Sunday, September 9, 2018

Phil Kniss: The wind and the wilderness

“Church Retreat: Fresh air, and how to breathe it”
A 2-part sermon reflection on this moment in our church life
Deuteronomy 26 and Acts 2

Watch the videos:

Meditation on Deut. 26 - On not forgetting the wilderness

Meditation on Acts 2 - On letting the wind fill the house

...or listen to audio:

Meditation on Deut. 26 - On not forgetting the wilderness
Meditation on Acts 2 - On letting the wind fill the house

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

...or read it online here:

PART ONE: “On not forgetting the wilderness”

I know I’m speaking for all the church staff when I say,
it has really been good to be back in our office wing 
in the church building this past week.

Even with boxes laying around.
Even with bare walls.
Even with preschool children and teachers
sharing our limited space
and occasional sobs of a homesick child.
Even spending hours on the phone with Comcast
trying to get our internet back
Even with construction people and vehicles to work around.
Even with all that, 
it feels wonderful to be walking out of the summer wilderness,
and be just on the verge 
of crossing over into the promised land of fresh air.

Beginning next week, 
and progressing gradually for the next two months,
the rest of us are going to have the same experience.
We will walk into a renewed space, a familiar space,
are we are going to heave a big collective sigh of relief.
We made it home!
Nomads no more!
We’re out of the wilderness!

And then, we will immediately be in danger.

It will be the same danger that faced the people of Israel
when they crossed over the Jordan River 
into their land of milk and honey.

We will be in danger of forgetting the wilderness.
Or, more to the point,
forgetting how it was to experience
God’s gracious presence and help in the wilderness.

We see in Deut 26 that Yahweh knew exactly what could happen 
as soon as his people put seeds in the ground to grow their crops,
and laid foundations for their solid-walled homes 
and places of worship.
They would forget what it was like to lean on the Lord.

Like the old African-American spiritual,
“Tell me, how did you feel when you come out the wilderness, 
come out the wilderness, come out the wilderness.
. . . how did you feel when you come out the wilderness, 
leaning on the Lord?”

Catch that? “came out leaning”
Don’t know how you felt,
but I felt joy, gratitude, hopefulness,
while in the wilderness, leaning.
There was an almost surprising realization 
I heard some of you voice,
that we are a strong community, with or without a building.
There was joy in our gatherings.
There was a sense of home and belonging, 
even in someone else’s physical space.
There were opportunities to connect 
with our neighborhood in new ways.
There were opportunities to connect with each other.
I heard some say
they spent more time sitting down at a table 
with other church members this summer,
than they did the whole year before that.

And God has been at work among us.
God has given us spaces and times to grieve losses together,
and remember lives well lived.
God was with us when we played together 
and ate together in our church parking lot,
and invited the whole neighborhood to be with us there.
God showed up when we baptized four young people 
into our fellowship.
God brought some new attenders into church family,
who have not yet worshiped with us in our normal space.
God has helped us call a new pastor into our community,
who has begun working among us during our time as nomads.
God has been present in our gathered times of practicing worship—
praying, singing, meditating, listening.
And God has blessed us in our effort 
to raise financial support for the renovation,
and have some deep and meaningful conversations
with many of our households.

We leaned on the Lord, and all our needs were supplied.
Thanks be to God!!

Let’s not forget to give thanks
for the many and various ways 
that God has blessed our life and witness
even while we ambled through a wilderness.

And looking back further,
God has been with us on a journey together for 65 years now.
It hasn’t always been a nomadic journey 
(we’ve had only 2 locations in those years).
But we have definitely been on the move.
The world around us has moved.
Our denomination has moved.
Our pastors have moved.
Some more than others.
Some have even moved on, then came back,
right, Paula?

God has been with us every step of the way.
Sometimes we have been walking in rhythm with God.
Sometimes we have been out of rhythm.

But God has been at work in us,
with our particular history,
with our particular congregational culture,
in our particular location,
housed in our particular building in north Park View.

It is important, so says God,
to remember where we have come from,
especially when we are getting ready to settle down somewhere.

In times of stability we are in danger
of forgetting God’s faithfulness in the midst of our chaos.

God set up a special liturgy for the people
when they entered the promised land.
When they set their first harvest of the land before the priest,
as an offering of worship,
they were required to recite a litany 
of how God helped their ancestor
as he wandered around creation,
never knowing his destination,
only that he was being accompanied 
by the God who made him, loved him, and
called him to live his life in the service of God’s agenda.

That’s us. Today.
So let’s prepare an offering of thanksgiving.
On your seat you will have found two small pieces of paper.
I hope that you have access to a pencil or pen,
or have someone near who has an extra to share with you.
If you can’t locate one,
there are extras in a small basket in the middle aisle.
Get up and help yourself to one whenever you wish.

There are two pieces of paper.
Take the tan piece now (save the green one for later).
In bold print, it reads at the top,
Looking back on your experiences at Park View Mennonite, 
name something God has done among us for which you are grateful.

Here, think about our past journey as a church,
the way the Israelites remembered their ancestor,
the wandering Aramean.
Recall something. Maybe just one specific thing.
Something from our past as a church that you have experienced.
For some of you, it will be a very recent past.
Others of you can reach far back in our history,
if you choose to.
If you’re visiting this morning, you can still participate.
Maybe there’s something you saw even today
you want to thank God for,
or perhaps an earlier experience in another community.

But all are invited to give a thank offering.
Take time to articulate a word of thanks to God.
You might even want to begin your words with,
“Thank you, God, for . . .”
and then name a way that you saw God at work with us,
that you are grateful for.

Then after a few moments to meditate quietly and write,
we will sing together STJ 40 — As rain from the clouds.

After the song we will present our offerings 
in the style they were presented in Deuteronomy 26,
up front, in the basket.

Let us be thankful to God!

PART TWO: “On letting the wind fill the house”

As we all know, 
we have had an air quality issue at Park View, for years.
That is about to radically change.
One of the biggest innovations we put into this project
is a fresh air circulation system.

It’s something that should have been included 
in the 1995 addition, but wasn’t.
Partly to reduce cost.
And partly because 25 years ago we didn’t understand as much
about building science as we do today.
Buildings were air-tight for temperature reasons.
Human bodies like to be within a certain temperature range,
so when outside is a lot hotter, or a lot colder 
than human comfort level
common wisdom was keep outside air out, and inside air in.

But we didn’t know how important it was to air quality and health
to have whole-building fresh air exchange on a regular basis.
Buildings need fresh air to be healthy.
If we don’t let the fresh air in,
our buildings can’t breathe,
we start breathing the same air over and over.
Our breath and the breath of others
keeps getting reprocessed and re-breathed.
Moisture is trapped.
Impurities are trapped.
And it gets only worse over time.

You see where I am going with this.
The opportunities for church metaphors here are endless.

In Acts 2 the story is all about the Holy Spirit and the church.
About how that Spirit came in a powerful way 
on a group of people purposely trying to 
stay contained inside a room,
isolated from the hostile air outside.

See? The metaphor is just too obvious.
The word for Spirit, and the word for breath, are the same.
Spirit. Inspire, expire, respire. 
Re-spiration is breathing.
The Holy Spirit was the breath of God
trying to get those first disciples 
out of their self-protective mode,
and be transformed into the living, breathing “body of Christ”
so that Jesus’ work could continue in the world.
So the Spirit-breath filled the house, it says in Acts 2.
Filled the house!!
It made the sound of a great wind, and filled the house.

The Holy Spirit was the early church’s fresh air circulation system.
The Spirit works to prevent bad air quality,
by keeping us from over-breathing each other’s air
and isolating ourselves from the world outside.

Inside the walls of that house in Jerusalem
were a group of Judean, Jewish Christ-followers.
Outside were people from all over the known world.
Acts 2 lists over a dozen nationalities or languages groups.
That wind literally blew through the disciples 
filled the house with fresh air,
and forced them to open up to the world outside,
and Peter ends up preaching to the whole international crowd
and delivering a powerful Gospel sermon, 
in words they could all understand.

That was Pentecost.
And that—at least metaphorically—
could be Park View Mennonite Church in coming months.
We could let fresh air enter our building . . . and our body life,
in whole new ways we haven’t imagined before.
Our imaginations may have been constrained
because we were just breathing each others’ air.

What does the wind of the Spirit look like now, in 2018,
when it blows through the whole house at 1600 College Ave?

I am certain of this:
It won’t look the same as it did
when it blew through our largely homogeneous 
church and community in previous generations.

We have those same nationalities and language groups 
and cultures and religions
living in our neighborhoods.
So when the wind of the Spirit fills our house today,
I think it will take this new reality into consideration,
and transform us accordingly.

This is not an individual adventure we are on.
In Acts 2, the Spirit of God moved en masse.
The Spirit blew life into the whole house, and everyone in it.
Not a few chosen leaders,
with designated authority to speak for God.
Not a few blessed lay people
who had exceptional spiritual maturity.
Not any one person in particular, but everyone.
The Spirit filled the whole house.

Let us not forget that.
That’s what all this fresh-air Holy Spirit talk is about.
It’s about the Spirit blowing through the whole household of God,
and filling it with life,
filling it with love for God, and love for the world,
filling it with a passion to live out God’s calling in the world.

So, keeping in mind the communal, household task that lies before us,
we invite you again to think, reflect, write.
We want you to begin imagining possibilities for us as a church.
Let the Spirit-Wind blow through your mind and your Spirit.
Open yourself to what God may be saying to you,
about how you will be a part of our collective transformation.

So the green piece of paper reads, in bold at the top . . . 
As we return to our Park View neighborhood and into a renewed building to breathe fresh air, name one specific hope or dream that to you represents a fresh wind of the Spirit filling our house.

Name your hope, your dream,
and then it will become part of our collective, group conversation,
as we discern further the wind of the Spirit.

—Phil Kniss, September 9, 2018

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