Being Mennonite: Body
Raleigh Mennonite Church
1 Cor 12:12-26
A few weeks ago we updated our church website. We added a new tab for visitors. And there you will find this question: are you all Amish?
I promise – it’s not a silly question. Recently the Anabaptist website thirdway.com reported that, over the past year, 146,000 people clicked on the tab that answers the question “What’s the difference between Mennonites and Amish?”
Perhaps you’ve found yourself in the position to answer this question, maybe to a friend, co-worker or relative who asks where you go to church. Perhaps this has been followed by other questions about wearing bonnets or driving buggies or speaking Low German.
For some of us the answers come easier. You grew up Mennonite, tracing your origins back to Russia or the Netherlands, a Bender or a Yoder or a Rich. Your grandmothers covered their heads at prayer, perhaps even your mothers. Your fathers were conscientious objectors during World War II. You spent your summers at Mennonite summer camp. You carry the stories and songs around like stones in your pocket.
For some of us growing up Mennonite makes being here complex. The churches that brought you here strange or challenging.
For some of us the answers aren’t as clear. We came here by another way, our religious past a complication, called here, some of us just for a season, to the Mennonite church. We worship at Raleigh Mennonite Church. But are we Mennonites? When do we get to say that? When we can finally sing 606 without the hymnal? Or can bake a decent shoefly pie? Do we want to be Mennonite? What does that really mean?
I suppose the answers, as answers are, get more complicated as we gather here each week, worshipping in our rented school house, here in the midst of candles and guitars, hymnals and praise songs, bread and Bible.
I suppose the answers, as Mennonites have taught us before, are discovered patiently. We find our way into this answer together.
I suppose that we begin with that we know. And if there is one thing I know about Mennonites, it is that we sing. We sing in Spanish and Swati and, yes, in low German. We sing on school buses and around camp fires, in refugee camps and at protests. Mennonites sing in four-part harmony, to the rhythm of the djembe, with guitars and organs, acapella and to the sweet sound of the Flutes of the Spirit.
Gathered here we are a body, a body that sings.
Singing is one way to understand this life, this particular life of faith that flows out of Anabaptism, the faith we are working out within this context of the body of the Mennonite church here in Raleigh.
The poet Julia Kasdorf talks about the ways that singing helped her understand what it means to be a Mennonite. She grew up in a traditional Mennonite church, where four-part hymns bounced through the sanctuary every Sunday. She writes about her experience singing hymns from Cambridge, Mass to farm communities in Ohio. Along the way she discovered singing is something “that all can experience at once.”
What I love about singing is that everyone’s voice matters. There is no one without a gift, even if that gift happens to be in the area of sound equipment rather than the singing itself. When we sing, we need each other’s voices. We listen to the voices around us. We adjust our sound – not too loud, not to soft. We are best when our voices blend, all together, when all the parts are covered, when no voice is left out.
Singing is a way to think about how we do church together, our Mennonite way of being the church. We all bring something to this congregation. What we say here is that no one is without a gift and that no gift is more important than another. To make the song work, to make it worship, we need everyone – me no less than you.
That’s something we learned from the very first Mennonites. Our church was birthed out of a conviction that it wasn’t just the bishop or the pope or even the priest who interceded between the people and God. Instead, our foremothers and fathers rediscovered the words we heard from Galatians. We all bring something to the body. We all have a voice to lend to the choir. And without all the voices we are incomplete. We need you, not just to show up on Sunday but to preach and teach, to serve the bread and cup and to nurture, to care and prophesy.
What we also find when we sing is that our song is not a possession, something we can tie down. Communal singing is a gift, one that we simultaneously give and receive. We don’t have control over it. We get to be a part of it, to participate in it, the gift of it, of figuring things out together.
Being Mennonite is like that, too. Coming into this faith is something that happens to us, and is always happening to us. Being Mennonite is not something rooted in birth or cultural traditions. It’s a disposition of patience, a slow coming into the life of a community, being vulnerable to one another’s voices, of learning how to receive the gift of another.
You heard two poems today. One was written by Julia Kasdorf, someone who left the Mennonite community of her youth, only to find that she was always possessed by it. The Mennonites is a poem about how she is coming to terms with the community of her past.
The other poem is about contemporary Mennonites, people who chose this church. In it David Wright says,
Though, a solid four parts; the hymns here have
A sturdy bottom (though I need the book
On 606). And we make our way through
Less solid but sweet guitar-sent songs
Your great-uncles would never recognize.
And isn’t our singing like that, too? We also know that when we sing we learn from each other’s voices. There are many times when I’ve secretly seated myself behind the strongest alto I can find so that I can get through a difficult harmony in a complicated hymn. And when we sing songs that are new to me, songs you have brought, I need you to teach them to me.
We hear each other’s stories, learn each other’s songs, and we’re open to having ourselves be changed in the process. We come both offering and receiving, recognizing that being incorporated into the life of the church means simultaneously taking up practices that may have been foreign to us, but also bringing what has formed our faith over time.
Perhaps most remarkably, in Mennonite churches we sing the songs of our historic enemies. Each time we sing one of the old Lutheran or Catholic hymns, I remember that the first generation of Anabaptists were killed for their faith by the Lutheran and the Catholic churches. Even the word “Anabaptist,” was given to us by our enemies. We call ourselves “the re-baptizers,” a name shouted in scorn before drownings and burning and beatings.
We are a body that has found a way to sing the songs of our enemies, to recognize that reconciliation is always possible, even when it takes patience, even when the horrors and crimes are immense.
We can sing like this because of Jesus. We sing like this because you have been brought here by the conviction that ours is a song the world needs to hear, because we believe that God’s peace is making all things new. We sing because this is where the body of Christ happens – here, in our invitation to others to bring their voices, to bring their gifts into God’s life.
We can only know this Jesus when we follow him in the body, only when our bodies are engaged in the work of being disciples. We sing because we see in Jesus the one who showed us the way of peace, God’s son who shows us how to love our enemies, how to act in justice, how to persist in persecution, when all seems lost.
Being Mennonite insists that we are a people whose faith takes place in bodies that sing, bodies that find their way into a common life. This life is constantly changing and always near to the cry “Jesus is Lord.” We are a body always ready to see how the Holy Spirit will act among us in a new way.
In today’s Scripture from Colossians we see the church that the early Anabaptists hope to live out during the Radical Reformation, at the founding of what we now call Anabaptism. It’s a church returning to its roots, a radical church, the church of the Bible. Here the life of faith is bound up in the material world. Faith is all of us together, figuring out how to have patience and compassion, teaching and singing, correcting and encouraging, and doing everything, in word or deed, in the name of Lord Jesus.
A few months ago we had a guest preacher join us from EMU. We were in the middle of the soundtrack of faith Sunday school class, the one where each week we sang different songs that have formed our faith over time. When Daryl walked into our worship space he saw some of us sitting in a circle and he asked me, “is this your choir?” I told him, “this is some of them!”
As Mennonites, we’re all the choir, learning from one another, adjusting our voices, finding out what we have to give up and what we bring, patiently discovering the gifts we each bring, the part which we will sing.
That’s something I’ve always loved about the Mennonite church. There’s no rule book to read. In fact, our confessions, our statements of belief are ever changing. Our confessions of faith respond to the current questions, the current claims, what we’re asking right now. We find out how to be Mennonite by being Mennonite. We learn how to sing by singing together, listening for the parts over time, asking for help when we can’t quite get the tune, or realizing that we need to sing a new song, that the songs we are singing now aren’t the songs we need to be singing.
Baptism is the time when we say yes to singing together, when we say we’re ready to listen, adjust our voices, that we’re ready to change the way we sing to adjust to others. This is the time we say we’re ready to figure out how our voice fits into the choir. We’re ready to stick it out together, even when we’re not singing so great.
Baptism is one of the practices that came to define early Anabaptism because in baptism we become a radically egalitarian community. We become like the body spoken of in Galatians, where all barriers are broken down. For a long time the church developed a practice in which only infants were baptized. Being baptized into the Roman Catholic Church meant becoming a citizen of the state. This was a time when church and state where indistinguishable. And at that time our foremothers and fathers set a new course, returning to the baptisms of the New Testament, baptisms freely chosen by a voluntary church.
In other words, no one will make you sing. Instead, we gather, and wait for the time when you might be ready, when the Holy Spirit prompts within you a desire to enter into this choir, to find your voice here. Believers baptism is the way we invite people to enter this singing body voluntarily because that’s what Jesus did. Jesus invited and waited, waited for people to enter a life of faith with their whole bodies, to enter a life of faith ready to discover their gifts along the way.
What we have always asked of our baptism practice is this: does it make the world new? Does the body that sings create a world of broken-down barriers, of lives that follow after Christ, of a community where every voice finds a part, where every person brings a song?
If you haven’t been baptized, this may be a time when you can begin to think about whether you’d like to bring your gifts into God’s body, to listen for the Holy Spirit prompting you, to discover where your gifts will take you, and if we can help you find that out.
You’ll help us, and we’ll help you. Because the thing is, we’re all new at this, because we are all learning how to sing here. And that’s what it means to be Mennonite – we’re always discovering, always learning how to sing again.