven years in building the temple” . . . and . . .
    2. “Solomon was building his own house thirteen years.”
You think that wasn’t an intentional comparison?

Not only did Solomon use slave labor and kingdom wealth
    to build God a house God didn’t want or need.
He used almost twice as much slave labor and wealth—
    to build his own personal palace.

Solomon is exactly the kind of king Samuel warned Israel about.
    And this all come in the same narrative
        as today’s text about Solomon’s wisdom.
    So we should be looking for the writer’s “spin”
        when we read about Solomon’s remarkable wisdom.
    Because it’s the same story-tellers and interpreters
        who are telling us about his wealth and power and glory.

So, as we heard in chapter 3, two prostitutes come before Solomon
    with a dispute over ownership of an infant.
    Solomon’s way of determining the true mother was clever,
        to be sure.
        But maybe not as awe-inspiring as we think.
        I imagine most clear-thinking judges could have
            come up with a similar test of loyalty to the child.
    But more interesting, some Bible scholars point out,
        the two women were specifically identified as prostitutes.

    Hebrew law strictly outlaws prostitution,
    Deuteronomy calling prostitution an “abomination to Yahweh.”
    It’s worthy of note that the king says not a word
        about that law that he was there to uphold.
    It is also interesting to note, as other scholars point out,
        when we see prostitution mentioned in the Hebrew Bible
            it’s often a metaphor for Israel chasing after other gods.
        It’s at least worth pondering,
            are the women symbolic? is the child symbolic?

As a matter of fact,
    this story of Solomon’s glory ends on a sober note,
    with Solomon’s love for Yahweh being prostituted to other gods.

Listen to 1 Kings 11:1, and following:
    King Solomon loved many foreign women—
        Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women—
        from the nations concerning which the Lord had said,
        “You shall not enter into marriage with them,
            neither shall they with you,
            for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods.”
        Solomon clung to these in love.
        Among his wives were seven hundred princesses
            and three hundred concubines, and . . .
            his wives turned away his heart after other gods,
            and his heart was not true to Yahweh his God,
            as was the heart of his father David.”

Bottom line on wisdom from these chapters—
    is that the wisdom of God looks different than human wisdom.
    Accumulation of power and wealth are likely to corrupt,
        and lead us away from the wisdom of God.
    God’s heart is always toward the poor, the widow, and the orphans.
        Those who forsake God’s priorities,
            and instead seek after wealth and power and pleasure,
            disappoint God,
            and undermine God’s purposes in the world.
    Right there’s the gold in this story,
        and why I love the Hebrew Bible.

Today it’s asking us: Who are we following?
    The Leader we think we want,
        may not be the Leader we actually need to be faithful to God.
    Just as leaders are called to be discerning in their leadership,
        so we are all called to be discerning in who we follow.

God, give us wisdom.

As a response, let’s sing a fitting hymn, that Sam chose as a response—
    a familiar tune, with a newer text,
    VT 201 – Hear the Turmoil of the Nations

—Phil Kniss, October 30, 2022

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Sunday, October 23, 2022

Moriah Hurst: I’ve got the power

Roots and Tendrils: God Grows a People
“Repentance and Community”
2 Samuel 11:1-5, 26-27; 12:1-9; Psalm 51:1-9

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I’ll admit it. I find it hard to like David. Particularly the David we read about in today's passages. When I am teaching with youth I often used the Brick Testament, or the bible portrayed in Legos. This section is called “David commits adultery and murder”. Such light topics for a beautiful Sunday morning. This picture with Bathsheba is not the most explicit. When I use these pictures for some of these harder stories in the bible, I often show this warning that is on the website. 

CONTENT NOTICE - The Bible contains material some may consider morally objectionable and/or inappropriate for children. These labels identify stories containing: nudity, sexual content, violence, cursing”

Ok, let go back to the stories about David. He gets all the warnings. I like to wrestle with this. Should our Bibles have warnings on them? This isn’t clean, this is problematic. The span of todays text covers war, rape, murder, cover ups, refering to women as sheep and possesions…and the list goes on. So I will say at the outset this is a lot. Please take care of yourself.  For some of you I will say too much this morning and for some of you I will not say enough. That is part of the challenge when we study this book together.

So let's dive into today's texts.

In the Spring time when kings go out to battle. David sends his officers and armies and all of Israel to war. And David stays in Jerusalem. The text seems to almost mock David or at least present some commentary because not only does he not go fight with his people, which is what a king is supposed to do. David is shown reclining on a couch. He rises leisurely and saunters across his roof in the cool evening breeze. This is the picture of a king not leading his people but basking in his power and privilege.

Before we go on, let's review some of David’s story so far. In the books of 1st and 2nd Samuel we have been following the stories of prophets and kings and God working through them to lead the people. David was not the first pick of his fathers sons, he was the little guy chosen after all his brothers had been paraded in front of Samuel. But David goes on to be wise and fast in his defeat of Goliath. He gains favor and grows in power. Then there is a power struggle with Saul which leaves David fleeing for the hills and safety at points. When Saul dies and David finally becomes King he is the second king of Israel and he consolidates the power of Judah and Israel, and brings the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. David’s power keeps building.

Yet as David walks across the roof and looks down at Bathsheba bathing, it is the beginning of a shift for him. And I have to ask: did his power get too great?

David sends someone to inquire about this beautiful woman he has seen. And even though he is told she is married he sends for her and lays with her. Many of you may remember my retelling of those few verses a few weeks ago when I preached about Ruth and Boaz on the threshing floor. How you tell this part of the story matters.

Jo Ann Hackett writes in the Women’s Bible Commentary that “The only hint that (Bathsheba) might have cooperated willingly in her predicament is her initial act of bathing in a place where she could be observed by the king out walking on his roof.” Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 159

David has all the power in this situation and he uses it to avoid standing with his armies and instead takes and rapes a married woman just because he can.

One podcast I listened to this week encouraged the listener to read the bible and then to look for the contemporary story. And it breaks my heart that there are too many stories like this that I know and that we see today.

I’m tired, maybe you are too. Tired of men with power following the same script of using that power to take advantage of others, often sexually. Tired of systems that not only don’t stop them but actually set them up without accountability and without boundaries around the power they hold. This week I saw the trailer for a movie that is trying to tell the victims' side of the story. The fear, hurt and resistance to stand up against the powerful man who hurt them, that I saw even in that 30 second clip, made me cry.

Yes, David was a man of God, chosen to lead his people in a particular time and way. But when the checks are taken away from someone's power and they think that others are only there to serve them, destructive things can happen.

Hackett notes that “David’s affair with Bathsheba the wife of one of his soldiers, is a watershed, marking the beginning of a downward spiral for David and his family” Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 151

At this point the narrative lectionary has us jump over 20 verses. We skip David’s repeated attempts to cover up what he has done. The ways he tries to control the situation to get himself out of a tight spot. It doesn’t seem that he actually wanted Bathsheba as a wife, more he just wants to cover up that he got her pregnant - the evidence that he slept with another man’s wife. Bathsheba, like so many in women’s bodies, had to carry all of the responsibility of what had been done to her. She could not hide and pretend the life growing in her didn’t exist. Eventually when Bathsheba’s husband Uriah proves over and again how good and faithful of a man he is, staying with his post and duty instead of returning home to his wife; a stark contrast to David’s sitting in Jerusalem while his armies go to war. David has Uriah sent to the front lines of battle and then pulls the troops back. Uriah is predictably killed. David lets Bathsheba grieve for an appropriate time and then sends for her and makes her his wife. 

And then we finally get a line I’ve been waiting for: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord” Well I sure hope so! The God I read about in the bible would be weeping and raging right along with me.

Enter Nathan. And like many good prophets and teachers, Nathan shows up and tells a story. There was a rich man and a poor man. Their wealth is measured in this story in their amount of sheep. One has many flocks and the other has one precious lamb. The rich man’s friend comes to town and instead of going to his own herds he goes and takes the beloved lamb from his neighbor. Slaughters it, and serves it to his guest.

When I was 8 years old my family lived here in Virginia, out along the old Mt Clinton Pike. We had about an archer and we worked with a few local farmers to raise lambs. When a mother sheep would have triplets or a lamb that she could not feed, we would take it and raise the lamb by hand. This meant feeding with bottles every few hours, even through the middle of the night or in the wee hours of the morning. These lambs become our pets. They came when we called. We carried them around and ran with them in the field. 

One snowy morning I woke and wandered into the living room still yawning, to find my Mom crying and visibly distraught. In the early morning a local dog had gotten into the field and chased our lambs. The dog killed one lamb and maimed the other two. In the freshly fallen snow you could see the trail of both the chase and the damage done. The thing was the dog was well fed, he wasn’t hungry. He had just done it for fun. Literally running our lambs to death while biting at them. 

I think I can tap into some of the anger, pain and senselessness that David might have felt as he heard Nathan tell this parable. It just feels wrong! How could this happen? But then Nathan turns and I imagine him looking David in the eye as he says sternly “You are the man”. Nathan goes on to list all that God has given David. And then says “and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more”. Nathan asks the question that might be in many of our minds “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in God’s sight?” This king who has done so much for the people and been given so much from God and yet he takes what wasn’t his and throws away the life of a good man just because he can.

Lest we get carried away pointing fingers at all the people we see reflected in these stories that we could condemn. Instead of just shaking our heads in disgust, I invite you to see yourself in this story. Which character would you be in this text? When have we misused our power, sinking into our privilege to the point that our actions hurt others? Or are we the abused, our voice not included in the narrative that is just a sterilized version of what has been done to us. How might Nathan turn this text back to our lives and with the sting that a parable often has in its tail, what truth might he speak into our own contemporary situation?

Hold that raw space with me. I’m going to invite April to come and read for us part of Ps 51. Hear these words as David might have. Holding the brokenness we see and have experienced. The wrong we have done and the wrong done to us.


Maybe later today you want to go back to that Psalm and reread it, along with the verses we didn’t hear today. Because David turned and called out to God and he was not abandoned. Yes, there were consequences that David and his family had to live with. But even when we have done the worst thing, God still calls us beloved. This makes me squirm both in its injustice and in its grace and mercy. I can not do anything that will make God love me less or more. Does God grieve at injustice and at oppression? I sure hope so. But does God cast us away? No, never. We may feel like that, but God relentlessly returns as God did with David, saying I love you, try again. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Once we know of God’s love and forgiveness we are called to turn and make things right with others, turning back and restoring. 

Can we make an honest confession before God and then turn and work towards restoring our relationship with the community around us?

I want us to end today with a simple yet powerful prayer.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner

How do we bring both our confession and our need for God’s love to this space. God is steadfast, abounding in mercy. I invite you to read aloud together and then I will leave space for you to repeat it quietly for yourself.

Beloved, may God give you strength and wisdom to use your power for good in this world. Amen

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Sunday, October 16, 2022

John Stoltzfus: Liberated to Choose

Roots and Tendrils: God Grows a People
“Saying Yes Again”

Joshua 24:1-26; Matthew 4:8-10

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If there is a soundtrack for our scriptures today, I suggest the song Gotta Serve Somebody by the poet and prophet Bob Dylan. His voice is in tune with Joshua’s pep talk to the people of Israel and Jesus’ response to the devil in the wilderness. 

If you listen to the whole song, Dylan lets no one off the hook, including the preacher when he sings, “You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride but you gonna have to serve somebody." Right on!

Dylan drives home the point that for everyone, who or what we will serve is a question that cannot go unanswered.

I confess that I was not inspired when I saw the texts for this Sunday after agreeing to preach. For one, the Joshua narrative of the conquest of Canaan is filled with troublesome language for our modern ears, suggesting near annihilation of a people and forced land displacement. We have to wrestle with difficult questions of interpretation, particularly in light of how this has been used throughout history to justify, by divine right, forced displacement of other peoples. With the recent marking of Columbus Day, we have to acknowledge that we are beneficiaries of displacement ourselves.

But this question will have to wait for another study or a longer sermon! I have appreciated our series with the narrative lectionary, so far, in asking some of the deeper questions about the why and the context of these stories in the Hebrew Bible, some of which are hard to interpret. In our journey through the Hebrew Bible, we’ve learned that we serve a loving God who is deeply committed to our liberation, who is biased toward the poor and their well-being, and a patient God who is in faithful covenant with us even when we fail.

Another reason I’m not drawn to this story is because it feels like the phrase “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” has been cheapened by its appearance on too many tacky wall hangings above a couch in a cozy living room. Do we really know what this declaration means, and do our lives give evidence of it?  Joshua’s clarion call to the people of Israel to make a decision of whom they will serve sounds very much like an evangelical preacher making an altar call. If only it were that easy to walk the sawdust trail to the altar in response.

As a child, I used to read these stories of the Israelites like it was a tragic novel. For a time the people would be faithful in worshiping Yahweh, then a period of falling away and worshiping idols, then a period of defeat at the hand of some enemies, and then a period of repentance and restoration. And repeat. I was perplexed as to why it was so hard for the people of Israel to do the right thing and stay focused.

One of the things that strikes me in this passage is that Joshua essentially dismisses the people's promise to serve the Lord by saying that they are going to go right back to doing whatever they want. He knows their wandering ways. Which begs the question: Are we being honest both institutionally and individually about the many ways we fail to live up to some of our stated ideals and values as followers of Jesus?

One thing that was helpful for me in researching this text is that this narrative of Joshua was most likely compiled much later on when the Israelites were in exile.  It is written from the perspective of a people who had seemingly failed in their commitment to follow Yahweh and had lost everything.

So maybe this story is asking the question: Do we only get one opportunity to do it right? The whole biblical narrative, in addition to the book of Joshua, is one of God’s constant steadfast love and persistent patience with God’s people. Yes, they do not get it right all the time; in fact, quite often they do not, but that does not keep God from pursuing them. This grand story shows God to be a relentless and creative pursuer of people who does not give up on seeking to liberate us to choose life and to flourish in all the abundance that God has given us. And that is good news indeed!

Whatever Joshua was trying to do to prepare the people for entering the land of Canaan, the editors of the scroll of Joshua are preparing its readers for the rest of the story. And now we add our own stories in the mix.  

Can we see that the challenges of idolatry are as present today as they were in Joshua’s time?  In whom or what do we place our security and hope?

Consider this:
When we see that there are more guns in this country than there are people and that our nation invests more in the military than the next 9 top countries of the world combined. Is this what we believe makes us safe? Is this not idolatry?
Many of us look for financial security in bulking up our retirement accounts, life insurance policies and investment portfolios. What does this indicate about what we trust for the future?
Today our political party of choice may indicate more about what we believe and value than our particular faith tradition. What does this tell us about our loyalties?
In the US the average amount of living space per person in a new house has doubled in my lifetime. What does that reveal about our deepest values?
In the US we continue to use fossil fuels at a much higher rate than our neighbors around the world yet it is the poorest in our world who are suffering the most from climate change. What does this say about our capacity to serve a God who cares the most for the vulnerable among us?
Are we any less distracted by idols or any more capable of following God than were Joshua’s listeners?

Who will we serve? We have choices at the intersection of everything that distracts us from that which is truly life giving for ourselves and our neighbor.

As a church, as families and as individuals, we have decisions to make everyday big and small. Can we with our choices reflect the purposes of God to our children and the watching world around us?

There is much in our world that would try to convince us that we don’t have a choice in living closer to our stated values saying “This is just the way things are.”
A recent revelation to Paula and me was our decision to replace one of our vehicles with an e-bike. For so long we simply assumed that with two drivers and kids we needed two cars. But after one of our cars stopped working we discovered that in our current situation we don’t need two cars. Granted we still drive a gas sucking minivan and this choice is an incredibly privileged and irrelevant one in comparison to the living standards of most of our neighbors in the world but I count it as one small step. And it makes me question what other assumptions about my choices in lifestyle need examination and liberation. I am inspired by the way I see many of you live out your values in generous and sacrificial ways.

We need good questions to help clarify our purpose and focus in this world of constant distraction that pulls us in so many different directions. We live in a smorgasbord of choices that often create more anxiety and stress than freedom. We need this liberating gift of God to choose life; to choose those things that are in tune to the character of a God who came close to us in the person and life of Jesus.

So, while I was not initially inspired by this story from Joshua, after sitting with a scripture text for a longer period of time, reading how others have interacted with this story (and listening to a bit of Bob Dylan), new insights and relevancy emerges. I'm drawn to this story in that it might help us to ask clarifying questions about the choices we make, big and small. What are the deeper values that guide us? How do our ongoing choices and decisions reflect the God we claim to serve?

I’m curious how you would respond to some of these questions. I’m very grateful that Christopher and Obie are going to offer some of their own reflections in wrestling with these questions.

What choices do you face in your household in saying "yes" to the values that reflect your commitment to following in the way of Christ and saying "no" to some of the temptations and distractions of the culture around us? Do you have a story to share about what these choices look like in your household?


All of our choices and decisions reveal that we are a complicated mix of values and ideals. We need to hold our complicated stories reverently but lightly, to let them exist in creative tension with who we are seeking to become. We are not the sum of all our failures and weaknesses but the sum of a loving God who is liberating us to become a more just and merciful people in the image of Christ. I think this is part of what we are called to choose as Christ's followers. "Choose this day whom you will serve." May we choose a God who is unimaginably bigger than the stories we tell. A God whose every story begins and ends in love.

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Sunday, October 9, 2022

Phil Kniss: Ten words sweeter than honey

Roots and Tendrils: God Grows a People
A Plan for Human Flourishing
Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17; Psalm 19:7-10; Matthew 5:17

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Again I’m lucky to preach from a text that is, at the same time
    widely known and widely misunderstood.
I say I’m lucky
    because I’m always up for knocking down stereotypes,
    and messing with people’s assumptions.
Because I think we are wiser people,
    if we are willing to question assumed meanings,
    and look more deeply and thoughtfully.

That’s true for a lot of the Hebrew Bible—or Old Testament—
    which is most of our Bible.
    In fact, more than 3/4 of the pages in your Bible,
        if you use a Bible made of paper,
        are what we often call the Old Testament.
    They are routinely ignored by many Christian readers
        (except for the Psalms)
        because they are either hard to read and understand,
        or we assume they were made obsolete by Jesus.

Just to make sure we didn’t make that mistake today,
    we read Matthew 5:17, where Jesus said,
    “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets;
        I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

I like referring to the first 75% of our Bible as the Hebrew Bible.
    For one thing, it names its original language and culture.
    Plus, there’s nothing in the name to imply it’s outdated,
        and not our Bible anymore.
        Yes, the first part of our Bible is “old” chronologically.
        But it’s not old like milk gets old.
            It’s not expired or sour.
            It is still fresh and life-giving.
            It still speaks to us and our times.
        These writings are sacred to us,
            because they were sacred to Jesus.
        For that matter, they are still the sacred writings
            for Jewish people,
            who still hold them as precious,
            and read them with reverence.

But like all of our Bible, from Genesis to Revelation,
    what is written needs to be understood in its own context,
        on its own terms,
    and only then, brought into our context,
        interpreted wisely,
        and applied in a way that fits our situation.

We misunderstand the Ten Commandments today,
    because we don’t adequately deal with their original context.
    We lift them out of the story,
        and make them a list to be memorized and recited,
        or etched into plaques and monuments.
    We hang them on walls,
        or place them, controversially,
        in public places like courtrooms or school rooms.
    They can often survive there,
        as long as they are viewed merely as
            an important relic of some universal legal code,
            alongside other historic legal codes.

So, as long as they exist only as “list” and not “story,”
    we easily make them into either
        a legalistic and restrictive code of ethics imposed on us,
        or a tame, historical artifact, with very little impact.

So when I preach to people socialized to read Exodus 20 as a list,
    and I signal that our topic is commandments and the law,
        I expect some people will just “check out”—
            “I thought we had gotten over rules-based Christianity.”
        And I expect others will eagerly dig in, for the wrong reasons,
            “About time we talk about specific sins,
                and the ‘dos-and-don’ts’ of Christianity!”

So, now . . . let’s help this list find its story again.
    This is, after all, a narrative lectionary.
    Scripture is more likely to change us
        when we read it as story,
        and find ourselves in the story.

This story continues the story of last Sunday,
    when the Hebrew people were liberated
    from hundreds of years of slavery and dehumanization in Egypt.

Last week we saw God as passionate for the liberation
    of all people who are oppressed.
Today, not long after the crossing of the Red Sea,
    God is making a new covenant with them at Mt. Sinai.

It may not be your experience,
    but can you imagine the multi-generational injuries
        and collective trauma of the Hebrew people,
        after what they and their ancestors endured in Egypt?
    It’s not entirely unlike the multi-generational impact
        that slavery has had on American society and well-being.
        We are all still dealing with the painful results
            of that collective trauma, 150 years later.
    For the Israelites, it was maybe months.

According to the biblical story,
    this is a group of many thousands of traumatized people,
    wandering and trying to find their way in a wilderness—
        a geographical one,
        and a psychological, social, and spiritual wilderness.
    They endured generations in Egypt
        where the constant message was,
            you are not worthy,
            you are not even human.

    And they have only been out of that environment a short time.

That, friends, is the story behind these so-called Ten Commandments.
    We must read them with that story in mind.
    These are not commandments aimed at
        reining in an unruly mob of wicked and condemned sinners,
        who need to straighten up and get their act together
            to avoid damnation.
    These words are road maps for a flourishing life
        for a traumatized community.
    They were given by the God who created them
        and loves them dearly,
        and wants them to thrive.
    These words were a healing gift.

    These words are meant to counteract and repair the harm
        brought by the oppressive messages
        that have defined their lives up to this point.

So how does that realization
    change how we read these so-called Ten Commandments?

More often than not, it’s Christians who make this into a list of
    negative commands to constrain our wickedness.
And it’s the Jewish readers of this text who, to this day,
    celebrate the law as a precious gift they were given.
    It is Jews who still carry the Torah scroll around the congregation,
        dancing with it, and kissing it before it is read.

And ponder this:
The Jewish way of numbering the Ten Commandments,
    or “Ten Words,”
    is different than the Christian way.
    Same text, different numbering.
For Christians, #1 is “You shall have no other gods before me”
    and #2 is “You shall not make any idols.”
But Jews combine both those and make it their #2.
In the Jewish list, #1 is not even a commandment.
    It is these precious words:
    “I am the Lord your God,
        who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
        out of the house of bondage.”

It’s no coincidence that Christians call that a preamble,
    and make the ten commandments after it the important stuff.
And Jews start with a Word from Yahweh
    that connects them to their story, where they came from.
    It establishes the reason why the words that follow
        are such a beautiful and precious gift.

So what if we started with the story, instead of the list?
What if we made it a point to remind ourselves every time
    that the giver of these words is our loving God,
    who brings people out of bondage?
When we start with that story,
    the rest of the Words hold a richer meaning,
    and we hear them differently.

When we hear a Word coming from the Great Liberator,
    “You shall have no other gods before me,”
        we do not hear a heavy new rule laid on our shoulders.
    We hear . . . “God liberates us from a life
        of being pulled in opposite directions.”

When we hear a Word from our Liberator, saying,
    “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from the trivial and profane,
        and from being robbed of the beauty of the sacred.”

When we hear a Word from our Liberator, saying,
    “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from a life of compulsive busyness,
        of constant work,
        of anxious and life-draining accumulation.”

When our Liberator says,
    “Honor your father and your mother,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from a shallow life without roots,
        of not knowing from whence we came,
        or if we are unconditionally loved.”

When our Liberator says,
    “You shall not kill,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from the death-trap
        of escalating violence.”

When our Liberator says,
    “You shall not commit adultery,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from a lack of commitment
        in our most intimate human relationships.”

When our Liberator says,
    “You shall not steal,
    You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,
    You shall not covet your neighbor’s property,”
    we hear . . . “God liberates us from a lonely and bankrupt life,
        where feeding our personal desires takes precedence over
        having a rich relational life of mutuality in community.”

These Ten are not a sterile list of commands from on high
    delivered by an angry God trying to whip people into shape.
    They are a gift of love, given by the Great Liberator—
        a God who wants to free us from bondage and slavery
            and oppression of every kind . . .
        a God who wants to free us to enter into a community of
            love and freedom and justice,
            into a free and right relationship with God and each other.

The Ten Commandments are a gracious gift of love.
    They actually can be the objects of our affection.
    They can taste sweeter than honey.

At least, so says Psalm 19 . . .
    The law of the Lord is perfect . . .
        It revives the soul . . .
        It rejoices the heart. . . .
    The commandments of the Lord are true . . .
    More to be desired are they than gold,
        even much fine gold;
        sweeter also than honey
        and drippings of the honeycomb.”

If God’s moral imperative on our lives
    is not experienced as invitational and compelling
        and life-giving and satisfying,
        then that’s our fault, not God’s.
    God’s approach toward us is that of a wooing lover—
        inviting us into freedom and flourishing.

Let’s say yes to that kind of God.
And let’s offer a communal confession to that God.

one    God who loves us and freed us,
        we confess we often take for granted
        your love for us, and your passion for our freedom.
all   You brought us out of bondage, and want us to flourish
one  We mistake your commandments for rules that constrict and confine
        rather than gifts that liberate us from all that diminishes our humanity
all    You brought us out of bondage, and want us to flourish
one    We worship you, O Lord our God,
        who brought us out of the land of all that binds us.
one    God still loves us and frees us,
all    Let us walk in the way of freedom and flourishing.

—Phil Kniss, October 9, 2022

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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Phil Kniss: To be on God’s side

Roots and Tendrils: God Grows a People
Liberated People (World Communion Sunday)
Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29

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We’re moving forward in our biblical narrative.
And we’re moving forward in our understanding of God.
Every picture reveals something more of God’s character.

In the story of Noah
    we learned God deeply loves all creation,
    and is committed to see it thrive and experience shalom.
In the story of Abram and Sarai,
    we learned God invests in a particular people,
    so that, through them, God might bless all people and nations.

Today, in the story of the Hebrews escaping Egypt,
    we are shown one of God’s most enduring . . .
        and beloved . . . and troubling character traits—
        God’s preferential treatment of the poor and oppressed.

Yes, God practices preferential treatment.
    God has favorites.
    God is biased.
    God takes a side in human affairs.
    And that sounds like Good News Gospel for one side,
        and maddening religious heresy for the other.

Am I overstating it? You decide, after we explore Exodus.

The story we read this morning,
    is just one pivotal point in a much longer story about
        how the Hebrew people got to Egypt to begin with,
        why they ended up being enslaved,
        how they got out of the death trap they were in,
        how they coped with their sudden unexpected freedom,
        and all the ups and downs and ins and outs
            of becoming a people knit together in covenant with God.

When we read the story of crossing the Red Sea all by itself,
    it’s easy to mistakenly assume the main point of the story
        is to prove how powerful God is,
        that God can and will defy nature
            to part the waters and miraculously bless his people.

Typically, we spend a lot of interpretive energy
    on that one spectacular act—parting the waters.
The details are what people get into arguments about,
    what some people try to argue is a literal, historic event,
    and others try to explain in more academic and rational terms,
        like that it’s not what we know as the Red Sea,
        but a “reed sea,” a more marshy environment.
    Meanwhile, we all have etched in our mind’s eye
        the image of Charleton Hesston holding up his arms
            in the classic movie,
            while 100-foot walls of sea water rise up on either side
                and thousands of Israelites, and their livestock,
                walk miles across,
            before the sea crashes down with a fury
                drowning the Egyptian army and their horses.

To even conjure up that scene is off-putting, especially this week,
    after two hurricanes laid waste to large sections of
    Puerto Rico and Florida and other coastal communities.

Exodus states that Yahweh sent a strong east wind
    to pile up the water and dry off the sea bed,
    and then brought the water back again where it was.

With this Exodus story on my mind
    I watched video of Hurricane Ian,
        where winds north of the eye wall
            drove the water out to sea,
            leaving boats sitting on the dry sea bed;
        and south of the eye wall
            winds pushed a 12-foot wall of water inland,
            flooding homes and vehicles
            and drowning people and animals.

A little surreal.
    But I’ll chalk it up to pure coincidence.
    There’s no meaning or connection behind it, in my mind.
    Wind moving water is just something that happens in our world.

The real story here in Exodus,
    is not God moving a wall of water.
The story is God revealing to the world, for all time,
    God’s strong bias against the oppressor,
        and for the oppressed.
    What is uncovered here,
        is that God has a preference for certain kinds of people.

Now . . . if we have a little gut reaction, a small pang of resistance
    to the idea that God has a preference for certain people,
        or is biased, or takes sides in human affairs . . .
    it probably says something about
    which side of the social balance scale we find ourselves on.

Yes, even while I preach that God is biased toward the oppressed,
    I find myself mostly on the opposite side
        of where God is weighing in.
    I have to face up to my own internal resistance.

But rather than resist or protest, I really should listen more deeply.
Given the racial reckoning of our day,
    given our coming to terms with the persistent harm
    caused by socially ingrained white supremacist ideology,
    we ought to read Exodus with our eyes and ears wide open.

Now is the time and place in our biblical narrative,
    to hand it over to other interpreters of Exodus
    whose own lived history and daily experiences
        more closely resonates with what the Hebrews went through.

White preachers and scholars descended from Western Europeans,
    and trained in the disciplines of classical theology, like myself,
    maybe don’t have the best social location,
        to rightly interpret the God who freed Hebrew slaves.

For many African Americans descended from enslaved people,
    for many Latin American Christians oppressed by dictatorships
        propped up by western governments and corporations,
    for Jews shaped by the horrors of the Holocaust,
    this story of the Exodus
        is not just one of many interesting stories in the Hebrew Bible.
It is THE prominent story they keep returning to—
    it’s their heart story that resonates most deeply with them,
    it’s the story that is most formative
        for their understanding of who God is.

These people of faith see in Yahweh
    a God who is not just bothered, but enraged,
    when human beings oppress other humans.

Oppressing others is the worst way to fail our divine calling.
    It is the worst way to corrupt and obscure the divine image in us.
    When human beings, loved by God,
        abuse other human beings, equally loved by God,
        it’s an insult to God.
        It is saying to God’s face that God’s love is meaningless.
        It is denying God’s love for those persons we oppress,
            and God’s love for us.

This story of the Exodus is the sacred text
    for understanding that God is above all else, a liberator.

James Cone, the influential black liberation theologian, said,
    “a Gospel that doesn’t liberate is no Gospel at all.”

In his book God of the Oppressed about 25 years ago,
    he wrote, and I quote,
“The biblical God is the God whose salvation is liberation.
    God is the God of Jesus Christ who calls the helpless and weak
        into a newly created existence.
    God not only fights for them
        but takes their humiliated condition upon the divine Person
        and thereby breaks open a new future for the poor,
        different from their past and present miseries.”

In other words, James Cone is saying
    God not only became one with all humanity in his incarnation,
        but God became one with the oppressed in Jesus’ crucifixion.
    Through the cross, God not only sided with the oppressed,
        God became the oppressed.

Traditionally, white evangelicalism and western Protestantism
    tend to make God’s salvation entirely personal,
        the aim is to keep us from eternal damnation.

    Well, being saved from damnation might be good motivation
        for us who live in relative comfort.
    But if you are on the underside of society,
        if you are being oppressed,
        you don’t need potential damnation to
            make you respond to God’s salvation.
    You are already in a living hell.
    You are looking for liberation.

I owe those thoughts to Jonny Rashid,
    an Arab-American pastor in Philadelphia,
    author of a book just released through Herald Press, entitled,
        Jesus Takes a Side.

That’s not been my default way of thinking about salvation.
    But it’s what I hear when I listen to
        voices of my sisters and brothers who are
        Black, Indigenous, or People of Color.
    The Gospel message is salvation from oppression and suffering—
        present and future.

I feel it’s my responsibility to keep listening.
    More than responsibility,
        my spiritual life is at stake if I don’t keep listening.
    Because the most challenging question is not
        whose side God is on.
        That’s been well established.
        That question was answered,
            and the cross of Jesus put an exclamation point on it.
        The question of my life is,
            will I choose to be on God’s side?
        Do my passion and commitments line up
            with God’s passion and commitments?

Of course, when we come to the communion table,
    the Lord’s Supper,
    we come remembering our salvation.

Our social location shapes how we see this table.
    Is this a safe little ritual involving a morsel of bread,
        and a sip from a tiny cup?
    Or is this a liberation meal? like the Passover was?

    On this World Communion Sunday,
        in solidarity with all our oppressed sisters and brothers
            around the world,
        in solidarity with the black church,
            the church of indigenous peoples,
            the church of immigrants and refugees,
        I invite us to see the table that’s set before us
            as a meal of liberation.
        To see that the broken body and blood of Jesus
            means God becomes one with all who are oppressed,
                no matter what kind of oppression,
            and God offers to liberate us.

—Phil Kniss, October 2, 2022

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