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“Covenant New: Mennonite Church Canada Re-Imagined”

Mark D HCall to Worship - Mark Diller Harder

(On pulpit there is a small Inukshuk with tea light candle. Light candle after reading each Sunday)

What do these stones mean?

O God, as we build and knock down,

As we re-build and wait for what might come,

We light this candle to point us the way.

What will these stones mean?

Welcome to this time of worship! This morning what we are essentially doing is examining the foundations. Every time there is a pile of rocks, a stone house, a building, a wall, an Inukshuk, there is some sort of foundation. You originally build upon some sort of bottom layer – a level of stone or whatever material. It matters what kind of foundation you use, what kind of materials. What is at the core or foundation of our faith, our congregation, the church? We live in a day and age when much is being questioned, when it feels like the structures and building materials of the church are falling apart. Even some of the foundations seem shaky at times. So, what is at the core, what is our foundation, when there is so much change? This week I borrowed this candle Inukshuk for a chapel at Heritage House, and it fell apart on the way home and had to be glued back together again, probably in a bit different configuration – a fitting image.

Over the last several years, Mennonite Church Canada has been asking these very questions through its Future Directions Process, culminating in a major change of national and regional church structures at its meeting in October in Winnipeg. This morning we will share some of those changes and what it might mean for SJMC. The hope and dream is that even in the midst of change, we continue to be a people called into new covenant and relationship with God, a covenant written on the hearts. It is covenant that becomes the foundation of our faith and our relationship with God. Hear these words from the prophet Jeremiah, speaking into a context of change and exile.

Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[a] says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: 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. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our[a] hearts, to be known and read by all; 3 and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Mark D HReflection 1 - Shifts in Mennonite Church Canada - Mark Diller Harder

On the weekend of October 13-15, 5 of us from SJMC – Brent, Kevin, Aidan Morton Ninomiya, Laura Carr-Pries and myself, gathered with about 400 others from across Canada for the Mennonite Church Canada Special Assembly. It felt in many ways like a historic gathering, knowing that we would be voting on major changes to the structure of Mennonite Church Canada. This was the culmination of many years of work by the Future Directions Task Force, and the mandate coming out of Saskatoon in 2016 to make significant changes.

Last Sunday Wendy began our series by sharing about the changes and shifts in society and church in our day. These are what Mennonite Church Canada is also responding to. We are a much more secular society, with church pushed to the edges. The Christian story does not guide broader cultural discourse like it once did. We are much more diverse, multi-cultural and multi-faith; with the challenges but also the wonderful gifts, learnings and opportunities that has given us. As a culture, we have less faith and trust in institutions, including the church. The church is not at the centre of life for many of us as it once was. Church attendance patterns and involvements are shifting rapidly, as are the financial resources available - especially at a National level, when churches emphasize their local realities. It has become harder to stay connected as Mennonite congregations across the country. These shifts take on their unique shape and character within the story of Mennontie Church Canada, but are common within all denominations. What does it mean to be the faithful church today, much more from the margins of society? What does it mean for a national church body?

In Winnipeg, we were guided by the 2 Corinthians passage we just heard. Paul and the early church were also trying to be faithful to God in a time of tremendous changes and shifts in the understanding of what it meant to be a people of God. As I hear the passage, I get a sense of the importance of relationships, of trust between people, and of faith not written down with ink on tablets of stone, but with the Spirit of God on our hearts. It is the Spirit that gives life in the midst of change.

Ironically, we began the weekend by carefully looking at and then voting, a very institutional thing, on the new by-laws for Mennonite Church Canada. But these by-law changes simply put into print a whole new direction. It was amazing the amount of conversation, discernment and passion in the room around something like by-laws! These by-laws put into legalize some big changes going forward. Could it be that they were inspired by the moving of the Spirit?

So, in a nut shell, what changes for the nation-wide church and for us as a local congregation? We basically get a simplified structure. In this new vision, the congregation becomes the foundational unit of the church. Kevin will speak more to this in a few minutes. As congregations, we are no longer members and will no longer send voting delegates to Mennonite Church Canada. We only send delegates to our Regional Church – Mennonite Church Eastern Canada or MCEC. MCEC then sends a small representative group of delegates to MC Canada for the common agenda across the country. Most of the resources, programs, conversations, and discernment will happen at that more local MCEC level, as it will in each of the other provincial or Regional church bodies. Mennonite Church only exists as the Regional churches come together to share common agenda and to work at our common identity across Canada. There will continue to be study conferences and gatherings that bring us together across Canada, but not for business or voting. There is some neat potential to what these gatherings could look like with a focus on worship, identity, and tackling the significant issues of the day.

This also means major changes in finances and staff time. We will continue to share the same amount of contributions ‘to conference’ and send it directly to MCEC, but it will be divided with a much different formula, with much more staying within MCEC, as MCEC picks up various areas of ministry. This is a bigger change for the other provinces where churches used to send 2 separate cheques – to their area and the national body, instead of the already integrated model within MCEC. There will also be much less staff time at the national level. There was an undertone of lament in Winnipeg as we realized our final vote also meant the laying off and releasing of 9 staff persons, and the potential of several more Witness Staff around the world not continuing past this June. These are people who have put their heart and soul into the Church and its mission and ministry on our behalf. There was also a level of excitement as delegates in Winnipeg began to imagine a church structure much closer to the congregation, and hopefully much more agile, flexible and responsive.

The church will always be in flux, always shifting in response to changing times. That is simply its nature. The key question is whether we continue to listen to the Spirit of God, and how it gives life. Does the Spirit continue to write on our hearts? Can we continue to sing a new song to the One who has said ‘behold, I make all things new.’

Children’s Story

  • Good Morning.
  • I have a photo for you to look at. Do you know what it is? (SJMC, our church, etc)
  • Not a bad looking church building! Pretty solid. Looks good. Probably pretty functional.
  • Does this photo tell you everything you need to know about St Jacobs Mennonite Church?
  • Is it all about the physical building?
  • Hmmm.... what if the building stood here, but there were never any people that came inside.
  • Church is more than the building.... it is about the people. Gathering for worship. Learning about God, about our faith. We are the church!
  • Hmmm... what if you had a building, you had people coming for worship, but it didn’t make any difference to the community around the building, and to how the people lived their lives?
  • There are lots of ways being a church together makes a difference:
  1. How we each live – are we kind and compassionate, do we share, do we help people
  2. We each find ways of living out our faith at school, in our neighbourhood
  3. After school program for children
  4. Thursdays – Mennonites from Mexico – learn English and life skills
  5. Have helped refugee families come to Canada.
  6. Church House next door – home for refugees
  7. We help with House of Friendship, Food Hampers locally, and send money and help to people around the world
  8. Benin connection – recent trip with Wendy, Chip, Levi and Kai
  • Do you think we are the only Mennonite Church in Canada? The only building?
  • I want to show you pictures of 4 different Mennonite Churches across Canada – 4 very different buildings. These are stories I heard when about 400 people from a whole bunch of churches all went to Winnipeg to worship together.
  1. First United Mennonite Church – middle of Vancouver. Big building but only a small number of people. They decided to share their building with 3 different churches – Spanish Mennonite, Cantonese Chinese Baptist, Punjabi Pentecostal.
  2. Lethbridge MC – small church in a smaller city in southern Alberta. They gathered 8 other churches from different denominations and sponsored 30 Syrian refugees
  3. Fiske Mennonite – very small rural Saskatchewan – A local woman from the town of Hershel lost her husband and then she had cancer. The roof on her business, a bar, was leaking. Her son was in prison and asked for help. The church raised money and organized a bar barn raising to repair the roof.
  4. Jubilee Mennonite, Winnipeg – small church – big public housing unit next door – people with very little money. They have got to know their neighbours as friends – celebrate when they get new jobs or recover from addictions.

There are Mennonite Church all across Canada, each trying to live out their faith. The church is more than just the building, but the people and how they live out their faith. You can go back to your seats.

Kevin2012Reflection 2 - The Congregation as Foundation - Kevin Derksen

 What does it mean for the congregation to be the foundational unit of the church?

The significant changes to Mennonite Church Canada that Mark described a few minutes ago began with a fairly lengthy process of reflection and consultation on “Future Directions” for the church. And there was a recognition early on that you can’t just restructure to keep up with changing financial realities. Budgetary shortfalls were certainly pushing the issue, but there was also a commitment to step back and ask bigger questions about what it means to be the church in this time and place. This involved listening to individuals and congregations, paying attention to the shifting context of Canadian society, and doing some good theological work on being church together.                                                

As reports and proposals began to develop, a key commitment emerged around the importance of the local congregation. One of the primary documents puts it this way: “the congregation is the foundational unit and expression of God’s work in the world – the primary setting for worshiping, forming disciples, belonging to and participating in a caring community, and for holistic witness beyond the church doors.” And so, as a result, any plan for the future of Mennonite Church Canada would have to put the focus here. Put another way in the proposal: “The key to remaining faithful and effective as a larger body in our changing world is revitalizing the life of its foundational unit, the congregation.”

This focus on the congregation was a really central element of all the discussion and change that has taken place within Mennonite Church Canada. So we thought it might be helpful to take a few minutes here to consider what this means.

The congregation is the foundational unit and expression of God’s work in the world. In some ways, it seems a pretty obvious statement. We are all part of the church through our participation in local congregations. That’s where we learn what it means to be Christian and a part of the body of Christ. But this became quite a topic of discussion and debate as the Future Directions process moved along. A real barn-burner from online blog posts to the discussion floor at regional and national gatherings.

Some were concerned that such a focus on the local congregation reduces the importance of being the church together across buildings and borders. We are the church as Mennonites across Canada, and even more profoundly as believers within the global body of Christ in all places. That’s really what it means to be the church, even as we worship and participate in particular congregations. There are enough forces in the world that fracture and separate us, let’s not contribute to that by focusing so much on individual faith communities.

And yet, it is some of these contextual realities, the forces we’re experiencing in the world, that led to this emphasis on the local congregation. The reality is that these days people are less and less inclined to support larger organizations they can’t see or interact with directly. Institutional loyalty is on the decline. Technology has connected us more broadly around the world, but it’s also allowed for a new kind of personal connection with people and causes that hasn’t been possible before.   We’re more likely to support and claim things that we can get to know and have a concrete relationship with. This has created challenging times for denominational bodies and para-church organizations everywhere.

But it’s also created a real opening and opportunity for local communities. People are craving the kind of authentic connection and identity that a congregation can provide. There is a hunger for relationship that matches well with our calling as faith communities.

Moreover, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the mission of the church might well be in our own backyards. A year ago, David Martin – Executive Minister at MCEC – was our guest here in worship. And he talked to us about this shift in mindset. As our North American society becomes less and less shaped by the Christian story, he said, we need to recognize our calling to proclaim the gospel right here in our local communities. The mission of the church is not necessarily overseas somewhere, but wherever disciples live and work and worship.

And so this became the guiding principle of the Mennonite Church Canada restructuring process. How can we best support and resource congregations in their calling as communities of faith and mission? And what are the best ways of working together to share in common work and priorities? The hope is that this new structure gives us a helpful framework for working at these questions.

Putting the local congregation at the centre, however, still leaves a lot of questions. How will we retain a sense of unity and identity as a church across Canada and even beyond? Can local congregations and regional churches sustain the added weight of responsibility they’ll be asked to take on? And what happens to the significant international witness work that Mennonite Church Canada has been engaged with for many years?

This last question was also a really hot topic throughout the visioning and restructuring process in the last few years. Much concern was expressed that we not neglect or undervalue the important relationships and initiatives happening through Mennonite Church Canada around the world. And we have our own stakes in this too – until recently with Andrew and Karen Suderman in South Africa, and in ongoing ways through our partnership with the Benin Bible Institute.

In the final configurations of program and budget, Witness will continue to be an important part of what Mennonite Church Canada does. One of those things that we simply cannot do on our own. However, the model for Witness will change in ways that do engage local congregations more. Funding for Witness workers and projects will now be a blend of budgeted dollars and relational commitments. For Mennonite Church Canada to take on a new project, there will need to be a handful of local congregations who get on board and commit to financial support. So this focus on the local congregation does have significant implications in some of these ways too.

So this focus on the congregation is one of the determining factors in the restructuring process at Mennonite Church Canada, however much we might feel its effects here at St. Jacobs. I think there does remain an invitation for us in all this to ask about our own particular calling within this nationwide community of congregations. What is our vision, our mission, and what kind of resourcing and support do we need from MCEC and MC Canada.

Listening to our leaders reflect on these changes, there is a great sense of hope and encouragement in what is coming to be. Hope for a clearer orientation to the issues and challenges of our time. Hope for better communication and collaboration with our brothers and sisters across Canada. Hope for a vibrant church through revitalized congregations. We’ll have to see what God has in store.

SJMC Vision (to read together as a congregation)

St Jacobs Mennonite Church seeks to celebrate and listen to the living God; empowered by the Holy Spirit to be a welcoming, caring community of faith centered in Jesus Christ; and to demonstrate God’s love in our neighbourhoods and in the world

Brent HorstReflection 3 - The Invitation to SJMC - Brent Horst

There’s a quote sometimes attributed to Michelangelo that to create a sculpture all you do is chip away the stone that doesn’t look like what you are creating.

I think faith is like that as well. The older I get, the more of my faith is being stripped away but in a good way. The superficial trappings of religion, the beliefs I took on as a child but never really questioned as an adult, the simplistic literal interpretations of some Bible verses, the confession of faith of my church ….all these things are slowly being chipped away. And like God’s creation, it is good. You see, many of these things that need to be chipped away are my creation or the creation of another human, not from God. When you chip away all that I have created, that we have created, what is left? That may vary for each of us since we are unique individuals, but we are also all children of God so there are similarities too. Today is not the time to look into these similarities in depth but to consider generally what is at our core. What are the parts of our faith that can’t be chipped away because they come from God and just are there and always have been there from the beginning.

I think this analogy of chipping away to find the core fits to the changes in Mennonite Church Canada and the focus on the foundational unit of the church, the congregation that Mark and Kevin just spoke about. Yes there were other reasons for the structural chipping but I do believe that most involved with the Future Directions initiative were truly trying to find the core of our church, the core of our faith, the core of our congregations.

If we accept that the congregation is the centre, core of our denominational church, then what is the calling to St. Jacobs Mennonite Church? Our vision statement that we just read gives some high level broad view of that and I think it holds up quite well. It focuses on Jesus at the centre, acknowledges God’s calling and the power of the Holy Spirit. It also speaks to our mission of welcoming, caring and demonstrating God’s love in our neighbourhoods and the world.

This is our core, what we created as our vision years ago. Does it still speak to you? To us? Is it from God or from us? For today, let’s assume that this still fits and is God’s vision for SJMC.

We further broke down this vision into some actions, nine listed on the other banner. I expect you may have read these already sometime during the service. Words like Welcoming, Genuine, Enthusiastic, Spirit-filled, and Jubilant are used to describe our hospitality, our worship and our giving. We then talk about Peace and Justice actions, faith nurturing relationships and caring for the various aspects of each person. Sounds like Loving God and Loving others as ourselves to me, which has always felt like the core of my faith.

This may just be my own personal place on my faith journey but what might be missing in this list for me is just to be. To be with God in silence, in devotion, in meditation…open to hear God or simply just be with the Trinity; Parent, Jesus and Holy Spirit. To be with another in silence, in solidarity, in a common place of grief, joy, grace or gratitude. To be present in our world, to be available to a stranger on the street, at our work or any place we meet another. To be the light and salt in God’s world, pointing to God’s love for all. To be a child of God, to be able to give grace as much as we need grace ourselves.

I can read these words and I can fit these ideas into the words that are there but maybe just maybe it would be clearer if some words were chipped away.

What do we as a congregation need to chip away to truly see our core? What as individuals do we need to let go of so God’s true light can shine in our lives, in all that we do? If SJMC was a statue, created by God, what would it look like when God finishes chipping away all that doesn’t look like his creation?

Or maybe the point of church, the point of SJMC is that we are all being created every day in every way. Maybe the vision of a congregation is that we love and support each other as God continually creates us. Melting, Molding, Filling and Using us in His will.

We will shortly sing a song and I want to read the words to you now so they are heard and we can allow them to speak to us. It’s called May Your Spirit Give Life and was the theme song at Mennonite Church Canada in Winnipeg this past October.

One church always learning to live out our call; One Lord with eternal love who welcomes one and all, Though many members, we’re one body with one faith. We pray you accept our deepest praise

We wait with expectant hearts to hear Your voice; we offer our open minds and wait to be transformed. Each new discovery puts Your brilliance on display. We pray for Your peace while You create

By grace we discover who we truly are; A letter conceived in Love and written on our hearts. Declaring all that you have done through Jesus Christ. We pray that our lives might share your light.

May your Spirit reveal, may our witness magnify, may Your Spirit renew, So Your Church may be inspired, May Your Spirit give life.

Please join me in prayer before we sing these words.

Creating, Loving, Living God, we come before you as rough blocks of stone. We submit to you and to the chipping that we need from you. Help us to be loving of ourselves and each other as we continue to have rough edges that rub us sharply some days. We need your grace, we crave your Love and we want to live in your will for us. Help us to be…to be what you have envisioned for us…as individuals, as your children and as your church. May your Holy Spirit move in us, among us and through us so that we are truly your light to this world.

In the example Jesus, we pray these things.