Sunday, November 19, 2023

Phil Kniss: God's love song

The promise fulfilled
AND GOD SAW... stories of God seeing and acting in Hebrew Scripture
Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5; Mark 12:1-3

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Today I will be unapologetically romantic
in my call for us to embrace a life
of righteousness and justice as a people of God.

Yes, I want us to use our brains today,
to use our rational and mental faculties.
They are essential elements of a healthy faith.
And they are necessary and wonderful aspects of our humanity.
But so are our hearts—
hearts that beat wildly when they are in love.

I have to be a romantic today,
because the prophet Isaiah, of all people,
has given us a love song as his guiding metaphor.
Yes, a love song—
from God the lover, to God’s people, the beloved.

Until today, I don’t think I’ve ever approached prophetic writings
in quite this way.
I’m trying out some new thinking on you, in this sermon.

Prophets, as you probably know,
are typically seen as strange, a bit eccentric,
socially awkward, and even off-putting to others.
They are interested in speaking cold, hard truth,
not in how they come across to others,
or how their listeners respond emotionally.
They often use harsh language,
dress strangely, eat strange food, and live in dark hideaways.
We never picture them as the warm and romantic type.
They are loners, not lovers.

But Isaiah, for some reason,
when searching for the right linguistic form
to communicate with God’s wayward people,
came up with the bright idea of using a love song.

So here we go.
Let’s set the mood.
We already have the candles.
Maybe we should dim the lights, and cue the violins.

Seriously, I hope you hear me out, now.
This is as much of a stretch for me as it is for you.
Like many of you,
I’ve never been very drawn to this stream of spirituality.
I’ve had plenty of charismatic friends over the years
who eat it up,
who sing quasi-romantic praise songs to God as lover.
I’ve been more drawn to the life of the mind,
and to meeting God in nature, in other people, in the arts, etc.
I don’t picture my relationship with God,
as a relationship between lovers.
Yes, I know I am loved by God, but not in that way.
I picture myself being loved more like a parent loves a child.
And it is like that.
We have that metaphor in scripture, often.
And I picture myself being loved
like a creator loves their creation.
That’s also biblical.
But I’m less familiar, and less comfortable, frankly,
with the idea that the love shared between God and me,
could in any way be compared to a pair of human lovers,
or spouses.

I know that idea is out there.
It’s embedded in Christian hymnody.
A well-known hymn from the 1930s—not my favorite—
was made popular by George Beverly Shea.

My God and I go in the field together;
We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.

 It continues . . .
My God and I will go for aye together,
We’ll walk and talk just as good friends do;
This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
But God and I will go unendingly.

Not really my preferred style of music or theology,
but I can’t dismiss it too quickly,
because it’s entirely biblical:
God as a pining lover,
sometimes loved in return,
sometimes jilted by their lover.
It’s a recurring theme in scripture.

We can’t deny it.
So how do we make sense of it?
Hear that? I’m going back to familiar territory—
making sense, being rational.

But let’s think about this love song in Isaiah 5,
and see where it might connect with us today.

God has written this love song using another metaphor—
that of a vineyard.
Like a lot of the best love songs out there,
it’s a sad song.
More than sad, it’s tragic.

So God’s love song tells about Godself
as a farmer tending a vineyard.
God’s lover is the vineyard,
which of course is a symbol, of God’s beloved people.
The song starts out with a dreamy, hopeful vision.
God tilled the soil,
carefully cleared it of stones,
planted the best quality grapevines,
built a tower to keep watch over it,
to chase off any birds or intruders,
carved a beautiful wine vat out of the stone,
everything needed to produce
the choicest and sweetest grapes,
and the finest wine.

The vineyard is picture perfect—a romantic image itself.
But despite all the love God poured out on God’s beloved,
it was unrequited.
It wasn’t returned.
It yielded rotten grapes.
No good for eating.
Worthless for wine.

So like a lot of other love songs,
this one eventually devolves into a breakup song,
reminiscent of Paul Simon’s “50 ways to leave your lover.”
It’s not exactly “slip out the back, Jack, make a new plan, Stan,
no need to be coy, Roy . . .”
but, it’s awfully close.
God the lover says, I’m stepping back,
leaving you to your evil ways.
I won’t forget you. I won’t be far.
But I will no longer actively protect you from yourself.
Literally, it says in Isaiah,
“I will remove its hedge.”
God won’t actively harm God’s people.
God still loves them too much for that.
But God withdraws God’s hand, so to speak,
and let’s nature take over, let’s it return to the wild.
Verse 6: “it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.”

Why did God do this?
What exactly were the rotten grapes?

It’s all explained in verse 7:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are God’s cherished garden.
God expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
expected righteousness, but heard a cry!

Those were the grapes God the lover was after.
That is why God poured out so much love, and time, and effort,
on God’s people.
God gave them everything they needed to produce
what God loves best—justice and righteousness.
But they, as it turned out, did not love as God loved.
They loved themselves more.
They loved what they could accumulate for themselves.
They loved the power they could exert on others.

So instead of a beloved community marked by justice,
righteousness, and the shalom of God,
what actually grew in that garden was violence.
Human oppression and suffering.
God says, “I expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard crying.”

I cannot read a verse like that in the Hebrew Bible,
and not have my mind drawn to what’s happening right now,
in that very same part of the world—
the horrific bloodshed in Gaza, and the endless crying,
and utter destruction,
going on there in the name of God—
as if God is working out God’s purposes.
God’s vineyard is once again, as ever,
being mismanaged, and bearing rotten grapes.
And I have to wonder if God’s response is much the same—
grief, disappointment, weariness with our wicked ways,
and a decision to withdraw God’s hand,
and let come what comes.

And . . . I believe when it comes to vineyards
that God is pouring love into—
tilling the soil, carting out stones, planting vines, etc—
those vineyards are not just in and around Jerusalem.
God is singing a love song for vineyards all over the world.
These vineyards are in our own backyard.
God loves good grapes of justice and righteousness,
wherever they may grow,
and gives us everything we need to produce them.

We frequently misunderstand where God the lover has invested,
where God’s passion lies.

Take a scripture like Isaiah 11, also read this morning, where it says,
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.”
We read this, and rightly so, as a sort of Messianic foretelling.
But what kind of shoot is this? What kind of Messiah?
verse 4: “With righteousness he shall judge for the poor
and decide with equity for the oppressed of the earth;
“Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.”

The shoot that comes out of Jesse’s root,
is not about the biological connection to David’s line.
It is describing the sort of life that will spring up
where the old had been.
It is a life that pursues justice, equity, and righteousness.

God is all about establishing relationships with people
who love righteousness and justice as much as God does.
God does not want to extend a pure bloodline based on genetics,
with those descended from Abraham or King David
or Menno Simons, or from anyone else.
God does not want to establish a pure people
who engage in all the proper rituals and religious rites,
or recite perfectly-worded creedal formulas,
or speak, think, and believe all the right things.

No! God wants lovers.
God wants worshipers.
God wants devotees,
people who are utterly smitten,
who have fallen in love,
who are attracted by everything that smells of God.
God wants an exclusive monogamous covenantal commitment
to God’s priorities in this world.
God wants to be in a relationship with
those who love justice and righteousness.

Sorry if that sounds too romantic for your taste.
But this is biblical reality.
God is love.
God loves us.
And we are invited to love God back,
with the same passion that God pours out on us.
If we are filled with that kind of love,
we will share God’s passion for the well-being of all,
we will protect the vulnerable,
we will care for the poor and the small and the wounded,
we will grieve what God grieves,
and we will rejoice in that which brings God joy.

Like any significant romantic partnership,
the romance may ebb and flow.
We will go through rough patches.
It requires effort on our part to maintain closeness.
We must learn to forgive ourselves, and—dare I even say it—
forgive God.
Or at least, forgive the God we thought we knew,
when God’s perceived actions don’t quite line up
with what we expected or hoped for.

But like any good relationship, we persist.
We respect what God has poured into us, and into our vineyard,
and produce fruit accordingly.
The more we cultivate our love for God,
the more likely our lives will be characterized,
by loving what God loves;
the more likely that we will be ignited with a passion 
for the same things God is passionate about.

Join me, if you are willing, in the prayer of confession,
in your bulletin and on the screens.

one God, who sings an endless love song 
to us and to all your creation,
all we confess we often neglect to listen for your song,
one we forget the words, and cannot recall the tune,
we get lost in vain efforts to earn your approval.
all Still, you keep singing your love for us,
one in the voices of nature, in the tongues of diverse peoples,
in the poetry and prose of scripture.
all God, help us to hear. We will listen, and we will sing back to you.
one The God who made us and loves us,
and who loves righteousness and justice,
accepts our confession, forgives us,
and the love song goes on, and on, and on.

—Phil Kniss, November 19, 2023

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Sunday, November 12, 2023

Paula Stoltzfus: Divine tenderness

God's tender parenting
AND GOD SAW... stories of God seeing and acting in Hebrew Scripture
Hosea 11:1-9; Mark 10:13-14

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Sunday, November 5, 2023

Phil Kniss: Accompanied by love

You are not alone
AND GOD SAW... stories of God seeing and acting in Hebrew Scripture
1 Kings 18:17-39; Mark 9:2-4

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I’ll let know right off the bat,
I will not do justice to this text from 1 Kings today.
For a couple of good reasons,
not the least of which is my shoulder surgery four days ago,
and the happy pills I’ve been taking to ward off the pain.
Seriously, my recovery is going pretty well so far,
and I thank you for your prayers
and expressions of support.

But even without this,
I would have left many aspects of this story untouched.
Because today has its own agenda.
This is a special day in our yearly rhythm at Park View.
Some have told me (and I may have said so myself at times)
that they look forward to this service more than any other.
I think that’s because it touches a very deep part of us.
It doesn’t mess around with the superficial,
It goes straight to the core of the human experience—
the reality of the loss of people we love;
the harrowing experience of being left alone, left behind,
left without the sustaining physical presence
and unconditional love
of people who made our lives so full and meaningful.
Obviously, many close relationships
also have complications and pain that go along with
the love and support we may also experience.

Now, after the loss of a loved one, none of us are left entirely alone.
Most of us have some people in our lives
that add light and life to our daily existence,
while at the same time, our loss is real, and deep,
and sometimes even devastating.
And it never fully goes away.

Whether our loss was a spouse, a parent, a child,
or some other person important to our wellbeing,
the bottom line is, if we have lost a beloved life traveler,
we have experienced the deep pain of feeling alone in this world.

There is no feeling more painful, and more common,
than that of feeling alone.

So it’s with that in mind that I read this fantastic story
of Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
I could touch on many things in this story.

This is a particular genre of story—a “hero story,”
of which there are many in ancient and modern literature,
and numerous ones in the Bible—
stories intended to reinforce the legitimacy of an important figure,
because they could do amazing things that others could not.

I also could talk about how the northern Kingdom of Israel
became dominated by a pagan religious framework
where the god Baal was dominant,
and where Yahweh,
the God who loved them and delivered them from slavery,
was pushed to the background and nearly forgotten.

I could talk about Elijah’s penchant for complaining and moping,
when the chips were down.
We could ponder why he needed to prove himself, and prove his god,
and whether jealousy might have played a part
in this showdown at the altar with the prophets of Baal.

Or…most provocatively,
we could talk about Elijah’s troubling act of revenge.
Now our assigned reading today stopped at verse 39,
where the crowd of onlookers fell down in repentance
proclaiming Yahweh as the true God.
No question as to why it stopped there.
Because in the very next words, in v. 40,
Elijah tells these repentant people,
to immediately take all 450 prophets of Baal into custody,
and then (and I quote directly from v. 41)
“Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon
and killed them there.”

Wouldn’t you like to have me try to make a Gospel message out of that?
I’m just naming the complexity of this story,
because I want you to know that I know it’s there.
Maybe someday we can explore how to read stories like this.

 But right now, because of what day this is,
I’m going to simplify by lifting out just one aspect of this story.
Like most stories in the Bible,
there are multiple things going on,
and multiple ways we can learn from them.
And sometimes, the simplest lesson is the one we most need.

If All Saints Day is a time for us to name our loss,
to acknowledge the pain of feeling alone in the world,
and to celebrate the joy of discovering there is life beyond loss,
and there is community beyond isolation,
then this story of Elijah is not a bad place to start.

Elijah, like many of us,
struggled with feelings of loneliness, isolation, grief, and loss.
Sometimes, he did not act out of his best self,
I think we could agree.
His job as a prophet,
under the reign of the brutal and idolatrous and egotistical
and vengeful King Ahab
was not an easy calling.
He spent a lot of his time in hiding.

As we stumble along our own grief journeys,
we also occasionally struggle to act our of our best selves.
Sometimes we just do the best we can
to put one foot in front of another,
and decide to love and accept ourselves exactly where we are.

But in the end, this message of God to Elijah,
is the message that keeps coming back to us, as well.

It’s a message we so desperately need to hear, again today.
“You are not alone”

You are being accompanied.
Accompanied by love.
Accompanied by God.
Accompanied by your people, your family –
whether biological or otherwise.
And sometimes, accompanied by strangers.

I’m grateful for the gift of scripture that keeps repeating that message,
over and over again,
spanning all times, and places, and circumstances.
We are not alone.

All Saints Day is essentially a day to remind ourselves of that message.
We are not alone.
There is a whole communion of saints that have gone before us.
There is even a community of redeemed scoundrels
that have gone before us, and encourage us in their own way.
We are not alone in our present.
And our past has not entirely left us either.
We are still being actively shaped and formed,
by the character of relationships of those who have died.

As of this All Saints Day, 279 people have died
while associated with Park View Mennonite Church.
In significant ways, they have shaped who we have become
as a church,
and they have shaped many of our lives, individually.

The names of all 279 are before us today.
They are printed in your bulletin,
and we invited you to scan the list,
and reflect on those you knew.
In addition,
photos and narratives of each of their lives,
are in the four memory books you’ll find in the foyer today,
and for the next several weeks.
Take time to browse them now,
or sit down with them later in the church library
where they reside the rest of the year.

Our ritual of remembrance today has several stages.
First, we will remember, and name aloud,
11 persons who died since All Saints Sunday last November,
including one just three days ago.
Their photos are on the front table today as an added reminder.
Then the choir will share with us a beautiful and moving song
by John Bell, “The Last Journey.”
Then all will be invited to make your way forward
for candlelighting and communion.
Instructions for that will follow.

Let us now hear the names of those who died in the last year.
You may read in unison the bold print of the scripture,
as you see it projected on the screen.

We remember with thanksgiving those from this congregation whom we have entrusted to God and who now rest from their labors.

Virginia Anne Redhead Bethune (Jan 3, 1936 – November 16, 2022)
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long. Psalms 23:6

Vira Gladys Miller Hershberger (Jan 12, 1922 – November 23, 2022)
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:54, 57

Aaron Donald Augsburger (December 21, 1925 – November 27, 2022)
If God is for us, who is against us?
For I am convinced that nothing will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:31, 38-39

LaVerne Ruth Zehr Yoder (August 26, 1938 – December 14, 2022)
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God. Job 19:25-26

Carol Darlene Gaeddert Burkhart (Sept. 15, 1933 – January 28, 2023)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us run with perseverance the race before us.  Hebrews 12:1

Samuel Horton Weaver (May 1, 1930 – February 17, 2023)
Even though our outer nature is wasting away,
our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 2 Corinthians 4:16
Luke Mummau Drescher (July 31, 1935 – March 4, 2023)
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Matthew 5:4, 8

Marian Chapin Jameson (December 17, 1931 - May 1, 2023)
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. Rom 14:7-8

Frederick Thomas Barner, III (August 9, 1936 – August 17, 2023)
He will guide them to springs of the water of life,
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Revelation 7:17

Maribeth Messner Kreider (November 1, 1940 – September 11, 2023)
I will come again and will take you to myself,
so that where I am, there you may be also. John 14:3

Abraham Davis (May 14, 1923 – November 2, 2023)
I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, 
even though they die, will live;
And everyone who lives and believes in me
will never die. John 11:25-26

—Phil Kniss, November 5, 2023

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Sunday, October 29, 2023

Phil Kniss: Insecuritocracy

Power and servanthood
AND GOD SAW... stories of God seeing and acting in Hebrew Scripture
1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29; Mark 10:42-45

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I rarely have to think too hard
to find a way to let the scriptures of the week,
speak to the issues of the day.
This Sunday was no exception,
as we come to another story
in our narrative journey through the Hebrew Bible.

Here in 1 Kings 12 we have two rulers vying for power,
seeking to strengthen their influence,
consolidate their power,
and maximize their ability to control outcomes—
for themselves and the people they rule over.

Hmmm. Wonder if there’s anything like that,
going on in the world today?
Anything in our U.S. House of Representatives, for instance?
Or anything in the various divided branches
of our Federal Government?
Or anything in the Middle East?
Or in Eastern Europe?
Or in Asia?
Or . . . in our local communities, our churches,
our families,
our personal relationships?

Now, before I go further,
some of you may be skeptical about my one-word sermon title.
I know my spell-checker didn’t like it.
Because I completely made up the word.
Sometimes, when the right word doesn’t exist,
you just have to create one.

You’ve heard of other “ocracies.”
The Latin ending, C-R-A-C-Y, means “rule.”
A democracy is rule by the people.
An aristocracy is rule by the elite.
An autocracy is rule by a self-absorbed dictator.
A plutocracy is rule by those with wealth.
A bureaucracy is rule by a bureau, or office, or agency.
A theocracy is rule by a divine being.

So, naturally, an insecuritocracy
is when someone rules by their own insecurities.

That’s my new word. Start using it.
Spread it around on the internet.
Google will learn it.
The Oxford English Dictionary will pick it up,
and I will be remembered and significant!
I will have left a linguistic legacy.
Now, what I just did, was demonstrate
the anxious mindset of an insecuritocracy,
the fear of being insignificant, or of being forgotten,
or of losing power and influence.

At first, after I read through
this story about King Rehoboam,
and his new rival in the north, Jeroboam,
I asked myself,
what in the world is there to say, today,
about this messed up biblical monarchy?

And then I began noticing things that looked all too familiar.
The continual insecurity of people in power.
And I began to think, maybe that’s what God saw,
when God looked on these beloved people,
these people who begged God for a King,
and to whom God finally relented, and gave a king,
despite the dire warnings God gave them.

God looked on God’s people,
and God saw a people who had not yet learned to trust,
and to rest in God’s provisions.
Most of all, God saw kings who did not know how to trust,
how to be humble, how to be open and receptive,
how to believe God would provide all that is needed.

And as I saw what God saw,
I started seeing this same tendency in me,
and in just about every human being I know.
And I saw it in just about every politician,
and head of state,
in our world today.

No matter what the form of government,
insecuritocracy finds a foothold,
and begins to take over the decision-making process.
Instead of leading as servants of the people,
as servants of the health and well-being of all people,
they lead as protectors of their power and influence,
they lead out of fear of losing their next election,
or losing whatever gave them power to begin with.

So before we look at this story of Rehoboam and Jeroboam,
Let’s look at the back-story just a bit.

Who were Rehoboam and Jeroboam?

Rehoboam was the son of King Solomon.
Solomon was the son of King David,
the Giving and Grasping King,
that we heard about last Sunday from Lynn Jost.
Solomon turned out to also be a grasping King—
even more so than his father David.

Now, Jeroboam was a servant of Solomon,
not a son or heir to the throne.
But late in Solomon’s reign, things went off the rails.
Solomon was worshiping foreign gods,
he was cruel to his subjects,
and Yahweh was not pleased.
So a prophet met the servant Jeroboam on the road,
claiming to be a prophet of Yahweh,
told Jeroboam he would be given
10 of tribes of Israel to rule over as king.
While Rehoboam, would get only one—Judah,
the region of Jerusalem,
and that was only so God could keep a promise
to the descendants of David.
Word got back to Solomon about this,
so he tried to kill Jeroboam, and squash this rebellion.
So Jeroboam fled to Egypt for safety.

So, Solomon dies. And then today’s story.

Rehoboam sets up his throne in Judah, to rule all of Israel.
But people friendly to Jeroboam fetch him in Egypt.
Jeroboam and company show up on Rehoboam’s doorstep,
and beg Rehoboam to shift course,
to not rule Israel with the heavy hand of his father Solomon.
They promise, in exchange for his kindness,
that they will serve him loyally.

Rehoboam takes three days to think about it,
consulting with his young advisors,
who told him, don’t lighten the load, make it heavier.
And since Rehoboam was ruling by his own insecurity,
and apparently also had insecure advisors,
he took their advice to clamp down even harder.

Jeroboam’s group returned for their answer, and Rehoboam said,
I’m going to make my father’s yoke heavier than it was.
He disciplined you with whips.
I’ll use scorpions.

So Jeroboam and his followers basically checked out.
They said, we don’t need any part of David and his clan.
So they scattered around the north region,
and lived as an independent nation,
with Jeroboam as king,
ignoring Judah and the house of David.

But as time went on, Jeroboam’s own insecurity got the best of him.
He was afraid that the people of his ten small tribes,
would start drifting down toward the big and powerful Judah,
that Jerusalem and the Temple there would be a magnet,
and they would forsake him and be loyal to Rehoboam.
So, ruling by insecuritocracy,
he set up rival places of worship,
and put up golden calves in Dan and Bethel,
built little temples around them,
established festivals, appointed priests.

Our story ends there, for today.
But follow the stories of both these kingdoms—
North and South—
and you’ll see the same pattern repeat itself.
Worried and anxious about losing their power,
they fail to trust in Yahweh,
and instead put their trust in wealth,
in military strength,
in unholy alliances,
and they continue to live out their destiny
to be insecuritocracies,
continually grasping for control.

Today, we may feel quite justified, and actually, we are,
when we point fingers at political dysfunction in our own country,
and at the unnecessary wars all over the world,
between people who should act like kin to each other,
but instead are trying to establish control
by killing their adversaries.
It is senseless. It is tragic.
And we are rightly enraged.

And . . . not BUT . . . AND . . .
we have within us the very same seeds of insecurity,
which cause us, when push comes to shove,
to not trust in God’s love and provision,
and instead try to coerce others to bend to our will and way.

Sure, within us, it seems like small potatoes,
when compared against the likes of Rehoboam and Jeroboam,
and the 200 years of an international family feud they started,
or when compared to the horrific violence perpetrated
by modern nation-states motivated by anxiety and insecurity.

But let’s be honest about ourselves.
We will make better war resisters—
we will make better, and more ethical and more human
advocates for justice and peace,
if we, first of all, steadfastly refuse to dehumanize any
of today’s perpetrators of injustice and violence,
and secondly, recognize and confess the seeds of violence
that lie within us all.
Like us, these kings and princes and presidents and prime ministers
are anxious about losing control.
They are fearful of being insignificant or forgotten.

Let us turn toward God and toward each other,
in a renewal of mutual trust,
in mutual respect,
and in shared risk.
By confessing our inadequacy, our need, our sin,
we may yet make this world a better place,
as we follow the God we have learned to know in Jesus.

Join with me, please, in this prayer of confession

one God of all nations, God of all rulers of nations,
We acknowledge your providence over all people and creation.
all Our lives are in your hands. We are called to rest in you.
one Yet we often find ourselves anxious and insecure.
We use the power we have to shore up our own interests.
We defend ourselves against insignificance, 
against loss of status, wealth, or position.
all And in so doing, 
we betray our mistrust in You, God of Enough,
who loves and provides for all people and creation.
one We see this, 
not only in the manner by which many of our leaders
wield their power in high places. We see this in ourselves.
all Forgive us.
one God receives our prayers. Loves us unconditionally. 
Invites us to a new way of being together in mutual love, trust, and freedom.

—Phil Kniss, October 29, 2023

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Sunday, October 22, 2023

Lynn Jost: Giving David, Grasping David

A Shepherd for the people
AND GOD SAW... stories of God seeing and acting in Hebrew Scripture
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 6:1-5; Psalm 150; Mark 11:8-10

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

About our guest preacher: Lynn Jost is uniquely qualified to preach on this text about King David, as an Old Testament professor with a PhD in preaching and Hebrew Bible from  Vanderbilt, and the author of the Kings volume of the Believers Church Commentary by  Herald Press. He is currently Professor of Old Testament at Fresno Pacific University, and a member (and moderator) of Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Fresno, CA, part of Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference of MC USA. Lynn prepared this sermon specifically for us, and our worship series. But since he resides in California, he comes to us by way of video.

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Sunday, October 15, 2023

Phil Kniss: Between cloud and ground

Search for solid ground
AND GOD SAW... stories of God seeing and acting in Hebrew Scripture
Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9; Mark 12:28-31

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file [click here]

...or read it online here: 

Reading the book of Deuteronomy
can give you a sense of deja vu.
“Ah . . . we’ve been here before!”
Stories get retold in this book,
stories we heard in the four books before this one—
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
Repetition is even embedded in the name.
Deuteronomy means “second law,” or “copy of the law.”

But it’s not repetition for its own sake.
Stories are retold with a purpose.
The content has different origins and authors,
but this book is intentionally framed a certain way.
It’s framed as a series of sermons by Moses—
the one who led them out of slavery in Egypt,
and who then helped them endure
40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
These sermons come near the end of the 40 years.
Soon they will be crossing over into the promised land.
These long speeches retell the stories of the Exodus,
in order to reinforce the people’s identity—
an identity that’s still in its infancy.
They barely know who they are, and who their God is.
Therefore, they need to hear it again. And again and again.

Moses retells the first leg of their journey,
when they followed a pillar of cloud during the day,
and a pillar of fire at night,
as God, Yahweh, moved on ahead, showing the way.
He reminds them of their episodes of rebellion,
and God’s forgiveness and restoration.
Most importantly, he reminds them of their time at Mt. Sinai,
where Yahweh graciously gave them
what they needed most for life—the Law. The Torah.

And this brings me to the title of my sermon—
“Between cloud and ground.”
A full and meaningful life of faith,
needs both cloud and ground.
Especially when wandering in a wilderness,
we need cloud and ground.
And here’s what I mean.

Ground is mostly solid and predictable and, well, grounding.
Cloud is kind of the opposite of ground.
A cloud, by nature, is temporal.
It is shape-shifting.
It is always on the move.
It is impossible to capture and control.
While the people were wandering in the wilderness,
God came to them in a cloud, by day.
And by night, a cloud of fire, you might say.
Or a “pillar” of cloud and fire.
What was most needed at that point in time,
in the life of the people of Israel,
was to keep them on the move, and in the right direction.
See, there was this strong magnetic force,
trying to pull them back to Egypt.
Yes, there was oppression and slavery there.
But there was also a reliable source
of food and water and shelter.
And if you’re hungry and thirsty and exposed to the elements,
that kind of predictability can pull pretty hard.

So God saw . . . and gave them what they most needed.
God came as a cloud, and led them forward, instead of backward.

But after a long while of wandering, of pulling up stakes,
and moving on to the next place, time after time after time,
they were in need of some solid ground.

So God saw . . . and gave them what they needed then,
the Law, to ground them.

We misread the NT words of Jesus, and the words of Paul—
as being entirely negative toward the law.
As if the law is bad, but grace is good.
But neither Jesus nor Paul threw out the Law.
They only put it in perspective.

For Jesus and Paul then,
and for Jews everywhere, to this day,
the Law has always been a gift, a gracious provision of God.
It’s a reminder of who we are.
It helps us never lose sight of home.
It keeps our feet from slipping out from under us,
whenever the earth is shaking.

We live in the space between cloud and ground.
We need God coming to us as cloud,
whenever we are tempted to go back to a life
that is less than what God made us for.
And we need God coming to us as ground,
in gracious words that ground us, center us, locate us,
whenever we find ourselves unmoored, adrift,
wondering if the future holds anything life-giving.

The “10 Commandments” is just another example
of why we need to read our Bible in its context.
It’s just way too easy to pull something out of scripture,
and make it a plaque on the wall.
A motto.
A saying.
Something to argue about and take people to court over.
The way some have taken the Ten Commandments to court,
and sued over whether they belong on government property
or not.
I really don’t care much where they get publicly displayed.
I care more about whether the people whose scripture this is,
take to heart the whole story,
and promote the kind of relationship with God,
and with other people,
that the commandments speak of.

I suppose you know, that the Hebrew Bible—
scripture for Jews and for Christians—
includes, twice, what we call the Ten Commandments.
Earlier, in Exodus 20, and again here, in Deuteronomy 5.
And there’s another list in Exodus 34,
also called Ten Commandments,
but that list has more to do with ritual law and worship.
But did you know that the Koran also refers
to Moses and the Ten Commandments in a positive light?
and restates most of these commandments
in various places throughout the Koran?

In other words, there is some consistency here,
across religious traditions,
that value these words as grounding words.
These words deserve our respectful engagement, and obedience.

But let’s not forget—they are not just a cold list of rules to follow.
They came from a God who saw . . .
who saw a people who were in danger of becoming
untethered, unmoored, adrift in a wilderness.
So God came to them and gave them what they needed.
This law is grace.

Instead of reading them as rules,
let’s read them as the gracious gift they are,
given by a God who sees our need, and who responds in love.
“You shall have no other gods before me . . . ” and
“You shall not make for yourself an idol,”
means that God frees us from a life
of being pulled in opposite directions.
“You shall not make wrongful use
of the name of the Lord your God”
means we need not be bogged down by the trivial and profane,
but get to bask in the beauty of the sacred.
“Observe the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,”
means we don’t have to be bound by compulsive busyness
and constant work, and anxious accumulation, thank God!
“Honor your father and your mother,”
means we get to stay connected to our roots,
and draw deep nourishment from them.
“You shall not murder,”
means—thank God—we don’t have to be caught
in the death-trap of escalating violence,
that’s getting played out all over the world.
“You shall not commit adultery,”
means we can have security and commitment
in our most intimate human relationships.
“You shall not steal,
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,
You shall not covet your neighbor’s property,”
all mean that 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 Words, or Ten Commandments,
came from a God who saw a people
that needed the kind of grounding these words provide—
words that help us live well
in this space between cloud and ground.

Yes, we are a people open to change, to new direction,
to the wind of the Spirit,
to the next place God wishes to take us.
And we are people who nevertheless have our feet on the ground,
who know who we are,
who we belong to,
and where, ultimately, we are headed.

Join me in these words of confession . . .
one From all our fears that burden and paralyze us,
  all God of cloud and fire, free us and nudge us forward.
one From all that keeps us from moving forward with you,
  all God of cloud and fire, liberate us, and lead us.
one But when we find ourselves unmoored and adrift,
  all God of the Covenant, ground us by your grace.
one When we have lost sight of home,
  all God of the Covenant, remind us of who we are.
one The God of cloud and fire, of grace and grounding,
Loves us unconditionally, and promises to be with us 
always, to the end of the age.

—Phil Kniss, October 15, 2023

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