Sunday, February 9, 2020

Moriah Hurst: God’s household

IN IT TOGETHER: The Church As Family (in a world of lonely people)
1 Cor 12:12-26; Ruth 1:14-18

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God’s Household
            Families, this should be an easy topic, right. We all have families, they are all over the place. In our church the group that has young families or children still at home is supposed to be my specialty area, or so my resume tells me. This should be a piece of cake. (Deep sigh), how did you like my pep talk?

            Here is a little secret about me, I don’t like being given topics to preach on. I like being given Biblical texts. With the text as my starting place I can see what emerges as I study the bible. When I am given a topic it often means that I have to find my texts and weather it is my training or my personality, this always feels like proof texting or making the Bible say what I want it to say.

            So here we go – pick texts to talk about family, the family of God. (flip through bible) I don’t know the Bible super well but I do ok and nothing is coming to mind. There is not a go to text for families. There are lots of families in the bible but I’m not sure many of them are ideal. There are brothers killing each other, families scheming and tricking one another, troubling sexual acts between relatives. And what about the problematic texts where women are considered property or useless unless they can deliver a child, preferably a male one.  This feels kind of like choosing a text for a wedding ceremony, there are not ideal couples in the Bible that are easy to base a wedding sermon off of. We can talk about love – there are good passages on that! – love is patient and kind. Or we draw on the Ruth passage that was read today – but that is not between a loving couple. It is a daughter-in-law speaking to her mother-in-law after all of the intimately related males in their life have died.

            Being a product of my generation I went to my wise advisor Google for some help. Here is what the internet handed me:  

(Exodus 20:12 
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
Ephesians 5:25
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,
Proverbs 6:20 
20 My child, keep your father’s commandment,
    and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.

Matthew 19:19
19 Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Colossians 3:21 
21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.
Proverbs 22:6 
Train children in the right way,
    and when old, they will not stray.

1 Timothy 5:8 
And whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Psalm 127:3-5 
Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
    are the sons of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has
    his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame
    when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

Proverbs 1:8
Hear, my child, your father’s instruction,
    and do not reject your mother’s teaching;

Colossians 3:20 
20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord.

Psalm 68:5-6a 
Father of orphans and protector of widows
    is God in his holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
Proverbs 17:17 
17 A friend loves at all times,
    and kinsfolk are born to share adversity.

1 John 4:20 

20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.)

There you have it our tidbits of texts with a good dose of teaching from Proverbs.
(hold up Bible) Here we have a book about God entering into the messy complexity of our lives and relationships and showing us what it is to be loved, to love and be transformed by the love of God, right there in the mess of it all. If I had to categorize families and relationships from the Bible I’d probably just say, it’s complicated.

            Maybe this is a bit of a relief because really who has the rosy Hallmark family. Lets think back to Christmas with our families. I adore my family and yet holidays are hard. Equal parts wanting to soak up every minute with my family and at the same time longing to have my own space again and wishing that relationships weren’t so complicated.

            Even what comprises a family is complex – single parents, step families, grandparents raising a grandchild. It’s not a cute family unit and was it ever?

 “In Bible times, a family was much more than a private haven of affection: it was a productive unit spanning generations. Nancy Pearcey, explains:
Before the Industrial Revolution, the home performed a host of practical functions. It was the place where people educated children, cared for the sick and elderly, ran family industries, served customers and the community, and produced a surplus to help the poor. The home reached out to the wider society.”
Marjorie J Thompson in her book Family; The Forming Center notes that as our social fabric tears and traditional structures of family crumble we can succumb to our cultural habit of idolizing the biological family unit. (p.134) Families are not perfect but they are so important.
A problem for us as Mennonites that we share with some in biblical families is our insider-ness. Who was in the family or people group and who was not – how should outsiders be treated. Mennonites can feel like a big family. When we go to the Mennonite Church USA convention it can feel like a family reunion especially for those of us who have lived in Mennonite dense communities or studied at Mennonite institutions.

            We play the Mennonite game – following family lines trying to figure out how we are related or how people fit together. I had someone come up to me at church and say we were almost related. When I looked at her with surprise and some skepticism she traced the line of connection, my sister-in-law’s sister is married to her husband’s cousin. 10 points if anyone can figure out who that is.
The problem with having insiders is that that puts some people on the outside. One of my friends in seminary raged at how often people would look at him oddly when he’d say his last name. They would comment “Hickman isn’t a Mennonite name”. He would forcefully reply back “well it is now!!”

            When things become complicated reading the bible we often look to Jesus – let’s look at what he says. Jesus himself was a contradiction.  Jesus lived a single life, called his disciples away from their families but used family imagery, terms and illustrations in his teachings. “His direct naming of God with such an intimate family term strongly suggests a familial dynamic at the heart of the Holy Trinity.”(Thompson, Family; The Forming Center,  p133) Jesus goes on to bless marriage at the feast at Cana, bless children and names them as having qualities that are a gateway to the Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches with stories of families, explaining unconditional love as a father and son in the story of the prodigal.

But there are a number of difficult texts when we look at what Jesus said about family
In Matthew 10:35-37 – Jesus says:
35 For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’[a]
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

And later in Matt 12:46-50
46 While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Again quoting Thompson “In a single sentence, Jesus has redefined the family from core to periphery: A true family is one whose center is unswerving allegiance to God alone and whose parameters expand to include everyone who delights in God’s will. Jesus is interested in inaugurating a new community. Yet even this community of grace is described in family terms” (Thompson, Family; The Forming Center, p.134)

So much of our faith formation happens in families. We learn about God from the significant people in our lives. Our theology is shaped and refined in the love, commitment, trust, grace and forgiveness, or the lack there of that we experience in our families.

Yet the church community should be the place where our understanding of love, acceptance and a call to service is extended. Jesus seems to tap into this idea with some of the “radically disturbing things (he has) to say about the place of natural kinship” (Thompson, Family; The Forming Center, p.132)
As humans we long for connection, but have we lost the art of connection. In our over sexualized society we project romance onto all intimacy and then put pressure on families to have it all together on their own. Is Mom, Dad and 2.2 children ideal? What about support systems? What about single people? What about the elderly? The single parents, the youth who have aged out of foster care system? How do they all fit into our loving networks? Do we as churches fall into following age and stage in our relationships only befriending the people who are at the same life stage as us? How do we all find our space of belonging?

It may not be that we are not connected but that we are over connected – a mile wide and an inch deep. If we are connected across so many communities, all our many commitments and networks, are we really known and held by any of them? “We’re busy, but disconnected. Our relationships are several, but superficial (frequent social media use either has no effect or a negative effect on loneliness).”

Even in families we are lonely. A number of recent headlines point out how lonely we are becoming.
“Surgeon General Says There’s a Loneliness Epidemic” “Young People Report More Loneliness Than the Elderly”
“The Biggest Threat Facing Middle-Aged Men Isn’t Smoking or Obesity. It’s Loneliness”

We live in a society that values our individualism yet we are persons in community – wired for connection.

“loneliness causes “an insidious type of stress” that leads to chronic inflammation and an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. Loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

“Like Jesus, we exist for relationships. Created in the image of a triune—and therefore eternally relational—God, to be fully alive means to live in relationships. If Jesus was history’s most “fully alive” human, it shouldn’t surprise us that a person can’t become fully human without a community.”

We are members of a body, the body of Christ here in Park View. As we read the New Testament we see a breaking open of the bloodline and family systems of the people of Israel. Jew, Greek, slave, free, man, woman, young and old all drawn in. No longer do you need to be born in, to find inclusion or grafted in by marriage. We are part of God’s family and household, a chosen people through grace, faith and baptism. Members of one body with all our varying gifts.

“The kinship family is viewed primarily as a biological and sociological entity. Within the church, however, the family becomes more than the most efficient unit for human propagation, nurture, and ordering of society. It becomes part of the larger, transforming kinship of those bound together in baptism to the body of Christ”(Thompson, Family; The Forming Center, p 135)

Can we live together creatively and faithfully? Families are those we feel stuck with but also deeply known by and who hold us through it all. As we call each other brothers and sisters, siblings in faith can we treat each other in that way? Can our church family be both biological and a chosen family bound to one another?

I know I have quoted this before but it seems relevant to hear it again: If you love community you will destroy it, if you love people you will create community.

Can we as a church prioritize forming authentic community.

Not wanting “our church family” to morph into “a church for families”. But one where people who show up in all stages of life, family, singleness or marital status are drawn into discernment and networks of mutual care and mission.

Jesus came and brought connections between people who had never shared the same social arena and now called each other brother.

“Early Christianity scholar Joseph Hellerman puts it well in When the Church Was a Family:
Spiritual formation occurs primarily in the context of community. People who remain contented with their brothers and sisters in the local church almost invariably grow in self-understanding, and they mature in their ability to relate in healthy ways to God and to their fellow human beings. This is especially the case for those courageous Christians who stick it out through the often messy process of interpersonal discord and conflict resolution. Long-term interpersonal relationships are the crucible of genuine progress in the Christian life. People who stay grow.”

This is hard work but may we, like Ruth, say to our chosen family…Where you go, I will go. Where you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people. And your God shall be my God.

May it be so with us as we embrace this family of God.

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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Phil Kniss: Let’s provoke each other (even more than we do now)

In It Together: The Church As Moral Community
Nehemiah 8:1-10; Hebrews 10:19-25; Matthew 18:15-22

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I know I’m wading into muddy water
when I talk about church as moral community.
The idea that the church would claim to read the mind of God,
and shape our moral lives accordingly—
should make us squirm in our seats.

Many people, many churches,
are tempted to give up before we start.
There are just too many pitfalls for a community
to take responsibility for the moral lives of its members.

For starters, we can’t agree on the details of what is right or wrong.
And even if we could agree on the content of our moral code,
it’s a long shot to get the process right
to shape the personal moral lives of our members.
We stand a good chance of getting it wrong on both counts—
content and process.

Furthermore, in a culture of hyper-individualism
that worships individual freedom and autonomy,
how dare a church even suggest we might have something to say
about how people go about living their own lives?

Especially now, with widespread distrust of any cultural institution,
not just the church,
and with churches everywhere losing ground
in terms of cultural influence
in terms of raw numbers like attendance and giving . . .
it’s understandable that many contemporary American churches
try to lower expectations of members,
for fear of offending the loyal remnant,
and losing even more ground.

Many American churches have already caved in to crass consumerism.
They position themselves as a marketplace
for religious goods and services that consumers seem to want—
concert-style performance worship, with high-tech special effects,
comfortable theater-seating in darkened rooms,
so each worshiper can be in their own little world
taking in (consuming) what’s happening
in the performance space (up on stage).
And the cafes and bookshops in the lobby
have all kinds of products to satisfy the customer.

There is barely a suggestion,
much less an expectation, and certainly no pressure,
to notice worshipers around you, and enter deeply into their lives.

This sort of church is not really a community of moral formation.
It’s a collection of individuals in a religious marketplace
having a spiritual experience.
And then the customers walk out of the Christian supermarket
and go off to do life on their own,
until they come back to get a refill the next Sunday.

Yes, I know. You can call me on it.
I’m being too cynical.
I’m overstating to make a point.
Things aren’t this extreme everywhere.
Most congregations do
try to take spiritual formation and discipleship seriously.

And no, I won’t claim,
that just because Park View doesn’t have theater seating
or a fog machine or a coffeeshop,
that we aren’t also tempted
to make church into a religious marketplace.
We need to be on guard constantly.
We are human.
We breathe the same air and drink the same water
of our surrounding culture.

We can’t help but be influenced by consumerism.
We also are prone to cater to individual religious customers.
We may also be afraid to set the bar too high.
If we start talking too much about communal moral formation,
or about living a sacrificial life that goes against the flow,
or start drawing boundaries that society is not drawing,
people will start shopping around for a better deal.

Because there are better deals out there,
if by “deal” we mean a church that
gives us more, while demanding less.
So our temptation, my temptation, as a church leader,
will always be to demand less and give more,
to keep people coming through our doors,
and supporting our programs.

So that’s the tension I’m trying to name.
A church wanting to build up its program and numbers
(and what church doesn’t?)
hesitates to push very hard
for more communal moral formation.

But I also say, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
I want to make the case that a flourishing life, a good life,
an attractive life,
is actually a disciplined life,
deeply embedded in a community.
It is a life that does not lean away, but leans toward,
the practice of mutual moral formation.

A community whose members ask a lot of each other,
and give a lot to each other,
is a community calling people to the good life.
It is a community who is living out the vision
of the writer of Hebrews, who urged the church, in today’s reading,
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,
And let us consider how to provoke one another
to love and good deeds,
not neglecting to meet together,
but encouraging one another,
and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

I couldn’t have said it better,
“Let’s provoke each other . . . and do it all the more.”

We are a provocative community,
a community that provokes its members to love and good deeds.
I love that word provoke.
And no, it does not mean to get somebody mad.
That’s only one specific kind of provocation.

Provoke is from the Latin, pro-vocare.
Vocare is to call—as is “vocation,” a calling,
or being “vocal”—using our mouth to call out.
And the prefix “pro” means “forth.”
So “pro-vocare” means to call forth.
To provoke someone,
is to call forth some kind of response or action.

The writer of Hebrews urges us in the church,
“Don’t be lackadaisical in your relationships.
Live together in a way that doesn’t allow people
to be static or passive or lethargic.
Put a fire under them.
Do things or say things around them,
that provoke a response in them—
that provoke love and good deeds.”

Love them in a way that makes them want to love more.
Do good in a way that makes them want to do good more.
And when they struggle with something pulling them down,
or causing a moral failure,
live around them in a way that raises them back up.
Provoke each other to love and good deeds,
and all the more, as things around us start falling apart.

With the multiple global moral crises facing us,
now is not a season to back off of our communal moral calling,
to crawl into a hole and hope it all passes,
and that we miraculously survive.
No, now is the time for active, communal, and mutual
moral formation.

In a world that is at sea,
a community like this one is a precious gift
to anyone wanting to live a flourishing life.
We are not on our own to navigate life.
We have a community to walk with us, hard as it is.
We have people who love us too much,
to let us off the hook too easily,
when it comes to living up to our high calling as humans.

That’s the kind of community I’m glad to be part of.
One that loves me unconditionally, the way I am,
and expects continued growth
and maturation and transformation.
One that calls out the very best in me,
that provokes me toward becoming
the human being God designed me to be.
I believe, if we stop to think about it,
we would all want that, wouldn’t we?

But again, I say with some caution—
as flawed people in flawed communities, it’s hard to pull off.
There is the theory.
And there is the practice.

So let’s look at a story of a people of God trying to practice it.

In the book of Nehemiah,
the Jewish people had just returned to Jerusalem,
after some generations in exile,
so they had forgotten almost everything about the law of God.
Their communal moral formation languished
while they were uprooted, living in a pagan land,
separated from their scriptures and their religious rituals.
They suffered from mass collective forgetfulness.

So while they were rebuilding and repairing the temple,
they found the scroll, the Torah, their scriptures,
in a pile of rubble.
In that scroll, they would rehear, and relearn
what God desired of them as a people.
This is how it went down.

They called everyone together—50,000 people we are told—
and gave them their Book back.
Not literally.
They didn’t pass out 50,000 Gideon testaments,
and tell them, “Go home, and read, and obey.”
That’s how we might do it,
modern individualists that we are.
They took a different approach.

We heard the story in our reading from Nehemiah 8.
Ezra, and 12 other people, 6 on his right, and 6 on his left,
read the text out aloud to the people . . . for six hours.
And then those 12, plus 14 more,
worked with the people to make sense out of what they heard.
All are listed by name.
I told Steve I expected him to read all 26 names.
The fact they’re all named, is significant.
It shows how important these interpretation assistants were.

Exactly how these 26 interpreters did their work, we aren’t told.
The story implies that they fanned out among the people,
and worked in smaller groups,
worked together at the task of interpreting and discerning.
I mean, how else do you lead a 50,000 person Bible Study session?

Whatever it was, it was not a private reading for private consumption.
It was community work.
It was the combined work of the whole people,
a people moved by the Spirit of God,
to seek the word and will of God together.

The result was so powerful,
that 50,000 people fell on their faces . . . and wept.
The emotion of remembering and reconnecting
with something deep within them that they had lost,
overpowered them, and they wept for joy.

They had a sense of coming home
to the people they were meant to be.
That is an overwhelmingly joyful reality!
Some of you have felt that—
to discover you are living the life you were meant to live.

Discovering and interpreting the Word and Will of God
is the task of the whole church—working together in community.
It is a task in which we all have an obligation to participate.
This is not a job we delegate to preachers and professors
and ask them to report back.
Wrestling with knowing God’s will for our life here and now,
is our job as a community,
that we must do together,
if we want to call ourselves a moral community.

But too often we cop out.
And this happens all along the theological spectrum,
on the left and right and in-between.
I call it Biblical moral individualism.
And it takes different forms.

There is the “God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it” form,
which actually denies any need for interpretation.
If “God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it”
then we don’t really need a community to wrestle with
the question of what God’s will is for this time and place.

There is also the “however-you-want-to-read-it-is-fine-with-me”
form of moral individualism,
where every individual takes from the text
whatever seems helpful to them from their unique perspective.
It’s a kind of therapeutic deism—
“the God you most want is the God you should have.”

Moral individualism is user-friendly.
It’s low-demand.
It doesn’t need to take seriously the wisdom of
the tradition and the history of where we are located.
It doesn’t need to account for the wisdom of
other traditions in other times and contexts.
And it doesn’t need to account for
the real and present community of people
that we are in real and present relationships with.
It may be low-demand.
But, if I isolate myself from my own wisdom tradition,
and from the tradition of others,
and from my own human community,
I am also less likely to discover the life I was meant to live,
and less likely to come into a place of joy and flourishing.

There’s an echo of this in Jesus, in Matthew 18.
We often pull out Matthew 18 as a problem-solving text—
as a procedural checklist
to slap on to any human-relationship problem,
and voila, church conflict solved!
moral ambiguity cleared up!
pastoral dilemma avoided!

Actually, it doesn’t work that way in real life.
It’s not a checklist, it’s a guiding principle.
It tells us we are not on our own.
We are part of a moral community,
and community matters.

Matthew 18 operates on the assumption
that church communities will care about
each others’ spiritual well-being,
and that we will work at it together, in love and honesty,
until there is some resolution, some peace,
some way forward that we can imagine together.

We misuse Matthew 18 if we see it as a rigid 3-step procedure,
and that if we apply the steps, and it doesn’t work,
then we are free to publicly shame and discard the offender.

No! Instead, what this text emphasizes for us all,
is that community moral formation matters.
We are not alone on our journey toward wholeness and shalom.
Jesus is calling for close, relational accountability.

When I am in honest, close, healthy communal relationships,
I will be giving account of my life to that community,
naturally, and continually—
as will everyone in that community.
Because accountability is honest conversation.

The very basis for community,
and the basis for the good life,
is to have people to tell your stories to,
is to have those who are ready and willing to listen
to your account of your life,
and are also ready and willing to give you theirs.

So let us expect more of each other, not less.
Let us give more to each other, not less.
And let us provoke each more, not less,
toward love and good deeds,
toward the good life.

Let’s turn to HWB 420, and sing . . . these words of aspiration:
“Heart with loving heart united, met to know God’s holy will.
May we all so love each other and all selfish claims deny,
so that each one for the other will not hesitate to die.
Kindle in us love’s compassion so that everyone may see
in our fellowship the promise of a new humanity.”

—Phil Kniss, February 2, 2020

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