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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