Sunday, October 28, 2018

Phil Kniss: The stewardship of intimacy

“Celebrating and cultivating marriage and intimacy”
Genesis 3:1-10; Mark 8:31-38

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Last Sunday I said,
“Being in community is one of the most natural things
we can do as human beings . . .
and one of the most difficult things we can do.”
Today, on the subject of intimacy,
I could say exactly the same thing . . . times ten.
Being in relationships of intimacy
is one of the most natural things a human being can do,
and by far, one of the most difficult.

Intimacy demands more.
If mere friendships can be a bit challenging,
and living in community can be hard,
then keeping healthy relationships of intimacy
can be downright exhausting.
But potentially, exhilarating.
There is so much at stake.
Intimacy can help us soar to new heights.
And it can sink us into the depths.

Now, what I have to say this morning is relevant for everyone.
Just because the bulletin cover has the words marriage and intimacy,
I don’t want anyone to zone out on either of those words.

A person could think I’m about to give a little inspirational talk
aimed at married couples,
about reigniting the spark in your relationship.
That could be a good talk somewhere, sometime.
That’s not the talk you’re getting today.
And I hope no one zones out
because the word marriage is associated with a lot of pain,
or carries a lot of weighted baggage.

I’m well aware there are many in this room,
who once were married, and no longer are.
And the ending of that marriage—
whether by divorce, or death,
may conjure up a great deal of pain, and loss,
and some of it quite raw.
Others may be married,
but are right now suffering within that marriage,
with no easy solution in sight.
Some may long to be married,
but for a variety of reasons, aren’t.
Some are single, and on a path toward marriage.
Some are single, and happy to remain as they are.

And I’m well aware that when the church talks about marriage,
it often gets hung up on the question of who can get married.
That’s not a bad question.
I’m all in favor of having honest, civil,
and faith-informed conversations
about marriage rights and qualifications.
But that’s not the topic this morning, either.

And the word “intimacy” could make some of you zone out.
Most of time, when the church has a conversation about intimacy,
it zeroes right in on sexual intimacy,
and again, gets hung up on arguments about
who’s allowed to be intimate, when, with whom,
and what lines dare not be crossed.
Again, important matters to discuss.
These are good family conversations for the family of God.
But that’s also not my topic today.

I want to talk about the beauty and complexity
of this gift of intimacy,
for all of us as members of the body of Christ,
and why it is often so challenging for us to find it.
My aim is to paint a picture of intimacy,
that, for all of us, at the same time,
is more holistic, more realistic, and more hopeful
than the picture we usually get when we talk about these things,
in the church, or out in the world we live in.

So, to repeat myself.
intimacy is both natural, and excruciatingly difficult.
Why? Because it requires us to put ourselves at risk.
Really.  Truly.  At risk.

There is no such thing as safe intimacy.
We all know the term “safe sex”
and we generally know what it means—
sexual intimacy without two particular dangers:
disease or pregnancy.

But all forms of intimacy—
sexual, physical, emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual—
all intimacy, by definition,
requires us to risk getting hurt.
Intimacy is a choice to let down our guard.
Intimacy requires taking off our armor,
exposing the most vulnerable parts of ourselves,
and allowing others access to parts of ourselves
that even we find it hard to see and accept.

That is the way it has always been since the Garden of Eden.
I love the first chapters of Genesis,
which we read from this morning.
I cling to them often.
Not because they tell me anything about the how of Creation.
They don’t.
They tell me who I am, and who God is.
They ground me.

And the Genesis story of the fall of Adam and Eve—
their alienation, their path toward redemption—
is so rich in meaning for us today.
It is one of those grounding narratives for us as God’s people.

What happened to Adam and Eve, happens to us.
Their entire story vibrates with authenticity.
It is our own story—
from negotiating with the serpent,
to eating the forbidden fruit,
discovering their nakedness,
sewing fig leaves for clothing,
to their reckoning with God.

That’s our story.
Once we eat the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil,
that is, once we choose to usurp God’s role,
and embrace the human temptation to judge others and ourselves,
then we can’t stand our own nakedness anymore.
We realize we have something to hide.
Our own vulnerability is exposed.

Before the fateful day Adam and Eve ate the fruit,
they had no reason to hide from God.
They enjoyed God’s intimate companionship,
walking with God in the garden in the cool of the day,
to quote v. 8.
Naked and unafraid.
No reason to fear exposure.
All they knew was warmth and love emanating from God.
But, once the fruit of judgment was tasted,
they learned to fear.
Intimacy with God now felt like a risk. A threat.

Adam and Eve’s fear of intimacy with God after the fall,
is an analogy for our experience of intimacy, still to this day.

To go deep with anyone—
with God, with a spouse, with ourselves, with others—
requires a certain degree of nakedness,
of willingness to expose the most vulnerable parts of ourselves.

And over time we human beings have learned, the hard way,
that exposure and vulnerability with others,
doesn’t always end well.
Because of the evil that resides in us all,
there is a temptation to take advantage of another’s weakness,
and use it to our selfish advantage.
We have all been on the receiving end
of someone taking advantage of us, when our guard was down.
And we have all, at one time or another,
used that same power over another,
to our advantage.
So we have learned, correctly,
that it is safer to wear armor.
Fig leaves make life easier.

But, if you still believe, as I do, that even with all the risk,
a life of intimacy is better than a life of isolation and alienation,
most of us—not all, but most—would rather pursue intimacy,
than to shut ourselves off for safe-keeping.

But it’s not really either-or.
Virtually all of us live in a dynamic tension—
wanting and needing both—intimacy and safety.
Sometimes we readily take the risk, take the leap.
Sometimes we hold ourselves back for self-preservation.
Both responses are valid,
and can be exactly what is needed in a given situation.

So this is where mutuality and covenant enter the picture.
Mutuality, equality, and public promise-keeping
make intimacy more safe, than it would be otherwise.
There is a reason why, for much of human history,
institutions like marriage, or something similar to it,
have been practiced by societies modern and primitive.
True mutuality, and the support of the larger community,
and public promises,
give otherwise reluctant people the courage to
go where danger lurks—
into a private space where it would be easy to be hurt.

At its best, the church has had sound reasons
to object to sexual relationships outside of marriage.
I don’t buy—or at least, I don’t totally buy—the argument
that the church is only pushing some antiquated purity ethic,
or we are only motivated
by a revulsion to the body and sexuality,
or we only want to enforce rules, a list of dos and don’ts.
Unfortunately, I think that argument often does ring true
for some churches,
and at many times in our own history.
We have gotten hung up on the minutiae.
We have sometimes just made rules, end of subject.
We have gotten obsessed with the sexual immorality of a few,
and conveniently ignored other, more pervasive immorality
that bedevils us all.

That why I say, at its best,
when the church is being honest and reasonable and charitable,
it still has sound reasons to question sexual intimacy
outside the context of covenant.

That level of intimacy,
without the mutuality, communal support, and promise-keeping
of covenant,
elevates the risk considerably.
Intimacy without safety too often leads to the sort of hurt
that stays with us,
makes us more protective, more self-focused,
less attentive and compassionate to the other,
more likely to engage in self-oriented behavior
in other areas of life.
It reinforces the idea to “look out for #1.”
It reinforces the narrative of our dominant culture,
that trivializes love and sex,
making it all about meeting my needs, igniting my passions.
It undermines what every healthy community needs—
a basic trust that everyone in that community
is pursuing the common good,
and not only their self-interest.

So there are sound rational, communal, and theological reasons
why the church encourages
intimacy and covenant to go together.

But frankly, the church misses the mark . . . by a mile,
when we lose ourselves in the argument over the who question,
who is allowed to be intimate, and when, and how,
and never get around to the real threat
to the institution of marriage—
this rampant individualism that pervades our sexual ethic,
and affects all our lives.

One reason this is hard to talk about,
is that even with the added safety of covenant—
be it marriage or other binding agreement—
intimacy is never entirely safe.
The deepest wounds many of us suffer,
will be at the hands of persons closest to us.

Because hurt, in the context of an intimate relationship,
comes not only from the act of injury itself;
it is multiplied, in the breaking of trust.
If my intimate partner injures me,
my wound is deeper because it not only hurts me individually,
it breaks open a place of safety and security I was relying on.
Trust is like a tower of building blocks.
The kind of blocks I like to play with along with the kids
on Thursday nights at Kids Club . . .
(and sometimes alone in the privacy of my home).
A tower of trust can fall down in an instant.
It will take much more time, more gentleness,
more attentiveness, and more care . . . to rebuild it.

The truth of the matter is,
intimacy is hard, and risky, and doesn’t always end well,
even with the added safety of covenant.

But a full and meaningful life will be beyond our grasp,
if we don’t somehow make room for intimacy,
in the many and varied forms it comes in,
if we aren’t willing to let down our guard,
to let our vulnerability be seen and known,
to open ourselves to the possibility of being hurt.

Even in the best of marriages—
and I feel blessed to have what I think is a very good marriage—
even in our marriage,
hurt happens.
Sometimes I get hurt.
Other times, probably more often, I do the hurting.
There are times, to my shame, when I see a weak spot,
and aim for it, to score a point in my favor.

But because we have both decided
that we are both all in on this relationship,
that we are both allowed to be real,
both allowed to voice our needs,
both allowed to reveal our weaknesses to the other,
and that we are both committed
to take the vulnerability of the other,
and not use it to our advantage,
but work with it together for the healing of the whole,
because of that commitment,
we’ve been able, so far,
to rebuild when the tower of blocks,
or at least a section of it, get knocked down for a time.

No intimate relationship is perfect.
There will be wounds, and occasional betrayals of trust.
But I would not want a life
that doesn’t include taking that risk.
Because the reward is the kind of life we were created for.

Jesus exemplified that kind of life with his disciples.
In Mark 8 this morning, did you hear this dynamic at work?
Jesus aimed deep with his disciples.
He was not interested in the superficial.
He taught and demonstrated a life worth dying for.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it,
but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel 
will save it.”

In any deep and intimate relationship—sexual or otherwise—
if your aim is to preserve your interests, at all costs,
that’s what it will cost—all.
Your life.
But if you are able and willing to risk loss for a greater good,
you have a chance to get the life you were made for.
That’s the stewardship part.
Intimacy is a gift being extended to us.
We weigh the costs, the benefits, the risk,
and decide whether to invest in it, or not.

Now . . . I don’t want anyone going from here with the notion
that self-sacrifice in intimate relationships is unconditional,
that we all called to just keep giving and giving
until there is nothing left to give.
That’s what leads to abusive relationships—
sexually, physically, or emotionally abusive relationships—
and there is no place for that. Ever.
I am not an advocate for saving a marriage at all costs,
when the basic building blocks of that tower
have already fallen to the floor,
and there are not two partners remaining,
willing to do the work of rebuilding.
The risks you take on in a relationship of intimacy
must be mutual and balanced.

Yes, there are seasons when the self-giving won’t be equal.
Physical or mental illness or tragedy or other circumstances
will sometimes put things out of balance.
And when there is long-term disability,
promises made might mean
a willingness to forgo some intimacy
in order to provide basic care and human compassion,
for the long-term.

But in the larger scheme of things,
intimate relationships must be mutual and balanced,
for it to be called intimacy,
and for it to be life-giving.

And one final comment,
we in the church should be each other’s greatest cheerleaders,
in this gutsy, high-risk journey called intimacy.

What a travesty that the church has developed a reputation
as a place where people are judged.
So often we are caught back in the Garden of Eden,
chomping on that forbidden fruit.

If the church is functioning as a close, and intimate family of God,
everyone should be safe to be themselves.
No one should have to worry about exposing a vulnerability,
for fear it will be used against them.
In the church, we can set the example.
We can put on display the rich possibilities of intimacy,
the kind of mutual, close spiritual friendship,
that allows for honesty, acceptance,
and a loving encouragement to become even more.

If that’s the life we experience here in the family of God,
we will be more likely to find it at home,
and in our other close relationships.

May it be so.

—Phil Kniss, October 28, 2018

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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Phil Kniss: For the common good

“Celebrating and cultivating church as a community of communities”
Luke 10:1-9; Acts 2:41-47; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-14

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Being in community is one of the most natural things
we can do as human beings.
Being in community is one of the most difficult things we can do.
Did I just contradict myself?
Sounded like it.
But both statements are entirely true.

Psychologists, sociologists, biologists, biblical theologians and others,
all have observed and agree,
we human beings are hard-wired to connect.

Connecting is natural.
It is also exceedingly hard work, and we never fully arrive.
It’s no accident the bulletin cover for this series
has two hands reaching, and getting close,
but not quite closing the gap.
Unfulfilled longing is also a natural part of life.
But still, we are wired to connect.

We cannot reach our full potential as human beings
when we are isolated and cut-off from others.
Something will suffer.
Depending on the severity of cut-off,
that suffering can be merely painful, or it can be life-threatening.

In this worship and sermon series,
we are focused on the variety of ways
we seek connection in the church—
with God, with others, even within ourselves.

We started with the largest outer circle, and are gradually moving in.
Week 1, Moriah helped us celebrate
our communion with God in Christ,
especially with the global family of God.
Last Sunday Paula focused on
intergenerational connections in the church.
Today, we think about the concept of church
as a community of communities.
Next Sunday, the last,
we bring it even closer as we think about marriage
and other intimate relationships in the church.

So one of the things I think we need to be honest about today,
is the hard work side of community,
the cost of building genuine community.

Now we can keep it from being costly,
by cheapening the whole idea of community —
by taking an emotional and spiritual shortcut,
and make the notion of Christian community
so broad and superficial and abstract,
that any Christian can be in community with any other Christian.

We Anabaptists speak of Mennonite World Conference
as being a global community.
And in a beautiful way, it is that.
I’d even say it’s an important way to talk about community.

But if a World Conference is really family,
we are very distant relatives,
without much shared experience to build on.
Yes, there are those very few of us who have lived long-term
in worlds other than our own.
But for the vast majority, being in global community
is often a feel-good thing, and not very costly.

A little closer home, we at Park View can take pride that we are
“in community with” or “in solidarity with”
our sister church in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
We feel good that they came up here to worship with us once,
and some of us have built connections
through a series of visits with them.
And of course, there is value
in what little connection and friendship we have.
I’m thankful I know real people, who I call my friends,
who live every day with the challenges
of systemic racism and economic injustice,
trying to eke out a secure existence
in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
I’m glad to have that window into a life different than my own.

But I shouldn’t kid myself.
I only have a window.
I’m only looking in, from the outside.
I don’t live in the house with them.
At a distance, community can only go so deep.

But here, in this local congregation,
we who are in proximity with each other can go deeper than that,
if we choose to do so,
and if we put in the time and effort.
But it takes all that —
choice, intentionality, time, hard work, patience, self-sacrifice.
And not all of us are ready for that.
I understand.
We lead busy lives.
So how badly do we want it?
And how much are we willing to pay?

I put this before us as an open challenge.
Can we go deeper?
Can we trust God enough, and trust each other enough,
and trust ourselves enough,
to risk genuine close community?

I find the scripture reading from Acts 2 enlightening and challenging.
We come across it every Pentecost, but I wanted to hear it again today.
Can you imagine church looking like this, even in part?

It’s what happened naturally, it seemed,
when the “fresh air” of the Holy Spirit
came down on them and blew through the house.
It blew them straight toward each other and
into a deep communal life.

The church became known as people who
“devoted themselves daily to teaching and fellowship,
to breaking of bread and the prayers,”
who caused neighbors to look on in wonder,
at the signs of God’s work among them,
who sold possessions and goods
in order to care for others in need,
who “day by day” spent time together, and in the public square,
“praising God and having the goodwill of all,”
who were growing in numbers,
with no slick church growth program to help them. None!
Yet constantly, they welcomed new people
drawn in by their attractive lives,
and “the Lord added to their numbers daily,
those who were being saved.”

Now, we know from the rest of the book of Acts,
that building these little house-sized churches at the table,
was not a piece of cake . . .
was not even a piece of unleavened bread.
If you want to extend the metaphor,
it was more like a hard-tack biscuit,
that rock-hard survival food,
that takes lots of work and preparation,
and time to soak, to be edible.
Community may be natural, but it’s not easy, and not a utopia.

The church was driven into communal sharing,
because of the revolutionary events going on,
and their sense of urgency and necessity.
But as soon as time started passing by,
and Jesus didn’t come back the next week,
they had to start figuring out how to live together for the long haul,
Jews and Gentiles together,
men and women,
slave and free.
They had to learn how to worship together
with persons whose lives and values offended them.
Life together suddenly became very real, very hard,
but so, so beautiful when it happened.

And for a while, they were highly motivated to do the work.
They could deal with the conflict this kind of church created,
because they spoke daily to each other face-to-face,
they knew each other’s stories . . . deeply.
For a while, they could wrestle
with huge moral and theological questions
without coming apart at the seams.
For a while, they could build a family
with Jews and Gentiles, long-time enemies.
For a while, they were nimble enough, as an organic body,
to change patterns of leadership when that was needed.
For a while, they could actually open their doors,
and strangers would feel fully welcomed and at home,
without being confused by foreign rituals
and strange symbols and language.
For a while, they were doing exactly
what Jesus commissioned them to do.
For a while, they were living the life Jesus trained them for.

In Luke 10, a text we also heard this morning,
Jesus sent them out in pairs to practice,
apprentices in disciple-making.
In this way, Jesus modeled the small-scale
communal and missional life he had in mind for his disciples.
He expected them to replicate it,
when they went out on their own.

This is Jesus’ notion of how to grow communities of disciples—
a far cry from what we think is a smart way to grow a church.
Jesus had his followers going out in pairs,
taking nothing with them—no money, no food, no extra clothes.
They were to look for people of peace.
To look for a town, and a household, that would take them in,
show them hospitality, support them, be encumbered by them.

Imagine that, as instructions for new missionaries—
Find people willing to be imposed on.
And then just move in and stay put.
Eat whatever they bring you, and show your gratitude.
Build a relationship based on your need.
Then, after you show yourself to be vulnerable,
once you expose your own neediness,
then share the Gospel, “the Kingdom of God is near you.”
Then heal, and deliver, and minister God’s grace.

Luke 10 gives a window into building a church
that is a community of communities.
It is about church at the table, both literally and figuratively.
And the table-based communities of believers
that formed as a result
did not have an institution to protect or a religion to promote.
They embodied the reign of God among them.
They welcomed the stranger into their homes,
shared bread, shared resources,
shared good news with each other,
listened, learned, taught, healed, and delivered,
in their homes and around their tables.

That’s not how most churches function today.
And I’m not saying this is a specific and practical model
for us to copy.
Because it worked in first-century Palestine
occupied by the Roman Empire,
doesn’t mean it will work in 21st-century secularized America,
where we ARE the empire.

But there is still something we can learn from Acts 2 and Luke 10.

It seems to me that if we,
a fairly large and complex contemporary church,
with legitimate institutional needs,
are going to be faithful to the mission of God,
we need to learn how to help this larger institutional entity,
called PVMC,
to become the soil where these
smaller entities of table-sized church
can take root and grow and flourish.

We are wired to connect, as humans, and as Christians.
The church is designed by God to be communal and missional.

As an institution,
we can’t create this kind of intense Acts 2 common life
for the whole church on a large scale, nor would we want to.
It would not be authentic.
But we can be a catalyst.
We can make space for church at the table level.
We can have a structure that
empowers and enables church to function at the table.

We need to continue to see ourselves as a community of communities.
It’s in our vision statement.
And it’s an idea we don’t allow out of our sight.
It’s at the top of every Sunday bulletin.
It’s on every page of our website and in every email we send.

As church leaders, as pastors,
our first job is to be God’s entrepreneur
to lead this community in taking risks for the sake of God’s reign.
Yes, maintaining a healthy institution is also part of the job.
It’s just a little further down the job description.
We want to structure ourselves at Park View
in a way that helps table-sized church to happen,
all over the place, seven days a week.
While still valuing what we can do as a large gathering once a week,
and in some programs we run for the larger whole.

I’m not saying we create the perfect model table-church,
and then impose that model on everyone and everything.
Tables need to be diverse.
Tables have many different sizes and styles and functions.
And we already have a beautiful variety of table-church
going on here, thanks be to God!
Some faith formation classes function that way, at least in part.
There are a number of active small groups,
although there need to be more,
and we need to find better ways to support them,
to water and fertilize them, and help them multiply.
And there are many informal groups of two, three, seven, or more.
Some regular. Some spontaneous.
Some short-lived. Some long-lived.

It’s like the apostle Paul’s body metaphor
that Paula spoke of last Sunday,
and which we read again today in 1 Corinthians 12.
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit
for the common good.”
Gifts will differ because people differ, by God’s design.
So the body honors that, by making room.
“There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;
there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God
who activates all of them in everyone.”

We make room by prizing this smaller community,
leaning into it, working for it.
Making it a priority.
Deciding how important it is to our wellbeing,
and how much we are willing to pay for it.

What will “church at the table” look like for you?
I don’t know exactly.
But when a smaller community gathers,
here are some signs church is happening —
The group is small enough to fit around some table,
literal or figurative.
It is small enough for its members to know each other well.
It is intentional enough for there to be some shared understanding
of what you expect of each other,
some mechanism for giving account to each other.
And it’s a group where Jesus is at the center.
And it meets together often enough
for there to be growth, movement, momentum.
A monthly social gathering,
with little or no connection between gatherings,
is still a good thing, and we should do that.
But those are best suited for maintaining relationships,
not for taking new risks together
or growing into new expressions of faith and witness.

The core elements of being church are done best
face-to-face and up close.
When it comes to participating actively in worship,
disciple-making and evangelism,
when it comes to praying,
to interpreting and applying scripture,
to discerning and decision-making,
to forming faith through the lifespan,
to practicing mutual aid,
to practicing stewardship,
to practicing mutual accountability,
to building deep fellowship,
to embodying the reign of God—
I am hard-pressed to think of any of these
that a table-sized group can’t do
more effectively than a gathering of hundreds.

Now, if our primary goal is not for the common good,
if we are most interested in individual goods,
like personal freedom,
ability to pursue whatever I think I want or need,
then we are not likely to be ready to make many sacrifices
for the common good,
or to build deep community.
A church of hundreds,
that expects little of its members,
and provides a lot of big-group goods and services,
can continue on its way quite well,
and enjoy all sorts of success,
as long as enough individuals come to participate,
and populate its programs,
and put money in the offering plate,
so it can pay the bills.

And those are all good things.
This gathering of hundreds can do lots of good for the larger whole.
Big church adds to what table church can do.
We add momentum, vision, excellence.
We enjoy the strength of numbers
that make certain ministry activities possible,
things we can never do alone or in small groups.

But big church can never substitute for
the essential function of church
that is meant to happen at tables, a la Acts 2 —
a deeply shared life with Jesus at the center,
people who are living the kind of flourishing life
God intends for us all,
and doing it visibly,
with our doors open to a watching world.

And we do all this knowing this kind of life
is never an end in itself.
It is the means God has chosen
to extend God’s love and healing and blessing
to all peoples, all nations.
This is the life that enables us to be God’s partners
in God’s mission of mercy to a wounded world.

Toward that end, let’s sing together,
HWB 369 Lord, whose love in humble service.

—Phil Kniss, October 21, 2018

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