Healthy Sexuality IV: Sexuality and Spirituality, When All is One – 9/26/10 – John 17,1 John 4, Rev. 21,22

There’s a beautiful scene in the movie The Motorcycle Diaries that takes place in a small hut of a leper colony in Peru, along the banks of the Amazon River.  The film is about the young Che Guevara in his early twenties when he was a medical student, before he became a revolutionary throughout Latin America.  The story is based on the journal he kept on this trek that he and his friend took up through South America.  One of the dynamics of the film is that the more he encounters the people of the land, and their struggles, the more impassioned he becomes on their behalf.  This scene in the small hut is a tender moment after he has been informed that a young woman, Silvia, is refusing to get a surgery that would save her life.  He asks the doctor if he can go in and be with her.  He enters, sits beside her bed, and begins talking with her.  She tells him that life is too much pain.  During their conversation it’s clear that he’s having trouble breathing well.  She asks him what’s wrong with him.  He says, “I was born with bad lungs.”  Then she pauses for a little bit and says, “Is that why you’re doctor?  Because you’re sick?”  He smiles and says that maybe that is the case.  They finish their conversation and later we see Silvia getting her needed surgery.

I love that question – “Is that why you’re a doctor, because you’re sick?” 

Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen called this dynamic the wounded healer.  The healer is himself/herself wounded, and out of their own brokenness and vulnerability, becomes an agent of healing for others.  Sometimes our calling in life is determined by our own deepest pain, that area where we have been permanently scarred and therefore have the passion and humility to guide others toward that healing place that we ourselves desire so much.

So, personally, if someone were to ask me, “Is that why you’re a pastor, because you struggle with your faith?” I think I would have to smile and say that maybe that is the case.  Maybe this applies to others of you in the vocation you have chosen, or that has chosen you.

When it comes to our sexuality, I think it’s pretty fair to say that we are all wounded.  This could possibly be through a particular experience or relationship, but even without a specific occasion of trauma or emotional pain,  the very reality of what it means to be a sexual being  carries with it woundedness, or, at least, need, longing, pain that seeks healing.

Our word sex could possibly have some associations with the Latin word secare, which means “to cut off,” “to sever.”  (This connection is made in Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing p. 193)  My first reaction to this is to flinch back and think that being cut off would actually make sex rather difficult.  Yikes.  But in this case this is the kind of being cut off that extends out to relationships and emotional bonds.  Being sexual involves an element of being disconnected from the whole, of being separated, cut off from the bigger relational network of life.

We could picture this biblically, with Adam having the rib over his heart ripped out of him in order to form a human partner.  Being in relationship for Adam first of all involves the pain of loss, like part of himself is now outside of his body, walking around on its own free will.  The primal wound of our humanity. 

We could also picture this in an evolutionary way.  To the best of our knowledge so far, everything used to be packed together in that solitary point and since the beginning the initial unity has exploded and expanded into fragments of stars and planets separated by light years of space, and, somewhere in all that, us human creatures, still carrying with us in the cells and atoms of our body that distant memory of unity and oneness.

Etymology, Scripture, and Cosmology all paint the same picture. 

Sex is a wonderful gift, a Divine gift, but it is a gift that comes with a powerful effect: a wound; an ache for reunion, desire for the coming together of the separate.  And, for better or for worse, it’s a gift that doesn’t come with a receipt, so we can’t decide we don’t want it and take it back to the store for a refund.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I think I’ll just take a nice sweater instead.   Something a little more… predictable.

We are sexual beings and part of what this means is that we ache our whole lives.  And we’re stuck with it.  Thanks a lot God.

One person asks another, “Is that why you’re sexual, seek connection, because you’re disconnected?”  Maybe.  Yes, definitely.  

But this is where it starts to get really interesting, because if we understand sexuality in this way, it starts sounding a whole lot like spirituality.  Spirituality has the same drive toward connectedness, toward wholeness, toward union with Creator and creation.  Directing our longings and energy toward its Source. 

In what Jews would consider to be something like their confession of faith, Deuteronomy 6:4 records “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  There’s one of the big differences between us and God.  We are many, we are separate, but God is One.  In God there is no separateness.  There is no being cut off.  In God all things hold together.  All things belong.  All things have a place.  Hear O Israel, Listen up people, the Lord is One.” 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples and the followers who will come after them, and he says, “(I pray) that they may be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.  I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17:21-23).

The spiritual movement that Jesus invites people into is the overcoming of separateness that happens when we come into the Oneness that is God.  “I in them and you in me,” getting tangled up together and bound up in the love of God.

Of all the New Testament writers, John has a unique way of talking about overcoming this separateness.  Those dualisms of body and soul, earth and heaven, physical and spiritual, are consistently resisted.  John’s is the Gospel of the Word becoming flesh, of incarnation, of celebrating God in the fleshy creatureliness of Jesus.  John refuses to allow us to believe that we can love God without loving our neighbor.  That we can somehow have a vertical relationship with God without having a horizontal relationship with brothers and sisters.  They must be held together.

Sometimes I wonder if John speaks this way because of the intimate relationship he had with Jesus.  We get let in on this closeness in one scene in particular during the last supper when the disciples are gathered reclining around the table with Jesus.  There’s a point where it says that John leaned back onto Jesus to ask him a question.  And the literal translation is that he asked the question “while leaning on Jesus’ chest” (John 13:25)  The KJV says that he was “lying on Jesus’ breast.”  One of the more intimate snapshots we get of a disciple relating with Jesus.  Imagine yourself leaning back and gently resting your head on Jesus’ chest, relaxing into that position and having a conversation with him, feeling your head rise and fall with every breath that he takes, feeling your own body vibrate with every word that passes over his vocal chords.  Tell me that wouldn’t affect your outlook on the world, your theology.

There is this persistent idea within Christian spirituality that we ultimately have to escape the body to find God.  John would like us to know that it is through the body, through incarnation, through our senses of touch, and smell, and sound, and sight, and taste, that we come to know God, that our separateness begins to be overcome.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

If spirituality is about overcoming our separateness and sexuality is about overcoming our separateness then what do we with each one will continually affect the other.  They both share that impulse toward oneness.  And if sexuality is about overcoming our separateness, then it places sex, once again, in the realm of the sacred.

Sex has a mission.  Being a sexual human being is itself a vocation, a calling.  Our sexual vocation is to draw together.  To form bonds.  To strengthen the web of relationships.  To build up family, build up a neighborhood, build up community.  To walk further toward the unity of God.  We do this as wounded healers.

It’s one thing for a doctor to learn the steps of a medical procedure that will help someone heal.  It’s another thing when two people – each with their own issues and hurts and struggles – come together and dare to walk down the road toward emotional and physical intimacy.  Because they almost immediately start hurting each other.  Misunderstanding.  Not communicating well.  Counting on the other person to know what we need when we ourselves barely have a clue what we actually need.  It’s a wonder this ever works out at all.  And sometimes it doesn’t.

But sometimes both partners are able to confess their own woundedness, their longing for connection, and, somehow, from that place of vulnerability, some healing happens.  And intimacy grows.  And sexuality becomes a means by which we give and receive, not only physical pleasure, but also, healing.

Our sexuality and spirituality call us on a mission as wounded healers.  This is the energy we have been given for reaching out to one another and toward God, furthering the bonds that lead to wholeness.

One of the writers who has significantly influenced my own thinking on sexuality is the priest and scholar Ronald Rolheiser, someone I’ve referenced several times in this series.  As we try to summarize what it is we’ve been talking about and what this actually looks like in daily life, let me lean on him one more time to offer some sketches of this. 

This is what he suggests:  He asks, “How then might a Christian define sexuality?  Sexuality is a beautiful, good, extremely powerful, sacred energy, given us by God and experienced in every cell of our being as an irrepressible urge to overcome our incompleteness, to move toward unity and consummation with that which is beyond us.”  He then asks “What does sexuality in its full bloom look like?

–          When you see a young mother, so beaming with delight at her own child that, for that moment, all selfishness within her has given way to the sheer joy of seeing her child happy, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see a grandfather so proud of his grandson, who has just received his diploma, that, for that moment, his spirit is only compassion, altruism, and joy, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see an artist, after long frustration, look with such satisfaction on a work she has just completed that everything else for the moment is blotted out, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see someone throw back his or her head in genuine laughter, caught off guard by the surprise of joy itself, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in it mature bloom.

–          When you see an elderly nun who, never having slept with a man, been married, or given birth to a child, has through the years of selfless service become a person whose very compassion gives her a mischievous smile, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see a community gathered round a grave, making peace with tragedy and consoling each other so that life can go on, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see a table, surrounded by a family, laughing, arguing, and sharing life with each other, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

–          When you see an elderly husband and wife who after nearly half a century of marriage have made such peace with each other’s humanity that now they can quietly share a bowl of soup, content just to know that the other is there, you are seeing sexuality (and spirituality) in its mature bloom.

Sexuality is not simply about finding a lover or even finding a friend.  It is about overcoming separateness by giving life and blessing it.” (The Holy Longing pp. 197-198)

It’s quite a list that he gives us to ponder.

So as we arrive at the end of this sexuality series – Sextember, alas, must come to a close – it is very much a coming full circle.  Starting out about talking about moving beyond the dualisms of church and culture, body and soul, and ending here with holding sexuality and spirituality in the same light, as we look toward the Oneness of God in which all things hold together, through whom we can become wounded healers.

The final image in all this comes from Scripture.  The surprise ending of the Bible, still with the writings of John, the book of Revelation, is that rather than people going to heaven, heaven comes down to people.  The vision of the new heavens and the new earth, the redemption of the world, is a coming together of all of these fragments.  God makes God’s home among us, sets up camp right in downtown New Jerusalem, and calls for a wedding feast.  Union, bonds of relationship, the two becoming one.  The spiritual and the physical, heaven and earth, are mixed and mingled, and reconciled together.

That’s the vision that we believe is already breaking into the world, already a possibility, already drawing us into itself through the grace of God.  Our sexuality is this God given energy that propels us toward the great wedding banquet where our woundedness finds its ultimate comfort.

Let the party begin.

Other sermons in this series:

Healthy Sexuality I: Our Bodies, God’s Image

Healthy Sexuality II: Created for Relationship

Healthy Sexuality III: Good Sex, Eros and Agape in Bed

Three Meditations – I and the Father, Dream, Pursued – 4/25/10 – John 10:20-39, Rev. 7:9-19, Ps. 23

Every week the lectionary includes four different scriptures: A Psalm, an Old Testament Reading, a Gospel, and an epistle, one of the letters of the early church.  During the season of Easter, the Old Testament reading is replaced with a reading from the book of Acts.  Today we’ve already heard the Acts reading and now we’ll hear the other three scriptures read, and I’ll provide a meditation after each one.  After the last meditation, for our response, there will be the opportunity to come forward and receive an anointing with oil for yourself or on behalf of another person.

NRSV John 10:22-39 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.” 31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” 33 The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” 34 Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? 35 If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’– and the scripture cannot be annulled– 36 can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? 37 If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. 38 But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” 39 Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.

I can’t help getting distracted by a statement Jesus makes in the middle of this exchange.  The conversation leading up to it had to do with what it means to be the Messiah, Jesus as the shepherd and protector of the sheep, sheep hearing his voice, and life eternal.  But then he goes and closes by saying “The Father and I are one” – which is a rather bold statement, kind of hard to ignore.  In today’s world it would be the perfect kind of sound bite to lift out of context, play over and over again throughout the 24 hour cable news cycle, call in endless commentators to give both sides of what Jesus could have meant by the statement and how it will affect his standing with the public.  The ticker at the bottom of the screen reads, “Jesus of Nazareth says, ‘The Father and I are one.’” 

Apparently it’s the only thing that his listeners at the time were able to hear as well.  The text goes on to say that they picked up stones to stone Jesus because he was making himself God, and then, soon after, that they tried to arrest him.  But Jesus isn’t flustered.  He comes back with a quote from Psalm 82, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods?’  So if you all have the potential to be like God then don’t be offended when I say that I’m a child of God.”

It’s a pretty wild exchange.  The people are about to commit mob murder and Jesus is calm, cool, and collected, poised with rhetorical flair, quoting poetry, escaping from their hands, as the text says. 

Jesus is no politician, and he’s certainly not out to win anybody’s vote for the position of Messiah.  In John’s gospel especially, he seems to find a way to press all the wrong buttons and say what’s most likely to upset people, or rub them the exact wrong way. 

The intense misunderstandings in John, almost always between Jesus and the people referred to as “The Jews,” reflect the intense conflict going on at the time of John’s writing.  In what was an early rift for the followers of Jesus, church and synagogue – those Jews who held that Jesus was the Messiah and those who remained centered on Torah as the central revelation of God – were undergoing a parting of ways, a mutual excommunication of sorts.  It got pretty ugly at times.  It’s almost as if they were speaking different languages, talking right past each other.  We’re still working on trying to heal that rift and better understand one another and see if we might have more in common than we first thought. 

A paraphrase of Jesus’ statement here, “I and the Father are one,” in keeping with the context of what he says around it, is less “I am God,” and more “When you see what I’m doing, you should see God,” which is good news.  God is like Jesus.  God is like the shepherd that calls the sheep.  God, like Jesus, lifts up the lowly and brings justice to those under oppression.  God calls us to follow, even if the path is difficult.  When we see Jesus’ overwhelming love for those he encounters, we should see the loving embrace of God for this creation and all of us creatures trying to find our way together on this small planet that is our common home.                   

NRSV Revelation 7:9-17 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

The book of Revelation contains both pictures of God’s dream for the world, and pictures of the nightmare that we have made it.  When it comes to Revelation, the lectionary is quite protective of us, not including some of the more fantastical visions that happen within the book that qualify for the nightmare side of things.  We don’t get the seven seals of destruction, the seven trumpets, the first beast and the second beast, the great whore, and the fall of Babylon.  Instead, we get the passages considered more appropriate for a worship setting, similar to this one.  Multitudes of people praising God, giving shouts of worship, with the promise that there will be no more hunger, no more tears, and that finally, they will be led beside springs of the water of life. 

This passage does allude to all of those other less beautiful things that have been happening throughout this vision, calling all of them “The great ordeal.”  The one seeing the vision, John, asks who these praising multitudes are and his guide tells him, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.  They have washed their robes, and made them white.”  The great “ordeal,” is elsewhere translated the great “tribulation.”  In light of the Psalm 23 passage that will be read next, maybe another way of saying this would be, “These are they who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.”

Like the John passage, there is reference to the shepherd, only here the irony is that the shepherd is the Lamb.  The Lamb is the shepherd of all these gathered.  Those who have come out of the great ordeal, where the beasts have had their way, are being led by a lamb, who has conquered the beasts.  Everyone’s allegiance has shifted to the Lamb which is the figure for the universal Christ, the force in the universe that confronts violence with nonviolence, hatred with love, vengeance with forgiveness.  This lamb/shepherd shows people the way to springs of the water of life.  

I don’t consider myself a biblical literalist, but I’m rather fond of the word “all,” so when I see it in scripture like this, I like to try and imagine what it would mean if it actually means “all,” just like it says.  “I looked, and there was a great multitude that on one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white…They cried out in a loud voice, saying, Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

I saw a statistic this week that of the 7000 languages spoken in the world today, it’s estimated that half of them will be extinct in the next 90 years.  The current rate is one language lost every two weeks, with cultural knowledge and customs and spiritual insights lost with the language.  This past week we celebrated Earth Day and there is a direct correspondence between the loss of language diversity and the loss of biodiversity. 

The dream of God, the hope, the heavenly vision, is that all tribes and people, and all languages be represented in this chorus of praise to the Creator. 

It’s never clear in Revelation when any of this is taking place.  Whether it be the first century Roman world, the distant future, or the whole sweep of history collapsed into a single vision.  But Christians have a conception of time that brings all this to bear on the present moment.  We’re never allowed to exempt ourselves from these things meaning something right now.  Our prayer is that the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven.  Which is to say, we pray that the way things are supposed to be, the dream, heaven, come into reality in the very places where we find ourselves each day – earth.          

TNK Psalm 23 A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to water in places of repose; 3 He renews my life; He guides me in right paths as befits His name. 4 Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff — they comfort me. 5 You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my drink is abundant. 6 Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for many long years. GNT

If we only have a few passages of scripture memorized, chances are, this is one of them.  And for good reason.  It’s a strong, comforting and beautiful expression of God’s care for us.  “The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want,” or, as another translation puts it: I lack nothing.  Ponder that for a while.  God is my shepherd.  I lack nothing.  This continues the shepherding theme and gives us concrete images of just what that looks like.  Lying down in green pastures.  Being led beside quiet waters.

It’s a Psalm often read by the bedside of the dying and at funerals.  It’s a remarkable thing to read the Psalm with someone whose life is drawing to a close, whose physical body is nearing its last breath.  The Lord is my shepherd.  I lack nothing.  Sometimes the person has already lost consciousness and gives no visible signs of being able to hear what is being said.  But the Lord is my shepherd.  I lack nothing.  He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters; 3 He renews my life; He guides me in right paths for his name’s same.  4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff — they comfort me.   

The picture of God as shepherd expands into that of God as gracious host.  You prepare a table before me, you anoint my head with oil, a common custom of pouring oil over the head of an honored guest.  My cup overflows.  There is more than enough being given here.   

A number of years ago Abbie and I were leading a retreat for a church group and we asked people to rewrite their own Psalm 23.  Instead of the “The Lord is my shepherd,” we invited people to use another metaphor that related to their experience with God, and then continue writing the Psalm with that central metaphor they’d chosen.  Anyone who wanted to could then read their Psalm to the group.  I remember one person said, “The Lord is my mother.  She washes all my dirty dishes and cleans up my messes.”  I also remember that when it got to the part of “God prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” one saintly elderly Mennonite woman worded her Psalm as saying, “God prepares a table before me, I have no enemies.”  It was quite a statement for someone 80+ years old.

Regarding the presence of enemies, there is a word toward the end of the Psalm that gets lost in translation.  The word throughout the Hebrew Scriptures for being pursued and pursuing one’s enemies is the word “RDF,” to pursue or chase down.  Pharaoh pursues the Hebrew slaves as they escape from Egypt to the Red Sea.  Joshua and the different Judges pursue the Canaanite tribes in their military battles.  Israel pursues the Philistines.  The Philistines pursue Israel.  Saul pursues David in an attempt to take his life, the Jews are pursued by the Babylonians who take them into exile.  There’s a lot of pursuing that happens.  The word occurs over 140 times by my count.  It’s all for the purpose of capturing and conquering.  Part of the great ordeal, we might say. 

But this Psalm, after mentioning, “God prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall (RDF) pursue me all the days of my life,”  It’s a much stronger word than simply “follow,” which sounds rather passive.  This is a case where the Jews get their own scriptures better than we do.  The Jewish Publication Society translates this line as “Only goodness and steadfast love shall pursue me all the days of my life.”  If we are accustomed to enemies pursuing us, we must know that goodness and mercy, steadfast love, are also hot on our trails, chasing us down, pursuing us around every corner and refusing to let us escape their sight.  We can run from them, but we can’t hide.  Some day goodness and steadfast love will conquer us, and we will know more truly than ever that “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”

“Through the Desert Goes Our Journey” – Mennonite Heritage Sunday – 10/26/08 – Genesis 21:8-21, Rev. 3:7-13

There are some stories that don’t fit neatly into the main story that we’re used to hearing.  The story in Genesis 21 about Hagar and Ishmael is one of those.  Ishmael was the oldest son of Abraham, born through his slave woman Hagar, because Sara, his wife, was not able to have children.  When Sara does miraculously conceive in her old age, she gives birth to Isaac and instantly feels a rivalry between her son and the older Ishmael.  Her solution is to have Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, so Isaac can get the family’s full inheritance.  Abraham reluctantly agrees, gives Hagar and his young son some bread and water, and sends them away, into the desert, where they wander until they have nothing left to drink.  Hagar is unable to watch her son die, so she sets him under a shrub and then walks a ways off to where she can’t see him.  This is how Genesis describes what happens next:  “And as Hagar sat opposite Ishmael, she lifted up her voice and wept.  And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar?  Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’  Then God opened her eyes, and saw a well of water.  She went, filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.  God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness.” 

Abraham is the father of three great religions.  The Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims.  Jews and Christians trace their line back through Isaac and Muslims trace their line through Ishmael.  The rest of the Bible is mostly silent on Ishmael and his descendants.  It’s a story that doesn’t fit into the main narrative.  The rest of our scripture, the story of how Jews and Christians came to be, is told through the line of Isaac and his descendants, his son Jacob who is renamed Israel, and Jacob’s sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel and eventually the nation of Israel and the Jewish people.  Ishmael is included briefly in the tradition, but we’re left without knowing where his path leads.  We know that God cared for him and his mother, that God promised that he would be a great nation, and that he grew up and lived in the desert. 

Within our Mennonite history we also have some stories that don’t fit into the main story that we tell about ourselves.  The main story that we like to tell about our Anabaptist and Mennonite heritage could go something like this:  During the 16th century the church in Europe had become corrupted and wrapped up in the politics of the state.  The church hierarchy sold indulgences to the people for the pardoning of sins, leading to many abuses.  The act of baptizing a child also enlisted them for the tax rolls and potential future military service.  The wealth of the church stood in sharp contrast to the poverty of the large peasant population.  Out of these conditions certain leaders sought to reform the church.  First Martin Luther posting his 95 thesis, then Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin and others calling for deep reform in how the church viewed scripture, communion, and salvation.  The Bible was translated into the common language of the people and the idea of the priesthood of all believers was popularized.  Local princes allied themselves with these leaders and whole regions would adopt these changes together.  Despite all these reforms, a small group believed that they were not going far enough.  They felt the church should be modeled on the New Testament church and that discipleship of Jesus should not be connected with allegiance to any particular governing authority.  This group became known as the Anabaptists because they would re-baptize adults who wanted to make a confession of faith in following Jesus and join their movement.  They tended to be egalitarian in their leadership, engaged in group Bible study, and emphasized living out the teachings of the gospels.  The Anabaptists weren’t aligned with the Catholic church or the reformers or any of the ruling princes and were persecuted by all groups.  Over 2000 of them were martyred for their faith and, as a tenet of their faith, they refused to return evil for evil with fighting back.  In the middle of the 16th century many of these people started to be known as Mennonites, named after the leader Menno Simons.  Because of the persecution, Anabaptist groups sought places where they could practice their faith in safety.  Eventually this led some to migrate to the Americas and others to find refuge in Russian territory under the rule of Catherine the Great who promised them land and exemption from military service.  Mennonites stayed in Russia from the end of the 18th century to the end of the 19th century, with most ending up migrating to the West before the time of the Russian revolution.  Mennonites have continued to reach out in mission around the world and many have been drawn to the Mennonite faith because of its commitment to community, service, discipleship, and peacemaking.  Today there are over 100,000 members of Mennonite Church USA and over 1.5 million people around the world who associate with an Anabaptist related group.

That’s the story told in very broad strokes of how Mennonites came to be.  Within this story there are countless others that do or don’t fit so neatly into this narrative.  It’s been interesting for me to see in the last half year or so the retelling of one particular sliver of the Mennonite experience that is one of those stories that just doesn’t fit.  Or it seems to not fit.  In the last four months some version of this story has been retold in the Mennonite Weekly Review, July 14, The Menno-Hof historical museum newsletter, Summer 2008, Sojourners magazine, July 2008, and hot off the press, this film that was just released this month – Through the Desert Goes Our Journey (the newest addition to our video library).  It’s a story that has been a source of shame in some Mennonite circles for over a century, but further exploration is leading to a new understanding of what the story could mean today.    

Before looking into it I want to reread parts of this passage from Revelation that Caroline read because it plays a prominent role in the story.  In the opening chapters of Revelation the writer, John, is instructed to write seven letters to the angels of seven different churches in Asia Minor.  Each of the letters addresses the church in its own context and gives them instruction of how to live faithfully through the hardships they were facing.  This is the sixth of those seven letters: 

“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens: ‘I know your works.  Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.  I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name….Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.  I am coming soon.”

The story that has been called the Great Trek begins in Russia in the year 1880.  While most of the Mennonite communities were responding to the new forced military conscription by moving to the Americas, there was a group of Mennonite families and leaders who felt it was a mistake to go West.  Their ancestors had always kept moving East to escape persecution and they believed that there was significance in heading toward the rising sun.  So from Ukraine, five wagon trains, about 200 families, headed out together east into territory that the Russian military had recently conquered, and beyond the reach of the Russian empire into Muslim ruled territory in Central Asia. The trek would ultimately cover 2000 miles and land them in Uzbekistan.  Because of their unfamiliarity with the land and the large percentage of desert that they traveled, they faced incredible difficulties.  Eventually they abandoned their wagons and mounted all that they had on camels to make it through the desert.  They often relied on the hospitality and knowledge of the Muslim leaders that they encountered and the villages where they would stay for winters. 

Two years into the Trek, the largest wagon train settled and established four different farming villages.  Among those who kept traveling there were strong apocalyptic beliefs.  One of the leaders in particular, Claas Epp, believed that Christ’s return to earth was immanent and that it was the mission of this community to travel to the site where he would return to present itself to Christ as the bride, and to rule with Christ in the millennial kingdom on earth, images of the church from the book of Revelation.  Claas Epp saw their community as being similar to the 1st century church in Philadelphia and often quoted the line “see, I have set before you an open door.”  He believed a door was being opened for them to trek toward the place where they would meet Christ.  They wandered in Uzbekistan for four years, looking for the proper site.  Claas Epp declared that March 8, 1889 would be the day of the Lord’s return.  When the day arrived the community waited and when nothing happened, Epp extended the time to 1891.  The Mennonites settled in the region, and when Christ didn’t return, they continued to live there until fleeing Stalin’s forces 50 years later.

So what do you do with a story like that?  One that doesn’t fit so neatly into the one we like to tell about who we are?  Up until recently little more was known about the story than this sketchy outline.  But the reason that it is being retold now is that in the last year, a group of scholars, writers, filmmakers, and descendants of those involved have retraced this journey, looking for more details about what the trip was like and what may be learned from the experience.  Part of what made them especially interested in this was that there are aspects of the Great Trek that have particular relevance in our own setting today.  One of the writers who went on the trip, Jesse Nathan, says this, “How then does revisiting the century-old story of an apocalyptic Mennonite community in Uzbekistan engage Christians – and not just Mennonites – today?  As history, it offers inspiration for Christian relationship with Muslims.  As theology, it offers caution again runaway millennialism.  As a tale of shame and communal repression, the retelling counters 100 years of silence” (Jesse Nathan, Sojourners, July 2008).

What this group discovered and experienced is rather remarkable.  From diaries that have surfaced in the last 20 years they knew that one of the wagon trains set up camp for nine months in the village of Serabulak.  Trying to escape notice from the Russians, these German-Russian Mennonites were greeted and taken in by local Muslim leaders.  Five of the Mennonite families were given sanctuary within the mosque courtyard.  The locals also offered their mosque as a place of worship for the Mennonites while they were there, the Muslims using it on their holy day, Friday, and the Mennonites using it on Sunday.  Several weddings and funerals were held in the mosque and 21 youth were baptized there.  During the time that this investigative tour group was exploring Serabulak, they had a fresh encounter with the hospitality of the village.  They met with the local imam who allowed them to pray and sing inside the mosque, they offered a gift to the imam so he would remember them and in turn he offered them a blessing.  Jesse Nathan wrote this: “Astounding as this experience feels, it fits with what we’ve been discovering as we retrace.  These peaceful Christians built friendships with Muslims – Muslims, who in turn, shepherded the Mennonites through difficulty.  In exchange, Mennonites introduced tomatoes, potatoes, dairy cattle, butter, and cheese to Uzbekistan.”

As they kept traveling and retracing the steps of the Trek they continued to  discover that not only were the Mennonites remembered in the region, but they were remembered with respect .    In another of the villages where the Mennonites stayed the imam still does the annual springtime blessing of the crops on the land where the Mennonites lived because of the fruitful agriculture that thrived while they cared for it.    

Maybe most remarkable was that the people of Uzbekistan had no associations with the Mennonites as being a group getting ready for the end of the world.  We know that they were a group getting ready for the end of the world, but the way that they related with their Muslim neighbors was one of making an investment in this world.  Mennonites are remembered for their nonviolent practices, frugal economics, and generous wages that they gave to those who worked for them (MWR, July 14, 2008).

What all this means I don’t really know.  Different people who went on the trip are beginning to give their interpretation of what these discoveries could mean.  One scholar, James Junke, who is a history professor at Bethel College, said that whenever he used to tell this story in class it always ended in 1891 with the community being disgraced and Claas Epp fading away into shame.  He has reflected on the importance of recasting this story, by including what happened beyond 1891 and how it is remembered by the current residents of Uzbekistan.  Another person, a direct descendant of Claas Epp, felt her travels offered a reinterpretation of the open door.  She commented that this history could provide an open door to thinking about how Christians and Muslims relate to each other across differences and how the mutual respect and neighborliness that these group showed to each other 100 years ago could be a model for us.  (Both in Through the Desert Goes Our Journey)  Another person reflected specifically on the hospitality shown at Serabulak and wondered whether our church communities would be as open and welcoming to Muslims as they were to us.  If a large group of Muslim immigrants moved into our neighborhood would we be willing to offer our building as a place of worship and prayer?  (Mennohof newsletter, Summer 2008).         

My feeling is that this is a story that will take on new significance for Mennonites, and hopefully others who hear about it.  It may go from being one of those stories that doesn’t quite fit into one that helps tell us more about who we are and who we can be.  In a time when many religious leaders are telling end of the world scenarios, we can caution against getting caught up in any of the hype.  In a time when the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac continue to be suspicious of each other and commit acts of violence against each other, we can remember that we are all children of Abraham and that there are times in our life together when we have been friends and a blessing to each other.  We can believe that God has set before us an open door, to live out the story of God’s reconciling love that is meant for all people.  Ultimately that is the main story that we are invited to be a part of.   

The End of the Book – 5,20,07

For those who like to sneak a peak at the end of a book to see how it turns out, this is the day for you.  The New Testament lesson for this morning includes verses from Revelation chapter 22, the last chapter of the last book of the Bible.  Out of curiosity, I spent some time leafing through the closing pages of some of the books on my shelf this week.  I was wondering if there is a normal way for books to end.  One of my favorite books is Roots by Alex Haley.  Haley traces his family line back to an African village and the birth of his Great,x5 grandfather Kunta Kinte.  Eventually Kunta is kidnapped by slave traders and makes the middle passage to America where he and his descendents are slaves.  Haley tells the story of each generation until he gets up to himself, a man who has had the benefits of education and opportunity.  He ends his book with the funeral of his father.  This is what he says: “The Pine Bluff service over, we took Dad to where he had previously told us he wanted to lie – in the Veterans’ Cemetery in Little Rock.  Following his casket as it was taken to section 16, we stood and watched Dad lowered into grave No. 1429.  Then we whom he had fathered – members of the seventh generation from Kunta Kinte – walked away rapidly, averting our faces from each other, having agreed we wouldn’t cry.  So Dad has joined the others up there.  I feel that they do watch and guide, and I also feel that they join me in the hope that this story of our people can help alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.”                   On a different note, one of the books we like to read to Eve is called the Tooth Book by Dr. Seuss.  This book is short enough that the last part is really the whole second half of the book.  So here’s how it ends, talking about teeth: “You will lose set number one.  And when you do, it’s not much fun.  But then you’ll grow set number two!  32 teeth, and all brand-new.  16 downstairs, and 16 more, upstairs on the upper floor.  And when you get your second set, that’s all the teeth you’ll ever get!  SO…don’t chew down trees like beavers do, If you try you’ll lose set number two!  Don’t gobble junk like Billy Billings.  They say his teeth have fifty fillings!  They sure are handy when you smile, So keep your teeth around awhile.”One of the books I read during seminary was The Gift of Peace by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.  Cardinal Bernardin was the much loved archbishop of Chicago and was known for his compassion and reconciling spirit.  He served 15 years in this role before dying of pancreatic cancer in the mid-90’s.  This book is a personal reflection on his vocation as a priest and his journey with cancer.  These are the closing words of his book: “What I would like to leave behind is a simple prayer, that each of you may find what I have found – God’s special gift to us all: the gift of peace.  When we are at peace, we find the freedom to be most fully who we are, even in the worst of times.  We let go of what is nonessential and embrace what is essential.  We empty ourselves so that God may more fully work within us.  And we become instruments in the hands of the Lord.” P. 153.In these three very different books, and in some of the other books I leafed through, there was something common in how they ended.  Each book presented a closing image or a closing thought that the author wanted to leave with the reader.  Not necessarily a summary of the whole writing, but a parting picture meant to linger in the mind.  From Alex Haley, we get a picture of the great cloud of witnesses of his ancestors whom we have come to know throughout the book, and his call to continue telling the stories of the victims of history so that there will be no more victims.  From Dr. Seuss, we get a picture of big mouths full of shining healthy teeth all smiling at each other.  From Cardinal Bernardin, we get an invitation to receive the same gift of peace that he has received, despite his cancer, and become instruments of peace in God’s hands.  Each book leaves us with an enduring image that we are meant to take with us.  If this is a common way for books to end, we will want to notice and take to heart the parting picture that the Bible leaves us with.  When we’ve gone through creation, the fall, the call of Abraham, the calling of Israel, the slavery in Egypt and the deliverance out of Egypt, the desert wonderings, settling in Canaan, fighting with a bunch of neighbors, the kinds, the prophets, the psalms, the exile to Babylon, the return home from Babylon, the continued living under empire, the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, the early church, and the letters to the churches…when we have gotten to the end of what our scriptures have to teach us, what image would they like for us to have lingering in our mind?As the last book of the Bible, Revelation is not exactly an easy read.  It begins innocently enough.  Chapter one verse one: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John.”  John is on the island of Patmos, in exile.  During his lifetime the Roman Empire ruled the known world and ruthlessly did all it could to maintain power.  John was one of the lucky ones as many others who had challenged Rome’s authority had been killed, including a number of Christians.  The book takes its name from this opening line, “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” Revelation.  Being called revelation, you’d think it would live up to its name and reveal its message quite clearly.  Make known, uncover, make clear as day.  But, alas, this is not the case.  Rather than being a pathway to understanding and a point of agreement for believers, Revelation has a history of causing confusion and bringing about deep rifts within the faith.      The first, and, I believe, most important rule for interpreting the book of Revelation is that we are dealing here with the same Jesus Christ as we see in the gospels.  He has not undergone a personality change.  The book is full of violent images, but he has not suddenly become the Terminator or Rambo.  The revelation of Jesus Christ here is the same revelation of the one who chose to be killed rather than to kill when he faced Rome.  The irony of the cross being a victory is present throughout all of Revelation.  The irony is handed to us in chapter five when John has a vision of a heavenly throne room and a scroll with seven seals that no one can open.  John is weeping because no one can open the scroll.  Verses 5 and 6 then say, “Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep, See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.  Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb, standing as if it had been slaughtered.”  The great conquering Lion who holds the keys to history turns out to be a wounded Lamb.  So everything that we think we know about how the world works must be seen through this irony.  Words we thought we understood – words like conquer, vengeance, authority, even death – must all be taken from the Lamb’s perspective.  As was common in ancient apocalyptic literature, the book is filled with dualisms.  There are many allusions to the Roman Empire which it calls the beast, Babylon.  This is contrasted with the kingdom of God and the reign of the Lamb, the one who rules with justice.  To use a modern phrase, the book essentially portrays the battle for hearts and minds between these two entities.  The beast of empire would have all people believe that it is the supreme power.  In c. 13 a voice cries out defiantly, “who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”  It requires worship from all people and promises them safety if they comply.  The followers of the Lamb don’t believe the claims of the beast.  They believe the way of the Lamb will eventually conquer and they refuse to submit to the beast.  The showdown between the beast and the Lamb is not your typical rock-em-sock-em battle scene, although it does use imagery we normally associate with war.  This begins in chapter 19 v. 11.  The Christ is seen as a rider from heaven on a white horse, a symbol of a military leader, but remember the one who entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, a caricature of this very image.  It says that he judges and makes war, but remember the one who said he judged no one and the one who made war against blindness, exclusion, and hatred.  His weapon is a typical weapon of war, a sword, but it is coming out of his mouth.  This rider conquers the beast and all who follow the beast with this sword, the spoken word, that has power to persuade and convert.  Revelation is over the top in describing this as a bloody battle scene.  Nobody escapes the edge of this sword.  The kings of the earth who followed the beast are slaughtered, conquered.  The city of Babylon, Rome, the seat of the empire, where the beast ruled, goes up in smoke.  It falls to the ground and is no more.  Taken from a literalist reading, this is one of the most violent events imaginable.  Taken from the perspective of the Lamb, as a revelation of Jesus Christ, this is an ironic portrayal of the eyes of those who were made blind by empire finally being opened to the truth of God – they are conquered by the Lamb.  Eventually the spoken word of the Lamb is more powerful than the war machinery of the beast.  The way of the beast proves to be self-destructive.  For those with eyes to see, the Lamb is the ruler of history. This sets us up for the last scene, the way the book ends.  With the city of the beast crumbling, we are introduced to a new city.  Chapter 21.  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”  This image is the opposite of how we usually talk about heaven.  Usually people talk about us going to heaven, but here we have heaven coming to us in the form of a beautiful city.  How this happens isn’t clear, but that’s the direction of movement in the closing chapters of Revelation.     John gets a chance to be a tourist in this city.  In verse 10 we are introduced to his tour guide.  “And in the spirit “the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”  One of the first things John notices is not a thing at all, but the absence of a thing.  The city has no temple.  The presence of God is all pervasive and there is no central place where God is more honored than in other places.  The river of life shows up in the city, and also the tree of life.  It says that the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Interestingly, John sees the kings of the earth bringing their glory into the city, those same kings that were at the tip of the Lamb’s sword just a little earlier.  This is a city whose gates are never shut.  But its not a city where everyone has yet entered.  There is still an outside.  There are still those who choose not to enter.         Reading Revelation provokes some obvious questions.  When does this happen?  Where does this happen?  It’s a question the disciples also asked Jesus when he described similar things right before he was crucified.  “Tell us, when will all this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”  His answer then was that knowing when and where were not the important things to know.  What was important was staying alert and living out the reality of the kingdom of God, the city of God in the present moment.       Maybe surprisingly, the Bible does not have a neat ending where all the tensions are resolved.  It is not as if we are brought to the end of a linear storyline.    We are given a picture of a city whose gates are never shut, but whom not everyone has entered.  We are given a taste of the water of life, even while we still feel thirst within ourselves.  We are given a glimpse inside the imagination of God, even as we struggle to imagine where this is a visible reality in a world where the beast of empire still goes on strong.  What we are given, at the end of the book, is a powerful picture, meant to linger in our minds and make its way into our hearts and actions.  Seeing heaven coming toward us, renewing us, saving us from empire, healing us.  This is the picture we are meant to take with us when we close the book.