Sunday, January 29, 2023

Phil Kniss: Up and out worship

Jesus reveals authentic worship
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Matthew 6:7-34; Revelation 11:15-17

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First, a content warning.
This sermon may, at times,
make me sound like a grumpy old man.
I don’t want to be a grumpy old man,
I really don’t.
But then, I’ve been hanging around here going on 27 years . . .
and have the gray beard and thinning hair to prove it . . .
so maybe I’ve earned the right
to preach a grumpy old man sermon every now and then,
and you’ll just have to humor me.

Actually, in all seriousness, I don’t think I’m being grumpy.
I will have some things to say that are critical,
of myself and all of us.
But I will say them with deep love,
and with all the grace I can muster,
grace extended toward myself and toward us all,
and with a robust hope in the church.

So if I challenge us to be something more than what we are—
please realize it’s coming from a place of love, grace, and hope.
It’s not because I’m getting grumpy in my old age,
or because of anything I ate last night.

So . . . what is wrong with our worship?
Well, to prove to you I’m not just being grumpy,
let me first tell you what’s right with our worship.

We take worship seriously here at Park View (as do most churches).
Of all the things we do here, we invest the most—
in terms of staff, facilities, administration, and technology,
in our Sunday morning worship service.
We would not have built this big room,
and all the many systems and people that support it,
if we did not prioritize worship.
And that’s a good thing.

worship is our main job when it comes to obeying God.
I haven’t counted,
but I’m sure there are far more biblical instructions
about how to worship rightly,
than about any other task we undertake as God’s people.

Of course,
there is lots of instruction on other weighty matters of life—
how we treat orphans, widows, and foreigners,
how to care for the poor,
how to handle our money and resources,
how to relate to our enemies.
But even on those matters,
they are often tied back into worship,
because getting those things wrong
clogs up our worship of God.
And God wants our worship.
But God can’t stomach the worship of people
who don’t treat their vulnerable neighbors
with kindness and justice.

Idolatry, or in other words, mis-directed worship,
seems to be God’s #1 accusation
against God’s people.
Worshiping the wrong thing is what offends God
more than anything else.

We have long sections of the Hebrew Bible devoted
to detailed instructions about preparing the worship space,
and about how, when, and what to sacrifice in worship.
The 150 chapters of Psalms
served as the worship book for the people.
The prophets lashed out at corrupt practices of worship.
Jesus spent much of his time trying to fix
the hypocritical worship of the scribes and Pharisees.
That’s what today’s passage from the Sermon on Mount
is doing.
Jesus is calling out those who pray and fast and give alms
and do all their worship perfectly,
for the wrong reasons.
He’s calling out those who have divided loyalty,
which is no loyalty at all,
because you cannot, at the same time,
worship God, and worship wealth.
And remember Jesus and the Samaritan woman?
As soon as the conversation got past
the immediate issue of needing water,
it turned toward worship.
That’s when Jesus made his oft-quoted saying,
“The time is coming—and is here!—
when true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth.”

The apostle Paul worries about worship in Corinth,
and gets grumpy with the church there,
about how their worship perpetuates injustice.

And need I mention the book of Revelation?
The recurring picture, over and over,
in among all that fantastic symbolism,
is a picture of saints and angels gathered around God’s throne,
in full-throated whole-bodied worship.

Anyone who implies that worship is secondary
in our relationship with God,
has too narrow a concept of worship,
and does not read the Bible very carefully.

So . . . kudos to us, and other churches,
for taking worship as seriously as we do.

Can you all say the next word with me?
“But . . .”

But we still need to take a hard look at how we think about worship,
and how our thinking shapes our actions.
And on that front,
I’m afraid that COVID made honest self-examination
even harder for us to do.
Because the temptation we were already battling before COVID,
became even harder to resist when worship went virtual.

What is that temptation?
In a nutshell, it is the constant urge to make worship about us.

My primary competitor for the worship of God, is me.

See, when I make worship into something that satisfies me,
I am engaging in idol worship.

Call me grumpy.
But I don’t think I can do anything to soften that statement.
That has always been the case.
COVID just exacerbated the problem.

Modern forms of church—
be they high-church liturgical,
informal charismatic,
mainline, or evangelical,
or traditional Anabaptist—
all appeal to the needs of the individual worshiper.
It’s easy to see why.
As churches morph into institutions, and need to be maintained,
worship becomes an engine to drive the church enterprise,
rather than a selfless, sacrificial offering to God.

Worship is the one thing that churches routinely put out there
for public view and public consumption.
The more compelling we make the worship experience,
the more rear-ends we can get to sit in our pews,
and the more dollars in the offering plates,
and the more staff and programs we can afford,
and the more, the more, the more . . .
You see where it all leads.

We live in a highly consumeristic society.
We gravitate toward what brings us a good experience.
And churches continually compete on the open market
against other highly developed forms
of art, entertainment, and social activity.

I’d really like to say,
“There’s nothing wrong about trying to make worship
a good experience for the worshiper,
nothing wrong about shaping our worship
for the tastes, and sensitivities, and preferred styles
of those we’re trying to reach with our worship.”

I’d like to say it, but I can’t.
Because there IS something wrong about shaping our worship
around the personal experience of the worshiper.
It inevitably takes the focus off the proper object of our worship—
The God of the universe,
on whom we all depend for every breath.
And when our worship takes its focus off of
the only One worthy of our worship,
and places the focus on us and our “experience,”
we have engaged in idolatry.

It doesn’t matter what kind of “experience” we strive for—
whether to conjure up an emotional experience,
or to stimulate our intellect,
or whatever we do to make worship personally “fulfilling”—
if that is our focus, we miss the mark.

When we gather in worship,
we do it not for ourselves, but for God.
God is the audience.
We are all the performers.

Now let me be perfectly clear about what I am saying,
and what I am not saying.

I am not saying it’s wrong to do worship well.
I’m not anti careful planning.
I’m not anti helping a service flow and connect to the worshiper.
I’m not anti practice and excellence.
I’m not anti safe, comfortable, and welcoming sanctuaries.
I’m not anti professional training for leaders.
I’m not anti well-maintained and tuned pipe organs
and grand pianos and guitars and any other instrument.
I’m not anti investment in up-to-date hymnals
and quality worship resources.

What I am raising here is a bit of a warning flag.
All of those things can be used
for the selfless and sacrificial worship of God . . .
and all of them can just as easily,
even without realizing it,
evolve into what we do to enhance our personal experience.

It’s a temptation anytime.
It’s a special temptation, I’m afraid,
for us who made accommodations for COVID,
by making the worship “experience” available remotely,
mediated through the very same screens,
where we tune in other days of the week
to consume all kinds of other media and entertainment.
It is super hard for us, when joining worship remotely,
to set aside the electronic medium we’re watching,
and remember that we are not consuming,
we are participating in a communal and sacrificial act.

I’ll be honest and vulnerable here.
It’s a temptation for me as much as anyone.
Because I love excellence.
I love things that are done well.
I love the musical and visual arts.
I love well-designed technology.
I also spent time during COVID worshiping at home
in front of our TV screen,
if I wasn’t directly involved in the service,
or if I was home due to illness or other reasons.

But even when I was in the sanctuary during worship,
I would often review the video recording later,
looking at camera angles, lighting, graphics,
audio quality,
paying attention to how these things
might have impacted the viewer experience.
I’m not saying I was wrong to pay attention to those things.
I’m saying it was so, so easy for me, even if momentarily,
to forget who this worship service was actually intended for.

I’m incredibly grateful we have the technology,
and the skillful hands and brains of people that operate it,
that enable us to share our services with, literally, the world.

And speaking to the camera for a moment,
I’m so grateful that many of you—our own members,
as well as people looking in around the edges,
can connect in ways that bless and encourage you.
That would not be possible,
if everything stayed within these four walls.
So thank you for being with us, and welcome!
As you all know, being remote is not a new issue for Park View.
We’ve shared our worship on radio for nearly 70 years,
and we will keep sharing ourselves remotely,
however we can.

I’m also grateful we have professional, trained musicians leading us.
I’m grateful for all the artists and musicians
and people skilled in public speaking
who contribute to our services.

But we do need to keep reminding ourselves, I think,
that the event happening here
is the community at work,
worshiping God,
for the sake of the world.
It’s not a religious media production.

So then, how do we know the difference
between authentic worship of God,
and a consumer-oriented production to be “experienced”?

Maybe we listen carefully
to what our mind and spirit is telling us in the moment.
When the song leader chooses a song that isn’t our favorite;
when the microphone squeals, or drops out for a few seconds,
when a young reader stumbles over some words in scripture;
when a beginner musician flubs some notes in the offertory;
when the candle doesn’t light;
when someone with a disability doesn’t quite “perform”
at the level we are used to;
when the service runs five minutes over;
when you don’t care for what the preacher is wearing . . .
When any of these happen—and they do—
where do our thoughts go?
Do we cringe, and wish someone had practiced a little harder,
or just done something a little different to get it right?
Or . . . do we think about how God is receiving the gift?
Is God any less pleased with that offering of gifts?
If someone offers their best, with an open heart,
even if it’s not our preferred best,
isn’t God just as pleased with that gift,
as with the flawless performance we personally enjoyed?

Another way we can evaluate the matter—
to take today’s scripture readings seriously—
is ask whether the Gospel of justice is being proclaimed,
whether the poor, the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan
are hearing something that sounds like good news.

Authentic biblical worship goes up and out.
In other words,
our worship is directed toward God, and God alone,
and it is being offered with keen attentiveness outward,
toward the beautiful and broken world we live in
that is in need of God’s justice and saving mercy.

It is ludicrous and unthinkable,
to imagine a worshiper in the biblical temple or tabernacle
coming away from offering a burnt sacrifice on the altar,
and saying, “Hmmph. That didn’t do a thing for me.”

So how have we gotten to the point
where worshipers, not infrequently,
leave worship with precisely that thought?
“It didn’t do anything for me.”

As if it was meant to?
Was the love and goodness and mercy of God lifted up in public?
Did someone offer words or song in praise to God
for God’s faithfulness during a time of suffering?
Was bread broken and shared in a community of equals?
Was the stranger and outsider welcomed and shown hospitality?
Were the lowly lifted up, and the powerful invited to be humble?
Were gifts given that enable the poor to be fed?

Then our worship had a sweet, sweet smell in God’s nostrils,
just like the biblical burnt offerings were intended to do.
It makes no difference to God
whether the gift is offered in a cathedral or a crude shelter,
with a pipe organ or a homemade drum,
live-streamed to LED screens around the world,
or heard by only a few gathered under a tree in East Africa.

Any . . . any venue or form or style can result in
of worship that is authentic, and a sweet-smelling sacrifice.
Or it can result in worship that has the smell of consumerism
and idolatry.

I invite us all, every Sunday we join in worship—
whether in this space, or in front of a screen—
to ask ourselves, and give an honest answer.
Am I a consumer, or am I a participant?
Am I here for a personal experience,
or to join my community to publicly elevate God,
and join God’s agenda of bringing justice and salvation
to all the world?

In response, I know I need a confession.
Maybe some of you do as well.
Please feel free to join me.

one Almighty, all-loving God of the universe.
You who alone are worthy of our worship,
we confess we often misdirect our attempts at worship.
We strive for an experience that is personally fulfilling,
or emotionally satisfying,
or intellectually stimulating.
Thus, we become worshipers of ourselves instead of you.
We become idolators.
all Forgive us, God of the universe.
Lead us away from self-serving worship.
Help us serve and worship only you.
one Thank you, God of the universe,
for always forgiving our bumbling attempts to honor you.
You are eternally patient and continue to invite us
into partnership with you in worship, in witness,
and in the work of healing all creation.
all Praise be to you, O God, who never fails.
Lead us in your way of salvation and justice for all.

—Phil Kniss, January 29, 2023

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Sunday, January 22, 2023

Moriah Hurst: Blessed are . . . the what??

Jesus reveals the heart of God
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Matthew 5:1-20

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Jesus, the provocative preacher,  itinerant teacher, and outsiders choice. Jesus who we meet in Matthew is starting a new part of his ministry in today's texts. Let’s go back and look at where we have been so far in this Gospel.

Thus far in Matthew a lot of other actors have been taking the lead around Jesus and motivating the story. His parents, an angel who is like a show director giving stage directions - go here, do this, stay there, marry her.  We see and hear the wise men and Herod, then John the baptist and the devil. Up till this point we really haven’t heard a lot of Jesus’ voice and it's mostly been him responding to others. Yet the words from the stories, teachings and prophetic texts of the Old Testament show up all over the place. We keep looking back at “what had been spoken or written by the prophets” or what has been fulfilled by Jesus' life so far.

A few verses before today’s text in Matthew 4, we see Jesus start his proclaiming and teaching with the words “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 4:17

Then in quick succession Jesus calls disciples who “immediately” leave their work and follow him.  Then Jesus starts teaching in the synagogues and curing people and his fame spreads - those people bring him more people and he keeps healing - and great crowds follow him from all over the place.

And in today's passage, Jesus sits down and we get the first record of a big teaching = the inaugural speech of Jesus, the sermon on the mount. I’m kind of jealous that he got to preach sitting down and he was outside. But sound projection might have been hard and there would have been some distractions. Monty Python’s skit Blessed are the Cheesemakers plays on this idea - a little crass but well worth a watch, part one of your homework for today.

So here I am preaching a sermon on a sermon that Jesus preached, no pressure.

Jesus starts right in with upside down blessings, word pictures and a reminder that his new thing is grounded in the old things they have been following for generations.

What an opening, he really does set the tone for how he will continue - putting a twist on our expectations, infusing ordinary things with deeper meaning, and yet saying “I’m not throwing out the old and what you knew, but I am bringing out its meaning in new ways”.

I like blessings.They have poetic beauty that can sometimes cut to the real meaning of a thing and lay it open. But these blessings that Jesus starts with, are odd. This is not a prosperity doctrine or wishing all the good and happy things for the other or ourselves. Even if some translations say “Happy are those who…”.

These are disorienting and reorienting.

When I read this with the Jr Youth it was hard to understand, what does it really mean? How do we understand these words and what would it look like to live this?

This first sermon gives blessings that are against our consumerism, they show a different side to our airbrushed, curated, shiny, social media personas. The be attitudes seem to say that we don't need fixing - in your grief, in your brokenness, in your hunger, that’s where we will see God. Jesus doesn’t pull us out of life and challenges but lets these blessings enter in.

But these are blessings I don't really want to seek all the time. Is God really calling me into places where I’m hungry, harassed and grieving? Or is Jesus saying when I’m in that place and so the world has discarded me as useless, that that is where God enters in with blessing. Not because I was good or nice, or rich or powerful, or happy or successful. Imagine a report card we would give our children working towards the beatitudes

-experienced hopelessness - check
-delved into grief - check
-felt deep hunger and thirst - check
-harassed and spoken of badly - check

But how often do the report cards we work towards miss these important points

-truly humble in heart
-pure and showing mercy
-longs for righteousness and to see God’s face
-a countercultural peacemaker

Have we lost our light and salt because we don’t train for this checklist? If we aren’t actually different from the world and the culture around us, do we flavor anything? A few confessions I read this week put it this way:

“You call us to be salt of the earth and light of the world.

We confess that our witness is often bland and gloomy.”

“We allow the gospel to go stale,

and hide the light you have given.”

As we wrestle with understanding this together, let’s look at a few other wordings of the sermon on the mount to open up this space of understanding for us. ( Simon Woodman)

Simon Woodman, a pastor from the UK, wrote a sermon on this text that says many of the things I wanted to say today, but better. Second part of your homework for today, look up his blog post of how he delves into this passage. In an attempt to reflect on the words of Jesus in Matthew in a fresh way, Woodman offers his ideas on the beatitudes like this:

“Blessèd are those who refuse the lie that one life is worth more than any other,
for theirs is the future of humanity.

Blessèd are those who have stared long into the abyss,
for theirs is honesty beyond grief.
Blessèd are those who resist retaliation,
for the earth will never be won by force.

Blessèd are those who would rather die for truth than live with compromise,
for the truth will outlive all lies.

Blessèd are those who forgive the unforgivable,
for they have seen the darkness of their own souls.

Blessèd are those who know themselves truly,
for they have seen themselves as God sees them.

Blessèd are those who are provocatively nonviolent,
for they are following the path of the son of God.

Blessèd are those who choose to receive violence but not to give it,
for the future is born out of such choices.

Blessèd are you when you stand up for truth and hell itself decides to try and destroy you.
You're not the first and you won't be the last.

I'm telling you now, nothing makes any sense unless you learn to see it differently,
and then choose to live that alternative into being.”

Or we may need to open our story and hear this from another's perspective. Especially for those of us with wealth, education and privilege on our side. Allow yourself to feel how these words sound from a first nations perspective in an indigenous translation of this text

The beatitudes for the First nations version of the bible:

“Creator’s blessing rests on the poor, the ones with broken spirits. The good road from above is theirs to walk.

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who walk a trail of tears, for he will wipe the tears from their eyes and comfort them.

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who walk softly and in a humble manner. The earth, land, and sky will welcome them and always be their home.

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who hunger and thirst for wrongs to be made right again. They will eat and drink until they are full.

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who are merciful and kind to others. Their kindness will find its way back to them - full circle.

Creator’s blessing rests on the pure of heart. They are the ones who will see the Great Spirit.

Creator's blessing rests on the ones who make peace. It will be said of them, “They are the children of the Great Spirit!”

Creator’s blessing rests on the ones who are hunted down and mistreated for doing what is right, for they are walking the good road from above.

Others will lie about you, speak against you, and look down on you with scorn and contempt, all because you walk the road with me. This is a sign that Creator’s blessing is resting on you. So let your hearts be glad and jump for joy, for you will be honored in the spirit-world above. You are like the prophets of old, who were treated in the same way by your ancestors.”

As we continue our journey through Matthew, may we not take an attitude of, been there, done that. Saw that movie! But a posture of curiosity, allowing ourselves to slow down and look deeper. To let Jesus, his life and teachings inspire, disarm and confuse us. May we truly hear Jesus’ voice.

As we read these words of confession together today I invite us to do it slowly. Take a deep breath and pause between the sections. Sit with these words.  I’ll bring you in with a gesture as we read together this beatitudes litany.

Beatitudes Litany (inspired by Matthew 5:3-12, Luke 6:20-22)

Blessed are we when we let go of possessions
for the kingdom of God unfolds in open places.
Woe to us when we gather into barns
for soon this life will be over.
Blessed are we who know the ache of hunger
for the empty places in body and soul are the fertile soil for new growth.
Woe to us who fill our lives to capacity
for we fail to recognize what is missing.
Blessed are we who know sorrow
for the ache of love lost is witness to the seed planted.
Woe to us who have yet to know the pain of grief
for the fullness of love is woven with sorrow.
Blessed are we who know scorn
for the rejection of humans keeps us mindful of that beyond.
Woe to us who depend on the approval of others
for to dance with Spirit appears foolish.
Blessed are we who live in the harmony of life in the Spirit,
For we will recognize abundance. Amen.

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Sunday, January 15, 2023

Ervin Stutzman: The Test

Jesus reveals His human condition
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 91:9-12; Matthew 4:1-17; Revelation 12:10-12

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Sunday, January 8, 2023

Phil Kniss: The day Jesus said 'Yes!'

Jesus reveals His calling and identity
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 2:7-8; Matthew: 3:1-17

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Today is a feast day in the church year.
    There are times to fast and times to feast.
    Today we feast.
    Officially, today is called the “Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.”

There are some traditional Christian feast days, or festivals,
    that we always observe at Park View—
    Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints Day.
There are some we never observe—
    Nativity of John the Baptist, Candlemas,
    Feast of Holy Innocents.
Then there are the maybe-or-maybe-not feast days—
    Christ the King Sunday, Ascension Day, Baptism of the Lord.
    It depends on what else is going on at the time,
    We do Baptism of the Lord Sunday maybe half the time.
I’m kind of thinking that’s not enough.

On the one hand, why set aside a whole Sunday
    to focus on Jesus’ baptism?
It was one fleeting moment in the Jesus story.
    No miracle was performed.
    No sick person healed.
    No profound new insight on the law was taught.
All we have is a vague description of a mystical experience.
    According to Matthew’s version of the story,
        Jesus had a vision—an auditory and visual experience.
        We don’t know whether anyone else saw or heard anything.
            Maybe only Jesus. Maybe the others in the vicinity.
    Matthew writes,
        Heaven was opened to him,
            and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove
            and resting on him.
        A voice from heaven said,
            “This is my Son whom I dearly love;
                I find happiness in him.”

Making this into a Christian Feast
    sounds a little like the church fathers taking the opportunity
        to reinforce the doctrine of the Trinity—
        Jesus is proclaimed God’s Son,
            the Spirit-Dove descends,
            and the Father speaks from heaven.
        All three members of the Trinity are in this scene.

But as I think about it,
    it goes a lot deeper than propping up a doctrine.
    This moment was crucial for Jesus.
    It defined and shaped his ministry from that day forward.
    And it’s hugely relevant for our ordinary everyday lives,
        as followers of Jesus today.
    It deserves a feast.
        So set the table.
        Fill the chalice.

This is not just a mystical and “woo-woo” kind of story.
    It’s practical.
    It’s contemporary.
    It’s relevant to Christians like us who like to focus
        on down-to-earth matters like daily discipleship.
    And it’s as important as ever,
        when our way of living in the world
        is challenged on so many fronts.

When the wider church is splintering and diminishing,
    when our culture is more polarized than ever,
    when our national politics is badly broken,
    when our culture seems constantly anxious, fearful,
        and always on the edge of violence,
    when our planet is in serious jeopardy,
    now is the time to get clear about who we are as God’s people.

And there is no better place to start,
    than contemplating Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River.
    You may think I’m overstating my case.

But no, there is no more important ritual in the life of the church,
    than the ancient practice of baptism.
    And it’s the one we get most confused about.

Throughout history, we’ve had all kinds of debates about baptism.
    Not just debates. Violence, warfare, executions.
    No one knows that more than Anabaptists.
        The ritual of baptism is part of our name.
    My 11th-great grandfather, Hans Landis,
        was beheaded in Zurich Switzerland,
        over what he believed about baptism.

Denominations have split over when to baptize,
    what words to speak when baptizing,
    how much water is needed, and on and on.
But most of that is old history.

That’s not the kind of confusion that worries me.
    I’m worried that today we have tamed baptism—
        that we robbed it of its rich meaning,
        and made it something sentimental.

All of you have witnessed some wonderful baptisms.
    We’ve had them here at Park View many times.
        Sometimes in this beautiful sanctuary.
        Sometimes on the bank of North River in Bridgewater.
        Sometimes other places.
    How joyful an occasion,
        to see someone—a young person or an adult—
            surrounded by loving family and supportive friends,
            making deep promises to God and the church!
    And when it happens out in nature, it’s extra poignant.
        Wind in the trees, birds singing, river gurgling—
            what more could we want?
        It’s something people want to share with others.
        Pictures are taken afterward, and shared on social media.
            Folks far and wide offer their love and prayers
                and warm congratulations.

That’s all great. All beautiful. I love it all.
    But, where we can get a bit confused about baptism,
        is thinking of it primarily, as a personal rite of passage.
    Like a birthday, or wedding, or quinceñera,
        that we stage in such a way that it has our personal stamp on it,
        so it’s memorable and perfect and Facebook-worthy.

I’m not pointing a finger at any of our past baptisms here.
    Just saying a pretty common view among Christians today,
        is that a beautiful and memorable baptism
        is somehow better than an ordinary one.
    It’s like thinking that a big beautiful elaborate wedding
        is inherently better than a short and simple one.

Don’t get me wrong. I love beautiful things.
    I’m often willing to pay extra for something with aesthetic value.
    I love beautiful weddings and beautiful baptisms.
    I love seeing people getting into the moment,
        and celebrating goodness and beauty.
    But while a baptism can be aesthetically beautiful,
        it is so much more.

It really makes no difference if
    you were immersed in the Jordan River itself,
        and have a video to prove it, with a harp soundtrack
        (yes, there are commercial outfits that provide exactly that) . . .
    or . . . if you had water poured on you from a Tupperware pitcher,
        kneeling in a drab cinder-block church in Florida with no AC,
        and you barely remember because you were 12.

I’ll let you guess which of those two scenarios was mine.

Here’s the thing:
    baptism is not about a personalized and individualized experience.
    It’s about your identity as an individual in community.

    It’s not about where your baptism is located.
    It’s about where your baptism locates you.

I want to say that again.
    It’s not about where your baptism is located.
    It’s about where your baptism locates you.

Take Jesus’ baptism as an example.
    His baptism and ours are more alike than you realize.

We may wonder why Jesus needed baptism.
John the Baptist wondered, and even objected at first.
    Jesus was not baptized to have his sins washed away.
    No, it was the day Jesus said yes.
        A full, and knowing, and determined “yes”
            to his God-given identity,
            and to his place among his people.

The moment Jesus came up out of the water,
    a voice from heaven pronounced his new identity:
    “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
So God spoke a clear and resounding “YES” to Jesus,
    and, in submitting to baptism,
    Jesus spoke a clear “yes” to the Spirit who beckoned him.
    At that moment Jesus threw in his lot
        with his God and God’s people and God’s purposes.
        He was re-christened.
        In a way, it completed the naming process that began
            when he was 8 days old,
            held by old man Simeon in the Temple.

    In Jesus’ baptism, the One who had the right to name him,
        the one who gave him life,
        said the most significant sentence a parent can say to a child.
    It begins with, “You are . . .”
        Not you should, you oughtta, you will.
        But you are.

The words that come after “you are,”
    can build up or tear down.
    They can create life or destroy life.
    But always, they are powerful.
    Because they articulate our identity.

In baptism, God is the first one speaking.
    It was true for Jesus.
    It was true for me in that sweltering cinder-block church.
    It was true for any of our young people who stood
        on the bank of the North River.
In baptism, God says to us,
    “You are loved. You are mine.
        You are worthy, because I have made you worthy.
            I am with you. I am for you.
            I have an intention for your life.”

It’s no coincidence that in the Gospels
    the first event recorded after Jesus’ baptism
    is an agonizing trial in the desert,
    where Jesus new identity is put to the test.

The way Matthew unfolds his Gospel story is intentional.
    Jesus is told by God, “This is who you are.”
And the next moment he is told by Jesus’ greatest adversary,
    “No, you can be whoever you want to be.”

And the rest of Jesus’ life journey,
    he was pulled this way and that way,
        by well-meaning friends who thought
            he should behave in a certain way,
        and by outright enemies who tried
            to make him behave in a way that suited their purposes.

And every time, he went back to what he was told
    by the One who already laid claim to his identity.
    Jesus had to repeatedly say to his friends and enemies,
        “No . . . this is who I am.
            This is how I am meant to live.”

That’s the function baptism should have for us, too.
    It is foundational to understanding who we are.
    We start by hearing God’s “Yes!
        You are my beloved.
        You belong to me and my family.”
    And in baptism, we offer back our “Yes!
        I am your child.
        I make your family my family.
        I am all in with your will and purposes for me,
            and for the world.”

Once we hear God’s yes, and respond with our yes,
    we have a basis on which to act, and do, and behave.
    We have a foundation for ethics,
    for deciding between a right and wrong course for our lives.

I wonder . . . would there be less chaos and conflict and confusion,
    in our churches, in our communities,
    in our national and global states of affairs,
    if more people had heard and believed
        those defining words from our Creator,
    “You are . . . You are my son, my daughter.
        I have given life to you.
        You belong to me, and I love you with an everlasting love.”

So many things try to define our identity—
    our affiliations,
    our jobs,
    our degrees,
    our money,
    our stuff,
    our self-image.
All these identities are foisted on us by a culture
    that makes idols out of these identities and affiliations,
    idols that makes promises they can’t deliver.

When our choices grow out of these thin and fleeting identities,
    instead of our God-given identity as a beloved child of God,
    then we are not living the whole life we were created for.
And all kinds of dysfunction and violence results.

Baptism is the best thing the church has going,
    to set us on a different course.
    It locates us in a community on mission with God in the world.
    In times of chaos and uncertainty,
        it reminds us who we are,
        and to accept and love who we are,
        that we might love others
            with more courage and more integrity.

May it be so with us.
May God strengthen our “yes.”

Join with me in the confession, if you will,
    in your bulletin, and on the screens.

one  God, we confess that we are sometimes hesitant
        to throw in our lot with you and with your people.
 all   God, strengthen our “Yes!”
one   In times of chaos and uncertainty,
        we need reminding of who we are and whose we are.
 all   God, strengthen our “Yes!”
one  Today, we openly confess, “Yes, we are yours.
        Yes, we are part of your people in this world.”
 all   God, strengthen our “Yes!”
one  Let us gratefully receive God’s eternal “yes” toward us,
        and know that God has accepted our “yes,” in return.

—Phil Kniss, January 8, 2023

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Sunday, January 1, 2023

Phil Kniss: Introduction to Matthew

Jesus reveals God's expansive family
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Matthew 1:1-17; Revelation 7:9-10

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We already dipped our toes into the Gospel of Matthew two weeks ago,
    with the story of Joseph.
    Today we begin a deep dive.
    From now until Easter, we will be immersed in Matthew—
        we, along with another dozen or so area congregations
            using the Narrative Lectionary,
        and a group of Anabaptist churches around North America.
At Park View, we are giving this series the title “Jesus the Revealer.”

Jesus came to be with us
    for the purpose of revealing a fuller picture of God.
And Matthew’s Gospel was written
    for the purpose of revealing Jesus the Revealer.

That’s the agenda of all the Gospels,
    even those that didn’t make it into our Bible.
Each written Gospel was an effort to capture the story of Jesus,
    for a particular purpose for a particular audience.
The four Gospels that ultimately did the best job at that,
    and stood the test of time,
    and were deemed worthy to include in our Bible,
    were the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The names attached to these Gospels do not mean
    that four disciples of Jesus named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,
    each sat down separately one day after Jesus departed,
        and wrote down everything that they remembered.

    No, the Gospels are rooted in a deep oral tradition of story-telling—
        a tradition we don’t practice very well in our day.
    Stories were carefully told and retold about Jesus.
    They circulated far and wide among his followers.
    Certain stories, over time, were deemed important and reliable,
        and put into writing,
        and gathered into collections that were passed around.

Communities of Jesus-followers emerged
    in various places around the Mediterranean,
    and started engaging in witness and mission.
So it became important to bring these Jesus stories together,
    and put them together into one complete narrative
        of the life and ministry of Jesus,
    a narrative that made sense for their particular time and place
        within the Roman Empire.
This is why, from one Gospel to another,
    we find many similarities,
    and many things that get a different slant, or different emphasis.
    Because their audience was different.

So, before we dive into Matthew, let’s consider,
    who pulled the stories together,
    who was the first intended audience,
    and what the intended impact on that audience?

It’s by no means unanimous, but a common view among scholars,
    is that Matthew’s Gospel emerged
    from the Jewish Christian community around Antioch of Syria,
        sometime after 70 A.D.
    Both that time and place is significant,
        as we read and understand Matthew.
    Antioch was about 300 miles north of Jerusalem,
        in modern-day Turkey,
        in the heart of the oppressive Roman Empire.

There was an active early Christian community there.
    And just a few years earlier, around 70 A.D.,
        Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman military,
        and the temple lay in ruins.
    All of that happened because of
        an attempted Jewish revolt against Rome,
        and a long siege of Jerusalem by Caesar’s army,
        during which about one million people died.
            One million!!
    So the first few decades after the time of Jesus,
        were catastrophic and horrific for the Jewish people.

Can we get our heads around the tragedy and trauma
    that the Jewish people suffered?
    …just a handful of years before this Gospel was compiled?
    …in a city of Jews and Gentiles living together
        in the heart of the Roman Empire?
That reality, to say the least,
    deeply informed the writers and compilers of Matthew.

The other reality that shapes this book
    is the conflict inside the Jewish synagogues
    between those who said Jesus was the promised Messiah,
        and those who did not.
    That divide between followers of Jesus and the rest of Judaism,
        got especially tense in cities like Antioch
            that were largely Gentile,
        because the followers of Jesus were beginning
            to incorporate more Gentiles into their communities.

Antioch was kind of ground zero for that conflict,
    and resulted in a separation from the synagogue.
So Jewish followers of Jesus found themselves
    having to choose between their faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah,
    and having a home in their local synagogue.

We believe the Gospel of Matthew was written, first and foremost,
    to strengthen and encourage this hybrid Jew-Gentile
        community of Jesus’ followers living in the midst of
        multiple layers of religious conflict and military conquest.
Matthew shows us a Messiah
    who came into a world deeply broken and flawed,
    but was the embodiment of Yahweh’s love and presence
        in the midst of that brokenness.
Matthew seems very concerned that his Jewish readers understand
    that Jesus is the bonafide Messiah,
    who fulfilled all the prophecies of their Hebrew scriptures.

In contrast to the resistance they were experiencing at the synagogue,
    Matthew reassures them that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.
    And then to reassure Gentile members of the early church,
        Matthew highlights that Jesus is God’s way
        to further God’s plan for the peace and flourishing
            of all the nations of the world,
        not just the biological descendants of Abraham and Sarah.

This is why Matthew is the only one
    who tells us the famous Christmas story
    of the magi who come from the east
        to worship the newborn King of the Jews.
This story emphasizes, understandably,
    both the Jewish identity of the Messiah,
    and the universal, global, and inclusive scope of Jesus’ kingship.

And, I believe,
    this is why Matthew is the only Gospel
    to begin his book with an extended genealogy of Jesus,
        which you are about to hear.
He traces Jesus’ ancestral roots back to King David, and to Abraham,
    and at the same time, highlights the Gentiles in his genealogy,
    and the key role played by certain named women,
        who might otherwise be dismissed,
    and even calling attention to some unsavory ways
        that Jesus’ ancestry played itself out.

The message seems to be that Jesus’ Messiah-ship
    is for all people and all nations,
    and that God’s faithfulness toward us, does not waver,
        even in the face of our own failures and sin and missteps.

I think that’s an important message for the first readers of Matthew,
    living in a time of political and religious turmoil
        in Antioch of Syria,
    and an important message for us today,
    living in times that are not all that different, come to think of it.

And so begins our journey in Matthew.

—Phil Kniss, January 1, 2023

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