If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, October 31, 2011

Practicing for Heaven: Revelation 7:9-17

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on All Saints Sunday, October 30, 2011.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

You’ve probably heard this joke, but I’ll tell it anyway. The punch line is worth the retelling. This joke comes in several versions and has been adapted to fit the audience in which it is told. I first heard it as a Baptist. Since this audience is Mennonite, I will make it fit us.

A man died and went to heaven. He met Saint Peter at the pearly gates, who gave him a tour of heaven. Peter and the man came to a cloud with a bunch of winged saints genuflecting, making the sign of the cross, and praying the rosary. Peter says to the man, “Those are the Catholics.” They came upon another cloud of winged saints rolling on the mist, raising their arms in the air, and shouting “Hallelujah!” Saint Peter says to the man, “Those are the Pentecostals.” Finally, they came to a cloud with winged saints hard at work on a project and Peter put his finger to his lips and says, “Shhhhh. Those are the Mennonites. They think they are the only ones here.”

That joke is funny and sad at the same time. We can laugh at it for naming our tendency to think that our group has a corner on God’s truth. It’s sad in that this joke about being arrogantly exclusive is so adaptable to different Christian groups that people across the church still get it! Even the heaven imagined in this joke is a place in which the church is still divided into separate groups of likeminded Christians or is considered to be exclusively for people like us.

I’ll bet whoever those saints are on that one lonely cloud, they probably died believing with all their hearts the kind of theology I heard in a children’s song for the first time this week. It was a song someone listened to as a child. It goes like this:

One door and only one
And yet its sides are two
Inside and outside
On which side are you?

One Door and only one
And yet its sides are two
I’m on the inside
On which side are you?

This self-congratulatory little children’s song presents a pretty exclusive view of heaven. This song doesn’t sound or look anything like the children’s song from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Would you be mine? Could you be mine? This song gives the impression that the saints in heaven are those who believe they are the only ones on the inside, people on our side of the door, people pretty much like us. I’m on the inside. On which side are you?

Our scripture text for All Saints Sunday presents us with a different vision of the saints in heaven. John, the writer of Revelation, has a vision of a wide heaven, as wide as the sea. The saints he describes in heaven are not there because they believed they were on the inside of heaven’s door, that somehow those who believed like they did were the only citizens of heaven.

John describes two groups or perspectives of saints in heaven. What appears as two groups may be one group seen from a different perspective. The first group is numbered at 144,000 of the twelve tribes of Israel, who are sealed. That is, they are marked for protection. These may represent the new Israel, the people of God in all their diversity, Gentile as well as Jew. The number is a symbol of completeness.

There is second group or second perspective of the same group in John’s heavenly vision. He sees “a great multitude” of people that no one can count. They come from every nation, from all tribes and peoples. These saints are robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. In contrast to armies that wash the blood of their enemies from their robes after battle to be purified, these saints have been washed in the blood of the nonviolent Lamb. They cry in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Salvation does not belong to the Roman emperor and is not an exclusive possession of our particular group “inside the door,” but salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb.

The saints John sees in heaven are there not simply because they believed a certain laundry list of things or some salvation formula, but because they are witnesses. Interestingly, the Greek word for “witness” is the same word for “martyr.” These saints have witnessed to their faith with their own bodies. They have come out of a “great ordeal.” These saints have lived faithfully in the midst of persecution, trial, and tribulation. They have resisted the imperial Roman propaganda of divine emperor worship and remained faithful to Christ, the Lamb. They sing a subversive song that undermines the state’s bloody, violent, and oppressive idea of peace and salvation. These saints have lived their faith.

And here is what I want us to see. John’s vision of the saints in heaven is of a multicultural, multilingual, multinational cloud of witnesses. The saints are not . one homogeneous group of people, like most of our congregations. Neither are they cookie cutter Christian, made from the same mold, like what some Christians think we should be. As the universal, transcultural church of God these saints speak different languages. They come from different worldviews. They share in diverse customs and rituals. They have a rainbow of skin colors. They are from different social and economic locations. They each have their own stories, personalities, and family backgrounds. And I suspect these saints in heaven did not all believe exactly the same thing. This great multitude of saints stretches the word “diversity” to its breaking point! And they are all in unity! They all sit at the welcome table of God. They are united in praise of God and the Lamb! Hallelujah!

I was privileged to be part of group of musical saints which took as their name Revelation 7:9. It was a bit of heaven. Not just because we played Rock, soul, jazz, spirituals, and African music, but because we were composed of a European-American, two African-Americans, a Mexican-American, and a Puerto-Rican-American. And believe it or not, we were all Mennonites! And we were only a fraction of the diversity of the saints in the Mennonite Church.

As I ponder John’s vision of the saints in heaven, my vision of heaven has been shaped by images from the World Christian Gathering of Indigenous Peoples. This is a triannual gathering that brings together indigenous peoples from around the world to worship together and discuss how they can bring their diverse worldviews, cultures, and rituals into their worship and practice, just as white Europeans have done for centuries.

When Iris worked for Mennonite Central Committee she was part of this gathering when it met in Australia. She brought back some videos of the worship services she attended. The images were amazing. Here was the church in all its diversity, from many tribes, nations, languages, cultures, worshiping God together in unity! Maori men with tattooed faces thrusting out their tongues in defiant dances. Hawaiian women in grass skirts dancing the traditional hula. Native Americans in full head dress and beaded leather outfits stomping and twirling. Painted-faced aboriginal people playing the digeridoo and clacking their boomerangs together. All were praising, dancing, singing, and worshipping God together as one church! Amazing! Praise be to God and to the Lamb!

If heaven looks like that, count me in! At the same time, if heaven looks like that, we may need to “practice for heaven.” What do I mean by that? In a rhetorical or figurative sense I mean living into the vision. John’s heaven is a literary vision whose purpose is to shape how the church is to live in the here and now. John’s Revelation is not so much a blueprint for the future as it is a vision for shaping how we live in the present. Revelation not only constructs a vision of the world in which principalities and powers are in a cosmic struggle. It also creates the vision of a world healed and whole, a faithful church with saints from across the globe gathered in praise to God. These visions or revelations are not like a crystal ball that allows us to peer into the future. Rather, they allow us to see what the church can be when it resists the powers of division, demonization, death, and destruction and become the diverse, divine, determined church God meant for us to be.

In a more literal sense, “practicing for heaven” means getting ready for the future church. That is, if we think of heaven as a literal place where we go, a place where all the saints are gathered together, then we might be in for a rude awakening when we get there. Remember the faces of God’s neighbors from last Sunday? If heaven is a place, well, we may see a lot of those kinds of faces in heaven. Are we prepared for that? If we are having a hard time tolerating some of the people in our own generally homogenous congregation, we may be in for a big shock in heaven!

And try to get this picture in your head. God will not be expecting from us just a distant, cool welcome of all these diverse people. God will be throwing a party, a feast, a banquet and throwing her arms around a bunch of strangers, misfits, prodigals, and people that don’t look like any kind of Christian we would warm up to! Are we ready for that?

If not, we better start practicing. Practicing for heaven will mean more than arrogantly believing that I’m on the inside of heaven’s door and you, I’m not so sure about you. Practicing for heaven will mean not just rubbing shoulders with people with different worldviews, Christian perspectives, customs, cultures, languages, nationalities, economic and political ideologies, but it will mean embracing them as saints, God’s children, brothers and sisters.

So, look out over this congregation and ask yourself, “How do we practice for heaven?” What will that mean for worship at Zion? One race or ethnic group? One language? One type of music? One way to worship? How do we show hospitality to new people? Make them fit into our mold? Make them find their way into the center of our church life? How do we deal with people in the congregation who have different perspectives from us? Ignore them? Complain about them? Love them? That may take some heavenly kind of practice.

Look at our surrounding communities and ask yourself, “How do we practice for heaven?” What will that mean about how we relate to other Christians? Who is our neighbor? Should we invite people who have never set foot in a church to come through our church doors? Or should we stand on the inside, look out at our neighbors and arrogantly ask them “on which side are you?” If I know anything about Jesus, he may be standing outside the doors with the misfits and outsiders!

Look out across our wild and wonderful global community and ask yourself, “How do we practice for heaven?” Can we learn something about being church from our brothers and sisters around the globe? Maybe then heaven will look more like a fiesta or a dance.

What will practicing for heaven mean for you? Our congregation? Our Mennonite Church? Our ecumenical relationships? Our global community? Just imagine all of God’s people gathered together in praise. Imagine a truly global, multinational, multicultural, multilinguistic communion of the saints?

After this I looked, and there was a multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Loving Our Neighbors: Matthew 22:15-22

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church on Sunday, October 23, 2011.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood; a beautiful day for a neighbor would you be mine, could you be mine? For three decades Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, songwriter, and television host, taught us all about being a good neighbor on the children’s TV show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Fred Rogers was a good neighbor to everyone. He got up at 5 am every morning to read his Bible and pray. He didn’t wear his Christian faith like a pin on his cardigan sweater but displayed his love for God through his love for all God’s children. His gentle and loving character and welcome of all kinds of people made him something of a Christ figure. Here was a man who knew what it meant to love your neighbor.

In our scripture text for today we meet another “gentle man” who taught us all about loving our neighbor. Having heard that Jesus had shut the pie holes of the Sadducees, who tried to entrap him, the Pharisees put their heads together for another plan. They had a lawyer test Jesus. Now this was not the kind of lawyer you see in a business suit with briefcase who defends his clients in a court. This lawyer was an expert in the Torah, Jewish law. The lawyer asked Jesus a test question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” In the Gospel of Luke the lawyer tests Jesus with a totally different question. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, I’m not exactly sure what the strategy was behind the test question. Did the Pharisees think that Jesus might say something against the law? Did they hope that Jesus would trip over his own feet, reveal his lack of knowledge, and undermine his authority? Would Jesus elevate some laws over others and dismiss other important ones? Is the lawyer checking this teacher’s credentials? I’m not sure.

I am sure about Jesus’ answer. Although the lawyer asks what is the greatest commandment, Jesus’ curiously answered with two commandments. The first and greatest commandment is from Deuteronomy 6:5. It immediately follows what is known as the Shema or Shema Yisrael in Deuteronomy 6:4. This verse is the centerpiece of Jewish faith. Today it is begins the morning and evening Jewish prayer services. It encapsulates the essence of Jewish monotheism. Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

Following the Shema is the great commandment, which Jesus restates. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. Jesus passed the test! He should have gotten an A. In Mark’s gospel the lawyer confirms that Jesus gave the right answer, as if to say, “Your teaching credentials are okay.”

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. This commandment indicates a deep passion for God. This is not a casual, platonic relationship we’re talking about here. Stop by God’s house on Sunday morning, drop a dollar in the plate, and go about your merry business the rest of the week. Can you imagine if that was the kind of relationship we kept with another person? Dumpsville, here I come!

The great commandment uses the dangerous language of “love.” And men, we know that when we first uttered that loaded word, as hard as it may have been, it meant one thing….commitment. Right, men? That’s one reason why we don’t take that word lightly. It means committing yourself, your whole self, to someone else. Heart, soul, mind, and strength. Everything that you are. Love is a serious commitment, not to be taken lightly.

The greatest commandment even goes further than that because the love and commitment are to God. This commandment is like the conditions for marriage to God! No fooling around here. No sitting on the couch, eating chips, and watching the game while God stands in the kitchen doorway tapping her foot waiting for you to take out the trash. No running off with the guys to go hunting while the “little lady” stays at home caring for the sick kids. Loving God with every fiber of our being is serious stuff. It’s lifelong. It can be tough. Loving God means….gulp….commitment.

Then, Jesus did something curious. He added a second commandment to answer the lawyer’s test question. He said, “And the second is like it.” Wait a minute Jesus, I only asked for one commandment. Now, you’re giving me two? What’s the deal?

Love your neighbor as yourself. What has that got to do with loving God? Why the two commandments? This commandment comes from Leviticus 19:18. Jesus answered the lawyer with two commandments because….you can’t have one without the other. Loving God and loving neighbor are inextricably tied together, like a marriage. You want a good relationship with me, you will have to have a good relationship with my wife. Jesus is saying, “You want to love God, then you will have to love your neighbor.” The two go together like two peas in a pod, like twins in a family, like close friends for life. They are inseparable.

Uh, oh. This is beginning to sound like I may have bitten off more than I can chew. My commitment to God, like my commitment in marriage, means that all those crazy relatives come with the deal? You’ve got to be kidding! Loving God means loving my neighbors? And I’m supposed to love my neighbor as I love myself? Does that mean if I don’t care for myself all that much it let’s me off the hook? This is getting tougher by the minute.

1 John doesn’t help us out much either. It puts jagged teeth in the link between loving God and neighbor where it says: “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ yet hates their brother (or sister), they are a liar!” If you don’t love your neighbor, who you have seen, then how can you love God, who you haven’t seen? Duh! Whoever loves God must also love their neighbor.

The commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves is more than a hope for interpersonal relationships. It’s a social vision. This is how a people, a community are to live together under God. When we think of neighbor, we think of people living next door to us in our neighborhood. Not those on the other side of town or across the tracks. The commandment in Leviticus probably had in mind the fellow Jew; the whole community of faith in all its nasty diversity, including the marginalized, the widow, the poor, and the sick. The neighbor was anyone who was part of their faith community, their people. Translated for us: Love your fellow Christians. What? And I was just about to put that bumpersticker on my car that says, “Lord, save me from your followers!”

But, Jesus took love of neighbor evn further. In Luke’s version of this narrative after Jesus answered the lawyer with loving God and neighbor, the lawyer asks another question: “And who is my neighbor?” He told him the parable of the Good Samaritan, which used to be an oxymoron, like “military intelligence” or “found missing.” Jesus gives the lawyer, and whoever was listening in, a visual picture of what being a good neighbor looks like. In essence Jesus was saying with his parable, “Who is my neighbor? Well, let me paint you a picture.” In his squirmy story Jesus put a despised Samaritan in the role of the hero, a real bad idea. Jesus, the people are not going to like that! You should be more sensitive and pastoral than to shove their enemies in their faces. And to make them the hero. That is going beyond being rude. In his clever storytelling, Jesus turns the enemy into the one who acts like a good neighbor, but also makes the enemy a neighbor to the lawyer. I wonder if this story were retold today what we would call it. The story of the Good Muslim? The parable of the Good Politician? Oh, I could go on, but some of us might start to squirm in our pews….or pulpit!

Jesus spelled out clearly who is included among our neighbors in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “You have heard that it was said that you should love your neighbors and hate your enemies, but I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Love your enemy as if he were your neighbor. Now, Jesus that is just plain nuts! If you love those who love you, what great accomplishment is that. Even godless athiests can do that much! Well, Lord, I guess you have a point there.

So, I guess we will have to broaden the borders of our neighborhood. I have a suspicion that Jesus was looking at our neighborhood through the eyes of God. That means we will have to welcome the strange, different, and diverse faces that make up God’s neighborhood. But, beware my people, God’s neighborhood has mercy streets that are wide, as wide as the sea. It’s blocks are long. It’s not segregated. There is no “across the tracks.” Everyone lives right next door to us with all their strange habits, weird customs, and odd personalities. And there are no national boundaries in God’s neighborhood.

Let me introduce you to some of God’s neighbors. Take a look at some of the faces of our neighbors in God’s wild and wonderful, disturbing and delightful neighborhood.

*At this point in the sermon I presented a slide show that included the following pictures along with the song "You don't love God, if you don't love your neighbor" by Rhonda Vincent.I tried to fit some of the slides with the song lyrics

As you looked at those photos of neighbors, do you think you could love them as you love yourself? I don’t know if I could. And looking at those faces it made me wonder what that meant about my love for God.

Are those people really my neighbors? As I looked at the faces of God’s neighbors Mr. Roger’s song kept ringing in my ears as if they were the voice of Christ:

It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Render Unto God: Matthew 22:15-22

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Chiurch on Sunday, October 16, 2011.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.

Death and taxes…. the two proverbial certainties in life. People worry that the deficit and government providing health care will raise our taxes. Our two major political parties perpetually debate tax increases. Republicans do not want taxes raised at any cost. Democrats would rather the rich carry a greater percentage of taxation. But questions about taxes are nothing new. They are as old as the Bible. Read my lips. Taxes will follow us to the grave.

The subject of taxes is a topic for heated debate. Taxes are a powerful symbol of the clash between the interests of the individual and the interests of the society. They are the point where the personal and the political collide head on. So, it is not surprising that the subject of taxes has provoked debate, incited revolutions, and split people along political party lines. Talk of taxes raises a lot of debated questions.

Death and taxes. Jesus had to deal with these two certainties in his last days. Death and taxes are linked together in today's biblical narrative. But the question of taxes seems to have hounded the heels of Jesus from the cradle to the grave. It was a census for taxation that brought his parents to Bethlehem. And the accusation that Jesus taught the people not to pay the poll tax was thrown at him during his trial. Even Christ could not escape the question of taxes. Death and taxes. In today's text they both are headed in a collision course, with Jesus in the middle.

The instigators of this collision are a collusion of two major political groups in Jesus' day---the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Herodians were Roman puppets who supported the rule of Herod Antipas. The Pharisees were elite religious leaders who governed within the political sphere allotted to them by Rome. In any question of taxation the Herodians would have supported it. Like most Jews under Roman domination, the Pharisees would have been opposed to taxation. They were primarily out to get the one who was disturbing the peace of their power. But politics always seems to create strange bedfellows. Pharisees and Herodians. Bush and Noriega, Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein. Yes, believe it or not, at one time, even the U.S. and Iraq were political bedfellows! When opposing political factions have a common enemy, they tend to work together.

The Pharisees and Herodians were working together to trap Jesus into making a political blunder, so as to get him out of their hair. The followers of these two groups came to Jesus one day. They spoke with a forked tongue. There was venom in their sweet words. Beneath their flattery was hidden deceit and trickery. You can almost hear the spring catch on their steel trap as they say to Jesus, "Rabbi, we know that you are a sincere person. You truthfully teach the way of God. Neither do you express personal preference toward people, or show partiality." You see, they were craftily setting up Jesus. They were buttering him up with the spread of impartiality, so they could toast him. The coalition of Pharisees and Herodians wanted Jesus to take political sides, knowing that whichever side he took would mean his goose was cooked.

What they wanted Jesus to tell the crowd was not his personal opinion, but the way of God on the issue of taxation. We might compare that scene to the Congress asking Sonia Sotomayor, "Judge, we know that you are fair, honest, truthful, unbiased, non-partisan, without pre-judgment or partiality, a wise Latina woman. So, tell us then, does an unborn child have constitutional rights?" Hear the trap go “snap!” But into the sizzling stew that Jesus was placed, add the extra ingredient of God. In other words, they didn't want just his opinion, or the law's. They wanted Jesus to pronounce the word of God on this issue. This is what God says! So, whatever he said to this politically divided crowd, they were going to give Jesus enough rope to hang himself.

Then the question with sharp teeth was thrown at Jesus: "Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not." They were ready to snag Jesus on the sharp horns of a dilemma. And Jesus was aware of their deadly intent. If he said "no", then he would find himself in hot water not just with the Herodians, but with the whole imperial Roman government. He would have been labeled a revolutionary. If he answered "yes", then Jesus would have committed suicide among his own people, who were opposed to Roman taxation.

You see, taxation was a symbol to the Jewish people of Roman oppression. A resistance movement was even formed and Jewish revolts broke out over Roman taxation. For Jesus to approve of imperial taxation would prove to be volatile. Beneath this question of taxation hid other perplexing questions like; "Can one be a faithful Jew and a loyal subject of Rome? What business has the people of God to do with secular governments? Who is to be obeyed---the Torah or Tiberius? Who is really the Lord---God or Caesar?" The Pharisees and Herodians were hoping for a simple, incriminating answer from Jesus. The trap was ready to spring.

But Jesus' drew the hunter's into their own trap. He asked them to show him the coin used in the tax. The live bomb that they placed in Jesus' hands was about to explode in their own faces. They were being called upon to produce evidence of their own sticky participation in Roman imperialism. Jesus made them participate in answering their own question by having them produce from their own pockets the evidence that would entrap them. They handed Jesus a denarius, a coin equivalent to a day's labor. The coin had their fingerprints on it. Shrewdly, Jesus was implicating them in the political dilemma in which they wanted to trap him. Jesus turned the tables on them and asked them a question, another clever move; answer a question with a question: "Whose head and title are on this coin?"

This coin, used to pay taxes, was a highly controversial symbol in first century Jewish Palestine. It was minted by Emperor Tiberius. It bore his image and the blasphemous title, "Tiberius, Caesar Augustus, the son of the divine Augustus." The image and title were an idolatrous to the Jew and a sign of Roman sovereignty. The Roman coin was such a slap in the Jewish face that during the period of several Jewish rebellions they minted their own coins as symbols of liberty. The question of whose image the coin bore had an obvious answer….Caesar.

You can almost hear the snap of the trap as Jesus' turns their question upon them. But we will have to listen closely to hear it. He says, "Well then, pay back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." Problem easily solved. Or not? On the surface it sounds like a rather straight forward response. His words seem to provide a black and white answer. How simple. Give to Caesar his due and to God his due. The two realms of politics and religion get sorted out and put in their nice, neat compartments. In this drawer are the "things of Caesar." And over there in that drawer are the "things of God." And what are the things of Caesar? Why, they must be things like taxes, politics, economics, the military, government policies, and issues of social welfare. Then, what are the things of God? Well, they must be things like the church, the Bible, worship, prayer, fellowship, personal piety and morality. Jesus' answer sounds like a nice, neat formula for putting religion and politics in their right and proper places. Thank God, that’s solved!

Some might like to hear Jesus' words as a good text for a sermon on the separation of church and state. We may think of Jesus as a good Anabaptist preacher proclaiming a theology of two separate kingdoms; the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. This is Caesar's realm over here and that is God's realm over there and never the twain shall meet. Or if we are not careful listeners, Jesus may even end up sounding like some right wing, conservative American politician or a Boy Scout master who tells his loyal troops that they should do their duty to God and country.

The movie Sergeant York is about the life of Alvin York, the most decorated soldier of World War I. He started out as a pacifist. York tried to avoid induction into the army as a conscientious objector. But, the good sergeant used these very words of Jesus about God and Caesar to determine the answer to a question he had concerning whether or not, as a Christian, he should allow himself to be drafted into the US Army in 1917. And we know the answer he magically pulled out of the hat of Jesus' statement. Ta-da! He’s in the Army now!

If we are not careful, we can become illusionists and turn this saying of Jesus into something as innocuous and non-threatening as the admonition to be both good Christians and good citizens at the same time. We can serve God, while we go off and kill for our country. We can praise God, while we wave our flags and hate our enemies. Well, didn’t Jesus say, “Render unto Caesar…”? And that is exactly what most Christians have done to this revolutionary saying of Jesus. Scout's honor!

Jesus' answer to the question of taxation is intentionally ambiguous. He is not simply straddling the fence to avoid the consequences of taking a clear position. Jesus is handing the barbed question back to us. Those who hear his answer must struggle to answer for themselves what are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God. The two halves of Jesus' answer are not to be taken as referring to two equal but separate realms that deserve our honor. By placing the two realms side by side Jesus forces us to deal with the relationship between the two. We are placed in a position of having to deal with the relationship of the private and the public, religion and politics, faith and society, the sovereignty of the state and the sovereignty of God. Jesus will not allow us to quietly slip away and hide in our private realm of personal piety. And he will not allow us to treat the two realms of God and Caesar separately. Or as someone put it; "We cannot settle questions of political life without considering the claims of God, nor seek to live a religious life oblivious to the problems of society." Jesus throws the "things of Caesar" alongside "the things of God" and causes us to wrestle with them, like Jacob wrestled with the angel.
This struggle is intensified when we place the emphasis on the second half of Jesus' answer, where it properly deserves to go; upon rendering unto God the things that are God's. If we were to ask the common Jew of Jesus' day, "What are the things of God?" what do you think they would have answered? The answer would have been obvious…. everything! What things bear the imprint of God on them? What things are under God’s rule? What things should be examined under the light of God’s kingdom?.....everything.

As the Psalmist says, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and all that is in it." God's things are everything. Politics and piety. Wealth and worship. Torah and taxes. Everything. God is Sovereign of everything.

So, by placing the statement of what is God's next to what is Caesar's, Jesus is not placing together two co-equal realms that deserve our due. Rather, Jesus has thrown into question not only the things that belong to Caesar, but also the very sovereignty of Caesar. The claims of Caesar's lordship become relative alongside the absolute sovereignty of God. The "things of Caesar" are dramatically minimized by the second half of Jesus' answer. God and Caesar, like God and Mammon, are not two lords who stand on equal footing when it comes to our allegiance. God alone is Lord. What we are to render unto Caesar shrinks before the towering question of what we are to render unto God. Jesus has given an answer that explodes our neat, narrow, isolated, ideological categories. So, in the midst of our own religious and political questions, we may become as dumbfounded at what Jesus said as those who first heard his answer.

So, we need to ask ourselves the question; "What in the world are God's things?" In a world where Caesar rules, that can be a rather taxing question. Jesus' response to the Pharisees and Herodians gives us no simple black and white answer to our own contemporary religious and political questions. How do we sort out the legitimate requirements of loyalty to society, and the absolute demand of loyalty to God? Should we always obey the government? What if the government oppresses the poor and marginalized, thus dishonoring God? Was segregation a government issue or a religious and moral issue? What if the laws are unjust? Should Christians ever be involved in civil disobedience and not obey certain human laws? Were the Anabaptists right for disobeying the laws of the government? What if Caesar's immigration policies send Central Americans back to poverty, persecution, and death? Should Christians assist undocumented, or should I say “illegal,” immigrants because God commanded us to welcome the stranger in our midst?

Should we always pay our taxes? What if they are used to support wars like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, to train assassins, and to stockpile nuclear weapons? If Caesar requires us to go to some Middle Eastern country and defend our country's interests, must we render unto Caesar his due? Should young Mennonites support their nation by going to war? Should Christians be Republicans or Democrats? Which is God’s party? Should Christians vote? Should we avoid politics altogether? What is God’s position on all these questions? Which of these issues should be left to the government? Do we, as Christians, merely answer these questions along liberal or conservative political party lines? What is your answer? Tell me, good and wise Christian. Right now, in front of this congregation. These are indeed taxing questions.

Now, wouldn't you like for me to give all of you a simple answer to each one of these questions? I'm afraid that if I did, I might find myself in the position of Jesus snagged on the horns of a dilemma deciding between two sides of an issue that are strongly held by different people in this congregation. But I am not Jesus, though I think I have some good answers to those questions. Each of us must learn to answer these questions for ourselves. Not by marching lock step with a particular political party or ideology and their selective set of moral questions and answers. Your answers must come from Christ. And I suspect that he will not give you an easy answer either, but will hand your questions back to you and say to you words something like, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."

The answers to our questions will come to us only as we struggle with Jesus' words and as we place all of our questions alongside the ultimate sovereignty of God. And the one question that will override all other questions will not be "what must I render unto Caesar?" but rather, "what must I render unto God?" And the answer is obvious…..everything.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Let's Make Peace: Philippians 4:1-9

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church on Sunday, October 9, 2011

One reason I joined the Mennonite Church was because of its peace tradition. As a Southern Baptist, who was involved in peace and justice, I resonated with what I was studying about Anabaptism. I thought I had found a tradition that reflected my own passion for following the Prince of Peace. When I made the connection between Anabaptism and the Mennonites, I thought I had found a peace church. So, you can see why I was completely surprised when at my first Mennonite church we got into a conflict. And not only was this peace church in a conflict it was over, of all things….peace! “How ironic,” I thought. A peace church in conflict over peace!

That wasn’t the end of the irony for me. As Minister of Peace and Justice for Mennonite Church USA I discovered that peace was becoming less and less a factor in shaping its congregations. The peace dove seemed to be taking flight….away from our church! And as I studied the battlefield of Mennonite Church history, I discovered that it was strewn with the bodies of the shot and wounded from countless church fights and splits. So, I asked myself a question, which I turned into an awarded article for the Mennonite Weekly Review entitled, “When is a peace church no longer a peace church?” My question arose from observing a church conflicted about peace and with many congregations simply conflicted.

Conflict in the church is nothing new. We might be better off if we considered conflict to be normal and natural for congregations. It was certainly part of the early church. In his letter to the Philippians the apostle Paul addresses a conflict. Two women, Euodia and Synteche, were at odds with one another. They were co-workers, who were “striving together” with Paul, Clement, and the rest of Paul’s co-workers in the gospel. Now, Paul says that they are “striving against each other.” These two women were significant leaders in the church at Philippi.

Paul urged Euodia and Synteche to be “of the same mind in the Lord.” He called upon his “loyal companion,” possibly Epaphroditus who was the messenger for this letter, to help the two women leaders with their conflict. It appears that their dis-ease with one another was infecting the whole church. These women played a key role in the unity of the church. It seems that they had forgotten their common ground in Christ. What a negative impact their conflict made on the church. How sad. Over two thousand years have passed and though they would never have imagined it, their names will be forever remembered as two Christians who did not get along.

There is a thick silence and empty space in the text concerning their conflict, as thick and heavy as the silence we experienced last Sunday evening. I wonder what they were quarreling about? Was it over weighty issues or trivial differences? Were their differences personal or over church matters? Did they ever solve their differences? We don’t know. The text does not tell us. It is silent.

The silence of the text gives us imaginative space to creatively wonder. Can you imagine the apostle sitting down at a table in the house church at Philippi with Euodia, Syntheche, and possibly Epaphroditus, to talk about their differences. The meeting starts off in prickly silence. No one wants to start the conversation. The air is heavy. Let’s listen in as they finally begin to talk.

Paul: Okay, who’s going to go first?
Euodia: Well, I guess I’ll just jump in with both feet. It all started when Synteche told Clement that she didn’t think I was a good church leader. Instead of coming and telling me face-to-face, she went behind my back and talked to….
Synteche: Now, wait a minute….It may be difficult for me to talk to people. But, it’s because I’ve been burned in the past. And this was a difficult issue. It had to do with how you understand the church and what it means to be a leader and….
Euodia: Yeah, but you think a church leader should cater to the differing needs of every member of our house church and I think a leader should follow their gifts of the Spirit, like Paul once taught us, right Paul?
Paul: Now, sisters, let’s give each other a chance to speak from our hearts and carefully listen to one another.
Synteche: I agree. Euodia never listens to the people. She’s always talking about how the Spirit gives us freedom in Christ, especially women. I think that there needs to be more order and following the traditions of our elders. Women can be leaders, but we must defer to the wisdom of the men. And….
Euodia: Hold on! Your way only alienates the new people that come to visit our house church. They know nothing about the “tradition of the elders.” How can we attract new Gentiles if all we do is talk about our Jewish ancestry, traditions, foods, and families? They won’t come back. We will just be a dying house church made up of a bunch of old Jewish Christians if we keep this up!
Epaphroditus: But, Euodia, we must respect the traditions of our elders.
Euodia: Who asked you, Epaphro! You don’t see the young people leaving the church and…
Syntheche: And you don’t see the importance of singing in Hebrew or observing the Passover or…
Euodia: Paul, can’t you jump in here and tell old Syn that these things have been done away with in Christ. Give me a break! We just have different visions of the church and worship and what a leader is supposed to do. Sheeesh. ( Paul leaves) Paul, can’t you straighten this out….Paul?....Paul?....where is that man going?
Epaphroditus: I think he went out to get some aspirin.

I wonder what the conflict was about between Euodia and Synteche. We don’t know for sure. We just know that the church today can be in conflict over differences of worship styles, understandings of the church, leadership, and pastoral roles, theology, ethical issues, views of women, ethnic backgrounds, family connections, and on and on the list goes. All these diverse forms of conflict over differences also make me wonder how we can make peace within the church.

Making peace within the church requires Christians to act in “unnatural” ways. This may sound strange, but being a Christian is an unnatural act! Iris and I have a wonderful friend, Michelle, a Mennonite leader who is not from Mennonite background, but comes to the Mennonite Church from the African-American tradition. She expresses her pacifism in a rather unique way. She will tell people straight forward about her view of nonviolence like this: “I’m a pacifist by conviction and not by nature. SO, DON’T TEST ME!” I love it!

Being a pacifist or peacemaker is not a natural act. It’s not something that simply comes with having a Mennonite name or even by adopting the peace tradition. Just because kittens are born in a refrigerator, it doesn’t make them ice cubes! Christian virtues are formed and nurtured through Christian practices. They don’t come naturally. So, in order to make peace in the church we will be called upon to perform some rather “unnatural acts.”

Experiencing joy is not simply a natural expression of being a Christian. Paul commands the Philippian Christians: Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. How do you command someone to be joyful? How can the Philippians rejoice when two of their leaders are at each other’s throats and its impacting the congregation? Maybe if we rejoiced more, we would be less inclined to fight with one another or snarl at someone we don’t agree with. But, I thought rejoicing had to do with our natural feelings of being happy. How can we rejoice when steam is rising from our collar? Rejoicing in the Lord and at all times may be a nice happy tune for children to sing (Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice), but what about when there is tension, anxiety, sickness, troubles, persecution, or conflict? How can we rejoice then?

Here’s an amazing example of rejoicing. Christians in many South American and African countries have for generations faced persecution, poverty, denial of their rights, and have struggled just to survive. And yet, they are some of the most joyful and jubilant Christians anywhere. Why? Because they are a naturally joyful people? No. Is it because they don’t have differences and conflicts like we do? No. It’s because they have found a common reason to rejoice in Christ Jesus. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord,” not in our circumstances or what’s going on around us. Ours is a joy that transcends normal human experiences. It is unnatural. It is nurtured by Christian practices like music and testimony and bible study and prayer and hospitality. And when you rejoice together, conflict and differences begin to lose their power.

Another virtue that nurtures peace within the church is gentleness. Like joy, gentleness can be an unnatural act. Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. And like fruit it takes nurturing with sunshine, water, and sometimes a little dung! It is a virtue formed in the church through nurturing practices. That is why I will be proposing that we work on a covenant at Zion that calls on each of us to interpersonal practices that nurture gentleness. Gentleness is a character quality of the meek, who will inherit the earth, not by their power, force, or violence, but by their ability to relate to others with patience, tenderness, kindness, and humility. Gentleness does not mean that you let people walk over you like a doormat, express no anger, or rule out discipline. Gentleness is bridled strength, conviction, and courage.

Paul tells the church, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” That doesn’t mean that they take out an ad in the paper or put up a billboard advertising their gentleness. It does mean that the word gets out about a Christian congregation that exhibits gentleness, just as the word gets out about churches that are in conflict. The word got out about Euodia and Syntheche’s conflict even as far as to us who are gathered here this morning on the other side of the world and over two thousand years later! I pray that the word that gets out about Zion is the word “gentleness.” It is a quality of a church at peace.

Anxiety works against making peace in the church. Anxiety often helps to produce conflict. When a congregation is anxious, uncertain, and worrying about something there is a human tendency to overreact or project our anxiety onto others. Peter Steinke, a church leader who understands church dynamics, says, “Anxious church families become locked in emotional reactivity. This is quite evident when they fight openly and angrily…” Steinke’s words may need to be translated for a more passive-aggressive Mennonite audience as: “Emotional reactivity is quite evident when they exhibit noninvolvement, helplessness, procrastination, stubbornness, and complaining behind-the-scenes.” Anxiety is the toxic elixir that works against making peace in the church.

Paul tells us, “Don’t worry. Pray instead.” Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Prayer is a church practice that helps to heal anxiety, particularly prayer as a form of letting go. In prayer we can let go of our worries and anxieties as we pray, “Thy will be done” or “Lord, take this burden from me” or “Lord, I forgive that person who has done wrong to me or someone I care about.” Prayer places our worries into God’s hands so we can be free from taking our anxiety up again and using it against a brother or sister in Christ. And when we add “thanksgiving” to our prayers, we can turn our attitudes from sour to sweet. But, this all takes practice. It doesn’t come naturally.

Neither does positive thinking. Positive thinking? Oh, don’t give me that Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and Joel Osteen nonsense. I have gagged over some of their syrupy-be-happy-attitudes messages. Probably it’s because that’s all they seem to preach about; a gospel devoid of cross, tragedy, human pain, sin and suffering. And yet, there is a place for positive thinking in making peace within the church.

Surpisingly, it is the apostle Paul who encourages positive thinking. He says, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there be any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Sounds like positive thinking to me.
Imagine what a difference this attitude would have made in the relationship between Euodia and Synteche. What if instead of shooting one another down and drawing their swords of difference, they released the peace dove of mutual affirmation, shared their commendable traits, rejoiced in one another’s excellence, praised God for their different gifts, and thought upon how they needed one another to build up the body of Christ.

Thinking positively is not natural. When someone questions my Christianity or doesn’t appreciate the gifts I offer the church or struts out their negative attitudes about me, my gut reaction is to fight back, get revenge, or tell a friend how rotten that person is. My first reaction is not to think positively. Almost instinctively, I’m ready to drag them down into the gutter. Thinking positively, trying to understand where another person is coming from, looking at the good side of a dog that just bit you, is not easy. It takes practice; church practices that help form us into more positive, Christ-like people.

Or making peace may take some good examples to follow. Paul says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” At first it may sound a bit egocentric and prideful to say, “Hey, you want to know how to make peace, get along, and develop these kinds of virtues. Then look at me.” Paul often presents himself as an example for Christians to follow. Whatever you may think about Paul offering himself as a prime example of Christian virtue, the fact is, we need good Christian examples to follow in order to make peace in the church. We need leaders who will model attitudes of gentleness and kindness. We need worship leaders who will assist us in expressing celebration and joy in the Lord. We need praying people to model how we let go of our anxiety and anger and show us how to forgive and make peace with one another. We need Christians with the gift of thinking positively and hopefully, even in the midst of conflict and chaos. We need peacemakers who model peace, reconciliation, justice, and forgiveness not only across the oceans in some foreign land, but right here within our own congregations. We need role models that have developed these virtues through church practices and can exhibit them for us, because they are so unnatural.

My wife, Iris, called me this past Friday at the church office right at this very point of writing my sermon. She was so joyful she wanted to share with me some good news. She told me that it had just been announced that her friend, Leymah Gbowee, who was with her in Eastern Mennonite University’s peace studies program, had received the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize! Praise be to God! Leymah, a Liberian peacemaker, led a movement for women’s rights, halted forcible conscription of children for Liberia’s 14 year war, and ended the bloody Liberian war that was tearing her country apart. Her story is documented in the film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”

What virtues had to be nurtured in Leymah in order take on such an amazing peacemaker’s task in the context of a national conflict? Her strength of character “was evident in 2003 when she led hundreds of women to Monrovia's City Hall, demanding an end to the war. ‘We the women of Liberia will no more allow ourselves to be raped, abused, misused, maimed and killed,’ she shouted. ‘Our children and grandchildren will not be used as killing machines and sex slaves!’
The women protested until the dictator Charles Taylor agreed to a meeting. Under Leymah's leadership, they gave the three warring factions three days to deliver an unconditional ceasefire, an intervention force and for the government and rebels to sit down and talk. They got what they asked for and soon after, the Accra Peace Accord was signed in Ghana.” Leymah brought peace to her nation! Praise be to God!

How could Leymah bring peace in such an entrenched and violent conflict? She says her faith helped in her peace work. And I suspect she had nurtured certain Christian virtues like courage, patience, joy in the midst of pain, thinking positively about justice and peace in the midst of tragedy and heartbreak. Leymah will continue to be a model for peacemakers around the world. She will leave a legacy of peace for the children of Liberia. She will be remembered around the world as a peacemaker.

We need such models of peacemaking within the church. We need people who will model gentleness, joy, letting go of anxiety, and nurturing positive ways of thinking and relating with others. Otherwise, our legacy could end up like that of Euodia and Synteche. We could be remembered for our conflicts, instead of for making peace.
If we become peacemakers within the church, then the God of peace with be with us. Paul says that if we keep on doing these things that we have learned, seen, heard, and practiced, like gentleness, patience, kindness, letting go of anxiety, praying, thinking positively, and more, “the God of peace will be with us”

The God of peace and the peace of God will be with us; the peace of God that passes all human understanding. Why is the peace of God beyond human understanding? Because it is not natural! It is peace that comes as a gift of the Spirit, not our own human effort. The peace of God comes from the God of peace; the God of peace who ends conflicts around the world; the God of peace who ends struggles between church leaders and members that don’t see eye to eye; the God of peace who is with us, even now.

I leave you with these words that Ervin Stutzman, Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA, just recently wrote to the Mennonite Church concerning conflicts with the church:

Since we are a peace church, we must continue to practice ways to build peace in the face of conflict. May God enable us to that end.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Shall We Press On? Philippians 3:4b-14

This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite, Canby, OR on World Communion Sunday, October 2, 2011. The service included international music, my udu drum for the prelude, an illustrated sermon (with my cartoons), communion with Hebrew blessings, Bob Dylan's song "Pressing On" and Mavis Staples rockin' with "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize."

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me today, but when I was in seminary I used to run four miles every day! The seminary campus where I ran was located in Mill Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area. Morning fog poured over the mountains like soup. Sunshine sparkled on the water with bobbing sailboats. I could see San Francisco from the hill where I went to daily classes. My jog took me along the shores of the bay along a stretch of road with some hills and dips in the road.

Since I was never very athletic, jogging was a real discipline for me. I had to work hard to get up to four miles. By the second mile I could feel the burn in my legs. Sweat began to drip. I was looking forward to getting this run over. My goal was to get back to my apartment and the prize of rest. But, near the end of my four miles I had to jog over a very steep hill. Jogging on flat ground was hard enough. At the point I was most tired, I had to muster every ounce of strength I had left in me to make it up and over that hill. There was no way around that hill. I had to literally strain forward and press on toward my goal. Then, I was home free! Hallelujah!

The apostle Paul uses running as an image for encouraging the Philippian Christians to continued faithfulness. Running a race is one of Paul’s favorite metaphors for living the Christian life in community. Paul draws his images from the Greek games. It is a rich metaphor for our personal and congregational life, though like any metaphor it has its limits. Paul uses various elements of running to encourage Christians. Running involves rigorous training, exercise, and mental preparation. Weights are used in training, and then discarded for the race. Runners compete against each other and run to win. Their goal is the finish line. The winner of the race receives a prize of a wreath or crown of leaves.

In our text for today Paul encourages the Philippian Christians to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Since the Christian life is like a race it is forward looking, and future oriented. The goal is always ahead of us, not behind us. We have not yet reached our destination. There may be a steep hill ahead that will require every last ounce of our energy. So, press on!

What a powerful message for the church! But, it may catch us in the second mile of a four mile run. God may be calling is into the future, but we may be in the midst of feeling the pain from sore legs. Our race may have enough hills and valleys already to make us weary. The finish line looks too far away. We may just want to sit down and rest or even turn back.

We may be like Charlie Chainedtothepast. Charlie lives in the past among his dusty memories and rusted accomplishments. Charlie remembers how the church used to be and wishes it would return to those good old days, which were probably not all that good. Charlie’s theme song is sung with a longing sigh “If only….” He learned all those Bible stories in Sunday School when he was kid, so he doesn’t need to attend anymore. He can stay home or sit in the church building during Sunday School while his children get their own inoculation against any further growth in the knowledge of Christ. And Charlie has a hard time letting go of old hurts and bad experiences. They cling to him like static socks right out of the dryer. Charlie will bring up about how so-and-so did such-and-such five years ago. He can’t seem to let go of the past. Sorry, Charlie, the past is long gone! Forget what lies behind! Press on!

Could it be that some of us are like Granny Glancingbackwards? She’s trying to press on, but most of her life is behind her. Granny wants to press on, but there’s not much track left in front of her to run! Most of her reference points are in the past; old ways of doing church, traditional music, the way things have always been. She has a hard time welcoming all this new stuff that attracts young people; technology, e-mail, cell phones, videos, contemporary music, multicultural ministry. “Can’t things just be like they used to be?,” says Granny. And Granny’s seen about everything new that’s come down the pike. So, why try something new? We already did that a long time ago. Sorry Granny, as Bob Dylan once sang, “The times they are a changin’” Forget what lies behind! Press on!

For some of us the problem is not so much the past as it is the present, like Sally Stuckinthepresent. This young mom is so wrapped up in frenetic activity of what’s going on in her life, she has no time to rehash the past, let alone think about the future. There’s the three kids, a part-time job, soccer practice, baseball games, cleaning the house, camping, hunting, gardening, and on and on the list goes. And where, pray tell is your husband, Sally? Watching sports and eating chips! We’re lucky if Sally shows up at church on Sunday. There’s no time for quiet, meditation, nurturing her inner spirit. Press on toward the high mark of our calling? Oh, that reminds me that I need to make several calls before I run off to the grocery store and drop off….Sorry, Sally, there’s more to life than running on that hamster wheel! Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” Strain forward! Press on!

Sam Steponoverem is a future-oriented, goal-oriented person. He’s the envy of every company executive. He will try new things, change things around, take some real risks. His focus is on the future, not the past or the present. Sam will do whatever it takes to move things forward, project out into the future. “Enough of the pettiness, short-sightedness, and navel gazing. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work on building something new,” says Sam. Sam would just as soon leave all the turtles, stick-in-the-muds, and stragglers behind in leading the church forward. “Like the pastor says, press on, people!” Sam affirms. Except, Sam tends to avoid getting people onboard before the train leaves the station and sometimes walks over people’s feelings as he strains toward the future. Strain forward, Sam. But, bring others along with you. Then, press on!

Enough about us. The goal is far enough ahead for all of us to change, lay aside every weight and sin that drags us down, turn our minds and hearts around, get back on track, use our gifts, and grow into the likeness of Christ. So, shall we press on? We have been called to “press on toward the mark for the prize of our high calling in Jesus.”

Our goal is not just pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye. Breaking the ribbon at the finish line isn’t just about dying and going to heaven. Our goal is to live out the high calling of Christ in this life as in the next, on earth as in heaven. Our high and heavenly calling to live in the here and now as if the reign of God has already arrived, as if heaven has kissed the earth, as if the lion has laid down with the lamb, as if Christ were already present among us, as if we have already been reconciled to one another and God, as if there is good news for the poor, release for the captives, freedom for the oppressed. That’s what our high calling looks like. That is our goal. That is our prize. So, press on people! Press on!

If any people and movement models for us running the race and pressing on toward the prize, even against all odds, it’s the story of African-Americans and the Southern Freedom movement. What a fitting title to the PBS series on the Southern Freedom movement; Eyes on the Prize, an image drawn from the pages of the Bible.

My wife, Iris, and I have had the privilege of knowing Dr. Vincent Harding, a neighbor and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote his Riverside speech against the Vietnam War. He was a church historian, a former Mennonite pastor of Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago, and founded the interracial Mennonite House in Atlanta in 1961, ahead of his time in race relations in the church. Dr. Harding was a senior academic advisor for Eyes on the prize. He was part of the Southern Freedom movement and had to press on, even when he got resistance to his work from within the Mennonite church.

Dr. Harding has written eloquently about his own people chained in slavery as servants to whites. And yet…they pressed on toward a higher calling of freedom. Bearing the heavy weight of Jim Crow laws, segregated lunch counters, separate fountains, separate neighborhoods, discrimination and disdain. And yet….they pressed on toward a higher calling of equality. Feet weary marching in the streets. Facing snarling dogs and firehoses. And yet….they pressed on…they pressed on, keeping their eyes on the prize!

The title of the PBS series was drawn from the song, “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.” At the end of the service you will hear a bit of Mavis Staples singing these words:

Well, the only chains that we can stand
Are the chains of hand in hand
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Got my hand on the freedom plow
Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!
Hold on, (hold on), hold on, (hold on)
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on!

Brothers and sisters in Christ, now is not the time to give up. Now is not the time for turning back. Though the race has been long and there is a steep hill ahead of us to climb, we must press on! No time for rubbernecking over all the mistakes we have made in the past. Forget what lies behind. Don’t let it weigh you down, brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes on the prize. Press on! Press on!

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.