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.

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