By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
If someone had told me a couple weeks before church retreat that not only would we be dealing with pandemic restrictions, like needing to wear masks indoors but that we’d also not have electricity for the first 24 hours of retreat and that I’d be the only pastoral staff person present, I probably would have thought cancellation a good choice.
However, as retreat approached and unfolded I had a strong sense of anticipation and inner calm. I felt a confidence in our community that we would rise to whatever challenges came our way and would create a beautiful weekend together. And that’s exactly what happened.
So many people pitched in to meet the needs that arose. From conjuring up flashlights, to life-guarding, to activity leading, to worship planning, to talent show MCing, to leading the various aspects of the worship service, there was an outpouring of community leadership. Although it might have seemed like potentially the most stressful retreat for a staff person, it was actually the least stressful one I can remember.
I just knew we would all contribute to create a meaningful and fun time together, and that the responsibility would not feel like it was all on my shoulders or the shoulders of retreat committee. Both in our community-created worship service on Sunday morning and as I reflected on retreat afterward, I had such a strong sense of the Spirit’s presence. It was powerful to get to participate in an experience where the flow of the Spirit was evident, as we collectively responded to the needs of the community.
This experience at retreat was an example to me of our commitment to each other and an embodiment of our covenant.
As we reflect on covenant today, I want to think about the historical contexts in which covenants and community commitments are made, to help us make sense of our particular need for covenant in this time and in this place.
The scripture for today comes from the story where the Hebrew people first received the covenant from YHWH. They received the covenant, with its extensive details, as a vulnerable people, recently liberated from enslavement. At a basic level the covenant was about their survival among hostile empires. It was a rule of life seeking right relationship with the Divine, with each other and with the land. For example, the practice of Jubilee in the covenant was a commitment to non-exploitative relationships and a recognition that all belonged to God. They needed the covenant not only to survive but also to thrive.
Fast forward to the time of Jesus and the precarity of his movement. As a persecuted Jewish minority, Jesus’ followers also needed each other in order to survive. Their commitments were both about beliefs and also practices, like sharing what they had in common and supporting societal outcasts like widows and orphans.
The same was also true of our spiritual ancestors, the Anabaptists. They committed to each other spiritually, economically and politically, and depended on the community for survival. They needed each other and lived lives of interdependence.
Where we find ourselves today is a radically different social context that pulls us away from communal commitment and interdependence at every turn. I still remember the raised eyebrows from our tax advisor in Goshen, Indiana when my friends and I created an LLC so we could co-own two properties together. Although he was sympathetic to our commitments, he pointed out that it was much less complicated if we just designated one person as owner for tax purposes. Communal ownership is strongly discouraged by our financial systems.
I also remember the shame and frustration I felt when Eric and I were trying to figure out how to afford more space for our family, as we outgrew the two rooms we were renting in San Francisco. Even given all my systemic analysis and work in housing justice, my first thought was still to blame myself for not having more money, rather than to question the insane cost of housing in the Bay Area.
In dominant American culture the individual is believed to be solely responsible for their success or failure, and in most cases any need for support is seen as a personal inadequacy or even a moral failing. We’ve been trained to put it all on the individual rather than the system. Even while we can acknowledge this rationally, I think the internalization runs deep.
For example, it seems easier for liberals these days to bemoan the idiocy of people who won’t get vaccinated, rather than call out a system that does not just make vaccination a law.
The pandemic, stemming from the climate crisis has made clear our interconnection and interdependency with a global severity not experienced in current living memory.
So we find ourselves in a historic moment. We recognize clearly the total BS of capitalist-fueled individualism propped up on colonization, land theft, genocide and enslavement. But we are still tangled in its web.
That’s where our covenanting together can be a radical act, and even an act necessary to our survival in these tumultuous times. Given what is being revealed at this moment in history, are there new ways in which we need each other as the congregation of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco, gathered in the Bay Area and scattered across the world?
Along with this central question, I invite us to consider communities and traditions that offer wisdom and inspiration as we covenant together. From whom do we need to learn about collective resistance and resilience in the face of societal crisis?
What are the practices we need to remind us of our commitments to each other and to collective thriving? I ask these questions because I truly want to answer them together. I do not want to wade into these deep waters alone.
Today I invite you to experience covenant signing and communion as practices affirming our commitment to and our need for each other.
Just as we have shown up for each other in countless ways, beautifully embodied recently at church retreat, to what deepened commitment are we called as a community walking in the way of Jesus?
May claiming our need for each other, invite the Spirit to move among us in powerful and transformative ways. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Amen.