Reprising Phoenix

July 21, 2013
Luke 2:25-28, 36-38; Ephesians 2:14-22

Two weeks ago I returned from Phoenix where it was really hot, 112 during the day, 95 at night. And it is almost true, what they say: it’s a dry heat, it doesn’t even feel hot. But add thousands of Mennonites to the mix and your vision can get a bit blurry.

Anticipating these big conventions can take me right into Paul’s text from Ephesians, where there is talk of walls and things that divide. Then I arrive and am greeted by name by practically everyone I see and remember that this is a big reunion – though some are first time attenders. I met one man who joined his local Mennonite church last year (where we, of course, have friends in common.) As a new member he was sent as a delegate to get a sense of the larger church and denomination. What a brave soul.

While attendance was down by one-third at this gathering, 4600 Mennonites in a convention center are still enough to remind me once again that each of us sees the world through our own lens of experience.  We don’t always acknowledge the limitations of our own lens and often we are so thoroughly grounded in our own life experience we aren’t even aware how we bring that to our worldview. The bubble I live in was poked when I heard good people say matter-of-factly – I am a conservative, I read the bible literally.  I remembered again the wideness of the church – and God’s mercy – and how narrow I can be in my attempt to be open.

This awareness also came to me in the conversation room where people gathered to talk about immigration, racism, biblical authority, sexuality, Israel/Palestine, and other difficult topics. The conversations in that room were in stark contrast to what happens on the internet, even among Mennonites, where people shout in all caps and say things in ways they probably would not say if they were actually listening to each other – which was what we were asked to do in the conversation room. It might have been better called the “active listening room.”

It is unusual to come away from an hour long conversation where there is disagreement about biblical authority but there does not seem to be anger. We were in a room of about 100 people divided into groups of 5. Each person in my small group spoke of serious engagement with the bible and yet our starting points led us to different understandings. At the end of the hour, I felt genuine care and respect for my neighbors in this group, one of whom, with her head covering, I might have avoided before we were seated next to each other.

The conversation room was only one place where we were able to experience the truth of the theme passage from Ephesians 2.  Christ broke down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart. Tuesday evening the Open Letter Pastors and Pink Menno sponsored a worship service where Joanna Harader, from Peace Mennonite in Lawrence KS, and Ron Adams, from Madison Mennonite, in Wisconsin, preached.

As Joanna and Ron talked together about this passage from Ephesians, we heard them say how often we are impatiently waiting, waiting for Christ to break down the dividing walls of hostility. But a closer read helped us all hear that Paul says the walls have already been taken down. 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…in order to make the two into one new person, thus establishing peace and reconciling us all to God.

The walls have been taken down but we     have a tendency to build them back up,

with our fear of change,

fear of not being respected,

fear of not being heard,

fear of something new,

fear of doing the wrong thing,

fear of looking foolish…

How freeing to realize that when we are in Christ the walls of hostility are gone. We do not have to shout over or around a wall.  We can hear each other. We do not have to imagine what is on the other side, we can see each other, speak directly to each other.  And yet –

Before I left for Phoenix I took a trip to the local thrift store, Value Village, where I bought a new pink-themed wardrobe. Most of the time it felt good to be walking and working with others dressed in pink, as a way to symbolize solidarity with the LGBTQ community. The hymnsings outside the delegate sessions and worship services were some of the best participatory singing all week. The pink-sponsored alternative seminars were well attended and people of all ages hung out in the pink hospitality room.

But that pink became a self-imposed wall for me late in the week. Thursday evening instead of attending the adult worship, I crossed over to the other side and went to the youth service to hear actress and playwright, Ingrid DeSanctis. She movingly told the story of her teenage years when her pastor father was found to be involved with women in the congregation and her world fell apart.  Trouble, she said, I knew trouble; I know trouble and I bet you do to. And yet, she said, she still loves her Jesus.

She said maybe some of the youth also know trouble and would like to have someone pray with them. She invited those who desired prayer to go to one of the pastors who were around the edge of the hall. There they could be prayed for and anointed.

While music played, hundreds of teens streamed to the pastors.  Soon more pastors were called to step in. I was standing nearby, watching the emotional youth as they received genuine care from the pastors. I got a bit emotional myself, thinking about how meaningful it is to pray with you who come forward when we have prayers for healing and blessing during communion in this congregation.

The lines got longer and longer; people waiting and waiting for prayer. Maybe, I thought, maybe I can step in and offer prayers to these teens from across the church. I have a white ribbon on my name tag that indicates I am a pastor. I walked near one of the pastors who was offering prayers.  And then I looked down at my bright pink blouse and I stepped away, conflicted, self censuring myself, not sure if I was “allowed” to offer prayers when I was wearing pink.

There it was, a wall of hostility, one that I built out of fear, a wall of imagined “what ifs.” I let the church and tradition and fear speak more loudly than the quiet voice of the spirit inside me. My fear built a wall and I stepped back.

Maybe it was the right thing, not to create a scene, not to create tension for others in their spiritual moment. Maybe it was right to remain on the margins – where a youth sponsor thanked me for standing shoulder to shoulder with her as she wept. But it felt like I built a wall instead of seeing the youth who may have needed someone in pink to pray with them.

It was not all walls of fear. There was a real sense, as Paul writes, that we are being built together in new ways. Close attention was paid to the issue of immigration and the lives of undocumented and undocumentable people. Over $20,000 was received in an offering that went to the MC USA Dreamer’s fund, to help youth who are seeking a deferment through the Dream Act. The emphasis almost seemed a penance for having the convention in Phoenix despite the counsel from Iglesia Menonita Hispana to move the event. An empty chair sat next to the podium all week, to represent the many people who chose not to attend the convention, those who felt unsafe in Phoenix. It was a small step toward the margins where the church is growing the fastest.

Many of the worship leaders, musicians and preachers were women and people of color (or racial/ethnic in MC USA lingo.) The new moderator Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, and the moderator-elect Patty Shelly are both women.  More steps toward including those who have been sidelined for generations.

On Friday morning during the delegate work session, moderator Richard Thomas, invited Katie from Pink Menno, to read a statement on the delegate floor (after 70 people in pink stood silently among the delegate tables for ½ hour.) While a few people objected to this short interruption of the agenda and walked out, I experienced the action as a moment of grace. Voices that have been waiting and prepared to speak were heard and people who have been invisible to the church were seen – and applauded.

Hearing the text from Ephesians 2 multiple times, in different contexts during the convention, gives me hope that we who have often been at odds with one another across the church are truly, as Paul writes, being built into a dwelling place for God. I lost count of the many people who told me in Phoenix how much they appreciate our work as a congregation.  Pastors told me they wish a son or daughter or youth from their congregation could come to our church, where their questions would be welcomed, where their bodies would be affirmed. Parents wept and wondered how they can come out in their own churches and say they have a child who is gay. Pastors told me they have changed their minds “on this issue” “done a 180.” Many people are still too afraid to speak but they are so grateful we are speaking.

While as a congregation we can sometimes feel misunderstood and perhaps unappreciated, we have an important role to play. We are part of this building project – We are strangers and aliens no longer. We are included in God’s holy people. We are members of the household of God… In Christ the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple of our God; …to become a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

Remember Jesus’ words in John 14, “In God’s house there are many dwelling places.” Perhaps we are part of that section just off the living room of God’s large house, that special wing built for those who are not yet welcome in the main space, those who have been marginalized and who bring fresh understandings of an old, old story. It is all one house but the company is really great in this room.

The dividing walls of hostility have been taken down. Now what is being built anew is the place where God lives, where God reigns. And we are part of that reign. Thanks be to God.