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“Jesus be the Centre”

See Scripture Reader's Theatre Below

Mark D H(Come forward with membership box and place on pulpit)  6 months ago SJMC officially incorporated as a congregation. We had a great committee, a great process and strong congregational support. It felt like a process that was long overdue for all sorts of reasons, including legal protection and having a clear set of bylaws for how we operate as a church. One of the requirements coming out of Incorporation was clarifying and updating our current membership list. Here is the ‘membership return box,’ that has sat in the church office for the last 6 months. Every single person who is a member at SJMC received a letter asking the question of whether they want to remain as an active member, or maintain their ties and relationship with SJMC as a Non-Active Member or discontinue their membership, with that deadline being now at the end of June. Lots of you here received this letter, but only those who at one time have joined SJMC either through baptism, transfer of membership from another congregation or confession of faith, affirming an earlier baptism as a child. In the process we also recognized that many people are well connected and involved and engaged here, but as affiliates, having never officially joined the church. That too includes many of you, and you did not get a letter. That mix of people is part of the richness of who we are and we have not made much of these distinctions in everyday church life.

There has been a good response to the letter and this box is pretty full. As a pastor I feel very good about the process of how we did this and about the content and tone of the letter. It was invitational and gracious and said, ‘we understand the welcome and hospitality of this congregation in a broad way.’ I also recognize that no matter how well a letter like this is written, there is something a bit awkward about sending a membership letter to a wide swath of people both present and not so present here, and a part of my pastoral heart cringed last year when we started talking about doing this. The church is not primarily about keeping an accurate and up to date list. It feels like potentially opening up a can of worms and there is a worry over offending people.

The last time we had a process and letter like this was in 1994, 23 years ago. That letter too was written very sensitively and included follow up visits and phone calls, although a few decades later the language then feels different and a bit dated. I find it remarkable that two of the things stated then already in 1994, was that pastoral care and congregational support is available to all persons no matter what their membership status – we want to be inclusive and welcoming, and secondly, that both members and affiliates, non-members, grade 9 and up are welcome to participate in decisions and votes and serve on committees and ministries. There is an open spirit here that we worked with our lawyer to maintain into our Incorporation Bylaws, even as we have more clear bylaws on things like quorum, notice of meetings, the voting to affirm our Board of Directors, the Leadership Council, and certain financial votes. Most votes are still wide open. There was a comment made right at the beginning of the Incorporation process that ‘the nature of who we are as a people of God has not changed. We are still the same body, and that body of Christ is who we are members of.’

One of the things a letter like we just sent does is make you think about the meaning of membership. We’ve had some seniors in care homes who wondered if they should check ‘non-active’ because it feels like they are no longer contributing or being present in worship like they once were. They have been reassured that they are indeed beloved and remembered here and considered active members.  Some young adults back and forth to school and co-ops and summer work wonder similar things. Others have struggled to know how to respond either way. We’ve had a clear way of joining the church. But it is not always as clear to know when someone no longer finds membership meaningful or relevant or when that experience seems more distant.  Others who are not yet members wonder whether they should join at some time, or if they are called to baptism. What does membership really mean? What difference does it make if we treat all with the same open arms? Incorporation has asked us all these questions.

It feels like we are holding together two seemingly opposite sentiments as a church. On one hand, we highly value membership. We encourage people to become baptized, to join the church, to commit to a life of following Jesus and living out that expression of faith through the church, supported by the church community. We just had 2 wonderful and powerful baptism and membership services – at Riverstone on June 4th and here last Sunday. It was particularly meaningful for me to baptize my son Nathan. All 4 people joining the church had powerful stories of faith, stories of God moving in their lives, and of finding a faith home here at St Jacobs Mennonite. We celebrated and rejoiced and held this up in worship. On the other hand, at the same time, we say that membership is not the be all and end all. Everyone is fully welcome to be here, to participate, and to worship God. The church is not about gate keeping, or lists, or getting all concerned about membership status.  Our stance is to have our arms wide open with hospitality and welcome. We have not wanted membership to be a stumbling block that gets in the way of people’s relationship with God or how they are involved or connected here. We provide pastoral care to all. We have prayed with and for a wide range of people. We have hosted funerals and weddings for a very wide circle. For years our Shepherds kept in touch with all sorts of people connected in some way here, even if they have not attended for a long time. We recognize the deep roots people have to this place. If the circle of active members and engaged attendees is this big (arms in small circle), the circle of who St Jacobs Mennonite is and who is all connected in here in some way is this big (arms wide open). We celebrate that.

So we hold these two things together, these two approaches to membership and the understanding of church, in a kind of tension. We are in good company. Did you listen to the Scriptures this morning?  Did you hear the interplay among them, and how they sometimes said almost opposite things? Do not intermarry with them for that would turn away your children from following me... take wives and have sons and daughters; seek the welfare of the city, in exile, and pray for its behalf. You are a chosen people, a holy nation... all nations shall stream to the mountain of the Lord. Enter through the narrow gate... anyone who does what is right is acceptable to God. God shows no partiality. Voice 2 in the Reader’s Theatre had the Scriptures with the most bite in terms of focussing on strengthened the core, the inner identity. Voice 4 had the most outward and open focus, pushing us to not worry about boundaries.

The people of God have always struggled with the back and forth between this good and necessary instinct and movement towards strengthening the core identity and the commitment to make the church work, to discipleship, to the importance of membership;  and this good and necessary instinct and movement towards opening up the boundaries, reaching out, mission, hospitality, seeing how God is at work in our world in a broad way well beyond the church. I took 2 photos in our little backyard that visually display this good and necessary tension.

The first is from the East side of the backyard Garden Photo MDH1– the start of our garden for this year with its spinach and basil just beginning to grow. There is a clear wooden border between these plants and the grassy yard beside it. I like that. It gives the fledging plants the protection and space and environment they need to grow and thrive as we head into summer. The garden will do well and will produce.  Perhaps the danger is that the garden becomes too monoculture, too stagnant and stops growing.

Garden Photo MDHThis second photo is from the West side of that same backyard. There is a wooden plank there too, almost lost, that once separated the perennials from the grassy yard. But over the last few years that border has been jumped by the lily of the valley, some sort of white flower ground cover and even some Creepy Charlie weeds. I like that too. We have just let it happen and have enjoyed the wildness and un-predictability of this half of our yard and we find a beauty in it. Perhaps the danger is that the grass gets totally overtaken and choked out. Both photos, both situations, are a part of the same yard. And I suspect in a parallel way we carry both ways of understanding the same church.

So I wonder if there is a whole different way of looking at this? What if instead of starting with the church and membership and how we might understand it, we start with Jesus. As important as the church is, Jesus is our true centre and our model for faith, for spiritual union within the body of Christ and for the church itself. As we heard in 1 Corinthians 3, the passage Menno Simons repeatedly went back to, ‘for no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.’ When you start with Jesus, it is all about how each of us are in relationship with him. It assumes that God is at work in our world – both inside and outside the church – God is there before we get there. We can’t control what God is doing, whose lives God is messing around with. Instead of worrying about in and out, borders or boundaries, we are all looking to Jesus for ourselves and asking about how close we feel to him. Betti Pries was quoted in a recent Canadian Mennonite article, ‘Jesus loved people and taught the love of God. The centre is that God loves us, not what we believe.’ (May 22, 2017, p.18 http://www.canadianmennonite.org/stories/being-church-age-anxiety)  So Jesus could bridge both poles of our human dilemmas. Jesus changed people’s lives.  Jesus brought people into discipleship and a high level of commitment. Jesus also met people on the margins and at the very edges of fragility and desperation, and did not judge, but offered new life. He looked people right in the eyes and brought them all near. He held both impulses together – high commitment and high non-judgemental welcome. We can hold both together too because of who Jesus is. It is all about the centre, all about that relationship with Jesus.       

In May I went to a funeral at Welcome Inn in the lower income North End of Hamilton. This was the Community Centre and Church where I served with Mennonite Voluntary Service for 2 very formative years as a young adult.  While very Anabaptist in approach and theology, it was certainly a different feel of church. It was a place of welcome to many on the fringes of society. If you asked a rhetorical question in a sermon, or even if you didn’t, people would answer you or yell things out, and people were always popping up and down, moving in and out of the service and building. There was a beautiful holy chaos to Sunday mornings. You were a member simply by showing up, being there, and they had a renewal service each year for everyone who was present. It was truly my church home in my time there. There is a sadness for me that the worshipping congregation part of Welcome Inn only re-constitutes now for funerals, having officially closed a few years ago. As a church full of all sorts of characters, one of the most colourful and feisty had to be Margaret Savoie. If you met her, you would never forget her. You probably would have received some sort of insult or rebuke or some of her blunt honesty she shared with her world, but you would have also sensed a heart of gold underneath. As one person said at her funeral, now at age 73, Marg could get under your skin in the most irritating and beautifully endearing way. Her generosity, especially to others on the edges, was unparalleled. I remember one weekday morning being the official ‘Welcomer’ trying to avoid and then help usher out an obviously inebriated man – when Marg came up from behind me, offering coffee and her own money and inviting him in for conversation as the true person of welcome.  Marg had come from a tough early life on the East Coast – estranged from family, carrying many hurts, including a tough divorce and 4 children she could no longer parent. She found a place of welcome and love at Welcome Inn and it became her home. She would say she met Jesus, who welcomed her on her own terms as a person of value. Jesus was the centre. There was a time of open storytelling right in the middle of the somewhat chaotic funeral service, wild story after wild story with lots of laughter and more than a few tears. Her son Robbie got up. He reflected that the relationship was not always easy, but that there was a softening of late, the past was water under the bridge, she was still her mom and he would miss her. And then he talked about church and God. ‘It’s simple’, he said, ‘God’s love is for everyone, no exceptions.’  When the Welcome Inn Church closed, Marg eventually found her way to Hamilton Mennonite, the mostly middle class church that had long supported Welcome Inn. She started coming and very soon asked for membership. She said pointedly, out of her own experience, ‘Of course I want to become a member of this church. Mennonites accept you for who you are.’ She nailed it. I left the funeral so grateful for Margaret’s life and for the gift of clarity on what is truly important.

We have our box here and it has its place in our congregational life. But faith is not in this box or measured by the answers it contains. Some years will pass and our list will get messy again and that’s okay. We will continue to value and hold up and invite people to membership here and rejoice and celebrate as people hear the call of God and get baptized and join us. We will continue to reach out and welcome all and with God’s help be a place of hospitality and generosity and acceptance. My hope and prayer is that our focus in all of this is on Jesus as the centre of our lives, Jesus as the foundation. Amen

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This morning’s Scripture Reader’s Theatre picks up various voices and strands of Scripture about what it means to be the people of God. Listen for the variety of perspectives among these voices, some in seemingly direct contradiction to each other. How do these Scriptures help us think about what it means to be members of the church and a part of the people of God.’

Scripture Reader’s Theatre – June 18, 2017

Voice 1: Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)

Voice 2: When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy ... make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them 4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods... 6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deuteronomy 7:1-6 excerpts)

Voice 3: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:4-8)

Voice 4: In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3  Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; (Isaiah 2:1-2a)

Voice 1: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the God who called you out of darkness into marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

Voice 2: Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

Voice 3: Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:7)

Voice 4: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to God. 36—God is Lord of all. (Acts 10:34-36)

Voice 1: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit...14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14; 27)

Voice 2: Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. 29I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. (Acts 20:28-30)

Voice 3: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20)

Voice 4: So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 ...  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with then saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21  (Ephesians 17- 21)

All:  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:11)