Sunday, July 28, 2019

Phil Kniss: Front porch faith

Church in the Park Sunday
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-9; Matthew 5:13-16

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Let’s think about why we are here today.
I mean, specifically here, as in Morrison Park,
in an outdoor picnic shelter.
Why worship here,
when less than two miles from here we own a spacious building
with comfortable pews,
and freshly conditioned air,
air for which we recently paid lots of money
to make fresh and clean and healthy again.

Well, I can think of two things that are NOT reasons for being here.
We’re not here because there is anything wrong
with meeting in a building every week.
Lots of good ministry happens there.
Buildings are great ministry tools,
if they don’t become havens from the world.
And we’re not here to do some special kind of worship
that can’t be done indoors in our usual spot.
Everything we’re doing today, including the potluck,
could have been done at 1600 College Ave.
We even have a playground outside our building, too.

We are here because sometimes doing worship in a different context
is good for our health as a community.
It’s easy to get in a comfortable rut in our weekly rhythms,
and start thinking things about our building and worship space
that we shouldn’t be thinking.
our sanctuary is a holy space that needs to be protected
from outside unholy elements.
worship is always better with organs, pianos, and pews.
worship is a time to get away
and be together with church friends,
and get our mind off the rest of the world for a few hours.
we need to protect OUR way of doing worship . . .
others are welcome to join us,
but they have to come into our space and do it our way.

All those thoughts are wrong-headed, but easy to think
if we go to the same place every Sunday,
and repeat worship patterns we enjoy and are comfortable with.

speaking as someone who loves ritual and repetition,
and as someone who cherishes the rhythms of the church year
and following a lectionary and such,
worship in a park is not a rejection of what we value.
We will continue to cherish our normal rhythms and rituals.
But not at the expense of being narrow-minded or inflexible.

Worship in public can make us mindful
of the breadth and diversity of God’s people
who do life in this world in many different and beautiful ways.
It also reminds us that our core purpose
is to engage our neighbors and our world
with the good news of God’s saving work,
not to carve out a place of comfort for our own benefit.

In fact, now might be a good time to remind ourselves
about what our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective
has to say about the nature of the church, and I quote:

“We believe that the mission of the church is
to proclaim and to be a sign of the kingdom of God.
The church is called to witness to the reign of Christ
by embodying Jesus’ way in its own life
and patterning itself after the reign of God.
It is the new society established and sustained by the Holy Spirit.
By its life, the church is to be
a city on a hill, a light to the nations,
testifying to the power of the resurrection
by a way of life different from the societies around it.”

So . . . God expects the church to show the world
what God’s kingdom looks like, in real life.

Today we read Matthew 5, from the Sermon on the Mount,
“You are the salt of the earth . . .
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”
That’s a plural “you” by the way. “Y’all” are the salt of the earth.

If we assume this identity, as a church, as a new society,
that we are light and salt and leaven in our culture,
pointing others toward life in this new society . . .
then we have to stay actively engaged in our culture,
and in our neighborhood.

We need to know our neighbors—
not just know them and their needs
so we can do ministry for them.
No, we need to listen to what they are thinking.
We need to learn about their strengths and assets.
If we want a meaningful relationship with our neighbors,
we need to be just as willing to receive,
as we are to give.

All the neighbor signs we put up in our yards and church lawns
won’t mean a blame thing,
if we don’t actually make the effort
to meet our neighbors on their turf,
and learn from them and receive from them.

And no, I’m not pretending
that meeting in a park every once in a while
will make us better neighbors.
I’m talking about a whole way of life.
But at least, church in the park
is a symbolic reminder that our agenda as a church,
is not limited to the property lines at 1600 College Avenue.
Let there be no doubt about that, ever!

The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to his people of Israel
when they were in exile in Babylon.
We just heard some of it.
It’s more relevant to us than we think.
Like ancient Israel, we are resident aliens—
citizens of one kingdom,
making our home in a different sort of kingdom.

The word of God to Israel in Babylon, was, “Settle in.”
Get married, have children, build houses, plant gardens.
Participate fully in the culture where you find yourself,
but participate as an agent of shalom, of peace, of wholeness.
In v. 7 of Jeremiah 29 they are given a mandate,
“Seek the welfare—
and the Hebrew word here is literally shalom—
seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the Lord on its behalf,
for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Isn’t that a little backwards?
Sounds like shalom spreads from the outside in,
from the neighborhood, to us.

But that’s what God is saying to us through the prophet.
The reason we should care about our neighborhood,
troubled though it may be,
is because when we seek its wellbeing, we will find our wellbeing.

The unfortunate reality is that we have
constructed our neighborhoods and towns and society itself
in a way that makes neighboring more difficult.
We design our streets and subdivisions purposely
to maximize privacy,
and minimize face-to-face human interaction.

As an experiment, walk around different parts of our city.
Find the older sections of our city—Old Town Harrisonburg,
the Northeast Community,
or the older part of the towns around us,
like Dayton, Bridgewater, Broadway.
Notice how many streets have sidewalks,
and how many houses have front porches.
Those two things almost always go together.
That way of designing our habitat assumes
that neighbors want to connect with neighbors.
Those features make human connection more likely.
People out and about are more likely to be walking.
People at home are more likely to see them
and be within earshot,
and make conversation.
There’s been a recent effort, thankfully,
to rectify the lack of sidewalks
in some overlooked neighborhoods, like the Northeast.

And then . . . walk around some newer developments.
Streets are laid out in cul-de-sacs, not rectangular blocks.
One way in, one way out.
You have to choose to go there. You don’t just pass by.
There are few sidewalks.
Few front porches.
And lots of garages with remote door openers.

Not only that,
but floor plans have changed to give more separation and privacy.
The main living space in older homes
is usually at the front of the house, right off the porch.
Now they’re often in the back,
with a nice view of a fenced and landscaped backyard,
not the street or sidewalk.

All these features—in our shared space and our personal space—
are based on an assumption.
We assume neighbors want privacy more than connection.
We assume if someone wants to visit with a neighbor,
it won’t happen by chance,
they will make an appointment and drive there to see them.

So here is the question for us as a church.

If Jesus meant it when he said the second greatest commandment
was to love our neighbor as ourselves,
and if we mean it when we put up signs
telling our neighbors we are glad they are here,
then shouldn’t that love and welcome be obvious,
and on display, and widely noticed?

Shouldn’t our identity as Christians,
and our calling to love our neighbors,
make a difference in the way
we design and utilize the spaces we inhabit?
How can we, in fact, love our neighbors,
if we go to such great pains to make them invisible?

I have a long way to go in really getting close to my neighbors.
I don’t have a lot of reason to boast.
But I will say this.

This dynamic played a significant part in our decision, 9 years ago,
to move a quarter-mile down the road,
and buy an old house that had a big front porch and sidewalk,
and sell our much newer house, that had neither.

If we want to have real relationships with our neighbors,
we have choices to make
about how we design and utilize our spaces.

And that is exactly why,
ever since our fresh-air renovation project,
some of us have been urging us to think new thoughts
about how we use our church space,
especially our downstairs—
the part of our house
most accessible to the neighborhood around us.

What would it mean if we began to think of that space
not as our Fireplace Room in the back of our house,
but as our Front Porch facing the neighborhood.
How might we seek the well-being of our neighborhood,
so that in their well-being, we might find our well-being?
How might we invite our neighbors more freely and more often
into that space,
and help them feel like that space is not just ours, but theirs,
and part of the neighborhood landscape.
How can we make it a place of sharing, and neighborly support,
and mutual enrichment for all?
How might we signal to our neighborhood that we even have
a metaphorical front porch,
even if it’s not a literal one attached to the side of our building?

I’m not trying to be subtle about this.
I’m trying to be as clear and explicit as I can.
At Park View Mennonite
we want to take seriously the call to love our neighborhood.
Not just love our neighbors in the abstract.
But love them in reality.
We want to love not just theoretical people,
we want to love the neighborhood itself,
we want to invest in a social structure
that can build bridges between the otherwise
sharply defined and separated communities
that are only a stone’s throw from our building.
We want to build social capital as a body of Christ
and try to incarnate the love of Jesus in our shared space.

I say all this as a way of introducing a topic
you will be hearing more about,
and in a repeated fashion.
We have a neighborhood block party coming up in a few weeks.
You are all invited and encouraged . . .
to be an integral part of this event,
to be present there to extend our welcome to our neighbors,
not just hang around people you already know.
You may have noticed that our church retreat in September
has the theme, “Love thy neighborhood.”
Andrew and Karen Suderman will be giving us
some biblical and practical challenges and inspiration.
You will to continue to be invited and encouraged, often,
to participate in our Kids Club,
and learn to know some of the families that live near us.
We are going to have further conversation
about our downstairs physical space in the coming year.
Stay tuned.

All this has two purposes—
First, to help us as a congregation with a physical presence
in North Park View,
to know and connect with our particular neighborhood
in a more meaningful way.
But secondly, to inspire all of you
to pay closer attention to the neighborhood
where you live during the week,
and learn to “love thy neighborhood” more authentically,
and find ways to give and receive
more freely with your neighbors.

In all of this, we are trying to cultivate a vibrant “Front Porch Faith,”
so we can be “strangers no more”
and “neighbors to each other now.”
May it be so.
And let’s sing together.

—Phil Kniss, July 28, 2019

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