Sunday, January 19, 2020

Phil Kniss: The Church: Troublemaker or Goodwill Ambassador?

In It Together: The Church As Witness
Acts 2:43-47; Genesis 12:1-3; John 17:20-23

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When we talk about the call of the church
to bear witness to the Gospel in the world,
we always have to start with a “Yes, but.”

When we claim the purpose of the church
is to show the world what the Gospel looks like,
we have to quickly qualify that statement,
make some apologies,
list some caveats,
and clarify our definitions.

Part of the reason for this is our long history of miserable failure
at doing this task the way God would have us do it.

The world has seen so many examples of bad witness,
has seen the Gospel distorted and poisoned
by the church’s lust for power and recognition,
by the church aligning itself too closely
with political power structures,
by the church engaging in cultural colonialism,
by the church in some cases even becoming the oppressor.

But there are other reasons to hesitate,
to qualify, to nuance,
our talk about church as witness.

Our witness can take many different forms.
So what kind of witness are we talking about?
Sometimes two different ways of being a witness,
both based solidly in scripture,
can seem like polar opposites.

We use very different metaphors to talk about our task.
Is the church a prophet or a pastor to the world?
A peacemaker or a provocateur . . . a divider?
Do we stir up the waters or calm the seas?

That’s what my sermon title is asking.
Are we trouble-makers in the world—
confronting a fallen world with a truth it isn’t ready to hear?
preaching costly discipleship, even if we lose numbers?

Or are we Goodwill Ambassadors of the Gospel,
seeking to make the way of Jesus seem as
winsome, attractive, and accessible as we can,
to get as many people as possible to sign on,
and join the movement?

The answer is, Yes.
Of course.

There’s a strong case for being trouble-makers.
Those of us who tend toward being activists—
as we look at the world around us
with all the brutal oppression and human exploitation
and war-mongering and greed and cruelty in the world,
we will naturally lean into this call to be trouble-makers.

And in fact, if we take the example of scripture seriously,
we are encouraged to be exactly that.
To call the oppressors to account.
To undermine and unmask the powers.

The church won’t make many friends doing this.
Or at least, not friends in high places.
The first Anabaptists in 16th-century Europe,
the movement our stream of Christians descended from,
found that out the hard way,
all the way to the executioner.

But it’s still true today, in the 21st-century world.
Fewer executions, thank God.
But Christian communities that start meddling in the way things are,
make trouble for themselves.
They get cast as the enemy of human progress,
or the enemy of patriotism,
or the enemy of economic success.
And many of the ordinary public, our neighbors,
join in with the criticism.
Maybe they are also invested in the status quo,
and feel threatened.
So they push back.

Many of us know and love Harvey Yoder,
local pastor and counselor,
and Brent Yoder’s dad.
Harvey is one of the kindest and gentlest
Christian souls on the earth.

But as he has exercised his voice in the public arena,
through his advocacy for criminal justice reform,
or against gun violence,
or for other public concerns,
he gets lambasted as a dangerous person with dangerous ideas,
with words I won’t even repeat from the pulpit.

Harvey is making trouble.
And since he is part of our local Mennonite church community,
we could say he is helping the church be a trouble-maker.
In the best sense of the word.
And whether or not you agree with every word he writes,
I think we can all say,
“More power to Harvey and his kind.”

But then . . . if we are supposed to be winsome witnesses to the Gospel,
shouldn’t we work hard to make friends and inspire people?
Why should we make enemies?

Shouldn’t we pay attention to what people are longing for,
what they want, what they need,
and then try to provide that,
to comfort them in their distress,
to draw them toward and into the church,
and to generally promote goodwill in the community?
Shouldn’t we be known for our kindness and humility and grace?
Shouldn’t we redouble our efforts to do good works?
to lend a hand to Mennonite Disaster Service,
and Mennonite Central Committee,
to visit the prisoner,
to feed the hungry?
Isn’t it to everyone’s benefit
when the public sees the church as being on their side?
Well, yes.
This is the other side of the coin.

And we find biblical support for this, too.
Isn’t this what the first church did, after Pentecost,
when it first “went public” so to speak?

We heard some verses from Acts 2 this morning. Listen again.
“Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple,
they broke bread at home
and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,
praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
And day by day the Lord added to their number
those who were being saved.”

Further, Acts describes this early church as a community
who held their property in common,
who sold their possessions so they could give to those in need,
who healed the sick and cared for the suffering.

This was a good church, full of good people.
And the public noticed.
The church enjoyed wide public support and goodwill.
People were flocking to their community to join them in it.

So, is this two sides of the same coin?
Must we choose between them?
Can we have it both ways?
Or do we split the difference, find a happy middle ground,
and do each one, only half-way?
Do we speak just enough of the truth,
to do our religious duty,
but not too much that we anger the authorities?
Where is balance?
Where is discernment?
Where is wisdom?

I’m pretty confident in saying,
God is not a big fan
of people who devote themselves half-way.
When anything else gets in the way
of our whole-hearted love and loyalty to God,
God calls that idolatry.
The prophets had some strong words
for those who went half-way with God.
Joshua declared, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters . . .
you’ll hate the one and love the other,
or be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
And John the Revelator wrote this down,
as God’s message to the church in Laodicea,
“Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot,
I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Okay . . . then I guess can we agree?
It’s all in?
For both?
—making trouble for the powers,
and showering the people with love and goodwill?

So then we must discern which is called for, and when.
We do that discernment by drawing closer to God’s heart.
Our calling as God’s people, as we have often said,
is to be God’s image-bearers.
We reflect God’s image to the world.
It was our calling all the way back to Creation itself,
when God created women and men
in the image of God,
and then gave us the responsibility
to reveal Godself to the world.

Later, God reiterated that expectation to Abraham,
in our Old Testament reading today from Genesis 12,
when God told him go, where I show you,
and be a blessing to the world,
“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
It was never about Abraham and his line being “special.”
No, they were “chosen” for a deeply missional task,
to reflect the image of God to the world.

Jesus repeated this expectation,
in his prayer for his followers, that we heard from John 17:
He prayed for them, and those who would follow them,
that they would be unified in spirit and mind,
again, not for their benefit, not because they were “special,”
but . . . he prayed to his father,
“so that the [whole] world may know that you have sent me
and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Reflecting God’s face to the world.
That is still our task.
Do we reflect that image perfectly?
Of course not.
We fail. Often, and miserably.
But the wonder and mystery and beauty
is that God chooses us anyway, flawed as we are.
All we do is offer ourselves without pretense.
The Spirit works through our brokenness to reveal God’s glory.

So if we work in concert with God,
our activity in the world will be as diverse as God’s activity.
God did not always show the same side of his face to the world.
Neither will we.

Our task of discernment is to notice the person right in front of us,
to notice the people who may be suffering or discarded,
to notice systems of power that are oppressing people God loves,
to notice situations of brokenness and need wherever they exist,
and pray that the brightness of God’s glory will illuminate,
and reveal the truth that is there.

That task is meant to be carried out in community.
We, the body of Jesus Christ in the world,
in our particular expression at Park View,
embodied here, and now,
we must discern what kind of response looks like God at work.
Our task is observation, discernment, action, reflection.
When there are neighbors living near us
who are lonely and find our community intimidating,
and hard to access.
When there are many more homeless persons in our community,
than the 40-some who will stay here in our building this week.
When our prisons are full and overflowing.
When immigrants without documents live in constant fear.
When the state of Virginia is still roiling with white supremacy,
and systemic racism.
When our country is led by people
who have forgotten what selfless service looks like,
where money and power continues to corrupt.
When people are suffering all over the world,
because of hate, and greed, and all manner of evil.

With all this going on,
in our neighborhood and all over the world,
now is the time for the church to be the church.
We, as a community, are the embodied witness to God’s reign,
in the real and ordinary world.
We are “in it together.”
It is the way we live, and move, and have our being,
as a community,
that is a witness to the rule of God.

Sometimes we will look like harmless, loving service providers,
and everyone will praise our generosity and compassion.
Other times we will look like dangerous and naïve radicals
who don’t know when to just sit down and shut up.

Sometimes, for the very same actions,
we will be described in both ways,
by people with very different agendas,
and different vested interests.

We will be witnesses to the Gospel, one way or another.
Simply doing what genuine communities of disciples of Jesus do,
as we navigate the ordinary challenges of life together.
And as we are fond of saying at Park View,
we are a community of communities engaged in God’s mission.
Many times (actually most of the time)
these will be the smaller communities among us,
of two or three, or twelve, or fifty,
who will not be afraid to put their communal life on display.
Who will respond with hospitality,
who will extend the table,
who will knot comforters
who will fill snack packs for school children,
who will cook for and eat with their homeless neighbors,
who will walk the streets and notice people,
who will stand on Court Square holding signs and praying,
who will show up at City Council
and speak up on behalf of the voiceless,
who will write letters to newspapers and congress-people,
who will give rides to refugees,
who will go to the border,
who will care for the sick and dying,
who will teach children and young people in our schools,
caring for their whole persons, not just the right answers,
who will give money to non-profits,
who will start and run ethical businesses that provide jobs
and give back to the community,
who will spend years abroad in mission and service,
who will not despair when the world crumbles,
but will, whenever the opportunity presents itself,
explain the reason for the hope that is within them.

We may never know why God decided to save the world in this way,
why God would trust the likes of us, in the church,
to faithfully reflect God’s image in all these situations.

Nevertheless, the church is the real body of Christ,
sent by God into the world,
to identify with, to proclaim, and to live into
God’s mission to make this world right again.
And God has chosen us,
a community of human beings, warts and all,
to partner with the Holy Spirit,
and become, for the world,
the real expression of God’s presence in the world.

The question is, where have we bound up our future?
With the principalities and powers of this world?
Or with the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?

Let’s sing the answer to question.
“I bind my heart this tide to the Galileans’ side” (HWB 411)

—Phil Kniss, January 19, 2020

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