Sunday, October 11, 2009

The compelling witness of the living community

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-8a; Luke 10:1-12

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When we talk about Christian witness, chances are,
we are referring to one of two main categories of witness.
We’re either talking about the
public witness of the church to society and the world,
or we’re talking about personally sharing our faith with someone.

Almost any act of witness that comes to mind
could be plugged into one of those two categories.
The public witness of the church includes such things as . . .
church planting and evangelism,
community and economic development,
medical missions,
disaster relief, food distribution,
Christian education,
social service or peacebuilding,
speaking to the government, or to the larger society.
And personal faith-sharing can also include a wide range
of acts of Christian witness:
talking to a neighbor about your walk with Jesus,
long conversations with a friend at a coffeeshop,
showing kindness to a stranger,
correspondence with a pen-pal,
simply speaking freely about your faith with persons you meet.

All of these acts of witness,
when carried out with sensitivity and sincerity,
are important ways to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I could do two whole sermon series
on public witness and personal faith sharing.

But in this sermon, on the topic of witness,
I will talk about neither one.
Instead I’ll lift up a third, and much neglected,
category of Christian witness:
the compelling witness of the living community of Christ.

I’m talking about a group of people just doing
what a genuine community of disciples of Jesus does,
as they navigate the ordinary challenges of life together.
I’m talking about having the Christian communities we are part of,
whether it’s a community of two or three, or twelve, or fifty,
not being afraid to put our lives on display.
To be more hospitable. To extend the table.
To risk opening our lives to the outsider,
and inviting them in,
for a look around to see what living Christianly,
is all about—Monday through Monday.

This is the flip-side of Christian witness.
As we said, witnessing is seeing.
When we put the ordinary life of our communities on display,
we are bearing witness to the gospel, yes.
But it’s the ones on the outside looking in who are witnessing.
They are seeing, they are eye-witnesses,
to what it means to live as a community of Christ.
That is, if we ever give them a chance to get a glimpse.

Opening our ordinary lives to outsiders does not come natural.
In fact, inviting people into the ordinary moments of our lives
is a radically counter-cultural practice.
We live in a hyper-individualistic culture
that is fragmented and isolated from each other.
Our homes are protective havens for ourselves.
They are not wayside inns for wanderers.

Hospitality is a spiritual practice that is sorely lacking in our culture.
Oh, many of us know how to put on great dinner parties.
In fact, some are downright amazing
in their ability to entertain, to decorate,
and to cook up a storm.
We often say these persons have the gift of hospitality.
They very well might. Or they might not.
Because hospitality is not the same thing as entertaining.
Entertainers create an atmosphere,
put their creative gifts on display for the pleasure of others,
create beautiful art out of their home,
or out of the contents of their pantry.
They put on an event.
But being hospitable is about being open,
especially to the weary one, the sick, or the stranger.
It’s about welcoming the other,
without any pretense,
without a need to make an impression, or make a statement.

There’s nothing wrong with putting out the best sometimes.
I enjoy a well-presented meal as much as anyone.
But why don’t we allow others to look in on
the ordinary spaces of our lives?
Why must we be so private?
Why put the family rooms at the back of the house?
Why keep the curtains drawn day and night?
Why is it socially inappropriate in our culture
to drop by someone’s house without an appointment?
Well, we have to have to time to straighten up,
to dust the furniture,
and give the impression to others
that we always have it together.
Obsession with privacy
not only interferes with our gospel witness to our neighbors.
It interferes with building authentic community
with other church members.
It impedes the healthy functioning of small groups.

Even when we’re with other members of our small groups,
members of our own church family,
we often shield them from seeing into, from witnessing,
the state of affairs in the ordinary rooms of our homes,
and our lives.

I’ve quoted David Fitch before.
He’s a friend, a fellow pastor, one of my seminary profs,
and an author.
In a chapter on what evangelism should look like in the church today,
he wrote that first and foremost,
we need to reinvigorate the practice of hospitality.
He says it’s in our homes and at our tables
where neighbors and strangers get
“a full view of the message of our life.”
If we are not having neighbors in our homes
we are neglecting the core spiritual practice of witness.
It’s in our homes where neighbors can sit around laughing,
talking, asking each other good questions.
Home is where we live every day,
it’s where we converse and settle conflict,
it’s where we raise children.
So when we invite someone into our home, we are saying,
“Here, take a look.
I am taking a risk and inviting you into my life.”
It’s a profound act of witness,
and of allowing our lives to be witnessed.
And it’s radically counter-cultural.

We need to learn how to live
as real, down-to-earth, genuine communities of Christ,
and let that life be seen in the everyday and ordinary,
let it be open to examination,
let is be subject to the scrutiny of our neighbors,
and of the world,
let it be witnessed.

The scriptures we listened to this morning,
both from the prophet Jeremiah, and the gospel of Luke,
painted pictures of communities of faith
that went out of their way to invest in relationships with neighbors.

The people of Israel, exiled in a foreign country,
were instructed to act like they were at home there.
Jeremiah told them,
“Enter into the life of that culture and that people,
and seek the welfare, seek the peace,
of the city where you live in exile.
In their peace, you will find your peace.”
See, God’s love and compassion is for all nations.
God chose a people to demonstrate that love,
to embody it in community,
and invite others to experience it.

And in Luke’s Gospel,
a passage I’ve pointed to many times,
Jesus instructed his disciples to go out in pairs, without supplies,
and not just preach and proclaim right away,
but first to live among.
To eat from the tables of those who would receive them.
To stay and make themselves at home.
Learn to know their hosts.
Let them witness your life among them.
And then, proclaim the kingdom.

When it comes to witness at the table, as a community of communities,
it won’t be one-size-fits-all.
There is no inherent virtue in being small, as a group.

For some persons, in fact, the point of entry into Christian community
will be in the anonymity of a large crowd on Sunday morning.
But I assure you,
those kind of persons are diminishing rapidly.
To a typical 21st-century American,
the religious language, symbols, and practices
of Sunday morning church, are utterly foreign.
It takes a rare kind of courage to walk into a social situation
where it’s clear to you and everyone else, you’re an outsider.
Just issuing more invitations to church
cannot be the extent of our witness.

But neither will it be just
inviting people to a small group meeting
in someone’s living room,
or a Bible study around a dining table.
That can be just as intimidating.
Our culture is not accustomed
to this level of openness with our neighbors.
And a church small group can be
one of the most difficult social groups to break into.
Even for other church members who want in.
Which is understandable, and not to be judged.
It takes time to build up the trust needed
for deep openness and honesty.
So it won’t necessarily be in our small groups, either,
where our common life as Christians can be witnessed,
and opened to scrutiny.

But the church, as a community of communities,
is not like, say, a honeycomb, or a brick wall,
where every unit is the same size and shape,
and fits together perfectly, without overlap,
to create the whole.
The church is a whole lot messier than that.
Most of us at Park View are in multiple communities,
communities of different sizes and different functions.
I can think of 5 or 6 I’m a part of.
And that’s a good thing.
The church is multi-layered network
of overlapping communities.
In fact, Park View is
a community of communities of communities.

We need communities somewhere between small home groups
and large Sunday gatherings,
both of which can be highly intimidating and off-putting
to one who hasn’t been schooled in the ways of being church.

In the ongoing conversations about
emerging church and missional church and such,
someone coined the term “third space” witness.
That is,
we create new spaces—neither home nor church—
for connecting with the stranger.
Spaces that don’t carry the baggage of institutional church,
and don’t intimidate newcomers with too much closeness.
Some churches are starting off-site coffeehouses,
community centers, recreation parks, and the like.

See, in creating Christian community
there’s this tension we live with.
The stronger the community,
the more likely connections with outsiders will diminish.
Some of us here could count on one hand
the number of good friends we have
who don’t profess Christian faith, or any faith at all.
So if we want others to witness the everyday life
of a community of redeemed people,
we need to create authentic connections with them.
So-called “third spaces” might be one way of doing that.

Well, I’m nearing the end of my sermon
and I’m about to issue an altar call . . . or is it a table call?
And it won’t involve raising your hands,
or walking to the front weeping.

I want to issue a specific invitation and challenge
to every group, every community,
that makes up Park View Mennonite Church.
Or if you’re visiting, any church community you are part of.

I want you and your community,
whether it’s a small group, Sunday School class,
breakfast club, Bible study, or book club . . .
to give some careful thought
to how your life together,
as a community of Jesus followers,
can be seen, can be witnessed by,
those who live outside the community of Christ.
If Jesus really makes a difference in the way we live together,
how might others witness that difference?

Maybe your Sunday School class will decide it has a missional task
beyond the weekly meeting inside the church building.
Or your small group will decide to break the pattern
of only getting together in your living room.
Whatever your community, maybe you could create a third space,
create some occasional events or places,
where you are together, as a community,
but where everyone—
or as Ron Copeland at Our Community Place likes to say—
everyone with a belly-button, is invited.
A back-yard barbecue perhaps?
A neighborhood block party?
Planting a community garden?
Or maybe just some of your group members plan an event
for those with shared interests,
like a Sunday afternoon motorcycle ride, or bike ride,
or a quilting party,
or community sing,
or . . . the possibilities are endless.
Maybe three or four small groups could form a missional coalition.
Occasionally meet as a super-group,
and do something together
where anyone would feel welcome.
Maybe your super-group, or Sunday School class,
would like to take on the mission of re-opening the
Friday night Living Room Coffeehouse this winter,
and find ways to welcome our neighbors into that space.
Maybe just your family, and another church family that lives nearby,
could decide to make your homes places of welcome,
where you invite your neighbors in,
and share your lives with them in some way.

In other words, how will the kind of community life we live,
the table fellowship we share as followers of Jesus,
ever be visible?
ever be witnessed by those who have never known
this way of living.

Talk about it.
Plan for it.
Let us know how it goes.

That’s my altar call.
May the Spirit move among us.
May our lives be a witness, and be witnessed.
And let us walk as children of the light, in the light.

STJ #95, “I want to walk as a child of the light”

—Phil Kniss, October 11, 2009

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