Somewhere between Hell and Nirvana: Reflections on Kansas City MennoCon 2019 | July 28

Texts: John 20:19-23; Ephesians 4:1-6

The final event of the Kansas City convention, Saturday mid-morning, was a worship service.  As was the case throughout the week, there was lots of singing, led by a full band.  Most of the 3000 convention participants were still present.  The final speaker was Glen Guyton.  He’s been the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA for just over a year – the first African American to hold that position.  When Glen came out to speak, most of the band members left the stage, but some stayed at their instruments.  This smaller band then broke out with a bass-driven opening I recognized right away from having come of age in the 90’s.  It was the unmistakable sound of the grunge band Nirvana, and their song “Come as you are.”  This was surprising, but then Glen grabbed the microphone and in a voice that surely had Kurt Cobain smiling from his grave, and perhaps slightly confused given the setting, Glen proceeded to sing most of the song with the band in full grunge mode:

Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As a known enemy

Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach
As I want you to be
As a trend, as a friend
As an old memory

And I swear that I don’t have a gun, no I don’t have gun.

The lyrics kind of make sense if you don’t think too hard.  It was a memorable way to introduce his basic message, his vision for the church: We want to be the kind of church where you can come as you are, no matter your identity or condition.  We’re a peace church, we don’t have a gun, so come as you are, friend or enemy.

Just the sight of a Mennonite leader belting out Nirvana to begin a sermon on the biggest national stage the church has ought to be enough to intrigue at least a few skeptics to come as they are and see what this next chapter of life in the Mennonite Church is all about.

That was the last piece of convention.  After worship ended we checked out of the hotel and were on our way.

The first event of the week for me happened earlier on Tuesday.  I was asked to speak on a panel about our sanctuary work, one of several all-day pre-convention seminars before things officially kicked off that evening.  I was joined by pastor Isaac Villegas, whose Mennonite congregation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina is providing sanctuary of Rosa Ortez Cruz.  We were first on the morning’s agenda.  A few minutes before things were about to start Isaac leaned over and asked me if Edith had gotten a letter the previous day.  Rosa had.  It was a letter from ICE fining her for $314,000 for overstaying her deportation order.  I hadn’t heard anything, so I texted Edith.

Me: “Did you receive a letter from ICE with a large fine?”  Her, a few minutes later: “Yes.”

This latest piece of news from life in sanctuary became part of the story we told about the ever developing, never static nature of this work.  Because she had been in sanctuary longer than Rosa, Edith’s fine was even larger – nearly half a million dollars.  Rosa and Edith being charged with unpayable fines was yet another example of how ICE is making life a living hell for undocumented folks among us.

It was quite a start to convention that had me positioned with one foot in Kansas City and one in Columbus throughout the week.

When church convention starts with the specter of a living hell, and ends with Nirvana, it’s been quite a week.

Although it wasn’t nearly that linear.  Never is.

What was steady and consistent throughout the week was this passage from John 20.  It served as the scripture for each worship service, each preacher bringing their own angle on this scene in which the male disciples’ existence hovers between the death-shadow of crucifixion and the not-yet imagined possibility of resurrection:

John 20:19-23:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Judeans, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.  As the Abba has sent me, so I send you.’  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

Within this passage there’s a movement from fear to peace.  From locked doors to the boundless freedom of breath, wind, Spirit that is the very source of life itself.  From the grip of crucifixion to the gentle revolution of resurrection.

One of the speakers, Sue Park-Hur talked about this movement in her own life.  She told of her family’s migration to the US 40 years ago.  Her father had been drafted into the Korean Civil War and lived with the trauma of that experience his whole life.  Sue and her husband Hyun were drawn to the Mennonite Church because they learned it was a tradition that held firm to a peace witness for the 500 years of its existence.  She told of Hyun’s visit to churches in North Korea, a trip not without its risks.  His message to them was simple, and similar to Jesus’ message to his disciples behind those locked doors.  He brought greetings of peace and blessing.  Sue is now denominational minister for leadership development and co-director of a peace center in Los Angeles called ReconciliAsian.

Another speaker, Pastor Meghan Good, talked more directly to the state of Mennonite Church USA as being in a place of fear.  Like the disciples, the denomination fears for its own survival.  Many conservative congregations and whole conferences have left over the last few years.  3000 people is a lot to have at one gathering, but compared to the 7,500 people who attended the 2009 convention right here in Columbus, it doesn’t sound like a lot.  The solution to the church’s problems, of course, is to make Mennonites great again by putting Columbus back in the center of the denomination.  That’s where they went wrong.

Pastor Megan didn’t say any of this – she’s from Phoenix – but she did emphasize the importance of breath for keeping us alive.  Jesus and his friends breathe together, all of us gathered in Kansas City breathed together, and the formerly fearful ones receive what they need to sustain life.

The John passage was a consistent thread through the worship services, and the book of Ephesians was a consistent thread through the delegate sessions.  Rather than spend the majority of time debating resolutions, delegates heard and discussed teachings from Ephesians scholar Tom Yoder Neufeld.  Ephesians is concerned with the identity, mission, and unity of the church.  A fitting theme for Mennonite Church USA.  Tom cited verse 10 of chapter 1 which talks about God gathering up all things in Christ.  God is a gatherer, and we all are part of what God is gathering together.  I actually didn’t hear this part of the teaching.  It was one of several times I had stepped out to take a call about the unfolding situation around Edith’s fine.  But somebody from our table summarized it for me.  What I was there to hear was this:  Because God’s into gathering all sorts of things and people together, it gets messy.  One of Tom’s summary statements of Ephesians was “The church is a mess, thanks be to God!”  He had us repeat that several times in a liturgical call and response.  We could try that now.  When I say “The church is a mess,” you say, “Thanks be to God.”

The church is a mess…

These teachings on Ephesians continued each day along a similar vein.

It’s easy to affirm the first part of that refrain, “The church is a mess.”  It can get messy.  It’s harder to give thanks to God when the mess that is church life has caused so much pain.

The 2009 Convention in Columbus, along with having lots of people there, was also the beginning of Pink Menno.  That made this gathering the 10 year anniversary of that movement to elevate queer voices within the church.  This past decade in which queer voices have been elevated within the church has coincided with congregations and whole conferences leaving such a church in which this is happening.  A number of queer leaders have left as well because their voices have not been fully heeded.  As one leader said a few years ago, “I’ve spent most of my life wondering if I was worthy of the Mennonite Church, now I’m wondering if the Mennonite Church is worthy of me.”

One of the highlights of the week for me was an unofficial evening gathering, a 15 minute walk from the Convention center.  Pink Menno folks rented the space.  All five of the Miller clan attended.  It was a 10 year anniversary party complete with cake, along with a viewing of a film called “This Little Light.”  The film was a documentary about Wendi Moore-O’Neal who had been hired by Mennonite Central Committee to work in post-Katrina New Orleans, her home community.  But MCC fired her after she married her wife.  It was painful to watch one of the most beloved ministries of our church, MCC, harming the very people it had committed to serving.  Wendy was there to talk with us after the viewing.  She led us in singing a soulful song of love and perseverance.  If ever there was a single moment that week that straddled the chasm between hell and nirvana, it was then.

Back in the delegate hall, we did have some business to do.  We enthusiastically passed a resolution that will have the delegate hall smelling a little more like teen spirit.  It gives each congregation an extra delegate, as long as that extra delegate is a youth between ages 16 and 21.  That means if you are right now between 14 and 19 you, yes you, can be a delegate for CMC at the 2021 convention, held in Cincinnati.

We also passed a resolution condemning the abuse of migrant children at the border and calling on congregations to support migrants in their own settings.  The resolution included the language of supporting sanctuary, and at the beginning of the session the Moderator, David Boshart, specifically lifted up Edith and Rosa and the fines they had received earlier in the week.  During the open mic time I was reminded of the power we can have collectively as a national body.  A woman I didn’t know came to the mic and said if the sanctuary churches are ever in need of assistance, that all the congregations should be ready to lend their support.

It’s perhaps easy to fault the disciples for a lack of faith which had them hiding in fear behind closed doors.  But that’s also pretty much the definition of sanctuary.  Sometimes those doors are the only protective barrier one has.  And sometimes Jesus appears inside the room, perhaps in the form of a whole gathered body of delegates, and says “Peace be with you,” and you breathe together and receive the Holy Spirit.  I hope I’m conveying just a bit of how empowering a gift that is.

I confess that in the last four years I have withdrawn some emotionally from the fate of our denomination.  I know it’s four years because two conventions ago, also held in Kansas City, was such a painful and disappointing experience of the church mired in its own inability to extend love and hospitality to all its members.

I think there was some healing this time around.

I think I’m speaking for more than just myself when I say we have high hopes for the church, even if they’re buried beneath our day to day experience of reality.  We need the church to be something that bears the likeness of God, as it says in Ephesians.  To embody the very best of our humanity.  To give us a sign of transcendence.  Please, help us see a better way.  I’ve been using the word Nirvana here because it fits into the poetic scheme of the sermon, but we could also say we long for the church to lift us up and be this vessel of communion with God.

What the church ends up doing, most of the time, is holding us somewhere between hell and nirvana, deep suffering and selfless bliss.  And I’m OK with that.  And fortunately, God seems to be OK with that too.  God keeps gathering, we keep being gathered, into a body that lives and breathes together, and sometimes even looks like Jesus alive in this world.