City/Garden | September 16

Texts: Jeremiah 29:1-7; Revelation 21: 9-14, 22-25

It’s been observed that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.

If you want to get a little more technical, the Bible begins in the formless and void, and ends with a warning that if anyone changes any of the words in the book of Revelation that God will bring on them the plagues so vividly described within.

But if we’re willing to treat the first chapter of Genesis as something of an introduction, and if we’re willing to bracket the very end of Revelation as a bit of first century copyright language, theologically aggressive as it may be…and if we set aside that rather than being like a single book, the Bible is more like a library of books, representing a tradition that evolves over a period of several thousand years, now bound together under one cover that we might consider how we carry forward this evolving tradition in our time…If we can go with those parameters, then the Bible does indeed begin in a garden, and end in a city.

From garden to city does make for an intriguing narrative arc.

The garden, of course, is the Garden of Eden, which shows up in Genesis chapter two.  Scholars have identified this as a second, and likely more ancient, creation story, told after the quite different seven day creation story that begins with the earth being formless and void.  Genesis 1 is more cosmic in scale, with humanity not showing up until day six when they are created in the image of God. Genesis 2 focuses on the human being, formed from the dust of the ground, taking their place in a garden. The Garden of Eden.  The human’s role is to till and to keep the garden.  The first job description for the human endeavor is that of gardener.  As a labor saving device, the Creator Yahweh Elohim, has included lots of perennials in this garden, fruit bearing trees, from which humanity may eat, including the Tree of Life.

There is one off limits, and of course the curious humans eventually have to have a taste of it.  The tree of knowledge.  And once you know, you can’t unknow what you know.  There’s no going back.  As the story goes, this leads to exile from the garden.  Humanity will be fruitful and multiply as originally commanded, they will continue to till the ground, but it will take place outside this original gifted garden.  Angelic guardians with flashing swords are placed at the entrance of the Garden of Eden, protecting the way to the Tree of Life.  This dust creature called “human,” this god-image bearer, this knowledge laden creature, will need to find its way in this world beyond Eden.

So the biblical narrative begins.

And where it ends, in that final and fantastical book of the biblical library, Revelation – John’s vision, nightmare, heavenly dream, on the island of Patmos.  Where it ends, is a city.  As this vision draws to its climactic conclusion this is what John says:

“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev 21:2)  The worn out earth is renewed, not as a pristine garden, but as a city.

John goes into great detail, even about the dimensions of the city, as if he’s reading the city planning guidelines.  The walls, the gates, the construction materials consisting of various rare and precious stones.

The city takes on a cosmopolitan flare when John says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.”

The city becomes the place where the Divine and the human finally live together in harmony.

Also in the city is the long lost tree of life, those angelic guards finally relieved of their duties.  The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

John envisions where the linear time of history flows into the ocean of eternity, where the heavens and the earth are renewed.  And it looks like a city, gates wide open, all peoples and cultures welcome, with a tree offering itself as a primary care physician, a healer.

In the biblical imagination, we live in between Eden and the New Jerusalem.  The garden the city.

This summer was actually the second Sabbatical I’ve had as a pastor.  The first was while we were with the Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  Much of that Sabbatical was spent back on the farm where I grew up, where my parents still live, an hour northwest of here in Bellefontaine.  The plan was pretty simple.  Have some unhurried time outside of the city, back to the farm, back to nature.  I would help with gardening and farm related work in the morning, and in the afternoon I’d go to a coffee shop and read lots of Wendell Berry, and other such writers.  Having free lodging was a strategic perk, paid in kind through free labor.

For a little over a month, this is what we did.  It was like the Bible in reverse.  A self-exile from the city, into the garden prepared for us by my earthly parents.

Not far into this time, it became apparent that the previous split, at least in my mind, between garden and city was a false one.

A garden, rather than a pure manifestation of nature, is a highly managed environment.  To till and keep a garden is to excerpt consciousness alongside the mysterious power of life.  To choose what grows and what gets pulled up.  To select the best of what has grown and plant its seeds for the coming year.  By careful and wise tilling and keeping, the gardener has the capacity to not only maintain a landscape, but to improve it, at least in our way of defining improvement – to increase diversity, and expand what is helpful, to hold back what is harmful.  To offer something even more abundant to the next generation, fully aware that what we now have to tend is an inheritance from previous generations.

To garden is to partner with the wonder and miracle of life and be so bold as to choose what grows and what doesn’t.  And sometimes, of course, despite best efforts, it just won’t grow.

A city is a highly managed environment.  Every part of it an eclectic mixture of human forethought and unintended consequences; cooperative design and individual will; environmental opportunities and limitations; necessity and excess; a constant interplay between human consciousness and other forces.  One generation’s creative impulse inherited by future generations to revise, remodel…or get trapped in cycles and structures as powerful and potentially destructive as a plague of locusts.

Perhaps the journey from garden to city is not such a long journey after all.  There is a powerful human element in both, a burden, or gift of responsibility.

On this Sabbatical Abbie and I spent a week in California, half of it at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  We saw the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman.  We stayed in John Muir Lodge.

As we soon learned, John Muir is the patron saint of these parks.  He’s the Scottish immigrant to the US who explored and wrote eloquently about the natural beauty of the American West.  He founded the Sierra Club and strongly advocated for the creation of National Parks.

In hallways of the lodge there were color enhanced photos of the California Sierra landscape.  They looked like the kind of pictures that, in another setting, would have Bible verses under them.  A sunset over a mountain range: “And God saw that it was good.”  Towering sequoia trees: “For God so loved the world….” Or something like that.  You know what I’m talking about.  But instead of Bible verses, there were quotes from John Muir: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”  “Between every two pines is a doorway into a new world.”  I have to say in this case I preferred the John Muir quotes.

But John Muir had a blind spot.  This I discovered after some further reading about him and the California Sierras.  When he saw the Sequoias and the great Yosemite Valley, he believed it to be nature in its pure form.  A wilderness planted only by the hand of God.  Like Eden before the humans got a hold of it.  He advocated that it be protected from human encroachment, which was becoming a major problem as settlers poured in from the east.  Thus the national parks.

What he failed to see was that this land was not untouched wilderness.  It was more of a garden, even a city of some kind.  Like other parts of the US, Native Americans had been managing these lands for millennia, especially through the strategic use of fire.  Over the generations it had become a park/garden/village for people who had partnered with life and God.

But rather than bearing the names of these people who had created a civilization among the trees, the largest tree in the world is now named after a US General who fought along the Western Frontier for the extermination of these Indians, thus protecting and conserving the wilderness lands.  I wish they had read Revelation which says the tree of life is for the healing of the nations.

Decades after the Indians were gone, the conservationists began complaining about the brush and wild growth overtaking their pristine parks.  Only recently are we coming to understand the importance of careful human partnership with the wildlife and plant life to maintain an environment in which all can thrive.

Ever since eating from the proverbial tree of knowledge we as a species have been applying our vast and often short sited knowledge to shape the world around us.  What gets to grow, what gets rooted out?  Who gets rooted out?  What do we build? What do we destroy?  It’s a rather terrifying and remarkable responsibility.  It’s the same kind of work we do every day on the soul level.  What gets to grow, what gets rooted out?  What do we build? What do we destroy?  What gets our attention?  Where do we direct our energy?  How might we partner with life and God to tend the miracle of our lives?

In Jeremiah 29, the prophet writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon.  They had been uprooted from Jerusalem, and were now in a foreign land, a great city.  His wise counsel points them toward a new life in the city/garden in which they find themselves.  They are to settle in.  To send down roots.  To plant urban gardens and tend them.  To have children, and grandchildren.  To seek the shalom, the welfare, the peace of the city.  Because their wellbeing was now tied up to the wellbeing of that city.  As they tend their lives, as they live as a community, they will partner with God and life in shaping something beautiful and sustaining for themselves and future generations.

Whether Columbus is your Babylon of exile or your familiar and beloved Jerusalem, it is the city/garden in which we now live.  In which the Creator seeks to create with you a community of shalom.  May we tend our lives well, so that we can tend to this place, these neighborhoods, our neighbors, these animals and trees around us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Sabbatical…from city to country. Same thing

 

 

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World: Grief, Beauty | September 9

Mark 3:7-15; 19b-22; 31-35

 It’s the first week of Sabbatical, the morning of the first Wednesday of June.  Our family is up and out of bed.  The energy level is well above average for this time of day.  School is out, my email auto-reply is on, our bags are packed up, and we’re about to be off.  Our flight to Guatemala departs in just a few hours.  Among the many things on the pre-departure checklist was putting a hold on newspaper delivery, starting…tomorrow.  Might as well have something to read at the airport.

On our way out, I grab the paper off the front porch and open it for a sneak peek.  I’m not expecting much worth dwelling on.  But there on the front page of the Dispatch was something to dwell on:  A large image with the heading “Too much to bear.”  It was a picture of a grieving mother, in, of all places, Guatemala.  The caption noted that her name was Lilian Hernandez, and that 36 of her extended family members were presumed dead after the eruption of the Fuego volcano three days prior.

We’d known that the Volcan de Fuego, the Volcano of Fire as it’s called, in south-central Guatemala had erupted that Sunday.  It catches your eye when you’ve been planning a trip for months and the airport where you’re supposed to land gets shut down two days prior.  It had re-opened, and my thoughts had turned to whether we’d have to adjust our plans to visit nearby Antigua our first weekend there.  Then, as we’re heading out the door for our family adventure to start off the World-themed portion of the Sabbatical, a gentle invitation.  You want to encounter the World?  Here is the World.  Let a grieving mother be your tour guide.  Or, You want to encounter the World?  Here she is.  The World is s grieving mother.  After reading through the paper I recycled the pages, except for the front, which I still have.

There’s a story in Mark’s gospel where the mother of Jesus makes a rare appearance.  Although she’s not grieving in this one, at least not in any public way.    It’s in chapter three, early on, when Jesus is still emerging from obscurity.  He’s attracting crowds, what scripture often calls “a great multitude.”  He is healing and casting out harmful spirits.  He’s attracting students, a smaller group willing to set aside life as usual to follow him full time.  And he’s already attracting enemies.  Just like the rest of Mark’s narration style, it’s all happening rather quickly.

Now he’s home, and, as Mark says, “the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”

After some heated exchange with the local scribes, we’re told that Jesus’ family has arrived – his mother, and his siblings.  They’re standing outside.  They call for him.  Someone in the crowd speaks up to Jesus and says, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”

Jesus’ answer is one of those moments when we can almost feel the world shift beneath our feet.  He looks around at everyone in the room, all those people so up his face he can’t even catch a bite to eat.  “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks, and proceeds to answer his own question…”Here are my mother, and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

We don’t know how Mary, the mother Jesus responds to this, how she hears these words from her son.  As usual, Mark moves on fast.  Right away Jesus is back outside, by the lake, or better, on the lake, teaching a crowd from a boat, spinning a parable about a farmer who flings seeds over every kind of soil and watches as some of them grow into a harvest 100 times what was planted.

The wideness of that parable, and the wideness of Jesus’ new definition of family is one of the primary themes of the gospels.  Healthy families care for one another, they grieve and rejoice with each other, they have a strong sense of inhabiting the same relational web, such that what happens to one member affects other members.  And here, Jesus proposes a notion of family that essentially encompasses all of humanity.  Who are my sisters and my brothers and mothers and fathers?  Here they are.  There they are.  Not bounded by biology or tribe or national boundaries.

It’s a big thought.  It’s a big world.

Mary goes to round up her family and is confronted with the idea that the other women and men in the room are now just as much a part of this new kind of extended family her son is rounding up.

You head out the door and make sure you have your whole family in tow.  You glance at the news and look in the face of a grieving woman you’ve never met before and hear the question: Who is my daughter, my sister, my mother?  Here she is.

This idea of a global family in which we are all siblings is quite a bit easier for us to imagine than Jesus’ original audience.  We can fly anywhere in the world in hours, communicate in seconds.  We have these amazing images taken from cameras that have broken free of the earth’s gravity, pointing back at our planet.  The pictures are, of course, void of national boundaries.  This is all now basic grade school curriculum.

What we’re still working out, is how to hold this reality, how to walk toward it and through it with sturdy compassion.  How to not be afraid.  How to not be overwhelmed.

There are tragedies reported every day, whether you get you news by paper or radio or some digital platform or combination thereof.  The scope and scale of it pretty quickly overwhelms our capacity to empathize deeply with every situation.  It is, as the June 6 Dispatch heading stated, “Too much to bear.”  For most of human history our grief has been confined to the losses among the relatively small collection of families with whom we shared life.  Now, on a planet of seven and a half billion people, we start off our days by checking in on the most tragic thing going.

How to hold this?  How to release this?  How to be in these times?  How to care and feel and remain grounded in one’s being?

In Guatemala we never met Lilian Hernandez, who had unknowingly made the front page news in Columbus, Ohio.  As the three weeks progressed we did learn more from the stories of these Guatemalan brothers and sisters, like sitting for a while on a branch of the family tree you’d only glanced at before. Seeing what the world looks like from that perch.  We climbed the massive Mayan pyramids of Tikal and learned that the civilizations’ fall over 1000 years ago was likely due to deforestation and drought, cutting down all their forests to fuel the fires to make the cement mixture to hold their towering structures together…a cautionary tale of empire.

We learned how the devastation from the Guatemalan Civil War from the 1960’s to the mid 90’s still impacts every aspect of Guatemalan society.  How our country’s CIA helped overthrow a democratically elected president in the 50’s whose land reform program looked too much like Communism and threatened the business interests of the US based United Fruit Company.  How our religion of Christianity was used alongside the genocidal policies of President Rios Montt in the 80’s.  We ate supper at the house of a North American family working for Mennonite Central Committee who had plenty to say about how displacement from ancestral land had everything to do with the fact that there were poor communities living at the base of an active volcano, their homes and family members now gone.  (Excellent essay by MCCer Jack Lesniewski HERE).  We heard from a pastor and professor who assured us that desperate Guatemalans will continue to immigrate to the US no matter how cruel they will be treated here.

The world is a grieving mother.

But there was another moment on the trip that captures a larger picture.  After that time in Guatemala Abbie flew back to Columbus with Lily an Ila.  Eve and I flew on to Colombia to visit with our sister congregation in Armenia, Comunidad Christiana Menonita de Paz.  

As we soon learned, the typical greeting was for men to shake hands, and for women to kiss on the cheek.  When a man and woman from the church greeted each other, it was often with a kiss on the cheek.  The longer we stayed, the more we were inducted into this practice.  One of the things I noticed was that when someone new joined the group, they would go around and greet everyone in this way.  Even if there were 10 or 20 people in the room.  People would stop what they were doing, and personally acknowledge the presence of the new person.  It was lovely to watch.

On the second day of our stay, we were eating lunch with a family who had invited another church family to the meal.  One of the last to come through the door was the teenage son of the visiting family.  He was, I must say, a remarkably handsome guy.  He looked like he could have played on the Colombian national soccer team, and World Cup was being played during our visit.  Amidst the other lively commotion in the room, he started making his rounds.  He came over and shook my head, then turned, and, to a still culturally-adjusting Eve, gave a gentle kiss on the cheek.  I would like to say that Eve smiled back, but I think she was a bit too stunned to respond.  She, by the way, has given me permission to tell this story.

The world is a grieving a mother, but it’s also a beautiful boy who, when we least expect it, greets us with a kiss on the cheek, as if to say, “I am here, and you are here, and that is a beautiful thing.”

Beauty surrounds and sustains us.  It elevates our spirits and inducts us into its family.  It’s what weaves its way through so much of our poetry, including the Psalms.  It’s what causes the writer of Psalm 8 to marvel at the magnitude of creation’s glory alongside their own smallness.  It’s what causes the writer of Psalm 19 to declare that creation continually pours out speech and knowledge for us to see and hear.  The writer of Psalm 139 has an overwhelming sense that they, like the world itself, are “wonderfully made.”  As if beauty, like grief, is sometimes “too much to bear.”

These must have been the eyes with which Jesus looked out across the great multitude.  Where some saw sickness, he saw a hidden wholeness.  Where some saw demons, he saw a beloved child of God.

If you can’t remember the last time you’ve been kissed on the face by the World or the Christ or someone you claim as family of whatever kind, perhaps it’s time for a Sabbatical.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  The Mayans no longer live among the pyramids of Tikal, but they haven’t gone away.  About half of Guatemalans are indigenous, Mayans.  They continue to struggle, but they are finding their way.  Along Lake Atitlan we walked through the town of San Juan and visited a whole network of cooperatives, run by Mayan women.  Weaving, honey, coffee, herbal medicines, chocolate.  They are practicing an economics of beauty while caring for one another.  Buying their products was a joy.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  We met briefly with Gilberto Flores who teaches at the seminary where we had our apartment in Guatemala City.  Gilberto was a pastor, and many years ago had baptized a young man named Rios Montt.  One Sunday in 1982, when Rios Montt was president of Guatemala, he visited the church Gilberto was pastoring, Casa Horeb, a place where we worshiped one Sunday.  The President was accompanied with a group of armed guards.  From the pulpit, Gilberto announced that these men were welcome in their congregation, but their guns were not, they’d have to leave them outside.  After the service Gilberto told Rios Montt directly that he must stop killing the poor.  It ended their relationship and led to a series of death threats.  Gilberto continues to be a minister of peace to this day, including having served many years as a leader within Mennonite Church USA.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  On two of our weekend trips we got a closer look at Volcan de Fuego.  From a safe distance it was a marvel, still smoking, powerful and alive.

The poet Rilke sees his life unfolding in widening circles, including more, and more, and more of what is.

 

This is our world.  Grief and beauty.  They do not cancel each other out, but they travel together as we circle around God, around the primordial tower.  To live our lives in widening circles is to gain capacity for both.  We learn to behold beauty in such a way that it charges our senses with greater sensitivity to grief.  We learn to carry grief in such a way that it unlocks new realms of beauty.

This journey is traveled among family – the living and the dead.  It is ours to recognize that this is so, and to live with this good news.  We are being rounded up into this ever widening family that Christ is calling in.

——————

“Widening Circles”

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

BY Rainer Maria Rilke Book of Hours, I 2

translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows

Called in, Part II | June 3

Texts: Mark 2:23-3:6

I’m not sure what to think of the fact that on the final day before a summer Sabbath from church life, the gospel lectionary is about Jesus misbehaving on the Sabbath.  It’s gotta be a sign.  Not so sure yet how it affects our Sabbatical itinerary.  Or maybe this has to do with your Sabbatical itinerary.  We’ll soon find out.

Having a clean, although temporary, break like this feels like a good time to do some reflecting on where we’ve been together.  It’s been five years now, almost exactly, since you called me to Columbus Mennonite.  It’s enough time to have a few stories.

As a continuation of last week’s sermon, this is Called In, Part II.  The idea of calling has a long and rich history.  Calling is something that beckons us in, to what some have simply referred to as the Great Work.  The Great Work lifts us out of our small ego selves and into the collective work of healing and justice and community.  It’s what Jews often call Tikkun Olam, The repair of the world.

Called in” is a phrase we’re borrowing from SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice.  It’s a bit of a play on words.  Anytime you have a group of people sharing life and work together there can be a tendency to call people out for their shortcomings.  Calling people out usually results in shame and blame.  Calling each other in has a different energy behind it.  It’s the kind of call that matches up with the Spirit of Jesus when he invited folks to Come, follow me.

Today’s gospel reading presents a pretty spot-on framework for what following Jesus has meant for us.

The reading is composed of two stories that Mark puts back to back, held together by the theme of Sabbath.  Held together further by the theme of Jesus pushing up against the boundaries of Sabbath law.  In both cases he is accused of misbehavior.

In the first instance Jesus and his companions are going through a field of grain.  For most of Mark, Jesus is traveling around his home region of Galilee.  It was north of Jerusalem and predominantly rural.  Nobody in Jesus’ group owned this particular grain field.  But the Torah had generous laws about gleaning from other people’s fields.  It instructed land owners to not harvest the edges of their fields and to not go back over their harvested fields a second time.  They were forbidden from maximizing the ratio of grain in the barn to grain left out in the fields.  The land was ultimately the Lord’s, the grain a gift of abundance, and so some of it was to be left for those who didn’t have their own land.  They could come and glean.  It was a social safety net, mandated by law.

This practice is prominent in the biblical story of Ruth.  During harvest season, the foreigner Ruth goes out daily to glean for herself and her mother-in-law Naomi in the fields of Boaz.  She catches Boaz’s eye, makes a few moves herself to show Boaz she’s interested, and the rest is history, including having a great grandson named David who became a king.  Many more greats down the line was Jesus of Nazareth.

In our minds, programmed to uphold the sanctity of private property, Jesus and his followers are trespassing, but they’re perfectly within the legal bounds of Torah, and by gleaning Jesus is channeling the free spirit of his great, great, many greats grandma Ruth.

Where they are pushing the bounds is that this was a Sabbath, a day on which work was prohibited.  There was vigorous debate within the community about what all constituted work.  Harvesting was strictly out, but is this really harvesting?  In his own defense, Jesus cites something that David once did, while he and his companions were hungry.  They went into a shrine and ate some of the holy bread that only the priests were supposed to eat.  The point: satisfying a basic human need supersedes religious restrictions and legal regulations.  This story ends by Jesus delivering a line that summarizes his understanding of this relationship: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind of the Sabbath” (2:27).

Mark follows this up with a second Sabbath story.  This one takes place in a synagogue.  In the congregation there is a man with a withered hand.  Jesus is being watched closely to see whether he will heal on the Sabbath.  During the sharing of joys and concerns Jesus calls the man forward.  Jesus poses a question to the congregation: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  Nobody says anything.  Mark next narrates this: “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved.”  Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand, which he does.  Hand restored.  Does anyone else have a joy or concern you’d like to share with the community?

In this story there’s no way Jesus could be accused of doing work on the Sabbath.  He doesn’t even touch the man.  He just tells him to come up front, and to stretch out his hand.  But this might be one of those occasions where Jesus actually does call out his opponents.  They have been publicly shamed.  The story ends with them starting to plot for a way to get rid of Jesus.

It’s important to note that these stories, like many others in the gospels, should not be read as Jesus vs. the Jews, or free-spirited Christianity vs. legalistic Judaism.  Scholars have puzzled over some of these controversies which the gospels seem to blow out of proportion, or to mischaracterize Jesus’ opponents.  Strict and humorless Pharisees certainly make a good foil alongside Jesus.

What’s more helpful is to read these kinds of stories as a clash between different ways of viewing the sacred, and what lies at the core of human conviction – religious and otherwise.  They highlight this painfully common phenomenon of how what some consider to be misbehavior, others consider to be behavior that is faithful, compassionate, even logical, essential.

And here’s where these gospel stories start to jive with the story of CMC over the last five years, and really many more years going back.  Because, depending on your perspective, these five years both opened and are now closing with a significant act of misbehavior on our part.

If you can think back that far, you might remember that toward the end of that first year, this would have been the summer of 2014, we had a process unofficially referred to as “clarifying our welcome.”  This process actually went surprisingly quickly.  In large part because years prior the congregation had an extensive process that resulted in a public affirmation of LGBTQ persons as full members in the congregation.  It included biblical study, insights from science, storytelling, and study of wider church statements.  It was a discussion the congregation had been having for decades.  This made it official in a new way.  Then in 2014 we clarified that not only did this have to do with membership, but that the full spectrum of sexual orientation was a non-factor in regards to the couples we bless for marriage and who we might call to pastoral ministry or church staff.  One of its immediate effects was preparing the way for us to hire the best candidate for the position of Pastor of Christian Formation.  Mark has been sharing his gifts with us ever since.

This feels so normal and matter-of-fact now that we might forget how much this pushed us up against the boundaries of the wider Mennonite Church, and put us outside the clear boundaries of official church statements.  This was a risk.  It’s still technically against church teaching for a Mennonite pastor to officiate at the wedding of a same-sex couple.  The language used to describe such misbehavior is “at variance.”  We are “at variance” with official church statements – which would make for a pretty good two word bumper sticker I’m sure many of you would enthusiastically use.

When you’re “at variance,” reduced to a classification of misbehavior, it’s important to clarify, at least in one’s own mind, why and how the community is actually being faithful, compassionate, logical, essential, acting out of the best of our tradition.  So while certain isolated biblical texts get lobbed against LGBTQ folks, we have looked to stories like these in Mark – where we are confronted with two different ways of viewing the sacred.

One focuses on upholding particular boundaries and restrictions.  And let’s be clear: these boundaries have a profound power to give meaning and order to life.  They offer a world with clean distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the faithful and the unfaithful.  I’m convinced the power of a world with this kind of clarity is one of the biggest reasons many folks hold on to it so tightly.

Another approach is to hold the human being at center.  To watch and listen for what brings about human flourishing.  What brings about healing.  What meets the need for nourishment, regardless of whether this is or isn’t the right day of the week to pluck the grain from the field.  This approach claims that wherever there are laws and restrictions and guidelines, they must always be in the service of human thriving, rather than human thriving being sacrificed on the altar of traditional boundaries.  “The Sabbath was made for humanity,” Jesus says.  “Not humanity for the Sabbath.”  We could add that the thriving of all life is at stake.

This isn’t just an interpretative slide of hand so we can claim that we’re more biblical than others.  It really is an entirely different orientation toward faith – pun intended.

I’ve been reading a long essay by Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, and one of the most influential voices of the 20th century.  It’s titled “Christian Humanism” and in that essay he comments on these very stories from Mark’s gospel.  He writes, “In each case, what is of utmost importance is the fact that Jesus, for instance, in working miracles on the sabbath, is emphasizing the priority of human values over conventionally ‘religious’ ones.  In each case, where there is a choice between the good of a suffering human person and the claims of formal and established legalism, Jesus decides for the person and against the claims of legalistic religion.”
(Love and Living, by Thomas Merton, p. 142).

Which leads into our most recent misbehavior / faithful action.

When we said Yes to being a Sanctuary congregation last August, none of us knew what we were getting ourselves into.  If any of you did, you forgot to tell me.  We knew that we had been a part of the sanctuary movement of the 80’s, a story we had just retold the week prior at our 55 year anniversary celebration – having no idea Edith would walk into our lives four days later.  We knew we wanted to live out the message on the signs we put outside our church building: “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.”  “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”  “No importa de donde eres, estamos contentos que seas nuestro vecino.”  We knew that Mennonites have a rich history of conscientious objection to state policies that violate our understanding of who Jesus calls us to be.  We knew there were times in Mennonite history when we have needed sanctuary, and places like this country extended it to us.  We knew this was a risk.  We knew we were going to have help.

And this was enough.

Aside from a few phone calls early on from concerned Christians citing Romans 13 that we should obey the ruling authorities, this has not been seen as an act of misbehavior by the wider faith community.  We and Edith and her family have been surrounded by support locally.  Our denomination, with whom we are still apparently “at variance” in one way, has affirmed and embraced this calling and told the story in a number of ways.  Like the words of Thomas Merton and the actions of Jesus, this is an instance in which human values take priority.

But this is still held as an act of misbehavior against the policies of the state.  And even though we’ve learned much in the last nine months, we still don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into.  And that’s OK.

I don’t mean to present misbehavior as a good for its own sake.  As a parent of young, but not- as- young –as- they- used- to- be children, I have a growing appreciation for healthy rules and boundaries.  They help give shape to our lives.  It just so happens that the shape of some of the rules we’ve encountered in the last few years have been a distortion of what makes for healthy living.

So what started as “expanding our welcome” with LGBTQ folks among us has expanded through some intense antiracism and racial justice work, and into sanctuary.  We’ve done some significant work.

But life is more than work.  Which is why Sabbath was made for humankind.

So that’s what we’re entering now.  I say “We” because my hope is that these next few months can also be a Sabbath time for the congregation.  Not a Sabbath as in ceasing from all work, but a Sabbath as in a time of intentional renewal.

If you’re out wandering about and get hungry, glean some grain for you and companions.  Shed another layer of unhelpful teachings you’ve absorbed over the decades, and bring into better focus the shape of your new life in Christ.  If you’re in need of healing, extend your hand and see what happens.

That’s what I’m hoping to do personally.

I’m grateful for these years of co-laboring with you.  And now I’m grateful for the opportunity to have a Sabbatical to cease from labor.  I wish you a time of renewal.  My intention is to come back rested and renewed, ready to be called in with you to more holy misbehavior in the spirit of Jesus.

 

 

 

Called in, Part I | May 27

Texts: Isaiah 6:1-10, John 3:8

I first heard the phrase “Called in” about two years ago.  It was right here, so hopefully some of you heard it too.  It was during our year-long focus on antiracism and racial justice.  Several of those sermons were in the format of an interview.  I would sit down with someone engaged in this work and do my best Terry Gross or Krista Tippet impression.  This particular Sunday our guest interviewee was Rev. Lane Campbell, one of the pastors at First Unitarian Universalist, just up High Street.  She has been a leader of a group called Showing Up for Racial Justice, SURJ.  Early on in the conversation she mentioned one of the core values of SURJ: “Calling people in, not out.”

It’s a value that acknowledges the difficulty of the work – the courage it takes to confront racism and the many ways our lives have been consciously and unconsciously racialized.  There are opportunities at just about every turn to call people out for their failures and blindness, historical and present day.  For our failures and blindness.

But calling people in.  That’s a different approach.  That’s a different kind of call.  The very phrase feels like it offers a fresh space.  The work is no less difficult and courageous, but now we’re able to enter it in a new way.

Called in.

Sometimes you come across a phrase that won’t quite leave you alone, and this has been one of those for me.

About a year after we first heard it, a year ago, I was pondering what might serve as a good theme for an upcoming Sabbatical – or, to be more specific and honest, what might serve as a good theme for a Sabbatical grant.  This was the phrase that pulled it together: Called In, followed by four concentric circles about where that calling takes place: World, City, Congregation, Self.

As that Sabbatical now rapidly approaches, that idea of being Called In, is back at the forefront, and not just for me.  The worship theme throughout the summer, and into September, will track this theme.  Guest speakers and different voices and artists from CMC will add their own thoughts into the mix.  And it’s a good thing Mark decided to come back once his Sabbatical ended.  He’ll give pastoral leadership throughout the summer.  One of the dangers of letting a pastor go on Sabbatical is they discover how nice it is to have flexible weekends, and suddenly realize why most people aren’t pastors.

So for this Sunday and next, before our family enters the world of flexible weekends, I want to talk about being called in.  Today in more a general way, and next week by doing some reflecting on the past five years of CMC life.  It’s nice that today’s lectionary reading from Isaiah is a call story.

As we do this, let’s cast as wide a net as we can for this notion of “Calling.”  Because it can be a tricky word.  Depending on one’s understanding of God and one’s church background, it can pretty easily evoke an image of God as this being who has this clear and singular plan for your life, and it’s up to you to figure out what that plan is, except that you can’t figure it out because there’s this spiritual deficiency in you that is preventing you from reading the blueprint, and it’s your fault.

This is not what we mean by calling.

Although it does very much have to do with paying attention and a posture of listening.

One of the clearest distillations of calling in the last half century comes from Frederick Buechner, an ordained Presbyterian minister and an author.  It’s quoted quite frequently, maybe you’ve come across it.  Buechner says:

“The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

“The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

This is a lovely, and actually quite practical way of thinking about calling.  You can map it.  It’s a two circle venn diagram.  School is about to let out for summer, but here the pastor is trying to get you to think about venn diagrams, thus the bulletin cover.  In one circle is everything the world needs: thriving children, healthy water and forests and cities, beauty and the arts, good institutions, less pollution, cross-cultural understanding, transportation, health care…  This can end up being a very large circle.

In the other circle is what gives you personal deep gladness: Making music, developing technologies, creating wealth and meaningful work for others, research, writing, designing, teaching, connecting people.

Where those circles overlap is where your deep gladness and world’s deep hunger meet.  This is the place you’re called to be.  This is the place where you will feel most fulfilled.  It’s not a specific blue print.  It’s a moving target, a range of possibilities.  This is the place into which you are Called In.

Got it?  OK, because now I’m going to contradict that, or at least add another layer.

As lovely a picture this is, it’s quite different than many of the call stories we hear in scripture.  In both the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, the experience of call, rather than being practical, map-able, and glad-making, appears to be anything but.

The call of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 6 of that book is a case in point.

We don’t get a lot of context for this story, except that it happened in the year King Uzziah of Judah died.  This statement might be intended to get us thinking about transitional time, in-between times.  These unique spaces in the unfolding of life and history that are both unstable, and so fruitful for seeing the world in new ways and gaining new direction.  Or, saying “the year King Uzziah died” may just be a way of telling time.  Pegging events to the reign of rulers was common in the ancient world.

Either way, we’re soon plunged into a grand vision, seen by Isaiah and apparently no one else around him.  In this vision Yahweh is sitting on the temple throne, holding court, attended by heavenly creatures who repeat a proclamation of awe and wonder: “Qadosh, Qadosh, Qadosh.  Holy, Holy, Holy, is Yahweh of hosts, the whole earth is full of Yahweh’s glory.”  The scene is complete with smoke and rattling.

Isaiah’s reaction is markedly not one of deep gladness.  Confronted with the overwhelming enormity of Divine presence, he is simultaneously confronted with his own smallness.  “Woe is me,” he says.  “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”  Isaiah’s calling will soon be revealed as using those very lips to speak to his people.  But like Sarai and Moses and Jeremiah and even Mary the mother of Jesus, Isaiah’s initial response is an immediate recognition of his own inadequacy for the task at hand.

Only after one of the heavenly beings takes a hot coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, is Isaiah able to utter his famous response: “Here am I, send me.”

His mistake is that he agrees to the calling before finding out what he’s actually going to be doing.  After getting a firm Yes, Yahweh reveals the task: “Go and say to this people: Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.”  Yahweh lets Isaiah know that the mind of the people will be made even more dull by his words.  They will stop up their ears and shut their eyes, shut down all their senses to what he’s saying.

It’s as if Isaiah says, “I’m completely unprepared and unable to do this task.”  And Yahweh says, “That’s not a problem at all because you’re going to fail miserably.  Now hop to it.”

In the Bible, calling is never quite something you want to do.

And that’s what qualifies you to do it.  It’s a larger thing that is recruiting you, way larger than personal ego, which is one of the reasons ego reacts so strongly against it.  Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was putting up some resistance, yet ultimately yielding.

Frederick Buechner says: “The place you’re called to be is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

And if we could modify Buechner and apply it to Isaiah, we might get something like: “The place you’re called to be is where what most terrifies you and what seems least likely to succeed meet.”

Try that venn diagram on for size.

Two weeks ago I had lunch with Jessica Shimberg, now Rabbi Shimberg, recently ordained, leader of the Little Minyan Kehila which celebrates their high holy days in this sanctuary.  It was a different topic, but one thing Jessica said was that she felt like one of the key roles of spiritual leaders is to point toward the both/and rather than the either/or.  That sounds right to me.

So I will pass along that piece of rabbinical wisdom to you and suggest that being “Called in” is not a matter of either/or, but is a matter of both/and.

So maybe now we have a four circle venn diagram in which the place you are called to be is where your deep gladness and what most terrifies you and the world’s deep hunger and what is least likely to succeed…meet.  That certainly narrows it down.  Maybe just about everyone is called to be a pastor after all.

I’m not sure who first made the observation, but one of the great risks of the evolutionary advance of consciousness, is that it has produced creatures who have been freed from the confines of instinct.  And we are those creatures.  We have instinctual parts of our brains that can serve us very well for basic survival, but we also have the neurological apparatus to transcend instinct.  We ponder possibilities and alternative futures.  We contemplate the Divine and wonder what holds all this together and what our place might be in it all.

So while other creatures are largely guided by deeply ingrained patterns and genomic programming, we humans quite literally don’t know what we’re doing.  We don’t know what we’re doing.

We live with a freedom that can just as easily produce anxiety as it produces liberation, especially in our contemporary society which places so much emphasis on the self-made individual and less emphasis on inherited wisdom and the guide of tradition.

And so we have this notion of calling.  Healthy individuals, and healthy institutions, including congregations, pay attention to this.  This sense of being beckoned toward something which makes us and those around us more fully alive, more in tune with the larger work of this enormous reality we call God, whose glory fills the whole earth, even when we shut our eyes and ears to it.  Even if our initial reaction is one of fear.  Perhaps especially if our initial reaction is one of fear.

Calling is tricky because it’s always happening.  It’s a never finished project.  Jesus keeps saying “Follow me,” and doesn’t seem interested in standing still.  Like Jesus said to Nicodemus – those attuned to the Spirit are like the wind.  We’re never quite sure it’s going.

And speaking of an unfinished project, I want to continue this next week and look more at the calling of this congregation and what it has looked like over the last while to be part of a collective with a very clear calling to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.  A calling that is clear, yet wide open, with many overlapping circles.

 

 

“Do you…?” “I do” | May 20

Texts: Romans 8:22-27; Acts 2:1-8

The records don’t show who he was speaking to, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said this: “You are being baptized today as a Christian. All those great and ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be pronounced over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out, without your understanding any of it. But we too are being thrown back all the way to the beginnings of our understanding. What reconciliation and redemption mean, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, cross and resurrection, what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ; all that is so difficult and remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore. In these words and actions handed down to us we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it.” (Written while imprisoned in Tegel, 1944).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s.  He was one of the few voices in the German church who spoke out against the rise of Hitler and the persecution of the Jews.  He helped found the Confessing Church and an underground seminary which resisted Nazi rule in the name of Christ; He was eventually forbidden to print or publish, was arrested, and in 1945, was executed, only a month before Germany surrendered to Ally forces.

In other words, he had a strong sense of what he was talking about when he said that these Christian ideas of reconciliation and redemption, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, add up to something so totally new and revolutionary they lead us to the edge of our understanding.  He knew these things were so difficult and seemingly remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore.

But there he was, daring to speak.

And here we are, daring to once again enact this ancient rite of Christian baptism.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Bill P, even as we remember our own baptism and how it continues to shape us.  Or, if you have not been baptized, ponder whether baptism might be a part of your faith identity in the future.  Because Hey, after hearing a martyr story – that this decision could cost you everything – who wouldn’t want to join up?!

It’s been a good to meet with Bill and his sponsor Jeff L over the last weeks.  It was Bill who made the connection between these baptismal vows and wedding vows.  Like, you’re pretty sure you want to be the kind of person the vows describe, but you actually have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.  But you know enough to take the step.  One of the effects of a good wedding is not just getting a couple married, but reminding everyone who witnesses it of their own deepest commitments.

For us, the baptismal vows are these four sets of questions that we’ve included in the bulletin at the end of the worship liturgy.  They are based on traditional vows and come from the Mennonite Minister’s Manual – which is the secret society book you get when you graduate seminary, also available on Amazon.com.  Some of the language of these vows has been slightly altered to better fit the faith expression of this congregation.    And so, as we anticipate baptism, as we remember our baptism, I’d like to walk through each of these vows and say a little bit about how each one speaks to a baptismal identity that we carry throughout our lives.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world, and accept the forgiving grace and steadfast love of God as the guiding power in your life?

Baptism is a public way of saying Yes:  Yes to God, to the church, to life.  It’s a lot to say Yes to.  Each of these four baptismal questions that will be asked today are answered in the affirmative.  “Do you accept forgiving grace…?” Yes, I do.  “Do you believe…?” I do.  “Do you commit…?” I do.  “Are you willing…?” Yes, I am.

This first one, however, highlights that in saying Yes to these things, we are also saying No to other things.  What we say No to, what we renounce, is what Christian tradition calls “the evil powers of this world,” or, more simply “sin.”

Sin certainly has a personal dimension to it.  I think the Call to Worship put it beautifully: “For all that we have done, and left undone, all those we have left behind, and left unloved.”  For this there is overwhelming, renewing grace and forgiveness.  Forgiveness from God, and also forgiveness that we extend to one another.

Mentioning “The evil powers of this world” widens the scope to bigger forces at work.  The book of Ephesians has some important things to say about these powers.  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The enemy, this and other parts of the Christian Testament emphasizes, is not flesh and blood.  Another way of saying this is that ‘if it bleeds, it’s not the enemy.’  We all get caught up in these forces and powers to some degree, but people themselves are never the enemy.  Thus the radical call to love your human enemy.  In our time we have named many of these forces as the “isms.”  Racism, sexism and heterosexism, materialism, militarism, nationalism, individualism.  Bonhoeffer’s struggle was ultimately not against Nazis, but the Nazism that had consumed his people.

Where do these isms come from?  They are very real, but can’t be fought with material weapons alone.  Only the spiritual weapons of truth and peace and wholeness/salvation that Ephesians goes on to mention will overcome them.

It’s abstract, perhaps, but this vow starts to mess with you when, for example, you do an audit of your personal library and confirm that 90% of the books you’ve read in the last decade and a half were written by white authors, most of those straight men.  And you realize you need to repent of seeing the world through such a narrow lens.  Not that this has anything to do with anything I did a couple years ago.  Just a random, hypothetical example.

Do you believe in God, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ, who showed us the way of peace; and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life?

Genesis 1:27 says that humankind, male and female, were created in the image of God.  It’s been said that very soon after, humanity returned the favor and created god in our image.

As soon as we start talking about God, or saying that we believe in God, we are instantly in danger of reducing God to our own limited imagination.  Even to speak the name, to try and contain the ultimate within the confines of language, is itself a dangerous act.  It is far too easy to turn God into an extension of our own ego, our own small wishes about Reality, rather than submitting our wishes to what is ultimately Real.

This is why the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart writes, “I pray God to free me from God.”

Anne Lamott has written that as soon as it turns out God dislikes all the same people that you dislike, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve created God in your own image.

And so, to say “I believe in God,” rather than being an act of grasping on to certainty, is an act of letting go.  I believe in that which cannot be named or contained.  This involves just as much unlearning as it does learning.

Part of the discussion with Bill and Jeff centered on what we say about Jesus – the one “who showed us the way of peace.”  The language of “personal Lord and Savior” is not in these baptismal vows, partly because it’s nowhere to be found in the Bible.  When the early Christians used the language of Lord and Savior for Jesus, they were appropriating it from Caesar, who was hailed as both Lord and Savior of the world.  To claim the Jesus way is to claim the one who showed us the way of peace.  An entirely different way of being Lord and Savior of the world.  A different kind of power.

Mention of the Holy Spirit identifies us with the same life and power that birthed the early church in Acts chapter two.

Do you commit to a life of spiritual growth; studying the Scriptures, prayer, loving your enemies, and listening for God?

One of the things we’re now aware of is that we can only see a small percentage of light waves.  We are constantly bombarded with waves of light like radio waves and ultraviolet waves, but we have only developed the kinds of bodily sensitivities to perceive that little range of light in the visible spectrum.

It’s a good analogy for the life of the spirit.  To be committed to a life of spiritual growth is to have faith that, as poet Gerald Manly Hopkins put it, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Yet we perceive so little of it, allow such a small percentage of it into our consciousness.  The prophet Elijah, on top of Mt. Horeb, experienced this range of the previously unknown utterances of God as the still small voice or, as one translation puts it, the sound of sheer silence.

How does that register?  Can we hear that?

The Gospel stories of the many healings of the deaf and the blind speak not only to physical healing, but to spiritual perception that Jesus brought to those around him.

And so, in order to see and hear, we have what we refer to as spiritual disciplines.  Habits and practices which attune our spirits to the Spirit of God.  This question mentions a few of these: Prayer, studying the Scriptures, loving your enemies, and listening for God.  To these we could also add serving the poor, practicing hospitality, visiting the sick and those who are in prison, shared meals, loving your neighbor, loving God with all your mind, practicing silence.  These are some of the ways that we encounter the Christ whose presence we could not perceive outside of these practices.  Like the walkers to Emmaus, Christ by their side the whole time, but unrecognized until they extended the act of hospitality, the shared meal, the breaking of the bread.  So we can commit to a life of spiritual growth, and in doing so, fling our senses wide open to all of the undiscovered wavelengths of God’s presence among us.

Are you willing to give and receive counsel in the congregation?  Are you ready to participate in the mission of the church, that God’s beloved community of healing and justice come on earth as it is in heaven?

The spiritual life, living in a baptismal identity, is not meant to be done in isolation.  You are a part of community.  Not only this local expression of the church.  The worldwide fellowship of sisters and brothers which transcends national boundaries.  And not only extending out spatially around the globe in this way, but extending through time.  We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meister Eckhart, Mary Magdalene, Sara and Abraham.  Anne Lamott – who would laugh to hear her name included, which is exactly what qualifies her.

Your gifts are valuable.  We need your gifts.  The world needs your gifts, your love, your devotion to doing justice.  Dare we even say that God needs your life to carry out whatever larger purpose there is in store for you.

And a baptismal identity calls on one to call on the church to live up to its highest calling.  Whenever the church falls short, or gets too comfortable, or loses its pilgrimage spirit, then you will become disappointed and perhaps even disillusioned.  And when this happens, remember your baptism, remember who you are, remember who we have all been called to be, and help lead the way.  Help us remember what we’ve forgotten, and to see when we’ve become blind.

Critical yeast | May 6

Texts: Acts 10:44-48, Matthew 13:33

For today’s focus I’d like to borrow an idea, a phrase, from John Paul Lederach.  If you haven’t heard of John Paul Lederach, let me build up his credentials a bit to show why it’s worth listening to his ideas.

John Paul is an international leader in the field of conflict resolution.  While immersed in the work, he came to see the limitations of the framework of confliction resolution, proposing instead a larger framework of conflict transformation.  That shift itself has been widely influential in the field.  He has worked extensively in Nicaragua, Colombia, Nepal, and the Middle East.  He has sat at the table with militias and gangs, impoverished rural women, and high ranking officials.  Rather than treat conflict as a set of presenting issues and problems, he has developed methods of drawing out the stories of those involved to get at what they want, and what they need.  He tells organizations and foundations investing in peace they should think in terms of decades rather than short term projects whose immediate results are more easily measured but whose long term effects may be minimal.  He’s a professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame and has taught many years at Eastern Mennonite University.  He is a Mennonite, still living, in his early 60’s.  He’s written over 20 books, but consistently credits the people he works with, often without formal education, as the innovators of peace.

You actually can’t learn a whole lot about John Paul through Wikipedia.  My theory on this is that many people probably write their own Wikipedia page, and he’s too busy or humble to write much of an entry about himself.  Just a theory.

An excellent introduction to John Paul Lederach is this 2012 interview with Krista Tippet titled “The Art of Peace.”  https://onbeing.org/programs/john-paul-lederach-the-art-of-peace/

OK, so now that I’ve built this guy up, this better be really good.  The phrase I’d like to borrow from John Paul has to do with his observation about how change happens – how substantive positive transformation takes place.

John Paul says that social movements are often spoken of in terms of critical mass.  You build a movement and communicate a message that energizes and gathers enough people, and at some point you tip the scales.  Without diminishing the importance of critical mass, John Paul says he’s come to think of change as involving “critical yeast,” meaning a smaller number of people who hold a certain quality of relationship within a group or a system or an institution.  A certain quality of relationship that ultimately alters the functioning of the whole.  Like the way a small amount of yeast is distributed through flour to make the whole dough rise.  He’s observed this happening time and time again.  Critical yeast.

So that’s what the sermon title is about.  It’s not critical yeast like yeast that’s critical of other yeast for not eating their share of glucose.  It’s critical yeast as an idea to be understood in conversation with critical mass.

This phrase might be original to John Paul Lederach, but it’s an old idea.  There’s that wonderful concise parable of Jesus in Matthew 13:33:  “The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  When you picture three measures of flour, don’t picture three cups of flour, the exact amount we use to make our household favorite long rise, no knead, bread recipe.  Three measures of flour, one seah times three, was about 50 lbs.

“The kin-dom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”  So picture this woman, white powder everywhere, large bowls all around, mixing up a feast for a multitude.  There’s way less yeast in the dough than flour, but it gets distributed throughout, and transforms the loaves.  The kin-dom of heaven works this way, Jesus says.

It fits alongside other parables of Jesus where small things, or seemingly insignificant people, exude a certain quality of relationship.  Like the tiny mustard seed that grows to become a living refuge for birds.  Or small crystals of salt that flavor and preserve: “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus tells his followers.  Or the widow with no social standing, no economic or political power, who keeps petitioning the no –good judge to grant her justice, eventually wearing the judge down.  The judge declares, and I quote from the parable in Luke, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (Luke 18:5).

These are not stories of critical mass, but critical yeast.  Here, transformation does not depend on an overwhelming quantity of something, but a certain quality of presence.

This is perhaps a counter-intuitive message to be preaching on the eve of the BREAD Nehemiah Action.  The Nehemiah Action is our largest gathering of the year where we are absolutely focused on getting a critical mass of people of faith and goodwill to fill the Celeste Center.  We want to demonstrate to our public officials how vitally important these issues are to us.  If you’re only involved in the work of BREAD one day a year, tomorrow is the day.  The lofty aspirational goal of our 40+ congregations is to each turn out our average weekend worship attendance.  There are 52 Sundays in a year to show up for worship, and one day a year we can all show up together to do justice.

Thus the chant 52 – 1.  52 -1.

Our Annual Report, completed just a few weeks ago, notes that our average Sunday attendance for the last year was 181, so we are making the modest goal, which would still be a record for us, to turn out 100 people tomorrow to have a strong CMC showing for doing justice in Franklin County with our brothers and sisters of other faith traditions.  Imagine 3000 people of all ages – Baptists, Unitarian-Universalist, Reformed and Conservative Jews, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonite, and other, gathering en masse, one team, cheering on the side of affordable housing, restorative practices in our schools, living wage jobs, and a Municipal ID for homeless and undocumented folks among us.

That widow petitioning the judge could get what she needs a lot faster if she’s got people standing in solidarity with her.

Join the critical mass, even if you’re slightly critical of all the methods BREAD has used in the past.

The Nehemiah Action is a critical part of the work of BREAD.  But it only happens once a year.  When the event is done we’ll each drive home, back to our different neighborhoods throughout Franklin County.  The critical mass will make the evening news, but it will be the critical yeast that continues its work throughout the rest of the year.

There’s something freeing about critical mass not being the only factor needed to tip the scales, shift the conversation, change the culture.  I think about this with our Sanctuary work.  As of now there are only about 40 public sanctuary cases around the country.  That’s a very small percentage of people facing deportation and separation from family who are in sanctuary.  It’s a very small percentage of congregations that exist in the whole country who are providing sanctuary.  We do not have a critical mass.  But I wonder how all of this is working as critical yeast.  I wonder how the relatively small presence of sanctuary within the wider system is leavening the whole loaf, creating a certain quality of relationship based around neighborliness and solidarity.  Thinking in terms of decades rather than weeks and months, I wonder what is slowly rising in the dough.

More broadly, all of us, each one here, is a part of the critical yeast of the kin-dom of heaven, no matter where we’re distributed among the loaf.  How about this as a thought experiment: Think about where each of us might be say on a Tuesday afternoon, and imagine each dot on the map as a bit of yeast in the dough.

On a more personal level, I’m guessing we can all identify one relatively small presence in our life – a mentor, a teacher, a book, even just a stray phrase we pick up along the way – that has served as yeast for us.  These people and ideas get sprinkled into our lives, and it’s the quality of their presence, not just the quantity, that does its work over time.  There’s likely a book or two waiting to be written about the critical yeast method of parenting and grand-parenting.

This is one of the ways the kin-dom of heaven does its thing.  It tends to take an unpredictable course.  This was the experience of Peter in the book of Acts who, through a series of events not of his own making, found himself in the home of Gentiles.  With his world neatly divided into the tired old categories of “Us” and “Not us,” Peter was suddenly face to face with “Not us,” a group of Gentiles.  And, much to his surprise, the same Spirit of life and liberation he had experienced through Jesus shows up among these Gentiles.  The yeast jumps loaves, does the same thing in different mixing bowls, causing Peter and the early church to ponder the unfathomable reality that maybe there’s just one big loaf, with the same yeasty Spirit spread throughout.  This is the good news that consumed the early apostles, the good news we still remember when we share from the one loaf of Communion.

I want to draw this together by ending with a collective meditation.  A gratitude prayer of sorts.  So you can get yourself positioned in whatever way works best for you to do that sort of thing, eyes open or closed.  We’ll start with the inward journey dimension and work our way out.

So first of all, let’s call to mind the people who have served as critical yeast in our own lives.  Those people who’ve had a certain quality of presence.  Maybe just a brief appearance, maybe a consistent presence, but people through whom the Spirit has lodged itself in our lives.

And now let’s recognize that we play that role in the lives of others.  Let’s call to mind the people we especially hold dear who could perhaps use some critical yeast that we have to share.  And we’ll do this and the other parts silently.

Let’s imagine this in our interpersonal relationships, and in the organizations and institutions where we give our energy.  This work is not an additional burden, but a gift of the Spirit given through us.  Places where, through the grace of God, we might be that critical yeast.

Let’s also call to mind those people we’ll never meet, whose names we’ll never know, who are critical yeast in their communities, in their neighborhoods.  The kind of folks John Paul Lederarch works with.    Folks doing the slow work of peace.  Folks who cross language barriers, folks who get others to sign petitions, folks who administer care in whatever form.  People in positions of power and people with no formal power.  Peacemakers in troubled parts of the world, including our own.  We give thanks for these folks, and pray for strength and courage for them.

Let’s move another concentric circle out and imagine our congregation and other congregations around the county and country and globe as critical yeast in this one big loaf of a world that God loves so dearly.  All the small ways the kin-dom of God bubbles up through these communities.  Our prayer is that we continue to develop the quality of relationship with God and one another that keeps us vital.

And finally, let’s imagine critical yeast coming together with critical mass, for events like tomorrow’s Nehemiah Action.  When we join and concentrate our energy in a show of people power.  Critical yeast plus critical mass, so that the Spirit of life and liberation, the Spirit of love of justice might do unexpected things among us, so that the kin-dom of this earth might look a little more like the kin-dom of heaven.  This is our hope, this is our prayer, this is our faith in action.  Amen.

Pilgrimage | April 29

Text: Acts 8:26-40

 

This is a story about pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage is different than a trip, or a vacation.  It’s different than tourism or site seeing.  The difference is mostly in how one approaches the journey.

TS Elliot wrote about pilgrimage toward the end of one of his long poems.

With the drawing of this Love (capital L) and the voice of this Calling (capital C)
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.   (Little Gidding, V)

To say “we”, “We shall not cease from exploration,” is to make this a common thing.  This is not the calling of a select few.  Pilgrimage is not just for the spiritual athletes among us, or the overly religious.

In the Canterbury Tales it’s not just the Nun and the Monk making the pilgrimage from London to Canterbury.  It’s also the Merchant and the Physician, the Knight and the Cook, the Wife of Bath.

This is a human thing.  We’re explorers.  And when we explore well, we arrive back where we started, and know the place for the first time.  Which is to say that we know ourselves, we know God, in a deeper and truer way for having taken the journey.

This story in Acts chapter 8 is about one particular pilgrim, and an encounter he has along the way with Philip, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus.

We find out what the author wants us to know about this person within the span of a single verse: “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.  He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home” (Acts 8:27).

This is our pilgrim.

The label “Ethiopian” had a fairly broad scope.  It referred to anyone with dark skin, especially people south of Egypt, a black African.  Ancient writers from the Mediterranean world often wrote about these peoples favorably, known for their dignity and handsome appearance.

Contemporary African American theologians point back to this black man – who is eventually baptized by Philip – as an indication that Christianity is not merely the religion of white slave owners.  Long before white Europeans colonized North America and enslaved Africans, many of whose descendants became Christian…long before this, Christianity was thriving as an African religion in Africa, partly through the message this African man carried back to his people.  And so, they note, when enslaved persons claimed Jesus as their own, it was not a submission to the religion of their oppressors.  It can be seen as a re-claiming of something which had, over the centuries, become indigenous to parts of the African continent.

To say this pilgrim is Ethiopian is also to say that he is from far, far away.  We are told he served as a court official for the Candace, the queen, and we know where that capital city was, and we know it was about 1500 miles from Jerusalem – one way.  From Columbus Ohio to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  This is not a pilgrimage one would take on a whim or every spring or fall.  It was perhaps a once in a lifetime pilgrimage.  If Jerusalem is the center of your world, as it was for the New Testament writers, this pilgrim is from the far periphery.

To say that he was a “eunuch” is to say something about his sexuality.  In various cultures of the ancient world males who served in courts were castrated.  This prevented them from being sexual rivals with their male superiors.  Eunuchs were highly valued as loyal and trustworthy servants, serving in some of the most intimate aspects of a ruler’s life – personal grooming, a bedchamber attendant.

This would have complicated matters for our pilgrim headed to the Jerusalem temple.  The Torah had something to say about people like him.  Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  Last week Eliza noted that Psalm 23 was one of those scriptures her Sunday school teacher had them memorize even if they didn’t know why at the time.  I’m guessing very few Sunday school teachers put Deuteronomy 23 on the memorization list, although it might be one thing from church kids would indeed remember the rest of their lives.

But eunuch didn’t always mean castration or mutilation.  With “man” as the standard for what it meant to be a vital human, eunuchs were often referred to as “unmanned” because they no longer, or perhaps never had, conformed to gender expectations.    In some cases, one might also be deemed a eunuch if it was determined that one did not naturally respond sexually to women.  Our names for this have been homosexual or gay or queer.

Jesus likely makes reference to this in Matthew 19:12 in the context of why a man might choose to not marry a woman.  He says, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth – there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Let anyone accept this who can.”

In these words about why someone might not enter traditional marriage, Jesus makes space for three very different kinds of “eunuchs.”  In reverse order: There are people who choose eunuch-hood, celibacy, or singleness, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, freed from the bonds of marriage in order to carry out the work of God they are called to do.  There are eunuchs made that way by others, by castration or mutilation.  And there are “baby I was born this way” eunuchs.

“Let anyone accept this who can,” Jesus says.

Just as black theologians have delved into this pilgrim’s blackness, so queer theologians have delved into the breadth of meaning of eunuch – this fluid term that can more broadly mean someone outside the gender and sexual norms of male heterosexuality.

And so it is that one of the earliest encounters a disciple of Jesus has after Jesus is gone is with a queer, black unmanned man who may just as much have converted Philip as been converted by him.  Philip, too, was on a pilgrimage to discover how gloriously wide and wondrous is the creativity of God, the love of Christ.

Lest we think this Ethiopian eunuch pilgrim is a completely marginal person, geographically, and sexually, we are next told that he’s in charge of the entire treasury of the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians.  He is a person of great power and access to wealth.  He would have had many others under his command, a full staff, surrounded by advisors to help inform his decisions.  He’s traveling this great distance in a chariot, no doubt with a full entourage.  He had charge of the entire treasury.  He held the trust of his ruler and his people.  Unlike most people of his day, he is well educated and versed in world literature.  He can read.  When Philip meets him he’s reading from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.  He had just put down his copy of TS Elliot:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

This traveler is not on a vacation, and not merely on a trip or site seeing.  He is on a pilgrimage.  He has removed himself from his usual surroundings in order to go on a great journey to the land of the Jewish Temple – even though he was barred from certain parts of it because of who he was.  The draw was still to encounter the holy.  To explore that which is beyond himself, and to know the expanse of it all the more.

He is one of hundreds, millions, now billions of pilgrims.  And he is not easily classified as this kind of pilgrim or that kind of pilgrim.  He is a person of privilege.  He is a person from the margins.  He has power in a hierarchy.  He has been “unmanned” or was never oriented toward the narrow confines of traditional manliness.  He has a clearly defined role in society.  He is fluid and moves outside of strictly defined categories of gender and geography.  He is an explorer.  He is a swirl of identities, ultimately beyond categorization, not reducible to titles or roles.  He is a human being, and a pilgrim.

If you ever want to do a fascinating study you can read Acts chapter 8 alongside chapter 17 of the Autobiography of Malcolm X titled “Mecca” – the pilgrimage of the Ethiopian eunuch treasury secretary to Jerusalem in the first century, and the pilgrimage of the black American Muslim leader to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in the 20th century.  I had a good chunk I wanted to say about that, but it started to feel like an entirely different sermon.  Maybe when this passage roles around in the lectionary again in three years.

If you’ve ever been far from home for whatever reason you know the feeling of both openness and vulnerability we feel in these circumstances.  We are removed from the routines of our familiar surroundings. The answers no longer live in the well worn pathways of our neurological circuitry.  Because of this we can become more intensely aware, more curious, more disoriented.

One of my favorite family vacation memories from childhood is when we got lost in Harlem…driving in our large baby blue station wagon pulling a pop up camper.  We did emerge, eventually, with an extremely clean windshield.  Multiple times us kids watched in amazement as someone would come from the sidewalk toward our car, voluntarily wash our windshield while we were locked in traffic, behind a red light, then wait patiently by the window.  Fortunately, my dad knew this meant they expected some payment, which he always did.  It was disorienting, and wonderfully re-orienting to a world larger than rural Ohio.  It turned at least that part of the vacation into a pilgrimage.

The grand archetypal pilgrimages point us toward the small pilgrimages that come much more frequently.  For a pilgrimage to count as a pilgrimage it need not be to one of the historic holy sites – Jerusalem, Mecca, Canterbury.  Pilgrimage is a way of going about life.    The difference is in how one approaches the journey.  On the pilgrimage one is especially open to the messages one encounters along the way.  Usually these encounters weren’t on the itinerary.  Philip comes alongside you to interpret the scripture and tell you good news.  Fellow hajis to Mecca show you brotherhood and sisterhood in a way you never previously imagined possible.  Strangers come and wash your windshield and help you see the world more clearly, even if you’re still lost.

Pilgrimage is for everyone, and if you don’t take it yourself, it may come and find you.

One of the surest things of life is that we will make many journeys into unknown places.  The question is whether it will be merely a trip or whether it will be a pilgrimage.

One of the joys of congregational life is that we see these pilgrimages happening all around us, and we’re enriched by them.

To those who have made the pilgrimage of coming out to themselves and their family and friends and the world: we are honored to know you and grateful for how you have expanded our world.

To those in stages of life ahead of us, making pilgrimage through adulthood as a single or married person, the pilgrimage with infertility or into parenthood and the empty nest that follows, into retirement, caring for aging parents, and the loss of various personal abilities: your stories help us see that the road can be traveled with grace.

To those making pilgrimage through the dark valley of cancer, or through divorce – loss of a hoped for future, we sit with your grief and share the simple joys that become all the more precious.

To all of us making pilgrimage through a highly racialized society with deep and lingering injustices, may we travel with courage and determination.

The gift of pilgrimage is that is offers a baptism.  Under the waters of this baptism all of our swirling identities find their rest and home in the ultimate identity of being a child of God.  Beloved to the core.  A bearer of the Divine image.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling we arrive back where we started and know the place for the first time.