(Mennonite Heritage Sunday)
We have a growing collection of children’s books in our house. We started out keeping them all in a basket upstairs in Eve’s room, but over the months we’ve expanded to having several places in the house where we keep these books. We keep a few in the kitchen, a few in the basement, we have a shelf in the living room where we keep a good amount of them, and we still have those books in her bedroom. Throughout this collection are books that have been scarred for life by Eve’s aggressive reading style. She went through a phase where she was bending and tearing just about any page she could get her hands on. She also really liked to chew books. The ones that faired the worst are the books we left in the crib for her to look through to help her get to sleep. When she woke up from one Sunday afternoon nap I went into her room to discover that she had eliminated a large chunk of a Thomas the Train book. There were no scraps from this in her crib, meaning that she had eaten the whole corner. My first thought at the time was not that I would later be using this as a sermon illustration, but Eve’s book eating tendencies actually serve us quite well for this Mennonite Heritage Sunday when we look at an Anabaptist approach to Scripture. So, alongside this lovely, historic, well-preserved Bible that Jim brought for us to display, I’m going to place this partially eaten Thomas the Train book.
We have just sung a hymn that was written by Felix Mantz, the first person to be martyred as an Anabaptist. “I sing with exultation all my heart’s delight, is God who brings salvation, frees from death’s dread might…God sends Christ as example, light and living guide, before my end he bids me in his realm abide.” During the events of the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century, Felix Mantz was a part of a small group of students who took seriously the reformers call to look to the Scriptures as a primary source of authority. These students gathered in small group circles where they studied the Bible together. What they found in their studies was that much of what was passing as the church of Jesus Christ had little to do with what the Scriptures taught. How could the church justify expecting all peasants to pay tithes to support its hierarchy? How could the church ask for believers to take up the sword to defend its territory? On what basis did the church baptize infants to incorporate them into this tithe paying, sword bearing population? The Anabaptists came into existence as a group of people who believed that it is better to follow the Christ of the Scriptures than the authority of the state church, or any other authority. They re-baptized adults into this brotherhood and sisterhood of believers, appointed their own leaders, and refused to defend themselves with violence. And many of them were tortured and killed as a result of these actions, considered heretics and threats to society. Felix Mantz was the first of these martyrs. The city council of Zurich, Switzerland approved of his execution and he was drowned in the Limmat River in January, 1527.
So at the foundation of the Anabaptist movement, is the conviction of taking Scripture seriously, and, more specifically, taking Jesus seriously. They studied the gospels, they discussed their meaning, and they worked to align their communities with the practices that Jesus taught, even if it caused them to be out of sync with the prevailing wisdom of the day. Lynn Miller says it well when he says, “we believe Jesus meant what he said, and we believe he was talking to us.”
The words from Matthew chapter seven speak to this very reality. They come at the end of the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a sort of Manifesto for living the Jesus way. To conclude this teaching, Jesus reminds his listeners that this was not just an exercise in eloquent speech, and that they as listeners should look to get much more out of it than simply hearing a good sermon. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” It makes for an excellent children’s song, and it makes for an excellent, although risky approach to life. Jesus notes that hearing the Word and acting on the Word have to be part of the same action, and that to do the one without the other is as foolish as camping out in a sand castle right before the tide comes up and the storms roll in.
A couple themes that the Anabaptists noted within the Sermon on the Mount:
Jesus taught his followers not to swear any oaths, but to simply let their Yes be Yes and their No be No. There should be no double standard for truth. One shouldn’t have to sometimes say, Yes, I’ll do this, and then other times say, Yes, I swear to you by God that I will do this. No, you say Yes, or No, and then you do what you said you’d do, without having to back it up with any other levels of Yes or No. This got many Anabaptists in trouble with local princes who were asking people to swear oaths of allegiance to them. They refused to say Yes, or swear Yes, to anything that they knew they couldn’t do in good conscience.
Jesus taught his followers to go beyond the tit for tat logic of taking an eye for eye. As a creative way of surprising someone trying to insult them by slapping them on the cheek, Jesus taught that instead of slapping back, to do the unexpected thing and turn your other cheek. Refuse to be insulted, and refuse to insult yourself by allowing the offending party to dictate how you’ll respond. The Anabaptists chose not to retaliate with violence when they themselves were attacked, which they were often. It was the beginning of the peace witness within our tradition.
…Just a couple examples of how the Anabaptist house was built on the solid foundation of hearing the Word and acting on the Word.
The prophet Ezekiel had a provocative way of demonstrating how to combine hearing and acting on the word. Never content to let a metaphor be just a metaphor, Ezekiel, one who felt the words of God within his inmost being, digested them into his own self, and then proclaimed them to Israel, actually ate a scroll that had the words written on it that he would speak. Which is sort of the ultimate way of letting the Word become a part of you. For Ezekiel, the Word of God was not something outside of himself to be read and observed and pondered and maybe or maybe not spoken out loud to others – it was something that must be chewed on, swallowed, digested, allowed to disperse itself throughout the entire person, energizing and animating the body to do what the Word said. To have the Word in front of you without letting it get inside you is just as foolish as building your house on the sand.
So we could say that the Anabaptists ate their Bibles in a way that allowed them to internalize and then incarnate its truth. The Anabaptists are to the Bible as Ezekiel is to his scroll as Eve is to Thomas the Train. Although, fortunately, Eve didn’t eat the whole book.
In the Spirit of taking Scripture seriously, a fascinating book has been released within the last couple months. AJ Jacobs, a journalist for Esquire magazine decided that for one year he was going to follow the Bible as closely as he could. The book is called The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. Being an agnostic Jew with a thoroughly secular background, he had the goal of entering the project as curious and open minded as possible. I’ve read only a few excerpts and a couple interviews, but have found what I’ve heard to be intriguing, highlighting all sorts of good questions about what it means to give authority to the Bible.
Parts are quite funny. Aside from not cutting his hair or beard all year, and not wearing any garments with two kinds of fibers (Lev. 19:19) he also saw that there are many instances where people are commanded to stone someone who has sinned in a certain way. He decided he could carry this out to the letter of the law if he carried a pocket full of pebbles around with him wherever he went and threw them at people who he discovered to have violated these laws, like being a rebellious child or being an adulterer. He did have a run in one day with a guy who admitted to being an adulterer. Jacobs politely asked if it would be OK if he stoned him with his pebbles since he was trying to live exactly by the Bible and the Bible commanded that adulterers be stoned. The man was not happy with this proposal, but Jacobs still managed to get in one hit before the man angrily walked away.
But there is also a serious, quite profound side to his discoveries. He talks about how much he fell in love with the Sabbath. Being a self-described workaholic, he came to look forward to a day completely free to relax and spend with his family. He also realized how hard it is to love your neighbor in New York City since he didn’t really know any of his neighbors. He initiated a relationship with one that still continues. He described his biggest challenge in this way: “That’d be no coveting, no lying, no gossiping. They’re little sins, but they’re killers. My year made me realize just how many of these sins I committed every day. And refraining from them for a year was really hard but completely transforming.” (Click here for online reference)
Another transformation he mentions is how much more grateful of a person he became. He says, “I was saying thanks so often that it became part of my routine. And it’s a great thing, because you forget to thank for all the little things that go right in a day instead of focusing on the three or four that go wrong.” (Click here for online reference)
As he reflected about his project, he just so happened to use a metaphor that fits well with the idea of Eating the Scriptures. He says. “One of the lessons of the book is, there is some picking and choosing in following the Bible, and I think that’s OK. Some people call that cafeteria religion, which is supposed to be a disparaging term, but I think there’s nothing wrong with cafeterias, I’ve had some delicious meals in cafeterias. I’ve also had some terrible meals in cafeterias. It’s all about picking the right parts. You want to take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness—instead of the parts about hatred and intolerance.” This is someone with no formal training in theology trying to talk about the persistent question of hermeneutics – how we interpret and apply scripture in our present day setting.
This book can be so valuable because it puts in front of us the pitfalls of biblical living, as well as the radical, countercultural possibilities of biblical living. It’s kind of a dangerous day and age to say that we highly value the Bible and that we want to let it shape our identity and our direction. There are plenty of abuses and misuses that can go along with Bible eating — enough to make the whole idea of feasting on scripture seem rather sour, and bitter. But rather than abandoning scripture, or merely selecting a passage here and a passage there that fits with our particular tastes, we would do well to continue in the spirit of the Anabaptists who allowed themselves to be transformed by these difficult, challenging, life-redirecting teachings. They believed that hearing and acting had to be held together, just as Jesus had taught. And that acting transforms not only your neighbor, but it transforms you as well.
This is not seeing Scripture as a set of unchanging rules, but as a story that must be continually renewed in every generation. A story of people joining with God to help redeem our world. Anabaptists have always valued not individual interpretation, but the interpretation of the community — like the thoughts and teachings that came out of those early small group circles of students and peasants that Felix Mantz was a part of, looking at the scriptures and asking what it meant for their lives. And so each generation has to work at this together. What does it mean to live truthfully? To not return harm to our neighbor? To treat each person as created in the image of God? To be willing to suffer for good news? To love our enemy?
God said to Ezekiel – open your mouth and eat this scroll. Jesus said to his listeners – listen and do what I am teaching you. The Spirit is asking us to gather around the feast of scripture, to eat together, and to be transformed as a community of faith.