Sunday, July 22, 2007

The grace and gift of community

Highland Retreat outdoor service

Click below to watch a video of the sermon.

What a beautiful weekend it has been, and now a beautiful morning.
When I look out on this group gathered here,
it’s amazing—if I stop to think about it—
that a couple hundred of you would, on your own accord,
by your own choice,
without any coercion,
get up early on a Sunday morning,
prepare and pack up some food,
and travel 45 minutes or more out to the edge of the county,
just to attend this 1½-hour meeting, and eat lunch.
So why did you do it?
I really want to know.
Why did you come here today? In just a couple words,
what were you hoping to experience this morning
that made it worth the drive.
Why did you come here (other than to hear this sermon)
[solicit reasons from congregation]

Well, that’s an interesting collection of reasons
why you spent your personal time, energy, and expense,
to come here today.
Interesting reasons, but not very good ones.
You haven’t convinced me.

If you really came out here for the nature,
there are some beautiful woods and hiking trails
right in the city limits of Harrisonburg,
and if you live out of town, there are a lot more.
You don’t have to drive 45 minutes
to enjoy the beauty of the natural world.

If you came here to worship God, that’s great.
But there’s worship happening
at literally hundreds of churches around the county right now.

If you came here for the singing, well that’s nice,
but a lot of you have really good sound systems at home,
You could put on a Sing the Journey CD, or Mennonite Hour,
and crank up the 5-way surround sound,
and sing along to your hearts content.
The sound waves entering your ear would have been just as good
as anything you’ve heard this morning.

If you came here for a good sermon, well, I just pity you.
I know for a fact that there are lots of good sermons being preached,
a lot closer to your home, and maybe even a few on TV.
In fact, I had a great sermon a couple months ago, better than this one,
that’s being played on WEMC right now, as a rerun.

If you came for the baptism, that might be harder to duplicate.
But with some water, and little imagination, you could set up something
that looks pretty close to what you will see this morning.

If you came to hear the scripture, you can read that yourself,
or listen to tapes and CDs.
If you came here to see friends, well, I know they’re not all here.
You have a bunch of friends still at home,
who you could’ve called and said, let’s go have brunch.
And speaking of food, if you came here for that,
I can almost understand it.
This food is going to be very good, I’m sure.
But there are some fine restaurants
within a couple miles of where you live.

But maybe it was all of the above.
You wanted all of these things at the same time.
You’ll certainly get them all here.
But you could have gone to almost any church in Harrisonburg,
then gone out to eat, and went for a hike,
and you’d have the whole package.

I’ll tell you why I’m here this morning,
and I suspect it’s the reason most of you are here, too.
I’m here because these are my people.
My folks.
I belong here.
True for most of you, too, right?
You’re my community.
You orient me, and remind me who I am.
I have to be with you.
And when we meet as a body,
and worship God together,
it’s something I just need to part of, if at all possible.
I think that’s why you came, whether you realize it or not.

The question of why we came way out here this morning,
is really the same question as,
“Why do we bother with church at all?”
Church really is a bother.
We go to lots of work, and time, and expense,
to do this thing we call being church.
There’s a lot of seemingly happy people in this world,
who don’t bother with it at all.
And there are some people who believe in church,
but don’t like the way most churches do it,
so they’re doing church in new forms, which is great.
I just spent about half of my last week
taking care of building issues after our little fire.
So doing church in a way that doesn’t involve
being responsible for a large building,
has at least some aspects in its favor.

But no matter how you configure a church,
whether in a house, or coffee shop, or big-steepled building,
church is work.
It’s an effort.
It’s a bother. So why bother?
It comes down to the real reason we’re here this morning.
It orients us. It reminds us of who we are really called to be.

Jesus Christ called us to be his disciples,
to form a new society,
to live differently in this world.
Different than our sinful inclinations would lead us to live.
Before anything else, we are citizens of the kingdom of God.
Then, we are citizens of the world, and its kingdoms.
One way or another, if we’re going to live the life God made us for,
we must bother with church.
We must nurture our life as a community of faith.
There is no faithfulness without it.

Now, this isn’t a new sermon, coming from me.
I’m sure you know that in my sermons
I always find some way to bring it home to the community of faith.
Maybe you’re getting tired of that. Tough.
Because I can’t afford to get tired of preaching it.
It is the life God has called us to.

At the same time, I hope you don’t hear me saying
that community is everything, that community is enough.
Christian community is not the source of our faith.
It is not the foundation of our faith.
It is no “be all” and “end all.”

Take a look at the title on your bulletin cover.
To me, this sums up what true Christian life is.
It is life lived in Christ, with one another, for the world.
It’s important that we put the right preposition
in front of the right words.
in Christ...
Our life is wholly contained in the life of Christ.
Our true identity is found, as we are found in Christ.
with one another...
That’s the community, the indispensable context,
the place in which we must live out our faith.
That’s the church of Jesus Christ.
and for the world...
That is the calling of the church.
God’s heart and intentions are all aimed toward
the salvation and redemption of our broken world.
So God’s mission in the world is why we do what we do.
It is the life purpose of the church.

But we must hold all three of those together,
if we want to live the life we were made for.

The reason, frankly, that I keep reminding of us about community,
is because out of those three,
that’s the one where we get the most resistance from our culture.
Think about it.
The “in Christ” part — our culture is cool with that.
As long as we keep it private and personal,
the church can preach all it wants about loving Jesus,
and immersing our life in Christ.
Nobody minds, if it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s life.
And as to living “for the world” — that’s also fine.
Our culture admires and respects a church
that cares about other people,
that feeds the poor and tends to the sick.
When we engage in a humanitarian mission to the world,
our society loves us.
Mennonite Disaster Service put our church on the map.
People love us for our service to the world.
So we get all kinds of reinforcement, pats on the back from our culture,
when we focus on the needs of the world,
or even emphasize our identity in Christ,
as long as we keep it to ourselves.

But this “with one another” stuff is different.
This thing of living out our calling as citizens of the kingdom of God,
and forming radical communities of faith,
whose allegiance is not to earthly kingdoms,
gets quite another reaction.
When we are committed to be with one another,
to love each other radically,
to support and challenge and hold each other accountable...
When we start giving up individual autonomy,
and self-determination,
are start putting limits on personal freedom...
When we start talking about the church as a “contrast society,”
as an alternative community,
as a counter-cultural statement to the world,
then we get all kinds of “push back”—from our own culture,
and from ourselves.

Authentic Christian community is hard to pull off,
and we get nothing but resistance when we try it.

So to get some perspective, and encouragement,
I’m drawn to a certain voice in the recent church history.
A wise, and perceptive, and courageous voice.

This voice went silent in 1945
when he was executed by hanging
in a Nazi concentration camp.
He was just 39 years old when he died,
but he left behind a huge collection of his writings,
in letters, essays, and volumes of theology.
In Berlin, at the age of 16,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to study theology.
He studied under world-renowned theologians,
and earned his doctorate at age 21.
He became a vicar in the church,
and at age 24 joined the theology faculty in Berlin.
At 27 he left Germany, because he refused to be part of a church
that would join hands with Hitler and Naziism.
So he pastored two German churches in London.
Eventually he came back to Germany at the invitation of
“the Confessing Church” a fairly small group of churches
in Germany who refused to cooperate with Hitler.
He headed up an illegal seminary for the Confessing Church,
to train young pastors for the church.
That seminary was an intentional, underground community
of 25 young seminarians, and their professor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
They lived together, ate and slept and studied and worked together.
In was during that time of intense 24/7 Christian community,
that he wrote one of his most well-known little books,
“Life Together.”
It’s considered the classic work on faith in community.

Now you’d think that someone of Bonhoeffer’s stature,
someone so wise and courageous and intelligent,
with such a deep devotion to the church,
who lived in community with 25 other high-caliber,
intelligent and deeply devoted pastors-in-training,
you’d think their experience of Christian community
would be so sublime,
that this book would just ooze with enthusiasm about community,
that he would tell all Christians to go out
and pursue this kind of life,
that we should do whatever we can to make it happen.

Well, it’s quite the opposite.
Repeatedly, he warns against trying to make community happen.
He’s especially hard on people
who put forth a particular vision of community,
and then do everything in their power to carry out that vision.
Over and over Bonhoeffer says that community is a divine reality,
that it is a grace of God, and a gift of God.
It is not something we create by our will.
Communities we try to create he calls “wish dreams.”

Let him speak for himself. I quote: (p. 14)
“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams...[Only the community that faces disillusionment] begins to be what it should be in God’s sight...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. Those who love their dream of community more than the Christian community itself become a destroyer of the latter.”

Catch that?
If you love your ideal of community,
more than you love those you are in community with,
you end up destroying community.”

That’s a pretty important reminder,
for someone who preaches often about community.
Like every other blessing of God,
it is our responsibility not to create the blessing,
but to live in a way that makes us open to receive it as a gift.

If we try to create an ideal vision of community, he says,
we go into it expecting, almost demanding,
that this ideal be realized.
We set ourselves up as the creator of community.
And if it fails, we stand as judge—
either on others, on God, or on ourselves.
But God has already laid the only foundation for Christian community,
that is, Jesus Christ.
It is Jesus that binds us together in one body,
even before we enter into common life
with other members of that body.
Remember Ephesians 2?
“Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off
have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
Bonhoeffer says, “We enter into that common life not as demanders
but as thankful recipients.”

So it is not community, as community, that we pursue.
We pursue a life in Christ, with others, for the world.
That will equip us for life as a member of Christ’s body,
whether we are forced to be alone,
or whether we are blessed to be in a common life
with other Christians.

Another famous quote from this book is,
“Let the one who cannot be alone, beware of being in community.
And let the one who is not in community, beware of being alone.”

Being with other people in community is no guarantee of the blessed life.
People in groups are susceptible to sinful behavior,
just like people by themselves.
Rather, the life we were made for is found in Christ,
and it happens to be lived with one other,
for the sake of the world.

Where people are enjoying the blessing of a common life,
where there is genuine love and charity being shared in their midst,
that is proof positive, that God is there.

An ancient text of the church, dating back to the 9th century,
1,200 years ago, is “Ubi caritas”--

Where true love and charity are found, God is always there.

Since the love of Christ has brought us all together,
let us all rejoice and be glad, now and always.
Let everyone love the Lord God, the living God
and with sincere hearts let us love each other now.

Therefore when we gather as one in Christ Jesus,
let our love enfold each race, creed, every person.
Let envy, division and strife cease among us
may Christ our Lord dwell among us in every heart.

Bring us with your saints to behold your great beauty,
there to see you, Christ our God, throned in great glory.
there to possess heaven’s peace and joy, your truth and love,
for endless ages of ages, world without end.

—Phil Kniss, July 22, 2007

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