“In the wilderness prepare the way” OR “What shall I cry?” | Advent 2 | December 10

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-6; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 1:46-55

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-4

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  


Wilderness, desert, valley, mountain, uneven ground, a plain.  These are the features that inhabit the words of Isaiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon.  And running through it all, a road, a highway straight and level.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For this way to become a way, valleys needed to be lifted up, mountains and hills brought low.  Obstacles would be removed, uneven spots leveled out.

The last time I was on a road in the wilderness was two weeks ago, although it was more a path than a road, and not so much a wilderness as a few acres of woods.  And there were plenty of uneven spots.  But stick with me.

It was the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, late afternoon, the final daylight hours of our family holiday on the farm in Bellefontaine.  It had been a sunny day, but we’d spent a solid four hours cooped up in the basement by the TV, watching young men collide into each other in an attempt to advance an oblong shaped ball down a field toward a designated zone.  With the game over, victory achieved, a renewed sense that all is well and right with the world, it was time for a walk.

We’d been wanting to do this all weekend.  Children and adults headed out toward the woods, an island of trees surrounded by farmland.

It’s difficult to make one’s way through these woods, even this time of year without the leaves or sprawling undergrowth.  But Dad had hired a friend who owned a large piece of equipment designed just for the task to come and clear out a path.  It had cut and ground its way through the dense thickets, avoiding the larger trees, making a path wide enough for a group of people to walk through comfortably.  It made a way in our little wilderness.

The trees are a mix of species, hickory and oak, black cherry, but the most common is honey locust.  A few years ago we had a forester walk through with us and he estimated the woods were about 50% honey locust.  That’s unusually high.

Honey locust is not a particularly pleasant tree.  Growing up, we just called them thorn trees.  This is because… they’re covered in thorns.  The trunks are covered with thorns, the branches are covered with thorns.  Even the thorns are covered with thorns.  There is a thornless variety that grows well in cities, but these aint no city trees.  One of my nephews, who goes barefoot just about everywhere, turned back part way into the hike after realizing the odds were not in his favor of returning without a bloody foot.

The woods are also overrun with honey-suckle, not to be confused with honey locust.  In this part of the world bush honeysuckle is known as an invasive.  It out-competes native species with its aggressive growth and prolific seed production.  It spreads fast.  It shades out the forest floor and prevents other seedlings from getting the sunlight they need to grow.  Without some kind of intervention the honey-suckle could keep choking out new generations of trees.  If it keeps doing that until all the other larger trees that got there first die out, it would be all that’s left.

These woods are not particularly healthy.

But they feature some beautiful old trees, including a burr oak that dad estimates is perhaps 200 years old.  It was there long before the honey locust and the honey suckle.  Standing under the extended branches of the burr oak is itself worth the trip back to the woods.  The path strategically goes right by it.

It’s not a perfectly smooth path, and it’s not a healthy woods.  Even in this peaceful corner of the world there are signs that all is not right and well.  But the path opens up a way to move through it all.  To witness and even enjoy it.

We arrive safely back to the house just as the sun is about the set in the west.

Flute: My soul cries out 1x (no refrain)

Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 1 (no refrain)

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”  


There’s so much that needs said, so much urging us to cry out, or just cry.

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

Where to even start?

Isaiah starts with a road in the wilderness.  “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For Isaiah, the way in the wilderness was a message of comfort.  It was good news, spoken to a people living with generational trauma from having been violently uprooted from their homeland.

When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed its temple they claimed not only the land, but also what they considered to be the best of the population, for themselves.  Palestine was on the western tip of the fertile crescent, Babylon on the east.  The captors would have marched their captives up and around that fertile crescent, staying close to water sources and other life support systems as they went.   Below the fertile crescent, directly between Palestine and Babylon, was an infertile desert.

So when Isaiah cries out to prepare a highway in the desert for God, he’s speaking about the most direct path from exile to home.  It’s the shortest distance between two points, and when that line goes through a desert, you better make it a grand highway.  Lift up the valleys, make the mountains low.  Level out that uneven ground.  We’re about to cruise the sandy hypotenuse of the fertile crescent, with the Lord leading the caravan.

All this talk of raising up valleys and bringing the mountains low is also pregnant with signs of a great reckoning.  It was the powerful conquerors who stood tall like mountains, the conquered who were in the valley looking up.  The work of the Lord involves a great leveling.

Mary echoes these words in her magnificat, spoken during her pregnancy with Jesus.  The song “My soul cries out” sets these words to an Irish folk tune.

A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?”

And Mary says: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout…”

Vocals: My soul cries out, v. 3, with refrain

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn. 

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

We are witnessing, in these last weeks, a moral reckoning – the fall of powerful men, kings of cinema and politics and news media, being brought down from their thrones before our eyes.  Survivors of sexual assault are newly emboldened to cry out from the valley and speak the truth they have known for years.  It’s a densely populated valley.  And they’re being heard, and believed.

The prophet speaks of comfort and tender speech to a traumatized people.  It’s the kind of comfort that is good news, accompanied with a difficult reality.  “Comfort, o comfort my people.”  A way is opened up through wilderness.  But there’s a long journey ahead.  A collective journey through a desert where there is no guarantee of life support systems at every turn.  It’s a road that demands the valleys be raised up, the mountains be brought low.  It’s the direct route back home.

Flute: My soul cries out 1x + refrain

Reading: Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with[f]water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”



When John the baptizer cries out, the word on his lips is “Repent.”

In New Testament Greek the word is metanoia.  It literally means to change one’s mind.  In our age of neurological discovery, we can imagine metanoia as an act of literally rewiring the brain, forming new pathways that result in different destinations for how we live.  Repentance is nothing less than a collective change of consciousness.  In the wilderness that is our mind, the Lord prepares a way.  Baptism in the life giving waters of creation declares our intent to live a life of repentance.  To live in right relationship with creation, one another, and ourselves.  To have the high ego-inflated parts within us to be brought low, to raise up the parts of us that have been silenced or beaten down.  To receive the baptism of Holy Spirit that Jesus offers.

In Hebrew the word for repent Shuv.  It means to turn, or return.  Like you’re walking one direction, and then you turn, you repent, and walk another direction.  Or you return to the home you’ve either forsaken or that was taken from you.  The world is about to turn.

If John the Baptist was a tree he might be a honey locust.  Not because of the bizarre coincidence between this tree’s name and the fact that John survived on honey and locusts in the wilderness.  And not just for the fact that John came across as thorny, referring to people who came to him as poisonous snakes, almost provoking them to stay away lest they get punctured by his sharp language.

As unfriendly as the honey locust appears, it’s a tree that’s in the business of preparing the way.  It’s known as one of the succession trees, and from the forest’s perspective, it is one of those trees whose mission it is to reclaim lost, disturbed, injured land.

It can grow in compacted soil, alkaline and salty soil.  It’s heat and drought tolerant.

Honey locust is a preparer and a repairer.  Its deep fibrous tap root takes up and removes contaminates out of the soil.  It releases a heavy load of leaf matter each year, replenishing nutrients in the soil and building up biomass.  A recent Yale study showed that the leaf litter of honey locust also replenishes nitrogen in the soil, something few other trees do.  It replenishes what has been depleted.  It does difficult work, and trees in the generations that follow all benefit.  The thorns of the honey locust might be a way of the tree crying out: “Hey, I know it’s not pretty, but we’re doing some healing work here.  Step back and give us some space while we turn this place around.”

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.”  Repent.  Change your mind.  Turn.

Flute: My soul cries out, 1x

Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 2 (no refrain)

Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me.
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.

Reading: Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary[a] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”



If 21st century humanity were a tree, or a shrub, we might be honey suckle.  We’re excelled at colonization and conquering territory for ourselves, shading out other life forms, causing them to go into exile, or disappear all-together.  We cast a heavy shadow.  It’s yet to be determined how we might find a balance among the community of life.  Can honey suckle repent?

If Isaiah and Mary were a tree, they might be an old burr oak.  These mother trees not only bear witness to the generations that come and go around them, but they feed the growth of new trees through their roots systems, connected in what’s been called the “wood wide web” through roots and channels of fungi.  They are so established, so certain of themselves, they have such an abundance of life to give that they pour it out beyond themselves.

Mary not only gives birth to Jesus but she accompanies him along the road of life, is by his side during the excruciating hours of crucifixion, and becomes a leader in the community of resurrection.  We share in this community and cry out with her.  This is our Advent prayer and baptismal vow.  It’s the most direct route we know toward home.

Flute + Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 4 + refrain

Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise that holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.


Peacemaking and power | September 17

Texts: Esther 4:10-14; Luke 19:5-10

Here’s a bit of Bible trivia.  What two Hebrew Bible characters are most like Esther?  Think about all those stories you’ve heard, and think about which two most resemble Esther.  Here’s a more specific version of the question: What are the other two Bible stories about the struggles and triumphs of someone who comes to power in the court of a foreign king?

Anybody want to give it a try?  ……………

Esther, and Daniel, and Joseph, make up this small sub-genre of stories: Jews who come to power in the court of a foreign king.

Over the last few decades biblical scholars have been emphasizing just how influential an event was the exile from Jerusalem to Babylon at the beginning of the 6th century BCE.  Much of the Hebrew Bible, at least in its final form, was written out of this experience of exile and empire – of being foreigners, and strangers in a strange land.  And when that’s the place where you’re standing when you’re telling and writing down your stories, it affects everything.

One way of reading the Bible is simply as the story of a people living under a succession of empires.  In this sense, the Bible is one of the few cases in which history is told by the losers rather than the winners.

In Egypt the Hebrews were slaves.  In Babylon the Jews were exiles, displaced persons.  In Persia the Jews were foreigners, generations removed from their homeland.  In all these places they were the outsiders.

But there are these three stories of people who rose to positions of power as insiders within the empire.

In Egypt the Hebrews were slaves – but there’s Joseph, son of Israel, a previous Pharaoh’s right hand man, in charge of gathering and distributing massive stores of grain during a regional famine.  Keeping the world alive.

In Babylon the Jews were exiles – but there’s Daniel, whispering in the ear of the king, entrusted like no other as an advisor and interpreter of the king’s dreams.  Seemingly the only one in the room able to read the signs of the times.

In Persia the Jews were foreigners – but there’s Esther, the favored one of the women with which the king surrounded himself, gaining a hearing with the king and influencing national policy that directly impacted her people.

These are stories told by outsiders about one of their own as an insider.  They play with the question of what it means to wield power in a way that builds up a community.  Power as empowering others, and protecting vulnerable people, or not.  What does it mean to be wise? these stories repeatedly ask.  Joseph and Daniel are both dreamers and interpreters of dreams.  How might our dreams be infiltrated with the Divine imagination to see deeply into what’s really going on.  Esther hears the call from her community and finds courage to take a risk.  What risks must we take for the good of the whole?

One of the strange dynamics of our own time is that just about everyone feels like an outsider in regards to having power.  We are highly polarized in the broader church and culture, but one thing we have in common is that hardly anybody feels like they’re on the inside track of steering this thing toward their desired outcome.  Maybe it has something to do with each of us being one of 7+ billion people on the planet.  Maybe it has something to do with the planet showing signs of fighting back against our cumulative effect of altering land, sea, and sky.  Maybe we’re bogged down in bureaucracy.  Maybe we’re just trying to hold our stuff together and have some semblance of sanity.  Maybe we’ve lost the ability to dream or the appetite for risk.

However we tell our own story, it’s pretty easy to shape it as that of an outsider.  If you hang around the Mennonite church long enough, you’ll likely pick up on one version of this.

With today being Peace Sunday, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that peace, peacemaking, not resisting evil with violence, has been a core part of the Anabaptist Mennonite faith from its beginnings.  Our faith ancestors agreed that while they were willing to die for their faith, they weren’t willing to kill for it.  They took their guidance directly from the Christians gospels, from the teachings and the life of Jesus.

Those 16th century Anabaptists were in many ways outsiders, even to the broader Protestant reformation that was happening around them.  They wouldn’t swear their allegiance to any local prince, wouldn’t take up arms to defend territory, wouldn’t allow their infant children to be baptized into a Christendom that would put a sword in their hand.  Several thousand of them died as martyrs.  The survivors migrated east and west, some eventually landing in the United States.

In this country, we are among the historic peace churches that have conscientiously objected to participation in military combat.  Instead, we’ve done alternative forms of service, like conservation projects, and working in state mental hospitals.  Rather than pledging allegiance to a national flag, we pledge allegiance to the Christ whose love knows no borders.  “With liberty and justice for all.”

If we tell the story in a certain way, we’re still the outsiders, the exiles.

Told another way, we’ve become acculturated middle-class Americans, those of us of European descent silently adopted into the living legacy of whiteness.  And as the comedian Louis CK says, it’s not that white people are better, it’s that being white is better…for you.

But what if your identity is connected to being an outsider, with martyrs to show for it?  And if this hasn’t been a part of your religious lineage, perhaps you can still agree that positioning yourself as a persecuted minority feels like the more righteous way to be.

This is where Joseph and Daniel and Esther might have something to say to us.  Not that we’re kicking back every day in the court of the king, but we do have power.  And as Mordechai tells Esther, and here I’m only slightly paraphrasing, to deny that power at such a time as this would be a tragedy.

Power doesn’t have to mean political power.  This week I was talking with a neighbor who’s one of the pastors of the Vineyard.  We were talking about sanctuary and immigration and he was saying how one of the ways they serve folks new to the country is to help them set up their cell phone service.  It turns out knowing English and knowing how to navigate a customer service phone tree is a form of power, and not everyone has it.  They are using power to serve and empower.

Owning property and a church building is a form of power.  Owning a home, or having a place to call home is a form of power.  It might be a place where you provide sanctuary or hospitality for someone, or it may simply be a place where you restore your own soul and get good sleep to be your best self when you’re not at home.

And as the group that visited our sister church in Colombia experienced, sometimes power looks like being the rich Americans with enough disposable income to fly down to visit a sister church.  Debra will have more reflections about the challenges of those dynamics.

And so even though we seek to be voluntary outsiders to the violence and materialism and racism of our culture, there are ways in which we are insiders.  We are Esther, and we find ourselves where we are for such a time as this.  A time that calls for courage and risk taking.  This is the present work of being a peace maker.

We are Esther, and we are Zacchaeus, the insider in that next empire, Rome, the new Rome, who has in many ways sold out to the system.  Benefiting as a collector of other’s wealth, living comfortably.  But today Jesus is coming through town.  We’ve heard about him.  We’re curious, but keep our distance.  We’d like to observe for a while, preferably anonymously.  But Jesus walks right up to us, invites himself over to our house, and reveals to us a kind of power we’ve never known.  It’s a power of pure presence, the authority of an authentic human being who knows himself, herself in God.  A power so full and rich that it needs no violence or coercion to have its affect.  It enters the house and fills the whole room, and we cannot help but be moved by it.  We find ourselves welcomed on the inside of the Divine work of salvation – ourselves and others becoming whole.  As we make commitments to serve this power alone, We hear the words of Jesus and can barely believe they’re addressed to us: “Today salvation has come to this house.”





“The Lord appeared to Abraham…” | September 10

Texts: Genesis 18:1-15; Luke 6:17-21

“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”  This is a story about an appearance, a visitation.  “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre.”  And any story that features trees in the opening line is bound to be a good one.

It’s a good story for the moment we’re in, and for Christian Education Sunday.

Ask Mark, or anyone who’s ever served on Christian Education Commission, or anyone who’s ever been a teacher of any kind, and they’ll tell you that the work of education, the work of formation, is slow.  It’s gradual.  It’s cumulative.  The formation of our minds and hearts takes place over the course of years and decades.  It’s a journey, we like to say.    We when go off to Sunday school we know this is the kind of work we’re doing.

And yet…when we look back there are certain experiences that stand out as especially formative, sometimes life changing.  Sometimes something as simple as the right phrase, spoken by the right person at the right time when we were especially ready to receive it, can be a signpost we reference the rest of our lives.  Like that time my mom said to me sometime during my childhood growing up on the farm: “Joel, your brother and sisters bring stray animals into the house, but you bring stray people.”  So the seed of being a pastor was planted early.  Thankfully, I’ve since given up on saving stray people and am much more interested in enjoying them and, in the process, becoming a little more stray myself.

There are moments, phrases, experiences that stand out as formative.  Educational.

This is a story that invites us to consider those kinds of experiences.  It’s a story that has some similarities with the kind of experience we’ve had the last two weeks in opening our church as sanctuary.  It’s a story about an appearance, a visitation.

And it’s printed in your bulletins if you want to have the text in front of you.

Genesis 18: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.”

This is what the narrator tells us.  But there’s no hint that Abraham knows what he’s getting himself into.  It’s a hot day, and he has set up camp under the shade of some oak trees.  He’s sitting at the entrance of his tent, doing not much.  It’s a leisurely opening that also tips us off to something Abraham does not yet know: The Lord is about to appear.

What this actually looks like is described in verse two: “Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him.”  What the appearance of the Lord looks like in this story is people, in the form of three travelers.

With this surprising leap from “the Lord” to three people, it was probably inevitable that later Christian tradition would read back into this Hebrew story a foreshadowing of Trinitarian theology.  God in three persons: Person 1: The Creator, Father/Mother, Boundless Source of all that is.  Lover.  Person 2: The Word, the Son, Beloved, that which eternally proceeds from the Source and bears its very nature.  Person 3: The Spirit, The breath, the gaze of Love between Lover and Beloved.  Together an endlessly creating, loving, self emptying and filling Whole.  Talk about something that takes a lifetime of slow growth to understand, there you have it.

The image on the bulletin cover is from the 15th century painter Rublev, considered the most famous of all Russian icons.  It is called The Trinity and is based on this story, the three visitors as angels sitting down for a meal under the oaks.  One of the beautiful features is the way the postures flow in a circle.  Follow the direction of their relationship, each leading you toward the next, and you join in the eternal flow.


But that’s a much later layer of interpretive tradition.  To Abraham they are three hungry travelers with dusty feet.

Upon seeing them, Abraham runs to greet them, bows before them, and in good Middle Eastern fashion, makes them feel like they’ll be doing him a favor if they only accept his hospitality.  Water for dusty feet, rest under the trees, and bread for the stomach.

They accept the offer.

From a leisurely opening, there is a noticeable change of pace.  Abraham runs to greet the travelers.  After they agree to stay, he hastens to find his wife Sarah who hastens to make cakes from the best flour on hand.  Abraham then runs to get a servant to slaughter a young, tender, choice calf.  This is the heat of the day, remember, and everyone is running and hastening.  This is a mad frenzy of hospitality in full motion.  Even the servant hastens to prepare the calf.  Abraham gathers all these things together, and brings them to the three visitors under the shade of the tree.

Deep breath.

This tale of hastening and hustling for hospitality, feels very much like the story of our last two weeks of speeding and sprinting for sanctuary.  Our visitors came in the form of Edith Espinal and her family.  Our short time frame between being aware of the need for sanctuary and the deadline to decide led to what has to be close to a church record for processing a major decision in a short amount of time.  I’ve said this a number of times now to different groups, and I can’t remember who even initially said it, or if it just emerged from group conversation, but during this experience I believe we’ve discovered a hierarchy of values.  A very high value is thoughtful or thorough process, and it serves us well.  An even higher value, it turns out, is protecting the vulnerable.  CMC hierarchy of values: very thorough congregational process (high).  Protect the vulnerable and process as you go (higher).  At least that’s the order for this experience.

So even though we did our best to gather multiple times for sharing information and questions and concerns before making a decision for sanctuary, we are still retroactively processing what it means.  This would be the case whether Edith were still here or currently living at home.  It has been two weeks of hastening and running, and planning and installing and arranging and plumbing and interior decorating and singing and welcoming and showing up in green shirts and keeping quiet and spreading the word and…being educated.  It’s been one of those experiences, and it’s hard to know what it all means when you’re still in it.

As someone in the privileged position of being able to witness much of this unfold in real time, it has looked like a series of miracles.  It has looked like people being the hands and feet of the Lord.  It has been an unanticipated Divine appearance.  The Lord has visited in the form of one person named Edith and five people named the Espinal family, and a team of supportive organizations, and 10 and 50 and 200 Mennonites, and many more community members.  And the cumulative effect is that we have sat together under the shade of sanctuary in the heat of the day.  Or should I say “are sitting together,” present tense.

Deep breath.

The visitors eat their fill, but that’s not the end of the story.  When the Lord appears, the story never ends where you think it might.  The visitors will not go before they leave a gift.

The next phase of this story starts in verse 9 with a question: “Where’s Sarah?”  And with that, our attention shifts from one partner, Abraham, to the other.  Sarah had been in the background, donating time and skills without visibility.  But the gift can’t happen without her.  Despite her being “advanced in age” which is a great phrase, by the way, for education Sunday.  I’m not old, I’m in the advanced class of aging.  Despite the opening of this story failing to mention that the Lord would appear to Abraham and Sarah, it is she who will be the bearer of the gift.

The gift, of course, is the promise of a child.  In a culture so focused on biological lineage and the worth of a woman tied up in how many children, preferably male children, she bears her husband, this means everything.  Without a child, the story ends for Abraham and Sarah.  In a broader sense, detached from mere biology, the promise means that something new is about to be born.  Something with a life of its own.  Something unexpected and even miraculous.  It’s akin to the New Testament experience of resurrection.  The trajectory of death gets interrupted, and in its place is a brand new life.  The visitors receive the gift of hospitality from Abraham and Sarah, and they leave a gift.

This story begins in leisure, transitions into running and haste, finds rest and sustenance in tree shade, and moves through doubt of something new being possible, and ends, with laughter.  The story is evenly split between focusing on Abraham and then Sarah, and half of the Sarah portion has to do with laughter.  There’s the laugh itself, the question about why she laughed, the denial of the laugh, and the delightful ending out of the mouth of the visitor, confirming the laugh.  In the words of the NRSV.  “Oh yes you did laugh.”

The child to be born will be named Isaac, which is the Hebrew word for laughter, and so the heavy focus on laughter – No I didn’t, yes you did, no I didn’t, Oh yes you did – becomes a playful prelude to an impossible pregnancy that will give birth to “laughter.”   Yes you will.

I wanted to pair this story with the reading of Luke’s beatitudes, and I’d forgotten that they also include laughter.  “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

Our and Edith’s experience of sanctuary so far has included both weeping and laughter.  Edith was able to return home with a big smile on her face, but the immigration system is not as reliable as a promise from the Lord.  It’s much more of the back and forth no you can’t, yes you can for now, no you can’t, and less of the timeline for wondrous fulfillment that Sarah is given.

And yet, “blessed are those who weep now, for you will laugh.”

And blessed are those who like Abraham make haste to extend hospitality, for, like Sarah, they will give birth to new life.  What that life will be we don’t yet know.  It does appear to be already conceived and growing, a baby bump on the congregational body.  And, as we celebrated three weeks ago, we are 55 years old, so miracles do still happen.  But I better not endanger my wellbeing here by saying that those who are 55 qualify as being advanced in years.

As we enter a time of silent reflection, I invite you to do so with Rublev’s trinity painting in front of you.  It is the visitors who are the Lord who appear, receiving and giving gifts.  As you look at the image, allow yourself to move from one of the guests to the other, in that endless circle that the painter encourages through the postures.  And as you enter that circle where there is only love, consider how you are being drawn into the Divine life.  A life characterized by hospitality and generosity, a life where there those who weep are blessed.  A life with room for laughter.

After the silence we will sing Caminamos en la luz de Dios, We are marching in the light of God.  This is the song we sing to welcome newborn Isaacs into our congregation during child blessings.  It’s the song we sang this past Monday evening to welcome a visitor into sanctuary in our building.

From loss to celebration | 11 September 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Luke 15:1-10


It’s our first Sunday back in this building which is feeling both familiar and new.  It’s the opening Sunday of the Christian Education year.  And it’s the fifteen year anniversary, today, of the 9/11 attacks.

Any one of these three could be the focus of a worship theme.  But with all three we have a full plate.

One of the most startling realizations I had this past week was that for all of our young people starting Sunday school today, 9/11 is an historical event.  Something to read and hear stories about, but not something they, you, experienced personally.  Even our high school seniors were just two or three years old when it happened.  Recent college grads were in their first years of elementary school.  The post 9/11 world is the only world you’ve known.  Fifteen years ago our country was the big kid out on the playground, and got sucker punched in front of everyone.  We’ve been hitting back ever since, uncertain how to heal.

I love how our lectionary scriptures keep us grounded in a bigger story.  A story that stands on its own, yet manages to speak something fresh into our time.  Today’s two readings share a common theme of loss, with Jeremiah anticipating an impending loss, and Luke offering parables that conclude in celebration, on the other side of loss.  Loss is something that happens at every level of existence, from the national loss of an event like 9/11, to personal loss – a sheep, a coin, a parent, an ability, losing our bearings, losing our religion, losing our mind.  Loss.

Civil rights veteran John Perkins is fond of saying that a leader is someone who is willing to enter into the pain of their people.  By this definition, the prophet Jeremiah was an exemplary leader of the people of Judah during a period of national crisis.  His public witness spanned 40 years before and during the great exile, when Jerusalem and its temple were crushed by the Babylonians.  Everyone of social standing was carried away in exile.  Only the poor were left behind to work the land.

Jeremiah is sometimes known as the ‘weeping prophet.’  At the beginning of chapter 9 he cries out, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”

Chapter four, which we read part of, contains an even more visceral description of Jeremiah entering into the pain of his people.  In Verse 19 he cries out, “My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!  Oh, the walls of my heart!  My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.”  His people are about to be swallowed up by the violence of a massive empire, and Jeremiah is about to have a heart attack.  He feels the anguish and anxiety in his capillaries.  Being a prophet can be hazardous to one’s health.

Just as aside, it’s interesting to see the rise in the emphasis on self-care these days.  There’s a growing awareness, a healthy awareness, that taking care of your own heart is not only good for you, but good for the movement.  Jeremiah could have used this counsel.

Jeremiah 4 continues with a remarkable passage.  There are only two places in the Hebrew Bible that contain the poetic Hebrew phrase ToHu va BoHu.  In English it is translated as “formless and void,” or “formless and empty,” or, the more poetic, “welter and waste.”  It shows up here in Jeremiah 4:23.  The other, much more familiar reference, is Genesis 1.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth, it was formless and void.”  ToHu va BoHu.

In Genesis, this characterizes the beginning point of creation.  It is the condition of chaos and disorder into which the god, Elohim, speaks, and thus creates.  It’s an account of structure emerging from no-structure that unfolds kind of like a time lapse video that we didn’t take of our stage and kitchen renovations.  Start with the void right after demolition, and watch it emerge from nothing more than an idea.  Seth Trance and Ajay Massey skillfully play the part of Elohim.  The configuration takes shape, all the infrastructure is set in place, and finishing touches are made.  It is complete, but merely beginning.  The stage is set, so to speak.  The platform is ready for action, the backdrop is ready for artistic expression, and the kitchen is ready to start cooking up all kinds of goodness.  The kitchen is almost ready.

In Genesis, Elohim utters language into the formlessness and void.  Light!  Land!  Creatures of sea, earth, and sky.  Humanity.  Order and life emerge from disorder.  Scattered atoms and molecules co-ordinate and co-operate.  Creation flows forth in ever more complex arrangements, creating and recreating itself.

Humans are birthed with god-like powers, in the image of Elohim.  The bright light of consciousness burns strong within them.  More than other creatures, they subdue animal instinct.  They will soon start making stuff, making decisions.  And Elohim saw it all, and lo, it was very good.

This is the cosmos that Genesis 1 narrates into being.   This is the sacred world of original blessing and goodness that permeated the Hebrew mind.  The world into which the children of Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, are born, called to be a blessing to all people.

And so when Jeremiah samples this phrase from Genesis, he conjures this entire meaning-making structure of Hebrew myth.  But for Jeremiah, the prophet of weeping and anguish, creation has gone terribly awry.   The prophet says, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was formless and void, Tohu va Bohu, and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking…I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.”  When Jeremiah looks at what is happening to his people and land, he sees Genesis 1 in reverse.  The video is playing backwards.  The people, the birds, the light, are gone, and we’re back to welter and waste.  The world that he loves has been un-created.  It is a picture of devastating loss.

And it’s important to recognize this as a double loss.  There is the loss of temple, and land, the loss of precious lives, the loss of political independence.  That’s one kind of loss.  But there’s another form of loss that is equally or perhaps even more anguishing.  There is the loss of a coherent way of making sense of the world.  A crisis of meaning.  By evoking the foundational meaning-making myth of his people, Jeremiah is acknowledging that not only have the structures of their buildings been leveled, but so too has the structure of their minds.  A people whose identity was attached so closely to land, temple, and king, now has none of those.  Not only did their god not protect them, but, as far as they could imagine, their god turned against them, rousing their enemies to come and destroy them.  And now, neither they nor their go have a place to call home.  They have been exiled from all they hold sacred.  The stories they told about themselves and their divinely ordained destiny no longer fit their present reality.

After the weeping, what’s next?  In the late 60’s psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  But when a loss messes with the mythic structure of our minds, there’s even more work to be done.

If we can recognize ourselves, and our nation, in this story, we might wonder if we too have undergone a double loss in the last 15 years.  We’ve done well in the rebuilding of the physical structures, but our national myths and sense of collective meaning are not near as solid.  I wonder if this is one of the reasons why “Make America Great Again” has captured the imaginations of so many people.  It’s an incredibly powerful myth.  We were once a blessed and great people.  We will be great again.  Never mind that the further you go back in time toward the elusive golden age, the more and more people are disenfranchised, the closer we get to outright patriarchy, slavery of Africans and genocide of Natives.  But myths and facts don’t always rhyme, and when our meaning making structures have been rendered formless and void, we need a myth to give shape to our reality.  Even the postmodern allergy to meta-narratives is itself a kind of myth.  We can shoulder all kinds of losses and make it through to the other side of acceptance, but when we lose our story of who we are, and how we fit into the bigger picture, we are truly lost.

Why is it that a professional football player who is refusing to stand for the national anthem until something is done about black suffering is getting so much attention these days?  Could it be that his action is a full on threat to the kind of myth some folks are trying to hold on to with all their might?  A myth of our own inherent goodness and benevolence and blessedness.  For the myth to really work, everyone has to stand and pledge their allegiance to it.

When I sat down to write this sermon I didn’t set out to talk about myth, but that’s obviously the direction it took.  We are starting the Sunday school year today.  More than just learning information and  Bible stories, I suggest that the most important learning we can be doing together is the learning of an alternative myth to the ones we are regularly told.  And this is a very Anabaptist and Mennonite approach to what faith and religion offer us.  Rather than teaching us how to be nice and well-adjusted people within the political and economic systems we inhabit, our Christ-centered faith has something to say about the very underlying assumptions of what it means to be blessed, to be successful, to be human.

Our faith proposes that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross is the ultimate myth-busting event of history.  The gods of empire, nationalism, and more recently, consumer capitalism, rely on the myth of their own goodness in order to survive.  They are there to protect and shepherd us into safety and prosperity.  They are watching over us for our well-being.  Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for they are with us.  The nation’s arsenal of weapons will guard us.  The market’s vast array of consumer goods will comfort us.

But when the one who was without fault challenged the goodness of the entire program, gathering and embracing the people it left behind, going on a rant in the sacred precincts of the temple that the leaders of his own people had worked so hard to restore to make Jerusalem great again….When that one was deemed a threat to the whole project, and brutally and publicly executed, it exposed the whole mythic framework of the empire, and any religion that colludes with it.  It rendered it formless and void of any power to save those who most needed salvation.

The earth shook, the sky went dark, the temple veil was torn in two, and the age old myth that had ruled the world for so long was uncreated.  For those with eyes to see, this was ground zero of the apocalypse, and we’ve been living in a post-apocalyptic world ever since.   The old myths are still gasping for breath, grasping for attention, but we’re not buying it.

You also don’t have to buy anything I’m saying.  It’s one way of reading the meaning of the Christian gospel.

And that’s not the end of it.

The gospel speaks not only of crucifixion and myth-busting, but also offers a myth of its own, a story into which we can live.  It’s a story where death is followed by resurrection.  New life, not of our own making, but life given back to us, freed from illusion, energized by love rather than fear, motivated toward restorative justice rather than vengeance.  It’s a story in which everything and everyone belongs.  It’s a story which includes death and loss, but transcends it within a wider circle of abundance and life which leads to more life.  It’s a story in which a single sheep and a single coin, a single life, is deemed valuable enough to go on a great search, to light a lamp and look under furniture.  To poke around in the darkest corners, until the lost one is found.  And when she is found, to not interogate or point fingers or lay blame, but to put out an invite to the entire list of contacts, and throw a celebration, a great fiesta, because what was lost has been found.  And the earth and heavens rejoice.

“Neither shalt thou stand idly by” |24 July 2016

Text: Luke 10:25:37

A woman was walking out from her house to her car when suddenly two men snatched her purse, pushed her down, and fled the scene.  Several of her neighbors heard the commotion, opened their curtains, but quickly closed them again.  Another saw what happened and called 911.  Several others went out to the woman, helped her up, and stayed with her until the police and medics arrived.

Now the two men who mugged her were convicted felons.  They’d recently received early release from prison for good behavior.  They had every intention of finding a job and leading productive lives, but every place they applied rejected their application because of their status as felons.  Like other felons, they were barred from receiving federal cash assistance, food stamps, and other benefits.  They were also ineligible to live in public housing.  Without any source of income and without shelter, they soon resorted to petty crime to supply their needs.

They were never caught for stealing the woman’s purse.  One day, soon afterwards, they saw a news feature about a local organization with an internship program to help the formerly incarcerated get job placements.  Rather than using the word “felon,” or “ex-felon,” this organization referred to people like them as “returning citizens.”  The men visited the organization, were accepted as a part of the program, and after excelling through the six month internship, began full time jobs.  Once they were settled in an apartment with some extra cash, one of them had an idea that the other quickly agreed to, even though it involved breaking the law.

Late at night they returned to the home of the woman they had mugged.  They ran up to the mailbox, put an envelope inside (which is illegal), and drove off down the street before anyone saw them.  The next day when the woman was checking her mail she discovered an envelope full of cash, exactly twice the amount stolen from her purse months before.  She would never find out that the same people who robbed her had become her Good Samaritan.

Like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, this story never actually happened, although I did try to get the legal stuff right about the obstacles returning citizens face with felony charges.  Or maybe this story has happened, without us knowing it.  But it doesn’t have to be historical fact in order to be true.  That’s almost the definition of a parable.  True fiction.

Leviticus 19:18 commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  It’s one of two scriptures cited by an expert in the law as an answer to his own question.  He had asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus had responded by asking him how he saw it.  “What is written in the Torah?” Jesus had asked.  “What do you read there?”

This passage from Leviticus was already recognized as one of the best distillations of the teachings of the Torah.  The prominent Rabbi Hillel, who taught before Jesus’ time and whose teachings Jesus often echoes, was once famously asked by a potential convert to teach him the whole Torah while standing on one leg.  As recorded in the Talmud, Rabbi Hillel assumed the one legged pose and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary.  Go and learn it” (Babylonian Talmud, b. Sabb. 31a).

It’s not an exact quote from Leviticus 19:18, but it gets at the same idea.  According to Rabbi Hillel, and Jesus, and even this expert in the law, fair treatment of one’s neighbor, is the centering principle of the Torah.  Everything else is just commentary.  The Torah is one big jazz performance, with a central theme, accompanied with near endless variations on that theme.

And so simply restating that central theme is not enough for the expert in the law.  “Love your neighbor,” is too general, too broad.  It provokes a follow up question: “And who is my neighbor?”  Give us some commentary, Jesus.  Fill this out for us.  Tell us a story.  Now that the theme has been established, break out the instrument of choice and improvise a variation for us.

And this is what Jesus does.  After being asked this second question, “And who is my neighbor?” he proceeds to tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

One day, not so long ago, a young man by the name of Philando Castile was driving down the streets of suburban St. Paul, Minnesota with his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four year old daughter.  They were on their way home from grocery shopping.  They were pulled over by police officers who radioed a nearby squad that the two adult occupants looked like people involved in a recent robbery.  The officer approached the car and asked Castile to produce his license and registration.

Now a pastor happened to be standing near the scene.  When he saw an officer pulling over a black man he thought to himself, “This is not going to turn out well.”

An activist was also standing nearby.  When she saw this unfolding in front of her she said to herself, “Oh no, here we go again.”

Now a longtime member of the NRA was walking down the street right where the car had been pulled over.  He heard the officer ask for the license and registration and heard Philando Castile reply that they were in his wallet and he would get them out.  When Castile also gave the officer a heads up that he was licensed to carry a gun and had one on him right now, the NRA member noticed the officer reach for his handgun.  Immediately the longtime member of the NRA ran toward the driver side of the car and thrust his body between the officer and Philando Castile.

The NRA member proceeded to defend the second amendment rights of the driver and demand that the officer put his own gun back in its holster.  Several intense minutes later the situation had deescalated.

The officer went back to his car, resuming his patrol of the neighborhood; and Philando Castile, Diamond Reynolds, and her four year old daughter drove home, to put away their groceries.

Like this story, maybe the parable of the Good Samaritan was based on a true story.  Maybe the introduction of the priest and Levite and Samaritan into the mix was a way of imagining how a tragic story could have turned out differently.  What if?  What if the narrative of violence was to be interrupted by someone we would least expect?  Who, I ask you, was the true neighbor in this story?

Perhaps Jesus created the Parable of the Good Samaritan out of scratch.  Or maybe it came to him from a real situation he’d observed or heard about.  But a close reading of Leviticus 19 makes one wonder whether some key ingredients of the parable were already right there, in Leviticus.

Leviticus 19:18 clearly says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but Leviticus 19:16, two verses before it, likely gets lost in translation.  The NRSV has it saying, “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”  If this is the correct translation, and if one were to make a connection between verses 16 and 18 of Leviticus, one might tell a parable much like the one about the robbers who eventually make restitution for their wrongs.  They are caught up in a system in which it is hard to do good, and so they do harm to survive.  After they are shown mercy, they realize they must right the wrongs they’ve done.  They pay back the harm they’ve caused, thereby fulfilling both commandments, Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”  Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I like this story, and since our Bible school theme is Surprise!, I like the surprise twist this places on the familiar parable.  Last week I talked about the injured traveler as the lost character in this parable, the one the original listeners would have identified with but who plays only a minor and passive role in our typical hearing.  But the robbers are the real lost characters.  Why have they stooped to robbing, and where is their redemption?

This is jazz, and a riff like that is perfectly in bounds under the unwritten rules of variations on a theme, but it’s not the variation Jesus took, and that translation of Leviticus 19:16 is not the one the rabbis have favored over the centuries.

The King James Version is a little closer to the plain meaning of the Hebrew, but is still kind of obscure: “neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor.”  Maybe that wasn’t obscure when it was translated 400 years ago, but I’m not sure what it means to “stand against the blood of thy neighbor.”  But the Hebrew word is indeed “stand” rather than “profit,” and there’s some relationship between that posture, and the blood of one’s neighbor.

The traditional translation from the Jewish Publication Society clarifies this.  It uses the phrase that I included as the sermon title: “neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.”  This translation makes Leviticus 19:16 a commandment against indifference, and noninvolvement.  It is reaffirmed in other Jewish writings, and it’s enticing to think it could have been the inspiration for the angle Jesus takes in his parable.

One ancient rabbinical teaching stated, “if you are in a position to offer testimony on someone’s behalf you are not permitted to remain silent.” (Sipra Qedosim 4:8; Targum Pseudo-Jonathan).  And since we’re already cited the Talmud this morning, a different Talmud portion acts as further commentary on Leviticus 19:16: “If one sees someone drowning, mauled by beasts, or attacked by robbers one is obligated to save him, but not at the risk of one’s life” (b. Sanh. 73a).  The Talmud wasn’t edited and completed until centuries after Jesus, but that does sound a whole lot like the beginnings of a parable I think I’ve heard before.   In Jewish tradition, from the Torah to the Talmud, indifference, standing idly by, is not acceptable.

Last week I encouraged us to identify with the half dead traveler in Jesus’ parable.  Rather than seeing ourselves only as the helper, this challenges us to find ourselves in a story in which we are not the hero.  This goes against a lot of our training of how to be a good person.

But Jesus does eventually invite his listeners to identify with the Samaritan.  After telling the parable, he asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man?”  To which the left-leaning pacifist reluctantly replies, “I suppose it was the longtime NRA member.”  To which Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise.”

As I hear that original parable spoken to us, especially in our antiracism work, I hear an invitation for us to enter into a dual consciousness.  We are not the hero of this story.  We too need help.  We need delivered from our half-dead state.

And we are also called to the monumental task of overcoming the sin of indifference, or, if the Torah would have its way, the crime of indifference.  “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

I fully believe that there are countless variations on this theme, and that there is no single right way to do this.  It can range from taking to the streets, to talking with young children who are picking up on this theme and have lots of great questions.

And so, my fellow-non heroes of this story: How might we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors?


A ship for the storm | 19 June 2016

Text: Luke 8:16-25

It’s the time of year for church conferences.  This Thursday we’ll begin hosting the Central District annual gathering.  If this were an odd numbered year, we’d also be preparing for the national Mennonite Church USA Convention, which is usually over the fourth of July and often in a southern state.  Having Conventions in July in the South is one of the ways frugal Mennonites save money.  Next summer we’ll be in Florida, in Orlando.  The venue of course was decided some time ago, and up until last week the main association in our house with Orlando was whether the girls would get to go to Harry Potter world.

For the last week, Orlando has become synonymous with death and trauma.  There was unimaginable horror inside the Pulse nightclub directed against queer and trans Latinx folks.  Yesterday’s Pride Parade in Columbus was both a sobering and celebratative time for LGBT folks and allies to gather as a community and express solidarity with one another.

Like last week, we designated this Sunday as a time to do some reflecting on the life of the wider Mennonite church.  The timing in coincidental, but this being Pride weekend, and having Orlando so fresh in our minds, sharpens the question of how our deeply divided denomination will move forward in relationship to LGBT members among us.  Like last week, we are focusing on one of the scriptures that will be used during CDC worship services.  All three of those services are based on stories from Luke 8, which is right where the lectionary is these days.

Very early on, leaders of the Christian movement used the image of a ship or a boat, as a metaphor for the church.  Hints of this can be traced all the way back to the New Testament.  The letter of 1 Peter makes a connection between the death and resurrection one experiences through the waters of baptism, and the ark of Noah and his family that brought them through the ancient flood waters.  In the Noah myth, the ark, the ship, preserved human and animals through the overwhelming waters as the old world underwent a death and resurrection.  Even before Genesis tells that story, it portrays the world as a watery chaos.  Now the earth was formless and void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from Elohim, the god, swept over the face of the waters.

In the second century, Clement of Alexandria noted that a sea vessel was one of the appropriate Christian symbols to use for a signet ring.

Church father Tertullian, writing in the second and third century, spoke of the ship in which the disciples were tossed back and forth on the sea as a figure for the church.

This symbol later became much more tangible in church architecture.  The traditional name for the main body of the church is the nave.  It means ship, and takes its name from the same Latin word we use for the navy.  The nave, the ship, is where the laity sits.  It holds the people.  Many centuries ago, church leaders recognized that the proverbial watery chaos out of which the world was created had not gone away.  What is needed, what we have been granted by God through the church, they believed, was a vessel to carry us through the floods and storms.

Looking up at the arching beams in some cathedrals is very much like looking down into the ribs of a ship.  This is by design.  I’m not sure what kind of ship it is we’re floating in here.  Definitely a Protestant ship.

Before the story of the boat on the stormy waters, Luke 8 contains another image of the church.  Luke writes: “Just then (Jesus’) mother and brothers came to see him, but they couldn’t get through the crowds.”  Supposedly this is Jesus’ biological mother and brothers, his kinship group that so thoroughly defined identity and responsibility in the ancient world.  As a son and brother, Jesus has a cultural/religious obligation of loyalty and honor toward his kin.  But in one crisp statement, Jesus redefines, or at least expands, the notion of family.  He says to those gathered around him, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

This was most likely a very painful moment and ongoing source of tension for Jesus’ family of origin.  But it is pretty sweet for everyone else, those of us who are suddenly on the inside of Jesus’ kinship group.  It’s a prominent metaphor for the church that we continue to use.  The church as a family, defined not by blood or ethnic lines, but by a common commitment to hear the Word, however that might come to us.  And to do it.  We are the clan of the hearers and doers.  Or, as one friend has put it:  The “tryers.”  We try.  Those responsibilities once reserved for closest of kin now apply to the church.  To care for one another.  To support and visit each other when we’re sick, or in prison.  To bake a casserole.  To give when we can give, and receive when we need to receive.  Or at least try.  This is how healthy families function.  The church comes into being under the banner of a new kinship group.  And the repercussions of this, still working themselves out, have never been smooth sailing.

It’s at this point in Luke’s gospel, not so coincidentally, when Jesus and his disciples, spiritual siblings all, climb into the boat to go to the other side of the lake.  Observant commentators have pointed out that when the gospels speak of going to “the other side” of the lake, the sea of Galilee, that this is loaded with symbolic significance.  Roughly speaking, the western side of that body of water was populated by Jews, while the eastern side was populated by Gentiles – non Jews.  The story right after this lake crossing is when Jesus encounters Legion, and unclean tombs, and pigs.  Very un-Jewish.  Going to the other side is an act of bridging and connecting the human family, separated by the waters, now, in process of being brought together under the banner of a new kinship group.  Going to the “other side” is not a smooth ride.

And so, while Jesus takes a well-deserved nap on board, a windstorm sweeps down on the lake, and the boat is nearly overwhelmed.  As it fills with water, the newly dubbed siblings scramble to wake up their elder brother Jesus, shouting: “Master, Master, we are perishing!”  We’re dying in here!  In this story, church father Tertullian found a ready-made metaphor for life in this imperfect family, this precarious ship, we refer to as ‘the church.’  The church as a ship, a boat, holding us through dangerous and stormy waters, accompanied by Jesus.

One of the things I see now in the Mennonite Church in the US is that just about everybody agrees we’re in the middle of a storm, but we disagree sharply about what the storm is.  For some, the storm is the dangerous waters of secularism.  The storm is trying to carry us away from our biblical foundations.  The church is to carry us safely through these waves of cultural deterioration that threaten to take us down.  For others, the storm is the dangerous waters of religious fundamentalism.  The church is the space where we can breathe fresh air even as the rigid readings of scripture, within our own tradition and others, threaten to drown the human spirit.

For some the storm is caused by who we are letting on board the ship, and for others, the storm is caused by those who keep people off the ship.

There’s a mighty storm raging, but when what some people believe to be beautiful and faithful is seen by others as the very cause of the storm, where does that leave us?

This past week I had some exchange with a friend who has worked relentlessly for the last decade to make the national Mennonite church a welcoming place for folks who identify as queer.  This person has been met with much resistance.  One of my questions to them, asked out of genuine curiosity but also concern, was this: “Why do you and other queer folks remain engaged with the Mennonite Church?  It seems something akin to (or just is) an abusive relationship.  Why invest precious emotional energy toward an unrepentant system?”

Their response: “This is…a very good question.  One I’ve been considering deeply lately.  It’s an open question for me.”

The truth of the matter is that untold numbers of LGBT folks have had to leave the Mennonite and other churches for their own soul survival.  I haven’t seen any write ups on how anyone in the Pulse club in Orlando related with religion, but I have no doubt that for many of them, Pulse was their ship.  Pulse was their sanctuary in the storm.  Pulse was the place where they knew they were with family, an extended kinship group abounding in a love they may not have encountered anywhere outside those walls.

The church is a ship, but it appears there are many other vessels afloat on these waters.  And I would venture to say that Christ is very much alive and present in Pulse, and other places of sanctuary, declaring “Peace, be still.”  Rebuking the wind and raging waves.

When theologians have spoken of ‘the church’ they have meant, by and large, the church universal.  That’s catholic, little “c,” church.  “I believe in the holy catholic church,” the Apostles Creed says.  The church is greater than a single congregation, greater than a conference or denomination, greater than national boundaries.  It is not a little fishing boat.  It is an ocean liner.

I recognize this is not how most of us here experience the church.  It’s a truism these days in church leadership circles that people don’t join a denomination, they join a congregation.  In other words, most of you might care hardly at all about what Mennonite Church USA is doing.  What matters is that you are journeying with this group of people, this eccentric extended family, who you see face to face, some of whom literally walk alongside you through life.  Yet, it remains, that to be in this church is also to be in the bigger boat, whether we like it or not.  If you have mixed feelings about this, you are not alone.

I have nothing conclusive to say about any of this.  I’m grateful that our congregation is working at being a place of sanctuary and bravery for queer folks and those of us learning how to be allies.  I’m grateful we’re talking about white privilege and black lives matter and intersectionality.  I’m grateful we are a part of a tradition that names its rejection of violence in all forms, even if we aren’t living up to the high calling.  I’m saddened that some have to leave in order to survive.

I have to believe that the boat is not merely a floatation devise riding out the waves, but that we are actually going somewhere.  I don’t even know if the denominational ship will hold together at this point, but there is some boat, somewhere, that is headed to the other side, and I want to be on board.  We are headed to the glorious and unknown other side.  Even if you don’t know what you believe about God and Jesus and salvation and church and all that, you know intuitively that this cannot be a solo journey, and we have chosen a group of people to journey with together.  Friends, we surely have not yet arrived, but we are on our way to the other side.  And whether he’s napping, or on the lookout, or hanging out on the deck, or dancing to the pulse of the music with all the dark skinned queers, the Christ is with us.  And that’s good news.  Lord knows, we need some help in these waters.

Going sane | 12 June 2016

Text: Luke 8:26-39


The prophet Isaiah once walked around the land of Judah barefoot and naked – for three years.  This likely falls under the category of “Bible stories I didn’t learn in Sunday school.”  We are rather fond of Isaiah overall.  This is the prophet who spoke of the peaceable kingdom: “the wolf shall live with the lamb…the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  Who declared, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.”  The same prophet who spoke of the coming of Immanuel, whose vision of a just and wise ruler we so readily connect with the person of Jesus.  This prophet, Isaiah, one of the most cherished voices in Jewish and Christian tradition– once went three years without wearing any clothes – in public.

He did this as a sign.  That’s what it says in Isaiah chapter 20 where this happens.  The Lord, Yahweh, wanted naked Isaiah to be a sign to the people about what would happen to those who violently rebelled against the great empire of their day, Assyria.  They would be stripped of all they had and utterly put to shame.  Over the span of those three years, every time Isaiah passed their way, people would have to consider that it was their own nakedness that was really at stake.

Wendell Berry has a whole series of poems about The Mad Farmer.  He’s willing to claim this title for himself because of his belief that in a world gone insane with greed and destruction, the only sane response is to go “mad.”  We’ve borrowed the last line from one of his more well-known poems, The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, for past Easter worship themes: “Practice resurrection.”

Here are some words from another poem “The contrariness of the Mad Farmer:”

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.


Who’s the crazy one?  The Mad Farmer who tills, and plants, and reaps, and dances at all the wrong times, or those who stand quietly in line at the gate of the Kingdom?

Who’s the crazy one?  The naked prophet who walks in peace, or the clothed countrymen who prepare for war?

In Luke chapter 8 Jesus encounters a person who, by just about any measure, is crazy.  Luke refers to him as “a man of the city.”  Cities are hubs of civilization, where culture and technology and learning collide and collaborate in a cosmopolitan mix.  We’re in one right now.  But Luke goes on to describe how this man has abandoned the standard markers of civilized life.  “For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.”

Along with being homeless and clothes-less, this man’s social manners leave something to be desired.  Rather than greeting Jesus with a handshake, a fist bump, a hello, or even a silent head nod, he falls down in front of Jesus and shouts at the top of his voice.  Luke goes on to fill out the picture of this man by noting that he was often kept under guard and even chained down, but that he would break the chains, and wander into the wilds.

In the first century, a person like this was said to have demons.  We once called this condition insanity, and would now classify it under any number of mental illnesses.

A scholar and activist by the name of Ched Myers was the first person I ever heard suggest that more might be going on here than just a troubled individual in need of personal healing.  Ched points to the interaction that happens after Luke has established this man’s symptoms.

Jesus asks, “What is your name?”  The reply: “Legion.”

A legion was a Roman army contingent of several thousand soldiers.  Jesus and this person whose name his momma and daddy gave him at birth was certainly not “Legion,” and all the people of the region lived under occupation, their land possessed by an uninvited, and unwanted power.   What the people were experiencing collectively, this person was experiencing personally, with the possession and occupation of his body, his mind.  The cycle of being chained and trying to break free, chained and trying to break free; the contradictions of needing to both suppress and express anger, anxiety and anguish, are all manifested in this one person.  Everyone in the city, and in the countryside goes about their daily business, but all is not well, and this man is a sign of a much larger dis-ease.

A couple weeks ago I had lunch with Molly Shack.  She was born and raised in Columbus and works with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.  She spoke at a recent racial justice event in Columbus.  Over the course of conversation Molly noted that she was close friends with MarShawn McCarrel who was the young man who died by suicide on the Ohio Statehouse steps in February.  MarShawn was a Black Lives Matter activist.  Molly said she experienced this as a major wake up call for how important it is for people like her and MarShawn to take care of themselves and not be overcome by the heaviness of their work.  She felt like MarShawn was a healthy person, who had taken on too many of the demons of society.  I told her I also had a close friend who took his own life in his twenties and how I had felt that Shem, rather than being blind, actually saw more clearly than most people.  That he gazed deeper than most into the troubles of the world, and that he just couldn’t find a place to stand firm in the midst of it all.  She nodded her head in agreement, and we had an unexpected moment of shared grief.

Who are the crazy ones?  Who is the sign for whom?  What are the prophets of Yahweh saying these days?

Please hear me that I am in no way saying that all mental illness can be attributed to the ills of society, or that suicide is always some kind of noble prophetic act.

What this gospel story asks of us is to consider all the powers that possess and colonize our minds, and how we do or don’t respond and resist.  Who and what gets to define what it means to be healthy and sane?

Jesus is not deterred by the Legion.  In a not so subtle wink of Jewish humor, he sends the pathetic demons into a group of nearby pigs, who proceed to rush to their own destruction, the legion army drowned in the sea just like Pharaoh’s horse and riders of long ago.  While I’m not particularly fond of the idea of my precious Jesus allowing the death of all these animals, I can accept the point of the story.  Jesus has cast out the power which occupied the man and the land.  As a bonus, these unclean pigs running around Gentile territory have been removed from the premises to make it kosher for Jews to hang out.  The man is soon clothed and in his right mind, sitting at Jesus feet not as someone shouting obscenities, but as a disciple.  All is now well.

Except, all is not well.  The story isn’t done quite yet.  Apparently there have been people watching this all along.  There are witnesses.  They see the transformation in this man, crazy ole’ Legion, who is now well.  This is supposed to be a Monty Python moment when “there was much rejoicing.”  Instead it says that the witnesses were afraid.  When word spreads to others, people come from the whole surrounding countryside to see, and once again, Luke notes that they were “seized with great fear.”

Crazy ole’ Legion, that wild man who couldn’t hold down a job or a home and lived naked in the tombs, who mothers warned their children about, who men joked about and cursed in the marketplace, who older children told scary stories about to the younger children, who had become a thing of legend, everything evil and scary and wrong with the world projected onto this one individual, crazy ‘ole Legion.

Now there’s nothing wrong with him at all.  He is just a normal human being.  Now the people no longer have a safe place to heap all their own anxiety and anger and dis-ease.  Now they must come face to face with what possesses them, and do their own soul work of resistance and healing.  They had needed this man to be crazy, the village idiot, the scapegoat, the queer, the one out there who shelters them from their own dis-ease.  This man is clothed and in his right mind, and the people are terrified.

The equilibrium has been disturbed.  The family system has lost its homeostasis.  He has exposed what was hidden.  Luke reports: “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.”  Jesus must go.  Now.  If he leaves, we can restore the balance.  Find another person or group to carry the blame.  They can be crazy and we can be sane, and all will be well.

If he stays, then there is no outside.  There are no outer spaces, no unclean haunts.  There are no places left to hide our demons.

If the Christ stays, we will have to face our own deepest hurts and anxieties.  We will have to confess our own complicity.  We will be exposed.

If we send the Christ away, we can restore the balance.

If he stays…who knows what will happen?