Sunday, March 12, 2023

Phil Kniss: The terrible parable

Lent 3: Jesus reveals the costly grace of God’s realm
Matthew 22:1-14

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Today’s parable is a perfect example of why we need to consider
context when approaching scripture.
It’s dangerous NOT to.
It can lead not only to faulty interpretation,
but to tragic real-life outcomes.

Take Matthew’s version of the parable of the wedding banquet,
pull it out of its narrative context and its political context,
read it as an isolated parable,
and you will find one of the strangest, and most violent,
and most off-putting stories of Jesus in the Gospels.
Out of context, it’s a terrible parable.

When reading it out of context,
people looking for justification of violence, can find it here.
And well-meaning gentle readers
will try to make it tamer than what it actually is.
They will bend over double
to find a non-violent way to read it.
But they will fail, because it can’t be done.
Or, they will totally avoid it,
and turn instead to Luke’s version of the Great Banquet story.
That one has no violence.
The worst that happened in Luke,
is some people missed out on a fine banquet.
Nobody got tortured and killed.
No cities got burned.
And no one, due to wearing the wrong outfit
got bound hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness,
where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I know if I was told to preach a banquet parable,
and was given a choice between Matthew 22 and Luke 14,
I would not be preaching from today’s Gospel.
But today I don’t have a choice.
Thanks a lot, Narrative Lectionary!
No, really! Thank you.
Because I have had to wrestle honestly with this story
to preach from this text for the . . . (count on fingers)
first time . . . ever.

Okay, let’s review the basic elements of this terrible parable.
The king’s son, the prince and heir to the throne we assume,
was getting married, and that’s a big deal.
The king sent his servants out with invites
to everyone who deserved to be at the royal wedding banquet.
Listen, they are being invited to dine with their future king.
But every last one refused, it tells us in v. 3.

So the servants went out again, to do a better sell-job, v. 4.
They said, look, there’s going to be food galore!
Freshly-butchered local beef.
Fattened calves. The works! It’ll be great!

This time, half the invitees laughed in the face of the servants,
and went back to work on their farm, or place of business.
The other half responded in a violent rage,
first torturing, then killing the innocent messengers.

In retribution, the king marshalled his army,
killed all the people who refused his invitation,
and then burned their city to the ground.

And then they went on with their merry banquet.
Inviting everyone they could still find . . . alive—
good and bad—Matthew says, v. 10.
And they filled the hall.

But when the king walked in,
he saw one guest not wearing the proper wedding robe,
and when confronted, the man had no answer,
so the king had him bound hand and foot,
outer darkness, weeping, teeth-gnashing, all that.

Cool story, huh?
This parable is not just terrible. It’s unbearable.

So, this is the Gospel of Matthew.
Where is the Gospel word here?
Where is the good news?

You can see what I mean,
it’s pretty hard to ignore the violence,
and pretend this story is only about the wonderful news
that all are invited to the great banquet—
every race and nation.

Nope. Sorry. That’s the way Luke tells the story.
Matthew clearly has a different agenda in mind
in repeating Jesus’ story in his Gospel.

There is some serious judgment going on here.

Which brings us again to the context,
to which we keep circling back in this series.
We are working within the widely-held scholarly view
that the Gospel of Matthew was written first
for the community of Jewish Jesus followers in Antioch,
around 70 AD, near the time when Caesar’s army
laid siege and laid waste to their holy city of Jerusalem,
leaving the temple in a pile of rubble,
and killing up to one million Jewish people.

So stop and think about that for a minute.
You and your family are of a race and a religion
that the Empire is trying to crush, to obliterate.
This is the Empire that, just a few years ago,
succeeded in destroying
every treasured and holy place of your people,
and massacred great numbers of your own relatives—
aunts, uncles, cousins—
the very people you used to look forward to visiting,
and eating at their tables,
and sleeping in their homes,
every time you went to Jerusalem for Passover.
They are now dead.
And the temple doesn’t exist.

This is the Empire that rules Antioch, your home town.
Most of your neighbors are loyal and supportive
Roman citizens of this Empire.
To make matters even worse,
the only people in town you could actually talk to
about your trauma and loss and continuing fears
are your fellow Jews.
And your Jewish community has divided against itself,
because of the growing movement
of those, like you, who say Jesus was the Messiah.
That division has hardened, on both sides,
to the point you are no longer part of a movement within,
but a group separated from the synagogue.

YOU . . . are the ones to whom Matthew is writing the Gospel of Jesus.

Friends, understanding that context makes all the difference.
It puts the violence in this parable into some perspective.
A story of a king’s army killing the enemy and burning their cities,
is not just a terrible parable—it is lived reality.
The Antiochan Christians, and their loved ones,
have been at the sharp end of the King’s sword.

It is a mistake to read this parable as if Matthew wants all people,
everywhere, and at all times,
to picture God in heaven as violent and vengeful and bloodthirsty.
That might seem like the straightest reading of this story.
But we live in relative peace and freedom,
We experience faith as a pleasant add-on to life,
instead of central to an identity that might get us killed.

Matthew’s readers were in a unique position to hear this story,
and to see the king as a symbol of justice
against all who had a hand in getting Jesus killed,
and who continue to oppress them today.

The church in Antioch could hear this parable,
and see themselves, finally,
as not just a helpless and hapless minority community,
but as the unlikely people who have just been invited
to the King’s Table to dine in luxury.
That tables have been turned.
Those who rejected Jesus,
or stood in the way of Jesus,
or, like the Roman Empire, crucified Jesus—
have had the tables turned on them.
They are missing out on the meal.
They have been consigned to the outer darkness.

But those who accepted the invitation
to the Messianic wedding banquet—
they are . . . finally . . . safe, secure, well-fed.

This is, in fact, a good news story for people of faith
who have experienced oppression
who have been silenced,
who have been pushed away from the table . . .
but are now the honored guests at the king’s table.

Okay . . . But then, what about this unfortunate guest
who came to the banquet in the wrong clothes?

Like the other parts of this story,
it’s a metaphor.
It’s not meant to teach us how to treat our guests.

Again, put yourself in the shoes of Antiochan Christians.
You would have been well aware
of the apostle Paul’s life and letters.
Paul spent time with you there in Antioch.
And Paul’s letters came earlier
than the compiling of this Gospel.
So by the time you heard this parable for the first time,
you already knew all about Paul’s talk of
clothing yourselves in Christ.
And you would have been quite familiar
with the practice of caution and secrecy
that Christians in the Empire adopted to survive.
As a threatened community,
you always had to be on the lookout for infiltrators,
maybe Roman spies, or your own townspeople,
people who pretended to be one of you,
to gather intelligence to be used against you.
So you had to develop secret symbols, like the shape of the fish,
or other means of telling true disciples from false.

So this story tells about a guest who came without proper attire.
You’d get this metaphor without having it explained to you.
Here is someone only pretending to be on the side
of those sitting at the Messianic banquet.
But he is not actually clothed in Christ.
And he was found out.
And had no credible answer for himself.
And the bouncer threw him out, rightly so.

You see,
we usually read this parable from our place of comfort and security,
and as people who tend to see faith
as something that’s convenient for us,
that enhances our social connections,
rather than as something that endangers us,
or turns our lives upside down.

When we read this story properly,
it can still be good news for us all,
that is, if we take our faith seriously.

It tells us
that our trust in Jesus is worth something!
It’s worth investing in,
worth taking risks for,
worth taking unpopular stands for,
worth even dying for, if it ever came to that.

It tells us that the God of justice will fight for us,
and for others whose lives are threatened.
We need not cower in the shadows.
We can live in the light of Jesus.

And it proclaims the good news, after all,
that everyone—everyone—who says yes to God’s broad invitation
is welcome at the banquet,
when they come in good faith.

Thanks be to God.

In response, let’s read a confession together in unison.
It will be on the screens, as well as in Voices Together, 908.

It’s a prayer written by Jan Richardson,
expressing our trust in a God who will work with us,
even those caught in a quagmire of violence,
in a world that is broken and frayed.

It’s both a prayer for God to intervene with justice and healing,
as well as a statement of confidence that God will do just that.

Let’s read it in unison, poetically, with an ever-so-slight pause
at the end of each line.

From all that is broken,
let there be beauty.
From what is torn, jagged,
ripped, frayed,
let there be
not just mendings
but meetings unimagined.
May the God in whom
nothing is wasted
gather up every scrap,
every shred and shard,
and make of them
new paths,
Jan Richardson (USA), © 2010

—Phil Kniss, March 11, 2023

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Sunday, March 5, 2023

Paula Stoltzfus: God's Economy of Grace

Jesus reveals the upside-down realm of God
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 16: 5-8; Matthew 20: 1-16

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I don’t know about you but depending on where my own barometer of justice is on a given day, and whether I’m listening either with my head or heart, I have varied responses to this story.  I can vacillate from bafflement to anger to awe.

But first, let’s remind ourselves that this book, the Gospel of Matthew was written to the Jewish community in Antioch around 70AD.  The Jesus followers within the Jewish community of Antioch were facing great complexity.  They would have grappling with the reality that the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, just south of Antioch.  They also were trying to figure out life together, between those who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those who did not.  Fractures were developing in their community of faith. If you had been there you may have heard conversations or rather debates of who was in God’s favor.

In the beginning part of the Gospel of Matthew there was a case being made to prove to the community that Jesus was the Messiah. Last week and this we are interacting with Jesus’ teachings which describe God’s kingdom which is upside-down from what the community was practicing.

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” is the last sentence of our Gospel reading today, which depicts this upside-down message. It is not only here but is also at the end of the story that precedes this one.

If you have your Bibles you can peek right before this text and see the story of the Rich Young Man who comes to Jesus and directly asks what will get him eternal life?  Jesus ultimately says, sell all your possessions and follow me.  It was hard for this man to follow through with Jesus’ invitation and he went away grieving.  

Jesus goes on to describe a new kind of economy where possessions and riches are not valued as highly as following Jesus’ ways. And so we hear in the last sentence, “but many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Jesus proceeds to paint a picture, in our text today, of the kingdom of heaven where God is the landowner, hiring out work. It reveals God’s approach to God’s economy operating on grace, where everyone is given the same regardless of the number of hours worked.

It is easy to enter through the mind’s eye in which the sense of injustice is present. For this business model doesn’t calculate evenly. The business plan is not balanced and perhaps fringes on reckless. So it quickly becomes obvious that the landowner/God is not interested in it appearing fair or even responsible.

But this story is as much about God as it is in how it reveals our human predicament. We want order in life and in that order there is to be fairness.  People have built ideas of what makes one more valued over another, whether it is money, race, gender, sexuality, age, or skill set.  Sometimes it is based on perceived effort or expectation.

Our for order comes with the greatest of intentions (I hope) and indeed is needed in some instances, but falters in God’s economy.   

God’s economy is completely different. It works on different commodities, that of grace and love.  It also works from the platform of abundance. Everyone is viewed and treated the same. The kingdom of God honors everyone!

Unlike the community in Antioch (and perhaps our own world today), the accumulation of wealth is not what affords one into God’s kingdom.  The hardest worker who puts in the greatest number of hours is not what gets a valued member’s pass. Years of sacrificial service doesn’t get one first in line. The correct genealogy won’t give one a free pass into God’s kingdom.

Does it make you a little uncomfortable?  It will most of us.  I’ve worked really hard to do the right things in life, be responsible, learn and grow to be a valued member of the church and society. Many of you have too. Is that not worth anything?

It is a truth we need to face that no one of us is worthier, more righteous, or more deserving than anyone else.

In order to even begin to understand this, it calls us to dig into the story at a deeper soul level. It cannot be contained solely in our heads. This extravagant generosity of grace and love goes beyond what we can comprehend unless…unless we have personally received a measure of this generosity of grace.

It is in receiving grace (especially when undeserved) that we can begin to appreciate the gift and freedom of God's economy.

I happened to listen to a Brene Brown podcast this past week in which, unbeknownst to me, she opened with this parable. In the conversation the question was raised, how would we, the readers, feel if we knew the workers were all doing the best that they could? Because she too was recognizing that viewing the parable from our head was not allowing the deeper reflection.

This question begins to view the workers through the lenses of grace.

What if the worker hired at midday didn’t make it to the first hiring because they were helping their neighbor with a farm chore because the neighbor was sick?

What if the worker hired at the end of the day was taking care of their dying loved one and had a hard time getting out the door?

What if all the workers that were hired at varying points of the day were doing the best that they could with the circumstances around them?

It is all too easy to pass judgment on what we perceive but do not know. It is easy to get angry when life is unfair.  It is easy to justify holding resentment when others have an easier road than we ourselves do.

These are all real temptations.

What if we embraced Jesus’ depiction of grace in the kingdom?

  • A place where you are honored for who you are and what you bring, just as you are. 
  • A place where you are believed that you are doing the best that you can with what you have. 
  • A place where you trust that others are doing the best that they can with what they have.

We don’t know everyone’s story, family, background, and experience.  I have been a part of two seminars within the last 6 months that have identified that nearly half of children and around 70% of adults have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives.  And one of the seminars, the pandemic itself was named as a potential prolonged trauma, depending on one’s previous history.  

Our response in the church often has been to try harder, have more faith, or pray harder and longer, all which perhaps come from a noble place, but an approach that tends to shame, blame, and guilt ourselves and others.

God seems to have another way, that of grace. A way of meeting each of us by accepting who we are with what we have. God meets us with grace that accepts that we are doing the best that we can at any given moment.

What a gift. It is our choice to be present, orient ourselves to God, self reflect, and receive this gift.

It is in this spirit that you are invited to enter into communion today, confessing and acknowledging that we come as we are and not whom we think we should be. We come as Jesus receives us, doing the best we can. God’s grace is plentiful and for all.

Join me in prayer:

God of mystery and wonder, at this and every table, you dissolve the distance between the ordinary and the holy; you break the barrier separating the common and the sacred.  We thank you for this thin palace, this holy space, this well of grace. Amen                             (VT 948)

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Sunday, February 26, 2023

Phil Kniss: Quantum entanglement of earth and heaven

Jesus reveals the call to forgiveness
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 32:1-2; Genesis 33:1-4, 10a,c; Matthew 18:15-35

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I have never studied poetry, I know very little about it, I’ve written only a small handful of poems in my lifetime. But for some reason, last Sunday, it seemed like a good idea to write a poem, make it central to my sermon, and read it out loud to all of you, and our radio audience, and anyone in the world with internet.

From what I could tell, it wasn’t catastrophic. So . . . emboldened by my success, I will once again take something I know nothing about, and make it central to my sermon. Today I will talk to you about quantum physics. Despite never taking a class on, even regular physics. I earned a B.A. in college, not a B.S. although BS may be an appropriate description for what I’m about to say on the topic.

I have managed to get through a couple paragraphs of a journal article, and one time I was on a road trip with a friend who was way smarter than me, and he tried to stay awake by explaining to me what to him was the most exciting theory in quantum physics: entanglement.

Let me explain it to you the only way I know how, oversimplified, and probably wrong. But it makes my point, anyway. Which I’ll get to very soon.

So entanglement is when a group of subatomic particles interact in such a way, that the state of each particle cannot be described independently of the state of the others. Any property—such as position in space, speed, rotation, polarization— is shared, instantly, by the entangled particles, no matter how close or far away they are. So say that a pair of entangled particles move at the speed of light, in opposite directions, a change in the position or speed of one particle, is instantly reflected in the other entangled particle, even at great distances, even light years apart. When my friend in the driver’s seat explained this to me, that’s when my mind was officially blown.

And no, this is not some new idea of wacko pseudo-scientists. This phenomena was observed by the likes of Albert Einstein. Einstein thought the behavior they observed was impossible, so instead of confirming the quantum entanglement theory, he just called it, “spooky action at a distance.” That’s his exact phrase, published in a scientific paper 90 years ago. In recent years, more experiments have been done, and this entanglement theory has been confirmed multiple times, in multiple ways.

So how does this relate to Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness? Glad you asked. I think it serves as a useful, and beautiful, metaphor for how heaven and earth are connected to one another— for how human action impinges on divine action, and vice-versa. A metaphor, I said. I’m not claiming our theology can be explained with subatomic particles. It’s a metaphor. Jesus used a phrase in today’s reading from Matthew 18, that as I pondered it, preparing for today, reminded me of that mind-blowing conversation I had inside the car.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Now, whenever a saying of Jesus starts with “truly, I tell you,” there is more there than we see at first glance. It’s the Gospel writers’ way of signaling to us to pay attention. This is not a filler line, thrown out in passing. This is a crucial point to everything that surrounds it.

This saying shows up in a teaching section in Matthew 18 on conflict and wrong-doing in the church, and on accountability and forgiveness and restorative justice.

And remember again the likely origin of this Gospel, and Matthew’s likely intended audience— the conflicted church in Antioch in a hotbed of mutual wrongdoing and offense, of real damage caused by human beings against each other.

None of our four Gospels were written in the abstract, just for the sake of compiling a neutral history of Jesus. They are stories with an audience, stories with a purpose. When we have a sense of the audience and purpose of a Gospel, it helps us be more authentic when we apply it to our own context. And I just think ancient Antioch may not be as far away as we think from where we sit today.

In his Gospel, Matthew repeatedly showcases mutual offense of human beings against each other. From the birth narrative of Jesus— Matthew being the only Gospel to focus on the social conflict, Joseph’s dilemma, the magi, the state-sponsored violence in response to Jesus’ birth— To John the Baptist condemning the communal sin of the people, To the Sermon on the Mount teachings on reconciliation before worship, on turning the other cheek, on love of enemy, and “Why do you look at the speck in your neighbor’s eye, and don’t notice the log in your own eye?” And to Jesus’ warning to his disciples that he was sending them out like sheep among wolves, and to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

And that’s just a small sampling from Matthew that we rēad before we arrive at today’s passage on offending and forgiving— this gem of a story that leads to a gem of a parable.

So as I rēad Matthew 18 again, with these words of Jesus in mind— “whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven,” and as I think about the idea of quantum entanglement, I start seeing it all through this text. Heaven and earth are entangled— in the best sense of the word. We cannot treat heaven and earth as two entirely separate and disconnected entities. 
Another way of saying it, is, God is fully invested in life on this earth, to the point of being enmeshed and entangled. As such, everything that happens on earth, impacts heaven, and vice-versa.

It started at the dawn of creation, according to Genesis 1, when God created human beings in God’s image. That’s a theological statement of our origins, not a scientific one.

We were made to reflect the actual glory of God. Remember last Sunday’s transfiguration story? There is that of God within us, God’s imprint, God’s image, theologically speaking, that forever entangles us with God, earth with heaven, human with divine.

Where we human beings get into deep trouble, is when we forget that reality, when we think we operate as solo actors, free to do and be as we please without consequence on the whole.

The Matthew 18 approach to resolving offenses in the body of Christ, is one we Mennonites have often pulled out as a model, for how accountability should work in the church, especially when an individual neglects to conform to the rules and expectations of the church. I remember, in my childhood, this text being used as justification for what amounted to public shaming, and confessing of personal sin in front of the church.

In the small house church context of the early church, where people’s lives were deeply, and daily connected to each other, at the table, this model could well have been implemented in a loving way. But I think our context requires adaptation. This “truly I tell you” saying of Jesus might help us adapt it in a way that forgiveness and accountability and freedom are held together as community values.

The heart of the offense that Jesus is speaking about here, is the refusal of someone to accept that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven. I need to realize whatever action I take is not taken alone, my human actions impact God, and every other human being who is tied to God, with me, that is, everyone in my covenant community.

That awareness alone— knowing that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven— should be enough to keep me receptive to signals that something I have done has caused offense.

Matthew 18 is a stinging indictment of good ‘ole American individualism. Yes, of course, there is always a place for expressions of individual freedom. We are not all made alike. Human respect includes celebrating each other’s unique gifts, and personalities, and experiences, and points of view.

Matthew 18 does not undermine respect for the individual. It undermines the notion that who I am and how I behave has no bearing on the people around me, and on the God who made us all in God’s image. The sin of the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable is not a mathematical problem, it’s a relational problem.

We don’t get any closer to the truth by using a calculator, as I did, to learn 10,000 talents (the amount forgiven by the master), was 600,000 times larger than the 100 denarii, that another servant owed the first servant. Those numbers are purposely made . . . preposterous for the sake of the story.

The great offense here, is that the unforgiving servant did not accept that his actions were entangled with everyone around him— with the one above him, with the ones below him, and with his peers. He failed to take into account that as a human being, he could not flourish as a solo actor, independent of those around him.
That’s the way forgiveness works in the realm of God. Our offense, our debt, our sin, has been forgiven by God. Undeservedly, unconditionally, unabashedly forgiven by God. So . . . knowing that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven, makes our own forgiveness forever entangled with the forgiveness we extend to others.

Our Christian life, our Christian calling is one of entanglement— theological entanglement. We are entangled with God, and with all God’s children. Creator God did something that seems very un-God-like. God chose entanglement with humans. Out of love, God chose entanglement. Out of love, God chose to be beholden to us. That is the only way to give and receive love: to be beholden, obligated, tethered, entangled. That’s what I’m pointing toward with the metaphor of quantum entanglement.

Our actions impact God, as much as God’s activity impacts us. It’s a given. Not so much a choice God has to exercise every time. No, it’s a given. It’s instant and automatic. It happens because that’s how God set up the relationship from the start, like entangled particles. The saying of Jesus is not, “Whatever you bind on earth, God will then freely choose to bind in heaven.”

Some English translations, including the one we used today, read, “Whatever you bind on earth, will be bound in heaven . . .” making it sound like it will happen after the fact, as a result of God’s free choice.  The verb tense, in the original Greek reads more like, “shall have been bound in heaven,” something that just is, already, because that’s the way it works even when we can’t explain it. Or like Einstein might have called it, “spooky action at a distance.”

To me, it’s more reassuring than it is spooky. God is not only with us. God is entangled with us. God moves with us, stays with us. Forever, and ever. By design.

Oh, for the wisdom and courage to live with that awareness, in our dealings with God and with each other. In response, I invite you again to a confession. Except this time we will sing it. But before we sing it, I will read it aloud.

You can turn to VT 150 – Gentle God, When We Are Driven, or you can follow along on the screen. This is a profound hymn text that speaks to fractured human relationships where forgiveness is needed.

Gentle God, when we are driven
past the limits of our love,
when our hurt would have a weapon and the hawk destroy the dove,
at the cost of seeming weak, help us turn the other cheek.

Gentle Spirit, when our reason clouds in anger, twists in fear,
when we strike instead of soothing,
when we bruise and sting and smear,
cool our burning, take our pain, bring us to ourselves again.

In the mirror of earth’s madness let us see our ravaged face,
in the turmoil of all people let compassion find a place,
touch our hearts to make amends,
see our enemies as friends.

Let our strength be in forgiving as forgiven we must be,
one to one in costly loving,
finding trust and growing free, gentle God,
be our release, gentle Spirit, teach us peace.

—Phil Kniss, February 25, 2023

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Sunday, February 19, 2023

Phil Kniss: Up and down the mountain

Jesus reveals His glory
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Matthew 16:24-17:8; Revelation 21:22-24

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It was just over a month ago we had another story from Matthew, that was a bit of a stretch for us practical Anabaptist-Mennonites. Here’s another one.

You might recall my comments on the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, that comes across more like a mystical experience, than anything that resembles discipleship or ministry or service to the poor, or the many other ways we practice our practical faith.

Well, here we go again, another mystical experience that’s even harder for us to connect to. At least Jesus’ baptism had a connecting point for those of us who have been baptized. But the Transfiguration? How do we relate to that? Maybe some of you, in your lifetime, have had vivid and life-changing visions of Jesus standing before you. If so, that’s wonderful. You already have an “in” for grasping this story. I can’t really say that I’ve had any experience that parallels Matthew 17. So I need to come at it a different way. I suspect many of you are in my boat on this one.

Again, what helps me is to remember Matthew, and the context where this book emerged— Antioch of Syria, 70 AD or so. The church in Antioch was beleaguered, tormented, on multiple fronts, and they were in conflict with one another. Much of it centered on the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Was Jesus the promised Messiah? now the exalted Lord of Heaven? or was he the leader of a short-lived Jewish movement, that had an impact while he was alive, but ultimately, turned out to be a lost cause (like many other Jewish movements at the time)?

This story in Matthew addresses that question head on— by drawing a line connecting the mountain and wilderness: Jesus’ heavenly and Messianic identity, and his very human life that was full of suffering. This story gives courage to the church in Antioch, reassures them that they need not deny Jesus’ Messiah-ship, in order to embrace his humanity, and the agonizing reality of the cross.

The bright, shining Mount of Transfiguration and the stark, barren wilderness of Temptation, are two faces of the same reality. God is equally present in both scenes. But God is encountered in very different ways. One without the other, is a story . . . half-told. 

On the Mount of Transfiguration we get a gleaming clear vision of this close connection between heaven and earth, where the veil that separates us from God is very thin.

But in the desert we see the shadows of our humanity, in this space where God seems far away, and we muck around in our messy life at the bottom of the mountain.

To see this connection between the mountain and desert in Matthew, you don’t have to turn back to chapter 4, where Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert. You may recall that glory and suffering were connected there, too. When Jesus was baptized, heaven opened with light and sound and a voice announcing his heavenly origin. And immediately, in the next verse, he was whisked off to the desert to suffer and be tried by the devil.

That the same dynamic going in Matthew 17. The mountaintop experience takes place in the first part of ch. 17. But at the end of ch. 16 they are definitely not on the mountain. They are mucking around at the bottom, in the low places. Jesus talked about his future suffering and death, Peter objected loudly, and Jesus responded by calling Peter “Satan,” one of the lowest points of Peter’s life. Then Jesus reminded them all, if you want to follow me, deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me to death.

And in the very next words we read, Jesus, Peter, James, and John, are on the mountaintop. And they have the epitome of mountaintop experiences. So beautiful was that vision, that feeling, that sense of awe, that Peter attempts to preserve the moment, make it stick. “Lord, it is good to be here. Let’s build three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” Jesus paid Peter no mind this time. Didn’t even reply.

And then they walked down the mountain again. And the you-know-what hit the fan. Life got messy again. In the span of a few verses, three things happen: Jesus intervenes after his disciples fail in a healing ministry. Jesus breaks the news of his coming betrayal and crucifixion. And people pick a fight with Jesus over the temple tax. This is life as a disciple of Jesus—up and down and up and down the mountain.

I think we can identify with Peter’s impulse to preserve life on the mountain, to build some kind of container that will hold, keep, protect, the experience of the glory of God. For almost two millennia already, churches have tried to do exactly that— institutionalize the divine, manage the glory of God, make it permanent and predictable.

Back in 2012, Irene and I visited Mt. Tabor in Israel-Palestine, one of the sites that claims to be the Mount of Transfiguration. As we walked up the mountain, we approached a towering building, the very stately Church of the Transfiguration. Engraved in marble on the front of the building, was the exact scripture we read this morning, from Matthew 17, albeit in Latin. An inside, a lot more beauty and permanence, trying to capture the glory of God that in Matthew 17 was fleeting. I couldn’t help but think, “Well, I guess Peter finally got the shelter he wanted to build.”

Isn’t it ironic, that a huge, ornate, marble structure sits there to memorialize a place of momentary glory, where Peter was brushed off for trying to build a structure to contain the moment.

I’m not suggesting that building physical structures and memorials is a bad thing. They have a role in our aesthetic life, and spiritual life. But at least in this case, there seems to be something ironic about that building in that place.

It’s not an accident, that in the church liturgical year, Transfiguration Sunday comes three days before Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the season of Lent. There is intentionality there. One helps us prepare for the other. 

Both are necessary for our theology to be complete. Jesus is the divine and glorious sovereign of all creation. And Jesus lived a fully human life, and knew suffering, pain, loneliness, despair, abandonment, loss . . . and . . . joy and wonder and love and delight and humor. 

In three days from now, in the evening, we will be in this same space, marking ourselves with ashes, remembering our mortality, our weakness, our sin. But today we bask in glory. We remember our deep connection to the divine. And we celebrate it.

The distance between Transfiguration Sunday and Ash Wednesday is purposely close—because glory and suffering can coexist, hand-in-hand. There’s only so much I can say about this story, with language that relies on rationality. Prose has its limits.

One time, quite a few years ago, I preached our Transfiguration Sunday sermon in poetry. I decided to revisit those words this week, and substantially rewrote a portion of them to share with you now, to finish the sermon this morning.

Spirit House
Phil Kniss

“It is good for us to be here.”
Peter the man, impromptu plan in hand,
Gushed to the son of Nazareth,
Now awash in glory from another world,
“Lord, it is good for us to be here.
Let me build some houses.”

This erstwhile fisherman—who once,
On a whim, quit his boat to follow Jesus to
Who-knows-where—now wants to settle,
Build a place to stay, a structure to contain,
Protect, preserve, fix in time and space this
Fleeting brush with heaven.

Nothing new, this notion to build a
Container to house God’s glory.
Abraham stacked stones for an altar
To mark his moment with God.
Moses built a holy box to hold the holy
Presence.  Solomon, a temple, with pillars.

Ah, pillars! From massive marble bases,
They rise majestic, tall, immovable,
Supporting structures monumental.
In Matthew’s Antioch, now Turkey’s Antakya,
Walls, roofs, pillars lie in rubble, trapping
Bittersweet memories of glory days.

Containing heaven’s glory is ever futile.
Reflect it, yes. Capture, no. Like Peter,
We seek pillars strong enough to
Hold whatever house we cherish.
Or are the pillars we seek more like pipes,
More like these shining ranks behind me?

Not in organ pipes, per se, but in the breath
Blowing through them, is God’s music heard.
Pipe or pillar or house are but means
By which God’s free Spirit moves where it will.
Spirit-breath has oft laid low earthly houses
Meant to enshrine a heavenly visitation.

How then do we know if, like Peter,
Our pining for permanence builds houses
That imprison God’s free Spirit, or if,
Like these pipes, our structure invites
God’s spirit-wind to blow free?
How do we know? Listen for the music.

—Phil Kniss, February 18, 2023

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Sunday, February 12, 2023

Phil Kniss: Sorting out the evil

Jesus reveals the nature of God's realm
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Matthew 13:24-43; Revelation 19:5-7a

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We live in an either-or world…
or at least, a world where many people prefer things to be either-or.
And if we’re really honest,
most of us are comfortable in such a world, most of the time.

There is something stabilizing about a world
that we divide neatly into two parts:
good or evil
moral or sinful
right or wrong.
It’s stabilizing, because we always know where we are—
on the side of all that is right and good;
and that there is something fundamentally different
between us . . . and those on the wrong side.

That way of cutting up the world often works,
so long as we stay in the abstract, and on the surface.
Trouble is, as soon as we dig deeper, we hit gray dirt.
Not pay dirt. Gray dirt.
We hit mud. Messiness. We find a whole world, a real world,
underneath the surface, living in the in-between,
making do somewhere between good and evil.

In fact, the real world usually resists anything that’s either-or.
The real world operates on a continuum—
a line stretching here to here.
That is true whatever the topic.
Sexual orientation.
Social class.

A continuum is an inconvenient truth
for those of us who like to sort things.
You know, arrange them in their proper box,
always know where they fit, which side of the red line they are on.
It is upsetting for sorters,
to live with the kind of ambiguity that happens
when our neat and tidy world gets impinged on by the real world.

Maybe you find yourself somewhere in this reality I’m describing.
So maybe you will also find yourself in today’s parable
that Jesus told in Matthew 13.

Jesus was preaching to his own people, a society of sorters,
a people who tended to see the world in two groups:
children of Abraham,
and not children of Abraham.
And they were led by powerful religious bodies like
scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees—
the sorters-in-chief.

I believe Jesus saw through our blindness
in dividing up the world in this way,
so he advocated for a different way of discerning
what is good, what is of God.

The way he got across to people with truth that was hard to hear,
was, largely, through stories and images of the kingdom.

If he had offered his people just a different set of rules,
to replace the old ones,
he could have been easily ignored and brushed aside.
Instead, he led with stories,
tales that touched deeply their own experiences,
stories that first got them to say,
“Yes, I recognize that! I know where this is going,”
and then the story took an unexpected turn,
a shocking plot twist
that often caught the listener flat-footed,
unable to muster a response or a come-back.
And this made Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God
harder to ignore or brush aside.
You could get mad about it. But you couldn’t ignore it.

Now, this parable of the wheat and the weeds
has been read a lot of different ways.
It has sometimes been co-opted by people with an agenda—
whether conservative or liberal.
I’ve heard it be used to reinforce a message of judgement,
since the Master ends up burning all the weeds in a bonfire.
I’ve heard it be used to imply we have very little to say or do
in distinguishing good from evil,
since the wheat and weeds grow up together,
and God sorts it out in the end.

My preferred approach is a simple one.
Read it as naturally and as straightforward I can,
and be open to how the story wants to move me,
in whatever moment and situation I’m in.

Let’s talk about the story itself for a bit.
There are at least four separate characters or character groups
referred to in this story.
There is the householder, the owner-farmer, who plants the wheat.
There are his servants, or slaves, who work the farm.
There is an unnamed enemy who came at night,
with the intent to foil the success of the farmer.
And there are contract reapers,
temporary help hired to bring in the harvest when it’s time.

Keep all those in mind.

Now, let’s think about the agricultural elements of the story—
the wheat and the weeds.
So what kind of weed is this?
The Greek word used is Zizania, which in botany today,
is the name of a whole genus of wild rice.
But scholarly consensus, is that Matthew is talking about
one of the most common and troublesome of weeds
for wheat farmers in his day—darnel.
It was everywhere, and hard to avoid.
Interesting, that Matthew says an enemy planted it,
but surely some would have ended up in the field anyway.

The problem with darnel is not only that it is so widespread.
It closely resembles wheat, at least in early stages of growth.
The regular farm workers noticed it, of course,
because they were being observant.
But if they had taken it upon themselves
to try to rid the field of darnel as it was growing,
it would have been unavoidable
to pull up some good tender wheat as well,
wheat that had not had a chance to mature
and produce its heads of valuable wheat grain.

However, if they let the darnel grow, along with the wheat,
the solution would be far more practical and profitable.
The contract reapers, unlike regular farm laborers,
were expert in telling darnel from wheat,
especially at harvest time.
The ears of darnel stand straight up.
The ears of wheat are heavy, and they droop.
So the reapers, without tremendous effort,
can go through the field and first remove the darnel,
sticking up above the wheat.
Pulling it out will damage very little wheat,
which by now is firmly rooted.
Then the darnel can be thrown on the burn pile,
and the wheat harvested clean for further processing.

It’s all pretty common sense, actually.
And Matthew’s readers would no doubt
have understood very well the farming principle here.
There isn’t much mystery.
(And thanks to Nazareth Village, for making those images
available for our use)

After that parable, there’s two more, almost one-liner parables,
that I won’t spend time with now—
the kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed
that grows into something substantial,
and the kingdom is like yeast,
a little bit leavens the whole loaf.
Both of these speak to the surprising power
of something that seems so small.

Then, after Jesus pulled himself away from the crowds,
and went into a private home,
his disciples came to him asking for an explanation
of the wheat and weeds story.

The fact that Jesus had this sidebar with his disciples
tells us Matthew thought this particular parable,
even more than the others,
was essential for his readers to fully understand.
It tells us, “This one is a gem. Listen carefully.”

So Jesus explains the allegory—
exactly which elements in the story
stand for which elements in their real lives.

Here’s what Jesus said:
“The farmer—that’s me.
The good seed: children of the kingdom.
The weed seed: children of the evil one.
The one who sowed the weeds: the devil.
The reapers who come later to sort things out: the angels.”
You might notice that the regular field hands aren’t identified.
Maybe because that would have been obvious.
If the householder-farmer is Jesus,
they, the disciples, are the helping hands.

Of course, we wonder what to make of this story,
using those parallels Jesus spelled out.
But first we must ask,
what did Matthew’s first readers make of the story?
What lessons would they have drawn?
Then we can translate it for our time.

Not to keep repeating myself—
for details, listen to last Sunday’s sermon,
or my intro to Matthew back in January—
but briefly, the likely context for Matthew’s Gospel
is a church in conflict in Antioch of Syria, around 70 AD.

Now, a little sidebar of my own.
Modern day Antioch is the town of Antakya, now part of Turkey,
and sits near the epicenter of the recent earthquake.
That town of 200,000 residents
has been entirely wiped out, according to reports.
It virtually doesn’t exist right now,
and people are living on the streets and in tent cities.
So as we ponder ancient Antioch,
we should offer up our prayers for the city of today.

Well, at the time of Matthew’s writing, in Antioch
  there is conflict within the church
(among Jewish and Gentile Christians);
conflict between the church and the local Jewish synagogue;
and conflict between all Jews, and the brutal Roman Empire.

This is a church context ripe for
members to judge and condemn others.
And apparently a lot of that was going on,
as we noticed last Sunday in the sermon on the mount.

We can hardly blame the Christians in Antioch
for their tendency to pass judgment on others,
or to consign their adversaries to God’s burn pile.
The opposition was brutal.
Our conflicts are quite tame in comparison, I’m sure.

I think the teaching of Jesus here speaks directly to their situation.
Let the weeds grow up with the wheat.
The lesson is not, turn a blind eye to the weeds.
It is not, be oblivious to the evil around you.
It is not, act as if there is nothing to be discerned.
Rather, echoing his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount,
which we saw last week,
the word to the disciples of Jesus in Antioch,
and to us disciples today, is
be calm
be patient
be trusting of God’s judgment and justice.

As fallible learners of the way of Jesus ourselves,
if we take it on ourselves to start acting like the reapers,
and start ripping out the weeds prematurely,
we may end up destroying wheat in the process.
I imagine that was already happening in Antioch.
Just as it frequently happens in the church today.

What is the public’s number 1 impression of Christians today,
according to poll after poll?
Our judgmentalism toward others.
Our intolerance.
Our willingness to condemn in others,
the things we ourselves are guilty of.

Any idea what that is doing to young and tender seedlings?
How much fruitfulness for the kingdom of God
is being cut short prematurely,
when we, the non-experts, inexperienced in the task of reaping,
get too much in a hurry,
get too agitated over the weeds in our midst,
and start ripping them out too soon?

I think one of the significant learnings for us in this parable,
is the very fact that the landowner’s servants,
were never expected to work the harvest.
Where did we get the notion that we are God’s sorters and reapers?
That’s the work of angels, according to Jesus. And angels we are not.

Our sole task as laborers in God’s fields,
is to lovingly tend the land, as God would,
doing no more than God asks of us.
And let the harvest up to the experts—
the angels of God
who will come when it’s time, and not any earlier.

That should help us all relax a bit.
I don’t mean be lazy. I said relax.
We stay attentive and observant,
when we notice weeds taking root and growing.
We act with wisdom and discernment.
We seek to promote the health of the good wheat
in every way possible.
But we don’t panic about the weeds.
We don’t start swinging the scythe,
with the intent to cut it down,
or yank it violently from the ground.
We trust God, and the angels of God,
to sort it out in due time.

As someone who likes to sort things, I feel like it’s time for a confession.
Please join me if you feel the same.

one God of the wheat fields and thistles,
We confess our lack of full trust in you
and your driving passion for justice,
and your commitment to put the world right.
We sometimes mistake your patience, for apathy;
your grace, for disinterest;
your wisdom, for weakness.
all Give us courage to join you in the struggle,
calmness to wait for your timing,
and forbearance to live with the questions that remain.
one The God of all that is good forgives us,
and invites us to join in bringing in
the coming harvest, abundant and life-giving. 

—Phil Kniss, February 12, 2023

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Sunday, February 5, 2023

Phil Kniss: What goes around comes around...unless...

Jesus reveals right relationships
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 37:16-18; Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29; Revelation 22:16-17

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Today’s sermon, boiled down, is about “being right with God.”
Now, that phrase means different things to different people.
How you think about God,
and about yourself in relation to God,
determines what it means.

But even if “being right with God” won’t register the same way
for everyone here,
I do think if you identify yourself as a person of faith,
you will value “being right with God,”
however you conceive of God.

This is Matthew’s concern as well.
In fact, all through the book,
Matthew’s primary agenda seems to be
for his readers to “be right with God,”
for us to keep clear and unclogged and uncorrupted
the connection between our lives on this earth,
and our life with God,
as citizens of God’s realm.

There’s another key phrase: God’s realm, or as Matthew puts it,
the “Kingdom of God” or “Kingdom of heaven,”
is that sphere in which God’s rule is recognized and respected.

First, let’s review where and when Matthew’s Gospel emerged.
As I mentioned in my introduction to this series,
the most likely social, political, and geographical context
where this particular Gospel emerged,
was sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.,
somewhere around Antioch of Syria,
300 miles north of Jerusalem.
I reminded us that the siege of Jerusalem by Caesar’s army,
not only resulted in the temple and palace
and other key buildings being reduced to rubble,
but over 1 million Jewish people dying in that mass murder.

We must remember Matthew is writing, most likely,
to a fairly new Jewish Christian community in Antioch,
a few short years after this unspeakable trauma.
Matthew’s audience was only a few hundred miles from ground zero,
living in the heart of the Roman Empire,
surrounded by Gentiles who were loyal to the same Caesar
who just committed genocide against their people.

Every member of the Christian community in Antioch,
and every member of the local Jewish synagogue,
would have been on high alert,
would have been grieving the loss of relatives in Jerusalem,
loss of a place to go home for Passover
and other important festivals.
These were wounded and traumatized people,
who also were becoming more distant from each other.

The Jews in Antioch who believed in Messiah Jesus,
and those who didn’t,
had very different understandings of what it meant
to be “right with God.”
They had very different understandings of what the phrase,
“Kingdom of God” meant.

It created a gulf that ultimately would not be bridged.
And followers of Jesus were separated from their synagogue.
Acts chapter 11, v. 26, even tells us that it was in Antioch
that the disciples first were called “Christians.”
That separation, that schism was so profound,
they were given a new name,
a new identity distinct from their Jewish cousins.

It’s a sad chapter, the Jewish-Christian schism,
a rather long and complicated chapter,
and one we can’t really undo 2,000 years later.
But my point today is not to evaluate that schism.
It is to say we can’t fully understand Matthew,
without naming those conflict dynamics that were
front and center for the people first reading this Gospel.

So, does all that color our reading of today’s text?
It should.

Here, Matthew has Jesus saying,
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.
You’ll receive the same judgment you give.
Whatever you deal out will be dealt to you.
(What goes around comes around.)
Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye,
but don’t notice the log in your own eye?”

There must have been a lot of judging going on
among the Christians of Antioch.
Judging the leaders of the local synagogue who ousted them,
judging the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem,
judging their Roman neighbors who were part of the system
that was crushing them,
judging even new Gentile believers in Jesus
joining their community.
Right there in Antioch,
multiple cultural, ethnic, and religious frameworks
were colliding with each other.
This was true inside the church.
It was true between the church and their community.

Does this sound like familiar territory for the church today?
Conflict with prevailing cultural values.
Conflict with other religious frameworks
held right inside our own church bodies,
by people we call sisters and brothers.

As an example, our Virginia Mennonite Conference
did some sober self-reflection yesterday
in our delegate session in DC.
And thanks for your prayers for us, by the way.
We ended with a ritual of lament.
And every delegate and pastor went home with one of these
broken pottery shards as a grim reminder
of the current state of the church,
yet as a prayer for hope that God
might create a new vessel from these shards.
Maybe we aren’t that far from Antioch.
What goes around comes around.

Well, here is the heart of Matthew’s message:
If you want to be “right with God” . . .
If you want to be part of the kingdom of heaven . . .
Pay attention to your relationships with your human family.
There is a direct line
that connects your relationships with other humans beings,
and your relationship with the God who loves them all.
What clogs up your relationship with a neighbor,
will clog up your communion with God.
What goes around comes around.

That message is repeated all through Matthew,
and nowhere more often and more repeatedly,
than in the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7.
“Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye,
but don’t notice the log in your own eye?”
It’s one of the classic questions of Jesus.

In the face of so much conflict in the wider culture and the church,
so much political polarization,
theological difference, and
moral and ethical divides . . .
it is only human nature to try to deal with that
by shoring up our in-group identity,
by surrounding ourselves with people like us,
by turning up the volume on judging others,
even our neighbors and members of our faith family.

As we draw into our tight circle those who are like us,
and create distance from those who are not,
we create a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Our own way of thinking is reinforced.
It is even easier to find fault with those who challenge us.
And the more we amplify “us and them,”
the more likely we get entrenched in our own thinking,
and unwilling to be challenged.

Being “birds of a feather” and “flocking together”
is normal human nature.
It’s not wrong.
But it is not virtuous, either.

Now, let’s be clear about this judging bit.
Jesus wants us to be discerning.
Jesus does not encourage lazy thinking.
Not every framework is morally equal.
In this same sermon, Jesus tells us to discern right and wrong.
“Beware of false prophets,” Jesus says.
“You will know them by their fruits.
Grapes don’t grow on thorn bushes.
And figs don’t grow on thistles.”

But there is a difference between discerning and judging.
To discern is to perceive a difference, take note of it,
and exercise caution in how we live,
trusting God with the consequences.

To judge is to take over God’s job,
be judge and jury and carry out the punishment.
Jesus does not ask us to cut ourselves off
from those who offend us.
Jesus asks us to be wise and discerning.
And that starts with self-discernment.
It’s an act of great humility, and great courage,
to look carefully within,
and see the log (or splinter) in our own eyes.
If we can’t see them,
it’s certainly not for lack of them being there.
I assure you, they are there.

So, you still want to be “right with God?”
Matthew inquires of us.
Well, get ready. There’s more.
It goes beyond just not judging
those who look at things differently than we do.
That’s the easy part.

Earlier in the sermon Jesus brought home a point
much harder to hear.
So hard that many Christians today
find convenient work-arounds
to avoid the demand altogether.

Turns out our relationship with God
also depends on how we relate to our enemies.

We jumped over these verses in the lectionary,
so let me just read a few excerpts of Matthew 5.
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you that you must not oppose
those who want to hurt you.
If people slap you on your right cheek,
you must turn the left cheek to them as well.
When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt,
let them have your coat too.”

“You have heard that it was said,
You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who harass you
so that you will be acting
as children of your Father who is in heaven.
If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?
If you greet only your brothers and sisters,
what more are you doing than others?”

Human relationships that rely on equality and reciprocity,
are natural.
They are not wrong.
But neither are they virtuous.
It’s simply what everyone does, without trying.

“But do you want to live like children of my family,”
God asks us, through Matthew.
“Then love your enemies.”
“Show goodwill to those who oppose you and persecute you.”

In the human realm,
natural consequences rule the day.
But in God’s realm, the kingdom of heaven, we are called
to turn the other cheek,
to go the extra mile,
to love our enemies.
Doing so breaks the cycle of “normal.”
It throws our opponents off-balance,
because they were assuming a certain kind of response from us,
and got something they weren’t prepared for.
It gives space for God to enter and create something new.
A new pot from broken shards, maybe.
And God redeems what was meant for evil,
and transforms it into a blessing for the kingdom.

Don’t know about you,
but I want to be part of that work of divine redemption.
I want to be that kind of “right with God.”
I want to live within that realm of God.
Let us look to Jesus for help, for strength, for courage.

—Phil Kniss, February 5, 2023

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