Sunday, January 12, 2020

Phil Kniss: Making neighbors of strangers

In It Together: The Church As Neighbor
Ephesians 2:8-22; Matthew 5:1-16

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There’s a reason neighborhoods form the way they do.
Remember that satellite view of our church neighborhood,
with boundary lines drawn around
all the smaller neighborhoods within the neighborhood?
We projected it on the screen at our church retreat last fall.
I wish I could just have it projected behind me now,
during my whole sermon,
as a visual demonstration about how we human beings
go about being neighbors.

The fact that we are sitting in a building right now,
that is located precisely at the intersection of four or five
distinctly different and definable sectors or neighborhoods
is not just an interesting coincidence.
It was entirely predictable, from the beginning.

When this building was built in the late 60s
it was in the middle of open pastureland.
Park Road out there ended just before it got to us.
There was no Park Road entrance to our parking lot out there,
because there was no Park Road out there.
That’s why our building is oriented toward College Ave.

Everything around here at one time was oriented toward College Ave—
between here and EMU, and just south of EMU.
College Avenue was like a Mennonite Main Street.

Nearly all our neighbors were connected,
in one way or another, with EMU and the Mennonite Community.
It was only as the neighborhood grew northward,
past this church building,
that people NOT like the EMU-connected Mennonites
began moving in.

Others, especially those with some financial resources,
found the western ridge up there, that runs north,
with views east and west,
a very attractive place to live, and so they settled on it.
It’s understandable.
Those lots and homes were developed
in the way almost all suburban neighborhoods are developed,
with lot-size and house-size parameters, and deed restrictions,
that ensure the only households who end up living there,
are households roughly similar
to the households already living there.

It works that way all along the socioeconomic spectrum.
We now have 8 and 10-unit lower-income apartment complexes,
clustered in a specific area
around Buttonwood, Burkwood, Birch, and Harmony Dr,
because the way that area is zoned and laid out,
makes it virtually impossible
to build a good-sized single-family home in the middle of it.
Further, we assume (and maybe rightly assume)
that persons who will rent these smaller
and more densely-built apartments,
would rather have neighbors
who are generally similar economically and socially.

This dynamic is not unique to this neighborhood.
Wherever you live, you can map out similar dynamics.

But let’s just name it—our own congregational story,
and where we sit today,
is all intertwined with this common human impulse,
to build community with people like us.
Left on our own, we are birds of a feather who flock together.
Neighboring is just easier that way.

So, on the one hand,
we could argue, and many have argued,
why should churches be any different than that?
We’re here on the north side of Park View.
And at the south end of Park View is another church
that meets in a former auto parts store.
98% of us would feel out of place in their church.
And they in ours.
They worship in a different language,
have a different culture,
have a different style of worship and music . . . and preaching,
have a different theology,
and have less wealth and social status than we do,
individually and collectively.

This reality is entirely predictable,
and actually, not all bad.
It’s important, for building a cohesive community or society,
to have a shared language,
shared culture,
shared understandings,
shared life experiences.
If these two congregations attempted to merge into one,
the members of both would be greatly challenged,
maybe to the point of giving up and walking away,
and hindering the mission of both groups.

But . . .
that is all due to the factors of human nature and sociology.
It is not due to Gospel factors.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ,
which we seek to proclaim every Sunday,
and which that other congregation seeks to proclaim
every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon,
is that in Christ,
dividing walls are abolished,
strangers are made into neighbors,
two groups are made into one,
and Jesus Christ is Lord of all.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ
calls us all to transformation,
calls us all to a place that is beyond our borders and boundaries,
and invites us into a new community, where currently none exists.

We heard Ephesians 2 read this morning,
a text saying, among other things, that Christ made
“both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall,
that is, the hostility between us.”
We have no idea how revolutionary and mind-blowing
that text is,
because we did not live in a world
where Christ-followers were trying to make one church
out of Jews and Gentiles.

This would be a little bit like trying to start a church
made up equally of whites and blacks
in the world of the 1950s Jim-Crow South.
Only about 10 times harder,
because in New Testament times,
for a Jewish-initiated movement
to invite Gentiles into community with them,
was not just breaking long-held social norms
and cultural expectations
and ethnic values—
it was breaking foundational, foundational,
theological and religious beliefs and practices
handed down since Moses.

But that’s what makes the Gospel the Gospel.
It does what we cannot do through human effort.
It is a work of a loving, reconciling God.
It is the end result of a power
that was let loose in the world at Pentecost,
the reconciling breath of the Holy Spirit,
that forms genuine community and helps it thrive,
in soil where it otherwise would wither and die.

This is a worship and sermon series on the church as community.
And I just want to make perfectly clear here at the outset,
that this will not be a moralistic worship series.
This will not be about shoulds and oughts.
This will not be about how we all need to try harder and do better,
and thus achieve the unachievable—a utopian community.

No, this is about recognizing, and receiving, with gratitude,
a gift of God handed to us by no merit of our own—
that is, the gift of community and oneness in Christ.

We will look at this gift of community from a variety of angles.
(You may want to reference the worship schedule
listed on your half-sheet bulletin insert.)
Today, we see how the gift can build bridges between people,
and people groups,
can make neighbors out of strangers,
both within the congregation,
and between the congregation and our neighbors
outside these walls.

In subsequent weeks,
we will see how the very existence of this God-created community,
is a public witness to the reign of God in the world;
we will note how the community spans the globe,
with a message of hope for all people groups everywhere;
we will reflect on the role of the community
in giving shape and definition to the moral life;
we will think about the metaphor of church as family,
and what that means for all of us,
in our various family configurations;
we will celebrate the beauty of combining our voices into one,
as a singing community;
and we will welcome and celebrate
those entering into a covenant relationship with us
as new members in this particular community.

But at no time in this series, I pray,
will any of us get the impression
that this sacred gift of community is something we can create
through human effort alone.
Yes, yes. It involves work on our part.
Tremendous work and effort.
But without the wall-crushing work that has already been done
by God in Christ through the Spirit,
our efforts would surely fall short.

Listen again to these words in the letter to the church at Ephesus:
“For Christ is our peace; in Christ’s flesh he has made
both groups into one
and has broken down the dividing wall . . .
that Christ might create in himself
one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,
and might reconcile both groups to God
in one body through the cross,
thus putting to death that hostility through it . . .
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,
but you are citizens with the saints
and also members of the household of God.”

God in Christ did that.
Made neighbors from strangers.
The apostle was only trying to help the Ephesian Christians
to notice it, and embrace it.

Even German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
famous for his small book, Life Together,
said community driven by human ambition is a lost cause.
And here I quote,
“Every human wish dream that is
injected into the Christian community is a hindrance
to genuine community and must be banished
if genuine community is to survive.”

Community is the gift of a saving and reconciling God.
Our work is to open ourselves to the work already done.
To live into the new reality already conceived and created
by our reconciling God.
And that is enough work for us, for a lifetime.

And, you know, in these times in which we live,
this work is world-changing work.
If we accept the reality that God makes strangers into neighbors,
and find creative ways to live into that reality,
it will stand out, it will be noticed.
It will be precisely like the salt of the earth,
and light of the world,
and city on a hill,
that Jesus spoke about in the Sermon on the Mount,
in today’s Gospel reading.

We live in a season
where blind loyalty to parties and tribes is all-important,
where the strange other is always the enemy,
and winning means proving ourselves stronger than the other.
So it will be noticed—maybe not always appreciated, but noticed—
when people choose not to defeat the unknown stranger,
but welcome them into community.

There is a reason why churches—
despite the bad reputation many of them have, deservedly so—
there’s a reason churches are still at the forefront
of some of the most courageous and game-changing initiatives
of welcoming the stranger and alien,
offering them sanctuary,
calling them sister or brother,
much to the consternation of the powers that be.
It’s because the church recognizes and receives the gift of God,
the gift of a community of opposites,
of misfits,
and of strangers.

I invite us, at Park View Mennonite,
to be counted among those churches
that are a thorn in the side of the powers.
Not just because we talk tough or protest loudly
(although verbal protest is often needed).
But the greatest threat to the powers—
the greatest challenge to the status quo in our culture—
is to actually live like the church,
to live as if Christ has abolished the dividing wall,
and made peace with the stranger—
because he did—
to live as if this beloved community already exists—
because it does.
Thanks be to God!

—Phil Kniss, January 12, 2020

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