Embracing – 1/13/13 – Ephesians 3

Chances are, if we were to take an opinion poll here about the importance of vision statements, we would come out with quite a variety of…opinion.  I’m guessing that we would range all the way from those who see it as a vital guiding declaration of any organization, to those who find very little inspiration or point in creating and holding up such a statement.  I’m also guessing that most would fall somewhere in between those two poles of enthusiasm and ambivalence, having a degree of both of these, mixed in with other thoughts and past experiences with such statements.

During the late winter and spring of 2011, our congregation had four visioning sessions, each occurring after Sunday worship.  It was a time of setting our priorities for the next five years, and creating a vision statement that represented the kind of church we wish to become.  One of the key priorities we discerned was investing in this building in Oakley as our worshipping home and center of mission in the community.  We have already made good progress on this and look forward to a new front entrance with handicap accessibility this year.  Another priority which emerged was how we might use the current rental house for missional activity, such as having a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit or an urban ministry training house for young adults.  This idea has been delayed, but is still alive and, my hunch is, as long as this congregation owns houses, will always be a live question.  We also discerned that we would be best served by being in relationship with just one regional conference of the Mennonite Church rather than two, and have affirmed our commitment to Central District Conference, while giving a grateful farewell to Ohio Conference, last winter.

And, after round table discussions, various proposed versions, and the always somewhat awkward process of group editing, we created a vision statement; a declaration we have sought to keep visible by reciting it together at congregational meetings, and having it present in the bulletin and weekly Musings.  Our vision is this:

As a Mennonite community,

seeking to following Jesus Christ

and empowered by the Holy Spirit,

we will be embracing, engaging, growing.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Cincinnati Mennonite in my time here, it’s that this is a community of action.  The culture of this congregation is, to slightly altar a statement from the philosopher Forest Gump, “Faith is as faith does.”  We are active, have an impact in the community and wider church disproportional to our size, and believe that each person is called to lead and be a minister of peace in whatever way they are led.  This is a great gift.  So, it is fitting for us to zero in on those last three action words of the statement: embracing, engaging, growing.  This is what Council is encouraging us to do in adopting one of these words as a congregational theme for the next three years, challenging us to go deeper into all of the many ways that we can live out this vision together.

One could make a pretty convincing argument that the three most important words of the statement are not embracing, engaging, and growing, but three items that occur in each of the preceding phrases:  Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, and Mennonite community.  Without the Holy Spirit, we cannot follow Jesus Christ, and without staying centered on Jesus Christ, we will not be a Mennonite community.

Hopefully, this is something that we focus on every time we worship, a reality that permeates all we do.

So, with that understanding, that it is the Spirit at work among us, enabling faith to look like Jesus in action, flavored and seasoned by our Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition, we welcome 2013 as the year of Embracing.

Keith has already spoken well about this, and I hope my words can simply add to and fill out some of what he said earlier and what is written in the newsletter that should be in your mail folders this morning.

I’d like to talk about two different aspects of Embracing, and I’d like to do this by keeping in mind a passage from Ephesians and an image from the Guatemalan artist Angelika Bauer.

We’re not quite sure who wrote the book of Ephesians, whether it was Paul or one of his disciples, but for shorthand, we’re going to call the author Paul.  In chapter three of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul makes some provocative statements.  He speaks about a mystery, what he calls, in verse 4, “the mystery of Christ.”  In the next verse he says more: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to the holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”  He goes on to say a similar thing in verse 9, now talking about how he sees his own calling, “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all thing.”

So, there’s this mystery, and former generations and past ages weren’t able to make it out.  It was hidden.  It was there, kind of, but it wasn’t realized, wasn’t accessed, wasn’t out in the open.  But now, it has been revealed.  We like mysteries.  Especially when something about it is revealed to us that wasn’t revealed to other people.

So what’s the mystery?  It’s stated in verse 6: “that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

Gentiles isn’t a word we use in everyday language anymore – but for Paul and his audience this was their primary way of seeing the world.  There were the Jews, the inheritors of God’s promises, and then there was everyone else, and the name for everyone else, was Gentiles, or Greeks.  So, to paraphrase what Paul is saying here: the mystery now revealed is that everyone, everyone is on the inside, there’s no more us and them.  There’s only one human body, us, and that mystery is the good news that Jesus made so clear in his life, death, and resurrection.

Another way of illustrating this is through an image by Angelika Bauer from Guatemala.  She calls this Madres Creadoras, meaning Creator Mothers.


Embracing.  Everybody is in.  I want to look at a few features of this image, but for now, for the first aspect of Embracing, we can focus on that outermost embrace.  The Divine embrace, here a feminine image of God embracing a family.

The first aspect of embracing, Paul’s mystery revealed and Angelika Bauer’s picture illustrated, is that we, Jews and Gentiles, everyone and everything, are already within the embrace of God.  Whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not, even whether we like it or not, God is the first and primary Embracing one, and no one is outside the circumference of this hug.

There is a subtle, but absolutely crucial difference here from how our religious minds usually approach this.  The tendency, even for us self-proclaimed inclusive-minded people, is to think in terms of who is in and who is outside the embrace of God, and see it as our responsibility to help people get inside that embrace.  To get in the church, or some faith tradition, or get into social justice action, or whatever our understanding of “inside” is.

But the issue isn’t who is in and who is out of the Divine embrace, the issue is who does and who doesn’t realize that they are already in.  And there are plenty who haven’t accepted this mystery.  We do not need to undergo a conversion to get inside that embrace.  There is no doctrinal statement that must be pronounced, no ritual to undergo, no acts of service and mission that must be first done to get us inside that embrace.

There is a conversion to undergo.  And there are doctrinal statements, and rituals, and acts of service to carry out, but the conversion is the process of awakening to being already on the inside, and all of our faith statements and acts of worship are to remind us and take us deeper into that reality.

A little later in the Ephesians passage Paul write this: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”  This is a massive hug beyond comprehension.  This is a mystery that Paul is absolutely intoxicated with, and it shows up all throughout his writings.  Given some of his writings about the role of women and the place of slaves, we could say that it is a mystery whose depths he did not fully discover within his lifetime, but that could be said of any of us, so maybe we can cut him a little slack.

So the first aspect of Embracing is a theological, spiritual, mystical, inward one.  It is an invitation to accept that you and we are already embraced and that we better our lives and the world not in order to be embraced, but because we have been embraced.  1 John 4:19 says, “We love because God first loved us.”  This subtle shift really changes everything.  It is a wonderful, delightful spiritual mystery, one whose height and depth we can spend our whole lives exploring.  And it is that inner vitality of spirit that will be the vitality of this congregation.  The inward journey into this mystery revealed.

The other aspect of Embracing that I want to talk about briefly goes back to what our response is to this.  So this is the more missional, outward, relational aspect of embracing, and includes all of those other figures within Madres Creadoras.

It also flows out of another statement that Paul makes to the Ephesians, this one found in verse 10 of chapter 3.  After naming this mystery, he presents his readers with a holy task.  Once we know the mystery, we have a job.  Verse 10: “So that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.”  Whose job is it to live out this mystery?  The church.  That’s us.  We are embraced in order that we might also be embracing in order to make known the rich variety of the wisdom of God.

This is where it gets real concrete.  Real flesh and bone, real personalities, real people and relationships, each with a story, a unique perspective, injuries, and hopes.  This is where it gets messy, folks, and this is where church happens.

As I was looking at this image I first had the thought that each of us might identify more closely with one of those figures, then I had the thought that we are all each of those figures at different times.  At the center is the child, the one who is receiving; growing, but in need of lots of support.  There are times when each of us are in the position of simply needing to receive – hungry or hurt, exhausted or burned out, or just in need of some help.  One of the times I think of personally being in this position was when we made the move from 4233 Brownway Ave to 4321 Brownway Ave.  This will probably go down as the easiest move we will every make, due to the fact that we could walk into the closet in one house, take some clothes off the rack, walk down the sidewalk to the other house and put them on the rack in a new closet.  We moved out and moved in at the same time.  But it was made easier, more enjoyable, it was made possible because of the CMF crew that came out and helped us move and provided pizza for us and all the movers.  It was a time when our family needed to receive some care and assistance from the congregation, and it is a wonderful thing to know that the care is there.  Two months later, we lost Belle to a stillbirth, and we were again surrounded with care.  It’s OK to be in the middle of this image sometimes.  In fact, I would highly recommend it.  It’s humbling, and it makes you grateful for the presence of the church.

The mother is both embracing and being embraced.  She is directly caring for another, even as she is being supported.  I think of all the ways that each of you care for each other through friendships and through saying Yes to providing meals and help during births and hospitalizations.  This is another privileged place to be.

The next person out, the father figure, is someone caring for the whole of the family.  I think of those serving on committees and leading journey groups and Sunday schools and Bible studies.  Caring for the structure and finances and administration of the congregation.  I don’t mean to make too much of the gender aspects of this picture, so hopefully that’s not stumbling block for seeing youself in any one of those positions.

As a congregation we have a reach, a circumference of influence, which is something like a collective hug, and, unlike God’s embrace, there are limits to our embrace.  There are people all in, people at the margins, people just on the outside, popping in every once in a while, curious onlookers.  How do we expand our embrace, and how do we more fully embrace those already within reach?

This year, 2013, we’ll be asking ourselves questions about Embracing and challenging ourselves to be the church God calls us to be.  We do well at our embracing of the arts, embracing of our Community Meal friends and some of the needs of our neighborhood.  We are making our building more welcoming and hospitable through the aesthetics and accessibility of a new front entrance.  We do well at embracing people who are at a place of questioning in their faith and need a safe place to be loved and explore faith.

How can we be more excellent in our embrace?  Do we wish to be more public about our welcome of LGBT persons?  Can we be more intentional about welcoming people from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds?  And if that child in the middle is a newcomer to Christian faith, with no church background, wanting to learn the basics, do we have a place for them?

We who are embraced by God and believe that all are embraced by God have a big calling.  To reveal this mystery to the world by throwing our arms around all those who come our way.  We are the church.  This is our vision and this is our challenge for the year, and years, to come.