Sunday, May 28, 2023

Paula Stoltzfus: Alive in the Spirit

The Spirit of Jesus binds us to each other
The Wind of God Blows New Life
Acts 2:1-4; Romans 8:14-39

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This morning we celebrate Pentecost, the indwelling of the spirit of God on the early believers of Jesus gathered.  An interesting fact about Pentecost. It is right around 50 days after Passover, Jesus’ death, and resurrection. This coincides with a Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the anniversary of the Jewish people receiving the Torah. So the early Jesus followers were celebrating Shavuot at the same time as the descent of the tongues of fire.  So for them, the gift of the Holy Spirit was in addition to the divine revelation of God’s presence given in the holy scriptures.

Paul’s letter written later to the Romans expounds on his belief of life in the Spirit, wide and expansive as it was. The Romans were a community mixed of Jews and Gentiles. Those that lived in the identity of God’s people and those that were “outside” of this identity.  This picture is of an identity that does not come from a spirit of slavery, bound by fear and indebtedness, but one of adoption, a place of belonging and freedom, communicating choice instead of election.

The familial imagery used here is one easily identified with. It is one based on relationship rather than by association. The church for me was that growing up.  Since our family lived at significant distance from our extended family, the church relationships became my cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Quite frankly, our family units are not always the ones in which we share things in common. We often choose with whom we have our close connections to share the depth of experience in life, from the joys to the present sufferings.

The believers in Rome knew of suffering.  The Jewish community knew well of the oppressive forces of Roman rule.

Paul acknowledges that life would not always go well.  There would be suffering. But suffering in the context of family and being a child of God allowed one's suffering to endure.  This alongside the image of family, placed Jew and Gentile together. The interconnectedness deepened.

This kind of intimate relationship anchors one’s identity.  There is a sense of belonging, a love that runs so deep that suffering, even though felt, lives into a hope that the suffering won’t last forever.

We live in a fractured world.  We are still grieving the losses of Covid and the reckoning that needs to happen with the -isms and phobia. Many that stem from fear. We are a changed people. And not only that, relationships, systems, countries, people groups, churches, and even creation itself is experiencing the brokenness which reaches as far back to the beginning with Adam and Eve’s separation through sin.

Paul works with this intimate relationship between humanity and creation. Humanity has subjected suffering onto creation.  Humanity experiences the death and decay of creation.  We not only suffer with one another. The creation itself suffers, groaning as in labor.

I find it fascinating that labor is Paul’s chosen descriptor as he himself would not have experienced labor first hand.  Maybe he heard labor stories or heard the cries of one in labor in the communities he grew up in and visited.  Nonetheless, it is an imagery that I appreciate as one who has endured labor.

Labor is intense.  There is a raw vulnerability that swells from the depths with great pain and intensity that can not be ignored. For me there was a piercing focus on breathing. It was only in focusing on the breath that I was able to get through the pain of one contraction after another.

Creation, subjected to the patterns of humanity has suffered as in labor.  Perhaps more severe weather patterns, glaciers melting at record rates, sea level rising, the poorest living in the lowest sea levels homes being threatened, rainforests being bulldozed to erect palm trees to feed the insatiable human appetite for palm oil, droughts increasing, floods threatening are the earth's contractions. Just when one disaster is addressed another occurs.  

But Paul doesn’t stop there. Not only creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly, waiting for our own redemption. The brokenness of creation, reflects our own brokenness. We experience cut off in our relationships, flooded by loneliness, bulldozed by business, surviving from one crises to another. Words become illusive. When the pain in our depths is so deep. When depression, sickness, or despair are so paralyzing. The Holy Spirit is present to intercede. Allowing our very breath to express what we cannot.

Our very breath.

What a gift. Our very breath carries what we cannot express to God! Breathe that in with me friends.

We are tempted to allow the demands of life take hold of our very breath, keeping us running this way and that, breathing shallowly and quickly to keep up with ourselves and others. When we stop and breathe deeply and slowly we live into a different invitation, one of the Spirit. The same Spirit that is present with the labor pains of creation is present with us, connecting all that is living.

There are more and more studies that show how time spent outdoors lowers heart rate, releases tension, reduces stress and cortisol levels. We have a symbiotic relationship with creation.  We take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.  The trees and green leafy plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen.  We experience its beauty. We soak in the sunshine. We absorb the nourishing rains. We need each other.  We share in the blessings and in the groans too deep for words.  

Paul seems to communicate that humanity is a part of setting creation free.  As we make courageous choices to care for creation, we in turn are cared for. Not only creation, but also our siblings in some of the most vulnerable places in the world, like the slums where Jugo and Grace live in Jakarta where the sea level rise threatens their communities existence. When we act individually and communally at curbing our carbon footprint, live sustainably, perhaps  even giving up something, we are caring for their humanity, as they are restored, we are restored.

Steven Charleston, author of Ladder to the Light, a member of the Choctaw Nation and an Episcopalian priest, describes it this way.  “The understanding of community, of kinship, in the spiritual tradition of Native America is vast and liberating…Community extends in a great circle around all of creation. It includes not only the tribe of the human beings, but many other tribes as well, both seen and unseen. All living things are a family, and that family is permeable. The vision of our renewal begins the moment we understand that creation is not all about us, but about life.” Later he says, “ Kinship means not conformity, but relationship - deep, spiritual relationship…It means being a nation without boundaries or hierarchies. It means being willing to take less so others may have more - not because it is the law, but because it is love.”

This love is what holds us when there is suffering. And Paul says as much. Suffering happens. But he makes it clear that suffering does not have the last word.  In God we have hope that redemption, restoration, and resurrection are the last words. He concludes this by saying that nothing can separate God from those who love Yahweh.

In a time when Roman rule was harsh. Paul lists off a number of ways that people would have suffered, offering assurance of God’s enduring love.

This message is not new. It harkens back to the Hebrew scriptures in the Psalms where the refrain, “God’s love endures forever.” Paul, having been steeped in the scriptures, continued the message. God’s infinite love is always present, ready to be received at any moment, even when the “feeling” is absent.

James Finley, a Christian psychotherapist, speaks about “the infinite love of God, the Holy, welling up, presence-ing itself and pouring itself out... This is the God-given, godly nature of every breath and heartbeat. It is the sun moving across the sky, our breathing in and breathing out, the miracle of being alive and real in the world.”

Our hope lies there, trusting that God’s love is with us and in us individually and communally, with creation, at all times, even when we don’t feel it.

How hard it is to live out our faith in those moments when absence is the predominant sensation and hope seems so small. We need lament and confession. We need each other.  We need our kinship of all beings. We need breathe.  We need the Holy Spirit to keep the life force within us all alive. Thanks be to God that we are promised this. God’s presence. Spirit Divine. One who holds us in love and never forsakes us. Amen. Alleluia!

Let us join together in confession as we also in faith breathe in the Holy Spirit inviting restoration.

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Sunday, May 14, 2023

Phil Kniss: Loving more than the idea

The Spirit of Jesus pours out God's love
Romans 5:1-11

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We are loved. We are deeply loved.
You and I and every child of God,
are eternally and unconditionally loved.
Believe it. And let it sink in for a bit.
And now, allow yourself to wonder, along with me . . .
Why are there so many
fractured, spiteful, self-serving, and violent interactions
between persons that are
equally loved and treasured by their Creator?

Perhaps, it is the nature of us humans
to love in the abstract, more than in the particular.
Sometimes the idea is easier to embrace than the actual.
Once I was in a group discussing camping in the great outdoors,
and someone said, “I love the idea of camping.”
We knew what they meant.
So, when it comes to loving ourselves—
the foundation for healthy relationships—
we love the idea of our self,
more than the actual self that lives in the real world.
We love our theoretical self, more than the self that is
just too . . . (whatever, fill in the blank),
or just not worthy of . . .
or just not enough of . . .
or could never achieve . . . and so on.
And perhaps we love the idea of our neighbor,
more than the actual neighbor that lives in the real world,
the one that is just too . . .
or not enough of . . .
or not worthy of our time and energy, and so on.

Sorry for starting my sermon
with a bunch of agonizing existential questions.
But I’d like us to ponder a paradox on this Sunday, especially,
when we are blessing some high school seniors,
in preparation for sending them out into the world,
and when we are remembering our mothers,
or those who have been like mothers to us,
who have nurtured us with unconditional love.
The paradox is this—
that we, beautiful and beloved children of our mothering God,
are at once capable of radiating
that beauty and belovedness into the world,
and are also capable of doing irreparable harm
to each other and to ourselves.
Why is that? How can we do more of the former and less of the latter?

I ask that because we live right now at the edge of some fault-lines—
we are earthquake-prone.
And I don’t mean the surface of the earth.
I mean our social, cultural, psychological, and religious ground.
There are fault-lines running through them all.
And they overlap. They impact each other.

I don’t need to rehearse the details of each fault line.
We know them, and feel them.
They have to do with our dysfunctional politics,
residual trauma from the pandemic,
climate change happening faster than we thought,
wars that shake up global alliances, threaten to go nuclear,
mass shootings, vigilante justice, domestic abuse,
an unstable economy,
a looming debt ceiling that could collapse on us.
church and denominational affiliations that keep shifting,
making institutions feel like they are on thin ice.

It’s precisely in these anxious and fearful times,
that we need a text like Romans 5:1-11.
Paul’s letter to the Romans, as Moriah said last Sunday,
is a letter to a church Paul had not yet met,
and thus, really, a letter to us all.
It’s his most comprehensive declaration of the Gospel.
And this passage in Romans 5 works like a pivot point
in his grand theological presentation.

In the first four chapters,
Paul establishes our common human condition of sinfulness,
that applies equally to Jews, Gentiles, pagans, everyone.
And he says grace is the only path to salvation,
the only way to be freed from the grip of sin.
And after today’s text,
Paul uses most of the rest of the book of Romans
to encourage followers of Jesus to live by the Spirit,
and to keep choosing new life in Christ.
He calls everyone to a consistently ethical life
of loyalty, love, and virtue.

But sandwiched in between
the opening chapters of recognizing our need,
and Paul’s lengthy invitation to new life in chapters 5-16,
these 11 sublime verses tell us . . .
We are loved . . . We are deeply loved.
You and I and every child of God,
are eternally and unconditionally loved.
Accepting this, and believing this,
is what can move us from being aware of our need
to living a new life.

This is the hinge of faith—
the knowledge that we are
covered and protected and warmed by the love of God.
It’s the same feeling, but I dare say even better,
than the feeling our three seniors will have in a few minutes,
when they are wrapped around with a quilt of our love for them.
Romans 5 is God’s quilt,
God’s comforter being wrapped around us.
If we got stuck at only being aware of our sin, and our need,
we would be in a sad state of affairs, marked by shame.
But Paul says is Roman 5, verse 5, that we are not put to shame,
“because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts
through the Holy Spirit.”
Poured out. Overflowing.
An excess of love is ours to receive.

And guess what? God loves more than the idea of us.
God loves the real us, in the real world,
with our real warts and all.
In case the reader doesn’t pick up on that at first glance.
Paul repeats himself. Several times.
“While we were weak . . . Christ died for us.”
“Even for the ungodly . . . Christ gave himself.”
“While we were still sinners . . . God shows love for us.”

God loves more than the idea of us.
God loves us as we are.
God loves more than the idea of our neighbors.
God loves them, as they are.
Yes, of course, there is more to be said about the Christian life.
Paul has another 11 chapters to go.
But first . . . first Paul wants to be sure that this hinge
is fastened securely, and is never in doubt.

You are loved. You are dearly loved.
Seniors, you are loved. You are dearly loved.
Mothers and mother-like-figures, you are loved. You are dearly loved.
And everyone else in earshot, you are loved. You are dearly loved.
Here. Today. As you are.
And as you become who you will be.
And if God loves us all like that,
we have more than a good reason
to shower that same love on everyone we meet.
Let’s go and do that.

—Phil Kniss, May 14, 2023

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Sunday, May 7, 2023

Moriah Hurst: God keeping faith with us

The Spirit of Jesus reveals righteousness
The Wind of God Blows New Life
Romans 1:1-17

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Last week I was talking with a few seminary educated, pastor friends. We started discussing baptism, sin and salvation - you know light and normal lunch conversation. I noticed that sometimes the questions I expect to be easy for pastors really stump us - what is the gospel? What is righteousness? My pastor friends and I realized that for many of us these topics are hard to talk about. We don’t have good language for them. We lean away from heavy language of condemnation and fear but haven’t found newer ways to articulate these basics in our faith. So with that as my backdrop we approach Romans. A book that might get a bad reputation when it comes to misuse and feels like intense theology for this bright spring morning.

This Sunday we start 4 weeks looking at the book of Romans. This letter written by Paul is the longest of his letters in the bible. Romans is different to the other epistles or letters from Paul. First, this is the only letter to a church that Paul didn’t found. He hadn’t even met the Roman church yet. I understand a bit better the first 15 verses of this text as Paul introduces himself, trying to gain footing with this group of people who don’t know him. He is giving a context for who he is.

In the same way that I would give some background when I introduce someone and want to let people know why they would want to know them or talk to them. This is my friend Alissa, we were roommates in seminary together and she just finished up pastoring in Hamilton Ontario.

Some scholars note that Paul’s language to the Roman church is more cool and dispassionate than some of his tone in letters to churches he is more familiar with.  “Paul offers a more sustained, careful account of his own positions and makes little clear reference to the church in Rome. These distinct features prompted earlier generations of scholars to identify Romans as a summary of Paul’s thought, unlike his other letters that were written to address specific communities and their problems.” (Women’s Bible Commentary, p. 548)

It also helps me to realize that Paul was most likely dictating his letter to a scribe. We tend to speak differently than we write. I had a student once that would write an entire paragraph without any punctuation. In getting them to start noticing where they needed punctuation, I had them read their paper out loud. Whenever they felt like they needed to breathe I’d tell them that was a good spot to put punctuation. If you notice the first 7 verses of this text only have commas. Thus, approaching the thoughts captured in these run-on sentences can feel overwhelming.

We are also switching from narratives, stories captured in the bible, to a letter containing Paul’s thoughts and theology.  So Paul starts with an opening, goes on to thanksgiving and then gives what many call his thesis for the rest of his letter in verses 16-17. Paul is giving the background of his theology but it is a one way communication, not a back and forth conversation. Letters don’t really capture dialogue.

Rome was a big city and the church there might not have been very large. Paul expresses affirmation for the work they are doing and that he wants to both see it and join them in it. This big task that they share of including people of many backgrounds in the big tent of God’s love and salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul is longing for the mutual encouragement of “we are in this together”.

And then we come to his theme for the next 11 chapters, verses 16-17 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is God’s saving power for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith, as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

When we look at the life, transformation and then work and teaching of Paul, it seems almost humorous for him to state that he is not ashamed of the Gospel. No kidding! Paul, who had a dramatic conversion to being a christ follower.  Paul, who went on to take 3 significant missionary journeys and taught, preached and started churches. Of course he’s not ashamed of the gospel, it’s the opposite of that, he is proud of it.  But maybe he is making some space for some of us that do feel ashamed sometimes. Not ashamed of God’s saving work in the world, but very conflicted about how that has been communicated. We are confused about how we articulate the gospel and salvation and when it is appropriate or tolerable to do that without being labeled some kind of Jesus freak. We want to be subtle, not wanting to offend or be pushy.

 Mary Austin writes: “Paul proclaims that he is not ashamed of the gospel, but I often find myself ashamed of the church, and what we have done, collectively, in the name of the gospel.  How do we separate God’s good news from our flawed expression of it?  Are there places where we should be ashamed?  Where do we find God’s “righteousness,” as Paul calls it, mixed in with our human frailty?” (

“Maybe Paul is being gracious to us there. If you are ashamed I get it, but I’m not” (Bible Worm podcast).
Yet as we go on, these verses offer that it is God who is faithful to us first. We are inspired by the faithfulness and love of God and respond with faith and love.

For many in the biblical text salvation was understood as deliverance from physical danger. Freed from Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, these are defining stories. For us, it might be truer to say that salvation is deliverance from being caught in cycles of sin and thinking that we can save ourselves. God’s desire for salvation is expansive, it reaches to us and on to creation itself. It starts with God and then we mirror or respond to God’s actions. Humans are enveloped in God’s justice and righteousness. It is a gift. This grace that God offers us, we can’t achieve it but it is abundantly offered, just because we are deeply and fully held in the love of God.

A podcast I really appreciate is Bible Worm, where a Jewish and Christian theologian reflect together on the text for the week. Coming out of the book of Matthew as we follow the narrative lectionary and now turning to Romans they paint a picture of Salvation this way.

“Salvation - Yes, it's where you will go when you die but in this text it is a setting free from the power of oppression in the world here and now. Talking about the world constructed by those with ruling power. Proclaiming a Gospel that Caesar is no longer Lord, Jesus Christ is Lord. The way that Rome has ordered the world in ways that are unjust is no longer the way the world is going to be. But we are working together with God to this more just world. And that’s what salvation is, that’s what justice is, that’s what righteousness is” (Bible Worm Podcast)

“God is acting in ways in the world that nudge the world closer to justice. And God is faithful to us and so when we live in faithful response to God then we must also move the world towards justice.” (Bible Worm Podcast) “We trust in God and God trusts in us and together we work to move the world towards the just community that God has in mind”
I think I can work with that definition and live into that invitation.

“Let’s trust that God is bringing about a new world that is closer to justice. Let's be faithful in our response, not be ashamed of our role. Let’s talk to people about a more just world that is possible.”

As we approach this table where we tell the story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, we do proclaim it as good news. We are taking Jesus' life into us and allowing this community and our life together to shape us for God’s work in the world. We are acknowledging that we don’t have to generate love and justice on our own but we do it in response to what God has already done for us. God has faith in us and with us. May we respond in kind with faith.

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