The other weekend my husband, kids and I headed to our regional denominational annual assembly, held this year in Oklahoma City. Anticipation and dread mixed seamlessly as we drove south. Most our annual assemblies are relaxed gatherings, a time set aside to reconnect with old friends and colleagues and get up to date on the news of our conference, through both official and unofficial mediums.
This year was different, however. It’s been some time since we worked as a church body to try and address a more controversial issue and as has been the case in many other denominations across the country, homosexuality seems to keep finding itself on center stage. Our business last weekend was to address two resolutions put forward from a number of different congregations from within our conference, that attempted to address this issue, albeit in a more round-a-bout manner.
Also like other denominations, we Mennonites seem to be quite divided in our opinions/beliefs on this topic. However, the months and weeks leading up to the event were bathed in prayer, and this was evident in the attitudes of most people. Unity was the theme and we spent lots and lots of time worshipping together.
Over and over again, leading up to this particular Saturday afternoon session, I also heard people express their heartfelt sentiment that at the end of the day we could hopefully still find a way to maintain unity in spite of disagreements. In fact, this general feel was so predominant, I allowed myself to feel cautiously optimistic.
The gospel text yesterday, from Mark 6, explored Herod’s relationship with John the Baptist. The first few verses really caught my attention. Apparently, following John’s death, people were so inspired and moved by Jesus’ ministry they wondered aloud if Jesus was maybe John, resurrected. This seems to have been Herod’s conclusion as well.
Now this is a little surprising. A few months ago I did a blog post that outlined how very different Jesus and John the Baptist were. John was the original fire and brimstone pastor. He was strident, passionate, scary and maybe a little crazy too with his camel‘s hair clothing and locust snacks. John’s most fiery words come from the book of Matthew when he says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
In contrast, Jesus seems a little more subtle. Oh, he’s just as divisive, but his hair isn’t standing on end maybe, and he leaves off some of the more inflammatory rhetoric. I also get a sense that Jesus is perhaps a little more inclusive, that his circle of welcome was maybe larger than John’s. John seemed really focused on sin. Jesus, maybe more on grace. Even Jesus acknowledges their different approaches when he notes, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds (Matt. 11:18-19).”
But in spite of their differences, when John asks from his prison cell whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus praises John to the crowds gathered around him saying, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist....(Matt. 11:11).” Interesting, so according to Jesus two people can have totally different approaches, different beliefs, different styles and still be considered great in the eyes of God.
Let me tell you, it was tempting as a delegate at our assembly last weekend to peer across the abyss from my side of the ideological and theological divide and stand in judgment of those who gathered on the other side....because I think they’re wrong. But I kept getting pulled up short.
We were assigned round table groups for the weekend. One of the people at my table was a new, young pastor who had very strong opinions about the resolutions put forward. He was certainly not in support of their actions. However, when another table member questioned whether or not those who authored the resolutions were acting in love, this young pastor quickly sprang to the defense talking about his high opinion for one of the resolution’s authors, commenting on what a loving person he was.
Late Saturday morning as I was heading out for lunch, I noticed a large group standing in a circle in the corner of the meeting room, holding hands and praying. Later, I learned these were representatives from two opposing churches, along with a few others carried up in the spirit, who felt it was important to come together and seek unity in prayer.
And it didn’t matter what side people stood on, over and over I heard people talk about how much they hoped our body could stay reconciled despite our differences.
I think Jesus’ words, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” are really key. Sure, I saw people last weekend….on both sides of the issue…..express judgment and display an unshakeable pride in their convictions. But they were in the minority. Mostly what I witnessed were actions which demonstrated goodness and righteousness, regardless of where people might have stood on one particular issue. Mostly I saw a heartfelt desire to do things right reflected back and forth between people, drawing them together. Mostly, I felt unity.
That’s not to say, at the end of the day, we won’t have some congregations leaving our conference. I suspect that no matter which way the vote went, this might have been the case. But I’m still hoping maybe, just maybe, we’ll choose instead to hang onto each other, recognizing that we need diversity of opinion. We need different understandings. We need different styles of worship. Because these differences, if approached with a spirit of unity, enrich and feed the whole, pushing out our circle, making it larger than it ever could be without the dissonant parts. Maybe in the end we’ll learn that it isn’t even so much our beliefs that count, but rather our "deeds that will reveal the depth of our wisdom."