Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Real Christmas Miracle: Pastor Knecht's Christmas Meditation 2014

Luke 2:1-2 (NRSV) In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

When we read the Christmas story this Christmas Eve, we may skim over these verses listed above. They talk about such mundane things, and we will gather to hear of the miracle of Christmas, yet if you miss the point of this reference you may miss the real Christmas miracle.  Luke wanted to make sure that we had an orderly account of who Jesus was and what he came to do.  So he would like us to know the context of his coming. Why at this particular time and and at this place did Jesus come was a point he wanted the reader to understand.

Luke 2:1-2 set the complex context of Jesus coming beautifully without any superfluous words. The early readers would have understood instantly, modern readers may need a little help.  The Roman Empire had just unified the whole of the known Mediterranean world under Octavian Augustus Ceasar, who ended a period of change and conflict within Rome that had been raging on and off for for about 200 years. A new imperial order had brought stability.  That stability ushered in a period of globalized trade and movement of people and ideas,  Basically silver mined in western Spain could end up in India and spices could end up in the other direction and all points in between.

Like globalization today this beta version came with a steep price. Order was maintained by Roman legions and allied troops raised in the conquered territories.  These troops were paid for in taxes levied on the occupied population.  Those who collected these taxes got their positions by bidding for them.  They made a bid to the state, and would basically get to keep for themselves any funds raised above the bidding price. The collector could raise as much as he liked as long as it did not spark a revolt.   The system is known as tax farming. It went all the way to the top. Quirinius would do the same, his goal was to fill his pockets with as much loot as he could before his term ended.  He could then live the rest of his life in luxury.  For the average person in the ancient Mediterranean world, this system was brutal and degrading.  The Christmas story begins with a family being pushed around because of a corrupt and oppressive system. The head of this system, Augustus, was being hailed as the world's savior.  I often think our manger scenes should include a small desk with tax forms on it to make the point.

This painful and messy point reveals the real Christmas miracle.  God chose to come into this world through a quite ordinary family who had to deal with the problems of living in a complex globalized world.   The idea of the Incarnation is not that we have to keep Christ in some special fantasy land, but that Jesus the Christ comes into our messy, mixed up and broken world, offering salvation, liberation, and life.  Christ enters into the world of Ferguson and Staten Island, Israel and the West Bank, Iraq and Syria, child abuse and divorce,  drug addiction and mental illness, unemployment and cancer, Aids and Ebola.  In Christ's coming, all who endure or fear these manifestations of sin have the hope of the gift of grace and a pathway to a new life.  The way to the Cross and Resurrection leads right through the broken world we actually live in.  God sent Jesus the Son to heal the world by his most merciful coming.  This gift is for us and for all people, and that is indeed a miracle.

Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas,

Pastor Knecht

PS-You are invited to celebrate with us at Holy Cross this Christmas Eve.  Our Living Nativity will start at 3 PM followed with our family worship at 4:30 PM  and conclude our Candlelight Communion at 7 PM.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

It's the End of the World as We Know It: And I Feel Fine!

We are a culture that is obsessed with the end times. Being in ministry for almost 20 years now, I have lost count of how many books, articles and emails have come my way dealing the so called end times. Right now, the Left Behind series is coming back to big screen. From the other end of the spectrum, I write this on the day that Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar is to be released in theaters. This film describes a world in danger of ending due to an environmental catastrophe, and a potential attempt to leave earth and settle somewhere else. My daughter has read the Hunger Games, Divergent, Maze Runner and the Selection which all deal with young people dealing with a future broken society on the verge of ending. This brings me back to the days of my own youth, where I watched such films as Soylent Green, Omega Man, Colossus: the Forbin Project, and of course the original Planet of the Apes. Perhaps the appeal of these films is the adrenaline rush of fear one gets as one watches, or thinks about all the bad things that can happen at a potential end of the world. One can then return home to his or her bedroom and be surrounded with the comfort world that is not over quite yet. It was all just a nice thrill ride, or was it?

The Last Days

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, (Hebrews 1:1-2 NRSV) 

These words written by the anonymous author of the New Testament letter of Hebrews almost 2000 years ago, show that the earliest Christians thought that they were living in the last days. They knew that the world that they had known was on the verge of ending. If one looks at this in a simplistic way, one could say they were wrong. We are reading indeed these words 2000 years later. The world did not end, you may say.

Standing at the End of the World 

As someone who reads history voraciously, I can tell you that the simple view is wrong. Countless worlds have come and gone since these words were first penned by an unknown scribe. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70 AD. The Roman Empire ended in 476, The black death devastated Europe from 1346 until 1353. Closer to our time the First World War(1914-18) came along and ended the world known as the Gilded Age or Belle Époque (good time). The dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima (1945) could be cited as another (remember those films with the big bugs). Each one of these were world ending events for countless people. In my daily ministry I meet people whose worlds have ended all the time, most often from a death, but sometimes an accident, illness or loss of employment.

Apocalypse as Revelation 

The word apocalypse comes from a greek word meaning to reveal. It is about one having her or his eyes opened to a new way of seeing. This is what happened to the first Christians. The imperial political propaganda of their day regularly told them they were living in the best of all possible worlds (called the Pax Romana) and it would last forever. For a persecuted minority, this was actually bad news. However, these first followers had their way of viewing things changed. What changed it? They saw the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God's only Son. They now knew that things were different. They saw that their world was more fragile than they had thought and was actually a mortal thing. It could die. This would not be a cause for fear, but grounds for hope, because they also saw that God raised Jesus from the dead. This Jesus promised this same blessing for all who follow him (John 3:16).

This did two things for the daily life of the first Christians, and does the same for us who follow in their footsteps as disciples today. First, by not fearing death we are released from our fears for the future. Secondly by coming to a mature understanding that all worlds are mortal we can actually appreciate what a gift it is to have one at this moment. Every moment of your life is a priceless pearl and you can choose to cherish it or take it for granted. To know that there might be a deadline might just help you appreciate the life you have been given just a bit more. This appreciation will motivate you to use your gifts better, find more joy in daily things and be more at peace. This can actually help you make better and fruitful decisions about the future, lift them up in prayer and leave the results to God.

How can I say all this? Because the witness of disciples who lived each day as if it could be their last one have reported these things. Martin Luther is supposed to have said "If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree today!". He could say this because he knew what God has done in Jesus guaranteed that if his world ended there would indeed be another and we get to be part of it.

Be blessed

Pastor Knecht

Prayer Applications 

1. In the morning make a list and write down your fears for the future-ask God to help you trust that they can be taken care of. Read Isaiah 25:6-10, Revelation 21:1-7

2. Take a legal pad and write down every good thing you see during your day. Start your day by asking the Holy Spirit  to help you see the good in your world. Give a prayer of appreciation for each as you go to bed. Read Psalm 100.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Time to Build for a New Day

We have had a really exciting time these past few months. Since last fall, we have brought on a new music minister, restructured our school, restarted our Kid’s Koinonia, and perhaps most importantly started action teams to rebuild and redevelop our community. All of these steps were spearheaded by the call of Jesus Christ to our congregation to be a more active presence in our area. They have been carried out by our committed disciples who are willing to put their hands to work to show God’s love so that lives can be changed for the better.

When we met in November of 2013 our congregation saw another financial crisis looming and decided that we no longer want live in fear of the future; we decided to embrace it. We committed to step up and break the cycle of financial instability. We began to rebuild by through the help of Pastor John Wimberly of the Alban institute who consulted us and led a process to form a strategic plan. He concluded that Holy Cross is a “ministry worth supporting.” Our mortgage lender the Mission Investment Fund called for a comprehensive ministry review, which came up with a list of affirmations (things we do well) and recommendations (steps to improve) and came up with the conclusion that “God is certainly not done with you yet”. Two groups outside of our community, who visit and know about lots of churches, told us how we are a special church that can be a blessing to our neighborhood and the wider church by living out our calling as God intends.

Can you help us?

We are ready to embrace the future that God has in store for us. We have a ministry plan in place and is it already beginning to be executed. Last week we greatly impressed the Mission Investment Fund with both this and our financial stability plan. Now all we need to do is carry our plans out, and we need your support to do God’s work. I am asking you to prayerfully consider pledging to the work of rebuilding our congregation for a new day. I am encouraging you to do this by signing up for the “Simply Giving” program that allows for automatic withdrawals from a bank account. If you have not done so already I would also encourage you to step up your giving in some way. You may have noticed how hard your friends at church are all working these days to build a congregation that changes lives. You will receive the form in the coming weeks. Please pray about it and respond however the Spirit leads you. On June 15th at our annual meeting we will present the plans to you. You will see all the work your leaders have done so far at our meeting and how they are committed to redeveloping Holy Cross.

Do not Fear

Since we started on this ride last fall, our president Heidi Klebaur has been calling our attention to the book of Ezra, which shows how God helped Israel rebuild their temple for a new day. It was not the old temple that they built, but one that met the needs of the people rebuilding it. The exact same thing is true for us today as we seek to rebuild the Body of Christ in Springfield New Jersey. Ezra’s contemporary the prophet Haggai encouraged their rebuilding with these works from the Lord.

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage....all you people of the land... work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. Haggai 2:3-5 (NRSV)”

That Christ is present at Holy Cross is abundantly clear to me, I pray you may see him clearly at work too.

Keep the Faith

Pastor Knecht

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Technology and Resurrection

Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Immortality 

I am sure by now you are aware that all types of data is being collected on each person everyday.    The news is rife with stories of privacy issues, data breaches and eavesdropping.  Every time you visit a website, purchase products online (or just with a credit card in a store),  rate or write a review of something, or click that harmless looking thumbs up button on Facebook or Pandora that data goes somewhere.  On top of that wearable tech such as Google Glass and the Samsung Dick Tracy watch are in their prototype stages.     Will these be collecting other types of data?  Could they be used to capture emotions and reactions to events and record them with the images the camera is collecting while tracking your location?   If so, could someone then collect all his or her data and use it to create a realistic profile of her or himself.    Could that profile then be combined with a process of artificial intelligence to create a newly regenerated virtual person?   Can this person then be downloaded into a piece of tech that can communicate and interact with the world?  If the answer to these questions is yes, have human beings found a way to be immortal through their own devices?

Not yet, but people are actually working on these very types of things.


The whole problem with this is, that if we can construct an immortal life through our own efforts we would be simply carrying our broken pasts into a dark future.   The traumas lived through would be carried on into eternity.  There would still be pain, there would still be loss,  there would still be evil.   These experiences of our sinfulness wear us down and tinge our lives with sorrow.   As we carry these burdens forward, time itself would loose all meaning,  there will be no urgency to do anything, experience would pile upon experience.   We would find that we were not damned to hell, but that we had created it ourselves for all eternity.   It is the reason why the Bible portrays God as expelling Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:22) Then the LORD God said, "See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"--  (NRSV)  This was not done out of spite or punishment, but as an act of grace so that no person would be condemned to unending suffering.

Forgiveness and Hope

While we may know the hope we have from a life of faith is an eventual eternal life,  it is not the first hope we have.  For the hope we have in Jesus Christ is first and foremost grounded in forgiveness.   Forgiveness breaks the cycle of evil that has been built up in our lives over time.   It heals the relationships we have with God, others, and the division within our own hearts.   If not forgiven, we can not be healed, if not healed we are not prepared for eternal life.   It is why when God sent Christ to the Cross it was first and foremost and act of forgiveness.   Jesus would show his wounds to his disciples to prove that he had forgiven them.   That the pain of Good Friday could be reconciled, proved that God can reconcile any division imaginable.   If you don't think that one really needs forgiveness to live eternally,  do this experiment.   Review the major news stories of the last week,  count how many are tragic or even evil.   Then take that number and multiply it by 52 and get an idea of how much pain just one year exists in an broken world.  Then think about that going on year after year with out end.   Unless the cycle is broken there will be no hope; it is the ultimate blessing for us that God has chosen to break the cycle of sin with the cross of Christ.  

Living out that hope in tangible ways is what we call discipleship.  True disciples don't wait for the forgiveness to appear in some distant future, they work on it now.   By advocating for the vulnerable, feeding the poor,  encouraging the downtrodden, we provide signs of hope that point people to a God who wants to heal, restore, and forgive.  In a life of Christian discipleship the best way to use technology going forward will be to use it as a tool of discipleship to do Jesus' work of being there for the least of the world.

Isaiah and the LORD's Mountain

One of the earliest references to resurrection in Scripture is comes from  the prophet Isaiah.   He gave us this vision of hope:  (Isaiah 25:6-8) On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.  (NRSV)  Notice that God does not just give the eternal life alone.   The promise is for the removal of tears (pain) and disgrace (shame).   Before these gifts are mentioned, Isaiah speaks of God destroying the shroud.   The removal of the shroud or sheet is the removal of the division between God and people, it is this removal that makes a blessed eternal life possible.  It is forgiveness that gives us hope.    So as we live out the greatest three days in history, perhaps it is most healthy to move beyond a childlike desire to merely live forever to mature faith that hopes for forgiveness.

May all have a happy and blessed Easter

Pastor J. David Knecht

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Go to Church, What's the point?

The question of the world to our church 

Gone are the days when church attendance helped you look good to your neighbors.   In the world of my
parents and grandparents people felt guilty if they were seen outside of church on Sundays.   Today people feel guilty if they don't workout.  They are more likely to say on a Sunday "Darn! I missed my bike ride ! (Or yoga class, golf, or whatever) than they would lament at not being able to worship.    There is no societal pressure in New Jersey to be a person of faith,  in fact it may be seen as a liability to some because it makes you less available to do the things that convey status these days.  I do think those who argue that we are persecuted today are grossly exaggerating.   I have personal friends who lived under dictatorships who were persecuted for their faith, and that is not what is going on in Union County New Jersey.   People are not presenting to me that they are hostile to those of us who practice our Christian faith, they are just... neutral.

Searching for the Answer

I personally think this is a great time to be the church, because in this atmosphere where people in the culture are neutral towards us, we have the blessing of being able to see the real answer to the question of what's the point without the blinders of popularity.  We can use the tools of our faith, scripture, prayer, conversation to uncover the Holy Spirit's true purpose of a life of faith and then spend some time talking about the question with those in our neighborhood an communities.   They answer that we will come up with will certainly be better than "everybody else is going."  It will be a real answer, that reveals a real purpose.

The Wrong Answer 

"I go to church to get fed!"  Well good for you.  So what? I can get fed at lots of places in the culture.   The person who stays in and gets up late to read on Sundays can honestly tell you the same thing.  So can the guys I see on the way to church on their road bikes, or running along the paths. (three things that I actually get fed by).   If this is our only answer to the question of what's the point?  Than I am sorry to say, that there would be no point.   Being fed is not enough of a reason to make the sacrifices we make to be the church. No neutral person in our culture would see the purpose of showing up at our door if that is our only answer. Now don't get me wrong, lots of churches do a lousy job of feeding people spiritually and physically. The decline of Christianity in our culture was aided by churches that just asked people to give without feeding and building them up in the first place.   Feeding people spiritually and physically is a good start,  but it is the start, not the goal, and certainly not the point.

The Bible's Answer 

"I will bless you.. so that you will be a blessing"  (Genesis 12:2) says God to Abram.  In this simple phrase we begin to see the answer that will not only give us something to say to the culture but to sustain ourselves as we journey in a life discipleship of Jesus Christ.  We are called by Christ to help, to serve, to proclaim, to build up, and to bless.   Yes this means to make a difference, but it is more than this.   Yes, this means to proclaim our faith, but it is more than this too.  Indeed it is to speak up for those who have no voice, but it will be more than this as well.  "Peace (shalom or wholeness) I leave with you, As the Father sent me, I send you" (John 20:21) says Jesus, when the disciples see him resurrected.   The Bible's answer is clear.  God calls us to go to be part of a church (or any Christian community) for the exact same reason that Jesus was sent to the world!   When we witness and experience the resurrected Jesus we are sent to bring peace (wholeness) to our neighbors.   That may mean food, or prayer support, or baby siting, or spiritual direction or any host of other things as long they do the work of Jesus to include, reconcile, feed, heal , cast out demons, and yes, even save.

Your Answer 

As the culture is neutral about the church, it is neutral about the Bible,  so just giving the above answer may not at first resonate or seem relevant to those we see on a daily basis.   The way they will see our purpose is by seeing it work out in our lives as we try to do the things Jesus showed us how to do.  This means finding a beautiful and creative way to make Jesus' story part of your story,  not in artificial or boilerplate way, but in a way that is real to you and evident to those around you.   We have word for this in Christian circles,  it is discipleship.   Disciples reflect their master,  they do the same work and have the same agenda.   They go about the work in their own way that reflects who they really are, but the purpose is the same. Disciples of Jesus
 confess that we do the work that Jesus was sent to do.  It is why Paul calls this gathering that meets somewhere near you on Sunday "the body of Christ". Jesus would also command his disciples to make more (Matthew 28:20),  not to build up some movement, or create an organization, or institution, but to carry on what He started at the Cross.

My Answer 

To become a disciple of Jesus Christ,  because like him, we do good for the world.

Keep the Faith,
Pastor Knecht

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Coming this Lent to Holy Cross

Stories Around the Fire

Fridays in Lent 7-8:30PM

I don’t know about you, but I love a good camp fire! The stories seem better, the food somehow tastes bolder, and most of all the conversation seems richer. Join us Fridays in Lent for a time to tell our stories of God and life around a campfire in our courtyard. Each week, we will center the the around a different aspect of Jesus own story as told to us by John's Gospel. We are praying that this simple act can help us live the story of Jesus that meets our need to be in relationship with others. Bring a chair, maybe a bag of marshmallows, or a pack of hot dogs, along with your favorite beverage and let’s see how the Spirit moves us this Lent.

Week 1: March 14 I am the He: John 4
Week 2: March 21 I am the Bread of Life : John 6
Week 3: March 28 I am the Light of the World: John 9
Week 4: April 4 I am the Good Shepherd: John 10
Week 5: April 11 I am the Resurrection: John 11
Week 6: April 18 I am the Way the Truth and the Life *after good Friday worship

Lenten Sermons-Jesus’ Bible 

The Story of Jesus is intertwined with the story of the people of Israel. They were chosen as God’s people to bring a light to the nations of the earth. Jesus was sent to save all in the world. The stories of the Hebrew Scriptures have many touch-points, parallels, and common themes with the life, ministry death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In our sermons this Lent we will explore a small portion of these together. Jesus used the Hebrew Scriptures to teach people about the living relationship they can have with God that gives hope, healing and peace. Ever since followers and disciples heard Jesus teach, saw him heal, and witnessed his sacrifice they saw that he embodied the core of the teaching of their Scriptures. So come and don’t just become acquainted with the “Old” Testament, but learn about the Bible Jesus used to help make all things new.

March 9 Lent 1 Jesus’ Bible, Our Shame Genesis 3:1-10
March 16 Lent 2 Jesus’ Bible, Our Hope Genesis 12:1-4
March 23 Lent 3 Jesus’ Bible, Our Struggle Exodus 17:1-7
March 30 Lent 4 Jesus’ Bible, Our Heart 1 Samuel 16:1-13
April 6 Lent 5 Jesus’ Bible, Our Life Ezekiel 37:1-14

Hope you will come by Holy Cross for these!!  Be blessed and....

Keep the Faith,
Pastor Knecht

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Following God’s Call

In the time between now and Lent at Holy Cross we will begin to think about how we are each able to commit to participate in our mission together to provide people with the hope of the Gospel through worship and communion, pass on the faith through our children's ministry and school, and reach out to the community through our food basket ministry.   Please start your process of discernment by reading and praying about the following:  

It's really free? 

The true church has nothing to sell. We give away our greatest treasure for free. We freely give people the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ that can change and even save lives. We pray for all God’s children willingly without demand. We invite all to worship no matter how they are classified by the world or how they classify themselves. We generously provide without requirement for those in our community under stress through our food ministry. We do this because our Savior Jesus led the way and gave all of himself freely on behalf of a world in bondage to decay and death. In return, Jesus only asks that we answer the call of His invitation to life. This call is given in the closing verses of the Bible. “The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." And let everyone who hears say, "Come." And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (Revelation 22:17 NRSV)

The Cycle of Giving

We at Holy Cross are only able to give away the Gospel Message of Life free of charge because the committed disciples of our community have freely given of their own resources to make this happen. If you have heard the Word of God, experienced Jesus’ presence in Communion, felt the joy of community, been inspired by our dynamic and Spirit filled worship, found a sense of purpose by volunteering to help those in our community, it is all because other Christians have shared of their blessings to give you the blessing of Jesus. God partners with the generous of our community to bring healing, hope and renewal through the gift of the Gospel.

God Makes the Giver

The beloved Gospel story of Zacchaeus shows how a person once healed by God can come to use her or his gifts to help others. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." (Luke 19:5 NRSV) Zacchaeus answers Jesus’ call and comes down. Jesus willingness to dine with him showed that God indeed loved him despite way of life that had hurt others and left him all alone. Once he understands that he is accepted as he is by God, Zacchaeus could take stock of his life and decide to change. He makes a complete 180. He turns from extracting from others into one who gives for others. He not only tries to make amends, he decides to make a difference. Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." (Luke 19:8 NRSV) The sequence is important for the story, Zacchaeus hears the voice of God, learns he is included in the plan, and then follows God’s call to use his gifts to help include others. In the upcoming weeks I will be challenging us all (including myself) to open our hearts to follow God’s call for our lives today.

Follow the Call  

My prayer is that the threefold pattern in the Zacchaeus story can be a reality in your life. I hope that you hear the voice of Christ calling you to come into God’s presence. Once the truth that you are loved by God is plain to you, I then hope you can take stock of your life now. Maybe the Spirit will lead you to see what you have and what you do not have, what you can do, or what you might you have thought you could never do. Then you can decide how you can make a difference through your giving. The proceeds of which will be used to help others receive the gift of salvation spoken about in God’s Word.

Holy Cross continues to make it through tough times because our people have the courage to be generous. The reality is that in the church today financial resources will be tight. This is  not always a bad thing. God wants us to use that which we are blessed with to most effect. If you choose to be generous towards our common ministry, please know that every gift you make will have a profound difference for us in our work together as a congregation. Indeed that is how it should be. As Jesus noticed and affirmed Zacchaeus, we as a congregation should notice and value the contributions of all who make up our church. I look forward to sharing more with you about how we together will follow God’s call.

 Keep the Faith,
 Pastor Knecht