Sermons

August 6, 2017

Interim Pastor Melissa Berkey-Gerard

Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship “Belonging to God”

Isaiah 58: 6-12, Matthew 3:18-4:1

I am thrilled to be with you for the next few weeks, as your interim pastor. This community welcomed Mark and I to New York city in 1999 when we moved into the menno house, planning to stay in NYC for 9 months or so. 9 months stretched into 7 years, and we were part of the congregation during 9/11 and the years that followed, which were years of many transitions at MMF and Menno House. Our daughter Cana was born in New York, and dedicated by Sylvia, and she’s looking forward to some time in her birth place. I love this community, and I’m glad to walk with you for a few weeks in this transition time. Please reach out to me, I want to hear your stories and get to know you, even in the short time I’m here.

But for now, I want us to turn our attention to a place very different from New York, to the desert from the gospel reading. We’ll get to Jesus in the desert in a few minutes, but first, a modern desert tale–

A few years ago, I was part of a Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation to Palestine/ Israel. I went for several weeks to journey into the conflict zone to listen to the stories of people living there, and to offer witness and protection to Palestinans who are threatened by Israeli settlers and the military. For me, one of the most transformative parts of our time there was an overnight stay in the desert of the South Hebron hills, and it’s where my mind wandered this week. It’s the location of several Palestinian villages of shepherding families who have lived there for generations. Christian Peacemaker teams has a regular presence there, to try to provide protection for the villagers, especially the children, who are harassed regularly by illegal Zionist settlers as they walk to school. The Israeli military want the land as a practice firing zone, so they also regularly buzz villagers and herds of sheep with helicopters, put up road blockades, ride jeeps through the village at night (which happened while we were there). We had to hike into the village, because the road is so bad, and on the way we passed a large concrete warning sign, that we were entering a firing zone, entrance forbidden. We hiked on, through dust and rubble, out of civilization, where, against all odds, people were eeking out a living as shepherds on these barren hills. I was far from my city life in Philadelphia, in unfamiliar territory, hot, tired, and scared.

As the sun set that night, and we looked over the hills, I couldn’t help but think of the temptation story of Jesus in the desert, in our scripture reading today. I thought, “Well, if you’re gonna get right with God, or tangle with the devil, this is the place to do it.”

It’s stark, and it’s beautiful. The sun hits the rolling hills and turns each one a different shade of gold, red, pink, purple. There are a lot of rocks, and scrub that the skinny sheep and goats eat. There’s not much to look at, except the wide, clear sky, and countless stars at night. No distractions, not even a tree. Yes, this place could make you get right with God.

It’s there I picture Jesus for those 40 days, in the desert. The geography’s a little off from the biblical account, but the landscape’s the same. After spending the night in the South Hebron Hills, I immediately had a context for imagining that wilderness that Jesus was driven into. Dry, rocky, sunny, harsh. Dust covering everything. This is where he heads, where he is sent by the Spirit, to prepare himself to turn the world upside down. I picture him setting off across the hills, looking for a decent cave to hunker down in for a bit. He has a lot to figure out. I think he knows how risky it’s going to be, the road he’s going down.

So why, today, am I pointing us toward this text, where Jesus enters the desert before his public ministry?

Well, the desert is a place of reckoning. Of pairing down, wrestling with demons, and finding one’s true identity. It was for Jesus, and my friends, don’t we find ourselves in a time of reckoning today. Every day we wake up to news of more violence, upheaval, racism, discrimination against the LGBT community. Tweets that send the media scrambling. Threats to our healthcare. The social contract is being torn to shreds. We are being further polarized. And yet, as Mennonites, we are people of God’s peace. We know that our calling is, as Isaiah says, to be repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in. We know that the fast God calls us to is to loose the bonds of injustice, to share our bread with the hungry, break the cords of the yoke and let the oppressed go free. But how do we live that, when all of the tumult around us can leave us paralyzed, or seeking distraction or escape. Or a convenient scapegoat to blame everything on. Jesus walked into the desert in order to prepare, and walked out with a vision that would turn the world upside down, and with the strength to carry it out.

So I want to know- how did Jesus do it? What happened in the desert?

But what stood out to me was not what happened once he got to the wilderness, or the way he faced down all the temptations for power, control, authority. But what is significant is what happened before he got to the desert.

Here’s what really catches me: When Jesus comes out of the baptismal water, the Spirit shows up, with movement like a dove. Maybe like a little puff of wind in his face as if a bird just brushed past. And then, these words, from the heavens, “You are my beloved, my own.”

Jesus is told He is loved, and he belongs to God.

And with that, the Spirit immediately drives him into the wilderness, I’m going to assume in a dove-like manor, gently.

That drive into the desert is an invitation based in love.

This is what he has to meditate on for 40 days. He’s not going into the desert with a set of instructions, or a strategic plan for all he has to accomplish, or lessons he needs to learn from fasting. He’s heading out on the trail without food or water, but held in love and knowing that his identity is as God’s beloved.

What a starting place. Love. Belonging.

Friends, what if our life’s grounding was this same love, and belonging? I’m going to give you a minute of silence to notice what comes up for you when I ask that; What if your life’s grounding was love and belonging?

(SILENCE)

We can see where Jesus went with this as a jumping-off point. I imagine it first of all let him pay attention and listen to the things around him, as things that all belong to God, all are connected. The scrub brush in the desert as nourishment for the animals who struggle to live there. The dust as something that might come in useful someday when a blind person needed healing. The sheep as fodder for countless metaphors about God’s tenderly fierce love. The stars as containers of the same carbon as his human body, and the same as his enemies.

By the time he emerged from the wilderness, Jesus had channeled this love and belonging not into a plan to win power and favor and admirers, but instead with the intention to build a community where all belonged. Where there were no outsiders, where the last would be first. He would try to get people to see God as a loving parent who runs, rushing, to greet their prodigal son.

And he was willing to be risky, knowing that his identity was from God, and not from what the crowds thought about him. He began his public rabble rousing straight out of the desert. He traveled through Galilee, to Nazareth, his hometown, where he stood in the temple and unrolled the scroll of Isaiah, “God has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those held captive, release to those in prison.”

He is set free to radical love, even enemy love. And even when he is getting approval from the crowd, like when he heals people, he then asks them to “keep this on the down low…” I don’t want people getting any ideas about me. My identity is not from your approval.

So, what might this look like for us? What if we started from the place of belonging to God, being loved by God? Because the truth is, that is our starting place. God says to us, “you are my beloved, my own.” We know this from countless places in scripture, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We are hidden with Christ in God.

But being loved is not our usual starting point. Instead, we tend to wonder if we’re lovable, in our imperfection. And we try to seek an identity by seeking status, trying to be original, being successful, being good. Being a good Mennonite.

Brene Brown is an author who writes and speaks about vulnerability, the virtues of vulnerability, if you will. So, I was listening to a podcast of Christa Tippet interviewing Brene on On Being, a while ago. She talked about changing the way we live from “what will they think?” to “I am enough.”

I want to tweak that idea a little bit this morning, and think about what it means to move from “what will they think” toward, “I have everything I need within me.” When we are living from the “what will they think” place, we are ruled by how we think others perceive us. We make decisions based on others, trust the eye of the other, follow after the desires that others follow after. We are acting out of fear. Fear of being left out, fear of being excluded, fear of not being loved. But, if we can move to where we know we have everything we need within us, because we belong to God, we are truly free.

When our baseline, our starting place is love, and unconditional belonging to God, then we are not wondering about our belonging, or trying to prove our worth. Not acting out of shame or guilt, or thinking we are not enough, or worrying if people will like us. Not trying to figure out what to do gain favor from God. We are not gripped by fear.

We are free.

It’s not simple to move from one place to the next. There’s a ton that holds us back from sinking into the deep knowledge that we are loved by God, that we just belong to God, it’s not something to earn.

For some, the journey toward letting ourselves be loved can take a lifetime. No dove has descended from heaven and whispered to us that we are loved. Some of us are so used to getting approval and love from what we do, that it’s hard to let go of trying to perform. It’s too risky to possibly mess up. We cannot stop trying to earn love through goodness. Others have experienced so much trauma that it’s hard for love to get past the walls they’ve build up. Still others know that getting their identity and belonging primarily from God might mean that a lot changes, and they are not ready for that.

For me, it’s an ongoing journey of excavating layers of shame, self-judgment and guilt, and exposing everything to the light, holding those deep wounds in the presence of the compassionate Christ. It’s finding out what I’m afraid of, and one by one, over and over, letting go of fears.

The work is just that, of letting go, not by striving to try to grasp onto God’s love. It’s sinking into the love that is there. As Richard Rohr says, “We know God by belonging to God, by participating in God, not by trying to please God from afar.” Let me say that again, let it sink in: “We know God by belonging to God, by participating in God, not by trying to please God from afar.”

Some days, I know I’m God’s beloved child, and I can act in freedom. Other days, not so much. It’s hard to hear the voice that says to me, ‘You are my beloved,” when so many voices, present and past, are yelling that I am less than loved, that I haven’t done enough or been enough, that I have failed. Or the really loud voice that says, “wow, you really look like crap today…” and that throws me off task while I worry about that for a while. What about you? What keeps you from knowing God’s unconditional love?

(Silence)

Sometimes I get to live freely, anchored in love. It could be when I’m in a place like the desert that I described earlier, or sitting in silence, or being vulnerable with friends, or playing legos on the floor with Kai. Or when I’m witness to someone’s bravery in pursuit of peace and justice. Mary Oliver asks in a poem, “tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” When I ask myself that, I know my answer is really not, I’m want to look good. Or even, I’m going to be good so people like me. I know it’s more, it’s radical, it involves risk and uncertainty. But it’s centered in ridiculous, outrageous love. It’s a place where I live those words: “you are my beloved, my own.” That’s what I want. My friends, what is it you want? For yourself? For this community?

(Silence)

Maya Angelou said, “if we are bold, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls. We are weaned from our timidity. In the flush of love’s light, we dare be brave; and suddenly we see that love costs all that we are and will ever be. Yet it is only love which sets us free.”

Brave, and free. What might we be capable of as God’s beloved children? We know where this brought Jesus. To the place where there were no outsiders, where all belong to God. No exceptions. Enemies and all forms of jerks and annoying people included. To the place where he could live without possessions, power, status and the fear that comes with trying to hold onto those things. To the place where he could take risks for love.

Jesus walks out of the wilderness, and says, “There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear.” He knows that perfect love of God, that perfect love that IS God. From that place, he unleashes his prophetic ministry.

Friends, hear the good news: God says to us “You are my beloved, my own.” May we know ourselves and each other as God’s beloved. And from that place of belonging, may we walk through the desert with our eyes and ears open. In this broken and fearful world, may we become who God is calling us to be, for the sake of the world.

 

July 23, 2017

Interim Pastor John D. Rempel

Farewell Sermon

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Acts 10:34-43

“O God, beyond my words let your Word be heard. Amen.”

Sisters and brothers, the nine weeks I have been with you have overflowed with good things. Your warm and trusting welcome, beginning with the wine and cheese at Katrina and Mike’s on the day I arrived, allowed me to plunge into my ministry right away. It is a rare gift to be able to re-enter the rhythms of a world you had left and take up old friendships where you had left them. Equally, it has been gratifying to begin friendships with new MMFers, and to come away from them confident about the future of the congregation.

My original intention for this sermon was to share with you insights and challenges I have experienced in ministering among you. I concluded that this was not the time and place to give advice. I have shared my advice with the elders and they can do with it what seems best. What matters much more to me as I leave you is to offer you two simple thoughts about the meaning of the Gospel in a largely religionless world. I hope that they will sustain you as you open a new chapter of your identity and mission with a new minister.

Here are my two thoughts. Life is sustainable only when there is forgiveness and promise. Forgiveness. Without forgiveness we cannot let go of the past; without a promise we cannot take hold of the future. I met a woman recently who told me about her years long anguish about her younger sister who died in a house fire because her parents were negligent. She came to a point where she realized that if she didn’t forgive her parents her life would be unbearable. After much soul searching and prayer, she released her parents from their awful irresponsibility and in the process was freed from it. She let God draw a line under the past and free her from it.

Promise. Without a promise we cannot take hold of the future. As a child I was afraid of falling asleep because I was sure the boogey man would get me while I was in a helpless state. My mother didn’t know what she could do to assure me that I would awaken to another day. One evening when I was particularly agitated she tried something new. “I promise you”, she said, “that I will be at your bedside when you awake.” And she was, the next morning and the one after that until I could count on the pledge she had made to me.

We live in a time of broken promises. Humanity has violated its vow to God to be good stewards of the environment. People with power violate their accountability to the common good. Especially painful for Christians, is that the church breaks the promises of the Gospel. Think only of sexual abuse and racism. And finally, when we look at the Nazi holocaust and the holocausts have that followed it, it’s achingly hard to resist the thought that even God has reneged on his vow to mend the world wherever it is torn apart.

No generation has been spared the perplexing riddles of our existence but something has changed in our time. In earlier ages there was a sense that “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world”, to quote a Victorian phrase. But we who live in the secular city can’t believe that anymore. We have a relentless suspicion that the unfolding of the universe – and perhaps even the God who rules it – is untrustworthy. This is especially the case for people who have grown up in the midst of a climate change whose dire predictions for life on earth paint a bleak future.

We long for a trustworthy universe, and a trustworthy God who rules it for good. Yet we are suspicious of conventional religious language because it has often betrayed us. At best we uphold one another in a trembling faith to that God is the almighty and merciful One, that God is the all loving and all powerful One. We want to believe that this God is not only willing but able to keep the pledge he made when he created us, and again, when he redeemed us.

Both of our readings for today have this pledge as their theme. Earlier in his book the prophet Jeremiah chronicles woes that have overtaken Israel. His grief was no less than ours about our world. But he doesn’t stop there. He declares that this God is ready to make a new covenant with his people. In Hebrew thought a covenant was a pact of mutual loyalty between God and people. God had taken Israel “by the hand and brought it out of Egypt”. What a tender image. Even so Israel broke its part of the bargain. I’ve read that Ethiopian Christians reserve the word “covenant” for what God does and use a less binding word for the church’s relationship with God because we seldom measure up. This is where forgiveness comes in. God draws a line under the church’s failings and frees us from them. He starts over with us so that we can also start over with one another. No matter what happens, God tells Jeremiah to assure the people that God will write a new covenant on their hearts. The pact God offers his people is so deeply personal that each of them, from the least to the greatest, can know the God who enters every human heart, whether he is recognized or not.

To fulfill this promise God the Son leaves the ivory palaces of heaven and is born in a stable. He condescends to come to us on our terms. He remakes the promise that his love, and through Christ, our love, is stronger than death. This is the heart of Peter’s message to a crowd of Jews and Gentiles demanding to know if there really is a God who keeps his promises. The summary of Peter’s discourse is preserved in our second reading, from Acts 10. Peter recounts the drama of Jesus’ life. He is declared to be the Anointed One, the Healer, yet also the Man of Sorrows, who died because he remained faithful to how he had lived. “But God raised him up!” peter shouts. Then adds that Jesus appeared “to us who were chosen by God as witnesses.” Historically speaking, these witnesses were the women who went to Jesus’ tomb and the men who cowered in the upper room. But theologically, we, the people of M-M-F were also chosen of God as witnesses of the love that can’t be conquered. This is what gives us our identity and our message: the God of Jesus Christ keeps his word. We can count on him, in life and death.

That God is true to his word is what Martin Luther King was talking about when he said that the arc of the universe is long but that it tends toward justice. To put it another way: no act of love is done in vain. God sees to it that it that love and justice will have the last word. What an audacious claim! Of course, this is hard to believe, especially when the cultural props of religion have vanished. Kierkegaard was right when he said that in a secular universe the rational assertion that good is stronger than evil was unconvincing. So he talked about the “leap of faith”, a term that is so apt that it has become part of our everyday language. In this leap of faith we cast ourselves on the God whose hands cannot be pried loose from the world he embraces.

There is a strange and ironic truth at work here. In our culture it’s more painful for Christians to live justly than for atheists to do so. The atheist says right from the beginning that there is no reason to hope beyond what human ingenuity can accomplish. The Christian, on the other hand, remains restless and troubled because she has the pledge that the arc of the universe tends toward justice but laments how often her hope is dashed when the path toward justice is thwarted. We cry out with the author of Psalm 77, “Has God’s steadfast love ceased, forever? Are God’s promises at an end for all time?” With trembling hands we lift up the God who writes his covenant on our hearts and who overcomes the power of death and its accomplices – hatred, revenge and despair – in Jesus’ resurrection.

Earlier this week I made one last visit to my favorite place in Central Park, the Bethesda Fountain and the Roman arcade beside it. Like always, somebody was making music in the arcade. This time it was four vocalists and a guitarist singing their hearts out. The song that has stayed with me ever since is x.

That’s the message I was led to for M-M-F- as it is getting ready for a new minister and a new chapter in its calling to be church in Manhattan. The path our individual lives, the church, and society take is never sure but the promise of God that he will always prosper the good is worth a leap of faith. That he holds in his hands the whole creation and with it every one of us. That his eye is on the sparrow – the hairs on whose head he has counted.

Be a people of promise. Count on God. Take chances for love and justice. And the peace of God, which passes understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Part II resilient

The nine weeks I have been with you have overflowed with good things. Your warm and trusting welcome, beginning with the wine and cheese at Katrina and Mike’s, allowed me to plunge into my ministry right away. It is a rare gift to be able to re-enter a world you had left and take up old friendships where you had left them. Equally, it was gratifying to begin friendships with new MMFers, who make me confident about the future of the congregation.

NYC is known worldwide as the icon of urban diversity and creativity. For that reason alone there should be Mennonite churches in NY, and especially Manhattan. This congregation has been an experiment in living out the Mennonite understanding of the Gospel in the midst of a multicultural, multireligious city. MMF has gifts to offer the larger Mennonite community which itself is increasingly living in the midst of many cultures and many religions. All of us are asking, how do seek as much commonality as possible with other religions and worldviews while remaining unashamed of Christ and his way. All of us are asking, how can a spirituality of not retaliating, of breaking vicious cycles provide an alternative to fear and judgment of the other.

My encompassing question for us today is how can a congregation like MMF not simply survive but thrive in its distinctive identity and mission? Since its beginning MMF’s most persistent challenge has been the transience of many participants. NYC is a place to which people come to pursue their personal and professional dreams. Some stay and remain involved. Others stay and find another community that replaces the church. Others leave to look for jobs elsewhere. Those who stay in the city and remain involved in this congregation do whatever needs to be done to keep MMF viable. Some of them burn out.

I have three suggestions for overcoming this most basic stress on the congregation. One, make Menno House so much a part of MMF’s identity and mission that residents would all agree to commit themselves to the worship life of the congregation and one specific ministry, like arranging temporary lodging for refugees at MH or starting a music ensemble that plays for worship. Two, simplify worship while retaining its divine and human dimensions. I’ve shared this in more detail with the elders and worship planning committee. Think of inviting friends and colleagues to church not as catching another lost sheep but as inviting them to explore a community that is looking for partners to carry out its vision of justice making. Four, keep working on a spirituality that is both grounded and open, that is unafraid to change its mind but that has Christ at its center. That’s what I was trying to model in the first half of my sermon today. Remember that God keeps his promises; we can count on him.

Your search process and its unanimous proposal to hire Jason Storbakken as your next minister are signs of communal health. At the same time transitions often bring out sidelined hopes and competing visions. We are right to be passionate about the church but we should do so in gracious ways, listening deeply.

I could go on but I won’t, trying to observe the maxim “stop while they want you to continue”. Amen.

July 16, 2017

Interim Pastor John D. Rempel

Seek the welfare of the city – obey another king, Jesus

Jeremiah 29:1-7, Acts 17:1-9

Throughout the Bible God’s people struggled to be faithful to God’s call. On the one hand, they were called to be pure, to have no other god than Jahweh. They were given the 10 Commandments to guide them in this monotheistic faith. It was much easier to live these commands as a tight community in Judea where everyone agreed on what needed to be done.

Then calamity struck. Israel was conquered and many Jews were deported to the most cosmopolitan city of the era, Babylon. Their first instinct in coming to terms with their exile from Judea was to keep themselves separate from the pagans all around them. But the prophet Jeremiah was moved to send the exiles a letter with an unmistakably different message. “Build houses!” In other words, plan on staying: this is now your home. Don’t give in to nostalgia for a lost way of life. The prophet continues: give your sons and daughters in marriage – become part of the culture that history has placed you in. Jeremiah’s vision becomes ever more astonishing. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.” In other words, realize that your well-being can’t be separated from the city’s well-being.

It’s irresistible to apply this remarkable historical example to Christians, and especially Mennonites, who come to New York City. Jeremiah’s counsel is to not see the city as the enemy. At the same time, we know from other parts of Jeremiah’s writings that identifying with the people around you doesn’t mean that you won’t stand out. Because Jews believed there was only one God they were bound to stand out.

This is where the incident we read in the book of Acts helps us. Paul and his friends travelled to the Mediteranean city of Thessalonica showing by their lives and words that Jesus is the Messiah. Both Jewish and Greek Thessalonians, especially “leading women” – interestingly – want to know more about Jesus. But detractors of Paul and his friends incite a mob to shout them down with the accusation that these Messiah followers are turning the world upside down, acting contrary to the laws of Caesar and claiming that there is another king, Jesus. I can’t think of a better description of what it means to seek the well-being of the city.

Let me offer one more image of seeking the good of the city by proclaiming and living the way of Jesus. Two of our Anabaptist forebears who believed themselves called to live in and for the city were Pilgram and Anna Marpeck. Pilgram was trained as a water engineer in small town Austria. At a young age he became mayor of his home town, Rattenburg. But when he was ordered to arrest and turn over to the emperor Christian radicals who want wanted to turn the world upside down he couldn’t get himself to do so, knowing that he himself would be arrested for “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor”. Pilgram and Anna fled the town by night, heading for a town the radicals had told them would be a safe haven.

They arrived at a recently founded Anabaptist congregation. The Marpecks were persuaded by the call of the upside down kingdom and were baptized. Very soon people recognized their gifts and urged them to go and shepherd the growing Anabaptist community in one of the great cities of Reformation Europe, Strassburg. To support himself Pilgram got the job of water engineer for the city. Pilgram was an engineer by day and a minister by night, much like artists in New York who have a day job to pay the bills so they can pursue their art by night.

I’m going to stop so that Jessica and Jennifer have time to tell you their story. I hope these three images, Jews in Babylon, Christians in Thessalonica, and Mennonites in Strassburg provide a framework for what they have to say.

Presentation by Jessica Penner and Jennifer Sears:

Questions for Mennonite Artists (and Others) in New York City:
•How does New York City’s urban lifestyle and its cult of the individual challenge your Mennonite understanding of community responsibility?
•Does the city’s sometimes overwhelming anonymity require development of more humility?
•Do you experience this anonymity as offering you more artistic freedom as a female Mennonite artist than those who may be working in a more traditional Mennonite environment?
•How has New York City’s competitive environment shaped your artistic expression, including the temptation toward a marketable Mennonite “exoticism”?
•How have you as an artist and pacifist felt called to respond to the City’s crises?
•How are traditional notions of family and motherhood, often an intrinsic value of Mennonite life, challenged by your commitment to an artistic career in New York City?
•Why is this city and its boroughs, which Julia calls “my Babylon, my Jerusalem,” so difficult, if not impossible, for some of us to leave?

(Longer versions of these questions, written by Jessica Penner and Jennifer Sears, were posed to panelists on the panel: “The Quest: Being Female, Mennonite, and an Artist in New York City” at Eastern Mennonite University’s conference: “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries,” June 22-25, 2017.

More info: http://www.emu.edu/academic-conferences/women-of-anabaptist-traditions/

Jessica and Jennifer’s presentation: The Quest-MMF Presentation-Powerpoint with Hyperlinks

June 18, 2017

Trinitarian Faith: three spiritual paths

Psalm 104:1-4; Mark 8:31-35; Romans 8:9-16

Interim Pastor John D. Rempel

Sermon with responses by Sara Paulson & Mark Miller

Nicholas Darrow is the ‘hero’, if you use that word loosely, of Susan Howatch’s novel Mystical Paths. He is a confused seminary student who goes in pursuit of God as an escape from finding himself. Along the path of this conflicted journey he has occasional flashes of insight. His friend Christian, from a broken home, runs away from his problems – and himself. At this point in the plot Nicholas can’t see his own dividedness but he is able to see his friend’s. If only, Nicholas moans, “if only Christian would have become aware of the force pressing on his psyche, the force which wanted to unite him with his true self, the force which was the imminent God, whose spark lay buried deeply in his unconscious mind” (247).

The breakthrough in the spiritual journey that Nicholas seeks is the realization that my pursuit of God is possible only because God has first come in pursuit of me. Before I become aware of it, God is approaching me, like the waiting father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is what the Christian picture of God as ‘Three in One’ is trying to say – that God is both beyond the world yet never far from the world, as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Some people argue that God as Trinity narrows how we might approach God. The case I want to make today is that the Threeness of God draws different parts of us to different aspects of God; there is enough ‘breadth’ in God for every one of our journeys.

The OT describes God is many ways: creator, Ancient of Days, God of Israel. But the name it gives to God is ‘Lord’; to name someone in ancient cultures is to say who they are. The NT names God as Father, Son, and Spirit. When we pray we address God by name. In our day this language is hard for us to hear because of its male bias. So we add descriptions that lift up overlooked ways of talking about God in the Bible and in our experience. We describe God as “Mother” because she nurtures and protects what she has created. We describe what God does as well as what God is. So, for example, we speak of God as “Cosmos Maker”, “Crucified One”, “Crucible of Life”. My understanding is that these additional ways of touching the mystery that is God are good if we think of them as complementing but not replacing the Biblical terms. Our purpose today is to match up aspects of God’s being and doing with our experience. To put it another way, we want to use our upbringing, temperament, and awareness as entry points to our encounter with God.

For some of us, God as the source of order in the universe is the most revealing divine trait. For others, God as humanity’s fellow-sufferer in Jesus matters most. For still others, God’s immediacy to human experience as Spirit is the most welcoming divine trait. Just for a moment, let’s think of God as a mirror into which we look: we see ourselves reflected in one aspect of God. None of our experiences of God is exhaustive; it needs to be completed God’s disclosure of himself to other people, in the Bible, in tradition, and in our day. I will sketch three persons or faces of God and the kind of people who are attracted to each. Then Sara and Mark will speak about God out of their experience. During joys and concerns you are invited to say in what ways you are attracted to God – or not attracted.

The first group of Christians makes up what we might call “the church of the Father, the Creator”. The psalmist writes of God as “clothed with honor and majesty”, “riding on the wings of the wind”, “making the winds God’s messengers”. People with this attraction to God confess that God made us and gave us into one another’s keeping. God blessed us with intelligence to care for creation. They prize inventiveness in technology, creativeness in the arts, as expression of God’s mandate to humanity. Our primary responsibility is to care for nature and to share its fruits justly. We learn about God and life through these natural gifts.

The prayer of Creator Christians is for God to give them the resolve to do what is right.

The strong points of these believers are decency, rationality, and belief in the goodness of the world and people.

Their weak point is that when common sense solutions to life’s challenges don’t work they are stuck.

The second group of believers makes up what we might call “the church of the Son” or the “church of the upside down kingdom”. Jesus suffers with us and for us. Jesus teaches his followers that the secret of the spiritual path is that you can gain life only by first losing it. These Christians are struck not by the order of creation but by its disorder; they experience antagonism between physical and spiritual reality, between good and evil. They suspect that reason and culture are most often used against God’s purposes than for them, creating elites that keep the masses poor.

Their prayer is for God to sustain them in suffering for just causes.

Their strong points are self-sacrifice, tenacity, and compassion.

Their weak points are their lack of confidence in God’s provision and in the goodness of creation.

The third group makes up “the church of the Spirit”, of God being closer to us than we are to ourselves, intent on drawing all of us into her motherly embrace. Romans 8 has the wonderful promise that God’s Spirit witnesses with our spirit that we belong to God. Such Christians have the confidence that God is close enough to touch the lives of individuals and to give them mastery over struggles, like an addiction to drugs or money, transforming their circumstances. They experience a new creation of God within the old one, rejoicing that all of us get a second chance. Since God is constantly present to human need they expect miracles. Their primary responsibility is to recognize God’s incursions into individual lives. They are drawn to Biblical images of God, like God is the potter and we are the clay – we become who God created and redeemed us to be only if we surrender to God, as the clay surrenders itself to the potter.

Their prayer is for God to make them receptive to God’s nearness.

Their strong point is their confidence that God is more willing to listen than we are to speak.

Their weak point is their preoccupation with God’s love for individuals rather than also with the whole of creation.

Final thought: God is bigger than anyone’s experience, God is more than any one ‘person’ of God. The church thrives when all of us live passionately and joyfully out of the life we have in one of the persons of God AND when we realize that all of us need one another to know God fully and to be faithful to God. The ‘Son’ Christian, for example, struggling to be a peacemaker needs the company of the ‘Spirit’ Christian, who knows that nothing can separate us from the love of God. The ‘Spirit’ Christian, in turn, needs the company of the “Creator” Christian, who takes seriously God’s mandate to care for the whole creation. The ‘Creator’ Christian, bringing to the world a just order, in turn, needs the company of the ‘Son’ Christian, who knows that you can save your life only by losing it, rather than clinging to it.

To the God who made creation good, to the God who died for its rescue, to the God who convinces us that we are children of God, be glory forever and ever. AMEN.

 

June 11, 2017

Thomas Hughes’ Sermon

As I mentioned earlier, today is Trinity Sunday in more liturgical churches. I will spare you of nerding out too much on the doctrine of the Trinity and St. Augustine. Yet, it bears noting that the doctrine of the Trinity, holds as truth that we know and understand God most deeply in relationships, in community. This Sunday also marks the beginning of a period of time called Ordinary Time, the time of the Church to live out what we have heard in Advent, Lent, Easter, and now Pentecost. Prior to Jesus’ ascension, he commissioned his disciples, and last Sunday, celebrated the power of the Holy Spirit being poured out on the disciples. Now we are here today, still hearing the words from over 2000 years ago. We are still trying to be disciples, to gather together, to serve and share the Good News as “church.” So our Scripture reading today are the last words we have from Paul to the Corinthians. In our Bible, we have at least two letters from Paul to the Corinthians. In biblical scholarship, it is widely held that 2nd Corinthians is an amalgamation, a weaving together of a few letters. Paul also mentioned in 2nd Corinthians other letters, he wrote to them, including a “sorrowful letter.” All this to say, this was a congregation that Paul invested a lot of time and energy caring for – both consoling and correcting. The Corinthian congregation lived out their differences, at the best moments this meant many spiritual gifts being manifested in the community, at its worst this meant divisions and even factions. By the time, Paul wrote what we have as 2nd Corinthians the situation worsened, their relationship became painful and sorrowful. Paul writes to them “So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” This was a community divided, coming apart at the seams. Paul put his body and Timothy’s on the line to reconcile with the Corinthians, as states that “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. … So death is at work in us, but life in you.” By the end of 2nd Corinthians we learn that super apostles have risen up and are calling not only Paul’s apostleship into question, but his very authenticity. These super apostles with their eloquent speech were peddling the gospel for a price, and calling into question Paul’s preaching for it was “free of charge.” Then Paul goes on to say, “Here I am, ready to come to you this third time. And I will not be a burden, because I do not want what is yours but you; for children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children. I will most gladly spend and be spent for you. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? Let it be assumed that I did not burden you. …Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. I fear that when I come again, my God may humble me before you, and that I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.” Are we not in a similar place today, for we too are a community that appears to be coming apart at the seams. It has been 15 years, since the two Mennonite Bodies, General Conference, GCs, and Mennonite Church, MCs came together to form Mennonite Church USA. Last month’s Mennonite magazine focused on this time, and whether the Mennonite Church USA would continue or break off into factions. The identities of GC and MC are still under the surface, and lines of demarcation between us and them, particularly in matters of sexuality, have taken hold. We have seen the formation of EVANA, the Evangelical Anabaptist Network, with a more conservative bent in regards to sexuality, and even seen congregations switching conference ties and others acting at variance, while the church as a whole tries to forbear. What can we hear from Paul today? “Examine yourselves,” simply put look at yourself before deciding whether someone else in the faith. “Do you not know Christ Jesus is in you?” or more boldly stated, “do you not know Christ Jesus is working in your brother or sister, with whom you disagree?” Paul goes on to step into a place of vulnerability and recognition of failure on his part. This is colossal, for Paul has urged the Corinthians to be imitators of him! And he hopes that even with his failure that they will still do what is right. Paul restates that his authority is for building them up, not for tearing them down.” He deeply loved the Corinthians against all odds. So, he calls them to aim for perfection, listen, be of one mind, live in peace, and greet one another with a holy kiss. Paul would have remembered that it was also with a kiss that Jesus was betrayed, this greeting would be an act of great vulnerability to such a divided community! So too are we called to this hard task, not that we ourselves can bring about unity or reconciliation, but rather that we will open ourselves to the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.”

Now, I want to share two stories from my time at AMBS. The first being the Fierce, Fabulous, and Sacred Conference, which I attended. This was an emotionally heightened weekend, as allies and LGBTQIA+ Mennonites and Anabaptists shared our stories, including rejection from churches, people grew up in, various degrees of pain and trauma from loved ones, particularly other Christians. At this conference we learned the dynamic of power and oppression, how queer voices are often not at the table, and those who are at the table are often pitted against other minorities. The topic of LGBTQIA persons claiming brave space, rather than safe space, recognized that when they voice their concerns, there is never any guarantee of “safety,” even with close friends and families, betrayal is still a possibility. Speaking up for many LGBTQIA persons is in itself an act of vulnerability.

The second experience, was a series of conversations held on campus regarding matters of sexuality, with both conservative and liberal views being expressed. The hope that we could find some way to all remain at the table, instead of splintering off into us and thems. It was emotionally difficult work, as we realized that more often than not, how we perceive the world, and what principles we hold to make it so that we are talking over each other. These conversations did not bring about a shared belief or resolution to the discussion. However, it showed us that we truly have to examine ourselves, and listen carefully to our brothers and sisters. For more often than not, what was being heard, was not what was being said. After the conversation, I remember the Spirit moving me, the more liberal variety, to go to a brother, who was more of the conservative view, and offer him appreciation for sharing his views. He was shocked by this token of gratitude and appreciated feeling heard in the conversations. Because though he was in the position of power, it was still a vulnerable space that we both stepped into to share our opinions with each other, a space that could have escalated to conflict and inflicting of pain. Though, we may not have agreed, we remained at the table, still engaged and talking with those with who we might disagree. This for me was a small glimmer of hope of the reconciliation between the divisions that have taken hold in our church. I call on you to this hard work of examining ourselves and to stay at the table with those with whom you might disagree.

 

June 4, 2017

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”

Pete Emery

Acts 2:1-21[1]

1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven

there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.

3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were

filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

It is the summer of the year, when many lives are in various stages of transition. It is a time of the year when people come and go in what we trust is a joyous pursuit of various aspects of their lives. And it is a particular time when this congregation is undertaking a reconsideration of its life as a congregation and the implications, both personal and communal, that discipleship has for all of us. There can be few better places to begin such a reconsideration than with the story of Pentecost that we celebrate today. For it is with the Pentecost event that an understanding clearly emerges that the earthly ministry of Jesus is definitely and finally accomplished in history, and we are moving here into a new era in the recognition of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim: the era of the Church. Raymond Brown, a New Testament scholar, sets the stage:

For someone who would eventually be compared, rightly or wrongly, to other founders of religions, Jesus was remarkably ‘unorganizational’. True, he is reported as calling a few people (particularly the Twelve) to leave their work and follow him, but otherwise he seems to have been content to leave without follow-up those who encountered him and were visibly moved by what he did and said. The Gospels tell us with vague generalization that they went back to their towns and villages and reported enthusiastically what they had seen and heard, but there is no evidence of their forming ‘Jesus groups’ in his lifetime. After the resurrection, however, his followers show an instinct to gather and hold together those whom they convince about Jesus; and their demanding an identifying sign like baptism is the first step in that process of gathering. Indeed, we have little evidence in early Christian missionary endeavor of people being free to say, ‘I now believe in Jesus’, and then walking off on their own. Rather they are made part of a community. They are justified and can be saved, but not simply as individuals.”[2]

To understand what motivated this impulse toward community, and why it should matter to us now requires us to take a close look at the Pentecost story. As will so often be the case in the New Testament, it is an altogether beautiful and strange story. The Twelve Apostles, or Eleven Apostles, or some gathering of disciples – in the context we can’t be sure which – are visited by the elements of wind and fire; wind and fire being commonly present in mystical self-revelations of God in the Bible.[3] They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak as Acts puts it “in other languages”, a translation some consider problematic. The Acts commentator Theodore Ferris observes “¼it is agreed by most scholars that the ‘speaking in tongues’ referred to in this passage originally had nothing whatever to do with speaking a foreign language. Rather it had to do with a kind of religious ecstasy…”[4].

And hearing these strange noises the people in the crowd ask of each other “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?”. It should be understood here that it had become common usage in the Palestine of this time for the description “Galileans” to refer not just to people who came from Galilee, but to be a kind of slang reference to Christians.[5] So what we have here is not a sudden conversion of the uninformed or uninitiated. It is a new awareness, a new consciousness, a new Spirit occurring to the hearts and minds of those who have already embraced Christian belief. That belief has somehow in this moment taken hold of them and moved them to, if you will, another level.[6]

So how do those in the audience of non-Christians observing this imagine that in these meaningless words, this glossolalia, they understand what they hear? We can’t be certain, of course. It may be that each individual who heard, in whatever manner of hearing, did so in an individual way. The Acts commentator William Larkin is certainly onto something when he says “The crowd’s initial reaction shows us that God’s powerful saving presence will always astonish us and challenge our current understandings of him and his ways”.[7] But I will suggest that it was not their words, whatever those were, that spoke to the gathered crowd. It was their excitement, their projection of a total conviction that their lives were worth living in a way they never had been before, and that they could never go back to being what they were before. In that moment what the witnessing Christians were spoke so completely loudly that on an immediate level the gathered observers could not, and did not, need to hear what was said. This is communication so powerful and so pure it transcends language, and this communication by example is immediately understandable and accessible to all, whatever their language. This is communication that speaks the way that the Church from its inception has sought to speak.

So the writer of Acts, who is commonly thought to be the same author as the Gospel of Luke, is presenting us with the implicit challenge of finding a way of letting our Christianity speak as those at Pentecost spoke: with the entirety of their personality and presence. How do we do this?

As with anything else in life that has about it the attributes of beauty and power it is subject to abuse. Larkin notes “In the twentieth century Pentecost has become a source of confusion, embarrassment or division for Christians, even as it has become a curiosity; if not an object of ridicule, for non-Christians”.[8] What we know today as the “charismatic movement” has in some form or another been with us almost from the beginning and was an early example of pagan practice being synthesized into Christian practice. The apostle Paul struggled with it.[9] He was concerned about its potential to be divisive in the community, and that it could be insincerely imitated.[10]   There is also the consideration that beyond this incident there is no record of the early disciples repeating such charismatic behavior in their ministries.[11] They did not go out and reenact the Pentecost in the manner of, say, the Last Supper.

What should not be lost in a discussion of the Pentecost is that this is one point where we are seeing a new departure from an Old Testament mentality. Instead of a particular spiritual gift visiting one person who then speaks to the entire people, the prophet; we see here gifts of the Spirit being made freely available to all, in the presence of all, and within the comprehension and understanding of all; whatever their nationality, whatever their language, whatever their prior religious background, whatever their circumstance and walk of life.   John 20 recounts that Jesus appeared to his disciples and “¼he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.”[12] Because we all share the enduring and ongoing Resurrection, and all live in the legacy of Christ’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God, we are, in effect, our own prophets. For because of the work of Jesus evidenced in the Pentecost we are all given gifts of the Spirit of God as the ancient Hebrew prophets were.

But it is part of the particular Mennonite genius to recognize that while individual understanding and commitment are indispensable, they are not enough. The state of our being enabled to be prophets is intimately linked with our responsibility to be among a ‘priesthood of all believers’. For while we become new creatures in Christ, we do not become faultless and infallible creatures. We must be able to hear the Word of God as well as to speak it, to receive counsel as well as give it, to become in community more perceptive in understanding, more compassionate in charity, more enabled for ministry than we would be as individuals.

The event of Pentecost did not happen to isolated individuals. It happened to a community of Christians in the presence of their neighbors. Their self-understanding as Christians enabled them to uniquely understand their fellow Christians though they did not share a common language, and may, indeed, have had little in common. All that was important was that Jesus, in some way, had breathed on them, and that was all they needed to live in the Holy Spirit. As the New Testament commentator Frederick Grant pointed out, “¼neither a philosophy nor a historical tradition is the central factor in New Testament thought, neither Greek ‘wisdom’ nor Jewish tradition but the new life in Christ.”[13] And when we have the new life in Christ, we become the sons and daughters who prophecy, we become the young – of whatever age- who see visions, and the old – of whatever age – who dream dreams.

This is a congregation that has visions and dreams. You are blessed in that, and I count myself blessed to be in its presence. I will suggest, if I might, that in the days to come the spirit of Pentecost can be a valuable source for us all. For in it, and in each other, we may find courage, wisdom, patience, strength; and ultimately the peace of God, that peace which the world cannot give.

[1] All Biblical citations from: New Revised Standard Version Bible. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. 1989.

[2] Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997. 328-329.

[3] “Both wind and fire are associated with God’s self-revelation in the Hebrew Bible: cf. Ex 19:16-19; 1 Kings 19:11-12; Isa 6:6″.

Alexander, Loveday. “Acts”. The Oxford Bible Commentary. Barton, John and John Muddiman, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 1031.

[4] Ferris, Theodore P. “Exposition of Acts” The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954, 1991. 37-38.

[5] “Pagans were still accustomed to call Christians “Galileans” as late as the fifth century.”

Mann, C. S. “Pentecost in Acts” The Acts of the Apostles. The Anchor Bible, Vol. 31. New York: Doubleday, 1967. 273.

[6] “ ¼as a result of the Resurrection, the disciples became conscious of a new inward power which completely transformed their whole outlook; and this they attributed to the possession by the Spirit of God. It is indeed this new sense of power that is the significant factor in the experience of Pentecost”.

McGregor, G. H. C. “Introduction and Exegesis of Acts” The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954, 1991. 36.

[7] Larkin, William J. Jr. Acts. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995. 51.

[8] Larkin. 48.

[9] See: 1 Corinthians 14.

[10] “¼it is a gift to which Paul gives no very high place…because it did not edify unbelievers, tended to disorder, and could be easily counterfeited.”

McGregor. 37.

[11] “There is, of course, no hint elsewhere that the apostles ever made use of such a gift in their missionary labors; nor would it have been necessary in a world where the Greek Koine was almost universally understood.”

McGregor, 37.

[12] John 20:22.

[13] Grant, Frederick C. An Introduction to New Testament Thought. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1950. 54.

 

May 28, 2017

The Meals Jesus Gave Us:

the meaning of the Lord’s Supper

Interim Pastor John D. Rempel

Lk 5:27-34, 22:14-20, 24-30; 24:13-15, 28-32

O God, beyond my words, let your Word be heard. Amen.

Long ago I made a visit to the Soviet Union. I was in Moscow on a Sunday and went to church at one of only two Baptist congregations in the city that were legally permitted to gather. The church was already packed when I arrived, with only a few seats left in the balcony. The intensity of the singing and praying moved me deeply even though it was in a language I did not understand.

It was a Communion Sunday. From the balcony I could see everything that was happening. After the communion prayer and the words of institution the black suited ministers and deacons took the bread into the rows. It was their custom for people to come to the end of the bench to receive the elements. As if against their better judgment, people arose before a server neared them, some with trembling hands. An old woman actually wedged herself between others and stuck her hand forward as far as she could reach, to be sure to get her hands on the food that was more than met the eye: bread made out of grain had become for her the bread of heaven.

I’ve never forgotten this woman and her boldness. As a Baptist, she would not have had an elaborate description of what happens in the Lord’s Supper. But her behavior makes her belief clear: in taking the bread she was receiving Christ.

By the time of the Reformation many people thought of the church’s rituals as having power in and of themselves. For example, if you touched the bones of a saint your sins would be forgiven. The Reformers wanted to make it clear that Christ is the only one who forgives; he is the behind-the-scenes actor in all the church’s rituals.

The Anabaptists were among the most radical critics of elaborate rituals, including all the ceremony attached to the two core enactments, baptism and Communion. But in simplified form they kept them because they are the most profound dramatizations we have of the Gospel. The Lord’s Supper takes the narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and enacts it in a single gesture.

These dramatizations begin with the staples of everyday life in Mediterranean societies, water in the case of baptism, and bread and wine in the case of Communion. By the time of the Last Supper Jesus’ friends and foes would have been aware of the significance Jesus attached to table fellowship. Meals had an astonishingly important, and often overlooked, role in Jesus’ ministry of making God tangible. Jesus is the face of God speaking words of welcome, the hands of God passing around a cup of welcome.

Let’s now take a look at these meals of Jesus’ ministry, his death, and his resurrection. The opening words of our passage from Luke 5 take our breath away. Jesus meets a man named Levi. He is a tax collector – a Jew who extracts payment from his fellow believers on behalf of their Roman oppressors. We can imagine that there might have been a long conversation between Jesus and Levi, or even several conversations, before we meet them here. At just the right moment Jesus blurts out, “Follow me!” and Levi does so, leaving his lucrative job behind!

In an outpouring of gratitude Levi gives a great banquet for Jesus. He invites people who are like him, who loved mammon more than God. It is in the breaking of bread, in the vulnerability of a shared meal, that Jesus gives himself to them. And the dinner guests, like Levi, are drawn to Jesus because they sense he offers them something that money can’t buy. The Pharisees, the keepers of the law, can’t imagine unholy people being welcomed to a holy meal. “Why do you do this?”, his critics demand. Jesus responds, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick”.

Encounters like this one only intensify Jesus’ passion to be the voice of God to people who can’t hear God, to be the arms of God to those who have never been embraced. But those in authority increasingly resent this other king, this usurper, who is turning the world up side down. They cannot tolerate this One who heals without price, who sets no limit but love. Ominously, the religious and political figures make common cause against him. One of Jesus’ own company is waiting to betray him.

This is the backdrop for our second passage from Luke. Knowing that his life is on the line, Jesus longs to be borne up by the ritual of God’s rescue and faithfulness to Israel across the centuries, namely, the Passover meal. This time only those who have declared their loyalty to him are invited. In the most audacious act of his ministry, Jesus takes the symbol laden loaves and cups of the Passover and makes them signs of a new rescue, a new faithfulness that God will bring about through his death. Jesus takes a loaf, according to custom, gives thanks, offers it to his friends, and then shocks them by saying, “This is my body.” And likewise, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”. Nothing bolder could be said.

Overwhelmed by his own words, Jesus takes his inner circle of companions to the Mount of Olives to pray that the cup he has just poured out for himself and his disciples might still be removed. His words are haunting: “Yet not my will but yours be done.” It is our sense of awe at Jesus’ boundless self-giving that gives the Communion service its solemnity. It is not the suffering of Jesus, as such, that saves us but the relentlessness of the love that did not shrink from suffering. In the end, it is not only his local opponents but all the powers of the world who accuse him of being a usurper of the kings of the earth, who crucify him. In bearing this onslaught of evil to the cross he breaks its power and sets the world free.

With this claim, the story of the Gospel has reached its climax but not yet its conclusion. To put it into sacramental terms, the Last Supper has not yet become the Lord’s Supper. That happens on the evening of Easter day. In the third reading Jesus joins two of his downcast followers on the road to a town called Emmaus. So sorrowful are they at the death of the one they believed would redeem Israel that they cannot recognize him. Nevertheless there is something that draws them to Jesus.

Evening falls as the travelers arrive at their destination. They invite the stranger to be their guest. He accepts. No sooner have the hosts bidden their guest to partake than there is a reversal of roles: suddenly Jesus is the host and they are the guests! He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his incredulous friends. In this signature gesture of Jesus’ ministry they recognize him. In offering them bread he offers them himself. No simpler one sentence description of the mystery of Communion can be found: in offering his disciples bread Jesus offers them himself.

Now, what do we mean when we claim this gift of Jesus’ presence? To be present to someone is to be within reach; the distance between us has dissolved. In the moment of encounter time stands still. Such intimate moments are rare even with the people we know best, who we see and touch. If that is the case, how could we possibly know we are in the presence of One who is not seen?

The signs of bread and wine are Jesus’ promise that when we break bread together he will be in our midst. The Lord’s Supper is the paradigm of God’s presence: we recognize him in other times and places by means of our Eucharistic encounter. Jesus uses shocking language to convince us of this truth. As he takes, blesses, breaks and gives the Passover loaf to his friends, he describes what he is doing with the accompanying words, “This is my body” and likewise with the wine. My understanding of these mysterious words is that “body” and “blood” mean the very person of Christ – not simply a memory, not a disembodied spirit, but the actual – if invisible – person. The evidence for his hidden nearness is shared bread and wine: when we pass the elements to one another we become the medium of Christ’s presence. The bread and wine are Jesus’ trustworthy promise that when we receive them we receive him. In a time when almost everything in our lives is uncertain, what a wonderful promise it is that we can count on meeting Christ when we gather around his Table.

Remember the woman in the church in Moscow? She wedged her way between people to taste the promise Jesus had made. In a mystery too great for words, bread made out of grain had become for her – as it can for us – the bread of life. AMEN


May 21, 2017

The Heart of the Gospel

Interim Pastor John D. Rempel

Matt 12:22-32; Rom 8:14-17

O God, beyond my words let your Word be heard.

It’s a privilege for me to be invited back to my old home to partner with you in making the transition from Sylvia’s ministry to that of the incoming pastor. The congregation where I am now a member, Grace Mennonite in St. Catharines Ontario, commissioned me for this ministry two Sundays ago. They asked me to convey their best wishes to you for this time between ministers.

During the past week I have experienced the intensity, diversity, and transience of this unique city again in its full force. My biggest test so far was cycling through the side streets of the Lower East Side and across the Manhattan Bridge. This is the creative and chaotic city in which you been called to be church, to be a community of reconciliation and justice.

The nagging question the church can’t escape as it follows its calling into the world is, “Where is God in all of this?” In Christian societies of the past, churches, schools, and culture all took the belief that God rules the world for granted. We are living in a time when the foundations of what we believe and how we live are shaking. Old certainties have become uncertain, both in church and society.

Many of the Bible’s authors ask the same question that nags us, “Where is God in all this?” The fullest answer of the NT is, “Where Jesus is, there God is”. Just saying that doesn’t end the search for God but at least it tells us where to start looking. Our texts from Matthew and Romans talk about the outer and inner encounter with God. Matthew claims that God comes to us in Jesus’ teaching and healing. Where someone loves her neighbor, there God reigns; where someone is freed from a tormenting spirit, there God reigns. Paul, in Romans, complements the outer evidence of God’s nearness with inner evidence. Paul promises that deep inside us we can hear the Spirit’s inward whispers of assurance that we have not been abandoned but that we belong to God.

I want to bring us hope and confidence from today’s texts. But I can do that with integrity only if I also take into account the many events of life that tempt us to become cynics. As we read about endless wars and millions of refugees is it harder and harder to stake our lives on the promise that there is a God who stays the hand of evil and prospers the hand of good.

Let’s take one awful example, 9/11, the dreadful morning the Twin Towers were attacked. Disbelief, confusion, and terror were everywhere. Some of you remember that awful day as vividly as I do. By evening people north of 14th St. were allowed to move freely again. I began receiving calls asking that our congregation have a prayer service that night for the devastated city. As I tried to plan one, I found that I was speechless. Finally I found words for our wordlessness in Psalm 77.

I cry aloud to God.

My soul refuses to be comforted.

Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favorable?

Are God’s promises at an end for all time?

The suddenness and brutality of the attacks had brought us, like the psalmist, close to despair. The psalmist’s lament, “Are God promises at an end?”, kept ringing in my ears and the ears of millions around me.

This same, hard question haunts each of us at some point – when someone we love dies before her time, when we hear news reports of innocent suffering in war torn countries.

This is where the two Bible readings for today come in. Both of them dare to assert that God keeps making incursions into the world he loves. In the Matthew passage God is so overpoweringly present that the demons, the evil powers, flee. The gospel writer portrays Jesus the agent of God’s always inbreaking reign. He is the face of God to people who can’t see God, the arms of God to people who have no one to embrace them.

In the Romans passage Paul talks about the Spirit who makes God as close to us as when Christ was on earth. Just as the historical Jesus demonstrated God’s presence outwardly by healing someone who was blind and mute so Jesus’ Spirit convinces us inwardly that God has not abandoned us, that God is still at work healing the world.

Let’s look at the reading from Matthew first and then the one from Romans. In the chapters preceding our passage Matthew has described people’s starkly different responses to Jesus as a teacher and miracle worker. Some of them marvel at Jesus’ compassion and power and believe that he is the One sent from God. Others are perplexed because Jesus doesn’t fit their picture of a messiah. Still others are cynical, insisting that Jesus has power to cure not because he is one with God but because he is in league with Beelzubul, God’s enemy, and the most powerful among the demons.

Friends of a blind and mute man bring him to Jesus. Suddenly the afflicted man can see and speak again! Some bystanders are amazed and wonder, “Maybe this is really the Son of David, the anointed One.” But the cynics are still not persuaded – making a mute man speak isn’t enough evidence for them that God is at work in Jesus. They drown out the true seekers with sinister accusations against Jesus, insisting it is not God but the Evil One at work in Jesus. Jesus fires back that the cynics’ argument is self-contradictory: if evil were casting out evil it would be divided against itself! Then he cries out the boldest statement of his ministry. “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”

Breathtaking. These are words generations of Jews who had set their hope on a messiah longed to hear: God’s reign is here! But not Jesus’ critics. They scorn not only the Son of Man but the Spirit of God in whose power he has disarmed the forces of evil. Before us unfolds the fiercest confrontation between Jesus and his opponents before they send him to the gallows. His words are shocking. “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” Jesus is astonishingly humble – he is merely the bearer of the Spirit, of the nearness of God. People will be forgiven if they can’t recognize Jesus for who he is. But if they deny the Spirit, if they join the cynics and deny God’s promise that he has bound himself to this world, they condemn themselves.

This is a harsh saying, to be sure. It’s harsh because the stakes are so high. If we believe that God keeps his promises, and that where Jesus is there God is, then we have received the Gospel. If we brush aside or become indifferent to God’s promises, then we have fled from the Gospel. Believing that Jesus is the One empowered by the Spirit to bring God near is the heart of the Gospel. X2 This is the claim the evil powers rejected. In their contempt for Jesus they nailed him to a cross. “He was wounded for our transgressions and with his stripes we are healed.” Then God the Father vindicated the Son by raising him from the dead, overcoming the forces that tried to pry God loose from his embrace of the world.

Let’s ask ourselves where we stand. Sometimes we open our minds and hearts to Jesus as the One through him God is at work in the world. Then we are like those in the crowd in Matthew 12: we rejoice that Jesus is truly the Anointed One; in him God’s rule is breaking into the world.

But then, if you are like me, you’re sometimes seduced by the arguments of the cynics. In my life life I know that I refuse to take chances on God because what if he doesn’t come through. Or I cry out for justice, when the endless wars in the Middle East make millions of people into beggars while the armament makers become rich. It’s hard not to be a cynic. But the only way to the kingdom is to cast our lot in with Jesus and believe that in every situation we consider hopeless from the outside looking in, by the Spirit of God Jesus is already there casting out demons of hatred, cruelty, and fate.

Pause

            Of ourselves we cannot believe that. It is only, as Paul writes, by the persuasive presence of the Spirit in us that we are set free to take a chance on God. How can it be that the transcendent God of the cosmos comes closer to us than we are to ourselves? It remains a mystery but we know it is true because it is a confidence that comes to us not from within ourselves but from beyond ourselves assuring us that the same healing reality with which Jesus touched a blind and mute man touches us as well. When we cry ‘Abba’, ‘Father’, or ‘Mother’, it is God’s Spirit witnessing with our spirit that we are God’s children.

So, away with cynicism! The reign of God is upon us. God is keeping his promise! Let us live as if we believe that. Amen