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November 20, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Pastor Dayna Olson-Getty.
Scripture: Genesis 37
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts or subscribe, check out our main podcast page.
November 15, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig, "A Reconciling Embrace."
Scripture: Genesis 32:1-33:7
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts or subscribe, check out our main podcast page.
November 10, 2017 by cmc_admin
First Families: Preposterous Promises
Scripture: Genesis 16:1-16; Hebrews 11:1, 8-12
Preacher: Matt Carlson
November 1, 2017 by cmc_admin
First Families: Leaving Home
Scripture Presentation by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Scripture: Genesis 12-13
October 12, 2017 by alisha.huber
As a bonus episode, here are some thoughts Isaac Villegas shared at our recent church retreat.
Our theme music is “Jesus, I believe you’re near,” composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts or subscribe, check out our main podcast page.
October 10, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig, "Hiding and Seeking."
Scripture: Genesis 3:1-13
Click to view transcript
Hiding and Seeking
Community Mennonite Church
8 October 2017
Text: Genesis 3:1-13; Psalm 139
There are two different stories in Genesis about the beginning of everything. In the first story, God hovers over the waters of chaos like a mother bird and speaks the creation into being in a series of 6 days--the animals and we share the 6th day of creation. God finally rests on the seventh day. In this first story, God is the all-powerful and awe-inspiring poet of a brilliant, orderly and very good creation. God’s very words create the world.
In the second story about the beginning of everything, the characterization of God is much different. Same God, but a different perspective on God. God gets down into the dust and mud to first create adam, then plant a garden on the well-watered face of the earth, and finally form each of the animals. This God has conversations with us. Now, there is only one God, but there are different ways of understanding God and in the Bible there are multiple theological strands, braided together, so that we hear from God in different keys, see God from different perspectives, and experience the divine both as ultimate mystery and eventually as a flesh and blood person in Jesus Christ.
In the part of the story we heard today. God asks questions. Four of them, to be precise. Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat? What is this that you have done? Now, what kind of God asks questions at all? Most gods if they communicate directly with people spend their time issuing commands or meting out punishments, or dispensing with words entirely gods just do what they will do. But the people of Israel met the one God who so deeply desires a reconciled relationship with us that God asks--where are you?
OK, the God of Israel issues commands and dispenses punishments and rewards too, but already in the book of Genesis we start to wonder whether God wants to be more than a ruler and judge over us. Perhaps this inquiring God wants to be where we are, with us, in our troubles, in our joys, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our watersheds, in our nations in our world. Perhaps this God refuses to take us by force, but waits and ask for an invitation, an open hand, an open heart, an open community.
Where are you?
One of the questions God asks in the garden seem fitting for our community today. That first one: Where are you? This is a question that invites a description, an understanding of our place. It is not about the past, but about now. It is not a question regarding the future, but the present. Where we are now is related to where we are from and where we are going. Incidentally, these questions--where are you from and where are you going--are common in scripture. Many of us live in the past with regrets, and wounds, unmet expectations. By contrast, many others among us live with anxieties about the future or dreams yet to be fulfilled. But God asks us where we are in the present, right now.
It’s not always an easy question to answer. In fact, the moment we begin to describe where we are, time moves on, circumstances shift, and we become a bit less certain where we are. There’s actually some science to this. We can’t measure both position and speed of a particle. And where an object is located in the universe and it’s speed is relative to the location of the measurement. Still, even with an element of uncertainty--or perhaps because of it--God’s first question to humanity in the Garden of Eden--where are you?--is a great question for us.
In August I attended the Festival Gathering of the Network of Biblical Storytellers International. I met people from all over the US and Canada and several other countries who learn and tell Bible stories by heart. There were many workshops related to storytelling theory and technique, as well as various scripture themes. One workshop I attended was led by a Canadian Mennonite, John Epp, and his premise was compelling for me. He drew a picture of how many of us have learned in Bible studies and seminaries to read the Bible. He indicated many perspectives or lenses honest modern Christians acknowledge that we bring to reading scripture--historical lenses, literary lenses, liberationist, feminist, economic and political lenses. It’s impossible to shed all of these lenses and read the Bible as if we have no perspective, no social location. But John explained that ancient people--especially Jews of the first century, including Jesus and early followers-- approached life with the question: where are we in God’s story?
The question rings true for me. Jesus as he’s preaching and teaching, and the writers of the New Testament always seem to be locating themselves in the story of God. That’s why Paul speaks of Jesus as a second adam (I Cor 15). Where are we in the story? Paul says we’re us in the garden of Eden and that the church is the new opportunity for humanity to live in reconciled relationship with God through Jesus, a second adam. Where are we in the story? Martha of Bethany and Peter of Galilee both recognize Jesus as Messiah, God’s anointed. Martha and Peter located themselves in God’s story after the exile among the prophets looking for a new anointed leader who could restore their people and their relationship with God. Jesus was always making a case for where we are in the story of God. For example, in his last meal with friends Jesus describes their table wine as a new covenant in his blood, as if we’re simultaneously on the mountain with Moses receiving a covenant and living Jeremiah’s dream of a new covenant written on our hearts. Where are we in God’s big story? Are we in the wilderness learning a new way of life? Are we like the apostles being sent into a challenging ministry? Are we being healed by the words and the touch of Jesus?
Last spring my father began to have more episodes of memory loss and confusion. In May as my parents made a move from Kentucky to Minnesota, they were driving two cars packed with belongings and a couple dogs planning to make the trip over a few days. But after one of their rest stops my father got confused and began driving. My mother didn’t known where he was. OK, a good question might be where were their three adult children? We were in three different states berating ourselves for not helping our parents with this interstate trip. After some hours, a lot of three-way phone calls, and contacting authorities my father finally answered his phone. My sister asked where are you? He first began to describe the heavy traffic and the stress of driving in the dark in the rain. She had to coach him to look for green highway signs and read them to her. Finally relaying various mileage signs we were able to determine what state he was in and eventually which exit he took, where he stopped and we found him.
Where are you?
“Then God called to the man and said to him? Where are you? He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” According to Genesis 3 the very one with whom we most need reconciliation and loving relationship, is the one we avoid. In this part of our story, humanity is graced with an abundant garden and the intimate presence of God who, like them, strolls among the trees. But they hide themselves--avoiding God. Are we avoiding God? I do sometimes. God takes time. And I can be miserly with time. Learning and knowing God’s story, so that we can be oriented takes time. Where are we? Are we confused-- seeing only our immediate surroundings without a bigger picture that would orient us and guide us back into community with God and with others? Where are we in God’s story? This week we have been at that terrible and tender place where we face death and loss. We have wept. The gift of God and the gift of God’s people is to help us place all of our experiences, including those most disorienting into the larger story of God. Heidi and Brendon and their families did that by turning to Psalm 139 and celebrating Ella Mae’s life through their tears.
Where are we in God’s story? Where are we in relationship to the God who asks us this question? Where are we in relationship to the people who love us and will help return home? Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat? What is this that you have done? These questions are misunderstood if we hear them in the voice of a distant, accusatory God who stands ready to catch us in our error and punish our sin. Actually, these questions aren’t even coming from the all-powerful God who simply speaks the world into being like a poet. These questions come from the God who is a bit like us, fiddling in the mud, walking in the garden, enjoying the evening breeze. These are questions meant to draw us out, draw us in, draw us into deeper communion with God so that we can always locate ourselves in God’s story.
These are not questions to prove us wrong, shame us, or confirm our guilt. It’s not that God has lost us or that God doesn’t understand our choices or circumstances. Rather, through inquiry, God moves us into deeper understanding of our lives. As we respond to God, even if our understanding is immature, mistaken, or misguided, we open ourselves to the possibility of trust, growth and transformation. We open ourselves to God.
Abre mis ojos…
Open our eyes, Lord...
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
October 5, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Genesis 2:4-19
click to view transcript
Jennifer Davis Sensenig
CMC 1 October 2017
Genesis 2:4-19; Romans 8:18-27
I’ve been on a sabbatical for 4 months, so it’s good to hear this story of the beginning as I’m beginning again with Community Mennonite Church. Thank you, CMC, for making a sabbatical possible. It was a rich time for spiritual renewal, study, writing and rest. I’ll share more during a Monthly Gathering. Thank you also for the blessing that it is to return to you.
According to one of our originating stories, humankind--adam--was created by hand, by God, by dust, by breath. Our unique human kind of life was sustained by a garden full of plants and animals and in turn we tended the garden, cared for the animals. Genesis 2 also describes initial conditions that allowed our life to emerge and sustained Eden’s paradise. Think water--an underground stream that when it reached the surface watered the whole face of the ground--that’s in v. 6. And then four great rivers, two which we study in elementary school--the Tigris and Euphrates--rivers of the fertile crescent--and two which we can no longer trace because the Gihon and Pishon rivers are only remembered here by ancient people who knew what we would have otherwise forgotten.
This creation story, the second one in Genesis, describes us--adam--at first without gender differentiation, without race or national identity, without economic status. We are one living being with one vocation. Adam’s first task is naming the animals, meeting and knowing and naming each one, recognizing and honoring the diversity of all animal life. Our vocation in the garden is summarized this way--to till and to keep it.
Tilling is a human responsibility in an agrarian society. Keeping or shepherding animals is a human responsibility in a herding society. So the phrase “to till and to keep” transmits some ancient human wisdom about society. “To till and to keep” seems gentler than the phrase for human responsibility in the earlier Genesis creation story, which commissions us: “to subdue the earth and have dominion over fish, birds and everything that moves.” But really, Biblically, their meanings are similar. We human beings have unique capacities and special responsibilities within creation. And make no mistake; we are accountable to God for these.
This creation story is worth pondering because today we are aware of the ecological crises on this watery, garden globe we call home. Since the mythical days of Eden some of us have lost sight of our vocation amidst the industrial and technological transformations in society. Others have never lost or are even today regaining a sense of our calling to care for the earth, “to till and to keep it” to be in solidarity with our natural home. Isn’t this the politics and spirituality of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which Isaac Villegas highlighted last weekend at our retreat? Isn’t the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth, ultimately the same cry? Didn’t we hear at retreat that fantastical story from Revelation, in which the wilderness is a place of nourishment for the woman and the earth itself comes to her aid? Perhaps the ancients were right--our origin and future is to be in reconciled, responsible community with creation.
St. John’s Bible
While I was on sabbatical I went to Minnesota to study the giant bound heritage edition of the St. John’s Bible. It is called an illuminated Bible because of the artwork throughout the volumes, which is not so much decoration, but theological reflection on key scripture passages. Most illuminated Bibles are very old--from the Middle Ages--but the St. John’s Bible is new. It is the first complete handwritten illuminated Bible since the invention of the printing press. It is a New Revised Standard Version and the illuminations in the first pages of Genesis connect the best of our scientific understanding of geological and anthropological history with our creation stories. Thankfully, this Bible was designed with an understanding that science and scripture are compatible dimensions of our theology and spirituality.
Friends, the Bible is not at fault for Jewish or Christian failure to care for the earth. The Bible doesn’t whitewash our antagonism against creation, but these Genesis tales anchor our God-breathed origin in community with creation. Our vocation is to be gardeners and caretakers of the earth, who also depend on this creation for our very lives. We are made from the dust of the earth, created by a God willing to get her hands dirty, down in the mud and form us as a living being. Imagine the original form--no gender differentiation, no racial distinctions--we are one. Let’s not blame our failures to be one with each other and one with the earth on the Bible. That would be a cheap excuse, shrugging off our accountability before God. Scripture is actually a profound resource for renewing our vocation to care for the earth and deepening our love for and solidarity with both the rest of humanity and all the natural world.
The illuminations in the St. John’s Bible include the double-helix of human DNA and images of the earliest cave paintings by human beings. The fecundity of creation spills over the gold frame of the Garden of Eden illumination. And humanity is modeled on the Karo tribe in Ethiopia along the Omo River. In addition to the artists who provided theological illuminations, Chris Tomlin, a natural history illustrator also contributed to the Bible insects. You’re reading along and turning a page, it’s as if a dragonfly or a beetle has landed on the vellum. Vivid illustrations of butterflies adorn certain pages and their wings show up in illuminations that connect heaven and earth. So on sabbatical I would often find myself studying the illuminations and reading aloud beautiful calligraphy of familiar scripture. And this happened in a temperature controlled library study room. Then in an afternoon hike I’d see those very insects from pages of the prophets and epistles flitting along the edge of Lake Sagatagen.
Green Congregation Initiative
Last year one of the themes that emerged from our congregation’s vision process was captured with the phrase Green Congregation. Recently a task force has formed and these are the CMCers involved: Brian Martin Burkholder, who is convening the group, Wayne Teel, Kathy Yoder, Doug Graber-Neufeld, Alex Graber-Neufeld, Randy Reichenbach, Lucy Melenke and David Shenk. These folks are getting in touch with our vocation to till and keep the garden, to know and name the animals, to be in solidarity with the earth, to remember our rivers and watershed, to hear creation’s cry and respond with love and care.
The task force is preparing a proposal for Church Council and during the November congregational meeting we hope that the congregation will be ready to move forward with some version of it, as seems fitting to all of you. This past week I met with Brian to learn more about the direction of the proposal. I was moved by the depth of this task force work and I recognize that it has been stirring in many of our hearts over some years. One of the commitments that the task force has is to intentionally connect CMC with other local folks who inspire us by their care for creation--groups like Climate Action Alliance of the Valley (CAAV), Renew Rocktown, and congregations like Park View Mennonite Church.
Perhaps the stirring within you has connected you with the adult education class Wayne Teel is convening. Or you are interested in the Forest Farm along Black’s Run and the Northend Greenway from talking with Cornelius Franz. Valerie Serrels could share with you her vision of a church of the wild. The CMC task force proposal will include something related to greening the buildings we own as a congregation, and also bringing our lives into greater solidarity with the earth which is crying out. This is challenging work, and it’s not likely to move forward from guilt or shame or despair. This people on this task force are convinced that we can’t care for something we don’t love. By nurturing a deep love for creation, recognizing love is a verb, and caring for the earth by shifting our lifestyles we can realize the vocation of adam.
Perhaps your spirituality is deeply connected with the natural world--hiking woodland trails, gardening, or being on the water feeds your spirit. For some , though, our Christian spirituality hasn’t been interconnected with human solidarity with creation, but our Bible is suffused with creation-based spirituality. It seems to be God’s long-term project to restore all relationships--including the relationship between humanity and creation. That’s why we see Jesus born according to the stars, communicating directly with storms, healing bodies beset with disease, feeding hungry people and working miracles with mud and water and breath as if he were God in the garden forming us as one humanity transforming us from a body of humiliation into Christ’s glorious body. Today Christ comes to us in the grain and the grape, crushed by human efforts into bread and wine. These are signs of creation, a body in crisis, and signs of new life, new love, new care for all things--a new adam.
To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!
September 13, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Susan Schultz Huxman, "The Power of Place."
September 6, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Joyce Peachey Lind.
August 28, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Dayna Olson-Getty.
Click here for transcript
- Genesis 1:1-2:4; 4:1
- Exodus 25:1-9; 35:20 – 36:8a; 40:34-38
- John 1:1-18
- Acts 2:1-21
- Isaiah 65:17-25
- Revelation 21:1-7; 9-27
Genesis 1 (Slide 1)
Let there be!
Not because God needed, not because God lacked. Not because God fought or feared.
Because God loved. Because God desired. Because God laughed and played and delighted and made. Beauty, life, a world full to bursting with life begetting more life.
Into the dark and formless void, God spoke, and there was. The light and dark, the solid and liquid, the heat and the cold, the squirming and crawling and swimming and flapping, the orbiting and revolving, the photosynthesizing and the absorbing, the rooted and the winged.
And then the speaking, laughing, delighting creatures, bearing God’s image, held in communion
– created with Creator.
Exodus (Slide 2)
And God said to the image-bearers:
Let the sanctuary of your belly grow round and taut, full of life. Create with me a child who will live outside your body, just as you live outside of mine. Co-create with me in love, in delight, in joy. And the one you birth will create, and his children will create, and the whole earth will be filled to bursting with beauty and delight and love.
And God said to the created ones:
Bring your skills, your intelligence, your imagination, your will – and make! Make cloth and carvings, stonework and lamp oil, gold leaf and pillars. Measure and cut, spin and pound, sew and weave, and hammer, design and build.
Make a sanctuary with your own hands, out of the stuff of this earth, and I will dwell there. I will live among you in the midst of this vast and formless desert. In cloud and fire, I will dwell among you. As light and life, I will dwell among you.
John 1 (Slide 3)
But we who were made, are every day unmade. All around us, the world is uncreated faster than we can re-create. And we, the creatures invited to create from the stuff of the earth, to create in love and joy and delight, instead make border walls and bomber drones and prison cells. We make violence and half-truths and safe distances. We make enemies and walls of silence. Our making unmakes God’s making.
So God came to dwell among us, in this bombed-out building of a world. God huddles with us in the dark, in the cold, in the void that has unfolded between us. The One who always was, the One who spoke us into being, the one who loved and desired and laughed and played and delighted and made – this One has come to dwell among us, taking up residence with us in the valley of the shadow of death.
And this One who made all that is, waits with us, in grief, in hope, in groaning expectation.
Acts 2 (Slide 4)
And God says: Receive!
The Uncreated One gathers us, we who are made of the stuff of the earth, we who have scattered and become strangers to each other, like a mother hen gathering up her chicks at dusk. And the Creator breathes on us again the breath of life, and life and light roars up again among us. Together we are knit together – sinew to bone, muscle to skin - into a dwelling place for God, a living, breathing, dancing, weeping, laughing tabernacle for the Uncreated One. We dream dreams. We see visions. We awaken to ancient memories of a world teaming with life, flooded with love. We hold among us the quickening hope of a new creation. We are full to bursting with new creation, like a womb full of child.
Isaiah 65 (Slide 5)
And God declares: I will make all things new!
I will breathe my re-creating, renewing, re-vivifying Spirit into every crack and corner of this dying creation. I will leave no cinder block or garbage heap or hardened heart or abandoned block untouched. I will speak into being new life, and it will spring up from long-dead stumps, from desolate ground, from the unmarked graves of the abandoned.
I will make my home among my created ones. I will dwell among them in beauty and delight and love. And I will be their light and life and love. Once again, we will live in joy-filled communion – Creator with created ones, creature with creature, created ones with created world.
And God says: Come! Co-create this new world with me!
Bring your skills, your intelligence, your imagination, your will. Gather some ink or acrylic paint, gold leaf or embroidery thread. Oak beams or finger paint. Fabric scraps or a lump of clay. Bricks and mulch. Sand, water, paper, chalk.
Imagine something that is not. Look with eyes of a love – dare to see not only what is, but what will be. Dream of a world where joy springs up in the darkest corners. Make spaces for other dreamers. Create beauty that gives witness to my dream of a re-created world. Open your heart to visions of one new people, together giving birth to a new world inside the burnt-out shell of the old. Practice life in the midst of death.
And God says: Come! Co-create this new world with me!
Bear my image. Dream my dreams. Shape my visions with the stuff of the earth, held in your hands, carried in your own body.
My friends, God is inviting us to create - in love, in delight, in joy. God is inviting us to join in God’s joyful work of making all things new. God is inviting us to join in the communion of co-creating and giving witness to the re-creating love of the One who made our world.
Do we dare? Do you dare?
August 14, 2017 by cmc_admin
August 13, 2017
Living Joyfully Through Spoken Word
Sermon and Scenes, "Abundant Joy"
Another Scene, "Resurrection Life"
August 8, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Jason Gerlach
July 25, 2017 by cmc_admin
To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!
July 25, 2017 by cmc_admin
To learn more about CMC podcasts, listen to other podcasts, or subscribe, check out our main podcast page!
June 19, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Pastor Dayna Olson-Getty, on Matthew 3:13-17 and Acts 2:1-24, 32-39.
Click for Transcript
In recent weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the role that power plays in our lives and communities. “Power” is a word that makes a lot of us a little uncomfortable – maybe “influence” or “authority” or even “polity” feel more acceptable. But regardless of what we call it, power ebbs and flows through our relationships, our families, our church systems, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our government.
When we want to understand where power is located in a community, we ask questions like, “How are decisions made? Who could veto that proposal? Who would we have to convince in order to create something new? Who is responsible to keep our community safe when one of us is hurting others? Who gets to decide how to tell our shared story? How does this community clarify who can belong and who cannot?”
I recently read a book that has been helpful to me in thinking about Christian discipleship and power. It’s called Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing by Andy Crouch. Crouch argues that we have often, as Christians, seen power as primarily a dangerous and corrupting influence – something to be feared or avoided - and not as a good gift from God.
This view of power as fundamentally dangerous or corrupting may ring especially true for those of us who have been shaped by the Anabaptist tradition. Many of our origin stories – the stories of sixteenth century Anabaptists - are stories of profound powerlessness and suffering at the hands of powerful political and religious leaders. Such formative experiences of the abuse of power have led many Anabaptist communities to develop a strong guardedness about the pursuit or acquisition of power.
And while serious caution is warranted, given how disastrously we humans tend to abuse power, our narrative about power often makes it hard for us to honestly assess when and where we do have power.
But the truth is, we all have power, to some degree or another, in at least some arenas of our lives. Some of that power is the direct, decision-making kind of power – the power to say yes or no, the power to create something out of nothing, the power to choose one course of action over another.
And some of our power is indirect – we make suggestions or recommendations, we articulate a perspective or share a personal story or piece of advice.
But unless we can identify and own our power, we have very little opportunity for using it for redemptive rather than destructive purposes. We have to make peace with our power before we can use our power to make peace.
Crouch argues that power flows from God and was first given by God to human beings before sin entered our world. Power is meant to be used for good, for the flourishing of human communities, of people in interdependent networks of relationships. Flourishing creates the space and conditions for all of us, including the most vulnerable members of our communities, to fully become all of who we were created to be.
Crouch defines power as “the capacity for meaningful action.” Those with power have the ability to act in a way that has an impact, that causes something to happen. And it’s not just random action – it’s action that’s meaningful. Their action is part of a larger story that began before this moment of action and will continue on after it. Their action moves the story forward in some way.
The power to nurture true human flourishing, Crouch argues, contains a paradox. Power for human flourishing requires both authority – the meaningful capacity to take action - and vulnerability - meaningful risk of loss. Those who want to see a community flourish have to use their authority in a way that releases control over the others who are involved and over the outcome. This kind of use of power calls us to use authority with open hands and open lives, to invite transparency and accountability, to make space for others to influence and shape the outcome.
Organizations go bad, Crouch says, when leaders seek authority and control without being willing to risk that others might push back or have influence as well. That kind of power – power that seeks to avoid vulnerability - comes at the expense of others ability to act. It leaves the less powerful with few options other than reacting to what has already been done to and for them. This kind of power easily becomes exploitative, increasing the authority and decreasing the vulnerability of the more powerful, while decreasing the authority and increasingly the vulnerability of the less powerful. We call that kind of use of power “injustice.”
Those who are entrusted with the power to take meaningful action on behalf of a community must also, Crouch says, be willing to take on the real risk of meaningful loss in doing so- the risk of failing, the risk of being betrayed, the risk of being misunderstood, the risk of being wrong. Those who hold power on behalf of a community are called to a vulnerability that leaves them open to the very real possibility of suffering on behalf of those they lead. This kind of power, Crouch argues, is what we know as love. It’s taking action for the good of another, even as we open ourselves to grief and loss in doing so.
In both of the passages we read today, God gives power in ways are very public and visible. And in both cases, it’s power that includes both authority and vulnerability.
In the first passage – from Matthew 3 - we see Jesus going down to the Jordan River where John the Baptist is calling people to confess their sin and be baptized as a sign of repentance in preparation for God’s judgement.
Jesus is literally the last person who needs this baptism, and John knows it. He protests, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
But Jesus insists that he must be baptized by John.
And when Jesus steps into that water, he steps into solidarity with God’s people. He doesn’t need the baptism of repentance, but his people do, and they need him to stand with them in their sinfulness and weakness. Jesus steps into the water of public confession and repentance, into the river of death and rebirth. He takes on the vulnerability of standing with the people of God at their most needy and defenseless. Jesus steps into the water, identifying with the sinners who will find wholeness and holiness through him.
And in response to this embrace of vulnerability, God gives Jesus authority. The Spirit descends on him and God declares “This is my Beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased.” Jesus, God is saying, has been chosen and given power for a particular task, the task of making God known through his life and death. Jesus has been given authority to take action on behalf of God’s mission of shalom – of the flourishing of all creation.
Jesus continues to hold authority and vulnerability together throughout his ministry. Forgiving, teaching, healing, creating and recreating – speaking and acting over and over again with the authority of God. And yet, his life is filled with vulnerability. He gives himself to people who betray him. He speaks truth even when it threatens, and risks backlash from, those with political and religious power. He risks everything, even his own life, for the sake of those he loves.
Authority and vulnerability are also at the heart of the Pentecost story. Luke tells us that the disciples were all together when the house where they were gathered was filled with the sound of a violent wind, and tongues of fire appeared among them and rested on each of them. Wind and fire are signs in scripture of God’s fearsome presence – Luke is telling us that, suddenly, God is there among them, full of power, breathing fire, riding on the wind.
And the power of God, the creator of the universe, is not only present with them, God’s power is present in and through them. They begin to speak in languages that are not their own, in the mother tongues of their immigrant neighbors. And each one hears the word of God in his or her own native language, in the language of childhood, and of memories, and of dreams.
This powerful God among them has poured out power in and through them. And it is a creative power that is speaking a new community into being, a community that crosses cultures and languages, genders and age differences, economic class and social status, a community that speaks in the heart language of each person, offering a space of belonging and flourishing.
It’s hard to imagine a more direct or visible sign of God’s bestowal of power. These disciples haven’t been ordained by the laying on of hands – they’ve been ordained by the visible, audible indwelling presence of God!
So I think it’s striking what happens next. Those who experience this event of astonishingly abundant divine power don’t respond by asking how they can get some too. They don’t respond to this awesome display of power by seeking power. They hear the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and they are, Luke says, “cut to the heart.” They respond to this outpouring of power with confession, with vulnerability. They respond by entering the waters of repentance and death, and trusting that they will be raised up to new life. They follow Jesus into vulnerability. And in doing so, they receive the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit.
Those first disciples lived as we are called to live. They stepped forward into the way of Jesus, who although he had all authority, took on all vulnerability for the sake of empowering love.
The author of the letter to the church in Philippi, quoting an ancient hymn, put it this way:
Christ Jesus…though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
My friends, as we consider our own authority and power, let us follow in the way of Jesus, embracing both meaningful action and risky, vulnerable love for the sake of the flourishing of God’s community of beloved ones.
May 30, 2017 by cmc_admin
Click for Transcript
I’m going to begin this morning by asking you to join me in a somewhat dystopian thought experiment. And before I begin – let me assure you that this is not prophecy – just an experiment in imagination – and that I won’t ask you to stay in this imaginative world very long.
OK, ready? Imagine for a minute this version of our future life in Harrisonburg. Imagine that our community has suffered some sort of terrible calamity that has brought our economy into a steep decline. Businesses have closed, non-profits have gone under, universities are shuttered. People who have always had more than enough are struggling to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. In this imaginary version of the future, many of us in this congregation have lost our jobs and aren’t able to find new ones. The necessities of life have become scarce and expensive.
I imagine that if we found ourselves in this version of the future, we would help each other. No doubt we would distribute the money that our congregation has already set aside in our Compassion Fund for unexpected needs that arise among us. I imagine that many of us would use our household savings to provide for our families and to care for each other. If the crisis continued, some of us would likely try to sell some property to provide for others. Some of us might invite another family to share our home until the crisis had passed, or host a nightly neighborhood potluck so that we could ensure that everyone had something to eat, or set up a clothing swap in our fellowship hall.
We have a lot of resources among us, and I imagine that, if we shared our resources, we could support each other for quite a while. But eventually, we’d deplete all those resources – and then what? Unless help came from outside of the impoverished region, we would eventually become destitute.
This is not unlike the situation faced by the church in Jerusalem in AD 57.
Several years before, when Paul had traveled to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the community of believers in that city, there was already a significant financial need. Paul was in Jerusalem to try to work out a deep conflict that had arisen between Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus. Some Jewish followers of Jesus were insisting that the Gentiles needed to follow the ritual purity laws of Judaism in order to be a part of the community, while Paul and his ministry partners insisted that that was not necessary. After a heated debate, the two sides came to a compromise. The leaders of the Jerusalem community gave Paul their blessing to continue proclaiming the good news of Jesus among the Gentiles without requiring Gentile believers to follow Jewish ritual purity regulations. The one thing they did require of Paul was that he “remember the poor.”
And Paul took that assignment to heart. For the next five years, throughout his missionary journeys, Paul raised money wherever he went, asking the newly converted believers in the Greek and Roman cities where he ministered to contribute to the gift he was assembling to bring to the poor among the believers in Jerusalem.
In the early days of the Jerusalem congregation, wealthy members sold their property to provide for their brothers and sisters. Luke describes this community in the book of Acts as one where “there was not a needy person among them.” But as the years went on, those resources were depleted.
Because of the Roman occupation, the residents of Jerusalem faced persistent food shortages and extremely high taxes. Many Jews retired in Jerusalem, which led to an increasing number of elderly people who needed financial support. And then, in the 40s, Palestine suffered a severe famine.
By the time that Paul was gathering money for this fund, poverty within the Jerusalem community had become deep and entrenched. The poor among the believers in Jerusalem were destitute.
But even with that level of need, it’s striking that Paul invested such a tremendous amount of time and energy, and took such great risks, to raise and deliver these funds. Anti-Jewish prejudice was strong in the ancient world and the history between these communities – of Jews who were deeply offended by what they saw as the Gentile church’s carelessly violating traditional ethics, and of Gentile believers convinced that the Jerusalem church was being oppressive and domineering in their demands – this history meant that there was deep mutual distrust. And it’s likely that most of the members of the Gentile churches themselves lived only a notch or two above subsistence on the economic ladder.
There were also significant cultural barriers related to giving. In Greek culture, when wealthy people gave to those in need, they expected to receive prestige and honor in return. Becoming a benefactor was a way to gain power and status within one’s community – those who were recipients became clients of the benefactor, with long-term obligations of service and allegiance to the patron. In this patron-client paradigm, giving to strangers who lived hundreds of miles away made no sense at all because the recipients could not return any benefit to the givers.
And Paul’s own challenges and barriers to this work of fund-raising were not insignificant. Even while he was collecting this money, Paul was in conflict with Peter, one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church, because he had reneged on the agreement between the Jewish and Gentile communities. And the travel involved, including the travel to Jerusalem, meant risking arrest or even death for Paul, whose association with Gentiles made him a target.
And there was a significant risk that, after all the hard work of raising these funds, the Jerusalem community might refuse to accept them. To publically accept a gift from Gentiles would risk deepening the rift between the community of Jewish Jesus-followers and the broader Jewish community of Jerusalem, marginalizing these vulnerable people even further.
So why on earth did Paul devote 5 years of his life to raising this money? And why did he risk his life delivering it?
Paul’s arguments to the community of believers at Corinth give us some clues.
The point of this gift, he tells them, is not how much or how little they have to give. Instead, this fund-raising campaign is intended to create what Paul calls “fair balance” - or equality of resources - between those who currently have more than enough and those in need, anticipating that in future circumstances, those who give might themselves become recipients.
Paul is envisioning a global network of faith communities in which economic resources flow across the boundaries of culture, ethnicity, theological conviction and nationality to provide for those in need from the resources of those who have more than enough. Paul wants to forge lasting bonds of solidarity, binding together these distant and mutually distrustful branches of the Jesus-community in mutual interdependence. Paul wants the Gentile believers and the Judean believers to become kin, the kind of kin who send money when someone is in need and who aren’t too proud or fearful to accept it.
Paul’s method of fund-raising is intentionally distinct from the Greek systems of patron-client relationships. Even the poorest members of the Corinthian church are asked to participate. The money will then be pooled, making one larger gift from the Corinthian congregation, and that will be pooled with the gifts from the other Gentile congregations, until it’s no longer possible to identify the gifts of individual givers who might require something of the recipients in return.
This gift, rather than creating security and status for the giver, asks the givers to make themselves vulnerable, putting whatever financial security they have in the hands of brothers and sisters half a world away. The Macedonians, who gave out of their poverty, Paul tells them, are the exemplars of this kind of giving – this is not a mutually beneficial contract or a global mutual insurance pool, but a wildly vulnerable act of faith that is undergirded by trust in God’s abundant provision through the community of God’s people.
So does this story of Paul’s risky cross-cultural, globe-spanning fund-raising have to do with us?
First, it seems abundantly clear that Paul considers both giving and asking for money as highly valuable ministry activities, integral to the lived witness of God’s new community. For those of us who give and those of who raise money on behalf of others, this is a word of blessing and affirmation. The work you do in raising money to care for those in need, to fund the work of the church, and to create communities that give witness to the possibility of God’s beloved community is holy work, just as much as preaching, or praying, or leading Sunday morning worship.
Second, this story points out the importance of relationships across differences of theology, culture and nationality in the community of God’s people. Paul is asking these Gentile believers to take a risk in giving to people who they have never met, and will likely never meet. But it’s not a blind risk. Paul has visited this community multiple times. For all their differences, he knows the Jerusalem community well enough to feel confident that this money is really needed and that it will be used well. And when he delivers the gift, he takes along a representative of each of the congregations who gave, creating an opportunity for direct relationships between these communities.
Third, this story helps us to see that, when we are gathering funds for the work of the church, the method and the message are inseparable. Not unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, we live in a culture that rewards giving with power and prestige, and often expects some form of subservience from the recipient. We only have to look at the entangled history of western mission and colonialism to see what deep harm is done when we bring this paradigm into our relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ. Like Paul, we need to find ways to shape our giving practices so that we foster mutual vulnerability and interdependence, rather than hierarchy and domination.
Finally, and most of all, this story challenges us to see ourselves as responsible for the economic needs of fellow believers across differences of culture, nationality, economics, and theological conviction. We are called to giving and receiving as kinfolk who are invested in each other’s well-being for the long-term and who risk putting our trust in God’s provision through the extended community of God’s people.
Perhaps one way to measure how we are doing in living out these commitments is to return for a minute to our dystopian imaginings of life in Harrisonburg during a severe economic crisis. What would it be like to be on the receiving end of cross-cultural or transnational relationships with communities of faith who we have funded in our years of prosperity? Have we created relationships of such mutuality and trust that we wouldn’t mind swapping places and becoming the recipient in the relationship in our time of need? Would we be comfortable receiving in the same way and under the same conditions that we have asked others to receive?
Like the community in Corinth, God is calling us to forge bond of kinship across great distances and differences with our brothers and sisters, using our excess, no matter how small, to participate in God’s economy of abundant provision for all.
May 15, 2017 by cmc_admin
Click here for a transcript
Lies we Live (or Die) By
You cannot serve God and Mammon. Jesus used the word Mammon to identify the power, the false spiritual power that money can be in our lives. By recognizing and naming Mammon, as a false spiritual power opposed to God, Jesus was acting on our behalf, defending us from the lies that Mammon spews. The big lie Mammon speaks is that we are fundamentally insecure. Our lives are precarious and everything, including us, could soon fall apart. When we’re vulnerable Mammon whispers that money could make us secure, and successful, and beautiful, and loved, and happy, and powerful. These are lies we live by. And when we’re self-assured and strong, Mammon warns us that we’ve miscalculated our needs, accumulating more for ourselves will make us more secure, successful, beautiful, loved, happy, and powerful. These are lies we die by. Mammon’s lies about insecurity are supported by a dominant American value: materialism. Even if we avoid materialism and live simply, Mammon’s lies can still ring in our ears stirring up worry and anxiety.
[SLIDE #2] Now Jesus, living among poor people in first century Palestine, saw this so clearly that he exposed the lies and said: You cannot serve God and Mammon. This was Jesus’ one-liner economic analysis. And it is still true. Jesus of course was biased. He was inviting people to choose God, to serve God, and to reject Mammon to be freed from the bullying and entrapment and slavery of serving Mammon, who deceives poor people just as much as rich people. The God Jesus served has a better, deeper, truer message for humanity. God did not say that we’re all insecure, but rather like a mother bear: You are a holy people. I chose you out of all the people on earth. You belong to me. You are my treasured possession. And God repeats that message, especially in times when we are tempted to believe the lies.
I don’t know what everyone here is facing today financially or otherwise, but according to scripture we are not drifting through life; we belong to God. Our circumstances are not random; God is choosing us right here, right now, today. We are not alone; God has a people and we are God’s people. We are not insignificant beings; we are God’s treasured possession. Every last one of us. We do not belong to Mammon; Jesus sets us free from Mammon’s lies.
In Matthew 6 Jesus speaks pretty directly about money three times. It’s a lesson in kingdom economics. First, Jesus assumes that people have a regular practice of providing for the needs of the poor: giving alms. When you give alms...don’t make a big show of it. Jesus doesn’t say if you give alms, but when you give.
Here’s what one CMC household shared about living generously. In recent years, since we have eliminated a mortgage, we have attempted to give more than 10 percent of our annual income. During the last decade our giving has been in the 15-20% range. In 2016, owing to an unusual one-time circumstance (a business we had invested in was sold), we were able to contribute 50 percent of our adjusted gross income to charity.
Our primary motivation for giving is that we care about the well-being of others, both those we might know personally and those who might live a half world away. Almost all of our giving goes to the Mennonite Church or agencies and not-for-profit organizations connected to the church. We think it’s unfortunate that so many people view giving as a “should” rather than an opportunity. Money is such a private subject, and anyone who preaches stewardship is suspected of having ulterior motives. Sometimes it almost seems like the opposite is true. The happiest people we know are also the most generous, and our lives seem most blessed when we give the most.
What do we treasure?
So Jesus teaches kingdom economics through giving to others--meeting needs of the poor. A second time Jesus mentions money in Matthew chapter 6 he’s talking about priorities--don’t store up treasures on earth where moth and dust consume and thieves break in and steal; store up treasures in heaven. I can see giving to the poor, but this part of Jesus’ lesson in kingdom economics is utterly impractical. If we get paid this week and don’t save anything we won’t be able to pay our bills later in the month. Now, we get that we don’t want to live like Rich Fools who build bigger barns hoarding wealth for ourselves when others are in need, but how do we live in our capitalist society without saving? Let’s consider Jesus’ own life.
[SLIDE #3] Jesus did not accumulate financial savings. Jesus doesn’t even seem to have his wallet along. He’s dependent on others. On the other hand, there was a treasurer among the Twelve and it wasn’t the tax-collector Matthew; it was Judas--who was not exactly ideal for the job. And there were these women who supported Jesus from their wealth. At least as a group Jesus and his disciples were saving and spending and giving. When I consider Jesus’ life and his teaching about storing up treasure in heaven I realize that like the God who spoke to Israel, Jesus regards people as a treasured possession. Jesus invested his life in people. Sometimes Jesus’ investment seems wasteful--fishermen, women, tax-collectors, unclean people, Judas? Even if it wasn’t a waste, at the very least, Jesus’ investment in people was very expensive. Think of his suffering and death. Jesus treasured people. His investment in people was risky. After he died he hadn’t written anything down! He just said remember what I said, teach everyone in the world and I will be with you always. Jesus’ eternal investment was with human beings, people on earth where moth and dust and thieves and Mammon can distort the message, but I think we got a lot of it pretty clearly and it’s a matter of living it.
Everyone Welcome Mission Project
(Hadley Jenner’s Voice in italics)
HHJ-Hey, Jennifer, I wanted to announce that as part of our Everyone Welcome Campaign, we decided on a Mission Project that would consist of funds dedicated to some entity beyond ourselves. The Outreach Commission discussed options and made a recommendation to Council who has approved a major contribution to NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center to assist their staffing up to better serve their ministry in the community.
JDS-Haven’t we already given some of the Everyone Welcome Campaign money beyond ourselves?
HHJ-Yes, we gave $15,000….
JDS--Why are we announcing this today...in the middle of the sermon?
HHJ-Well, we figured this being your last sermon before sabbatical we could provide an example of living generously as a congregation.
JDS-Thanks for that. Actually, it fits with what I was saying about Jesus investing in people, seeing people like God sees people--as treasures. The immigrant people NewBridges serves are sometimes ignored, or threatened, so CMC is treasuring these neighbors by investing in their lives.
HHJ-And the timing is great. Here’s what Alicia Horst, Executive Director of NewBridges says: “Over the last few months it has become obvious that our work needs to include even more focus on the pressing immigration questions from our newcomer communities. The last Board meeting in April included discussion about the need to hire an additional person who can become accredited to practice immigration law. (I am currently the only person in the office with this accreditation). However, we also recognized that we were not in a current financial position to add a new position. Your generosity is allowing us to take much quicker action than we expected. Please communicate our sincere and deep gratitude to the Outreach Committee, the CMC Church Council and to the wonderful CMC congregation for your support and vision of welcoming all from a place of abundance, joy, and justice.
JDS-So one way CMC is practicing kingdom economics is by investing in people, some of God’s treasures who are making a home in this community. How much are we donating to NewBridges to staff up and be able to provide more legal assistance?
HHJ--$25,000. [Applause. Hadley sits down.]
[SLIDE #4]Thanks, Hadley. And thank you CMC. When you pledged to support Everyone Welcome we were upgrading our facility and we were also committed to kingdom economics. You gave generously and now we as a congregation are making an investment in people in a timely way, just as the NewBridges board is ready to increase their staff.
The third time Jesus mentions money in Matthew 6 he says: You cannot serve God and Mammon. Remember, I said the lie Mammon tells us is that we are insecure. Keep that in mind as we talk just a bit about financial savings. Every Christian book or program on faith and finances--whether conservative, progressive, traditional or radical--that I’ve ever experienced concludes that saving money is important. Saving is not the most important economic activity or the highest value for Christians, but it’s part of good stewardship and living generously.
Many of these books and programs recommend that individual households in North America aim to save enough money for 3-6 months of expenses, in case of job loss, or suddenly needing to replace a furnace during the winter months, or replace a car after an accident, or uninsured medical expenses. But most people do not have 3-6 months of easily liquidated savings. And so Mammon’s lie--that we are fundamentally insecure is pretty easy to believe. Most Americans, and most American Christians, are one emergency away from a financial tailspin. But what if we did not have to establish a 3-6 month emergency savings account on our own? What if small groups of Christians could support each other?
Let’s say our household goal was to build up an emergency fund of $10,000. By saving $100 per month it would take about 8 years to save $10,000. But even saving $200 per month it would take more than 4 years. And four years is a long time to have Mammon’s lie about insecurity ringing in our ears. What if we built an emergency fund in community, rather than in isolation? Here’s an idea. It’s a just something to think about.
Small Group Shared Emergency Savings
Imagine 5 CMC households who need to establish an Emergency Savings Fund. Setting out individually to save $10,000 for an emergency fund may take 5 years or more depending on what happens along the way. But what if these households worked together, each contributing $2000 annually for emergency savings for 3 years.
[SLIDE #5] In year one the fund would already have $10,000 available for an emergency. In 3 years the small group of five families would have an emergency cushion of $30,000. With this much in reserve and sharing some of the risks, these same households could prioritize debt reduction, and generous giving, while still having an emergency fund. It would be complicated because we would have to decide together what constitutes an emergency and how to replenish the funds when they are drawn down. But wouldn’t the process of making those decisions require us to invest in people and relationships the way Jesus and his first disciples did?
Here’s another idea from CMCers who are committed to both giving and saving: Recently, we had overnight guests, friends from college days who share our giving values. We were struck by advice they give to their children and students: “Live at 80 percent of your income. Give 10% away and save 10%. Start when you are young, and you’ll never be poor. When you have saved all that you need for yourself, increase the percentage of giving every year.”
[SLIDE #6] The folks who shared this were quick to say that race and class privilege affects these kinds of equations. And even being born into certain privileges and being good stewards, still can’t prevent financial crisis or provide ultimate security. But we’re trying to fend off Mammon’s lies by listening to Jesus and to elders who are living generously, so we can make wise choices about our faith and finances where we can.
I’ve had more thoughtful comments from CMCers about this worship series than any other I’ve been a part of. We still have a couple of weeks focused on Living Generously, but there is no way we will address all the important nuanced financial and faith issues that are the stuff of our lives. So, to correct what I said earlier and to leave us with a few words from scripture I want to say this: In Matthew 6 Jesus doesn’t address money three times. In the middle of the chapter, in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer Jesus brings up the most complex and problematic economic reality of his day--debt. Forgive us our debt and we forgive our debtors. Perhaps if we talk with God about the complex and distressing financial matters in our world, then maybe we can talk with each other and begin to practice what Jesus taught and lived. It may seem foolish or risky to test Jesus’ Kingdom Economics while living in a 21st US economy. But there’s one more word in chapter 6 ends: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or wear. Look at the birds...aren’t you even more valuable? Consider the flowers… Perhaps Jesus in his teaching and example of simplicity was again protecting from Mammon’s lies, soothing our anxiety like a good mother, and assuring us that seeking first the kingdom will be abundance that defies economic measures. Our Mothering God has said: You are a holy people. I chose you. You belong to me. You are my treasured possession.
May 9, 2017 by cmc_admin
Click here for transcript
Our scripture this morning is a story of God meeting the needs of a family saddled with debt. It’s a creative--OK, it’s a miraculous--solution. The single-parent has one jar of oil and this oil fills a bowl, a pitcher, a cup, a vase and every vessel that the children could find until there were no more containers to hold it. There was more than enough. There was enough oil to sell to pay off debt. Enough to meet the daily needs of the whole family.
This Bible story is a miracle of grace for one family. It is also a very personal picture of debt relief. Now Israel’s legal tradition required a radical practice of debt relief for the whole society. Leviticus 25 describes an economic levelling--a jubilee every 49 years--when debts were to be forgiven and everyone in Israel would get a fresh start, a fair shake, a second chance. But I’ve preached sermons on Leviticus 25 and it usually makes no difference in our daily economic lives. So let’s get personal about this theme of debt relief.
Living generously requires some intentionality, so last week we heard about tithing, giving ten percent, acknowledging that 100% of what we save, spend and give belongs to God. Living generously calls for intentionality, but it also requires some freedom. Some people in our community here at CMC save, give and spend each month with a degree of freedom because we are not burdened by overwhelming debt. Others of us feel the pressures of debt acutely. Some of us experience shame, stress, fear, even a sense of bondage because of debt--from expensive education, uninsured medical expenses, bad loans, our own bad behavior of sometimes living beyond our means.
Kent and I were both in graduate school when we planned to get married. I had about $14,000 in educational debt, and he had about $2000. We paid off his debt with the money we received in lieu of of wedding gifts and our own earnings. Then we finished our degrees without accumulating more debt--it meant a slower pace--and when we finished school we paid off the remaining debt within three years of graduation because I had a salary from a Mennonite congregation and Kent was running a Community Supported Agriculture business.
Our young adult experience of debt, however, is quite different from that of the next generation. The biggest difference is that tuition for higher education is proportionately much higher and earning power for graduates is proportionately lower in 2017 than in 1997. Three years ago the average outstanding student loan balance was over $37,000. Today Kent and I still have debt because we’re buying a house. Our remaining principle stands at $129,000. That’s a lot of money, but this debt does not feel burdensome because our monthly payments are manageable on our income. We can save, spend and give each month with some freedom. Maybe you’re situation is something like ours--debt hasn’t been a major problem and you’ve always had enough employment. But maybe through circumstances largely beyond your control or even decision you now regret, debt is a heavy burden.
The family in II Kings was in debt and the creditors were threatening to enslave the children. Or perhaps, and this is horrifying, perhaps the mother herself had contemplated selling a child into servitude in order to save a remnant of the family. What kind of disease must exist in a society that trades in human beings in order to balance a financial leger, or make profit? Well, the disease is the greed of creditors and the indifference of the community. The disease is debt slavery and God’s Jubilee law was supposed to set people free from that kind of bondage. Who knows maybe they weren’t practicing Jubilee. Maybe it was not scheduled for another 20 years. We don’t know. But we know this mother was crying. According to scripture she is not crying herself to sleep, though perhaps she had already done that. She is not crying out to God, though what parent does not pray facing these kinds of choices that are no choices. She is crying out to Elisha, bringing her need to God’s prophet. She insists Elisha has a role to play in resolving her financial distress.
I believe we have this particular miracle literally on the books because it links Elisha’s prophetic ministry to economic justice for poor women and children. It’s not that there are no poor men in Israel. It’s not that wealthy people in society didn’t need prophetic attention, but prophets who serve the elite are a dime a dozen. Elisha’s street cred as a prophet is that he cared about the poor. Just like Elijah before provided a miracle of enough food for a widowed mother in Zarephath and the grain and oil did not run out, so the Bible tells a similar story about Elisha meeting the need of a poor mother and her kids. Elijah and Elisha were the northern prophets, the prophets that centuries later Jesus and his Galilean neighbors would have regarded as their heroes of faith, living in their territory, caring about the needs of the poor--the widows, the children, the poor people who needed their debts forgiven.
Bridge of Hope
Last week I heard Stephanie Resto speak. She’s staff of Bridge of Hope, a ministry with a housing first model for single mothers and their children. CMC supports Bridge of Hope financially and with a neighboring group for one family. We support Bridge of Hope because we care, because we are part of the Biblical prophetic tradition that stands with people who are struggling. We can’t work miracles, but miracles happen when people of God respond to the individual needs and the systemic injustices of our community with the resources we have--resources of friendship, faith, good counsel, spiritual, emotional and financial support. Although Bridge of Hope is a Christian ministry and each neighboring group that surrounds a particular family comes from a local church, Bridge of Hope clients are not necessarily from our local congregations. There doing the Elijah ministry. He went out of his way to help a woman in Zarephath--an outsider.
Now the Elisha ministry was a little different. The single-mother who approaches Elisha for help is from his community. The Bible says her husband was with the company of prophets. Why is her family so burdened by debt? We don’t know for sure. Payday loans? Student loans? Credit card debt? She says to Elisha--your servant, my husband is dead and you know that your servant honored YHWH. So her husband served God among the company of prophets. There is a plausible Biblical “back story” here. We read a snippet from I Kings about a temple prophet, Obadiah, who provided bread and water, for 100 prophets of God who were being hunted and killed off by Queen Jezebel. Perhaps this Obadiah was the very husband and father who used his family’s resources to help others. Obadiah served God by saving other prophets, giving them shelter--OK it was a couple of caves--and providing for their needs--OK, it was just bread and water. But he risked a violent death at the hands of Jezebel to provide for 100 people. That affects a household economy, especially on those prophet wages. Obadiah gave sacrificially, placing the needs of others before his own. His generosity reminds us of Israel’s God--who also provided bread and water in the wilderness to people who had narrowly escaped death. We don’t know the specifics of why the widow in II Kings is in debt up to her ears, maybe her husband gave until it hurt and when he died there was nothing to fall back on. In any case, God’s response to her was grace.
Last month I invited some CMCers to share stories of generosity they had received or given. Esther Stenson responded with a poem.
I am not generous
Like Nin᷉a Olivia, who never turned this lonely foreigner away from her table
Without a bowl of black beans and fresh tortillas she taught me
to slap out and place on her enormous black comal to sell for pennies
to neighbors so she could feed some of her own tribe of adult children with their children
--a never-ending stream of comers and goers, dogs, chickens, and other animals
stepping over the wooden threshold into a dimly lit sod floor room where her aged husband
needed waiting on as well.
I am not generous
like Berta Sandoval, young and courageous evangelist
To superstitious villagers who tried to stone her
one day, she said, as we walked along a remote wooded path
till she told me to stop lest we meet one of those “stoners”
--and for my simple interest in her stories, she walked miles one
day in wilting heat to deliver one of her own prized chickens to my door in town.
I am not generous
like the seminary student in Nanjing who invited this lost foreigner
on a cold night for a steaming bowl of noodles with quail eggs,
the next day providing a bicycle and yellow poncho to ride to church
with me in the rain, then invited me to have birthday dinner with her
and her husband till I got connected with others in my group.
I am not generous
like Amalia Fares, the first woman doctor in Port Said,
who on her return from her father’s funeral in Canada
brought me a lovely bunch of my favorite green asparagus,
not available in local markets.
“When you return from a foreign country,“ she said,
"you should bring gifts, even if it’s a stone.”
Even when I try to be generous by keeping
a young Bosnian, survivor of a wrenching war,
she nearly evokes tears with her heartfelt gratitude
expressed in well-chosen words and in constant
acts of helpfulness—like chopping vegetables,
washing up after this messy cook and
cleaning wherever and whenever she sees need.
I cannot ever return all these human acts of generosity,
Much less the generosity of forgiveness that I must ask
my heavenly Father for, from time to time.
For all of this, I can only bow my heart in humble thanks.
Ancient Israel responded to God’s generous and faithful care with thanksgiving marked by offerings, tithes, and sacrificial gifts to devoted to God, shared among the community, and distributed to those with need, especially widows, orphans, immigrants and Levites. Israel’s law also had that re-set button, called Jubilee, intended to free people and given them a chance for a sustainable future of living generously, rather than being enslaved by perpetual debt. We don’t know how much they practiced this grace, but Jesus said it was time.
CMC Jubilee Debt Relief
Council has decided that it’s time for CMC to experiment with Jubilee debt relief. There is an imbalance in the community when some are burdened by debt and others are not. So we’re following the spirit of the Jubilee law. We’re following the example of Obadiah’s generosity. We’re following the example of the woman who shared her need. And we’re believing Jesus that forgiveness of debts is a sign of the kingdom of God among us. Both Columbus Mennonite Church in Ohio and Shalom Mennonite Congregation here in Harrisonburg have provided some measure of debt relief in their congregations--among their own people. And we’re planning to do the same.
After a Sunday morning sermon introducing the idea and a carefully conducted confidential process Columbus Mennonite raised $23,035, plus some matching funds, for a total of $25,085 for debt relief among its congregation. After the collection, Columbus Mennonite divided the gifts equally among 28 individuals who expressed a need for debt relief. Each received $903.03. Now Shalom Mennonite hoped to raise maybe $10,000. But they stretched the giving period over a couple of months and raised over $14,000.00 distributing it equally to 10 households. What could CMC do?
Council had a significant conversation about this plan. We know that sometimes debt accrues because of poor choices. Certainly some needs among us are greater than others. This is a matter for personal reflection and prayer. Ask yourself--am I someone burdened by debt? Maybe you have a plan for paying off debt that does not feel burdensome. That’s the way I feel about our mortgage. We owe $129,000. We can make our monthly payments. But maybe your mortgage situation is different. Pastor Brian of Shalom received a thank you from someone who saved exponentially more on their mortgage interest because they were able to refinance with this little bump, this little miracle of grace. In one congregation a senior citizen was elated to be paying off one burdensome loan in order to be able to refinance another and save exponentially more money in interest. Pastor Joel from Columbus shared that he and his wife Abbie paid off their last student loans a couple years before their congregation did this, so they went back to look at those bills. One of the payments was $60 per month and one was $90, so they decided to give one month--$150 to their Jubilee fund.
I wonder what would happen if some of us who feel able to offer a gift of jubilee grace would make that contribution. Maybe the brother or sister beside us would would not cry themselves to sleep. Maybe those able to give could become part of God’s work of grace is another’s life.
So take one of the slips of paper under the chair on the center aisle. Let’s not ask for help or promise to give today. Let’s think about it and pray about. Now that you have your paper, write your name and write debt or write jubilee. You’re probably in one of those categories and this will be a reminder to pray about your situation and whether you want to participate in the CMC Jubilee Debt Relief by receiving or giving. Bring your card up with the offering.
Maybe for some who write Jubilee as you think and pray you want to give to Bridge of Hope, or pay down some of our collective debt by contributing to CMC’s Everyone Welcome fund. We still have to pay down our loan. Trust God with this decision. If as you think and pray you are ready to receive from CMC, give your name and address to Heidi Derstine, Larry Miller or Dave Cockley. Nobody can speak for you, so you might have to ask God for the courage of that woman who went to Elisha. Heidi, Larry and Dave will keep it confidential. Let’s trust each other. We’d like to receive gifts for CMC Jubilee Debt Relief during May and June, so that we can send checks in early July. The intention of the CMC Jubilee Debt relief is to share one another’s burdens, to build trust, and to free one another for living generously. Preaching the kingdom of God Jesus told stories of debt relief. Jesus is alive today. I wonder what stories the Lord might tell through our congregation about debts, generosity and jubilee. Let’s trust that there will be enough to be a sign of the kingdom.
May 2, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by guest preacher Teresa Boshart Yoder.
Click here for a transcript
Good and loving God, source of every grace and blessing,
We bring you thanks as we gather today for the many gifts you have given us.
We seek to be good stewards, Lord!
Bless us as we gather here to share your gifts.
Send us Your Spirit and be present among us — in the mouth of all who speak, in the ears of all who listen
at the heart of all we say and do.
The freewill offering model introduced: Exodus 35:1 - 36:7
The first recorded fundraising effort was a huge success. It was to raise money to build the tabernacle. It’s a great model of what can happen when God’s people come together for a common cause. If you have time, read the full story from Exodus 35:1-36:7.
Exodus 36:5b - 7, a fundraiser’s dream
God ordained giving before there were even needs that could be met with money or possessions. Mixed messages abound on the topic of giving and tithing, leaving you in the pews confused and discouraged, unfortunately this can lead to disinterest or giving up.
Jeff Anderson relates in his book “Plastic Donuts” that we use the idea of “acceptable gift” rather than tithe. In the Bible, acceptable gift means “pleasing’”. He argues the ten percent standard was never a biblical standard, but it can be a helpful tool and lead to meaningful spiritual experiences. Jeff found when he did a deep dive into biblical texts about gift occurrence (like when the widow dropped her two coins into the temple treasury, or Moses gave instructions for the animal burnt offering), he counted roughly 2,000 mentions from Genesis to Revelations.
People often need some vision for giving systematically, and the tithe provides a clear, measurable benchmark for action. But the tithe can unintentionally set a standard in motion and when applied in the Christian faith, legalism creeps in, tithing becomes about rules and regulations. This may lead to guilt and shame for those under this standard, and pride and complacency for those at, or above, this percentage.
God gives us freedom of choice to determine our gifts. But since giving to God is not a small matter, the amount we give matters to God. God measures our gifts based on our unique abilities and respective heart condition. I believe God views our gifts more broadly than a one-size-fits-all standard like the ten percent tithe.
It doesn’t take much awareness to realize that our society is obsessed with money and financial gain. Up-to-date stock quotes are available over the internet. Bookstores are filled with books on how to make money and numerous entire magazines are devoted to the same goal. That doesn’t even address all the ads….and ads….. And ads urging us to spend money as fast as we can make it or even faster if you use your credit card. Not surprisingly, savings in America is at a low while debt is soaring (especially credit card debt).
The church isn’t immune to this. Often, our Anabaptist heritage makes money a taboo subject—especially in a church setting. For many of us, money and the church are completely separate subjects and never the twain shall meet. But, while we are reluctant to talk about money, the bible isn’t. Stewardship themes on money and possessions are addressed more frequently than any other subject in scripture, with the exception of the “Kingdom of God”.
Now-- I am a nurse and worked for 35 years as Director of Women’s Health divisions for health systems. I have had to tell women they have breast cancer and walk with them on their treatment journey. I have had to perform CPR on newborn infants and work with parents whose children were getting bone marrow transplants because it was their last hope for life with their cancer. I joined Everence; a faith based financial institution just about 2 years ago, calling it my second career moving toward retirement. When they told me I would be expected to preach sometimes and the topic would be mostly stewardship, including money, I wasn’t sure I could do it. Think about that… maybe that is why Jesus felt it was so important to talk about money and stewardship…. None of the rest of us wants to.
The world of religious giving is experiencing a seismic shift. The world of religious giving in which many of us grew up is not the world of giving today. Since 1970, giving to religion has not been keeping pace with inflation. There is some good news though; studies show that people who attend church, mosque or synagogue weekly are 2-4 times more generous in their giving than non-church goers. But the religious marketplace is changing; it has been altered by many new providers of religious goods and services that compete for those usually provided by traditional denominations. Non-profit charitable organizations registered with internal revenue went from 865,000 in 2001 to over 1.2 million in 2010, an increase of almost 50%. A lot more organizations and groups are asking for our dollars and getting them, the congregational church is often not asking. Another interesting statistic is that 10% of church members provide over 65% of those churches dollars. At least one out of 5 American Christians (that is 20%) gives literally nothing to the church, religious organizations or other charities.
Giving patterns and practices evolve from one generation to another. Clif Christopher in his book, Not Your Parents’ Offering Plate, discusses relevant information for those involved in congregational leadership who are looking to keep the vision for giving alive. Some of his ideas are edgy. But as he describes early on in his book, society, the church and the offering plate of the Church of the 21st century has seen dramatic changes. As a result of these changes how the church addressed generosity and stewardship issues 50 years ago may not work today. We see a diminished loyalty to the local church as well as an increased sophistication in fund raising efforts by para-church and civic organizations which, like it or not, are competing for your hearts and dollars. Christopher challenges us to reflect on what we have been doing and asks ourselves if we think it will keep us financially solvent in maintaining current ministry needs and as we add new initiatives for future outreach.
One of his challenges to us is we have become too complacent in general about the expectations for our members. He feels leadership needs to be more assertive with challenging church members towards greater stewardship faithfulness in the ways we earn, save, spend and share with our financial resources. Christopher notes that the churches that are growing today are those who have raised the expectations about giving and regular church attendance. Congregations that shy away from these subjects tend not to attract seekers looking to grow and be challenged spiritually. I admit when I read this part of the book I got a little squirmy. How would I feel to hear this from my pastor over the podium.
I read an article about a young youth pastor who was serving a large congregation in an exclusive community. The senior pastor was concerned that the congregation’s giving was below expectations. As a thank you he hosted a meal for the top contributing families. (Nonprofit and charitable organizations do this all the time, did some of you react when I mentioned the church did this?) The youth pastor was stunned that he received an invitation, he was a top giver! It dawned on him that the fancy cars that his teenagers and their parents drove might well be purchases on credit, they may have high incomes but also had high expenses. This helped him focus conversations with the youth and their families about articulating one’s purpose and defining priorities, two keys to a generous mindset.
Can the church compete with the clamorous claims of contemporary culture? Are we equipping disciples to live each moment with an awareness of God’s abundance and to respond generously? How are we transmitting Jesus’ great love command and our call to live out these words to the best of our ability by grace and through the gift of the Holy Spirit? In what ways are we encouraging families with children to foster gratitude and thankfulness that will counter the individualistic messages of consumer culture?
Scientific proof now exists that human beings are hard-wired to be generous. It’s part of our very core of being. Researchers in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology are finding compelling evidence that children — infants even — are predisposed towards altruism and kindness. Our Creator God has lovingly equipped us to be faithful stewards, to care for one another and for creation, but this happens in real life, not in an uncomfortable effort that’s tied ball-and-chain to a budget. People want to make a difference, and we are willing to be generous when given the right opportunities and reasons for doing so.
In a book by Henri Nouwen: The Spirituality of Fundraising. Nouwen says that if you are really passionate about something — about a cause, about Jesus, about your faith community — then inviting others to give money to it is a gift to them. This simple thought can move us from a mentality of scarcity to a mentality of abundance. I have been reading a devotional “Why Give” by John DeVries. In it he notes; Scrooge, that old miser in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, was a miserable old man until he learned how to give. By the end of the story, he is dancing and giggling through the village, having discovered the joy of giving. My prayer is for you to find something very like that joy.
I want to share a story by a member here at CMC:
CMC Member story:
Even though my childhood family was very poor, I grew up with a strong sense of tithing and stewardship. I was taught by my parents, by both words and deeds, that giving back to God is foundational in our Christian belief and commitment. My memories from childhood are that when we had income, from sale of a crop, for example, the first thing we did was to set aside a tithe to give to our church. No matter what our financial circumstances might be at the time, setting aside to give came before necessities such as groceries or clothes, paying any debts we might have, etc. I remember when I got an allowance of ten cents a month. My dad would give me a nickel and five pennies so I would have a penny to put in the offering plate at church.
The summer after my high school senior year I worked hard to earn money for my freshman year at EMU and, true to my teaching, I tithed my earnings. When I left for EMU in the fall, I had not yet given all the tithe money I had set aside. I brought it back to EMU with me, probably between $50 and $100, in a jar. During the fall semester, as financial “needs” arose, I dipped into my tithe fund. I’m sure I thought of it as borrowing and I would pay it back when I could. But when the school year ended I still had not paid it back, a matter which caused me considerable guilt.
The next four years brought marriage and the birth of two children, all the while continuing my education. While I/we continued to tithe during those years, it seemed there was not enough money to give beyond a tithe to pay back the tithe money I had “borrowed.” Eventually, though, we were able to give above the tithe. Since that time I have repaid that “loan” thousands of times over. We are grateful to be able to give over and above a tithe. And when we do, I frequently think that I am still repaying what I “borrowed” during my freshman year in college.
Cultivating a mindset of generosity should impact all aspects of the congregation's work. A mindset of generosity encourages seeing everyone—members, staff, pastor, friends—as people with all kinds of gifts to share. Money is only part of the equation, but a necessary part. Where are the signs of generosity in our congregation now? How can you participate, encourage and lift up those signs and missions? What else can you do to reframe current practices so that they reflect a more generous spirit?
As Jennifer shared last week:
First fruits giving means that we begin with the end in mind; we prioritize giving over accumulating; we place the needs of others before our own; we acknowledge that resources may be currently in our grasp and directed by us, but they belong to God. Our whole lives belong to God--who is our beginning and our end.
The tithe is a very controversial matter today and you will hear conflicting views. I personally don’t see value in time spent debating the tithe, but would seek to gain unity in generosity and heart giving or giving of your own free will. I think we would want to share materially to where we are fed spiritually. I think we should commit to giving faithfully and you need to think about what feels joyful to you for giving to the church. I think we need as a church, as parents and family, to teach on giving. Actually tithing can sometimes be supported as a “tenth belongs to God”. I challenge us that all things belong to God, are given to us as stewards of all Gods gifts and possessions.
I leave you with the verse from I Peter 4:10—like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.
God looks for, and delights in, our freewill offerings. Free will means what it says. It does not mean something that has been manipulated or demanded from us, or given because guilt or condemnation has been placed upon us.
So again, I wish for all of you like Scrooge that old miser in A Christmas Carol be dancing and giggling through Harrisonburg, having discovered the joy of giving.
April 24, 2017 by cmc_admin
Click here for a transcript
Giving our Lives to God
What if our first priority were giving our lives to God? What if our first priority was giving ourselves so that we could be given for the life of the world, just as Jesus was given for the life of the world? What if before we got a job we liked, or saved for retirement, or bought a house, or took a trip, or started a family, or got a degree, or even went on a hike or read a good book we were first and foremost giving our lives to God? Now a life given to God might well include all these things, but with our priority first and foremost on giving our lives to God, we will make better decisions about all these other matters. And according to our faith when a human life is given to God, not even suffering and death can destroy it. We are people promised resurrection, so we can afford to give our lives without fear, to give joyously and generously.
In the ancient world this idea of giving our lives to God is the basis for offerings--sacrifices of animals, grain and flour, poured out wine, salt, spices, and eventually gold and silver. Friends, most religious traditions see offerings as a means to manipulate the divine--give the gods what they want, so we get what we want. It’s transactional. And it’s magic--manipulated by priests or shamans or religious functionaries who benefit from this magic. There are even people who seem to be Christian, who essentially manipulate our human need to give and to relate to God to line their own pockets. But the Biblical tradition of giving is better! Biblical people give offerings regularly as a sign of giving our whole lives to God. Especially with animal sacrifices ancient people made a big deal about the blood, because the blood of one’s animal was a sign of a person’s own lifeblood, life strength, one’s whole life given to God.
Now, Biblical people also changed their practices with regard to offerings over time. With the advent of money economies we began to give coins, as a symbol of giving our lives to God. Money is a great symbol, because we tend to cling to money for security rather than God. There are many distinct Biblical Giving Models. Today we’re focused on the idea of first fruits giving. The Hebrew and Christian idea of giving first fruits, goes all the way back to Genesis, all the way back to that first pair of brothers: Cain and Abel. Cain gave the first fruits from the ground--what he had grown as a farmer. Abel gave the firstlings of his flock of sheep--what he had raised as a herder. Later in Genesis Abraham regularly gives offerings to God as signs that his household is committed to God’s future. Abraham gives his life to God even though it means a long journey through the desert. Abraham gives even though it means he and Sarah wait so very long for a child. First fruits giving means that we begin with the end in mind; we prioritize giving over accumulating; we place the needs of others before our own; we acknowledge that resources may be currently in our grasp and directed by us, but they belong to God. Our whole lives belong to God--who is our beginning and our end.
Abraham and Melchizedek
In the passage from Genesis that we heard this morning Abraham and Melchizedek meet. These two figures represent two ancient faith traditions. Melchizedek is both a king and priest of Salem, a city later known as Jerusalem. Melchizedek worships El Elyon and Abraham worships YHWH. Melchizedek gives bread and wine in a ritual to bless Abraham who just rescued his nephew Lot from death. And Abraham gives a tenth of his wealth as a sign of unity with Melchizedek. This mutual gift exchange works on a number of levels at the same time. The giving of gifts celebrates the rescue of Lot, who was held captive. This act of giving by both Melchizedek and Abraham is also an act of unifying worship--and El Elyon (the Canaanite name for God most High) becomes a name that Abraham will also use for God along with YHWH. This two-way gift exchange is also a way of making peace after a series of battles. The place where this gift exchange happens was later known by Biblical people as the Promised Land--God’s gift. So these gifts of bread, wine and wealth celebrate a rescue--saving Lot from death; they are an act of intercultural worship of one God; and these gifts make peace. That’s how people with a promise live--giving without fear, joyously and generously.
First Fruit Ritual
Now...Leviticus. The Jews were so committed to giving offerings to God that they they did not want to leave it to chance or everybody just remembering Abraham’s example. When it came to giving offerings, the Jews codified it, ritualized it, made a habit of it and made it fun! OK, I admit Leviticus is only fun for a few of us. But think about directions for a party. Plugging directions into your GPS and listening to that voice is not fun. But the directions are not the celebration. Israel’s law in Leviticus or direction for giving first fruits leads to joy and celebration. They designated the first day after the Passover sabbath as a first fruits offering.
The first fruits offering celebrates that the Hebrew captives were rescued from death, and led out of Egypt by God’s hand. Anybody catch that little calendar coincidence? Jesus died during the Passover week and on the sabbath he was in the tomb, but on the first day after the Passover Sabbath the captive was set free, the dead Messiah was raised, and we began to celebrate resurrection life--like a first fruits offering party. Yes, giving our whole lives to God-- first things first--leads to joy and new life. Jesus showed us that when a human life is given to God, not even suffering and death can destroy it. We are people promised resurrection. The first fruits installment of God’s gift to us has already been delivered. The Lord is risen, so we can afford to give our lives without fear, to give joyously and generously.
One more scripture. We heard this little snippet of wisdom from James. James sees not only Jesus’ resurrection as first fruits, but the church as a kind of first fruits of all people and all creatures. Because we who have the promise of resurrection life can be fully dedicated to God without fear. James says we were born to give, to be generous, it’s part of God’s design. Every generous act of giving with every perfect gift, is from above. Unlike the Old Testament tradition, we are not legalistic about financial giving. However, the practice of giving a tenth, the ritual of giving regularly during worship, the recognition that everything belongs to God, and the intentionality of giving first fruits are valuable wisdom for today. We’re not legalistic, but without intentional practices and patterns of generosity, we’ll end up pursuing our culture’s acquisitive, self-serving affluenza. We will never have enough for ourselves and never enough to give.
Here’s a current story about generosity that I think exemplifies this idea of first fruits. It comes from a couple in their 20s: David Jost who grew up in this congregation and his wife Sophie Lapp. Here’s how David tells the story. The Scholarship for Anabaptist Servants is a way to affirm and equip young people who choose to engage in both Mennonite service and Mennonite education. Recognizing that young people who do both are highly likely to connect closely to the church (both with congregations and with friends and mentors in the church) and that it's ever more expensive and difficult in our resource-strapped, career-driven world for young adults to make these choices, the fund offers $2,000 one-time scholarships to alumni of Mennonite service programs who attend Mennonite schools, undergraduate or graduate. This is a small boost for undergraduate students. It is a larger one for seminarians, many of whom are MVS alumni, and we hope some of the applicants will be seminary students. We know MVSers on average have $32,000 of college debt today, and we want to support alumni who, like Sophie, choose seminary. We view the scholarship mainly as a way to help young people who are making wonderful choices and embracing the church in life. Of course we hope to advocate for both service and Mennonite education (and we partly structured this as a scholarship rather than as debt relief to encourage these choices), but we know very few people choose one school over another or choose to serve because of $2,000. Our hope, though, is that we'll attract other donors and potentially endow and expand the fund in coming years.
Sophie and I have been extraordinarily blessed when it comes to money. Our parents' employers and help from parents and grandparents made college virtually free for us, and during and since our college studies, we've had jobs that have been highly rewarding, both in providing meaningful work and in generous paychecks. We've always loved to give back, and we both feel called to redistribute our abundance. Creating this scholarship (which my parents have generously matched us for) will eat up quite a bit of our assets, but we're also aware that from those to whom much has been given, much shall be required, and we've been given so very, very much! The church makes us so proud, and young people who face a dizzying array of paths to choose in life and who choose the church, broken as it is, mean so much to us. We don't want fancy cars or expensive vacations or extravagant houses. We want just communities, strong education and service networks, and a faithful church, following Christ. We hope that we'll find others will join us in making the scholarship larger, available to more young Anabaptist servants, and more permanent.
Generosity Trends at CMC
I hope there are CMCers who benefit from this scholarship fund and contribute to it, but mostly I hope that we grow in generosity as a congregation to whom much has been given. David gave me permission to share this story, but then he wrote and said he was going to be in worship on April 30th, so maybe I shouldn’t use it until after then, in case he would be embarrassed. But I asked him if he could get over it, so I could tell you today. So, let’s not embarrass them when they are in town next week. Or, if you do talk with David about the Scholarship for Anabaptist Servants, you have to contribute.
Let me show you a few slides that we’ve developed about CMC’s giving practices.
[SLIDE 1] If you look at the little light blue slice and then go clockwise adding the red and the lavender you’ll see that last year 37% of our congregation gave $2500 or more as an offering to God toward the CMC budget and the Everyone Welcome campaign. Now some of those folks gave $3600 and some gave $13,000. Some made large gifts to the Everyone Welcome--fulfilling pledges made in 2015. These folks probably have a habit of regular giving because most of us are not in a position to accidentally give that much money. I suspect that some in this range have a goal of tithing ten percent of their income--perhaps they’ve reached that goal, perhaps not. Perhaps some have even surpassed that goal. You can also see in this graph that if we add the dark blue and the yellow section, there are 35% of CMC households who gave between $1 and $500. According to national statistics Christian people give most often and most generously to their congregations. We also give to many other organizations--especially church-related, health-related and educational institutions--but we tend to prioritize our local congregations and their ministries and mission. So, even though this graph does not describe all our generosity in 2016, it is a good indication of how CMCers tend to give. James 1:17 says: Every generous act of giving is from above and that includes acts of service. As Christians all the gifts we offer are inspired by the God who gave us life, who forgives our sin, who sent us Jesus and raised him from death. If you contributed to the offerings at CMC last year, then perhaps you know where you are on this graph. If so, remember which color category you’re in.
[SLIDE 2] Here’s another graph where you can see that in 2016 the gifts given to God through our congregation totaled $676,379. Remember how the first slide showed the light blue, red and lavender sections were about 37% of the CMC households? Here we can see that this group is contributing 85% of the total. That may be due to income disparity among us. It may be a result of financial pressure because of debt or job loss. It may be that some of our households don’t have tools for organizing their financial generosity. It may be we have different levels of commitment to the life of CMC, or maybe we were just never aware of these trends. These two slides are history.
[SLIDE 3] This next slide is about 2017. CMC has vision as a congregation. We are a peace church where everyone is welcome. We are trying to launch a VS unit. We can summarize CMC’s ministry in these five categories: Worship, Faith Formation of Children & Youth, Community Outreach, Congregational Life, and Supporting the Broader Mennonite Church. This is a pretty simple picture. We’ve allocated different parts of our budget to these five main areas, because it’s easier for all of us to see what our collective gifts to God do through Community Mennonite Church.
CMC worships together in Jesus’ name as we sing, listen and pray on Sunday mornings. We’re preparing children and youth to follow the way of Christ in the world through Sunday School, Venture club, Jr MYF, MYF, mentors, educational grants and financial support for Mennonite higher ed. CMC is active in community outreach and responds to needs with compassionate service, material aid, peacemaking, justice and care for creation. We also support Patchwork Pantry, NewBridges, Our Community Place, Gemeinschaft, Bridge of Hope, Free Clinic, Faith in Action, Community Preschool, Skyline Literacy, Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Congregational Life is highly valued at CMC. This is a place to belong. We want each person to experience deepen relationships with one another and with God. Care Teams, hospitality, church retreat, small groups, CMC Seniors, special events, gifts discernment, vision development. CMC belongs to the broader Mennonite church through our Harrisonburg District, Virginia Mennonite Conference, and Mennonite Church USA. In addition we support other Anabaptist groups: VMMissions, MEA, Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite World Conference, MCC, Christian Peacemaker Teams, Mutual aid for pastors via the Corinthian Plan.
Living generously doesn’t happen by following our culture. Living generously is a result of giving our whole lives to God. We built this budget in order to follow Jesus as a congregation. If we’re giving our whole lives to God, it will be easy to surpass the financial plans we’ve made. At the end of the year we’ll be distributing surplus. As we grow in faith, we grow in generosity. We of all people can afford to live without fear, to give joyously and generously.
April 18, 2017 by cmc_admin
Click here for a transcript
We began our worship this morning by announcing the good news of the resurrection to each other. “Christ is risen!” we proclaimed, “Christ is risen, indeed!”
For many of us, that’s an affirmation of deep hope and joy. For others of us, it may bring to the surface doubts or misgivings about whether we truly belong in this community gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. But it’s unlikely that any of us, no matter our response, considered the possibility that we might risk arrest for claiming that Jesus Christi is risen from the dead. But those who first proclaimed this news were making a declaration so politically subversive that it was dangerous.
Easter is a season when Christians often reflect on and celebrate the inward, personal, life-transforming power of the resurrection in our lives. And the transformation and healing of our inner selves is a vital part of the redemption and salvation we receive in Christ. Many of the resurrection accounts in the Gospels attest to the intimate, life-changing encounters of the disciples with the risen Jesus.
John tells us about Jesus meeting the grief-wracked Mary in the burial garden, tenderly speaking her name, trusting that she will recognize his familiar voice. We hear about Jesus the good shepherd who seeks out his terrified and despairing little flock of disciples, feeding them with freshly grilled fish and comforting them with his presence. Luke tells about the resurrected Jesus who traveled with a couple of despairing disciples on the way from Jerusalem to their home in Emmaus, reigniting their hopeless hearts with the light of scripture and with his own illuminating presence at their table.
But, my friends, the power of resurrection life encompasses much more than individual, personal, and inward transformation. It is also profoundly political. On the day that God raised Jesus from the dead, all the legal and military forces of Rome had done their best to destroy him. The resurrection of Jesus was a direct confrontation of the political authorities of his day. In fact, one scholar has called the resurrection of Jesus “the first act of Christian civil disobedience.” And proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, as we did this morning, was a dangerous act of political subversion.
Last Sunday, we celebrated the triumphal entry, when Jesus was hailed as God’s anointed deliverer of his people. But in the week that stretched between the triumphal entry and Easter, Jesus’ conflict with his faith community and with the governmental authorities intensified exponentially. In the course of his last few days, Jesus faced a trumped up religious inquisition, a baseless legal trial, wrongful arrest, a brutal physical assault, emotional abuse and sexual humiliation, and finally, state-sanctioned torture and execution. And this, if we read Matthew’s accounting, was not just personal suffering – it was politically motivated.
In ancient Rome, crucifixion was used as a way to publically demonstrate the dire consequences of challenging the ruling authorities. The threat of torture and execution allowed Rome to keep the “pax Romana” – the Roman peace – in the outlying provinces using only a small occupying force. Like tyrants in every time and place, the Romans had built their power on the ultimate human weapon – death.
And the possibility of resurrection – even the potential for false rumors of resurrection – was so threatening to those whose power rested on the threat of death that, following Jesus’ burial, the Roman governor authorized a guard of soldiers to secure Jesus’ tomb, and, for good measure they sealed it so that any tampering would be evident.
Early the next morning, Matthew tells us, the two Marys go to keep watch at his tomb. To their utter surprise, they are greeted by a jarring earthquake and a blindingly bright messenger from God. While the guards cower in fear, this angel – who blazes like lightening - rolls away the enormous stone sealing the tomb, and perches on it as if it were an impromptu throne. The guards – who had been sent to keep watch over a dead man (surely they thought this would be the easiest job ever) – become like dead men themselves, frozen in their fear.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel tells women. “He is not here, he has been raised.” Following the angel’s instructions, the women hurry to tell the other disciples, and on the way to preach this good news, they meet their risen Lord himself, and fall at his feet in love and worship.
It’s striking that in this narrative, like all the other gospel accounts, no one actually sees the resurrection. We who follow the resurrected Christ have the testimony of witnesses to the empty tomb and to the risen Christ, but we have no indisputable proof, and no record of how just this inexplicable reality came to be. We have a living church that testifies to the presence of the risen Christ, but no explanation, short of the miraculous, of how Jesus’ mangled body was brought back to life. And even so, it’s a terribly threatening story for rulers who depend on fear for their power. Even so, it’s given birth to communities of resistance around the world, who declare with their lives that they trust in a power that is stronger than death.
The most fearless person I ever met is a Burundian woman named Maggy Barankitse. Maggy was a young woman living in the tiny village of Ruyigi in 1993 when ethnic-based violence broke out across her country.
Maggy, who was born into the same privileged group as the attackers– could have simply walked away unscathed. But she stayed with her friends and her adopted children, many of whom were members of the ethnic group that was being targeted, doing everything she could to save their lives. Maggy managed to bribe the attackers to allow 25 children to live, but 72 people died that day in the Catholic bishop’s residence where they had sought refuge. As punishment for refusing to help her attackers, Maggy was stripped naked, tied to a chair, and forced to watch the massacre. She was the sole adult to survive.
Afterwards, Maggy spent days burying those who had died. And then she began to seek a way to rebuild her life and her community. She welcomed the children orphaned in the attack into her home as her sons and daughters. Then she began to take in more orphaned children – children of every ethnic group. Her dream, she says, is to see a new generation in which children of different ethnic groups grow up as brothers and sisters.
By the time I met her in in 2010, Maggy had taken in 10,000 children, placing them in inter-ethnic child-led households, and building schools, farms, businesses and a hospital so that her children could grow up with dignity and love. Maggy’s reasons for this work are deeply personal – after the massacre, she says, the children rebuilt her heart. They brought her healing, hope and joy.
But her work is also profoundly political. In a region still torn by ethnic-based violence, the creation of inter-ethnic families is seen as a direct affront to those in power. It’s a living testament to another political possibility. Maggy, whose deep faith in Christ fuels her work, lives as a woman who is entirely fearless. Those who attacked her friends and family that day intended that the she would leave terrified and silenced. Instead, she walked out of the bishop’s compound as a woman who had looked death squarely in the face, and then miraculously been handed back her life.
Maggy is unafraid of the armed groups that sometimes roam the countryside where she travels – she’s been known to invite them to give up fighting and come work for her – or of the politicians and military leaders in the capital who find her out-spoken truth-telling to be deeply threatening. She lives as woman who has died and whose life is hid with Christ in God. She lives as a woman whose life cannot be destroyed by any act of violence. She lives as a woman who has staked her life on the claim that Christ is risen indeed.
The church testifies that the resurrection is God’s declaration of a powerful new reign, founded on a radically different source of authority. Its power flows from the unquenchable self-giving love of the One who created our world and gave his own life for us, rather than from the threat of violence and death. The resurrected Jesus is God’s declaration, in the face of the most powerful and brutal empire of its day – and in the face of all oppressive rulers, systems and powers- that the way of love is stronger that the way of violence and death. The resurrected Christ is God’s embodied witness that the way of peace that Jesus taught and lived, despite all appearances to the contrary, has and is overcoming the way of violence and death.
The resurrection does not reverse or un-do the evil done by tyrants and the systems that empower them. The resurrection accounts tell us that Jesus bore the scars of the violence he had suffered, even in his resurrected body. But the resurrected Jesus gives us revolutionary new a way forward when we are faced with powerful people and systems that misuse their power and perpetuate violence. And the resurrection gives us a way to live differently ourselves when we are tempted to use our power or privilege in ways that are coercive or manipulative or self-serving.
And we, as people of the resurrection, are empowered by the Spirit of the resurrected Christ to live as people of love, empty handed and open-hearted, in a world that is armed to the teeth. The promise is not that we won’t suffer, or even die, as a result. The promise is that we have been joined with God in a life that cannot be taken from us. And so we are called to live as people who stake our lives on the resurrection power of God in Jesus – as people who follow the one who has overcome violence and death through the self-giving love of God.
A few weeks ago, we wrote our anxieties and fears on origami paper in worship. Before we folded those papers into the doves that decorate our space this morning, I prayerfully read what we wrote. Many of our anxieties are deeply personal – fears for our families, anxieties about work, about aging and illness, about decisions we must make. But many were also profoundly political – fears for the systematic destruction of the earth, fears of war, fears for neighbors and loved ones who are targets of discrimination, fears of the political legacy our children and grand-children are inheriting.
My friends, in the resurrection, God is responding to each and every one of our fears and anxieties- the personal and the political, the individual and the systemic, the inward and the outward.
Be not afraid, my friends. Christ is risen, Christ is risen, indeed. Come and see the living Christ.
April 10, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
April 4, 2017 by cmc_admin
Click here for a transcript
Crash Course in Lent
By now it’s the 5th Sunday in Lent. Some of our intentional disciplines to deepen and restore our relationship with God have faded. A month ago on Sunday we wrote down the appetites that were problems in our lives on slips of paper: food, news, fear, compulsions. On the reverse side we named practices that might redirect those appetites toward the kingdom of God--asking for help, physical and spiritual exercise, gratitude. As we came to receive the bread and cup, we discarded those slips of paper, in order to be fed and freed by Christ. I know some of us are experiencing the benefits of Christian practices and perseverance during Lent. And I know some of us are still feeling empty, tempted, or discouraged. If you’ve been keeping any Lenten disciplines, hang in there. This is good discipline. And Easter is in two weeks. Our scriptures today are a kind of crash course in Lent. In these stories, God speaks, so that we don’t lose our faith or lose our courage.
The Prophet Ezekiel
First, a little backstory on Ezekiel. He was training for the priesthood in Jerusalem, when he was exiled to Babylon with other Israelite elites. It was in Babylon--by the River Chebar--that God called him to be, not a priest, but a prophet. In his early career, from a place of relative distance and safety, Ezekiel warned his nation of impending doom, that Babylon’s power would eventually overwhelm the disobedient and rebellious Israel. On the very day that the Babylonians began to burn the city of Jerusalem, Ezekiel’s wife died and the prophet fell silent (ch. 24). When the siege finally ended, a messenger travelled from Israel to Babylon--this certainly took months--and told Ezekiel that Jerusalem was completely destroyed (ch. 33). At this point of total loss, Ezekiel regains his prophetic voice and begins to speak again. In his later career--like chapter 34 on--Ezekiel speaks more pastorally. It’s like he too is suffering with everyone who has suffered.
In chapter 37 God shows Ezekiel something horrible: a mass grave. On March 23rd the United Nations confirmed 10 mass graves in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Government and militia violence in Congo is claiming combatants, civilians, and peace workers. Earlier this week we learned that the bodies of UN workers MJ Sharp, Zaida Catalan, and translater Betu Tshintela were found. Isaac Kabuayi, and two additional drivers are still missing. We Mennonites followed the story because we are connected to MJ through our churches and schools, through our network of family and friends, through our support of Mennonite Central Committee that first funded MJ’s peace-building work in Congo, through our shared commitment to peacemaking and peacebuilding, and through the Spirit of our God, who unites us with departed saints as well as those beside us when we gather for worship.
Ezekiel chapters 34-37 address the need for new leaders, restoration of peace, repairing community, and building hope. Now, it’s ancient prophesy; it’s dated. There’s stuff about sheep. There’s stuff about kings. Ezekiel is concerned with the honor of God’s name, which isn’t often our immediate agenda. He speaks to mountains, which seems like a waste of time. But God’s message of hope after Jerusalem was burned to the ground was this:
I will seek the lost...I will bind up the injured…
I will strengthen the weak. (Ezek 34:16)
God’s message of restoration is repeated with this verse: I will make with you a covenant of peace. (Ezek 34:25 and 37:26) God promises to sprinkle Israel with clean water, give the exiled nation a new spirit, remove the heart of stone and give a heart of flesh.
Valley of Bones
And then the hand of the Lord came upon Ezekiel and the spirit set him down in a valley of dry bones. There he was looking at death. Now, it’s a vision, a mystical experience. The upshot for Ezekiel is that his own role as a prophet is changing from being a prophet or warning to being a prophet of future vision. It’s almost like God is saying: Do you get it? We’re moving from mass grave to massive hope. God and Ezekiel talk about this place of death. Is there a possible future? The prophet isn’t sure. God is sure. And God works with this one willing person, Ezekiel. God gives Ezekiel a fresh prophetic role and a message of hope for his people.
Dead Rat—Dead Cow
One of my friends who served with MCC in Zambia years ago blogged about her experience of finding a dead rat in her kitchen. Here was a woman fighting the good fight against rodents, disease carrying bugs and dangerous snakes so that her young family could stay reasonably safe and healthy during their 3 years teaching peace and building relationships in Zambia. On the morning of the dead rat in the kitchen, Cheryl was understandably distraught. But when she let out a gasp of horror, her young son rushed to the scene and began praying mightily that Jesus would raise the rat from the dead. And we laugh…
Kent and I were hiking in a wooded area of a farm with our niece--she was 5 at the time--when we stumbled upon a skeleton. The bones were bleached white; grass had grown through the gaps where muscle had once held them together. The bones belonged to a cow. Now maybe my niece isn’t as formed by the life and ministry of Jesus as the youngster in Zambia, but she didn’t pray for the cow. Old white bones just don’t seem very close to life. She was pretty quiet and wondered how that cow died.
The human bones Ezekiel saw were exposed, lying strewn over the valley floor like empty bottles in a ravine. From paleo-archaeological research at some of the earliest human settlements, we know that we are a species that does not just leave bodies of the deceased lying around. We human beings die like other animals, but unlike other creatures we ritualize the passage from life to death. We bury bodies; we cover them with flowers, and pigments. We lay them gently in the earth. Even in cremation, we ritualize the scattering of ashes, as if our return to dust is a last breath.
It’s disturbing that these bones in Ezekiel’s vision weren’t cared for in some ritualized way. A likely reason was that the visionary valley was a battle site. When the fighting ended the war moved to other ground and the bodies were left to decay. Verse 9 says: O Spirit, breathe upon these slain that they may live. The Hebrew word for “slain” refers to people who have been killed by ruthless violence, or in a wholesale slaughter in a war (BDB). Perhaps all those bones were the remains of forgotten fighters.
But from a forgotten battlefield, there’s an upside-down inside-out restoration as the tendons and then the flesh, muscles and skin cover these bones and finally the Spirit gives breath and the bones live. They stand up, a vast multitude, a defenseless army raised by the God of life, a vision of hope beyond the violence and destruction.
These bones are the whole house of Israel.
They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost;
We are cut off completely.
These bones are those who have given up hope for peace in the Congo. These bones are those who have marched and protested for human dignity in our country and find cynicism sapping their strength for witness. These bones are the dispirited laborers who teeter on the edge of poverty with no movement for justice to buoy their spirits. These bones are the fatigued parents whose hopes for their children have been supplanted by worry or fear about the future. These bones are our mixed immigration status neighbors who feel cut off completely by deportations.
Our New Testament scripture could not be more poignant for those among us grieving or facing the death and destruction in the world. One day Jesus, the flesh and bones and breath fulfillment of God’s life-giving work among the people of Israel, Jesus himself goes to the tomb of one person, his dear friend, Lazarus, who has died. And Jesus cries, just like the rest of us cry when death or violence or injustice have interrupted the love and life God intends for the world. And with an act of divine compassion Jesus calls--Lazarus, come out. And makes the dead to live again.
These two scriptures are a “crash course” in Lent because they preview the cross and resurrection whether we’re ready or not. Friends, even though God shows Ezekiel the valley of death, God does not leave him there to fend for himself. God also shows Ezekiel something beautiful, a transformation, something that is not possible without God. God restores Ezekiel’s hope. Yes, Ezekiel who was spared the siege of Jerusalem only through the circumstances of his privileged status, is supposed to speak as a prophet. Yes, those exiled will have a secure home. And yes, O yes, the Spirit of God will be with you, within you. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, YHWH, have spoken and will act! (Ezek 37:14).
Jesus says: I am the resurrection and the life and Martha says: yes, I believe you. For those of us who have trouble believing in Jesus as Savior of the world, or the Son of God, or the risen Lord, God’s word to us in scripture today is to simply believe Jesus. Like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, like the disciples. We too can believe Jesus. We can believe that God is love and that human beings can be agents of that love through our lives and even through our deaths. We can believe that God’s love for the whole world cannot be eclipsed by death, even the death of our brother, even violent death, even our own death, even death on a cross. We can believe that even if he’s late, Christ is coming to restore all things and bring life out of death to us all.
Beginning next Sunday, we enter Holy Week. I suppose it will be inconvenient to have “extra” worship services, but living with faith and courage might require some inconveniences. It is wise to listen to God’s word in the stories of Jesus’ entrance into the rebuilt Jerusalem on a donkey, and his last supper with his friends, and his being handed over for execution. We need this journey because just like Ezekiel had a role to play in God’s restoration of a nation and just like those bystanders were called upon to unbind Lazarus and let him go, we too are engaged in the life-giving work of love that God is doing in this world. Let’s not lose our faith or our courage. Let’s be ready to receive our assignment from the God of resurrection life.
May the God of hope
fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope
by the power of the Holy Spirit.
March 28, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Pastor Dayna Olson-Getty on John 9:1-41.
Click here for transcript
In 1964 a wealthy, well-educated, and successful young man named Jean Vanier bought a run-down old stone house in the tiny French village of Trosly – this house didn’t even have indoor plumbing - and he welcomed into this home two men with intellectual disabilities who had spent much of their lives in a psychiatric hospital. Jean was from a prominent family– his father was the Governor General of Canada - and he had left behind a promising career as a naval officer in order to seek a way to live the gospels more fully in his daily life. Jean began this radical experiment with the idea that he wanted to do something for those who were suffering. But as he lived together with Raphael and Philippe, he began to discover, to his surprise, that they were healing him. “Essentially, they wanted a friend.” Jean said. “They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.” And that kind of friendship, love and acceptance was precisely what Jean needed.
Through his friendship with Philippe and Raphale, Jean began to recognize that those of us who are independent and successful by the standards of our society are, as he puts it, “healed by the poor and the weak, that we are transformed by them if we enter into relationship with them, and that the weak and the vulnerable have a gift to give our world.”
Jean’s life together with Philippe and Raphael attracted others who were seeking a concrete way to live out their faith and the little household became a movement. Today there are 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries on 5 continents. In each of these communities, people with and without disabilities share daily life together, seeking to grow through authentic friendship and mutuality, and to bear witness to the value of each human life. The guiding principle of L’Arche communities remains the conviction that people with disabilities are teachers, rather than burdens, and that their lives are a gift to the world.
You’ll notice in your bulletin this morning a flyer about National Disabilities Awareness month provided by Pleasant View, a local network of homes for people with disabilities that is supported by our own conference - Virginia Mennonite Conference – that is shaped by many of the same convictions that shape L’Arche communities.
The story we heard this morning from the Gospel of John is about a man who was blind from birth and whose sight was miraculously restored by Jesus. His place in first century Palestine seems to have been similar in some respects to that of Philippe and Raphael in rural 1960s France. This man, unable because of his disability to carry out the usual peasant occupations, is left to beg on the streets. He has parents, but they seem none too invested in his well-being. And, perhaps most painful of all, he is ostracized and excluded from much of the life of his community.
Jesus restores this man’s sight, but the miracle that we witness in the life of this man is not just about healed eyes– it’s about perception, insight, and discernment. It’s about the man’s growing ability to recognize Jesus, and to respond to Jesus in ways that allow him to move closer to Jesus, where he can see even more clearly. And it’s about the invitation his life provides to those around him to see differently as well.
What do the Pharisees see – and not see?
But before we talk about what the man who was formerly blind can see, it’s important to pause and notice what the Pharisees can and can’t see. The Pharisees were a small spiritual brotherhood within first century Judaism. They were committed to living out faith in every aspect of everyday life. Pharisees embraced simplicity of lifestyle, and they resisted the pressure to assimilate to the surrounding Greek culture, seeking instead to keep Jewish traditions and culture alive. They practiced daily prayer and prioritized the communal study of scripture.
The name Pharisee literally means “set apart” or “separated.” Pharisees believed that all adult male Jews – not just those who were born to priestly families or who had academic training in the scriptures – were eligible to perform the rituals of their faith, and they sought to keep the same degree of religious observance in their own homes as that required of priests who led temple worship. Their commitments to each other included limiting their contact with people who did not observe the same level of holiness in everyday life.
Pharisees in the New Testament have a bad reputation – they are often portrayed as Jesus’ adversaries. But they were not so different from us. As Anabaptists, we also seek to live out our faith in every aspect of our lives, to live as a small counter-cultural minority within a powerfully assimilating society, to embrace simplicity of lifestyle, prayer, and the communal study of scripture, and to uphold the call of all believers to live as God’s holy and chosen ones.
And those similarities make me wonder if the same inability to faithfully perceive that afflicted these Pharisees is an inability that might threaten us as well.
When the Pharisees look at the man who was blind from birth, their perception of him is not primarily of a person who shares in their own call to live as God’s holy and chosen ones. They see his disability as a sign of God’s punishment for sin – either for some sin this man committed before his birth, or for the sin of his parents.
And in their commitment to faithfully live as holy people, they keep their distance. They interpret this man as a questionable –even a corrupting - influence rather than as someone beloved by God, someone sent by God to bear witness to God’s goodness.
Seeing things differently could have been quite costly for these men. Associating with the man who was born blind would mean breaking one of the central commitments of the Pharisaic brotherhood – the commitment to remain separated from non-Pharisees. A Pharisee who broke that commitment would likely end up being treated as an outsider by his fellow Pharisees. An entire life’s investment in seeking to live a life pleasing to God, a reputation as a person who is beyond reproach, and a place of belonging within a tightknit community with a shared life of faith– all these could be lost in one interaction.
Maybe even more unsettling is the loss of clarity and confidence about the boundaries of a holy life and a holy community. If this blind man – who seems so obviously ineligible for holiness and service to God – could be included in the household of faith, then who is to say that a devoted Pharisee might not find himself unexpectedly outside the household of faith? If the Pharisees allow for seeing this man as called by God, they will also have to allow for the possibility that the solid and clear boundary line that has always separated insider and outsider is far less settled and impermeable than they had thought.
The very existence of this man and his healed sight calls into the question the idea that some of us are too far outside the bounds to be called and loved by God. His testimony declares that there is no one – no one – whose starting place is too sinful or shameful or broken, too limited by physical disability or emotional pain or mental illness or cognitive impairments, too far from God. And it calls into question the idea that living a life devoted to rigorous spiritual practice can ensure that we will recognize and respond to the presence of God when God appears right in front of us, in the face of fellow human.
What can the man who blind from birth see?
For all the devout faith practices of these Pharisees, it is this man who was born blind who has something to teach them. Despite the fact – or maybe because of the fact - that he has lived his whole life with the shame and stigma of being a “sinner” and an outsider, this man is willing to take the risk of seeing differently.
Even before he is healed, the man obeys Jesus’ instructions, going to the pool to wash, although it isn’t clear what, if anything, he expected would happen when he did. And then, when his neighbors begin to ask nosy questions, he boldly gives witness to what he has experienced, even though it doesn’t fit their expectations of what is possible. The man who has been branded “broken,” “impaired,” a “sinner” for his whole life dares to make the audacious claim - to the community that has given him those labels since birth - that he is whole and well.
And when these same neighbors bring him to the Pharisees for an official religious interrogation, the man refuses to side with those who argue that Jesus must be a sinner. Instead, he testifies to what he knows from his own experience – that Jesus is a prophet, someone who speaks and acts for God. Unsatisfied with his response, the Pharisees increase the pressure, but the healed man holds firm, giving witness to what he knows “I do not know whether he is a sinner.” He says. “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
At each turn in the story, this formerly blind man takes the very next step on the path of faith. Each time he names the truth he knows - what he has seen and experienced through Jesus. Step by step, the next turn in the path of faith becomes clear. And step by step, this man moves tenaciously toward Jesus.
Some of us need to hear the invitation this morning to look to our brothers and sisters – and especially to those we might not expect to have something to teach us – and listen to their testimony about what they have seen and heard of God’s presence in their lives, even if it shakes up our understanding of God’s presence in the world in costly ways.
And some of us need to hear Jesus’ invitation this morning to know ourselves as God’s beloved ones, holy and chosen, despite the judgements and negative expectations of others around us. The good news of Jesus is that there is nothing in our lives – no, addiction, no shame-filled past, no humiliation or rejection, no physical or cognitive limitation, no desperate struggle with despair or rage or anxiety or fear - that can disqualify us from the love of God in Jesus. We are all invited to start where we are and take the very next step towards Jesus.
At the end of this account, after the Pharisees officially ban this man from their synagogue, Jesus the Good Shepherd seeks him out, and reveals that he is the One sent from God. And the healed man responds with belief, and with worship. This man who is officially banned from his worshipping community for telling the truth about his experience of God in his life, worships the God who came to seek out those of us who have been rejected, shamed, stigmatized, or abandoned. And in doing so, his ability to see shines a light on the path of faith for believers in Jesus down through the centuries, all the way to us, today, gathered in this sanctuary, seeking the next step forward on the path of faith.
March 21, 2017 by cmc_admin
Click here for a transcript
Living Water Cliche
In the 1990s sociologist Ray Odenburg described third places. Not home (our first place), not work (our second place), but public spaces, third places--like coffee shops, bars, general stores and barbershops. Odenburg believes these places are important for our well-being, and essential for democracy. Third places act as a leveler across different sectors of society and the main activity is conversation. These places are accessible and accommodating where people sometimes find a home away from home. Jesus intentionally visited third places such as hillsides, grainfields, fishing ports, crowded roads and once a community well. Worrying over the exclusivity of our churches, some missional Christians--instead of inviting folks to worship, are frequenting third places to simply be with others, become regulars , offer genuine relationship and see where the conversation leads. Perhaps, as at Jacob’s well, living water can flow through third places in our world.
Some of us have heard this story so many times that living water is a cliche. But living water has a history. Two Hebrew prophets spoke of “living water”-- Jeremiah and Zechariah. Jeremiah addresses the human problem of having false gods. In contrast to cracked and broken cisterns of false religion, the true God, says Jeremiah, is a fountain of living water.
Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked,
be utterly desolate, says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
The prophet Zechariah describes the day of the Lord like this: On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin. (Zech 13:1) On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem. (Zech 14:8)
Living Water at Every Stage of Life
So Jesus offers living water--God’s covenant love for a chosen people--to a Samaritan, a woman whose nation was a theological embarrassment to Jews. A woman who might or might not accept his offer and drink in the living water. But then as now, there are people of every nation, every faith tradition, every class, every walk of life who are thirsty for God.
According to church tradition, Lent is a good time to review these water stories. The Exodus passage about the Israelites receiving water from a rock says that God’s people “journeyed by stages” (Ex17:1) This phrase--journeyed by stages--is actually a refrain in the wilderness stories. It reminds us that the wilderness is not monolithic and also that the stages of life and stages of faith that we experience over a lifetime change. Yet, the living water that God offers us through Jesus Christ is available at every stage of life.
No worry faith
From our Exodus passage we can identify different stages of faith. The first is what I call--no worry faith. This is a stage of faith in which one follows patterns and rules with trust and confidence. Faith leaders--whether parents, teachers, pastors or mentors--are seen as extensions of God’s providence. This is a stage of security--like a child lovingly bonded to her parent. It’s fitting that we sometimes call our faith ancestors children of Israel. They believe, obey, follow, receive. They act like children--complaining now and again, but when their basic needs of water and manna are met, they are soothed, content.
Another stage of faith we see in the Exodus story is what I’ll call dissatisfaction/resistance. This kind of faith emerges when we don’t get what we want, our patterns or rules break down, the imperfections of our leaders are exposed, and we lose patience with waiting on God. Now the children of Israel had a deposit of no worry faith. They had seen miracles. They’d been liberated by God. Like a mother, God fed them and they were satisfied. They equated Moses’ provision with God’s provision. But then life catches up with Israel and they grow dissatisfied. It’s not that they have a bad attitude; these people are legitimately thirsty. They have no water. So they resist Moses and entertain the bizarre idea that Moses is actually dead-set against them and has brought them into the wilderness to kill them off!
Dissatisfaction and resistance are legitimate stages of our faith journey, but our culture assumes that these are the goals and conclusion of our journey. The archetype of the well, though, is for coming back to ourselves, our true selves. That’s why Hagar, Moses, Rebekah, and several others in scripture have major life transitions at the well. Beyond dissatisfaction and resistance is another stage of faith. After Moses strikes the rock and the water flows there is a question on the lips of Israel--Is the Lord among us or not? This can be a question from the point of resistance. Is the Lord among us not--because the Lord doesn’t seem to be doing what I want God to do?
But this can also become a question that leads to a stage of seeking all over again. Is the Lord among us or not--because maybe God is not always who I expect, but among us nonetheless. OK, some of us like developmental models and maybe you’re trying to categorize yourself or someone in your household. Listen, don’t get too rigid about it. On the individual level and certainly at the congregational level we occupy multiple stages of faith at the same time. For example, we may have a no worry faith when it comes to prayer, believing that God is attentive to our concerns, however small or great. Yet, we may experience dissatisfaction and resistance when it comes to gathered worship. We’re frustrated with forms and conformity. And again, at the same time, we may be seeking all over again when it comes to living out our faith in daily life or reading scripture.
There one more stage of faith in this Exodus story that I’ll call leadership and growth through challenges. Moses strikes the rock with the staff he used in Egypt. The last time he whacked something with his staff, he struck water, the Nile River, turning the water into blood. It was frightening plague against the Egyptian Empire--God’s rejection of slavery. Now, when Moses fears that these dissatisfied and complaining Israelites are going to stone him, God calls Moses to transform his use of the staff for a life-giving purpose. YHWH said to Moses: Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.
Moses is a leader of a whole nation and this story marks one of his many challenges. Isn’t it interesting that God invites him to work in very different way this time. The staff of prophetic judgment against Egypt’s Empire, now becomes an instrument meeting one of humanity’s basic needs. Water.
Water in Iraq
The people of Qayyara, Iraq suffered for two years while their community was controlled by ISIS. They lost homes, and many people were put in prison, tortured or killed by the militant group. Since the town was liberated from ISIS in August 2016 Mennonite Central Committee has begun an emergency water project for 10,000 families. Forcing ISIS out, Iraqi and foreign military bombed parts of the city’s water treatment plant. And as ISIS retreated they cut power lines in and lit oil wells on fire. Thousands of people were left without electricity or access to clean drinking water.
Since January, MCC began a three-month project provide access to enough clean water for the whole community. Through a local partner organization MCC provides fuel for the water pumping station, so that everyone has access on the public network. They also provide water purification. This month the UN Development Program will begin rebuilding the destroyed water treatment plant.
Kaitlin Heatwole, MCC Iraq program coordinator works with this partner organization. She says: “There have been constant waves of newly-displaced people every month for the past three years. Even though they lost their homes or their families, people who were displaced last year have become old news because there are more waves with more displaced people. So many lives have been turned upside down by the conflict in Iraq. Through MCC’s work in Iraq, we are meeting needs that are not otherwise being addressed. Sometimes it’s not very fancy, like filling a gap in fuel so that families have water, but it’s what people need.”
The Bible story of water from a rock is fancy--it’s spectacular, miraculous. But our need for water--physical water for community health or living water for every stage of faith isn’t fancy. It’s ordinary. We are all thirsty.
Jesus made a detour one day into the disputed region of Samaria and encountered a woman at the public well. This woman at the well demonstrates cultural, historical and theological sophistication in this conversation. She is the one who draws attention to the gender and ethnic differences between herself and Jesus. How is it that you, a Jew, aska drink of me, a woman of Samaria (v. 9)? She also knows the history of her literal well and the spiritual stream from which she drinks as she highlights differences between their respective faith traditions. The Samaritan introduces a key connection between her tradition and Jesus’ tradition--the expected Messiah (v. 25). She has probably been through some of these stages of faith long before she meets Jesus. Yet, for all her sophistication she has not “arrived” in the life of faith. Her day-to-day life is disordered and she is thirsty. Perhaps she is seeking all over again at this point in her life. Of course, Jesus meets her right where she is...and is a companion for her growth and leadership. Ultimately, this Samaritan woman introduces Jesus to persons beyond his own people, Israel and help him share his message more broadly. She gives up her fear of being rejected for Lent and shares her hope.
Anybody tired? Anybody thirsty? Jesus was tired too. Jesus was thirsty. Biblically speaking, this is how God “relates” to us. God came in the flesh, in Jesus Christ, and got tired and thirsty just like us. He asked a woman for a drink. The well where they met still exists today and more importantly the living water of which they spoke still flows today.
This morning we offer a drink of water, living water, to persons at every stage of faith. Jesus Christ has time to meet your need, to hear your story including the disappointments and your resistance. Jesus will challenge your assumptions, and if you desire it, Jesus can fill you with living water, equipping you for your life’s purpose.
March 13, 2017 by cmc_admin
Click here for transcript
The appetites of North Americans are a public health crisis as well as an environmental crisis. Over the last 25 years our caloric intake has increased by over 300 calories per day and now more than 68% of us are overweight or obese. Fast food and portion distortion tempt us to eat and drink too much of the wrong foods and too much in general. Not only personal overconsumption in fuel for our bodies, but over consumption of fuel for our cars, homes, and industries is contributing to global climate change. We know that our society has appetites that are out of control in other areas too--consumer goods, sex, entertainment, drugs--both legal and illegal--screen time. We’re gluttons. We look toward examples of success in defeating these cravings, but it’s a tough battle to live well in a society with out-of-control appetites. That’s our culture’s bad news. The church’s good news is Lent.
Our gospel story for the first Sunday in Lent is presented as a face-off between two characters. The temptation to evil that Jesus confronts is personified, or better, vilified, in the character of Satan. This is typical Hebrews stuff. What we might express impersonally in contemporary English was expressed through personification in ancient languages and cultures, especially by the Hebrews. For example, a psalm that I love--psalm 104--celebrates the God of creation, who dwells among the elements, establishes the earth, creates living creatures and generously provides for all donkeys, birds, cattle, coneys, goats, lions, people too:
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
But the very last verse of Psalm 104 is: Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul. I never feel like blessing the Lord after that verse. It seems like calling the God who created a world of good, to now destroy some of the bad apples--the sinners, the wicked. But before we discard the Bible, or ignore this weird story about Jesus and Satan facing off in the wilderness, notice that this is Hebrew convention.
In English, after praising the God who created a world of beauty and fruitfulness we would pray--Let sin be consumed from the earth, and let wickedness be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul. In a similar way, the New Testament occasionally--not very often, but sometimes--uses this older convention of speaking about evil directly as Satan--a character in the story--not a person exactly, but someone. So don’t get too hung up on the ontology of Satan. The point is to notice the evil in our lives and in our world that was just blending into the fabric of daily life. Perhaps typical American appetites are more dangerous than we realize. Reading the Bible reveals that we’re not just facing spiritual drift or even a moral dilemma, but Satan himself!
A Christian friend of mine in town here reminds me nearly every year as Lent begins that the temptations of Jesus are about appetite, approval and ambition. The temptation to turn stones to bread is about Jesus’ appetite...and ours. The temptation to hurl himself from the temple is about approval--does God care enough to save him? Will God save us? The temptation to worship Satan in exchange for all the nations of the world is about ambition, having it all. Appetite, approval, and ambition--aren’t these especially American temptations--not only for national figures, but for us as well?
It’s true that appetite, approval, and ambition can be our downfall. This year, though I’m turning this alliterative interpretation on it’s head. Because I don’t believe there is a literal Satan who slaps us with temptation from out of the blue. The God who formed humanity from the earth, created us with some of these very cravings--appetite is biological; approval is psychological--we need to know that somebody loves us as we are. Ambition? I guess we’re not all ambitious. But most scholars of the humanities and our own Christian tradition indicate that a vocation, an ambition of some kind is within us, even if it takes a lifetime to discover it. The God who created us included appetites, approval and ambition in our design.
Now, I’m not saying that we just indulge our appetites, our need for approval, our ambitions. But perhaps these need to be re-directed, since they cannot be stamped out and destroyed--the way we would try to destroy a flesh and blood enemy. Think about it.
When Jesus finally says: away with you, Satan, and triumphs over his temptations, he hasn’t destroyed Satan. And then Jesus heads out of the wilderness with an appetite for healing and justice; a desire to stand approved before God alone--even if powerful people oppose him; and an ambition to proclaim and embody the kingdom of God, even if means he dies only 5 miles from his birthplace.
During the 40 days of Lent Christians around the world choose spiritual disciplines in order to live more deeply as unique expressions of God’s love in the world. Perhaps you’ve already chosen a spiritual discipline for Lent. That’s great. Now for the other 90% of us, let’s take Lent seriously. Appetite is not just bad news. Appetite and longing are part of our human condition, part of how God created us. I believe it is longing and hunger that ultimately attracts us to God. Sometimes we don’t know how hungry for God we are until we are offered the bread of life and the cup of forgiveness. In the Bible, sometimes being hungry--having an appetite--is a good thing because when we are empty, God can fill us with good things. God satisfies the thirsty and the fills the hungry with good things--Ps 107. When we’re hungry we receive our food and every good gift with gratitude. Woe to the brother or sister who loses their appetite.
Lent 2017 is an opportunity to be honest about our American appetites. How much unnecessary fuel consumption? How many empty calories are making us sluggish and sick? What cravings are we indulging that are actually ruining our lives rather than restoring our lives? When we accumulate all the stuff on our wishlists and virtual grocery carts, will we be any happier, any more peaceful, any more loving, any more like Christ?
There are cards beneath your chairs that you can use this morning to just name the the ungodly appetite that needs to be redirected in your life. On the reverse side of the card you can write a practice that will help you redirect your appetite this Lenten season. But even if you don’t yet have some specific way to redirect that appetite during Lent, that’s OK. Just seeing the appetite for what it is and knowing that you can choose how you’ll respond is powerful. It is one of the unique capacities of human beings--to choose and to choose well.
Today, to begin redirecting our American appetites, we invite you to a meal. It’s just a taste--a small piece of bread, a sip from a small cup, just enough to whet your appetite for God, to give you a taste of God’s love for your body, just enough to begin fueling your ambition for the kingdom of God.
When you come for the bread or the cup, you can leave your card in the basket near the servers. What if this year during Lent we confessed our American Appetites that are out of control and became hungry in the Biblical sense. Jesus said: Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for they will be satisfied. What if this year during Lent we redirected one of our appetites toward God’s justice and healing? What might God do with a congregation that had that kind of appetite?
I’ll end today with one of Macrina Wiederkehr’s poems about the vicious cycle of filling the hunger in our lives with false gods and the power of the true God to save us. It speaks to our American Appetites, our need for Approval, and our Ambitions. And offers us a testimony of hope.
The God I was trying to love
was too demanding
And so I looked for other gods
who would ask less of me
And in unconverted corners of my heart
I found them
waiting to be adored
asking nothing of me
yet making me a slave.
Possessions, recognition, power!
I bowed before them but my hunger
The God I was trying to escape
was too loving
so God sent me a brother, Jesus
to be my Lord
and to free me from my false gods
But this Lord Jesus
preached a hard gospel
and so I turned to other lords
and Jesus was not my Lord
--except on Sundays for a little while
because it is the custom
for those who wish to bear the name
to gather for worship on that day--
But Jesus was not my Lord
And my idol-filled life
was a banner that proclaimed:
Jesus is not Lord!
The God I was trying to love
was too loving
and too demanding
so God gathered up my false gods
my reputation, my pride
my honor and prestige
my possession, my success
my own glory
even my friends.
God gathered up all these lords of mine.
God gathered up all my lies
and held them close to me
so close, I lost all sight
of my true God for a while.
But my true God never lost sight of me
And in that lies my salvation
for in one desperate moment
smothered by gods who couldn’t save me
I prayed for a God who would
fill my lies with truth.
I prayed for a God who would
expect something of me,
a God who would be too loving
and too demanding
to be patient with my false gods any longer.
God heard that prayer
and loved me
I was given back to myself,
how to answer my own prayer
so that with other believers
I might again proclaim:
Jesus Christ is Lord!
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
March 8, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach, on Matthew 17:1-9.
Click here for a transcript
A mountaintop. A summit. An apex.
Peter, James and John accompanied Jesus to the mountaintop. Maybe they thought it was for the view? Or, maybe they were grateful to be out of the valley? Certainly they were able to see Jesus at work in the valley, what, with all the people, all the requests, all the need. Maybe they were simply glad for the break? Little did they know that their mountaintop experience would consist of seeing Jesus in radiant clothing or that they would hear God’s voice. Although, if they’d been listening to the Hebraic stories of Moses and Elijah, they might have picked up on some common motifs: master, disciples, mountain, cloud, audience, and vision. If they were familiar with those stories, they wouldn’t have been surprised when they heard God’s voice on a mountaintop.
How would you define Jesus’ mountaintop experience? Was it simply a story of confirmation? “This is Jesus, listen to him.” Was it a form of reaffirmation, echoing Jesus’ baptism? Or, would it better be categorized as a precursor of his resurrection? Just how would the disciples have understood their mountaintop vision of Jesus wearing shining white clothes, surrounded by Moses and Elijah? That is the question!
For a moment, let’s consider Moses and Elijah who appeared on the mountaintop with Jesus.
For Moses, in Exodus 24, the mountaintop was a place of commune. Another opportunity to relate one-on-one with God. It was also the place of memory. And, it’s the setting for one of my favorite biblical thought experiments. In response to God’s invitation, Moses climbed Mount Horeb and remained on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights. I find that I am fascinated by imagining how Moses spent his time during those days and nights. When I think about Moses’s lengthy stay, I’ve considered that it probably took some time to find an adequate stone tablet, sizable enough to fit ten commandments into two columns and large enough that he could round off the top of the columns. And then he needed to locate a pointed, chisel-like stone as carving tool. And, he needed to brush up on his penmanship perhaps. And, he needed to figure out spacing. And, he needed another stone in case he messed up. And, he needed… (forgive me, I’m being facetious). But, I do wonder whether all of that carving took forty days, some five hundred hours? If not, how did he spend the rest of his time?
See, I imagine that Moses started carving right quick after he located the stone and the carving tool. He carved Thou shall have no other Gods than me. Done. Then, Thou shall not take the Lord’s name in vain. Then, Remember the Sabbath. Then, Honoring parents. And then, (oh boy!) this was where things got real. Moses was a volatile man. Hidden away, deep within him, was the memory of a time he’d like to forget. Years ago, in a fit of rage he had given into his anger and killed an Egyptian, then buried him, and a few days later fled the area when he realized that what he thought was concealed, was actually known by many. While on the run, Moses encountered God for the first time, hearing God’s voice in fire flaming out of a bush. God called out to Moses. A relationship began between Moses and God. And, despite the significant roles Moses played in leading God’s people, in which his relationship with God surely deepened, Moses held onto to his secret. But, on the mountaintop, communing with God for forty days, that’s when everything caught up to him. Can’t you just see it? “Moses, are you ready to carve the next commandment? Go ahead, carve Thou shall not kill.” (Laughter) Maybe at this moment, Moses cowered. Or, bewildered, he walked aimlessly in circles. Maybe he stammered or stared at God, slack jawed. Maybe the reason Moses was on the mountain forty days was because of his own avoidance.
But, when I imagine this story, I envision Moses eventually coming around. He needed to talk to God about what had happened all those years ago. By naming it, Moses was able to experience a deeper relationship with God, including forgiveness upon claiming the error of his ways. From the mountaintop, he was able to view the horizon for the first time. Maybe it now looked different than before. Relief. Release. Maybe he held his head higher, and could now see further.
Interestingly enough, Moses finished carving the ten commandments, headed down the mountain, became angry, and then returned to the mountaintop not only to re-carve the ten commandments but to ask God to forgive the people as God had forgiven him.
If Moses represents relationship, Elijah might possibly represent immortality. For Elijah, the only person in the Bible to return to the mountaintop once shared by Moses and God, the mountaintop setting was refuge. He found shelter in a mountaintop cave after traveling forty days and nights to escape the enraged Jezebel. Later, in 2 Kings 2, Elijah’s life was preserved for eternity as the biblical account records his ascension to heaven in a whirlwind of of flaming chariot and horses.
Now, these are the characters who gather around Jesus at his Transfiguration. What did Peter, James and John think of their presence? Did they understand their presence as emphasis on relationship and immortality? And, how did they make sense of the shining white clothes or the veiled reference to resurrection? Was the mountaintop for them, a place of foreshadowing?
Allow me to pause and check-in. I recognize the possibility that when I started talking about mountaintops, you revisited your own experience of Mt. Washington, Kilimanjaro, Pikes Peak, Matterhorn or Table Mountain. Or, Mass-of-nothing; I mean, Massanutten. These experiences stick with us because of the journey of hiking to the top as well as the vantage point they provide. From mountaintop, the horizon seemingly goes on forever unless other mountains or clouds obstruct your view.
If Peter, James and John were awed by the natural beauty around them, that detailed has been lost. Their experience on mountaintop was one of worship, but also fear. Ecstatic that they could witness Moses, Elijah, and Jesus together, they wanted to celebrate and preserve. But, they also felt unsettled, possibly wondering whether they could live up to the command to “Listen to Jesus” or fearing for Jesus’s life and their own. Descending the mountain, Peter, James and John may have seen, for the first time, what lies on the horizon.
This combination of worship amidst fear has recurred over and over again throughout history. Stories abound of imprisoned Christians whom, refusing to recant, followed a fairly common routine leading up martyrdom, which consisted of letter writing, prayer, singing familiar memorized songs, and even hymn writing. Persecuted Anabaptist would gather in haymows for meetings and worship. Throughout the Antebellum Era of the late 18th and 19th Century, slaves would secretly leave the plantation during the night and congregate in “hush harbors” in a nearby forest. Wet quilts were hung from trees forming a temporary tent-like structure (something like Peter’s imagined dwellings?). The quilts were damp so that they would absorb the sounds of worship. For the time of prayer, a large stockpot was placed on the forest floor and one slave after another took turns praying aloud but directly into the pot to muffle the noise. Dried leaves and shells were spread on the paths leading to the hush harbor to provide warning if a plantation owner was searching the forest. Hush harbors provided the only opportunities to worship; together slaves would sing, pray, and discuss promising stories and passages in the Bible that offered hope. Amidst constant fear, they would congregate to worship; hush harbors serving as their mountaintop throughout their lived everyday experience in which there was little hope on the horizon.
We read the Transfiguration story prior to Lent as a reminder. The harrowing journey of Lent will conclude in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But, the resurrected Christ is notably different than the Transfiguration. The resurrected Christ isn’t wearing shining white clothes, the resurrected Christ is disfigured, his wounds visible to anyone who comes near.
We live in a time where everything has become one subject. When from one day to the next another “disfigured” body can be targeted: the alien, the Muslim, the transgendered, the marginalized, excluded, problematized. In fact, this isn’t how it should be. Instead, society from the Biblical story up through today, will continually be assessed, concerning whether it is just, based on its attentiveness to the widow, the alien, and the orphan.
The good news of Jesus’s resurrection is not only victory over death, it’s a recognition of the falsity that only some are considered disfigured. The disfigured Christ shows that the contrast is not between abled and disabled but between the temporarily abled and disabled. The disabled Christ should remind us of the fluidity of all bodies. If anyone experiences disfigurement, then the body of Christ needs to break itself open and make room. We are called to parody the world when bodies are marginalized, excluded, problematized.
What is on our horizon? What might tomorrow bring? Can we see beyond it?
Theorist José Esteban Muñoz encourages the practice of futurity, which he defines as the process of seeing something that is not yet here. He states, “Indeed to access [this] visuality we may need to squint, to strain our vision and force it to see otherwise, beyond the limited vista of the here and now.” By doing so, one embraces potentiality. The present is not enough. And instead one should look beyond the horizon to glimpse the future that is not-yet-conscious.
The Transfiguration, it seems to me, might best be understood as the process of seeing beyond what is on the horizon. Maybe Peter, James and John glimpsed the shining white clothes representing the not-yet-conscious future. For them, the “here and now” was toxic. They were ridiculed, persecuted. And, Jesus: he was abducted, convicted, disfigured.
If we are to catch a glimpse of the Transfigured Christ it’ll be while we worship. And then, we too will echo Peter’s claim, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” In response, a voice from heaven, stated: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
For Peter, James and John listening to Jesus meant descending the mountain possibly realizing, for the first time, what lies on the horizon.
In listening to Christ today we will find commune and refuge but even more we will accompany the disfigured Christ to address all that is toxic and divisive in the here and now. We cannot glimpse the Transfigured Christ if we don’t listen to Jesus and the call from long ago to provide for the widow, the orphan, and the alien among us.
Together, let us acknowledge the fluidity of all bodies. Let us listen to Jesus. And, let us worship as well as envision what lies beyond the horizon.
March 7, 2017 by cmc_admin
Click here for a transcript
The word of God is solid ground (HWB 314)
Nearly 500 years ago Anabaptists sang these words--in German, of course--because they were convinced by reading the Bible in a Spirit-filled community that a life of discipleship and Christlike love was truly more powerful--a stronger foundation for the church than reliance on the state, the scholars, or the sword.
I love the line in this hymn that says--What Godword brings may we embrace; success and suff’ring greet us. In other words, when we act on what Christ has given us to do, there is successs; there is growth and fruit and joy in abundance. And when we do what Christ has given us to do there is suffering too--our Savior went to the cross. The Anabaptist legacy is one of wild success and very serious suffering. I say wild success because nearly 500 years later Anabaptist understandings of the Way of Jesus Christ are relevant and even revelatory when they are lived out in neighborhoods, watersheds, and nations like ours. The Anabaptists believed that the word of God was not a wooden, literal, ancient word, but a living word, transformative contemporary word that could be heard through careful reading of scripture and listening to the Holy Spirit within the gathered community.
I don’t know why you came to worship this morning, but here’s a good Anabaptist a reason to attend worship: to listen for God’s word to you and to us, so that you can live it, so that you can practice it today and tomorrow. So what is God’s word today? Perhaps you’ve already heard it and don’t need a sermon...
Lots of parables are puzzling, but our parable this morning is a no-brainer. There are , but we got this one. The wise builder chooses a solid rock foundation and the house weathers the storm. The fool builds on sand, the storm destroys the house and great was the fall. This parable is the conclusion of a big fat teaching section--three chapters of Jesus teaching us how to live. In Matthew chapters 5, 6 and 7 it’s like Jesus is laying out all the building materials, and the tools, and even pointing out a great site, but building the house is our work. When we hear the teaching of Jesus and act on it, we are building on a solid foundation and will weather the storms of life. You have heard it said, unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain, but Jesus says go ahead and build, just be wise about it. Listen to what I’m saying and act on it.
A little over 12 years ago, when my parents were almost 60, they built a house in rural Henry County, KY. Now they are ready to sell it and move to be near their favorite daughter...my sister. Their house was supposed to close at the end of February, but the deal fell through after the inspection because the foundation is damaged. And it’s going to be a costly repair--of waterproofing and mold management to dry out the timbers, then re-work the crawl space to include sub pumps and drainage out of opposite corners. A lot has changed in housing construction from the world of ancient Palestine to 21st century US, but the foundation of a house is still important. If we examine the foundation we can predict something about the future of the building. Apparently, if my folks don’t make these repairs in the next year or so the house could tilt or shift or collapse! Jesus said: Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them is a like a wise builder, who builds on a rock foundation, so that when--not if, but when-- the storm comes the house doesn’t fall.
Brothers and sisters, in building the community Christ has called us to build--a peace church where everyone is welcome--it is our responsibility to act on what God is saying to us. We have to exercise our unique gifts in the unique circumstances we face. It is not an option to just passively accept what Jesus says and believe it is true in some abstract sense. Christian truth is always lived truth, lived by ordinary people--who only know in part, yet trust God enough to act on what we have heard.
According to Jesus we either act on God’s word or we’re fools. And sooner or later we’re going to be seeking shelter amid a pile of storm tossed rubble.
In the Heights
On Friday Kent and I went to see the musical at Fort Defiance High School. The message that with patience and faith--paciencia y fe--diverse people can build community and make a home that can weather the storms of life--reflects the best of the American spirit. The story of In the Heights, by Quiara Alegria Hudes is the kind of intercultural American story that we need not only in big expensive theaters, but in small town high schools across the country. The music by Lin Manuel Miranda, the outstanding performances by the students and the vision and faith of high school directors to stage this show at this time in our country was an example to me of acting on what you have heard.
CMC Vision Update
In 2016 Community Mennonite Church engaged a vision process and at the conclusion we had some sense for what God was saying to us. There were three areas that we considered core practices of our congregation to continue and enhance through our various commissions. These are: welcoming children and youth; Bible stories for real life; and stories in worship.
There are also three new initiatives that we’re pursuing: launching a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit; interchurch and interfaith activities in our local community; and art projects in and around the church building.
Finally there were a couple of areas for ongoing discernment: becoming a greener congregation and starting a mid-week Kids Club. I think the green congregation is something we’re hearing pretty clearly, but we’re not sure how to act on it yet, so Council will form a task force later this spring. The Mid-Week Kids Club is something we’re not sure whether we’re hearing is for us specifically, but we’re inspired by what other local congregations are experiencing as they reach out to diverse children in their neighborhoods.
Whenever we as a congregation act on what we have heard God saying to us, we are building a solid foundation for the future church.
Jesus enacted the word of God
Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law and the prophets. He did. In his actions, in and through his life, Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets. He enacted God’s word through his life and his death; his resurrection and reign. As disciples of Jesus we are also those who fulfill the word of God. We act on what God says to us. We don’t always get it just right, but discipleship is experiential learning. We learn as we take action and then listen again for God’s word to us. Brothers and sisters, taking action on the word we’re hearing from God is the foundation of spirituality for the storm. God speaks a word to us that will sustain us in the storm.
Buckminster Fuller was a 20th century American philosopher-scientist whose work defied even those categorizations. Fuller called himself a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist. He once said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” I think Jesus, fulfilling the law and the prophets was building a new model in order to make the existing model obsolete. If you think about it, Jesus did not directly fight against the Roman Empire. Jesus did not dismantle the Temple-State of his Sadducee and Pharisee brothers in faith. Jesus’ tension with and even opposition toward the destructive institutions and systems of his society included some confrontation of Temple politics, some resistance to the Roman Empire. But--listen up--Jesus spent most of his time and most of his energy building something new, something resilient, something that did not seem possible. In the gospel of Matthew--perhaps more than any of the other four gospel--we meet Jesus establishing the kingdom of God and building a church community that will change the world. And very early in the gospel, here in chapter 7, Jesus says--Come on. Build with me. Here are the materials. Here are the tools. Here’s a good site--right where you’re standing and right where I’ll lead. Come, build.
That’s why I’m a pastor. And that’s probably why you’re doing some of what you’re doing--because you’re acting on what God has said to you. You’re living into what Christ has shown you. Maybe you’re not always completely confident that you’ve heard the word. I know I’m not. That’s why we gather for worship--to listen for God again and again and hear each others’ stories. That’s the only way to build a church that can weather a storm.
Jesus and Jeremiah
OK, here’s the part of the sermon that I didn’t want to preach, but I I’ve gotta do it. You know Jesus says: everyone who hears my words and does not act them will be like a fool who builds a house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was its fall! That part of the parable is a fitting summary of what happened to a nation back in Jeremiah’s day. The prophet Jeremiah heard the word of the Lord, but people didn’t act on it. Jeremiah said to his nation: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from oppression anyone who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the immigrant or the orphan, or the widow. Don’t shed innocent blood. ...If you do not act on these words, this house will be destroyed. (Jeremiah 22:3,5)
I don’t think Jesus’ message in the sermon on the Mount was that new. What he had was a fresh authority in his time. He was not like the scribes who were beginning to rely on the state, the scholars--the legal scholars--and the sword. Jesus had a fresh authority because he was living out the words of the prophets! What Jeremiah knew 600 years before Jesus and what the Anabaptists knew 1500 years after Jesus. We have heard 500 years later, but now is our time to act. This downtown Harrisonburg neighborhood, this Chesapeake Bay watershed, this country needs the fresh authority of people acting on the word we have heard from God--building a new model of community and church.
I think Jesus really understands humanity. He knows we’re not going to hear everything at once. He knows we’re not going to hear everything clearly. But we’ve got to be faithful and responsible with what we’ve heard so far. In this big fat teaching section we call the sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us practical ways to prepare for a storm, live through a storm and clean up after a storm. What he said is also good for fair weather--but let’s face it--a lot of approaches appear to work during fair weather. We’re looking for spirituality that meets the storm test.
- In the beatitudes--know who you are. You are blessed--even at your worst, you’re blessed.
- Be salt and light through service and loving the unloved (the enemies).
- Pray seriously. Ask God for help.
- Jesus teaches us to interrupt the cycles of judgement within our communities.
- Jesus teaches us to interrupt cycles of worry within ourselves.
Storms are already upon us. The foundation we are building with the guidance of Jesus Christ our Lord is for a future church.
Charles Tindley (1851-1933)
I’ll end this morning with a bit of another American story. Charles Tindley wrote two of the hymns we’re singing today. He was a late 19th and early 20th century African American minister and composer of gospel music, including perhaps the strains of We shall overcome. Tindley’s father was a slave, but his mother was free. Born in 1851 he had no formal education, he so much wanted to hear God’s word that as a young man in Philadelphia he became friends with a local rabbi and studied Hebrew. He saved his money from jobs carrying bricks and being a church custodian in order to study Greek by correspondence. Eventually Tindley was ordained in the Methodist tradition during the social gospel era. Tindley acted on God’s word not only writing hymns, but also enabling members of his large congregation to find jobs. He led his congregation to form a building and loan association for home mortgages, so that African Americans had opportunities for more equitable financial security in this country.
God’s word for us today is to act on what we have heard--success and suffering greet us.
February 22, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Dayna Olson-Getty, on Matthew 6:1-18.
Click for transcript
When asked to describe his practices of prayer, the South African Archbishop and anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, said this:
One image that I have of the spiritual life is of sitting in front of a fire on a cold day. We don't have to do anything. We just have to sit in front of the fire and then gradually the qualities of the fire are transferred to us. We begin to feel the warmth. We become the attributes of the fire. It's like that with us and God. As we take time to be still and to be in God's presence, the qualities of God are transferred to us.
This morning we heard from the Sermon on the Mount about the practices of prayer that Jesus commends to those who follow him.
Jesus begins the sermon with his startlingly up-side-down beatitudes, and then continues by naming some of the ways that our human inclinations lead us into cycles of violence, lust, broken relationships, and retaliation. For each of these destructive human cycles, Jesus offers a practical path for a different way of living that creates an opportunity for peace and reconciliation between people. “Seek out your accuser and be reconciled,” Jesus says. “Go the second mile.” “Love your enemies.” In each of these, Jesus gives us practical instructions for relationships with our fellow human beings that allow us to walk toward deliverance, even in the most difficult of relationships.
In the section of the sermon we read together this morning, Jesus shifts to our spiritual practices in relationship to God. Judaism in Jesus’ time taught three major practices for cultivating a spiritual life – prayer, giving alms to the poor, and fasting. These spiritual practices were meant to create space for a deepening relationship with God, and to be tangible ways of remembering and living the reality that God is the creator and sustainer of all of people.
But Jesus warns that even these practices of devotion to God can be used for self-serving and destructive ends. Prayer and fasting and giving to the poor can become ways to meet our need to be recognized and seen as significant by others. And when they do, we lose out on the real rewards of our spiritual practices - a deepening relationship with and communion with God. The danger in performing our spiritual practices publically, Jesus is warning, is that we can end up impressing our neighbors, but missing out on knowing and being transformed by God.
But Jesus has a very concrete, practical way to help us avoid this trap. Don’t do your praying in public, Jesus says. Go into your bedroom – the most intimate and private space in your home, where you spend time to the people closest to you – and close the door. Pray there, where no one else will you see, and you won’t have to worry about your motives. Similarly, when you give to the poor, do it as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, and when you fast, don’t let it be apparent from your appearance.
Jesus seems to take it for granted in his teaching that those who are seeking to live in relationship with God will practice prayer, giving to those in need, and fasting. But I think many of us face a danger that is not directly named here – one that is as much of a problem as practicing piety for social gain. Many of us - myself included - are tempted to skip these practices of inner spiritual life. Maybe because we’ve seen them done for the wrong reasons, or in ways that seem completely disconnected with real life, or maybe because they require serious effort and commitment, or maybe because we just don’t know how to start – many of us are tempted to attempt Jesus’ path of delivering love in our relationships with other people without also practicing a deepening life of devotion to and communion with God.
But Jesus teaches that these practices of deepening relationship with God are at the heart of a life lived in his way. Without them, we will struggle to have the strength and courage and love to live like Jesus. Without them, we face the danger of living entirely out of our own understandings of who we are and what is needed in a given situation. Without them, we risk slipping into thinking that we are responsible to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is heaven. Without them, we risk burning out, becoming cynical, or giving in to despair.
This is a time in our country’s life when many people are focusing on practices of outward resistance to evil and of transformation of relationships. Some of us have marched in the streets, or posted welcome neighbor signs in our yard, or attended community meetings. Many of us are thinking with new intensity about how to practice acts of hospitality and peacemaking and advocacy for the vulnerable in our everyday lives.
Those who have been at this work of seeking to live the way of Jesus in difficult and challenging circumstances for years tell us that a life of prayer is indispensable to a life of action for justice and peace in the way of Jesus.
The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, reflecting on the lives of the prophets, suggests that one of the reasons Jesus encourages us to pray in secret is that we have things we need to discuss with God that are too raw and personal to discuss in polite company. Having it out with God, he suggests, it what will give us what we need to be who we are called to be in our public actions and witness. He writes, “…it is secret prayer that permits energy, freedom, and courage for public ministry. The servants who faithfully show God to the world are those who live in a deep, disputatious conversation with God.”
In other words, if you want to be live a life in the way of Jesus, a life that gives witness to God’s coming kingdom, then spending time in prayer is indispensable. And the kind of conversation you need to have with God in the face of struggle or suffering or injustice is often best prayed without an audience.
The prayer that Jesus is inviting us to practice in not an otherworld piety divorced from real life. The prayer he invites us into is a passionate and honest conversation where we can give voice to our deepest, most urgent, most honest needs, to our longings, rage, disappointment, to our fears, grief, joy, delight. And it’s a conversation where we can become still and hear God’s voice of love, reminding us that we not be afraid, that we are beloved, and that God is already at work in our world, redeeming even the most unredeemable of circumstances. It’s the quiet place where we can find our own perceptions realigned in light of God’s upside down blessings, where we can hear God calling us to counter-intuitive actions of delivering love for our enemies as well as our neighbors. It’s a conversation where we can receive bread for the journey.
So where do we begin, or where do we begin again?
One place to begin is with rest – with soaking up God’s loving presence the way we’d soak up the warmth and beauty of a fire on a cold winter day. We need to hear God’s words of affirmation and love spoken to us as God spoke them to Jesus – “you are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.” If you want to start here, find some time to sit in silence and let the noise in your head quiet down. Pray the psalms, or spend time imagining yourself in one of the gospel stories. Pray your gratitude and delight for the gifts and joys of life. Or just listen in silence to God’s companionable presence.
Some of us need to begin with arguing. If that’s you, go ahead and pick a fight with God. Bring your hurt or outrage or fear or despair into conversation with God. Bring an unsolvable problem or an unbearable stress in your life or in the life of the world to God. Ask your hardest questions. Demand an answer. Insist that God be who God has claimed to be. And then listen.
Some of us need to move our bodies in order to have a good conversation. If that’s true of you, you might want to try praying while you walk or run or bike. Or walk a labyrinth or develop a prayerful yoga practice to begin or end your day.
Some of us communicate best when we have the freedom to engage our senses and be creative. If that’s true of you, you might want create a prayer space in your home with objects or pieces of art that help you experience God’s loving presence. Maybe you would pray best by writing your prayers in a journal or by writing and singing your own psalms of lament and hope. A college friend of mine – a visual artist – made a photo book of people and situations she wanted to pray for regularly and used that as her guide. Maybe you need to dance, sing or draw your prayers.
Many of us find we pray best with when we are praying with other followers of Jesus. You may want to use a guide book, such as Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals, or Take Our Moments and Our Days –an Anabaptist daily prayer guide. I really like the online audio prayer guides Pray As You Go and Mission St. Clare because they allow me to pray with a guide book while walking or running. Maybe you need a standing weekly appointment to meet a friend for prayer or a regular check-in with your small group about how it’s going with your practicing of prayer.
And if you feel outraged and angry about events in our world, try praying for your enemies. The scholar and activist Christena Cleveland describes gathering some of her seminary students to lament recent injustices in our country. After bringing their grief and anger to God, this group made a list of all they hope for themselves – strong relationships, healthy bodies, satisfying work, loving families – and they prayed these things for the leaders who have implemented the unjust policies and practices they had just lamented.
However you begin, or begin again, know this - God is waiting eagerly, with the table set and fresh, warm bread prepared. This daily feast is meant for you. And this daily bread of God’s loving presence can strengthen, transform, and sustain you, as it did Jesus, as it does Bishop Tutu, as it can do for all of us.
February 8, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Click here for a transcript
Ancient Paralysis Problem
Paralysis. Even before I think about a paraplegic, I think of other kinds of paralysis, like acute grief--losing someone we love and being immobilized; or a shockwave in society that leaves us cold, afraid, disempowered; or going to prison--losing basic freedom. Physical paralysis can be the result of illness, injury, or poisoning. Not only losing the ability to move, paralysis usually means losing sensation.
After Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness, he returned to Galilee, but not to his hometown of Nazareth. He relocated to the fishing village of Capernaum--a border town on the sea of Galilee, which belonged to King Herod’s jurisdiction adjacent to his half-brother Philip’s territory. The fishing industry and all the attendant products and services were integrated into the political economy of Rome in a pyramid arrangement. The workers were on the bottom, the tax collectors were in the middle, Herod Antipas--client king--was penultimate, and Tiberias Caesar was at the top. At the bottom were builders for boats, weavers for for sail-making, farmers for flax production--for nets, merchants for salt, stonemasons for anchors, and potters for clay vat transport of fish products. I understand fish sauce was a major value-added product. And of course, fishermen.
The distribution of power in this pyramid was grossly unjust and totally obvious. It’s not like there was a Galilean middle class who didn’t realize how oppressive Rome was because they were temporarily protected or even useful in keeping others immobile, disempowered. It was not a society in which costly consumer goods were available by credit even among the poor. Jesus, his disciples, the crowds who heard him teach on that mountain, and everyone else at the bottom of the heap, felt the oppression. Workers were always at risk of falling into complete ruin. They were a desperate population.
The Spirituality of the Beatitudes
The spirituality Jesus developed in Capernaum was solidarity with the poor, the exploited, the sick, the hungry, the servants those for whom neither the Temple, nor the regional government, nor the Empire worked. Jesus--Emmanuel--was with these vulnerable people. And he blessed them--over and over.
You are blessed. Even if you are at your worst, at your lowest moment, you will be blessed with the kingdom of heaven. It belongs to no one else.
You are blessed even if you are burdened with grief. God will bless you with comfort and be with you no matter what--just as I am with you right now.
You are blessed, even if no one has ever noticed you. I see you. I see you who are meek and you will be blessed with an inheritance of land that will be enough for you and your family. You are not invisible. You are not expendable. You are not disposable. You are God’s chosen people. You are blessed.
You are blessed, especially in your cravings for justice. You will be blessed and satisfied. No more delay. The kingdom is on its way.
Jesus went on with blessing people who demonstrated resilient faith in the midst of an oppressive society--the merciful, the pure-hearted, the peacemakers, those whose suffering did not destroy them. He called these folks--salt of the earth, the light of the world. He taught them to know themselves as blessed and to believe that God could work through them in a fresh way. He refreshed their understanding of God’s law. You have heard the laws about murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retaliation, hating enemies. The law and the prophets are to be fulfilled by doing to others what you would have them do to you. The law and the prophets are to be fulfilled in loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. I’m here to fulfill the law and the prophets. Join me. Jesus invited these people to be part of his creative reconstruction of society.
When Jesus first comes down the mountain a leper comes to him for healing. It’s a no-brainer: physical disease, social isolation, exclusion from the Temple. Jesus heals the leper as a sign of who can participate in the kingdom of God. I do choose. You are no reject. I choose you, just as God chose Israel. Be clean. And show yourself to the supposed leaders of Israel, the priests.
But then, in Capernaum this Roman Centurion approaches Jesus. The presenting problem is paralysis--not the commander’s own, but that of his servant, his boy. Remember Jesus’ spirituality. Jesus does not identify with a Roman Centurion. He identifies with a suffering servant who is losing or has lost sensation in his feet and legs, in his hands and arms. Jesus is with the powerless, but the man who stands before him is a soldier--a man of worldly power backed by force.
We should cut the the centurion some historical slack. He may not have been a direct Roman occupier. He was more likely working for Herod doing customs work in the border city of Capernaum to make sure that the wealth of the Galilee made it’s way to Rome via to Herod--who skimmed generously for himself, before passing on what he “produced” to Tiberius Caesar. Nevertheless, in this pyramid of power the centurion and Jesus occupy very different positions. In the political economy of the Roman Empire the centurion is far and away the more powerful. He’s wearing a uniform. He’s carrying a weapon. But here he stands in the presence of Jesus. The centurion breaks rank with his company, with his commander over him. He humbles himself and asks for help.
Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;
but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.
As is true for most of us, coming to Jesus and humbly asking for help exposes our frailties.
Breaking Rank Today
What if those with some wiggle room in an oppressive system begin to recognize the power of those below them, begin to see the assets and strengths of those on a lower rung. What if the centurions actually need something from the Galileans that they can’t take by force? What if middle class folks need the healing help of poor folks? What if those we can afford to ignore have gifts and skills which could bring healing and hope for our shared future?
All the centurion asks of Jesus is a healing word. He asks with faith--astonishing faith--like no faith Jesus had ever experienced before. Just for some perspective, in his teaching on the mountain, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had nothing complimentary to say of Gentiles. But here is a Gentile--a worldly, non-Jewish, military commander--who humbly asks for healing--not for himself, but for someone beneath him. Perhaps the kingdom of God is on the rise, even in the life of a military officer.
Now if the only point of this story is that Jesus can heal long-distance, then all this business about ‘I am unworthy’ and the conversation about authority and power is unnecessary. If this is just about long-distance healing, all we need to know is that a Roman centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant--and the servant was healed in that hour. Praise the Lord for physical healing. The kingdom is on the rise.
But here Jesus meets someone who understands the power dynamics of his world and is willing to break rank in order to get healing. The Gentile is seeking out the Jew. The military commander is seeking out the peacemaker. The master wants his servant to be healed.
In Jesus’ day the pattern of master-servant domination was repeated at every scale of society. It was between women and men, in extended families, in the marketplace and between nations. It was a paralyzing dynamic that Jesus was actively shifting by blessing people at the bottom. Brothers and sisters, in this gospel passage, God is showing us once again that people with rank and status can also participate in this kingdom of justice and mercy and joy. It takes a journey with Jesus. The Lord warns in this passage too, that even devout heirs of religious tradition who exercise master-slave dominance will be bumped from the guest list of the kingdom banquet.
If Jesus is alive, and I believe he is, then this week in your life there will be an opportunity to break rank with systems of oppression and be in solidarity with someone less privileged. I say opportunity, because this kind of shift in our spirituality is also healing for us who are caught up in our own little power trips. Do you have an opportunity to advocate for someone who is at a low point like Jesus did with his beatitudes--blessing people who were considered worthless. Last week Ervin Stutzman was here from Mennonite Church USA and shared the vision statement of our broader church:
God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ
and by the power of the Holy Spirit
to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace,
so that God’s healing and hope
flow through us to the world.
God calls us from our status whether we are at our lowest point or from positions of authority. God calls us to a journey with Jesus that we call church. And some days I’m sure that in the name of Jesus the church can be an instrument of healing in the paralysis of our lives, and our world. This week, let’s be the church, on a journey with Jesus practicing his spirituality and political vision. Let us come humble and be healed of our own paralysis--our incapacity to move, our stuck positions, our insensitivity to the conditions of our society and the people and places who are invisible to us or beneath our rank. Heal us, Immanuel. Here we are as your church.
January 26, 2017 by cmc_admin
Sermon by Rev. Stephanie Sorge Wing from Trinity Presbyterian Church.
Click here to read a transcript.
Note - this sermon was preached at Community Mennonite Church as part of an ecumenical pulpit swap
Stepping into a pulpit when you don’t know the congregation can be tricky. Especially when you do so after such a big weekend for our divided country, and particularly when a passage like the one from 1 Corinthians comes along. This Sunday is in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. That is the occasion that led a group of pastors who gather regularly to study the Word together to suggest a pulpit swap for this Sunday. National events and the lectionary passages were incidental, at least according to our plans. But when is anything really incidental to God?
As we study Scripture, it’s important for us to try to understand the context in which it was written. That’s often difficult for us to do, really. The times, the places, and the world views can be so foreign to us today. However. Of all the cultures and contexts presented to us in the Bible, the church in Corinth is probably the one most similar to our contemporary world. There might not be any letter more pertinent to our time than this one.
If we were to take a trip together to Corinth today, we would see a sleepy little village. Not much to write home about, really. But back a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Corinth was a city of wealth, power, and high culture – a jewel in the crown of the Greek Empire. It was so important and influential that when the Romans went to work conquering the Greek Empire, they determined that this magnificent city had to be leveled in order to achieve political dominance.
For 100 years the city lay in ruins, until 44 BCE when Julius Caesar gave permission for the city to be rebuilt as a city for “Freedmen” – men who were born as slaves but who had somehow won their freedom, often through military service. As such, the city became a kind of safe place for many different people. A melting pot. But back in its heyday, Corinth was a bustling, very diverse city. It had just about every religious sect, belief, and practice represented, including Christianity. Because of this, there was quite a bit of syncretism and borrowing of traditions, mixing of beliefs. The city was also notorious for its vices, but the heart of it all, religion was alive and well.
Paul spent 18 months in Corinth, working first with the Jews and then reaching out to the Gentiles. In his time there, the church became firmly rooted in the city. After he left and went to Ephesus, problems in the Corinthian church came to his attention. First, a group called “Chloe’s people” came back to Paul reporting problems. Then the church itself sent a letter to Paul detailing some of their disagreements and asking for his help in resolving them. It is to this context that Paul writes.
Even among the earliest Christians - before there was much time for real corruption, right? - there were real and deep divisions. Being spiritual seemed to take priority over following Jesus. Groups pointed to themselves, or to their schools of religious thought, rather than pointing to Christ. Christians arguing with each other, left and right. It’s hard to imagine…
My guess is that they wanted to hear “you’re right,” or “they’re wrong,” - an answer to their disputes. But the disputes were minor compared to the division itself. Paul’s first plea is to Christian unity, for the church to be united in mind and in purpose. I wonder if that was any easier for them back then than it is for us today.
It’s certainly not easy for us these days. Each week, there are a handful of letters to the editor of the DNR in which self-identified Christians take swipes at each other. It’s a local replay of what has been playing out over this whole election cycle, over who can truly claim the mantle of Christ. The question has been asked openly and between the lines in so many ways and places: “How can you call yourself a Christian and….” fill in the blank. Christian unity is sorely lacking these days, just as it was for the Corinthians, and has been in the two thousand intervening years.
We hear Paul’s plea. We recognize the importance of Christian unity. That’s why I’m here today! Of course Mennonites and Presbyterians are united in the Protestant stream, but Menno Simons and John Calvin were sharply divided over some deep theological disagreements. And yet, Community Mennonite is probably far more similar to Trinity Presbyterian than we are to some of the other Presbyterian churches in town. This pulpit swap is a response to the challenge of Christian unity, and yet I have to admit that those of us involved in this ecumenical pulpit swap are far more like-minded than not. Despite the theological differences between our churches, I would venture that the ways that we struggle to live our our calling as disciples are more alike than not. This kind of unity actually isn’t that difficult. It’s when reaching out beyond like-minded Christians that it gets much more difficult.
The differences feel as sharp now as they ever have. Sometimes it seems like we’re reading two different sets of sacred texts, or following two different saviors. Within my own family I have those whose understanding of Christianity and what it means to follow Christ are very different from my own. I usually avoid theological discussions at all costs, because I don’t want that to come between us. Then, there are some Christians who I really love and respect but with whom I seriously disagree, but with whom I can begin having some conversations. It is still so difficult for it not to get personal. Or for us not to end up just saying, “Well, I belong to Paul and you belong to Cephas.” To just shrug and say we’re in very different strains of Christianity, with an emphasis on the word strain.
Prior to the election, I made a plea for all of us to join together around what unites us, which is greater than what divides us. But to be honest, I’ve been struggling since then to figure out just how to put that into practice myself. I continue to struggle. It seems as though no amount of theological or Biblical discussion or debate will solve our divisions. It’s helpful to hear Paul’s reminder, that our aim in proclaiming the gospel, is not to do so with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power.
Each week, I - along with many other ministers of the gospel - struggle to be faithful and find something to say with eloquent wisdom. It’s kind of a big part of what we do. Sometimes we are more successful than others - with the faithfulness, the eloquence, or the wisdom. But sometimes the most faithful response we can make is to bumble and fumble along, trying not to trip over too many of our own words as we make our way to the cross.
That cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the very power of God. Of course, that’s one of the problems - that the cross means something different to many different Christians. For some it represents a narrow gate, or maybe even a balance beam towards salvation. I’ve seen drawings that depict a great chasm, essentially with the cliff of damnation on one side and the cliff of salvation on the other. The cross is a narrow bridge between. But you’d better watch your step!
For others, the cross represents sacrifice. For some, it’s a reminder of the public and humiliating death of Jesus because of his perceived political threat. Some see it as suffering, and others as triumph. But however we see that cross, I think we have to recognize that the very power of God that it represents is the power of God’s unfathomable love.
As we bumble and stumble our way through the minefield of division, I am convinced that the only way we can meet up beyond those lines is by claiming the power of the love of God. It’s easy to feel powerful when puffed up by pride, or rage. Or to feel powerless as everything seems to be crashing in on all sides. But true power - the only power that can truly unite us - is the power of the love of God. The only way forward is love.
Friends, we belong to Christ alone, and we are bound together - with each other and with all of humanity - not by bonds of our own choosing or commonality, but by the bond of the love of God in Jesus Christ. A love so revolutionary that it was displayed for all to see on a cross, of all places. A love so complete that it enfolded in forgiveness even those who taunted and tortured in the midst of pain and great suffering. A love so incomprehensible that all we can really do is bumble and mumble and fumble our way around it.
That love unites us. That is the only power that can unite us in moving forward. We have a long journey ahead, that is for sure. There are many divisions in our world, in our country, and in our community. But most grievous of all, there are still bitter divisions within the body of Christ. When we tear and snipe at each other, it is Christ’s body that is being hurt. Even today Jesus says, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgive us, God, for we know not what we do.
This is a week dedicated to Christian unity. This Sunday and this week have nothing to do with the timing of a national transition in leadership. But seeing where we are as a nation, there is so much work for us to do as people who claim to follow Christ. This Sunday of Christian Unity recognizes that in order for us to be the body of Christ in the world, and get to work as the hands and feet of Christ, we need to stop sniping at each other. We need to stop tearing each other down, because the other is us. We are one body.
This pulpit swap is a good place to start. It helps to begin with those who are adjacent us. Different, but adjacent. But then we also need to start stepping out, in love, with love, towards those members of this Christian body who we might not even claim, and those who most certainly don’t want to claim us.
Our first steps may falter. Our words will surely fail us. But the love of the cross, the power of God in Jesus Christ, will not. So today, and tomorrow, and the next day, I pray for each of us that we have the strength and courage to step out, and to follow Jesus just as those first disciples did. To follow even though we don’t know why or how, not boasting of our understanding, but only because that is where God calls us to go. Mumbling, bumbling, and fumbling in love. May it be so! Amen.
January 15, 2017 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
January 11, 2017 by Matt Carlson
Click here for transcript
It’s a New Year! It’s a beginning. It’s fresh. Now what if beginning in 2017 you responded in the negative to every suggestion, request, or inquiry whether inward or outward? You’d decline new opportunities at work. You’d deny the inward nudge toward altruism. You’d reply “no” without further explanation to text messages, phone calls, emails. You’d rebuff the people closest to you. Even worse, you’d limit imagination, possibility, knowledge, discernment, and the flutterings of the Holy Spirit. What would happen if, for once, you chose ‘you’? What would you be saying ‘yes’ to if you always responded in the negative?
You wouldn’t acquiesce to your dog’s pleading eyes. You’d scoff at handshakes and a waving hand. You’d build higher walls, firmer barriers. You’d think of faster, more emphatic ways to say ‘no’. You wouldn’t contribute to congregational singing, heck, you wouldn’t even turn to the correct page. You’d reject any opportunity to participate in something larger than yourself: a group of friends, a task force, a Ministry Support Team. “Nope, I’m good,” would be your reply.
To begin the New Year with this thought experiment is to tip our hat toward absurdity. It feels a bit much. Who would want to live like that?
If in 2017, we can’t always respond in the negative, can we do the opposite? Well, to consider that possibility we’d engage in a different thought experiment, yet one that would conclude as equally unsatisfying.
My maternal grandfather, Jacob Harnish, loved his wife. Together, Jacob and Alta raised six children. Their eldest child is my mother: Mary Jane. Jacob was bi-vocational, he operated a family-size farm and he was a Lancaster Conference bishop. He carved wooden tops and enjoyed watching them spin across the kitchen table, eventually they either fell off the side or bumped into the flower vase, which stopped their rotation. He enjoyed the game Uncle Wiggly. He owned a radio, but kept it tucked away in the attic. He felt Alta’s cooking was too bland. Yep, not enough salt. So, underneath the same kitchen table that provided a smooth surface for his wooden tops, Jacob built a small tray. It was positioned a few inches to the side of his knee. And, everything was measured correctly so that a rectangular Morton salt tin could easily slide onto the shelf. Upon plating their food, Jacob would wait for Alta to briefly return to the kitchen, he’d slide the tin from underneath the table, shake it over his food, and return it to its concealed location before she reentered the dining room. The hidden salt shaker went undetected for many, many years.
In 2017, don’t sneak around to suit your taste. Let your preferences be known!
Throughout 2016, we’ve identified an Olympic sprinter, gymnast, and swimmer as GOAT. We’ve recognized greatness among us in Lin-Manuel Miranda and FLOTUS. We’ve commemorated the greatness of those who’ve recently died: a legendary boxer (Muhammad Ali), a golfer (Arnold Palmer), and a news reporter (Morley Safer). Each one has been labeled GOAT. Each of these individuals -- in comparison to many others who share the same field of work -- can arguably be identified as “The Greatest of All Time”. G-O-A-T. GOAT. This term gets thrown around to describe a premier athlete, or a play that stands out on a basketball court or football field. Posthumously, we claim a musician, or the musician’s most acclaimed album, as the greatest ever. Commemorating celebrity accomplishments or showing reverence for a beloved relative, we’ll select the emoji profile of a goat, preferencing the kitchy acronym over the silliness of a picture of a domesticated animal.
At this point, you may be convinced you know where this is headed. Yes, Jason, we get it: Jesus is the Greatest of All Time. If that’s what you’re thinking, well, (1) obviously, (2) there might still be something for you to consider before this is finished.
Along with Ben Risser, pastor of Ridgeway MC, I’ve regularly visited inmates in the Rockingham -- Harrisonburg Regional Jail for almost eight years. Over that time it became increasingly unsettling to me that only about 10% to 15% of the inmate population had access to religious Bible studies, Sunday night worship services, or Christian counseling. The unsettled feeling led to angst and then, more recently, it led to a vision of Mission Worker intentionally placed within the jail. So, Ben and I approached Virginia Mennonite Missions to ascertain their approval. Over the past weeks, we’ve considered the possibility with jail authorities, we’ve written a job description, interviewed candidates, and finalized approval of a new halt-time position. I’m glad to announce that Jason Wagner will be the new jail chaplain. You may or may not know him, but on January 29th he’ll join our worship service to share about this newly created position.
Months ago, when Ben and I identified a need within the local prison we were uncertain what might emerge. When it became apparent that position and person might come together, I celebrated the evidence of God at work. How marvelous! For me, the pairing of Jason’s skill to the position stirred me deeply. For this dream to be satisfied seemed to confirm the timing. There is a time, and it’s now!
Visiting those in prison is the sixth of six good deeds listed in Matthew. It’s one of the good deeds Jesus lists as the authenticating expression of one’s discipleship. I’ve wondered if it’s listed last because of its ongoing nature. No matter how often -- weekly, daily -- persons in prison are visited, their circumstances will not be altered. Visitation, prayer, friendship can go a long way in bringing about the necessary life changes, in encouraging those incarcerated to authentically express their own good deeds as witness of Christ’s love for themselves and their cellmates. Visitation can help “pass the time” but it won’t reduce the sentence. All the other deeds listed in Matthew: providing for the tangible needs of the hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick change the person’s circumstances significantly. By distributing food, water, clothes, and medicine a person’s hunger or thirst can be satisfied. Clothes and medicine protect the body through fabric and antibodies. Even, the status of “stranger” can be altered significantly if the welcome is genuine. However, prisoner visitation signifies that these good deeds need to be regular, repeated. It also complexifies what Jesus is saying by signifying a group larger than one person, in essence, highlighting that there are many who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and unknown by categorizing these good deeds along with a prisoner known to be surrounded by many other prisoners.
Despite all that is being done in Harrisonburg (including thermal shelter, food distribution, Faith in Action, Suitcase Clinic, and initiatives to provide better transportation), the “Great Judgment” story makes it clear that the “sheep” had not even recognized the Risen Lord present in the needy, but yet, they acted out of compassion. Neither the sheep nor the goats knew what they were doing. Cognitive awareness of serving the Lord appears irrelevant in this account of salvation. The emphasis here is that faithful servants are those who act compassionately and justly in all situations. Whenever I encounter someone in great need, I have two choices: I can provide direct, material assistance, or I can quite literally go to hell. The whiny, half-hearted middle ground I’ve carved out for myself isn’t found in the text. It isn’t there even though I turn to it often.
In September I attended the annual ASALH (Association for the African American Study of Life and History) conference. It was held in the Richmond Marriott. I’ve traveled many times to the campus of Union Presbyterian. It’s one of the place I know in the city. Over the past five month the turns have become routine. The landmarks are now familiar. But, the Marriott, I had no idea. To raise the stakes, that Saturday evening it poured. Despite the rainfall, the trip was going well until I realized that GPS was taking me onto a toll road, which wouldn’t have been a problem except I hadn’t prepared for it and only had a few coins with me. There was not even one dollar bill in my wallet. So, before I turned onto the toll road, I made a decision: I’d keep following GPS, in the hope that it would eventually direct me toward the Marriott, but every time GPS suggested the toll road, I’d force it to re-route. Additionally, I’d begin looking for a convenience store, which would have an ATM machine. This plan led me out of downtown (away from the Marriott) and into a residential area -- a prime location for a convenience store, right? I decided to drive deeper into the residential area, pausing at each stop sign to consider the options: left, right, straight. After the fifth time of choosing straight and driving further away from downtown, I came to yet another stop sign presenting the same options. It was pouring. It was dark. And, not a single person was around. Of course, the residential area did provide a “convenient” ATM. In despair, I chose to turn instead of continuing further away from my destination.
The turn led me to an overpass, which took me overtop of the toll road I was avoiding, and eventually back into downtown. It seemed as if it was one of the only places to crossover, at least in that part of the residential neighborhood. I arrived at the the Marriott, attended the conference, and withdrew money from the ATM before departing for home. This time I willingly chose the toll road. When I arrived at the toll booth, I realized my stupidity. The toll was 75 cents! I grabbed change from the glove box, paid the toll, and drove home w/o needing the money I’d withdrawn from the ATM.
The other times I travel to Richmond, I’m presented with an opportunity that reinforces the absurdity of this middle ground of unresponsiveness. Almost every time I pass a man with a sign sitting along the street two blocks from the school. “Anything Helps!” Usually I keep my earbuds on and drive by without making eye contact. Midway through the semester Union sent a campus-wide email indicating that they were providing gallon ziploc bags full of “necessities” to distribute to anyone in need. The final week of the semester, I grabbed one of the gallon ziploc bags and, when I passed the man, handed it to him through the car window. The drive home passed quickly as I remembered his smile.
Every time, I have a rather stark choice: learn to live as a sheep or accept a goat’s unhappy destiny.
Sheep aren’t smart, and as established earlier, the “Great Judgment” story indicates that cognitive awareness is less important than repetition and attentive awareness. But, neither are sheep proud. A key to living as a sheep may be paying proper attention to others, seeing “the least of these” as they are seen in today’s gospel – not as indigent recipients of my occasional surplus, but as channels of grace, indeed as the source of grace, as Christ himself.
I’ve been wrong all along to see myself as benefactor and savior to the hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, and imprisoned. Only in rare moments of graced introspection do I grasp the honest truth: I’m unsatisfied remaining a sheep. I want to be – and, more importantly, be seen as – the Good Shepherd, some form of a savior. Yet, in the few occasions I’ve taken the time to be truly present to those truly in need, I inevitably received far more than I could ever offer to someone. I found myself beneficiary rather than benefactor.
None of this provides a complete program of Christian living but it identifies a place to begin at the start of a new year!
In Matthew’s gospel, the “Great Judgment” story is followed immediately by Jesus telling his disciples, “…the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified.” If he’d lived for thirty or fifty more years, he’d have established an organized game plan, including gradual steps and target audiences. He died before this was possible, but he identified a direction. It’s a good thing that what we have is only a template. It’s a good thing that we need to try, mess up, and try again. It’s even better if we never realize that attentiveness to others has become modus operandi. At a similar point in John’s gospel -- just before Jesus’ Passion -- Jesus tells his followers, “I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). In Revelation, the voice John hears, states, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]” (Revelation 21:3). We have the opportunity to become the Greatest of All Time. Not a goat, but GOAT. We have the opportunity to recognize that God is among all of God’s creation, and if we surrender totally to caring for others greatness will follow. But only if we remain vigilant against co-opted terms for political gain. But, only if we give of ourselves. But only if, as a community, we provide opportunities to connect people to need and connect to people in need.
It’s astonishing! In caring for the needs of others we’re ministering to God!
Maybe there was a time to sprinkle in a bit of your wishes here or there. That time is gone. Maybe there was a time to sneak in a morsel, to bring about change unbeknowingly. That time is gone. Now is the time to embrace Christ’s template. To try, to mess up, and to try again. Now is the time to protect people from divisive speech or action and to identify when our actions cause division. Now is the time to guard persons experiencing any form of discrimination. And, now is the time to articulate who we are becoming. Now is the time to explain why following Christ matters and why it is the greatest task of all time!
January 8, 2017 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
January 5, 2017 by Matt Carlson
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
January 4, 2017 by Matt Carlson
January 4, 2017 by Matt Carlson
December 15, 2016 by Matt Carlson
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
Click here for a transcript
Military Uniforms Transformed
Four years ago, Christmas Eve 2012, Steve Cessna read Isaiah 9 like a blast of divine truth during the war in Afghanistan. All the boots of the tramping warriors, and all the garments rolled in blood shall be...fuel for the fire.
As peace church Christians we are not against people. We are not against men or women or children who are soldiers, but the military uniform is not the honor we seek. The peace churches in the US have fragile future, dependent upon whether we will welcome God with us.
I just learned about a military uniform project that seems derived from Isaiah’s prophecy. Florida State University is one of many hosts for the Peace Paper Project in which veterans cut up their military uniforms, turn the fibers into pulp and create paper. It’s essentially an art therapy project. The vets from US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are often dealing with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder or simply struggling to integrate into society, as university students where they are at least four years older than most of their academic peers.
As one of the sponsors described it, by cutting their uniforms vets are releasing the fibers, and releasing some of the memories attached to them. By pulping the fibers in water, they are reconstituting the uniform of war into paper, for making art. Now there is nothing pacifist about the Peace Paper Project. It is sponsored by many organizations that support the military as a necessary and honorable feature of our country’s identity. But in treating PTSD and helping returning vets adjust to civilian life this paper-making art therapy is breaking down some of the inner hostility, releasing some of the pain, and reconstituting lives through creative expression.
Peace in the Christian Tradition
Our scriptures this morning are about God making peace. Isaiah 9 and Ephesians 2 belong to the deepest layers of Christian pacifist understanding of our faith tradition. As much as I love these two passages, I am always shaken by them because our tradition, at its depth, always brings the work of God into dynamic tension with the public, political powers of human society. Biblical prophets lived that tension. Prophets generally opposed the politically powerful kings of their nations. Yet prophets, like Isaiah, retained this idea of a future king like David who would rule with justice and righteousness and bring about endless peace. The Biblical view of God and the Biblical view of God as a peacemaker is always inclusive of and contingent on public political peacemaking.
In other words, the peace of God that surpasses understanding, that guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus is only the beginning, or maybe it is only the outcome, of public political peacemaking. Because, every other Biblical example of peace and justice being God’s desire for the God’s people, God’s nation, God’s world is peace that is being shaped and built and ordered in real relationships, in organizations and institutions, through laws and policies. There’s just no getting around it. In Ephesians Jesus dismantles the law, commandments and ordinances in order to make peace. That’s why peace church Christians today work to change laws and establish greater justice.
The Biblical revelation of God as a peaceful ruler of the cosmos and Jesus Christ as the embodiment, the incarnation of God’s peaceful rule, is supposed to have an effect on us. We’re to be people of God’s peace as a new creation. We’re not just quietly enjoying peaceful solitude, but also in flesh and blood relationships creating peace. Now, if you want a spiritual tradition that avoids the messy reality of violence and injustice—where you will never be called upon to be an active peacemaker in your sphere of influence—the good news (which is actually bad news) is that you will not have to look far. There are actually distortions of Christian faith that do just that. But Advent and certainly Christmas shows us God entering into our bungled political lives and welcoming us to be partners in a peaceful future.
Peacemaking in the Bible
CMC entered into Advent this year dwelling with the first verse from Matthew’s gospel: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. This morning’s scriptures highlight this strange idea that Jesus is the son of David. Of course, if you read the stories of David, he doesn’t exactly remind us of Jesus. David was a man of rebellious violence, sexual violence and military violence. He’s not all bad. He also ministers to someone who is mentally ill, confesses his sin and grieves for his child. Jesus is called Son of David because kings were powerful, public, political figures. The Bible is written by people who had not yet theorized about social action campaigns, or democratic process, or community organizing, or creative non-conformity, or assets -based development, or political advocacy. There are glimpses of these ideas in scripture, but they are not fully formed. The Bible is written by people whose encounter with God fueled their imagination for public peacemaking and they described God as a king, and God’s desire for the world as a kingdom because God is with us in our messy public, political lives powerfully acting powerfully for justice and peace.
Leave it to the Lord to begin with a vulnerable, dependent baby. That’s what Isaiah says. In chapter 7 a child to be born is named Emmanuel, God with us. In chapter 9 God breaks through history in the birth of a child named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These four names are royal. They are public political names fit for a king. The Wonderful Counselor is the wise ruler, who demonstrates discernment in legal matters, so that a good direction is set for society. The Mighty God or, as some Jewish translations read, Mighty Hero, is the powerful ruler, who accomplishes something, who is not defeated, who delivers on promises to the people, who in the face of adversity, prevails. The Everlasting Father is the ruler who lives long, who is active into old age—not a flash in the pan, but persevering over a lifetime to provide for needy families. The Prince of Peace is the ruler who establishes peace, or Shalom, which means the well-being of all—the economic, social and political well-being of all in the community—the old people, the sick people, the married, the single, the children, the immigrants, the childless, the refugees, the wealthy, the widows, the poor, the orphans, the workers, the excluded, the animals, the agricultural land, the wilderness. Shalom is all-inclusive.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders. He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. No wonder we associate this ancient prophesy with the birth of Jesus Christ. Of course, if you read the stories of Jesus you might notice that he never had any formal position of authority.
Jesus had the wisdom, power, perseverance and all-inclusive vision of shalom that people in his own generation craved. I guess he lacked long life. He lived just into his 30s and died painfully, a seeming failure. Yet, the faith of the church from our earliest days is that Jesus was raised to everlasting life and by his body and blood one generation after another is fed and fueled for being people of peace in his name.
Ephesians describes Jesus Christ as the peacemaker who has broken down a dividing wall of hostility between ethnic groups to establish a new kind of human being. This new humanity is also a house or a body in whom God dwells and with whom God makes a home. I want to be as clear as possible. These scripture passages on peace are intolerant of war, violence and bloodshed. They reveal God’s intention for peace—in homes, neighborhoods, and between nations. These scriptures position us as people of peace. I am so grateful for the previous generations of peace church Christians in this Valley who refused to participate in the violence of the Civil War. I see peace church Christians in the Valley today living into the public, political dimensions of peacemaking. We are involved in mediation for families and organizations, restorative justice practices in schools and the criminal justice system, access to healthcare, building interfaith relationships, service to the poor and elderly, advocacy for immigrants, trauma-informed therapy, business and service in Jesus’ name here and around the world—all political action. As Anabaptists, our vision for peace is a thoroughly Biblical, exceptionally Christian vision.
During our vision process this past year Community Mennonite Church described ourselves as a peace church. We didn’t directly link our various initiatives to peacemaking, but we’d better do that. So much of who we are as Community Mennonite Church and who we are becoming emerges from how deeply the gospel of peace has shaped the Anabaptist tradition in the past. I’m hopeful about the peace witness of our church into the future, but we know that Anabaptist Christian history is littered with groups who let peace fade from their vision and practice.
Given our natural tendencies and cycles of aggression, the will to make peace is easy to lose. This Advent, we need the child of peace. We need God with us. We need God’s revelation in Jesus as the Son of David to sustain a public, political, powerful practice of peacemaking. Or we die.
But even if we die, even if we lose our faith, even if in generations to come we retain our intentions, yet fail to realize God’s vision of peace, I’m convinced that God will work in other ways. The God who speaks through prophets and acts through a human birth, who loves the world and makes peace through Jesus Christ is not stymied by our failures. God continues to inspire the peoples of the world toward peace. In Greek mythology the phoenix is a bird who rises from the ashes of death and destruction and is reborn like the sun. A lot of ancient cultures have such a bird in their lore. The phoenix even shows up in the Bible. Job, this extraordinary man—not an Israelite—tried to make sense of his public, political peacemaking work of the past, when he was experiencing spirit-crushing circumstances. He says that from the ashes of present—even beyond his own life—hope for the future is rising. Hear Job 29. Hear what Christ is saying to the peace churches:
...when I was in my prime, when the friendship of God was upon my tent;
when the Almighty was still with me...
When I went out to the gate of the city, when I took my seat in the square…
I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper.
...I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban.
I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame.
I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the immigrant.
I broke the fangs of the just, and made them drop their prey from their teeth.
Then I thought, ‘I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days like the phoenix.’
These are hopeful Advent days, days of not knowing, days of blessing, days of peace. My prayer for CMC is that Welcoming Emmanuel would be a rebirth of our church outfitted for public, political peacemaking in all it forms and always in the name of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David.
December 10, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
Click here to read a transcript
Your kingdom come
ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου, γενηθήτω τὸ θέλημά σου Your kingdom come..., your will be done. I pray this every day. I pray the whole Lord’s prayer, but that phrase--your kingdom come--ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου, is often on my lips and I hope it is in my pulse. Some days praying “your kingdom come” is humble submission--your kingdom--O God who created the universe--your kingdom, not mine. ‘Your kingdom come’ is a prayer of relinquishment of my wrong-headed or wrong-hearted aspirations. Some days praying ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου I’m looking for fresh language--the kingdom of God? How about the reign of God or the commonwealth of God. Other Christian writers and thinkers try out terms like kin-dom of God, which reflects the kinship among people and all creation, and loses that archaic metaphor of king and kingdom. Martin Luther King Jr. used the term Beloved Community. Since I know the Greek word that stands behind our translation kingdom, since I know it is the same word for empire and it makes sense in the whole story of God and the people of God in scripture, I keep praying ἐλθέτω ἡ βασιλεία σου.
Some days praying ‘your kingdom come’ is a longing for something better than the political and institutional structures that dominate our society and even our church, something better than the corrupt influences that infiltrate my thoughts, and reduce my imagination about what is possible among people, nations and the church. And sometimes there is a bit of fury as I pray ‘your kingdom come’ as if God may not deliver on this kingdom or not soon enough to spare suffering people and a suffering world.
The prayer Jesus taught his followers--the Lord’s prayer--is focused on the end--that is, the telos of history. The Lord’s prayer unites those who pray with the end, the goal, the central purpose of God, namely the revelation and realization of a new kingdom one that is already begun and will outlast every earthly kingdom.
Ancient & Current Context
All the while Jesus was teaching and praying this prayer he was living in ancient Palestine under the brutal and seemingly global Roman Empire. His Jewish nation was struggling with whether and how to accommodate Roman influence or to resist. Some Jews took up arms and led stealth campaigns as well as rebellions. Many of his followers thought Jesus would do the same at least when push came to shove. The gospel of Luke includes the story of Jesus’ very real struggle about whether to take up the sword when he was in the garden of Gethsemane. It is in prayer, that Christ resolves to be a man of peace no matter the cost--and calls his fearful community to the same.
A presidential election sharpens our questions about our highest allegiance. Do we ultimately trust in God or government? Do we accept or resist government authority in our lives? When and how does a personal commitment to Jesus have public and political implications? When we exercise power in a democratic process are we acting as agents of a kingdom that is eternal, universal, and protected by no earthly government?
Jesus and his disciples did not vote. They didn’t have that option. But like us they argued about ultimate allegiance, relationship to government, and the right exercise power and authority. They had sharp disputes about how to govern at the micro and macro level. After all, Jesus was teaching, preaching and demonstrating a kingdom, a new political reality that was emerging from fields, fishing boats, hillsides and human hearts. It must have been unsettling, even chaotic, to be among his friends or even among his closest opponents.
The problem back then was that Jesus “took it to Jerusalem.” Jesus brought his revolutionary discourse about this kingdom of God into the Jerusalem Temple. It was like talking politics in church. It was like bringing faith convictions into public discourse. Jesus talked directly about the end, all the while bringing forth a new beginning of healing and peace, at great personal cost.
When Jesus heard people admiring the beautiful stones of the temple walls and the objects that had been given as donations to the Temple treasury as offerings to God, instead of ooing and awing with the crowd, Jesus said that this Temple state would be overthrown. And he described a terrible scene: wars, insurrections, violent protest. Not only violence between people, Jesus says that in the end--or at least en route to the kingdom--before the end and even as the new beginning emerges--there will be great earthquakes. It’s as if the planet will be writhing in pain. Jesus describes famine and plagues--as if basic human needs of food security and healthcare will be threatened. Jesus described a corrupt legal system whose judgements were against the least of these: they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. Did you notice that it’s not just the state, but also the the synagogues? The grassroots faith communities--the little synagogues of Judea--would no longer be places of refuge for the least of these, but party to oppression. These are frightening times.
But in this bleak assessment of his times Jesus says: Do not be terrified. And Jesus says: This will give an opportunity to testify. And Jesus says: Not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. An opportunity to testify: this was not Jesus’ recommendation that we vote every four years, though voting might certainly be a way of giving testimony in a democracy. Jesus and the prophets before him knew that testimony was a whole life, and whole communities. And he promised that under adverse conditions, even under what he considered apocalyptic conditions, Jesus would give his followers words and ways to make a whole life testimony regarding the kingdom of God.
Four Gospels in View
Every one of the gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--include Jesus’ teaching about how to be a witness in the worst of times. Matthew, Mark and Luke include the passage we heard this morning in parallel. It’s a little different each time. In John the closest parallel is focused on inter-Jewish persecution. In Matthew, Jesus’ promise for how testimony is possible under severe conditions is stated this way: it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. And in Mark the good news is that in that hour it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And in Luke it says: I, Jesus will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand. And in the brilliance of John’s gospel in which the adversaries are so close to home we read: But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I, Jesus, have said to you. Reading these together it seems that God’s message to us is that under adverse political, economic, environmental and personal conditions, the kingdom of God breaks in as a message of apocalyptic hope through the lips and pulse of a new political community, the church. When we are afraid, even terrified, the Father, Jesus Christ himself, and the Holy Spirit, will be speaking and acting through us.
Listen, whether or not you fully embrace or understand the trinity, is not what I’m getting at. Christians have spoken of the fullness of God by naming three persons in a triune dance of love and justice. The overflow of this relational God-in-three-persons gives life to the world and plants seeds of the kingdom. So, the powers of oppression may be beating drums that are re-calibrating our pulse. We or people we love may be getting into that fearful, terrified state, but the fullness of God will be filling and fueling persons like us, persons who can give a testimony--with the words we speak, with the decisions we make, with the communities we form, with art we create, with the wounds we heal.
Speaking of healing, I can’t believe we actually read the prophet Malachi this morning without a warning. Malachi used “fighting language” in anticipation of the end, a day when the arrogant and evildoers would burn. Since we repudiate the use of Biblical rhetoric to incite violence and aggression against people or planet, how shall we read this prophet? Well, the promise in this prophetic text is that the sun of righteousness will rise--a new day will dawn, and it will be a day of healing. Biblically speaking, Jesus’ whole story is that new day of healing. Rather than vanquishing human enemies, Jesus indicates that his followers will suffer--war, famine, disease, persecution, imprisonment. But because of what we know of our Lord, even suffering and loss is an opportunity for testimony to a kingdom of peace, justice, joy, and love. It is collective testimony. We are in this together as the body of Christ.
So the gospel word to us--which is suitable in victory or defeat--is that now is the time to testify. And further, that even if it should cost our lives, we have everything to gain. By your endurance you will gain your souls. We are not responsible to make history come out right--not individually, not collectively. We are responsible to give a testimony to the way of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God. This takes daily endurance, daily prayer. This is collective soul work.
This has been a difficult week for many of us because through the electoral college process Americans chose Donald Trump to represent and lead this nation. Since he has not governed before, we feel a high level of uncertainty about what we will experience in his years in the Oval office. Those who have been targeted by his rhetoric and actions feel acutely threatened. And the local and personal hardships we were carrying prior to this election results are perhaps compounded. As testimony, it is a good time to reach out to one another in love--to listen and support each other. It is a good time to reach out to those who might feel especially vulnerable. I had lunch with a Muslim friend on Friday. I reached out to her after the election because I wanted her to know that our friendship is real, that I care about her and her family.
I don’t how you might be individually making testimony under these conditions. If you have a sign in your yard that says: ‘No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,’ maybe it is time to share that message personally with someone who needs to hear it. My friend’s daughter went to high school on Wednesday and was met with taunts to pack her bags and go home. Each of us has someone in our sphere of influence who needs to hear our testimony. As Community Mennonite Church in all our diverse and corporate testimonies, I know that Jesus Christ and all the fullness of God is with us--on our lips and in our pulse. By our endurance as kingdom people we will gain our souls because in terrible times, the body of Christ makes a testimony of hope and healing. We are not responsible to make history come out right, but we are responsible to open ourselves to God’s work within us and through us.
December 7, 2016 by Matt Carlson
Click here to read a transcript
…the Lord said to Abram,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
What does it mean to be “blessed?” It’s a word we use a lot these days. If you use social media, you’ve probably seen lots of posts or tweets with the hashtag “blessed.” We often use it to announce good things – like the birth of a new baby, the purchase of a new house, a promotion or a new job. And sometimes we use it for more ordinary everyday things – good weather, a beautiful sunset, time with dear friends, or the delighted laughter of children we love.
For a lot of us “blessing” has come to simply mean something that makes us happy or contented. And it’s a way to indicate that we’re grateful for what we have. Giving gratitude for God’s gifts is a good practice. Naming an occasion for celebration as a blessing can be a way of naming God as the giver of all that is holy and beautiful and good.
But when we name only the good things in our lives – the successes – as moments of God’s blessing, we risk communicating – and believing – that God is only with us when we are see tangible signs of God’s presence. We risk reinforcing the idea that God’s blessing is with those who prosper, but not with those who suffer. We risk coming to the conclusion that God is not with those who wait - for weeks or months or years or generations - with no resolution to their longing.
We risk concluding that God has abandoned us when we grieve, that God’s blessing is not upon those who struggle every day to pay for the basic necessities for themselves and their families, that God is absent when our life is filled with loss and anxiety and need. We risk equating God’s generous and life-giving presence with our own success and happiness, and equating failure, despair, illness, grief, and trouble with the absence of God’s blessing.
At first glance, it may appear that the blessing that God is promising to Abram is the kind that brings prosperity and security.
“I’m going to make your descendants into a great nation,” God tells a very ordinary, unremarkable man who was living with his extended family in Northern Mesopotamia – that’s present day Iraq – around 2000 BCE. “I will make your name respected and widely known. I’ll be on your side in whatever threats or challenges you face – blessing those who are good to you and cursing those who aren’t.” It sounds like the kind of blessing that is going to make for some really great future Facebook posts, right?
But Abram’s story doesn’t really play out that way. “Go!” God tells him. And so he leaves his country, his family, his home and he goes – with no idea where he is going. He takes his wife and his nephew and all the people who are a part of his household, and all his possessions, forms a big caravan, and heads off toward Canaan.
And suddenly, he no longer has the protection of his extended family. Overnight, he becomes a migrant in a foreign country, a stranger without a home of his own or a set destination. Suddenly, he has to face every day the difficulties of life as an outsider – the cultural differences, the language barriers, the great vulnerability to exploitation and violence, and the loss of home, family and friends.
And it doesn’t always go well. Yes, he prospers financially. But he also struggles to navigate life in a foreign country. Twice, Sarai is taken as the wife of another powerful man. Abram faces famine, the threat of violence, the kidnapping of his nephew, and terrible family conflict – all while continuing to lead his growing caravan of family, herds and slaves through the desert without any identifiable destination.
And nearly 25 years later, Abram – now renamed Abraham – has received this promise from God three more times – and has led his household through hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert- and yet he is still waiting for the promised child who will make his descendants into a great nation.
By this time, Sarah has gone through menopause and can no longer bear a child. And yet Abraham and Sarah are still waiting for the one thing they most long to receive – a child who will be the fulfillment of God’s promise to them.
And finally – finally – after any reasonable human hope is long gone, when Sarah and Abraham are near the end of their lives, Isaac is born.
Abraham and Sarah welcome him with great joy, as God’s gift. And yet, God’s promise was far from fulfilled. God promised to make Abraham and Sarah’s descendants into a great nation. And then, to this couple whose culture valued abundant fertility as one of the greatest signs of God’s blessing – he gave one tiny baby boy, born in a dangerous foreign country, hundreds and hundreds of miles from their home.
God promised to give Abraham a homeland for his descendants. And yet, in a cultural where identity was so intimately connected to land, the only land Abraham and Sarah owned was the burial plot Abraham bought from one of their temporary hosts.
God promised to give Abraham a great name – but to the people who mattered most to Abraham – the people of his homeland – Abraham had been entirely absent for a quarter of his life. Abraham and Sarah never returned home to see the family and friends they left behind. They lived out the rest of their lives in tents, without ever having the security of a walled home to call their own. They never met the grandchildren born to Isaac.
Abraham and Sarah didn’t live to see more than a glimmer of the fulfillment of God’s promises to them in their lifetime. So were they blessed?
By most measures, there were few signs of it.
But the heart of the blessing God promised was to be with Abraham and Sarah. And not just to be with them, but to be alive within them and bringing abundance and life for the whole world through them – through their deepest desires and longings. Through their bodies. Through their most intimate joining with each other. God promised to be at work accomplishing something abundant and generative for the whole world through the ordinary everyday stuff of their lives. God promised that blessing would indwell them and be born into the world through them.
Abraham and Sarah’s only baby boy grew up, and despite the obstacle of infertility, his wife – Rebekah - gave birth to two more little baby boys. And those boys – Jacob and Esau - grew up and, despite the obstacles of infertility, their wives gave birth to more babies. From body to body, life to life, from longing to longing and desire to desire, the promise was handed down through the generations.
According to Matthew’s accounting of the genealogy, this promise was handed down from generation to generation for 42 generations, until the birth of Jesus the Messiah.
And, 42 generations later, a tiny baby boy grew in the womb of Mary - a woman who, by any accounting, should not have been pregnant, a woman living under the reign of a dangerous and threatening government, a woman who, with her husband and son, was forced to become a refugee in order to protect her child.
When Mary learned of her pregnancy she was an unmarried, pregnant peasant girl from a remote small town. And yet she proclaimed that because of the tiny life growing in her “all generations will call me blessed.”
And her baby boy grew up to be a man who proclaimed, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”
Jamie Wright – who blogs at Jamie the Very Worst Missionary – writes about just how absurd those claims sound in light of our popular understanding of blessing.
She points out that “You would never come across a status update that says, “Feeling lost and alone. I wonder if Got is even listening. #PoorInSpirit #Blessed”
Or, “Terrible accident killed half my family. Funeral is Monday. #mourning #blessed.”
Or “Wish I could kick this…porn habit. I want nothing more to live a life that honors my spouse and my God and my covenant with them both #Blessed #Desperateforrighteousness"
And yet that is the vision of blessing we have been given – from Abraham and Sarah, handed down from body to body, longing to longing, until Mary, the peasant girl from Nazareth. God’s blessing comes to us in longing, in need, in desperation and desire that is often met only with glimmers of what is to come.
And that is the vision of God’s blessing that Jesus gives us. Not that God causes or wills our suffering – but that God is especially close to and indwelling those whose bodies and lives are filled with longing and need. God is with those who ache for a lost homeland. God is with those who need protection from threatening and powerful people every day. God’s life-giving presence is with those who mourn and who long for freedom from the habits and addictions and sin that keep them bound.
Some of us do not feel very blessed right now. Some of us are waiting in anguish and anxiety and need. Some of us feel the ache of unfulfilled desire in every cell of our bodies. We are waiting for a job. A clean bill of health. The peaceful release of a dying loved one. The safe birth of a longed-for child. Some glimmer of hope for wise leadership of our country and protection of our earth. Some moment of relief from anxiety or depression. Some strength to resist what keeps us from wholeness.
The promise of Abraham and the promise of Jesus is that, when we turn to God in our need, continuing to wait and long for a glimmer of God’s promise, God is with us. God indwells us, making a home within our ache and longing and need. And when we open ourselves to go, as Abraham and Sarah did, into the unknown land of grief or need or desire, trusting in God’s faithfulness, we open our lives to be a part of God’s generous, abundant, overflowing blessing to the whole world.
The promise of Abraham and Sarah, the promise of Mary, the promise of Jesus, is that God’s goodness and love and abundance flows through us – through the ordinary everyday stuff of our lives – overflowing from generation to generation, from country to country, and culture to culture, cascading from life to life. And what is only a tiny glimmer of light held in our hands becomes a river of light, marking the path through the desert for those who come after us and who continue to wait, as we do, for the day when God’s greatness will break forth like the dawn, flooding all the people of the world with God’s generous, abundant, life-giving love.
December 2, 2016 by alisha.huber
In today's podcast, a recording of a service on August 07, 2011. Members of CMC's pastoral team read a baptism litany, and Brian Martin Burkholder leads an allelulia.
December 2, 2016 by Matt Carlson
Sermon by pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Click here for transcript
Emmanuel--God with Us
A couple of days before Thanksgiving dinners were served across the country, a hundred people or so gathered in Liberty Park to appreciate the poultry workers in our local community. We gave thanks for their hard work both in the plants and after hours as they organize to speak collectively to the industry owners and managers who could improve labor conditions and do what is right when workers are injured on the job. We gathered to pray, listen to stories, sing, march and deliver a message to the employers. It was fitting for both Thanksgiving and a prelude to Advent.
This Advent we are welcoming Emmanuel. Prayer and worship--whether in a park or a traditional church building is a way of welcoming Emmanuel--God with us. Living with gratitude and placing our lives in the service of the meek and needy in the world is a way of welcoming Emmanuel. The Biblical witness is that God is always with us, that we cannot go God where God is not, but isn’t there a difference between just assuming God’s presence and welcoming God’s presence and power into our lives? In the gospel of Matthew, which will be in focus throughout this new church year, Joseph is a model for welcoming Emmanuel. Just when he had resolved on a plan for dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, Joseph instead accepted the instructions of an angel and welcomed Mary and the baby into his life. In the gospel of Luke, Mary is a model for welcoming Emmanuel, and names her son. In Matthew, it is step-father Joseph who names him, Jesus. What Joseph thought he knew about God and faith unraveled and he was able to welcome Emmanuel.
The gospel of Matthew begins: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Clearly there is a back story to Jesus and it has something to do with Abraham, David, and the promised Messiah. In this gospel the whole Old Testament--the lineage of Abraham & Sarah, the reign of Israelite and Judean Kings, and the prophetic tradition of a Messiah are all understood as a centuries-long welcome of Emmanuel, who, according to Matthew’s account, is born to a woman, adopted by a man, embraced by some, rejected by many and will be with us to the end of the age. In this gospel soon after his birth Jesus is threatened by the King of Israel and his family becomes refugees in Egypt for the first few years of his life. Today, we join this lineage of those who welcome Emmanuel. Whether we are women or men, children or elders we enter into Advent with the hope of meeting God who is welcomed by the patriarchs, kings, and prophets of history not as a rival, but an alternative to their power, who comes as a child and becomes a refugee.
Agnostic in Advent
This past week when a CMCer was talking with me about life, faith and theology, she admitted that secretly there are some Christian things that she doesn’t believe, that she never mentions to anyone. This was my confirmation that I needed to preach on being agnostic in Advent. Grammatically speaking being atheistic means not believing in God. Being agnostic means not knowing. In Greek gnosis means knowledge, so agnosis is unknown or not knowing. In everyday usage being agnostic means not knowing...about God. If ever there is a time for Christians to be agnostic it’s during Advent. You see, the whole season of Advent upsets our ultimate certainty and any self-satisfied knowledge we’ve accumulated about the divine. For religious folks, and here I’d have to include myself, who think we have God figured out, along comes Advent and we have to admit that we don’t know. And for those of us who are simply uncertain, skeptical, questioning, or struggling in our faith, along comes Advent and we remember that not knowing is part of the spiritual life, even a sign that God is with us.
Our reading from Isaiah begins: Shall not Lebanon in a very little while become a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be regarded as a forest? Well, maybe...in a little while, but when the prophet was speaking Lebanon looked pretty empty and barren. Maybe there is a seedling pushing up through the soil, but one could hardly bet on a future forest. The prophet’s promise of the deaf hearing and the blind seeing, and the meek and needy receiving fresh joy is a message of hope--Advent is all about hope--but it’s also an acknowledgement that at least at this moment we don’t hear; we don’t see; we are needy; we don’t know. On that day...the meek shall obtain fresh joy and the neediest of all people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel...the tyrant and those who deny justice to the one in the right, shall be cut off. I think of the immigrant and refugee poultry workers who are not treated fairly. They don’t know how or when their hopes will be realized. According to our prophets current injustice won’t last forever, but right now we don’t how God’s presence and power is at work in the situation.
When we don’t know, when we don’t hear, when we don’t see God’s presence or power in the situations that most concern us, we grow anxious. Being agnostic--not knowing--is not comfortable, especially if we belong to the church. Aren’t we supposed to have strong, vibrant faith at all times?! Rather than accepting our agnosticism as part of the spiritual journey, we sometimes fill in the knowledge gap with our efforts or with 21st century escapist indulgences--entertainment, toys, stuff, food & drink, work. And all this is very tempting when our dominant society is doing 27 shopping days until Christmas, while the church is doing Advent.
Silence and Unknowing
What if this Advent we let ourselves be agnostic, not knowing, and experience the gap between our knowledge and...God. Perhaps that gap, that Advent womb of unknowing, is where God’s presence is made known, like the quickening of a child in her mother’s body. Perhaps God prefers a bit of uncluttered space, a mind not yet resolved--or at least dreaming as Joseph was, an empty belly in order to be powerfully present in our lives. Historically the Advent season of the church year is one of hope, and it includes a lot of penitential practices--giving, fasting, confession and silence. These practices create the space and the place for our unknowing, and an opportunity to welcome God in a fresh way.
The psalm appointed for the last Sunday before Advent is psalm 46. It’s a big confident psalm that begins: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. It ends with that familiar verse: Be still, and know that I am God! My experience with being still is that before the knowing, there is some unknowing, or not knowing. For me, being still opens up some agnostic emptiness, where my self-assured theological convictions or thoughts about God unravel a bit, perhaps enough that I can begin to love God.
If you know me, you know that I take a week of silent retreat during Advent. I’m headed to Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, VA tomorrow. If you haven’t planned ahead for a retreat this Advent, or if that isn’t an option for you because of the expense or your stage of life, then you may need to welcome Emmanuel with some stillness and silence in your ordinary days. That’s probably best anyway. So far stillness and silence has never pitched me into a complete crisis of faith, but it’s awkward, especially for a pastor.
It’s alright to be agnostic in Advent, or whenever, and I think the beginning of Matthew’s gospel shows this in humorous way. It starts out with a geneaology. There were 14 generations from Abraham to King David. 14 generations from David to the exile and 14 generations (sort of) from the exile to Joseph. But all of this history and knowledge sort of unravels because the genealogy doesn’t lead directly to Jesus. The tail end says: Eliud was the father of Eleazer, and Eleazer was the father of Matthan, and Matthan was the father of Jacob and Jacob was the father of Joseph, and Joseph was the...husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. The stuff of genealogy, the carnal knowing and the historical knowing, ends in an awkward silent gap of unknowing. Joseph wasn’t the father, but he welcomed Mary and the baby into his life, into the world.
This Advent, if you find yourself not knowing whether and how to believe in God, remember that you’re not alone. The saints who have gone before us didn’t register as agnostics, but they described a lot of unknowing, wondering, questions, and spiritual struggles. Throughout the Bible God often works through people who are uncertain, who have no idea who God really is. And throughout the Bible those who are overly-confident in their knowledge of God--especially the Pharisees, especially in Matthew--are the ones who are spiritually stuck.
A traditional Advent reading from this gospel is about being agnostic. It comes much later in the story when Jesus is speaking like a prophet of a future age of justice and peace. He says: About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father...So keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Not knowing is not a bad thing. So let’s enter Advent quietly, without knowing when or how God’s desire to be with us will be fulfilled. We don’t have to invent this approach to our spiritual lives. It’s just true. We don’t know how God will be with us this Advent season. Rather than making us anxious as if faith might slip through our fingers, being agnostic in Advent means that we’ve loosened our grip, created a space, acknowledged our hunger, named the real needs of our lives and the life of this world. Be still...
November 18, 2016 by alisha.huber
When CMC welcomes new members, we invite them to share a statement about their faith journey. On November 3, 2013, Ken and Martha June Graber shared their story.
November 16, 2016 by Matt Carlson
Sermon by Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship
November 11, 2016 by alisha.huber
Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig reads a poem by Jan Sutch Pickard and leads a prayer. In between, Matt Carlson leads "Shepherd Me, O God."
November 4, 2016 by alisha.huber
In January of 2008, Jim and Anna Bishop portrayed an Old Order couple, Elsie and Norman, who explained to the children about nonconformity.
October 28, 2016 by alisha.huber
From September 22, 2013, comes this welcome, read by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig, and songs led by Jeremy Nafziger.
October 25, 2016 by Matt Carlson
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
October 19, 2016 by alisha.huber
At CMC, we celebrate life's transitions. Here is a recording from February 13, 2011, when we celebrated the retirement of Jim and Anna Bishop, and Sandy and Terry Burkhalter.
October 6, 2016 by Matt Carlson
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
September 23, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Our theme music is “Jesus, I believe you’re near,” composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
September 14, 2016 by Matt Carlson
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
September 9, 2016 by alisha.huber
Members of the congregation celebrate Covenant Sunday by reading our membership covenant together.
September 9, 2016 by Matt Carlson
Sermon by Pastor Dayna Olson Getty
September 1, 2016 by Matt Carlson
Today's podcast features a solo piano prelude by Sheri Hartzler, recorded on January 23, 2011.
September 1, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
August 25, 2016 by Matt Carlson
August 23, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
August 10, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach.
August 6, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by guest preacher Valerie Serrels.
July 29, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
July 29, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Dayna Olson-Getty.
July 14, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
July 5, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Jay and Sheri Hartzler.
July 4, 2016 by alisha.huber
On June 26, we held the official dedication for our newly renovated building. During the service, Jeremy Nafziger shared some history of the church building, including an intriguing bulletin from the 1930s, which declared that "Everyone is Welcome" here. He and daughter Augusta led the children in singing "The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock," and then the kids got to build LEGO churches throughout the remainder of the service. The CMC Brass played in celebration of the commissioning of one of their own, Jon Nofziger, who, with his wife Grace Hercyk, is moving to Liberia to support its developing democracy.
Pastor Jennifer preached a sermon on building a church—not just the literal structures, but a church that lasts longer and goes farther.
And afterward...well, afterward, we partied.
The party included a LEGO guessing jar (Jessica Hostetler was the winner!), a slideshow of the renovation project, cake, and a fantastic musical performance by a CMC ensemble.
Here are some videos and photos, courtesy of Jim Bishop, Jack Rutt, and Alisha Huber.
A little Menno-Hasidic Reggae
June 14, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
June 7, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach.
May 31, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
May 24, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Dayna Olson-Getty
May 19, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
May 19, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Dayna Olson-Getty
May 19, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
May 6, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
April 11, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
March 30, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
March 24, 2016 by alisha.huber
On November 3, 2013, Brendon Derstine led the congregation in singing "This is my maker's world." He played guitar, accompanied by Erica Metzler Sawin on violin and Joel Rittenhouse on bass.
March 21, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jason Gerlach.
March 19, 2016 by alisha.huber
Palm Sunday, 2010, was an amazing morning. We bring you two selections from that delightful service--a children's time and palm parade, led by Nancy Heisey and Jeremy Nafziger, and "Jesus Rode a Donkey, Not a War Horse," a sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
March 17, 2016 by alisha.huber
Today, we'd like to share a German instrumental piece, entitled Hexenpolka (forgive my pronunciation). It's performed by one of our many family bands--in this case, Jack Rutt, and his daughter and son-in-law, Megan and Andi Rosenwink. They performed this piece during the service on September 29, 2013.
The clanging sound in the background is children dumping coins into a large jug as part of the Penny Power fundraiser (now known as "My Coins Count"), which raises money for humanitarian aid projects around the world.
March 14, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
Here is the video from Mennonite Church Canada that Pastor Jennifer referred to in her sermon:
March 11, 2016 by alisha.huber
When new members join our church, we invite them to make a statement of faith. Today, we'd like to share Greg and Kristina Yoder's membership commitment statements from January of 2013.
February 29, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
February 23, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Dayna Olson-Getty.
February 18, 2016 by alisha.huber
In our Thursday grab bag podcast, we sometimes share a sermon that had a profound impact on our congregation. Today, please take the time to listen to "You Are My Beloved. In You, I am Well-pleased," originally preached by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig on January 13, 2013.
February 15, 2016 by alisha.huber
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
February 11, 2016 by alisha.huber
When new members join our church, they have the opportunity to share a faith statement with the congregation. This week, we're bringing you the words Ben Bailey offered when he became a member in January of 2013.
February 9, 2016 by alisha.huber
This week's sermon was brought to us by Rebekka Stutzman.
February 4, 2016 by alisha.huber
A cover of Mumford and Sons' "Sigh No More," performed by Matt Carlson, Nathan Hershberger, Brendon Derstine, and Joel Rittenhouse during worship on November 3, 2013.
February 1, 2016 by alisha.huber
This week's sermon is by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig.
January 18, 2016 by alisha.huber
Dayna Olson-Getty brought us this week's sermon.
January 13, 2016 by alisha.huber
This week's sermon is by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
January 4, 2016 by alisha.huber
Joyce Peachy Lind brought us this week's sermon.
December 31, 2015 by alisha.huber
On June 6, 2010, Pastor Jason Gerlach shared this retelling of the Emmaus road story.
December 28, 2015 by alisha.huber
Sharon Wyse Miller brought the sermon this week, as we moved out of Advent and into Epiphany.
December 24, 2015 by alisha.huber
Joyce Lind shared this litany at the beginning of the service on July 11, 2010.
December 21, 2015 by alisha.huber
Adam Yoder brought us this sermon about Mary and Elizabeth.
December 17, 2015 by alisha.huber
During the Lenten season of 2013, members of the congregation were invited to share their stories of times when they had felt shame. By sharing these stories they helped create openness and honesty among the members.
This podcast is a recording from March 3, 2013, when Dorothy Jean Weaver shared her story of shame.
December 14, 2015 by alisha.huber
Sermon by guest preacher Kent Davis Sensenig.
Our theme music is “Jesus, I believe you’re near,” composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
December 9, 2015 by alisha.huber
Sermon by guest preacher Jordan Luther.
December 4, 2015 by alisha.huber
Cellist Jack Rutt and pianist Ann Waltner welcomed the congregation to worship on December 1, 2013, with this performance of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."