What Is This Place? – 10/5/08 – Jeremiah 29:1-13

While we were preparing for this Sunday, knowing that marking ten years in this building was going to be a part of the service, Jeanne came across a copy of the service that celebrated the first ten 10 years of existence of Cincinnati Mennonite.  This is the order of service for morning worship and an afternoon celebration that followed.  It’s dated October 21, 1984, and has the address 2350 Ravine Street, which was the Lutheran Church in Clifton that was the first rented space where the fellowship met.  Some of the names on here I recognized and some I didn’t.  Ed Diller gave the welcome.  The children’s story was led by Boyd Preston.  In the afternoon Ron Headings read scripture, special music was given by Linda Zinnan, Doug Eby, and Rosene Beachy.  Jean Swartley and Jim Miller are both listed as giving reflections. 

Another thing I was interested in seeing was what the sermon title was for the day.  Weldon Nisely, who currently pastors Seattle Mennonite, was the pastor at the time and his sermon was titled “The New Covenant of Freedom,” with the text from Jeremiah 31 where the prophet says, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Not knowing any more than that about what Weldon had to say, I have a guess how he focused his sermon.  By choosing this passage, I’m guessing that he used his message to not only reflect on the good things that had happened in the last ten years, but also to look into the present moment to how the congregation was being the people of God right at that time.  “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”  How was this strange collection of young professionals, and students, and voluntary service workers, called to be the people of God as an upstart urban church plant not yet even reaching its teenage years?  I’m also guessing that with this picture of the new covenant that Weldon might have taken a little time to look ahead to the new things that God may do through the congregation in the years to come.  Maybe he talked about where he felt the direction of the congregation was headed.  About why he felt the city needed a place like Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  Maybe he wondered out loud about what the congregation would look like several decades down the road – 1998, 2008, 2018.  I wonder if this is anything like what he would have imagined.

If this is the case, if this is close to what Weldon would have reflected on, then today is an echo of those themes.  A time to look back and celebrate where this congregation has been and the good work that has been done among us.  A time to look into how God is making us into God’s people right here and right now, and a time to wonder where the Spirit might be leading us.  We’re also echoing back with another portion of Jeremiah that tells some of the story of what has happened since that ten year celebration.  Namely, having location to call home.

I love hearing this story that Joe told about the move from the Methodist Church in Walnut Hills to this building.  I think it says something about what has always been important here.  Whenever you make a move you always have to pack that separate suitcase for things that you need to access immediately.  Some things can go in the back and get unpacked a few days later and put in their place, but there are those few items that are important enough to everyday functioning that you have to them right on hand.  The necessities.  So sometimes that’s a toothbrush, a bar of soap, and a change of clothes, and sometimes that’s a hymnal.  Our singing is so important to us because in our singing, everyone participates.  Every voice matters.  We all bring something unique to the song that we sing and we value everyone’s contribution.  When we sing, we are the people of God.  That doesn’t change when our place of worship changes, or when we go from renters to owners of a building.  Every voice, every gift has made us who we are, and that continues to be the case.        

Our Anabaptist theology has been very intentional about emphasizing that the building is not the church.  I was reminded of this last weekend when we were in the Hesston/Newton area of Kansas for my ten year college reunion.  On Sunday we visited Shalom Mennonite in Newton where our friend Sara Dick pastors.  They have a beautiful new building with an attractive sign outside.  I noticed that the sign says Shalom Mennonite Church, just what you would expect, but above that it says “The meetinghouse of….”  This is the meetinghouse of Shalom Mennonite Church, not the church itself.  The church is the people.  That’s our theology.  The church is the gathering, the assembled body of believers.  We are the church. 

I have to catch myself pretty often when I talk with Eve about going over to the church or by the church.  When I think about it, I try and say we’re going to the church building.  Let’s go for a walk by the church building, but most of the time I just say church.  Hopefully she’s not too theologically confused of a 2 ½ year old due to my inconsistency.

It’s interesting that our hymnal, this book that helps us sing our theology, has chosen to highlight this up front.  Hymn #1, the opening statement that sets the stage for the rest of worship begins this way:  “What is this place, where we are meeting?  Only a house, the earth its floor, walls and a roof sheltering people, windows for light, an open door.  Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here, and know our God is near.”  Now maybe we could have a slight revision and instead of “only a house, the earth its floor” we could say “only a house, nice new carpet its floor,” but we get the idea of what’s being said here.  God dwells among us in our gathering, beyond the structures that house us.  It’s the first thing we confess in our worship through song.

 This is an image of church that the New Testament fosters.  There is a point in the letter of 1 Peter where Peter refers to those in the church as “living stones.”  He writes, “Come to Christ, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  This whole passage is filled with imagery of the temple that had been so central in religious life.  A spiritual house, a holy priesthood, spiritual sacrifices.  The letter would have been written after the destruction of the temple.  No more centralized physical location to carry out worship.  So where does worship happen?  It wasn’t a light question.  Peter’s answer is that everything the temple was, that’s who you are.  You are living representations of those stones that made up that house.  You’re being built together into something beautiful.  You’re offering spiritual sacrifices of love, forgiveness, justice, kindness that are pleasing to God.  You get to be that refuge where people come to when they long to encounter the holy.  You are the priesthood that mediates God’s presence to the world.  You, little gatherings of people scattered throughout the Roman Empire, scattered throughout Cincinnati and the US and the world, are living stones and you are being formed into a place where God is encountered and each voice is valued.     

This is all true.  We know that we are the church.  We sing about it, we live it.  But we also know that place matters.  It matters where we, the church meet.  It makes a difference that we meet in Oakley rather than Clifton or Walnut Hills, or another place.  We know that our worship environment impacts us.  We feel the difference after all of this hard work that has gone into making this a beautiful place to meet together.  Winston Churchill said that we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.  We know that our identity and our mission are connected with this place we’ve come to call home. 

Having a home can be a very good thing.  This was the message of Jeremiah to his brothers and sisters who had been exiled to Babylon.  Living as exiles in a foreign land, not knowing how long they would live as displaced persons, fairly uncertain about who they were called to be during this time of massive upheaval, Jeremiah writes with some rather straightforward words of instruction.  Build houses.  Live in them.  Plant gardens.  Eat from them.  Take partners and be married.  Have children.  Multiply, don’t decrease.  Jeremiah is asking these transplants to lay down roots in this new place.  You’re going to be here for a while.  You’re not going anywhere any time soon so dig in.  Invest in that location.  Do the hard work of building and maintaining a house.  Plan for a future harvest by planting seeds in the ground where you live and wait patiently for them to grow.  Raise up the next generation.  And then the prophet goes on to say, “Seek the welfare, the Shalom, of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.”  Your own welfare is tied up in the welfare of your neighborhood and your city.  You don’t seek just your own survival, but seek the peace and well-being of your entire community because your well-being is now bound up in it.

The shift of consciousness and way of being that Jeremiah is asking of these exiles is one that I see has also taken place among you.  During the time that I was getting started here a couple years ago you were in the process of rewriting your covenant.  There were a number of parts of the covenant that stayed pretty much the same, but one of the major changes had to do with how the congregation understood itself in the urban setting.  The original covenant, the one that the church used for the first 30 years of its life started out this way: “In an attempt to overcome the isolation and alienation of contemporary urban living, we choose to follow Jesus and be members of his church.”  These are the words of exiles, transplanted into a foreign environment and trying to find their way.  The new covenant, the one that we have used for the last two Pentecost celebrations, transforms those words into these words:  This time and this place are God’s gifts to us, and we are called to be God’s active presence to all those around us.”  The exiles have built a home, planted gardens, been raising the next generation, and consider it all a gift from God.  Yes?  This is how the story goes.

So, we might come back to the question.  What is this place?  This place that we have shaped, and that has shaped us?  What is it and what will it be? 

This summer there was work done on three main areas of this place – our sanctuary, our forum, and our sign.  Whether you contributed with your labor, with your finances, or with your appreciation, we are all a part of this work.  Each of these areas correspond with the three components that make church, church.  Worship, Community, and Mission.  Let me close by sharing briefly some of my hopes for each of these areas.

Worship involves all of who we are, so when we worship together we bring our whole selves.  I pray that our worship is a time where we can encounter God’s abiding Presence.  I pray that our worship is a time of renewal and a source of energy.  I pray that healing happen through our worship.  That the Spirit move in our lives in unexpected ways.  That we take time to not only fill the time with words, but also to listen.  I hope that worship will continue to be a place where all forms of arts and creativity are shared.  We welcome singing, drumming, dancing, visual arts, instruments, drama, poetry, and other expressions.  Worship should be a safe place to try new things and step out and share an unpolished gift, offer whatever one may have at the time to offer.  Most of all, I pray that we meet Christ here and that we are empowered to be Christ followers as we go from here.   

Community is a deep longing of every person.  We thirst for community.  For sisterhood and brotherhood.  We were created for community.  Community is the place where our lives become open books to each other.  Community is where we are built together as living stones into a strong structure that is held up and surrounded and supported by each building block.  I pray that we continue to find old and new ways to be community for each other.  That we find chances to share life together, and be Christ to one another.  I see potential for people forming in small groups around common interests and growing together as a circle of support.  I pray we are transformed through practicing community.

The sign is the outward face of the congregation, and mission is what happens when we point ourselves outward.  Shalom Mennonite was very intentional about how they spoke of their meetinghouse on their sign and we were very intentional about how spoke of our mission on our sign.  We include the words “All Are Welcome.”  I believe this congregation is called to be a place that welcomes those who may not feel welcome elsewhere.  This congregation has a history of being an understanding place for those living with mental illness.  This congregation is a safe place for those who are wrestling with faith questions to come and explore and be given space to struggle.  Jeremiah’s words also summarize well our mission:  Seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom.” 

God has blessed us with many gifts and many good years.  Thanks be to God for God’s faithfulness and for where we will be led in years to come.