Sermon for Chicago Community Mennonite Church
It is good to be back with you this morning after an absence that is longer than I’d like. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I guess that’s the case in the relationship between the licensed theologian and his congregation. It’s not that I’ve lacked for good church; the community in Ann Arbor that Susan and I frequent and have become involved in is a solid good group. And I’ve found that playing in the chapel band at Bluffton has given me a connection to the worship that happens in that space that is deeper than in my first six years there. If it sounds like i’m romanticizing my relationship to you a little bit, well, that’s exactly right. For, like someone who reflects on his first kiss, I have fond memories of how you have taught and continue to teach me how to love.
Soon I want to spend some time reflecting on how EB will teach us and be taught love here. But first let me share, as an aid to memory for some, and as a story for others, two stories about intense realizations of love that I have felt in this church. The stories both end the same way and I’ll give away the ending to both up front. I end up bawling, crouched in that pose of retreat that only men who never cry assume; having been wrenched out of composure by a power which leaves me without control over anything. This happens in the middle of Sunday morning worship and no one knows what to do so people just keep on worshipping. Someone holds me, probably Susan, but in that moment I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I only know that it is a member of this congregation.
The first story happens here on a morning when we are celebrating the realization that we are a good church and that the persecution that we as a group have been receiving during some unpleasant conference meetings is not something which needs to define us. We are a church who has as its job to be the church and that means much more than defending ourselves on any particular issue. We are about welcoming, providing sanctuary, and loving each other. On that day we knew that Jesus was in God, and that we were in Jesus, and that Jesus was in us. We knew that they who have Christ’s commandments and keep them are those who love Christ; and those who love Christ will be loved by God, and Christ will love them and reveal Christself to them. I can remember a palpable sense of relief and new purpose that seized us when we decided that we could be the church even in a world, or more heartbreakingly a church, which seemed sure that we weren’t. Anyways, on that morning Joanne Zimmerly and Julia Friesen, accompanied by music, danced into the sanctuary from that door to the altar with our quilt. I didn’t recognize the quilt at first as the back, which was what we could see at first, is quite plain. But then they opened it; tentatively at first, but then in its full glory.
The brightness of the quilt struck me the heart and I started crying filled by a sense that I belonged to something so precious that only God’s grace could have brought me into it. I learned that morning that love finds a purpose in communal celebration of the possibility of being the church. That while it may not seem like it sometimes, the church really is the body of Christ. That this is a body that lives and breathes and loves and dances. This is a body that woos us, offering us a love that we do not deserve but that is nonetheless vulnerably extended like the tender embrace of new lovers. The church is a tender witness to what is possible when we love God.
The second story is a story that happens at Camp Freidenswald during the church retreat. It’s about 10 years ago. Seth Andreas-Wiebe has just been born and it is time for his dedication. It is also just after Susan and I have given birth to the shape of the knowledge of our family. That’s not a phrase that you hear very often so let me explain it.
Susan and I are unable, biologically, to have children. We, at one point, underwent a variety of fertility treatments, up to and including two in vitro fertilizations, but never accomplished a pregnancy. During the time before, during and after these treatments we sought out the wisdom and support of this congregation. We received a blessing at the beginning of these treatments, slept under the quilt while the treatments were happening, and after the treatments we had not given birth to a child, but we had given birth to knowledge of the shape of our family. We were not people who had children but we would have opportunities to build relationships with others, like my students at Bluffton for instance, in ways that could be more deliberate that people with children can. So since we had given birth the church threw us a shower. We received plants which grew outside our Chicago home, our Bluffton home and are now growing in Ann Arbor. We had a cake, chocolate, which was crumbled up, put in a flower pot with gummy worms and had a bunch of mint planted in the top. It was hard to eat but it was the perfect cake for our shower.
So, a month before, or after this shower, I’m not sure which, Seth was dedicated. Pastor Phil Waite took Seth and lifted him up and I saw him shining in the light that was pouring in the big windows of the A-Frame at Freidenswald, which is incidentally the same space that Susan and I were married 17 and a half years ago.
The brightness of Seth’s skin struck me to the heart and I started crying filled both by the sadness that my child would never be held up in the same way, but also by a sense that I belonged to something so precious that only God’s grace could have brought me into it. I learned that the love a congregation shows its members can transform itself fitting each person in ways that are best suited to that person. This is a body that is made up of many different parts and at its best knows that about itself. We don’t always succeed at doing this but in moments when we can value the birth of babies and knowledge in the same way we offer people a love that is deserved but rarely found in a world that values certain types people, certain types of knowledge, and certain types of love more than others. Very different things become the same when God is the author of our love. Or perhaps put better, very different things are authored by the same God through love. The church is a bold, bright witness to what is possible when we love God.
This is at least part of what Paul is after at the Aeropagus when he connects worship of an unknown God to the God of Abraham, Esau, Rahab, and Ruth. Paul asks the Romans to rewrite their history in today’s scripture passage. The God that they have thought of as unknown he now wants to make known. Paul’s suggestion is revolutionary. The world that the Romans have known is turned upside down. Each of the stories I am telling you this morning are revolutionary in this way.
Seth’s dedication brings me to the dedication that we have just witnessed. What kind of love is EB learning this morning.
EB? What is your idea of love?
Do you know it as the unfurling of a quilt? As the shining of skin?
Probably not. And this is appropriate. The stories that I’ve told this morning are crucial stories in my understanding of what love is, but they are my stories. They are woven into my particular life and make up my particular understanding of what love is.
EB you are a month old. Love consists mostly in feeding and related events, perhaps in the gentle rotation of a black and white mobile. You do learn something about love today, at minimum, and however fleetingly, you learn today that this room is a place where your parents might give over your care to other people. (You learn this in a bodily posture that is identical to the bodily posture that I adopt when I learn about love. Bawling. We don’t have control over how we learn do we EB?)
But love won’t always mean this for you EB, love will start to mean other things. Soon you’ll have a sense that your parents love you almost or even entirely unconditionally. The things you’ll get away with! Your love with your brother might take a different tone, at least at first. You’ll learn about the love of friends, of this community and perhaps others. At some point, love will take on the new meaning as you’ll be hit in the gut by the attractiveness of a new singular person. You’ll contrive to spend time with them. And, in all likelihood, your heart will also be broken. This will also be a learning about love.
Herbert McCabe says, “A large part of of the business of growing up consists in recognising the complex forms that love may take and – this is important – being open to the possibility of new forms. ‘Love’ is thus what we might call a growing word, one whose meaning changes and develops … Knowing how to use this word is an essentially historical or autobiographical matter. I mean when you have achieved some skill in the use of the word, you cannot simply hand over your results to someone else; (that person) has to live through the whole business (them)self, starting with the simplest and crudest understanding … there are no short cuts to understanding what love is.”
Each of us needs to undergo the work of understanding what love is. Does this mean then that the meaning of love is totally random? That love will simply be the sum of my experiences with it? Partly this needs to be true. Only my sister also has Grace Bechtel for a mother; no one else is married to Susan Hunsberger; and only I have my set of unique and particular relationships. But love, this growing word, is rooted for me in experiences that other people share. Other people shared the unfurling of the quilt and Seth’s shining skin. Love is about the content – about what love is – but importantly perhaps the meaning of love is perhaps more about how it is given witness to. The meaning of love is the meaning that a community shares. So perhaps what is so significant about love is not its intensity or its way of binding people together. The significance of love is how it can take on deep meaning for a group of people and for individuals and how it can do this in revolutionary ways.
The best example of this is of course Christ’s death. Jesus come to earth to teach how to love and to love in the most perfect way possible. The inevitable consequence of offering perfect love in a sinful world is death. The remarkable and revolutionary aspect of the crucifixion is not in the shape of Christ death but in the resurrection in the revelation that a lived live in love is in tune with the deepest purposes of God’s universe.
I’ve told you two stories about my journey and how it has been turned inside out by learning about love that are peculiar. The resurrection provides the paradigm of this kind of deep meaning making. The church, in its rituals, also finds reliable ways of doing the same things again and again that attempt to elicit the deep meaning for its members. We are doing both of these things this morning. We have dedicated a child into the care of the church. This is a commitment to again and again provide opportunities for EB to make choices to follow Jesus. The depth of the meaning of this commitment is it’s orientation towards death but the kind of death that represents perfect love. It is strange that we would dedicate a baby towards death, and if we were infant baptizers this meaning would be intensified. Perhaps one of the reasons that adult baptism stuck as a practice for us is because we recognized it’s inevitable orientation towards death more acutely than church who weren’t experiencing the same kind of persecution that we were. Perhaps not.
The other practice that reliably orients us towards the deep meaning of love is communion in which we remember Christ’s life, death and resurrection. We’ll celebrate it now and as we do we could also remember our own histories and revolutions in understanding love. I could tell you the story about the time I was responsible to bring communion bread and the only loaf I had was frozen onion bread which didn’t thaw and burnt my hands as I struggle to offer it up on Sunday Morning, but I still haven’t found the meaning of that one. Amen