Text: Philippians 2:12-18
Talking about the importance of church conference during worship feels a little bit like Ira Glass talking about the importance of public radio during an NPR fund drive. Rather than try and go directly for the hard ask, Ira Glass takes the more subtle approach of reminding listeners how much they benefit from NPR, whether they give or not. NPR is a part of your life, he says. You like it so much you even listen to it during fund drives. It’s supported by listeners just like you, and even if you don’t give, it will continue giving you the programming you’ve come to depend on.
It could be an annoying tactic if Ira Glass wasn’t so disarmingly charming. So, maybe that’s what finally nudges you over the edge to donate to public radio, or maybe you just smile at the clever, pure-hearted marketing attempt and keep driving.
Our main goal today isn’t to get people to give to conference, although Central District will always accept your money and would put it right to good use. Our conference has encouraged its congregations to have a CDC Sunday to highlight how we do church together and the connections that sustain us as a conference. Connections with each other keep us from being isolated in our own world and help us all better carry out the mission of God is our communities. I’m fully aware that conference can mean very little to people. I will not ask for a show of hands, but if the first thing that comes to mind when you hear CDC is Center for Disease Control and not Central District Conference, you are almost certainly not alone. At least having predisposed positive connotations with CDC means we’re off to a good start. Just think of this as the other CDC that most of us don’t know what they really do, but are confident it’s important for our general wellbeing.
Our Conference minister, Lois Kaufmann uses the analogy of a grove of sequoia trees to describe what our conference is like. Sequoia trees are known for being massive, some growing well over 250 feet tall. But they have a surprisingly shallow root system. Rather than having a tap root that goes down, their roots grow out, several hundred feet beyond the base of the tree and only 5-10 feet deep in the ground. In a grove of trees, these roots systems are intertwined. Above ground it appears that each tree is an individual, but underground they are holding on to each other for dear life and sharing nutrients and water.
It’s a great analogy. First of all because trees are awesome. Also because it gets at this whole thing of the hidden, but vital life of the conference. Conference provides support and continuing education for pastors, ministry partnership opportunities between congregations, annual gatherings which focus on relationship building and learning from each other’s stories, support for Camp Friedenswald in southern Michigan and Bluffton University in northwest Ohio. Conference also plays a major role in helping congregations with pastoral openings connect with potential candidates. Depending how you’re feeling about the last year, this could raise or lower your view of conference! We are once again leaning on Lois Kaufmann and our conference as we search for a half time Pastor of Christian Formation to come and minister with us.
The CDC sequoia grove consists of about 40 congregations spread out across the Midwest. By spread out I mean spread out: From St. Paul Minnesota and Madison Wisconsin down to Atlanta Georgia and Harrisonburg Virginia. A congregation from Sarasota, Florida will be joining in a month at the Annual Meeting in Madison, Wisconsin. The connecting roots and strands of yarn cover a lot of mileage. More a little later on why we’re so spread out.
Churches have been asked to use Paul’s letter to the Philippians as a way of reflecting on how we relate together as a conference. Philippi was an important city in the Roman Empire, considered an official Roman colony. Acts chapter 16 describes Paul and his travel companions coming through Philippi and baptizing the first believers who began a fellowship which would become the Philippian church. It was in Philippi that Paul encountered Lydia, the business woman who dealt in purple cloth, who embraced the invitation to be a follower of Jesus and in her first act as a baptized Christian, invited these traveling evangelists into her home, an act of hospitality. Paul and Silas are arrested and put in jail in Philippi, and once they are released and asked to leave the city, they first go back to Lydia’s home. In the words of Acts 16: “and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.”
Philippians is a letter from Paul to this community a number of years later. Paul is in prison, again, this time perhaps in the heart of the empire, Rome, writing to this community, maintaining the bonds of love and brother and sisterhood that had been established. The line I’d like to highlight shows up in chapter 2 verse 12. “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” It’s the last bit of that, the counsel to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” that’s especially pertinent.
This CDC Sunday was originally scheduled for January 26 which was the one Sunday of our harsh winter that we canceled church. You get special bonus points if you can remember back that far, but this would have been a sequel to the Sunday before that, January 19, when the Reconciliation Team helped us focus on how being a community of grace better enables us to be a community of peace in how we relate with one another. That week’s history of our tradition as one that includes both peacemaking and infighting is also an important backdrop for today. Today we are just extending that out one more concentric circle, applying not just to interpersonal relationships within the congregation, but to relationships between congregations. The question of how to stay in relational accountability with one another while honoring the integrity and journey of the individual is the same.
In his letter to the Corinthians, a little ways after Paul greets them with “Grace to you, and peace,” he comments that he would like to be able to feed that community solid food, but instead is feeding them milk since they aren’t ready for the heavy stuff. “Infants in Christ” he calls them. In Philippians Paul acknowledges the geographical distance he is from the community, and, even as he maintains those relational bonds with them, gives them the rather grown-up advice to “work out your own salvation.” Lest they think this is an easy undertaking, he adds that this always involves a healthy dose of fear and trembling. To be done with respect and care, even awe at such a responsibility. They’re not infants in Christ. They’re grown-ups, and Paul trusts them at a distance to grow and discern their faith, to work out their salvation.
In case the basket of metaphors for what conference is isn’t full enough yet, I want to add one more, which is actually the primary way that Central District Conference has talked about itself for the last number of years. Along with it being somewhat like a web of yarn (from children’s time lesson), NPR, the Center for Disease Control, and a sequoia grove, our conference is quite a bit like a family of adult siblings. This language of striving to be like a family of adult siblings is actually in our official conference documents. We continue in the spirit of Joseph Stuckey who opted to think about our bonds not being primarily agreement on all doctrinal matters, or rules, but a commitment to relational accountability, loving and listening to one another despite some differences. Staying centered on Christ, even if we have different understandings of what that means for us. A family of adult siblings don’t always agree, but they are family. They work out their salvation independently and together.
A couple brief stories about pastors and congregations in the conference who have pushed at the edges of traditional church teaching to illustrate what this has actually looked like:
In 2011 Chicago Community Mennonite Church discerned a marriage practice policy for their congregation in which they decided to affirm their pastor in officiating at weddings regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple. The congregation and pastor openly communicated this with conference leadership and soon the congregation had celebrated three weddings of same sex couples. This is officially against denominational polity, which, in this case, calls for the conference, CDC, to review a pastor’s credentials.
Back around the time of the first Gulf War a pastor of a CDC congregation in Ohio preached a sermon in army fatigues and spoke of his support for the war. In broader Christendom this might not be that big of a deal, but this was in a Mennonite Church! A number of congregational members were troubled by this and went to conference asking them to remove the pastor’s credentials.
These are very different circumstances, coming from very different perspectives, and in each case Central District had the power to remove pastoral credentials and have a heavy hand with the congregation; and there are cases, such as violations of sexual or financial ethics when this would be appropriate. But instead, in each of these cases, the conference leadership committed itself to conversation with each pastor and congregation, striving to maintain relational accountability and kinship, but ultimately encouraging each one in carrying on their own discernment within their congregation. Trusting that the Spirit was at work, and salvation was working itself out in each setting. Rather than play the role of a disciplining parent, conference attempted to relate together like a family of adult siblings, who, I hear, don’t always see eye to eye, but can still be family nonetheless.
This way of being church together feels so very important, and it’s one of the reasons I’m grateful for our conference. If you follow church news you know that the wider church, in just about every denomination, is struggling with how much diversity of perspective it can hold within one structure, now focused especially around Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Christians. Despite our attempts at being family, the last number of years Central District has been losing our more conservative/traditional congregations who are transferring to other conferences, and gaining progressive leaning congregations who have been disciplined by their original conference. That’s a big reason why we are so geographically spread out. We’re known as somewhat of a refuge conference for LGBT friendly congregations. We’re gaining diversity in some ways, and losing it in other ways.
One is tempted to think that the issues of one’s own lifetime are unique and that the hinge of history is upon us, but hearing from people like Joseph Stuckey, and even reading Paul’s letters, one is a reminded that the church, and humanity, have always been dealing with these kinds of things. What are the markers of our identity and how much diversity can one tradition hold with integrity? How do we stay relationally accountable with each other and avoid both individualistic independence and heavy handed boundary setting?
I love Central District, and this congregation, as I see us as being centered on the love and grace of Christ, and being responsible to one another without being responsible for one another, like a family of emotionally mature adult siblings. We are all responsible for ourselves, and we are responsible to each other. With the Spirit’s guidance we are working out our salvation with trembling, and plenty of laughter. This is an incredibly important witness in the church and in the world.