A difficult passage | 5 October 2014

Text: Ephesians 5:21 – 28

This is the first of four sermons in our Difficult Passages series.

In the Twelve Scriptures series this summer we highlighted the passages in the Bible that we see as guiding lights.  We received a lot of appreciative feedback, although several of you came to me and said something to the effect, “This is a good series, but what I’m really looking forward to is that other one about the bad Scriptures.”  That day has arrived, and for the month of October we are switching from the goodies to the baddies, pondering parts of the Bible that we find especially troubling and difficult, even antithetical to our values.

Unlike the Twelve Scriptures Project, our survey in the spring showed no clear top vote getters for the difficult passages, except for one: today’s passage from Ephesians that contains the lines “wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”  “For the husband is the head of the wife.”  A little later in the passage, beyond what was read, it says, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.”  “Fear and trembling” is a pretty good description of how I as the speaker of the day approach the task.

What I’d like to do, rather than preach one standard sermon, is to take up three different perspectives and offer three mini-sermons, each one representing a different approach we might take to a difficult passage of scripture.  I will attempt to highlight the good of what each perspective has to offer and will preach each mini-sermon with the full conviction of one coming from that perspective.  You listen for what resonates and rings true, and what sounds off base.

In order to not privilege one over the other, I will present these in random order and have asked Eve to draw the titles out of a hat.  One is called “That was so first century” and looks at this from a cultural perspective.  Another is called “It’s better than it looks,” and searches for the redeeming qualities within the text.  The other is called “The whole elephant” and takes into account the full council of scripture.

(Mini-sermons appear in the order in which they were drawn)

—————————————————–

That was so first century

The Bible is our sacred text.  We read from it every Sunday, hear sermons based on its passages, and study it in our private devotion.  We claim this as our faith story and our spiritual heritage.  The Bible is our central book.

It’s not a single book, of course, it’s more like a library, a collection of books, 66 total, 39 Hebrew, Old Testament, 27 Greek, New Testament.  It did not drop out of the sky in finished form, straight from heaven to earth.  These books were written over a period of hundreds and hundreds of years, whose stories span well over a thousand years.

There is no such thing as being able to stand outside one’s time and place.  We are culture-bound creatures, gifted by and limited by the sensibilities and understandings of our time.  We should never confuse the human word with the divine word.  Saying that scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit does not mean that every word is a direct channel from God to us.  What’s most important is that we discern together, as a community, in our place and our time, what the Holy Spirit continues to be saying to us, taking into account the Scriptures, other sources of Wisdom, and our own experience, recognizing that we also carry the gifts and limitations of our time.

This epistle is addressed to the church of Ephesus, a particular church at a particular time in a particular place.  They had their social norms.  They had the way their society was ordered from which they couldn’t deviate too much.  Ephesians was very likely written by a follower of the Apostle Paul, several generations after Jesus lived.  The words that we have here are a sign that the church was already, even toward the end of the first century, starting to lose its radical edge.  In Galatians, an earlier book the Apostle Paul himself had written, it says: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28).  And now, this. “For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church…”  “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”  The shock waves of the Jesus movement were starting to dissipate in their intensity, going from a revolutionary undercurrent to trying to find ways to adapt to the culture of the time.  To be faithful to God, but not too radical so as to upset the boat.  A little less Galatians 3 and a little more Romans 13 – “Let every person be subject to the governing authority.”  In this part of Ephesians we can see how Christians were trying to navigate these difficult waters of faith and culture.  Slavery was such an entrenched practice that the goal was not to abolish it completely, but to mitigate its effects within the Christian community.  If both master and slave were believers, they could treat each other respectfully, honoring one another while maintaining their respective roles.  In God’s eyes, they were brothers and sisters.

Even if these words were radical at that time, speaking directly to women and children and slaves and giving them a seat at the table, we have moved beyond the place where these words can be helpful to us.  They have been too abused, too misused, reveal too much of human fallenness and too little of God’s steadfast love that we should hold them in the same category as certain other Scriptures, like Old Testament law codes, that we just don’t follow anymore.  They are interesting for academic study, but they are not a guide for living.  For us, these words are descriptive of a certain time and certain place, but are not prescriptive for our time and our place.  Let’s take the best of what they have to offer us, and leave the other as signs of where we have been but not where we are going.  We see God’s hand at work in the abolitionists, civil rights, and feminist movements, and see there are some ways in which we do progress as a human community.  Hebrews 4 says that the Word of God is living and active.  God’s Word is not trapped in the culture of the past, but is working – active, alive – to redeem the present culture.  May we listen for this Word in our time.

————————————————

It’s better than it looks.

If we’re willing to come to this passage with fresh eyes, we may be surprised to see that it can be a liberating text.  We see lines like “wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord,” and “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling,” and we’d like to discount the whole passage.  Maybe even raise our fist toward Paul and blame him for the next two millennia of patriarchy and slavery.  But this would be a tragic misunderstanding of the apostle’s intentions.  We can’t allow the way scripture has been twisted out of shape to have the final word.  There’s good news here.  Read with an open mind, this Ephesians passage contains teachings that lead to what Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder refers to as Revolutionary Subordination.

When we look at this passage, it’s tempting to go directly to verse 22 that speaks to wives, but prior to this there is an important statement made that applies to all parties about to be addressed.  Verse 21 states “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  This introductory remark is addressed to all who claim to participate in the church.  It sets our relationships in the context of reverence for Christ, and it asks that being subject, or being subordinate, or being under the authority of one another, is the role of all of us.  So there is no justification in what follows for any claims that one party or role or person can dominate or subjugate another.  We are each to be willing to be under one another’s authority – and that authority is one of Christian love, not abusive power.

Since that verb – to be subject or submit – is so prevalent in verse 21, applying to all, it’s not surprising that verse 22, now speaking specifically to a group of people, wives, should read “wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord.”  The author sees in this a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church.  “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”

Since everyone is expected to be subject to one another, this is a common task.  And when husbands are addressed, they are given a task that demands their whole lives.  “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”  Husbands are asked to sacrifice their lives for their wives, after the model of Christ for the church.  This is a reverse of what often has happened through history.  Usually it has been the wife who sacrifices herself for the good of the husband or family without seeking her own will.  If husbands would love their wives as Christ loved the church, it could be liberating for both.

Beyond this note to wives and husbands, it’s significant how this passage is structured.  There are three sets of relationships that are spoken to in this part of Ephesians.  Wives and Husbands.  Children and Fathers.  Slaves and Masters.  In that order.  John Howard Yoder compares this passage to Greek Stoicism of the day, which also had codes of behavior for dignity and ethics, but was addressed only to men, fathers, and princes.  Stoic instruction was not addressed to wives, children, and slaves.  Yoder observes that here, from Paul, “The admonition…is addressed first to the subject: to the slave before the master, to the children before the parents, to the wives before the husbands.”  He goes on to say, “Here begins the revolutionary innovation in the early Christian style of ethical thinking for which there is no explanation in borrowing from other contemporary cultural sources… Here we have a faith that assigns personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture, and makes them decision makers.” (JHY, Politics of Jesus, 1995, pp.171-172)

It’s better than it looks.  It could even be liberating.

———————————-

The whole elephant

Perhaps you’ve heard the Indian proverb of the six blind men who come upon an elephant, each one encountering some part of the large creature, each convinced in their own mind that this one part represents the whole.  In the 19th century this parable was written as an English poem by John Godfrey Saxe ( 1816-1887).  This is how the poem goes:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” said he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” said he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” said he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

Given that we now have come upon this creature, this piece of scripture, that others have come upon as well and had their say about, here is a somewhat silly poem I wrote that hopefully has some parallels to that proverb.

When paging through the Holy Book

For guidance in the ways of life

Whenever you arrive at Ephesians 5

You’re bound to feel some strife

Especially,

If you’re the wife.

 

Wives submit, slaves obey

Is this what they call good news?

Between the Bible and progressive society

are we forced to choose?

If so, in this case, I confess,

Scriptures lose.

 

To follow scripture and our conscience

There must be a way,

To love the ancient wisdom

And the equality we value today.

About women and slaves

What else does scripture say?

 

There was at the beginning

Before the awful curse

Male and female created in God’s image

Creation beautiful and diverse

God said that was good,

We made it worse.

 

And then as things went downhill fast

Humanity more depraved

And empires rose through domination

More power and control to crave

The God of the Bible didn’t back Egypt’s regime

But the Hebrew slaves.

 

The prophets had the vision

That the world would someday heal

That sons and daughters would prophesy

That all who hunger would have a meal

That the curse

would be repealed.

 

When Jesus was placed within the grave

Rather than leaving him to become a fossil

It was the women who encountered the risen Christ

And became the first apostles

It was the men who said

Resurrection? Impossible.

 

And as the church began to spread

And scattered communities would form

For women to be leaders and deacons

Was not out of the norm

Women and men side by side

Slowly took the Roman empire by (peaceful) storm

 

So is the Bible cutting edge,

Or sadly out of date,

Does is call for revolution,

Or a status quo type state

And if different parts say different things

Then how do they relate?

 

When fixed upon one passage

Thinking it’s the only feature

Remember we’ve been told a proverb

That can be our teacher

Listen to all the other blind people in the room

And consider the whole creature.

——————————————————-

Now I’m back as me with one parting thought:

The Dalai Lama has proclaimed that “the world will be saved by the Western woman.”  That’s a humbling thing for an Eastern man to be saying.

I don’t know the context for this statement, but it’s something I’ve pondered, and perhaps more intensely so since I live with four Western women, not to mention four backyard female chickens who miraculously turn our rotten food into tasty eggs.  This puts me back at the point of fear and trembling of not wanting to fall into gender stereotypes, but I’m fairly convinced that our era especially calls for those combination of gifts that seem to come more naturally for women: To have a strong mind and a soft heart.  To provide leadership that is collaborative and assertive.  To know in your body the kinship that humanity shares with one another and all of creation.

I marvel at these gifts, and I submit to your wisdom.

The world will be saved by the Western woman?

So the question for western women might be: will you accept, and be subject to this high and difficult calling?  To accept that you now have the resources and opportunity to lead us into a better way of living on this planet.  It may not always have been your time, but, by the grace of the Spirit, now is your time.

 

 

Epiphany as a run-on sentence | 5 January 2014

Text: Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 1, 3

Sometimes, if you have something important you’d like to say, and you want to write it down so that others can look over it and study it and ponder it and maybe even share it with others, it’s possible to get into the rut of writing your sentences too long and drawn out, because you have a lot that you want to communicate and it’s right there at the front of your mind all bunched together, hard to sort out, so you just start writing and it just keeps coming and you’re not sure where to put the period and where to start a new thought because it’s all one big thought for you and so you keep writing, which is kind of like what is happening at the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church of Ephesus where Paul is writing to the church about his belief that this love of Christ that they have experienced was not only special for them as a small group of people but also had significance, great significance, for all people and all things such that everything everywhere in every time is affected by the meaning of Jesus’ life which is something the apostle feels is so important that he begins his letter by writing one extremely long Greek sentence that extends from verses 3-14 of the opening chapter of Ephesians…which is a long sentence, don’t you think?

Why so long?  Why not chop it up into smaller bits, make it easier to digest?  Why not feed it to us a spoonful at a time instead of having us scarf the whole meal in one breath?

If you look at the first chapter of Ephesians in your English Bible this is what has been done for us.  Verses 3-14 are split into several sentences, with different translations inserting periods at different points where they think we should be allowed to come up for air.  The NRSV splits it up into six still rather long sentences.   Too bad.  We miss the effect.  It’s quite possible the writer of Ephesians was intending to plunge us into something that is supposed to overwhelm us, be too much to handle all at once, be so wide and deep and far that we can’t see the whole thing at the same time.  One big massive chunk of communication.

The words that are being used certainly fit with this idea.  This sentence on steroids begins by saying “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.”  In case we don’t believe him, he starts to name every spiritual blessing, with all sorts of different metaphors.  We receive adoption, getting our official papers that we are indeed children of God.  We receive redemption, forgiveness of sins.  We receive an inheritance, salvation, the Holy Spirit.  But more than a laundry list of blessings we are supposedly receiving, there is a wider focus to what’s being said.  It’s first mentioned in verse 9.  “Christ has made known to us the mystery of God’s will according to God’s good pleasure set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  This theme of all things is what gets carried through the entire introduction.  It reaches its climax in the last verses of chapter one.  “And God has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

The natural question that we may ask would be When the writer says ‘all things’ does he really mean ‘all things?’  Things in heaven and things on earth – spiritual unseen things and physical, visible, things?  What does it mean for Christ to ‘fill all in all?’

This Sunday marks the end of the Advent and Christmas season, as we celebrate Epiphany.  On Epiphany Sunday we mark the coming of the light.  Just as the earth begins to turn toward light with the days getting longer and the nights getting shorter, we celebrate that Christ’s coming into the world is a light for all nations.  The light that shines in front of us in a small way, is a light that shines in all corners of the world, inviting all to come to the light and be transformed.

Epiphany is a time when that word ‘all’ keeps showing up.  All nations.  All things.  All in all.

When I think about “all” I think about the feeling I get just about every time I walk into a library.  I walk through the doors, happy to be picking up the book that I’ve ordered, and am very quickly confronted with all the other books on all the shelves.  Fiction, non-fiction, classics, newly published, periodicals.  Inevitably I’m struck with how much I haven’t read and never will read.  My one little book that I’m about to try and work through feels like a tiny slice out of this massive pie of literature.  It’s a feeling that is both overwhelming and humbling.  Of all these things, I’m familiar with so little.  I have to be content to start where I’m at and enjoy it for what it is.

How do we live in a way that starts to take into account the all and our place in it?  With apologies to English majors everywhere, I’d like to offer that one way of characterizing our experience of Epiphany, and more specifically, our experience of the love of Christ, is as a run-on sentence.  Something that can’t be summarized in a small, compact way, but keeps growing these extra phrases and extra clauses to try and better grasp just what is included in this “All.”

One of the standard texts for Epiphany comes from the Matthew 2 story of the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus.  An important part of this story is that these visitors are foreigners – from the east.  Their being led to Bethlehem from their distant land is a sign that the light of Christ will extend out beyond the boundaries of Israel and be for all people.  They are the first Gentiles to witness this light.  The inclusion of the Gentiles, non-Jews, into the formation of the church is one of the major themes of the New Testament.  For those who believed that God’s grace extended only to a select group of people, Period, then this is a bit of a disruptive addition.

This is a theme that Paul moves toward in Ephesians.  In chapter three he calls it “the mystery hidden for ages,” but now “made known.”  There’s that word “mystery” that has kept showing up for us this season.  The All of Christ reached across the boundary that had separated Jew and Gentile and brought the two together.  The meeting place of these two is called the church.  And these Ephesians are a part of this new thing that was coming into being.  The church is given the task of being a sign that groups that were formerly hostile to each other are able to join together as one body.  Here’s how Paul puts it in Ephesians 3: “In former generations the mystery of Christ was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.  Of this gospel I have become a servant… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

The idea that Gentiles, like us, are brought together in the church is a common enough happening now that we don’t think about it much.  In one of the tragic ironies of history, those Gentile outsiders quickly outnumbered the Jews in the church and redrew that same line of separation that was there before, only now they were on the inside and Jews and everybody else were excluded.

We who embrace religious and cultural pluralism can still manage to miss the point by splitting things up into Jew and Gentile type categories, with the Gentile things being those that are outside of what we consider to be the sacred.  We still let there be a wall between how we experience the holy things of the world and the secular, things supposedly having nothing to do with God.

Back in October Bill Moyers had the rare privilege of interviewing Wendell Berry.  Among the many wise things Wendell Berry said, he expressed again something that he says in different ways throughout his poetry and writings.  He said, “People of religious faith know that the world is maintained every day by the same force that created it. It’s an article of my faith and belief, that all creatures live by breathing God’s breath and participating in (God’s) spirit. And this means that the whole thing is holy. The whole shooting match. There are no sacred and unsacred places, there are only sacred and desecrated places.”

Full Show: Wendell Berry, Poet & Prophet | Moyers & Company | BillMoyers.com.

This sounds to me like another way of wording what Paul is writing to the Ephesians, that the Christ spirit is not merely a one time manifestation in one particular man in one particular place, but that Christ is all and in all.  And like those Ephesians, we can barely believe it.  Functionally, at least, we don’t believe that the light shines in all places, in all aspects of our lives and all places of this earth.

It makes sense how this can happen if the church teaches that matters of faith have only to do issues of salvation, and certain beliefs about certain things, with the Bible being the only place where the Word of God shows up.  We develop fairly distinct categories of things that have to do with God and things that don’t.  Our life is made up of the holy and the Gentile, the sacred and the unsacred, with little or no crossover between them.  Which means that most of our life — our work, our play, our rest, ends up falling outside of what we experience as holy.  Or, this split can lead to a crisis of faith if we start to discover things that we truly love and find wonderful that are supposedly outside of the sacred.  Maybe one discovers that they are fascinated with science and the open ended exploration of the world that seems to challenge the teachings of faith and scripture.  If we are unable to see the light of God within something that gives us joy, or within something that doesn’t necessarily give us joy but is a significant part of what we do with our time, unable to recognize it as another place where Christ dwells, then we are missing something.  We miss the very thing that the apostle Paul so passionately committed his life to once he saw it to be true.  That nothing is outside of the love of God, that the light of God illuminates all things, shines from within all things, and that all things touch the holy in some way.  That creation is one big hunk of communication, a run-on sentence containing more than we’ll ever be able to take in at once.

Isaiah 60 is written as a testament to the light.  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over you.  Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.  Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you.”  The light is there.  Part of our mission as the church is to recognize this light in all aspects of our life and to perceive the sacred in the parts of the world that have been desecrated.  This is the light that draws others in.

A number of years ago the United Church of Christ, UCC, chose for its denominational theme “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” This was a quote from a note that entertainer Gracie Allen had written to her husband George Burns, which he found looking through her papers after she had died.  “Never place a period where God has placed a comma,”  In other words, God is Still Speaking, mid-sentence.  There’s still more to be heard, more to be found, more love to give and receive.  More parts of creation that we will come to experience as illuminated by God.  It may not be branded with the name of Christ.  The name, the tradition and culture out of which it comes isn’t the thing.  Light shows up in the most unexpected places.

So this is how we experience the whole thing.  We start out to write the sentence of God’s overwhelming love for the world, and of Christ’s presence in our lives, of Love’s grip on things, and we set out to write something that sums it up all nice and tidy.  Something that would pass as a well-shaped, concise sentence on an English exam.  Thinking we’ve completed the task, and happy with ourselves for having done so, we find later that there’s something we’ve forgotten, something we didn’t notice before, something that we now know has to be included, so we revise the sentence by adding another clause.  A little further down the road we realize that what we have still doesn’t do the trick, doesn’t say all that needs to be said, so we add more clauses that try and describe how wide and how long and how deep is this Great Love.  And eventually, we might realize that instead of trying to close this thing up with a period, we can be content to leave our rambling run-on sentence with an open ending, with the most recent comma humbly in place, ready to receive what we learn and experience next.

Because there’s no way that we can close this thing up, put a measuring line on it or a boundary to it and say that it stops here and goes no further.  We will keep adding to the sentence, letting it expand, watch it get all complicated and awkward and too much to be able to take in in one breath, as we recognize more of the all to be holy.  More people and sentient beings, more of our time, more of our work, more of our thoughts, more of life, more….

Embracing – 1/13/13 – Ephesians 3

Chances are, if we were to take an opinion poll here about the importance of vision statements, we would come out with quite a variety of…opinion.  I’m guessing that we would range all the way from those who see it as a vital guiding declaration of any organization, to those who find very little inspiration or point in creating and holding up such a statement.  I’m also guessing that most would fall somewhere in between those two poles of enthusiasm and ambivalence, having a degree of both of these, mixed in with other thoughts and past experiences with such statements.

During the late winter and spring of 2011, our congregation had four visioning sessions, each occurring after Sunday worship.  It was a time of setting our priorities for the next five years, and creating a vision statement that represented the kind of church we wish to become.  One of the key priorities we discerned was investing in this building in Oakley as our worshipping home and center of mission in the community.  We have already made good progress on this and look forward to a new front entrance with handicap accessibility this year.  Another priority which emerged was how we might use the current rental house for missional activity, such as having a Mennonite Voluntary Service unit or an urban ministry training house for young adults.  This idea has been delayed, but is still alive and, my hunch is, as long as this congregation owns houses, will always be a live question.  We also discerned that we would be best served by being in relationship with just one regional conference of the Mennonite Church rather than two, and have affirmed our commitment to Central District Conference, while giving a grateful farewell to Ohio Conference, last winter.

And, after round table discussions, various proposed versions, and the always somewhat awkward process of group editing, we created a vision statement; a declaration we have sought to keep visible by reciting it together at congregational meetings, and having it present in the bulletin and weekly Musings.  Our vision is this:

As a Mennonite community,

seeking to following Jesus Christ

and empowered by the Holy Spirit,

we will be embracing, engaging, growing.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Cincinnati Mennonite in my time here, it’s that this is a community of action.  The culture of this congregation is, to slightly altar a statement from the philosopher Forest Gump, “Faith is as faith does.”  We are active, have an impact in the community and wider church disproportional to our size, and believe that each person is called to lead and be a minister of peace in whatever way they are led.  This is a great gift.  So, it is fitting for us to zero in on those last three action words of the statement: embracing, engaging, growing.  This is what Council is encouraging us to do in adopting one of these words as a congregational theme for the next three years, challenging us to go deeper into all of the many ways that we can live out this vision together.

One could make a pretty convincing argument that the three most important words of the statement are not embracing, engaging, and growing, but three items that occur in each of the preceding phrases:  Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, and Mennonite community.  Without the Holy Spirit, we cannot follow Jesus Christ, and without staying centered on Jesus Christ, we will not be a Mennonite community.

Hopefully, this is something that we focus on every time we worship, a reality that permeates all we do.

So, with that understanding, that it is the Spirit at work among us, enabling faith to look like Jesus in action, flavored and seasoned by our Mennonite/Anabaptist tradition, we welcome 2013 as the year of Embracing.

Keith has already spoken well about this, and I hope my words can simply add to and fill out some of what he said earlier and what is written in the newsletter that should be in your mail folders this morning.

I’d like to talk about two different aspects of Embracing, and I’d like to do this by keeping in mind a passage from Ephesians and an image from the Guatemalan artist Angelika Bauer.

We’re not quite sure who wrote the book of Ephesians, whether it was Paul or one of his disciples, but for shorthand, we’re going to call the author Paul.  In chapter three of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul makes some provocative statements.  He speaks about a mystery, what he calls, in verse 4, “the mystery of Christ.”  In the next verse he says more: “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to the holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”  He goes on to say a similar thing in verse 9, now talking about how he sees his own calling, “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all thing.”

So, there’s this mystery, and former generations and past ages weren’t able to make it out.  It was hidden.  It was there, kind of, but it wasn’t realized, wasn’t accessed, wasn’t out in the open.  But now, it has been revealed.  We like mysteries.  Especially when something about it is revealed to us that wasn’t revealed to other people.

So what’s the mystery?  It’s stated in verse 6: “that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

Gentiles isn’t a word we use in everyday language anymore – but for Paul and his audience this was their primary way of seeing the world.  There were the Jews, the inheritors of God’s promises, and then there was everyone else, and the name for everyone else, was Gentiles, or Greeks.  So, to paraphrase what Paul is saying here: the mystery now revealed is that everyone, everyone is on the inside, there’s no more us and them.  There’s only one human body, us, and that mystery is the good news that Jesus made so clear in his life, death, and resurrection.

Another way of illustrating this is through an image by Angelika Bauer from Guatemala.  She calls this Madres Creadoras, meaning Creator Mothers.

Image

Embracing.  Everybody is in.  I want to look at a few features of this image, but for now, for the first aspect of Embracing, we can focus on that outermost embrace.  The Divine embrace, here a feminine image of God embracing a family.

The first aspect of embracing, Paul’s mystery revealed and Angelika Bauer’s picture illustrated, is that we, Jews and Gentiles, everyone and everything, are already within the embrace of God.  Whether we know it or not, whether we believe it or not, even whether we like it or not, God is the first and primary Embracing one, and no one is outside the circumference of this hug.

There is a subtle, but absolutely crucial difference here from how our religious minds usually approach this.  The tendency, even for us self-proclaimed inclusive-minded people, is to think in terms of who is in and who is outside the embrace of God, and see it as our responsibility to help people get inside that embrace.  To get in the church, or some faith tradition, or get into social justice action, or whatever our understanding of “inside” is.

But the issue isn’t who is in and who is out of the Divine embrace, the issue is who does and who doesn’t realize that they are already in.  And there are plenty who haven’t accepted this mystery.  We do not need to undergo a conversion to get inside that embrace.  There is no doctrinal statement that must be pronounced, no ritual to undergo, no acts of service and mission that must be first done to get us inside that embrace.

There is a conversion to undergo.  And there are doctrinal statements, and rituals, and acts of service to carry out, but the conversion is the process of awakening to being already on the inside, and all of our faith statements and acts of worship are to remind us and take us deeper into that reality.

A little later in the Ephesians passage Paul write this: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”  This is a massive hug beyond comprehension.  This is a mystery that Paul is absolutely intoxicated with, and it shows up all throughout his writings.  Given some of his writings about the role of women and the place of slaves, we could say that it is a mystery whose depths he did not fully discover within his lifetime, but that could be said of any of us, so maybe we can cut him a little slack.

So the first aspect of Embracing is a theological, spiritual, mystical, inward one.  It is an invitation to accept that you and we are already embraced and that we better our lives and the world not in order to be embraced, but because we have been embraced.  1 John 4:19 says, “We love because God first loved us.”  This subtle shift really changes everything.  It is a wonderful, delightful spiritual mystery, one whose height and depth we can spend our whole lives exploring.  And it is that inner vitality of spirit that will be the vitality of this congregation.  The inward journey into this mystery revealed.

The other aspect of Embracing that I want to talk about briefly goes back to what our response is to this.  So this is the more missional, outward, relational aspect of embracing, and includes all of those other figures within Madres Creadoras.

It also flows out of another statement that Paul makes to the Ephesians, this one found in verse 10 of chapter 3.  After naming this mystery, he presents his readers with a holy task.  Once we know the mystery, we have a job.  Verse 10: “So that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known.”  Whose job is it to live out this mystery?  The church.  That’s us.  We are embraced in order that we might also be embracing in order to make known the rich variety of the wisdom of God.

This is where it gets real concrete.  Real flesh and bone, real personalities, real people and relationships, each with a story, a unique perspective, injuries, and hopes.  This is where it gets messy, folks, and this is where church happens.

As I was looking at this image I first had the thought that each of us might identify more closely with one of those figures, then I had the thought that we are all each of those figures at different times.  At the center is the child, the one who is receiving; growing, but in need of lots of support.  There are times when each of us are in the position of simply needing to receive – hungry or hurt, exhausted or burned out, or just in need of some help.  One of the times I think of personally being in this position was when we made the move from 4233 Brownway Ave to 4321 Brownway Ave.  This will probably go down as the easiest move we will every make, due to the fact that we could walk into the closet in one house, take some clothes off the rack, walk down the sidewalk to the other house and put them on the rack in a new closet.  We moved out and moved in at the same time.  But it was made easier, more enjoyable, it was made possible because of the CMF crew that came out and helped us move and provided pizza for us and all the movers.  It was a time when our family needed to receive some care and assistance from the congregation, and it is a wonderful thing to know that the care is there.  Two months later, we lost Belle to a stillbirth, and we were again surrounded with care.  It’s OK to be in the middle of this image sometimes.  In fact, I would highly recommend it.  It’s humbling, and it makes you grateful for the presence of the church.

The mother is both embracing and being embraced.  She is directly caring for another, even as she is being supported.  I think of all the ways that each of you care for each other through friendships and through saying Yes to providing meals and help during births and hospitalizations.  This is another privileged place to be.

The next person out, the father figure, is someone caring for the whole of the family.  I think of those serving on committees and leading journey groups and Sunday schools and Bible studies.  Caring for the structure and finances and administration of the congregation.  I don’t mean to make too much of the gender aspects of this picture, so hopefully that’s not stumbling block for seeing youself in any one of those positions.

As a congregation we have a reach, a circumference of influence, which is something like a collective hug, and, unlike God’s embrace, there are limits to our embrace.  There are people all in, people at the margins, people just on the outside, popping in every once in a while, curious onlookers.  How do we expand our embrace, and how do we more fully embrace those already within reach?

This year, 2013, we’ll be asking ourselves questions about Embracing and challenging ourselves to be the church God calls us to be.  We do well at our embracing of the arts, embracing of our Community Meal friends and some of the needs of our neighborhood.  We are making our building more welcoming and hospitable through the aesthetics and accessibility of a new front entrance.  We do well at embracing people who are at a place of questioning in their faith and need a safe place to be loved and explore faith.

How can we be more excellent in our embrace?  Do we wish to be more public about our welcome of LGBT persons?  Can we be more intentional about welcoming people from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds?  And if that child in the middle is a newcomer to Christian faith, with no church background, wanting to learn the basics, do we have a place for them?

We who are embraced by God and believe that all are embraced by God have a big calling.  To reveal this mystery to the world by throwing our arms around all those who come our way.  We are the church.  This is our vision and this is our challenge for the year, and years, to come.

“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.

 

 

 

Walls – 11/13/11 (Peace Sunday) – Ephesians 2:11-22

The creators of the worship materials for Peace Sunday this year invite us to ponder walls, under the theme:  Destroying the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.

Walls shape lives in dramatic ways.  Some walls are built to keep out and some walls are built to keep in.  The Great Wall of China was built over a period of centuries to keep out nomadic invaders from the north.  The wall along the US border with Mexico is a series of literal walls, fences, and vehicle barriers which have been recently constructed with the expressed purpose of keeping illegal immigrants out of our country.  This fence currently spans about 650 of the 2000 miles of the US/Mexican border (citation HERE).  There are also hundreds of miles of desert that act as a natural barrier for immigrants.

The Berlin wall was put up by the government of East Germany to keep the communists of East Berlin in, from fleeing over into West Berlin.  The walls of prisons around our nation are intended to keep prisoners in.  This year the number of African American males in prison in the US rose to be a higher number than the total of African American males who were slaves in the US in 1850, before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.  (citation HERE)  Let that one sink in for a bit.  I also saw an article (HERE) this week that one year at Princeton costs $37,000 and one year at a New Jersey state prison costs $44,000.  College and prison are two exact opposite life paths, and prison is the more costly of the two is so many ways.

In talking about walls I’m struck that even a short description of what a wall is causes one to start making interpretations about the wall.  It depends, no doubt, which side of a wall one is on.  Are these walls for security?  Are they an injustice?  Do they divide, or protect?  Does the wall being built by Israel in Palestinian territory make Israel safer from terrorists?  Is it a prison for Palestinians?  If the answer is ‘Yes’ to both of these questions, is that something we’re willing to live with?

A famous wall in poetry is the one spoken of by Robert Frost in his poem, Mending Wall.  It begins, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  He goes on to describe the annual ritual he and his neighbor have of mending the wall in the field and woods between their two properties, placing the fallen stones back in a place, “to each the boulders that have fallen to each.”  The neighbor says, “good fences make good neighbors,” but the poet wonders out loud if this is really the case.  He muses:  “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.”

One of my favorite walls in the world is the south facing wall in the house where Abbie grew up and where her parents still live.  Abbie’s dad designed and built the house when he was in his mid 20’s, an impressive feat in itself.  This wall is made up mostly of windows, and overlooks the yard, and the field beyond.  The south facing glass gives a great view of the outdoors, but what’s really spectacular about it is the way it relates to the sun.  In the summer, the sun is high enough in the sky that the roof overhang shades it from shining directly into the house, but in the winter, when the sun is low in that clear Kansas sky, the light, and heat, pour into the house.  I have been in this house in the dead of winter for a week straight without the furnace ever kicking on during the day.  You know you’ve got a sweet wall when it’s ten degrees and windy outside, and you’re opening up a window because it’s too hot in the house from all the free solar heat.  I’d like to have me one of those kinds of walls some day.

David Korten, one of the founders of YES! Magazine, gives another perspective on walls.  He calls it “The Principle of Permeable Boundaries”  (The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community, p. 293 ff.).  He observes that one of the great innovations of life is the development of an outer membrane, a wall, a skin, that is both protective and permeable.  For any living thing to maintain its strength and integrity it must have this outer surface which gives it definition and allows certain things in and certain things out.  A cell wall protects it from pathogens in the body.  The biosphere over time has developed “boundaries provided by oceans, mountains, and climatic zones to exclude invasive species not acculturated to the established community.”  We’ve got some honeysuckle growing all over the fences in our backyard that has breached that wall and is wreaking havoc on the forests in our part of the country.  These living walls/skin have this protective aspect, but every cell, every organ, every body, every house, every organization or political structure also has porous, permeable skin that allows it to make use of energy flows and maintain its own health.  We breath, we eat, we exchange ideas, we don’t shut ourselves off completely from the world.  We let the sun come through to warm up the place.  These organic walls serve not to isolate us from the world and others from us, but to help regulate healthy relationships.  David Korten says, “Successful living entities protect their borders not out of selfishness but out of a need to maintain their internal integrity and coherence and to assure that exchanges with their neighbors are balanced and mutually beneficial.” (p. 293)

This kind of thinking can be helpful to us if we think about it in terms of our current immigration situation in our country.  Over the last couple decades our country has pursued a series of free trade agreements, which essentially is a removal of walls, a removal of regulations, and making more porous of the economic skin between us and other nations.  With these trade agreements, each nation, each unique living political body, has less control over its internal decision making in how it manages exchanges that are mutually beneficial.  OK.  So some walls are brought down, fair enough, but then we get troubled when people seek to cross borders through immigration to seek the wellbeing of their families.  So we put up walls to keep them out and protect our own internal integrity.  It’s a contradictory in many ways.  We tear down certain walls, but put up other walls, and the living organism which is our relationship with our global neighbors gets drained of its vitality, losing its integrity.  And we enter a state of spiritual poverty.  One could argue that we should have many walls for economic exchange and many walls for immigrants, or one could argue that we should have very few walls for economic exchange and very few walls for immigrants, but it’s hard to make a just argument for no trade walls and high immigrant walls.

The biblical witness gives stories where walls are celebrated and stories where the destruction of walls are celebrated.  The walls of Jericho pose the first major obstacle to the Israelite people as they head out of their time of desert wondering, into the promised land.  It took a serendipitous encounter with a helpful prostitute, a seven day march around the city, and a final blow of the trumpets and loud shout from the people, but those walls of Jericho famously came a tumblin’ down.

When the Jews were returning to Judah from their Babylonian and Persian exile, they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah.  Nehemiah had been living in a Persian capital city of Susa and receives word from Jews who had escaped back to Jerusalem.  The message was: “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Nehemiah 1:3).  After weeping and mourning this fact, Nehemiah prays for his people, and receives permission from the Persian king to return to Jerusalem to lead the project of rebuilding the wall.  The rebuilding of the wall is also a rebuilding of the morale and faith of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, leading to a greater influx of exiles into the restored city.  At the rededication of the wall, the book of Nehemiah records: “They offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced.  The joy of Jerusalem was heard far away” (12:43).  In their zeal to restore their culture and worship and stake out a clear identity as a people, Nehemiah also records that they separated out from themselves all those of foreign descent, and that the sons and daughters were forbidden from marrying a foreigner, and even those men who had married foreign wives while in captivity had to send those wives and their children away.  And so as one wall is built and celebrated, we are given a picture of other, less visible walls also being set up, less worthy of celebration.

The writer of the letter to the Ephesians speaks of another kind of less visible wall.  He calls it “the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  The us to which he refers are those two groups which make up the primary us/them hostility in the biblical story, Jews and Gentiles.  The people of God and the outsiders.  The good news that this writer is preaching is that this wall of hostility and alienation, the entire edifice of the us/them divide of humanity – Jew/Gentile, native/immigrant, patriot/enemy – has been utterly destroyed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

The mechanism by which we have continually built and maintained this wall is to create a “them” and therefore give “us” an identity.  We have trouble understanding who we are if we don’t have the “other” to define ourselves over and against.  It is a mechanism where each side actually needs the other to be other in order to keep going on.  If we have no enemy to pursue, if we have no other to condemn, if we have no outsider to exclude, we don’t have any way of making sense of the world.

Jesus the Christ is conscious of this mechanism, this wall, this rut that has kept humanity divided against itself and therefore divided from God.  And so he does something rather unexpected, even by his closest followers.  He chooses to occupy the place of the other, the outcast, the condemned, the crucified, and in doing so, reveals the whole system as a sham.  Now rather than Jew and Gentile casting each other out and making the other be on the outside, both Jew and Gentile are on the inside together, looking out on the crucified Christ, who is occupying the place of shame.  And the foolishness of the mechanism of hostility and the us/them divide falls apart.  And in the gospel story, rather than the outsider, the crucified one, seeking vengeance, this other seeks peace.  “Peace be with you” are the words of the risen Christ.  The endless cycle of hostility has been broken.  The writer of Ephesians says, “So Christ came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him, we have access in one Spirit to the Holy One.”  Our spiritual captivity to perpetual hostility has been broken.  In Christ, the dividing walls have come down and Jew and Gentile are, as Ephesians says, “one new humanity.”

The writer of Ephesians begins by focusing on the negative aspect of walls and proclaims that Christ has removed the dividing wall of hostility and created a new humanity of which the church is a sign.  No more walls.  But then, he returns to the image of a wall, giving it a positive, redeemed quality.  He writes, “So then, you are…members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

Here is an entirely different kind of wall.  A wall made up of people, members of the new humanity, being built, linked together, on top of the foundation of the apostles and Christ himself, as a spiritual household.  A building.  A protective, sheltering, structure.  A safehouse.  A home of hospitality and warmth.  The ideal permeable boundary of loving relationships, letting in hope and mercy, letting out justice and reconciliation.  And who dwells inside this house, whose walls are made up of us?

God.

We are a part of the holy temple of God, who inhabits our relationships, and dances in the mortar joints of the house of peace.

If The Armor Fits, Wear It: Waging Peace In God’s Army? – 8/23/09 – Ephesians 6:10-20

I like the way that two contrasting ideas, or two very different pictures, sometimes show up alongside each other and give either a fresh insight into a reality or make us ask some questions about the nature of things. 

Earlier this week we spontaneously decided that I could take a vacation day mid-week so we could go up to my folks and process some garden produce that was ripe and ready to be done.  So I did a little rearranging of schedule and we headed up and had a great day working under the shade of Mom and Dad’s big maple tree cutting up and bagging sweet corn and green peppers to freeze for the winter.  The sharp contrast came toward the end of the day.  Throughout the day we had been talking some with my cousin who is my folks’ age.  She has been staying with Mom and Dad and is soon to move in with her sister in out West.  These last number of years she’s had some difficult health problems, hasn’t been able to work, has had some financial struggles (connected to not having health insurance), some depression, and is now having to whittle down her belongings to just the basics so she can move in with her sister.  This was being extremely heavy for her this week.  And then at the end of the day as we were saying goodbye to her it started pouring down rain and Eve and Lily stripped off all their clothes and startedfrolicking around out in the yard in the middle of the downpour.  So we were hugging our late-middle aged cousin who had the weight of the world of her shoulders, and we were looking at this perfect picture of carefree bliss with our laughing naked daughters.  This is life.      

I think putting unexpected images alongside each other or trying to merge them together is also a strategy that works well in visual art.  I visit the Red Tree Art Gallery and Coffee shop here in Oakley fairly regularly.  They change their displays about once a month and this past month they had the theme of superheroes.  So all of the art had something to do with superheroes.  The painting that caught my attention the most was one of a person from the waist on down, she’s wearing a kitchen apron, with the words beside it, “I wear my cape around my waist.”  Common apron as domestic super hero.  I liked it so much I had this scheme to buy it and surprise Abbie with it on her birthday.  I got as far as getting it down from the wall and handing the manager my credit card with painting in hand until I realized that I had completely mis-read the price tag.  I think my brain wanted it enough that it imagined it as being affordable.  Oh well, the idea is still valuable. 

We’re at the end of Ephesians, and at the end of this series of “Being the Church,” and I think Ephesians 6 is another good example of contrasting, or unexpected images held together in a way that might give some fresh insight.  You can turn there if you’d like, and I’ll read verses 10-15:

NRS Ephesians 6:10-15 “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 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. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

It goes on to mention taking up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.  So, this is the gospel of peace, coming at you in full battle armor.  I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling the contrast.

I can’t remember what it was exactly, but last week there was some point where I caught myself using a violent metaphor in a conversation.  It was just regular conversational language and a common metaphor, but after I said it I mentioned out loud that I had just realized what I’d done and I tried to find another way to say what I was trying to say.  This was before I read this passage this week, so it was interesting to see here how living out the gospel of peace is spoken about in the language of warfare. 

I was kind of curious about how we sometimes use language with violent images without really realizing it, so I did a Google search on “violent metaphors” and came up with some interesting things. 

One link was a description of a workshop called “The language of peace: constructing non-violent metaphors”  given at the University of Florida.  The website gave this opening example of how violent metaphors can be contradictory or send the wrong signals: “Johnny don’t fight at school. Your mother is helping the war on cancer. Your father has his battles everyday at work. Your sister has to attack her studies. We just can’t have you fighting at school.”

It goes on to list alternative metaphors for different common phrases.  http://at.ufl.edu/~hardman-grove/peace.html

Another site said, “The first way in which we make war an ‘appropriate’ response to problems, is that we metaphorize the non-violent as war, as in the following examples.  We wage war on cancer / war on drugs / war on crime.  In medicine we attack, treat aggressively, use ammunition from a pharmacological arsenal stocked with big gun antibiotics. In the end we conquer disease.  We try to conquer someone we love by dressing to kill, by fighting for love, by winning someone’s love.”  http://www.iheu.org/node/1140 

One site warned: “Caution: violent metaphors can blow up in your face” http://www.metafilter.com/21966/Violent-metaphors

Well, OK, I get the point, and agree in many ways.  Looking through scripture, though, it’s hard to escape violent metaphors and I wonder if there isn’t something more going on to pay attention to.  Instead of doing away with the contrast of the gospel of peace and engaging in battle, what happens when we let them stand right beside each other? 

Ephesians 6 is explicit both about a great struggle in which we are engaged, and also that the enemy is never another human being.  Verse 12 says “For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood.”  The armor of God’s righteousness, and salvation and faith is a nonviolent, yet aggressive movement against the cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil, personified as the devil. 

Some commentators have speculated that Paul, in writing this passage, is looking over his shoulder at a Roman guard and imagining ways that these weapons of war could be used for advancing the peaceful kingdom of God.  Sounds possible.  Others have claimed that Paul is taking these images directly from Isaiah, who would portray God as a warrior dressed for battle. 

If this is the case, then Isaiah 59 would be one of these: “God put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on God’s head.”  Isaiah 11 is another.  This is the passage about the shoot that “shall come out from the stump of Jesse, the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding.”  It also gives the image of the peaceable kingdom – the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them.  But right in the middle of this, we get “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked”.  And then the armor imagery.  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waste, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”  This has the appearance of violent imagery, but what is the weapon?  It’s the rod coming out of his mouth.  It’s speech.  It’s the power of words.  It’s that rich Hebrew understanding of the nonviolent creative power of spoken language, the very power by which God created the universe.  God spoke, and it came to be.  The stump of Jesse, the leader who reflects God’s ways, slays wickedness through the rod of his mouth.

All throughout the story of Scripture God is working to overturn the aggressive violent forces of evil with the equally aggressive forces of peace and reconciliation.  It’s hard to imagine the Gospel narratives of Jesus without this kind of framework.  Jesus confronts the devil in the wilderness, casts out demons from people, talks about the Satan as a strong man whose house he’s going to plunder.  First, you must tie up the strong man, then take over his house Jesus says in Mark 4.  The drama of the cross is portrayed as a confrontation with the forces of death themselves.  Colossians says that Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities, and made a public example of them, triumphing over them on the cross.  Jesus willingly, without retaliation or calls for vengeance, goes to his death and it’s treated as a victory over the forces of death.  How bizarre and wonderful is that? 

The book of Revelation takes this battle imagery to a whole other level and, because of this has inspired some pretty bizarre and troubling literature about end of the world scenarios involving great physical battle scenes.  One of the culminating scenes in Revelation is the rider on the white horse, who judges and makes war, whose eyes are like flames of fire.  The armies of heaven are following him, and it says, “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”  This is Christ, the one who used to ride on the donkey, now on a war horse.  Unfortunately people miss the punch line that it is a lamb who is the one doing battle, and that he is referred to as the Word of God, the word warrior whose truth slays an enemy not of flesh and blood.

It may be easier to swallow some of this imagery if you consider 20th century folk singer Woody Guthrie.  He believed that his greatest weapon against the evils of his time, including fascism, was through his music.  Imagine a picture of Woody Guthrie with his guitar, which said on it, “This machine kills fascists.”  Then reread the line from Revelation “And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations.”  (I’d love to take credit for this juxtapostion, but saw this very image HERE: http://www.culture-voice.com/Home/Olorin/WhenMetaphorsAttack/tabid/273/Default.aspx    Jesus confronts and overcomes evil on a completely different plane than evil itself.  He lives life with a completely different set of weapons – in the words of Ephesians, weapons of truth, righteousness, faith, salvation.  That’s the song Jesus sings and it undermines the very foundations of the droning powers of death.  It’s such a different way of being in the world that we’re still trying to let it convert our imaginations which have been so taken up by physical violence. 

I have to admit I still have mixed feelings about violent metaphors, but if we are going to wear this armor, then for the church to be the church, it means that we are engaged in an active and pro-active process.  Pacifism is not passive.  Nonviolence is not noninvolved.  We are challenged to be fearless in doing our own soul work.  The internal battle.  In confronting the demons in our own lives, our own inner struggle to let the gospel of peace be planted firmly within us. 

And as we do this we become strong in prayer and word and deed.  In the manner of 21st century warfare, maybe we need to think of ourselves as going around and dropping cluster bombs of joy.  Or we should get in the driver’s seat of the Humvee of reconciliation.  Or we could learn the techniques for rigging up IED’s of forgiveness.  Sounds like explosive stuff. 

Twenty five years ago, at the Mennonite World Conference held in Stasbourg, France, Ron Sider gave a speech that still gets talked about.  He challenged Anabaptists to consider all of the resources, and energy, and commitment and loyalty that go into physically fighting for peace.  He observes that “Those who have believed in peace through the sword have not hesitated to die. Proudly, courageously, they gave their lives. Again and again, they sacrificed bright futures to the tragic illusion that one more righteous crusade would bring peace in their time. For their loved ones, for justice, and for peace, they have laid down their lives by the millions.”  He then had some extremely challenging words.  In short, he called on the church to approach its mission with the same energy, passion, and willingness to give one’s life for the way of peace that we proclaim.  He called on the church to form and train peacemakers who would be willing to develop and implement nonviolent means to intervening in conflicts around the world.  In many ways, this is a vision that is yet to be fulfilled.  From this speech did come the creation of Christian Peacemaker Teams, who continue to serve in various conflict areas, not nearly on the scale of what Sider was calling for, but they have done amazing work.

Not all of us will serve on a Christian Peacemaker Team, but the thrust of the speech brings home the point.  The church, to be the church, is a church in mission.  And that mission happens wherever God has placed us.  For example, right here in the Cincinnati area.  A church actively engaging the world through the same Spirit, singing the same subversive song, as Christ.  To know this call as a church but to be not engaged in this way, would be setting up two of the most bizarre, most disjointed, contrast of images yet.

“For We Are Members Of One Another” – 8/09/09 – Ephesians 4:25-5:2

When I study a passage of scripture I like to read the whole passage together multiple times – try and take it as a whole chunk of communication rather than being too quick to search for sound-bites or one-liners, but in this Ephesians passage I kept wanting to stop after a phrase in the very first verse.  That verse, Ephesians 4:25, reads:  “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”  It was the last part of that line that had my attention.  “For we are members of one another.”  The writer of the letter throughout has been developing this image of the church as a body – and not just any body – the body of Christ – and now this verse takes that idea deeper with this provocative phrase – “members of one another.”  Us.

Usually when I’m struck by a phrase like that the next step is to try to find the right question to ask.  One question we could ask is “Do we really believe that?” and if so, what does that mean for us?  If we’re going to buy in to this body image of the church, one body, us being components of that body, then do we believe that we are indeed members of one another, connected in such an organic kind of way?  This is an OK question, but I think there may be a better one.  Since we are talking about the body, with all its senses that tell it is alive and that it is connected to a whole ecology of life, maybe the question should be “Do we feel that?”  Do you feel that we are members of one another?  The “we” here being the church both local and global.  Do we sense and know in a way that surpasses intellectual assent, feel in our gut, this to be so? 

My answer to that, I find, straightforward and unambiguous person that I am, is “sometimes, to varying degrees.”       

“Connected” is a word that gets a fair amount of useage these days.  For good reason.  The technological advances of the last 10-15 years have brought about a condition that allows for amazing opportunities for connectivity.  The writing of this sermon is an example.  The bulk of this sermon was worked out on Thursday afternoon, sitting at the Red Tree art gallery and coffee shop in Oakley.  With the laptop I was able to work on the sermon, be constantly connected to email through the wireless connection, go online to check a couple commentaries on the Ephesians passage.  I had my cell phone right beside me, able to almost instantly reach and be reached by anyone.  Over the speakers various folk/rock artists from around the country were singing their best songs to us as I drank good coffee that probably came from half way around the world.

Even when I myself was half way around the world a couple weeks ago, in Paraguay, there were still opportunities for such connectivity.  Only a couple blocks from my hotel was an internet café that I visited every evening to keep up with the flow into the inbox – and this itself is pretty old school.  Others there were able to keep up through Blackberries and I-phones in their pockets.

Does this connectivity, or hyperconnectivity some would say, make me, make us, more spiritual people?  More conscious of being members of one another?  Less? 

Ephesians is thought to be a second generation Pauline letter, which means that Paul himself most likely did not write the letter, but a student of Paul who would have had a similar theological orientation.  It was common to write in the name of a mentor or master, so when the letter opens with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” it is most likely a student honoring the master.  The best way I’ve had this explained to me goes this like:  In our time, if you have been deeply influenced by the thought of a certain teacher, and you claim to write something under their name, you get in trouble.  In certain settings of ancient times, if you have been deeply influenced by a master and have been a student of their thought and you claim to write something under your own name, you get in trouble.  Since the author of Ephesians identifies himself as Paul, I’ll also call him Paul, but you may want to keep in mind that scholars would prefer to put quotes around the “Paul” who is writing this. 

So these are second, third, fourth generation Christians who are reading this letter – those who had not known Christ in bodily form.  Now being told that through the power of the Holy Spirit they are the Body of Christ.  Really?  If we haven’t had the original revelation or experience of being with Jesus, of seeing how he embodied the love of God, how are we to feel this to be true?  How do we experience being members of that body?  Members of one another.  Connected with one another through spiritual ligaments and blood flow and nerves – knee bone connected to the thigh bone, thigh bone connected to the hip bone.

Here’s a thought: if this much is true – if we have through grace, through the abundant mercy of God, through the steadfast love of God, been brought in, been welcomed into the body of Christ – then a significant part of the journey from here on out is learning to feel one another.  Learning to feel our one bodyness, and to let that shape who we are becoming.

I think there is an element of risk in all this.  If we start to develop and grow in this type of relationship with each other, it changes things.

Before going to Mennonite World Conference I knew very little about the Democratic Republic of Congo.  I knew they were having a drawn out civil war, but didn’t know much about it or have any personal connections to it.  I still know very little about the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I have a few more connections that make me more aware of being a part of the same body as Congolese sisters and brothers.  This happened in a few different ways.  One of the preachers during the worship sessions was a leader from the Congolese church.  He spoke passionately about the importance of doing justice and living the gospel of peace.  It sounded like a fairly standard social justice sermon.  He included the importance of empowering women to be leaders.  And then at one point when he was talking about the women in his country he started crying and said that some of these women have experienced too much pain that they will never fully heal.  He spoke in French and I was listening to an English translation over headphones, so I didn’t pick up all the nuance of what he was saying.  A little later in the week I ran into James Kraybill who works with Mennonite Mission Network and has spent much of his life in French speaking Africa.  He asked me if I noticed that the speaker from Congo had cried.  I said I had, and he said that there are women all throughout the Congo who are being raped as an act of war.  Many of the women are then shot afterward, and some of them survive.  He said this is what Congolese pastors have on their plates when it comes to issues of pastoral care and why the speaker had mourned that some of these women will never fully heal.  At another point in the week I was able to listen in on a group of US and Congolese leaders who sat together to follow up on developing deeper ties between the two churches.  Ed Diller, as moderator of MC USA, will be a part of this work in the next couple years.  Before leaving the conference I visited the artisans’ booth that had handcrafts that people brought and were selling.  I purchased from a Congolese woman who had made a piece of fabric art on burlap that portrayed a proud African woman holding a jar of water on her head that she was carrying to her village, wearing a pearl necklace and pearl earrings and a bright colorful dress.  This is now hanging on the wall in our kitchen.

This might be a risky move.  I don’t know what these connections mean, but I know that as a result of being able to travel, and hear these stories, and meet some people, I have a deeper sense of being members of one another.  And I hope that I can be more prayerful toward the people of the Congo. 

Closer to home, we know that we are given opportunities to live out being members of one another.  When our Belle was stillborn in May and you surrounded us with prayer and thoughtful cards and meals, we experienced a piece of what it is like to be members of one another.  When we hear that Margaret Penner, not yet 25 years old, is now undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, even though she is now living in Tucson, we know that we are a part of one body.  When we followed Jared Hess’ blog entries, we feel that we are members of one another.  And in our joys, when we celebrate our youth coming of age, when we cheer someone completing the hard work of a master’s degree, or an anniversary, we share in being members of one another. 

This is our gift and challenge of being the church.  In Romans Paul describes this as “Rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn” (12:15).  As humans we have this amazing ability to feel things that we don’t personally experience, or put another way and maybe a little more accurately, we have the ability to enter into an experience that is not initially our own and make it our own.  Part of the risk, I suppose, involves being changed by one another in ways we can’t control as the experience of one member is sensed by other members. 

Well, that’s the first verse of the passage – Ephesians 4:25.  Only nine more to go.  What follows after this verse is a series of instructions.  In this context of membership in one another, these instructions go beyond individual moralism.  Righteousness, holiness, takes shape in relationship.  It concerns the whole health of the body.  It’s not just a matter of I don’t do these bad things or I do these good things, but that we are a part of the same body, and that Christ is present here with us, and so we are trying to be a healthy, flourishing body together.

I like the NRSV translation of v. 26 – “Be angry, but do not sin; don’t not let the sun go down on your anger.”  I like it that we’re allowed to be angry, and maybe being in touch with the sins or the sorrows of the world will give us some needed anger.  There’s this great line that Bono from the band U2 has said.  And I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something to the effect that he had heard that having kids was supposed to mellow you out, give you a more settled down approach to life.  But, he said, for him, it made him all the more fired up and angry about all the evils in the world.  And so he has taken on this tremendous campaign of essentially asking people to consider that the poorest of the poor children of the world are also our own.    

Be angry, but in your anger, do not sin. 

I’m just going to go ahead and read through this whole passage now and then end with a thought.  Some  instructions of body members relating to one another: “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.  Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.  Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.  Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

A closing thought, on the way this passage concludes:  Lest we feel that all this happens at our initiative, that we are the ones who must create out of nothing this bond of love with one another.  All of this is couched in the overarching love of God.  Rather than an act of initiation, ours is an act of imitation.  “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  Live in love.”  God has dearly loved us before any of our loving occurs.  God has risked creating this bizarre dust creature with breath and consciousness and a strong will and we are loved despite our fragmented, disconnecting tendencies.  God has already forgiven before we can bring ourselves to forgive.  And Christ has already blazed a trail.  We are imitators.  We receive what is freely given, and we allow ourselves to learn to imitate this love.  We catch a wiff of that fragrant offering of Christ wafting around us and we try and let some of that stick to our skin.  We already live in love.  We are members of Christ’s body.  We are members of one another.