Sermon: Mutual Aid: Reclaiming what’s natural

By Joanna Lawrence Shenk

Acts 2:42-47

Preaching a sermon on mutual aid to a Mennonite church is like teaching a class on video games to kids who have PS4s. What exactly is there to say? We know this stuff already. We have an innate sense that mutual aid is important and we’ve been doing it, so we’re good, right? And this is supposed to be a short service, so why even preach a sermon at all?

I have asked these questions while thinking about this sermon, and here’s my conclusion. One reason it’s important to intentionally reflect on mutual aid in these times, is so that it becomes an articulated central practice of our lives together, and not just an idea we feel good about.

I thought of these words from Dr. Vincent Harding, when he was talking about creating robust, diverse community. He said “we need to break toward the natural.” In this he meant, we need to reclaim what’s natural to us as humans, and turn away from the segregation imposed by white supremacy. I think we also need this commitment “to break toward the natural” when it comes to mutual aid. 

It is natural for people to help each other. What is unnatural is to turn away. You know that feeling you get when you pass by someone on the street and you can’t help them for whatever reason? That’s the feeling that something isn’t right. It’s unnatural for that person to be on the street and it’s unnatural not to help them.

There are lots of reasons in our society why we don’t extend aid to others… we don’t know them, we think they don’t deserve it, we don’t have the resources, etc. There are also reasons why we don’t ask for help. We don’t want to seem needy. We’ve been taught that we’re all supposed to be self-sufficient. Asking for help would mean we failed in some way.

Interestingly enough, Sheri’s recent sermons and the Adult Education hours have made the point pretty clearly that so-called self-sufficiency in the United States, is dependent upon the degradation of the planet and subjugation of people all around the world. Capitalism has sold us the lie that our buying power gives us independence, when actually we’re dependent on the exploitation of others in our consumption.

A true sharing economy is not profitable, and therefore potentially threatening to the economic order. One charge against the first generation of Anabaptists was related to their commitment to a “community of goods.” It was threatening to those in power because people were giving over their property and possessions to the Anabaptist community when they were baptized. Granted, there weren’t many property-owning people who joined the initial movement, but there were enough that it was concerning.

In 1527 the governments of Zurich, Bern and St. Gallen made the following accusation of the Anabaptists:

“They hold and say that no Christian, if he really wants to be a Christian, may either give or receive interest or income on a sum of capital; and furthermore all temporal goods are free and common and everyone can have full property rights to them. For we are reliably informed that they repeatedly declared such things in the beginning of their arbitrarily created brotherhood and in this way moved the poor simple-minded souls to adhere to them.” (repeat)

The authorities knew that if the movement became wide-spread the prevailing economic system would be threatened. The first Anabaptists understood themselves simply to be following the scriptures (which was the case related to all their illegal behavior). Their justification for the community of goods was the verses in Acts that Jonathan read. If the followers of Yeshua held everything in common, they would too.

2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
2:43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.
2:44 All who believed were together and had all things in common;
2:45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

The Anabaptists also quoted the Hebrew scriptures, in Exodus 22, related to the prohibition of charging interest on loans. “If you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, you are not to act as a creditor to them; you shall not charge them interest.”

They understood that if loans were needed, the person giving the loan should not benefit financially (by charging interest) because they weren’t in need. They had the money to spare. Their spiritual and theological understandings were the foundation of their action in the world. The Anabaptists believed that the Holy Spirit was empowering them to walk in the way of Yeshua, no matter the cost.

Menno Simons described this way of living as “true evangelical faith.” You may remember a song by this title that we sang a few years go (and will sing later this morning). It is taken from one of Menno Simons writings titled, “Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing” (1539).

In this excerpt you might hear familiar phrases, as well as those that are unfamiliar. For Menno theological and spiritual understandings could not be separated from action in the world. He talks both about destroying lusts and forbidden desires and sheltering the destitute. I wonder if those things are connected… could lust be about a desire for more and more money that actually would conflict with ones willingness to offer shelter to the destitute and see them as a beloved child of God?

“True evangelical faith,” he writes, “is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love;
it dies to flesh and blood;
it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires;
it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul;
it clothes the naked;
it feeds the hungry;
it comforts the sorrowful;
it shelters the destitute;
it aids and consoles the sad;
it does good to those who do it harm;
it prays for those who persecute it;
it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord;
it seeks those who are lost;
it binds up what is wounded;
it heals the sick;
it saves what is sound;
it becomes all things to all people.
The persecution, suffering and anguish that come to it for the sake of the Lord’s truth have become a glorious joy and comfort to it.”

When I think about articulating a practice of mutual aid in our congregation, I think about the spiritual underpinnings as well. Extending mutual aid is practical, that’s for sure, and it is also a spiritual practice. It is rooted in our connection to God, to Spirit, recognizing that all we have comes from God and that the earth belongs to the Creator. So we learn to offer what we have without reservation, trusting that we will also be met in our time of need.

Pasadena Mennonite Church recently published a blog post reflecting on mutual aid in this way:

“Our commitment to each other, to share our resources, is built on an understanding that these resources are not ours, they belong to God.” Then they expand a bit, “To an extent this should raise serious questions about the way American society and other countries across the world have built up conceptions of private property in order to commodify and utilize resources in the market (really turning everything into a market) and for the sequestering of the world’s wealth (a decidedly anti-abundance and anti-all-things-belong-to-God attitude!).”

So our mutual aid is practical and it is spiritual and has to be collective. In order to be mutual we must seek the good of others as well as ourselves. Whereas some of us might already feel we have our needs met, or we know who to call when needs arise, there might be others in our community who don’t have that ease of connection.

I think it’s also interesting to note that among the early Anabaptists, a person’s baptismal commitments included a commitment to mutual aid in the community. People were explicitly asked if they would give of their possessions, when needed, to aid others in the community.

Creating a practice, to which we are all committed, makes it so that no one falls through the cracks. While COVID has illuminated the way that we’re all at risk when the most vulnerable are not protected, mutual aid provides a framework so we’re proactively supporting and protecting each other. It’s also a way to practice a more localized, sharing economy that reduces our dependence on an economic order that is unsustainable.

As followers of Yeshua, and with our Anabaptists spiritual ancestors, let’s reclaim what’s natural, and intentionally deepen our practice of mutual aid together.