Sermon: Who’s Got a Place at the Welcome Table?

This is the first sermon in our Back to the Basics series entitled “Who’s Got a Place at the Welcome Table?” The image is “The Trinity” or “The Hospitality of Abraham,” an icon created by Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century.

So many people contributed to the ideas in this sermon: Many of them are named, but some of them aren’t – so I want to also thank Joanna Shenk, Pat Plude and planning committee member Ben Bolaños as additional contributors to the ideas in this sermon.

Shalom Mennonite Church in Tucson is one of our sibling congregations in Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference. Becca Cordes, whom some of you know, is now an active member there, and Tina Schlabach, their co-pastor, did a trauma training here a few years back. I also work closely with their other co-pastor, Carol Rose, on the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. Shalom fascinates me because, recently, in the space of about one year, they went from being a largely middle-class white Mennonite congregation to being a multi-class, multicultural, multi-racial, multi-lingual church.

It all started when Georgette and Raymond, Mennonite refugees from the Congo, were placed in Tucson and went looking for a Mennonite church. Shalom was the only Menno game in town, so they started attending. They brought another Congolese refugee family with them, and they both began inviting their friends. Within weeks, about 1/4 of the congregation was made up Congolese refugees, and almost all of the children and youth attending the congregation were Congolese. (Shalom is currently 40% immigrant folks.)

Tina began visiting these families regularly. On her second visit with them, they asked if they could have a choir. Tina and Carol said, “Yes!” Since then, each week Shalom has received the blessing of new songs with joy and rhythm that challenge them to move.  Several weeks in, they realized they needed interpretation during worship because they couldn’t understand each other. Soon after, there were also more Spanish-language speakers who didn’t know English attending. So, Shalom hired a Swahili interpreter and got volunteers to do Spanish interpretation. They also began to incorporate more Spanish and Swahili into their services. Sermons needed to get shorter.  There were fewer English songs.  And worship, needless to say, started going longer. They began to ask the Congolese newcomers to preach, even though there were some very interesting theological moments, as Carol said, since the theology of the Congolese folks differed quite a lot from most of the white folks in the church. The church has given quite a lot of money from their Sharing Fund to these new immigrant families, who have also been incredibly generous among themselves. Carol recounts that when another Congolese refugee, Joyce, began coming to the church, Raymond and Georgette took her a big bag of rice and beans. Carol told me: “Raymond and Georgette basically shot their monthly SNAP card on that purchase.”

Two years ago, a Spanish-only-speaking Bolivian woman was elected to the Elders, and all of the meetings began happening in English and Spanish. In addition, church documents were translated into Spanish. At the same time, one of the Congolese men who doesn’t know a lot of English was elected Deacon, so the Deacons’ documents and meetings make much use of Google Translate.  Needless to say, this all took a lot of work.

Tina and Carol are both very aware that they have basically slotted Congolese and Spanish-speaking folks into an existing church administrative and worship structure, and that those structures will eventually need to change to reflect not just “white Mennonite” ways of doing things. Carol said: “I”m not sure how many of the white folks in the church understand this yet.”

The children’s and youth education programs have been especially challenging. Suddenly, there were Sunday School classes with one or two white teachers and nine or 10 Congolese kids who “didn’t speak English and had lots of energy.” The youth group kids did speak English and, as Carol put it, they have a theology that was not formed by the Shalom congregation. Specifically, that theology is not LGBTQ-friendly. Carol and Tina  had been very clear with the new folks that their welcome statement is inclusive of everyone — including LGBTQ people — but there are still attitudes or theologies expressed by some folks in the congregation that aren’t in line with that welcome policy. Carol and several other folks at Shalom identify as LGBTQ.  Carol believes that they don’t have the luxury of working on only one oppression at a time. They have to work at all of the oppressions at the same time, she said — white supremacy, class and poverty, immigration, issues around gender and sexual orientation, and the environmental crisis.

Now, I will confess that when Carol told me the story of this incredible transition, I thought to myself:  I can’t quite imagine this happening here. Would we extend such a welcome table as Shalom has? I’m not sure. I think that’s partly because of the centrality of our LGBGT-friendly identity. I can’t quite imagine having a space where you, our LGBTQ folks, would hear things that might be triggering of past religious trauma for you. And yet, I am also challenged by Carol’s statement that we don’t have the luxury of working on only one oppression at a time. (I’m also aware that I am a straight, cisgender woman saying that.)  Yet I, too, have this sense that we have to break down all of the barriers that divide us at the same time; I have a sense that the fate of our planet may depend on this.

And, LGBTQ-friendly identity aside, I also wonder if there are even more core reasons why I can’t quite imagine us doing what Shalom has done. I wonder if some of those reasons have to do with the issue of cultural supremacy or exclusivity. Let me explain what I mean by those terms. As I said in a sermon from July, every group has a culture, which you can define as “People like us do things like this.” Countries have cultures; workplaces have culture; families have cultures; and we have a culture here at the church.  There’s nothing wrong with culture and having one. 

But the problem comes when that culture becomes exclusive — when it keeps people from feeling welcome at the table. When it becomes a barrier to even taking a seat at the table. Who walks into our congregation and instantly feels welcome and is invited to take a seat? Who stands around the edges and isn’t sure they’ve heard a clear invitation? Who doesn’t intuitively understand the way we do things at the table and has to do the work of figuring it out and fitting in? Who sits at the center of the table, and who gets relegated to the children’s table? If a new person with different traditions around food and table manners sits down at our table, are we open to learning from them and even changing our own table culture? Or do we hold onto “this is just the way we do things” because we really believe “this is the best way to do things?” Because we believe that the way we believe (theologically or politically), the way we sing, the way we conduct meetings, the way we do service and social justice is the best way?

Another way to talk about this is: Who gets to be comfortable right away when they enter our community? Who is not? Whose voices of discomfort do we listen to and whose voices do we not hear, either because we just don’t hear them or because folks don’t feel comfortable voicing their discomfort? As Jonathan Hershberger said, “As a gay person in this congregation, I feel very comfortable going to anyone in leadership and saying, ‘This happened and I’m very uncomfortable,’ but who doesn’t feel like they have that power?” 

I’m aware that a number of folks of color have come into our congregation over the years, and a good number of them are no longer here. As one person in our church observed to me, they’ve noticed that many — certainly not all, but many — of the people of color who stick around tend to have strong Mennonite connections or are married to white people. Now, this wasn’t a statistical survey; it was an observation. But if true:  What’s that about?  And this cultural exclusivity or supremacy is not centered just around whiteness. A white, middle-class young adult in our congregation who didn’t grow up Mennonite told me that she felt she could very quickly establish a rapport here, but that she also understood that Peace Church spaces could be pretty “cliquey” and that she would have to work to integrate herself into a friendship group. “I felt very welcomed,” she said, “but I also assumed that to be fully included, I would have to put in the time. There are churches that are built to cater to newcomers in a way that we have not had to because we’ve relied on ‘the Mennonite Game’ to effortlessly integrate those who hold a Mennonite cultural identity. So First Mennonite feels like family, which is both why I love it and also a challenge. It’s a blessing and a curse.” She also said that there are some people in our church who have a real gift for welcoming new folks to the table, regardless of their racial or cultural or religious identity. I would love to see more of us develop and use this gift.

In our Scripture passage for today, Abraham extends lavish welcome to three people who suddenly show up at his home. We know the three people are angels, but Abraham doesn’t know that. After the angels enjoy the welcome table, they bring a blessing to Abraham and Sarah — a blessing they have been craving their entire lives. They tell them that Sarah — though she is very old — is going to get pregnant and bear a child. It was a most unexpected blessing.

What sort of unexpected blessing might we receive if we would extend lavish welcome to the “stranger” who comes to our home? Could we, in fact, experience a new birth among us? Carol would want us to know that Shalom didn’t extend their welcome table perfectly. She would want us to know that it’s been hard and still is. But I know from talking to her and Tina and Becca that there have been many unexpected blessings and births from sitting at the table together. I think of these blessings when I hear Jennifer Adams talk about her Mennonite church in Waco, Texas, which was also a multi-class, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual church — mostly white middle-class and undocumented Latinx folks. She says: “Our undocumented folks living their lives unafraid was such a testament to living with God’s providence. I hope that our congregation can be a place that sees people who might be more conservative, but are in a different class from us, as teachers. I hope we can have people feel more of an equal connection to that person, rather than ‘I’m the person who has the resources and it’s part of my job to help the people who don’t.’ And I want us to see those people as having resources that we don’t have.” People who have blessings to offer us, just as we have blessings to give in return.

To get to that place of mutual blessing, the discomfort will have to be more equitably shared. Those of us in the church with easy access to the table are going to have to be willing to sometimes feel uncomfortable — and not see that discomfort as a sign that we now “need” to step away from the table. We’re going have to learn to eat different foods and learn new table manners. And some of us who don’t feel as invited, who feel that our plate is emptier, are going to need to courageously speak up and say, “I’m here at the table, too, and I’m not getting what I need.” 

It’s no stretch to say we experienced an apocalyptic moment in the past week as the sky turned orange and the sun did not shine. Apocalypse means “unveiling.” What is being unveiled in our world? In this time of unveiling, what must be unveiled among us so that we can be more faithful to our calling of offering a welcome table, of becoming the Beloved Community? May we trust that the Spirit is at work and that we are joining the Spirit in this great work of blessing and new birth. Like new birth, it is not always easy. But like new birth, it is always a blessing. Amen.

Sermon: Satan

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“Throwback Sunday” is an annual Sunday when we revisit theological ideas some of us may have grown up with and see if those ideas have relevance for us now. The illustration above is from the Codex Gigas, dating to the early 13th century.

Ephesians 6:10-16

How many of you believed in Satan when you were young? How many of you believed he was active presence in the world, ready to ensnare you in something decidedly not good? And how many of you still believe that some kind of being or entity or reality like Satan exists and is active in the world?

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Sermon: Safety, Control, Life, Death

Matthew 6:25-33

This is the second of an occasional sermon series entitled “How to Survive a Pandemic”

As you know, I made the difficult decision recently to fly to Ohio to officiate my nephew’s outdoor wedding and also to see my 91-year-old father, who lives in an assisted living apartment in a Mennonite retirement community. There was no official visiting policy at the time I was there, ever since the governor of Ohio mandated a lockdown of those sorts of facilities. However, my wily Dad had worked out an unofficial visiting policy with staff, where he would stand on an outdoor second floor balcony and we would be 20 feet below him. No chance of us expelling COVID-laden droplets or aerosols up that far.

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Sermon: Endurance

This is the first in an occasional sermon series entitled “How to Survive a Pandemic.”

Genesis 32: 22-31

Imagine, if you will, that when you were in your early 20s, you and your mother devised a plot to cheat your twin out a portion of his inheritance. You’ve never really gotten along with this twin sibling. You’re very different. He’s a person of action, a hunter; he likes to be out and about, having his adventures. You prefer to stay at home, hanging out with your Mom. You’re her favorite.  And, let’s face it, you’re a bit smarter than your sibling. You’ve actually tricked him out of some of his inheritance before. It was pretty easy to do. But you know that your sibling is your father’s favorite — and your father is the one who will decide who gets the rest of the inheritance. So, you and your Mom cook up this scheme to defraud your twin — and it works.

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Race, Church and Change

Mark 12:28-34a

We are in a moment of historic reckoning with our country’s legacy of white supremacy and racial injustice. And I am so glad that we as a community are coming to this moment having already done so much good work together as a community. Building on our decades-long work for LGBTQ justice, we began in earnest five or six years ago to educate ourselves about other systems of oppression and to locate ourselves within those systems. Matt Alexander, an organizer with Faith in Action who has done an Education Hour here and has been to several of our services, has said that among the predominantly white congregations with whom he works, we are at the leading edge of being an anti-racist, anti-oppression church, a church that’s really working on racial and economic justice.

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Sermon: Pledging Allegiance to Interdependence

I John 4:7-8, 11-12, 17-21

I just got back from a two-week “staycation,” and… it was wonderful. Every morning, I woke up and said: “Soul, what do you want to do today?” And then, I mostly did that. So, I gardened and I read and I cooked. One day, my soul even wanted to do my taxes. And, surprisingly to me, my soul also wanted to do some deep family history via my DNA. Years ago, I got my DNA tested through, and it turns out you can download your DNA sequence from Ancestry and then upload it into these different programs (at a place called GEDmatch) that will tell you all sorts of interesting things about your genetics. For instance, one program estimated that about 40% of my DNA comes from ancient European hunter gatherers, about 40% comes from Near Eastern farmers (from what is now Turkey) who migrated into Europe some 9,000 years ago and about 15% of it comes from horse-riding herders from the Russian steppes who migrated to (or colonized?) Central Europe about 4,000 years ago. One program revealed that an archaic snippet of my DNA matches that of a man who lived in western Siberia 45,000 years ago. Other tests revealed that about 6% of my DNA matches that of Sephardic Jews — Jewish people who lived in Portugal and Spain prior to being expelled in 1492. A lesser percentage of my DNA hails from India and about 1% is tied to Nigeria in Africa, the continent from which all of us come.

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Sermon: “In Action – Reclaiming the Rebel Soul of our Mennonite Forebearers

By Helen Stoltzfus

I am sitting in a Direct Action training with 12 other Extinction Rebellion members.  Pre-COVID.  Extinction Rebellion – or XR – as it is called, is a climate activist group that uses nonviolent civil disobedience to raise awareness about the climate crisis and halt our march toward extinction of life.

We are getting trained on the rules of nonviolence, which include not harming property and making sure our speech is nonviolent – which includes treating everyone — police, bank tellers, security guards – with respect.   “I know this,”  I think to myself.

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Pentecost Sermon: Rewild Us Again

Acts 2:1-21 & the children’s story book Wild by Emily Hughes

At the end of our story from last week, we left Yeshua’s disciples in an Upper Room, praying together. Yeshua — the Hebrew name for Jesus — had just left them  — again. After being with his community for 40 days after his Resurrection, he is taken up into heaven but not before telling them to wait in Jerusalem for the big event — they were going to be “baptized in the Holy Spirit,” he promised. The Holy Spirit here is Divine power, what I call the Spirit of Life, a resurrecting Power that works within human beings and creation to bring about the realm of God on earth, a realm that is always in contrast to the systems of death that have been so evident this past week.

So, the disciples wait, together, praying constantly. We talked last week about what this constant prayer might have looked like. I believe that this “constant prayer” is important to what happens in today’s story, because it tilled the soil of their soul, such that they were able to receive the spiritual empowerment we’re going to hear about today.

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Sermon: Growing Up

Acts 1:1-14

Note: In this sermon, I use the Hebrew version of Jesus’ name, Yeshua.

So, I read some good news earlier this week. There’s a vaccine against coronavirus that is in the very earliest stages of its development, and it appears — so far — to be safe and effective. Of course, it’s only been tested on eight people, and it has to go into clinical trials where thousands of people will be tested. But the manufacturer, Moderna, said that if those trials go well, the vaccine could be available for widespread use by the end of this year or early next year. 

I know there’s a lot that can go wrong in clinical trials. And Moderna has since been pretty heavily criticized for putting forth such a rosy and aggressive timeline. And I know that even if this drug works out and is available by the end of this year, it could be months after that before I or others I know get vaccinated. Still, I allowed myself a bit of an indulgence upon reading this news: I imagined a world without coronavirus. I imagined being back at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav with you all at worship, bathed in that golden morning light, together. I imagined what it would be like to sing that first hymn together, after so many months — maybe years — of not doing so, and I saw myself crying with joy, along with many of you, not able to even get through the first stanza without breaking down. And I imagined myself saying, “Okay, let’s sing that first verse again, until we can get through it without crying.” 

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Reflection: Where I Find God

This reflection was given by Patrick Baggett, a high school freshman, during our annual Youth Sunday.

When I think of where I find God in my life, I usually think of two different feelings I have that define God for me. One of those is when I am completely at peace. I usually find this kind of peace in the water, when I’m swimming, snorkeling, or even boogie boarding. My Mom always refers to me as a “water baby,” whatever that means. She says this because ever since we went to Panama when I was five (where Mom did Chris and Carla’s wedding), she’s seen that I really love the water, especially ocean water, and I tend to agree with her.

It’s a different type of feeling when I’m in the water. The ocean is so vast, and I feel so small, held by something much bigger than me. I recall one time when my family was in Crete for another wedding my mom was doing, this time Kearstin and Sophie’s. I remember we went to this one beach where the waves were so calm, and me and my Mom were just floating on the water with our snorkels on face down, looking at all the rocks swell on the ground beneath us, while the steady waves pushed us up and back and up and back.

Another way I find peace in the ocean is when I am boogie boarding or body surfing. I am aware that many other people might find this experience to be exciting or even scary, but I find it peaceful. I think I find it peaceful because the ocean feels like it’s carrying me and supporting me, and the power of the waves aren’t overwhelming me. it’s a power I’m able to be a part of. The ocean, I think, is a very good metaphor for God. Like the ocean, the powerful God surrounds and supports me, and the power of this God doesn’t overwhelm me. Instead, it allows me to participate in something much bigger and more powerful than myself. 

Another place where I find God is when I feel most alive. One of these instances is when I am playing a competitive basketball game — not just a casual pickup games with my friends, but a game that actually counts for something. The higher the stakes, the more alive I feel. Some people would find that more pressure comes with the higher stakes. I’m not saying I don’t feel pressure, but when the crowd is really loud and when people are either chanting for you or against you, I feel like I feed off the energy of the crowd and play much better.  I actually feel like I feed off the negative energy more than the positive.This is especially apparent when playing against a hostile crowd, like when my freshman basketball team played at Encinal High School, our cross-town rival. I started the game off with a three, and from that point on I heard stuff like “#10 can’t shoot” from the Encinal crowd. I really feel like this propelled me to have a much better game. 

I also feel alive when playing with my band. Again, the crowd is the main contributor to that feeling. We could be playing terrible, but if the crowd is into it, that gives us more energy to play much better and give a good performance. There’s just something about being up on that stage that I can’t describe. I wish we could play in front of thousands of people nightly. I feel like this is very similar to when I am playing basketball, as I’m feeding of the crowd’s energy both times. 

When I think about it, my love for playing basketball and performing is very similar to being in the ocean. It’s all about participating in something bigger than I am. And I guess that’s what the experience of God is for me, too.




Children’s Story: A Story About a Baby

By Maggid Andrew Ramer (author of author of Fragments of the Brooklyn Talmud)

Once, a very long time ago and very far away, a woman named Miriam was pregnant, very pregnant. It was a bad time, with a very bad king, and pregnant as she was, the woman and her husband Joseph had to leave their home. They were poor. The land was hilly, the roads were rocky, and it was hard for her to sit all day in the heat, on their old old donkey, bumping up and down, up and down, as Joseph led them on their way. 

Days and days and days later, they arrived at a village where some of Joseph’s family had once lived, but all of them had died, and being refugees, no one would offer them a place to stay, till an old woman quietly told them that they could sleep in her barn. And that was where Miriam gave birth to a little baby boy who she and Joseph decided to name Joshua, after the follower of Moses who once helped to lead their people home.

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Reflection: Reclaiming the Embodied Mystery of Pregnancy, Birth, and Sustaining New Life

By Claire H.

In the early days of being pregnant, the mystery of creating a new life inside of me welled up in moments throughout the days. I was filled with hope that these cells would indeed grow into a life, knowing this gradual process so often ends abruptly. Slowly, very slowly, this hidden mystery became real.

But, the sacred mystery became distant as I rounded into the second trimester of my pregnancy. Amidst blood draws and ultrasounds, I felt like my medical record number was trying to claim my entire identity. The medical system reduces us down to 15-minute visits with doctors who order tests and procedures, who dictate exactly how much weight we should or should not be gaining.

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