About 25 years ago an associate on the Southeast Mennonite Conference staff and I agreed that Sarasota needed a new kind of congregation. It needed one that was more open, inviting, and welcoming than the existing congregations. Each of the older congregations had a faint historic tie to limited old ways.
My associate and I soon learned that there were a few others who shared our vision. We began by meeting in a home, and then in a room provided by a Presbyterian Church. We called ourselves the Covenant Mennonite Fellowship.
There is some irony in the covenant name. A binding covenant is often a barrier to keep unwanted people out. Our small group’s covenant was meant to invite unwanted people in. That is, I think, what the covenant of a church should be and do.
Faithfulness and persistence kept the small group alive. It grew slowly as it justified its existence. When its pastor disclosed that he was gay and wished to be married to a same sex partner the conference took his ministerial credential from him. The group felt like outsiders in the conference, so they asked to be released from obligations to it.
The Old Fool happened to be with the conference when it sadly acknowledged the congregation’s withdrawal, and The Old Fool was with the covenant Fellowship when it sadly received the word of its dismissal by conference.
Sadness oft overwhelms the saints who suffer through a church split. The Old Fool has lived long enough to see descendants joyfully restore the ties broken by their parents. The Old Fool has drafted another beatitude in hope: “Blessed are those who sadly withdraw from one another, temporarily, for they shall be joyfully reunited.”
The harbinger of such a blessed event was reported in a recent TMennonite. The present pastor of Covenant Fellowship invited Conference leadership to have communion with them on World Communion Sunday, and a handful responded. Pastor and conference minister joined in serving communion.
It was not an attempt at reconciliation and was not an apology from either side. Rather, it was identified as an act of peacemaking in spite of differences over a divisive issue, in the spirit of Christian fellowship and unity. The preacher of the morning declared that “diversity is not the threat; rather, disunity.”
On Epiphany Sunday the pastor talked to his congregation about alignment between vision and actions and then challenged the congregation to move beyond hurt and anger to come to the table in an act of peacemaking. He acknowledged that some are not ready for this, but it is time. If we “who are committed to peacemaking, cannot sit down together and worship with our brothers and sisters who think differently than us, then all of our talk of peace means little.”
The pastor spoke of the potential for healing after the service, “On this World Fellowship Sunday, we’ve reflected on the historical legacy of Anabaptists and the global Anabaptist family today.” He said, “But more than historical, more than global, we’ve experienced today the heart of peacemaking through worship, fellowship, and communion with our brothers and sisters from across the street. Might this be a sign of hope for our larger church, to bridge our differences in acts of love?”
This Old Fool hears dark rumors of major withdrawals within the Mennonite Church. He knows that confrontational actions create distance between saints. So, let us be fools for the sake of Jesus and the yoke of love that binds us together. The Jesus way is easier than the hard way of transgressi0n. Communion in humility and love is the easy way; excommunication in self confidence and pride, though done sadly, is the hard way.
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