First Mennonite Church Bluffton OH Sept. 16, 2007 By Perry Bush
Scriptures: I Cor 1: 18-25
Psalm 78: 1-4
Matt 5: 38-45
Good morning! I am delighted to be here with you all, my own congregation, on this beautiful, cool fall morning. I am especially happy to be up here on Christian education Sunday, and have been asked by the education commission to say something in regards to the importance of Christian education. This is a theme I can address with confidence and even some expertise. Like so many of you, I’ve been intensively involved in Christian education for some time; again like many of you, I make my living at it. Moreover, after years and years of consistently saying no to the education commission when they’ve asked me to teach Sunday school, in this past year I’ve begun teaching Sunday school to the Jr high and Senior high classes. So I am pleased to report that I can now stand up in front of you to make the case that you should consider teaching Sunday school without quite the same level of personal hypocrisy.
I am also fortunate in that in his sermon last week, Neal Blough made my own job this morning so much easier. In fact, he delivered fully half – and the harder and more important half — of my message for me. I know that was a week ago, and a lot’s happened since then, so let me begin by trying to recap it for you. Neal so eloquently reminded us last Sunday that we are called to be an alien people and that the world is not our home. His central text was 1 Peter 2: 9-12, and it won’t hurt us to hear it again:
“9But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
11Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
Yet the problem with us Christians, Neal said, is that we find this world too alluring, too comfortable. We’re too apt to forget out true citizenship in God’s reign and settle into the world’s patterns too easily. The world has ways of assimilating us, seducing us and drawing us away from our true calling as God’s people. Neal held up the church’s seduction by the forces of nationalism as a recent and particularly dangerous illustration of the way that the world has wooed us away from our true calling as Christians. I was especially struck by his poignant example of the German Mennonite in the uniform of a Nazi army officer. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God,” writes St Peter. We have to be always on our guard to remain true to our ultimate obligation, even when the enticements of the world seem so innocuous and seem to beckon with such glittering intensity.
Part of the reason the ways of the world seem so inviting is because many of them are innocuous. We can participate in them without any violation of our Christian calling at all. While most of us would part company with our friends in the Reformed tradition on many key theological points, parts of the Reformed doctrine of creation are worth remembering. God created the world as good, they remind us, and we can enthusiastically participate in whole realms of God’s creation as beautiful and worthy of celebration. In my experience, the people who talk this way usually will quickly suggest as examples things like the music of Mozart, the writings of John Bunyan or Jonathan Edwards and the sculpture of Michelangelo as worldly matters which we Christians can celebrate. That’s not a bad list and I’d sign on to it, though my own list would also include the art of people like Jack Earl, the writing of John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac, and the music of certain blues harmonica players. The point, however, is the same. In insisting that the world is not our home, I don’t think that Neal Blough or I would accept the corollary assumption that it is all a dark and evil place and that we Christians should have nothing to do with it.
But where we do part company with our Reformed friends, however, is that Anabaptist Christians would clearly find many more aspects of God’s creation than they would in which we cannot participate and which present profound challenges to our ultimate commitment to be God’s people. In particular, for my purposes here this morning and also in my career as a historian, I think the way that the world tells its own stories, the narratives it constructs, are profoundly threatening and dangerous to us as Christian people. There is, I think, a mainstream narrative, a set of assumptions, about present and past realities that runs counter to our identities and purposes as disciples of Jesus. Let me give you some examples.
For one, underlying the mainstream narrative is a kind of progressive outlook on the world, this foundational confidence that things are getting better, that our world in general and our country in particular are proceeding directly to a great big beautiful tomorrow. History in particular can be read as a great big morality play. Certainly, this mainstream progressive narrative admits to some dark spots, though usually in a general abstract way that doesn’t assign responsibility, i.e., “mistakes were made.” In this manner it can put matters like centuries of racism or sexism safely behind it and continue with the story of human progress into an ever brighter future. We know as Americans in our very bones that if we work hard, we will succeed. We also tend to accept the corollary assumption that anybody who is poor really didn’t try and is probably deserving of their poverty. By such easy assumptions we are rendered more insensitive to the needs of the poor. In politics the story portrays the actions of self-actualized men and women whose purposeful actions lead us confidently towards the good. A half century ago, some of the most sensitive tellers of this mainstream narrative like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr partly shrouded this progressive vision with hues of irony, where sometimes human actions led to unintended consequences. Yet I don’t see much evidence that the current dominant storytellers of our day are reading Niebuhr much anymore, or for considering carefully the possibility that their actions may have different effects than those they currently intend
Secondly, the dominant master narrative proceeds from a set of understandings that many of us refer to in shorthand as the Myth of Redemptive Violence. That violence in general and war in particular has functioned to progressive and even redemptive effect throughout history is a truism that has largely proceeded without much questioning throughout the west. According to theologian Walter Wink, the “victory of order over chaos by means of violence” has been an integral part of the mythic structure of western culture for millennia; “it is,” argues Wink, “the spirituality of the modern world.” In our own country in particular, the linkage between violence and freedom has particularly deep roots. Assumptions that violence and war have made American freedom possible are so central to our culture that nearly all Americans repeat them reflexively. Terribly destructive bloody wars become neatly encapsulated by apologetic little formulaic phrasings, like the Civil War as “the war to free the slaves” or World War II as the “good war.” In this manner, wars can assume their own needed place in the progressive vision and people of peace easily transmuted into obstacles in the way to a better world, or else parasites on the good accomplished by others.
On the face of it, it’s unclear to me why such myths have taken on the explanatory power that they have. They’re not even obedient to their own rules and logic. For instance, the myth of redemptive violence is fundamentally dismissive of history. Its central character is always a monster of the present moment — a Hitler, a Saddam Hussein, a bin Laden, – that is immediately conjured up as the ultimate, un-answerable sanction for warfare. Of course such monsters are products of particular historical contexts. Evildoers do not attack us merely because they “hate our freedom,” or because they have some kind of genetic predisposition to kill. That only happens in utter fantasies like bad science fiction novels, comic books or speeches by American presidents. Some of the myth is likewise built on claims that, on second glance, are really just asinine. For example, take the American Revolution, which is still largely presented in hushed tones as some kind of holy war for freedom. Sometimes I want to tell Americans to just please, would you just take two seconds and reflect on the existence of the nation of Canada? Canada had no violent revolution yet still – so far as we can tell, with the limited knowledge most Americans have of Canada – doesn’t seem today to be groaning under the heel of British tyranny. Many Americans will generally concede this point.
Yet other aspects of this large, sweeping master narrative, with all of its subsidiary assumptions, have been more seductive to us, haven’t they? And many of us squirm with embarrassment today when we recall these things: like, for instance, the recommendation by the Virginia Mennonite Conference in 1941 that African American Mennonites should drink from separate communion cups, or that, well within the living memories of some of you, minstrel shows were a common feature of campus life at Mennonite colleges. Or, for another example, we know how traditional patriarchal gender attitudes had so saturated the homes of our ancestors that generations of capable, talented Mennonite women were allowed only to explore their gifts within the strict, narrow confines of domesticity. Nor are these examples of our seduction to the ways of the world found only in the past. I only have to look around at the homes of many committed Mennonites today – including my own – to see that despite Jesus’ warnings of the dangers of riches and our own church’s call to simple living, the enticements of materialism have penetrated among most of us very deeply.
In sum, brothers and sisters, to a very great degree, we’ve been assimilated; we’ve been seduced. Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold, cautions St. Paul, but for us broken Christians, too often we’ve allowed that dominant narrative to capture us too completely. To a very large and uncomfortable degree, the mainstream narrative of the world has proved very compelling to us. So maybe one of our primary means of resistance, and to remaining the alien people, the foreigners and exiles, God calls us to be, lies just in remembering our different story, our different narratives. If we’re going to resist the world’s call and remain God’s people, in other words, we need to engage in Christian education.
All of us are aware, I think, of how centrally the process of remembering the stories of our own families can be in retaining an identity as members of a particular family. This is what family reunions partly are for. We Bushes had our own rich experience with that this summer. A month ago, along with my brother and his family, we Ohio Bushes rented a big cabin at a state park deep in the woods of Pennsylvania. My sister came down from Alaska with several of her kids, my father flew in from his home in LA; and we had a great week together, getting reacquainted with each other for the first time in some years. The high point for us all came one evening around a campfire outside, when I asked my dad if he would share with the grandkids some of the stories of all the Bush kin, now gone. He initially said no, he couldn’t think of any, but then the stories started to roll out, there by the firelight, and the kids forgot all about the mosquitoes and the marshmallows and listened intently to these stories of Canadian railroad detectives and seamstresses and other of their ancestors, going all the way back to the arrival of a set of English immigrants to British Columbia a century ago. This was especially functional for my kids. Some of you please forgive me, but given the dialogue common in my house, I just think it’s important for my kids to be able to assign some kind of positive connotation to their last name. Most of you, I think, have enjoyed similar experiences with your own families, and know well how important such times of story-telling are in your own family identities.
How much more important, then, are such times for those of us who want to strengthen our larger Christian family, and who want to remain faithful to God’s calling to be God’s people, here, now, in this place! We have a grand, seeping, multi-faceted narrative of our own to remember. We need desperately to gather round our own campfires and tell those stories again and again and again, so that we might be better able to resist when the world signals and tries to beckon us away. The story of our faith is a story that runs directly counter to the mainstream narrative at every possible point. We know the story, in our bones, but with my remaining time, I just want to sketch out some of its central points with you.
Let’s begin just with the Gospel stories: of how this peasant girl in an obscure corner in the far reaches of the Roman empire gets visited by an angel one night, who says to her, with amazing audacity, that she’s been a very good girl but now she’s going to become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Messiah. We’ve so enveloped this story in gingerbread and tinsel and sweet nativity plays that I think we sometimes forget about how utterly scandalous it was. Here’s a captive people who have been awaiting for centuries for the return of their Messiah. This would be a messiah, who, they were sure, would arrive in glory as a conquering military hero and proceed to physically scourge their oppressors. But this messiah comes in the dark of night to startled shepherds and enters the world in the muck and flies of a horse stable. And thus, the central heroine of the Christian faith became, in fact, an illiterate unwed mother living in the first century equivalent of the ghetto.
The whole rest of the story follows perfectly in line with this opening scene. The baby king has to flee with his family as a refugee, undocumented workers living in Egypt. As he comes of age he’s trained as a carpenter before he launches out on his own as an itinerant preacher, when he makes his home with outcasts, tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Repeatedly his followers ask him when do we get to put on the purple robe, make war on the Romans and take power, and he keeps telling them no, he’s going to be a different kind of messiah. At every step along the way he defies convention, acts in scandalous manner, and refuses to conform to any of the set expectations of his day. In his teaching he repeatedly declares “you have heard it said…but I say…” He rejects violence, treats women as equally important parts of the community, lifts up the lowly, denounces the rich, and then receives the kind of fate that the mainstream narrative reserves for rebels such as him. For the world in which the early church emerged, the cross, of course, was the biggest scandal of all. You don’t have to do a Mel Gibson to this to realize that this was a gruesome but also a very public and humiliating death. The cross would be the last symbol that the mainstream narrative would associate itself with. It would be like today identifying ourselves with a hangman’s noose or an executioner’s gurney. But what does Paul write to the Corinthians? “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” he says, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” And then he calls us as his followers to join him there. You don’t conquer through violence, he instructs his disciples; you conquer through suffering, redemptive love.
The whole story of the early church follows along the same lines of this intensely counter-cultural message. The early Christians lived together, shared goods in common, fed the poor, rejected the sword and lived as a pilgrim people, behavior which got them branded as dissidents, subversives, aliens. Then, of course, came that critical moment for the church that Neal outlined last week: Constantine’s embrace of the church, and the rapid transformation of this counter-cultural faith into the official; religion of the empire. Sometimes it was the cranks, the heretics, who remained truest to the original vision. Our own church was born, of course, in that critical moment in early 16th century Europe, when a group of disaffected young people began to insist that Christianity was a voluntary commitment that one entered into as an adult. Then these people baptized each other, rejected the sword, rescued their persecutors and went off to their deaths singing hymns of praise to God.
At that point as in others, our own narrative splits off into a thousand different directions. But we here in this community, remember at least one very small but important stream: the Mennonites who settled in the Jura region of Switzerland who decided in the early nineteenth century to migrate to the new rich farmlands of north central Ohio. We know the names of some of those people: Steiner, Moser, Luginbuhl. At the turn of the century some of them founded a college and others of them, in a period of great internal conflict and turmoil, erected a church building in the small town of Bluffton, with a beautiful blue domed roof designed to remind them of heaven. This emerged into a separate congregation, which is, of course, us. But the “we” has expanded too, to include a number of new Mennonite names: not just Moser and Sterner and Luginbuhl but also Intagliata and Estell and Collier, and Ordonez and even – as bizarre as it might seem — even Bush.
Brothers and sisters, this is why we need to gather round in portioned off little classrooms on Sunday mornings: to tell and retell these wonderful stories that mark us off as the people of God. This is why it’s important for all of us to head off to Sunday school and even for more of us to volunteer to teach it. We need to gather to reflect on scriptures again and again. We need to come together to hear and rehear the story of God’s people. These are the stories that help us resist the seductive ways of the world. This is how we remember who we are, who we belong to, and who our God is. This is why we do Christian education.