Sunday, August 26, 2012

Church in the round

Back to School Sunday
Deuteronomy 6:4-15; Mark 12:28-34

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Happy New Year, everyone!
This week marks the beginning of a new year,
not just for our kids and youth,
but for all of us here, in one way or another.

I love Back-to-School Sunday.
It’s a joyous, yet bittersweet mile marker for many of us.
This past week, some of you young parents,
for the first time ever,
put a child on a school bus,
and waved goodbye from the curb,
with a big smile, wiping away tears.

Others of you, all ages, who are connected with school somehow,
either registered for classes,
bought new tennis shoes and pencils and protractors,
met your new teacher,
found out if your best friend would be in your class,
or, moved out of the house and into the dorm,
attended orientation,
bought books,
set up your computer,
went to faculty work days,
wrote up syllabi,
prepared new lesson plans or lectures,
or just sat there dazed,
half anticipating, half dreading
what this new year would hold, ready or not.
_____________________

Now, some of our lives are not hugely impacted by the school year—
young adults in the work force,
empty-nesters,
retirees.

But whether or not a new school year impinges on our lives directly,
we do live in a community oriented toward education.
Turning the calendar page from August to September,
has much more significance for this community,
than turning it from December to January.

Furthermore,
this is the beginning of a new church year, in terms of organization.
The new Congregational Council has its first meeting.
New elders soon begin serving.
New commission chairs get organized.
New Sunday School classes and teachers get underway.

So whoever you are this morning, Happy New Year!
_____________________

A few minutes ago we gave milestone gifts to some children and youth,
marking a life passage for them.

By giving these gifts,
we were not just congratulating the children
on making it to age 2 and 5 and 11 and 14.
No, we were blessing them,
and highlighting a central task of the church,
that relates to everyone of us here.
Everyone.
It begins the day you are born,
and ends the day you take your last breath.
It’s the task of formation—
being formed as a human being, in God, through Christ.
We never stop being formed.
Our calling, as a church, is to form each other in Christ.
It’s a calling that goes on and on and on.
We spend our whole lifetime, or at least we should,
trying to discover more deeply who we are,
and living into that identity.

This morning I want to give us, the church here at Park View,
a simple metaphor to think about,
an image to put in our collective mind,
and see where it takes us.

The church is circular.
It’s round, in shape.
The circle is one of the more simple concepts in geometry.
A circle is always defined by its center point.
Because every single point on the circle,
is the exactly the same distance from the center.
The circle is not defined by how one point on the circle
is related to other points on the circle.
It is defined by how all those points gather together
around the center.

The church is defined by its center,
by what it gathers around.
All the parts of that circle are connected to each other,
they are members one of another,
as we heard in the reading from Romans today,
but what makes them a church,
is what they “gather around.”

They gather around Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh,
the Christ revealed in scriptures,
and made alive to us through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus himself, as a human,
when he walked among us 2000 years ago in the land of Palestine,
knew the power of the circle.
Like other rabbis of his day,
he invited certain people to gather around him.
The twelve disciples literally gathered around,
and sat while he taught.
They faced him, oriented themselves toward him.
Jesus invited an even smaller circle—Peter, James, John—
to gather around at certain key points in his ministry.
And . . . whether he wanted it at certain times,
or tried to run away from it at other times,
the crowds, huge crowds, gathered around
craning their necks to see,
cupping their ears to hear,
Jesus at the center, and all oriented toward him.

Once, it says in the Gospel of Mark,
“the whole city” gathered around Jesus,
in hopes that he would heal their sick.
Several times Jesus’ adversaries gathered around,
to question, or warn,
or try to manipulate Jesus.

Gathering around can be for good or ill.
But the point here,
is that those who gather
choose to be defined by, and oriented toward,
the one at the center,
that which they gather around.
Whether it’s a common love,
or a common enemy.

So that is the circle.
And the church is a circle.

Whenever the church gathers—
in sanctuaries, classrooms, or living rooms,
on sidewalks, at the market, at a table—
we gather around the God revealed in Jesus Christ,
present in the Holy Spirit,
and orient ourselves accordingly.

We learn, gathered, of the character of this God in Christ.
We learn, gathered, of God’s mission in the world.
We learn, gathered, of the nature of God’s reign on earth and in heaven.
We learn as we gather and break open the scriptures in our midst.
We learn together, all ears and all voices joining.
We read, we listen, we talk to each other,
we sit in silence,
orienting our hearts, our souls, our strength, our minds
toward the Lord our God.
We orient ourselves, a church in the round,
facing together the one at the center.

That’s the beauty of what Jesus demonstrated with his disciples,
and then called them to replicate, when he left them.
That’s the beauty of the simple circle.
_____________________

Okay, you might be saying. All well and good.
But what does it look like in real, everyday life?
How do we live, day-to-day, week-to-week,
as a church in the round?

How do we keep oriented?
How do we keep the circle intact?
keep it from getting too lopsided?
out of true, so to speak?
What do the practices of a circular church look like?

I had the privilege, as you know,
of traveling for three weeks in Israel and Palestine this summer,
with Irene and several others.
We worshiped one evening
with a group of Catholic Christians in Nazareth,
in a large church built over the site where tradition says
the angel appeared to Mary.
The supposed holiness of the site didn’t do much for me.
What impressed me was our physical placement and posture.
The priest, the altar table, the six scripture readers,
and the dozen or so musicians were all in the center,
not elevated, but in an area about 6 feet lower than us,
kind of like a big round orchestra pit
in the center of the sanctuary.
The congregation, 150-200 people,
surrounded them in a huge, single circle,
maybe two deep, in spots,
in chairs pulled up to the railing,
and looking down toward the center of the pit.
And we all sang, and listened to scripture,
sometimes stood, sometimes kneeled,
and all faced the center of the church,
where stood a single cross.
This was a Thursday evening.
Just a time for the local Christians to gather around,
in the middle of a busy week,
and get reoriented around the center,
to re-adjust the circle, make it true again.

Once, during a quite lengthy period of silence,
all of us kneeling and facing the center,
the Muslim call to prayer started at a neighboring mosque.
It was loud and shrill, just across the street.
But the silence inside the church went on, reverently,
as if we couldn’t hear a thing.

It struck me that here, simultaneously,
two different faith communities,
who shared the same town, and same markets,
were both engaging in a deeply formational centering practice.

The Thursday evening music and prayer service in the church,
with worshipers facing the cross,
And the call to prayer which invited Muslims to bow and face Mecca,
were powerful practices and habits,
that kept the members of these two groups oriented
properly toward their own center.

These were what James K. A. Smith would call “thick practices,”
communal habits and practices that are powerful enough
to shape not only beliefs and behavior,
but shape our deepest longings as well.

And we certainly witnessed the “thick practices”
of the Jewish community in Israel,
the practice of Sabbath being a big one,
but many other practices
that keep them from ever forgetting who they are,
where they came from,
and where their center is.

I could go on at great length, for many sermons,
about the practices we might engage in as Christian communities,
to keep our circle true,
to keep us properly oriented toward our center.

But I will lift up this morning only one.
It’s the one Jesus lifted up in today’s Gospel reading,
when he quoted Deut. 6.
It’s a Jewish practice that was, in Old Testament times,
was, in Jesus’ times,
and still is today, in modern Israel and elsewhere,
a deeply formative, physically embodied, practice of faith.

It’s the practice of giving voice to the central declaration of our faith,
followed by the first and greatest commandment.
“Hear, O Israel:
The Lord our God, the Lord is One.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Deut. 6 then follows up with these instructions:
“Keep these words.
Recite them to your children.
Talk about them when you are at home,
and when you are away.
When you go to bed at night.
And when you get up in the morning.
Tie them onto your hand, and onto your forehead,
write them on your doorposts and on your gates.”

Orthodox Jews in Israel and around the world,
take this command seriously, and literally.
They tie tiny boxes containing this text, called the “Shema,”
onto their forehead, and hand,
with long leather straps.
They wear these tefillin, or phylacteries,
when they pray.
Last month I even saw an Israeli soldier, in full uniform,
with an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder,
wearing tefillin as he prayed at the Wailing Wall.
I’m sure he saw nothing strange about wearing
sacred garb and military garb simultaneously.

And everywhere we went in Jewish areas,
we could see the mezuzahs, small boxes containing this text,
mounted on the doorposts and on the gates,
as commanded in Deuteronomy.
They would touch or kiss them as they walked by.

Day after day, hour after hour,
Orthodox Jews recall this text
mentally, by mouthing the words,
and physically, by wearing them, or touching them.
“Shema, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”
“Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
all your soul, and all your might.”

In Mark 12, Jesus fully agreed that this text was all-important—
reaffirmed it as the first and greatest commandment.
And added another as second, quoting Leviticus,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

By Jesus’ time,
the practice of wearing tefillin was well-established.
He criticized the scribes and Pharisees who wore them for show,
making them especially large and long and visible,
while their daily lives, the way they treated the poor, for instance,
didn’t match up.

But as a rabbi himself,
and a regular worshiper in the synagogue,
he would have been deeply shaped by the practice
of constant mental and physical engagement with these words.

Putting these formative scriptures at the center of daily life
is a way to keep the circle true.
To continually orient ourselves in relationship to the center.

There are constant pressures pushing against the circle itself,
pressures from inside and out,
that seek to distort.
These pressures come at us in word, in symbol,
in embodied practices, day in and day out.
We can’t open a newspaper,
turn on the computer,
drive down the highway,
walk into a store,
without being confronted by our culture’s
tefillin and mezuzahs, if you please.

Symbols that pay tribute to violence, sexual gratification,
greed, individualism.
We continually see and hear and touch tangible reminders
that we ought to first look out for ourselves,
and pursue whatever gives us pleasure, wealth, or power.
How can the ethics of Jesus compete with that daily onslaught?

Moses, speaking for God in Deuteronomy,
was on to something.
When you are settled in this land, he said,
surrounded by other distracting gods,
take these words and recite them to your children,
speak them when you go to bed and when you rise up,
tie them onto your body.

I’m not saying we need to tie boxes of scripture
onto our head and arms, in order to be faithful.

But there is a principle there.
Do we have any daily tangible, mental and physical rituals
that keep us from losing ourselves
in a land full of gods that compete for our loyalty and worship?
That compete directly with the One, and only God,
Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad?

Students—elementary, middle, high, college, graduate students—
on this Back-to-School Sunday,
let me suggest you find some way, some how,
to take these words that Jesus said were
the most important for learning how to live a good life,
and put them somewhere that you see them every day,
in fact, many times a day.
Put them on a mirror, on a keychain, on your locker door,
car dashboard, computer screen, whatever it takes.
Think of it as a way to turn toward the center of the circle,
again and again.
“The Lord our God is One.
Love the Lord your God with everything you got.
Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The same goes for teachers, and nurses, and laborers, and pastors,
and business owners, and farmers, and retirees.
If, according to Jesus,
these commandments are greater than anything else in life,
shouldn’t we be exposed to them regularly?

To help in this,
I reprinted some small slips of paper, the size of a bookmark.
I distributed these a couple years ago.
Maybe some of you still have them in a key place.
I still have mine taped to the door jam of my office.

In case you lost yours, or never got one, or want another one,
there are stacks of them at each door as you exit.
Pick one up, put it in some obvious place
where you can’t miss it,
and try, at least for the next few weeks,
to develop a habit of seeing it daily,
and repeating the words on it.

It contains the Hebrew script,
“Shema, Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.”
“Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
And it also contains the words of Jesus in Mark 12, in English,
where he repeats the two greatest commandments.
Love the Lord your God . . . and love your neighbor.

These aren’t good luck charms.
They are visible and tangible reminders of our center.
And as we orient ourselves toward the center,
we will be a church in the round,
and, I believe, we will be a church that pleases God.

—Phil Kniss, August 26, 2012


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