Sunday, June 7, 2015

Barbara Moyer Lehman: What is our hope for the church?

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

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    Four weeks from today, on Sunday, July 5, several thousand Mennonites  will be gathered together for the closing morning worship service of our Mennonite General Assembly in Kansas City, Missouri.  Many other folks around the country will probably be recovering from the previous day’s activities of picnics, parties, parades and of course, late night fireworks to celebrate the holiday. But we Mennonites, at least several thousand of us, will be gathered together in a convention center on a holiday weekend because we get the best deal on rates at that time, when no one else wants it!  Just ask Glen Guyton.  He will be the first to tell you that!

    So after spending 5 days together, worshiping, singing our hearts out, attending seminars, workshops, late night events, visiting exhibits, playing, praying, eating, networking, reconnecting with old friends, making new ones,.....I wonder what it will feel like to come to the end of assembly week and join together in worship?  That is...will we be ‘together’?
    After 800+ delegates spend 15+ hours doing the work of the church around tables, discussing, discerning, debating, praying, listening, will we be able to worship ‘together’?
What will be the ‘sense of the meeting’? (as Quakers often ask) Will we be able to say as the Psalmist said, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together, (worship together, sing together, work together) in unity! (even when we don’t agree on everything.)  Will we end, hopeful, encouraged, optimistic?  Or will we be a divided church and feel disappointment, sadness, anger and even deep pain?

    “Mennonite Church USA is at a critical point. (as stated in one of the resolutions).  “We are mired in conflict.  Many believe a split is inevitable, given our polarization specifically on issues of human sexuality and scriptural interpretation.”  (from Resolution on Forbearance.)
    Expectations are high for this event.  (What are your hopes?) Anxiety is high for people in our churches, for our delegates who represent us and our groups. Anxiety is high in the system.  Just ask our conference ministers.  Why?  Change is happening, whether we want it or not, whether we like it or not.  For some, change isn’t happening fast enough.  They are tired of discussing, discerning, waiting.  They are weary and discouraged and have run out of patience.  I hear those sentiments expressed. (Are they your sentiments?)
     For some change is happening and they feel it is going against our core Anabaptist/Mennonite values, beliefs, practices.  They are upset, disappointed and sometimes feel their voice isn’t heard or respected.  The church is headed down the ‘slippery slope’.  I hear those sentiments expressed.  (Are they your sentiments?)
     Then there is a large group somewhere in the middle.  They may be accused of riding the fence, being wishy-washy, not willing to state a position or take a stand.  A large number of folks believe we are stuck, stalled, spinning our wheels!  Is there any wonder that expectations are high for KC2015?  Many of us are anxious, and anxiously awaiting to see what will happen.  What will the wild, Spirit Wind of God do in our midst? in the middle of downtown KC convention center?  How will the breath of God work within us individually and as a gathered community?  The know the Spirit blows where it chooses.  Maybe it will call us to something we can’t predict or even imagine, and maybe it will make several thousand Mennonites uncomfortable? (And what would that look like?)

    Glancing through the newspaper ads a few days ago, I came across something that might help our anxiety!  In the latest ad from Ollie’s , there is a section advertising pet products.  It included an item you could buy for just $10.99, called an Anxiety Wrap.  It is a sweater type wrap to be worn by your dog.   It states, “calms canine anxiety and fear.  A Healthy Hug.  Assorted sizes available”.  I thought maybe the 4 of us delegates should purchase these anxiety wraps and slip them in our luggage to be worn at our delegate sessions!

    But a better idea and more appropriate would be for us to take prayer shawls with us, lovingly made by brothers and sisters in our home congregations, as we deliberate and discern weighty matters, and in the process would feel the prayers sustaining us.  Picture 800+ delegates gathered at tables enfolded with prayer shawls representing the prayers of thousands of members who sent them! 
    Last Wed. our Mennonite women invited Loren and Pat Swartzendruber to join us for part of the day.  They were affirmed and honored for their leadership at EMU and the community in these past years, presented with a prayer scarf and a prayer shawl, prayed over and sent off with our promise of continued prayer support during their time of future transition and retirement from EMU.  I am glad Loren and Pat, that the women presented you with their gifts of prayer shawls and not canine anxiety wraps.  But just know that is another option for you if things get rough!

    Doing the work of the church, building the Kingdom together with believers of all persuasions and joining God’s mission is hard and it gets messy.  It’s not always nice and we’re not always comfortable doing it.  The apostle Paul knew that.  The Corinthian Christians gave Paul a lot of trouble.  He tried to straighten out problems, but more always seemed to pop up.  In this second letter to Corinth Paul was defending his leadership for he was under attack and he confronted their challenge.  Since his ministry ultimately is by God’s mercy, Paul does not lose heart.  Whatever the criticism is that is made against him, Paul does not give up.  He envisions life and the world beyond his troubles, his afflictions, beyond the verbal daggers of opponents, beyond the present age of human mortality.  When things on the outside look like they are falling apart, Paul encourages us to look on the inside, where God is making new life, and where his grace is unfolding daily.  Paul instructs the church in every age ‘not to lose heart’, and to discover a purpose in every affliction, challenge, time of suffering, in every experience that feels negative and heavy and painful. Dig deep, search within to find what can be learned.  Our bodies are crumbling around us, but we ourselves inwardly are being made stronger each day.
    These are words for all of us, “not to lose heart”, but especially for leaders in the church, leaders in our institutions.  When those verbal daggers are made, or emails sent to us that feel heavy, we are not to throw in the towel.  “Put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love.”  Psalm 130:7
    CEV: “These little troubles are getting us ready for an eternal glory that will make all our troubles seem like nothing.  Things that are seen don’t last forever, but things that are not seen are eternal.” 11 Cor. 4:17-18

    So what is our hope for the church?  Mary Thiessen Nation shared some thoughts about hope with our pastor/elder team some time ago.  She stated:
Hope involves movement and choosing. Hope requires and is sustained in community. You cannot be hopeful alone.”
    As I prepare for KC assembly, I anticipate some movement.  I hope the movement is forward.  I hope that we can pass the resolutions that have been presented to us that will allow us to move forward as MCUSA and be church together in the midst of our differences.  But even as I say that to you, I am also going into those meetings with a spirit of openness to what may unfold in the midst of 5 days of meeting and discerning together, knowing that we all may be changed and transformed in ways we can’t yet know.  Something totally new may still arise before us.

    My hope for MCUSA is that as a denomination we can:
-open the door a little wider in our faith communities, embracing more diversity and seeing it as a gift!
-stretch ourselves a little further, as we study, learn and grow in what it means to be a church together in the 21st century.
-take a few steps forward into the future and not back into the past
(what that will look like and how it will be played out will be different depending on conferences, congregations, culture and context)
-confess to one another our shortcomings/misunderstandings, stubbornness, arrogance and seek forgiveness from one another when necessary and appropriate.
–continue to affirm the centrality of Jesus Christ and Scripture
-proclaim Jesus as Lord
-practice in more faithful ways mutual accountability, being honest, transparent, vulnerable with one another as we listen to our stories, and share joys and concerns.
-offer grace, love and forbearance toward others who have come to different understandings on difficult issues.
-put our hope in the Lord and trust that the Holy Spirit will be faithful in completing the good work being done within and through MCUSA

As a congregation, we are not all of one mind on these issues.  And no, the resolutions that will be brought before the delegate assembly don’t answer all of the questions nor do they give lots of specifics, but they do offer us a way through, a way forward, with a degree of hopefulness, one step at a time.

    Do we dare to pray and hope that the wild side of the Pentecost Spirit will show up, surprise us all in KC...transforming us, changing us?  Will that Spirit be the breath we breathe?  Will it be in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray?

 Lenora Tubbs Tisdale wrote some years ago, “This wild Spirit Wind of God...toppled all human understandings of who is in and who is out, who is clean and who is unclean, who is worthy to proclaim the Gospel and who is not...because of this wind, everyone in that room who thought they had God all figured out and safely circumscribed in their neat and orderly theological boxes, saw the doors of those boxes completely blown off.”

Read from Open the Door, by Joyce Rupp, the poem written by a 12 year old girl and submitted by her mother to Joyce after the girl’s accidental death, p. 34-35, on change, etc. )

Maybe if discussing and discerning and dialogue doesn’t take us anywhere, for Mennonites, maybe we need to ‘sing a new church into being”, one in faith and love and praise.  Sing our way through.... (God of the Bible:   hope seen in Jesus, hope yet to come, you are our are our home.  V. 4 Hope we must carry, shining and certain through all our turmoil, terror or loss, bonding us gladly one to the other, till our world changes facing the cross.”

Let us join in singing the song in bulletin that Ken introduced us to last Sunday.
“Summoned by the God who made us” by Delores Dufner

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