“Breathe In, Breathe Out, Give Thanks”
I know we have a certain theme going today,
and I’ll get to that in just a moment.
But I want to start by noting that 100 years ago today,
the Armistice was signed that ended World War 1.
That was a war that caught up this country into a war fervor,
that caused many to despise certain immigrants—
immigrants who came from a certain part of the world,
and no, it wasn’t Central America.
It was where my ancestors came from,
and many of yours, Germany.
We even renamed streets and landmarks and whole towns
that had names with unfortunate German connections.
You know Liberty St that runs south through downtown Harrisonburg?
Our Friendly City renamed it that during this war.
Before that, it was called German St.
Many Mennonites refused to fight in this war,
in obedience to their conscience and to their church.
And since no alternative service was available,
their only choice was to be non-cooperative.
And since American Mennonites at that time
were mostly of German ancestry,
this was a very hard time for us.
A little story that actually connects to this morning’s theme…
My grandfather Lloy Kniss,
who now rests in peace three miles away at Weavers Cemetery,
was a 21-year old CO in army boot camp in Georgia.
Almost exactly 100 years ago,
on a Sunday morning,
a few weeks before the Armistice was signed,
he was given permission by his commanding officer
to roam the extensive grounds
of Camp Greenleaf in Fort Oglethorpe.
All along he was given the impression that he was the only CO in camp,
and he felt very alone,
as he suffered a great deal of persecution and humiliation.
But this Sunday morning
he was on a quest to find other COs.
At the far corner of the camp he saw a little map on a building,
that identified a small compound as a
“Conscientious Objector Detachment.”
So he went directly towards that compound,
and as he approached the large canvas tent,
he heard singing.
He stopped in his tracks when he recognized the songs,
hymns he had grown up singing in church.
He was so overcome with emotion,
that he hid behind a woodpile
and just listened, and wept,
until he could compose himself
and walk into that tent and introduce himself,
to that group of COs gathered to worship on a Sunday morning.
I think until he died,
he would look back on that experience of worship,
as one of the more meaningful and memorable in his life.
We started out this service singing a song we love, called,
“What is this place?”
Yes. Really! What is this place?
The song says,
only a house, the earth its floor,
walls and roof sheltering people,
windows for light, an open door.
The church in the army tent my grandfather encountered
literally had the earth as its floor,
Canvas walls and roof sheltered them.
Not many windows for light,
but an open tent flap welcomed my grandfather.
It doesn’t take much, actually, to house a church.
Why would we have just spent so much of our resources
to save this particular house?
What is this place,
that we would go to this length to renovate it?
I grew up going to a church that looked like a salt-box.
No decoration, no color, no worship arts,
no cross, no candle.
Just white-painted cement block walls.
Straight and hard wooden benches,
and a simple pulpit up front.
In another church of my childhood, in St. Petersburg, FL,
the congregation worshipped in the basement,
on folding chairs with a concrete floor and no windows,
while in the main sanctuary, one floor above us,
was a life-size model of Moses Tabernacle in the wilderness,
complete with velvet drapes and
beautiful, ornate furnishings.
But we didn’t worship in that space.
We gave tours.
But that’s a whole story for another time.
The point is,
I was formed by a church
that gave very little thought to its physical surroundings.
They asked the same question as our opening hymn,
although maybe a little more critically.
What is this place?
Nothing, really! Except a floor and roof and walls.
The place doesn’t matter!
It’s the people inside who do.
It’s what happens inside,
and what happens when we leave, that really matters.
I was formed by a church that read a verse like Hebrews 9:24 —
“Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands,
a mere copy of the true one,”
and saw it as a text that diminished the importance of physical space,
even though that is not what that text is doing.
This is the view of church that has profoundly shaped me.
And actually, I am grateful for it. Really!
It has kept me rightfully skeptical
of churches that care more about the color of the carpet and drapes,
than they do the well-being of the worshipper sitting next to them,
or their neighbor across the street from the church building.
It has also given me great appreciation for the value and validity
of churches in our own country and around the world
who meet outside under trees,
or in homes,
or in storefronts,
or most any available place.
They are legitimately church,
every bit as much as we are,
with our tall and picturesque steeple . . . that almost wasn’t.
This view of church that shaped me,
helped me, in fact, to accept the possibility
that we might not have had a steeple in our future,
even though I was hoping we would.
Simplicity is good.
Functionality is good.
Face-to-face church in homes and under trees is good.
In some ways, can even be better.
But let me restate the message of that song,
in what I think is a more complete way,
that is true to the scripture we heard today.
I only read you the first half of the first verse.
And yes, this place is only floor, roof, walls, windows, and doors.
But there’s more.
“Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here,
and know our God is near.”
And . . . this mere place helps shape this body,
helps the body become something more than it would have been.
Here’s the second verse:
“Words from afar, stars that are falling,
sparks that are sown in us like seed:
names for our God, dreams, signs and wonders . . .”
that whole list of things we just sang, are
“sent from the past, [and] are what we need.”
[Here,] in this place [we] remember and speak
again what we have heard:
God’s free redeeming word.
See, this place is not a neutral, unimpactful place.
It is a place where life-shaping things happen.
It is a place where the whole sweep of God’s activity in history
is remembered, retold, rehearsed, and re-enacted,
in a way that shapes us to the core.
But this life-shaping activity of corporate worship and fellowship
is not for us alone.
It is for the world.
And we accept bread at this table,
broken and shared, a living sign.
Here in this world, dying and living,
we are each other’s bread and wine.
This is the place where we can receive
what we need to increase:
God’s justice and God’s peace.
We are here, in this place, together,
so they we can remember who God is and who we are,
through the age-old practices
of Christian life and Christian worship,
so that we can go out these open doors,
and live as bread and wine,
pouring ourselves out, as Christ did,
in a world of great need,
so that God’s justice and God’s peace
will come about as God intends.
If we as a congregation did not really care about the world around us,
then I would feel entirely different
about this building that houses us.
But because I believe we get it, mostly,
because we understand that the church does not exist for itself,
but for the world,
then I can, and do, wholeheartedly and unapologetically,
say that fixing this building
is an investment in God’s Kingdom,
because it shapes us as partners in the mission of God.
That is not to say
that churches who de-emphasize buildings,
who meet in humble abodes,
out of choice or out of necessity,
that those churches are in any way, shape, or form,
inferior to ours,
or are any less legitimate as a church on mission with God.
No! No! No!
I spent too much of my childhood
in saltbox churches and basement-dwelling churches,
who were full of life and engaged in mission.
And I began my pastoral ministry
in a church that first met in a living-room,
then a hotel conference room,
then a borrowed Methodist chapel,
and was nevertheless an amazing congregation
with a wide impact on its community.
I will never suggest we do it better here at Park View.
But I also will not apologize for
this substantial, and beautiful, and expensive,
and now, more safe and healthy and sustainable building.
Because we are using it in the same way
other churches use what they have for a house —
as a base of operations for our calling in this world.
In case anyone still imagines
that we have just spent $1.5 million on ourselves,
let me quickly disabuse you of that mistaken notion.
A couple weeks ago,
I got to the end of the week,
and just thought back about what happened here just that week,
and I was amazed.
So I added it up.
In case you think this building is mainly a place
to get together on Sunday mornings to worship and fellowship,
here are the facts about what happened here,
during the week of Oct. 21.
This was while there was construction
still happening downstairs every day!
After we left the building on Sunday morning, Oct 21 . . .
An adult class had a potluck meal, with 30+ people.
Our choir met to practice, with over 40 people.
We had a “coming of age” ceremony,
with probably 50 people, including guests.
Our children gathered to practice for their upcoming
Christmas musical, I’m guessing 20 or more, with adults.
Kids Club happened,
with 30 or more children from our neighborhood
plus another 10 or so of our own children,
plus adult leaders, so over 50 in the Fellowship Hall,
singing, playing, listening to a Bible story,
working together, eating a healthy snack, being loved.
And our junior youth gathered for a games night.
All told, as many as 240 people,
walked into and out of this building,
engaging in programs or activities that we planned and led.
But wait, there’s more.
We had a Men’s Bible Study one morning,
with 70 or so men from around the community present.
And 15 or so women from all over the area showed up
to exercise together in a yoga class — twice!
That’s 100 more people who walked into and out of this building,
engaging in activities that we plan in partnership
with the community around us.
That brings the number to 340.
But wait, there’s more.
We opened our doors to multiple groups of other people,
who needed a physical space like ours to carry out their mission.
There was not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 different music groups
(in addition to our adult and children’s choir)
who used this space to rehearse that week.
8 persons in Cantore,
50 or more in the SV Choral Society
6 in Good Company
and over 50 adults and children in the Valley Community Choir,
who gave their concerts last night and Friday night.
And we opened our Fellowship Hall to Pleasant View, Inc,
a non-profit serving individuals with disabilities,
for their annual fundraising banquet.
There were about 175 people there, plus 15 or cooks and servers.
So let’s see.
That’s over 300 more people
that walked into, and out of, this building that week.
This was an ordinary week in October.
Nothing unusual about that activity level.
Most of those things happen every week.
Around the holidays,
the numbers will go way up from that.
But I just counted about 650 people,
children and adults,
from all walks of life,
different language groups,
different religions or no religion,
different socioeconomic status,
who walked into, and out of our building that week,
for organized activities intended to bring them together,
and to serve the needs of our community.
Notice I did NOT count the several hundred
who gathered for worship Sunday morning,
nor the 50 or so children, parents, and teachers,
who come and go every day
in the Early Learning Center downstairs,
nor the random individuals who stop by our office
for any number of reasons and needs.
That total number would be well over a thousand.
I hope there are not too many people
who will reflect on those facts and numbers,
and who know the high cost of making this building
healthy, and safe, and welcoming for all,
who will still be tempted to suggest, ever,
that we just spent 1.5 million on ourselves.
The facts simply do not support that notion.
Since we moved back into this building in September,
I have been taking lots of deep breaths.
And they are breaths of awe, of amazement, of gratitude.
I have noticed how much easier our air is to breathe.
I have noticed that people who use this space,
simply use it, without realizing what all has gone into this place
to make their activity, their ministry, possible.
And I’m okay with them not knowing.
They don’t need to know, and don’t need to worry about it.
Giving them a worry-free and safe and comfortable space
for them to carry out their work,
is a gift that we as a church are uniquely able to give.
Not every congregation is blessed with such a space.
I am so glad we have it.
And I am so glad we are generous with it.
And I am so glad for the generosity of all of you
that makes this reality possible.
So let’s sing a song of praise and thanksgiving to God,
HWB 112 — O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
—Phil Kniss, November 11, 2018
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