Resurrection Life: Commissioned – I have sent them
Sermon by Pastor Jennifer Davis Sensenig
"It's OK to Be Different"
Scripture: John 17:6-19
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It's OK to be different
Jennifer Davis Sensenig
John 17:6-19; Psalm 1
Jesus Prays for Disciples
Our Father, who is in heaven, holy is your name… This is the beginning of what we commonly call The Lord's Prayer. The scripture we heard from John 17 this morning is sometimes called "the other Lord's prayer." Jesus prayed to God for his original disciples and for those "who will [as Jesus says] believe in me through their word." That means Jesus prayed for you, for me, for us as the church…and those who will believe in Christ through our words. Being prayed for is always a mysterious blessing. Intercessory prayer, praying for somebody else, acknowledges and engages the power of God who created and currently influences the person for whom we pray. Our relationship of abiding in God becomes available to others. So praying for people is a good idea. And if you've gotten out of the habit, begin again.
Within Jesus' prayer for us lies a theme that is part of the ethical frame for Anabaptist-Mennonite believers for 500 years. We don't have exclusive claim to this theme, but we're known for this. Jesus prays for disciples who are "in the world, but not of the world" (John 17:16). If we've heard this slogan all our lives, perhaps we've forgotten how very radical it is. To be "in the world, but not of the world" is to be decidedly different from the mainstream, not by accident, but by choice. Another term Anabaptist Christians have frequently used to describe this value is "non-conformity."
But here's the thing. Historically, we Anabaptist Mennonites have agreed that we would all practice non-conformity in the same way–that is conform to a non-mainstream practice. Looking back, our practice of non-conformity to the world seems great when all our men refuse to go to war. On the other hand our practice of being in the world, but not of the world doesn't seem so great when all our women are required to keep their hair long and their heads covered. Many of you who grew up in Anabaptist-Mennonite congregations have stories about how conformity to your group, your church was sometimes oppressive.
Some of us here at CMC are still emotionally and spiritually resisting oppressive church rules about conformity. Perhaps we were harmed by congregations who enforced non-conformity. And there are other CMCers, myself among them, who were drawn to this Anabaptist-Mennonite stream of the church in part because this is a church in which it's OK to be different–not just randomly different–it's OK to be different because we're following Jesus. We came from the world. We came from churches that didn't distinguish enough between the way of Jesus and the way of the world. I may have oversimplified the different directions we come from and where we're headed, but you're catching on that there are potential conflicts between these two groups in contemporary Mennonite congregations.
Let's get back to the gospel of John where Jesus prays for disciples who do not belong to the world. Before we go too far in condemning the world, remember that this is the same Gospel in which we hear the profound good news that: "God so loved the world that God sent Jesus into the world, so that those who believe him would be saved from death for eternal life. Because God didn't send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Jesus–the Word of God made flesh."
HS Bender, a Mennonite leader of the 20th century and author of the The Anabaptist Vision wrote an entry in the Mennonite Encyclopedia. "A major difficulty has been that of identifying precisely what "world" is, and therefore what "worldliness" is. The temptation, not always avoided, has been to emphasize aspects of culture as worldly because they are easily identified, while overlooking the deeper aspects of worldliness such as materialism. [Today we might add white privilege and patriarchy.] Nevertheless the problem of worldliness has been and remains a major concern for all earnest Christians who endeavor to follow their Lord closely in true discipleship, and requires all the resources of grace and insight to master it." [GAMEO.org]
So, first we take care how we define worldliness and from what we disciples need to separate ourselves. We must be selective and discerning about how we engage the world–its vices and oppressions, its blessings and opportunities. Second, we're not anti-world. If we're Jesus' disciples we are sent into the world as agents of love.
Congregations like Community Mennonite Church inherit Bender's love for the world by our spirit of inquiry. We want to learn, explore and create. We do not fear the world, but we do practice non-conformity to the world as a matter of allegiance to the way of Jesus.
So here are some ways that CMCers are practicing non-conforming to the world. Sexual chastity. That means not having sex with anybody, unless you're married and then only with your spouse. The world has a different set of standards when it comes to sex. As Christians it's OK, it's good to be different from the world's standards with regard to sex.
You know, in a previous era Mennonites did not drink alcohol, but these days lots of Mennonite Christians do drink alcohol. So for those who abstain from alcohol it's a an act of non-conformity to a world suffering from addiction and substance abuse. It's OK, it's good to be different from the world in this respect. I've heard some CMC parents explain their decision, not to abstain from alcohol entirely, but to remove it from their home while their children are in adolescence. This too is an act of non-conformity.
Some CMCers practice being in the world, but not of the world, by resisting the militarization of our society–working for peace, refusing to comply with war taxation. Since April 15, tax day, I've been receiving war-tax resistance letters from CMCers who withhold or re-direct taxes that would fund the military. We keep a copy of their letters to the IRS, and congress members on file. It's OK, it's good, to be different from the mainstream law-abiding, tax-paying American, who unwittingly funds violence against the poor around the world.
Some CMCers practice being in the world, but not of the world by rejecting the values of meritocracy and redefining success. Basically, some of us don't have impressive jobs and that's in part to establish new patterns in a society that values persons based on how much money they have, how many diplomas, how much they earn. It's OK, it's good, to separate ourselves from the status-conscious, upwardly mobile pattern of our society.
Some CMCers practice non-conformity by growing some of our own food in a society which cheapens food, the soil from which it comes, the farmers who produce it, and the people who prepare it. It's OK, it's good, to be different from the world…even if it means showing up for worship with dirt under your fingernails.
These are just a few practices among many. If you step outside the mainstream and live a chaste life, or resist militarism, or live simply or abstain from alcohol, you meet interesting people who are doing similar things for different reasons. But as members of Jesus' community these are not just free-floating values, these are ways that we express our allegiance to Jesus. We don't consider ourselves holier than anybody else in this world, just because we have some sturdy practices of non-conformity. All of us are in the world and need a savior. And Jesus has come for us–to abide in us, to lay down his life for us. Jesus prays for us in the world, to become more and more Christlike, so that others will recognize God's love and God's life in us.
A Christlike Difference in the World
If we don't fit society's norms because we're disciples of Jesus, then it's not just OK to be different, it's good. It's good for us and for the world. Non-conformity is not always comfortable or easy; it doesn't gain you access to worldly power or wealth, but it makes a Christlike difference in us and in the world. I'm so grateful for the witness of this congregation. What you're doing in your life that might seem like a tiny act of resistance against the fierce powers of worldliness, is true inspiration to your brother or sister, your neighbors or even a stranger. Don't give up. Be in the world, not of the world. Make a Christlike difference in the world. It's OK to be different. It's good.
On Tuesday this week during Monthly Gathering one of our pastoral elders, Matthew Hunsberger will guide us in part one of two sessions focused on Difficult Conversations. When Matt and Larry and I were preparing for worship this morning, one way we said we wanted to practice non-conformity with the world was to be politically engaged without the mean-spirited rancor and us/them language that seems to create enemies rather than dialogue. Is it possible for people with conviction about the common good to engage difficult conversation without harming others? We're going to learn some skills, so join us on Tuesday.
Friends, I'm proud of the ways CMCers are separate from the world. And like you, I'm distressed when we lack the courage to be different from the world. This week I challenge you to talk with someone–your child, your small small group, a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor–about why you persist in whatever practices of non-conformity you've adopted. It's OK, it's good, to be different when you're expressing a Christlike difference in the world.
Jesus prays for disciples who are different from the world. Many New Testament passages address separation from the world, being delivered from the world, being unstained by the world. These scriptures refer to "the world" as the system of domination and sin that operates at a systemic level, infiltrates every institution we've ever created including our families and churches and influences us individually in our thoughts and feelings. It's not surprising that some of us, some days, feel hopelessly entangled in worldliness. Are we making any Christlike difference in the world? I'm not the judge. But the judge, who is now seated at the right hand of God, as we say, Jesus has prayed for you, given you an example, sacrificed worldly success to join you in the struggle against the vices and oppression of the world. That undertow you feel is real, but we believe that Jesus rescues us. God loved the world so much, that God sent us Jesus.
Nathan Nettleton, a Baptist pastor in Australia, paraphrased John 17 in way that highlights the best of what we Anabaptists intend with our pledge of non-conformity. Listen to Jesus' prayer for us:
"[And] I say these things while the world is still in earshot,
so that those who listen may, like me,
experience a joy that goes right off the scale.
I have given them your message,
and now this godless world can't stand them,
because they won't play by the world's rules,
just as I never played by the world's rules.
I am not asking you to take them out of the world,
but I do ask that you keep them safe from the evil one.
They don't take their cues from this world,
because my dance has a different tune.
Immerse them in truth to make them a sacred people,
for your word is the truth which makes things holy.
Just as you sent me into the world on your mission,
so now I am sending them into the world.
I have dedicated myself one hundred percent, for their sake,
so that they in turn may commit themselves totally to the truth."
Today is the last Sunday before Pentecost. On this Sunday we sometimes read about Jesus ascending into heaven. But today we have this earthy scripture about Jesus' prayer ascending to God, a prayer for people in the world, but not of the world, people who are through Christ, no longer trapped by the world, but in touch with the power of God that can save the world through love. It is a prayer for the time when Jesus is lifted up, so that we might be a Christlike difference in the world.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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