Sunday, January 11, 2015

SLMF 40th Anniversary Sermon

Matthew 13:52

Good morning friends,
it is good to gather in worship with all of you today!
I hope that this Sunday morning finds you well!
We have a special occasion today-
Today, as you know, we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship, our little congregation here. It was in January of 1975 that a small group gathered in Edgewood Children's center for the first worship service of a new congregation.

This is the first of at least two events LCG has planned this year to acknowledge this milestone. We're also hoping to invite back parts of our family who have moved away in a more formal weekend of celebration later in the spring.

It's an important part of the rhythm of life to mark these kind of anniversaries, to engage our memories and connect with the things that have gone before, to remember that we are part of something a lot bigger than just a momentary community-we are part of a great cloud of witnesses, part of an institution built before us and that will last beyond us.

Our scripture text this speaks to the value of both remembering our history and claiming our new directions. After telling a bunch of parables, like the one about the farmer who goes out to sow his field, and throws the seed in different kind of ground, and the one where he talks about the weeds in the field that are left until harvest, Jesus asks his disciples who have heard these stories to commit themselves to bring treasures both new and old out of the storehouse.

That I think is the heart of the gospel-to tell an old old story in a new way for a new community. And I think that this is one of the really special things we get to do at anniversary celebrations-these moments like this Sunday give us an opportunity to bring out treasures that are special occasion things-the fine china, the heirloom pieces, and give them a day in the sun. This is an opportunity to turn aside from the novel, and focus on the core things that make us who we are. And in the same way that birthdays or wedding anniversaries give us the opportunity to celebrate those that we love, and in the very act of celebrating them, remember why we love them, so too are we called to remember today where we have been so that we have a better sense of where we are going.

So what sort of old and new treasures might we dig out this morning? I did a little summary of our history this summer while we were working on visioning, so I don't want to do that again. Instead, I want to reflect on an even older treasure.

Because the story of SLMF begins not just when the congregation started worshiping in January of 75. Instead, it starts with Fern and Barry Heib, in 1972, who came to St. Louis to organize people with Mennonite upbringings here in the city of St. Louis to gather together. They started a book study, which began January 15th, 1973, based on the book The Anabaptist Vision by Harold S. Bender.

And this is the old treasure that I want to start with.
How many people have heard of The Anabaptist Vision? That's about what I was expecting. It's not that well known these days. But for a generation of Mennonites, it was the most important piece of Mennonite writing.
Harold S. Bender was a Mennonite leader, and a professor at Goshen College and the Goshen Seminary. After World War Two and the stress the war put on the church, he saw Mennonites beginning to acculturate-to come in contact with broader American society and ask what exactly it was that justified their continued existence as a distinctive group, and at the same time get swept up in the great religious tumult of the time, torn between fundamentalist and liberal forces that were sweeping the country. And his response was an essay, called The Anabaptist Vision, which was designed to remind Mennonites of their theological roots, and call them back to their historical legacy that superseded the contemporary conflict.

Or at least that's the pop-culture telling of the story. James and Steve might correct me a bit where I exaggerate.
Bender's focus was on three distinctive Christian virtues that he believed were the legacy of the first Anabaptists in Switzerland, brought faithfully to the United States by their descendants, the Mennonites.

First: That discipleship is the essence of Christianity. As Conrad Grebel, one of the founders of Anabaptism wrote, “so today, too, every man wants to be saved by superficial faith, without fruits of faith, without the baptism of test and probation, without love and hope, without right Christian practices, and wants to persist in all the old fashion of personal vices.”

Second, that the church a community of believers. That the church is made up of only the people who want to be there is so obvious to us today as to go without saying. But it was not that long ago that the assumption was that every person in a town would be part of the church, baptized at birth, married in the church, and buried in the church cemetery, regardless of what they believed or how they acted. Even in St. Louis today, there is a huge population of Catholics who have a complicated relationship with the mother church, neither truly in nor comfortably out.

Third, Christians are called to peace-to an ethic of love and nonresistance as applied to all human relationships. Pilgram Marpeck, a wonderful leader of the early Anabaptists wrote “All bodily, worldy, carnal, earthly fightings, conflicts, and wars are annulled and abolished among them through [the] love of Christ.”

And while historians have a wonderful time reflecting on the ways that this was, and was not an accurate reading of exactly what the early Anabaptists believed, I'm struck by the ways that this vision-the vision of a church of believers who come together to try and live faithfully in peace remains core to who we are today.

This treasure is one that is deeply rooted in the DNA of our congregation.
That group gathering in January of 1975 had a lot of difficult decisions to make in those early days-
Just for example, the name “The St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship” was tricky- there was a vigorous debate between church and Fellowship, before we decided Fellowship sounded friendlier.

But organization followed organization, and by the end of February, 1975 we had created a statement of purpose. This is a treasure that we don't bring out too much anymore, the membership covenant is our more common centering document, but I thought it was fascinating when I read it again this week, so you get to hear it too:

So listen to these words from our past-
We are a group which shares Christian beliefs. Our purpose is discern and to follow Christ’s teachings in our present situations. We propose to affiliate with one or more Mennonite Church Conferences. We will meet for worship, discussion, fellowship and service. Leadership responsibility will continue to be shared by group members.

Along with this, there was a list of Beliefs:
Believer’s Baptism: Baptism is an outward sign that a person has made the decision to follow Christ.
Separation of Church and State: A Christian obeys the state as long as this obedience does not conflict with allegiance to Christ and His church.
Pacifism: Christ taught us that we should live in peace with all men. A Christian will do all in his power to prevent harm to any person.
Church Discipline: Members of the body of Christ have a responsibility for mutual support and admonition in an effort to help each other realize more fully the life style of Christ.
Separation from the World: We are aware that following Christ’s teachings is not always in harmony with contemporary culture. A Christian does not conform to contemporary culture to the extent that it interferes with his life of commitment to Christ.

While this is not a document that we use these days, I think this holds up quite well, 40 years later! In fact, I think that these first values continue to shape us as a congregation. We've grown and changed a lot, but these founding principles still ring true.
Shared lay leadership is still key to our structure, with LCG and congregational meetings driving our work, and we still have a willingness to let people into the structures of power. Believer's Baptism remains important to us-we preach that Christianity is about our choice to embrace God, as well as God's unconditional love for us. Pacifism continues to be a guiding light-the violence embedded in the American system is a common refrain in prayer and preaching. And we are still concerned that contemporary culture conflicts with our commitment to Christ. And in all these things we do together, we continue to try and live out mutual support and encouragement, sharing meals and stories and moving help and the like, as we try together to remain faithful to Christ's calling in our lives.

Which brings me to the new treasures-because I'm excited to see what the next 40 years has to offer for SLMF, and how we're going to continue to live out the vision that we have of the church-a community of believers who have come together to try together to live faithfully in Christ's way of peace in a world of violence.

I am excited about you all-the group of people that God has called together in this place, and the ways large and small that we are shaping together ourselves and the city of St. Louis. We keep coming up with new treasures all the time-the church song, fun church retreats, engaging Sunday School classes, service to our community, caring for each other in times of grief. And I am excited what treasures we will put together in the years to come.

There are many things that will happen in the world around us in the next 40 years-I expect the increased secularization of society will continue to advance, we'll have to figure out what that means for us. The polarization in our country certainly could get worse before we figure out how to talk to one another again. I hope our reluctance to get involved in partisan politics serves us well. The challenges of global warming will be much more evident in 2055 ago than they are now. I am curious how we will adapt to the challenges ahead.

But I am confident that the vision that we share, the treasures that we have received, and those that we pass on will continue to hold us in good stead in the days to come.  

1 comment:

  1. In the name of Allah,the Most Compassionate the Most Merciful.

    Say, "O People of the Scripture, come to a word that is equitable between us and you - that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah." But if they turn away, then say, "Bear witness that we are Muslims [submitting to Him]."
    O People of the Scripture, why do you argue about Abraham while the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him? Then will you not reason?
    Here you are - those who have argued about that of which you have [some] knowledge, but why do you argue about that of which you have no knowledge? And Allah knows, while you know not.
    Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim [submitting to Allah]. And he was not of the polytheists.
    Indeed, the most worthy of Abraham among the people are those who followed him [in submission to Allah] and this prophet, and those who believe [in his message]. And Allah is the ally of the believers.
    A faction of the people of the Scripture wish they could mislead you. But they do not mislead except themselves, and they perceive [it] not.
    O People of the Scripture, why do you disbelieve in the verses of Allah while you witness [to their truth]?

    Holy Quran 3:64-70

    In the name of Allah,the Most Compassionate the Most Merciful.

    He has ordained for you of religion what He enjoined upon Noah and that which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], and what We enjoined upon Abraham and Moses and Jesus - to establish the religion and not be divided therein. Difficult for those who associate others with Allah is that to which you invite them. Allah chooses for Himself whom He wills and guides to Himself whoever turns back [to Him].

    Holy Quran 42:13

    In the name of Allah,the Most Compassionate the Most Merciful.

    Say, "We have believed in Allah and in what was revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Descendants, and in what was given to Moses and Jesus and to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [submitting] to Him."

    Holy Quran 3:84