April 30 | Boundaries and Gates

Boundaries and Gates

Scripture texts: John 10:1-10; Acts 2:42-47

It was late summer of 2005, my first summer after graduating from Bluffton University with a music degree and no real direction. My parents had driven me nearly 16 hours from little old Lyons, Ohio all the way to the only-slightly-less-little Hutchinson, Kansas. This 16 hour pilgrimage would become the beginning of a three year pilgrimage for me as I began my first year with Mennonite Voluntary Service. I stepped out of that car with a lot of anxiety about meeting the other young people who would share at least the next year of my life with me. 

When I say I graduated from Bluffton with no real direction, that’s somewhat true, but the bit of direction I did have was the wisdom to know that I needed to force myself to be with other people in intentional ways. I had a few leads on jobs here and there, but a part of me feared that my introverted personality would keep me from building relationships in meaningful ways if I ended up in a new location where I didn’t know anyone. So when the option of joining MVS came along, I was instantly intrigued. Not only would it allow me to serve a community and explore my vocational gifts, but it would mean living in an intentional community with peers who were also having similar experiences. 

Even if it scared me, the idea of intentional community had always captured my imagination. It seemed like the kind of radical thing that Christians ought to be doing just like the early church. The vision of the Acts 2 community is a compelling one for anyone who wants to follow Jesus’ example of leading a communal way of life rather than individualistic one. It probably didn’t hurt that as a recent college grad, I didn’t have a whole lot of “things” to my name, so sharing all things in common didn’t feel like too much of a leap.

I stepped out of the car after 16 hours with my parents with all these radical notions about community in my head, nervous yet ready to meet my fellow conspirators. I moved my few things into our shared house, said goodbye to mom and dad, and was eager to begin this new chapter with this new community. 

I was the last of that year’s volunteers to arrive, and felt a bit like I was thrown into the deep end with everyone else already having gotten their bearings and settled into the space. I found out that the house already had a practice of rotating who would prepare dinner for everyone, and I seem to remember only being there a day or two before it was my turn. I was not used to preparing food for a whole house, so I panicked.  The only idea I could come up with was one of my mom’s go-to meals for our family of six: tuna noodle casserole. Mostly noodles, a little bit of canned tuna, condensed cream of mushroom soup, and some canned peas for color. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it was just as appetizing as it sounds.

[I briefly considered making tuna noodle casserole for our fundraiser meal today, but I decided we actually need to make money.]

For what it was worth, that first meal turned out ok and was received by my housemates without any grumbling (at least none directed toward me). That was just the first of many shared meals, some of them better than others. But the table fellowship was just one of many ways the MVS unit shared all–or maybe just most–things in common. One year turned over into a second and then a third for me. I was the only one in the unit to ever do more than one year, so each new batch of volunteers brought new gifts and new…challenges to the house.

There was the housemate who made a bunch of international phone calls, which made our bill skyrocket and resulted in more than one house meeting. There was a housemate who decided to get heavily involved with an ultra-conservative church rather than one of the congregations that supported our unit. There was the housemate who was convinced we should be eco-justice warriors by not using AC in the house…in Kansas…in the summer…Or when that battle was ultimately lost, there was the number of passive-aggressive thermostat battles over what the appropriate temperature should be. 

Just in case you think I was the patron saint of the Hutchinson MVS Unit, let me be honest about that last anecdote: It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem, it’s me. 

There were other less stressful moments of community challenges like the time one of our German housemates wanted to make a dish from back home but couldn’t find the exact ingredients. We’re still not sure what he meant to serve us, but it consisted of egg noodles, sour cream, and strawberries. Suddenly everyone was a bigger fan of tuna noodle casserole.

Every new season brought new questions to our little community of volunteers. Who gets to use the car? Can’t you just bike to work? Who is going to clean? With our somewhat meager budget, what counts as a luxury food item? Do we really need to eat together all the time with a rigid system about who prepares dinner, or can we let it happen more naturally? Or, perhaps the most important question: who is going to do the dishes? 

Lots of people want a radical revolution of love and justice and community, but a lot less people want to do the dishes. 

In our Acts passage, it talks about how this rapidly growing community is doing lots of things together, including table fellowship, but it very conveniently leaves out who is doing the dishes. The depiction of the early Christian community in Acts 2 is one that gets a lot of press for its radical egalitarian practices. It tells us that “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This vision of a faith community is a compelling one that captures the imagination about what a beloved community could look like, and for good reason. We need these kinds of images and stories to inspire and challenge us to reach beyond what we know to be possible.

Yet even if you’ve never been a part of MVS or any other intentional communal living situation, I think we all have our own stories about how hard it can be to build a community of any kind.  And if we take this passage from Acts 2 on its own, it can give the impression that building the beloved community is all just butterflies and rainbows…or maybe tongues of fire and rushing winds. 

Even though we aren’t quite to Pentecost yet in the lectionary cycle, our reading from Acts comes after the story of the tongues of fire and the rushing wind where everyone could understand one another across language barriers.  It is this miraculous and mysterious story of God’s Spirit being poured out over the people that leads the crowd to ask one another “What does this mean?”  After some preaching from Peter that builds on this miraculous event, the question of the crowd shifts to, “What should we do?” He tells them to repent and be baptized, after which 3000 people were added to their numbers. This brings us up to speed to where our passage comes in today.

“What does this mean?” and “What should we do?” I like the movement of those two questions, and I imagine they continue to flow back and forth within this early community as they find meaning in the grace they experience while also figuring out how that grace redirects their lives. The revelation of God moves them toward a revolution in the way they live. Pentecost was miraculous and mysterious on a grand scale, but it was not the only moment of awe as the early Christian community was being formed. As they continued to be devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to communion, and to prayer, they continued to experience awe and wonder at the ways God was being revealed. 

They needed to keep asking themselves “What should we do?” because the growth of their community brought not only new opportunities but also new challenges. Everyone loves to idealize the Acts 2 church, but we always seem to forget about the Acts 6 church. The beginning of Chapter 6 reads: “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.” Uh oh! All of a sudden, community feels like a messy endeavor again.

Not only do we see here that people within the early church continued to bring their many diverse and layered identities into this burgeoning community, we also recognize that building diverse communities of faith takes work to make sure it is done in ways that match our deeply held values. The text doesn’t take sides or lay blame when this question of justice for the widows is raised. Instead it shows how the early church adapted by establishing new roles and new policies about how things ought to be handled. Rather than the 12 apostles handling every dispute, 7 deacons were chosen to tend to these matters.

What does this mean? And what should we do? 

Widows in the first century were an especially vulnerable population, so it is no wonder that they were one of the first major stress tests for that community’s attempts to live out the way of Jesus. Was this new policy the only right answer to those questions, a model for us now and always? I don’t think so. I do think the text shows us that the leaders of the community were steeping themselves in prayer and fellowship and study in such a way that they were doing the best they could in the most faithful way they knew how.  But anyone and any community that seeks to live a life of faithfulness will need to continue asking themselves those questions and refining their responses over and over with each new opportunity, each new challenge, and each new revelation of God’s Spirit.

Today we are lifting up the Keeping Columbus Mennonite Church Safe from Abuse policy that we initially adopted back in 2006 and have continued to refine and update along the way. And just like the policy first adopted by the early church in Acts, I’m not here to try to convince us that our policy is the only right answer to the challenges we face or that it is some procedural idol that we ought to venerate for now and always.

I was not around when this policy was written, but I have to imagine it came about in response to questions like “What does it mean that God’s Spirit calls us to protect the most vulnerable?” And “What, then, shall we do to shape our community so that this revelation becomes embodied among us?” 

Sometimes the word “policy” gets a bad reputation because people think it represents bureaucratic red tape that only serves to stifle the transcendence of God who can’t be contained. That can be true if we treat our policies as unchangeable, untouchable idols elevated to the right hand of God. Instead, we need to remind ourselves where these policies come from and what revelations of God’s Spirit inspire them. The answers to “What then shall we do?” should remind us and call us back to the inspiration of God that prompts the question “What does this mean?”  

Our Keeping CMC Safe Policy is our best attempt to live out a theology of a God who protects, who nurtures, and who calls each of us toward safe pastures where we can find abundant life. It may not be the only answer to the question “What shall we do?” but it helps define the shape of our community as a place where children are safe to grow and learn and share their gifts among us. 

Just like the word “policy” gets a bad reputation, the word “boundaries” can sometimes feel taboo when we talk about our faith community.  We don’t want to push anyone away or make anyone feel like they don’t belong. You may have heard us use metaphors to describe our congregation that talk about seeing ourselves more as a centered-set community than a bounded-set community, meaning that we are less about defining who is in and who is out by drawing strict lines and more about allowing people to define themselves in relation to a center, the core of who we are revealed in Christ. 

From a theological standpoint, I think this is a really helpful metaphor, but like all metaphors I think it has its limits. Boundaries do not need to be a bad word because they help us maintain a sense of who we are and who we are not, where we end and where another begins. While our Keeping CMC Safe Policy is largely about procedures for volunteers working with children, it also includes mandates for education and training for all ages. Abuse prevention education includes topics like the importance of consent in relationships of any kind and the empowerment for all ages to draw boundaries around what are acceptable forms of touch and affection. 

Boundaries do not need to be a bad word. 

It can be easy to hear the passage from John’s gospel where Jesus talks about the sheep going in and out to find pasture and think that he is making some exclusionary theological statements, drawing hard and fast boundaries about who is in and who is out. But I don’t think that needs to be the only way we hear this passage. 

Jesus is not claiming to be the pasture. The metaphor he uses is not about defining himself as the ONLY place within clearly defined walls where one can find salvation. Instead, he tells them, “I am the gate” and “Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” There is a kind of generosity here, a coming and going through the Gate that leads toward abundant life. There seems to be a recognition that abundant life can be found both inside and outside as long as you are willing to come and go with intentions toward life rather than death and destruction. 

Jesus is the gate whose only password is a commitment to abundant life. I can’t help but think of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where the wizard Gandalf is momentarily thwarted by a magical door with an inscription around it that he translated as “Speak, friend, and enter.”  At first, Gandalf treated this as some esoteric riddle, throwing arcane magic words at it, attempting to force it open, only to later realize that a better translation would be “Say friend, and enter.”  The door stood on the boundary between rival nations but was built cooperatively as a show of friendship. To come and go, one must only reaffirm that friendship with the word “friend.” 

Somewhere along the line, many Christians began to treat Jesus like an esoteric riddle, forgetting that his message was that abundant life can be found all around us, within us, and wherever we go as long as we affirm our commitment to life and love, to peace and justice. The boundaries and policies we use to define who we are–both personally and as a community–will always be malleable, always shifting and changing as we navigate our relationships and live more fully into the truth of abundant life. Yet the gate remains the same, a doorway open to all who commit themselves to the goodness of life.

So let us continue to devote ourselves to the teachings of the apostles, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer, seeking to more fully understand the revelations of God all around us, and to answer the question, “What then shall we do.”  Building the beloved community is hard work, but it is also good work. Our answers to the questions about how we should live may change over time as new revelations come and are tested, as new challenges arise and are discerned. But through it all, may we be committed to creating structures and policies, relationships and boundaries, and forms of community that support abundant life for all.