Written by Pastor Ed
March 22, 2015 – Lent 5
Jer. 31: 31-34
John 12: 20-33
One of the initial steps in Chuck Olsen’s Discernment Process for decision making in the church is something he calls “shedding.” He describes shedding as letting go of any preconceived notions of what the decision will be, asking only that it be God’s will. It’s perhaps the hardest step in the process for most people, especially since we think that our way is generally the best, and certainly the right way.
Lyle Schaller notes that that is especially true for people in their 40s and 50s, and maybe 60s, because now that we have come into positions of leadership we are quite sure that our way of doing things is the right way, and so letting go of those ideas is particularly hard. It’s now our turn to get things right.
Yet I remember Garrison Keillor saying that one of the scariest things is when people your own age get into leadership, and nothing changes! He was talking particularly about my generation who were so sure that we were out to change the world, and that if we ran things, the world would be different, and certainly better. Unfortunately, people have remained pretty much the same from generation to generation.
Jeremiah was writing to a people who were learning the hard way what happens when you don’t let go of the old ways of doing things. As we have noted throughout these last few Sunday of Lent, the children of Israel never seemed to learn from their mistakes. Over and over they rebelled, complained and clung to the old ways of doing things.
Though God renewed covenants with leaders along the way and continually called the people back to obedience, it seemed they could never get it right. Jeremiah uses the image of God as the faithful husband, calling a wayward spouse back, an image made popular by Hosea. And so finally God says, through Jeremiah, ok, let’s do things differently. Rather than an external covenant that no one seems to be able to remember, I will make a new covenant.
“Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” (Jer. 31: 31, 33)
Now while we often think of the heart as the seat of emotions, for the Hebrews the heart was the center of the mind and the will. It was the essence of who you were. So this heart transplant had to do with letting go of the old ways and beginning something new.
In much the same way Jesus uses the image of the seed to talk about what needed to happen in the account we read from John 12. Up to this point in John’s Gospel, Jesus has been dealing with Jews or people of Jewish descent, like Samaritans. And he has consistently proclaimed that his “hour had not yet come.” But now Jesus is in Jerusalem, preparing for the Passover, and some Greeks come seeking Jesus. This coming of Greeks, not Greek speaking Jews but rather Gentiles, seems to mark a turning point for Jesus who now declares that, indeed, his time has come.
And, he declares, in order for something new to happen, the old has to die off, be let go of. The analogy he uses is that of a seed, which can only produce fruit, a new plant, if it dies, so, Jesus says, only those who are willing to let go of the old ways will be able to produce the fruit of something new.
It’s a quite simple concept that isn’t hard for us to grasp and understand. But how much more difficult it is to apply it. And it can be applied at many different levels. For the people of Jesus, and John’s day, it meant letting go of the old concept that God’s people only included the Children of Israel, the Jews. But what does it mean for us?
While we generally talk about this image in relation to individuals, and it is apt there as well, in many ways I think Jesus was talking to the larger body, the institutional system of the day. And if there is one thing I have learned over the years it is that while it may be difficult for individuals to let go of things, it is even more difficult for institutions to change, and that includes the church.
Churches are notorious for starting new things, but never letting go of what’s already in place so that the institution simply keeps growing until it collapses on itself. Or it refuses to change and slowly dies off. Now I’m not suggesting that all change is for the better or desirable. Certainly not. But to never change is also not necessarily good either. The trick is deciding what needs to be let go and changed, and what should be maintained.
And in some instances I have seen where an entire ministry or congregation needed to die in order for new life to begin. That’s difficult for us to recognize sometimes. I recall one congregation pleading with us as a conference, saying, “You won’t let us die, will you?” Yet it was clear that what was happening wasn’t going to be sustainable and, yes, we did let them die.
The church in North America is experiencing a time of discernment, needing to decide whether changes need to happen or not. In Mennonite Church Canada we have been in a process over the past several years called Being a Faithful Church. One of the early documents in that process noted that discernment can lead to one of three outcomes. We sometimes affirm the position we currently hold. We sometimes modify that position is some way, and sometimes we come to a new understanding. Each of those has been and is a valid conclusion if we believe the Spirit is still active guiding us into all truth.
At the same time as the BFC process has been going on, there has been a group called the Future Directions Task Force in Mennonite Church Canada asking questions about what the institutional church should look like in the future, if there are things that we need to let go of in order to meet the challenges of the future.
Several models of what that might look like were tested yesterday at our Alberta annual meeting. But we are also asking some of those same questions closer to home, here in the congregation. A small group from Council has been looking at projections of what the church might look like 20 years down the road if current trends continue as they have in the past. Of course, projections from current trends are not guarantees of what will happen, but they do suggest that we need to ask some questions about who we are and what we are about.
One of our strengths as Mennonites has always been our sense of community. For many years we have been bound together by family ties, and even when we haven’t been directly related we could usually find someone whom we knew who was related in some way. But that has also been one of our biggest weaknesses, because we have tended to rely on those bonds to keep our congregations going and growing.
It’s even how we tended to plant new churches. We would look around and ask, “where are there a group of people who have Mennonite roots who don’t have a church nearby?” and then try to start a church among those people, often not recognizing that they had moved away from their Mennonite community precisely to get away from a Mennonite church. Most of those attempts have failed.
We can no longer rely on our ties of kinship and family to sustain our congregations. If that’s what we rely on, then the projections we have will certainly play out.
But that means we will need to let go of some things and be open to some new things. Just as the early church had to learn to accept Gentiles into the body of Christ, so we will need to learn that the people living around us can be Mennonites. It doesn’t mean giving up our identity as Mennonites, but recognizing that not all Mennonites look just like us. In reality that the case now. The past two days Mennonite Church Alberta met at the Vietnamese Mennonite Church in Edmonton. This summer Mennonites from around the world will meet in Pennsylvania, and I suspect white Mennonites will be a minority – well maybe not depending on whether the US allows people in or not. Certainly world-wide we are.
Letting go is hard for all of us, whether it be of things in our personal lives or things in our institutional life. But if we want to bear fruit, then from time to time some things must die in order for new life to emerge. It’s not something that happens just once and then we’re done. Renewal, dying and sprouting new life, happens again and again, just as we have to plant new seed each year.
What stands at the core of our faith and what are those things that are good for a season and then need to be let go so that new fruit can emerge? Those are the questions the church has had to deal with in every generation, and will continue to deal with into the future. The church will continue. God’s people will continue, of that I am sure. Whether it will look like what it does now? I don’t know. But the light of God’s love will continue to shine into the darkness.