Calling in the Streets and Sitting at the Table

June 12, 2022
John 16:12-15; Proverbs 8: 1-4, 22-31

The liturgical calendar tells us today is Trinity Sunday. It is one of those days in the Christian calendar that is not strictly biblical though the one place the trinitarian formula does appear – the language of Father, Son and Holy Ghost all together – is in Matthew 28 as some of the last words of Jesus.

On this Trinity Sunday, the lectionary doesn’t include the passage from Matthew 28. Instead we get readings from other parts of the bible that refer to these three parts of God. From the gospel of John: I have much more to tell you but you can’t bear to hear it now. When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all truth. There is the Spirit, as spoken by Jesus. Two parts of the trinity. In the words of assurance today we heard Psalm 8; that is addressed to the Creator. I guess that is the “Father” part? These verses are not the shorthand way of referring to the trinity but they catch all three parts.

We also heard from Proverbs about Wisdom calling in the streets. We know the importance of being heard. We live in a city where there’s always somebody calling in the streets. Yesterday people called in the streets for sanity in terms of gun laws. Next Saturday the Poor People’s Campaign comes from across the country, (people from Indiana are staying in the church house.) They will call in the streets for the government to address poverty and inequality, white supremacy and systemic racism, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism. During Pride month queer voices joyfully call in the streets to be seen, to be treated with dignity and respect. Sometimes we have to take to the street to be heard.

Is Wisdom, calling in the streets, part of the trinity? Jesus is often understood as the embodiment of Wisdom. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is considered to be how Wisdom works in the world. What about the third part of the trinity, does wisdom figure there? From Proverbs as wisdom speaks:

Our God gave birth to me at the beginning

before the first acts of creation.

I have been from everlasting,

in the beginning, before the world began.

This almost sounds like the gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

It all feels interconnected. Which, I guess, is kind of how the trinity is, interdependent, relational. Even though it is hard to explain these three parts of God to my monotheistic Jewish and Muslim friends, I do appreciate the idea that we can tap into three parts of God.

The nurturing, creating, creative part.

The embodied, living out ethics, and suffering part.

The mystery that blows where it will, not to be caught or contained part.

The three parts, or maybe aspects, intertwine, are reciprocal, are in relationship.

As an Anabaptist, I appreciate the idea that the trinity shows that God is relationship, is in relationship: in relationship with Godself, in relationship with humans, in relationship with the world. If our image of God is a relationship, a trinity in conversation, how does that inform the way we do church?

As Anabaptists, relationship is what holds us together. In Mennonite Church USA we do have documents, polity, that we hold in common like the confession of faith and the “Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership.” And until two weeks ago, the “Membership Guidelines.” But in my experience, polity pales when it comes to the relationships that bind us together, the relationships that help us create church, the relationships that help us be church, do church.

Two weeks ago over 500 hundred Mennonites gathered in Kansas City to do church, to be church, and though polity was on the table, it was relationships that kept us at the table. We didn’t arrive at the Westin Hotel in Kansas City and immediately vote yes or no. We sat at tables together, people from different conferences and learned to know each other, learned to (hopefully) appreciate our differences and our different contexts. The seven people at my table were from east to west, rural and urban, male and female, younger and older, progressive and not so, pastors and not pastors – and all white.

On Friday night we began to build relationships with each other, as individuals and as a table. We wanted to hear from each other, learn from each other. On Saturday when instructions were to vote on something before we had talked about it at our tables, there was a murmur that multiplied and grew into a small uproar around the large ballroom. People genuinely wanted to hear from each other, wanted to have that sometimes agonizingly painful, conversation about and through our differences. Thankfully, the leaders on the dais responded and gave us more time to talk and listen to each other.

I love this about MC USA, that we sit together and try to listen to each other. That we are given space, even instruction on how to do this with people we do not know, that we do not agree with, but that we are church with. Sitting at tables together, we have the chance to look around and perhaps catch a glimpse of the light of God within each other, even when we disagree on things that are very important to us. At least that is what happened for me, at my table. Maybe that is part of living out the idea of trinity?

I arrived at the Kansas City airport and ran into three other Mennos from across the country – Idaho, Pittsburgh and New York. All my worry about a costly trip from the airport to downtown Kansas City evaporated as we shared a Lyft. Arriving at the hotel, the grey cloud of anxiety and doom that often seems palpable at these meetings did not seem so present.

Usually at MC USA conventions delegates register and receive a name tag on a lanyard and a swag bag full of documents and advertisements from various Mennonite groups. This was no convention, we were there to work; we were each given a simple name tag and an envelope with three ballots in it. “Don’t lose that, those are your ballots for the weekend.” This was our first indication that the upcoming votes were going to be taken seriously and that the delegates were expected to be prepared.

Sometimes denominational meetings can feel like stepping back in time. Here at HMC we have been an integrated congregation of out LGBTQ folks and straight people for over three decades, and yet in some places in the Mennonite Church this is still controversial, even a new idea. It is painful to have one’s body and the bodies of beloveds discussed and mulled over as if the image of God is not present. It is infuriating to hear people say, ”It’s not personal; it’s just theology, it’s the bible, it’s ethics.”

Congregations and conferences were invited to send youth delegates, ages 16-21. The presence of youth delegates, as the church now and the church of the future was a hopeful sign. They organized amongst themselves, they went to the mic to speak their minds. They were articulate and engaging. Seeing the parents and LGBTQ people and youth, helped me see how the larger church is changing even as my understanding of myself is changing.

On Friday evening we began getting to know each other at our tables, and we heard stories from across the church of what it looks like to like to live through stormy times. One of the storytellers, a thirty-something pastor, talked about her middle school drama teacher who found ways for everyone to have a role in the play. If there weren’t enough parts, she created more. What would it look like, wondered the pastor, if we had that approach to church? If we found a place and a part for everyone who wanted to be in the church?

On Saturday, we continued to build relationships at our tables, and we heard what it looks like to do church in Philadelphia, Seattle, Cleveland, and Hesston, KS.

Finally on Sunday morning, the agenda listed “discussion and vote on ‘Clarification on Mennonite Church USA Polity and the Role of the Membership Guidelines of Mennonite Church USA.’” The membership guidelines were created in 2001 so that the (old) Mennonite Church and the General Conference Mennonite Church could come together to create Mennonite Church USA. Part three of the guidelines prohibited clergy from officiating weddings for two men or two women.

In the 21 years since the merger, the way we talk about gender and sexuality has complexified; same sex marriage is now legal across the country, many pastors are officiating weddings, and the guidelines are not evenly observed or enforced across conferences. Would the membership guidelines stay or were we ready to acknowledge that these guidelines no longer function for us as a denomination? After hearing the voices at the mic, it was not a complete shock that the delegates voted to get rid of the guidelines but I admit, 82% was sort of surprising to me. I am grateful that MC USA is no longer united by its fear and disdain of queer people.

Sunday afternoon we met again at our tables, this time to talk about the Repentance and Transformation resolution that was brought by the Inclusive Mennonite Pastors group. This was more controversial and language became more pointed. People didn’t like hearing that church has done “violence” to queer people. Others said they had not done anything wrong toward the LGBTQ community so there was no reason for them to repent. Members of Iglesia Menonita Hispana spoke strongly against the resolution. We also heard that there are more pressing, life and death issues for many immigrant congregations: will I work today, what if ICE comes to my door, will I be able to feed my family, can I pay my rent?

At the same time, there was from progressive – and conservative voices, the acknowledgment that harm has been done to the Queer community. This seems new to me. Some people may not be ready to repent for the harm done but recognizing and naming that harm has been done by the church is a small step toward repair.

After some procedural hurdles, in which our own Emily Merolli, one of the parliamentarians for the meeting was asked to weigh in, ballots were distributed. This ballot was not included in our registration envelope because it was not a given that we would even vote on the “resolution for repentance and transformation.” As we waited for the votes to be counted we sang and prayed and sang some more. The moderator asked us to recognize that no matter how the vote turned out some people would be disappointed so we were asked not to respond in any way when the results were announced. We held hands around our tables and sang another song. Then the moderator announced that the resolution for repentance and transformation had passed, 267 yes, 212 no, with 9 abstentions. 56% – 44%.

It was breathtaking. Stunning. And there was silence. For those who were disappointed there was nothing to say. For those who were exuberant, it was hard to believe. After all those years of calling in the streets, in the hallways of conventions, what will it really mean anyway? What will it look like to keep on as a church, building relationships, when the divide is now quantified?

The last day, Monday morning, we heard two sermons: Sarah Bixler, professor at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, reflected on Ecclesiastes 3, in which the author writes that there is a time for everything. She asked, “What kind of time is this, when there is both rejoicing and mourning?

Malinda Barry, professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, compared the church to a neighborhood. She said, “Neighborhoods let us live together and be different at the same time … This neighborhood is changing. And some of those changes, I feel grateful for, and some of them leave me feeling afraid. There’s new construction and for sale signs. Some houses have the blinds drawn shut. And some have open windows with music pouring through them, trying to get a dance party going.” Our spirits were gently tended by Sarah and Malinda that morning.

Despite my joy and relief that the resolution passed, I was skeptical that passing this resolution would mean anything. It is one thing take a vote, it is quite another for institutional leadership to carry through. This past week I was amazed, shocked, surprised to see a post from the official Mennonite Church USA Facebook account that read: “Pride Month, resources for worship from #VoicesTogether.” Maybe resolutions do make a difference – and there is a new kind of leadership in the church.

The Facebook post is one small (and controversial) result of the resolution. The people who are disappointed and angry may decide to draw their blinds as Malinda said or move out of the neighborhood altogether. We know, as members of Allegheny Conference, what it looks like to have congregations leave when there are theological and ecclesial differences. We also know that sometimes new people move into the neighborhood. If our image of God is relationship, a trinity in conversation, how does that inform the way we do church?

And what about those voices “calling in the streets.” I imagine it won’t take too long for new voices to feel the only way to be heard is to call in convention hallways.

I hope the church, the neighborhood, is big enough that there is room for everyone to talk, respectfully, and build relationships with each other, even eat and drink together at the table. And when we hear wisdom calling in the streets, I hope we will pay attention and invite wisdom to the table as well, knowing that as Proverbs says:

Wisdom was God’s delight day after day,

 rejoicing in the whole world

 and delighting in humankind.