Bear in mind, that at one time the men among you who were Gentiles physically – called the “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves the “circumcised,” all because of a minor operation – had no part in Christ and were excluded from the community of Israel. You were strangers to the Covenant and its promise; you were without hope and without God in the world.
But now, in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For Christ is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart. In his own flesh, Christ abolished the Law with its commands and ordinances, in order to make the two into one new person, thus establishing peace and reconciling us all to God in one body through the cross, which put to death the enmity between us. Christ came and “announced the Good News of peace to you who were far away and those who were near,” for through Christ, we all have access in one Spirit to our God.
This means that you are strangers and aliens no longer. No, you are included in God’s holy people and are members of the household of God, which is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus as the capstone. In Christ the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in our God; in Christ you are being built into this temple, to become a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
This grand centerpiece from Ephesians 2 illustrates what is possible when we are centered in Christ. To rational minds, it is far-fetched and yet, the writer reminds us how strange things happen when God is involved. We are no longer strangers and aliens to each other – or to God. No longer exiles but brought near to each other; barriers break down even as something new is built up. What a vision for us when we wonder what the future might hold.
This morning I want to share with you an adaptation of the sermon that I preached at Allegheny Conference in August. Over that weekend gathering, three pastors from the conference each preached on this text from Ephesians 2. I thought it might be important for you here at Hyattsville to hear how I spoke publicly about our experiences as a congregation the past decade.
We are not the only ones to experience division. The writer of Ephesians knows this reality all too well, in the past and in the present. The writer reminds the Jews that they know exile and separation from their homeland and people; it is part of their faith and family history. The gentiles also know what it means to long for a connection with God, for a place to worship and not be welcomed in. Now, these Jews and gentiles who have hated each other, who have not found ways to live together, or work together, who both long for God but cannot pray together – now these two groups are brought together. In Christ, the animosity between them is removed.
The idea that through the violent death of Jesus those who have been alienated from each other are somehow brought together – this is hard to swallow. Everything in me wants to say no, no to pain and suffering, no to abuse, no to violence and death.
And yet another part of me wonders about the truth of this promise, that you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. If those in conference who hold a more traditional understanding are analogous to the Jews, we here at Hyattsville Mennonite have been seen by many in the conference, perhaps across the Mennonite Church, as the “uncircumcised.” Despite the categories we may create, I desperately want to believe, I do believe, that we can be brought near to each other across the conference.
We proclaim that we are committed to centering ourselves in Christ’s peace. Yet it remains a struggle to live into the good news that Christ is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart. Is our imagination big enough to believe it? That Christ steps into the breach and becomes the bridge, the connective tissue that holds us together, builds us into a holy temple where God dwells? If we cannot be brought nearer in the church, how can we have any hope for the world?
The Good News of peace, built upon a foundation of apostles, prophets, and tradition, with Christ as the capstone, this good news is not an easy or quick building project. My own sense is that if we begin this building project before we have acknowledged our pain, the pain we have experienced as exiles and aliens, we cut short an important part of the process. We don’t need to dwell on the pain, we dare not get stuck in the pain, but if we deny the pain or understand our difficult experiences as only symbolic and metaphorical, we may alienate each other all over again.
Think of the daily horrors that unfold in this country and around the world – the list is unending. Think of the “smaller” incidents in our own lives – fires, floods, abuse, mental illness, untimely death. In the immediate time after a fearful, difficult incident, we have a hard time finding words to describe why, how, what it might mean. It can be tempting to ignore the deep pain and discomfort, and just move forward, get over it and back to “real life.”
We can sometimes move too quickly to interpretation, “bad things happen so God’s power can be seen in the world, so we might be brought together, as a faith community, a country, one humanity. ” This might minimize the grief, but it also trivializes the lives wounded or lost. Eventually, we may understand that new life can come out of tragedy but to go there immediately is cruel to those who grieve for family, community, country.
This is one of the reasons I find it likely, along with many biblical scholars, that the writer of Ephesians is more than half a century removed from the death of Jesus on the cross. The writer has had several generations to step back from the immediacy of grief and begin to understand the scandalous, tragic death of Jesus in symbolic and theological ways. Jesus’ death is no longer primarily seen as a horrifying act of power and aggression by the Romans to keep the Jews oppressed. Decades after his death, Jesus’ followers understand Jesus as the Christ, Messiah, beyond time and space, whose death creates a place of connection with God – and each other – for those who understand and believe.
It may be too soon to look at the metaphorical meanings of what it meant to “be aliens” in terms of our relationship to Allegheny Conference. We need to tell the stories of that decade of discipline, so we don’t move too soon to a false healing. While I am amazed and grateful for the ways our Amish cousins seem to immediately forgive (at least as we observe the Nickel Mines incident,) I am not sure that kind of immediacy serves us well in this situation. Being reconciled in Christ, moving from “strangers” to “siblings in Christ” may take some time. I pray that by speaking of the pain, we can begin to break down the barriers that have divided us and live into the next steps of being built up anew in Christ.
Some of you may remember that the first days, weeks and months after the vote to discipline Hyattsville, were difficult. We were exhausted. We decided to take a two year break from meetings about our relationship with conference. We recommitted ourselves as a congregation to being a place of love and hospitality, for each other and for everyone who came through our doors. Admittedly, some of us were still angry at what felt like being sidelined by the conference, yet we found that living with the hospitality of Christ as our goal brought healing and growth.
At the end of two years, we had a congregational meeting to talk about how we would now relate to the conference. There were calls from some in the congregation to stop giving money to AMC, to move to another conference where our gifts could be recognized and used. Some of these voices were understandably frustrated and impatient. There were also voices who called for us to stay the course, to remain with the conference, to continue giving financially. These voices were quiet and tearful.
Interestingly, the voices asking the congregation to stay were some of the LGBTQ members. Alienation, exile, and powerlessness were not new to these folks. They knew all too well what it can mean to be pushed aside by family and church. The LGBTQ folks spoke out of concern for the young people in Allegheny Conference, those who might be discovering their own sexual orientation and gender identity – and then experience alienation from their families and congregations. The empathetic LGBTQ people reminded us all what it is like to be exiled and feel alone. “We can not abandon the children and youth. They need to know that God loves them and we do too. They need to know there is a place for them in the church.” So we stayed.
You probably know this but I felt it was important for the conference folks to know, that what may have been intended as exile, what may have looked like alienation, was not necessarily lived out that way here at Hyattsville. We made the choice to live as much as possible as if we were not strangers to the larger church. It took some imagination to claim the power we still had. We could still travel to conference meetings, reach out in friendship, share the love and hospitality of Christ with whoever we met, wherever we were. We could still be church together.
Admittedly, sometimes this was difficult when we interacted with the larger church. There were times when we were reminded of the discipline. At a pastors’ meeting about missional congregations, the power point presentation defined and gave examples of what it means to be missional. Our location and context for ministry means we are living out almost all of the recommendations for a missional church and yet here we were, under discipline, told we were doing church the wrong way.
A few years into the discipline, a student from one of the Mennonite colleges wanted to be a ministry intern with us here at Hyattsville, through the Ministry Inquiry Program. The student was told that they could not participate in ministry with us.
Our youth planned to go to Snow Camp, sponsored by Allegheny Conference. We were told that our beloved youth sponsors could not accompany them because they were a lesbian couple. And yet, and yet, the LGBTQ people in the congregation reminded us, “We cannot abandon the youth of Allegheny Conference. They have to know we are here for them, that the church is a place for everyone.”
It may have looked like exile from the conference and larger church, yet there was real joy and new life among us at Hyattsville. With Christ at the center, the message of hospitality and hope grew, and continues to grow.
After ten years of “discipline,” there is much for which we can be thankful. We are thankful for the Philippi congregation that stood with us, showing solidarity by taking the same discipline upon themselves. We are thankful for those from conference who visited and worshipped with us, who volunteered at the International Guest House and developed friendships with us under extraordinary circumstances. We are thankful that we were welcomed at Allegheny Conference gatherings, pastors meetings, youth events and summer camps. We are most grateful that Christ did not abandon us. Christ, who transcends time and place, walked with us. The Spirit hovered close, leading us, and God the Creator continued creating within us.
Allegheny Conference also has much for which to give thanks. We can be thankful that even as we tell stories of pain, we are beginning to move through deep conflict, a conflict which still rages in the larger Mennonite Church, and across Christianity. We give thanks that though many congregations have chosen to leave, some have chosen to stay. We give thanks for enduring and deepening friendships. We give thanks that Christ did not abandon us, that the Spirit hovers close and the Creator continues to create among us.
Allegheny Conference is now 13 congregations, compared to the 27 we were in March 2015, when the discipline was lifted. These numbers coupled with the financial numbers make for a troubling and uncertain future for the conference. And yet, this past Tuesday, Michelle and I attended a meeting of Allegheny Conference pastors where we sensed the Spirit hovering and leading us with a mysterious hope.
There is hope because the pastors are being entrusted by the elected Leadership Council to be a visioning group in this time of transition. There is hope because new trust and honesty are growing amongst the pastors. There is hope because we are trying to understand what forbearance means: the way that Hyattsville “forebore” for ten years, the way more traditional congregations might forebear now, how we all might forebear with each other moving forward.
The conversation on Tuesday centered on our identity as a conference, with Christ at the center. We wondered together, can we agree to focus on the center rather than the boundaries? Can we determine our identity as a conference and then face viability questions in light of our identity? What does it mean that Hyattsville is no longer alone; now there are four other congregations in the conference that are officially welcoming or moving in that direction. What might it mean to finally ask the conference to credential our beloved pastor, Michelle?
This new way of being conference together with all the pastors, at a table, speaking freely, is a bit disorienting. As much as we tried to live in wholeness and not in exile those ten years, this new reality is an adjustment. Is the barrier of hostility that kept us apart really gone? Can the two really become one new person? Are we really strangers and aliens no longer… included in God’s holy people and members of the household of God?
I hope we can all live into this new reality, moving from far away to near, even as it feels unfamiliar. As we move near, it will be important to bring along the memories of what it feels like to be cast out, set aside, alienated. Not so we can hang onto the anger or hold it over others but so those memories inform the ways that we interact with others who experience alienation. Like the LGBTQ people who cared so much for the youth in the conference, some of the rest of us now know a tiny bit of what it means to be “far away.” Our experiences as “outsiders” can help create empathy in us for others who are perceived as “strangers.”
As we continue living out justice with love and care for all those who need hospitality, let’s keep that strange and mysterious Christ at the center, that man Jesus who was himself alienated and yet somehow brings both groups into one and breaks down the barrier of hostility that keeps us apart.
That strange Christ creates our peace, is our peace, through whom we are being built into a temple, to become a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.
May it be so.