The mind of Christ | 10 August 2014


Twelve Scriptures project

Texts #8 and 9: Romans 12:1-17; Philippians 2:5-11


Meditation 1: The renewing of your mind

Here is a chicken and egg type question: Which comes first? Is it that we have our minds changed and this leads to a change in our actions?  Or is it in the doing of the actions that our minds are changed?  In the case of the chicken and the egg, I heard someone say recently that this really isn’t much of a puzzle, as eggs were in existence long before there were chickens.  I guess, technically, that question should be clarified as “Which came first, the chicken, or the chicken egg?” 

But what about this other question: Does our mind form our actions, or do our actions form our mind?  Or to put it visually, does this lead to this?  Or does this lead to this?

The answer, of course, is Yes. 

Another response is that different ones of us will more naturally experience one direction of this flow more than the other.  Some of us tend to think our way into doing things.  Others of us do our way into thinking things.  In spirituality, this would be the difference between contemplatives and activists.  It always works both ways, and the two are by no means mutually exclusive, but depending on how we’re geared, we’ll emphasize one over the other.

I think it’s fair to say that Anabaptists of our variety emphasize the action.  We are doers, servers, peacemakers, and this is a wonderful thing.  One member here, who shall remain anonymous, told me once that this congregation is a den of doers – spoken in a most affectionate way.  This person, however, comes at the life of faith from a more contemplative perspective.  Which is to say that the inward journey, the cultivation of the mind and soul through prayer and stillness and other such practices, is especially vital and life-giving – even a matter of survival in this busy, cluttered life.  This person, I have no doubt, is not alone.

Because we are doing Twelve Scriptures in ten weeks, we are doubling up two of the weeks, and this is one of those Sundays.  Under the theme The Call of Discipleship, Romans 12 and Philippians 2, two letters from the Apostle Paul, are paired together.  One of the key links between these two passages is that they begin by emphasizing the work of the inward journey, specifically through the mind.  Romans 12 says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Philippians 2 says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

The whole of the first two verses of Romans 12 states this: “I appel to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

There’s a key shift that is happening in these words which happens throughout the entire New Testament.  The language of sacrifice is still used, only now, the location of the sacrifice moves away from a temple system and toward the life of the community.  You’re the sacrifice, Paul tells the church.  Your body, your life is the sacrifice, and you’re the priests offering the sacrifice.  Elsewhere Paul says that our bodies are the temple.  So the whole sacrificial symbolic system gets re-centered in the relationships and life of the community.  This is what the Hebrew prophets had been calling for all along, Micah 6:8 being one of the key places, and this is what Jesus embodied so vividly and offered as a pattern for the community that formed around him.  The pattern of the spiritual life, the life in tune with the Divine, is one of giving oneself away on behalf of the world. 

But this is where things get tricky.  Because this is not the pattern we are enculturated into.  “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world,” Paul writes.  “But be transformed, by the renewing of your minds.”  The suggestion is that if our minds aren’t renewed, we’ll fall into other types of patterns that have already been laid down, the deep ruts and grooves of cultural habits that aren’t necessarily forming us to lead lives after the pattern of Christ. 

We live in a rather privileged time when it comes to the study of the mind, or, at least the study of the brain, which, depending on who you talk to, is or isn’t the same thing.  Neuroscience is gifting us with all kinds of learnings about the functioning of the brain.  If you tune in to TED talks, or RadioLab, you know this is a popular theme of these programs.   The human brain is the most complex thing we’re aware of in the universe, and we are now turning our attention toward better understanding it.  We are putting our brains together to study the brain, and that elusive reality of human consciousness.  The marvel that we are not only aware, but we are aware that we are aware. 

One of the findings, which doesn’t feel all that revolutionary, but which at least is encouraging to have confirmed by science, is how malleable the brain is, even late into life.  We have all kinds of patterns and pathways established in the networks of our brains, but new pathways can open up.  New connections can be made, new patterns established.  When we undergo the renewing of the mind, it is not merely a spiritual reality that happens somewhere out there, but it shows up in the hardware of our bodies.


Meditation 2: The Mind of Christ

How’s this for a neurological challenge: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  What does that look like on a brain scan?  Paul isn’t all that concerned with brain scans, but he does follow this up with a statement about what having the mind of Christ might look like.  The statement, verses 6-11 of Philippians 2, has long been regarded as an early Christian hymn, something that preceded Paul which he is quoting in his letter, kind of like if I would recite the phrasing of “O breathe on me, O breath of God,” in this sermon.  So when the church of Philippi read this, they might have done so with a certain melody in their minds and, as music wondrously does, it might have appealed to a different part of their minds than mere rational argument could ever do.  The hymn speaks of Christ as being a part of the Divine, but being that part of the Divine which surrenders itself to the limitations of bodily existence, taking human form, being born in human likeness, as the hymn says.  Being humbled, but not only humbled, experiencing death, and not only death, but the most humiliating and shameful of deaths, death on a cross. 

If one were to visualize the direction of the hymn, it would start at the very heights of the heavens, and then descend until it does a nosedive through the floor, sinking beneath the entire edifice for what we deem a worthy and dignified life.

Let that same mind be in you.  When we undergo the renewing of the mind, this is the pattern, the shape, that it takes.

The key word that has come to characterize this passage occurs in verse 6, the word translated emptied, kenosis in the Greek.  This is a pattern of kenosis, the emptying of oneself for the sake of the whole.  The self giving itself away on behalf of others.           

We are hopefully aware that a certain form of giving oneself away, giving up one’s will and personal well-being, is harmful not just to that person, but to all involved.  Psychology has given us important insights into the harmfulness of co-dependence, and the dangers of abusive relationships where one party will not stand up for themselves.  This is the not kind of self-emptying or sacrifice we are talking about.  It is not like a bucket of water being poured out until there’s nothing left to pour. 

Kenosis carries a whole different meaning, as it begins with a sense of absolute fullness, overflowing, but doesn’t see that as something to be contained or hoarded or held on to, like a damn holding a reservoir, but something to pass along, like a river channeling a flow of water.  It is being emptied and filled at the same time.  It is breathing out and breathing in.  “O breathe on me, O breath of God, fill me with life anew.”      

As basic as it sounds, it is a wildly extravagant way of going about life.  Cynthia Bourgeault notes that this is Jesus’ great gift to the human family.  When we think of the spiritual path, we almost always think of an ascent.  We are reaching higher heights of understanding, or we are getting closer to God who is somehow up there.  We are climbing a ladder of the stages of spiritual development.  But she notes the pattern of Jesus’ life is one of continual descent, until he fell through the floor.  Always self-emptying.  Giving away his power of healing.  Giving away his claim to any title of Messiah or King.  Giving away food he didn’t even have to thousands of people in the wilderness, only to find afterwards that there are 12 basketfuls of leftovers.  Telling parables about farmers flinging their seed so abundantly and carelessly that most of it falls on places it will never grow.  About a father who throws away his own dignity by running to greet his son who had so dishonored him, squandered the family wealth, flinging his arms around him before the son can recite his excuses and apology, making a feast to celebrate his return.  A woman once came to Jesus, uninvited, while he was a guest at a meal, and poured a whole jar of exquisitely fine and very costly ointment over his head.  Predictably, she gets a lecture about the wastefulness of this act, how the perfume was worth a whole years wage and how it could have been sold to help the poor.  But the lecture comes from Judas, not Jesus.  Jesus’ response is: “Leave her alone.  She has performed a good service.  And wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she had done will be told in remembrance of her.”

The good news is the abundant, extravagant act of pouring out that which cannot be measured or quantified or repaid.  The more it’s poured out, the more water that flows through the river, the wider the banks of the river become.  It’s what we celebrate when we take Communion, it’s what the cross represents.  Jesus believed is this so much that he allowed his own life to be squandered in an unjust death, that this would become the ultimate parable of Divine Love.


Meditation 3

You’ll notice that the third meditation doesn’t have a title.  This could be that when one has attained the mind of Christ one reaches a Zen like state in which words fall away and one is simply open to Reality as it is, a perfect channel of love.  Or it could be that I didn’t have this part of the meditation figured out by the time Gwen needed to print the bulletin.  I’ll let you decide which it is. 

The hymn in Philippians does not end with death but continues with the exultation of Christ, who receives the name that is above every name, so that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The danger here is that rather than seeing Jesus as one who reveals this universal pattern of self-giving love, we re-make Jesus into the very pattern he sought to break, more of a tribal god who is on our team and who everyone else has to get on board with, or else.  A more helpful way of seeing this part of the passage is that kenosis is a beautiful idea, but if it remains just an idea, it has little power.  It needs a body to live it out.  It needs a life we can point to and say – There – that’s what it looks like.  That’s what the love of God is like.  That’s the power that runs the universe.  Kenosis needs a name, and our name for it is Jesus Christ.  And as much as we try and resist it, it is persistent in its pursuit of us and one day we’ll all recognize that and bow to its powerless power. 

It seems to me that one of the great trials and one of the great gifts of a human lifespan is that we are confronted so regularly with the demands of kenosis, of the emptying of the self.  During the first part of life we gain more and more a sense of self, only soon to find that we must give ourselves away and that we can hold on to none of it.  We are continually confronted with things we must let go of: people we love die.  We can’t pursue all our life dreams.  Our bodies don’t always work the way we want them to.  Our work, our relationships, our commitments, cause us to give up other ways of spending our time and energy.  The losses along the way will cause us to either hold on tighter and tighter to what we are trying to preserve, or enable us to let go of the need to preserve, and simply become a channel of this greater love passing through us.  To bend the knee and sing its praises as the only way to truly be alive.  To receive the mind of Christ.  To not be conformed to the patterns of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

The goal of such transformation is not personal fulfillment, or spiritual tranquility, although these can be nice benefits.  The goal of the renewing of our minds is always love – a participation in the love of God.  It always plays itself out in our relationships, in these bodies of ours which are our offerings.  Romans 12 goes on to speak of extending hospitality to strangers.  Of blessing those who curse us.  “Do no repay anyone evil for evil.”  “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”  What kind of pattern is this?  Evil, that which harms, that which destroys life, can’t be overcome on its own terms.  It calls for an entirely different pattern.  An entirely different way of going about life.  Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “We can’t solve our problems by using the same kind of thinking that created them.” 

It takes spiritual groundedness and a lively inner journey, to bless and not curse.  It takes great faith to go about life in a self-emptying way, flinging love and generosity every which way without watching where it lands.

So these practices of silent meditation, and mindfulness meditation, and prayer for others, and scripture study and discussion, and spiritual direction, and congregational singing:  These and many other inward journey practices are one of the key ways we train the pathways of our brains, and the pathways of our feet, to receive the mind of Christ.  


Extended family ties: Central District Conference Sunday | 18 May 2014

Text: Philippians 2:12-18


Talking about the importance of church conference during worship feels a little bit like Ira Glass talking about the importance of public radio during an NPR fund drive.   Rather than try and go directly for the hard ask, Ira Glass takes the more subtle approach of reminding listeners how much they benefit from NPR, whether they give or not.  NPR is a part of your life, he says.  You like it so much you even listen to it during fund drives.  It’s supported by listeners just like you, and even if you don’t give, it will continue giving you the programming you’ve come to depend on.

It could be an annoying tactic if Ira Glass wasn’t so disarmingly charming.  So, maybe that’s what finally nudges you over the edge to donate to public radio, or maybe you just smile at the clever, pure-hearted marketing attempt and keep driving.

Our main goal today isn’t to get people to give to conference, although Central District will always accept your money and would put it right to good use.  Our conference has encouraged its congregations to have a CDC Sunday to highlight how we do church together and the connections that sustain us as a conference.  Connections with each other keep us from being isolated in our own world and help us all better carry out the mission of God is our communities.  I’m fully aware that conference can mean very little to people.  I will not ask for a show of hands, but if the first thing that comes to mind when you hear CDC is Center for Disease Control and not Central District Conference, you are almost certainly not alone.  At least having predisposed positive connotations with CDC means we’re off to a good start.  Just think of this as the other CDC that most of us don’t know what they really do, but are confident it’s important for our general wellbeing.

Our Conference minister, Lois Kaufmann uses the analogy of a grove of sequoia trees to describe what our conference is like.  Sequoia trees are known for being massive, some growing well over 250 feet tall.  But they have a surprisingly shallow root system.  Rather than having a tap root that goes down, their roots grow out, several hundred feet beyond the base of the tree and only 5-10 feet deep in the ground.  In a grove of trees, these roots systems are intertwined.  Above ground it appears that each tree is an individual, but underground they are holding on to each other for dear life and sharing nutrients and water.

It’s a great analogy.  First of all because trees are awesome.  Also because it gets at this whole thing of the hidden, but vital life of the conference.  Conference provides support and continuing education for pastors, ministry partnership opportunities between congregations, annual gatherings which focus on relationship building and learning from each other’s stories, support for Camp Friedenswald in southern Michigan and Bluffton University in northwest Ohio.  Conference also plays a major role in helping congregations with pastoral openings connect with potential candidates.  Depending how you’re feeling about the last year, this could raise or lower your view of conference!  We are once again leaning on Lois Kaufmann and our conference as we search for a half time Pastor of Christian Formation to come and minister with us.

The CDC sequoia grove consists of about 40 congregations spread out across the Midwest.  By spread out I mean spread out: From St. Paul Minnesota and Madison Wisconsin down to Atlanta Georgia and Harrisonburg Virginia.  A congregation from Sarasota, Florida will be joining in a month at the Annual Meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.  The connecting roots and strands of yarn cover a lot of mileage. More a little later on why we’re so spread out.

Churches have been asked to use Paul’s letter to the Philippians as a way of reflecting on how we relate together as a conference.  Philippi was an important city in the Roman Empire, considered an official Roman colony.  Acts chapter 16 describes Paul and his travel companions coming through Philippi and baptizing the first believers who began a fellowship which would become the Philippian church.  It was in Philippi that Paul encountered Lydia, the business woman who dealt in purple cloth, who embraced the invitation to be a follower of Jesus and in her first act as a baptized Christian, invited these traveling evangelists into her home, an act of hospitality.  Paul and Silas are arrested and put in jail in Philippi, and once they are released and asked to leave the city, they first go back to Lydia’s home.  In the words of Acts 16: “and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.”

Philippians is a letter from Paul to this community a number of years later.  Paul is in prison, again, this time perhaps in the heart of the empire, Rome, writing to this community, maintaining the bonds of love and brother and sisterhood that had been established.  The line I’d like to highlight shows up in chapter 2 verse 12.  “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”  It’s the last bit of that, the counsel to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” that’s especially pertinent.

This CDC Sunday was originally scheduled for January 26 which was the one Sunday of our harsh winter that we canceled church.  You get special bonus points if you can remember back that far, but this would have been a sequel to the Sunday before that, January 19, when the Reconciliation Team helped us focus on how being a community of grace better enables us to be a community of peace in how we relate with one another.   That week’s history of our tradition as one that includes both peacemaking and infighting is also an important backdrop for today.  Today we are just extending that out one more concentric circle, applying not just to interpersonal relationships within the congregation, but to relationships between congregations.  The question of how to stay in relational accountability with one another while honoring the integrity and journey of the individual is the same.

In his letter to the Corinthians, a little ways after Paul greets them with “Grace to you, and peace,” he comments that he would like to be able to feed that community solid food, but instead is feeding them milk since they aren’t ready for the heavy stuff.  “Infants in Christ” he calls them.  In Philippians Paul acknowledges the geographical distance he is from the community, and, even as he maintains those relational bonds with them, gives them the rather grown-up advice to “work out your own salvation.”  Lest they think this is an easy undertaking, he adds that this always involves a healthy dose of fear and trembling.  To be done with respect and care, even awe at such a responsibility.  They’re not infants in Christ.  They’re grown-ups, and Paul trusts them at a distance to grow and discern their faith, to work out their salvation.

In case the basket of metaphors for what conference is isn’t full enough yet, I want to add one more, which is actually the primary way that Central District Conference has talked about itself for the last number of years.  Along with it being somewhat like a web of yarn (from children’s time lesson), NPR, the Center for Disease Control, and a sequoia grove, our conference is quite a bit like a family of adult siblings.  This language of striving to be like a family of adult siblings is actually in our official conference documents.  We continue in the spirit of Joseph Stuckey who opted to think about our bonds not being primarily agreement on all doctrinal matters, or rules, but a commitment to relational accountability, loving and listening to one another despite some differences.  Staying centered on Christ, even if we have different understandings of what that means for us.  A family of adult siblings don’t always agree, but they are family.  They work out their salvation independently and together.

A couple brief stories about pastors and congregations in the conference who have pushed at the edges of traditional church teaching to illustrate what this has actually looked like:

In 2011 Chicago Community Mennonite Church discerned a marriage practice policy for their congregation in which they decided to affirm their pastor in officiating at weddings regardless of the sexual orientation of the couple.  The congregation and pastor openly communicated this with conference leadership and soon the congregation had celebrated three weddings of same sex couples.  This is officially against denominational polity, which, in this case, calls for the conference, CDC, to review a pastor’s credentials.

Back around the time of the first Gulf War a pastor of a CDC congregation in Ohio preached a sermon in army fatigues and spoke of his support for the war.  In broader Christendom this might not be that big of a deal, but this was in a Mennonite Church!  A number of congregational members were troubled by this and went to conference asking them to remove the pastor’s credentials.

These are very different circumstances, coming from very different perspectives, and in each case Central District had the power to remove pastoral credentials and have a heavy hand with the congregation; and there are cases, such as violations of sexual or financial ethics when this would be appropriate.  But instead, in each of these cases, the conference leadership committed itself to conversation with each pastor and congregation, striving to maintain relational accountability and kinship, but ultimately encouraging each one in carrying on their own discernment within their congregation.  Trusting that the Spirit was at work, and salvation was working itself out in each setting.  Rather than play the role of a disciplining parent, conference attempted to relate together like a family of adult siblings, who, I hear, don’t always see eye to eye, but can still be family nonetheless.

This way of being church together feels so very important, and it’s one of the reasons I’m grateful for our conference.  If you follow church news you know that the wider church, in just about every denomination, is struggling with how much diversity of perspective it can hold within one structure, now focused especially around Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Christians.  Despite our attempts at being family, the last number of years Central District has been losing our more conservative/traditional congregations who are transferring to other conferences, and gaining progressive leaning congregations who have been disciplined by their original conference.  That’s a big reason why we are so geographically spread out.  We’re known as somewhat of a refuge conference for LGBT friendly congregations.  We’re gaining diversity in some ways, and losing it in other ways.

One is tempted to think that the issues of one’s own lifetime are unique and that the hinge of history is upon us, but hearing from people like Joseph Stuckey, and even reading Paul’s letters, one is a reminded that the church, and humanity, have always been dealing with these kinds of things.  What are the markers of our identity and how much diversity can one tradition hold with integrity? How do we stay relationally accountable with each other and avoid both individualistic independence and heavy handed boundary setting?

I love Central District, and this congregation, as I see us as being centered on the love and grace of Christ, and being responsible to one another without being responsible for one another, like a family of emotionally mature adult siblings.  We are all responsible for ourselves, and we are responsible to each other.  With the Spirit’s guidance we are working out our salvation with trembling, and plenty of laughter.  This is an incredibly important witness in the church and in the world.



Blessed are the Comforted – or Afflicted – Lent 5 – 3/17/13 – Phil. 3, John 12

If you’re a close reader of the Musing, and have a good memory, you’ll notice that the Beatitude for today is different than advertised.  Late in the week I took some executive privilege to shift it closer to what was emerging for the sermon.  So our Beatitude for this fifth week of Lent, rather than being Blessed are the available, is now Blessed are the comforted – or the afflicted.  If you were gearing up to be available, and no longer feel blessed, please accept our apologies.  Please be blessed nonetheless.

In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul brags about his pedigree as the ultimate religious person, then turns around and calls it all garbage.  Reading through his different writings, it’s pretty clear that the guy had a good sized ego, but it’s also clear that he was a person who underwent a massive life conversion, and came out on the other side a new person.  He still liked to boast every once in a while, but now, as he would call it, he was “boasting in Christ.”  Boasting about not only his strengths, but also his weaknesses, and his utter dependence on this Christ consciousness which had invaded his world, and turned it upside down.

What Paul says to the Philippians, specifically, is this: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

Beat that!

His list of competitive advantages that he had over other people reminds me of an exercise that we did at a training I went to back in the fall.  Mennonite Central Committee has developed an antiracism training called Damascus Road, which, it just kind of donned on me this week, is named for that very conversion experience that Paul had which led to him being such a powerful leader in the church.  Bluffton University hosted one of these trainings for their students and faculty, and I attended with several other members of the leadership of Central District Conference.  One of the opening exercises, as a way of starting to think about all the different forces of oppression and privilege at work in society, was called the cage of oppression.  A picture of a big cage was drawn on the board and we were supposed to come up with all the different oppressor and oppressed pairings that we could think of to put inside the cage.  Naming a group that has held power historically, and the name for the other group which fell outside, and therefore had less power.  The first pairing was obvious enough: White, and people of color.  Power, less power.  Other pairings people named were men and women, educated and uneducated, straight and gay, native and immigrant, youthful and elderly, able bodied and disabled, wealthy/middle class and poor.

One of the points of the exercise was to show that even though the focus of the training was on racism, that it wasn’t the only form of oppression; to preempt anyone’s attempts to claim that by talking about one form of oppression we were ignoring or minimizing the others.  It was a good point.

Another point of the exercise, the leaders told us, was for us to realize that even if you are in the dominant place in one category, white, for example, that everyone falls into at least one place where they are the oppressed, and that the point wasn’t to separate us into two classes of oppressed and oppressor.

At this point I raised my hand, and noted that as a white, educated, straight, native-born, youngish, able bodied, middle class male, I fit into every single one of the oppressor/privileged categories that we were able to come up with!  I suggested that maybe since I was a Mennonite I could maybe claim the oppressed category because of 16th century persecutions of my ancestors in the faith, but that this kind of felt like a stretch.

For someone who was a sociology major in college, hyper-sensitized to these kinds of social dynamics – this was not a new revelation.  It does, however, remain a rather sobering awareness.

When Paul talks about having reason to be confident in “the flesh,” he’s using one of his favorite riffs, which he often contrasts with “the spirit.”  The flesh vs. the spirit.  Some have accused Paul of being anti-body, of having a sharp dualism between the body and the spirit, elevating the spirit and demeaning the body, a highly unfortunate mindset Christianity has wrestled with for centuries.  It is true that Paul uses dualistic language and categories, but it’s also true that he chooses to use the word “flesh,” rather than “body,” and has a different agenda in mind than that sharp split between the spiritual and the physical.  For Paul, “flesh” represents all of those things that he bought into so deeply in his former life that caused him to become completely blind to reality of Christ.  Things like undergoing all the right religious rituals, having the right genes, the right demographic, rigorously following and enforcing religious law.

He had completely bought into that form of sacred identity and meaning-making, and it had turned him into an oppressor, which he was oblivious to, until he had an unexpected encounter with Christ while on his way to the city of Damascus.  When he was stopped in his tracks and was knocked to the ground by a blinding light – remaining blind until he was given the gift of learning to see in a new way.

There’s a saying: that Christ came to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.  This is also said about the Hebrew prophets.  Isaiah speaks comfort, comfort to his people taken into exile, but reprimands those who live in luxury but ignore the poor.  Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.  Another way of saying this, is that for some people, their lives are completely messed up, until they meet Christ, who helps them put it back together.  The prodigal son, from last week’s parable, is the icon of this storyline.  Christ came to comfort the afflicted.  For others, their lives are nicely put together, until they meet Christ, who completely messes them up.  Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler, who was shocked when Jesus told him that he had to sell all he had and follow him, is one of the icons of this storyline.  The Apostle Paul is another.  Only he actually followed through on the invitation, calling the former things he once valued garbage, rubbish.

I have wondered at different times, if different churches emphasize one of these at the expense of the other.  Congregations like ours, being the demographic that we are, probably fall more into the category of afflicting the comfortable.  You’re welcome!  On the outside, we’re pretty comfortable people, but we don’t want to let that define us.  We’re set up pretty well, but Lord knows there’s a lot of injustice out there in the world to attend to that we can’t turn a blind eye to.  This is most likely pushed further along by our Mennonite ethic of action orientation, and our slight confusion with what to do about having so much privilege in a world of so much need.  Maybe we think that if we seek too much comfort, we will miss the other, more difficult message that prods us in the back.

For many of us, Christ is that persistent and sometimes annoying voice in our minds that refuses to let us forget the poor, the fact that there are people in Oakley who have slept outside through the winter, for example.  If that voice went away and we were allowed to feel completely comfortable with the way of things, where would we be?

But the longer I am a pastor, the more I realize that those of us who appear to have it all together on the outside, also carry plenty of burdens and pains with us.  Some we are able to talk about.  Some we’re not yet ready to talk about but will someday.  Some hurts are too deep for words.

Lest we overemphasize the affliction of the comfortable side of the gospel, our other New Testament reading for today features a scene of the afflicted being comforted, although not without controversy.

The scene takes place in Bethany, in the home of Jesus’ dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  John is quick to remind us that this is the Lazarus who had died, that Jesus raised from the dead.  He also notes that this is six days before the Passover, which means we are less than a week away from another death, the crucifixion of Jesus.  This is the season of Lent, and the cross is looming larger each week.

This is an intimate scene.  Close friends, in the final week of Jesus’ life, sharing dinner around the table.  Relaxing, comfortable.  Until Mary does something that is quite uncomfortable for the others.  She takes a pound of costly perfume, not a two ounce bottle, but a pound, made of pure nard, and pours it on Jesus’ feet.  And she lowers her head down and starts wiping his newly anointed feet with her hair.  An intimate scene just got a whole lot more intimate.  And the smell of the perfume drifts up and fills the entire house.  Jesus accepts this great and extravagant gift as Mary’s way of anointing him for his burial, a prelude to what Nicodemus and Joseph will do for Jesus after his death, anointing him before laying him in the tomb.  Mary is comforting Jesus, and Jesus in turn defends her.  They find comfort between themselves as this fragrance engulfs them and everyone around.

But Judas protests.  His objection is well-founded, practical, and even, one might say, justice-minded.  He looks at all the oil spilling out of that jar and sees dollar signs.  Dollars that could be put to a whole lot better use than going up in smoke and blowing away in the wind.  “What about the poor?” he says.  Jesus, I’ve been listening to you for a while now and I’m pretty sure this perfume could finance some programs that could put a serious dent in the poverty problem around here.

This is coming from Judas, so supposedly there’s got to be something wrong with it, right, but he’s got a good point.  Judas lobbies for the very thing Jesus has been teaching, to comfort the afflicted, but, Jesus notes to him, he is missing the moment.  He is missing what’s happening right in front of his eyes.  An extravagant, intimate, sweet-smelling anointing. The afflicted, or soon-to-be afflicted, are being comforted, and there’s no need to set up a competition between who is more afflicted.  There will always be poor ‘out there’ to be comforted – and that will always be the mission of the church – but now, in this moment, in this very house, comfort is being poured out in abundance.  And it is good.  And it takes nothing away from anyone.   It only adds to the abundant goodness that God is making available in this world.

If there were to be a continuum and on one side, are the comfortable, in need of being afflicted.  On the other side are the afflicted, in need of being comforted.  Where would you fall?  It does seem to shift, depending on the day.

This is one of those services where we offer an anointing with oil to anyone who wishes to receive it.  It is a sign of God’s presence among us, on your life, and the anointing means what you need it to mean.  A prayer to become discomforted, or a prayer for healing, for comfort.  As we sing, you are welcome to come forward to receive an anointing for whatever you carry with you.  You are also welcome to come forward on behalf of another person, accepting the blessing on their behalf.






Humility and Authority – 11/09/08 – Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Scholars believe that verses 6-11 of Philippians chapter two were originally lines from a hymn that had been written by the early Christian community.  The hymn would have been composed by someone or a group of people whose names are long lost to us, and the song would have become known by different little Christian communities that were popping up in cities all over the Roman Empire.  As Paul is writing to the church in the city of Philippi he comes to a point in his letter when he is talking about humility.  He writes this: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  Paul invites this community into something that he calls being “of the same mind.”  He says, “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”  He goes on to say, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” 

When he gets to the point of describing, elaborating on humility, and what it means to be of “the same mind” as Christ, he changes gears.  He stops writing in the form that he had been using and turns instead to the poetry of this hymn – as if what he is trying to say is best expressed through the beauty of a song.  All we have left of the song are the words here in this letter, but we can imagine some kind of melody behind them.  So, he writes “Do nothing with selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  And then, the words of the hymn:  (have soloist sing from HWB #333) “Christ, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.  Therefore God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” 

The hymn speaks of humility as authority and power; self-emptying as actually filling the whole universe with praise – something not easily communicated.  When the early Christians were trying to capture the specialness of Christ and the meaning of his life, they felt the need to go beyond rational explanation and description.  One of the ways that they did this was by putting together this hymn and singing it together.  The mind of Christ.  Humility as authority – a strange and wonderful song to sing. 

When I read this about being of the same mind, or being of the mind of Christ, and think about the life of the mind, I think about a speech that I watched online recently. (Click HERE for to see video.)  At there are all sorts of interesting videos of speeches by some of the best thinkers in their field, talking about how what they are discovering can contribute to a better world.  One of these is by a brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor who had the unique experience being a brain scientist who had a stroke, and while she was having her stroke she had the awareness of mind to reflect on what it was that was going on with her, and since her recovery has been able to share her insights into her experience.  She describes these insights in physical neurological language, but also in spiritual language. 

The brain, she notes, has two distinct hemispheres, which function almost like two different minds.  The right hemisphere is filled with an awareness of the present moment.  It is always right here and right now.  It thinks in pictures and images and learns through all of the senses and movement of the body.  It is constantly taking in the energy of the world and registering what the world sounds like, looks like, feels like, smells like, tastes like, and turning that energy into explosions of information and images.  The consciousness of the right brain is one of connection to all that is, and knows no boundaries between things or individuals.  You and I are all part of the one energy field and we are of one mind.

The left hemisphere of the brain, she describes, is a very different place.  It thinks linearly, and is filled with an awareness of the past and the future.  It organizes and sorts and files information from the right hemisphere.  It collects the information that we take in from the present and associates it with all that we know of the past, and projects it into the future as we think about possibilities and options.  The images get turned into language and it speaks to us with words.  It differentiates between what is this and what is that and what isn’t this or that.  This is a piece of paper, and this is a lectern and this is a shirt.  And, most importantly, she says, it gives us a sense of personal identity.  This is me.  I am.  It sets us apart from our environment and tells us that we have boundaries between what is me and what isn’t me.  I am Joel.  I am married to Abbie and live at 4233 Brownway Ave. and am the pastor of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.         

On the day of her stroke it was the consciousness of this left side of her brain that she lost.  It started with a pounding pain behind her left eye, and then she started to lose a sense of being in her body.  She watched her arms and legs as they became undifferentiated from what they were holding on to and touching.  She thought this was rather bizarre but then when she lost the ability to move her right arm she realized she was having a stroke.  She would get flashes of consciousness from her left brain that enabled her to make sense out of what was happening.  I’m having a stroke.  I need to call someone for help.  Then she would lose that consciousness and have to wait until she regained it back to figure out what it was she was doing.  Eventually she called for help and was on the ambulance getting taken to the hospital.  And she describes her experience of recognizing that this might be her time to die, and of feeling herself expand beyond her body as the left side of her brain shut down, losing all sense of personal boundaries and limits.  She says that she came to the point where she surrendered her spirit and felt total peace.     

And then, after however long, she realized that she was going to live, that the doctors had been able to save her.  And as she is realizing this she is wondering how this expansiveness that she felt in her spirit, this connectedness and harmony that she felt to all that was beyond herself, would ever fit back inside that little body that she had.  And then she had what she calls her stroke of insight.  She felt like she had to keep living because she believed she had something that she wanted to share with people.  Something important to teach about how we go about our lives.  And so this was a great motivator for her to recover.

She ends her talk by asking the question “Who are we?” and challenges her listeners to recognize that we have access to both hemispheres of the mind.  We are one, single, life force, a part of the same energy field, connected and interdependent, emptied of ourselves, and full of the whole world.  We are each unique individuals, persons with personalities and identities and differences.  She doesn’t use the word humility, but her message is a call for a great humility in how we live.  To have the kind of humility that recognizes that we as separate individuals, also share in one mind, and that in the one mind, there is no need for the unnecessary pride and arrogance that tend to define so many of our relationships.

I don’t mean to say that the Apostle Paul and Dr. Taylor are saying the exact same thing when they talk about being of the same mind.  I don’t mean to reduce being like Christ to a proper proportion of left and right brain activity.  But I do feel that this scientific model of how our minds work help sheds light on what we are being invited into as imitators of the mind of Christ.  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  What is the mind of Christ?  How is it different than the one we are socialized into?  According to this hymn, it is a mind that is both connected to the eternal God, and aware of its own fragility.  Christ gained fullness by emptying himself.  He humbled himself and submitted himself to death.  The consciousness of the right mind and the left mind were in perfect harmony with each other and it allowed him to be in the world in a way that opened up a new path.  There was no conflict between the ego and the spirit.  The I of Christ and the I of the Father were one, even though Christ was also separate, in his body. 

The hymn presents all this as bearing great authority.  Humbled, yet exalted.  Submitted to death, yet raised up to life.  This is an authority made up of humility.  The power of humility isn’t the power of forcing us into anything, but the power of drawing us to itself out of the beauty that we see in it.

  This authority that Jesus carried with him was something that caught the attention of people around him and also brought him scrutiny.  At one point early in his ministry, we are told, “(The people) were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).  One day toward the end of his ministry when he was in the temple, teaching, the chief priests and elders of the people came up to him and asked “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  The temple was a place where there were supposed to be clear lines of authority.  The chief priests carried the authority of being appointed to this position.  They could wield the authority as they saw fit.  A significant part of the authority of the elders and the scribes came from the family that they were born into.  And Jesus comes onto their turf without any of this, but with some obvious power behind what he is saying and doing.  Where does it come from?  What is it?  It was coming from a different place. 

In classic Jesus style, he doesn’t answer the question directly as it is asked of him, but comes at it sideways.  He says: “I will also ask you one question: if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  At first glance this may appear that Jesus is just punting to the other team.  You tell me and then I’ll tell you.  But what it actually gets at is the very nature of authority that Jesus carries that the chief priests don’t have.  The question sends them into a huddle where they start discussing their options of how to answer.  They know that they have rejected John as a true prophet from God, so they aren’t able to answer that his authority came from heaven, otherwise they’d be admitting that they should have believed what he had to say.  But they know that if they answer that there wasn’t anything special about John then they had a fear for the crowds because they all felt that John was a prophet.  They get stuck in their calculating minds.  They are acting out of fear.  They don’t want to appear to be rebelling against God or rebelling against the people.  Their main concern is trying to protect their good name.  We might say that they are operating out of the limitations of the left brain.  Trying to establish their self over and against other selves. 

Not seeing a way that they can get out safe with option A or B, they opt for choice C, “We do not know.”  They supposedly carry with them great authority, yet they are motivated by fear and self-preservation.  In other words, they carry no real authority.  They don’t get Jesus’ authority because it is the opposite of their own.  Jesus is able to possess authority without being authoritarian.  There’s no coercion and there’s no manipulation in how he relates with people.  He’s not grasping on to anything, not even his own life.        

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  This way of being human is not something that comes naturally for us.  We have to be converted into the way of Christ – rewired and remade.  Our pathways have to be rerouted.  The way of Christ is foreign to our system.  Hopefully, we don’t have to have a near death experience in order to get it, although scripture does talk about our baptism as being like a death where we are brought back to life.  Hopefully there are ways each day when we can allow God to shape us and form us into the mind of Christ.  Humbling us.  Emptying us and filling us.

I come back to this useage of the hymn in the letter to the Philippians.  Sometimes in order to get something, we can’t be changed by a logical argument, but have to experience it in a special way.  We have to be confronted with it in a way that breaks through our rational, calculating mind.  We have to sing it, put it into poetry, in order for it to make its way into us through the side door.  The path of humility is one that we can’t just think ourselves into.  We have to sing it, feel it vibrate in our throats and our bodies, be a part of a chorus that is surrounding us and singing it together in order for it to make any sense.  We have to experience it coming at us from others.  That’s part of what I see us doing together in our times of worship.  We sing about strange and wonderful things that we may not be able to experience if they weren’t put to music.  We let our minds be filled with the thoughts of Christ and watch as they slowly change us into new people.  We bring our individual selves, but also let ourselves be expanded to include the whole community, to be not just separate isolated bodies gathered together, but to be the body of Christ.  The body of Christ, learning to have the mind of Christ.

The Non-Triumphalist Parade – 4,01,07

Parades.  Just about everyone enjoys a good parade every once in a while.  Abbie and I weren’t able to make it to the downtown Saint Patrick’s day parade a couple weeks ago, but this is what the Enquirer said about it – the article was called “A Scene of Green:”  “As Cincinnati’s 41st St. Patrick’s Parade kicked off, rows of families and groups of friends sporting plastic leprechaun hats, green boas, Cat-in-the-Hat-style striped hats and all shades of green attire lined the streets, three and four people deep.(There were) 150 or so groups that marched in the parade – including high school bands, clubs like the Shriners and the Red Hat Club and families such as ‘The Flynns.’”Parades are almost by definition festive – The normal everyday flow of street traffic is put on hold for a short while and in place of cars and semis and SUVS, we get marching bands, floats, and clowns filling the streets with a party atmosphere.  Things that normally spend time locked up in closets and garages come out for public display – bizarre costumes, really old or really new cars, firetrucksGrowing up, my favorite parade was the West Liberty Labor Day parade.  As far as I can remember, our family would go to this parade pretty much every year.  We were friends with a family who owned a house in town on a street that the parade would go by and we would take blankets and lawn chairs and watch things from their yard.  Being the farmboy that I was, my favorite part, aside from the people who threw candy, was the tractors.  All of the tractors were pretty old, but the last tractors to pass by were really old.  These were huge steam powered tractors, with big metal tires and all sorts of strange looking features that I’d never seen on our tractors at home.  For a young mind, they were like something out of a storybook.   There was also a certain element of mystery that went with the parade.  This yard where we would watch the parade was on a street corner where the parade would turn after they went by us.  And a little further up, before they got to us, they would turn a corner to come toward us.  So we would never see the beginning or the ending of the parade, but, as soon as that first marching band rounded that first corner, it was a continuous stream of parade coming from out of nowhere and going into nowhere.  As far as I knew, these people kept on marching and driving their tractors year round until it was time for them to come by this yard again the next Labor Day.  It didn’t strike me until I was a little older to start asking about where these people were coming from and where they were going.  How and where did they all get lined up like this in perfect order?  Did people drive their tractors to the parade or did they put their tractors on trailers and haul them there?  When and where did the parade stop?  When did the parade end and just become a shuffle of people dressed in costumes and driving large tractors trying to get back home to put on their regular clothes and put their tractors back in the sheds?   When I was younger I didn’t care at all about these questions.  We were on our own little island of this yard and the wonderfully mysterious parade stretched continuously around both corners without real beginning or end.It would be possible, on Palm Sunday when we celebrate what we call Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, to view this with a similar mind of a child.  It is after all, a wonderfully mysterious parade, with palms being waived and coats spread out like soft pavement on the road, and a donkey and festive crowds.  It would be possible to sit in this familiar spot and watch the parade appear almost out of nowhere and then disappear around the corner until we come back next year to see it all over again.  It would be possible to do that and not ask any other questions about it.  Questions like What events have led up to this parade?  What is Jesus trying to pull here and where is he going on this little donkey?  After he rounds the corner into the city will he pack up and go home or is there something more going on here?In Luke’s gospel, Jesus making his way to Jerusalem has been a long process, spanning ten chapters of the book.  Chapter 9 v. 51 states that “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”  Several other times in the chapters that follow Luke reminds us that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem.  In his travels he was in the habit of sending people out in pairs ahead of him to do the prep work in the next town he would enter.  At the beginning of chapter 10 it says Jesus “appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” So when Jesus finally does arrive near Jerusalem on the eastern side by the Mount of Olives, he continues his normal practice of sending out a pair to make preparations.  All signs show that Jesus had put plenty of planning and aforethought into the whole scenario.  He gives these disciples instructions and code words.  They are to look for a colt, which they will find as they enter the village, the owners will ask a question, and they will respond “The Lord needs it.”  Then the owners will know these are the ones Jesus has sent to fetch the colt for him.  The pickup works without a hitch and the disciples help Jesus up onto the colt and the parade begins.  This very public event on streets leading into the city.

It is likely that around the time Jesus was parading into the city from the east, there was another parade making its way into the city from the west – a Roman parade.  The Passover festival presented a security concern to Rome as thousands of Jews who lived scattered across the empire would come in and swell the population of Jerusalem.  Passover being the festival when Jews celebrated and remembered their deliverance from the Egyptian empire, the city at this time had great potential for producing sparks that could light a fire of revolt against this present empire.  So Pilate, the Roman governor, would have come down from his palace in Caesarea on the coast to spend the week in Jerusalem as a security measure.  No doubt did not enter quietly.  His parade into the city would have been complete with men marching in full costume, a military show of power, as a deterrence against any who would seek to challenge the power of Rome.  Pilate’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem was the age-old parade of the pomp and glory of the victors, the occupiers, the power of domination which was meant to inspire awe and submission from those who lined the streets.  It was a public display of power based on the threat of death. 

This kind of parade served the same purpose as crucifixions, which were numerous and quite public.  Crucifixions were Rome’s way of making a parade out of people it saw as a threat to the stability of the empire.  A public display of the power of the empire meant to inspire awe and submission from those who passed by.    Seeing people hanging on crosses on street corners and gasping for their last breaths sent a pretty strong message of who was in charge.  Pilate parades into Jerusalem to keep the peace.  This was Pax Romana, the peace of Rome.  In Rome’s empire, the things that made for peace was the presence of overwhelming force, shock and awe on public display.      


Jesus told many parables using words to teach people about the kingdom of God, but he also acted out parables without words to teach about the kingdom of God.  His so-called “triumphal entry” parade into Jerusalem is exactly this –  a parable about the presumptuousness of the power of empire and an alternative vision for how to be human – or more accurately, the only vision of how to be human and not a monster.  At stake are the things that make for peace.  What are the things that make for peace? 


Jesus’ street theater parable is a very intentional act of teaching.  This parade is intentionally set up as a counter the story of the empire.  This peasant non-king riding a little donkey, the only float in this parade, might help wake people up from being entranced with the royal king on his war horse surrounded by signs of imperial power.  The empire says peace comes through domination and through crucifying those who threaten the established order.  Jesus is acting out the story of the God who has always been delivering people out of empire, bringing Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans, bringing the children of Israel out of Egypt, bringing the Jews out of Babylon.  Jesus is living by the story of the prophet Zechariah who saw a way of living outside of the story of empire.  Zechariah has said, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem.  Lo, your king comes to you: triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.  He will cut off the battle chariot from Ephraim, and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off.  And he shall command peace to the nations.” 


At stake are the things that really make for peace.  When Jesus neared the city, having acted out these words from Zechariah, he says to the city, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”  But now they are hidden from your eyes.”  Rome is convinced, and seems to have just about everyone else convinced that the things that make for peace are the presence of dominant power and the threat of death.


As we were preparing for this service this week and sending some emails back and forth, Debbie made a comment that I found particularly insightful.  She was thinking about what songs to pick out and she wrote “I’m not always clear as to whether Palm Sunday is joyous or ominous.”  So which is it?  How would you answer that question?


Jesus triumphal entry is about as nontriumphalist as you can get.  He has no enforcement mechanism for this reign of peace he desires.  His weapon is his complete, overflowing compassion for those who have lost their way and are destroying themselves.  And his invitation to those around him, “Come, follow me.”


Is this a joyous festive parade, with Jesus riding in and bringing God’s peace for all in the city?  Should we sing songs of praise and celebration?

Is this parade a prelude to a tragedy, with the “victorious king of peace” about to have a run in with the realpolitik of the authorities assigned with keeping the peace of the empire?  Should we be somber and mournful?   


The parade of donkey, palm branches, and shouts of joy leads to the parade of the crucifixion.  Jesus becomes another example of the utter foolishness of challenging empire.  Rome disarms him and puts him on parade as a crucified, dying man, making a public example for everyone to see who holds the real power.  Behold, the real triumphal parade.  The victory of empire and the power of death.


Which is why it is remarkable for the book of Colossians to make a comment like this:  Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them on the cross” Colossians 2:15.  Jesus made a public example of the rulers, triumphing over them on the cross?”  Rome thought it was making a parade of Jesus, but instead Jesus made a parade of death, putting it on public display on his cross.

Behold, a mystery of our faith.  Jesus’ greatest parable of all. 


Jesus walks right into the triumphal parade of empire and he isn’t entranced with it, he isn’t mesmerized by its power.  He is forsaken by everyone closest to him, but he simply doesn’t buy into the spin of the empire.  He sees right through it, the only one who can see clearly.  It does not hold the things that make for peace.  It holds the things that make for death.  And he puts death on parade to undo our trance with glorifying violence and believing that we are somehow saved through our killing.  The mystery of our faith — Jesus made a public display of the powers who rule by death, and thus conquered death.  In whatever dark alley this parade of death got started, it had continued on and on we were all content to just be in awe and wonder at its grand march, thinking it is what brought peace.  But Jesus has declared that this parade must stop with his death.  No more parade of death.  No more rule of empire.  The things that make for peace are brought by the one who entered the city on a donkey, not on a war horse.  The triumphal parade of the peasant un-king who says, come, follow me.  The invitation to call Jesus Lord instead of the powers of domination.  To join the everlasting parade of life and celebration.


Debbie wrote, “I’m not always clear as to whether Palm Sunday is joyous or ominous.”  For a response song we’ll be singing together a hymn that recognizes it is both.  Joy and sorrow, victory and defeat, the gift of life that is free from the fear and sting of death.  “My life flows on in endless song…”