Forging Faith

Published by Trevor Bechtel on

A Sermon by Trevor Bechtel on May 14 2023

Good morning, 

It’s appropriate for me to begin today with a story about my mother, on this mother’s day. The story is relatively simple, but it’s also a good staring point for these reflections.
As a teenager–and I was a teenager well into my twenties–I specialized in a certain lack of commitment. I cultivated a variety of interests, relationships, connections, talents, and skills, but I didn’t really lean into anything. One Sunday, after church, in the living room of the house I grew up in, my mother said to me, “Trevor, at some point you are going to need to take responsibility for your own faith.” I was baptized in the next year. I think she had clear preferences for what I believed, but she did not push on any of those fronts, instead she just asked me to think about what I wanted. It was the push I needed. 

Mother’s day can be a tricky holiday. It can be a universal holiday; we all have a mother. But for those of us without children it can also be a status barred to us by biological or social accident. For those with difficult relationships with their mother it can center pain. 

The roots of the American holiday are recent, about a 100 years old, but there are traditions in other parts of the world which date back centuries. Some connect to celebrations of goddesses like Cybele or Rhea. Others connect to the tradition of returning to one’s home or mother church at least once a year. Mothering Sunday is traditionally the fourth Sunday of Lent.  While primarily a day to recognize the roots of one’s faith, it also became a time when children working as domestic servants would be given time to return home and visit with their families. They would pick flowers along the way home to give to their mothers. 

I want to use this mother’s day to also return to the roots of our faith with a somewhat similar question as the one my mother asked of me.  What is the center of our common belief at Shalom. And I like this old tradition of returning to one’s mother church as a metaphor for this. For that trip, while it certainly has obligation as a motivation, also could have some lightness to it. So today I’m going to ask you to think about a set of ideas to inquire if you might share them, but without the pressure of needing you to; I’m happy for you to simple be on the journey with me and I’ll be patient if you stop by the side of the road to pick some flowers. 

This voluntary approach to belief characterizes our faith. One of the places that I see this in the Bible is in the passage read to us this morning from the Sermon on the Mount. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus proclaims the core of his gospel, building carefully upon the teaching of his mother religion, but clarifying too what he sees as the center of that faith. He ends with this metaphor of the house on the rock and the house on the sand. Besides being a great climate change parable for us now, this metaphor shows that there are real consequences to what we believe. For most of Christianity belief has both had life of death consequences, but was also thought to have life or death consequences. Anabaptists met in caves and boats, at the risk of prison and execution, because belief was more important than life or death. Religious persecution can be about control, and the enforcement of non-religious ideas like patriarchy, the idolatry of family, or heterosexism, but in order to engage in it people mostly needed to believe that enforcing belief was worth it not just for them but also for their opponents. This is the kind of enforcement that the scribes in Matthew 7:28 were about. Jesus is contrasted to this by having authority because of who he was and how he spoke, not by using it. That kind of authority is invitational and voluntary. It astonishes because it is true. Astonish is a much better translation of ekplēssō the greek word behind spellbound in the Inclusive Bible’s rendering of this verse. 

These dynamics of belief don’t characterize our life here at Shalom. There is no one thing that you need to believe to be a part of our community. We have a set of statements, posted on our website, and commonly read in worship, which exists as statements of our mission, identity, and values, but while a good group of us accepted those statements when we adopted them, new people aren’t asked to confess that they are true. And the statements themselves are not primarily about belief. They state at several points that we want to follow in the ways of Jesus, but don’t state that we believe that Jesus is divine, or that God exists and is worthy of our worship, or that the Bible is an authoritative guide to faith. 

I’m clearing a bunch of ground here, because I want to be very explicit that in what follows that I’m not stating that we need to believe certain things together, or that we need to do certain things together or we won’t be faithful. One of the ways that this has happened in the past is in Christians accepting a Creed, most notably the Nicene Creed. I’m going to read it here … it’s got four I believe statements and then offers some clarifying comments. 

I believe in one God,

the Father almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,
 of all things visible and invisible.

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
 the Only Begotten Son of God,
 born of the Father before all ages.
 God from God, Light from Light,
 true God from true God,
 begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
 through him all things were made.
 For us and for our salvation
 he came down from heaven,
 and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
 and became human.
 For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
 he suffered death and was buried,
 and rose again on the third day
 in accordance with the Scriptures.
 He ascended into heaven
 and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
 He will come again in glory
 to judge the living and the dead
 and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
 who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
 who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
 who has spoken through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
 I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins
 and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
 and the life of the world to come. Amen.

I actually really like this statement, but I think that most of the reason for that is that I didn’t grow up saying it. But it establishes clarity about a bunch of things that were really important 1700 years ago. Interestingly the phrase that has been most controversial is the one that says that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This is the reason that the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches split. Creedal churches expect that their members belief everything in this statement. That’s not how we operate but I think it is still useful for us to explore what we might believe in common. 

The origins of this sermon, and indeed of this series on forging faith, come from a worship committee conversation that probed connections, and this statement I wrote which was read in worship and which resonated with a number of people. I wrote this based on things that people who attended our series of conversations on baptism said. 

One thing that interests me about a series on connections is exploring what we believe in common and how our experiences connect us to each other and to our believes. At Shalom, “We value the creative tension and the strength that result from sharing differences in beliefs within the community” but I also think that we hold some ideas in common. The list of shared beliefs may be small but we do often speak instead of a deliberateness about how we will listen to each other. I’m interested in probing how we share beliefs and commitments and how much of that is connected to a willingness to question ourselves and each other.

So what might some of these ideas be? Here’s my final caveat. I’m going to focus on ideas rather than practices or actions, but that’s not because I think ideas are more important. We are probably a community that is united by practices more than ideas, and I like that. Also, in a nod to our mother churches I’m also going to include ideas from Christianity generally in addition to things we would regularly articulate first at Shalom. So in some ways I’m doing the opposite of what Shelly did in October when she talked about beliefs and learning she had as an individual. I’m looking for what we believe in common.

So here are my candidates for ideas we might hold in common at Shalom.

1. God. Perhaps the most basic idea is that we believe in God. This is an interesting one for Anabaptists, I think. None of our statements mention God. We mention Jesus as someone we want to follow but we don’t, in our statements, attribute divinity to Jesus. We do talk about spiritual renewal. When my niece came to live in an Ann Arbor for a couple of months about 10 years ago we had her interview a number of people about what it means to be Mennonite. Her ethnic background is Mennonite on both sides but she had typically only attended church at her grandparents in Goshen. None of the people she interview mentioned God.  I think that many of us believe in God, but we probably have many ideas about what that means. However, given our social profile, it’s likely the case that we have a few, perhaps quite a few agnostics among us. We may not each believe in God, but God is an orienting part of our worship. We pray to God, we mention God in our singing and sermons and scripture. 

2. Jesus. Do we believe in Jesus? I think that we probably do have some level of common belief that Jesus had a lot of good ideas. We probably don’t all believe that Jesus is God, or as Jodie noted on Easter that Jesus rose from the dead, but many of us seek to follow Jesus. But even there we may be characterized but some difference. We are a community that has welcomed some people who don’t identify as Christian and who would not say they follow Jesus. Following Jesus is more of an action than a belief, but it gets close. When we define what some of those actions are we probably get even closer, because we would shape that following in terms of social justice; caring for the poor, and becoming a welcoming and supportive community. That kind of commitment to social justice is a probably very close to a common belief, even if some of us root it in Jesus, and even if we might disagree about how to pursue it in practice. A commitment to caring for the poor has been really important to all Christians throughout time, with 21st century American Christian Nationalism being a notable exception. When the history of this time is written I wonder if concern for the poor will be considered our times great schism. 

3. Salvation. There are a host of other ideas about God that we could add here. God is the trinity of the Father, Son and Spirit, Jesus Christ effects our salvation, we look forward to a bodily resurrection at the end of time, salvation is universal, Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, Jesus is fully human and fully divine. I imagine that subsets of us agree with each of these ideas, but that they are smaller subsets of us. These ideas have been really important to Christians throughout time, but probably aren’t great candidates for us at Shalom. It would be a very interesting project for us to examine what saves us, and what we are saved from and for. I imagine we would have a wide range of ideas here. I also wonder how important the idea of salvation is to us. Some Mennonites have tended to hold salvation at a bit of a distance. The joke about the Mennonite who when asked about their salvation said your need to ask my neighbor rings true for some of us. 

4. Pacifism. A different kind of idea, also very connected to social justice, is pacifism. The Mennonite and Church of the Brethren denomination are both peace churches. We believe that violence is not the way to solve problems. In the 16th century this was mostly a belief in not wielding the sword and not participating in government. In the 20th century this has extended to being against war, and in fewer places against armed policing. I imagine that we have varied commitments to this idea. For instance, some of us hunt with guns and some of us won’t own a gun. But just as God is an orienting part of our worship, so too is pacifism. This is a place where pacifism is the assumed center. This is very different, than for instance, the women’s basketball games that I go to where the national anthem is accompanied by armed soldiers. 

5. Adult Baptism. Another idea which I’ve been talking to you about on and off for the last year is adult baptism. This is again the assumed center here. But we have not baptized anyone for more than 10 years, and we don’t expect people who were baptized as infants to become baptized as adults. This is an interesting idea to me because I imagine that many more people believe in this idea than have practiced it. While following Jesus may be something that we all do in practice, but we don’t all believe in, adult baptism may be something that many of us believe in, but many of those who are not convinced of it were actually baptized as adults. And even more of us question baptisms that may have happened when we were tweens or early teens and may have been coerced into, even though baptism is the practice in which our voluntary commitment is grounded. 

6. Spiritual Renewal. We do list spiritual renewal in our statements as a congregation. This is in keeping with our Anabaptist heritage which tends to place a great deal of confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit to create and maintain community. One of the places where this is most evident is in our practice of singing hymns in four part harmony. We don’t necessarily articulate what is happening when we sing together, but it is likely a place where we actively come together as a community most decisively. I’m a big fan of Marlene Kropf’s idea that singing is Mennonite Eucharist. We engage singing as a way of worshipping God, and do this by joining our voices together.  Singing connects us to each other and to God, and does so with both our bodies and our minds. Singing isn’t exactly an idea, but as we noted in the pandemic, singing is something that we miss dearly when we can’t do it. Would we all say that our spirits are renewed when we sing? 

It’s not exactly easy to think about singing as an idea. I do believe that that is partly the genius of our community. We do believe ideas are powerful, but we aren’t exactly committed to them in quite the same we that we are committed to coming together to sing. We are a community that believe in each other, and believes that when we come together here we are important to each other. As we say in our Vision narrative, “Shalom Community Church is a vital and significant presence in the lives of its participants, and a blessing to the communities it serves and touches. We strive to embody divine love, humility, justice, and compassion, following in the example of Jesus. We work together to discern what this means for Shalom as a community and for ourselves as individuals.” 

I believe that this coming together as a community is ultimately more important than any particular idea, but I also believe that it is a good exercise for us to think about the ideas that might bring us together. What are some of your candidates?

Categories: Sermons