Sunday, April 30, 2023

Phil Kniss: Relax! It's really not about us

The Spirit of Jesus sends witnesses
The Wind of God Blows New Life
Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18; Micah 6:6a and 8

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The theme of this morning’s service,
splashed across the top of our bulletin,
is a bit of a slippery slope.
I’ll read it to you, but watch your step.
“The Spirit of Jesus Sends Witnesses.”

Okay . . . what’s so slippery about that?
What dangerous territory might we fall into,
by embracing that idea that the Spirit sends witnesses?
Well, if we could ask Paul and Barnabas,
they’d have something to say about it.
In fact, Paul did talk about it in 2 Corinthians, at length
listing all the ways he suffered for the Gospel—
he’d been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, jailed, and more.

But that’s not the danger I speak of.
I mean a danger that sounds like the opposite of suffering.
It’s the danger of honor, recognition, and respect.

But before we go there, let’s take a few steps back,
to the start of this story from Acts,
where Paul and Barnabas were chosen, by the Spirit,
and sent, by the Spirit and the church, to be witnesses.

Guess where that happens?
In the same community we talked about a lot this winter
in our study of Matthew—Antioch of Syria.
But this is a very different time.
Matthew’s Gospel emerged in that community
around or after 70 A.D.,
when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire.
So we read that Gospel in light of the severe trauma
the Jewish and Christian community had endured together.

But by the time the Gospel of Matthew was written down and shared,
the apostle Paul was already dead and gone.
This story from Acts happens a full 25 years earlier—
a whole generation before Matthew was compiled.
So what was the church at Antioch like at this earlier time,
around 45 A.D.?
We don’t have many details, but we can speculate,
based on what we know about early church life,
that the group of Jesus-followers in Antioch
that commissioned Paul and Barnabas
and sent them out as witnesses,
was a lively and diverse group of people,
most of whom were practicing Jews
and members of the local synagogue,
but also included Gentile believers.

Paul, as you might recall, was a zealous Pharisee,
who actively persecuted Jesus followers.
He was transformed when he met Jesus
in a vision on the road to Damascus.
Then he spent a decade
being discipled into a Jesus-follower himself.
Most of that was in Jerusalem,
but eventually, he landed in Antioch.
There, he and Barnabas were among a cohort
of gifted and educated young believers,
living in a community where
Jewish and Gentile Jesus-followers co-existed,
attempting to build a vibrant faith community.

That’s the context for the beginning of today’s scripture.
The believers in Antioch sensed, by the Holy Spirit,
that Paul and Barnabas were being called to go out
to other communities around the Empire,
where the scattered Jews, the diaspora,
were living and trying to make a life in a highly Greek culture.

So the believers in Antioch fasted and prayed,
and laid hands on Paul and Barnabas
and sent them off to preach the Good News.

We skipped over part of chapter 13, where
Paul and Barnabas ran into resistance immediately.
Some welcomed their message.
But others, threatened by it, stirred up the people,
and they got run off time and again,
once with an attempted stoning.

Given Paul’s history as a persecutor, himself,
that wouldn’t have surprised him.

But then, they got to Lystra, and their fortunes changed.

They met a man lame from birth,
then let the Holy Spirit work through them,
and the man sprang up and walked.
And the crowds swarmed on them.
But instead of rushing at them with stones,
they rushed at them with flowers.
They thought they were gods come to them in human form.
The crowds were ready to make sacrifice—
to Barnabas, as Zeus; and to Paul, as Hermes.

The children this morning already showed us this chaotic scene.

You know what I find so remarkable about this story?
Not the healing itself.
Not even the outpouring of love and adoration by the crowds.
Those things you might expect.

What I don’t necessarily expect—
especially when I lay this story
alongside the history of Christian mission in the West—
is how Paul and Barnabas responded
to this outpouring of honor and admiration.
They instantly threw a fit.
They mounted a loud public protest.
They tore their clothing, it said,
the ultimate act of desperation and public humility—
all in response to them being loved and adored!

Their loud refrain was,
“No, no! Don’t think that way!
We are just like you!”
That’s exactly what they said, “We are just like you!”

What if those were the words
Christian missionaries were known for
throughout the history of the church?
“We are just like you.”
“No, don’t treat us any different.”
“We are human like you.”
“Our needs and desires and rights and worth,
is no more important than
your needs and desires and rights and worth.”

The global family of Jesus-followers
would look very different today, I think,
if that had been our Christian mission history.

My grandparents, who I loved and respected deeply,
were missionaries to India from the late 1920s to the early 40s.
They operated out of a model that was handed to them.

In the core of their being, I know
they were humble and compassionate and self-giving people,
and I’ve been told personally,
by some Indian Mennonites who remember them,
that Lloy and Elizabeth Kniss had a reputation of being
kind, approachable, willing to get
down in the dirt with their neighbors,
unlike some other American missionaries.

my grandparents did what their predecessors did.
They moved into the gated missionary compound,
already there from the previous missionaries,
built seven years earlier by our Mennonite mission board.
They lived in that large cement house with tile roof,
larger and safer and more comfortable, by far,
than any homes for miles around.
I have that 90-year-old panoramic photo
of the house and compound
on the wall of my home office,
as a reminder of where I came from.

A missionary compoundin those days,
was more than a home.
It was a base of operations from which
missionaries dispensed services
that our mission board determined was needed:
Bible lessons,
English lessons,
hygiene lessons,
and much more.
It was primarily a one-way transaction.
We have what you need.
And we are here to give it to you.

And like the people in Lystra,
many of the local people
related to missionaries like gods in human form.
They didn’t literally bow down in worship.
But they did lower themselves in deference.
Because clearly, these Americans were not
the kind of human beings THEY were.
The local population was indeed poor,
and lacked adequate health care.
The missionaries seemed mysterious and transcendent.
Unimaginable wealth and resources at their fingertips.
They could make the sick well.
They could build strong buildings.
They could make things happen.

 I’m grateful that today our mission agencies think differently.
MCC, Mennonite Mission Network, VMMissions,
for the most part, would be abhorred
by the idea of sending people into a new setting
like some god deserving reverence.

I know a number of young families today,
connected to our mission agencies,
living in other countries and cultures, with their children.
They’ve been there for years,
just living out lives of faith,
building relationships,
learning from their hosts.

Grace and Yugo in Indonesia, for instance,
were just here sharing their story of few weeks ago.
Working alongside slum residents, and living among them.

And there are many other examples. Many, many!

Through their lives and their words,
this generation of mission workers are saying,
kind of like Paul and Barnabas,
We are just like you!
We have the same needs.
We have the same human struggles.
Let us learn together how to overcome them.
Show us how to build houses like yours.
Show us how to eat food like yours.
Teach us your language.
Teach us your ways.
Share your wisdom with us.
Then maybe later we’ll share ours with you.
And together, we’ll see where it leads us.

But this is not just a sermon about our theology and practice
of global mission.
It hits a lot closer home.
It applies whenever we get involved in the lives of others,
be they our co-workers,
our neighbors,
the immigrant community,
the unhoused,
those dealing with food-insecurity,
those with chronic mental illness,
and yes, the children and families in our church neighborhood
through Kids Club or Block Parties or what have you . . .
we should always ask ourselves . . .

Does the message we’re sending sound anything like,
“We have what you need—
what you’ve been waiting for, even if you didn’t know it.”
Or is more like the refrain of Paul and Barnabas:
“We are just like you!”
Just. Like. You.
We need you as much as you need us.
We need each other, to be whole.

The Jesus we try to emulate came as Emmanuel—
God with us—God like us—
God that identifies with us.
If that’s who we worship, and who we follow,
shouldn’t we live with that very same posture of deep humility.

No matter what our interactions with our neighbors, with each other,
we should be doing all we can to identify with the other,
not to distance from the other.
May God help us.

Please join me in a prayer of confession, if you will.
one God, without whom . . . nothing.
We owe all we are and all we have to you.
Our identity comes from you.
Our vocation comes from you.
all Forgive us our self-doubt. Forgive us our self-worship.
one Grace us with humility and confidence.
May we live as unassuming servants
Who know their inestimable worth.
all Lord, we are your servants.
one Go where God sends you. Remember who you are.
Bear witness to the Good News to all who are ready to receive it.

—Phil Kniss, April 30, 2023

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Sunday, April 23, 2023

Phil Kniss: God’s big dream

The Spirit of Jesus expands the margins
Acts 10:1-17, 34-35

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The Holy Spirit is a trouble-maker.
From the long view, looking back,
we can usually say it was good trouble.
But trouble, none the less.

The scriptures tell this story time and again.
You see it in the prophets in Hebrew scriptures—
Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, and virtually all of them.
The spirit falls on them,
and they do or say something that seems rash or reckless,
and trouble ensues.

And just look at the story of Jesus!
Starting with his conception.
The Gospels tell us Mary’s pregnancy was from the Holy Spirit,
a pregnancy that caused her all kinds of trouble and grief.
It was the Spirit that sent Jesus out into the wilderness,
for 40 days of suffering and agony and temptation.
When Jesus used the power of the Holy Spirit
to displace evil spirits in other people,
other powers that be turned against him.
In the synagogue, the Spirit of the Lord came over Jesus
when he read from the scroll of Isaiah,
and minutes later the crowd tried to push him off a cliff.

I guess it’s not realistic to think
that things would be any different for early Jesus-followers,
as events unfold in the book of Acts . . .
or that things would be any different for us today,
when we seek to be guided by the Spirit.

When the Spirit moves among us . . . we should be ready for trouble.

We just read a short excerpt of this wonderful story
about Cornelius and Peter in Acts 10 and 11.
Read it all, and you’ll see that eight times—
it says that the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Jesus—
caused this sudden expanding
of the boundaries of imagination in the early church.
An expansion that reflected the goodness and beauty
of God’s big dream for the world,
and . . . that launched the church into a heap of trouble.

The basic shape of this story is fairly simple,
and quite familiar to many of us.
The Holy Spirit was working in two places,
in parallel fashion.
Cornelius, a gentile Roman army officer,
who was a God-fearer, and a praying man,
had a vision where an angel told him
to send messengers to Joppa,
find a man named Peter,
who would show him the way to salvation.
And Peter, one of the pillars of the early church in Jerusalem,
was led, by the Spirit, to go to Joppa, on the seacoast,
and one afternoon,
shortly before Cornelius’s messengers knocked on the door,
the Holy Spirit invited Peter, in a dream,
to eat animals that his scriptures forbade him to eat.

So the knock at the door, and Peter’s disturbing dream, coincided,
thanks to this trouble-making Holy Spirit,
and Peter ends us being the first leader of the Jesus movement,
to baptize a household of Gentiles,
and welcome them into the church.

And then . . . there was trouble.
Well, there was already trouble.
This just made the trouble get worse, exponentially.

The church would end up in a drawn-out, intense struggle,
for generations—
because of what inclusion of Gentiles meant for Jewish Christians.
Not only did they have to make huge cultural accommodations.
Not only did they have to get over a sense of emotional revulsion
that Jewish believers often experienced
when they shared space, and shared tables, with Gentiles.
They had to rework their theology of salvation.
They had to re-read and reinterpret their sacred scriptures.

Yes, the Holy Spirit is a trouble-maker.

From our vantage-point today—
quite obviously, since we benefitted from Gentile inclusion—
we can look back on that and say it was good trouble.

But to those going through it, at the time,
it was hard to find any goodness or beauty in it.
It broke up families and households.
It divided congregations.
It separated communities.
At its worst, it caused civil unrest and mob violence.
People were beaten, imprisoned, and killed.

The miraculous part of that ugly story in the early church,
is that it got written down, and preserved,
and came to be regarded as worthy of including in our scripture.
So today, we can read all about it in Acts, the epistles, and Revelation.
And we can see it, now, for what it was—
a Spirit-directed, and Spirit-inspired
expansion of our imagination of what God is up to in this world.

The truth that continues to inspire and motivate the church today,
is that God’s dream is bigger than our dream.
We can scarcely get our heads around the dream of God
for this world that God loves and wants to make whole.

And sometimes the ones that move this dream along,
are the ones we least expect to do so.

The surprising thing about this story of Peter,
who helped break open the borders and welcome Gentiles,
is that he—the greatest of the Apostles,
the foundational pillar of the church,
the one to whom Jesus gave the “keys to the kingdom”—
was not really the one who carried God’s dream forward.

He continued to struggle with this dream.
And we see, recorded right there in scripture,
his on-again-off-again commitment to include the Gentiles.
Sometimes Peter seems to be motivated by this vision
of the sheet full of unclean animals being lowered from heaven.
Sometimes he seems more motivated
by his need to manage the stress of the system;
keep those with power from getting too upset.
He was inconsistent.

The one that scripture records as being
the out-front leader of this change movement—is Paul.

Paul began as a die-hard Pharisee enforcer of Jewish purity.
An enemy of all Jesus-followers.
And after he switched sides, and became a Jesus-follower himself,
he led not from the center, but from the margins.
He never had the official status of apostle
(he had to keep defending his right to lead).
He was low in the church hierarchy in Jerusalem,
where Peter was in charge.
Paul’s numerous missionary journeys probably had a dual purpose.
They gave Paul an opportunity to spread the Gospel further.
And they kept him out from under the watchful eye
of Jerusalem.
It was a win-win situation for everyone.

So what does this tell us?
It tells us to hold lightly to what we think God is up to.
And be attentive to the wind of God, the Spirit of God.
Those are synonyms, by the way.
Spirit means wind, or breath.
And it blows where it will,
without regard to where we wish it would blow.
To be in tune with the wind of God
requires a great deal of humility and patience on our part.

So in these five Sundays from now until Pentecost,
we will seek to follow the wind of God,
to notice where the Spirit-wind was blowing in the early church,
and notice where it might be blowing in the church today.

—Phil Kniss, April 23, 2023

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Sunday, April 16, 2023

Phil Kniss: Jesus: Do what you saw me do

Jesus reveals the mission of God
Matthew 28:16-20

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You probably know that I like to complexify things in my sermons.
The reason, from my standpoint,
is that popular Christianity likes to over-simplify.
I think many preachers feel pressure to oversimplify.
People in the pews are coming in from an often confusing
and ethically ambiguous world,
and walking into a religious container, a sanctuary,
a box where they want clear answers
they can take to the bank,
to tie up their questions and doubts
and put them away in a safe.
So Christian preachers have kind of a reputation,
for being slogan-eers,
for churning out cliches, and quotable quotes,
for making things binary—
either/or, this or that, right or wrong, good or evil.

I prefer to complexify. To find the nuance.
To uncover hidden truth that lurks in the shadows.
I think that ends up being more authentic, and true,

But then . . . I have to admit . . .
some things really are simpler than they look.
Sometimes, when a biblical concept doesn’t quite work for us,
we add layer upon layer
of complex and multiple meanings
bending it to make it work for us,
and we end up making it nearly unintelligible.
Sometimes we just need to cut to the core,
and find the singular nugget that was there all along.

I think that’s what we’ve got in today’s text from Matthew 28,
the “Great Commission.”
The church, throughout history, has way overworked this text.
We’ve used it to justify all kinds of different philosophies
for Christian global mission,
or . . . used it to argue against those same philosophies.

We’ve taken these concise and poignant words of Jesus,
and used them to justify missionary programs
that ride on the coattails of white, western colonialism.
And ages ago, Christian crusaders even used
Jesus’ command to baptize,
as an excuse to slaughter those who refused such baptism.

So today, I will de-complexify. I will simplify.
These parting words of Jesus in Matthew are, in fact,
simple, and beautiful, and shimmer with truth.
And for Matthew’s community,
that group of beleaguered Christians in 70 A.D. Antioch,
these words were both comforting and affirming.
They assured these oppressed and traumatized disciples,
who were being told daily their own human worth was in doubt,
that as a matter of fact, their lives have purpose and value,
and that God has made them indispensable
to God’s own mission.
God is counting on them to be agents of shalom to all nations.

Matthew 28 is no excuse for Christian triumphalism and domination.
Not by a long shot.
This is God’s invitation to become partners
in God’s good purposes on the earth.

Let me start with the grammar of the text.
There are six verbs in these two verses, 19 and 20.
But there is only one imperative. One!
A single command.
Our translations don’t make that clear.
We see three or four or more.
Go, make disciples, baptize, teach, obey.

But in the original Greek, only one is a direct command.
“Disciple.” You disciple.
It might sound awkward, but it would be accurate to translate it,
“Having been on the go already,
disciple all people, as you go along,
baptizing and teaching them to imitate me,
as the opportunity presents itself.”
Going, baptizing, teaching, obeying—all are important!
They’re all part of the package.
But the weight of the Great Commission
lands squarely on one word—disciple.
If you want to cut to the core of this commission,
know what it means to form a disciple.

To disciple, is to grow an apprentice.
To form a follower.
To mentor a mentee.

This Great Commission is not first and foremost,
a command to organize mission projects,
nor a command to baptize as many souls as we can,
nor to establish and grow the Christian church,
nor, even, to convert people to a new religion.

No, it is a command to form imitators of Jesus.

That’s why Jesus prefaced his command
with words about authority.

We so often take those words the wrong way. Jesus did not say,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,
and I’m handing it over to you.
Now you have all the authority in heaven and earth,
so go and do what you need to do,
to establish your religion and grow your institutions.”
So much harm has been done on the false assumption
that Jesus gives us a blank check of authority,
that we can write out as we see fit,
and do whatever we need to rack up more numbers.

No, Jesus said, “I have this cosmic authority from God,
so I have the right to ask, and expect, you to imitate me.
To teach what I taught.
Live as I lived.”
It’s like Jesus is telling his disciples,
“It’s not an ego trip—for me or for you.
It’s the way God set things up.
God loves this world, and wants it to be whole.
God has a healing mission, a shalom project.
God sent me here to set it in motion,
and has now authorized me
to have you carry the work forward,
to keep on doing exactly what you’ve seen me doing.”

To his small cadre of followers,
who remained faithful through the great trial
Jesus says, “I have taught you
what life under the reign of God looks like.
I have set an example for you,
so you can go from here and imitate me—
be my mirror, my reflection.
And bring others along as next-generation imitators,
keep the movement going,
to all the nations, all the peoples, everywhere.

That’s the shining golden nugget of the Great Commission,
look and act like Jesus, everywhere and to everyone.
And as you go, help others look and act like Jesus, too.
Disciple people, mentor people, form people
into the way of Jesus.

Some of those other things that we read into it,
might well happen along the way—
baptisms, organized mission programs,
growth of churches and institutions.
But those are potential results, they are not the motivating factors.
They are not the shining center.

The sole rationale, the sole expectation of Jesus, for his disciples,
the shining center of the Great Commission,
is, in Jesus’ words, “Do what you saw me doing.”
“And bring people around you who will also learn
how to do what you saw me doing.”
“Then all of you, together, will keep learning.
You will be my life-long apprentices,
my forever friends and disciples.”

This Great Commission is for everyone of us who claim
to be a disciple of Jesus, who claim to follow Jesus.
If we are not actively learning to look and act like Jesus,
if we are not winsomely, through word and deed,
inviting others to learn to look and act like Jesus,
if we are not pouring ourselves into a community
that seeks to look and act like Jesus,
then we need to go back to the core of these parting words of Jesus,
and open ourselves to the Spirit’s work in a new way.

Human beings are born. But disciples are grown.
And growth takes effort, intentionality, commitment to a purpose,
joining to a community of disciples, and intentional practice.

These words were written for Matthew’s community,
but they are also for every disciple
who has ever read Matthew’s witness to the Gospel of Jesus.
And now, friends, we have read this Gospel. From beginning to end.
May God help us live it more fully.

one God who loves all the world with an everlasting love,
We confessed we have not always heard or heeded 
your invitation to follow you into the world 
and continue your saving and healing mission.
all Forgive us. Open our hearts to the world.
one I forgive you and love you without condition.
My invitation remains.
Follow me into the world.
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

—Phil Kniss, April 16, 2023

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Sunday, April 9, 2023

Phil Kniss: Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid

Jesus reveals the power of God
Matthew 28:1-10

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Good morning and Happy Easter to all—
those worshiping together in person,
and those joining us remotely.

Our first indoors and in-person Easter service in 4 years!
How wonderful to be together and lift the roof in song.
But a special welcome to remote worshipers,
because I identify with you, completely, today.
I come to you from home, thanks to COVID.
Which decided to hit me right before
the most important days in the Christian calendar,
when I had four services to plan and lead.

So I’m sad not to share space with you in the sanctuary,
but I am beyond grateful.
Let me count my blessings!
My loving and supportive spouse,
who’s a skilled nurse with lots of COVID knowledge.
My 5 COVID vaccines and boosters,
and antiviral medication,
that made symptoms manageable.
Reliable high-speed internet
that connects me to my office and everyone I work with.
Mental and physical energy to keep working and planning
and coordinating behind the scenes.
Ample staff and volunteers at Park View who 
pick up unexpected extra duties and run with them.

I am grateful!
But I am also aware that what makes all this possible is
the multiple support systems I have around me,
my unearned social location, and the privilege that comes with it,
my instant access to medical systems and technology of all kinds.
I am sobered to note that many other pastors and church leaders
in this country and all over the world,
don’t have those advantages,
and are no less called, gifted, and responsible than I am,
but have gotten the same infection,
with disastrous, life-altering, and ministry-ending results.

I did nothing to deserve what I have today.
But I accept it, and pledge to use it in a way to lift others up.

Now, here we are with Matthew’s wonderful resurrection story.
We’ve been traveling with Matthew now for about 4 months,
since before Christmas.
Next Sunday we finish our journey.

We’ve been reading Matthew with a eye to context—
both the narrative context (how the story is arranged)
and the cultural context (the world where this Gospel story
was first compiled and shared as Good News).
In this case, Antioch of Syria, around 70 A.D.,
a world falling apart for all Jewish people,
including Jewish followers of Jesus.

There is something about Matthew’s version of the Easter story
that stands apart from the others, in stark contrast.
We can guess why.

In all the other Gospel versions, disciples arrive after the fact.
They see evidence—empty tomb, folded graveclothes, angels nearby—
and after poking around a bit, they are mostly perplexed and confused.

In Matthew’s version,
the moment of resurrection happens in front of their eyes,
and they are terror-stricken.

Matthew tells us that two women—two Marys—
creep toward the tomb, in the dark, and
“suddenly there was a great earthquake . . .
an angel of the Lord, whose appearance was like lightning,
came down from heaven and rolled away the stone . . .
For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”

Hear that? Highly-trained and armed military guards were terrorized,
and fell over in a dead faint.
The resurrection was sudden, unexpected, disruptive, and invasive.
And the first ones to feel the brunt of it
were armed representatives of the Roman Empire.

What Matthew portrays, in his telling of the story,
is that the power of God is erupting on this earth.
It is felt by the earth itself, as it shudders and quakes.
It is felt by all the powers on the earth—
the empires who think they are in charge,
the spear-holders who imagine they can ward off any threat—
these powers all wilt in fear,
and become powerless.

And while the soldiers lie there comatose,
the Marys, who saw the same thing, but didn’t faint
(what does that tell you, by the way)
are met by an angel who consoles them,
“Do not be afraid. Jesus is not here.
He has been raised, as he said.”
In other words, “God brought about this disruption.”

Then the angel gives them an assignment,
“Go now. Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. Go meet him.”

This is a missional assignment.
“Go where Jesus is going,
do what Jesus is doing,
be about what Jesus is about.
This is the new order of things.
The powers of evil and death and the empire
have been conquered by the powers of love and life
and the reign of God.”

After all is said and done, after this earth-shaking event,
this is the bottom line of Matthew’s message,
to his suffering and traumatized community in Antioch,
to those who just witnessed the siege of Jerusalem
and a massacre of a million of their people,
and are in the midst of painful conflict and separation
in their local synagogues,
and who have loved ones to violence and oppression.
Matthew’s Gospel word is, “Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid.”
Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid!

The two Marys are then gifted
with the first human encounter with the risen Jesus.
Before they got to the other disciples,
Jesus met them on the road, and repeated the same message—
“Go where I am going, and don’t be afraid.”

“Don’t be afraid”—
the first words out of the mouth of both the angel and Jesus.
Not a coincidence, given the community Matthew was addressing.
Nor is it a coincidence,
in this divided, hostile, and traumatizing world we still inhabit,
that these words of Matthew have been preserved,
made sacred over time,
and continue to be our Good News to treasure.

Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid. 
Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid!

Jesus continues to live and appear among us,
in ways we don’t always recognize.
Our job is to be looking for him, always.
And to not let fear keep us from the search.

One place the church goes regularly to find Jesus, and to find ourselves,
is to the Communion Table.
Jesus established this ritual for the church,
and we carry it on, at his instruction.
Let us continue our worship, at the table of the Lord.

—Phil Kniss, April 9, 2023

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Sunday, April 2, 2023

Phil Kniss: Our convenient fiction: Reconsidering Palm Sunday

PALM SUNDAY: Jesus reveals the nature of his kingship
Psalm 118:25-29

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Sometimes it’s nice to just let a story
mean what we wish it would mean,
instead of what—in all probability—it actually means.
Sometimes life is easier that way.

Our own spin on an event
is often more comfortable to deal with,
than a more complete and honest telling of the story.

This is human nature.
We tell ourselves stories—good stories—all the time.
But in so doing,
we might be avoiding a more difficult truth.
Take climate change, for example.
The evidence is overwhelming and virtually indisputable.
Yet we consistently either deny that it’s happening,
despite clear evidence,
or we admit it’s happening, but soft-sell the consequences.
“It won’t be as bad as scientists say.”
The truth is just too difficult, or too costly, to face.
So we tell ourselves stories.

We do the same with many of our heroes—
favorite athletes, or pop stars, or actors,
or politicians, or theologians, or pastors,
or any one with power and prestige.
When we see them misbehave badly,
we tell ourselves stories,
“It can’t be as bad as it looks.
They’ve done such good work.”

Sometimes we even tell stories about ourselves,
that might keep us from attempting something hard,
or from taking a path less traveled.
We tell ourselves we aren’t smart enough or strong enough,
or good enough at heart,
to take that difficult path, or that high road.

So we adopt all kinds of convenient fictions—
about ourselves, about others, about the world around us.

Today my aim is to uncover a convenient fiction
that many of us hold about Jesus,
and his ride into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

We hold on to this fiction, because it works for us.
Because it’s easier and less complicated than the truth.

Tell me if this story sounds familiar to you:
Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.
He doesn’t encourage, but he also doesn’t stop,
the crowds’ heartfelt shouts of praise, “Hosanna!”
The people want to make Jesus a King,
but Jesus cleverly refuses, by riding a humble donkey,
and by doing so, reveals that
he is a servant to the poor and humble,
and not positioning himself as a conquering king.
Then in a matter of a few days,
this same crowd turns against him and tries to crucify him,
because he is not going to be their king after all.
And then his disciples discover,
after his trial, crucifixion, and resurrection,
that what he is really after is a heavenly kingship,
not an earthly one.
So Jesus invites us all to
receive him as our spiritual savior, not a political one,
and with a pure heart, to him give our spiritual worship,
while we wait for his kingdom to be fulfilled in heaven.

I like that story.
I like it very much.
Because it suits my personality,
suits the theology I was taught, and suits my social position.
I like that story.
It’s just a shame that it’s not the truth.

So let’s take this convenient fiction,
and peel back the layers.
Like an onion, it might make our eyes burn a little,
It might make us uncomfortable.

Where do we start?
Let’s start with this innocent animal, the donkey,
a humble beast of burden,
nothing like a white horse we associate with a conquering king.

This symbol of simplicity and humility,
that reminds us of the rural life,
and of rejecting political power,
is so convenient for Mennonites
who have a reputation and a theology that emphasizes
simplicity, and humility, and suspicion of political power.

The only problem with this fiction
is that in the world of Jesus,
a donkey did not conjure up images of a simple, and rural,
and non-political life.
A donkey was highly esteemed,
and it was often the steed of choice for a king,
especially at politically opportune times.
With an almost semi-divine status,
donkeys and kings belonged together.
Jesus was not the only king in the Bible to have ridden one.
Even the proud and wealthy King Solomon
rode a donkey on the day he was announced
as the new king of Israel.
And there are more kingly examples in the Bible,
and in other ancient literature.

I used to think that seeing Jesus on a donkey
would have been confusing to those who
wanted to make Jesus the king of Jerusalem.
No, Jesus on a donkey did not confuse anyone
who was following and shouting Hosanna.
Nor did it confuse any religious leaders in Jerusalem,
or King Herod, with all the power of the Empire,
inside the city walls in his palace.
They understood the threatening symbolism.
They knew that it was customary in their world,
that when a king returned to his city,
after already securing a victory in battle,
the steed of choice for his victory parade into the city
was a donkey.

A king rode a horse into battle, yes.
But when he came in peace,
or when the battle had already been won,
he rode a donkey.

So, I’m sorry, it is simply wrong for us to suggest
that by choosing a donkey
Jesus meant he rejected political kingship.

I think what Jesus is signaling here,
is that he is, in fact, entering Jerusalem as their Messianic king,
but not a king who will seize his power by force,
or by violence.
Rather, he is a king who comes in peace,
because the enemies are defeated,
the essential battles have already been won.

When looking at the picture more honestly, we can see
that Jesus was not just an imagined threat to Caesar and Herod,
and to his own religious power structures.
He was a real threat.
He already had the crowds and public opinion behind him.
And now he was staging a highly symbolic march,
making an in-your-face statement to the political powers.
Without words, he was saying,
“Give it up. You’ve already lost.”

And yes, he was also making a statement to his followers.
He was telling them, “Make no mistake.
We are not going to win with the sword.
This is not a violent takeover of the throne of David.”
He was saying,
“The powers of the Empire,
and the powers of the religious elite—
they exercise their power by violence.
They take from others,
they accumulate wealth and coercive power,
so they can lord it over others.
In contrast to all that,
I am entering this center of religious and political power,
to show you how the power of God
is about to unseat the powers of this world,
and put them in their place.”

Of the two power structures at play—
Rome was the least worried.
They had all Caesar’s armies at the ready.
I think the religious hierarchy felt the greatest threat.

And this points to two other convenient fictions—
held by different Christians for different reasons.
One fiction is that the Jewish people as a whole turned on Jesus.
That the people shouting “Hosanna!” at the beginning of the week,
made an about-face, and were shouting “Crucify”
by the end of the week.
The other fiction,
is that Jesus’ crucifixion was entirely a Roman act,
not a Jewish one.
There is honorable intent behind that fiction, of course,
because we don’t want to be anti-Semitic.

But the truth is more complicated.
This is not a matter of ethnicity or religion.
It’s about religious power,
and what happens when power is threatened.
Turns out Jewish power structures act a lot like
Christian power structures when they are threatened.

The Jewish people, like Christians today, were deeply divided.
Jesus was immensely popular outside of Jerusalem.
He could thumb his nose at the scribes and Pharisees,
in the outer regions of Galilee, and get away with it.
Because rural Jews were likely already suspicious
of the power elite in Jerusalem—
the temple rulers who taxed and over-taxed them,
the ones who collaborated with the Empire,
in order to maintain what power they had.

But in Jerusalem, Jesus was a threat.
Healing someone on the Sabbath upset the power elite.
And if you lived in Jerusalem, in the urban environment,
you had personal ties to the power elite.
If they weren’t close relatives, they were neighbors,
or you rubbed shoulders daily in the market.

So now, at the beginning of Passover,
the biggest Festival of the Jewish year,
both sides of this great divide were in Jerusalem—
residents, and visitors from Galilee.

There is no biblical evidence that the people shouting “hosanna”
on Palm Sunday,
were the same people shouting “crucify” on Good Friday.
If I ventured a guess,
I’d say it was mostly Galileeans shouting “hosanna”
and mostly Jerusalem-ites shouting “crucify.”
I don’t have hard evidence of that, either.
But to me, it’s a far more logical explanation,
than saying the people just changed their minds.

The power elite in the Jewish world had a lot at stake.
Jesus posed a real and present danger to the status quo.
It would have been an easy thing for the religious leaders
to stir up a crowd of their neighbors and relatives in Jerusalem,
and convince them their peaceable future was at risk,
if Jesus didn’t die.

And one more quick fiction, while we’re at it.
“Hosanna!” is not some generic shout of praise,
like we often make it to be.
It’s kind of a hybrid shout.
Part praise, and part cry for help!
“Hosanna!” literally means “save us!”
This was a political chant being shouted 
by a crowd of oppressed Galileeans.
I have to believe they were staging a march for freedom,
that Jesus actively participated in.

So what does this all mean to you, and to me,
as followers of Jesus in the post-modern and secular West,
in the 21st century?
This truer story makes sense for then,
and makes sense for Matthew’s community of readers.
How does it make sense for us?

Like Jonny Rashid said in his sermons and talks
in our community last week,
Jesus took a side.
Jesus was not a neutral observer.
He confronted injustice.
He confronted oppression.
He confronted hypocrisy.
Wherever it appeared.
Whether in the militarized Empire,
or in the power structures of his own religion.

The convenient fiction of Palm Sunday,
for us contemporary Mennonites,
and for a lot of Christians, for that matter,
is that Jesus was not political.
That Jesus only wants to save us spiritually.
That Jesus desires only an internal and spiritual transformation.
That the primary role of Christians is to have
an internal and personal relationship with Jesus,
so we can go to heaven when we die,
and leave the earth behind,
and all worship around the heavenly throne.

The inconvenient truth is that we are called—now—
to collaborate with God in making THIS world new,
not just the world to COME.
This world is the world God loves,
and is seeking to heal and save.
This is the world where God wants to establish
God’s reign of justice and shalom.
And we are God’s partners in that work.
Like Jesus, we are not called to neutrality.
We are called to commit to the side Jesus is committed to.

It IS a mission of peace.
Like Jesus on the donkey, we reject the path of violence.
Our is a mission of mercy, and grace,
and love, and peace, and compassion . . . and also courage.
Because like Jesus, we must confront the powers that be.
The church of Jesus Christ, even today,
should be making the empires of the world nervous.

Those who wield their power primarily in ways
that protect their own interest—
if they do not in the least feel threatened by Jesus-followers,
we, and they, are probably holding on to Palm Sunday’s
convenient fiction of a faith that is only personal and internal
and harmless to the power structures.
I say, we stop telling that story to ourselves,
and choose the truer one.

Let’s share this prayer of confession together, in your bulletin.
one Jesus Christ, self-giving and generous Messiah,
we confess that we continue to misunderstand who you were;
we continue to make you into our image,
into the kind of ruler we are comfortable with.
all Jesus, lead us where you want us to go.
one Take us with you into the places you still want to save.
Show us the human lives and power structures
you still want to transform . . . including our own.
all Jesus, save us! Hosanna! We beg of you!
one Jesus Christ, our self-giving and generous Messiah,
forgives us, as always, and invites us to continue
the baffling and beautiful journey of the cross.

—Phil Kniss, April 2, 2023

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