Sunday, November 22, 2015

Phil Kniss: Faithful family finances

What if the church managed resources like a family?
Genesis 1:26-31; Matthew 25:14-30

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Every year on this Sunday before Thanksgiving—Fall harvest Sunday—
    the Sunday we (not coincidentally)
        return our financial Faith Promises,
        and (not coincidentally) drop them in a big basket,
            a la Deuteronomy 26 where the Israelites
                put the first of their harvest in a big basket
                and gave it to God in worship . . .
    on this Sunday you have come to expect (not coincidentally)
        a stewardship sermon,
        crafted to invite you to generously share your resources.

It’s an easy Sunday for me to fall into the role
    of institutional cheerleader.
    Let’s go, PVMC!
        God is at work in us!
        So take a step of faith, and give cheerfully.
        When you give to Park View,
            you give to the Kingdom of God itself.

    Sure, it looks like you’re paying for a $12,000
        high-efficiency heat-pump in the office wing
            (after our old one gave out),
        so our pastors can stay cool in the summer
            and warm in the winter . . .
        and it looks like a big chunk of your offering
            goes to keep the electric and gas bill paid,
            and buy cases of paper for the office,
            and keep four pianos and an organ in tune,
            and push snow off the parking lot this winter,
            and (oh by the way) pay my salary thank-you-very-much
                and pay our other pastors and music leaders
                and administrative and custodial staff,
        but don’t think about that, because really,
            this is the work of the Kingdom of God we’re doing,
            so giving generously is spiritual work,
                and God will bless you for it, Amen!

Now, in a way, everything I just said is true.
    But we have a congregation of pretty smart people.
        You can see right through the spiritual you-know-what.
        You can see the spin—
            when saying it straight doesn’t sound good,
            so we say it slant.
                Not falsely. Not deceitfully.
                We say it from an angle.

    Well, since I can’t get anything past you, anyway,
        Let me tell you now, this sermon has some angles.
        I’ll be straight about my angles, so to speak.

I have two angles.
    First is the institutional angle.

    Park View Mennonite does good and important work,
        in the world, and the community.
    I won’t run down the list,
        but I’ll give details to anyone who wants them.
        Our annual spending plan deserves your generous support,
            so our good work can continue and thrive.
        Much of the good work we do
            can’t happen without institutional backing.
            So I won’t apologize for making that known.
        Heat pumps, and paper, and salaries,
            and clean parking lots, and even well-tuned instruments,
            do play a part in the kingdom work we are about.

    And institutions face huge challenges today,
        as younger wage-earners are often skeptical of institutions,
        and older loyal ones, mostly retired, have fewer resources.

    Furthermore, when a lot of attention and energy
        gets invested in church conflict and church politics,
        and anxiety goes up as people and groups leave,
            some people distance themselves and hold back resources.

    Now the kingdom of God certainly will not rise or fall
        on whether Park View keeps our institutional machinery running,
        but the machinery, in fact, operates a lot of good ministry.
    So I hope those who believe in the kingdom work we do,
        will step up and support it even more, in tough times.

But here’s my other angle.
    You won’t be shocked.
        I’ve been talking about this angle for two months.
            Church as family. As household. As oikos.
        How does seeing the church as family impact
            how we think about our material resources?
            how we make decisions about money?
            how we give?

Let me tell you my family money story.
    I wish our high school youth could hear me this morning,
        but they’re away on retreat.
        They’re probably glad not to hear this.
        And they’d be glad if their parents didn’t either.

But . . . when I was a teenager—
    starting to earn money mowing yards, doing chores,
    and even getting my first “real paycheck,”
        as a busboy at the Arcadia Drugstore diner—
    my parents always took half my wages,
        and put it in the family money pot.
    I kept the other half,
        and of course, gave 10% of that to the church.
        So just 45% was actually mine to spend or save.

Now, I didn’t jump for joy at that family rule.
    But today, I publicly thank my parents,
        Dave and Esther Kniss, for doing that.
        They did an honorable thing,
            and it taught me something important.

    It taught me what it meant to belong to a family.
    Folding my personal earnings into the family economy,
        assured me, without words, of four important truths.

    One, it assured me I was fully a part of this family.
        I belonged.
        I was not external to the family.
        I was not a hanger-on, or a parasite.
    Two, it taught me I have a responsibility as part of the family.
    Three, it showed me my gifts had real value for the family.
    Four, it taught me that proportional sharing of resources
        is a normal thing that families to do.

Those four lessons gave me healthy perspective on family,
    which persists to this day.
    So thanks, Mom and Dad, for taking my money.
    And cementing my place in the family.

I think the church, when it comes to money,
    has not done as well as my parents,
    in helping its members feel fully a part of the family.

A lot of factors contribute to that.
A lot of blame to go around.
    I’d like to point at least one finger of blame at the U.S. Government.
        Everyone’s doing that now, so let me join in the fun.
    The government tells the church—and even wrote it into law—
        that we are a charity.
        And we believe them.

    In the eyes of the law, we’re not a family,
        we’re a civic organization doing charitable deeds.
    We’re an organization requiring donors.
        And volunteers.
        Persons willing—
            on their own accord, not out of obligation—
            to donate their time,
            donate their money,
            donate their resources.
    We’re an organization relying on public good will,
        that needs people to voluntarily “buy in”,
            and get personally involved,
            or even become “members.”
    But by the government’s definition, the church is still its own entity,
        entirely separate from its donors and volunteers.
        The law requires separation between donor and recipient.
        You can’t give to your own family and get a tax deduction.

Now, is that good for the church?
    Of course it is, if I see it from my first angle—
        as a promoter of the institution.
        Tax law has a net positive impact
            on donations flowing into our institution.
            That keeps ministry going.
        So I’m not quite ready to get on my soapbox and say—
            at least not very loudly—
            that the church ought to give up our charitable tax benefits.

    But it takes work to look past that,
        and focus on church as the household of God,
            faithfully managing household resources.

    Part of that work is changing our language.
        We are not donors.
        We are not volunteers.
        We who support our church family
            with the first-fruits of our lives,
            are integral members of this body.
        I suggest to you, members of this body,
            it is just as strange to talk about any of us
                as donors or volunteers . . .
            as it is to talk about my eye donating its vision to my body,
            or my hand volunteering to help get food into my mouth.

        No, my hand is not a volunteer and my eye is not a donor.
            They do what they were created to do—
                faithfully, reliably, without fanfare.
            When I stop to think about them,
                I sure am thankful for their gifts to my body,
                    and I show my gratitude
                    by respecting my body
                    and taking good care of each part.
        But never do I think about them as
            independent and voluntary and self-sufficient entities.
            I can’t even think about them apart from my body.

I think we need a different mindset
    when we make decisions about giving.
    I’ll not dare to tell you how you should think.
        You examine your own thoughts and beliefs,
            and act in accord with your convictions.

    But about my convictions and thought processes,
        let me say it straight.
        And let me say “us” and “our,” to include Irene.
        Because in this regard,
            our families, and church, shaped us in similar ways.

    When we give to charities, we look at three things—
        the degree to which that charity has a mission
            we’re passionate about,
        how dependent they are on our support,
        and how much we have in discretionary funds.
        So, weighing all those things—
            their needs, our values, our funds—
            we essentially vote with our money.
        Not every good organization gets our support.

    But those with the highest level of need,
        and highest correspondence with our values,
        get the largest portion of our available funds.
    We might even sacrifice in order to give.
    And when we give to a charity,
        we gladly accept the label of “donor” or “volunteer.”
        We take the perks that come with it.
        We don’t mind WMRA thanking us, by name, on air,
            or sending us restaurant discount cards.
        And we gladly accept an annual invitation
            to EMU’s donor banquet.
            We know we’ll get a nice dinner out,
                and a freebie to take home.
            Thank you, Phil Helmuth!

    But . . . it’s another thought process altogether,
        when we consider first-fruits giving to our church family.
    We must think differently, because we’re not giving to a charity.
        You are our family.
            We are part of you.
            You are part of us.
            We are not donors.
        We cannot, in good conscience,
            vote with our money at our church.
        We do not decide our giving to Park View based on
            how well we think the church reflects our priorities,
            or how much discretionary money we have this year,
            or how much we think the church needs our share.
        We are either part of this body, or we’re not.
        We’re either all in, or we’re looking in from the outside.
        And if we’re part of the body, we will act like part of the body,
            and give our share,
            which, for us, is a percentage of our income,
                based on the biblical practice of the tithe.
        We will not adjust our giving up or down,
            based on how happy we are with the church.
            That would violate our conscience.
            It would violate our understanding of family.

        I gave half my paycheck to my family when I was a kid,
            with little complaint, and little thought,
            because I knew I was a full part of the family,
            and that’s what members of the Kniss family did.
        We now practice tithing to our local church,
            with no complaint, and frankly, little thought,
            because doing so says we are part of this family.
            So we do what family members do.
        We give proportionately.

    I think that’s what our epistle reading today was about,
        from 2 Corinthians 9.
        Paul wrote to the church in Corinth on various topics,
            including a financial appeal for the saints in Jerusalem
            who were suffering terribly.
        He didn’t asking them to pray
            and listen for a word from the Lord about what to give.
        He didn’t lay a legalistic demand on them.
        He didn’t propose a mathematical formula.
        He just said, be reasonable.
            These brothers and sisters in Jerusalem are your family.
                They have need.
                You have abundance.
                It’s about proportion.
                You have a reasonable obligation to show generosity.
                The result of your generosity is not that you get
                    a mug or discount card or tax deduction.
                The reward for your generosity to your family,
                    is that it produces thanksgiving and praise to God,
                    and their bond with you, as family members,
                        will grow stronger.

    That’s also the case today,
        if we consider that we are giving to God’s household,
            the oikos, our extended family of faith.
        It’s not rocket science.
        It’s not a mystical spiritual quest.
        We start by assuming that in an oikos,
            proportionate giving is a reasonable spiritual discipline.
            No need to sit in prayer and meditation
                until we get a word from the Lord.
            What we need is a calculator.
            Or just knowing how to move a decimal point.

        Now, sorry if I sound flip. I’m not knocking prayer.
            This is a serious, and joyful, matter.
                So by all means, pray.
            But prayer need not be for discernment
                on what God wants you to give to the church,
                based on its relative value
                    alongside all the other charities you support.
            Pray for clarity.
                And let the clarifying question in your prayer be,
                    “Is this my family? Is this my oikos?”
                And if the answer is yes,
                    then you ask, as a member of this household,
                    what is the reasonable proportion of my income
                        to set aside for the household economy?

        This is not about a spiritual benefit that kicks in at 10%.
        This is not about legalism or about math.
        But it is reasonable for a family
            to share resources with each other,
            and to do it systematically and justly,
                to ensure that needs get met, consistently.

        The biblical tithe was how the whole Israelite family
            ensured a just sharing.
            Part of their family, the Levites, worked full-time
                to help people worship God
                and to feed orphans and widows.
            Consequently, had no time and no land to raise their own food.
            Again, not rocket science. Not a spiritual mystery.
            Just a reasonable communal practice
                of disciplined sharing.

        The result was, family needs were met.
            Hungry neighbors were fed.
            Foreigners were provided for.
            God was properly worshiped.
            Their mission was fulfilled.
        Proportionate giving was a measure of their trust in God,
            and their sense of belonging to each other.
            And it was a practice that worked.

—Phil Kniss, November 22, 2015

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Phil Kniss: Storytelling and membership

What if the church marked membership like a family?
John 15:1-5, 12-13; Matthew 18:15-22; Romans 12:3-5, 9-11; Hebrews 10:19-25

Watch the video:

...or listen to audio:

...or download a printer-friendly PDF file: click here

...or read it online here:

In 3 months or so, we’ll have our annual Membership Sunday.
    Without a doubt, it’s one of the more appreciated
        Sunday morning services we do here.
    If we had a Top Ten List,
        it would be in the top three or four,
        along with Easter Sunday, of course,
            and All Saints’ Sunday,
            and our annual Christmas music Sunday,
            and a few others that have become treasured traditions.

    To me, Membership Sunday feels like church at its best.
        Welcoming new people among us is a joy.
            But the real heart of the service are the faith statements,
                which are personal, profound,
                and often deeply moving.
            It’s a sacred time for us.

    But when it’s over, I swallow hard,
        trying to get rid of something that gets stuck in my throat,
            a nagging feeling that something is . . . well, a bit off.
            Seems like we get membership . . . partly right.
        That does not take anything away from the beauty—
            and importance—of that service, mind you.
        Even without my questions answered,
            I would keep doing that service.
            It’s worth it.
            I would just need to keep swallowing afterward.

    I’ll tell you the source of my misgiving.
        Two things, and they are related.
        First, we haven’t really made clear to these new members
            what we think their membership means—
            what we, collectively, say that “belonging” to this body
                will mean for them if they sign on with us.
        Secondly, after they sign on, and we celebrate,
            after we lock the doors and leave on Membership Sunday,
            we haven’t really answered the “now, what?” question.
            What will that commitment mean,
                to them? to us? as we continue down the road?
                How will we nurture their sense of belonging?
                What mechanisms of support and identity-building
                    do we have in place,
                    to help each other keep the commitments we make?

    It’s not that we don’t think about that.
        We even build language into the service to talk about it.

        We ask the new members two questions,
            about their faith in Christ,
            and about their commitment to the body of Christ.
            Of course, the questions are generic.
                And the only reasonable answer is, “I do.”
        And then the rest of us pull out the hymnal,
            and in unison, make a promise to them.
            They are good words,
                even we do forget them before we leave the sanctuary.
            We say this:
                We open ourselves to you . . .
                    in worship, study, service, and discipline.
                We pledge our willingness to give and receive counsel,
                    to offer and accept forgiveness . . .
                We joyfully accept you as partners . . .
                    in the care of our spiritual family,
                    and in our mission to the world.

        Beautiful words.
            Beautiful liturgy.
            And we end with a beautifully sung blessing
                that moves many of us to tears.
                “The Lord bless you and keep you,”
                    we sing to them.

    In no way do I diminish the power of liturgy,
        when it’s well-written and well-performed.
        And this one is.
        It probably has more impact than I give it credit for.

But I still say the liturgy isn’t enough.
    If we don’t also have in place
        plans and ways and means to walk with each other
            in specific practices of discipleship,
        that keep reminding us of our shared identity in Christ,
        and help us grow in the covenant we make with each other,
            then we are not doing enough, it seems to me.
    I think this is something we should work at.

    Some churches have a written membership covenant.
        For whatever reason historically,
            Park View does not have an actual membership covenant.
            A lot is assumed, and little said,
                about what belonging to us means,
                and why it matters.

    But even with a written covenant,
        it will take more than words on a page
            to translate our sense of belonging to each other
            into a real congregational culture
                that grows disciples of Jesus.

I have some thoughts about growing that kind of culture,
    but before I go there,
    let’s revisit this morning’s scripture readings.

We heard from Romans 12, that “in one body we have many members,
    and not all the members have the same function,
    so we, who are many, are one body in Christ,
    and individually we are members one of another.”

When the apostle Paul speaks of being members
    he means something different than we mean,
        in our modern, complex, and institutional church.
    If Paul stopped by our church office for a visit,
        and I explained to him how each year the staff
            compiles membership numbers
                requested by our conference and denomination,
                subtotaled by active, inactive, and associate members.
        I think he would scrunch up his face, and scratch his head,
            and ask, “So what does being a member of the body
                have to do with these numbers?
            Who do you send reports to? Why does it matter to them?
            And what in the world is an inactive member?”

    Membership, to Paul, was not a quantity.
        It was an organic metaphor.
    Paul was eloquent in expounding on it,
        to house churches everywhere, like in Corinth and Rome.
    In these churches, they lived like extended families,
        They lived like a real oikos,
            a household who shared life deeply and regularly.
        They ate at each other’s tables,
            and broke bread and shared the cup of Christ, often.
        They listened, discussed, discerned, shared resources,
            and knew each other’s heart as they knew their own.

        They were, in every way, members of each other.
            Members of each other!
            Connected as hands to arms.
            The metaphor made perfect sense to them,
                when Paul wrote that the eye can’t say to the hand,
                “I don’t need you.”
            Because they, in fact, needed each other, to survive!

    We ought to exercise a little humility,
        when we use this metaphor in our contemporary church,
            where people drop in and out so easily.
        Sounds good! But does it ring true?
            Oh yes, we rejoice when people join,
                we feel pain when people leave.
            But rarely does the coming and going
                of one of our 400+ members—
                even the coming and going of our pastors—
                inflict serious injury on the body.

Today we also heard Jesus’ metaphor of vine and branches, John 15.
    There is one vine, Jesus Christ,
        and all of us organically connected to that vine.
        A great analogy, and fitting,
            when our lives are genuinely inter connected to that extent.
        But how, exactly, does a congregation of 400+ branches
            actually live as one plant?
            when the branches don’t know each other’s names
                and sit on opposite sides of a sanctuary?

These are precious, and profoundly true, biblical metaphors.
    But let’s be honest.
        They start to break down in the
            large, complex, and institutional church,
            that’s still predominant in Western Christianity.
    I’m not denigrating big churches.
        I have no problem speaking of Park View as a “body of Christ.”
            Or Virginia Mennonite Conference,
                Mennonite Church USA,
                and even the global church.

    But every step we take away from the oikos,
        the household that functions like an extended family,
        that shares life,
        that worships together at Jesus’ table,
        that walks with each other in our everyday struggles,
        that rejoices in each other’s small victories,
            every step we take away from the church as family,
                as oikos,
            this body metaphor gets stretched a little thinner.

And today’s reading from Hebrews 10 gets harder to implement.
    Where it said, “Let us consider how to provoke one another
        to love and good deeds.”
    Kind of hard to provoke love and good deeds very effectively,
        when we don’t even know each other well.
        This is a job for a family, an oikos.

And Matthew 18 gets almost unintelligible
    when we apply it directly to the institutional church,
        as we have often done, and done poorly.
    This is not a text to help the modern church
        to cut off those who offend us.
    No, if we read it carefully, as an oikos,
        a household that shares life deeply,
        it reads completely different.

    This doesn’t even talk about how the church should handle
        conflict or differences between members.

    The issue is when one family member sins against another.
        They hurt a family member, they wound someone.
        And they are so callous about it,
            they refuse to listen to the pain of the injured party.
        When other family members approach the offender,
            and say, look how your actions
                have injured our sister or brother,
                they refuse to even listen.
        When the whole oikos lovingly brings them this hard truth,
            they still refuse to listen.
            Hear that? They refuse to listen.
            The offender is cutting himself off from the body.
                Relationship is being offered,
                    in the form of honest, restorative justice.
                The offender rejects the relationship offered.
        After which, the church treats them as a Gentile or tax collector.
            That is, they are receptive and hospitable,
                and they demonstrate love in the manner of Jesus.

    Why do we think Matthew 18 is a path to cut-off?
    Clearly, Peter heard it as the opposite.
        He thought Jesus was being too generous.
        So Peter asked for clarification.
        “Jesus, are you suggesting we keep forgiving a repeat offender
            as many as seven times?”
        “Oh no,” Jesus said. “77 times.”

So how might a church acting like an oikos, an extended family,
    mark our belonging to each other, as members?

I’m not answering the institutional question here.
    There may well be a legitimate need to count people occasionally,
        to make lists and reports and such.
        Not saying, “Chuck all that.”
    But I am saying there is something far more important here,
        for a church that sees itself as a family, an oikos.

    Families are not bound together by keeping their list current.
        They are bound by stories.

For the church family, there is first God’s story.
    We are all invited to enter it,
        and become part of the story of what God is doing
        to make things right in the world.
    God’s agenda is the church’s agenda.
        So God’s story of salvation and reconciliation and redemption
            is the first story.
            The orienting story.

    But our relationships, as members of each other,
        are also cemented by shared stories.

In fact, we can’t even have a meaningful relationship,
    without being allowed to tell our stories,
    and have our stories heard and received.

Life in an oikos is never in the abstract.
    It is always in the particular.
    It’s about what happened, and what happens.

In our modern families,
    where everyone is off doing separate things—
        going to work or school,
        engaging with neighbors and the marketplace,
        just doing life—
    when they all return at the end of the day,
        the most important relationship-building question is,
        “How was your day?”
    In other words, you have a story.
        I want to be in relationship with you,
            so I need to know your story.
        Asking for your story,
            is asking to be in a meaningful relationship with you.
            It’s an expression of love, of care.
        The day a marriage starts falling apart,
            is the day they stop asking each other, “How was your day?”

I hear from persons who live alone,
    especially those who once shared a household with someone,
        and now live alone,
    that they miss that more than anything else—
        no one is asking for their story.

If we as a church are to be an authentic family, God’s oikos,
    we must make space for, and invite, authentic story-telling.
    We strengthen our bond with each other by sharing stories.
    We are members of each other, as a hand is to an arm,
        if we have invited, and graciously received,
        each other’s story.

At our coffeehouse Friday,
    there was no speech, no sermon, no announcement,
        no group singing, no group prayer.
    It lacked just about everything people expect in church gatherings.
    This was a time for hearing and telling stories.
        And no one had to be told to do it.
    Yeah, we had some good fun and games,
        good food and drink,
        good tunes.
    But all that simply created time and space for the main event,
        which was, people leaning toward each other in conversation.
        And that happened, in abundance.
            Stories were invited, and shared, and received.
            Our membership with each other was strengthened
                on Friday night.

    When we share life together,
        spend time together,
        work and worship together,
        are on mission together in our community,
        we grow in our belonging to each other and to Christ.

    No, in itself, being together doesn’t impart secret spiritual DNA
        that makes us closer.
        Spirituality in me doesn’t rub off on you, or vice-versa.
        It’s not rocket-science. It’s not magic.
    But sharing time together creates a shared story.
        We have a story we both know, because we’re both in it.

And a story calls forth a response.
    When someone listens to my story,
        and asks a good question, or offers an observation,
        it encourages me to tell more of my story,
            and to reflect on it more deeply.
    Thus, my conversation partner becomes, potentially,
        a partner in my growth as a disciple of Jesus.

    The engine of discipleship
        is not theology in the abstract,
        or a purely propositional belief system.
    Careful theological reflection is important.
    It lays a good and necessary foundation.
        But it is not the engine of discipleship.

Discipleship runs on story.
We cannot grow as a Jesus follower
    unless we enter into God’s story of redemption,
        as told in scripture,
        embodied in Jesus,
        and mediated by the Holy Spirit . . .
    unless we joyfully offer up our personal life story
        to that larger story,
    and unless we tell our story to others,
        and listen with them for what God is saying to us.

But when we entrust our story to another member of the body,
    when we say, “Here is the road I am on right now,”
        and, “Here is what following Jesus looks like
            from my spot in the road,”
    when we listen carefully to the voice of the Spirit
        in these members of our body we trust with our story,
    and . . . when we fulfill the same role with them,
        as their listeners and responders,
    we are acting like members of a family.
    We are living like a household of God,
        an oikos of disciples doing life together.
    We are hands and feet and eyes and ears,
        who belong to each other in the body.
    And we are living out the biblical version
        of membership in the body of Christ.

Now . . . I’m at the end of my sermon on membership,
    and I’ve spent most of the sermon
        speaking of one particular aspect of membership,
        one essential element without which
            membership loses its meaning.
    I’ve been talking about this aspect for the last 20 minutes,
        and have not once uttered the word
        we usually use to describe it.
    The word is accountability.

    Accountability is all about story-telling.
    Accountability is the ability to give an account.
        To tell an honest story,
            and have it be believed and trusted
            and respectfully engaged with.
        That’s accountability.
        And community cannot exist without it.
    There is no true body of Christ without accountability,
        without a culture of storytelling—
        where the story of God’s redeeming work in Christ is central,
        where our own personal stories are offered up
            in light of that larger story,
        and where we give permission to each other
            to speak into our stories with love and truth and mercy.

I pray that as we at Park View continue our journey
    of learning what it means to belong to each other as members,
    that we will find ways to warmly invite all our stories to be told,
        and to be held up to the loving and searching light of Jesus,
            in whose story, our story finds its truest shape.

—Phil Kniss, November 15, 2015

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Monday, November 9, 2015

Phil Kniss: (VMC) A church worthy of its calling

Virginia Mennonite Conference Pastor's Consultation
Lindale Mennonite Church
Monday, Nov. 9, 2015

Opening keynote sermon by Phil Kniss
    (other consultation recordings/resources available here)

Texts: John 17:20-26; Ephesians 4:1-16

AUDIO (sermon begins at minute 6:30):

Printer-friendly file: click here

I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to share my heart
    with you my beloved Virginia Conference extended family.
    Clyde gave me 40 minutes,
        twice as long as I usually preach.
        I hope I can keep you awake.
        Even more, I hope I can keep myself awake.
            Pray that I might communicate clearly.

There won’t time for response or discussion tonight,
    but I want your feedback—
        questions, other insights, objections.
    From anyone, but especially from my pastoral colleagues here.
        We are on this journey together,
            and I have much to learn from you.
        At least some of my content is new thinking for me,
            that deserves to be tested,
                subject to critique, questions, refining.
        So please talk to me afterward, email me,
            or better yet, make an appointment for coffee.
    So here we go . . .

Unity in the church is a miracle.
    That’s not a metaphor.
    Unity in the body of Christ is literally,
        a divine act that supercedes natural laws.
        It’s a gift of God’s grace,
            made possible only in Christ,
            as we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s power.

    If you don’t think church unity is a miracle,
        you probably have a low view of the church.
    I have a high view.
        I think the church shares some characteristics
            with other social organizations,
            but it is much more.
        I believe that the church is uniquely called into being by God,
            who conceived of it, created it, and now trusts it,
            to be the agent of God’s saving activity in the world.
        The church is, by God’s design and will,
            the representative of Christ, the Messiah, in the world today.
        The church is, in fact, the body of Christ,
            the real, continuing presence of Christ in the world.
        The church is the closest this world will get to God.

    Now if that doesn’t scare the . . . whatever out of you,
        I don’t know what will.
    Because if you look around at the church,
        and still have the nerve to say
            the church is the closest this world will get to God,
            you might think God’s in some deep trouble.

    There should be no question in our minds
        about the pervasive and persistent and tragic brokenness
        of the body of Christ in this world.
            Read just a smidgen of church history, and you’ll see it.
            It could make you give up on the church
                and walk away from it. And many do.

    But if you dare to hold a high view of the church, and I do,
        then you don’t walk away, you fall to your knees . . . in prayer.
        You pray in thanksgiving and praise to the God
            who specializes in transforming brokenness,
            who took Jesus’ broken body and raised it from the dead,
            who breathed the Holy Spirit into Jesus’ paralyzed disciples,
                and filled them with the same resurrection power,
                and said, “It ain’t over yet!
                    I’m with you to the end of the age!”

        And you also pray for mercy and healing.
            You pray for our own continuing conversion as a church.
            You pray for our humility and receptivity
                and attentiveness to God’s agenda.
            And you pray for the miracle of unity.

If Christian unity wasn’t a miracle of God,
    but we could enact it by adopting the right strategy,
        right beliefs,
        or right attitudes,
    then the words of Jesus we heard in John 17
        would not have been a prayer for unity,
        they would have been a teaching on unity.
    Jesus would not have passionately prayed to his Father,
        to make his disciples one,
        he would have given his disciples
            ten practical pointers to achieve unity.
    Jesus knew, unity would only come about,
        if God intervened.

But, I hasten to say,
    unity won’t happen without our involvement.
    We must participate for God to create unity.
    We must deliberately engage each other
        in sacrificial love and action.

    We see that in the other text we heard tonight, Ephesians 4,
        where the apostle pleaded with the church
            to work, and to act, toward unity.

    “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord,
        beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling
            to which you have been called,
        with all humility and gentleness,
            with patience, forbearing one another in love,
            making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit
                in the bond of peace.”

    It’s still the “unity of the Spirit”—still the Spirit’s work,
        but he begs us to live it out
        in a manner worthy of our high calling.
    We are to actively embrace and take on attitudes and behavior
        that befit God’s work in us.
        We are called to patience, forbearance
            (yes, that’s a Bible word),
            and humility and gentleness.

It’s not in our own power.
    Verse 7, “each of us was given grace
        according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
    Our capacity to be the church God needs,
        comes as pure gift and grace,
        which we may receive and release for God’s purposes.

    These gifts—apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher—
        each one bringing a unique dynamic to church life,
        all have the same underlying divine purpose—
            “to equip the saints for the work of ministry,
                for building up the body of Christ,
            until all of us come to the unity of the faith
                and of the knowledge of the Son of God,
            to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
        The spiritual gifts are ours to exercise
            to enhance the unity of the church.
        But they are still gifts that come to us only by the grace of God.

So Christian unity is a polarity.
    It is a both a miraculous gift of God’s grace,
        and a duty on our part to live into,
        with all the intentionality and discipline
            required for any gift we have to steward.

So, can two affirmations that tug against each other—
    unity as miracle and unity as discipline—
    both be true, simultaneously?
Yes! like many other biblical polarities—
    grace and works
    mercy and justice
    purity and hospitality.
These are truths in tension,
    and if they are both true, we hold on to them both, vigorously,
        if we want to discover their deepest truth.

But there are other reasons unity in the church is complicated.
    When we talk about unity,
        we’re often fuzzy in our definitions.
    We use the same word to mean different things,
        and don’t always specify which meaning.

    Furthermore, in any human relationship, churches included,
        unity is not an either/or—
        we are never entirely in unity, or not in unity.
    There’s always a blend of unity and disunity we must navigate,
        to be in healthy relationship.

Let me use my marriage as an example.
    Irene is here, and I didn’t run this by her, but ask her later.
        She’ll vouch for it.
    Our marriage is the most crucial relationship in our lives.
        We care deeply about keeping it healthy.
        We took vows before God and others,
            and declared we would be one, for life.
            So unity, in our marriage, is of utmost importance.
    But we don’t experience complete unity.
        We have unity in many things.
            And we have disunity in many things.
        Our relationship consists of acknowledging that,
            and learning how to navigate that
            in a way that brings out the best in both of us.

    We are united in our commitment to practice fidelity,
        to be loyal to the other,
        to make personal sacrifices, each one for the other,
        to be attentive and compassionate toward each other.
    We are one in our devotion to our children and grandchildren.
    We are one in keeping Christ and the church top priority.

    We are one in our love of baseball,
        and our support of the Harrisonburg Turks
        and the Washington Nationals.
        But we have disunity in how we feel about the White Sox,
            and the Reds.

    Now of course, like any couple,
        it’s easy to laugh about disunity that’s trivial,
        like which baseball team to root for,
            or how the toilet paper rolls.

    But we have some dis-unity on some matters
        that come from a deeper place,
        from certain convictions or feelings
            that one of us have, but not the other.
        Like how we think and feel about money.
        Like how we communicate with others.
        Like our comfort level with order and chaos,
            spontaneity and predictability,
            or how open our home should be.

    Working out our differences, even after 35 wonderful years,
        is a continuing journey.
        It’s not always easy to know if we get the balance right,
            if the unity/disunity line is in the right place.

Now, in a 35-year marriage that feels rock-solid,
    undergirded by public vows and the law,
    where nobody’s even thinking about walking away,
        if we find unity challenging sometimes,
    how much more challenging is it in the church,
        a so-called “voluntary organization”
        where people move in and out, at will,
        and where churches actually market themselves
            to church-shopping Christians.

Every single human social arrangement—including the church—
    is by definition a mix of unity and disunity.

Now I said I have a high view of the church.
    There are some ways in which our project
        is entirely different than other human social projects.
    And I’ll come back to that.

But for now,
    let’s talk about the multiple layers of unity in the church.
In our present, perplexing conflict over sexuality—
    especially same-gender attraction and relationships—
    unity is often a point of discussion.

The argument comes up repeatedly, in various forms.
    One side of the argument is:
        “Divisions in the church are a sin against God.
            They undermine Jesus’ prayer in John 17.
            They destroy our witness to a watching world.
            Diversity is a gift. Let’s stay together.”
        On the face of it,
            it’s kind of hard to argue with that statement.
    But usually, there’s a comeback that goes like this:
        “It’s natural for people to seek others of like mind,
            to divide into affinity groups for more effective witness.
            We can’t make a god out of unity!
            Isn’t faithfulness to God’s will an even higher good?”
        And on the face of it,
            it’s kind of hard to argue with that statement.

But do we mean the same thing when we use the word unity?
    I see at least four distinct, but overlapping, kinds of unity.
    I think it would serve us well
        to be more clear and more specific,
        when we use the word unity in church conversation.

First, there’s what we might call kingdom unity,
    the title of the topic Clyde gave me.
    We might also call it spiritual unity.
    This is basically what I had in mind at the start of my message,
        when I spoke of unity as a miracle.

    As the body of Christ—local and global—
        we together confess the rule of Christ in the world,
        we declare our common loyalty to the Kingdom of God in Christ,
        we recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence
            and unifying work among us.
        This unity lets us partake of the Lord’s Supper together,
            because of that common confession
            of faith and trust in our Lord, Jesus Christ.
        Most Christian traditions
            share communion across congregational lines,
            and even across denominational lines.

    This is the unity we experienced, for instance,
        at Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg this summer.
        Our communion service there was, in my experience,
            one of the most powerful in recent memory.
            That communion declared our unity in Christ
                as a global Mennonite family—
                7,000 gathered, representing a million, scattered,
                    at one Lord’s table,
                    as fellow citizens of the kingdom of Christ.
            That unity superceded many other ways
                in which we do NOT have unity among us.

    Kingdom unity is what I experience when I gather
        with my clergy friends in Harrisonburg,
        on an almost weekly basis,
            to study the lectionary texts of the week.
        We are Presbyterian and Episcopal and Lutheran and Catholic
            and Baptist and Methodist and Brethren and Mennonite.
        And we bring all that we are to the table, to study scripture.
            We talk honestly about our particular angle on the text,
                shaped by our different and distinct traditions.
            We listen and learn from each other.
            And we have become friends.
            And we would all, every last one of us,
                call each other brothers and sisters in Christ.
            Our spiritual unity, our kingdom unity,
                trumps our theological and ecclesiological dis-unity.

There is a second kind of unity I would call missional unity.
    It’s where we are united in our core purpose as a church:
        we agree to join together
            in God’s saving, redeeming, and reconciling mission.
    We are able to join hands (that is, be in unity)
        around a common cause for the common good,
        even if our motivations differ,
        even if our theological affirmations differ.

    We witness this kind of unity every first weekend in October,
        as we gather to raise money at the Relief Sale.
    We witness it in our own congregations,
        as church members who might be at odds
            on certain key convictions,
            can nevertheless work side-by-side in Christian service.
    We certainly have done that many times at Park View.

    The most striking example is when we decided to rebuild
        a church building in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward,
        that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
        It took six weeks of hard labor,
            five different work teams,
            dozens of people on overnight road trips in vans,
                sleeping in a bunk house,
                swinging a hammer and paint brush side-by-side.
            Dozens more contributed funds, prepared food,
                donated supplies, you name it.
        We were absolutely one in our mission.
            And we let anyone join us who shared that mission.
        Now, I know our congregation well.
            I knew all those workers.
            If our task hadn’t been to build a church-house,
                but to build a comprehensive theological statement
                    we could all agree with,
                    we’d have failed miserably.
            If our task required that we had the same understandings
                about God and the church,
                as our brothers and sisters in that black Baptist church,
                    we’d have failed miserably.
            At least in this case, theological unity was not required
                in order to have missional unity.

            And now we have a community of
                very dear sisters and brothers in Christ in New Orleans,
                    who don’t really get us, theologically,
                    and to be honest, whom we don’t really get . . . yet.
            And I have a dear friend and colleague in ministry there,
                Pastor Walter Jones.
                He grew up poor in the Lower Ninth,
                    and has only basic ministry training, no degree.
                We’ve talked theology.
                We’ve talked ecclesiology.
                We are miles apart, in almost every way.
            But we have missional unity.
                We support each other by praying for each other,
                    in our very different missional contexts.
                We call each other every now and then, by phone,
                    to nurture that unity.

Third, there is something I might call functional unity.
    It’s agreeing how we will function together as a social body,
        how we understand our rights and responsibilities,
            our authority,
            our participation in decision-making.
    I struggled with what to call this.
        I might have called it structural unity,
            since it defines how our relationship is structured.
        But “structure” is often associated with complexity.
            And this can be very simple and informal.
            I meet with another pastor every week,
                for prayer and spiritual companioning.
            We have functional unity;
                we agree on how we function in that relationship.
            We have nothing in writing,
                but we kind of know what to expect when we meet,
                and we know if one of us is running late,
                    or we need to cancel,
                    we’ll send a text to inform the other.
        We are united in our mutual expectations of how we function.

    At the other end of the spectrum, complexity-wise,
        functional unity may need clear structures and due process.
    In our present church-wide conflict over sexuality,
        finding unity in how to function together
            is front-burner agenda.

    That’s what we’re working on in the denomination,
        in conferences and districts,
        and sometimes, in the congregation.

    We all agree forbearance is a biblical divine mandate.
    We agree forbearance is needed in any human relationship.
        But we still need to figure out
            if we can agree how it functions in a given context.
    We have a new landscape in the church today.
        So naturally, we need a new kind of functional unity.
    We can’t expect old ways of functioning
        to carry us through any new landscape we encounter.
        I’m an amateur hiker.
            I know my way of walking has to adjust
                when I enter new terrain.
            I have adjustable hiking poles.
            I need to make them shorter when I climb a mountain,
                and longer when I descend.
            I have to take off or put on layers, as weather changes.

    So part of the work we have to do,
        is to come to a shared understanding
        of how to function in a new environment.
    How much disunity in other areas can we absorb,
        and still maintain a healthy, functional system?
    Where does decision-making authority lie?
        Who is responsible for whom?
        What kind of behavioral contract do we have, so to speak?
        What rules of operation have we agreed on?

    Functional unity is certainly not all-important,
        but it is not un-important.
        And I suggest, it becomes more important,
            when other kinds of unity get challenged.
        That’s why we must tend carefully to process.
        Sometimes people who push for good process,
            get criticized for just trying to delay things,
                or to avoid the real issue.
    Maybe that’s true sometimes,
        but I think most of the time,
        we just realize that when we lack unity in other key areas,
            we need something solid to stand on while we find our way.
        Functional unity can help create that healthy space,
            for us to do the deeper work of being church,
            and can make space, hopefully,
                for the Spirit to move among us,
                and bring about what we cannot do on our own.

Finally, there is a more intentional and explicit
    and far more challenging kind of unity to work at.
I’ll call it covenantal unity.
    It’s when we are united
        because we have articulated a particular covenant,
        we have made explicit promises, before God, to each other.
            Remember my example of marriage?

    Well, in the church, in a relationship of covenantal unity,
        we declare before God, to others in our particular body,
            our confessional and behavioral commitments.
        We agree how we will support one another in that covenant.
        We agree how we will give account to one another.
        We will want to establish a common understanding
            of what constitutes the breaking of covenant,
            and how we walk with each other when covenant is broken.

    Covenantal unity goes to a deeper place, than functional unity.
        And I think we get the two confused sometimes.
        Covenant is more than agreeing
            how to function in an organizational context.
        Covenant is more than establishing a social contract.
        Covenant, at least in biblical usage,
            is deeply relational,
            and it is God-centered.
            God is always the key partner in covenant.
    This is what I meant when I said our project, the church,
        is different from other human social projects.

So keeping in mind this biblical, relational, God-centered
    nature of covenant,
    I wonder—are we being a little too loose
        when we so quickly and easily apply the word “covenant”
        to the large institutional church?
    Is the biblical concept of “covenant” really what we’re dealing with,
        when navigating complex institutional relationships,
        defined by constitutions and bylaws and guidelines?

    It’s not settled in my mind,
        but I at least raise the question here for us to consider.
    Is not the biblical notion of unity in Christ,
        enacted by the Spirit, governed by covenant,
        better suited for our primary local, relational,
            worshiping, missional, and mutually accountable
            expressions of the body of Christ?
        and less suited for the large institutions of church,
            with their necessarily complex structures,
            governed by statements and resolutions,
                and constitutions and bylaws,
                voted on according to Roberts’ Rules?

If we say, as we do,
    that the primary unit of the church is the local body,
        where we can more truly and deeply know each other,
        and speak into each others’ lives with more integrity and clarity,
        and where we are called to discern God’s activity in our context,
        and be obedient to the Spirit of God and scripture
            as we discern them together,
        and where our covenant with each other as sisters and brothers
            is immediate and tangible,
        and where loving honest mutual accountability is possible,
    then maybe that’s where we should invest our energy
        in maintaining “covenantal unity.”

Maybe I’m nitpicking,
    but is it really the best choice of words
    to speak of conferences or agencies or other constitutional bodies
        as being in “covenant with” other constitutional bodies?
        or when they vote to take a somewhat different course,
            to say they have “broken covenant?”
    Wouldn’t it be more accurate, and more useful,
        to speak in terms of a particular body acting in ways
            that stretch our functional unity,
            and work at restoring a common understanding
                of how we will function?

Please hear me.
    I’m not suggesting there isn’t a place for institutions and by-laws
        in the larger organized church.
        By all means, we need them.
    I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t be concerned about
        the agreements we have together as a larger church
            about how we function as institutions,
            and how we work and do mission and even worship together.
    It’s altogether good and appropriate to establish understandings,
        rules of the road, so to speak,
        so that the communities and individuals
            who make up the larger church
        have a way to connect, to belong, to fully participate.

But when we adopt “covenantal” language for constitutional bodies,
    I wonder if we give
        more theological importance to the institution
        than what scripture warrants.
    And I wonder if we unintentionally diminish the importance
        of the locally gathered people of God,
        who are in a true covenantal relationship with each other,
            gathered around the Word and the Spirit
            to discern what God is saying in their midst,
            and move out in mission together.

    Yes, of course, local bodies must do that discerning work
        in conversation with other bodies, and with the larger body.
        Bring on the accountability!
        Bring on the opportunities to give account to the larger church,
            to tell the story about what God seems to be saying.
        The more we broaden the conversation,
            the more likely we are to uncover our own blind spots.
        That’s all an essential part of the picture.
            We need the larger church.

    But I guess I’m just wondering out loud
        whether part of the reason we have this much anxiety
            about our apparent “lack of unity” in the broader church,
            is that we’ve gotten our unities confused.
     We are striving for “covenantal unity”
        among institutions better suited for “functional unity.”

    And meanwhile,
        our local congregations, our real covenantal communities,
        are struggling to find the tools to be who they are called to be,
            as contrast communities in a broken world.

    As a church, we ought to concerned about
        our theological and spiritual and moral formation,
        in all areas of life, including our sexuality.
    And on that score, we are definitely rowing upstream.
        We’re going against the flow of our dominant culture.
        So we ought to be struggling with these matters.

But I submit, it is in the context of local, face-to-face relationships
    where “covenantal unity” is operative,
    where we will always be able to do our best teaching,
        our best spiritual formation,
        our best relational evangelism,
        our best counter-cultural and prophetic witness to the world,
        and our best resistance to a society that is losing it way sexually.

I guess my bottom line is this.
    We must re-invest in the primacy
        of the local, covenantal, formational,
        and mutually-accountable community of Christ, on mission.

    Yes, let’s treasure our bonds with each other in the larger body,
        because we need them.
    But we might hold more lightly to
        particular institutional expressions of that body
        and particular agencies and structures that serve
        our primary worshiping and discerning communities.

So let me leave us with a few concrete proposals,

1. Pray, and pray again.
    If Jesus made the unity of his followers
        a priority in his prayers,
        why shouldn’t we who are concerned about unity,
            also fall to our knees regularly for the church,
            to seek God’s favor for the grace and gift of unity?

        We can aim low, of course, and make prayer unnecessary.
            We don’t need fervent prayer
                if our goal is to agree to disagree,
                or to tolerate each other,
                or even to practice forbearance.
            With a little bit of effort,
                and a slight attitude adjustment,
                we can achieve that.
        But if our aim is high,
            to become a church of many peoples and many viewpoints,
            who come together in unity of mind and spirit,
                to worship one Lord,
                to love each other sacrificially,
                to engage together in God’s mission,
            that will be a miracle,
            that will be the work of a mighty God,
                and we better keep praying.

2. Stay, and stay longer.
    We will not be in a position
        to experience God’s miraculous gift of unity,
        unless we remain in relationships
            that are challenging.
        We don’t get to unity
            by removing those of us who think differently.
            That path leads to churches with a membership of 1.
        There is no path to lasting unity
            apart from continuous hard, and sometimes painful, work.
        It’s what I tell young couples wanting a happy marriage.
        It’s what I tell a church wanting a long fulfilling life together.

3. Lean, and lean harder.
    We must lean in hard toward each other,
        to listen more carefully,
        and speak more honestly.
    This is a corollary to my last point.
        We don’t stay, just to stay.
        We stay to struggle together for the deepest truth possible.
    This is the opposite of “agreeing to disagree,”
        which I think is the enemy of unity.
    On the really important matters,
        we must engage in the struggle,
            granting dignity and respect to the other, of course,
            being honest and transparent with the other, of course,
        but always leaning in to listen harder, and speak more clearly.
        And see where the good, righteous struggle takes us.
    Doing so is not in our traditional, Mennonite, comfort zone.
        But we better practice it, and get better at it.
        Because our church is changing, rapidly.
            It’s a skill we need to develop.

4. Go, and go where God is.
    The church is much more than a body unto itself.
        It is a movement, sent by God to go into the world,
            to serve God’s purposes.
    The moment we lose sight of that reality,
        and start investing all our energy
        in analyzing and preserving ourselves and our institutions,
        is the moment we stop being the church God needs.
    It’s when unity is no longer worth the struggle.
    But when we embrace our sent-ness,
        unity finds its proper place and purpose.

5. Come to Jesus’ table to eat and drink.
    The Lord’s Supper, communion,
        is the central practice of a church living in unity.
    And it ought to be the central practice of any church
        struggling with dis-unity,
        and looking for healing.
    Jesus’ Table is where we are reminded
        of the source of our unity,
        the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus’ Christ.
    It is where the healing power of God is tangibly demonstrated,
        in the life-giving symbol of the bread and cup.
    We should flee to the table often for nourishment,
        then extend our welcome to
        any who are prepared to declare Jesus Lord,
            and join us in the journey of mutual transformation,
                and continuing conversion,
                and continued healing.

Although we are not celebrating the Lord’s Supper tonight,
    I invite into a prayer for unity,
        where the Lord’s Table is at the center of the prayer.

Turn to Hymn 475
    Become to us the living bread by which the Christian life is fed,
    renewed, and greatly comforted. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

    Become the never-failing wine, the spring of joy that shall incline
    our hearts to bear the covenant sign. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

    May Christians all with one accord unite around the sacred board
    to praise your holy name, O Lord. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

—Phil Kniss, November 9, 2015

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