Sunday, August 31, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Laboring in Love in Community

Matt. 16:21-28; Romans 12:9-18

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So, how was your summer? (Thumbs up) Good?  Good enough!  Not sure...
Well, you all look good, haven’t changed much since I last saw you 3 months ago.   In fact, I think you are still in your same pews.  Did anyone risk moving to another part of the sanctuary over the summer? 
Well, one of my goals for my sabbatical was to visit different churches each Sunday.  And I accomplished that pretty well, attending 12 different Sunday morning worship services.  I had a great time!  But I couldn’t help wondering if we are all alike. you know, creatures of habit, sitting in the same place every Sunday.  So when I showed up at these churches, I wasn’t sure if I was sitting in someone else’s usual seat.  And as a visitor/guest, it didn’t seem appropriate to walk up to the usher and ask if someone usually sits in that 6th pew, aisle seat on the east side.  So I just took my chances and sat where I wanted to.
It was a valuable experience visiting 12 churches.  It pushed me out of my comfort zone.  Even though I am an extrovert, mostly, I do have anxiety about going into unfamiliar settings where I don’t know anyone.  So I had to talk to myself a few Sundays to get going!
What I discovered over the summer is that there are a lot of wonderful folks out there in faith communities in our town and beyond, both Mennonite and non Mennonite, who are worshiping God, challenging each other to be faithful disciples, engaging in ministry in their congregation and community and facing similar concerns and challenges that we are.  What happens in their worship on a Sunday morning may look and sound different from ours, but they are offering themselves and their worship to the same God we are, in their space, in their context,  and in their own way.  As I experienced worship with them, I felt deep gratitude and I was richly blessed.  I was reminded, these are my brothers and sisters, part of the larger body of Christ. This is their faith community to which they are committed.  They, too, are doing important Kingdom work.  To God be the glory!
As I finished my sabbatical and re-engaged in ministry here at PV this week, I began studying the epistle lectionary text for today, one that was also used a few weeks ago, when Shirley preached, as part of your summer series on Romans.  Romans 12:9-18 which we will look at today, captured my attention immediately, in light of the on-going discussions, debate and discernment in our congregations, conferences and MCUSA on the issue of same-gender orientation and relationships. (It’s also happening in other denominations, as you well know). 
Romans is about relationships between two peoples, Jews and Gentiles in the gospel.  There is diversity and tension among the churches and between the house churches and house synagogues. The debate is a family one. The churches of Rome represent the full-spectrum of Jew-Gentile groups.  Paul writes Romans to remind the churches of the purpose of God for both Jew and Gentile.  The gospel is for all, both Jew and Gentile.  His words and exhortations are written to help resolve a crisis between them and among them and to aid in reconciliation.
If we, today, heeded these strong words from Paul, beginning in Romans 12:9, they, too, might help us to lessen the tension, resolve a crisis and aid in reconciliation.  The passage is about community relations.  How are we to live and work and treat each other in our communities, in our churches, in our conferences, in our families, when there is tension and diversity?  Paul begins in v. 9, “ Love must be sincere.”  We are not to be two faced!  We are to love without hypocrisy....authentic love for others.  The Message: “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.”
That’s where we begin, but the 3 take home phrases/verses for me are these:
1.)  Be devoted to one another in love.
2.)  Honor one another above yourselves.
3.)  Think reasonably, modestly, soundly. (Do not be proud, do not think you are superior).  (v. 3 and 16)

Are we a faith community where brothers and sisters in Christ are devoted to one another in love? That is willing to give time, attention, self, completely to another. We talk about being devoted to our children or make reference how devoted he is to his spouse.  But what does devotion look like in a congregation of 400, where people don’t always agree or even like each other?

And then there is that verse, “ Honor others above yourselves.”  How do we honor others?  How do we show respect and honor another in our time and culture?  Has it changed over the years?  And to whom do we show honor?  Only certain people?

The 3rd phrase to take home: “ Think reasonably, modestly, soundly,” which is really the gist of v. 3 and 16, as framed by one commentator. “ Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.  Do not think you are superior.”  According to Paul, the Christians in Rome were doing a lot of arrogant thinking, ambitious thinking, thinking beyond the proper bounds.  This was a threat to the unity of their community.  His words exhort them to be modest, reasonable, self controlled.  They were encouraged to be willing to associate with those who have no power, no honor, no voice, no status, no position.  How hard it is for any of us to choose to give up status, or power, or position, so that another might have a chance, to be honored, recognized, encouraged!  This kind of behavior can happen only if people’s thinking or worldview has been radically changed.
Paul’s words here in Romans sound much like his words in Phil. 2: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others.”

Paul calls for a transformed mind and a radical new way of thinking, new ways of living together, being community together. Christians are to think honestly about themselves and give priority to the needs and well being of other people.  Everyone is valued and loved as members of the same family.

I recently finished reading the book, Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times, by Paul Born, a Canadian Mennonite.  The most recent issue of The Mennonite also has an article by him, which is a good summary of this book. He is a community activist, recognized for his community building activities.  He recognizes that for many people in today’s world, their community ties have unraveled.  People feel alone, even in a crowd.  Some live in fear, others have only shallow experiences of community.  His book offers 4 pillars, that if practiced, would help us all deepen our sense of community.  They are included in the article in The Mennonite, but the book offers a chapter and more on each of the pillars.
What does he propose that will deepen our community and help us find joy together, even in chaotic times:
1.)  Sharing our stories with one another.  In doing so, we become vulnerable, sharing our joy, pain, challenges, hopes and dreams.  In learning about each other, we understand more clearly what our values are, the reasons for our actions, our choices.  As we hear another’s story, we make connections with our own, we find common bonds, similar interests, or understand better our differences.  Our history and personal journey has shaped us.  The community where we lived as children and youth influenced us and made us what we are today in many ways.  In the book Paul Born shares his own story.  His parents and several hundred other Mennonites emigrated to British Columbia, Canada from Ukraine after WW II.  He relates some of the traumatic history leading up to that time, including that both of his grandfathers were arrested and executed because they had Bibles.  “His parents and their friends had witnessed and experienced horrible things, and many had been forced to do horrible things,” he writes. (p. 34) But when these families joined together and settled into this small town of Abbotsford, BC. they became community.  They started a church.  He writes, “We prayed, sang, ate, worked, and played our way through the terrible memories, trying to make sense of our suffering.  (he began that section of the book by saying, he grew up, living in fear)But then he goes on to write, “Together we counteracted the negative effects of fear by building a healthy world view that served us well.  Without community, most of our parents would have ended up hardened and depressed, and most of us, their children, would have become angry and bitter.”
It is important to share our stories.  Some of that has happened in our congregation in our small groups, our SS classes, our Men’s and Women’s Bible Studies, and other informal settings.  I encourage us to continue.

2.)  Enjoying one another as we spend time together.
Find ways to play, relax and be creative.  Or find ways to work together that can mix play and purpose.  Not only children need to play, but adults need to play to reduce stress, help us stay optimistic and energetic.  Play creates a sense of belonging and binds us together.  Celebrate together on special occasions or even if their isn’t one.  We have a great opportunity as a congregation to enjoy each other, play together and build community by attending our annual church retreat coming soon.  Sign up today!  Some years ago we had Friday night coffeehouse during the winter months in our Fireplace Room, which worked well for a number of years.

3.)  Caring for one another.
This we do well, most of the time, helping out in time of need.  We give time, our resources, offering help with meals, transportation, child care, a listening ear, a strong back, willing hands.  Numerous ways of caring help us and others feel safe and give a sense of belonging.  Do we do that for all persons in need?  Are their persons we are overlooking or who are difficult to relate to or make it hard to reach out to, that are falling through the cracks and feel forgotten?

4.)  Working together for a better world.
If the first 3 pillars Paul Born suggests are happening, often it naturally leads to doing things together that help to fulfill a larger vision with a deeper purpose.  A good example is what happens when we have our annual school kit blitz event, which will take place Sept. 21.  The term Born uses in his book is ‘collective altruism’.  When we work together, making bags for school kits or helping to assemble them, not only do we have fun being together, but we experience the joy of giving and receiving in the process.  Our work teams to New Orleans and Kenya are other examples. It certainly happens in a powerful and even larger way with the MCC Relief Sale held the first Sat. in Oct.  It is joining together with a shared sense of purpose.
(Ex.   MCC Relief Sale in New Hamburg, Ontario.  Paul Born was heavily involved, on board of directors.  He arrived early on the morning of the sale, walked all over the grounds, noticing the many who were beginning to set up food booths, displays, etc.   The place was starting to come alive.  Then he noticed and heard the sound of an 18 wheeler, semi-trailer, pulling up to an arena.  Also noticed lots of youth waiting. Soon the doors of the truck opened and it was full of pies!  his mouth dropped open.  The 50 youth soon formed a giant line, handing the boxes of pies off to one another, as they made their way out of the truck, through the back half of the arena and up to the bleachers, where they were organized according to the fruit they contained.  He knew that those young people had risen early that morning with joy and hope.  They were going to meet their friends, they were going to do something important, they were going to enjoy the day together.  “Tear formed in my eyes.  That moment symbolized for me the work of the day.  In that line merged the joy of doing good and the enjoyment of neighbors and friends.  It was a place where work and play mingled, where doing what was right was amplified by the joy of doing it together.  It was a clebration of community that nurtures and cares.)  p.95-96

If we practice any of these pillars that Paul Born suggests to deepen community in healthy and constructive ways, then I believe that we should be able to practice more naturally in our faith communities, what the apostle Paul exhorts in Romans.
Love one another sincerely, without hypocrisy.
Be devoted to one another in love.
Honor one another above yourselves.
Think reasonably, modestly, soundly, not arrogantly or with a superior attitude.

May God honor our efforts as we live and labor and worship in our communities.

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