Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
Yesterday was the fall delegate session for Allegheny Mennonite Conference. There were seven people from this congregation that attended the gathering. During the last several weeks, as we anticipated the meeting, we were encouraged by the conference office to read and spend some time considering Romans 14-15:6 as preparation for the looming conversations. I say looming because the conversations felt like they had the potential to be big – we were anticipating conversations about identity. Identity as a conference, identity in light of the broader Mennonite Church, identity in relationship with each other, and with God.
Questions of identity are no small task. We as humans live in the midst of ever evolving identities. We are constantly growing and learning and it follows that our understandings about ourselves and the world around us are endlessly in flux – at times to a greater degree than others. It is one thing to explore questions of identity as individuals and it is quite another thing to consider identity in relationship.
When we explore our own understandings of our independent identities, we are free to play with the boundaries of who we think we are, ask questions, and make assumptions about ourselves. As individuals we can make these explorations without explanation or justification to other parties.
When we explore questions of identity in relationship with others, in community, in structures, in the presence of God, we are accountable to each other. We are still invited to play with the boundaries of who we think we are in relationship and to ask questions about the nature of our relationships, but we are called to engage in those explorations with a mindful awareness of each other and the ranging opinions we each carry and consider to be sacred.
To enter into conversations of identity as a community, in relationship, is vulnerable, risky work.
The church has often done a poor job of engaging in that work with mindful awareness of diverse experiences and has instead plowed through conversations of identity with assumptions of uniformity in the name of God. What we are seeing in the wider church right now is the breakdown of a system when it assumes and values uniformity above living in relational grace.
God has not created us in or called us to uniformity. God has created space for and calls us to unity.
To re-envision our identities, as individuals and in relationships, while focusing on unity in the midst of diversity, is bold, courageous work.
It is like a little kid we heard about in the opening meditation at yesterday’s conference gathering. He was building a balsa wood race car and as he worked out his plans he decided he wanted his to be in the shape of a tractor. His adult building partner reminded him that, in order to attain speed and win the race, the car should be designed to be as aerodynamic and sleek as possible. The kid understood that, but really wanted to build a racing tractor. So he did. The day of the race came and his car stood out like sore thumb in the line-up of sleek aerodynamic race cars but he raced with pride and with each race his tractor got slower and slower. He didn’t care that he lost every race, he had built the car he had set his heart on he had stayed true to his vision. His tractor race car didn’t win any races, but in its uniqueness and to the surprise of the adult who had spent energy advising against the design for fear of failure, it did win best in show.
As a queer person who has spent many moments experiencing the desperation of the church to be uniform instead of welcoming and celebrating diversity. Imagine my pleasant [and hesitant] surprise when I read the beginning of Romans 14 as the scripture that would inform the conversations about identity for AMC. This felt like a new way to approach conference conversations.
Here is a scripture that starts with the word welcome. It is a scripture that acknowledges that people have different experiences and opinions and are at different places on their faith journeys. It reminds us that those experiences and opinions are formed within our individual relationships with God and it reinforces the fact that we are not called to be judges of each other, nor to despise one another.
To give some context about what is going on in the text – for the early church this debate over eating meat or not eating meat had to do with the fact that there was the possibility that the meat sold in the market place had been used in sacrifice rituals to idols. For the Jewish community that would have made the meat unclean to eat and yet, for some in the early church it had become clear that there was no longer impurity in any food if one was eating in faith and thanksgiving to God. Likewise the recognition of the sacredness of one day over another is commentary on those who were joining in the life of the early church and also continuing the cling to pagan days of celebration. It was a time of identity development and there were folks all across the spectrum of understanding about how God was calling the church into being.
The text is not just a commentary about the differences between Jews and Gentiles who were thrown together in this emerging church – it is also commentary about the spectrum of understanding and change within the Jewish community itself. Some Jews, in the early church, had experienced a radical shift in their understanding and practices, while others were still working out a balance of what it meant to follow Torah law and the teachings of Jesus hand in hand.
This transformation of identity within a religious community and the tension that goes along with it probably sounds very familiar to our modern Mennonite ears, particularly for those of us in Allegheny Conference. We too are in a time of our church being spread across a spectrum of understanding of what it means to be followers of Jesus and how we are called to live into the kindom of God.
What Romans 14 tells us is that we are called to live for God in all things, to give thanks to God in all things, to be attentive to one another, and to encourage each other beyond our differences in understanding. In essence, we are called to be faithful flexitarians – people who usually prefer to eat or not eat meat but who make flexible eating exceptions depending on who they are eating with. Which is to say we are called to know what we believe in and to cling tightly to what we believe is good and right, while also holding those beliefs loosely so that we allow space in our circle for those that cling tightly to different beliefs.
The buzzword for this practice right now in the Mennonite Church is forbearance – and conference delegates spent a lot of time yesterday in intentional conversation with each other about what forbearance means. We were asked to seriously consider if our congregations are willing to live out forbearance with each other. Can we willingly live in relationship with congregations that believe and act out different expressions of the kindom than we do? If we extend forbearance to those who hold different beliefs are we somehow complicit in their actions? These are tough questions wrapped up in identity, ego, conviction, and understandings of how we are called to live out the kindom.
The practice of forbearance is not an easy one. It is a practice that requires us to really know ourselves so that we can boldly believe what we believe, while also intentionally and generously making space for grace in our encounters with others. Forbearance is one way of talking about that act of choosing space for grace instead of stumbling blocks in our relationships, but as I reflect upon the Romans passage I would prefer to say:
We are invited into the fluidity of life in the Spirit.
To live in the fluidity of the Spirit is to remember that the kindom of God is not a battle over what and how we believe, it is a matter of justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
It’s a sense of connection that can be found in the unlikeliest of pairings when relationship is chosen beyond potential differences. This past week I learned about a new reality television series starting soon called Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party starring none other than famed rapper Snoop Dogg and culinary and decorating guru Martha Stewart. This seems like an unlikely pairing, but it turns out the two have met in several different settings over the years and have formed a surprising friendship. In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Snoop Dogg said this about Martha: “I’ve never met anyone like Martha Stewart,” he said. “When we come together, it’s a natural combination of love, peace, and harmony.”
Perhaps it is not word for word what the Roman’s text says about the kindom of God being a matter of justice, peace, and joy, but Snoop’s experience of connection with Martha is a witness to the power of relationship to open us up to unexpected opportunities and experiences of love, peace, and harmony.
If you would prefer a more grounded example than Martha and Snoop Dogg, I can offer you this:
During roll call at the gathering yesterday each congregation was asked to sing a children’s song. As each group started their song selection the larger group would join in. There we were, delegates from across the divide of congregations, singing children’s songs together and as we were in the midst of singing together – I don’t think anyone there was thinking about who in that room should or should not be singing Jesus loves me, we just joyfully sang together.
When we engage in relationship, choosing first to participate together in worship, or in kindom work, there is very little time or space to spend energy creating and defending boundaries of who believes the ‘right’ things in the ‘right’ way because we are wrapped up in the much more meaningful experiences of relationship, work, and worship. In those moments we are living the kindom into being.
That is the heart of what we are called to as followers of God – to live into being the peace, joy, and justice of God’s kindom for all people. To climb over the stumbling blocks of division and to live into the unity and harmonious diversity of life in the Spirit. And not just within our own congregation or conference, but with everyone we encounter – we are to live into the kindom in each moment and for all people.
This week the election that has been looming over us for far too long will (hopefully) come to an end. Regardless of who wins, there will be many, many people in this country who feel like a stumbling block has been placed in their path. For some that stumbling block may be more dire than others depending on the outcome of the election. I say this not to increase tension or build up fear in our hearts. I say it to remind us of our roles, first and foremost, as workers of God, and that no matter who is elected on Tuesday – there will be work and worship to do as we faithfully continue to live the kindom of God into being for all of God beloveds.
May God, the source of all strength and encouragement, empower us to be faithful flexitarians in relationship with each other and enable us to live in perfect harmony with one another embracing the fluidity of the Spirit so that with one heart and one voice, we all may praise God and live into the justice, peace, and joy of God’s kindom here and now.