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.