“In the shadow of the Almighty” | Sanctuary II | October 8

Texts: Psalm 91, 2 Corinthians 5:16-20

 “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who lodge under the shadow of the Almighty, will say of Yahweh, ‘My refuge, my fortress, my Highest Power, in whom I trust.’”

These are the opening words of Psalm 91.  It’s a sanctuary Psalm.  It might be referring to the physical sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple, but it certainly refers to the sanctuary of the Divine Life, the ultimate place of refuge.

The Psalm goes on to describe the full degree of protection one receives under the “wings of God,” another of its poetic images.  “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day.”  “Because you have made Yahweh your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”  “I will protect those who know my name.”

It’s so unwavering in the protection it promises, there’s reason to pause and ask “Really?”  “A thousand may fall at your side, but it will not come near you.”  Really?  “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.”  Really?  “You will tread on the lion and…the serpent.”  Really?

A mis-reading of this Psalm is exactly how the devil tempts Jesus during his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness after his baptism.  The devil quotes the Psalm directly – the part about commanding the angels and not letting your foot strike against a stone.  Jesus rejects the thought that his body is somehow immune to the pain that comes with being human.

But it would be an equal mis-reading of this Psalm to believe that God is only concerned about protecting the soul, and not the body.  Jesus lived his life in such a way that he became a walking sanctuary for those seeking refuge.

The Psalm speaks to something one can only know through a particular kind of orientation to reality we refer to as faith.  It’s this faith that enabled the writer of Colossians to say to that congregation, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  It’s this faith that enabled Archbishop Oscar Romero to tell the poor people of El Salvador, whose side he had taken at the beginning of that country’s Civil War in the late 70’s, “If they kill me I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.”

The God of the Bible is a protector of vulnerable persons.  Full stop.  And so too, when they’re being faith-full, are the people of God.  Jesus embodies this, and beyond his execution, he is reborn in those who follow in his way.

This is week two in our worship focus on Sanctuary.  If you missed last week and didn’t get to read the sermon online, this may feel a little bit like watching the Empire Strikes Back before watching the original Star Wars.  These first three weeks will build on each other, giving some historical, and theological background for the practice of sanctuary.  By way of warning, today will have an above average amount of quoting from medieval law codes.

Last week we looked at the story of Eutropius taking sanctuary in the Great Church in Constantinople in the year 399.  He was a high ranking Roman official who had made too many political enemies.  When he sought sanctuary within that church building to save his life he was welcomed by Bishop John Chrysostom.  This included much drama and intrigue.  In one of his sermons to the congregation, preserved through all these years, Chrysostom speaks poetically about Eutropius being in sanctuary there: “A few days ago the church was besieged: an army came (not a metaphor), and fire issued from their eyes (metaphor), yet it did not scorch the olive tree; swords were unsheathed, yet no one received a wound” (Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, Karl Shoemaker, p. 27).  Sanctuary was an established enough practice by that time that the emperor himself called off the royal army.  He instructed them to honor the sanctity of the church, and Eutropius’ protection inside it.

This happened during a pivotal time in the relationship between the church and the powers that be.  For the first decades of its existence the church had been a tiny minority within the Roman Empire – at times ignored, at other times discounted as atheists who didn’t honor the Roman gods, or cannibals who, in their secret ceremonies, ate the body and drank the blood of their Lord.  I almost mentioned that last week, but decided to wait until after World Communion Sunday.

Ignored, discounted, and at times persecuted and scapegoated for society’s ills, like when the first century Emperor Nero blamed a massive fire in Rome on the Christians, which was news to them.

As the church grew in numbers and converted people of social standing, it grew in social power.  The Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the early 300’s and over the next century Rome became Christianized…or, depending on your perspective, Christianity became Romanized.

We don’t know when sanctuary became a common practice among the churches.  We do have records from the Sardican Council, convened by the Roman Emperor, at the urging of Pope Julius, around the year 343, counseling bishops on this matter.  It said:

“But since it happens often that those who suffer injury, or who for wrongdoing are condemned to exile or to the islands, or those, in fact, incurring any sentence, flee to the mercy of the church, these are to be aided and indulgence (forgiveness, reconciliation) is to be petitioned without delay”  (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 22).

But then, fifty years later, during the time of Eutropius and John Chrysostom, the empire struck back, restricting sanctuary through three different edicts.  The first said that debtors could be dragged out of churches if they or the bishop couldn’t settle the debt.  The second forbade Jews who pretended to be Christians from taking sanctuary in a church.  The third limited certain public officials from taking sanctuary, likely the idea of Eutropius himself, striking out against his political rivals.  But when Eutropius needed sanctuary, John Chrysostom and his congregation were willing to disregard the law that Eutropius had helped create.  A legal historian could interject here noting that laws in the ancient world didn’t carry quite the same notions of authority and enforcement as they do now.

These laws restricted sanctuary, but then, less than 50 years after that, those restrictions were reversed, and an extensive practice of sanctuary became enshrined in edicts that shaped its practice for the next 1000 plus years.  The Theodosian Code, named after the current Emperor himself, affirmed the churches, and a buffer zone around them, as locations for sanctuary in all kinds of cases.

Even though it was likely added to the Code years later, one rule that became widely circulated across medieval Europe went so far as unhooking sanctuary from the church building itself.  It said:

“If some unfortunate fugitive (someone seeking sanctuary) crosses paths with a bishop or presbyter or a deacon, either in a city street or in a field or any other place, we order that they be detained or abducted by no one, because in priests the Church consists.” (Sanctuary and Crime, p. 69)

Overlay that with the later Protestant theology of the priesthood of all believers and you’ve got yourself quite a rule.  “In priests the Church consists”…“In the people the Church consists.”  Imagine if all people of faith, priests every one, had this identity of being sanctuary people “either in a city street or in a field or any other place.”

One of two temptations might be to overly romanticize sanctuary.  The good old days, when the churches and their priests were truly places of refuge.  The other temptation might be to discount sanctuary as the church merely playing a role that a well-organized government should be doing.  Our Anabaptist tradition does have a thing or two to say about the mismatched marriage between church and state that was Medieval Europe.

From all I can tell, the church, at its best, brought a theological approach to sanctuary.  The church taught the centrality of intercession and penance.  If someone had committed a crime, rather than seeing the person as merely a criminal, and the crime as something to be punished for its own sake, the church saw it as a sin against God and humanity.  But sins can be forgiven, and harms against fellow humans can be reconciled.  Penance can be done, for the sake of the penitent, to restore them as a human being, and for the sake of the one who has been harmed – to find a way to right the wrong, return the stolen item, repay the debt.

At its best, the church has participated in what the Apostle Paul referred to as the ministry of reconciliation.  This included reconciliation with God and reconciliation between people.

The church stood in the way of vigilante justice and the cycle of violence.  The church was a home base in the game of tag-with-knives that often produced more and more victims of violence.

At its best, church has been like the shadow of the Almighty, a place of refuge from the heat of human wrath.

One law declared that if a murderer flees to a church he must admit his homicide, and “with half his goods, be placed in servitude to the heirs of the slain.”  After his death, his remaining possessions or estate are handed over to the family of the slain. (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 79)  But he gets to live, and the family of the victim gets material compensation.

And at times, of course, those who claimed sanctuary were innocent, vulnerable people.  Sanctuary offered due process before there was due process.

In the 1300’s sanctuary remained important enough that when it was violated the authorities did whatever they could to restore it.  Sometimes this involved returning someone physically to sanctuary if they were still alive, but sometimes it required more creative measures.  In 1301 a man took sanctuary in Bury St. Edmonds in England after killing another man.  But the parents of the dead man came and dragged the killer out of the church.  They brought him before the bailiff, and he was hanged.  But after this the bailiff was reprimanded by a superior that this had been a violation of the liberty of sanctuary.  The records are preserved ordering him to make a “sign of the restitution of the said Liberty.”  This was to happen by placing in the church an effigy “in the form of a man with the name…of the aforementioned felon” displayed (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 141).  So, even though there was no way to restore this man to sanctuary, the bailiff who had him executed was to create a life-size doll of this man, with a nametag, and symbolically restore him to the safety of the church, so that whoever saw him/it would call to mind the shelter he sought there.

Sanctuary as a legal practice affirmed by kings and magistrates did not last past the 1600’s.  And, at least in England, the decline of sanctuary coincided with the rise in the construction of jails (Sanctuary and Crime, p. 114).  There were many currents that converged to cause this, but here’s one that feels especially pertinent to the attitudes of our time.

It was declared back in 1203, not by a king, but by a Pope.  The author of the book on which I’ve been leaning heavily for this history highlighted this brief written statement by Pope Innocent III as emblematic of the shift in consciousness.  It says, “It is in the public interest that no crimes remain unpunished.”  (Crime and Sanctuary, p. 163)  It is in the public interest that no crimes remain unpunished.  This circulated widely, and the idea it expresses led to sanctuary being seen as more of an obstruction than a service to good and right and just order.  It is still circulating.  We can feel it in the air.  Rather than justice as getting what you need, it is justice as getting what you deserve.

When you mix the idea of no crime remaining unpunished with the criminalization of migrating peoples, we are into the present moment.

Faith is a particular kind of orientation to reality.  It is oriented toward the ministry of reconciliation, toward mercy, toward restoration.  The church, at its best, has been a place of sanctuary.  People of faith, at our best, have been sanctuary people, in the streets, in a field, or any other place.

The God of the Bible is a protector of vulnerable persons.  The Shadow of the Almighty still invites rest and refuge.  It is in that shadow that we find our peace.  It is in that shadow that we find one another, We escape the arrows of the day, and release the fears of the night.  May we lodge under the Shadow of the Almighty, and make room as new friends join us.

 

 

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“Do You?” “I Do” – Baptism – April 29, 2012

I don’t know who he was speaking to, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “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.” (Sorry, don’t have the reference).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s.  He was one of the lone voices in the German church who spoke out against the rise of Hitler and the persecution of the Jews, helped found the Confessing Church and an underground seminary which resisted Nazi rule in the name of Christ; was 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, living in Christ and following Christ, add up to something so totally new and revolutionary that 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 Emma Patty, 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 pleasure to meet with Emma a couple times in the last weeks and talk about her decision to be baptized and the significance of this act.  One of the things we talked about was how baptism is both a really big deal, and not a big deal.  How it is this public sign of who we already are as beloved children of God, making commitments that will shape the rest of our life – that’s the big deal part.  Something Bonhoeffer and the early Anabaptists and Jesus knew well.  And, how this is just one part of the journey.  A journey that began when she was welcomed into the world by loving parents, continued as she was brought up in a caring congregation, and a journey that will continue as she goes to college and continues to mature into the person she is becoming.

Another of the things we talked about are these vows that we make at baptism, like wedding vows, when we say “I do” to these revolutionary ideas that Bonhoeffer talked about.  Though we understand very little of what we’re getting ourselves into – at the wedding, at the baptism – we know enough to know that we’re willing to go for it.  As Rachel Smith said last year, to join the Tryer’s Club.

For us, the baptismal vows are these four sets of questions that we’ve included as an insert in the bulletins.  As so, as we anticipate the 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 repent of sin, renounce the evil powers of this world, and turn to Christ as your savior?  Do you 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 repent and accept forgiving grace…?” Yes, I do.  “Do you believe…?” I do.  “Do you commit…?” I do.  “Are you willing…?” Yes, I am.

This first vow, 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” brings in another dimension – these bigger forces at work that we can so easily get caught up in.  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 New 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, terrorism, materialism, individualism.  Where do they come from?  They are very real, but can’t be fought with material weapons.  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 learn that the bank which holds your credit card has been responsible for financing 80% of mountaintop removal to mine coal in Appalachia.  Renouncing the evil powers gets complicated, especially when you’re used to getting 1% back for purchases at Amazon.com.

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 how Reality really is, 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 somewhat famously written that as soon as it turns out that 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.  Releasing our grip on our own power to control and restrict the Divine, or any claim to ever fully know it.  This involves just as much unlearning as it does learning.

When Emma and I were talking about the Holy Spirit, she mentioned how when she was in Catholic school that she heard it spoken of as the Holy Ghost, which, in the imagination of a young girl, can present some slightly confusing images.  We talked about how for the Hebrews and Greeks Spirit is the same word as breath and wind, this invisible, unseen force, and how a word that we use now that might have an equivalent meaning would be energy.  I believe in the Holy Energy, the giver of life.  Yes, she said, not only did this make more sense, but she has experienced the Holy Energy at different times in her life, including here at worship on Sunday mornings, when something greater than any collection of individuals shows up and presents itself to us, comes between us, and animates us in a Holy way.

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.  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.  The 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, silence.  These are some of the ways that we encounter the Christ whose presence we could not perceive outside of these practices.  We’re just not tuned in enough.  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.

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 you to call on the church to live up to its highest calling.  Whenever the church falls short, or gets too comfortable, or loses its pioneering spirit, no longer out ahead, leading the way, 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.

 

 

 

Prelude to Baptism – 5/16/10 – Mark 1:1-11, 2 Corinthians 5:11-20

Well, this is a very special day.  Our whole household has been looking forward to it.  Early in the week I described to Eve and Lily what we were going to be doing today with the baptisms and they have been asking at different times with great anticipation how many more sleeps it is until we get to pour water on the heads of Elizabeth and Jake. 

Along with this fascinating action of pouring water on heads inside the church building, the act of baptism signifies a life transition that mirrors a host of other transitions in the human life.  It is an occasion of birth, a new creation.  An occasion of death, the putting away of the old self, as the Apostle Paul writes.  An occasion of resurrection.  And an occasion closely resembling a marriage.  When vows are made and a covenant affirmed between Creator and created.  Baptism evokes all of these.  It is a full, rich occasion, and there is indeed reason to celebrate and it’s good that we are each gathered here as witnesses.  This is a chance to witness to this public act of faith, to remember your own baptism, or to consider if baptism is something in which you yourself wish to participate.

There’s a certain path to participation in the church that we’ve probably heard some version of, whether it be that it was taught to us outright or that we have just internalized it along the way by the signals that we’ve picked up.  The path is that first we believe, then we behave, then we belong.  First we come to some confession of faith, some recognition of our need for God and community and the significance of Jesus in our life.  We believe.  If we believe the right things, then that belief will start to form our behavior, our habits and our priorities and the way that we live our life will follow out of those beliefs.  Our behavior is transformed.  And then finally, as we get those things more in line, the beliefs and behavior, then we belong.  Then we fit, have a place.  We finally start to feel at home in the church.  Maybe you’ve heard some version of that path. (I believe either Grace Davie or Charles Glock was the first to develop this three point framework.  I don’t have a reference for it).

I would like to use those three movements to talk about the faith journey and life in the church, with a slight, but important shift.  Because the truth of the matter is that we just about always experience these movements in the reverse order.  We find our humanity, or, better yet, we are given our humanity, and our home in God, first by belonging, which then affects our behaving, then, over time, we are able to come to a more clear sense of what it is we actually believe.    

So we’re going to do something really wild here.  We’re going have a sermon with three points, and they’re going to be alliterated.  Belonging, behaving, believing.  And just getting things in this order is an important insight.  The way that we walk through this, the way Jake and Elizabeth come about this decision, the way we all come about growth and identity and flourishing, starts with belonging and leads on from that point.

So let’s start there.

Belonging

In the past year Logan W, Henry B, and Aven J have made their entrance into the world.  Like every child deserves to experience, they have been welcomed into households where they are loved and held and treated as priceless gifts.  Their parents carefully prepared for their arrival and have adjusted to different routines to accommodate the needs of the child.  For these children, their introduction to life has been the experience of belonging. 

When we are at our best, this is what we do in the church – whether it be for a newborn or an interested seeker or a longtime member.  We provide a place where people belong.  Where people are allowed to be themselves, to grow, to make mistakes, to find their identity as a child of God.

A key passage for this comes from Mark 1:9-11, the baptism of Jesus: “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

Jesus’ baptism was for him a profound experience of recognizing that he was, first and foremost, a beloved child of God.  He belonged.  He had a home in the universe and that home was the loving arms of God.  That’s the voice that he hears.  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It’s significant that this happens before Jesus begins his ministry.  Before he calls his first disciples, before he gives his first teaching, before he heals anyone or casts out any evil spirits.  Before he shows any signs of ‘success’ or demonstrates any semblance of what we typically associate with a value-added kind of life, he is affirmed in his being.  His existence, the fact that he “is,” is a delight to God.  This “status” of beloved, belonging to God, is the basis out of which his life then flows.  What he has to offer the world starts from this given.  Which is true for all of us, whether one is raised in the church or has never set foot in a church.            

And so we say that baptism is not the way that we come to belong, as if one day we don’t belong and the next day we do.  It’s not the ticket into belonging.  Baptism is a way of affirming and publicly declaring what has been true all along, our whole lives: That we are, and always have been, beloved children of God.  And there’s nothing we can do about it.  There’s no way we, or anyone else can change that fundamental reality.  There’s nothing to do about it.  We can only accept it or deny it.  We can choose to hear the voice spoken over us.  “You are my beloved child.  With you I am well pleased.” 

When I was doing my ministry internship in my home congregation in Bellefontaine I filled in for our pastor one Sunday in his monthly visit to the juvenile detention center.  And I talked with those youth about this passage of Jesus’ baptism.  And I told them, ‘you are beloved children of God and there’s nothing you can do about it.’  And they didn’t quite know what to say.  And then I didn’t quite know what to say, because that’s the main thing I wanted to say, and I’d already said it….  Then we did talk about it some, and it was a hard thing for them to accept.  And I imagine they’re not alone.

But that’s where it all begins, and that’s what we in the church seek to live out.  We welcome, we embrace one another, because the gift of belonging is the basis of our lives.  And it’s not earned.  It’s given.

Behaving

As soon as we recognize that we have a home, that we belong, it shifts the way we go about life, the behaving piece.  And there’s this paradoxical kind of thing that happens.  There’s the gift, the grace, which comes to us through no effort of our own.  And in receiving the gift, we are brought into a place where we start to see that this will require all of us, everything we have.  It costs nothing.  It costs everything.

And so our response to the gift of belonging becomes one of re-ordering our priorities around the demands of love.  It begins to affect our personal relationships, our thoughts about social justice, the way we use our money, our sexuality, our vocation, the purpose that we want our life to serve.  Pretty much everything.

A passage that speaks to this is 2 Corinthians 5: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new.”  Everything is one of those all-inclusive words that gets a little scary if you take it seriously.  “All of this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”  I have no idea what God was thinking, but God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us.  It’s our responsibility, our duty, you could even say, to take on this work of reconciliation.  And what is it we’re actually reconciling?  Everything!  There is nothing outside the scope of the work of reconciliation.

So that means when Jake is playing soccer and training and practicing and working with his teammates that that activity has something to do with the work of reconciliation.  I can think of a few ways that sports don’t always bring out the best of our humanity, but they can also bring out wonderful aspects of our humanity.

And it means that when Elizabeth is caring for her animals and doing chores that that has something to do with the work of reconciliation.  We are painfully aware of the need for reconciliation between people and the earth, people and the animal kingdom.

Our behavior starts to become an expression of this work that God is doing through us and it affects every aspect of our lives. 

And in the church we learn from each other.  Paul says, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.”  We become socialized into new ways of behaving.  Faith is supposed to change us.  And this is something that I think we Mennonites get pretty well.  Not that we’re so much better behaved than others, but we recognize that our actions are a direct expression of our values, our faith, and we seek to learn to imitate Christ and grow, as we say, into communities of grace, joy, and peace, that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.

Believing 

So now we get to believing.

Just a little over a year ago Ron H sent out an email to Christian Ed folks with a list of questions that he had compiled after working with the youth during Sunday school for a few months.  The questions came from the youth, although Ron noted in the email that he, frankly, wouldn’t mind having some clear answers on these himself.  Here are some of the questions:

Is there a God?

How do you know?

Is it okay to have doubts about God?

What is God?

What is this trinity thing – three Gods or one?

How can there be evil in a world in which God is all-knowing and all powerful?

Is there a heaven?

What is heaven?

Is there a hell?

What is hell?

Is there an afterlife?

What is a soul?

Does a soul make us different from animals?

Did people evolve from earlier forms of life?

At what point did humans get a soul?

What is uncompromiseable in our beliefs?

Does prayer work?

How should we use the Bible?

Did the human writers of the Bible write 100% inspired words or did they interpret?

Why do we not keep Old Testament laws?

Why are there so many different religions?

There were plenty more.

There’s a reason that Believing comes at the end here.  It’s not because belief isn’t important, and it’s not because it’s impossible to come to some greater clarity on these questions.  It’s just that so often belief follows, rather than precedes belonging and behaving. 

The scripture for this that I’d like to bring in comes from Mark 9:24.  It’s a time when a father shouts out to Jesus from a crowd that he has brought his son who is unable to speak and who goes into epileptic convulsions.  The boy has been this way since childhood and Mark tells of the exchange like this:  The father begs Jesus – “’if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’  Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able – All things can be done for the one who believes.’  Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’” 

That’s the line.  “I believe, help my unbelief.”         

Faith is always some measure of believing and unbelieving, which is to say, that it’s faith.  It’s the conviction that uncertainty about those big questions we pursue is not ultimately something to be feared.  Not something to shy aware from.  Not something that should sideline us from the journey.  

I imagine none of us yet have all the answers to these questions.  Faith is stepping forward with what you know, and being open to receiving what you don’t yet know. 

In baptism, we affirm some core things that we believe, or even, that we want to believe, or hope to believe on our better days.  And we entrust ourselves to the journey of faith, which takes faith, and takes the community of faith, to help us find our way.  And sometimes the church believes for us when we are unable to believe.

I believe, help my unbelief.

I guess a fourth B would be baptism, which takes place along this path with the other B’s.  We recognize that we don’t know everything, but we know enough to know that we want to say Yes to God, yes to the faith journey, yes to the church and the mission of God in the world.  And that’s what we celebrate today.  Today, we remember our own birth, death, and resurrection, our vows to God, and we joyfully welcome Elizabeth and Jake who have decided to enter into this same pattern of redemption

The Corinthian Plan: An Opportunity For Mutual Aid – 6/07/09 – 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

This past week the New York Times Magazine ran an extensive article on the health care agenda that will soon be taking center stage in Washington.  Its focus was on how this administration is positioned politically to try and carry out the major reform that it is hoping for – comparing it to past attempts, especially that of President Clinton’s first term.  The article highlighted key players who will be leading the debate.  It spoke some about the influence of the health care industry in shaping the outcome.  It also mentioned, briefly, some of those staggering statistics that reveal the sorry state of health care in our country.  Health care spending has doubled since the mid-90’s, now the highest percentage of GDP that it has ever been, over 16%.  46 million people without health insurance in the US.  This is a debate that we’ll soon be hearing much more about.

Two years ago Mennonite Church USA delegates gathering in San Jose were asked to look closely at health care issues.  It was acknowledged that we need national health care reform, but it was also proposed that we as a denomination can do something about one small part of this puzzle.  We can come up with a health care plan that would guarantee health care coverage for all of the pastors of our congregations.  At the time it was estimated 80-100 US Mennonite pastors were without health insurance.  In San Jose delegates voted for such a plan to be researched and organized, and since that time a plan has been proposed, called the Corinthian Plan, that will be voted on in our meetings in Columbus one month from now.  If 80% or more of MC USA congregations vote to participate in the plan, it will take effect January 1, 2010.     

The message today will be focused on the values and some of the details of this health care plan.  And the messenger is going to look something like a three headed monster, although we’re pretty sure it will be a nonviolent Mennonite monster, nothing to be feared.  Myself, Ed Diller, and Steve Hitt will each share about some aspect of this plan.  Ed will go more in depth with the denominational process in creating this health care plan and speak to some of the vision behind it.  Steve will talk about what this may mean for us as a congregation, look at how we may think about it in terms on our financial reality and how that connects with some of our ideas about stewardship and mission.  And in the remaining time that I have I’m going to be leading some Bible study. 

One of the key practices behind such a health care plan is the concept of mutual aid.  Mennonites and Amish and other Anabaptist groups have a rich history of practicing mutual aid, which basically means that when one member is in trouble or has a loss, that the resources of the community are made available for coming to the aid of that person.  Historically, this is community as insurance.  An iconic image of this would be the barn raising event.  If someone’s barn burns down or is damaged through a storm, the entire community comes and rebuilds the barn for the family.  This is made more complex in our modern world of larger assets, more privatized and less communal living, and extremely high health care costs, but that value of mutual aid remains a part of who we are.

One of the passages of scripture that speaks of the practice of mutual aid is 2 Corinthians 8.  And this is the Bible study part.  If you could please open your Bibles to 2 Corinthians 8, we’re going to walk through this briefly to get a small window into some of what was going on with the communities that the Apostle Paul was forming in the first century Roman world.  This 2 Corinthian passage is why this health care plan has been called The Corinthian Plan. 

So Paul is writing this letter to these Jesus followers in the city of Corinth, which is a little southwest of Athens, and he begins this part of the letter by saying “we want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia.”  This area of Macedonia would have been their neighbors to the north, two of the cities, Philippi, and Thesalonica, you may recognize because these were also cities to which Paul has written letters which we have in our New Testament – Philippians, 1,2 Thesalonians.  In verses three and four Paul is sort of bragging about them, or holding them up as an example saying, “For as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.”  And then he goes on in verse seven to name some things that are a part of their life of faith – “Now as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you (or some manuscripts read “your love for us”) – so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”  This ‘voluntary giving, according to their means,’ was something Paul was asking that they see as a part of their life as a community along with these other things.”

Now it should be noted that what Paul refers to as “sharing in this ministry to the saints,” is a specific designation.  The ministry to the saints refers to the poor believers in Jerusalem.  There are other parts of his letters where that designation is spelled out more clearly, but what Paul was asking of those churches in Macedonia, who gave generously, and what he was asking of the Corinthian church, was to give some of their wealth to go back to the poor who were associating with the mother church, the place where it all started, the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. 

Paul’s mission is ambitious, to say the least.  Imagine all of these different ethnic groups, each with their own religious history and gods and myths, spread out over the Roman Empire, all in the mix together in these cosmopolitan urban centers, and then imagine Paul and other apostles coming through and teaching to whoever would care to listen that in Christ all of these groups can be reconciled to each other – Jew and Gentile, and Gentile to other Gentile.  It would be one thing for these little communities to form within these urban centers with people of all types and start worshiping and learning together, but then it would be another thing to be told that your little eclectic community here in Philippi, or Corinth, or whatever, was connected to all of these other communities popping up around the Roman world.  You are all “In Christ.”  The well-being of one community should effect the well-being of all communities.   At one point Paul describes this by saying, You who were not a people, have now become a people.  At another point in his writing to the Corinthians Paul tries to give an image to this in developing what might be called body theology.  You are all a part of the same body, different parts, different locations, all working as one whole.  “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:26)

Part of what this looks like, Paul is now writing to the Corinthians, is the practice of mutual aid.  If there are poor Christ followers in Jerusalem, then well-off, or even not so well-off Christ followers in Macedonia and Corinth should feel the sting.  Paul clarifies what he means in verses 13 and 15 of 2 Corinthians 8.  “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.  As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little,’” a reference to the manna in the desert – enough for everyone. 

That’s a very quick glimpse of where some of this Corinthian Plan is coming from.

One of the main questions and critiques behind this plan has been not that this is a bad idea, but that it’s not enough.  If we value mutual aid so much, why are we creating a plan that only covers pastors and not making it available for others in the congregation to buy into?  It’s a fair question and one that has been addressed in some writing in our publications.  Being a pastor, I don’t feel like I personally want to try and justify why this is just for pastors, so perhaps this is something that Ed can speak to a little more.    

I’ll end my part by simply adding a personal note and saying that this is a year when our family is especially thankful for having health insurance.  This plan feels like a small way of seeing that more people are covered, in the spirit of mutual aid.  Along with this, it is our hope that our country can address this head on in a way that gives everyone access to quality affordable health care.

Returning to the Broken Ice – 10,29,06

What’s in a name?  Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  Well the Cincinnati part is easy enough to figure out.  Members of this group live and work in and around this city.   And the city of Cincinnati is an important part of this church’s identity.  Fellowship, well, I suppose it could be Cincinnati Mennonite Church, but a church can be a building or a group of people and this congregation existed quite a few years without owning its own building.  Fellowship indicates that this is about the people, about the relationships, about being a community together wherever.  Mennonite.  Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  If you’ve ever told someone that you go to a Mennonite church maybe you’ve had the experience of having to explain that no you don’t drive a horse and buggy, that you’re allowed to wear typical American clothing, and that yes, you do have electricity in your house.  Anyone?  These are parts of the Mennonite tradition that this congregation has chosen not to emphasize.  So what is a Mennonite and why is that an important part of the identity of this fellowship?   

 

Mennonites don’t have saints, but if we did we would be sure to include Dirk Willems among them.  You know, maybe it’s good that we don’t have saints.  Saint Dirk just doesn’t quite have that ring to it.

Mennonites don’t have icons, but if we did, perhaps our premier icon would be this image printed on the front of your bulletins – Dirk Willems turning back from escaping his pursuer to pull him out of the broken ice.  There are a couple different versions of this story.  One version, the one presented in the reader’s theater, has Dirk escaping from prison where he was being held for trial for being an Anabaptist.  The other version has Dirk escaping from his home when an official arrives at his door to arrest him.  Either way the key feature of the story is portrayed in this etching which was made by a Dutch artist around 1685.  At some point in his escape, Dirk successfully crossed a frozen pond, making it to the other side.  The man pursuing him was not so fortunate, he fell through the ice.

            Being an Anabaptist in Dirk’s time was dangerous because it meant you had made a decision which shifted your primary allegiance away from the state which was closely aligned with the church.  In a time when infant baptism was like filling out a birth certificate to register you as a citizen and future tax payer of the state, Anabaptists had the boldness to believe that baptism had much more to do with an adult decision to become a citizen in a different sort of kingdom, the new creation of God’s peaceful reign.  So, beginning in the first half of the 16th century, these people began privately rebaptizing each other and declaring themselves as servants of Christ, not servants of the political authorities.  They were first called Anabaptists, re-baptizers, by their enemies as a term of contempt, much like early followers of Jesus were first called Christians, little Christs, by their enemies.  And much like the early Christians, Anabaptists were hunted down, arrested, and executed because of the perceived threat they posed to those in power. 

            Dirk Willems was not going to passively accept his fate as a martyr.  He valued his life.  He tried to escape capture.  But over the course of his escape he made what was probably a split second decision that ultimately led to his death.  He had crossed the frozen pond safely, but his pursuer had not.  Maybe Dirk looked over his back to see how much distance he had established between himself and his pursuer.  Maybe it was the sound of the ice breaking or the sudden cry that made him look around. 

            Standing back from the situation I have the tendency to try and judge the decision made here.  I have plenty of time to sort through all the pros and cons for Dirk to keep running away or for him to do what he did.  But for Dirk it was most likely more like a reflex, an impulse to turn around and attempt to help this man.  A reflex for indiscriminate love.  Somehow Dirk was able to pull him out of the pond without himself getting dragged into the freezing water.  Then the guard, bound under his legal duty, hauled Dirk away to prison.  A little while later, the courts pronounced this sentence against him: “Whereas Dirk Willems, born at Asperen, at present a prisoner has…confessed, that at the age of fifteen…he was rebaptized in Rotterdam, at the house on one Pieter Willems, and that he, further, in Asperen, at his house, at diverse hours…permitted several persons to be rebaptized…therefore, we the aforesaid judges…do condemn the aforesaid Dirk Willems that he shall be executed with fire, until death ensues.”          

 

            The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5, wrote this: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”

            An ambassador is someone who represents a certain nation to another nation, someone who speaks on behalf of her country to another country.  Mennonites have believed that the New Testament teaches that our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God.  Our baptism gives us a different sort of birth certificate to live under a new authority.  Ambassadors speak not just for themselves, but for the ones they represent.  They act as agents, crossing a bridge between two different lands.

            This isn’t a matter of heaven and earth, as in after life and during life.  This is a matter of living in the ways of God in the present moment.  Paul goes on to say just a few verses later: “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!”  We may not feel like we are living in the middle of salvation, but that is exactly what Jesus has invited us to do.  There is something new that can happen here with us.  There is reconciliation that can happen.  We are reconciled to God when we see God present in the loving face of Jesus, and we are reconciled to each other as we begin to represent this loving face to one another.

 

Mennonites are direct descendants of the early Anabaptists.  We take our name from Menno Simons who was an influential leader early on in the movement.  And we have always felt that we should stand out in some way from the dominant culture.  We have always felt the tension between being a citizen of the reign of God and a citizen of the reign of Caesar.  Menno and others believed that the New Testament offers us a reasonable way of living and that this way will often make us seem odd, perhaps even foolish to many people. 

We are in a very different context than Dirk and Menno and the early Anabaptists.  We are no longer a persecuted minority.    We may feel like we’re in the minority with our convictions about peace.  We may feel out of place in this hyper-materialistic militaristic society.  But if we’re to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that quite a bit has changed since the time of our Anabaptist ancestors.  If we look behind our backs, there’s no one chasing us.  We have citizenship in a democracy. And we have access to a wide range of economic and educational resources.  Put simply.  We have power.   

And I think that’s one of the reasons I am so drawn to this image of Dirk Willems and feel that it can give us some guidance for who we can continue to be as Mennonite, Anabaptist Christians.  I gazed at this image quite a bit this past week.  It has a way of growing on you, working its way inside you.  Of all the situations Anabaptists have found themselves in, here is one where they held some power, at least temporarily.  Look at the picture again.  Dirk was not seeking power for himself.  He was in the process of seeking safety, simply trying to get away harm.  The only power he thought he had was his power to move quicker than his enemy.  And then, without asking for it, he suddenly found himself with a great deal of power.  His pursuer is in the icy cold water.  Dirk is safe on the other side.  And that’s the point where I am most easily able to enter the story – just a few seconds before the scene portrayed in the etching.  Finding myself on solid ground but recognizing that someone has fallen through the ice behind me. 

So here we are, 21st century urban and suburban American Mennonites, with a certain degree of power.  Finding ourselves on solid ground, yet aware that all is not well.  What does it mean to be an ambassador of God’s reconciliation?  What does it mean to represent the new creation?  What does it mean to continue living in our Mennonite heritage? 

How about this as one possible answer?  To be a Mennonite is to be one who returns to the broken ice – to extend the hand of compassion to whoever has fallen through.  There is always the choice of going away to safety, of leaving the troubled scene and blending in with the scenery.  But if we are children of Dirk Willems we carry with us this reflex for turning back.  I see Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship as living this out, committed to returning to the broken ice, reaching out as an ambassador of peace to a hurting world.  This is who you have been, and by God’s grace, this is who we will continue to be.

 

Response

Congregational Reading from Menno Simons: “True evangelical faith…”