While our sanctuary undergoes renovations, we held a joint worship service with our neighbors at North Broadway United Methodist Church. For the sermon their pastor and I each talked about our own faith traditions and how our congregations are living that out. Below are my portions of the sermon.
Text: Matthew 5:1-12
You all have been such good neighbors to us this summer. We have held both a regional conference and three Sundays of worship in your fellowship hall. And it feels very fitting that we now get to worship together, so many thanks for that.
In my experience, people tend to have three main frames of reference for Mennonites.
The first, and probably most common preconception, is that Mennonites are kind of like the Amish. We are Amish-lite. Same great taste, but less filled with rules and regulations about dress and technology. And this is kind of historically accurate. Mennonites and Amish do share a spiritual ancestry. The 16th century Anabaptists emphasized that baptism and the Christian life were to be arrived at through a conscious adult decision. Anabaptist means “re-baptizers.” At the beginning of the 18th century, Jacob Amman (Amish) believed his sisters and brothers in this stream of the church were becoming too lax in their enforcement of discipline, and that people who weren’t willing to be baptized as adults should not be considered “saved.” A new fellowship formed around his leadership, and the Amish, and the Mennonites parted ways…but we remain cousins.
A second association some people have with Mennonites is what we do. Mennonites are active in disaster relief in the US and Canada, our Mennonite Central Committee has people serving around the world in community development and peacemaking efforts. Mennonites were involved in helping initiate the current Fair Trade movement. Some of you Methodists know us Columbus Mennonites through our partnership serving a monthly supper at the YWCA Family Center, or for our shared involvement in the BREAD organization. We also lined up close to each other in this summer’s Pride Parade.
So Mennonites tend to be known for being Amish-lite, for what we do, and the third thing some people pick up on is what we don’t do. Specifically, that we are a pacifist tradition, and more specifically, we teach conscientious objection regarding participation in warfare and violence. This gets at part of your question.
This goes back to those early 16th century Anabaptists who lived during a time of great social and religious upheaval. It actually has some interesting parallels to our own time as the internet continues to reshape social and economic life, decentralizing access to information, making communication possible in ways that simply didn’t exist 25 years ago. Apparently the world wide web had its 25 year birthday this past week, August 23rd, so happy birthday invisible force that controls our lives.
In the 15th and 16th century, the great technological breakthrough was the printing press, which, very quickly, allowed for the dissemination of information, books, the Bible. Those who previously depended on priests and professionals to mediate the written word for them now had it in hand. This had a similar kind of decentralizing effect on social and political and certainly religious life, which were all pretty closely inter-related at the time.
Some of the early Anabaptists, eager to study scripture but untrained in historical interpretation, came to believe that the Kingdom of God was indeed at hand, as the New Testament says often, and some took up weapons to help the process along.
This is where our namesake, Menno Simons, comes into the picture. He was a Catholic priest who had become sympathetic to Anabaptists, but he flatly rejected the use of violence. In his reading of the New Testament he saw no room for followers of Jesus to engage in killing or even defending themselves with violent means. His words from the hymn we sang together were a central part of his teaching: “We are people of God’s peace.”
Like so many Christian groups who claim to be recovering the true message of Christ, our Mennonite forbears, Bibles in hand, fresh off the printing press, were convinced they were recovering Jesus’ original message. In this case, peaceful living. And they lived this out with great conviction. It is a martyr tradition and many of them died for their faith, unwilling to align with any of the religious factions developing across central Europe taking and defending territory.
And this is a conviction that very much lives on in our Mennonite faith. We see it as both an inward and an outward journey. Cultivating peace with oneself and peace with God is inseparable from building peace in families and neighborhoods, and across tribal and national boundaries.
So we, the spiritual descendants of Menno and the Anabaptists, are still haunted and inspired by the beauty and barely visible horizon of the peaceable kingdom that Jesus taught and lived and to which his death and resurrection point.
It’s great to be able to tell a few stories about our congregation, but I have to say that it feels a little bit like proud boasting, which for Mennonites is really the only unforgiveable sin. So let me first pose a few humbling questions: What happens when a persecuted religious sect, Mennonites – that gets used to thinking of itself as a persecuted religious sect – becomes members of the comfortable class within a global superpower? How did Mennonites become white Americans, transitioning from an ethnic minority to people who benefit from the long history of racial injustice in the US? Since we are now made up of people from many backgrounds, how do we be ‘community’ for each other in practical ways and resist the forces of individualism?
One of the ways of talking about Columbus Mennonite Church, is that we are a group of people who encourage and pursue questions. Many of them are difficult questions like these.
This year we’re having a specific focus on antiracism. Many of our worship services, Christian Education themes, programming, and mission have been geared toward exploring and learning about racial injustice and white privilege. It feels like a very long journey. I have no idea if we’re going about it the right way, but one of the signs, for me, that it might be working, has been various comments from parents that their kids are now asking good questions at home about racism.
Last spring we recognized that a number of us are carrying burdensome debt, especially young adults with education debt. We challenged the congregation to raise $10,000, to be distributed evenly to those in need of debt relief, who would remain anonymous recipients. It would be mostly symbolic, like a mini practice of the Jubilee from the book of Leviticus. Much to our joyful surprise, we ended up raising over $25,000, distributing that to 28 individuals, a little over $900 of debt reduction for each. It was a pretty cool way of being community, even as many of those debts remain burdensome.
Two summers ago we did a Twelve Scriptures project. We surveyed the congregation for people’s twelve core scriptures that shape how they approach faith. We then did a worship series on the top twelve. The Beatitudes, which we heard here, made the final cut. The Beatitudes talk about what it means to be Blessed, or fortunate. It’s certainly not your typical checklist for what it means to live the blessed life. Blessed are the economically secure. Check. Blessed are the educated. Check. Blessed are the upwardly mobile, the well dressed and well spoken, those who have their stuff together.
Instead, Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted.
It’s a pretty counterintuitive list of blessings. So I think we as a congregation try to be a blessing in our community and in our world, and also recognize that being a follower of Jesus puts us in constant jeopardy of having our whole notion of blessing turned upside down.
Overall, we find that we have so much more in common with people of faith like yourselves than we have different, and so we value every chance we get to learn with others how we can better live out our baptismal vows and be the body of Christ in Columbus, Ohio in the 21st century.
What are a few ways you all at North Broadway UMC are living out your faith? And if Methodists are cool with boasting, please do that as much as you’d like.