Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12
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[SLIDE #1] Yesterday, the Virginia Mennonite Conference delegates affirmed our congregation's decision. We're staying right here, yet transferring from Virginia Mennonite Conference to Allegheny Mennonite Conference. How fitting to carry with us our theme verse for the year: Behold, I send an Angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. When I realized that the day after this conference decision our scriptures for worship together would be from Micah 6–that call to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God and from Matthew 5–Jesus' beatitudes–I wept…because as we make this transition within the body that is Mennonite Church USA, these snippets of scripture felt like angel guidance. [SLIDE #2] One of my favorite New Testament theologians, the author of Hebrews, says that's how it is. Scriptures are like angels or ministering spirits speaking into our experiences and guide us toward the living word of Christ.
21st century Mennonites in our circles love these two scriptures. When CMC gives Bibles to our 12 year olds, various people–parents, mentors, grandparents mark special passages to guide the next generation. When the Bibles are passed finally to pastors to mark a few passages, Micah 6:8 is often underlined before I get there. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. Even though the preceding verses are what the 18th century English nonconformist minister called God's articles of impeachment against Israel, that zinger in verse 8 summarizes our lived faith and shared aspirations. The beatitudes of Matthew 5, indeed the whole Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, has been a favorite passage for Anabaptist Christians throughout our history. We Anabaptists are the part of the body of Christ known for taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously, taking Jesus at his word. The Sermon begins with this enigmatic series of blessings to groups of people that are ordinarily considered, well, losers: the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek and so on…
[SLIDE #3–Beatitudes Jesus, Hyatt Moore]
What follows is Jesus' challenging ethic for disciples:
leave your gift at the altar and be reconciled,
don't pursue adultery,
let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no' be 'no',
turn the other cheek,
give to those who ask,
love your enemies,
pray for those who oppose you,
pray for God's will on earth,
ask God to forgive you,
learn how to forgive others,
learn how to pray,
fast–clear some stuff out of your life to become more available to God,
you cannot serve God and wealth–so make the right choice on that,
remove the log from your own eye before pointing out others' flaws. Jesus' teaching, example and spiritual empowerment keep Anabaptists Christians engaged in this ethic. Of course we share these scriptures with other Christians. Local Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans and Catholics are preaching these passages this morning as well. And, in the case of Micah, we also share this prophet with faithful Jews. How curious that we sometimes claim a shared divine word more readily than we claim each other. How much more have to learn from Jesus?
[SLIDE #4] These scriptures from Micah and Matthew provide structure for a missional Anabaptist community, like ours. Imagine Micah 6:8 as the skeletal system–all the bones and joints that uphold and protect the soft tissue of a body. Then imagine the groups of people that Jesus addressed in the Beatitudes as different organs in the body. Jesus was surrounded by massive crowds. He was teaching his disciples about how to view these crowds: How do we see each other in the body of Christ?
Blessed are those who are living the best version of themselves.
Blessed are those who have never suffered loss.
Blessed are those who achieve at the highest level.
Blessed are those who are right, credentialed, affirmed, endorsed,
recognized, certified, tenured, honored.
Blessed are those who stand up for themselves and get what they deserve.
Blessed are the savvy, the smart.
Blessed are the political realists. It's a dog eat dog world.
Blessed are the winners.
You get the idea. This is not what Jesus said. This is not how Jesus saw the crowds he was inviting into discipleship. Are these ways of seeing each other, and ourselves, more familiar than the blessed words of our Lord?
[SLIDE #5 Blessed are the poor in spirit…kingdom] It takes love and patience to see the divine blessing for each group named in the beatitudes, especially since they are identified by their weaknesses, limits, needs and struggles. The "poor in spirit" are in touch with the pain of our society, our families, our churches, our communities. We are blessed to have these persons among us, especially if we've been shielded from pain ourselves.
[SLIDE #6 Blessed are those who mourn…comforted] The groups Jesus blesses have suffered and are vulnerable–like the child in this painting by Hyatt Moore. Is he mourning the loss of personal safety for himself or his family? Among these crowds Jesus sees a prophetic-community-in-formation. The body in whom he will live by resurrection.
[SLIDE #7 Blessed are the meek…inherit the earth] To counter the self-centered, materialistic, vengeful tendencies of society, Jesus blesses the children, the meek, those who must live close to creation's rhythms and risks.
[SLIDE #8 Blessed are they who hunger and thirst…filled] Imagine Jesus seeing among the crowds–these different groups of people–becoming powerful and necessary organs in a new body, a new humanity. Jesus' Beatitudes reminds me of the way community organizing requires remaining close to the persons most harmed by the injustices we hope to address. "Get proximate to the problem and the pain and the people." This is what Jesus did.
[SLIDE #9 Blessed are the merciful…mercy] The end of Matthew chapter 4 includes a description of the crowds around Jesus. They brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. If there were a bunch of sick people in the crowd with acute physical, spiritual and mental health concerns, who brought all those people? The merciful. The caregivers. Caregivers are so often behind the scenes, unsupported, at their limits, at great risk of becoming sick themselves. Jesus saw the caregivers in the crowd and blessed them.
[SLIDE #10 Blessed are the pure in heart…see God.] In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn't demand that we do it all, achieving perfect faithfulness in every matter addressed in a new legal code. Jesus sees our hearts–the center of who we are and what we value. Jesus sees that those who give themselves freely and fully as disciples, the pure in heart, will see God at work in the world. Like him, they will see crowds–not as undifferentiated mobs of brokenness, but as a blessed new humanity coming into being through Jesus.
[SLIDE #11 Blessed are the peacemakers…children of God] Within a large crowd there are always tensions, divisions, struggles and fights. Jesus saw Israel with an endless number of opportunities for making peace–among themselves, with neighbors and well beyond their usual connections. In the scripture Jason preached from last week Jesus called two pairs of brothers to follow him. Rarely do Biblical brothers live in perfect harmony. By inviting brothers, Jesus was committed to making peace at every scale.
[SLIDE #12 Blessed are the persecuted….kingdom] According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had the power to resist Satan's temptations, heal disease, preach the good news and teach a new way of life. Yet, he identified with those who were considered losers, suspect, or rejected. He saw persecuted and rejected people as more eligible than the leaders for a new realm, a heavenly kingdom.
[SLIDE #13] We're not a huge crowd, but I wonder how Jesus sees us? How is our skeletal system holding up in these challenging times for the body of Christ? While we're similar in many ways, we also represent a spectrum of life experience and struggle. Today Jesus sees us in the light of the kingdom of God as a body that can live and grow, carrying out the ministry he began so long ago. Let's see one another this way. Let's see the rest of the church this way. Let's dare to see the world this way.
The action taken by the delegates yesterday was this: We the delegates of Virginia Mennonite Conference acknowledge with regret the withdrawal of Community Mennonite Church from formal membership with VMC. We are grateful for its ministry, and pray that God bless and guide the congregation in its new affiliation. The Conference Council who crafted this statement recognized that while formal membership is ending, there is ample room for other types of connection, relationship and shared ministry.
I've been pondering how we see each other in the body of Christ, how different parts and different systems in the body relate to one another. I've been pondering what happens when our relationships within the body change.
Here's part of what I said yesterday at the delegate assembly: On behalf of Community Mennonite Church, I recognize this transition from a formal relationship with Virginia Mennonite Conference to a more organic set of local relationships embedded in ministries we already share and those which emerge in our community. By transferring our affiliation to Allegheny Mennonite Conference we align ourselves with another part of the body that is Mennonite Church USA, believing that this change will strengthen the whole. We understand this transfer as an act of forbearance, so that both Virginia Mennonite Conference and Community Mennonite Church can fulfill their callings in Christ, seeking the best for each other as missional Anabaptist communities.
Perhaps I could share one example from my study of cell physiology?
There are many organ systems in the human body, and many types of cells, each with a special function. Cells interact with each other differently throughout the life of the body, and even throughout the day. Let's consider the life cycle, and mission, of the erythrocyte: The red blood cell. It is formed deep in the bone marrow by stem cells. The stem cell has the potential to make multiple types of blood cells, depending upon signals from other parts of the body. When cells in the kidney detect a reduction in blood oxygen, they send a messenger protein called erythropoietin to the stem cells, which roughly translates to "erythrocytes please!" The resulting immature red cells, or erythroblasts, contain a nucleus with the DNA instructions to build the hemoglobin molecule. This globin of heme contains iron and is specially designed to carry oxygen and carbon dioxide.
As the rbc matures, it loses its nucleus, leaves the marrow, and enters the blood stream. Flowing to the lungs, to the capillaries of the alveoli, it uses the hemoglobin to exchange CO2 for Oxygen.
Then, back to the left heart, which pumps the red cells throughout the circulation, to all cells, regardless of shape, size, or function, to deliver oxygen and pick up excess carbon dioxide.
This exchange … varies throughout the day. This morning, when trying to follow this didactic, your brain cells need more oxygen. Around noon the digestive cells will need more blood flow, and during your afternoon walk, your muscle cells will be a priority. So.. let's all take a deep breath… and remember: It's normal for a healthy, human body to modify it's communication and interaction as it adapts to change. That's my summary of the RBC. And now back to Pastor JDS.
Today we're anointing each other's hands with oil in the sign of the cross. Back of the hand, palm of the hand, whatever feels best to you. It's olive oil–no scents. Biblically, people are anointed when they are commissioned and blessed for important roles. And we anoint when people are suffering, sick or dying. Jesus sees this body and blesses us. Yes, the Lord calls us to be a church we've not really ever seen in its true glory. But he begins with a blessing. If you've attended other anointing services here, there are usually 15-20 people who and we anoint them and pray for their particular need. Today is different. We're not saying individual prayers. We're inviting everybody–the whole body–to come and be anointed as the church, as Jesus sees us, as we make this congregational journey from VMC to AMC.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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