Ours is a story… | May 5

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https://joelssermons.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/20190505sermon.mp3

Text: John 21:1-14; New Membership Commitment statement

Speaker: Joel Miller

For the first time in a while, I’m just going to talk.  No sketchers, although their work will be here throughout May.  No singers or musicians.  Just a good old fashion monologue.  Spoken words.

What I’d like to talk about is words.  Written words.  Specifically, the words of our new membership commitment statement which we’ll be using and testing this year, printed today on the front of the bulletin.

A lot of thought has gone into these words and phrases.  In the winter we invited input through an online survey and through focus groups.  We looked over our old, long standing membership statement and several from other congregations.  And lesser known statements like our Peace statement and Mission statement.

I don’t know how the percentages break down across the population, but I know there is a group of us that gets pretty excited about language, and other groups not so much.  Especially when it comes to statements like this that are worth very little unless we actually live out the words.  This is a very Mennonite and Anabaptist concept.  “Faith is as faith does” says the bumper sticker with the green peace dove logo.

And, there can be something grace-filled and even mystical about good language. Leonard Cohen sings “there’s a blaze of light in every word” – a very Jewish concept, with light itself originating as a Divine word in the opening scene of Genesis.

We’re not creating a new cosmos here with a new Membership Commitment Statement, but hopefully it can serve something like a light to illuminate the path in front of us.  Maybe even offer a fresh way of seeing this path.

So here’s the challenge:

How to say everything important, concise enough to fit on a half page, with at least a touch of Leonard Cohen-like poetic beauty.

Well, this is the best effort of the four of us on the writing team to gather the varied input into something coherent.  There’ll be time during today’s congregational meeting to discuss this, but what I’d like to do now is wade into the first part of the statement.  Just the first part.  Those seven points of commitment might make for their own worship series at another time.

And just to warm you up to this statement overall, I want to say that our previous membership statement had exactly 300 words, and our new one has exactly 205.  We’ll call that a worthy accomplishment in itself.

So let’s a take a look at what we’ve got:

The Spirit calls us from where we are to walk with Jesus toward a more just, peaceful, and merciful embodiment of God’s love in this world.

This is like the summary of the summary.  It would be a challenge to memorize all 205 words, but maybe we could all handle this first sentence.

The Spirit calls us from where we are to walk with Jesus toward a more just, peaceful, and merciful embodiment of God’s love in this world.

So it all starts with the call of the Spirit.  Which is also to say it doesn’t start with us.  Which is a relief.  So many of our biblical stories start with this call of the Spirit breathing into people’s lives.  To be called by the Spirit puts us in the company of Abram and Sarai who left the early civilization of Ur and went to an unknown place.  Moses at the burning bush, burning with a sense that he must return to his people enslaved in Egypt.  Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah who were too unworthy and too young.  Daniel exiled in Babylon, Esther enthroned in Persia, Mary the not-yet mother of Jesus singing Let it Be, Jesus in the wilderness rejecting the devil’s false path, the Apostle Paul who had to first go blind before he could see.

This is lofty company, and it’s easy to make ‘calling’ out to be something way more sure and clear than we actually experience it.  So here’s what’s next:

The Spirit calls us from where we are.  From where we are.  Like here.  Here is the only place we ever are.  The Spirit comes to us, finds us where we are and breathes into us.  It could be a nudge to bloom where you’re planted.  It could be a nudge to take a walk toward another here.

After Jesus’ death the disciples are back to fishing, a familiar here.  Jesus meets them there, shares a meal, fills them with wonder.  Here is alive with Christ.

There is plenty of journey language in this statement, including walking with Jesus.  This is familiar language for us.  If you’re on a journey you’re headed somewhere.  You’re not there yet, and you might not even know where you’re going.  You might not have all your beliefs completely worked out.  But you’re walking on the journey, and others are walking with you, and Jesus has walked the path ahead of you.

What we aspire to walk toward is a more just, peaceful and merciful embodiment of God’s love in this world.  We’re borrowing some from Micah 6:8 here.  Those words hang on the banner outside the church and on the back of our green t-shirts which you might want to wear to the BREAD Nehemiah Action tomorrow.  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.  We get the first two here, and then include peace.  The walk humbly part shows up at the bottom of the statement with an acknowledgement that we don’t and won’t always live up to our highest aspirations.  So compassion and forgiveness and walking humbly become essential practices.

A more just, peaceful and merciful embodiment of God’s love in this world.  We are embodied creatures, in all our glory and frailty, and this is all happening in this world.  Jesus taught us to pray that the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s not abstract.  It’s real relationships.  It’s the difficult uncertainty of living, enlivened by a grace beyond our own making.

That’s the first sentence.

And then we’re talking about our story.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s some psychologists started picking up on the powerful role stories play in shaping thought and behavior.  We tell ourselves stories about who we are, or we believe the stories others tell us about who we are, then we live out those stories, consciously and unconsciously.  The narrative forms the container, the edges of possibility, and we bounce around within the picture it frames.  We might be living out a story of failure or shame, a story of triumphing against the odds, a story of not belonging, a story of being loved no matter what.

The power of story to shape us is not a 20th century discovery.  This goes deep into our past.  We are storied creatures.  The biblical stories have their own overarching story.  Like the constant reminder to the people of Israel to remember that they were slaves in Egypt, therefore they know what that’s like, and they are to be together in such a way that enables the whole community to be free from oppression.  That’s a story that shapes a people.  Remember…therefore…

So it’s worth all of us asking, What story are we living in?  What story are you living in?

Story shows up as a pretty strong theme here.  The statement gives some suggestions for what kind of story we could be living out collectively.

Ours is a story of those who journeyed by faith, whose questions opened fresh possibilities.

It was intentional to not set faith in polarized relationship with questions.  Journeying by faith and having questions are a harmony, not a dissonance.  This was one of those recurring themes from the congregational input.  So much so, that there might have been an uprising, in all its nonviolent force, were we not to include the positive mention of questions in this statement.  This is also one of the recurring appreciative comments from new members.  “I feel like this is a place where it’s OK to have questions.”  Good.  Bring them all.  As a pastor, I will do my best to have a good question for every answer you have.

Here’s another way of saying it: Ours is a story grounded in scripture, centered on Jesus, re-envisioned by Anabaptists, ever-expanding in our time.

There’s a funneling effect here.  Our story is grounded in scripture.  That’s pretty wide.  Centered on Jesus, which focuses for us the meaning of scripture.  Re-envisioned by Anabaptists.  Which names this relatively small historical window that our piece of the story passes through.  These 16th century Anabaptists were questioners of the status quo.  They were radically committed to living the teachings of Jesus, which included nonviolence and the valuing of each person’s connection to the Divine.  It’s an important and unique part of our spiritual lineage, so we name it here.

There’s a funneling effect from scripture to Jesus to Anabaptists, and then Ours is a story ever-expanding in our time.

This is such a dynamic time for religious understanding.  We’re aware more than ever of different wisdom traditions around the world.  One response to this is draw firmer boundaries around one’s own group, and re-inforce a sense of in group and out group mentality.  Another response, and the one we are stumbling our way through, is to welcome these other stories which can widen our sense of ourselves.

At the largest scale, our best instruments of measurement are consistently telling us that the universe itself is expanding.  So it seems appropriate that our minds and spirits expand with it.  That our relationships keep expanding across borders.  That our understanding of God keep expanding.  Ever-expanding.  It’s a very big story, and we’re a small part of it.

The final mention of our story, and last part of the first part of the statement is that Ours is a story of death and resurrection and all things made new.

In the Christian liturgical calendar, Easter is not merely a day, it’s a season.  We’re in it right now.  Easter is a season for considering that the trajectory of this story we are living goes beyond the rise and fall arc  of birth, growth, maturity, decline, death.  We are a resurrection people.  And the fact that we don’t quite know what that means is part of the meaning of it all.  In the resurrection appearance stories it often takes a little while before the disciples recognize what’s going on.  Mary Magdalene is grieving by the empty tomb and sees a gardener.  Cleopas and his companion are on the road to Emmaus after Jesus’ execution and strike up a conversation with a stranger.  The disciples are out fishing and failing, and someone on the shore calls to them with some advice on how to make a big catch.

Only a little further into the story do they recognize that they are in the midst of resurrection.  That the world as they thought they understood it is actually a small part of reality, contained entirely within a larger reality known as resurrection and all things made new.

There is a tremendous mystery here that often lies just beyond our consciousness.  We get small glimpses of it.  It is happening on the personal level with the death of ego, and this larger sense of God-self that we awaken to.  And it is happening on the corporate level, when new life springs up as if out of nowhere.

There is of course a very practical side to all this, which is named in these seven different commitments, which can be explored another time.  For now, the final line can serve as something like a prayer:

By God’s grace, may we be a sanctuary where we welcome, protect, and challenge one another.