Sunday, October 13, 2019

Phil Kniss: That beautiful city of God

God’s Good Earth: Cities and the good society
Jeremiah 29:4-9; Psalm 72:16; Matthew 9:35; Revelation 21:1-3; Ezekiel 48:35

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Last Sunday, the fourth in our series on creation,
in which we focused on the nations of the world,
I opened my sermon by asking the question,
“Are nations—these human political entities on the map—
part of God’s Good Creation?”
I think a similar question is in order today.
“Are cities part of God’s Good Creation?”
Are these densely populated concrete jungles,
mass constructions of steel, brick, and asphalt,
broken up occasionally by a green square,
and a few trees planted in a neat row along a boulevard,
are they God’s doing?
is God pleased with them?

Could the Creation story in Genesis 1, hypothetically,
include a verse that reads,
And God said, “Let there be cities. And there were cities.
And God saw that it was good.”
Absolutely . . . Yes!

God loves cities.
Because God loves people.
And God created people to be in relationship.
To be together.
To connect.
To do life in mutually beneficial ways.

God launched the human story in Genesis,
in a named, bounded, and populated place: Eden.
And the human story reaches its fulfillment in Revelation,
in a named, bounded, and populated place: The New Jerusalem.

And yet furthermore,
God planted in each of us God’s own image,
made us to reflect God’s creative impulse,
God’s love of beauty and diversity and community.
And what did we do with that gift?
We actually used it the way God intended, thankfully.
We done good!
We created things—homes, buildings, pathways,
gathering spaces, places for beauty, places for the sacred—
the infrastructure we need for a flourishing life.

It was a grave mistake in the history of the Christian church,
especially the post-World War II evangelical church in N.A.,
to run away from the cities in droves,
building new and less connected and less cooperative
lives at the edges of the cities,
and leaving gaping holes of injustice behind,
in the middle of the cities.

It was a mistake, but a predictable one.

Evangelical Christians in the postwar era,
had a spirituality largely focused on the individual—
Jesus and me—
and an understanding of salvation
that was more transactional than relational,
more individual than corporate.
As a result,
many Christians had no robust theology of community.

So, along with lots of other middle-class whites,
it made sense that they could just walk away
and create a different kind of life in suburbia,
a place that was quieter, safer, easier,
more predictable, manageable, comfortable.

Now, I don’t want to oversimplify. Their motivation was mixed.
It was partly driven by industrialization,
and better roadways and better cars.
But it was partly driven by race,
by the Great Migration of African Americans
from the rural south to cities in the north.

In any case, it’s no accident that two things were trending
at the same time in the 50s and 60s—
growing prominence and influence of Evangelicalism (cap E)
and white flight from the cities to the suburbs.

I was reading an essay by a theology professor at Loyola in Chicago,
William Myatt, who makes this precise point.
Suburban churches grew
as mostly white middle-class professionals moved out of cities.
The urban communities, meanwhile, suffered
in the vacuum those people & churches left behind.
Neighborhoods in the middle of the cities were often marked
by poverty, racial imbalance, and
less access to economic and social resources.

Now, just a little side comment here.
We Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups,
who don’t usually identify with capital “E” Evangelicals,
might be tempted to pat ourselves on the back.
But the only reason we weren’t so much
part of the post-War white flight from cities
is that not many of us lived in cities to begin with.
In the middle of the 20th century, we were still mostly rural,
and agrarian.
But we’re not off the hook.
We took advantage of the growing suburbs.
We moved there, too, as more of us gave up on farming.
As a rural people,
suspicion and fear of the cities was in our DNA,
so suburbia suited us just fine.

Well, suburban life didn’t kill off community,
but it did deliver a knock-out punch.

A “good location” was defined
not as geographic proximity to your neighbors,
but as a short commute by car,
to stores, restaurants, churches, and work.
Along with the growth of big box stores,
came the growth of suburban mega-churches.
These mega-institutions—Willow Creek and WalMart—
are all oriented toward
efficiency, predictability, size, and speed,
and other values of our consumer-driven society.

Even residential neighborhoods were built on those values.
Subdivisions and cul-de-sacs with one entrance in and out,
and no sidewalks,
and garages with electric openers,
all make for easy and efficient navigation, inside a vehicle.
Add to that fenced-in backyards
and no expansive, welcoming front porches,
and you have a recipe for social isolation and loneliness.
Interaction with neighbors is minimized,
and entirely optional.

And please, I’m NOT criticizing families who live in subdivisions.
They have a lot going for them.
This is big-picture social critique.
And any of us suburbanites can, and many of us do,
actively resist the urge to isolate ourselves.
We can, and do, find creative ways to connect with neighbors,
even when our social space wasn’t designed for it.
We can live against the flow.
We can spend more time outside our cocoon,
interacting with our neighbors face-to-face.
But we have to want it to happen,
and we have to work to make it happen.

In the cities, often,
we are forced to interact.
Sometimes against our will.
Or at inconvenient times.
This may well be annoying and disruptive.
But it can also provide an opportunity
for transformative relationships
that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

You probably know,
in recent decades there’s been a move back to cities,
people choose to live in walking communities,
and not just driving communities.
That’s a good thing, mostly.
But it also has a shadow side—gentrification—
the trend toward fewer affordable housing options,
and the high cost of upscale downtown living.
And that’s every bit as racially problematic
as white flight was in the 50s and 60s.
It’s never simple.
We must be sober about it, whatever our choice—
neither romanticize the benefits,
or minimize the problems.

But at the end of the day,
what does God really think of the city?
As I said earlier, God loves the city.
And so should we.

We heard the prophet Jeremiah say that very thing this morning,
as he prophesied to the people of Israel in exile in Babylon.
God’s word to them was to settle in,
and invest in the city.
These often-quoted words are still surprising,
every time I hear them.
“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.”
In other words,
help Babylon become the city I created it to be,
and in the process,
you will become the person I created you to be.

We heard in the Psalm 72 reading, this prayer—
“and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field.”

And in Gospel reading from Matthew 9,
where did Jesus go to do the bulk of his ministry?
Where people clustered together in organized communities.
“Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages,
teaching in their synagogues,
and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom,
and curing every disease and every sickness.”

And John the Revelator, in Revelations 21,
next-to-last book of the Bible,
reserved his most glorious word picture for a city.
“I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem,
coming down out of heaven from God,
prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them.”

God loves being with people, where they are gathered, in the cities.

God designed creation
to be in dynamic give-and-take relationship with each other.
All creation, really.
Plants and animals alike, need each other.
And human beings, especially.
God wired us to connect.
To be in relationship with each other.
This is how we reflect the image of the Triune God.

Cities . . . diverse neighborhoods . . . parks . . . churches . . .
theaters . . . museums . . . offices . . . stores . . .
and other social structures,
when built on a reasonable human scale . . .
all contribute to the health of human relationships,
the health of other living biological systems,
and the health of the planet.

We who are disciples of Jesus should look to cities
as fertile ground for growing a good life.
We should see cities as potential resources for faithful living,
not as the inherent enemy of faithful living.
Are we not called, as people of faith,
to be in mutually supportive community with one another?
and to engage in communal practices
that are hard, but life-giving—
such as mutual discernment,
mutual accountability,
mutual caregiving,
shared mission,
corporate worship?

Which of those, can we possibly argue,
is better done in a place that social architects
designed for privacy, separation, speed, and efficiency?

Aren’t those life practices particularly well-suited
for people who live in geographical proximity to each other?
people who must interact for their survival,
whether or not it’s pleasant or convenient at the time?
people who are different from each other,
culturally, economically, and in many other ways?

Karina Kreminski is an Australia urban theologian and practitioner
who recently wrote a book on urban spirituality.
She is trying to develop a positive theology of the city.
She makes the point that the city reflects
one of God’s core impulses at Creation—
That is also our task, as persons bearing God’s image.
We are to make a place.
Life happens in a human place, in a context.
We don’t live in the abstract.
We live in the real, and present, and particular.
For that we need a defined place to ground us.

God’s place-making impulse is seen in the first place
God prepared for human habitation—the Garden of Eden.
In this story we’ve been given in Genesis 2,
God did not just create the man and woman,
and set them down randomly on the earth,
and let them figure out where to roam and where to sleep.
No, God prepared a place, planted trees,
established boundaries, marked by rivers.
Then God “put them there,” the text says, to populate it.
God grounded them in a suitable place,
then gave them directions on how to take care of it.

A community built well, on a human scale,
designed for respectful and mutual interaction
with other human beings and creation,
is the kind of place God intends cities to be.
And they can be that.
But not if we abandon them, or demonize them.
That can only happen if we love them,
and invest in them.

The challenges of urban life are immense,
especially for persons committed to caring for God’s creation.
There is unimaginable waste and other sins against the good earth.
There is deep human suffering in the great cities of our world.
And in many ways, it’s getting worse.
Many cities are, in fact,
badly in need of God’s saving and redemptive work.

All over the world, the trend is more people living in cities.
The U.N. predicts that by the year 2050,
more than 6.5 billion people—
over two-thirds of earth’s population—
will live in urban areas.
We’re already slightly over half.
The world is unprepared for this level of demand
for energy, water, sanitation, food scarcity,
employment, transportation, education, and health.
And the church is also largely unprepared
for the challenges and opportunities
this highly urbanized world.

We actually have a couple guests with us this morning,
who are demonstrating it doesn’t have to be that way.
They headed straight into one of large cities of our world,
and into one of the darkest parts of the city,
to seek the shalom of that city.
They are Grace and Yugo.
They have shared with us before, so we know them already.
Grace is the daughter of Luke and Carmen Schrock-Hurst,
and spent a few years as a youth among us.
They and their children
are living in an urban slum in Asia
and discovering signs of shalom and beauty
even in places that many others have given up on.
I believe they are loving the city
the way that God loves the city.
And we have much to learn from them.

So, Grace and Yugo, will you come and share a few words
about how you are loving God and loving the city?

Grace and Yugo will be sharing in the second hour
with the Shalom class.
Any of you are welcome.
You may also chat with them at their table in the foyer
following today’s service.

In 1966,
at a time when our cities in the U.S. were in a time of crisis,
and making news all over the world,
with race riots,
and large-scale protests against the Vietnam War, etc.,
Brittish hymn-writer Erik Routley
was sitting in a quiet room in between sessions
of a hymn conference he was attending
at a church out in the Scottish countryside,
as he sat in that tranquil setting,
he was inspired to write these words about the city . . .

All who love and serve your city,
All who bear its daily stress,
All who cry for peace and justice,
All who curse and all who bless . . .

In your day of loss, of sorrow,
In your day of helpless strife,
Honor, peace, and love retreating,
Seek the Lord who is your life.

 . . . and he ended with,
Risen Lord, shall yet the city
be the city of despair?
Come today, our Judge, our Glory,
Be its name, “The Lord is there!”

That last line is a direct quote from Ezekiel 48,
where the prophet is describing the remaking of the city
of Jerusalem,
at the day when God’s rule and reign is reestablished,
and the city itself will be renamed, no longer Jerusalem,
but named, “The Lord is There.”

May it be so.
And let us sing, from HWB 417

—Phil Kniss, October 13, 2019

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