Sermon: Renewed Commitments

This sermon was part of our church’s response to Mennonite Church USA’s request that congregations interact with the Renewed Commitments document and provide feedback to the denomination. We also met during adult Education Hour to discuss the document.

I admit that I wasn’t feeling it when the Mennonite Church USA — the denomination of which we are a member – asked congregations to provide feedback on these Renewed Commitments that you just heard. This is a bit of a Pavlovian response for me. I hear the words “Mennonite Church USA” and I instantly tune out. This comes from years of feeling like I or those I love were being marginalized by the denomination — our voices discounted, our pain not acknowledged, our insights not welcomed. It comes from years of listening to church pronouncements or reading church documents that seem so vague and lukewarm and middle ground that I just instantly turn off my brain when another one comes along because I don’t expect anything real or relevant to come from them. For too many years, it seemed to me that leadership didn’t want to  honestly address the conflicts tearing the church apart, and so we avoided issues in the name of “respectful dialogue.” This ended up making both progressives and conservatives angry and unhappy.

Over the past two decades, about 40% of those more conservative congregations and area conferences left the denomination. The membership in Mennonite Church USA fell from 133,000 in 1998 to something like 79,000 today. I know the loss of these more conservative conferences and churches has made some people sad. For them, they are losing communities and relationships that are important to them. For me, I think it’s helpful and ultimately healing. To use an analogy: Sometimes a married couple finds that they just aren’t compatible anymore — there are irreconcilable differences that will keep them locked in unending conflict, neither of them able to move forward in their lives creatively because of it. At such times, divorce is a painful medicine. That’s how I feel about the more conservative folks leaving our denomination. They are now free to practice their faith with likeminded people and not spend all their time fighting over our irreconcilable differences. The same is true for those of us who remain in this denomination. 

And so, even though I am admittedly skeptical, I did feel a spirit of possibility and freedom when I went to the Mennonite convention last year in Orlando, where the Future Church Summit was held. The Future Church Summit was a time of discernment and visioning who the Mennonite Church could be now — given who remains in this church — and where God is calling us. 

From the beginning, things were different. The team overseeing this Future Church Summit was unlike any team of leaders I had seen assembled at a Mennonite convention. I knew many of the people on this team and respected them highly. It included almost half people of color, it had a good representation of younger leaders and — almost unbelievably to those of us who have been attending church conventions for 20 years — it included at least one lgbtq person who was there because they were lgbtq, not because they were closeted — the amazing Annabeth Roeschley. This team made sure that underrepresented voices were prominently included in the Future Church Summit, including Pink Menno and people of color. Though imperfect, this Future Church Summit was, as Ananbeth says, “a decentering of identities that have historically been privileged over and against others (white, male, straight, cis-gender, settler and the list could go on)…This fundamentally (meant) a redistribution of power. (The Future Church Summit) was so, so far from doing this right or doing it fully, and it was an attempt in this direction. (The Summit) saw the inclusion of marginalized peoples reflected again and again in the themes from the Summit. (During our Education Hour, I’m going to bring this document that summarizes all the themes. These themes were condensed into the Renewed Commitments you have before you.) Annabeth continued: “(Summit)  participants affirmed our movement towards being an Anabaptist people who repent of harm done. Anabaptist people who seek full welcome of all God’s beloved. Anabaptist people who want to worship and break bread and do justice together. Anabaptist people who are living into a shifting of power.” 

At the Future Church Summit, I heard a church being articulated that sounded like ours. It was the first time I ever felt like our church might actually fit squarely within the center of this denomination. It was actually a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. I talked a gay man and former member of our congregation who expressed this cognitive dissonance well. He said something like, “For so many years, I have been on the outside of this church, poking a stick at it. Now, for the first time, I’m realizing that maybe I’m on the inside of this church and my role has to switch from one of critiquing the denomination from the outside to helping to take responsibility for it on the inside.”

Mennonite Church USA isn’t perfect, yet, of course. Actually, the end of this convention in Orlando reminded many of us of how powerful the status quo still is , and it will require a lot of vigilance to make sure the denomination continues along the trajectory of the Future Church Summit. And, I’m still living into the awareness that there just might be a place for a community like ours at the table now in this denomination and that we have a responsibility to be at that table.

With that background, I want to turn to these Renewed Commitments that we just heard. I’m aware that this might sound like just another vague, lukewarm and middle ground document. I actually like it, probably because I’m hearing it with this Future Church Summit background in mind and also because I am mentally comparing it to similar statements that have been released during the almost 20 years I have been a pastor in this church. So, let me tell you what I hear and what I don’t hear in this document that makes me hopeful. And I also invite you to have your own opinion of this, which we will hopefully hear during Education Hour:

  • What I hear is a a theology that doesn’t start with original sin but starts with original blessing. The foundation of much of Protestant theology for centuries has been the depravity of the human. Because Adam and Eve sinned, we are all now born in sin. Ugh. Instead, this document says: “God invites us to experience and bear witness to the belatedness of all creation. We yearn to now and share in the mystery of God’s unending love.” We start with blessing and belovedness.
  • But sin is real. What I hear in this document is an understanding of sin that is structural and corporate and not just the individualistic understanding of sin that pervades much of Western Christianity. Instead of sin being my personal disobedience to God’s commands, sin is named as the “misuse of power in our lives, communities and institutions.” Confessing sin, the document says, means that we need to tell the truth about this misuse of power and repent.
  • What I hear in the “Renewed Commitments” is an understanding of Scripture much more in line with how I believe we see Scripture. This document says: “As an Anabaptist community of the living Word we listen for God’s call as we read Scripture together, guided by the Spirit.” This acknowledges that Scripture needs to interpreted in community together and it also subtly acknowledges that different communities are going to come to different understandings of scripture. There’s not one monolithic interpretation that we all have to agree on or we’re out or are
    “unfaithful.” It also talks about Scripture as a living Word, which means that it is alive and creative and suggests that we may come to different understandings of its truth in different eras. It’s not: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Listen to the contrast between what this document says about Scripture and the 1995 Confession of Faith:  “We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness. We accept the Scriptures as the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life.” It’s a very different feel.
  • What I hear is an understanding of discipleship that is very similar to our understanding. It talks about baptism as a commitment to discipleship, or following in the way of Jesus. It talks about rejecting violence and resisting injustice in all its forms and in all places. It talks about being transformed by the Spirit to reflect God’s love in community with others. What’s not to like?
  • Last, and longest (but I promise not too long), what I don’t hear in this document is any “Jesus died for our sins” language. Last Sunday, I talked about the “substitutionary atonement theory of salvation” which is still the dominant understanding of salvation for most Christians in this country and which many of us find problematic. “Jesus died for our sins,” means, simply, that we should be condemned because of our sin against God, but Jesus substituted himself in our place, taking upon himself the sin of the world and allowing his blood to “cleanse” our sins such that we are now acceptable to God.

Rather, here’s the language from this document on salvation: “We are called to extend God’s holistic peace, proclaiming Christ’s redemption for the world with our lives. Through Christ, God frees the world from sin and offers reconciliation. We bear witness to this gift of peace by rejecting violence and resisting injustice in all forms, and in all places.” Now, that one sentence — “Through Christ, God frees the world from sin and offers reconciliation” might sound like the substitutionary atonement theory I just mentioned. But you have to read it in the context of that entire paragraph. If it were to go on and say that our task as Christians is now to accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior so that we can be personally reconciled to God, then, yes — substitutionary atonement. But it doesn’t say that. It says we bear witness to the gift of peace and reconciliation that Christ brings by rejecting violence and resisting injustice in all forms and in all places. 

In other words, Jesus frees the world  by showing us the way of life. By his example and his teaching, he shows us how to reveal and resist sin with our lives — sin defined (from the second paragraph of this document) as that which fragments our wholeness and as“misuses of power.” Sin defined as wrong relationship based on power over. Reconciliation is about establishing right relationship based on “power with” — relationships of equality and mutuality. We follow Jesus by living in communities of equality and mutuality, empowered by the Spirit to strive to live in right relationship with God, each other and creation. We follow Jesus by, like him, overcoming evil with good, by rejecting violence and resisting injustice. That’s a very different understanding of how Jesus saves than “he died to save our sins.”

Now, some may say I’m reading too much of my own theology into this document. But maybe that’s the point. I think this document is supposed to be spacious enough so that congregations like ours can read ourselves into it and so that more conservative congregations can read themselves into it. No matter our differences, my prayer is that all of the congregations and communities and peoples of this remnant Mennonite Church USA can see ourselves belonging to these commitments: to follow Jesus, to witness to God’s peace and to experience transformation. If we can do that, our diversity will certainly — as this document says — reveal God’s beauty. Amen to that.