Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Losing Our Religion To Gain Our Soul: Why The Anabaptists Are Right

Sermon preached by the Rev. John Kirkley, November 17, 2013 at The First Mennonite Church of San Francisco.
Good morning.  I want to thank Pastor Sheri for her generous hospitality in allowing me to be with you today.  I look forward to returning the favor when we welcome her to St. James in January. 

I’m a priest of the Episcopal Church but I was raised a Southern Baptist and have always had great respect for the Anabaptist tradition; especially, those heirs of the tradition who embrace the renunciation of violence as central to following the way of Jesus. Mennonites are, no doubt, right about a great many things, but you’ve got one really big thing right: the conviction that religion, as a legitimation of sacred violence, is a betrayal of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The good news of Jesus is, of course, the good news of what God is like and what life is like in the kingdom of God.[1]  Jesus is calling into being a new social reality, a community of people committed to being fully alive in God.  But what is God like, and what does it look like to be bearers of the aliveness of God? 

Jesus’ ministry of healing, feeding, and forgiving gives us a vivid picture of the liveliness of God, as do the rich imagery found in his parables and teaching.  I want to recall an earlier teaching moment in Jesus’ ministry that is particularly pertinent to the strange and troubling warning we heard read this morning.  It is a familiar teaching from Luke’s version of the “sermon on the mount.”

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.[2]

What is God like?  God is like a kind parent, whose mercy is unrestricted in its scope, who loves unconditionally without regard for merit.  To be children of God is to imitate God in this respect: to refuse to mirror violence, instead finding creative responses to evil that leave open the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.  Please notice that God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.   This is what God is like. 

Now, that doesn’t sound very much like the god of religion that I heard about growing up!  That god had it in for the ungrateful and the wicked! The god of religion is deeply implicated in violence used to maintain justice and order, sorting out the good guys and the bad guys.  Isn’t that what religion is for?  Religion serves to legitimate sacred violence. 

Twice in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is quoted saying, “nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.”[3]  Jesus is here to tell us what is really going on, what God is really like.  The secret is that God has nothing to do with violence.  Religion is a purely human construct to sanctify and mystify the violence upon which civilization is built.  The god of religion is not the God manifest in Jesus.

That, it seems to me, is the main point of the strange teaching of Jesus known as the “little apocalypse” that we heard today.  “Apocalypse” simply means, “unveiling.”  Apocalyptic literature is aimed at revealing what is hidden, making available to our perception what is normally opaque to us.  Jesus is unmasking the god of religion and warning us that we have to lose our religion to gain our souls.

Jesus’ disciples were a bit gaga about religion, especially the Temple, the symbolic center of the world where ritual sacrifices were offered.  The Temple in Jerusalem was, among other things, a religious monument to sacred violence: the notion that God requires sacrifice, the making of victims.  It served, as all religion does, to sanctify the veiled violence upon which all civilization rests:  the violence against women, the poor, the vulnerable and the subversive, and the violence wrought on creation itself; all, of course, in the name of justice, order, prosperity, and progress.

When Jesus announces that the Temple will be destroyed, that not one stone will be left on another, he is not simply talking about the foundation of a building being undone.  He is talking about the ideological foundation of civilization being unveiled.  The Gospel accounts tells us that at the very moment Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn in two.[4]  We can now peek behind the curtain of sacred violence and see that there is only humanity; not God.  The resurrection of Jesus is God’s vindication of the sacrificial victim’s innocence, forever undermining the ideological attempts of religion to sanctify violence.   

The destruction of the Temple as symbolic center of the world is the loss of religion as sacred violence.  Ultimately, this is a liberating event, allowing us to receive God as God for us, the God of life, not the god of death.  Human violence in the name of god is unveiled for what it is: the evil of the lynch mob, the creation of community on the back of scapegoats.   We can no longer justify our making victims of one another.

But penultimately, the loss of religion can be terrifying.  This is the tragic truth behind Jesus exhortation, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.”[5]  The loss of religion is a hard thing to endure because it confronts us with the full reality of our culture’s violence.  For Jesus, the destruction of the Temple signifies the time of the nations, the rising and falling of empires, wars and revolutions, and ecological destruction on a vast scale. 

Yet, nowhere does Jesus implicate God as the source or justification of this violence.  It is not interpreted as divine punishment or cleansing.  It is simply the cycle of violence unwinding through history.  It is, in a sense, the triumph of secularism, but it brings with it no paradise of humanistic progress.  What this means is that the aura of religious justification no longer surrounds “legitimate” violence in such a way as to contain “illegitimate” violence.  As Gil Bailie points out,

Unveiled violence is apocalyptic violence precisely because, once shorn of its religious and historical justifications, it cannot sufficiently distinguish itself from the counter-violence it opposes. Without benefit of religious and cultural privilege, violence simply does what unveiled violence always does: it incites more violence. In such situations, the scope of violence grows while the ability of its perpetrators to reclaim that religious and moral privilege diminishes. The reciprocities of violence and counter-violence threaten to spin completely out of control.[6]

So, this is where we are, in what Jesus refers to as the “time of the nations.”  It will get worse, before it gets better.  But it will get better.  In the meantime, we find ourselves caught between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, there are those secularists for whom god is bunk; and if they are talking about the god of religion, they are right.  Yet it is these same secularists who have led us into the nightmare of genocide and ecocide, to a world in which man is the measure of all things, which means reducing the world to what we can measure, control, and dominate.  They’ve lost their religion and their soul.

On the other hand, there are those who still cling to the god of religion, who rejoice in the destruction reigning down around us as god’s justice.  For them, the apocalypse is not an unveiling of human violence but the final denouement of divine violence, the sacrifice of the earth as final restitution to god. They aren’t too worried about it though, because they believe that god will rapture them off to heaven at the last minute, that faith is somehow a “get out of suffering free card.”  They kept their religion and lost their soul.

Jesus invites us to see this time, caught between the secularists and the religionists, as an opportunity to testify, to bear witness to the God beyond the god of religion.  That God, glimpsed, however ambivalently, by the prophets, is making a new heaven and a new earth, even as the things of old are passing away.  It is a heaven and earth in which violence and hunger and exploitation are forgotten, in which people grow old in harmony with one another and with nature.  It is a world in which God’s promise to bring the whole creation to its fulfillment is realized.[7]

This is God’s dream.  We are called to be a people who bear witness to that dream, who live the dream, who are fully alive in God, even as we persevere through the nightmare of violence.  During this time of the nations, being fully alive in this way, living into this dream will seem foolish and even threatening.  And nothing will be more threatening than our refusal to mirror violence, our commitment to being merciful as God is merciful.  We will be betrayed, arrested and imprisoned.  But by our endurance we will gain our souls, even though we must lose our religion in the process. 

Here, I think of one of our local saints, Fr. Louie Vitale.  Fr. Louie is a Franciscan friar, one of the founders of Pace e Bene, an organization dedicated to nonviolence training, and of the Nevada Desert Experience, a group dedicated to nonviolent protest of U.S. nuclear weapons.  Fr. Louie was for many years the pastor of St. Boniface Catholic Church in the Tenderloin, a well-known center of hospitality for the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized. 

Fr. Louie has been arrested hundreds of times, and has served several Federal prison sentences for his nonviolent protests against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, the U.S. military’s center for training personnel in methods of torture, and various nuclear facilities.  He was an early civil rights advocate and has protested every U.S. war since Vietnam.  Now more than 80 years old, he remains a tireless witness to the God of life; warm, generous, joyful, usually with a twinkle in his eye, especially when he is mirroring God’s mercy for his enemies.

Fr. Louis is full of soul.  He is in touch with the deep and wide current of divine compassion that runs through all created things.  He is sustained in his witness by that current, which carries him into sometimes dangerous places, but also into experiences of deep communion.  He isn’t waiting to be raptured.  He is testifying to the God of life, who is creating a new heaven and earth here and now. 

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of
God is among you.”[8]

God is creating the new heaven and earth.  The kingdom is not our achievement.  It is God’s gift to us.  But we have to be willing to lose our religion, the false security of sacred violence, to realize the abundant life prepared for us.  That life, that kingdom is already here.  Don’t be mesmerized by glittering Temples or Crystal Cathedrals. 

And don’t be disillusioned by the violence raging around us.  Jesus tells a parable to help us put it in perspective.  “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”[9]

Jesus has spoken of terrible things: war, earthquakes, famine, disaster, and persecution.  And then he likens the whole thing to leaves coming out in the spring, bearing signs of new life to come.  It is an amazing parable.  Unless we are in touch with what God is really like, it will be difficult to perceive the signs of God’s kingdom breaking out, like the tiniest buds on bare branches, in spite of all the efforts of our culture to contain it.  If we see the signs, we can relax into the invitation to bear witness as we participate in the unfolding of the new creation.  

As Mennonites you are part of a community that lost its religion a long time ago – the religion of sacred violence – and gained its soul through an enduring witness to the peace of God that passes all understanding.  The rest of us are still catching up to you.  I am so grateful for your witness and your patient endurance.  Amen.

[1] Luke 4:43.
[2] Luke 6:27-36. 
[3] Luke 8:17; cf. Luke 12:2-3.
[4] Luke 23:44-45. 
[5] Luke 21:19.
[6] Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, p. 15.
[7] For example, Isaiah 65:13-25; an ambivalent perception, because the god of sacred violence is not transcended.
[8] Luke 17:20-21.
[9] Luke 21:29-33.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Losing Our Innocence

Image by Reinhardt Sobye

May I speak to you in the name of the one, holy, and living God.  Amen.

Do you remember when you lost your sense of innocence?  We often think of the loss of innocence as a marker of the transition from childhood to adulthood, a move from naiveté to sophistication and, too frequently, cynicism.  Often that loss of innocence involves an encounter with suffering and loss or, even, what we could only describe as evil. 

I’ve been watching my son struggling with this transition.  One of his senior year electives is a course on World Affairs, focusing on critical engagement with current events.  For his first paper in the class, Nehemiah chose to research human trafficking.  Now, Nehemiah is a pretty pollyanish kind of guy – he doesn’t like to acknowledge bad news.  So, it has been a real challenge for him to read books like David Batstone’s Not for Sale and try to make sense of a world that includes boy soldiers in Uganda, girl sex slaves in Bangkok, and slave laborers in Florida.  At one point he said to me, “Pop, I can only read a little bit of this at a time.”  “Then just read a little bit at a time,” I said.  “And keep dancing.”

The trick in navigating this transition is to lose one’s sense of innocence without losing one’s sense of wonder.  Can we hold our awareness of suffering within a larger awareness of joy?  What sustains our wonder so that we can respond with compassion rather than despair?   The loss of innocence is not so much about moving from childhood into adulthood, as it is about letting go of what is superficial and transient, and falling into a deeper, more abiding trust in God.

In that sense, “the loss of innocence” isn’t a one-time event.  It is an ongoing process of moving through suffering and loss to new life.  And sometimes, when it encompasses an entire community – such as Beirut and Paris this weekend – it can feel like the end of the world.[1] 

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus urges his disciples not to be too fascinated by the great Temple in Jerusalem.  It isn’t going to last.  This must have come as quite a shock to them.  These country bumpkins from Galilee, goggle-eyed in the big city, could not help but be impressed by the grandeur and solidity of this edifice to sacred sacrifice.  The Temple was a combination of divine abode, national bank, and center of political power. 

The fact that the Temple was indeed razed to the ground by Roman armies in the year 70 –  a fact well known by the earliest hearers of Mark’s Gospel, many of whom were probably refugees from the disaster – only underscores the urgency of Jesus’ words.  For Jews of Jesus’ generation, the destruction of the Temple really was the end of the world.  It is hard for us to imagine just how significant the destruction of Jerusalem was for them, tantamount to Washington, D.C. – including the White House, the National Cathedral, and the Federal Reserve Bank – being blown apart all at once. 

Mark’s Gospel is addressed to a traumatized community.  Everything they knew, everything they thought was stable and dependable, had been shattered.  And in the midst of the end of the world, we hear the voice of Jesus saying, “The Temple will not last.  Civilizations, nations, come and go.  These things are transient.  Don’t be fascinated by them.  They are not worthy of your ultimate trust.  You need to build your life on a much more enduring foundation.”[2]

It is so easy to be mesmerized by Temples built on coercive power, and even easier to become fascinated by the destructive power that brings them down.  Jesus tells us not to pay too much attention to any of that.  The wars and rumors of wars and disasters that fill the headlines are the least interesting part of the story.  They are just the birth pangs of a new beginning.

The traumatized refugees listening to Jesus’ words understood what he is talking about. They lived in a world in which 70% of women who lived past childhood died while giving birth or due to related complications.  They knew suffering and loss, but they also knew that it can be the harbinger of new life. The coming of birth pangs signals that the new is coming: someone is about to be born, and in the joy of that birth we are all reborn. 

Life wants to live.  It is wondrous.  God is the God of life, and it is our trust in the gift of life, and the love that animates this gift, that sustains us through the birth pangs. 

Last weekend, Sarah Montoya brought her four-month old daughter to the parish retreat at the Bishop’s Ranch.  She was passed around from person to person like a sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace.  Holding Walden Mae was, for me, to be absolutely absorbed by the wonder and joy of life, providing an unshakable touchstone of God’s gracious and loving desire for all of creation.  It may be the end of the world, but as Michael Stipe sang, I felt fine.[3]

Jesus is not oblivious to suffering and loss.  He is resolutely and actively opposed to the evil powers of every age.  But Jesus does not allow himself to become fascinated by those powers.  He is fully united with the creative power of God’s love, completely absorbed with its life-giving vitality.  He entrusts himself unreservedly to the the flow of this love, rather than to the transient edifices of coercive power in which we too often place our trust.  He doesn’t pay any attention to them.  He moves through the birth-pangs of the New Creation, through Holy Week and Good Friday to the Empty Tomb.  Life wants to live.

The endlessly creative ways in which life continually bursts through the shattered remnants of our Temples, Jesus names “the realm of God.”  It is the space of freedom and joy in which love rules.  It is all around us.  We’re just too focused on trying to hold up the wobbly pillars of our Temples, too afraid of the end of the world, to welcome the new life that is being born. 

Jesus described this kingdom or realm of God with many evocative metaphors:  the leaven that makes the bread rise, an invasive weed that takes over the garden, a precious pearl hidden in the field.  I would like to suggest another image: the realm of God is like a fungus. 

When we think of fungi, we often picture mushrooms.  But the mushroom is merely the fruit of the mycelium, an underground network of rootlike fibers that can stretch for miles.  The mycelia transmit information across their huge networks using the same chemical neurotransmitters found in our brains.  They breath in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.  In fact, the largest known organism in the world is a mycelial mat or network in eastern Oregon that covers 2,200 acres and is more than 2,000 years old. 

What is interesting about mycelia is their symbiotic relationship with their environment.  The fungi’s fine filaments absorb nutrients from the soil, even breaking down rocks to extract minerals, and exchanges them for some of the energy that plants produce through photosynthesis.  The mycelium supporting a forest community will transmit this energy from one part of a forest to another to keep the ecosystem healthy; for example, from plants along a riverbank getting plenty of sunlight, to plants in the underbrush who need it.   They change literal stones into metaphorical bread for trees and other plants.   They even function to slowly metabolize the radioactive waste in Chernobyl into non-lethal materials, so that the surrounding ecosystem can heal and grow again.[4]

The realm of God is like mycelium: transforming death into life - willingly enduring what seems like the end of the world for the sake of a larger wholeness.  Mycelium have nodes of crossing as part of their “architecture,” branches that allow them to choose an alternative route to regrow when they experience breakage or an infection.  There is no single point in the mycelial network that can bring the whole thing down.  Destroy part of it, and it just keeps growing.  Life wants to live.

The realm of God is like fungi: underground, beneath the radar, relentlessly transforming death into life, sharing what is needful to maintain the common good, metabolizing the poison of our culture.  Our Temples crumble, but the mycelia keep on renewing the face of the earth.

This morning, we will baptize Virginia LeBlanc into the Body of Christ, into the realm of God: the newest fungus among us!  It is a kind of anticipatory “loss of innocence.”  It is an inoculation against the fascination with coercive power that brings death, that doesn’t last, so that she may become united with the creative power of God’s love that makes all things new.   In celebrating her new birth, we will all be renewed. Amen.

[1] Terrorist attacks left 43 people dead in Beirut and 129 people in Paris, with many still in critical condition.
[2] Mark 13:1-8.
[3] Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, & Michael Mills, “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It,” (Night Garden Music, 1987).
[4] Derrick Jensen, “Going Underground:  Paul Stamets On The Vast, Intelligent Network Beneath Our Feet,” The Sun (February 2008, Issue 386).

Monday, November 9, 2015

Giving Our Whole Life

In one of his poems, Daniel Berrigan writes,

It may be expedient to lose everything.
The moon says it, waxing in silence, the fruit of the heavens,
grape vine, melon vine.

Autumn upon us, the exemplar, the time of falling.
One who has lost all is ready to be born into all:
buddha moon     socratic moon     jesus moon
light and planet and fruit of all:
“unless the grain falling to earth die, itself remains alone.”[i]

I wonder if the widow in today’s Gospel reading thought it was expedient to lose everything.  A traditional reading of the story portrays the widow as an example of generosity and trust.  The “widow’s mite” has come to symbolize the virtue of sacrificial giving. 

The problem with the scribes, the legal experts who work for the Temple, and the rich, is that they give stingily, from their abundance, rather than giving until it hurts like the widow.  It seems the compilers of the lectionary have intentionally placed this reading from Mark right in the middle of stewardship season, providing preachers with a handy story to shake down their parishioners for a more generous pledge!

Be that as it may, I’m not sure it quite captures the point of the story.  Many contemporary commentators take a different, more contextual, approach.  They point out that Jesus has just condemned the scribes for their hypocrisy and pious pretentiousness, covering over their exploitation of the poor with a thin veneer of religiosity.  The Temple tax system benefited the Jewish aristocracy at the expense of the peasants.  Jesus says that when these scribes gather at their banquets, they are feasting on widow’s houses!

So, when this widow comes along and places her last little bit of money into the Temple treasury, it is as if Jesus is saying, “Look here, see what I mean!”  On this reading, the widow is not a hero to be imitated, but rather a victim to be pitied; perhaps even someone who is complicit in her own oppression.  We should be outraged by the injustice of a system that strips her of everything she has and leaves her destitute – all in the name of God.

Paul Nuechterlein suggests another, somewhat more complex, way to think about this unnamed widow.  Like so many unnamed women in Mark’s Gospel, she actually is a prophet.[ii]   She is in the company of the hemorrhaging women who touches Jesus, the Syrophoenician woman who argues with Jesus until he heals her daughter, and the anonymous woman who anoints Jesus with costly oil before his death.[iii]  All of them engage in prophetic action by crossing boundaries to address human suffering and injustice.  They are not only victims.  They are agents of healing and reconciliation. 

Jesus tells us that this widow has given everything she has, her “whole life.” Does her whole life consist of a couple of coins?  To what or whom has she given her whole life?  To the Temple?  I wonder if giving her last dime to the Treasury wasn’t actually a creative act of public protest, rather like Jesus’ advice to those taken to debtor’s court to strip naked in front of the judge to shame their creditors.[iv] 

While other are rattling their money bags, making a show of their piety, this poor widow boldly walks into the Temple and throws in her coins as an act of freedom.  She knows what Jesus knows: this Temple isn’t going to last.[v]  They can have her coins.  She has given her whole life to something much larger and more enduring than the Temple, and she knows her worth in ways that the scribes who devour her house will never be able to calculate. 

That’s how I like to imagine this widow:  marching into Jerusalem with Jesus waving a sign that says, “Widows Matter,” while the scribes, who think everything is about them, insist that “All People Matter.”  This widow isn’t a model of sacrificial giving, but rather a model of resisting unjust systems built on human sacrifice.  She isn’t a victim, but rather an agent of God’s kingdom of justice and peace. Like the other, unnamed women of Mark’s Gospel, she gets what it means to follow Jesus, while the male disciples are still scratching their heads.[vi]  She has given her whole life to follow the Way of Jesus. 

Remember the rich man who came to Jesus earlier in Mark’s Gospel?  He asked what he needed to do to gain eternal life.  Jesus looked at him and loved him, saying, “You lack one thing; go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  Remember that rich man?  He went away shocked and grieving, not because Jesus wanted his money.  The money was for the poor, restitution for the dispossessed.  Jesus didn’t want his money.  He wanted his whole life.   The rich man wasn’t willing to give it – at least not yet.  But this widow – Jesus tells us – she gave her whole life.  She already has inherited eternal life. 

It is stewardship season, and, yes, the church wants your money.  That is the easy part.  Jesus doesn’t just want our money. What he wants is something much more.  He wants our whole life.  He wants us to be one of those seeds that falls into the ground and dies, so that we can bear much fruit.[vii] 

In the end, I believe the widow did think it was expedient to lose everything: not as a passive victim, nor in some egocentric gesture of asceticism, but as a bold and creative leap of faith in the service of a larger wholeness for her people and for the world.  That it what it means to inherit eternal life: to understand oneself as part of this larger wholeness, and to act in accord with that awareness.

In her poem, “One or Two Things,” Mary Oliver confesses,

For years and years I struggled
just to love my life.  And then

the butterly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.[viii]

In Mark’s Gospel, we never learn the name of this widow, or of the other prophetic women who follow Jesus.  They vanish into the world; not because they do not love their lives, but because they place that love in the service of a larger wholeness.  The give their whole life.  They inherit eternal life.  It may be expedient to lose everything to be born into all.   

[i] Daniel Berrigan, “No One Knows Whether Death, Which Men in Their Fear Call the Greatest Evil, May Not Be the Greatest Good,” in And the Risen Bread (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), p. 172.
[iii] See Mark 5:25-34, 7:24-30, and 14:3-9. 
[iv] Matthew 5:40, cf. Luke 6:29.
[v] Mark 13:1-2.
[vi] Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly (Vol. 53, 1991), pp. 599 – 600.  It does make one wonder if the author of Mark wasn’t a woman.
[vii] John 12:24-26.
[viii] Mary Oliver, “Blue Heron,” in White Pine: Poems and Prose (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1991), p. 20.