Title: Waiting for God at Lighthouse Mennonite
Date: October 17, 2010
Texts: I Cor 14:26-33
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
Waiting. Waiting for God. After Catherine’s sermon last Sunday, I’ve been thinking about what it means for us to wait for God. Catherine preached from the book of Jeremiah, about the Jews who had to live in exile, and how they had to wait for God to set them free from Babylon.
When I think about waiting, I think about waiting in line at the grocery store to pay for my food, or waiting at the doctor’s office for someone to see me, or waiting for my green tomatoes to ripen before the frost. When I think about waiting, I imagine situations where I am very passive, where I’m not doing anything, where I sit around and wait for something to happen—for someone else to do what I cannot do.
But, as Catherine explained last week, for the Jews living in Babylonian captivity, waiting for God to set them free meant that they built houses and planted gardens. For Israel, as they lived in exile, waiting for God’s redemption meant that they had to work for peace: seek the peace of the land in which you have settled. Waiting wasn’t the same thing as sitting around in Babylon. Waiting for God involved a kind of labor, a labor of peace, of settling.
When we turn to the letters of the apostle Paul, we find a similar message about waiting. In Paul’s day, lots of people in the church were anxiously waiting for the return of Jesus. In his letters to the church in Thessalonica, Paul told them to stop spending so much energy on trying to guess the exact day and time that Christ would return. No one will know; Christ will come like a thief in the night, Paul says. Christ’s return will be completely unexpected, so stop trying to figure it out.
In those same letters to the Thessalonians, Paul tells them to return to work. Apparently there were some among the Christians who thought that Christ’s return was going to happen so soon, that it would be meaningless to continue to earn a living. But Paul tells them, this is from 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12, “We hear that some among you are idle… Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.” You can hear echoes from the prophet Jeremiah, the call to settle down and work in the land.
For Jeremiah and for Paul, waiting for God involves a lot of work. For them, waiting isn’t passive; it’s not like me waiting to see my doctor. No, waiting for God involves the work of settling, of being in a place, of caring for neighbors, of making friends, of working for peace. Waiting is a way of life.
This brings us to our passage from 1st Corinthians that Jen read. It’s a description of how the church is supposed to wait for God through the way they gather. Waiting takes a form, a way of life, an order, a way of being together: “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation… All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church” (I Cor 14:26). I like to think that our gatherings take on this same form. We sing hymns, read from the bible, pray, and we hear a word of instruction. But the church I visited a couple weeks ago takes Paul’s description to another level.
I was in Louisiana, about an hour and a half down south of New Orleans, toward the outer edge of the Mississippi River delta, in the land of bayous. Somehow, in the town of Burus, a town with less than 2,000 people, without any ethnic ties to European Mennonite settlements, there’s a little Mennonite church: Lighthouse Mennonite Fellowship. It’s a small congregation. Before Hurricane Katrina, it was about the size of our church. But when I was there, there were about 15 people. A lot of people haven’t come back—either because rebuilding has been going very slowly, or because life on the bayou is becoming too risky as the delta is disappearing into the ocean due to soil erosion.
But those who returned still meet for worship. And their service seemed exactly like what Paul described. Someone got up from one of the chairs and started off the service with a prayer. Then he asked if anyone had a song to sing. Someone would call out a hymn and we would sing it. Then another person would call out another song, and another. Then we were asked if anyone had a testimony. Probably 5 or 6 people shared about different things in their lives that had something to do with God. The testimony-time turned into a time of prayer. Finally, there was a reading from the bible and a sermon. After that, a benediction and everyone stuck around for a meal, which lingered into the afternoon.
Through worship, they wait with one another. They take time to be together, as someone suggests a song, as another person offers a testimony of God’s work in her life, and as they pray for the needs of the people in the community. Through worship, they rest into one another, into the wisdom each of them brings to the meeting, and the revelation of God that they share with one another. And as they rest into each other, they find themselves being held by God.
But it’s lonely work. The people at Lighthouse Mennonite Fellowship have lost a lot of people. Like I said, many of their friends have not come back after Hurricane Katrina. And the houses and schools have not been rebuilt. But the church is still there, even if only as a remnant. And the members of the church who have returned have given their lives for the sake of their community, for the sake of peace and restoration.
Here’s one story. George grew up on the Louisiana bayous. He and his wife moved to the town of Burus in the 1960s and have stayed ever since. After Hurricane Katrina wiped out their community, they returned to see what they could do. In that area, the Mennonites were some of the first people on the scene. Mennonite Disaster Service helped build George and his family a new house, as well as many others in their community. It’s a good feeling to be a Mennonite in an area in the country where the name “Mennonite” is associated with rebuilding homes after a disaster. Down there, Mennonite identity is associated with hard work and restoration. Mennonite means faith put into action.
George and his wife (Ruby) talk about their house as a gift—a gift from their Mennonite brothers and sisters from Pennsylvania and Virginia. From the moment the work groups finished rebuilding their home, George and Ruby offered their house as a gift to whoever needed a place to stay.
One day a stranger from Kansas called George and asked him if Katrina took away his tools. Yes, George said, the Hurricane took away everything. So this Mennonite from Kansas, a retired building contractor, shipped George all of the tools he owned. George received the tools as a gift, and opened up his shed and driveway as a free, community workstation. As people moved back to start fishing again, George would invite them over to use his tools and work alongside him as they, together, restored their boats. That’s what peace looks like. As George shares his gifts with his neighbors, he waits with them for others to return, for their community to be restored. They wait together.
I think Paul’s description of a church gathering looks something like George, Ruby, and their neighbors working together, sharing gifts, and waiting for people to return. For Paul, church is a corporate work; it’s the work of a community, where everyone brings something to share—a song, a story, a prayer, a word of instruction, for the building up for the building up of the body.
And, like George and Ruby, we are also waiting for other people. Church is set up as an organization, an organism, a body, that always invites others to join in our worship of God. We are always waiting for God to send new members to our community, new people with different gifts, for the sake of strengthening the body of Christ, which lives for the sake of peace in our world.
But, it’s also important to remember that we are always waiting for God. Just like the people of Paul’s day, we are awaiting the return of Jesus. The Christian life returns us again and again to the place of waiting, waiting for Jesus to bring to completion the kingdom of God.
One of the best definitions of faith that I’ve heard comes from the late Adel Bestavros, a Coptic Orthodox preacher and lawyer, who said: “Patience with God is called faith.” Faith is the way we continue to gather together and wait for God. Faith is what it means to be patient with the God who promised to never leave us or forsake us. Faith is the way George and Ruby continue to make church happen, even though it is lonely work. They are patient with God, as they wait for God to bring new people into their lives, people whose gifts they need for the life of their church.
As I left George and Ruby, they told me to come back to visit, and to see if my wife could join me the next time. Then Ruby, with the faith that come with 90 years of patience with God, said to me: “And if we don’t see you back down here, we’ll see you up there.” For a second I thought she meant North Carolina, but I quickly figured out that she meant heaven—that great reunion with God’s family. Patience with God is called faith—faith that keeps us coming back, that keeps us longing (like Ruby) for friendship with God and neighbor.