One congregation, twenty preachers: a harmony of views

August 2017
Thomas Lehman

Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship has heard sermons from twenty preachers in the years 2014-2016, while having only one person, Isaac Villegas, as pastor. He gives about half the sermons. The congregation existed for its first five years without a pastor, and established a pattern of rotating sermon responsibilities.

 

Most of the preachers are regular worshipers in the Fellowship. That there should be so many preachers results in part from proximity to Duke Divinity School, which has attracted Mennonite students and always has additional students who are drawn to Mennonite worship and practices.

 

Preachers follow the Revised Common Lectionary, which strongly influences sermon topics. Excerpts from 104 sermons follow, arranged by themes.

 

Christian Understanding

We have two quite different modes of understanding: in the mind and in the heart. The role of love in the Christian community is essential to understanding in the heart.

 

When we love another, we are telling the story of God with our bodies, as we spell out what the life of God feels like, here and now.

 

Incline your ear; we want people to pay attention to us. At the most basic level, we want to know that we are not alone…The rhythm of the Bible is a call and response.

 

The scandal of Jesus is that he doesn’t save the world the way we would want it to be saved.

 

What we learn from the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is that there is no secret, no key, no special rule, no tool of biblical interpretation that guarantees that you have the right meaning of a passage.

 

What do we point to, when we can’t point to the mount of Gerizim or Jerusalem on the horizon? “God is spirit,” Jesus says. How do we point to the spirit, as we keep on believing in God?

 

If you know things in the spirit, your knowledge breaks habits of the flesh and transforms them into something wholly new.

 

When we again (or perhaps for the very first time) begin to come to light under Christ’s eyes…we are given back, again and again, the gift of each other.

 

(Unlike King David) Jesus becomes Lord only by refusing to rule as king, no matter how the people beg him.

 

Jesus was not what was expected. He, too, came to show us what God looks like.

On the cross Jesus doesn’t tell us, he shows us: “This is who I am.”

 

Jesus comes with the rough touch of calloused hands—Joseph’s son—to be in exile with us.  To hold us and to cherish our damaged souls, because he wants to.

 

Church is an exploring of what it means to be human, like Jesus, the Human One, a humanity revealed in our love, a humanity that is divine, full of God.

 

God’s care and love for us

The love of God poured into our hearts overflows. It spills out, running in little streams to other people and other places who need it, too.

 

(In John 15) love is a mode of being with a sense of ownership at its core. This profound sense of ownership is the central axis of the love that Jesus is talking about.

 

The incarnation is a declaration of solidarity—that God is with us, and, as a response, we are with each other.

 

In the parable (of the sower), we are invited to see the world that God is creating in our midst, not a world of scarcity, nor of profit margins, commerce, or calculation, but a world of grace, where God gives generously and indiscriminately.

 

Church, at its best, is a reminder that God loves us and is for us, that God sustains our lives with grace. At its worst, church becomes another way to hide from the world, from people we would rather live without.

 

We are broken, but in the support of our sisters and brothers we find hope; our lives are shared with God and with each other.

 

God’s freedom means knowing that what is before us, the structure in which we have put our trust, can fall to dust. Even then the God who has bound us to one another will remake us again. (Sermon following attendance at the 2015 MC USA general assembly in Kansas City.)

 

Christian Life

It’s a long game, this life, waiting and working. And we might die before we get wherever it is we hope we’re going. But God forbid we sit still. God forbid we turn back.

 

May we be like those trees, with roots that go down deep to streams of life-giving water. May our fruit be sweet and plentiful. May we share it freely, widely, and with all who are in need, for it was never ours to keep.

Within the intimacy of Christ’s love, the disciple is given vision to see life beyond the logics of biology, or social hierarchy, or reigning political structures. Life, erupting in startling places; life sending up fresh stalks from unseen roots, a strange and surprising community.

 

Our Lord has given us a pattern for Christian living, and it should be our gift to the world.

 

To share your life with others is to share your life with God. We experience the glory of God when we share life with others, in our communion with the poor, the wounded, the suffering.

 

May this be our work of discernment together: saying no to the things that make for death; saying yes to God’s work of life around us; and all the while, praying for God’s help to know the difference.

 

To be human is to wait, to live with the limits of time…Lent is a season of waiting.

 

My frustration with Jesus (in Matthew 15) eventually turns back onto myself, as I wonder how many cries, like the Canaanite woman’s, we close our ears to.

 

Jesus, referring to his death and resurrection, says, when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. In following him, our lives lift him up to others. Will others respond and come to him?

 

Mutual care

“Mercifully, before we came to the end of what I alone could do, we were embraced into a politics of friendship that came with an economy of love, instead of anxiety and credits and debits.”

 

Sometimes a bit more boldness, borne from claiming another as a lost coin or sheep, as a beloved one who belongs, is what is needed.

 

We need each other to be our Elisha, to listen to us with compassion, heal us, and to tell us, “Go in peace.”

 

What is an Advocate? Think of the Holy Spirit as a Spirit of Friendship, and perhaps holiness itself.

 

We can deal with the internal critic in all of us by “being drawn into the body of a desiring Jesus, a desiring church…where we may find out just how powerful and liberating it is to be in the company of someone who finds genuine pleasure in listening to you.”

 

One of you told about what it was like to have someone from our church come over with a dinner, and to sit and eat around your table, to fellowship—the meal as a sign of grace, a declaration of God’s care for you.

 

Easter is not an answer. It’s an invitation, an invitation to go on, to Galilee—and to our homes, our neighborhoods, because Jesus has gone ahead of us.

 

We are baptized into Jesus; we become friends of God. if friends of God, then we are also bound up in friendships with one another, of mutuality, of care and respect.

 

Care for others

Our “king” is a shepherd, which is less about ruling than it is about caring for fragile creatures, nurturing, meeting needs in basic, unglamorous ways.

 

Healing is very important in the Divine scheme of things, perhaps even a task for all of us.

 

Quoting Dominican preacher, Herbert McCabe: “Christ is present to us in so far as we are present to one another.”

 

What do Jesus’s instructions mean for those who are not received as members of a community, are not extended the kind of hospitality that is required to live?…Their voices and testimony will help us learn discipleship.

 

Hearing God’s call

Attention is difficult because we are often distracted by the neat categories we create for ourselves in order to feel safe or justified. Instead, we must learn to pay attention; we must learn to know the way God knows the world in Jesus.

 

I’m enough of a Jonah that sometimes I’d prefer to run away to the beach. But God has shown that there is enough time for all to repent, and if that is true, then even the most reluctant prophets have reason to keep speaking.

 

The hope of Pentecost (is) our hope in the work of the Holy Spirit among us—that our faith in Jesus Christ would open us to be filled with the Holy Spirit, that we may be workers of peace and solidarity.

 

We are to open ourselves to revelations of love, the newness of God’s life in faces we haven’t noticed before, people we haven’t yet recognized as part of us, so God can lead us to love the people God loves.

 

“And he was a Samaritan.” God makes our boundaries permeable, between sick and well and outsider and insider, calling all to be one under the same God.

 

Witnessing to Christian values

Mutual love is a force multiplier; it gives courage to each of us who consider doing something we know we should, because we have the support of committed, loving Christian friends.

 

The voice that spoke from heaven to Peter also speaks to me. “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” It’s a word from God about your neighbors…They are not unclean, they are not dirty, instead they are beloved by God.”

 

God’s house is a hospital for the sick, even for people who have been struck with the disease of white supremacy…They are welcome here, the pastor (in Charleston) said, because this is the house of the Lord, and the doors of the church are open. That’s faith.

 

In this community, a new order of relationships has emerged, a new code of wisdom is made present. It feels strange and foreign to us, the code of another kingdom just arriving. Blessed are poor people. Blessed are the mourners. Blessed are people who are hungry and thirsty.

 

Christian living as celebration

In the middle of Lent there’s a celebration, grace and love flowing like oil, wasted on feet, on a body that will soon be crucified. This is what our faith looks like—to believe in this overflow of love, of grace, a celebration of life even when there’s no good reason to celebrate.

 

Even in our time of waiting we can be surprised by miracles of beauty—a world blooming with goodness, people flowering with goodness, your life reaching up to the goodness of God.

 

On the days when Jesus feels a little confusing, or aloof, or scary, when I forget that life comes from the death of which I am all too aware…I will remember Jesus’ signs of life, full of glory. Water turning to wine, the beginning of miracle.

 

Maybe the Spirit sounds like a black mother calling out for a world where her children can live, where they can live without the threat of violence, where, as Langston Hughes put it, a world where black hands and white hands and brown hands are clasped as one, where joy and laughter echo into the heavens.

 

Our lives are sustained through the sharing of stories and the sharing of really good food, because that is how we learn to see and give thanks for the wonderful works God is doing.

 

Just society/social justice

To stand with the vulnerable means we stand against the people who want to hurt them—people who harm others with their words, with their hands, and with their laws.

 

The question is the one we are asked every time we prepare for Communion. By God’s grace will you love and serve your neighbors?

 

In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul’s invitation is to a new public culture, one that takes seriously that some have power and some don’t. It is to the benefit of all that we take power seriously, that we look at the way power has been used by some and kept from others.

 

Living in the United States as a white person today is to profit by my neighbors’ blood, by my heritage.

 

When heaven falls into the world, everyone gets equal pay, everyone gets enough, a living wage. It’s good news that leaves some people scratching their heads, confused and irritated, because God’s grace, God’s generosity, doesn’t make sense to everyone.

 

Sin

Reinhold Niebuhr, famous 20th-century American theologian and ethicist, said the doctrine of original sin is ”the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” Sin is social — because we, as individuals, block ourselves from God’s flow of love in the world. We hope for transfiguration — that God’s presence would settle upon us, our neighborhoods, and our world. Christian believers are to support each other and to reflect the grace of God toward each other, because we are all sinners.

 

Confession

Psalm 51:10 declares the perfect response to Ash Wednesday and Lent: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

 

Forgiveness

To be for God’s peace means that we are committed to forgiveness as a way of life, an openness not only to forgive our enemies, but to be forgiven by them, to ask ourselves how we have contributed to the hostility between us.”

 

Divorce

There is space and need to learn to forgive not only the other, but also yourself. To learn that no failure in any of our lives, failure to grow, to change, to finish, to do, not even the failure to live up to the vow to stay forever, is beyond God’s forgiveness.

 

Fathers’ Day

The sermon acknowledges the necessity of jobs in her home coal-producing area near Parkersburg, WVA but gives equal weight to the need to stop using fossil fuels, thus stating one of the great dilemmas of our time. She closes with a tribute to fathers who work to keep the lights on “so their children can thrive.”

 

Feminism

Proverbs 31 expresses perhaps the worst deception of all: woman as superhuman, perfect without her efforts ever showing sweat and exhaustion, rather than a fellow human, who must cope with the inevitable limitations and heartbreaks of our precarious lives…What if this Proverbs 31 woman, like every other person I have ever known, had good days and bad days, and needed to be loved on every single one of them?

 

Gratitude

What if we were so moved by such gratitude that every life, every survivor, is a reason for gratitude: that they have been kept among the living, as the Psalmist says.

 

(On the death of a member) Maybe that’s all we have, at the end, as words become silence, as breath slows into eternal rest. One last thank you, for a life full of beauty, so precious because so endangered, life forever held in the love of God.

 

Heaven

For Lila, heaven is a place full of people who we can’t bear to be without — heaven as a place where she won’t be able to live a life of love, unless she has with her all the people who taught her how to love.

 

Prayer

Prayer looks like bone broth and chopping vegetables and sawhorses and putting hands in dirt and parties and fixing farm trailers that fall out on the side of the road. Prayer looks like dancing.

 

Reconciliation

The story ends as Jacob and Esau meet at dawn. Instead of a battle, Esau grabs Jacob and kisses him, to which Jacob replies, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

 

Searching

Jesus is the one whose searching escaped the containment of the tomb, the one who disappeared to remain with his friends, who keeps searching and keeps us searching, too, bringing us, again and again, the gift of each other.

 

Ten Commandments

The ten commandments are the answer to what happens after every revolution. Whether it’s the Cuban revolution or the American revolution, the question everyone has to answer is, What happens now? After you get rid of the old rulers and their rules, what is life going to look like?…Life with God means life with people. Learning to live with God means we learn how to live with God’s people.

 

Vulnerability

We do not know what gossip the child Jesus grew up hearing, or if his brothers and sisters maligned him for being the favorite child. We do know that when he sets out to begin his ministry in his hometown, he is met with rejection. Jesus was open to our same vulnerabilities; he was at the mercy of his environment. But the same reality that opens us up to the possibility that our lives will be shaped by fear and alienation, also holds the potential for us to know and be formed by acceptance and intimacy.

 

Easter

How do we live the story that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again?

We continue to dig into the soil, to plant and to harvest what we can. We build. We cook, we feed each other. We hold babies. We sing and we dance.

 

Easter is about Jesus who comes back from the dead because he’s looking for us, to call you by name, because you are known…Salvation is a meal, a feast, where people from everywhere eat and drink together, as they form relationships and deepen friendships around a table. Isaiah says that’s salvation.

 

Resurrection is God’s affirmation of life — a declaration, for all to see, that God is for life.

 

Advent 1

Advent is an awakening for us, a time for us to be reminded that something is happening in this world beyond our imagination, so we wait and watch, preparing our lives to be startled into God’s presence.

 

Advent is the heart of our faith, because our faith is all about waiting for God, and God will surprise us with joy and love.

 

Advent 2

Repent, for the child of heaven has come near. We lose our grip on ourselves, because God’s love draws us into a neighbor, into the lives of God’s beloved people.

 

Advent 3

God entered human life not as some wise old sage, unaffected by lowly human desires, fears, and longings. God became human and really lived inside another human body filled with hormones, blood, guts, hunger and feelings.

 

God, grow in us and in the ground of our communities, places where all of your people will experience your compassion, where the hungry are filled, and the humble lifted up.

 

Advent 4

Revelation 7, “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, for the Lamb will be their shepherd, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

 

Mary sings about mercy: “God’s mercy… from generation to generation.” We need God’s mercy in our lives and in the world. Mercy is the miracle of restoration.

 

What is missing?

 

In reading complete sermons, not merely the excerpts given above, The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective is seldom directly cited, though it is perhaps never seriously violated. More generally, the basics of Christian belief are often assumed, such as the Trinity and the expectations that Christianity presents for daily living, but there is never emphasis on fine points of doctrine. Individual beliefs are not scrutinized; diversity of belief is tolerated. One of the preachers quoted above described the congregation as living its doctrine, not declaring it.

 

CHMF is a priesthood of believers; the rotation of preachers is mirrored in the rotation of hymn leaders, worship leaders, readers of scripture, prayer leaders, and child caregivers.

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