Sunday, September 27, 2015

Phil Kniss: Church ecology

What if the church was really an extended family?
1 Peter 2:4-10; Luke 10:1-9; Psalm 22:9-11, 22-28

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Let me start with a grammar lesson,
    and the theological implications thereof.
    It all began Tuesday morning,
        when the title of this morning’s worship service
        was posted on the sign out by the road.
        “What if the church was a family?”

    One PVMCer coming through the building that morning,
        a retired nursing prof (and you know who you are),
        mentioned to me in passing, “I’m not an English major,
            but some little bells went off when I saw the sign.
            Shouldn’t it be ‘were’ instead of ‘was’?”

Frankly, at that point, I hadn’t given the verb form much thought.
    And I kind of passed it off for the moment.
    But just hours later another PVMCer,
        a former congregational chair
            who used to work with MCC in Lebanon,
            (and you know who you are)
        sat down in my office for a chat,
            but before addressing the subject of our meeting, he said,
        “About that sign by the road . . .
            I think when asking an “if” question like that,
                we should use the subjunctive form.”

He made it sound so authoritative
    I knew I had to get to the bottom of it.
    Should it be “was” or “were,” and does it really matter?
    Since it was the title not only of this Sunday,
        but a whole eight-week sermon series,
        I thought maybe we should get it right.

    So I went down the hall to chat with the staff who were present.
        One of them, who is married to the CEO
            of a certain local Mennonite publishing agency,
                (and you know who you are)
            suggested she call her husband,
            who tends to know and care about things grammar-related.
        When who should walk in the door,
            but our former office manager,
                who is also a former English teacher
                (and you know who you are),
            and I posed the question to her.
        I knew she had opinions about grammar in the church,
            because I worked with her for 15 years or so.

    She said it’s a matter of whether the if statement
        is actually true,
        or only hypothetical.
            If it’s only hypothetical, then it’s “were.”
            If it’s actually a true condition, then it’s “was.”

    That was basically the answer I got
        when I finally summoned the courage to approach
        the Supreme and All-Knowing Fountain of Truth, Wikipedia.
    It said, “the subjunctive mood is used
        for statements that are contrary to fact,
        such as ‘If I were a giraffe’ . . .”

    So here’s where it gets theological.
        Is the church actually a family? Or is it not?
        Is the statement “the church is a family”
            a hypothetical statement?
            Is it only an opinion?
            Is it only sentimental metaphor?
            Is it contrary to fact?

So where I finally came down on this,
    is I’m sticking with “was.”
        “If the church was a family . . .”
    Because I believe scripture asserts
        that the church actually is a family,
        in fact, not in wishful thinking.

    The only reason this is a grammatical issue,
        is that we don’t act like a real family that much.
        So the question seems hypothetical, when it’s not.
        We don’t really organize like a family,
            or function much like a family.
        Most of the time, we organize and function
            like a formal organization.

    The point of this sermon series,
        is to remind us that we are in fact,
        sisters and brothers in a family,
        and that renewing our vision as family,
        will help us live into that reality more and more.

    So, with apologies to any grammar police
        that I will offend over the next eight weeks,
        and with thanks to those of you who know who you are . . .
            I did not change the sign, or the bulletin cover.
    And I pose this question,
        “What if the church really . . . was . . . a family?”

And today, on the first Sunday of the series,
    I am specifically looking at family through a biblical lens.
    The New Testament concept of family
        isn’t necessarily what we might assume.
    When family is referred to in scripture,
        it’s usually closer to what we call an “extended family”
            than our modern norm, the nuclear family.
    The history of the nuclear family is a fascinating study,
        and we could talk a long time about that,
            its rise, its fall,
            its potential, its limitations.
        But my main point, for the purpose of today’s sermon,
            and for this series,
            is that in the New Testament, repeatedly,
                in multiple books and epistles,
            the church is referred to as an “oikos”—
                the Greek word for household.
        Oikos assumes an extended family network
            of people related through a variety of connections,
                biological and otherwise,
            who share their lives in a variety of ways, day to day.

    And oikos, even though it’s a Greek word, is familiar to you.
        You know it already.
        You can’t say it’s “all Greek to me”—
            unless you mean it literally.
        Because we use the word all the time. Or a form of it, anyway.
        Anytime we talk about the economy, or economics,
            anytime we speak of ecological concerns,
            or an ecosystem,
            we are using the word “oikos” or household.
        An “economy” is literally, “household management.”
        “Ecology” is literally,
            the study of how a household relates internally.
        An “ecosystem” is the whole system
            that supports these household relationships.

    So when we in the church ask ourselves,
        “How are we being good stewards of the relationships
            within our household of faith?”
            we are asking an ecological question,
            a question of church ecology.
        And since I spend a good deal of my time
            working at that very question,
            I guess that makes me a church ecologist.
            And I’m fine with that.

So, let’s assume the primary local church unit is an oikos,
    a household of relatives—biological and spiritual—
        who know each other face-to-face
        and share their lives together in significant ways.
    Let’s assume that’s the kind of church
        Paul was writing letters to all the time.
    Let’s assume that. Because it was.
        “Greet Priscilla and Aquilla and the church in their oikos,”
            Paul writes in Romans 16.
        “Give greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea,
            and to Nympha, and the church in her oikos,” Colossians 4.
    And he wrote to Timothy about how he should conduct himself
        “in the oikos of God, which is the church of the living God.”
    He wrote to Philemon, and “the church that meets in your oikos.”
    And in 1 Peter, a text we heard this morning,
        the apostle encourages the church,
        reminding them they are living stones,
        built up as a spiritual oikos and a holy priesthood.

Oikos—an extended family in one household—
    is both metaphor and reality for the church of New Testament times.

    a lot has changed in the church since New Testament times.
    I’m not so na├»ve as to think we have to drop who we are now,
        and structure ourselves to look exactly like the church
            in a very different time, culture, and context.
        To do so would be wrong-headed.
            We are asked to proclaim and demonstrate
                the Good News of Jesus in our context, not theirs.
            So it will look different.
                It needs to look different.

        I’m not focusing on form and structure
            when I call for a renewal of the oikos.
        I’m calling for us to take seriously
            the character of Christian lives and relationships
                that were exemplified by the early church,
                    in their many and various oikoi
                        (that’s just the plural of oikos).

    The church is a household in which
        we are not just metaphorically sisters and brothers,
        but are actual brothers and sisters by the Spirit.
    To see the church as household,
        is to see the church as more than a place and program,
            organized to do good works,
            and perpetuate itself and its institution.
    To see the church as household,
        is to see the church as God sees us—a peoplehood,
        an extended family devoted to honoring the family name.
        It is to see ourselves as bound to each other
            by love and common ancestry,
            by Spirit and water and blood.
        It is to see each other
            as persons we may not agree with on everything,
            but who we’d be willing to die for if called upon.
    To see the church as household, God’s oikos,
        is to identify ourselves with Christ,
        and cling to each other for dear life.

    That’s what healthy families do.
        They live together in ways that honor the family name.
        They live with an outward, missional purpose.
        They live with sacrificial loyalty to each other, come what may.

    And what good news this is for our times!
        How many people do you know,
            in our fragmented, polarized, and materialistic culture,
            who go through life struggling to find a real home,
                a place where they belong,
                    and are known,
                    and are safe,
                    and are loved unconditionally.
        Church as oikos is not a new demand placed on us,
            it is a grace, a gift of God.
            It is good news that we get to be an oikos.

Jesus modeled life in a spiritual oikos.
    When he brought a group of disciples around him,
        he wasn’t rejecting his own mother and siblings.
        But he was creating another kind of family
            that would be just as formative for him
            and those who followed him.
    Some of Jesus’ words and actions, vis-a-vis his family of origin,
        when looked at through our cultural lenses,
        appear to be dismissive or disrespectful.
    I don’t think that was the case in his context.

    But he was clearly prioritizing the oikos of God,
        in how he structured his life and relationships.
    “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asked one day.
        “They are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”
        Jesus’ oikos
            consisted of those willing to put their lives on the line.

Jesus didn’t give us a blueprint for church structure.
    He modeled life in a spiritual family,
        and then asked his disciples to replicate that life.
We just heard the story from Luke 10.
    When Jesus sent out his 72 disciples in pairs, empty-handed,
        to find households who would receive them, and feed them,
        he wasn’t saying all future church communities for all ages,
            must be planted without the aid of money, food,
                shoes, or an extra pair of pants.

    What he was pointing toward was a core characteristic
        of life in the oikos of God:
        He wanted his followers willing not only to give to others,
            but to be dependent on others,
            even needy.
        He wanted them ready to take what they were given,
            by whoever gave it,
            and consider it grace.

    Only after they showed such humility, and readiness to receive,
        were they then ready to offer their gift,
        which was the Gospel Word, “the Kingdom of God is near you.”

That kind of work may not look exactly like what we call
    “doing evangelism” or “doing missions.”
    But it’s a necessary step to building a missional household
        that has any integrity.
    Luke 10 is about church as oikos.

A church that cares about its ecology,
    its ecosystem,
    its character of life as an oikos, or household of God,
        will prioritize God’s mission above all else,
        will shape itself around obedience to God’s will and way,
        and will seek the flourishing of every member of the household.

A church tending to its ecology
    will not pour its energy into self-preservation
        or self-protection or self-promotion.
    It will, through its household practices,
        embody and give voice to the reign of God in its midst.
    It will welcome the stranger,
        share bread, share resources,
        and share the good news
            of God’s love and salvation and healing,
            with everyone.

The bottom line is this:
    God loves all his people with an unfathomable love.
    God longs for the healing of all peoples and nations
        and of the earth itself.
    God wants wars, of all kinds, to cease.
    God wants the lion and wolf and calf and lamb and toddler,
        all to lie down together in peace.

    And God has formed families,
        made up of the likes of us to join the effort to get it done.
    In this cosmic peace plan, this restoration project,
        we are invited as bona-fide partners with God.
    God invites ordinary people to gather together in households,
        to gather in faith, in hope, in trust,
        and in mutual covenant with each other and God.
    And God will be in their midst,
        and God will heal and save them,
        and God will collaborate with them
            for the healing and salvation of the world.

Brothers and sisters of mine,
    this is the best news you will hear today.
    You are not alone in this world.
        You have been drawn into God’s oikos,
            you have been embraced by God and God’s people—
                not only as a metaphor,
                but in real life.
        You are among family.
        Thanks be to God!

Take a look at Psalm 22, in your bulletin insert.
    This is God’s intimate, and expansive, idea of family, in a prayer.
        We will soon chant this Psalm, as Ken leads us.
        But notice, before we do, the family imagery throughout.
    Starting at the smallest scale, our beginnings with family,
        “womb . . . mother’s bosom . . . lap.”
    And notice the family references on the next larger scale,
        the people of Israel—
        “sisters . . . brothers . . . daughters . . . sons.”
    And when the prayer ends with the global, it’s still family,
        “all the families of the nations.”

This is the gift of God! Let’s sing and say it with gratitude.

—Phil Kniss, September 27, 2015

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