Opening prayer: “Eternal Spirit, Draw us together in this hour and help us to expand the circle of those whom we reach in love.”
The author of the book of Hebrews is unknown, so much so that some scholars do not even have anybody to suggest. However, it is nonetheless carefully and deeply argued. Consider Hebrews 13:1: Let mutual love continue. The Good News Bible has “Keep on loving one another as brothers in Christ,” but that translation is now 50 years old. Today we would say “Keep on loving one another as sisters and brothers in Christ.”
On first reading I thought the verse applied nicely to groups of believers such as this congregation, where there is surely a lot of mutual love. It seemed obvious — an easy sermon. Then I read the next verses and saw that the meaning is not only local, but universal, so that this is an amazing verse of a mere four words: “Let mutual love continue.”
In verses 2 and 3, our love is quickly extended beyond our friends or neighbors or members of our congregation:
13:2 reads: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Here’s 13:3. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
No boundaries are set; the net of love is cast as widely as possible, the idea apparently being that anyone whom I genuinely love will love me in return, so that the circle of love can and should be extended at every opportunity. The verse pulls us outside our own circle of worshipers and friends; “Let mutual love continue.”
When delegates gather in Orlando next summer for the general assembly of Mennonite Church USA the theme of the programs will be ”Love is a Verb.” To emphasize that love is a verb says a lot.
Love extended as the writer of Hebrews urges is a transforming love; it has the potential to change the part of the world we can reach.
Moreover, mutual love is a force multiplier; it gives courage to each of us who consider doing something we know we should, because we have the support of committed, loving Christian friends. Love is something we do. Love is not subject to the limitations of the physical world. Energy is conserved, but love can expand without limit.
It is widely recognized that a story can be a very effective component of a sermon. Stories have coherence; they can be remembered and retold, whereas arguments can slip away. Many of you will remember Dave and Laura Nickel, who left us a year ago when Dave accepted the pastorate of the First Mennonite Church in Lincoln, NE. Before they moved Dave had served as chaplain at the minimum-security prison in Hillsborough. Last spring we had Laura’s father briefly as a house guest. He said that people in Dave’s church have told him never to stop telling the stories of his experiences as a chaplain to prisoners.
Unfortunately, I am not a story-teller. In this respect I am handicapped—I don’t think of my life as a series of stories. However, one story has been on my mind.
When CHMF was just getting started, a few of us had a meeting with a Virginia Mennonite Conference pastor who was serving, from far away, as the overseer of the congregations in this part of North Carolina. The meeting was pleasant but unexciting. The only memorable part was a warning to us that deviation from the Conference position against homosexuals in the church would get us into trouble.
When the meeting was reported to the entire group we discussed it and of course considered this warning. We were from the start not inclined to exclude LGBT persons, and thus recognized a potential problem. We seriously discussed whether we should join Virginia Conference. We hesitated, though unaware of any good options.
The question was laid to rest when one member — I believe it was Nick Plummer — made the astute observation that if we stayed out of Virginia Conference because of the homosexual issue we would label ourselves a one-issue congregation. That observation was promptly accepted, and ended the discussion. We joined Virginia Conference. Nick had prophetic insight, because subsequent events, years later, have given us the reputation of a one-issue congregation. We favor full acceptance of persons in the LGBT community.
As a part of sermon preparation I reviewed the minutes of the last 15 congregational life meetings, going back to June of 2014. During the past two years our agenda has been dominated by the several questions around our welcoming position with respect to LGBTQ worshipers. We invested heavily in discerning what steps to take. The issue reached its climax in May and June of this year.
The question needed serious attention, and we have provided it. As a result, we established a progressive position and have witnessed to it in a very public manner. We have met that goal, but have nothing in mind to take its place and motivate us in some new direction.
Since mid-2014 we also dealt with questions of budget, recruitment of persons to fill vacant church positions, etc. Nothing unusual there. But what struck me is that at no time did we consider anything new that might have expanded our witness to the world or challenged us to consider our place in it.
Before I say any more, I assure you that I am completely in favor of the position we have taken. Repeat: I am completely in favor of the position we have taken. Let there be no misunderstanding. My concern is that we have nothing else of great interest on our agenda; we seem to accept our status as a one-issue congregation, and it is time to turn our attention elsewhere. The Visioning Committee considers “identity formation” as an important step. I like the term, but would rather say “identity expansion” or even “identity shift.” We have already claimed a clear identity in the contentious LGBTQ arena, and I believe that this alone will not be adequate over the coming years. For our own good and possible benefit to the world, we need to find new ways to “let mutual love continue.”
Ideally, a new way to extend our Christian values into the world should involve both some time and some money. The CHMF visioning committee wants us all to think explicitly about our future in church-wide discussions planned for this fall, to which I say AMEN. Indeed there is a clear need for such discussions.
I have absolutely no intention of trying to chart our future. All I want to do is to suggest the kinds of things to consider.
(1) Local opportunities exist: for example, the Inter-Faith Council, not merely as an occasional recipient of budgeted money, but as the target of more frequent gifts of food items for their local distribution. A second local possibility is to find immigrants who need tutoring in English. The prison ministry of Paul and Joyce Munk is another possibility, augmented by a small stipend for supplies or basic needs. Hebrews 13:3 reads in part: Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them…
(2) Opportunities are available in this country, whether through Mennonite Disaster Service or through one of the domestic programs of Mennonite Mission Network.
(3) Because we are a bunch of educated, service-oriented people, I have started to dream about a foreign program of some sort. Mennonite historian John D Roth, (The Mennonite, June 2016, page 9) reports “Forty per cent of congregations in Mennonite Church USA have some kind of special relationship with a sister congregation outside the United States.” Because of the cost of travel to a foreign country, such a program for us might be launched with travel, then extended largely through email. Any foreign relationship would stimulate us to develop a more international vision of the work of the church. This might be worked out with the cooperation of Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Central Committee, or perhaps even Mennonite World Conference. The Eastern Carolina District Council of Mennonite Churches could be asked to help us with a gift of a modest amount of travel funds.
I wish there were some way for us to take an active part in the huge refugee problem in Europe, but I cannot think of a way that engages us as workers. Mennonite Central Committee says that its response to the refugee crisis in Iraq and Syria is its largest ever humanitarian program. All we could do from this distance is probably a gift of cash, which is not full participation. We need something that engages us beyond financial support.
Christian Peacemaker Teams is a possibility. For example, short-term teams of 5 to 14 days travel to crisis settings to protect human rights, engage in public peace witness, and report to home churches.
One way to direct congregational support is to back the activities of our own people. This opens up two possibilities. Lars Åkerson and a few friends are in the early stages of developing a service called Life Lines, in which prisoners on death row could make themselves heard through poetry and creative writing captured in recorded phone calls. That’s the local option. At a great distance is the Christian Bilingual University of Congo (UCBC), which is part of a larger support program that Justin Hubbard serves as Communications and Development Associate. It would be interesting to see what he could do to make us feel a part of life at that distant university.
I look forward to the process and the outcome of the church visioning committee. Let us hear again these words from the writer of Hebrews. Ch.13, verse 16 reads: Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Samuel Wells served as Dean of the Duke Chapel for several years, during which time I never heard him speak. He ended his service to Duke by returning to his native England. He stays in contact with the USA by writing a column for Christian Century. In a recent issue (22 June 2016, p.29) he says this of the congregation he now serves in London: “The best and most prophetic thing about the church I serve is that it believes the future is bigger than the past. That’s what makes it an energizing and inspiring community.” May we also be an energizing and inspiring community.