Communing With The Saints (Mennonite Heritage Sunday) – 11/1/09 – Mark 12:28-34

When Jesus is teaching in the temple in Mark’s gospel, a scribe comes to him with what would have been a common question of the day.  He asks Jesus to weigh in on what he believed to be the centerpiece of the Torah.  “Which commandment is first of all?” he asks.  Jesus begins by saying that the first and greatest is “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  Jesus draws from words found in Deuteronomy, known as the Shema, which Jews would have already known by heart, repeating for morning and evening prayers.  

Had Jesus continued quoting this passage from Deuteronomy, it would have gone like this: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

Just a little further in the same chapter, it says, “When your children ask you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.  The Lord displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household.  God brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that God promised on oath to our ancestors.  Then the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as in now the case.” 

There is a recognition here that what has been learned and what has been experienced is to be passed on to future generations – to remember the past, so as to make it present.  When the children ask “Why?” we have a story to tell them.

One of our ways of doing this is by having this Mennonite Heritage Sunday.  It’s a chance to remember some of the stories of the Mennonite experience and to get a little better sense of “Why” we are who we are and how that affects how we live.  This year Mennonite Heritage Sunday also coincides with another church observance, All Saints Day, and those who have designed the worship theme for the day have asked us to consider combining these two ways of remembering.  Heritage, the stories of a people, and saints, those who have lived faithful lives and whose witness continues long after their death.

In the ancient tradition of Celtic Christianity, there are three categories of saints.  The first is the Red Saint – those who have suffered for their faith and witnessed to the love of God with their blood, through martyrdom.  The Anabaptist movement out of which the Mennonites formed is in many ways a martyr tradition, and we have the book of the Martyr’s Mirror which tells many stories of Red Saints.  I’ve talked about the story of Dirk Willems who was fleeing his captor and who escaped over a frozen pond only to look back and realize that the person chasing him had fallen through the ice.  Dirk turned back, rescued his pursuer and saved his life.  The man wanted to let Dirk go free, but his authority had him rearrest Dirk who was tried as an Anabaptist and sentenced to burn at the stake. 

When I was in Paraguay this summer for the Mennonite World Conference I attended a Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) seminar that was reviewing the first 25 years of CPT and someone there suggested that we should think of Tom Fox as a person who should be included in a modern day Martyr’s Mirror.  Tom was one of the four CPT members who was captured in Iraq several years ago and held in captivity several months.  The other three made it out alive but Tom was found dead.  He was a witness to the nonviolent peaceful reign of God and he spent his final days trying to befriend his enemy captors who were caught up in this war on terror that had pitted their people against ours. 

We have many Red Saints to talk about.

The Celtic Christians also consider there to be White Saints.  These were the saints who had crossed the whitecaps, and had gone over the waters to be missionaries beyond their homeland.  In looking at the map of what Mennonite World Conference looks like today it would no doubt be quite a different picture without this type of saint.  One of the stories of the Paraguayan Mennonites is how they were aided in their early days by Bob and Myrtle Unruh.  Bob was from Montana and Myrtle was from Kansas, and they were both raised in rural Mennonite congregations and met and graduated together from Bethel College in Kansas.  They were newly married and began an assignment to travel down to Paraguay to help the Mennonites who were barely making it in the desert-like region called the Chaco.  On the first night they arrived, Myrtle was remembered to have said, “Thank goodness.  There remain just 1,756 days before we can return home.”  But this ended up being a life-long calling for the Unruhs.  They came to help them develop farming practices that would be productive in the Chaco and they soon had a successful experiment with importing Buffelgrass which grew like nothing else in the sandy soil.  The community then decided that they needed better livestock for their better grass.  This is how the story is described in the book Like a Mustard Seed, which is a telling of the Mennonite experience in Paraguay.  “Mennonite farmers in Lancaster, PA, learned about the need for improved livestock (in Paraguay).  They selected some of the best from their cows and pigs and in 1961 chartered a plane that became a kind of flying Noah’s ark.  More followed.  Holstein bulls…were crossed with Zebu cows, more than doubling milk production while retaining the hardiness needed to survive the Chaco.  Bob and Myrtle Unruh closed their first term, which by most standards had been wildly successful, with these words: ‘We persist with a prayer in our hearts that also through our modest efforts the love of Christ may be made visible.’ The Unruhs were more than respected; they were loved and became one with the people.  They became Chaquenos (Chaco dwellers) and devoted most of their adult lives to making the Chaco productive.” (pp. 159-160)  More of their story is told in this book along with many other stories of the Mennonites in Paraguay. 

Red saints and white saints are probably the easiest to idealize, and they make for excellent stories which are good to tell, but Celtic Christians, and hopefully also Mennonite Christians, also recognize Green Saints.  For the Celts, Green Saints were those who stayed in Ireland and committed their lives to God’s work right there on the Emerald Isle. 

I think that last week Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove helped us think some about green saints.  He told some stories about his small community there in Durham, North Carolian that has committed to the wellbeing of their neighborhood and how their neighborhood is becoming a place where people care for each other.  And he quoted Mother Teresa who said we can do no great things, but only small things with great love.  I think he quoted her on Sunday…. 

And so we also remember those who have found this area, this land where we live, to be the place where they have been called to love God with all their heart and soul and mind.

One of the stories of Mennonite Green Saints are those who served in alternative service during World War II through CPS, Civilian Public Service.  Many Mennonite young people wanted to serve their country but couldn’t reconcile taking another life with their baptismal vows of being Christians, so they entered into CPS as conscientious objectors and served in different positions all over the country.  Service in CPS had the effect of taking many Mennonites off of their farms and more isolated communities and putting them in touch with many of the social problems of the nation.  One of the places where Mennonite young people served was in the nation’s mental hospitals.  Here are some brief anecdotes of that work that comes out of the book Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in America by Perry Bush who teaches at Bluffton University:

  “Young objectors faced innumerable challenges to their convictions in mental hospital work.  There rough supervisors often informed the Cos by word and example to handle the patients overly firmly, to ‘whip them, or they will whip you.’  Usually Cos learned how to deal with potentially violent situations with their convictions intact.  At one hospital for the violently insane, orderlies had sequestered a crazed inmate in a padded cell, but he still waved a razor blade.  They called two Cos to ‘take care of him.’  The two went into the cell, carrying a mattress for protection in from of them, and calmed the inmate down.  Another CO found himself confronted by a huge inmate (nicknamed ‘Evil’ by the orderlies) towering above him and holding aloft a heavy oaken chair.  Although the usual response from an orderly thus threatened would have been to deliver a swift kick in the groin, this CO asked the inmate, ‘How do you expect to sit down on that when you hold it up like that?’  The inmate merely laughed, put it down, and walked away.” (pp. 109-110)

During the war and especially after the war Mennonites had a significant influence on reforming the way that mental health care happens in our country and they have helped to humanize the system in many ways.  So these are some of our Green Saints.     

I want to talk specifically to our youth and young people now and mention that we hope you have a chance to see a lot of the world and get a big picture of what all is going on around the globe, and also what is going on right here in the US.  And so as you think about being a Mennonite Christian in your young adulthood that is coming to you so quickly, we want to encourage you to consider this heritage of service and mission that we have not just around the world, but also here at home.  We want to encourage you to consider giving several years of your life to Voluntary Service (VS), or serving with MCC.  These will be important years that will help shape how you incorporate service and mission into all the rest of your life.  And you may end up being in a situation like Myrtle Unruh where she thought she was just serving a place for a limited term and in the process discovered that this was really what her life was going to be all about.  We want you to look seriously into all the different service opportunities that are out there, and we’ll encourage you as you step out and do that.    

When the scribe came to Jesus and asked him about the greatest Commandment, Jesus quoted to him the words of the Shema from Deuteronomy as the first commandment and then he said that the second is very much like it, that we should love our neighbor as ourself.  This was the core of all the Law and all the Prophets, better than all burnt offerings and sacrifices, which were happening all around them as they had this conversation in the temple. 

One of the things about loving God and loving our neighbor is that we don’t need to go anywhere special to do this or have anything dramatic happen to us in order to carry it out.  Anywhere we plant ourselves, there will be God and there will be neighbors.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to his little congregations that he had helped start around the Roman Empire he would often call them the saints.  The first words to the Ephesians: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.”  The first words to the Philippians: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi..grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And so in the last words of this sermon, as we prepare to move into Communion I invite you, the saints who are in Cincinnati, who are working and serving throughout our home area and who have decided to seek the welfare of this place where we live, I invite you to continue in this story in which we have been joined.  To tell it to our children, to tell it to our neighbors who may be looking for a faith community to join.  When I look at you, I see a congregation of green saints — which maybe in our time can have a dual meaning.  A Celtic meaning and a simple living meaning of trying to green our own lives these days.     

We prepare now for the table.

Whenever we gather around this table, we do so as a part of the communion of saints.  This is how we remember.  This is how the past becomes present.  Christ comes to us in the form of bread, an open table of invitation and grace.  In joining together in communion we join in the communion of saints living and dead who all look to the great feast that has been prepared for us, as we inherit the kingdom of God.

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8 thoughts on “Communing With The Saints (Mennonite Heritage Sunday) – 11/1/09 – Mark 12:28-34

  1. i am not on my own computer
    with my handy dandy download bible study materials from e-sword.net
    ..so i cant say for sure
    but i think jesus in all cases in the gospel changes the shema by replacing might with mind……
    some well known bible scholar who i cant remember at the moment makes a big point of this….
    i forget exactly all his point but to me an aspect suggested here that the change suggests is that now with jesus and the availability in full measure of the holy spirit as she who teaches all wisdom :)….
    that instead of somewhat brutal might of old testament ways now in place we have instead the power of the suffering servant….by way of a greater understanding of god…. that comes by way of the life of jesus…..

    RAAAATHHER INTRIGUING POINT I THOUGHT 🙂

  2. OOPS FORGOT AGAIN I THINK
    TO CLICK IN MY ABOVE RESPONSE
    THE BOX
    FOR
    notify me of follow up cmments via email..

    a person can hope cant they 😦 🙂

  3. oh oh along with this there is the difference in 2 gospels in the what is said
    about john the baptist
    guess i will look try to look that one up now on blueletterbible.org

    it has to do with the point that scofield makes between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of god
    where indeed i think there is a valid distinction and that scofield tho doesnt fully grasp all of the distinction…

    sigh computer is being slow
    getting to blueletterbible…

    it is matthew that is known for using
    almost exclusitively but not exclusively
    i think
    the terminology kingdom of heaven…
    which is the messianic intermediary kingdom
    and overlaps with the kingdom of god
    but the kingdom of god is a step beyond..
    thus in a sense i am thinking
    the kingdom of heaven is where one resorts
    to force or might too much
    and the kingdom of god is for those
    who are true pacificists in their calling
    to god’s purpose…
    like jesus ….now mind
    that when he put the fear of god
    in chasing out the money changers
    there is no report of anyone actualy getting hurt:)

    be angry and sin not…
    with that the computer is not bringing up
    blueletterbible.org for me:(

    ah i got in thru the backdoor
    i googled it instead of using the url address in the url thingie…

    here is the matthew quote i was looking for..
    Mat 11:11 Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

    Mat 11:12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.

    AND NOW THE OTHER GOSPEL ..LUKE…
    WHERE IT IS THE KINGDOM OF GOD
    NOT THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN..

    Luk 7:28 For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.

    PERHAPS THAT JOHN THE BAPTIST IS
    IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD
    DESPITE THAT HE WAS MORE JUDGMENTAL
    AND VIOLENT IN HIS JUDGMENTS
    THAN JESUS
    MORE CONDEMNING IN A SENSE I THINK…
    THAT IS MORE BEFITTING THE VIOLENCE
    IN GAINING THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
    VERSUS THE KINGDOM OF GOD….
    PERHAPS IT IS THE overlap concept
    that the baptist gained the kingdom of god
    but is the least there….

    well one of my things
    were it is still a work in progress
    unlike where recently
    i completed in my mind
    and i am a legend in my own mind 🙂
    something i think i mentioned here..
    how in romans 5:19
    the greek word for many WERE CONSTITUED sinners does not mean that they became sinners but can mean rather they already were but their already existent sin state
    became more active by way of the law
    that sinners might be better convicted of their sins to better be brought to repentence because the more advantageous state due to tho sin more greatly abounding, grace superabounded…
    chapter 7 in romans speaks well to this topic i think and also some of the notes of scofield on chapter 7 are quite helpful i think…

  4. SIGH
    seems to me i submitted a comment
    on this sermon
    but methinks it were
    that i done did that
    on another computer
    and it were not yet given the go ahead thingie
    so in case this be a repeat
    pick and choose or use both…

    it were i think about the levels of saints

    scofield says there be 7 levels
    but that be not my concern at the moment
    rather the differentition that scofield
    also talks about
    between the kingdom of heaven
    and the kingdom of god…
    i dont rightly recall much of all he says..
    but what i get from some of that
    has to do about john the baptist
    as he is spoken of
    in regards to something similar
    but in a slightly different way

    in one case in regards to the kingdom of heaven
    and in another case in regards regards to the kingdom of god…

    (LITV) For I say to you, Among those born of a woman, no prophet is greater than John the Baptist. But the least one in the kingdom of God is greater than he is.
    THAT IS FROM CHAPTER 7 IN LUKE

    oh a new thought just ocurred to me
    when it says the least one in the kingdom of god is greater than he
    technically could that mean he did not make it to the kingdom of god
    but just to the kingdom of heaven….?

    NOW ABOUT A SIMILAR THING IN ANOTHER GOSPEL
    Mat 11:11 Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
    Mat 11:12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.
    or
    (LITV) But from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent seize it

    MY POINT BEING THAT a disctinction between those who get into the kingdom of god
    or the kingdom of heaven
    is that the kingdom of heaven can be taken by violence… kind of old testament style before the power of jesus was perfected by jesus
    but such will not get one into the kingdom of god….
    a difference being in my book
    that those who just go to the kingdom of heaven require further incarnations to achieve the kingdom of god
    but those in the kingdom of god
    can still incarnate but as one of the perfected saints
    of which by this time i suspect at least
    the full 144,000 have been perfected
    who will reign with jesus during the millenial rule…
    by best understanding presently
    by way of what is suggested in interpretations
    of the pillar that god raised up in the midst of egypt[isaiah]..the great pyramid
    …tho something big time prophetically is happening right now…the pit …
    the actual millenial rule
    is probably doesnt begin till the end
    of this millenia

  5. oops i forgot to click
    the notify me of follow up comments via email
    so i am doing that now 🙂

  6. uhoh sigh
    as to my above comments
    seems there be an alternative interpretation
    that hmmmm
    i violently forced an interpretation
    improperly on to
    a wrong case to make my case upon
    but nevertheless
    like in that country western song
    that’s my story and i am sticking to it:)

  7. a possible fudge /phinagle factor
    could be the born of woman
    in the matthew verse
    and that before john there
    was not the access jesus gives
    to being born from above
    versus being born of woman…

    the born from above …
    Joh 3:3

    (ASV) Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

    (CEV) Jesus replied, “I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God’s kingdom!”

    (EMTV) Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

    (ESV) Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

    HMMM I KINDA LIKE MY ADJUSTMENT
    IT MIGHT EVEN BE THAT I TRUMPED THE TRADTIONAL INTERPRETATIONS:)

    • ah yes as i remembered i can reply to one of my own replies
      such can help place things
      more to the particular topic

      here born of woman kingdom of heaven idea

      and the born from above kingdom of god idea..

      a book on the great pyramid said something that its prophesy as he[peter lemesurier] sees it that this millenia kicks off a kingdom of heaven development and the 1000 year rule of jesus and his saints will not begin till the end of this millenia…

      now whether lemesurier is all that truly biblical in all his idea and i think he does not claim that he is speaking his ideas as directly taught by the holy spirit
      but as it agreed with information that i think is more often truly with real spiritual discernment
      that perhaps this millenia is a special focus on developing the kingdom of heaven where reincarnation is still mainly a matter of being born of woman but the 1000 year rule of jesus incarantion will be altered were only those sincere in reaching beyong the kingdom of heaven to the kingdom of god and perfection will incarnate where such perfection will be greatly facilititated during the 1000 year rule of jesus and his saints

      as a wild guess this is something that most have not come across in their ponderings of the kingdom…

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