Sunday, November 20, 2022

Phil Kniss: A view from the hill

Roots & Tendrils: God Grows A People
Shalom for All Nations
Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4; Matthew 5:14

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Last Sunday I spoke about something
    that’s hard to find in our culture,
    or just about any human community.
So rare, in fact,
    that I’m at a loss to point to any good real-life examples.
    I’m sure they exist.
    They just don’t come to mind right now.

What I’m speaking of, is group humility.
    A social group, a human community,
        that has, as one its core values,
        of being humble about its own goodness
            and its status in relation to other similar groups.

Now, obviously, group humility would be disastrous in some arenas.
    Such as, literally, in arenas.
    Can you imagine a college basketball team
        practicing group humility on the court?
        “No, you all go ahead.
            We made the last ten points.
            Let the best team win,
                and that’s obviously you.”

    Can you imagine political parties
        practicing group humility at election season?
        “You know, we’ve been losing sight of our highest principles,
            why don’t you all take the majority for a while,
            until we get our act together?”

    No, group pride is actually a good thing in many ways.
        Standing up to show honor and take delight
            in your city, your neighborhood,
            your team, your country, your identity group,
                that can be healthy and life-giving.
            It strengthens your sense of belonging and self-worth.

But there’s a shadow side.
    As my mother used to always remind me when I was growing up,
        if I got a little too big for my britches,
        she’d say, “Pride goeth before destruction.”
    She was right.

And I think that applies to groups, as well.
    What sober and thoughtful American wouldn’t admit
        that political pride and partisanship has gone off the rails,
        and is doing our country real and lasting harm?
    When pride of one’s own group,
        requires that you demonize the members of the other group,
        we all pay the price
            of our inability to work together as a human community
            and solve the problems that vex us all.
        And typically, the most vulnerable suffer the most.

I think that when it comes to matters of religion,
    it’s even worse.

Vast and diverse communities of people
    have come together over many ages,
    and across many different cultures and world views,
        and formed religions.
    They have grouped together
        around a shared understanding of God,
        around common sacred texts,
        and common human values.

Well, practices that strengthen our sense of belonging and worth
    in a religious community,
    is a good thing.
    Strong attachments to the group translate to
        healthy individual and group identity.
    It makes us better humans and better neighbors.

But lack of group humility can be a very dangerous thing,
    when we’re talking about religious groups.

So much horrific violence this world has suffered through the ages,
    and continuing today,
    is a result of a lack of religious group humility.
    How many wars have been fought,
        and blood spilled,
        and cities and towns destroyed,
        over religiously-motivated arrogance and group pride?
    I shudder to think how many children
        have been psychologically and spiritually destroyed,
        because lack of group humility
            caused a religious power structure
            to cover it up
                and not speak the truth about its own failure.

Religious groups, historically, have been among the most likely,
    to cover up their sins,
    and to demonize their opponents or rivals.
And unspeakable evil has been the result—
    slavery, the holocaust, crusades, holy wars,
    all were done in the name of protecting the religious in-group.

I say all this,
    because the images and metaphors in Isaiah we heard this morning,
    can easily, if we aren’t careful, lead us to religious arrogance,
        and foster attitudes that promote prejudice and even violence.

And those very same images, when seen in the right light,
    can lead us to life and beauty and justice
        and shalom for all nations.

Let’s take a look at Isaiah’s words again.

Our reading was actually in two separate sections.
First, from chapters 36 and 37,
    we have a horrific war story,
    where one of the world’s great powers—
        the Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib—
        led a scorched earth campaign against surrounding countries,
            including Judah, under King Hezekiah.
        Judah was way overpowered.
        Militarily, they didn’t have much of a chance to resist.

    A delegation from the Empire went to Jerusalem,
        to convince the people to surrender—
        promising a life of ease and independence,
            if they would forsake their king,
            and turn away from their God.

    King Hezekiah then cries out to God.
        In a rare display of royal humility and lament,
            he tore his clothes,
            and went to the temple to seek God’s blessing.

    When the prophet Isaiah heard, he sent a message to Hezekiah,
        reassuring him that God sees and hears what is going on,
        and will ensure that King Sennacherib gets his due.
        It will come to him, in time, in his own land.

And then, to reinforce Isaiah’s comforting words,
    we jumped way back to chapter 2 of Isaiah,
    and read these words of reassurance, well-known to all.

    In the days to come
        the mountain of the Lord’s house
        will be the highest of the mountains.
        It will be lifted above the hills;
            peoples will stream to it.
    Many nations will go and say,
        “Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
            to the house of Jacob’s God
                so that he may teach us his ways
                and we may walk in God’s paths.”
    God will judge between the nations,
        and settle disputes of mighty nations.
    Then they will beat their swords into plowshares,
        and their spears into pruning tools.
    Nation will not take up sword against nation;
        neither shall they learn war any more.”

Don’t you love these images?
    I do.
    They have captured the imagination
        of many a preacher and poet and artist over the years.
    They inspired the large “Guns into Plowshares” sculpture
        on EMU campus,
        created by our own Esther Augsburger, and her son Michael.
    They are behind the Raw Tools project,
        that’s spreading across the country,
        making garden hand tools out of weapons,
        a project our own Larry Martin in involved with.
    And according to the index in our Voices Together hymnal,
        at least 10 of our hymns in that book
        make reference to this passage.

But we should take care,
    lest we allow group pride
    to plant some dangerous seeds in our collective soul.

What exactly are we imagining when we read,
    The mountain of Yahweh’s house
        will be the highest of the mountains.
        It will be lifted above the hills;
            peoples will stream to it.
    Many nations will go and say,
        “Come, let’s go up to the Yahweh’s mountain,
            to the house of Jacob’s God.”

I have heard this text used in triumphalistic ways.
I have heard preachers imagine a future
    where Christians rule the world.
I have, myself, been tempted at times to read this
    as a sort of in-group validation.
Isn’t it great to be identified with that temple on top of the mountain?
Isn’t it great to picture every nation streaming to our place of worship,
    rejecting their false religions,
    and deciding our religion was the one true one after all?

What are we imagining about ourselves, in this vision of Isaiah?

And furthermore, what are imagining about ourselves
    when we hear the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount,
    read a few minutes ago?
Jesus said,
    “You are the light of the world.
        A city set on a hill can’t be hidden.”

Sounds pretty validating, doesn’t it—
    that we would be identified as the “light of the world”
        and a city on a hill.

Well, it can if we are not being careful,
    if we are lazy in our thought process
        and make the mistake of thinking these scriptures
        are about us and our religion.

So what does it really mean,
    when we call ourselves “the people of God”?
In the Judeo-Christian tradition,
    this is a long-standing self-definition:
    We are God’s people.
    We are God’s chosen people.
    We are God’s people sent into the world
        to carry out God’s mission and message.
    We are God’s people positioned on a hill,
        for all to see and take notice.

There is truth in all of these faith claims that we make.
    I continue to make these faith claims.
    I believe God is calling me, calling us,
        to show God’s purposes to the world.

But…but…here is where group humility is so critical.
    These faith claims are not about us,
        but about the God who works in us and with us.

The notion of being God’s chosen people
    has been twisted and misused throughout history.
    It has led to unfortunate assumptions by the nation-state of Israel,
        that justify land seizures and oppression of Palestinians today.
    It has led to the dangerous pseudo-religion
        of white Christian nationalism,
        that inspired many of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists at the Capitol,
        and still animates many so-called Christians today.

So what do we mean when we say God has called us?
What does it mean to be a city on a hill before a watching world?
What is our view from the hill?

First and foremost,
    The hill is not a place of privilege and power.
    It is a place of visibility and accessibility.

God’s house is on a hill, not to dominate or intimidate.
It is on a hill so people more easily can see it,
    and more readily access the shalom life.

The God who made the hill
    calls us all there to live in humility and harmony and worship,
    not to exercise religious power or control over anyone.

The hill is a place for all people and all nations
    to worship the Creator, together.
    It is not a religious shrine of any sort.
    It is not a place of justification
        for any human religion or world view.
    It is a place where all creation comes to bow before their Creator,
        and to experience the shalom life
        that the Creator intended from the beginning.

The mountain of God is a place where all will one day come together,
    and in a universal massive act of group humility,
    bow in worship before the One who made them.

Here’s the bottom line:
    It’s a vision for God’s future, not for our present.

    There is nothing about this vision, in fact,
        that should make us swell with pride,
        or think our mission is to set everyone else straight,
            and help them see it our way.
    This is God’s mountain,
        and all religions . . . including ours, will bow before it one day.

May it be so.

—Phil Kniss, November 20, 2022

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