Interpret with me: Reflection on the Kansas City Convention | 9 August 2015

Text: Luke 24:13-35

I arrived at our hotel in downtown Kansas City Monday evening, the day before the start of Convention.  I headed out to roam the streets for a place to eat supper, and had one of what would be many chance encounters with a friend from another corner of the Mennonite world.  Nick had grown up in the Cincinnati congregation, where I pastored before Columbus.  He had gone to Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Indiana, and studied sign language.  He shared that there were four deaf youth who had registered for Convention, and he was here as the interpreter for the youth worship services.  It was good to see him, catch up a bit on how life was going, and get in the mode of leaving plenty of time to get from one place to another in order to have space for conversations like this.  We had arrived in Kansas City for the much anticipated once-every-two-years national Convention and I was surrounded by my people, the Mennonites.

Nick’s job of interpretation connects pretty directly to the Convention theme.  The official theme was “On the way,” a phrase taken from the Emmaus Rd story in Luke 24.  In the story, two of Jesus’ disciples are on the way from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus.  Jesus had just been crucified and they were talking about this while they walked, when, Luke tells us, Jesus himself came near and went with them, joining them on the way.  One of the central features of the story is that these two disciples don’t recognize their fellow traveler as Jesus.  They go on and on describing to him why they’re so distraught and how this Jesus of Nazareth person had been a source of great hope for them.  The stranger finally replies by saying “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  This is followed by Luke writing: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

Embedded in the heart of this Emmaus Road story is an act of interpretation, and not just any interpretation, but Jesus himself interpreting to his followers the meaning of their scriptures.

In one of the sermons during the week Patty Shelly, who is now our new denominational moderator, shared a story about Old Testament professor Ben Ollenberger who taught many of us who went to AMBS for seminary.  Ben was once asked If he could travel to any point in history to experience it, what would he choose?  His response had been that he would be there on the Emmaus Road to hear Jesus “interpret to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”  The story doesn’t say which of the Hebrew Scriptures Jesus cited and what he said about them, just that he engaged in an extended act of interpretation “beginning with Moses, the Torah, and all the prophets.”  Dr. Ollenberger would really like to have overheard that conversation.

Interpreting the meaning of our sacred texts is an act in which we are still engaged.  Mennonites have always believed that we must do this in a Christ0-centric way, which is to say that the narrative of Jesus’ life provides for us the interpretative key for how we view all of scripture, or even better, for how we interpret human history, including the present.

This sermon itself is an act of interpretation of the events of Kansas City, just a few of the events, really, filtered through my own experience.  I have no illusions about this being anything close to some kind of objective account of the week.  Read another article, listen to another person, and you’ll hear another interpretation.

My own experience of the week was dominated by what happened in the delegate hall.  This was as expected.  There were five significant and substantive resolutions that we had in front of us to discuss and vote on.  We were told going into the week that we would spend more time in delegate sessions than past Conventions.  We met from 10-Noon in the mornings, and 2-5:30 in the afternoons, with a break Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.  One of the best features of these delegate sessions was that we met at round tables, 8-9 people at a table, about 100 tables total.  The organizers made an intentional effort to have the full theological spectrum represented at each table.  Before open mic comments and voting, each resolution was first discussed around table groups, for 15, 20, 30 minutes.  We passed a talking piece to give each person an opportunity to share their perspective without worry of being interrupted.  As a table leader, part of my responsibility was to see that we talked respectfully and that no single voice dominated the discussion.  We were all given a covenant to review and commit to at the outset which helped set the tone.  I’m grateful for this practice of trying to be a hermeneutical community, a community that engages in interpretation around a table in which we are looking each other in the face.

After a table discussion and open mic feedback, we passed with only a few objections our first resolution which acknowledges that “The United States of America is experiencing an era of boundless and endless war” which is now “the new normal.”  The resolution especially condemns drone warfare which has both reduced the financial cost and loss of American lives, even as it has brought new terror and casualties on civilian populations, and radicalized persons who perceive this as a great injustice.  The resolution calls on affiliated congregations, that’s us, to a renewed emphasis on peacemaking and offering an alternative way to “society’s commitment to the moral necessity of violence.”  It also calls our institutions to ministries of healing and compassionate response to veterans, and directs denominational staff to join in ecumenical public witness against endless war.  If you are a Mennonite, you are a part of a people who, from our very beginnings, have rejected violence as a viable way of solving conflict.  It’s part of our Christo-centric, Jesus-centered, way of interpreting things.

There were also worship services throughout the week.  One of them was a joint worship service with the adults and the youth.  I came into the worship hall late after it had started, and sure enough, there, up on the side of the stage was Nick: arms, hands, and fingers interpreting the meaning of the service.  Even though I understand almost no sign language, it was hard to not look at him.  Through his movements the spoken words became a language of the limbs, an animated body becoming an extended act of communication, dancing its way into the mind not through the ear, but through the eye.    There may have been a very small group of deaf youth and adults present, but I’m certain I wasn’t the only hearing person in the room who looked at Nick more than the speaker.  The thing about engaging in interpretation is that people are watching, even if you aren’t intending to communicate directly with them, even if they don’t yet understand.  People are watching.

If the official theme of the week was “On the way,” the unofficial theme of the week had everything to do with who all is on the way, and how or if we are all going to be traveling together.  More specifically, the question front and center was how to relate with our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer fellow travelers.  This, of course, is not a new question.  It’s a question the denomination has officially had in front of it for over three decades.  But it has recently become the presenting ‘issue’ which reveals much deeper underlying theological and philosophical differences among us.  And we are by no means unique in our struggle through this.  Thursday was the day when we voted on the two resolutions related to this, but the whole week of delegate and worship sessions was full of code language such as unity, diversity, biblical faithfulness, inclusion, etc.

The facts of Thursday are rather simple to report and, if you follow church news, you have seen these reports:  In the morning we passed, with 71% affirmation, a resolution calling for forbearance – a word that is now a part of our Menno-speak for the next few years.  A key sentence from that resolution reads:   “Because God has called us to seek peace and unity as together we discern and seek wisdom on these matters, we call on all those in Mennonite Church USA to offer grace, love and forbearance toward conferences, congregations and pastors in our body who, in different ways, seek to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ on matters related to same-sex covenanted unions.”

In the afternoon we passed, by a 60% margin, a resolution upholding the Membership Guidelines, a document that was put in place at the formation of our denomination in 2001.  A key sentence from those Guidelines reads: “Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant ceremony.  Such actions would be grounds for review of their credentials by their area conference’s ministerial credentialing body.”

If these resolutions sound contradictory to you, you are not alone in that interpretation.  Going into the week I had expected that they would both pass.  They had been promoted as our best chance of preserving the unity of the church, something of a both/and kind of approach.  I didn’t expect to feel such sadness for how misguided this type of institutional unity is.

The most powerful experience of the week for me happened soon after the Membership Guidelines vote, right after the Thursday afternoon session ended.  The Pink Menno room was located close to the delegate hall and the convention center was set up such that everyone needed to pass by that room in order to get from the delegate hall to any other part of the facility.  The only way out was past the Pink.  After learning of the results of the vote – a vote which was taken without allowing for any official input or voice from LGBTQ leaders, Pink Menno folks made an on the spot decision to have a silent witness in the hallway.  What they did was to position themselves in the hallway such that they were far enough apart that people could get by, but close enough together and staggered in such a way that people would have to wind their way through them in order to pass – they were stationed the full width of the hallway, 10-20 feet deep.  This has since been dubbed “The Pink Forest.”  They were just standing there, not moving, not talking.  Some even had pink duct tape over their mouths to symbolize their voice and story not being welcome.  Passers-through would also have to choose whether to make or avert eye contact with these folks.  They would have to choose what kind of facial expression to communicate, whether or not to hug, or talk, or scoff, or suddenly have an urgent text to look down at.

Coming out of the delegate hall, already emotionally exhausted from the day, when I turned down the hallway and saw these brave friends, I completely lost it.  Lost it as in I couldn’t even walk another step.  Lost it as in I could barely bring myself to look into their eyes.  Lost it as in I started bawling my eyes out not with a whimper but with a wail.  Lost it as in shaking in the convention hallway right in front of the Pink forest for God knows how long, held up by my gay brother who had emerged from among the mighty trees to come and embrace and comfort me.  Him, comforting me.

In retrospect, I think what was so powerful about that moment, that extended moment, was how clearly, for those with eyes to see, Pink Menno represented Christ.  We had just finished voting under the auspices of preserving an institution that claims to represent Christ in the world – and does, in so many beautiful ways – and here we were, confronted with the one we had just cast out in order to preserve ourselves, the outsider, the Christ.  The encounter with this reality could not be avoided.  Their presence was no longer an issue for discussion but was a bodily fact, and their bodies became instruments of interpretation, revealing the meaning of the situation.  Limbs, hands, bodies, dancing their way into our consciousness.  “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have declared.”  The convention hall became the Emmaus Road, and the stranger came and journeyed alongside us.  Our hearts burned within us, and Christ was recognized.  Or not.

That evening, staying up way too late in the hotel room, one of those scriptures from Moses and all the prophets came to mind – one of the scriptures from the Old Testament, Jesus’ Bible: Psalm 118:22, cited no less than six times in the New Testament.  “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  The builders had convened to decide which stones fit into the structure, and which to reject, and we had re-affirmed our guidelines of which stones are officially in and which are out.  We are a people who have always valued peace, but this is the shadow side of our history with the peace emphasis.  Peace, in the name of unity, can result in awful injustice.  The revelation of the New Testament, already contained within the Hebrew Scriptures, is that it’s the outsiders, those deemed not worthy, those rejected,  the queer stones that don’t look like the others, which become the building blocks for what God is doing in the world.  Outside the delegate hall Jesus showed up in pink and interpreted all these things about himself.

Another thought I had when I saw the Pink Menno witness was “Why do you even stay around?”  Why do you put up with this abuse?

Not everyone will choose to.  One friend posted on Facebook, “Well, Mennonite Church USA, the resolution passed, still formally excluding GLBTQ+ folks from formal recognition in the church. Any doubt of why I left the church and why religion leaves a bad taste in my mouth was confirmed again this morning.  Wake up.  This will be my last year interpreting for Convention.”

That friend, you may gather from the last line, was Nick, the interpreter, who happens to be gay.

Since the Convention things have continued to develop and unfold.  To date, two conservative conferences have expressed their intentions of withdrawing from the denomination.  Two of the five Mennonite Colleges, Goshen and Eastern Mennonite University, have expanded their hiring policy non-discrimination statements to include sexual orientation.  A certain congregation in a certain conference celebrated the licensing of a certain pastor who displays strong gifts for ministry.  And there will be more unfolding in the months to come.  More shaking of the fragile denominational structure we have built.

I’d like to end by acknowledging the open ended and unstable nature of interpretation.  Interpretation is a basic human act, and certainly a basic Christian act.  What does all this mean, and how shall we then live?  It is the vocation of the Christian to interpret the world through the revelation of Jesus Christ, the stone the builders rejected.  It is clear that we are living with some very different interpretations these days – interpretations made in the name of Christ.  I’d like to invite us all into this vocation of interpretation – not merely as an intellectual exercise, but as an act of our bodies.  To allow our lives to be an act of interpretation of who Christ is.  The beauty and vitality of interpretation is that it honors the past, it receives and identifies with the tradition, even as it acknowledges that it is not a dead thing.  It is alive, “The word of God is living and active” the author of Hebrews says.  To interpret is to allow our life, our mind and our body, to be an intersection of what is received, and the new thing that is coming into being.  At this point, nobody’s quite sure what that new thing will be.  I’m grateful to be on the way with you all.