Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig
Scripture: Mark 9:2-9; Romans 12:1-21
[SLIDE-Native People Transfiguration] Transfiguration
Come, stand outside and look at the sunset. Kent calls me out and we enjoy gazing at the sky together. If you ever watch the sunset, you know something about transfiguration. Suddenly the world is more beautiful than we’ve ever noticed before. The heavens are close and nothing seems quite so important as just being surrounded by the glory of creation. In minutes the colors and the qualities of light change again. The scene fades and we and the world are much the same as before we heard the call. Or are we?
[SLIDE-Icon of Transfiguration]
Three disciples who were still learning about Jesus, but probably knew Jesus better than anybody else, saw him changed, transfigured on a mountain. They suddenly saw Jesus in a new and different light–in a radiance that shimmered with the history of their liberation and law (Moses) and the moral courage of their prophets (Elijah).
[SLIDE-SJB image of Transfiguration]
Some of the Christian artwork depicting the Transfiguration casts us, the viewers, as the disciples. We’re supposed to see Jesus, Moses and Elijah, from our own social location. In this illumination from the St. John’s Bible, the light is so dazzling we sometimes miss Jesus in the center. One version of the transfiguration story says the three disciples fall down, so other artists make show the disciples in their stumbling, falling, clay jar reality. [SLIDE-Icon w/ disciples] In every version of this story one of our favorite disciples wants to set up a few dwellings, lay a foundation here, build an organization there, maybe draft some bylaws, and establish an executive committee–maybe Peter, James and John? But the transfiguration, like the sunset, is not to be institutionalized. The transfiguration is assurance that the God who overcomes evil with good has spoken in history and is speaking through Jesus Christ who will be not only rabbi, but crucified and risen Messiah.
[SLIDE-Black and white illustration]
I admit that a scripture like this really gets in the way of my life and our lives as church. We have institutions–a congregation, a district, a conference, schools, mission agencies, print and digital communications, networks, coalitions and strategies. And this orderliness, this impulse to arrange and describe and define and name and build is human–it’s good, very good according to Genesis. It’s just not all there is. There is also the logic of the sunset–the logic of transfiguration that is momentary, but true and the logic of transformation that is not fully realized, but underway even now. According to my reading of the New Testament, it’s a logic of Belovedness, the word God is speaks to and through Jesus, to and through us: Beloved.
It’s fitting to have the Transfiguration in mind, as we turn to Romans 12. In this chapter we get a sense for the transformation that has begun in the Roman house churches–a transformation that is still unfolding, requiring communal discernment in response to changing conditions within the churches and in response to the issues they are facing in their imperial society, which has some elements to embrace and some to denounce. Their resistance to evil had more integrity when they were also able to rejoice with those who rejoiced and weep with those who wept. The early church was a prophetic alternative to imperial violence and exclusion based on status, gender, race or faith.
Written by Paul and delivered by Phoebe, back in the first century, in the days of the Roman Empire this is still God’s word for us. The letter to believers in Rome refers to transformation as the ongoing renewing of our minds and the communal discernment of a diversely gifted body. So, even when we establish some reliable practices, some healthy boundaries, some workable bylaws, there are always adjustments along the way if we are truly listening for and responding to the One who calls us Beloved.
Romans 12 is not a checklist. In fact, in given circumstances, some of these gifts and practices are in conflict: compassion vs. exhortation–which does my child need? Am I gifted for leadership in this opportunity or do I need to think about myself with sober judgment? Is it time for us to be patient in suffering or to prophesy? Is it fitting now to teach the way of Jesus or must we roll up our sleeves and extend hospitality to strangers?
At one point in his life, Paul himself was overcome by evil, but he was stopped mid-career by an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. From that time on he was working out the logic of love and nonviolence. Paul is confident that these Roman house churches can indeed discern together what is the will, the desire of God for both being strong intercultural communities and for being a powerful witness in their broader society. By sharing their gifts and practicing the logic of love for one another, for strangers and even for enemies, the church could be a living sacrifice. We don’t all have to be crucified to follow Jesus; we are a living sacrifice.
In verse 1 our translation says: this is your “spiritual worship.” Here the term spiritual comes not from the Greek for Spirit, but from the Greek word for logic–logikos. There is a logic to being church. Paul says that the logic of Christlike love means means mutual care and affection, honoring each other in the church and appreciating a wide range of gifts. Paul also says that the logic of criChristlike love means treating strangers as guests, and choosing non-violent responses to worldly enemies. For the record, the Roman empire wasn’t doing that, but the churches have power to at least demonstrate on a small scale the possibility of love in action–not just internally, but as mission in their society. This logic is hard for disciples to grasp, so we are constantly renewing our minds–turning toward God, listening to Jesus, responding to the Spirit.
[SLIDE-Virginia Mennonite Conference]
Virginia Mennonite Conference has an opportunity for renewing our minds about the structures we have in place as a conference. As you know, a polity task force recently delivered a report. Our hope as a congregation was that their report would be public and that conference delegates could substantively engage the recommendations this February, possibly making a decision about whether to accept the recommendations in later in July. I was rejoicing at the work of the polity task force and the contributions of our own Nancy Heisey. I was pleased that the report was shared with credentialed leaders and given time for conversation and discernment by the delegate body last weekend. Thank you to Elena Histand Stuckey, Esther Stenson, and Pastor Jason who represented CMC for that discussion. Now we’ve learned that VMC has established a Restructuring for Mission committee to receive this report and process it in some way for a year. The members of the committee represent the leadership status quo of VMC: Elroy Miller (chairperson), Clyde Kratz, Aaron Kauffman, Beryl Jantzi, Aldine Musser, Joe Longacre, and Ryan Ahlgrim. Romans 12 is not explicitly about restructuring for mission, but it is very concerned about both internal church patterns and witness in the broader society. This chapter advocates for a discerning, thinking, diversely gifted body responsible for living out God’s logic of love in a challenging context. Some of us are disappointed that congregations like Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship and Raleigh Mennonite Church have left VMC because they are not supported as discerning bodies of believers with gifts that we need in order to make a faithful witness in our society. How does Romans 12 speak to us as a member congregation in this conference?
A transfigured moment
This week I also experienced a transfiguration. Here’s the background. Faith in Action had arranged a meeting with the Mayor of Harrisonburg. Our purpose was to share the 3-part criminal justice “ask” that Faith in Action is advancing in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Our CMC representatives Aliese Gingerich and Kent Davis Sensenig were part of the unanimous decision in a standing room only meeting among the congregations of Faith in Action. With the 24 congregations of Faith in Action we, Community Mennonite Church, are committed to do three things:
[SLIDE-Faith in Action]
to eliminate the burdensome $1/day fee that is assessed for inmates at our jail–$3/day at the Middle River facility. Families of incarcerated persons report that this fee becomes a significant financial hardship over time. According to VA state code, our sheriff has discretion about whether to charge any fee. In partnership with various community organizations and with the help of city council and county board of supervisors, we want to urge Sheriff Hutchinson to eliminate $1/day.
[SLIDE-Faith in Action]
and to press the city and county to jointly hire a community justice planner. There is already advocacy underway for this kind of hire, which would track data and potentially reduce our incarceration of low-level offenders.
[SLIDE-Faith in Action]
And the third part of our ask is to make restorative justice the default option for juveniles in our local criminal justice system. The US leads the world in incarceration. These are specific, winnable structural changes that emerged from a local grassroots listening process and analysis of current conditions. Working with Faith in Action is committing to advancing these three “asks.”
So the transfiguration? In this meeting with our mayor, an ally in criminal justice reform, we talked local politics and strategy for how best to approach various decision-makers and achieve these goals. She offered wise cousel. But at one point in our meeting with Mayor Deanna Reed–there was a change. And like the sunset, it crept up on me. Suddenly there were recollections of the past and hopes for the future converging in the present. She said Faith in Action’s work was not only about specific criminal justice reforms and infrastructure, but about racial healing in this city and county–for restoration of families who have been harmed by local politics of incarceration. She told stories and shared hope. We from Faith in Action shed some tears and listened. Mayor Reed called us to see with eyes of faith what is and what can be through our work. It was like God was speaking–through the African American woman, who grew up here, lives in the Northeast neighborhood, and as a politically engaged Christian is serving as mayor. And then it faded and our hour and 20 minute meeting concluded. We all went to our next appointments. And we are the same clay jars, but in that transfigured moment we were in touch with the extraordinary power of God.
Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. In this worship series, Treasure in Clay, we have acknowledged our fragility and brokenness. We have also affirmed the value of our various gifts and that we ourselves are gifts to each other. As I share Romans 12 once more pay attention to which parts shimmer for you. What is God’s word for you today? Which part of this passage is for our congregation internally? Which part is for our relationships with our conference? Which part is for Faith in Action as we engage our congregations and public officials?[/otw_shortcode_content_toggle]
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