“Do you…?” “I do” | May 20

Texts: Romans 8:22-27; Acts 2:1-8

The records don’t show who he was speaking to, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said this: “You are being baptized today as a Christian. All those great and ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be pronounced over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out, without your understanding any of it. But we too are being thrown back all the way to the beginnings of our understanding. What reconciliation and redemption mean, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, cross and resurrection, what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ; all that is so difficult and remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore. In these words and actions handed down to us we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it.” (Written while imprisoned in Tegel, 1944).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s.  He was one of the few voices in the German church who spoke out against the rise of Hitler and the persecution of the Jews.  He helped found the Confessing Church and an underground seminary which resisted Nazi rule in the name of Christ; He was eventually forbidden to print or publish, was arrested, and in 1945, was executed, only a month before Germany surrendered to Ally forces.

In other words, he had a strong sense of what he was talking about when he said that these Christian ideas of reconciliation and redemption, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, add up to something so totally new and revolutionary they lead us to the edge of our understanding.  He knew these things were so difficult and seemingly remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore.

But there he was, daring to speak.

And here we are, daring to once again enact this ancient rite of Christian baptism.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Bill P, even as we remember our own baptism and how it continues to shape us.  Or, if you have not been baptized, ponder whether baptism might be a part of your faith identity in the future.  Because Hey, after hearing a martyr story – that this decision could cost you everything – who wouldn’t want to join up?!

It’s been a good to meet with Bill and his sponsor Jeff L over the last weeks.  It was Bill who made the connection between these baptismal vows and wedding vows.  Like, you’re pretty sure you want to be the kind of person the vows describe, but you actually have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.  But you know enough to take the step.  One of the effects of a good wedding is not just getting a couple married, but reminding everyone who witnesses it of their own deepest commitments.

For us, the baptismal vows are these four sets of questions that we’ve included in the bulletin at the end of the worship liturgy.  They are based on traditional vows and come from the Mennonite Minister’s Manual – which is the secret society book you get when you graduate seminary, also available on Amazon.com.  Some of the language of these vows has been slightly altered to better fit the faith expression of this congregation.    And so, as we anticipate baptism, as we remember our baptism, I’d like to walk through each of these vows and say a little bit about how each one speaks to a baptismal identity that we carry throughout our lives.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world, and accept the forgiving grace and steadfast love of God as the guiding power in your life?

Baptism is a public way of saying Yes:  Yes to God, to the church, to life.  It’s a lot to say Yes to.  Each of these four baptismal questions that will be asked today are answered in the affirmative.  “Do you accept forgiving grace…?” Yes, I do.  “Do you believe…?” I do.  “Do you commit…?” I do.  “Are you willing…?” Yes, I am.

This first one, however, highlights that in saying Yes to these things, we are also saying No to other things.  What we say No to, what we renounce, is what Christian tradition calls “the evil powers of this world,” or, more simply “sin.”

Sin certainly has a personal dimension to it.  I think the Call to Worship put it beautifully: “For all that we have done, and left undone, all those we have left behind, and left unloved.”  For this there is overwhelming, renewing grace and forgiveness.  Forgiveness from God, and also forgiveness that we extend to one another.

Mentioning “The evil powers of this world” widens the scope to bigger forces at work.  The book of Ephesians has some important things to say about these powers.  “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

The enemy, this and other parts of the Christian Testament emphasizes, is not flesh and blood.  Another way of saying this is that ‘if it bleeds, it’s not the enemy.’  We all get caught up in these forces and powers to some degree, but people themselves are never the enemy.  Thus the radical call to love your human enemy.  In our time we have named many of these forces as the “isms.”  Racism, sexism and heterosexism, materialism, militarism, nationalism, individualism.  Bonhoeffer’s struggle was ultimately not against Nazis, but the Nazism that had consumed his people.

Where do these isms come from?  They are very real, but can’t be fought with material weapons alone.  Only the spiritual weapons of truth and peace and wholeness/salvation that Ephesians goes on to mention will overcome them.

It’s abstract, perhaps, but this vow starts to mess with you when, for example, you do an audit of your personal library and confirm that 90% of the books you’ve read in the last decade and a half were written by white authors, most of those straight men.  And you realize you need to repent of seeing the world through such a narrow lens.  Not that this has anything to do with anything I did a couple years ago.  Just a random, hypothetical example.

Do you believe in God, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ, who showed us the way of peace; and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life?

Genesis 1:27 says that humankind, male and female, were created in the image of God.  It’s been said that very soon after, humanity returned the favor and created god in our image.

As soon as we start talking about God, or saying that we believe in God, we are instantly in danger of reducing God to our own limited imagination.  Even to speak the name, to try and contain the ultimate within the confines of language, is itself a dangerous act.  It is far too easy to turn God into an extension of our own ego, our own small wishes about Reality, rather than submitting our wishes to what is ultimately Real.

This is why the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart writes, “I pray God to free me from God.”

Anne Lamott has written that as soon as it turns out God dislikes all the same people that you dislike, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve created God in your own image.

And so, to say “I believe in God,” rather than being an act of grasping on to certainty, is an act of letting go.  I believe in that which cannot be named or contained.  This involves just as much unlearning as it does learning.

Part of the discussion with Bill and Jeff centered on what we say about Jesus – the one “who showed us the way of peace.”  The language of “personal Lord and Savior” is not in these baptismal vows, partly because it’s nowhere to be found in the Bible.  When the early Christians used the language of Lord and Savior for Jesus, they were appropriating it from Caesar, who was hailed as both Lord and Savior of the world.  To claim the Jesus way is to claim the one who showed us the way of peace.  An entirely different way of being Lord and Savior of the world.  A different kind of power.

Mention of the Holy Spirit identifies us with the same life and power that birthed the early church in Acts chapter two.

Do you commit to a life of spiritual growth; studying the Scriptures, prayer, loving your enemies, and listening for God?

One of the things we’re now aware of is that we can only see a small percentage of light waves.  We are constantly bombarded with waves of light like radio waves and ultraviolet waves, but we have only developed the kinds of bodily sensitivities to perceive that little range of light in the visible spectrum.

It’s a good analogy for the life of the spirit.  To be committed to a life of spiritual growth is to have faith that, as poet Gerald Manly Hopkins put it, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  Yet we perceive so little of it, allow such a small percentage of it into our consciousness.  The prophet Elijah, on top of Mt. Horeb, experienced this range of the previously unknown utterances of God as the still small voice or, as one translation puts it, the sound of sheer silence.

How does that register?  Can we hear that?

The Gospel stories of the many healings of the deaf and the blind speak not only to physical healing, but to spiritual perception that Jesus brought to those around him.

And so, in order to see and hear, we have what we refer to as spiritual disciplines.  Habits and practices which attune our spirits to the Spirit of God.  This question mentions a few of these: Prayer, studying the Scriptures, loving your enemies, and listening for God.  To these we could also add serving the poor, practicing hospitality, visiting the sick and those who are in prison, shared meals, loving your neighbor, loving God with all your mind, practicing silence.  These are some of the ways that we encounter the Christ whose presence we could not perceive outside of these practices.  Like the walkers to Emmaus, Christ by their side the whole time, but unrecognized until they extended the act of hospitality, the shared meal, the breaking of the bread.  So we can commit to a life of spiritual growth, and in doing so, fling our senses wide open to all of the undiscovered wavelengths of God’s presence among us.

Are you willing to give and receive counsel in the congregation?  Are you ready to participate in the mission of the church, that God’s beloved community of healing and justice come on earth as it is in heaven?

The spiritual life, living in a baptismal identity, is not meant to be done in isolation.  You are a part of community.  Not only this local expression of the church.  The worldwide fellowship of sisters and brothers which transcends national boundaries.  And not only extending out spatially around the globe in this way, but extending through time.  We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meister Eckhart, Mary Magdalene, Sara and Abraham.  Anne Lamott – who would laugh to hear her name included, which is exactly what qualifies her.

Your gifts are valuable.  We need your gifts.  The world needs your gifts, your love, your devotion to doing justice.  Dare we even say that God needs your life to carry out whatever larger purpose there is in store for you.

And a baptismal identity calls on one to call on the church to live up to its highest calling.  Whenever the church falls short, or gets too comfortable, or loses its pilgrimage spirit, then you will become disappointed and perhaps even disillusioned.  And when this happens, remember your baptism, remember who you are, remember who we have all been called to be, and help lead the way.  Help us remember what we’ve forgotten, and to see when we’ve become blind.


“…so that you may discern what is good…” | August 27

Texts: Exodus 1:8-14; Romans 12:1-8

After our Twelve Hymns series, and last week’s anniversary celebration, we are finally back on the lectionary.  The lectionary provides us with a set of readings from scripture each week.  We join Protestant and Catholics in reflecting on the same readings.  We won’t stick with the lectionary every week starting now, but it’s a home base.

Romans 12 and the opening story of Exodus are two of today’s readings.  We’re bringing our own angle.  Today marks the beginning of our First Fruits pledging process, when all of us are invited to consider how we contribute financially to the mission of this congregation.  So we’re calling this Stewardship Sunday.  If the word “Stewardship” doesn’t work for you, we could call it “Jesus-talked-a-whole-lot-about-economics-and-money-and-we-should-too-so-it’s-more-about-a-way-of-life-than-a-single-Sunday Sunday.”

Romans 12:2 “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 pleasing and whole.”

There are some passages in the Bible where you almost have to be a cultural anthropologist to understand what’s going on.  Research the setting, parse the language, scan the context for clues.  This isn’t one of those passages.  What Paul wrote to the Romans a couple thousand years ago could have been written directly to us today.

Richard Rohr has offered an updated translation for what shows up here as “world.”  He suggests plugging in the word “system” to get at what the various New Testament writers mean when they talk in this way.

So with that gloss, here’s how these words read: “Do not be conformed to the system, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and pleasing, and whole.”

From an economic angle, it ought to take very little convincing to acknowledge we are deeply embedded in a system that affects just about every aspect of our lives.  It is global in reach and personal in its effects.  The economic system of which we are a part has done amazing things like put clothes in our closets and a smart phone in the pocket of those clothes.  In the last 25 years it has, according to the World Bank, lifted 1.3 billion people out of extreme poverty.  That’s pretty remarkable.  It has no doubt enlarged the pie from which we all feast.  It’s also responsible for mountain top removal, displacement of entire people groups, and massive wealth disparity.

We know this.  We try to be aware that we vote every day with the dollars we spend.

Wendell Berry is one of the harshest critics of our economic system.  He urges anyone who will listen to think of it as the “little economy.”  The Great Economy is the “all-encompassing and integrated system” of the natural world.  To use a theological term – The Great Economy is Creation.  The little economy is utterly dependent on the Great Economy.  He writes that the problem is the system we’ve created “does not see itself as the little economy.  It sees itself as the only economy…The industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy” (Quoted in The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, by Ched Myers, p. 17).

For more of a takedown on the industrial economic system, see just about anything Wendell Berry has written.

For a pre-industrial take down, try the book of Exodus.

After Genesis lays out the Great Economy of Creation, characterized by goodness and abundance, Exodus follows it up with a narrative about the brokenness of the little economy.

Exodus begins by listing the children of Jacob, also named Israel.  They are three generations removed from Abraham and Sarah, and have settled in the land of Egypt.  Egypt had served as a place of refuge for them.  Thanks to the foresight and shrewd management of their brother Joseph, who had risen to power as Pharaoh’s right hand man, Egypt had stores of food during an extended famine.  When all the neighboring lands ran out, people flocked to Egypt to care for their families – to eat, and stay alive.  The Israelites among them.  They are invited by Joseph to stay in Egypt, which they do.  But that generation dies off, and a new Pharaoh comes to power who did not know Joseph.

In the words of Exodus, the Israelites “were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them.”  The new Pharaoh sees in these migrants and foreigners both a threat and an opportunity.  He creates a public works jobs program, otherwise known as forced labor, otherwise known as slavery.  The Israelites build entire cities for Pharaoh.  Exodus names two of them: Pithom and Rameses.  Entire cities.  When they keep multiplying and the demographic shift continues, the Egyptians treat them even harsher.  Eventually the Israelites not only have to make bricks for the construction projects, they have to go out and find their own straw to put in the bricks.  This is life in Pharaoh’s economy.

Exodus, and much of the biblical narrative, is told from the perspective of those on the underside of the system.  Those who make it tick but receive very little of the benefits.

When Pharaoh’s officials put out their glowing quarterly reports that brick production is up, and the costs of inputs are down, the Israelites aren’t buying it as gospel.  They were the inputs.

Last week’s sermon talked some about the importance of origin stories.  Like the foundational goodness of creation, Genesis 1.  Like Jesus offering bread and wine as his own body and life-blood to his followers.  Life this congregation choosing from the very beginning to affiliate with two historically separate Mennonite groups and be a living bridge.  Like this Exodus story, which serves as an origins story for the people of Israel.  It is this memory of having been enslaved, of having been delivered from slavery, and given their own agency in how they relate to each other as neighbors, that is to inform how they go about their lives, with economics being front and center.

The ten commandments, and much of the Torah, present an alternative economics to the ways of Pharaoh.  We see practices such as Sabbath-keeping, when humans, animals, and even land is given regular rest, freed from the never ending demands of labor, to be restored.  The practice of Jubilee was a redistribution of land and wealth every 50 years.  We also get the practices of First Fruits and the Tithe.  The people were to bring the first and best of the harvest and present them before the Lord.  A First Fruits offering.  The purpose of the first fruits offering was not to have it go up in smoke, as if to feed a hungry deity.  Instead, as Deuteronomy 26 instructs: “You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.  Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

First fruits were to be enjoyed, and shared, with those who didn’t have land of their own, Levites and “resident aliens.”  The same with the yearly tithe.  Tithe simply means tenth.  Ten percent of one’s annual income, usually in the form of a physical harvest, was to be dedicated and shared.  And, as Deuteronomy 14 says, “Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe, tenth, of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance (land) with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns (those who don’t have the means of production), may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”

The memory of having been resident aliens in Egypt, enslaved and robbed of the fruits of their labor, prompts the creation of an alternative economics in which there is enough for everyone.  First Fruits, and the tithe, the tenth, are a big part of this program.  Who says the Hebrew Bible isn’t filled with grace and mercy?

According to the book of Acts, chapters 2 and 4, a sub-group of the early church took these practices even further, letting go all together of percentages of income, holding everything in common, selling land and houses whenever anyone was in need and distributing the proceeds.  Selling off all your assets doesn’t sound like a good long term budget strategy, but it met a present need and shaped a community.

When Paul writes to those little groups of believers in Rome, he follows up “Do not be conformed to the system” with “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  One of the most powerful ways “the system” works on us is that it limits our imaginations.  We are unable to even picture how it might be different, how it could be another way.  It takes soul work, the renewing of our minds, to begin to see and then enact an economics of abundance and generosity and enough-ness.

“Be transformed by the renewing of your minds…so that you may be able to discern what is the will of God, what is good, what is pleasing, what is whole.”

The work of keeping the little economy in service to the Great Economy, involves the renewing of our minds, and ultimately involves the continual act of discernment…. “so that you may be able to discern…what is good.”  As is often the case, the “you” here is plural.  Discernment is a collective act.

What’s this going to look like?  How can we be in the system but not of the system?   Or, as Mary Oliver poses the question “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (The Summer Day)

This is the point where I needed to change the ending – yesterday – in order to acknowledge what’s in front of us today.  Originally, I was going to try to walk that razor’s edge of not sounding too sales pitchy, but still swing this back to our First Fruits pledge process for supporting the mission of this congregation, which of course includes paying our electric bills and giving money to Central District Conference, etc.  Pete and Metz will have a bit more to say about First Fruits when I’m done.

What I didn’t anticipate earlier in the week is that we would have a very specific practice in front of us today for which we need to be discerning what is good.  It has everything to do with stewardship, although less about money and more about stewardship of this building and our time and energy.  It also has quite a bit to do with that Exodus story, especially the treatment of migrants.  And the system.

What we need to discern over the next few days is whether we are willing, with this very short notice, to provide significant support for a Columbus immigrant woman, who is in the final stages of the deportation process.  The meeting after worship will go into more details about her story, and what kind of commitment is being requested of us, but I want to tie this into our worship and reflection on Exodus and Romans and stewardship simply by saying this is real stuff.  Stories like Exodus, of people crossing borders to do what’s best for their families, and getting mistreated, and getting caught up in a system that does great harm, are still lived realities.  There are still communities seeking another way: like ancient Israel, and the early church, and the 16th century Anabaptists, and communities of goodwill all over the world today.

I’m grateful for how this congregation has done good discernment work in the past, and I trust that the Spirit is with us as we prayerfully discern this week how to respond to this situation, and, however we respond, how to increase our solidarity with local immigrants.

I’ll end with the first two verses of Romans chapter 12:  “I appeal 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 reasonable act of worship.  Do not be conformed to the system, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and pleasing and whole.”



“Where does my help come from?” | 24 August 2014

Twelve Scriptures Project

Texts #11, 12: Psalm 121, Romans 8:35-39


We have arrived at the end of the rainbow.

For the last ten weeks we have been pondering these twelves scriptures as foundational/ centering passages for our understanding of God and what it means to live a life of faith.  Next Sunday the front will look very different as the sanctuary is prepared for the wedding of Rosa W.  Even though we will be moving beyond these scriptures to focus on other things, I hope they will have a lingering presence with us in some way.  Yesterday the church commissions had a retreat and had these scriptures in front of us while talking about the kind of future we want to live into as a congregation.  And I wonder if there are other ways we can keep coming back to these passages, or to keep remembering the kind of foundation we have together.  Remembering back to my few years of construction experience with Habitat for Humanity, having the foundation in place meant it was time for the rewarding work to really start, with lots of collaboration to help something take shape.

Psalm 121 begins this way: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

There are a couple ways of interpreting these opening verses.  One is that the Psalmist is looking for a sign of God’s presence, and sees the hills and mountains in their beauty and solidity as a sign of divine goodness, their largeness putting our own lives in perspective and reminding us that all will be well.  I lift up my eyes to the hills and am reminded that God is my helper.  This perhaps has become the most common interpretation.  Us flatlanders of central Ohio have reason to be especially awed when we travel to the hills and mountains.

Another interpretation, a more ancient one, notes that this Psalm begins by saying it is a psalm of ascents, to ascend, one that was most likely recited when one would make the pilgrimage up to Jerusalem, ascending the hills around it to enter the Holy City.  It’s a Psalm for sojourners, travelers, pilgrims.  The hills around Jerusalem were not known as being friendly to travelers, with the potential to come upon beasts or bandits around any turn.  It was not an easy climb.  If one were coming from the north and east, one could ascend nearly 4000 feet en route.  A common route from this direction would have brought the traveler through the city of Jericho, and one of Jesus most familiar parables begins by saying “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.”  For anyone who would have ever made pilgrimage to Jerusalem from Jesus’ neck of the woods, Galilee, this would have been an instantly familiar scenario.  Even if you make it safely up to Jerusalem, will you make it safely back, going down from Jerusalem to Jericho on the journey home?

In this reading, the hills are not a source of comfort, but the source of danger, the obstacle one needs to get beyond in order to reach one’s destination.  The traveler looks out from the safety of their home in the village and says, “I’ve got to get on the other side of those hills, now how am I going to pull that off?” or, as the Psalm begins,  “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?”  This is the prayer of Frodo Baggins and his faithful companion Samwise Gamgee on their epic journey, which you could spend an entire waking day watching if you were so inclined.

Without negating the first interpretation, what I like about this second one is how true to life it is.  When we look out at the journey ahead of us, the thing we most often see isn’t how we’re going to get through it, where our help is going to come from, but the obstacles and the barriers through which we will certainly need help.  The hills are easy to see, painfully obvious.  What we don’t see, what remains unknown, is how we’re going to get through them.  I lift up my eyes to this illness I will be living with: this cancer diagnosis, this injury, this mental health struggle.  Where will my help come from?  I lift up my eyes to graduate school, where will my help come from?  Besides coffee.  I lift up my eyes to this job transition, I lift up my eyes to retirement, I lift up my eyes to raising a child, I lift up my eyes to taking a risk in my career, I lift up my eyes to a really difficult conversation I need to have.  Where will my help come from?  We may not always phrase it liturgically, like a Psalm, but this is a question we live with.

The Psalm poses this question, and proceeds to provide an answer which is both definitive and completely open ended.  “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  My help comes from YHWH.

This is where my rational brain kicks into full gear and isn’t quite satisfied.  If God were a very large person able to reach down and lend a hand, one might be able to trust more easily that everything will go smoothly.  But She’s not.  God is not a person in the way that we are a person, God is not an object somewhere out there, neither does God seem in any way predictable, to help us in the way we think we need help.

I think of the story of Moses at the burning bush when the voice from the bush had asked him to go back to his people in Egypt, from where he has fled, and tell them that he is there to lead them to freedom.  Moses is resistant at every point in the conversation and finally asks the voice to tell him its name, so that he can tell the people the name of the god who is leading them.  The name the voice chooses, the self-selected name of the Divine is “I will be who I will be;” the Hebrew of which gets condensed down to the name YHWH, the unique name for God the Jews carry forward with them.  Tell them, “I will be who I will be” has sent you.  How’s the for reassuring?  Translated over into Psalm 121, it would read something like this: “Where does my help come from?”  My help will come from where my help will come from, Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth.  Our help comes from the one beyond naming, the one with a thousand names, the Divine, the Source of life itself, the creative force that produces the very hills that have become a danger.

Our help comes from the Lord, but we never know what form that help will take, and most of the time, we don’t see it coming until it’s there, unexpected, a grace, seeing that our foot doesn’t slip on this rock, or that we’re protected around this corner.  We can’t always get what we want.  But if we try sometimes, we just might find, we get what we need – said another Psalmist.

On Wednesday I had lunch with Yasir Makki, who attended this church in the late 90’s and early 00’s and returned to his home in Sudan out of a sense of call to minister to his people.  He’s been back in the US during August this year.  We did not cite Psalm 121 in our discussion, but he is a person who has a strong sense of God as his helper and his guardian. He told me his story.  He refused and fled from mandatory military enrollment in Sudan.  Ended up in the US as a refugee.  Found a community of support, part of that community being the Mennonites.  Got a Bible degree at Rosedale and a Masters of social work at OSU and was making a pretty good life for himself here, before feeling called to return to Sudan.  Even his dad in Sudan said it was a bad idea for him to return.  His center that he has established teaches sewing skills to women.  They have a home that houses political refugees from South Sudan.  He oversees four churches and they have had meeting houses demolished by the government.  He has maintained his Muslim identity, continues to study the Qur’an, but also identifies as a follower of Jesus in a country where converting to Christianity can be punishable by death.  He relies on support from American churches.  He’s hoping to open up a school because young people in his town don’t read and literacy has all kinds of implications about the kind of life that will be available to them.  Many of you know the details and complexities of his story better than I do and hopefully I have these few details straight that I’ve mentioned.  His help comes from where his help comes from.  It comes from the Lord, he says with great faith.

We have paired Romans 8:35-39 with this Psalm.  What if Romans 8 said this: For I am convinced that neither hardship nor distress nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril will happen to me if I serve God.  It doesn’t say that.  It gives that list, assuming they will happen, then says none of it can separate us from the love of Christ.  I am convinced, Paul says, that these things are not cause for separation from that which holds me up in being.  I am convinced that the hill to which I lift up my eyes cannot, will never, separate me from the love of God.

So here’s a parting thought.  A parting thought for this sermon, but also a parting thought for this series.  The thought for this parting thought came while pondering the final line of Psalm 121.  That final line in that Psalm for sojourners says: “The Lord, YHWH, will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”  So the parting thought is that in order to even begin our going out and our coming in – our Sojourner mobility – it takes a certain amount of groundedness in this love of God which Paul and these other passage speak about.  Without this groundedness, without a trust that there will be help along the way, we don’t even set out on the journey in the first place.  We stay in the safety of the village, the safety of the familiar, the routine, the comfortable.  It takes faith and trust in something to set out and to be free enough to go out and come in as you feel so led.

I often tell couples in pre-marriage counseling that they definitely want to think long and hard about this commitment they’re making to each other, but not to think about it too hard or they’ll never do it.  If you have to know exactly how everything is going to work out and where your help is going to come from at every turn, it’s likely you’ll never make the first steps.

The opposite approach would be our daughter Ila and her love of climbing.  Rather than calculating anything ahead of time, she starts climbing up whatever is around to climb, until she gets stuck or can’t get down, at which point she just starts screaming for help, apparently convinced that help will always come her way.  It’s worked for her so far.  I lift up my eyes to the dining room table.  I totally got this, or not.

One of the best things we can do in parenting and grand parenting and mentoring, seems to be giving our young people a sense of being so enveloped in love that they are able to go out and come in and take risks.  Not completely protecting them from all harm that happens on the journey, but creating the conditions that enable the traveler to make the journey in the first place.

So what if the purpose of these foundational scriptures, these centering values, and the purpose of our worshiping life together, isn’t to give a certainty that everything will be alright, that no harm shall befall you, or to give anyone a blueprint for what their life should look like.  But to instill in each of us the freedom of going out and coming in, from this time on, and forever more.  A confidence in God as our helper, whatever form that might take, and a sense that we are utterly immersed in the love of Christ, such that the hills ahead aren’t a reason to avoid the journey.

Paul must have felt this in an overwhelming way to write what he does in Romans and to lead the life that he did.  He knew nothing could separate him from the love of God, so he was utterly free to do just about anything that made this love more evident in the world.

So that’s it.  It’s hard, but that’s OK.  Our lives are not our own to protect.  We are held in being by a love that surpasses our ability to understand and manage it.  And the Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.


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.  

Making peace: mirroring and transforming | 22 September 2013

Text: Romans 12:1-2, 9-21

The Peace and Justice Support Network of our denomination encourages congregations to celebrate Peace Sunday right around this time of year, the Sunday closest to the United Nations International Day of Peace, which was yesterday.  Today we join other churches around the country in this Peace Sunday observance.  The Mennonite Church, especially this Mennonite church, declaring a particular day Peace Sunday feels a little bit to me like the city of Columbus declaring a particular day Football Saturday.  Which is to say, that if you hang around here for any length of time, you’ll soon notice that it’s just part of the atmosphere.  Case in point: last Sunday, not officially Peace Sunday.  Jim Leonard’s sermon title: “Prayer and peacemaking.”

One of the things I noticed when I was first getting acquainted with this church was how central peace is to the church’s public presentation of itself on this property.  As you approach the church from High Street on Oakland Park Ave you see the church sign which includes the words, “Pray for peace, Act for peace.”  If you pull into the parking lot and park your bike or car, you will be doing so under the sign on the north side of the church that says “Columbus Mennonite Church, supporting peacemakers around the world.”  If you then head to the front entrance, you pass a peace poll in the gardens, with the words, “May peace prevail on earth,” written in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese.  I did some quick web research and saw that almost exactly half of the world’s population, 3.5 billion out of 7 billion, speak one of those four languages – so that peace pole is covering a lot of ground in communication.  Then when you pass the peace pole and get to the front doors, just in case you forgot or haven’t been paying attention, you are met with a fourth message, the same words that you first saw on the church sign. On the left door, “Pray for peace.”  On the right door, “Act for peace.”  The path from High Street into the doors of Columbus Mennonite Church is paved with peace!

If you’ve been around here for a while, you may have stopped noticing, but for a relative newcomer, and perhaps the passerby on the street, these peace signs stand out.  They send a clear message.  This congregation believes that peace and peacemaking are fundamental to the gospel.  Here and around the world.  Join us – in praying and acting for peace.

In North America, World War II was a watershed moment for Mennonites as it brought them out of rural isolation and into deeper engagement with “the world.”  Many Mennonites, men and women, opted for alternative service to the military and for a few decades the Mennonite peace witness, centered on the conviction of not taking another human life – conscientious objection.  To be a pacifist Christian is to refuse involvement in warfare, to refuse to kill.  We willingly and wholeheartedly serve, but not with weapons of this world.  And as this service and engagement with the world continued, and expanded, it inevitably led to a much fuller, much more complex, much more challenging ethic of peace.  Peacemaking, it turns out, involves a whole lot more than nonparticipation in war.  We find the need for peace everywhere we turn.  We find that peace, in order to be lasting and real, must be accompanied by its sister, justice.  We find that, along with these values in our outward living, we also long for peace in our personal lives and in our own troubled spirits.  Being people of peace is an expansive, all encompassing call to embody and welcome the very life of Christ among us.

So we talk about this a lot.  Peace, Shalom, holistic well-being is one of the key ways we have conceived of what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

So when Paul writes to the Romans to “offer you bodies as a living sacrifice” and to “not be conformed to this world,” we know that we are on that journey and we have been preceded by those who have helped us define what that means.  And when he goes on to say, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” we know that we have a long ways to go to in this transformation process.

There are any number of metaphors and phrases in Romans chapter 12 that one could focus on in regards to peace, but there’s a curious thing going on in the last part of the chapter, verses 14-21 that I’d like to look at.

It seems to me that within the span of this final paragraph Paul is suggesting that we do two very different things.

One is summed up in verse 15.  “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”  Peacemaking as a deep identification with the experience of the other.

There’s a lot going on these days with brain research, and one of the things that has caught my eye in the last few years has been the discovery of mirror neurons.  Mirror neurons are basically these cells in the brain that fire electric signals “both when a (person) acts, and when a person observes the same action performed by another.” (Wikipedia definition)  Personal action or observation of same action.  Humans and other primates have them, and some birds have them.  One of the things that’s so interesting about mirror neurons is that they blur the line between who is actually having the experience, since one feeling can register in the brain of multiple people.  You see your friend get poked with a sharp object, you wince.  Whose experience is it?

I think I notice this most myself when someone is talking to me and starts getting a little phlegm in their throat and then I clear my throat because I start to feel it in mine also.  Somehow “Clear phlegm with those who have phlegm” doesn’t carry the same kind of spiritual nobility as rejoicing and weeping with others.  I actually have no idea if those are mirror neurons doing that or something else.

The research, as far as I can tell, is still pretty new and open, with a number of different theories about what exactly it is that mirror neurons are for.  What they could be for, and what a number of researchers have independently argued, is that mirror neurons are involved in empathy – our physical apparatus for identifying with the experience of others.  We are never merely outside observers trying to abstractly identify with the experience of another, but we can actually have that same experience ourselves, in our brains, in our bodies.  One person in the community experiences joy, and everyone’s mirror neurons light up to share in that joy with them.  Someone has a family member who dies, and rather than being isolated in their sadness, the loss becomes a shared reality with all those tuned in.

If you have ever had someone enter with you into your pain, without judgment and without personal agenda, but truly be there in that place with you, you know how powerful an instrument of peacemaking this can be.  If you have ever been that person who wept with those who weep, you know how challenging it can be to enter into that pain without being consumed by it.  Identifying, without losing your own identity.  This would be especially true for those of you in the helping professions.  Identifying while remaining grounded in your identity.  For those who have themselves experienced a particular form of pain or abuse or loss, you may find that one of the redemptive pieces of this is that you are able to more authentically identify with that particular pain in another, and be a healing presence in a way that others can’t be.

Since the research is still is little foggy here, let’s go ahead and speculate that this is something we can actually consciously develop.  We can become more tuned in to the experiences of others.  It puts a new spin on that line from verse two “be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  Be transformed by the exercising and sensitizing of your mirror neurons.  To offer this part of our body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.  To build on Jim’s message from last week, we can imagine that prayer can serve as one way of spanning geographic distance in our identification with others.  One need not even be on the same continent to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

So there’s this receptive mirroring that is one part of peacemaking.

But before and after that in Romans 12 is a second kind of thing which, in many ways, is just the opposite.  Verse 14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  V 17 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”  V. 21 “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  In other words, do not mirror the attitudes and actions of the other, but return to them something of a completely different nature and quality.  Do not conform.  This too is an element of peacemaking.

As an interesting side note, v. 14, “Bless those who persecute you,” is one of the very few times Paul refers directly to a teaching of Jesus.  In Luke 6:28, in that gospel’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Bless those who curse you.”  It’s amazing how influential Paul was in the early church, how important his writings are in the New Testament, and how little he cites the teachings or life of Jesus.  But that’s for another day, because here he does cite Jesus and the whole spirit of non-mirroring of evil that Jesus lived out.

And it’s addressing this huge question that humans are yet to really answer in a serious way.  How do you confront and overcome evil/harm/injury, without yourself becoming the source of harm and injury?  How’s that for a foreign policy conundrum?  How’s that for an interpersonal challenge?  U2 has a song called “Peace on Earth” where Bono sings, “you become the monster so the monster will not break you.”

Paul ends this chapter by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  And for the Christian, this becomes one of the key meanings of the cross.  The icon of Christian faith, the suffering Christ on a cross, is a picture of overcoming evil without resorting to evil.  Active, loving, nonviolent resistance to evil, facing down the powers of death, and from that act comes the burst of resurrection whose energy still pulses through the universe.

Lest we think this is just a New Testament innovation, think of Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers.  Later in life, when they, without knowing it, are utterly dependent on him for their sustenance and survival, Joseph offers them grain and embraces them.  Bless those who curse you.  Think of Elisha who with the army of Israel had surrounded the Ar­amean army, and rather than slaughtering them, advises the king to set before them food and water and to let them go.  “And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel,” it says directly following.  2 Kings 6:24.  That’s an Old Testament story that could get a little more press.  In Romans 12 Paul is quoting the book of Proverbs when he says, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.”

Other traditions also hold similar wisdom.  I recently came across an essay called “Decolonizing Restorative Justice,” about how Indigenous peoples have practiced restorative justice among themselves.  It included work from a scholar named Ella Deloria, who had interviewed an elder from her people, the Yankton Dakota about the community’s traditional practices of responding to a murder within the community.  The elder names four methods of response, and one of them particularly caught my attention.  I’ll read it as it was described in the essay:

“The third option was considered the most powerful and by far the most exemplary response, though it was the most difficult to do. It was for the family of the murdered person to adopt the murderer as a relative to take the place of the one killed. If this path was chosen, the murderer was not treated as a despised slave to the family but was given the finest gifts and treated with all the kindness and respect that the dead relative would have received. By so doing, both the family of the murdered person and the murderer would spend the rest of their lives committed to healing a harm that might otherwise have divided the community.”  The Dakota elder is then quoted as saying, “Such a man usually made a far better relative than many a natural relative, because he was bought at a high price.”

In all these situations, it is not a matter of mirroring the action of the other, but a matter of absorbing the action of the other, transforming it within your own person, within the community, and then offering it back in a new form.  “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

This is the pattern of cruciform living.  In one way this is incredibly counter-cultural, and therefore difficult.  Entering into the joy and pain of another, mirroring, is not easy.  Not conforming, transforming is not easy.  In another way, this is right in the flow of the Spirit and therefore grace-filled and ultimately coming from a power beyond ourselves.  Peace is God’s doing and what is impossible on the individual level becomes possible when an entire community declares itself committed to this way of being in the world.

This Thursday I discovered another, a fifth peace sign on the grounds of Columbus Mennonite Church and I’d like to close with those words.  It was such a nice morning Thursday that I went out to do some writing sitting on one of the benches in the front gardens, and noticed that each of the two benches has a scripture verse carved into it.  The bench I was sitting on said: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts since as members of one body you were called to peace.” Colossians 3:15

A Sign, A Groan, and a Delight – Earth Day – 4/22/12 – Romans 8, Proverbs 8

Happy Earth Day.  I have a few specimens here. (picture below to give the idea)

This is garlic mustard.  I picked it Friday in the woods on our farm in Bellefontaine.  I think I wrote a couple weeks ago about how this is taking over the ground cover of the woods.  I stopped in briefly two days ago on my way up to Camp Friedenswald in southern Michigan for meetings with Central District Conference.

This is garlic mustard.  I picked it two days ago at Camp Friedenswald.  It is doing quite well in the woods of southern Michigan.

This also is garlic mustard.  I picked it yesterday in Ault Park here in Cincinnati right after coming back from Camp Friedenswald.  I knew it was there because two weeks ago Lily and I went for a walk in those woods.  I pointed out the garlic mustard to her and told her that it was hurting the forest, and I had to spend a good portion of the rest of our walk letting her know that she didn’t have to try and pull up every garlic mustard plant that she saw.

It has these pretty, small white flowers.  Some of them have fallen off already as the seeds have formed.  It smells a bit like garlic, but isn’t overpowering.  I’ve never eaten it, but read that the leaves can be chopped for salads or made into pesto.  It is native to Europe and west Asia and Northern Africa and was originally brought to North America in the 1860’s as a culinary herb.

Depending on your perspective, garlic mustard has done quite well, or quite horribly in North America.  It has been highly successful in colonizing forests, where it can suppress native wildflowers and quickly become a monoculture.  Deer don’t like it, our insects and fungi don’t eat it, and it produces lots of seeds.  Highly successful.  Highly invasive.

Jesus once said to the Pharisees and Sadducees: “When it is evening, you say, ‘It is fair weather, for the sky is red.’   And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’  You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”  (Matthew 16:2-3)  The people, it seems, had gotten pretty good at predicting what the weather would be for the next 24 hours by looking at the sky, but were not paying attention to the larger patterns at work around them, signs, speaking of other important realities.

Garlic mustard, we could say, is one of the signs of our times.  It’s a sign of the powerful force of globalization – people and things and ideas and animals and plants are less and less restricted to native territories, isolated pockets, geographical islands – even big islands, like continents.  It’s a sign that, for all of the benefits of globalization, not everyone, everything, is benefiting equally from the way it is happening – a story with some resemblance to past examples of colonization, where the natives are decimated by the powerful newcomers.  This plant and its effects on other plants and insects is a sign that we are living in the midst of the sixth mass extinction period in the earth’s history, the most massive loss of species and biodiversity since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.  It’s a sign that the planet is out of balance, and that we are out of balance.  Garlic mustard is, in some ways, a mirror held up in front of us, highly successful species that we are, giving us signs about the losses of beauty and diversity and vitality that we are participating in.

I don’t know about you, but this all feels a little heavy to me.  I don’t like the thought of any of those three beloved places I visited in the last couple days being overrun with garlic mustard.  I much prefer the thought of what would have been the case a couple hundred years ago.  That if we just leave these places alone, give them time to heal by not disturbing them, that they will indeed heal and thrive and come into balance.  But all of the people that I’m listening to who know about these kinds of things say this is absolutely not the way to go.  Sometimes I think about a past with the closed loop, self-renewing cycles of nature fully intact and long to live in a time like that.  But that’s a temptation, because that’s not the time we live in.  The words of the Cincinnati Mennonite covenant come into play here: “This time and this place are God’s gifts to us, and we are called to be God’s active presence to all those around us.”  What the signs of our times are telling us are that what we have participated in harming, we must also participate in healing.  The human element of management and careful stewardship is now essential.

When we reflect theologically and biblically about these kinds of things, there is a common and important path that we can go down.  It focuses on us as humans being caretakers of the earth, stewards, charged with tending and nurturing life and beauty.  This is rooted in the Genesis accounts of creation with the humans as the ones who bear the image of God, the created who possess inherent creativity to shape and form the world with god-like power.  A power to serve life and aid in its flourishing.

This is an important way for us to think about ourselves, and helps illustrate that we have a lot of work to do, especially in our time.  But I want to focus in a different place.  I want to focus more internally, on the longings, energies, desires within us, which enable us to do this kind of work in the first place.  What we are searching for is a spirituality of hope.

So I want to look at a couple different scriptures that point us in this direction.  The first is found in Romans 8 and the second is Proverbs 8.

Throughout Romans the apostle Paul has been speaking to a community in Rome about the human predicament: sin, our tendency to get stuck in religious legalism, getting unstuck and living by grace, and the way that the life and death and resurrection of Jesus expands the gift of salvation beyond just the Jews to include all people.  This is an expansive vision of who God is and who Jesus is for us.  But in chapter 8, he blows it even more wide open.  Up to now the focus has been just on people, humans, homo sapiens, but it’s about to get quite expansive.  In verse 19 he writes, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”  Waiting, and eager longing are usually attributes given to just humans, but here Paul imagines that all of creation is filled with expectation and longing.  He goes on: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.”  So, to waiting and eager longing, we add groaning – in labor pains.  A very feminine image.  Mother Earth is in pain and is groaning.  But it’s not just any kind of pain, it’s labor pain.  It’s the kind of pain that can lead to new life.  It continues: “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we await adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”  We are groaning too.  And this has to do with our bodies, our physical, flesh and blood, eating, drinking, talking, walking, working bodies.  We do not groan for an escape from our bodies, but for the redemption of our bodies.  To add one more layer to this, Paul writes in verse 26: “For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

So what we have here is a groaning creation.  We have humans as the lead groaners, the ones who feel deeply the pain and the longing of the cosmos.  And we have the Spirit who, as it turns out, is the groan behind the groan, the originating source of this unarticulated longing that is coming through us – sighs too deep for words.  Our groans, the groans of creation, are the very groans of God.

If we think of ourselves as a part of creation rather than separate from it, then another way of saying this is that through us, in the human being, within you, creation has become conscious of itself.  These feelings that we feel within us are the very feelings of the universe and of God’s own being.

It makes the boundaries fuzzy.  We can’t tell where outside creation ends and we begin.  Or where we end and God begins.  These longings for wholeness and hopes and groans are not merely the isolated desires of an isolated self.  You can accept these groans as a sign that you are alive to the Spirit’s presence and that the Spirit is moving within you to express itself in the world.  The real danger would be if you felt nothing.  Maybe we could say: I groan, therefore I am.

It’s a whole different form of energy than overwhelmed anxiety.  With that there is a scattering of energy that can happen.  Almost panic.  All we see are problems and we are drained of our vitality.  But we have the firstfruits of the Spirit within us, as Paul says; the first flowering and opening up and fruiting of the new creation.  And it sounds like a groan.  And it feels like labor pains.

Another part of this passage says: “For in hope we were saved.”  The groans within us find their basis in hope.  If there were no hope, we wouldn’t be driven to have these longings.  Richard Rohr says that hope is not logical but is a participation in the very life of God.

OK, so that’s the painful part.  I actually have no idea what labor pains feel like, but I love the idea that bearing this pain is something that we do for the new life that comes out from us and that this is what God is all about in our world.

But there’s another piece to this.

Thomas Berry was a priest, a historian, a geologist, a writer, and probably a lot of other things.  Until he died in 2009 at the age of 95, he was a leading voice in thinking about the place of humanity in an evolving universe that is 13.7 billion years old – speaking to some very old questions in the light our new cosmological understandings.  He emphasized over and over again that one of the key callings of humanity is to celebrate and be in awe of the universe and everything in it.  That’s our job.  To celebrate all that is around us.  The world is a glorious place, but it is in us that this glory is felt most intensely.  It is through humanity that language illuminates the glory.  Without humanity, the world would keep going on being a glorious place, but there would be no scientists to explore its depths, no poets or artists to reflect its beauty.  No elderly couple to go for a walk in the woods simply for the purpose of enjoyment.

Anyone who has ever created a piece of art, or had a child, or had a personal milestone, like a birthday, knows the power of celebration.  When someone is inspired by your work, or is delighted by your child, or celebrates your life with you, the whole world expands and becomes more of itself.

In this 13.7 billion year span, we are very much newcomers on the scene.  The universe has not always had celebrants in the way that we can be.  Except that for the writer of Proverbs 8, this is an unbearable idea.  For God to be bursting worlds into being and for there to be no one to witness and delight over it is not the kind of universe we live in, Proverbs 8 declares.

The chapter begins this way: “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?”  It goes on to record musings from Wisdom herself: “The Lord created me at the beginning of God’s work, the first of the acts of long ago.  Ages ago, I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.  When there were no depths, I was brought forth.”  The word for depths here, TeHoM, is the same used in the opening words of Genesis when it says that “darkness was over the surface of the deep, TeHoM, and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.”  Wisdom was created even before the TeHoM.  Proverbs goes on to name other acts of creation that Wisdom preceded – before the mountains were shaped, before the earth and fields, before the skies and seas.  Before all this, Wisdom is doing something remarkable: 8:30-31 – “Then I was beside God, like a master worker; and I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”  Wisdom is the prototype celebrator of the universe.  As Proverbs 8 sees it, there has always been a presence, a power, an energy, celebrating the wonder of the world, almost as if God would not want to make the world without this.  Before anything explodes into being, Wisdom comes forth as the one whose calling is to delight in all that will be.

Wisdom plays an important role in how early Christians came to understand the meaning of Jesus’ life, especially the opening chapter of John.  Jesus is wisdom in the flesh.  Wisdom crystallizing as matter, taking delight and wonder to a new level, a task that is passed along to the whole human race, Jew and Gentile, as Jesus commissions his disciples to continue in this great work.

And so delighting in the world, rejoicing in beauty, is a human calling.  Creation becomes more expansive and delightful and vital and alive and healthy when we delight over it.

That sounds like something we can do.  It sounds a lot more fun than groaning, although I think that’s going to be part of the picture as well for a very long time.  I confess that I have only recently started learning how to be delighted with the natural world.  For some reason, it didn’t seem to come very naturally.  If we struggle with being delighted, or being in awe, or even being interested, I think it’s OK to ask for it.  Invite delight in, or at least let Wisdom know you’d like her to teach you the ropes a bit.  And once we glimpse this delight, it has a power of its own.

Brian Swimme, for whom Thomas Berry was a mentor, writes this: “The history of life can be understood as the creation of ever more sensitive creatures in a universe where there is always another dimension of beauty to be felt and savored.  Think of yourself that way, as a supreme power of sensitivity surrounded by magnificence.  The paradox is this: the greater your sensitivity, the more unbearable the tension.”  (The Universe is a Green Dragon, pp. 79,80)  Part of that tension, no doubt, is the tension between groaning and delighting.  Think of yourself as a supreme power of sensitivity surrounded by magnificence.

As a closing thought, I want to point to the picture on the front of the bulletin – because it’s all about perspective.  We start with garlic mustard and we end with the Milky Way galaxy.  Our sun is one of 200 billion stars in this galaxy, and there are over 200 billion galaxies in the known universe.

We who are alive today are the first to have the technological sensitivities of the eyes of telescopes to know this much about where we live.  To have a sense of the scope of it all.  You are here, we are here, this time and this place, and here is a pregnant moment, in a remarkable place.  We have the tremendous gift of being a part of the unfolding story of the universe, and not just as bystanders, but as active participants.  This is remarkable indeed.

You, O Human, I Have Made a Watcher – 9/4/11 (Labor Sunday) – Ezekiel 33, Romans 13:8-12

Good morning!  It’s good to be back with you, and to get resettled into the neighborhood and congregation.  We’ve been back in town for about three weeks, Eve has been in kindergarten for two weeks, and this is the end of my first week in the office, so we are mostly through but not near completely making this mental shift away from Sabbatical life and into this old/new routine. 

We do look forward to catching up with you and hearing about what has happened in your lives and in the life of the congregation this summer.  Yesterday at the Headings was a good chance to get started with this.

In the Spirit of getting back to work, this happens to be Labor Day weekend, a time that our nation has set aside for remembering and honoring the role of labor and the dignity of work.  Since 1996 a broad coalition of faith groups have chosen to recognize the connection between religious faith and the justice issues related to labor by focusing on these issues this Labor Sunday.  This year, as I understand it, there has been a particular push for congregations to recognize this in their worship due to the political climate and some of the legislation that has been proposed which removes some of the historical rights of workers.  In Ohio, Senate Bill 5, regarding public workers, has been at the center of debate.  It will be up for a referendum vote in November as Issue 2.  And so congregations in Ohio and across the country are choosing to reflect on the intersection of labor and religious faith this Sunday, and we have chosen to be a part of that group.  Nothing like jumping right into the fray after a peaceful summer on the farm.

We’ve included an insert in the bulletin which gives a brief history of Labor Day as well as something titled “Some Basic Principles of Economic Justice.”  This was prepared by the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice.  I want to read down that column just to give a sense of where this is coming from and how these issues can be framed in the language of faith:

Some Basic Principles of Economic Justice

We believe:

Through work all people are privileged to be co-creators with God who is the center of human life and community;

Through work men and women participate and contribute to the well being of their families and society;

Economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of persons, support the family and serve the common good;

All people have a basic right to productive lives including employment with just compensation and benefits;

All employers have a right to expect workers to be productive and committed to quality;

Workers have a right to form unions, cooperatives and other associations to secure the above rights and exercise the above responsibilities;

All work is deserving of respect. Labor Day provides an opportunity for the religious community to affirm and celebrate the workers among us and to highlight questions and issues of the workplace.

Prepared by the Cincinnati Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice


One of the lectionary readings for today comes from Ezekiel.  Ezekiel speaks from Babylon, the place where his people have been exiled.  Ezekiel is the prophet of the exile, giving counsel and proclaiming his visions to these people of the house of Israel who have been displaced from their native land, now subjects under the king of Babylon, with an uncertain future.  In this reading Ezekiel is alerted that when there is a threat that comes against his people, they will take one of their own and appoint them as a watcher, a sentinel, someone who looks with anticipation at the horizon, pays attention to the situation,  and alerts the people of danger.  If danger is on its way, it is the watcher’s job to blow on the shofar, and sound this trumpet so that the people can take heed and prepare for what’s coming.

Ezekiel then hears the word of God spoken to him – “You, oh human being, I have made a watcher for the house of Israel.”  Ezekiel is charged with being one who stands on guard for his people and faithfully warns them of danger so they can take the necessary precautions to keep safe.  Before there was the color coded national security alert system signaling the likelihood of terrorist attacks, before there was the national weather service issuing hurricane and tornado warnings for people to take cover, before there were daily reports about the stock market being up or down, and monthly reports about the unemployment rate being up or down, and quarterly reports about corporate earnings being up or down; before any of this there was the watcher, who was charged with paying attention to the situation on the ground, to listening and looking for potential threats to the community.  The watcher was an agent of God.  Sounding the alarm, blowing the shofar, warning the people to prepare themselves for what was coming.  The well-being of the community, God’s people, rests on the watcher’s ability to see and interpret well what is going on.

It is worth asking: who are the watchers we are paying attention to these days, and what are they saying?       

I got an email from President Obama on Thursday.  Normally, that might make one feel special, but this was one of those that went out to millions of other people around the country.  Maybe you got the same one.  I usually quickly delete my presidential spam, but this one caught my attention because of the subject line.  It said, simply, “Frustrated.”  I opened it and a brief skim revealed that this was about the job situation in our country and the political gridlock for proposing some solutions.  He noted that he was frustrated and he knew the American people were frustrated with the current lack of jobs and economic opportunity.  Our presidential watcher has looked out over the national landscape, surveyed the big picture, has utilized the shofar of the mass email, and has sounded a long note of frustration.             

I have to admit that I’m coming at this from an angle that doesn’t fit very well into this big picture perspective and that I haven’t been paying much attention recently to most professional watchers.  That’s not to say that’s an entirely commendable thing, it’s just to say that these last three months have had a very different focus.  For most of the last three months I’ve been watching what, compared to the big picture, is a ridiculously small piece of land, on the outskirts of a small struggling town, of little consequence to the national GDP.  I’ve been watching and participating in the summer season of a small farm.  Planting seeds, watching them grow, watching weeds grow that need to be pulled; feeding animals, helping sell meat at the local farmer’s market, baling hay that the animals will eat when the pasture grass isn’t growing in the colder months, and starting to harvest some of the garden produce – green beans, garlic, sweet corn, and the first of the tomatoes; eating it fresh and canning it for the winter.  Abbie made the connection that baling hay is kind of like canning for cows.  With the barn being the rather large animal pantry.  Only unfortunately they don’t do their own canning. 

I’ve been observing that, while over 9% of the country remains out of work, there’s lots of work to be done on the farm.  Too many projects for a single household, even when you’ve got extra people working at it.  There’s lots of work, and there’s lots of food that can be grown on a small amount of land.  More than a single household or extended family can eat.  There’s a wealth that the soil possesses which, combined with good management, enough sunlight and water, creates abundance out of small seeds.  An abundance of good food but not so much an abundance of money.  We could put people to work, but they wouldn’t be getting much of a paycheck.  But butternut squash, tomatoes, green beans, eggs, and even some meat could be available. 

I’ve been reading different watchers who are stationed mostly in rural America, where things look different than the city.  I’ve been reading from those who lament the extent to which rural America has been depopulated, seeing these populations move off the farm to cities where some of them confront the new reality of unemployment, or, if they’re a little luckier, wage labor. 

I’ve been reading people who lament the perspective of government offices, universities, and economists that there have been too many people on the farm.  The experts promoting the philosophy of “get big, or get out.”  The small farmers’ comeback line on this is that, while agricultural economists have been quick to highlight that there are too many farmers, “no agricultural economist has yet perceived that there are too many agricultural economists.”  (“What are people for?” in What Matters? by Wendell Berry, p. 106). 

I’ve been reading watchers from the country and the city who see great potential for greater self-sufficiency for people no matter where they live.  For building up local economies.  For learning to live with less and reviving systems of bartering that give people a chance to use and share wealth in ways that don’t involve the exchange of money.

In other words, I’ve been thinking about things that are very impractical to implement from a big picture policy perspective, but things which provide a wealth of potential for small scale actions, human community, for meaningful labor, even if it doesn’t register in the official economy.  I’m not really sure how relevant it is to many of the issues at hand on Labor Day weekend – the vitality of unions, the right to collective bargaining, just labor laws, living wage jobs. 

 If you have any interest in what these marginal watchers are saying, you may also have interest in another marginal watcher.  This one who was the leader of these little start up communities all throughout the Roman Empire in the first century.  The Apostle Paul who wrote letters of encouragement and instruction to these little communities of how they may better reflect the radiance of the Christ, who was alive and active among them.  In another of today’s lectionary readings, Paul, the watcher, writes to the small community in Rome, those living in the heart of the empire, those spiritual exiles whose claimed for themselves another kingdom as their homeland.  Another kingdom already present in the world.  Paul writes, and I’m using a combination of the NIV and NRSV translations here: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet;’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10).

“Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another.”  Talking about debt and economics and politics could take up down a path we don’t want to go this morning.  The way the apostle imagines debt functioning in a positive way in the Christian community is as a perpetual indebtedness that we have to one another.  A love debt, that never can be fully repaid.  So I am indebted to each of you for the love you have shown me, and you are indebted to each other for the kindness, the generosity, the goodwill, the love that you have shown one another.  And we are always indebted to the soil, the earth, for the wealth that it has given us, our very lives.  It is the only inescapable debt you ever want to have any part in because it is a debt that keeps creating greater and greater wealth of love, of justice, of right relationship, of forgiveness, of grace, of undeserved opportunity.  It is the love of God in action in our lives.  The apostle Paul is the watcher over this little household of believers and he seems to be suggesting that we are all watchers for one another.  Watching for the well being of the community.

Imagine, a small community living this way.  Each of them indebted to one another, beginning to treat others outside of their community with dignity and respect, having positions as workers and employers and administrators, relating with colleagues and employees out of this sense of love and gratitude for gifts that they share.  All of life – work, rest, family – taking on a quality of holiness.  Love, fulfilling the laws of justice.  You, o human, I have made a watcher.  Now what do you see?