Merciful strength | Sanctuary I | October 1

Texts: Matthew 9:10-13; Numbers 35:9-15;

Worship Theme: Sanctuary People

 In the year 399 a man named Eutropius ran from the Roman palace in Constantinople into the nearby Great Church, as it was called.  He was seeking sanctuary from his political enemies.  He was greeted by the bishop John Chrysostom and granted the protection of the church.

Eutropius began life as a slave and became a eunuch in the court of the Roman Emperor Theodosius.  He rose through the ranks, and when Theodosius died, Eutropius was in middle of the power struggle that followed.  He arranged a strategic marriage for Theodosius’ son Arcadius who became emperor over the eastern half of the empire.  Eutropius managed to exile and fend off his political rivals.  He became Arcadius’ closest advisor, eventually having himself named Roman consul.  But his enemies soon rallied and forced his removal, and he feared for his life.

Bishop Chrysotom’s thoughts on the matter are preserved in two sermon manuscripts.  He used this situation to compare the misguided quest for worldly power with the steadfast mercy of the church.  Addressing Eutropius directly, he stated: “The Church, which you treated as an enemy, has opened her bosom to you.”  One of the ways Eutropius had treated the church as an enemy was by arranging for edicts that restricted the ability of his political enemies to obtain sanctuary.  But now he, known for his conniving and greed, had no other place to turn but the refuge of the Great Church.

As you may imagine, this was not a particularly popular move with the congregation, initially.  Not only was Eutropius famous for being ruthless, and not only were there imperial officers, with swords and spears, surrounding the church demanding Eutropius’ removal, but Chrysostom himself admitted in one of the sermons that providing Eutropius sanctuary may very well be against the law that Eutropius himself had recently helped establish.  But sanctuary was an established enough practice by that time that emperor Arcadius commanded his soldiers to stand down and not interfere in that hallowed place.

In the words of one historian, summing up the situation: “Sanctuary provided opportunity for Eutropius to see the truth of life’s fleeting glory and for the church to demonstrate that it was strong enough to protect even its most unpopular enemies against a fearsome army.”

The situation unfortunately did not end well.  Eutropius tried to secretly escape from the church building, but was captured, exiled, and eventually killed.

(All quotes and information above from Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages: 400-1500, by Karl Shoemaker, pp. 25-27)

One month ago we decided to become a sanctuary congregation.  And not just in theory or belief, but in practice.  We welcomed Edith Espinal to take up sanctuary, aka live, within our church building.  It has not been a simple process, but it is simplified by the fact that rather than being a conniving, assassinating political power player, Edith is an active member of the community and mother with no criminal record.

Since that time we’ve been learning as we go, with the significant twist that Edith left our building after two nights because of a temporary extension to apply for a delay in her deportation.  This congregation was a part of the sanctuary movement in the 1980’s, and a number of you have training in accompaniment and advocacy through Christian Peacemaker Teams.  Now we’re very much in the middle of what appears to be a growing movement within the faith community, locally and nationally.

So we’re asking questions, and, to borrow a phrase from the poet Rilke, we’re living the questions.  What does it mean to be a sanctuary congregation?  What does it mean to be sanctuary people? Continuing down that line, how might the sacred space around our bodies become sanctuary space for whoever we’re with?  And how do walk the inward journey of sanctuary?

These are the kinds of questions we’ll be speaking to through the fall in our worship services.  And hopefully they’re the kinds of questions that make for good discussion around the dinner table, in small groups, and whatever other ways we are together.

This week and next will focus on the history of sanctuary, inside and beyond the church.  In other words, what has sanctuary looked like in other times and places?  I’ll be relying heavily on this fantastic book, “Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages: 400-1500 by Karl Shoemaker.

I apologize if I start sounding like I know more about this than what I actually do.  Most of this is pretty new knowledge for me.

But I will just go ahead and give away the punch line right up front.  One of the punch lines.  Here it is: The Church, big C, has practiced sanctuary extensively for the majority of its existence.  For well over 1000 years sanctuary was standard church practice.  And, sanctuary practices show up regularly in non-Christian settings.

What I’d like to do is to use this story of Eutropius and Chrysostom in the Great Church of Constantinople in 399 as a hinge.  This week we’ll start there and look backwards, and next week we’ll start there and look forwards.

The gospels portray Jesus as someone who had no official credential but who demonstrated power and authority through his teachings, his healings and miracles, and his bold actions.  There are any number of gospel stories relevant to sanctuary, including the one we read this morning.  In Matthew 9 Jesus is in Capernaum, the home base of his ministry, where his early followers lived.  He’s in “the house” which seems to be the house of Peter’s family.  He’s sitting at table with his disciples, joined by tax collectors and sinners, social and moral outcasts.  It’s nothing like an official practice of sanctuary, but when the religious leaders see this and challenge Jesus on it, he offers his guests protection, material and spiritual refuge.  He replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are “sick.”  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”

The last bit about mercy not sacrifice is a quote from the prophet Hosea which the religious leaders would have known well.  It’s a bold and even comical move for Jesus to shoo them away and tell them to go study up on their own tradition and get enlightened on this thing called mercy.  It’s typical Jesus style.  To use the language of sanctuary, Jesus was a walking sanctuary, and everywhere he went, people who could find refuge nowhere else, were drawn to him.  And he welcomed them –  little children, those who sold their bodies to make a living, those, like tax collectors, who had sold out to the empire.  Jesus was a mobile sanctuary, and when he entered a house, or a field, or a boat, the wind shifted, and those who were previously at ease were on edge, and those who had no other refuge, were put at ease.

These are the same winds of the Spirit that blew at Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection and created a multi-lingual, multi-cultural community defined by the mercy and power of Jesus’ ministry, which we simply call, “the church.”

Things are pretty foggy before the case of Eutropius about the growing practice of sanctuary within the church.  One thing that’s clear is that the church didn’t invent it.  The ancient Greeks developed sanctuary practices around temple sites and sacred groves.  These spaces were considered sacred, inviolable.  And debtors, criminals, and slaves were protected if they took asylum in these locations.

Rome recognized that fugitive slaves were safe from their pursuing masters if they clung to the feet of a statue of of Caesar in Rome, or, later, the feet of a statue of Romulus.  To get their slave back the master had to solemnly swear to treat them fairly and not punish them for having fled.

In a very different part of the world, the Big Island of Hawaii has a well preserved site of ancient sanctuary where those who had violated taboos and were under the threat of death, or those defeated in war, could flee, undergo a purification ceremony with a priest, and return home free of guilt.  I definitely would not have known about this except that Melonie Buller recently visited the island for their older sons’s wedding and came upon this while doing some site-seeing.  So the next time you’re visiting some exotic site, keep your eyes open for sanctuary sites.

The Torah gives instructions for the creation of six cities of refuge for the Israelites.  Numbers 35 is one of the places these are described.  They had a fairly narrow purpose.  They were open to people who had killed another person unintentionally.  Intentional or premeditated murder was given the death penalty, but unintentional murder, or even murder in the heat of the moment that wasn’t pre-meditated, made one eligible to escape to a city of refuge to avoid the nearest of kin who had the sacred duty of redeeming the death by killing the murderer.  The accidental murderer was only protected if they stayed within the city, and they were only allowed to go home if the high priest in office died.  The death of the high priest may have been seen as purifying the land of the spilled blood, or as the great Jewish scholar Maimonides later suggested, the death of the high priest was such a sorrowful event that everyone gave up any thoughts of vengeance.   (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, chapter XL).

There’s a great piece of writing in the Jewish Misha that says: ““Therefore, mothers of high priests were wont to provide food and clothing for (the fugitives) that they might not pray for her son’s death.”  (Mas Makkoth 11a)

The Talmud noted that the roads to the cities of refuge were made twice as wide and exceptionally smooth in order to present no obstacle to those fleeing.

When the early Christians began offering sanctuary, they did not initially rely on the argument of their places of worship being sacred spaces.  Reverence for place was associated with the pagan world.  In Christian thinking there was nothing sacred and inviolable about the temples and sacred groves and the gods who populated them.

What they did rely on was the idea of intercession and penance.  They believed in the sacred duty of interceding on behalf of the accused, the criminal, the fugitive.  They believed that if one had committed a great crime, that they should be offered the opportunity for repentance and that the priest had the duty to intercede not only to God, but to the one seeking vengeance, or the public official, to give the fugitive protection from harm.  And they believed that the crime could be reconciled through penance, such as a thief paying back or working off the value of what they had stolen.  In short, they believe in something akin to what we now call restorative justice rather than punitive justice.  In short, they were committed to practical acts of mercy that Jesus demonstrated so clearly.

The early church was not without fault, and it was about to become entwined with political power in ways that have not even yet been completely undone.  But they did carry on and deepen the ancient human practice of giving sanctuary to those threatened with life and limb and exile.

Sanctuary is and always has been a practice of merciful strength.  Next week we’ll look at how it became a legal and essential practice for 1000+ years across medieval Europe with intercession, penance, and reconciliation mixed in with criminal justice and politics.

For today, we’ll end with a quote from Bishop John Chrysostom whose congregation extended sanctuary to the Roman official Eutropius.  Since we are in the sanctuary of this building, we can receive it as spoken to us: “When you take refuge in a church, do not seek shelter in the place, but in the spirit of the place.  The Church is not wall and roof, but faith and life.”  (Sanctuary and Crime, p. 17).



Peacemaking and power | September 17

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

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

Anybody want to give it a try?  ……………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





“The Lord appeared to Abraham…” | September 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

They accept the offer.

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

Deep breath.

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

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

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

Deep breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…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.”



Strangers becoming siblings | August 20 | Anniversary Sunday

Text: Ephesians 2:11-22

Last month, at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando, there was a big timeline along one side of the delegate hall.  It was kind of like the one we have for CMC in the fellowship hall this weekend, but longer – in size and time span.  It was maybe 40 feet long, give or take.  It began in the 1500’s and led up to the present.  On it, were written key events in the Anabaptist and Mennonite story.  1525, Zurich Switzerland, the first adult baptisms.  1660; publication of the Martyrs Mirror, telling the stories of Christian martyrs through the ages;  1789, the first German speaking Mennonites settle in Catherine the Great’s Russia.  And so on.  We were about to begin the Future Church Summit, and denominational leaders wanted to help us remember where we had been before looking toward where we are going.

There was lots of open space on the timeline, with differently colored markers available for anyone who wanted to add a key event.  Walking through the centuries and reading the additions was a fascinating experience of what happens when you crowd source your collective history.  Alongside the more standard highlights of immigration waves, official church statements, and the creation of institutions, were less told stories, some painful.  Like the three boarding schools Mennonites used to run that tore Native American children from their families and culture.

A few people had felt unrestricted by the chronological range of the timeline, with someone writing at the very beginning, “And on the seventh day, God rested” and someone squeezing in even before that “Big bang.”  Someone else had extended the timeline forward two years to the next national gathering in 2019, writing “Membership Guidelines abolished by delegates.”  The Membership Guidelines currently in place call for the review of a pastor’s credentials who officiates at the wedding of a same-sex couple.

All in all, it was a lively space, a multi-layered snap shot of where the church has been, and might be going.

Feeling emboldened by the boldness of others, I picked up a marker and decided to write in some local history of national significance, fresh in my mind from scanning through our congregational archives in preparation for this anniversary weekend..  Finding the early 1960’s I wrote “Columbus Mennonite pioneers dual-conference affiliation status.”

As I stepped back to admire the updated history, much to my surprise, who should be walking along the timeline but Ervin Stutzman, the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA.  He was checking the timeline against an extensive and somewhat official looking chronology of church events on his electronic device.  I pointed out to him the recent addition.  Even more to my surprise, he pointed to his device and said, “Yep, already had that.”  And sure enough, there it was.

If you have no idea what dual-conference affiliation means, that’s fantastic.  A very brief explanation is that there are two main historically separate Mennonite groups in North America.  When students in Columbus started meeting informally in the late 50’s and chartered membership in a new congregation in 1962, they were coming from both of these traditions.  Rather than choosing one, they decided to do something that had never been done – To work with the leaders of both groups and be a dual-conference affiliated congregation.  This became official in 1964.  (**Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City also became a dual-conference congregation around this time.)   It was the leading edge of a trend.  In 1969 two seminaries, one from each tradition, moved onto the same campus in northern Indiana.  In the decades that followed other congregations would become dual affiliated.  In February of 2002 the two groups officially joined to become Mennonite Church USA in this country, and Mennonite Church Canada.

Origin stories are important.  They not only set a trajectory for what follows, but they form an ethos.  They establish a way of being.  In some cases they can be as important as DNA, transferring messages from one generation of cells, or people, to the next.

So when Genesis begins with the Creator declaring creation to be good, and, indeed, very good, it’s more than just an evaluation of a completed project.  It’s a statement about the fundamental nature of materiality and embodiment.  Goodness, Divine goodness, courses through the fabric of existence, through the veins of our bodies, right here and now.

When Jews remember their founding story of being enslaved in Egypt, delivered from bondage, and given the Torah as a guide for living, it’s more than just an ancient event.  Each new generation is to identify with having been enslaved, and delivered, and to live in such a way that keeps themselves and others free from bondage.

When Jesus is gathered at table with his closest companions, and he takes, and blesses, and gives the bread and the cup, and names it as his body and blood, he is inviting everyone willing to receive it to become his body, to be enlivened by his life-blood.  And so we re-enter into this living memory every time we take communion.

These origin stories transfer messages from one generation to the next.  They tell the community who they are.

Now, granted, that’s a pretty elite class of stories to put alongside the founding of this congregation.  I don’t mean to overstate the case.

But here’s what I find especially noteworthy about the establishment of Columbus Mennonite Fellowship which became Neil Avenue Mennonite Church which became Columbus Mennonite Church:

In order for this congregation to come into existence, it had to become something that did not yet exist.  I’ll say that again.  In order for this congregation to come into existence, it had to become something that did not yet exist.  It had to pioneer a new way of being in the world.  Like that lovely phrase from John writing to his community in the letter we know as our New Testament book of 1 John.  He writes: “Beloved, what we will be has not yet been made known.”  It continues by saying, “What we do know is this: when it appears, we shall be like (Christ)” 1 John 3:2.  In other words, whatever shape this thing takes on, it’s going to look like Christ, and that’s enough to go on for now.

In my relatively brief time here, I’ve experienced an openness in this congregation to become something that has not yet been made known.  That founding spirit is still alive and well, transferred through all of you here, and the hundreds of others who aren’t.  And it’s a beautiful thing.  It’s not an easy thing, but it has a recognizable shape.  When it appears, it looks like Christ, and we learn more about who Christ is by walking towards it together.

Ephesians 2 has more to say about that shape.

It’s got the whole two becoming one thing going on, only rather than the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Old Mennonite Church, it’s Jews and Gentiles.

In Ephesians 2, the whole work of Christ is set up as the work of peace.  “For Christ is our peace,” this letter declares.  And how so?  How has Christ, in the words of Ephesians, “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us?”  It goes on to name the radical way the early Jesus followers came to interpret his brutal death on the Roman instrument of torture and capital punishment, the cross.  Rather than Jesus and everything he represented dying at the hands of the all-powerful empire, Rome killing Christ on the cross, it is Christ who kills hostility on the cross.  Hostility dies on the cross, thus making peace.  That’s what this letter to a little group of believers in the city of Ephesus proclaims.

Christ is our peace.  A peace beyond the peace of Rome, now available to all who wish to enter.  A peace not founded on a reign of fear and terror, the supremacy of one group over another.  A peace founded on a vitality and depth of being that even death can’t kill.

And the result of this peace, is, as verse 15 says, “one new humanity.”  Humanity 2.0 we might say.  Humanity beyond categories of us and them, Jew and Gentile.  Perhaps even beyond homo sapiens, which means “clever human.”  Christ opens up the way for a new humanity, homo pacificum, peaceful human.

Ephesians has a really, really high view of the church.  It proposes that the church is to be nothing less than a manifestation of the new humanity, an embodiment of peace, a post-hostility society in miniature.

I wish the timeline of church history was one of ever greater peace among ourselves, and justice in the world.  I wish even just the timeline of our little spiritual tribe, the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, whose namesake wrote the words to the hymn, “We are people of God’s peace…” I wish we could get this thing at least mostly right.  The two that became one in 2002 to form Mennonite Church USA have already reverted back to 2, or 3 or 10 or more depending on how you count.  And hostility may have been crucified on the cross, but its phantom is on the loose, newly emboldened on the streets of this country in the form of white supremacy.

I wonder if the present moment is calling on us again to become something that does not yet exist.  To not just look for a category to claim as our flag, but to help pioneer a different way of being, and thus make peace.  What you will be has not yet been made known.

There’s the joke about the seminary student who asks her professor how many points a good sermon should have.  The professor replies, “At least one.”  I’m not sure how many points this sermon has had, but I’ll end with at least one.

It’s a phrase that comes out of this Ephesians 2 passage, and it’s something I see this congregation doing all the time, something that springs from its origins.  A number of folks told stories last evening that fit right into this theme.  After celebrating the death of hostility and the possibility of a new humanity, the writer of Ephesians says, “For you are no longer strangers, but…members of the household of God.”

Strangers becoming siblings.  That’s the movement I see happening throughout the entire story of this congregation, starting from the very beginnings.  Strangers becoming siblings.  People who were previously strangers to one another join together in worship, take care of each other, and share in a common mission of peacemaking and justice-doing.  And, over time, the strangers become siblings.  Not that siblings live in a state of peaceful bliss.  But siblings share a commitment to each other’s well being.  Siblings share a household, and share a story.

And when strangers become siblings, you can’t quite predict what’s going to result.  What new thing God might do among us.  What new shape it might take.  What we do know, is that when it appears, it will look like Christ.  And Christ is our peace.

A cosmic hallelujah | August 13


Twelve Hymns Project: Praise God from whom

Text: Psalm 148


Psalm 148 is like one of those emails you get where the sender entered all the recipients in the To: box rather than Blind Carbon Copy.  This Psalm is the text we used for our Call to Worship this morning.  It’s an invitation to what theologian Douglas Ottati refers to as “the party of existence.”  And we are invited.  Only rather than simply getting our own invite, with all the other recipients hidden, like that lovely Blind Carbon Copy feature allows, we get the full catalogue of invites, which we scan through first before getting to our part.

The sender must have had two lists going, and begins with the first: those in “the heavens” or “the heights.”  It includes things unseen and seen: angels, hosts; sun, moon, and stars; the waters above.  The second list is “you who are on earth.”  It ranges from sea monsters to winged birds, wild beasts to domesticated animals to creeping things to fruit trees and cedars.  To make sure we get the message that we’re all invited, it names kings and peoples of the earth, young men and women, old and young.  And the invitation is not limited to carbon-based life forms.  Even the mountains and hills, fire, various forms of precipitation, even the wind gets an invite.

It’s like when the person who’s working the booth at the skating rink gets on the loud speaker and announces: “the next skate will be an all skate, and all skate.”  The lights go down, everyone gets up from their seats, the disco ball kicks into gear, and before you know it everyone and everything is on the floor, swirling around the same center of gravity, gliding to the same beat.

The party of existence is an all skate, and we are invited.

The operative word, woven throughout Psalm 148 is “praise.”  At least how we translate it.  In the Hebrew poetry, it’s that familiar word that almost needs no translation.  “Hallelu.”  Every appearance of “praise” in our text is originally a Hallelu.  God has spoken creation into being, and now creation returns the favor by speaking the language that translates across species and continents: Hallelujah.

If we would translate not just the language, but also the cosmology from that of the ancient world to our own, we might see this Psalm as a call to the entire universe to remember that it originates from a singular point of burning possibility; that the cosmos has been ignited into being, vast and still expanding.  That energy has cooled into matter, that atoms have gathered and fused new elements in the cores of stars which have seeded the universe with new possibilities, that our home planet has become a place of hospitality for novelty, that we are the latest in a long line of the star’s descendants, that the universe has now become conscious of itself through us, or, in the words of Brian Swimme, “The human provides the space in which the universe feels its stupendous beauty.”  (The Universe is a Green Dragon, p. 32).

It’s significant that Jesus’ favorite title for himself was ‘The Human One,’ Son of Man.  He embodied in a new way the Source with a capital S from which all this comes.  We, his spiritual descendants, have the privilege of orienting ourselves toward the awe and wonder that leads to life and more life.  We have the awesome gift and responsibility of being the DJs for the party of existence, the choir directors for the cosmic hallelujah.  Even when it’s a cold and broken Hallelujah, thank you Leonard Cohen.

This is the final week of our Twelve hymns series and what better way to end it than with “Praise God from whom.”  Both because it is a lovely benediction, and because it has become the de factor Mennonite anthem.

Its words are simple – a cliff notes version of Psalm 148, with a barely noticeable reversal of the order of below and above.  “Praise God from who all blessings flow, praise God all creatures here below.”  “Praise God above, ye heavenly host.”

If you’re new-ish to CMC and haven’t spent much time in Mennonite fellowships, you might be thinking, “Oh yeah, I know that song.”  Unfortunately, this is most likely not the case.  This is not the version of the song you sing around the Thanksgiving table, commonly known as the Doxology.  This is the Doxology on Mennonite four part steroids… which is actually much prettier than it sounds.  It’s one of the lovely quirks of this tradition.  Although for a 500 year old tradition, it’s still relatively new.

Last year The Mennonite magazine  carried an article in which Mary Oyer names her top ten hymns.  Mary Oyer was a long time professor of music, served as executive secretary on the 1969 hymnal committee, had widespread influence in teaching church music for decades, and, on the side, studied African musical traditions in 22 countries through a series of Fulbright grants.  She’s a Mennonite rock star, still going strong in her 90’s.  Within the article she tells the story of how “Praise God from whom” came to take its place in Mennonite hymnology.

These are her words: “The 1969 committee labeled this a “Choral Hymn,” placing it in that section because we thought at the time that it was too difficult for a congregation and that it belonged with choir numbers. It was only when the new hymnal was introduced in July 1969 [at the Mennonite Church assembly] in Oregon that I heard a large congregation try it. I was leading the hymn sing with fear that we would not get through the hymn’s three pages, but it was an immediate success. And it certainly was a favorite of mine for many years as I saw how it enlivened people as we sang. It brought us joy.”

She points back to Joseph Funk who first included the hymn in an 1876 edition of a song collection known as Harmonia Sacra.  That collection was responsible for popularizing singing in four parts among Mennonites in the US.  In looking back at this, Mary Oyer says, “I am grateful for the generations of song leaders who went out to Mennonite homes, farming during the day and teaching music with Harmonia Sacra in the evening. It made possible our singing 606 (Praise God from whom) with energy and pleasure for many years.”

But here’s something else from the Mary Oyer article:  She tells all this after listing her top ten hymns, in which “Praise God from Whom” does not appear.  The woman largely responsible for bringing this song into anthem status, doesn’t list it in her top ten hymns.

And here’s the reason she gives: While participating in Mennonite World Conference in India and Zimbabwe, it was evident that this could not work as a congregational song in most settings.  She ends the article by saying, “I am increasingly aware that as we become a more global church I want to be able to learn the hymns that our members around the world find valuable.”

Praise God from whom is a beautiful, even breath taking hymn of praise, but it has a catch: This song that calls upon all creatures here below and the heavenly host to join in cosmic praise, is… really hard to join.  It’s a very culturally particular expression of the universal hallelujah.  Austin will have more to say about this in his reflection.

I want to end my words for the series on a personal note, hopefully a note that harmonizes.  Since my growing up years in church didn’t involve four part singing, seminary felt like a now-or-never time to get started.  I quickly discovered an informal way of learning.  The seminary chapel is relatively small, with brick walls and hard floors.  The sound is live and the acoustics are pretty spectacular.  I found that if I stood close to someone singing bass and listened for it, I could actually feel the notes in body.  My body, and specifically my voicebox, would vibrate with the same wavelength as my neighbor – his voice bouncing off those hard surfaces and coming right back at me.  I could catch the note in my throat, amplify it, and be just a millisecond behind that person throughout the entire song.  But I had to be close to them…without being annoyingly close.

It’s an experience I had many times during those years, and since.

It’s a feeling of being dependent.  Dependent on the community in order to find my own voice.  Of not being able to take a first step until that step is made for me.  It’s a bodily experience of being moved, perhaps even on a cellular level.

It’s an experience that also has something to do more broadly with the party of existence.  I like to think that walking among trees, studying about stars, playing with children, and paying attention to rivers has a similar effect.  That in doing so I and we are joining something, something very beautiful, that animates our bodies but extends far beyond them, very far beyond them.  Something that points beyond our lives to the Source of life and existence itself.  Something that engages us in what we call Praise, amplifying our part in the cosmic hallelujah.

So we’ll end today’s service with Praise God from whom.  If you know it, sing with gusto.  If you’re learning it, listen for your part and see if the acoustics are good enough in here to feel it in your body.  And if your act of praise is simply to listen, then so be it.

And if you like second chances, a heads up that we’ll also be singing this at the end of next week’s worship service in which we celebrate 55 years as a congregation.

Thanks be to God for all this.

The music of grace | July 30

Twelve Hymns Project: Amazing Grace

Texts: Exodus 34:5-9; Acts 9:1-9

Joel and Abbie Miller



Anne Lamott wrote: “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Maybe this helps explain the popularity of “Amazing grace.”  The song has been so widely embraced, it spans all kinds of communities that otherwise have little in common, religious and secular.  We are at so many different places – in our life experience, in our ideas about the world.  Grace meets us where we’re at, and so, it seems, does this song that features grace as its protagonist.

A case in point for this breadth of appeal is that these lyrics, written by an English former slave ship captain, John Newton, have also become adopted among the African American spirituals.  Descendants of the enslaved and the enslavers need not understand all the mysteries of grace in order to know we need it.


The hymn “Amazing Grace” as we know it, has a grace filled history as well.  It was originally written as a reading or poem that may have been chanted instead of sung.  It was not even seen as one of John Newton’s finest works in Britain.  One biographer calls Newton , in reference to this song, an “unashamedly middle brow lyricist for a low brow congregation.”  Out of the 150 words, only 21 are more than one syllable.

Despite this, the song took hold in the United States during the Second Great Awakening and the development of shape note singing. Amazing Grace was used during tent revival meetings to punctuate fervent sermons, with added repetitive verses.  It was sung to around 20 different melodies before it became widely known and published with a melody named “New Britain”.

The hymn was printed in hymnbooks passed out to soldiers and used for services and funerals during the civil war.  It is considered a “paradigmatic Negro spiritual” because it expresses the joy felt at being delivered from slavery and worldly misery. Harriet Beecher Stowe first recorded the last verse in her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  “When we’ve been there 10,000 years…”  Amazing Grace was translated into other languages as well.  While on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee sang Christian hymns as a way of coping with ongoing tragedy, and a version of Amazing Grace translated into the Cherokee language became very popular.

Amazing Grace continued to give soul to the Civil Rights movement and was recorded by Mahalia Jackson as well as used as a marching song by Fannie Lou Hamer.  It has been recorded 7,000 times by a diverse group of singers, secular as well as religious.  Amazing Grace has been sung everywhere from Carnegie hall to Woodstock.  Johnny Cash often sang it during his prison concerts, he said, “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free.  It just frees the spirit and frees the person.”


Anne Lamott has written openly about her struggles with addiction, the challenges of motherhood, and the general difficulty and wonder of being human.  Grace was a strong enough thread through it all that she included it in the book title: Grace (Eventually).

It would be a good title for the life of John Newton as well.  The song says, “how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”  It sounds like a sudden conversion experience.  But his story is much more one of grace eventually than grace suddenly.

His initial conversion experience, as he later told it, was aboard a ship, during his slave trading years.  He was in his early 20’s.  His ship, The Greyhound, was in the North Atlantic and ran into a massive storm.  Newton feared for his life and did what lots of people do when they fear for their life.  He prayed, and begged God for mercy.  He survived the storm and landed his ship two weeks later in Ireland.

It was a wake up call for Newton, and he started giving more attention to prayer and the Bible.  He began treating his crew, and his African cargo, with more kindness.  But if that was the hour he first believed, it didn’t equate to a radically transformed life, yet.  He continued to make his living off of the buying and selling and subsequent torture of human beings.  He was a slave ship captain for the rest of his 20’s.  He would later write about that time: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”

After his sailing days Newton began to teach himself Latin and Greek and his friends were so impressed with his passion they encouraged him to become a priest, which he did.  As a priest, he became more and more ashamed of his former life as a slave trader.  He wrote over 280 hymns, one of them being Amazing Grace.  Sixteen years later after writing that, in 1788, when he was 63, he wrote a pamphlet called “Thoughts upon the African slave trade.”  It included detailed descriptions of the horrors that Africans experienced in the Middle Passage, aboard his ships.  It helped shift public attitudes toward slavery in England and became key to the abolitionist movement.  On the front cover of the pamphlet were the words of Jesus from Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”


I grew up in a church that sang only acapella hymns.  And everyone “had their place in the choir”.   My memory of these hymns also contains the memory of where certain voices sat each Sunday and increased in volume as they sang their favorite line of the song.  I was surrounded by grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great and great great aunts and uncles.   Throughout my childhood I sat with all of them and learned to know their voices.  When we sing some of the old hymns, memories awaken so deep that I am transported back to that time, when the people in that church were my whole world.

It seems like most of my early memories of singing are connected with a strong sense of community, familiarity and learning about music making rather than specifically connecting to the words. I knew most of the hymns by heart, singing felt like a freedom during a service that was sermon centered.  I did have a special connection to Amazing Grace though.  The extravagant grace spoken of in the song was in stark contrast to some of the theology I heard from the pulpit and experienced in my life.  How far could this grace go?  Could grace, rather than guilt be the driving force behind a relationship with God?  I didn’t have the words to form these questions at the time, but I could feel myself being pulled in its direction.  I wasn’t comfortable with the strict way I was taught to separate myself from the “world”, was grace only for our group?

But I did see grace winding its way through my life, people helping us when we were struggling through my father’s depression, through conversations I had with my grandmother, through the open beauty of the kansas landscape and it’s sunsets.  Grace wasn’t something I expected or even looked for at the time, but when it appeared, I knew that grace was where I would eventually find my resting place.


One of the most dramatic conversions in the Bible is the story of Paul.  Paul was initially what we might today call a religious extremist, a hardcore fundamentalist.  As if to underline its importance, the book of Acts tells his conversion story three different times.

Paul, or Saul, was on his way to the city of Damascus, on the trail of fellow Jews, men and women who belonged to “the Way” as the early Jesus movement was called.  On his way, a light flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and has a mystical encounter with Christ.  The whole thing leaves him in pretty bad shape.  He’s blind and doesn’t eat or drink for three days.

His companions lead him into Damascus where Saul has another encounter, this time with a living and breathing human being – Ananias – one of those people of the Way Saul was hunting.  Ananias enters the house where this religious extremist is staying, and reaches out his hands and rests them on Saul’s shoulders – Saul’s thirsty and hungry and blind body.  Ananias’s first words to him are “Brother Saul.”  This greeting corresponds with Saul being able to see again, something like scales falling from his eyes.  An enemy becomes a brother.  And Saul starts humming, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

“I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Paul would go on to write much of what we have as the New Testament.  Grace is a sweet, sweet sound, and it fills the letters Paul addresses to those little communities of the Way, churches, scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

But grace wasn’t a new idea.  Grace, by definition, is a divine gift.  It preceeds human action.  It is that which makes human action, and life itself possible in the first place.  Grace was there from the very beginning.

When the Creator called the cosmos into being, it was an act of grace.  When the God of Genesis 1 declares that creation to be good, it is a sign of grace.  When Abraham and Sarah become the father and mother of a people meant to bless all nations, it is an act of grace.  When the Hebrew people are brought out of slavery, and Moses receives the Ten Commandmants on Mount Sinai, those words, etched in stone, begin not with a human action, but with a Divine action, with grace.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery:  Therefore …”  Christians are accustomed to thinking of that as the introduction to the Ten Commandments, but in the Jewish counting, that counts as the first, and what follows is 2-10.  First comes grace, then comes our response.

The Psalmist repeatedly banks on grace in crying out to God.  The prophets are not always graceful in their delivery, but their imaginations were charged with the grace that called them to speak on behalf of the vulnerable.

Grace is a thick unbroken thread that runs from creation, through Christ, through Paul and Newton and Lamott, to us.


I believe music itself is an act of grace within the story of human existence, a universal language that can include words, elevate them and transcend them into a realm of memory and lived experience.  In the last 20-30 years, scientific study of how our brains perceive and create music has come to suggest that it is a “biologically deeply ingrained function.”  The brain has neural circuitry that is dedicated to music.  Music is more than “icing on the cake of human evolution after basic biological needs and developments were satisfied.”  Our brains were formed by and for music and music making.

Music can be processed bilaterally, using both sides of the brain at the same time.  Rhythm, melody, emotions, memory, lyric analysis; all of these things can be processed during one song.  There is also the full body experience of producing sound and receiving the reverberations of sound. Our brain can process music when we are not aware of it.  Even infants express preference for certain types of music and can discriminate tempo and process pitch.

My training and background is in music therapy, which is the therapeutic use of music to attain non-musical goals.  I have worked in a variety of settings with the elderly and with children.  One of the things that always amazed me was the speed with which music can build relationships.  Something as simple as accomplishing a note in unison or playing a steady beat together can create a connection. The connection created through music makes a pathway for healing, motivation and order.  Sometimes the connection only lasts for the duration of the song and sometimes it continues.  The ability to connect through music has always seemed like an act of grace to me.  A surrender to the creation of something bigger than ourselves.


Karma says what goes around comes around.  You reap what you sew.  Everything you put out will come back to you, good or bad.

Grace plays a different game.  In the words of U2, singing about grace, “She travels outside of karma.”

Grace messes with the equation, breaks the formula, presents itself to us unsummoned.

Grace is what makes the person who thinks they can see realize they’re blind.  Grace is what helps the blind see.  Grace is the energy to do something about what we see.

Grace is the thick thread that keeps us tethered to God, despite ourselves.  Grace keeps us tethered to each other, despite ourselves.

It meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us where it found us.  Grace is the beautiful mystery meant to be experienced rather than understood.  Sung, rather than explained.