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Diversity – 4 gospels and the Reformation wars

Common time

September 15, 2019

For Beloved Community Mennonite Church

©Vernon K. Rempel, 2019

Bible reading from the Revised Common Lectionary:

Luke 15:1-10 NRSV

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, `Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, `Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’

Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Luke’s gospel

Our assigned lectionary reading for today begins:

“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.“

That is a resonant note for sure.

Tax collectors were hated servants of the Roman Empire, who were seen to be acting against their own people.

Sinners were people who for one reason or another had fallen out of compliance and favor with good society. In some cases this was because they were poor and could not keep up with the temple taxes on top of their Roman taxes – and you better pay the Romans or else. (Journey Towards Holiness, Alan Kreider) This was probably usually a burden placed on men.

Women got in trouble for other things, like having too many husbands – the woman at the well – or being caught in adultery. Women seemed to be the focus of such sin. Apparently the phrase “It takes two to tango” was not well-accepted at that time.

Out of the four gospels, in Luke, Jesus is the friend of the outcasts, a person of compassion. Jesus’ life is filled with connections with those ruled out by the religious leaders and by the society of the day.

If we look at the four gospels side by side, Luke is the only one with who records this statement about tax collectors and sinners, and then follows it with a unique pair of stories, about the woman with the lost coin and the prodigal son, two powerful stories of loss and forgiveness. Luke’s gospel especially fits the Donald Kraybill title “The Upside-down Kingdom.”

That’s Luke. One thing to notice: Jesus’ friends in Luke are very diverse.

Another thing, the four gospels are very diverse from each other. Our reading for today is unique to Luke, except for one little bit in Matthew that about the hundred sheep.

The social diversity in Luke is echoed in the diversity among the gospels. One might hope Christians would learn something from this embrace of difference. But we often have not. Instead, we have demeaned each other and even gone to war.

War after the Reformation

The dogs of war

Wars of neighbor against neighbor are perhaps the most disturbing, because they run against the very fabric of community. All wars should be completely disturbing, including dropping bombs by remote control drone on “foreign” lands. For a humanization of that process, see the movie Eye in the Sky.

But neighbor against neighbor – that has a visceral immediacy. Think of the Balkans wars that turned Christian against Muslim, or Rwanda with Hutu and Tutsi, or the American Civil war that often turned family members against each other over slavery, or the dirty wars in Latin America with deaths squads arising from neighborhoods at the behest of terror-mongering dictators.

In Christianity, this kind of war played out most fully, perhaps, after the Reformation.

One of my current favorite bumper stickers reads: “It was us; we let the dogs out.” I take it to mean giving dogs freedom, a bunch of bounding, happy dog-park dogs. But of course it could also could have a tragic meaning: “Let slip the dogs of war” as Shakespeare wrote.

After the Reformation, Christians let out the dogs of war among themselves.

(“Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” – Shakespeare, Julius Caesar. Cf. the Pink Floyd song “The dogs of war.”

It is a terrible thing to let out the dogs of war.

Europe became a vast killing ground for thirty years as Lutherans and Catholics battled each other.

The thing is, as Diana Butler Bass notes in her bookThe People’s History of Christianity, (Chapter 12 Ethics: Kingdom Quest: Tolerance), people of that day could not imagine that the church was not one church – that there might be two or more churches. It was not only wrong, it was unimaginable. It was an offense against nature.

““Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” wrote John Donne, lamenting the collapse of an ancient, comforting cosmology….” (Quoted in People’s History…)

So it is all the more astonishing when in the midst of all this killing and drive for uniformity that tolerance broke out from time to time. One of the more amazing stories is of the Church of St. Martin’s in Biberach, Germany.

All over Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor was pursuing break-away Lutherans. But in certain places, he simply ran out of troops. This left an opening.

Biberach was one such town, where there weren’t enough troops to pursue the war. So instead of going to war with each other, in 1548, Protestant and Catholic townspeople created a Simultankirche, a “simultaneous church.”

This was a church that was both Catholic and Protestant. It actually had two naves. So, “from one direction [inside the worship space] the church appears Protestant in its depiction of biblical scenes and the life of Jesus; from the other it appears Roman Catholic, decorated with its panoply of church fathers, saints, popes, and the Virgin Mary.”

They two faiths took turns hour by hour to trade worship times on Sunday morning. And they had to pass each other at the church door and in the street as they came and went. Tolerance and mutual understanding broke out in the midst of the Thirty Years War.

Four gospels

Back to the gospel of Luke and the four gospels.

The Mennonite Bible teacher Linda Oyer points out that there have often been four approaches to diversity among Mennonites and others:

1) Unity without diversity – Here diversity is to be avoided, a plague on the group or system. Usually this involves strong and even violent enforcement. Diversity is a problem to be destroyed.

2) United despite diversity – diversity is minimized – how different are we all really? Don’t we all believe in God, etc. But of course the difference tend to stubbornly remain like an unrepaired leak in the plumbing. Diversity is a problem to be avoided.

3) Unity in diversity – Here diversity is well-managed. Diversity is still a problem, but we can work with it.

4) Unity through diversity – This fourth option is Oyer’s amazing point: What if diversity is not a problem but is essential?

(—Linda Oyer at the SENT conference, 2019 at Beloved Community Mennonite Church)

Here, we need the array, the complication, the plurality, the buffet of life in order to not stray in to narrowness and violence and in order to live fully.

Oyer then notes that this lies at the very root of Christianity, with four gospels. And they are different.

Alan Culpepper in his commentary on Luke gives us a nice summary of the four gospels (p. 4)

Mark’s Jesus invites us to take up the cross and follow him.

Matthew’s Jesus is all about fulfilling the law of Moses and making well-trained disciples.

John’s Jesus is mystical, all about living after, the bread of life, being born from above.

And Luke’s Jesus is about the outcast. Luke above all gospels embraces social differences.

Four diverse stories in our very gospels.

This was controversial from the beginning.

Marcion tried to get rid of all the other gospels besides Luke.

Both Irenaeus and Tertullian had to fight to keep all four.

(Culpepper, p. 5)

Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to harmonize all four gospels, to get rid of this unsightly diversity.

But Oyer says these differences are essential. It’s not all you or me or them. It’s all of us. We’re all in this together.

Elizabeth Warren sounded this note a bit in the Democratic debate, I thought, when she said to deal with terrorism we need all our allies from all around the world, and economic and social responses in addition to whatever ever we do with our military. Not just the military and not just us alone.

Diversity is of course a challenge. I will have to deal with the fact that I prefer tamales and you prefer raw fish or for me Buddha and for you Mohammad. But as with the four gospels, diversity gives us so much more than just the sterile simplistic unity of just my way or just our way.

The Lutheran and Catholic church in Biberach was something of a miracle.

Having four very different gospels about Jesus is something of a miracle.

May we also be miraculous.

Diversity – Focus on the family

Common time

September 8, 2019

For Beloved Community Mennonite Church

©Vernon K. Rempel, 2019

Bible reading:

Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.

So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Luke – Are you really going to make this happen?

Jesus asks his followers: “Are you really going to make this happen, this movement, this change? It’s going to cost you.”

Maya Angelou’s great poem Touched by an Angel echoes this notion.

She writes:

“Suddenly we realize that love costs all we are

And will ever be

And yet it is only love that sets us free.”

Let’s give this text and overview first of all.

1) Hate family?

Not “hate” but allow other things to take precedence.

And of course, his followers literally did leave family to walk around with him. But family is also the paradigmatic “sameness.” It’s not always the “same” but it’s supposed to be.

2) Carry the cross – probably words that Luke put into the voice of Jesus after the fact of the crucifixion. It’s possible that Jesus would talk about the cross, because he surely was aware of the Roman torture and execution that was broadly used against ordinary people. But this may be part of Luke’s rhetorical construction, writing his narrative probably in the mid-eighties (IDB Luke p.8)

3) Counting the cost – Work! War!! Sell all!!!

There is rhetorical intensification in Luke reports from Jesus.

First of all, county the cost or you’ll be embarrassed in front of your neighbors. That fellow doesn’t know the first thing about building.

Second, count the cost or you’ll be defeated by your enemy. They have 20,000. You only have 10,000.

Third, really, just sell everything, if you’re going to do this.

This is astonishing language. It is immoderate and hard to come to terms with. Really, sell everything? At the very least, it has to do with making the way of Christ one’s priority. At the most, it is a council to move far beyond the ordinary ways or the world.

So that’s our text in outline.

But for the our purposes today, I want to go back to the first part. I want to focus on the family. Focus particularly on “hating” the family.

If you listen to the Throughline podcast about the birth and growth of the evangelical movement, you will learn that evangelicalism was galvanized by a Supreme Court decision that launched the movement as we know it today with its solid support for president Trump. And, as the podcast says, it’s not the Supreme Court decision you’re thinking of.

Any guesses as to which court decision it was?

Hints:

—1972 (one year before Roe vs. Wade)

—Relates to Brown vs. the Board of Education from 1954

—Involves race

The case: Green v. Connally

A 9th circuit court ruling that Christian schools in the south, in this case, Mississippi, could not be tax exempt if they were segregated.

Confirmed by Supreme Court as Coit v. Green, 404 U.S. 997 (1971)

(was a case in which the United States Supreme Court affirmed a decision that a private school which practiced racial discrimination could not be eligible for a tax exemption.)

In the wake of this decision, evangelical leaders in the south were alarmed and politically galvanized. This indicates that the root of the modern movement was deeply woven with racism. Christians fled newly integrated schools for Christian schools that were white. When the Supreme Court ruled that these functionally segregated schools couldn’t be tax-exempt, this galvanized evangelicals into the early form of what the movement is today.

After Roe vs. Wade, political organizers realized that abortion would be a powerful focus for the movement, and also provide a better-sounding issue than segregation. So began its focus on abortion and now its solid support of President Trump.

If you would like to read more on the topic, here’s a list:

American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism by Matthew Sutton

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen

Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics by Marie Griffith

Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America by Randall Balmer

Now the thing is, I tend to focus on my family a lot too. It is a source of great strength and comfort and resource. It is of course not about race. But the functional reality is that is one stays only or even primarily with one’s family, then there will be less race mixing and integration.

Jesus saw immediately how family could function to block change and growth of a genuine peace movement. People will fight for, will go to war for family. It is in some sense the ultimate “sameness,” the ultimate bulwark against diversity.

So Jesus abandoned his mother and father at age 12 and hung out at the temple debating law with the scholars until his panicked parents came and found him.

“When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” — Luke 2:48-50

In another place, Jesus family were looking for him because they felt embarrassed about the things he was saying and doing. Here’s what the text says: “Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

—Mark 3: 20-21; 31-35

Now of course Jesus loved his family. And we do well to love ours. Insights from the study of family systems indicate that it does us great damage to be cut off from our families.

But as one commentary from Luke (IDB – Luke) says, we need to keep family in perspective. It’s not primary. And again, a note from family systems. It not only does us great damage to be cut off from family. It also does us great damage to be fused with family, to be totally bonded in undifferentiated loyalty.

The notion from family systems is that we’re best off when we flexibly connected to family, able to love, able to be different.

The notion from Jesus is that the first thing is to “be in my Father’s house” by which I think we may take him to mean – I need to be about love and peace first. He did go him with his mom and dad after saying this. He wasn’t cut off. But he was already creating different priorities.

And, by the way, we need a better national conversation about abortion as well. Focus on abortion is not merely a proxy for white evangelicals to make political hay. This question has its own deep soul and resonance and should not be reduced to politically polarized sound-bites.

Now, next week: more on this question of diversity. We will look at the Christian wars following the Reformation and why there are four gospels. And there’s more after that – at least three meditations around this question.

Anabaptist & Intercultural? Part 3

Lent 4

March 31, 2019

For Beloved Community Mennonite Church

©Vernon K. Rempel, 2019

Bible reading:

Ephesians 2:15-22 NRSV

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Efesios 2:15-22 La Biblia de las Américas

[Él] aboliendo en su carne la enemistad, la ley de los mandamientos expresados en ordenanzas, para crear en sí mismo de los dos un nuevo hombre, estableciendo así la paz, y para reconciliar con Dios a los dos en un cuerpo por medio de la cruz, habiendo dado muerte en ella a la enemistad. Y VINO Y ANUNCIO PAZ A VOSOTROS QUE ESTABAIS LEJOS, Y PAZ A LOS QUE ESTABAN CERCA; porque por medio de El los unos y los otros tenemos nuestra entrada al Padre en un mismo Espíritu. Así pues, ya no sois extraños ni extranjeros, sino que sois conciudadanos de los santos y sois de la familia de Dios, edificados sobre el fundamento de los apóstoles y profetas, siendo Cristo Jesús mismo la piedra angular, en quien todo el edificio, bien ajustado, va creciendo para ser un templo santo en el Señor, en quien también vosotros sois juntamente edificados para morada de Dios en el Espíritu.

Yesterday, in a shocking turn-around,

president Trump abolished the law that

punishes migrants for trying to enter the United States.

Said Trump: “There will now be

one humanity in place of the two,

between Mexico and the United States…,

that we might reconcile

both groups to God in one body.”

Sounds amazing, I think.

Of course, it’s not a good analogy.

Paul, in writing to the Ephesians,

never would have had hope that Rome,

that the government,

would abolish divisive laws.

It’s Jesus and the church

that are actually about the business

of deep reconciliation and conflict transformation.

But it feels like rain in the dry desert

to even imagine that we could have

what Michelle Warren of Westside Church Internacional

calls “comprehensive and compassionate” immigration reform.

(She also has been a leader in the

Evangelical Immigration Table.)

Welcome to Anabaptist and Intercultural? Part 3

Yesterday, at our conference hymn event

with leaders from our national committee

to create a new hymnal,

the word “intercultural” was used a lot.

You also see it with photo

on our worship folder

from one of our seminaries.

Anabaptists want to be intercultural!

Why?

I think it flows from that same desire

that the early Anabaptist leaders had:

to create and live in more authentic community.

For them, it first found expression

in a reform of the Lord’s supper,

and then soon also meant

no killing of enemies or others

for any reason.

This flows in the same stream

as with Paul and the Ephesians.

Their lived experience was that

Jesus, in his life and in the way he died,

enacted a new shared humanity.

In their case, it meant taking away

the dividing wall between

Jew and Gentile.

For the Anabaptists, it meant

no wall between church and people,

that all were welcome at the supper table.

For us, in our nation, it means

comprehensive and compassionate

immigration reform.

Here at Beloved, it means

finding our way together

to a new and real sharing

across cultures, ethnicities, and races.

That’s what I’m committed to,

though the walk may be slow and confusing at times.

For me, it is good work,

the work of Jesus and Anabaptism,

and I want to be a part of it

in a way that is lived and real.

Yesterday, at our hymn event

we experienced the song-results

of what felt like a very current

and mature theology.

There are increasing numbers of songs

from cultures all around the world.

There is ongoing and more sophisticated work

to bring equity between women and men

into the texts of our songs.

There is better theology about the cross

and reconciliation, less blood and substitution

and satisfaction, as if God needed death

to overcome sin,

and more a sense that we’re all in this together

and that we by God’s grace,

we are finding our way with each other.

Beautiful stuff. That’s Anabaptist.

It’s intercultural.

Many people noted the article about

our congregation in the Mennonite World Review.

We may look small and insignificant,

but I think we also are in the great stream

of work and joy that overcomes dividing walls,

and, as Ephesians says at the end of our chapter:

“built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

“The good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Anabaptist & Intercultural? Part 2

A three-part series on Anabaptism & Intercultural practice

Lent 3

March 24, 2019

For Beloved Community Mennonite Church

©Vernon K. Rempel, 2019

Bible reading: Ephesians 2:11-15

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,….

Anabaptists

“The good, the bad, the ugly” is a Clint Eastwood western,

starring three gunfighters labeled “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

I’m going to offer this as a way of briefly considering

Anabaptist history and intercultural practice.

Last week I talked about how the Anabaptists

wanted a practice of the Lord’s supper

that was inclusive – a meal around a table.

This was their first public “issue;”

their first public action,

which, in that day when church and state were intertwined,

meant it was a legal and political question.

The practice of the Lord’s supper was at that time

closely controlled by the priest,

and mostly something for the people to watch,

something done on behalf of the people,

and kept pure and with integrity

by handling only by the priest.

The first thing that had happened

was a new reading of the Bible,

especially by the scholar and pastor Ulrich Zwingli.

Zwingli has studied at Vienna and Basel,

and was steeped in the humanist approach,

which was deeply re-examining

the declarations and control of the church in society.

Zwingli wanted to reform the mass, or Lord’s supper.

But he ultimately wanted to work with the local political authority,

the town council of Zurich.

And in this same way, he never gave up military action.

He remained a church and political leader.

In the town center there is now a statue of Zwingli

holding a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.

But he inspired his students and followers

to a new reading of the Bible.

And these students became the first Anabaptists.

Their insistence on reforming the Lord’s supper

got them banned from “Zurich lands.”

When they were banned,

they rebaptized each other as a mark

of their break with church and the political

establishment of the day,

Soon they came to be called “Anabaptists” or rebaptizers.

Ephesians

In the letter to the Ephesians,

Paul, or possibly a student of Paul,

writes a beautiful, lyrical celebration

of the work of Jesus Christ to overcome human divisions.

The focus is on Greeks and Jews,

who were now both being invited into community,

but who had been separated.

The affirmation is that no old control,

no old rule, no old social distinction

applies anymore, because Jesus has

demonstrated a new way of being together,

a wholehearted love and freedom

that overcomes old divisions.

It is “by the blood” of Christ,

which is a difficult phrase.

It can sound magical – magic blood!

Or it can sound like suffering, spilling blood,

is good for community.

I think a better reading is that all the “blood” talk

is shorthand for “loving no matter what,”

loving in the midst of hard times and resistance

as well as in the heart of beautiful friendships.

It is perhaps a way of saying

“Jesus put skin in the game.”

Jesus had his own body, his own blood,

in the game for the sake of God’s infinite love.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

This finally gets us back to “The good, the bad, and the ugly”

When the changes came among the Anabaptists,

all kinds of energies were released,

some orderly, some chaotic,

some constructive, and some frankly destructive.

The good

First the good, which is what I’m calling the martyrs.

Anabaptists are famous as martyrs.

They were horribly tortured and killed

as their movement spread across central Europe.

Martyr stories are a difficult thing.

It can sound like suffering is a good thing.

And these martyrs sang hymns, preached, and prayed,

as their went to their horrible ends.

And so their ends were not horror but grace.

But the trauma and abuse were real.

Harm entered, and was it good for them or anyone else?

Or was it just harm?

I think it actually was just harm.

But what was good was the extraordinary

power of love and joy that motivated the people

who then became martyrs.

Their suffering is not inspirational to me.

But the power of their love and joy is.

One other thing about martyrs,

and I am very much just skimming the surface here.

Many were women, such as one named Annaken Hendriks.

Look her up. I have her page marked in the Martyrs Mirror – p. 873.

(This book has often been used as a wedding gift

among the Amish and traditional Mennonites,

for its inspirational value!)

But what we have in one way,

is a story of abuse against women.

But we also have their utter courage and leadership.

This unfortunately was not welcomed in later years.

In the years of the martyrs, it was women and men.

Then it became just men, when things got organized.

Even in great freedom movements,

there always remains a distortion that still needs to be addressed.

The bad

Then there is “the bad” which is what I am calling

the activities in a German town called Münster.

Here, the new freedom from old divisions, rules, and controls,

resulted in chaos, and wasted lives.

It was not a story that was much told

in Mennonite history for a long time.

But it is important, because as with all histories,

Anabaptist and Mennonite history

was by no means all positive.

A couple of leaders, including Jan Matthys.

In their liberation, the men had multiple wives,

there was running in the streets naked,

and ultimately destruction at the hands of the army of the local bishop.

Yikes! So freedom is not just for freedom.

It is for constructive love.

That also is a lesson from Anabaptist history.

The ugly

And finally, “the ugly” which is what I’m calling Menno Simons.

Sorry Menno!

Menno Simons came along in the wake of Münster,

and similar chaos in Northern Europe.

He was a priest who was changing into an Anabaptist,

and he thought the people were like sheep without a shepherd,

running wild and scared.

And it turned out he had a lot of good intuitions

about creating a more calm, orderly movement.

Although he had a price on his head for the remainder of his life,

he successfully evaded the authorities,

and at the same time defined an Anabaptist teaching

that focused on non-violence and community,

rather than wild freedoms.

Because of this, our movement is now called “Mennonite” after him.

He brought a sense of order and home-likeness at a critical time.

He also wrote a lot, and most of it is very boring,

and needs serious editing.

He had a strange theology about the birth of Jesus,

and could be pretty bossy.

So I’m calling him “the ugly” in a playful way –

not perfect, a bit eccentric and strange,

but also a strong shaper of the movement.

Diana Butler Bass in her wonderful book A People’s History of Christianity, quotes Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams to say that all history is “untidy” if we look at it for all the stories, not just the dominant stories. And this is good. Because then we can join our own “untidy” stories to these stories, and our lives are strengthened.

This was true for the Ephesians, working their way through new relationships between Jew and Greek. It was true for the Anabaptists with their new-found freedoms. And it is true for us, as we at Beloved seek to become “intercultural” in a 21st century moment that is fraught with hard questions of sex and race and nation.

May the love of Christ lead us and brings us joy like the martyrs, keep us from the missteps of Münster, and may leaders like Menno step forward, women and men who love community and will give themselves for it.

Anabaptist & Intercultural? 1; A three-part series on Anabaptism & Intercultural practice

Lent 2

March 17, 2019

For Beloved Community Mennonite Church

©Vernon K. Rempel, 2019

Bible reading: Ephesians 2:1-6

1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ*—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus….

One thing to understand about the apostle Paul: he’s almost always writing from prison. So it is with the letter to the Ephesians (3:1). I wrote about this to our fellow member Greta Lindecrantz this morning, because she wrote to me about a critical vote that’s happening in the Colorado senate tomorrow about the death penalty. My letter:

Thanks Greta, 

I’m probably putting your name in my meditation today, because I’m doing a series of Anabaptism and Intercultural practice, and using Ephesians 2. As usual, Paul is in prison while writing. In prison not for the sake of protest or to make a point but because he wanted to preach and live what he thought were the pathways of love in Christ. I see this as much of what you did – you wanted to love Robert, not mount a protest or make a point. And Paul speaks a lot about how his imprisonment is suffering. I have also heard this from you, about the trauma of your experience. 

Peace be, dear Greta,

Vern

Greta emphasized this over and over again. People were either blaming her or congratulating her for taking making a statement. She kept protesting that protest was not what she was doing. She was just trying to not help kill Robert, who she considered to be a friend and fellow human traveler, but who the state wanted to kill.

So it seems to be with Paul, in prison not to make a statement but because he wants to start these new congregations in the Spirit of Christ’s love.

So it was, I think, with the first people who later came to be called “Anabaptists,” and then even later, “Mennonites.” More on those names in a moment. But, what they wanted to do was to practice Christian faith as they understood it through their reading of the Bible. In particular for them, this centered around the core ritual of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist.

In their Bible reading, they saw a community gathered together in mutual love and support, not a priest and church controlling a “magic” exclusive sacrament that scarcely involved the participation of the people. At this point, they were not even emphasizing non-violence or adult baptism. Those came soon enough, as events unfolded. But they were not the first emphasis. The first emphasis was on a shared table in the Spirit of Christ. The first emphasis was on something that I think we can reasonably see as a root of inclusive and intercultural practice.

They even tried to get the government on their side, rather than trying to separate from the government initially. They appealed to the town council of Zurich, Switzerland to let them change the practice of the Lord’s supper to their model of people gathered at a table. The town council was all about change. But this was too much for them. They thought it would be de-stabilizing, and they were probably right. Give all the people dignity and recognition, and, as Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a changin’.”

Now when they were rejected by the town council, and even banished from the council lands on pain of death, they then turned and re-baptized each other as as sign of their separation from the old path. This is what the word “Anabaptist” means. It is not a name they took for themselves, but a name that was put on them, as a sneer and an insult – hated “re-baptizers.”

In the wake of this separation, their reading of the Bible began to support the idea that the church was not about how you were born and baptized, but about how your adult, mature commitment and being baptized as part of that. The argument wasn’t so much about the ritual of baptism as it was about that mature commitment. That was the basis for community, not where you were born.

Again, here, we may see the roots of an inclusive and intercultural practice. It is not about where you were born, and therefore about your nationality or skin color or ethnic origins. It is about your mature commitment.

In the same way, their evolving reading of the Bible also moved them to pay attention to the question of killing. They saw that the community described in the Bible was not based on killing for what was right, but rather was focused on the cross of Jesus, and his example of loving friends but also loving enemies. So the practice of non-violence developed.

Eventually, there was a leader named Menno Simons who became important in the maturation of the movement, and the movement largely took his name – Mennonites.

Now let’s circle back to Paul. He writes to the Ephesians: 1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

What is the course of this world, or the way of the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit at work among they disobedient? It seems to me that a good way to name this would be that desire to control other human beings for my advantage, and to seek my passions without regard for others, and above all to live as if there are “others” who I may hate and vilify as the cause of all that is bad.

Paul notes that “all of us… were by nature children of wrath.” The great question for Paul, I think, and for the Anabaptists and Mennonites, and for us, is how to live out our lives in the love of Christ without giving in to the usual pathways of wrath – a.k.a. blaming, shaming, scapegoating, punishing, incarcerating, and killing.

This is the tension that Greta was living into when she was put in jail. It is ours as we consider working across tired dividing lines of race, ethnicity, and various approaches to religion and faith.

We want to live out of the “great love with which God loved us” as Paul says. We want to “just love Robert,” as Greta says.

The world was horrified and torn in our hearts again with the killings in New Zealand. How can this hate keep arising among us? What is the response of love. Last night, the Muslim Center was so crowded with people and cars that Marilyn and I had to give up our mission to join them. We would have had to work more than we could manage in order to be there. But we were so encouraged that the response was so great. “Something there is in nature that doesn’t love a wall” to paraphrase Robert Frost. Something there is in nature that wants a finer love. That’s the story of Paul, of Greta, of Anabaptist-Mennonites.

Next week – more from Ephesians 2 and Anabaptism and Intercultural practice. What are your reflections and questions, in the Spirit of Christ’s love?

Purpose

“Purpose” 

© 2012, Vernon K. Rempel, (Based on a sermon from 4-22-12; edited 10-26-2018)

Bible reading: Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Alienation

Alienation: That’s what existentialist philosophers call it. Parker Palmer calls it not showing up for your own life (Hidden Wholeness p. 243 is one example; also, other notes on the soul “showing up”), or “just phoning it in.” (Hidden Wholeness p. 6)

Alienation: In the movie Groundhog Day, Phil – who has discovered that he’s repeating the same day over and over, asks a couple of sad guys: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place… and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” The one sad guy utters the heartbreak words: “That about sums it up for me.”

Alienation: The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus offers a devastating statement about how alienation feels: ”I am too far away from what I love, and my distance is without remedy.” (I am unable to give the source for this quotation.)

Alienation: Samuel Beckett called it Waiting for Godot. He says in effect, that we are waiting for the thing that never comes. It is as if we are saying: “One of these days I will start living my life.”

Alienation: Passing through life disconnected, disaffected, going from one day to the next as if they are gray stepping stones in a gray world.

Romans in contrast

What a contrast then is Romans 5: “Hope does not disappoint us, because love has been poured.” That lovely passive present perfect verb tense, those perfect verb tenses that mean completed action.

Love has been poured into our hearts. No waiting for Godot. No day upon day of emptiness and despair, but rather love has been poured into our hearts.

I have experienced this over and over in my life. It is always an experience of solitude. This thing called love becomes noticeable in my heart profoundly when I am alone.

It is also always an experience of community. I find as I think about the wellspring of love that there are lovely ones around me who have helped me walk to the well, and who have even pointed at the well, effectually saying “there it is” with their own lives and loving hearts.

Paul’s rhetoric

What results from an experience of Spirit-poured love is a powerful new expression in life. Paul is at his best in Romans 5. The preceding verses show what is wrapped up within this love that has been poured into our hearts: Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because love has been poured

It’s easy to get the flow confused, as if Paul is saying that suffering leads to love. Suffering can lead to love. So many things can. But that’s not at all Paul’s point.

Paul’s rhetorical twist is to save the beginning for last. He turns love into the punchline. All the suffering, endurance, character and hope happen because love has been poured. Everything flows from this poured-out love. It is instructive to reverse his good rhetoric. 

If we put love first in the rhetorical flow, we may say that what results from love is the kind of suffering we experience when we love greatly. The commitment and connection of great love mean we set aside comfort and get involved in the human drama, which will always bring loss, conflict, and uncertainty – suffering.

Living through this suffering born of great love, gives us exercise in the practice of endurance. Those who love greatly don’t quit at the first sign of difficulty or resistance. Rather they wade in and keep on going. 

This endurance, then evokes character in the one who loves greatly. There is a growing sense of integrity and strength to do good work and to be well-connected to others, a strong sense of a divine internal structure to one’s heart, mind, and soul through which we show up more reliably and constructively in the world.

And acting out of a strengthened sense of character produces hope, because we are engaged well in things that matter. We have found a way to walk well, a way to hold to a good path. That is hope. Václav Havel writes in Disturbing the Peace, that “The kind of hope I often think about…I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

And finally, this hope does not disappoint us because it is born of love, not simply of calculation or strategy or plans for success but rather love. And love cannot fail, because in every moment, love accomplishes everything that it needs to accomplish. This does not mean that love does not plan ahead. But love does not wed itself to a particular outcome or goal, but rather walks forward for the sake of the warm connection and vitality that is inherent in every act of love. 

Purpose

This, I think gives us a sense of the structure of that which is the opposite of the alienation – purpose. Purpose is the sense that life matters, in some way makes sense, and that I am a vital part of this project called “life.”

I read an article recently (Unable to provide documentation.) that argued that college students do not have a good sense about why they’re in school.

I think this sense is easily extendable into all demographics. Senior citizens may find their lives extended, but to what end? Middle aged strivers strive, but for what do they strive? They ask their waiter or bartender at the end of a long day – what’s it all about? Young adults may think, if only I could marry, find a life partner, if only I had a better job or more education. Do college students, that seemingly most purposeful four years in a lot of young lives, have a strong sense of purpose? It’s not just about not knowing what their major is or what they want their career to be. 

In all the seasons of our lives, we may be plagued by a lack of a sense that life is going anywhere. We may too often feel stuck in a infinitely-repeating day, like in the movie Groundhog Day. Each day follows the last, and what does it mean? “All is vanity” as the book of Ecclesiastes opines.

What’s missing in all of these life stages is a sense of life’s purpose: what’s the great thing we’re here for? What’s the great thing I’m here for?

I think having a sense of purpose is another way of saying “hope does not disappoint us….” What Paul was exclaiming about, and what was happening in some of those early communities was the profound and lovely emergence or blossoming of purpose.

Purpose may be a sense of what we want to do next, or what we want to be next. Even more profoundly, purpose can be a strong and palpable sense of how we want to be, how we want to show up in the world. And how we want to be may most deeply described as living in flow of great love, which, as Paul says, is poured out among us.

Purpose as love

First, this love quickly deepens as it flows, like Ezekiel’s famous river in the wilderness. When Holy Spirit love encounters us, we now may find that we also have love to offer, and that this love is evocative, meaning it is love that has the capacity to evoke love from the other without waiting for conditions to improve. This is love that is infectious and multiplies as it flows, growing greater as it is discovered and offered.

Second, this evocative love doesn’t wait for the other or for conditions to change. It flows out of us, even as it has flowed among us. Therefore, we may find that we have an increased capacity for unilateral kindness. We may discover that love is for us right now, not off in some future. We may discover that “this is the day that the Lord has made.” As Rick Warren puts it in The Purpose Driven Life: “Because God is with you all the time, no place is any closer to God than the place where you are right now.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here for?) This love is for now.

Third, we may discover that this love generates capacity, rather than obligation or guilt, as the mode of taking action. So, for example, rather than feeling like we’re supposed to do service, there are acts of restoration and healing that simply call our name. These are situations that may strum a cord that runs between our hearts, and an opportunity for service, and that the connection is completely intuitive and natural. In great Holy Spirit love, we simply may discover that which we can do and are ready to do. Parker Palmer calls this discovering “something I can’t not do.” (Let your life speak, p. 25)

Courage

Finally, this great Holy Spirit love will, I think, move us to discover that our purpose is made real because we now find that we are living with courage. With courage, purpose does not remain an idea, but rather is something with which we step out into the world and to act and create.

Church of the Savior, in Washington D.C., founded by Mary and Gorden Cosby, was a relatively small church that featured a strong small-group community process.  Through this life together in worship and in small groups, Holy Spirit love was poured out among them. The church, which is now a network of ecumenical faith communities, became an amazing engine for generating expressions of restoration and healing in the city:

—a church for people living rough, perhaps even on the streets – Potter’s house – that combined the loving ministries of food, liturgy, and relationship.

—an AIDS hospice in the midst of the bad days of AIDS, called Joseph’s House.

—a ministry that found foster families for children, called FLOC – For the Love of Children.

And each one of these roughly started this way: Folks would come to church, they would join, and make commitments. Membership meant tithing and attending, including joining others in a weekly small-group process almost monastic in it’s regularity and commitment. This is the gift and practice of love that generates all of Paul’s rhetorical flow, from suffering through hope.

Out of this practice, on a given Sunday morning during sharing time someone might stand up and would say, for example, “I am going to start an AIDS ministry. If you would like to join me in this mission I’d love to chat with you.”

Notice that declaration was not any of these more common statements that are weaker in loving purpose: “I might start an AIDS ministry, if I can get enough funding or if someone will help me.” Or, “We could start an AIDS ministry if we all worked together.” And especially not deferring it to someone else: “I call upon this church to start an AIDS ministry.” But rather that “I” – that lovely; purposeful, courageous “I.”

It rings with the tone of Jesus at Nazareth, in one of the most stunning utterances in the gospels. After he reads from Isaiah about healing, the poor hearing good news, etc., he says “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is what Ed Friedman called “differentiation,” the capacity to say “I” in the middle of a process or system. (Generation to Generation, pp. 27ff.)

This is an example of Parker Palmer’s “that which I can’t not do.” And then the person might continue to offer an invitation, “And I would love to have some folks join me if this is also on your hearts.” No guilt trips; no being disappointed in everybody else, no suggestions for others, no exhortations, but rather the clear and courageous voice of a person who has found their path and is already beginning to walk it. This is an expression of what is called, in “Courage and Renewal” work “everything by invitation, nothing by demand.” (See the Courage & Renewal “Touchstones” at http://www.couragerenewal.org/touchstones/.)

That’s what love may do. That’s what I would argue is what the transformative love of Jesus Christ is all about. And there’s also a clue in there about where you find that love – in a community of authentic commitment to the way of Christ.

The Church of the Savior and it’s network of communities is a place where people daily walk in their commitments to each other and were inspired and surprised by the power of love.

What a distance this is from alienation. Love has been poured out into our hearts and in that, there is purpose and courage, so that the world may be made whole.

Reflection questions:

—Are you feeling places of alienation (loneliness, separation, ineffectiveness) at this time?

—When have you experienced the power of love most strongly?

—What inklings or seeds of purpose might you be noticing right now?

—Is there something you would like to declare, because of love, to the world?

Narrow or imaginative politics

October 28, 2018

For an interfaith gathering

©Vernon K. Rempel, 2018

I love everybody

More and more, we need Ruby Sales’

song “I love everybody,”

the song the civil rights marchers

sang to prepare for facing

the dogs and water cannons

and hate on the Edmund Pettus bridge,

on March 7, 1965.

More than ever we need to march

love into places of hate,

both in our own hearts

and in our community,

nation, and world.

We may feel like the dog

in the New Yorker cartoon

(see worship outline)

who feels like he just

barks and barks without

effecting real change.

But we need real change.

We need real love.

May we find a way.

Litany of hate

Here is the litany of hate from

one tough week in the United States:

Partisan pipe bombs:

May we commit ourselves to act and pray for loving kindness.

Targeting and killing black people in a Kentucky grocery store

May we commit ourselves to act and pray for racial justice and healing.

Anti-semitic shootings

May we commit ourselves to act and pray in solidarity with our Jewish friends, neighbors, fellow human beings.

More urgently than ever,

we need to project kind words, not hateful words

we need to project soulful presence, not public crudity

we need to project the capacity to take and own responsibility,

not casting blame on the media or minorities or the “other”

whether socially or politically defined.

More urgently than ever

we need to be about the work

of making community,

community as the act of baking daily bread,

as constant as brushing our teeth,

as welcome as the drinking the morning coffee,

community as the very music of our hours:

everywhere I go, on the radio and TV,

I hear the song of community.

That is my prayer, longing, and commitment.

We had a moment of working toward community

yesterday, as people gathered in the beer garden

at Black Shirt Brewery to thank them

for being a good neighbor

to the Tiny Home Village

and to celebrate and prepare

for the move to a new location.

Everyone was there:

Village residents, political activists,

even one candidate, church people,

and others were there to be in community.

How different than the public power-feud

of party politics.

The narrow place of party politics:

the impulse to fuse, to congeal

into a battle of words and blame,

disgust and distrust.

To fall into teams, tribes,

self-congratulating,

enemy-focused systems.

Company of strangers

Parker Palmer writes in Company of Strangers:

“We have all but lost the vision of the public. More than ever we need the process of public life to renew our sense of belonging to one another. But in our time, along with loss of vision, opportunities for public interaction have also dwindled. We lack the facilities, the occasions, the hospitable spaces in which the public might come together to find and celebrate itself. And even more basic, we have lost the conviction that a public life is worth living.

“As our public experience dwindles, we come to regard “the public” either as an empty abstraction or as a sinister, anonymous crowd whose potential for violence fills us with fear. That potential is there… but we have blown it all out of proportion. As our privacy deepens and our distance from the public increases, we pay a terrible price. We lose our sense of relatedness to those strangers with whom we must share the earth; we lose our sense of comfort and at-homeness in the world.”

And he adds:

“The God who cares about our private lives is concerned with our public lives as well. This is a God who calls us into relationship not only with family and friends, but with strangers scattered across the face of the earth, a God who says again and again, ‘We are all in this together.'”

“I once asked a politically active black minister in Washington, D.C. to name the primary task in his ministry. I suppose I expected him to say something about political organizing, protest, and the like. Instead, he said, ‘To provide my people with a rich social life.’ I asked, ‘Do you mean parties and pot-lucks and socials and things like that?’ thinking his answer sounded a bit frivolous. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘things like that give my people the strength to struggle in public.'”

That’s the work of community.

That’s a taste of what we have here

in our weekly gathering and meal.

That’s a taste of the beer garden

that Cole organized for yesterday afternoon.

That’s the work of Taylor McKinney’s

Family Leadership Training Institute,

where people eat and learn together each week.

May the imaginations and actions of our love

widen our political horizons from narrow fighting

to bread for all.

Let us generously pour ourselves

into trauma work, reconciliation,

doing justice, taking responsibility,

even as love is poured out among us.

Our national poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith

has a beautiful reflection on connection

and community to help fire our political imagination.

(in My God, it’s full of stars)

This daughter of one of the first

African-American NASA engineers

imagines a populated outer-space:

Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,

That the others have come and gone—a momentary blip—

When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,

Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel

Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,

Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,

Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones

At whatever are their moons. They live wondering

If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,

And the great black distance they—we—flicker in.

May the great distances we experience

be spanned by a great love,

like walking across the bridge singing,

like gathering in synagogues, mosques,

churches, and town halls

so that we may be encouraged

in the practice of being human together.