Sunday, September 23, 2007

Loving the Invisible Neighbor

Follow Christ. Question Culture. Love the Church:
Houses, Cars, and Community
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-9; Matthew 5:13-16

Click "play" button below to view sermon video (also includes personal testimony by Andre' Mast, at end of sermon):

Last Sunday I used up half my sermon time introducing the series,
“Follow Christ. Question Culture. Love the Church.”
I had to set the stage, because this is a different sort of series.
If you missed it, sorry I can’t do it again.
Check out the CD, or go to our website to listen to it.
In a nutshell, we’re looking at a number of pressing issues in our culture,
and doing so by first clarifying who we are as God’s people,
and then trying to ask the right questions of our culture,
being appropriately skeptical.
So we follow Christ...
that is, get clear about who we are called to be as disciples.
We question culture...
that is, frame questions that rise out of our identity as disciples,
And we love the church...
that is, commit ourselves to life in community,
where we do the real work of faith-filled moral discernment,
centered around the living and written Word.

It will not be in these 20-minute sermons
that all the answers to these complex issues
will be packaged and dispensed for your convenience.
No, you will be sent from this place with, hopefully,
the right questions in hand,
and the right community in which to wrestle with them.

So, this morning we look at houses and cars.
I wonder what you came expecting me to say about this topic.
I’ll bet some of you expect me to talk about
how much we spend on our houses and cars,
how we often use our resources to surround ourselves in luxury
at home and on the road.
That is a good thing to talk about.
And maybe we will, when we get to the topic of money,
later in this series.
I’ll bet some of you expect me to talk about
how our houses and cars,
especially as they get larger, or more numerous,
wreak havoc on the environment,
and contribute to global warming.
That’s also a good thing to talk about.
And no doubt we will, when we get to the topic
of caring for the earth, later in this series.

Instead, I want to reflect on how cars and houses,
and the way we use them,
impact our experience of human community.

So, as we begun, let’s take the first step together,
and position ourselves rightly, as a follower of Christ.
Let’s clarify our faith identity, our calling,
our shared convictions and commitments.

In your order of worship, you’ll see “Confessing our Faith.”
These words are gleaned from the Mennonite World Conference
statement of shared convictions,
and MCUSA’s Confession of Faith.

Read this in unison, if you can in good faith:
As a church, we are a community of those whom God’s Spirit calls to turn from sin, acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, and follow Christ in life.
We believe that the mission of the church is to proclaim and to be a sign of the kingdom of God. The church is called to witness to the reign of Christ by embodying Jesus’ way in its own life and patterning itself after the reign of God. It is the new society established and sustained by the Holy Spirit. By its life, the church is to be a city on a hill, a light to the nations, testifying to the power of the resurrection by a way of life different from the societies around it.

So we’re saying that we, the church, bow collectively,
to Jesus Christ as Lord of all.
And we, the church, have a mission from God,
both to proclaim and to live, the good news of the Gospel.
And God expects us, the church, to live as a new society.
To show the world what life in God’s kingdom looks like,
on the ground.

Living in community with one another.
Living as a sign to the world.
This is our identity. Our shared conviction.
We didn’t invent it. Jesus gave it to us.

Today we heard part of Matthew 5, from the sermon on the mount,
You are the salt of the earth...
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
If you check the Greek, you’ll see the word is “y’all” (so to speak).
It’s “you” plural, not singular.
Jesus was speaking to his disciples as a unit.
“All y’all disciples are like a city on a hill.”
Jesus’ instructions for witness,
were that we collectively shine a light.

So, if we accept this identity, this mandate,
to live as a new society,
and be like light and salt and leaven in our culture,
pointing others toward life in this new society...
then we have some pretty significant questions to ask of our culture.

Why should we care about our surrounding culture?
After all, isn’t the church just its own culture within a culture?
And isn’t the world around us someday going to judged by God?
Shouldn’t we just live quietly, let the world be what it will be,
and wait for our heavenly home?
That’s what the exiles in Babylon were thinking,
when the prophet Jeremiah wrote them a letter we just heard read.
The people were in exile in a foreign land—
like us citizens of God’s kingdom living in this world,
we’re resident aliens—
And the word of the Lord was to settle down.
Get married, have children, build houses, plant gardens.
In other words,
participate fully in the culture where you find yourself,
but participate as an agent of shalom, of peace, of wholeness.
Then, in v. 7 of Jeremiah 29 they are given this mandate,
which I take as our own.
“But seek the welfare—
and the Hebrew word here is literally shalom—
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.

We should care about our culture, fallen though it may be,
because as we seek its shalom, we will find our shalom.

And when it comes to the topic of nurturing human community,
our culture doesn’t lend itself very well to that.
Human beings were created for community.
That message came through loud and clear
in Desmond Tutu’s remarks at JMU on Friday.
In both his speeches, at the dinner and the public meeting,
he insisted that our humanness, which is a gift of our Creator,
can only be fully experienced in relationships.
He said, “A person is a person through other persons.”
He said, “My humanity is bound up in yours,
for we can only be human together.”
He said, “If I dehumanize another person, I dehumanize myself.”

Those words brought thunderous applause
from the thousands gathered in JMU’s Convocation Center.
As well they should.
The words of Archbishop Tutu are authentic,
because his life is authentic.
They ring true.
But the culture we live in tries to deny it.
And most of us who stood and applauded on Friday,
including myself,
have chosen a lifestyle that actively works against
forming deep and meaningful human community.

We build ourselves into a society that specializes
in separating ourselves from each other.
We design our towns and cities and subdivisions in such a way
that we ensure a maximum of privacy,
and a minimum of real face-to-face human interchange.
We have created an automobile culture
that gives us all a maximum of individual freedom,
and minimal opportunity to be true co-travelers with others.
And we people of faith,
we followers of Christ who should be thinking in different ways,
hardly even raise an eyebrow.
We accept it, uncritically, as the way it is.
Daily, we make choices that keep us in a private world of our own,
and never give it a thought that we might be working against
the kind of life God created us for,
the kind of life that makes us human,
as Desmond Tutu reminded us.

So I invite us today to question culture.
I invite us to question the kind of thinking that has led our society,
to flee densely-populated areas like cities,
and move to sprawling suburbs that promise a better life.
Better, defined as more private, more separated, more independent.

I recently read a book, which André Mast referred me to,
that had a rather significant impact on my thinking,
and is beginning, just beginning,
to have an impact on my behavior.
The book is Sidewalks in the Kingdom
by a Presbyterian pastor named Eric Jacobsen.
He writes from his context in Missoula, Montana,
a small city, a little bit larger than Harrisonburg.

He said the way our society structures itself,
is driven primarily by false gods that we worship.

For instance, he says we worship the god of individualism.
Nothing wrong about valuing the individual. God does, too.
But individualism becomes a false god, an idol,
when we commit ourselves so much to this value
that we distract ourselves from God and from God’s will.
Our worship of individualism creates a culture where
almost any limitation on individual rights is bad.
The only way we limit individual rights at all,
is if the exercise of my rights,
keeps you from freely exercising your rights.
But to ask people to limit their individual rights
for something so vague as “the good of the community”?
No, that’s too authoritarian.

How much has our worship of this false god,
determined how we design our houses and neighborhoods?
We know that living close to neighbors almost always, eventually,
bumps up against my individual needs or preferences.
So these days, we do anything we can
to avoid the inconvenience and annoyance
of having to interact too much with neighbors.

Take an imaginary walk with me
through an old traditional neighborhood.
It comprises a dozen or so city blocks.
We can see that the lots are quite small,
the house are close together, with lots of big front porches.
Every house is close to the street,
and a continuous sidewalk runs in front of every house.
It’s clear, just from the physical design of this old neighborhood,
that people assumed they wanted to see each other regularly,
that folks would drop by unannounced,
or stop and chat as they walked by,
on their way to pick up something at the store.

Now walk with me through a new neighborhood,
romantically named, Whispering Oaks Estates.
Houses sit on large lots, well back from the road.
There are few front porches, but many magnificent-looking doors.
Most of the streets are cul-de-sacs.
People don’t just happen to walk by, or even drive by.
If you’re one of these streets,
you’re either coming or going from a house on this block.
We have to walk beside the curb, on the slope of the road,
because there are no sidewalks.
But even if there were
and even if people were walking on them,
and even if a neighbor’s front door was within earshot,
we wouldn’t see or hear them,
because their living area is at the back of the house,
facing a fenced back yard.
We get the strong feeling,
just from how this so-called neighborhood looks,
that people don’t expect to interact much with real neighbors.

I wonder...should our identity as Christians,
and our calling to love our neighbors,
make a difference in the way we design houses and neighborhoods?
How can we, in fact, love our neighbors,
when we’ve gone to great pains to make them invisible?

Another god we worship is independence.
We believe it is a virtue not to need another person,
not to be indebted to anyone else.
But I think our worship of this false god of independence
is directly and powerfully linked to the fact
that we Americans have developed a car culture.
The car allows us to do what we want, where we want,
and when we want,
without regard to distance,
and without being constrained to someone else’s schedule.
The car has allowed us to construct a way of living
whereby people routinely get into their private,
sealed, quiet, climate-controlled transportation capsule,
and drive long distances to go to work,
or to shop,
or attend church,
or visit family and friends.

We rarely question whether, all things considered,
the benefits outweigh the costs.
What has the automobile cost us in terms of human community?
What has it cost in terms of stress-levels and time away from family,
when each year the average American spends more time
commuting to and from work
than they spend on vacation?
What has it cost us in terms of segregating people from each other, as people moved out of the city,
with its diversity of culture and class,
and into a homogeneous suburb you have to drive to get to?

One author makes the point that before 1950,
there were very few retirement communities.
We didn’t have them, because we didn’t need them.
In old-style neighborhoods, where there were
stores, barbershops, churches, and other businesses
all within a few blocks of each other,
and all connected with sidewalks,
when an older person lost the ability to drive,
they did not lose their independence.
They could still maintain a viable lifestyle by walking.
And those who were too poor to afford a car,
could easily get to work or the store or the doctor, on foot.
Isn’t it ironic, that because we worshiped independence,
we structured our society around the automobile,
and as a result, we are now dependent in ways we didn’t expect.
We live farther apart from each other,
and from the goods and services we need for daily life.

Oh, but the car is a much more efficient way of getting around,
isn’t it?
The Austrian social critic Ivan Illich didn’t think so.
In one of his books, he calculated,
that the typical American male devoted
more than 1600 hours a year to his car.
Driving, idling, finding parking.
Working to earn the monthly payments.
Working to pay for gas, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets.
Four of his sixteen waking hours are either in his car,
or gathering resources for it.
And this does not [include] time spent in hospitals after a wreck,
or in traffic courts and garages and watching car commercials.
If we spend 1600 hours to get an average of 7500 miles,
that’s less than five miles per hour.

That’s only slightly faster than walking.
But much slower than a bicycle.

I hope none of you think I’m saying these things
because I have it figured out.
In these areas, I am most assuredly, not holier than thou.
I’ve only begun to ask the questions more seriously,
and have only begun to take little baby steps.
It wasn’t that many years ago,
that Irene and I were the owners of five cars.
Yes, five.
Okay, so a couple of them were real beaters,
that our daughters were driving around, but still.
We’re down to two now, if you don’t count my scooter.
I am pretty proud that I drive a scooter all over town.
But I really shouldn’t be.
It gets such good gas mileage, and it’s so fun to drive,
that I’m more likely to run quick errands
than I would be otherwise.
And the 2-cycle engine puts more pollutants into the air,
per horse-power, than most other vehicles.
And I don’t have the option of taking a passenger.
Scooting down the road at 30 miles an hour,
with a helmet on,
the most I can do that’s even remotely community-building
is waving at other scooter drivers.
Scooter or not, I need to walk more.
I need to ride my bike more.

And when it comes to houses, we have no front porch.
Our deck faces our back yard.
We were relieved when the maple grew tall enough
to shield us from our neighbors when we’re sitting back there.

But at least,
I’m starting to get enough courage to ask some hard questions.
And maybe we will need to make some choices eventually,
that involve sacrifice,
if we want to be faithful to our calling
to love our neighbors as ourselves.

So no, I don’t expect us as a church to suddenly, en masse,
reject suburban life and move back into old city neighborhoods.
But what I would hope for is this—
that we begin to ask ourselves, and ask each other,
hard, honest questions about how much we have bought into
the assumptions of our surrounding culture,
and have structured our lives in a way
that makes loving our neighbor more difficult than it is already.
Are there steps we can take individually,
Are there steps we can take as a church,
to overcome some of the barriers to loving our neighbor—
barriers we intentionally built into our lives
because culture convinced us to?
Are there steps we can take to be counter-cultural in this way?

At the end of your order of worship are some questions.
They are just a few samples of the kinds of questions
we could be asking each other,
and asking of our culture.
Take these questions to your Sunday School, your small group,
your family dinner table,
your coffee club.
In this sermon I just raised the questions.
Now it’s up to all of us together,
to do the hard work of Christian moral discernment.

And may God help us,
with each other, and with our neighbors,
to be “strangers no more.”

—Phil Kniss, September 23, 2007

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