Back to the Basics: Reintroducing the Church to Itself
Matthew 10:1-5, 7-13
During this series, we are reweaving the story of our church after the unraveling of the pandemic and so many losses. This has been holy work, this mending of the fabric of our community. We have listened to sacred stories from our wise ones about who we’ve been, and what we’ve endured. Those stories seem to me like the warp of a fabric or textile, those long strands that form the basic structure of it. (I invite you to look at the photo on the cover of your order of worship to see what I’m talking about.) And, last Sunday, we listened to sacred testimonies about who we are now, what we offer to each other and the world. Those stories seemed to me like the weft of a textile, the colorful strands that weave in and out of the warp to form beautiful and creative patterns.
This Sunday, Joanna and I are going to go into the future to imagine the pattern that might be emerging. See all that empty space in the photo on your cover— what possibility! Who might we become? Who do we feel drawn to become? What desires and dreams is that Master Weaver giving us right now so that we might begin to weave them into the fabric of who we will be?
When most of us look into the future, we are scared, anxious. And we have reason to be. There is growing inequality, the rise of political polarization, the rise of authoritarianism all exacerbated by algorithms that seem to bring out the worst angels of our nature. There’s not only climate change, but there’s also biodiversity loss, deforestation, ocean acidification. I listened to a podcast this week that said the weight of plastic on this planet is now twice the weight of all animals on the earth. We (and by we, I mean mostly those of us in the Global North and wealthier people around the globe) we are consuming — and polluting — the earth, our home, faster than it can regenerate itself. We are in ecological overshoot, and no one in the mainstream is really talking about this, even though I believe it is going to greatly impact our lives in the coming decades. It already is.
And, the crises we are facing have huge fat seeds of hope in them. We may be forced to find a new way of living on this planet in a just and sustainable way. As the ecological economist Kate Raworth says, “Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer.” We are finally being forced to face that challenge head on. That’s exciting! And frightening.
Who are we, as a community, being invited to become in the midst of this? Joanna and I are going to offer four invitations from the future. We base these invitations on what we’ve heard you saying, on the desires and dreams that seem to be emerging from among us:
We are invited to let our light shine. Since I started as pastor in 2000, Kenda Horst has been urging us to have a presence at Pride events and other street fairs. But, we’ve never done that. Why aren’t we out there marching in the First Mennonite contingent in the Pride parade? Why don’t we have a table or booth at the Castro Street Fair?
We have a light to shine. Sharon Heath mused to me recently: “What do we have to offer our community and the Bay Area? Deep spirituality and loving presence to each other. How do we push that out into San Francisco and Oakland and San Jose to people who need that kind of care, that kind of community?” And Kelli Pearson, in a drop-the-mic moment during last week’s Adult Education Hour, said, “What do we have to offer? We are an influence in the world for: climate change, LGBTQ rights, social justice, anti-racism, prison reform, trauma awareness, church inclusivity and reform of outdated rules, sustainability, healing trauma (including spiritual trauma), new interpretations of scripture, challenging traditional oppressive religion, anti-patriarchy, deep spirituality, questioning is welcomed, community, connection with the earth, handicrafts, authenticity, vulnerability. First Mennonite is a thought leader. We have stayed too small. Our message is desperately needed in the world.”
Why haven’t we let our light shine more? I think many of us are very wary of being evangelical, based, as that is, on a kind of Christian triumphalism that we reject. In addition, many of us have been deeply hurt by evangelical communities and beliefs. For many of us, a fair amount of religious trauma comes up around the idea of “spreading the good news.” But, we have to get over this, for all the reasons we’ve just heard Sharon and Kelli articulate. People need what we have. And I believe that, as the multiple crises I mentioned previously continue to deepen, people are going to need what we have even more.
In addition, what would it be like if our light also shined bright because we are regarded as a force for political and social transformation in our community and in the world? What if folks in San Francisco, when they thought of Mennonites, thought of those people, working with others, who are at the forefront of a powerful movement that is bringing affordable housing to this city? As Jim Lichti imagined last Sunday, what if we were so plugged in politically that this region knew who Mennonites were whether or not they ever came to this church?
A few years ago a group of folks from FMCSF developed a beautiful image for a street mural coordinated by the East Point Peace Academy. The images for the street mural were created by multiple Bay Area justice organizations in preparation for nonviolent direct actions that may have been needed if there was an attempted coup following the 2020 election. Our street mural image included a simple quilt design with the words, “Do Justice, Walk Humbly.”
As in the scripture passage today, this is the way we want our light to shine. We are called to be present in the world, traveling lightly and traveling together, offering what we have humbly, and giving and receiving hospitality. In recent generations, North American Mennonites have often been the ones offering hospitality, especially those Mennonites of European descent. However, in keeping with the scripture passage, part of our calling now as a congregation is to humbly receive the hospitality of others, as we grow in our capacity to stand in solidarity across differences. When one experiences what it’s like to be in need of hospitality, one’s capacity to offer welcome can also grow.
Our second invitation flows from this disposition, as we are invited to expand our welcome. As our elders at retreat shared, a commitment to expansive welcome is part of our DNA as a congregation. Queer and straight people in this congregation created a safe place for lesbian and gay Christians who had been traumatized and pushed out of other church communities. These early members of the congregation knew what it was like to be marginalized and sought to create a healing and inclusive space.
We also have an expansive welcome across religious beliefs, not requiring participants to claim Christian faith or any faith for that matter, as we draw from the wells of many religious traditions. We have been students of Christain hegemony/dominance and seek accountability from Eli Ramer and other Jewish people in not perpetuating anti-Semetism in our worship and life together.
And there are ways we need to deepen this practice of welcome. This is both an invitation to develop our collective consciousness around the limits of our welcome and an invitation to democratize our practice of welcome so that we’re all participating in welcoming those who are new or on the margins of our community.
As a congregation made up of a majority of white people, developing this collective consciousness is in part an invitation to de-center whiteness. Movement elder Vincent Harding articulates that we must recognize how white supremacy has made whiteness normative, meaning that white norms can easily and unreflectively take up all the space. So the invitation in community is to learn to take up an appropriate amount of space – for white people this is letting go of that normativity so that there is more space for people of color, and non-Eurocentric practices, to shape the community.
Blindspots around behavior that excludes are inevitable when whiteness is centered, which means the congregation not only harms participants of color but also misses out on the possibility of becoming more diverse. As Sheri said, the challenges we face have big fat seeds of hope in them, which is totally the case in seeking to become a more welcoming and diverse community.
As we democratize our practice of welcome, what gifts might be revealed? Who are the musicians and singers among us who have different styles of worship to share? How might we move away from head-centric worship, and give more space to heart and body-centric worship? What if we stretched our language muscles and created a service that was in every language we speak other than English as a reminder of the linguist diversity among us? How might we develop awareness around blindspots and non-defensively adapt our practices?
This flexibility is part of our third invitation, which is to experiment and create new ways of being community together. We’ve named our need to address the exclusion that exists along lines of language, culture, and race, but we also need to address the exclusion that exists in the Bay Area along the lines of class. This is an expensive place to live and we have had many people leave the congregation to move to more affordable parts of the country.
As we imagine the future of our congregation, what might it look like to return to our roots as an intentional community? Already in the congregation we have some examples of co-housing. How can we expand that model so that younger people and families, as well as retirees are not priced out, but rather can live here sustainably and in community?
This invitation also highlights the ongoing importance of our public witness and advocacy for affordable housing in San Francisco and beyond. We partner with other religious communities through Faith in Action Bay Area to fight for affordable housing, not just because it’s the moral thing to do, but also because we need it too!
These first three invitations reflect the dual nature of our calling in this time. We are both called to be present in the world, letting our light shine, and we are called to tend to the well-being of our community so we can keep showing up for each other and for the work of transformation more broadly.
This dual calling brings us to the fourth invitation – to embody the flexibility, resilience, and nimbleness needed for the future. We are well aware of how covid has altered our lives, individually and collectively. There’s no going back to the way things were. We are moving into an unknown future, filled with perils and possibilities.
Now is the time to be deeply rooted in the spiritual traditions from which this community has sprung forth. As followers of Jesus our path is one of ongoing discipleship and transformation rooted in a belief that God is first and foremost a force for liberation and healing, flowing from God’s deep love for us and for all creation. As Mennonites we seek to embody the way of Jesus in the complexities of daily life, rather than focusing on having all our theological ducks in a row. As spiritual seekers, we value the wisdom beyond Christainity and organized religion, recognizing the unbounded creativity of the Spirit alive in the world.
With these deep roots and the rich tapestry of our common life – past, present and moving into the future – we are called to shine our light like never before. We are called to expand our welcome so we can more fully embody the kindom of God. We are called to experiment with new ways of being community together, both in worship and in the nitty gritty details of our lives. And we are called to nimbly and resourcefully move into the future, flexibly shaping and re-shaping our community as we seek the Spirit’s wisdom and guidance.
In all of this the Great Weaver is at work, creating a beautiful tapestry from the colorful strands of our lives. Amen. May it be so.