Sunday, August 27, 2023

Phil Kniss: Orientation Day

Getting our Bearings
Deuteronomy 6:4-13; Mark 12:28-31

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Back-to-School season is a time of year people get reoriented.
That’s most obvious to students, teachers, and other educators,
as new school years begin.
Many of you here likely already attended
an “Orientation Day” of some kind at your school.

As we begin a new church year at Park View,
we mark milestones for children and youth
moving into a new grade level,
a new worship year starts up in two weeks,
a new Congregational Council is forming,
a new Congregational Chair and other roles are just beginning,
and a brand new Nurture Team is being put into place.
Many are getting oriented to something new in this church.

But you know,
it’s important for the spiritual lives and practices of all of us,
to regularly get reoriented in faith, in community,
and in our covenant with each other and with God.

Our tradition is not always as intentional and focused
in our orientation practices,
as compared to other faith traditions.

The Deuteronomy text we read this morning
is the primary orientation text,
and has been for thousands of years—
for the Jewish people.

In the time of Moses, the Israelites
needed orientation for a very specific reason.
They were at risk of losing themselves in new surroundings.

As the children of Israel were entering into the promised land,
God’s main concern for them—and therefore, Moses’ main concern,
was that they not get lost in the land of milk and honey.
Which is ironic, when you think about it.
During 40 years of wandering around in a desolate wilderness,
God was not terribly worried about them getting lost.
It was only after they settled in the promised land,
and started raising crops, building houses,
driving in stakes, and putting up markers—
that God started worrying about them getting lost.

So let’s see how God addressed that worry, in  Deuteronomy 6.
It’s in your bulletin.
But if you have your Bible, even better to look at it there.
Because you’ll see that this short passage
is part of a longer speech—
a speech that takes up almost all of Deuteronomy.
It’s a speech Moses gave to Israel—
his final instructions before his death—
before they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land.

Let’s start with the second part of the reading,
beginning in verse 10 of Deuteronomy 6.
Here God and Moses explicitly state their worry.
For the last 40 years, the Israelites roamed the wilderness.
living in tents, scavenging for food,
depending utterly and completely on God for survival.
Now, things would change, radically.

So Moses said, and I’ll paraphrase . . .
“Look and listen, people.
Until now you depended on God for everything you need,
quail, manna, water . . . one day at a time.
Soon you’ll be swimming in milk and honey.
You will live in cities you didn’t build,
in houses full of stuff you didn’t buy.
You’ll get water from wells you didn’t dig,
wine from vineyards you didn’t prune,
olives from groves you didn’t plant.”

Then he said, “So, when you kick back,
stomachs full, feet propped up,
don’t forget where you came from!
Whenever you start thinking you can handle life,
new gods will tempt you.
Remember the God you depend on, and owe everything to.
Remember Yahweh, who brought you out of slavery in Egypt,
and fed you in the desert.
There is only one God
who loves you, delivers you, and calls you ‘my people.’
Only one.”

That is the context for the most famous verses in the Hebrew Bible.
Deut. 6:4-5.
These are the heart of this passage,
the heart of Hebrew scriptures,
and the heart of the Jewish faith . . . to this day.

“Shema, Israel . . . Hear, O Israel:
The Lord our God, the Lord is One.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
There it is!
Keep those words.
Recite them to your children.
Talk about them when you are at home,
and when you are away.
When you go to bed at night.
And when you get up in the morning.
Tie them onto your hand, and onto your forehead,
write them on your doorposts and on your gates.

It’s safe to say that all Jewish adults and children today,
from Orthodox to Liberal, and probably even secular Jews,
have Deuteronomy 6:4 memorized, in Hebrew.
“Shema, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”
“Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

We Christians have a few scriptures that come close,
in terms of wide recognition,
but nothing quite like the Shema for Jews.

Most Christian adults and children,
if they have any Bible knowledge at all,
know the phrase from John 3:16,
“For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son.”
Or they could recognize and recite at least some of
the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6.

But there’s a big difference between
the way practicing Jews live with the “Shema,”
and the way practicing Christians
live with our important phrases of faith.
For Jews, the “Shema” is part of daily life.
Many of them repeat it, every day.
Some of the more devout, do so many times a day.
The Jewish people—as a community—
fully immerse themselves in these words,
to the point they are no longer merely words.
They are a spiritual home base.
They keep the Jewish people from getting lost,
just as Moses hoped.

Many of them do as Moses said.
They teach the words to their children at night and in the morning.
They tie them onto their hands and foreheads,
in little leather boxes called tefillin.
They place them on doorframes and gate posts,
inside tiny mezuzahs,
that they touch or kiss as they walk by.

These words have become deeply ritualized, and repeated often.
True, the practice becomes rote.
They do it by pure muscle memory, without even thinking.
But, I’ll bet you anything, having these words—
“The Lord our God, the Lord is One”—
so deeply embedded in their sub-conscious,
when time comes for active thought and contemplation,
these words have profound power to shape their thinking,
and their actions.

And don’t forget—these words were the spiritual home base for Jesus.
Like other Jews, he gravitated to these verses in Deuteronomy.
And when asked what the greatest commandment was,
he went right to that text, no hesitation.
He was formed by that text.

I think we, too, should have words and phrases of faith formation
that are so often repeated,
that they become a spiritual home-base for us,
embedded in our subconscious,
until we have a need to make them rise to the surface,
and shape our conscious thought,
in all their power.

For me, the Lord’s Prayer has become that kind of thing.
I repeat it privately almost daily, if not daily.
And we recite it every Tuesday morning, as staff,
in our morning prayers.
We sing it every Sunday here in worship.

When I’m alone, I even let my body participate in the prayer—
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
forever. Amen.”

There is nothing at all magical or mystical about this ritual of mine.
It’s just a choice I made,
to take some words that Jesus taught us,
and do more than use my brain to say them once in a while.
But rather, repeat them often,
and pray them with my body as well.
It embeds them more deeply in me, I think.
So when I may run out of words to pray,
I still have these at the ready.
With very little effort.
These words have become a prayer of orientation.

They keep me from getting lost,
in this land of milk and honey.
They help me remember who I am, where I came from,
and on whom I depend every day.

No matter who we are—students, teachers, pastors, laborers,
merchants, retirees—
we all need to periodically get reoriented.
Make this your Orientation Day.
Live life on purpose.
Know what grounds you, and keep returning to that.

Perhaps you, too, can find these Hebrew words of the Shema
meaningful to you.
Or the words of Jesus where he quoted the Shema,
and added “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Or perhaps the Lord’s Prayer could become that to you.

I made up bookmarks a while ago,
and I just reprinted a bunch of them this week.
On one side is the Shema, in Hebrew,
and the words of Jesus where he quoted it.
And on the other side is the Lord’s Prayer.
I have them on stacks on the round tables at the exit doors.
Feel free to pick one up as you leave.

Put it somewhere that you will see it often,
and be intentional about reciting it,
in whatever way works best for you.
Do it at least daily.
As you see it, and are reminded of it.
You may be surprised at the power of these words
to orient you.

As a confession, let us sing VT 388.
This song is likely inspired by Jesus words,
where he quoted the Shema,
then quickly added some other words of Torah.
Love the Lord your God with everything in you,
and love your neighbor as yourself.
You can’t have one without the other.

—Phil Kniss, August 27, 2023

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Sunday, August 20, 2023

Paula Stoltzfus: Scattered, broken, known, and loved

Journey toward wholeness
John 4:4-26, 39-41; Genesis 32:24-30

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The last several years I have done some work on my genogram, looking back on my family’s history, seeking understanding on the kinds of relationships and stories held there. In the process I’ve come to understand there have been stories of mental health challenges, a death by suicide, stillborn infants, unresolved grief, difference in treatment of sons and daughters, unhealthy use of silencing, and passive aggressive communication.  Some of these stories I have known but others were new to me.  

I was more familiar with the stories of my family of deep faith, hard work, hospitality, and tight knit communities where love of each other, music, mission, and God were valued.  I had come to value the knowledge passed down through the agrarian roots that taught me how to grow a garden and preserve food. To see beauty in the wild wonder of creation. To value hard work and steadfast courage forged from a deep well of faith.

I’m grateful to know of all these stories.  And slowly these stories are becoming integrated into my story.  It’s so easy to talk about the positive, uplifting stories of our lives and push down the difficult and painful ones. But the truth is, if we are human, and last time I checked, I believe we all are human, every one of us has stories of complexity, interwoven with pain and joy, questions and answers, certitudes and uncertainty.

Jacob certainly carried complexity in his story.  Grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Second twin son of Isaac and Rebecca. The younger twin to Esau, his brother.  From the time they were born there seemed to be competition.  It couldn’t have helped that Esau was Isaac’s favorite and Jacob was Rebecca’s. Esau loved the outdoors, hunting and wild game.  Jacob liked being around home, learning to cook.

There were also the social practices and norms at the time to give the honor of the birthright, property, and favoritism to the oldest son.  But in this story, Jacob pressured Esau to give his birthright to Jacob and then ultimately Rebecca orchestrated Jacob to fool Isaac into giving Jacob his blessing reserved for the oldest before he died.  Favoritism, jealousy, hate, manipulation, were all in Jacob’s growing up years. All intertwined in a family that was seeking to be faithful to God.

Once Jacob received Isaac’s blessing, he left his family upon his parents' encouragement to escape Esau’s rage. He was also told to seek out a wife from Rebecca’s family. Thus began his story in Laban’s household where manipulation, lying, and trickery met him. And yet, he also encountered love, family, and prosperity.

After around 20 years, Jacob wanted to return to his family and in fact heard a message from God saying as much to do so. Once he was able to negotiate Laban, his father in law, into letting him go, he began staging his reunification with Esau.  Jacob was hoping to win back Esau’s favor through extravagant gifts, assuming Esau continued to hold resentment against him.

The night before Jacob was to meet Esau, Jacob wrestled with a man, declaring him God and demanding from him a blessing before he would let him go. It was as if Jacob finally was trying to come to peace with the different pieces of his past. As dawn was breaking, Jacob received his blessing and a new name, Israel.  He then continued on to see Esau. He was surprised when, instead of rage, Jacob was met with love and forgiveness through Esau’s embrace.

Michelle Van Loon in her book, Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma, she says, “each time we connect what may seem at first to be disconnected puzzle pieces, we are moving toward wholeness and growing in understanding of who we are and who God is.”

I liken Jacob’s wrestling as a pivotal moment, a puzzle piece, in his life where he grew in understanding of who he was.  It was in this new space of blessing from the Holy One that he was fully ready to meet Esau where he was surprised by love, freeing them both from the past rage and hate that lead them apart.

We also have complex relationships in our families. And not only in our families of origin but also in our religious and non religious culture.  This was a dynamic at play in the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well in Samaria.  

Samaritans and Jews had a complex historical relationship.  Pat McCloskey, a Fransiscan, states it like this, “Imagine the hatred between Serbs and Muslims in modern Bosnia, the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the feuding between street gangs in Los Angeles or New York, and you have some idea of the feeling and its causes between Jews and Samaritans in the time of Jesus. Both politics and religion were involved.”

So it was incredibly significant that Jesus and his disciples were traveling through Samaria instead of around it, as often Jewish travelers did in order to avoid the people of Samaria.

It was also significant that this Samaritan woman arrived at the well at around noon, nearing the heat of the day.  Maybe she couldn’t get there until then. Or more likely based on the history Jesus shares, she was on the social outcast list and wanted to avoid people as much as possible for the shame and guilt that  met her in other people’s gazes and actions towards her.

Shame is a manipulating force that finds its way into everyone.  No one is immune.  It has the power to influence relationships and patterns of behavior. Dr. Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist in Northern VA who also worships at Washington Community Fellowship, in his book The Soul of Shame, says, “To be human is to be infected with this phenomenon we call shame…We work hard to cover it up. And our coping strategies have become so automatic that we may be completely unaware of its presence and activity…Its power lies in its subtlety and silence.”  Shame gives us the message that we don’t measure up, we aren’t cool enough, smart enough, successful enough, good looking enough, experienced enough.  It is the message that we are not enough.

If you can identify with this sentiment and all the emotions that can be drawn to the surface, then you have a little taste into what the Samaritan woman may have been living with.

And so Jesus encounters this woman at the well. He doesn’t operate from the cultural pressures and requests a drink from her. She understandably questions him, for all she knew, it could have been a trap to take advantage of her.  Instead, their conversation becomes one in which Jesus speaks about living water that will quench all thirst. He divulges the woman’s relational history.  Then concludes with the vision of worship occurring not in just the sacred places (the mountain and Jerusalem) they knew but anywhere people worship in spirit and truth, insinuating that Samaritans and Jews may worship together. Once the Samaritan woman acknowledges her belief in the coming Messiah, Jesus then does the ultimate confession by saying that he is the One.

Needless to say, her encounter with Jesus was transformative! Jesus saw her; knew her history; was vulnerable, disclosing who he was. This act of vulnerability on Jesus’ part, leaning into the relationship, sheds light on the shame she showed up with.

The Samaritan woman comes face to face with an act of vulnerability filled with love instead of judgment. It is as if the power of shame disintegrated. Freed, hopeful, and joy filled, she leaves and becomes the bearer of good news to her community, where Jesus spends a couple of days teaching, bridging and perhaps being a pivotal part of healing the gap that had been there for centuries.

Jacob and the Samaritan woman both carried complex histories. Their scattered and broken lives encountered vulnerable spaces where wrestling and revealing occurred, stripping the shame of its power, where being known, seen and loved continued a path of healing and wholeness.

We are similar, holding complex stories, histories, and pasts. We also have been created for relationships.  These relationships are complex and difficult at times and yet also bring us much joy.  The same is so with our Creator.  We long for deeper knowing and acceptance, love and grace, beauty and belonging. When we truly live from a well of these elements, we know what living water tastes like.  It is what leads us on a journey towards wholeness.

I realize that sharing of ourselves is vulnerable and can be scary. I would like to encourage us to see it as Dr. Thompson puts it, “vulnerability provides the opportunity for discovery and creation, for the emergence of beauty and goodness.” Vulnerability, done in a safe relational or communal setting, creates space “for God to bring us to greater places of integration and resilience…creating within us undivided hearts…and where joy is the byproduct.”

It is a challenge to find those spaces where we are cared for to be courageous, vulnerable, and open to transformation.  In our scattered and individualistic society, we have a healthier acknowledgement of our need for counselors, spiritual companions, mentors, where we can find a presence to accompany us on our journey.  Every once in a while we find a group of people that we can journey closely together.  If you find yourself longing for a small community of support and sharing, let one of the pastors know.  We hope to nurture belonging whether it is in the form of a small group, Faith Formation class, Gestalt Pastoral Care Circle, Guess Who’s Coming events, or perhaps you have an idea yourself.

Our longings are real.  Our stories need care and a place to belong.

I offer a closing poem as a prayer for all our longings, written by John O’Donohue, entitled “For Longing.”

I invite you to take in these words with your eyes closed, noticing words or phrases, or perhaps a sensation you have in your body that you offer to God in prayer.

blessed be the longing that brought you here
and quickens your soul with wonder.
may you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
that disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
may you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
to discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
may the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –
be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.
may the one you long for long for you.
may your dreams gradually reveal the destination of your desire.
may a secret providence guide your thought and nurture your feeling.
may your mind inhabit your life with the sureness
with which your body inhabits the world.
may your heart never be haunted by ghost-structures of old damage.
may you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
may you know the urgency with which God longs for you.


I invite you to join me in reading together the Confession.
all    God of wholehearted living,
            we wrestle with the realities of our scattered lives,
            striving to fulfill dreams and hopes.
            We feel the cracks within us,
            leaving us broken and confused, numb and fearful.
            We long for your streams of living water to flow within us,
            but confess we often get distracted.
            Forgive us when we allow our emptiness to lead us
            instead of your Spirit.
            Forgive us when our fear drives us more than love.
       one    We open ourselves, step by step,
            to forgiveness,
            to the stream of life,
            to the power that transforms our fear,
            to the love that heals our wounds.
            Breathe in God's radiant peace that is for all.

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Sunday, August 13, 2023

Phil Kniss: It’s all for love

Patience both ways
2 Peter: True to the Root
2 Peter 3:1-11a, 14-15a, 17-18; Matthew 24:42-44

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It won’t surprise you to hear me admit
I’m not big into preaching about the apocalypse and the last days.
For most of my four decades of preaching,
I have held at arm’s length these NT apocalyptic texts
about the second coming
and the importance of being ready and alert
because Jesus will come like a thief in the night.
If there were other texts available,
and I was given an easy out, I took it.

Part of that, to be honest, is some spiritual trauma
I incurred in my childhood and adolescence in the 1960s and 70s.
I’ve told you some about that from this pulpit,
the movies we brought into the church, like Thief in the Night,
and some others about being left behind in the rapture,
and evangelistic preachers and books and Christian rock music
all reinforced our fear that we would miss out on the rapture.
I nearly wore out the needle on my turntable
listening to Larry Norman. Here’s a short clip [video].

In my early teens I endured more than one sleepless night,
worrying I would be left behind for some sin I committed
that I wasn’t even aware of.

So as a preacher, for many years, I just looked the other way
when these texts were given as an option by the lectionary.

Trouble is, when preaching from a lectionary,
it’s hard to keep avoiding, year after year and year,
the scriptures you’d rather not deal with.

Whether the old faithful Revised Common Lectionary,
or the newer Narrative Lectionary,
neither one cuts me a break,
they both keep shoving these apocalyptic scriptures at me,
saying, here, preach it, preach it.

So in the last 10 years or so, I’ve been doing it more.
I think I’ve preached as many sermons on the second coming
in the last ten years,
as I did my first 30 years of preaching.
Maybe I’m getting bolder, or maybe I ran out of excuses.
But I find the more time I spend in these texts,
and the more I immerse myself in the
social and religious context they emerged from,
the more I love them, and am actually drawn toward them.

It takes some adaptation, for our context,
but they are relevant, and needed, I believe,
if we understand them more deeply and authentically.

I’ll just be frank and say that we Mennonites,
and the most of Christian evangelical world,
have long been drawing the wrong conclusion from these texts.

Yes, there are many who find courage and hope
in the notion that Christ is coming, sooner rather than later,
to extract us from this evil world and take us away to heaven.
For those whose lives in this world are nearly unbearable,
I don’t fault them for holding on
to an escapist view of the end times.

But I would say, emphatically,
I don’t believe it was the intent of Jesus,
or the Gospel writers documenting Jesus,
to instill fear and dread into the psyche of the disciples,
nor to convince the church of Jesus that God’s #1 goal
was to safely remove them all from this earth,
before God obliterated the earth,
and condemned to hell all the people
who hadn’t accepted Jesus or prayed the sinners’ prayer.

A God that would do such a thing,
is not a God I recognize from the scriptures.
I think it’s a God we created,
prompted by the American church in the 60s and 70s
that felt highly threatened by all the
social and political turmoil and change going on.
It was our contextual response to a season of civil unrest
and the social decline of the church,
and then it got institutionalized in evangelical theology,
and it hasn’t gone away.
Apocalyptic Christian movies haven’t gone away, either.
This one, Heaven’s War, came out just three years ago.

In fact,
the continuing marginalization of the church in Western culture,
keeps on fueling this battle mindset of the church against the world,
and it still fires up the culture wars among Christians,
and stokes the fires of the political polarization
we are seeing even today.
We end up with Christian churches and preachers
obsessed with a God doing war against the world,
and calling us Christians to join the battle to the death.
Is it any wonder the close association of God and guns,
on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and placards
wherever there are angry people protesting
against the so-called deep state.

I want to suggest this morning,
that the best antidote for this violent mindset
and corruption of religion,
is a better and truer reading of these apocalyptic scriptures.

We start with the most basic affirmation of God’s character—
God’s love and compassion for this world and all humankind.
Can we all agree to make that our foundation,
and build on that?

So what was our God of love and compassion
most concerned about in the first century of the church
in the Roman Empire?

God sent Jesus into our world as an expression of love, not terror.
Jesus came for the healing and reconciliation of all creation. All!
John 3:16-17:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world
to condemn the world
but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

As I said from this pulpit in my last sermon on this topic,
just a few months ago,
the resurrection of Jesus was evidence
to his followers that the hope
of a political deliverance from Rome wasn’t over.
The cross may have looked like a loss.
But Jesus defeated Herod and Caesar with the empty tomb.
Jesus would soon return with the angels of heaven,
they believed,
and would take vengeance on the evildoers who killed him.
He would sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem, as prophesied,
and execute justice and judgement
against the Empire and everyone responsible
for his crucifixion.
The real world, here and now, would be made right—
for the Jews, and for everyone else.

That’s what “salvation” meant, it seems,
for the first Jewish followers of Jesus.
But that definition of salvation made sense
only if Jesus’ return was very soon,
before winter turned to spring and summer.
So the imminent return of Jesus to set things right in their world,
was the dominant mindset of early Christians.

As the faith spread into new churches popping up
all over the Empire,
this view started to seem less realistic and relevant.
Not only were they far away from Jerusalem,
where this was all supposed to take place,
it didn’t seem as urgent to
Greek-speaking Jewish Christians in Asia Minor.
And even less urgent to Gentile believers.

So, Jesus started to fade in importance in the scattered church.
Some called him a fraud outright.
And one of their big arguments was, “See?
He didn’t return as he promised!
He’s dead and gone and irrelevant.”
Remember, this was before the Gospels and the Epistles
were familiar to the church,
long before they were considered to be scripture.
Before there was a well-established Christology.
So as Jesus and his teachings faded for some,
their ethical framework faded as well.
All manner of morally corrupt behaviors became commonplace,
even among leaders of the church,
including abuse of power, exploitation of others,
and they started looking more like their neighbors,
more like the Empire.

This is why the writer of 2 Peter wrote in v. 3 . . .
“In the last days (in other words, now) scoffers will come,
jeering, living by their own cravings, and saying,
“Where is the promise of his coming? . . .
Nothing has changed.”

You see, in its proper context,
that statement makes complete sense.
And so does the rest of 2 Peter, and the Gospel of Matthew.
They are speaking to present reality on the ground.

The point is not to scare people out of hell,
and whisk them off to heaven.
The point is to remind people
of God’s deep and everlasting love and patience.

Listen, v.9:
“The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness,
but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish
but all to change their hearts and lives.”
And v. 15:
“Consider the patience of our Lord to be salvation.
Therefore, dear friends, since you have been warned in advance,
be on guard so that you aren’t led off course
into the error of sinful people,
and lose your own safe position.
Instead, grow in the grace and knowledge
of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

It’s all for love, that God is being patient with us.
God’s heart, God’s deepest desire,
is to see the human race reconciled to each other,
and reconciled to God,
and all creation reconciled as well.
God big project is a shalom project—
where all are whole and complete,
and living the lives they were created to live.
God is not in a hurry to shut down the project.
And we should have the same mindset,
the same love toward our world today,
and keep our eyes on Jesus.

2 Peter is a call for Jesus-followers to be patient,
because God is patient.
And what looks like “slowness” or inaction
from a human point of view,
looks like love and compassion from a God point of view.

That kind of thinking is a great antidote
against the fear-based, church-against-the-world,
mindset that grips so many people today
who call themselves Christian,
and who resort to ways of violence and coercion
and political foul play
to bring about the kind of world they believe is the right one.

Let us, instead, because of love,
be patient,
as God is patient.
Let us be strong and bold in our witness,
but let that witness be steeped in love,
and look like love.
And let God be in charge of any timeline.
Yes, there is a place for accountability in God’s economy.
This doesn’t do away with the judgment side of God.
But love and reconciliation always come to forefront.
That is the message of scripture.

I think that attitude and point of view is entirely consistent
with a careful reading of these apocalyptic scriptures.
And it’s a truer reading,
than what Hal Lindsey and others gave us 50 years ago,
and which still shape Christianity today.

It’s all for love.

Let us confess our faith together.
Before we do, go ahead and turn to Voices Together #407.
Or just follow what’s on the screen.
We will go immediately into singing that hymn,
when we finish the confession,
in which I incorporated some phrases from the hymn.

one In a wounded world that often overwhelms us,
we are tempted to long for our escape to another world,
rather than wait for your promised restoration,
and your return to us, 
and to this world of ours that you still love.
all Come, Lord Jesus.
one Help us view the present through the promise,
all “Christ will come again.”
one Help us trust despite the deepening darkness,
all “Christ will come again.”
one May we let our daily actions witness,
all “Christ will come again.”
one May we make this hope our guiding premise,
all “Christ will come again.” (Phil Kniss, adapted from Thomas Troeger)

—Phil Kniss, August 13, 2023

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Sunday, August 6, 2023

Phil Kniss: It’s the gospel truth!

Telling true from false
2 Peter: True to the Root
2 Peter 1:16-2:2, 15-19; John 15:4-5

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I promised last Sunday,
that in my second sermon from 2 Peter,
we would slog through some pretty harsh and polemical words
from the letter writer.
I also suggested there might be a way to better understand the context,
so that we could actually appreciate this text a bit more.
Let’s see how we do on that.

And just to up the ante,
let me read a few more verses from chapter 2
that our lectionary skipped over
for reasons that may become apparent as I read them.

Beginning at v. 12—
“These people [referring to the false teachers] . . .
are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct,
born to be caught and killed.
They slander what they do not understand,
and as those creatures are destroyed, they also will be destroyed,
suffering the wages of doing wrong.
They count it a pleasure to revel in the daytime.
They are blots and blemishes,
reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you . . .
[etc, etc, then picking up at v. 21]
It would have been better for them
never to have known the way of righteousness
than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment
that was handed on to them.
It has happened to them according to the true proverb,
“The dog turns back to its own vomit,” and,
“The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.”

“The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.”
Do any of you still wonder why 2 Peter
doesn’t get preached from very often?

But what’s actually going on here?

Well, let’s start by just noting that there is a cultural difference,
between then and now,
in terms of the value of “polite discourse.”
In the church today,
we couldn’t speak like that publicly,
without being dismissed for violating basic norms
for acceptable public speech.
It sounds just mean-spirited to our ears.

But then, read some writings of our Anabaptist forebears.
Even in the 16th-century,
when gospel truth was at stake,
Anabaptists did not hold back their tongues.
They may not have picked up a sword.
They were not physically aggressive.
But their words were sometimes quite sharp.
So let’s just admit a cultural difference,
in what is an acceptable way to speak.

let’s think about what was likely happening
in these churches that 2 Peter was addressing.

To repeat briefly from last Sunday,
the recipients of this letter
were likely churches emerging in mostly urban areas
around the Mediterranean,
where Greek and Roman culture and values dominated.
These newer churches were being formed
by Hellenized Greek-speaking Jews
(that is, Jews who had already
drifted far from their roots in Jerusalem)
and by Gentiles who had no roots
in communal Hebrew and Jewish values.
And—most importantly—
this was when the written accounts of the life of Jesus—
our Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—
were only beginning to be written down and passed around.
No one, yet, thought of those writings as scripture.
Same for the letters of Paul.

So, the place of Jesus in the church was at risk.
It needed to be defended.
What did Paul mean by calling the church the “Body of Christ?”
And did everyone agree that “Christ,”
the Messiah being referred to,
was the very same Jesus of Nazareth,
the Jew from Galilee,
whose earthly life ended on a Roman cross?
Could the folks gathering around the Roman Empire,
continue to trust that Jesus had it right,
back there in Jerusalem?
Was Jesus, indeed,
not just a renowned prophet who paid with his life,
but also the Anointed One,
the Son of God?

The answer was disputed, especially in the heart of the Roman Empire,
far away from Jerusalem.
So yes, the place of Jesus in the church needed a vigorous defense.

Because, apparently, this was more than doctrinal drift.
These were communities, in some cases,
led by influential leaders who had lost their trust in Jesus,
and were enamored by their own growing wealth and power,
and began to lead the church with values and ethics
that resembled the excesses of the Roman Empire,
far more than the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

So at stake here in 2 Peter is not just something
you could describe as doctrinal heresy.
This was a denial of basic moral responsibility.
It’s one thing if the conflict is over theological differences only,
if you are contending over the exact words used
to describe the nature of God and humankind.
It’s another whole level of urgency,
if leaders are pulling people away from Jesus altogether,
denying the validity of his ministry, his claims,
and saying his promised return is a hoax.
If so-called Christian leaders
convince their followers that there IS no moral code
based on the Hebrew tradition of Torah,
and enhanced by the life and teachings of Jesus . . .
if they openly embrace the values of the Empire,
and use wealth and power and sexuality
to exploit others for their own gain—
then there is something to stand up against, strongly.

Strong forces of evil demand strong words and actions in response.

So let’s be clear that the “false teachers” being talked about in 2 Peter,
are not merely teachers the letter-writer disagrees with.
They are teachers who have rejected the way of Jesus,
and have embraced the way of the Empire.

Understanding that context—
that the church was facing a deadly threat from within,
and that harsh discourse was more culturally acceptable—
I think we can actually appreciate the passion and love
the letter writer has for the church of Jesus Christ.
So I think we should cut him some slack.

In fact, let’s ponder, together,
whether his letter might even be seen
as something we could look to as inspiration for today.

Is that going too far?
Maybe. But maybe not,
given the extremes that we see today,
that get put out there in the name of Christianity,
that do not in the least resemble Jesus of Nazareth,
but look an awful lot like purely
secular, self-centered, circling of the wagons . . .
or that slap the name of Jesus right on top of
the same pile of racist and patriarchal language
that white-supremacists have used for generations . . .
or Christian nationalists,
that push for a so-called Christian nation-state
to advance the Kingdom of God?
At what point do we just stop and call them out as false?
as Christian pretenders?

The Christian church today,
is no less at risk, than was the church of 100 A.D.
We are also growing up in places far away from our roots,
immersed in the values and practices of the Empire,
of a way of life that honors wealth, exploitation,
self-indulgence, abuse of power, and violence.
The church and the Empire are incompatible.
They are just as much at odds today in our world,
as they were in the first-century Mediterranean world.

Let’s not be fearful of calling a spade a spade.
If looks an Empire, quacks like an Empire, walks like an Empire,
it’s an Empire.
And we should be able to say so,
in the spirit of a biblical prophet.

But if it looks like Jesus, talks like Jesus, and walks like Jesus,
it’s Jesus, and we can embrace it.

And of course, caution is in order.
We should use words carefully, and judiciously.
We should use a tone of voice that people can actually hear,
instead of shutting us off prematurely.
And we should be humble enough to know
we sometimes don’t see the whole picture.
But there is a place for speaking truth, and not apologizing for it.

But let’s choose the right things to get urgent about.
These days, it’s easy to get fired up and mean-spirited
about anything we believe in.
Let’s reserve the open calling out of others,
for those so-called Christians who have actually,
and verifiably,
rejected the character of Jesus revealed in scripture,
not those we just have disagreements with.
Doctrine and lifestyle and political differences,
we can and should sort out,
with honesty, humility, clarity, and kindness.
But denying the life and witness and character of Jesus?
Using Jesus as a prop for violence, nationalism,
and racist ideology?
Then, bold, prophetic words and witness are much needed.
And we, as a church, should be ready to stand up and speak out.

Let’s bring our whole-hearted and whole-bodied commitment to Jesus
with us whenever we gather as a church.
And especially whenever we gather at the table of communion.

The table is a place steeped in symbols of conflict—
the broken body and shed blood of Jesus.
At the table, we are reminded of the cost
of standing up and speaking out.
We are also reminded of the new life and healing that is possible,
when the real human Jesus, and the risen Messiah,
is host at the table, and invites us to come and dine.

—Phil Kniss, August 6, 2023

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