Witness to Love

Sermon for Chicago Community Mennonite Church

Good Morning,

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

wisdom and the oil spill

Wisdom and the Oil Spill

A sermon based on Proverbs 8.22-31 and Romans 5.1-5

We all have our moments of exhaustive fragility. Moments which we know, again and again, will break us. When I experienced the near proximity of three divorces a couple of years ago I found that infidelity became one of these moments.The pain caused by the infidelity in these marriages spilled, no, not spilled, gushed into my life as if pain were a new superabundant resource.

I could not read a book, or watch a television program, or a movie, that featured infidelity, either real or imagined, without feeling my stomach lining start to degrade as if it were a marshland being crashed upon by waves of crude oil.

And now, predictably, it is images of the marshland which breaks me. I look at pictures of gulf animals and my stomach feels like conjoined lovers softly whispering, listening, to the wrong name.

When I look at pictures of gulf animals and when I read the scripture for today’s sermon. In Proverbs it says,

When God established the heavens, I was there, when God drew a circle on the face of the deep, when God made firm the skies above, when God established the fountains of the deep, when God assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress God’s command.

The waters might not have transgressed God’s command, but in the end they did, although only after we drilled a hole to release the fountains, only after we ignored the circle that God had drawn. The proverb writer was not predicting the idolatrous greed of British Petroleum, when these lines were penned. However, the proverb writer was aware of the idolatrous greed of the wealthy people of this planet who drive the greed of British Petroleum

Scripture, especially that part of our scriptures that is written in Hebrew, has a density and diversity of meaning that shouldn’t be construed in ways that constrain its relevance. So this is a sermon about wisdom and the oil spill.

And, so that I’m able to fight off the tears that might come if I force myself to continue to flirt with these black oily parts of my soul let me turn to delight and rejoicing by expressing these thoughts again in this setting of one of my favorite poems Margaret Atwood’s Elegy for Giant Tortoises.

I have slightly modified this poem, which Atwood wrote for tortoises, creatures who live in dry climates, in order that it might be made to elegize sea turtles, creatures who live in the gulf of mexico.

by Margaret Atwood (modified and set to music)
changes in italics

Let others pray for the brown pelican
the blue crab, the green heron, the cajun:

everyone must specialize

I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the sea turtles
withering finally on a remote island.

I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can’t quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave traveling shapes vision:

on the road where I stand they will materialize,
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water

their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,

in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralyzed,
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars

where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed.
our holy and obsolete symbols.

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave traveling shapes vision:

This poem, at least in the way that I have rendered it here, suggests hope. Even though we have destroyed the sea turtles and deprived them of water, even though our destruction renders God and our worship of God brittle and obsolete, we look to a time, we look forward with hope to the last day when they will be there.

What is the nature of this hope? It seems foolish. The ravaged ecosystem of Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez ran aground 20 years ago, is still feeling the effects of that disaster. We don’t know how much longer it will take for the area to recover. How do we move from the recognition of unrepairable damage to hope? Are we just blindly trusting in God to just make it all better, sometime?


But I don’t think that this is how the apostle Paul sees it in Roman’s 5. Paul boasts of hope because of suffering. Paul offers us a Christian grammar of virtue in today’s passage, a rule for talking about how you get from suffering to hope. It makes sense to Paul to rejoice in suffering, not because suffering is good but because the person who suffers learns endurance. Hard situations in our lives, if we use them as times to learn about ourselves and our environment, can cause growth and can make it easier to endure hardships in the future. Part of what we learn in suffering is how to pay attention to life’s difficulties. What about this hardship is going to cause me pain? why? Is there another way of approaching this hardship? Is there something that I can do? Part of what we learn in suffering, after it is over, is that we survived. We recognize that there is at least some life on the other side of our hardships. These two types of endurance, attention and awareness, lead to character. The people that I am close to who have been divorced recently do not wish that there lives had been changed in these ways. But they hope. We become the kind of people who can recognize, resist, reframe, or challenge suffering because we know that suffering is part of how we become who we are. And when we do this we realize that we can hope. We can hope because hope will not disappoint us. We know that hope will not disappoint us because of who God is.

One note at this point. Paul certainly believes that we can hope because God resurrected the crucified Christ. Christ did not survive his suffering, but in the resurrection we see that survival is not even necessary for hope to arise from suffering. God has proven that God will sustain our hope. However at this point,  in this Christian grammar of virtue Paul shows that he believes that our hope is not dependent only on the crucifixion. We can also hope because of who God is. This brings us to the Trinity.

God is not a being like we are.  We relate to other beings and things that are more or less like ourselves. But God is not a thing of any kind. God is relationship and this is why the Trinity is an important part of our identity as Christians. Paul says that we have peace with God through Jesus Christ and love from God through the Holy Spirit. The gifts that we have receive from God happen because God is always making peace through Jesus and loving through the Holy Spirit. One God, three persons. It’s unstable, but in the instability between divine identity and different persons God’s gifts gush out not just from one person of the trinity to the next but through them to us.

This superabundance of love is what the passage in Proverbs is all about. Wisdom reflects, “I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.” God’s delight happens because the Spirit rejoices. The spirit rejoices because of God’s inhabited world. The same pattern as in Paul is present again here. Delight flows from God through the spirit to humanity. Well really, delight is just zipping around all over the place and everyone is rejoicing.

It makes sense to hope because suffering leads to hope for people who know who God is. I want to finish my sermon this morning by talking about what I think that looks like in relationship to the oil spill.  I want to talk about this strange language of oil spill, the limits that God sets for us, and the ways that wisdom can guide us. I want to read the oil spill through Proverbs.

I don’t know why we insist on calling this kind of catastrophe a spill. A spill is something that happens when I can’t hold onto my coffee in the morning because I haven’t drunk enough of it to hold onto things. It’s a small mistake that has a certain kind of inevitability about it.

What we have in the gulf is not a spill. It’s a fountain. Oil is gushing forth from a device that we have made to channel and thrust forth liquid. To use the term spill is simply to show that we are in denial not just about the impact of this disaster but also about culpability for it. Fountain is a much more honest word. I believe that when we depend on scripture, scripture will guide us. It takes careful reading and a concern for responsible word-care, but it will also give us the tools to describe our world in ways that will cause God to rejoice.

The language of Proverbs 8 bears many similarities to the language in Genesis 1. There God’s spirit hovers over the face of the waters and rather than drawing God talks. But many of the same characters are there. One thing that is really interesting about Genesis 1.4 is that God’s creation doesn’t respond with rote obedience to God’s command. It’s not that creation disobeys God’s command … but creation is not simply ordered by these commands either. Genesis 1.4 reads,

And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

God creates light and likes it and separates it from the remaining darkness that had been covering the waters. And immediately evening and morning … both times when light and darkness are not at all separated. Creation is a dynamic mysterious thing, not out of God’s control, but able to move in and around God’s purposes in surprising delightful ways. No wonder the Holy spirit rejoices!

The possibility then that creation might transgress God’s limits is there from the beginning. It is the possibility of transgression that in many ways allows life to issue forth. In fact, we might even want to say that God, in God’s trinitarian nature, is transgressive in exactly these ways.

The circle on the deep then is there as a control on the waters but not as a magic rule binding the waters. It is a warning. “After this point you will need wisdom to be ready for what might happen.” I believe that this line, this circle on the deep is the depth at which humans can easily dive to. A bunch of people in diving suits are going to be able to work to mine energy differently, less randomly, with less unpredictability. We know this. It is simply common sense, which is often what wisdom amounts to. To do something else is to move beyond wisdom, into irrationality. I don’t know why made this move into deep sea drilling, but I know that we have a desire for oil that turns it into a god. And we aren’t supposed to have other gods than God. So I’m not saying that it is a sin for us to have drilled in the gulf, creation transgresses limits all the time. The transgression of limits is a part of what it means to be created. I am saying that it was unwise to drill without knowing how we would stop the fountain. It was particularly unwise given that exactly the same thing happened thirty years ago across the gulf at Ixtoc 1.

A dependence of the honesty of biblical language and a recognition that God places limits on our world are both obvious ways in which we can wisely respond to the oil fountain in the Gulf. However neither of these approaches help us with what to do now. Neither really inform our hope. We have up to a million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico a disaster that we might never recover from. What can we hope for? We need more wisdom about the natural world. One of the ways that we were, for a while, very successful in cleaning up the Exxon Valdez spill was by using oil-eating bacteria to break down the oil. We learned a great deal about how to do bioremediation in Alaska 20 years ago, but one of things that we learned was that we shouldn’t depend on dispersants if we want to be able to use effective bioremediation. A real danger now in the gulf is that the oil eating bacteria will deplete the oxygen in the gulf causing a dead zone in which nothing will be able to live.

Wisdom rejoices in the natural world and learns everything it can about the wonderful ways that nature has found to heal itself. In Chernobyl mushrooms have radiation level many times the level of surrounding soils. In regularly polluted areas like harbors incidence of oil-eating bacteria and fungi are much higher than in the rest of the ocean, but they exist in more stable relationship to their ecosystem. We need more wisdom about all of the different fungi and bacteria that might be able to bring real hope to the Gulf. We need an approach to our natural world that is honest, that recognizes boundaries and that seeks to work with nature rather than against it to solve our worst problems. This wisdom is our hope, a hope that moves beyond blind trust to action in relationship with all God’s gifts. May wisdom continue to rejoice in the natural world.


Sermon for Independence Day

“Whirlwinds, Water and Foxholes: Lessons in Following”

Preached at First Mennonite Church, Bluffton, Ohio, July 1st.
Psalm 77, 2 Kings 2, Luke 9

Frankly, I’ve had a horrible six months. There have been delightful moments, glimpses of glory when I’ve been filled with pride, or laughed until I’ve cried, and even the pain has its silver lining but mostly it’s been horrible.
It started when my boss, the academic dean the university where I teach, resigned suddenly just before Christmas. A sudden resignation is never good and in important ways there hasn’t been anything other than a festival of pain and confusion to come from this one. On March 2nd my school’s baseball team was involved in a tragic crash that killed seven people and made our town the centre of the country for a weekend or more. A month and half later the Virginia Tech massacre claimed the lives of 32 people, echoing and amplifying our loss. Lee Eshleman, one half of the acting duo, Ted & Lee, died on May 17, 2007. Lee took his own life after succumbing to a long battle with depression. I lost my favourite uncle, John Hess, a week later. This week I learned of the tragic death of Peg Brown. And this whole time my government wastes money and life on a war that leaves me spinning and spinning, dizzy and nauseous.
I know that some of these events have touched your lives and I know that you likely have others. I don’t want to comment further on these things, because so often there is nothing we can say, or too much we need to say. I don’t want to comment further except to say one thing. This kind of malaise, of bad feeling, makes me wonder about following.
It makes me wonder about following because I think that in our society the desire to follow someone is strong. On one hand, I think that this is why George W. Bush is so popular. It’s easy to follow him. Bush is clear about what he wants, and he is clear that not following him means you are against him. On the other hand, I think this explains the rise in popularity of Barack Obama. He reminds us of people we want to follow like Martin Luther King Jr. The desire to follow makes me wonder about the baseball team because on March 2nd all of a sudden they all seemed to know exactly who to follow and how to follow even though there wasn’t anyone for them to follow. It makes me wonder about Lee, who taught so many people how to follow. Following is not an easy answer to sadness and tragedy; instead, it’s all we can do.
Happily, the three lessons in following that I want to dwell on this morning are available to all of us. They are found in two great gifts that God has given us: the natural world and human creativity. We don’t tend to look to nature for lessons on how to live our lives, but in each of the scriptures read this morning, following happens in and in relation to nature. We need to look to nature for lessons on how to follow, but when we look we need to look with the creative eyes God has given us, eyes which allow us to shape, see and live in, through, above and below our world. Truly, earth is one holy gift; life is one holy breath.
Here then are three short lessons in following.
The lesson of the Whirlwind.
Elisha is nothing if not an insistent and aggressive follower. Again and again he choruses, “As Yahweh lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you!” Furthermore he demands of Elijah a double share of his spirit. This is the great prophet Elijah. For most of us a half a share would do quite nicely, but Elisha demands double. Elisha may not have been easy to have as a follower.
Elijah shows himself to be worthy of Elisha’s following when he doesn’t pretend to be able to guarantee such an audacious request. Elijah basically says, “Hunh, well if God wants that to happen fine, if not, tough.” Elijah may not have been easy to follow.
God shows, in the whirlwind, and in chariots of fire, that God indeed approves of both Elijah’s life and Elisha’s aggressive following. The whirlwind is a feature of the natural world but God doesn’t appear only in the whirlwind. God appears in a chariot of fire. God sees human creativity in the chariot: wheels, perhaps some red fiery racing stripes, and recognizes that a chariot is a good vehicle in which to allow Elijah to continue to follow God. The place for following is in the natural world, but a natural world that has been visited by human creativity. Truly, earth is one holy gift; life is one holy breath.
Elisha immediately takes up his staff and parts the waters of the Jordan. Now, it turns out that the brotherhood of prophets observed all of this for as the story continues they decide that they should look for Elijah in case he was thrown down by Yahweh. Elisha knows that the time for following Elijah is finished, and when the brotherhood returns from looking, unsuccessful, he simply says, “Did I not tell you not to go?”
God uses the whirlwind to honour Elisha’s aggressive following and show when the time to follow Elijah had ended.
The lesson of Water.
In the Psalm that we read today, the waters are their own character. The waters see, are afraid, and tremble. Water gives life and we need rain in all the ways mentioned in the pastoral prayer, but water, especially to someone in Banda Aceh or New Orleans can also mean death. Water, all at once or over millions of years is an incredibly powerful force, and the writer of Psalm 77 is aware of every ounce of water’s power. In fact for the psalmist there is likely nothing more powerful than water, which makes his psalm all the more incredible. For even water, the great power, trembles before God. Followers like water may be powerful; powerful followers respect the God who leads people like a flock of sheep.
The lesson of Foxholes.
Jesus is in a bad mood in the snippet of his journey to Jerusalem. It could be that his followers had started to get on his nerves. The disciples are a singularly thick-headed and wrong-headed bunch. For instance, what’s up with trying to call down fire on the Samaritan village. Who do they think they are? Elijah?
Anyways, Jesus makes it very difficult on the next three people who try to follow him by giving tricky answers when they seek to commit to him. Following is not easy, especially with answers like these.
One wants to say good-bye to his people, and Jesus says that once you start following you can’t look back. Another wants to bury his father and Jesus seems callous when he reminds him that his duty is to spread the good news. These people probably wished that they were Elisha being called by Elijah. When Elijah called Elisha, Elisha responded with a very similar request, “Let me go kiss my parents.” Elijah’s response was a bit more civil than Jesus’ but it got to the same point. Elijah basically said, “Sure, take care of whatever you need to, but remember it is God who is calling you, not me.” Jesus and Elijah both want to be careful to let people know that following requires a real commitment to search after God’s purposes and then to let them work their way out in your life, regardless of what that might mean.
This brings us to the man who said, “I will follow you wherever you go”
This is certainly the right thing to have said but Jesus’ answer is clever. Foxholes and birdnests provide natural places where foxes and birds can easily go. The natural world has an order and it’s easy to see. If you want to follow me the road is going to be more difficult. Because I live very much in the world of foxes and birds but in a way that I am always trying to see the creativity that courses in, through, above and below that world. Truly, earth is one holy gift; life is one holy breath.
We don’t hear exactly what happens to these three potential followers. Is it possible that one of them cleverly replied to Jesus, out of earshot of Luke or his source, “Like Elisha recognized Elijah, I recognize that your call comes from the God who has given us the earth to share with foxes, and life to follow you. I will go and bless my family, but know that in all I do I will be following you.”
This morning I’ve suggested the possibility of a following that is aggressive as a whirlwind, as powerful as water, and as clever as a fox. This is a difficult following, but it is natural both to our world and to the creativity that courses in, through, above and below our world. It is perhaps not a comfortable following or one which feels close to our home, to Bluffton. When we look to the sky we see neither rain and lightning nor chariots of fire. Still, if we looked to the sky last night, and celebrated first the community of good friends, and a family of brothers and sisters in Christ, instead of a national holiday, or freedom at a cost we cannot bear, we might have seen fireworks, and in that community a way to follow. Amen


Sermon for Chicago Community Mennonite Church 8/17/05

Elegy for Giant Tortoises
by Margaret Atwood

Let others pray for the passenger pigeon
the dodo, the whooping crane, the eskimo:
everyone must specialize

I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the giant tortoises
withering finally on a remote island.

I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can’t quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave travelling shapes vision:

on the road where I stand they will materialize
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water

their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,

in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralysed
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars

where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed,
our holy and obsolete symbols.

This is a sermon about tortoises. It is about the particularity of their bodies. What strange animals they are, “awkward without water, small heads pondering from side to side, useless armour sadder than thanks or history.” But even as they move to the peripheries of our eyes we feel, viscerally and palpably, the expectation that they will materialize in front of us, interrupting our expectations, reframing our holy and obsolete symbols.
It is also a sermon about the uneasy relationship we have as modern people to our minds, spirits and bodies. We alternate between brash confidence and strange praise as we realize the possibilities for failure and success in our reason, passion and palpable sensibilities.
I want to deconstruct both the tortoise and modern subject this morning. Passages like Romans 8 are so involved and complex and have been subject to so much historical and doctrinal sediment that they need deconstruction in order become once again strange and palpable to us. We only understand that which we can touch and that which feels strange.
This insistence, that we only understand that which we can touch and that which feels strange seems to bounce right up against Paul’s words in early in Romans 8. Here we are told that we can’t trust flesh; that we need to die to our bodies and live according to the spirit. We’ve taken this message to heart. We believe that our bodies and our mind are distinct; that the mind is in a battle with the body; and that the impulses of our bodies must be shut down if we are to follow Christ.
Now life according to the flesh is death; I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. And I’m not going to engage in any detailed exgesis of sarx; Paul’s word for the flesh. I don’t want to do this for two reasons: it’s summer and you don’t want to listen to it anyways, and our love of words is one of the problems here. We distrust the flesh but we love the word. Especially when we are acting like Protestants or Postmoderns we love the word.
Protestants fell in love with the word during the reformation. The word, in the sole authority of scripture and the ascension of preaching and scholarship supplanted the much more embodied religion of icons, symbols and relics that had developed in mediaeval Catholicism. Mennonites found a middle ground between these two ways of being Christian. We abandoned icons, relics and symbols, but our words have always been supported by the inarticulate groanings of the Holy Spirit which are too deep for words. Our words have always been an afterthought growing out of the things that our bodies have already done. And our words never taste best spoken, our words are sung.
Postmodernity fell in love with the word as it tried to find a way to supplant modern ideals of rationality, progress, elitism, and time. Postmoderns turn to language and argue that language creates our bodies. In our speaking, writing and thinking, in dialogue with others and by ourselves, we inscribe our bodies with meaning and sense.
But the point as Paul gets around to telling us is not about the word. Its about the word made flesh. Words don’t negate our bodies as in protestantism. Words don’t save our bodies as in postmodernity. Words are the way we communicate, but there are strange groanings, too deep for words that are our best conduit to God.
I think what Paul is really after here is not at all an attack on the body. For Paul our bodies are not a shell holding our souls. For Paul our bodies are not the evil part of who we are. For Paul its all about how to follow Christ, how to best ready ourselves for adoption. What this means, I think, is that we shouldn’t live according to human logic but instead that we pattern our bodies according to God’s reign. The future redemption of all creation shows us that the body is not in and of itself evil, just that the body first must be God’s.
Tortoises help us learn this. They can’t trust their bodies according a gravity unmediated by water and buoyancy. They find themselves slow and ponderous, outfitted with a useless armour for a useless war. On land they are sadder than thanks. On land they are sadder than history. On land they are groaning inwardly waiting for the Spirit to intercede for them. Tortoises on land are like humans living apart from God. There is nothing inherent evil about it, but it’s clumsy, useless and sad.
In the water, tortoises are graceful moving quickly and articulately negotiating a world that was made for them. In water they are submerged by exactly that which created them, sustains them and will redeem them. In the water how can tortoises be anything but alive and vibrant? In the water tortoise’s can trust their bodies to be supported.
I know I’ve hit the difficult ideas to think about drum pretty hard this morning. I recognize the irony here. In trying to make palpable the body of Christ, I might have only made it strange. I don’t believe that strangeness is the only way to touch something, I’m just not a very good poet yet.
Meister Eckhart is much better.

IF I WERE ALONE in the desert and feeling afraid,
I would want a child to be with me.
For then my fear would disappear and I would be made strong.
This is what life in itself can do because it is so noble, so full of pleasure and so powerful.

But if I could not have a child with me,
I would like to have at least a living animal at my side to comfort me.

let those who bring about wonderful things in their big, dark books take an animal to help them.

The life within the animal will give strength in turn.
For equality gives strength in all things and at all times.