This series over the next weeks, we will be looking at the 5 priorities of FMC, a wonderful and succinct vision statement for FMC that I am thankful was pulled together by Pastor Wanda in the years prior to my arrival here. I think these priorities have a lot we can work with as a church, and I am excited to explore these with you all as we reflect as a community on how we want to live out our faith.
Today’s priority, Following Jesus in the Anabaptist Tradition, could go a lot of different directions. There are a lot of different ways to be an anabaptist, and a lot of different interpretations of how to follow Jesus. And I am sure that these varieties of ways and interpretations are present in this space. I hope some of my ponderings and reflections today can help us ask different questions as to what it means to follow Jesus as a Mennonite church in the 21st century.
Imagine you are a traveler through space, roaming a populated galaxy, filled with planets with all kinds of societies that you couldn’t dream up. You land on a planet where everything is…well perfect. Its the perfect utopia. Everyone gets along. There is sufficient energy, food and water, homes, and the society seems to be in a healthy symbiotic relationship with the planet. Everyone is kind. Perhaps even too kind. Something feels… off.
A common storyline in science fiction shows, is where an earthly human finds their way to a planet of aliens, where everything is perfect. A utopia! In this perfect world that the humans arrive on, there is social equality, economic equality, and everyone seems perfectly happy. Especially to the liberal viewer.
Inevitably in one of these episodes, one of the earthly humans thinks that something is fishy. How could they possibly sustain this utopia without more energy production, or food production? Or where are all the children? Or something seems off about their leader. The episode ends with the earthly humans finding something like an unseen class of slaves, or an energy source that feeds off a suffering alien animal, or simply something unjust that is sustaining the utopia. The Earthly humans point this out and either try to liberate the oppressed or if they fail, they leave and refuse to work with these aliens. The utopia was not a utopia for everyone.
There is something within the Anabaptist impulse that makes us dream of utopias. The perfect church community. Perfect theologies, interpretations of the bible, perfect singing, perfect children quite in pews, perfect people. Inevitably, in an attempt to create utopias, many anabaptist communities split. Over what they wear, or what they drive, or what they believe. We Anabaptist split and schisms and schisms, in search for the church that finally has it right. A utopia.
I sense this dangerous impulse within myself. We can make a perfect church community, right?
Part of this impulse has to do with our theology. Anabaptists have an understanding of the kingdom of God, where it is supposed to start here on earth. As we sang in today’s opening hymn, the Kingdom of God is “not in some heaven light years away.”
This type of theology has led to Anabaptist doing some incredible work here on planet earth. Just ask Lynn Miller about Mennonite Disaster Service. Anabaptists have worked to try to bring about Jesus’ life and teachings here on Earth.
However, our idealist theology of the kingdom of God here on earth has also led to schisms, exclusion of others, and suffering within the Mennonite church.
The scripture that immediately came to my mind when considering what it means to follow Jesus in the Anabaptist Tradition and this concept of the Kingdom of God, was Jesus’ sermon on the mount, coming from Matthew 5-7. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus shares a glimpse of what the kingdom of God looks like, and it features some of Jesus’ most radical teachings.. Teachings that every time I read it, challenge me greatly. These teachings of Jesus are the teachings that many Anabaptist have historically prioritized in their faith, and so they are an important passage for us to day, when exploring what it means to follow Jesus in the anabaptist Tradition. Today, Jan read just the beatitudes, but the next 2 chapters include so many radical teachings.
The sermon on the mount, is only found in the Gospel of Matthew. Mennonite Biblical scholar John Kampen, My Matthew professor in Seminary and at one time a member of this church when he lived in Bluffton, writes about how Matthew was written by a community of sectarian Jews. Sectarian meaning a small faction of people that sought to create a specific way of life. He comes to the conclusion that Matthew was written by sectarian Jews, through comparing the writing style of the Gospel of Matthew to the ancient writings of the Qumran community – the sectarian Jewish community who wrote the dead sea scrolls.
The purpose of many of the writings of the Qumran community was to try to create group cohesion through law that would keep them together and keep them separate from the outer world. Many of the laws were similar to the Sermon on the mount’s “Not eye for an eye, but instead if you are slapped, offer your other check” “Love your enemies” “You can’t serve two masters – God and Money” “Don’t judge – Take the plank out of your own eye first” These laws would create a radical boundaries and expectations for the sectarian community, and as a result the sectarian community functioned separate from the rest of the world. One could call it, the kingdom of God on earth.
Later on in the sermon on the mount, Jesus would say things like, “Don’t worry about your appearance or what you eat – instead seek the kingdom of God.”
What is the kingdom of God? Is it a sectarian community? Is it a utopia – Like in science fiction where everyone is happy and thriving?” Does the kingdom exist now – here on earth somewhere? Or is it something that exists after we die? Or as many anabaptist have tried to preach, is it something that is both now and later.
This same sectarian impulse from the writers of Matthew is an impulse over the next 2000 years that would find its way to the Mennonites, Amish and other anabaptist groups have also tried to create their utopias, whether liberal or conservative.
Utopias love Authoritarian leadership – While utopias are beautiful on the surface, following their spoken or unspoken law is most important and folks are kicked out if they do not follow this way. The Authoritarian leadership can get rid of everything “bad” in the community and as a result inevitably marginalize a group within the community – women, other races and cultures, children, different sexualities, other understandings of faith and practice, and dispel it from the system, in order to keep building the community upwards towards the dream of a utopia. What is a utopia for some, is definitely dystopian for others.
I remember one time reading a thread on an anabaptist facebook group where someone was asking if there were opportunities to join the Amish. She was desiring a simple lifestyle and was tired of our technology driven lives. The Amish seemed like a utopia of gardening, fellowship, and faith. I can relate to this impulse. One of the responses to her included someone saying, “yes, its possible, if you are okay with Men making all of your decisions.” Now I do not mean this to be a critique of the patriarchal structures of the Amish, but to point to how utopias sacrifice someone or something to create that perfect structure.
However, in the end, Utopias fail. Adam and Eve pluck the apple and are kicked out of the garden. The tower of Babel builders failed to communicate together and their tower crumbled. One of the reasons I am drawn to this sermon on the mount because I think it’s actually a utopia destroyer instead of a utopia builder. Followers of the sermon on the mount do not build towers, they tear them to the ground.
Anabaptist Thinker Donald Kraybill wrote the popular Mennonite Book “The Upside Down Kingdom.” In this book, Kraybill argues that this kingdom of God is happening here on earth, and it is upside down. Or in other words, it doesn’t look like how anyone understands a kingdom to look like – with Kings and Queens ruling over peasants. This kingdom doesn’t make sense to the rest of the world. It might even look upside down. For Kraybill, this kingdom is happening now and we get a glimpse of it through the sermon on the mount:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
The sermon on the mount makes no sense to the world. The Meek inheriting the earth? It seems to me that the powerful have the earth. Blessed are the Merciful, the mourners, the poor in spirit? This is the opposite of the dream of a perfect society where there is not suffering – or at least visible suffering.
The sermon on the mount is not a task list for building a perfect utopia. Its the opposite. You can not build a perfect church or society from it. In fact it is a place where those who are suffering are blessed. But the difference between the Kingdom of God and a utopia is that in this Upside Down kingdom of God, there is not an attempt to hide or disguise the suffering – it puts it in the forefront. The focus. The suffering is actually made clear. Truth is told.
So often we try to hide the suffering that we experience in our communities. We hid our grief. We hide the marginalized. We stick communities of poverty under the shadows of highways. There are maps that demonstrate that Communities of color are statistically more likely to live near factories that pollute, thanks to redlining and lack of access to affordable housing. But we don’t see that here in Bluffton.
No the kingdom of God brings those who are suffering to the center. Blessed are those who mourn, or are poor in spirit, or are meek – There is the kingdom. Not those who are powerful. Not those who never have pain, not those who are always happy.
The sermon on the Mount is a kingdom flipper upside downer.
Why should we want to follow Jesus into this Upside Down Kingdom that blesses those who are suffering?
It is not that we are called to struggle. It is not that we are called to suffer. “Blessed are those who are persecuted” is not a commandment to go out and get prosecuted if you aren’t already. To live into this kingdom of God, we are not called to become Depressed or to grieve, or to become insecure – these are terrible experiences. That would be absurd.
No, instead the kingdom of God is gathering us around awful the things that we experience – bringing suffering and burdens to the center.
Have you ever experienced being vulnerable with someone, and to surprisingly have that experience reciprocated? As a hospital chaplain, we would provide a weekly spirituality group time for folks that were in the Addiction recovery unit. People would name their experiences with narcotics or alcohol. They would share about their grief, their hopes, their fractured relationships. And as soon as one person would start being really honest about their experiences, others would quickly chime in.
Folks would share about their terrible experiences with religion. They would talk about their spirituality that helped them along the way. Some of the most honest and beautiful conversations I have ever had have come from people who are in recovery. Knowing all of that- of course no one would ever wish the experiences of addiction on anyone… and yet when they gathered around their suffering, the space was blessed.
I believe that Jesus’ beatitudes are calling us to gather around suffering. Not hide it.
Jesus calls us to gather around our grief and loss.
- blessed are those who mourn.
Jesus calls us to gather around depression, emptiness, and existential dread.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
Jesus calls us to gather around our lack of confidence. Our doubt in ourselves. Our failures. Our vulnerability
“Blessed are the meek.”
Jesus calls us to gather around our capacity for grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
“Blessed are the merciful”
Jesus calls us to around the fire that is in us, for truth, justice, and what is universal.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
Jesus calls us to gather around the honest, naïve, childlike
“blessed are the pure in heart.”
This is not a spirituality that is building a tower towards God. It is a spirituality gathering around the vulnerable, and around our vulnerabilities. Its a spirituality that is centered on Sharing our burdens. It is downward. Its crumbly. It is messy. It will fail, because we humans fail – but we will fail together. There for each other. Holding each other. Reminding each other that you are beloved.
Starting in 2017 the #Metoo movement was a global moment of shared burdens. In a world that silences and shames the experiences of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape, the #metoo movement was a contagious movement of vulnerability where people shared across the internet their experiences of sexual harassment, abuse and rape. Sharing begot sharing. Stories saw the light of day. Their Burdens were held by a community that was not willing to suffer isolated in silence. It was a slice of the kingdom of God here on earth.
Sharing about addictions, or abuse, or grief, or sickness, or whatever is causing your suffering, with a group of people that can hold it lovingly is a blessed space. It is Kingdom of God. Some have changed the name kingdom of God to the kin-dom of God. Kin – like family. A kin-dom – a loving family. Or like Martin Luther King Jr. called it – the beloved community.
In the kin-dom. We are invited to love. Not dream of utopias or perfect communities. Love does not idealize. Love does not have an “if.” I love you IF do well in school. Its an awful feeling to experience having someone’s love retracted based on one of your qualities. Like when LGBTQ folks experience family, friends, or church deserting them.
There is no love in utopias. There is no love in a church that ignores or hides suffering. We all have felt that – that awful feeling going into a church space where everyone has their perfect lives. You can smell the lack of authenticity. Is anyone hurting like me? Love, though, it pierces through our ignoring of suffering and it deeply cares about our sufferings. You are loved because you are a part of God’s beloved creation – no exceptions – or it is not love.
I have heard it talked about that one way that humans can respond to environmental crisis is to start loving their trash. Instead of hating our trash, and banishing it from our properties and into the incinerator or landfill, by loving our trash we are loving what actually is and are not ignoring the flaws of our single use consumption. Maybe by loving our trash we will waste less. Or recycle more?
I give this example because like how we treat trash, all too often we try to throw out of our lives the things that are not pretty. Our grief, our self hatred, our shame, all of the things that are in the beatitudes. We try to ignore the suffering of the world. What I hear Jesus calling for, is to not throw out these parts of ourselves and our community, but allow them to see the light of day. To allow these burdens to be cared for and shared. To allows these parts of ourselves and others to be loved.
Mennonites have long been known for their practice of mutual aid. Oftentimes this is thought of in financial terms. We have our mutual aid fund at FMC that goes to support needs in our Bluffton community. We just finished a whole series on Jubilee, which much of the series was focused on money and supporting each other. But mutual aid can be broadened to Paul’s call in Galatians 6:2 to share one another’s spiritual burdens.
We can continue to do mutual aid through working – whether that is rebuilding houses or creating agencies that support people, or giving money – that is important mutual aid and a way to tend to the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek. I do believe that where we Mennonite across the board have struggled historically, though, is in our vulnerability about our own struggles. Our depression. Our meekness. Our shame. Our grief.
I believe that if we want to deepen our church community, this is the direction of growth for our community. We got the money thing down. We got the service thing down. But can we share and hold each our spiritual burdens?
May we seek the the kin-dom of God. May we gather around our worlds suffering, in us and around us, and bring it to the light of day. May God bless us as we hold it as a community.