MENNONITE HISTORY VIGNETTES

On Sunday, October 28, 2007 we at Emmanuel Mennonite Church celebrated "Mennonite Heritage Sunday." The message was actually a drama, about the trial of Michael Sattler, based on actual transcripts of his trial in 1527, and his last letter to his disciples, which can be downloaded by clicking here: Download Sattlerdrama.doc Included in the service of worship were some vignettes of God’s work through our Anabaptist ancestors and modern-day partners. Here are some of them:

GETTING OFF THE FENCE

When, in Holland, 1535, Father Menno Simons got word of the armed revolt and deaths of so many peasant rebels nearby, one of whom may have been his brother, Pieter, he knew, in his heart of hearts, that he bore some responsibility for that dreadful, violent event. Like them, he had read the Bible for himself and had come to believe that the state churches had buried the simple gospel underneath layers of tradition and corruption. Unlike them, he had not made a break from the state church. Indeed, he continued to enjoy an easy life and a secure future as a priest in the very church that had put these rebels to death, despite sharing much of their faith in secret. But one thing he did not share with either the state church or the rebels was a belief in violence as a way to protect the kingdom of God, or to promote it. His exhaustive study of the Bible convinced him that the Sword of the Word was only tarnished by the sword of the world. If newly enlightened and liberated disciples of Christ were to avoid either the dangers of despair and compromise, or of violence, someone would have to teach them the better way of Jesus. And the only person he could see who could do that was himself. He soon thereafter made his break with the state church,went immediately into hiding, along with the believers whom he shepherded between the dangers of violent revolution and compromise with the state churches. They were soon to bear his name in shame, as wanted crimimals: "Menists," or "Mennonites.” The words of hymn # 407 in our Hymnal: A Worship Book , “We Are People of God’s Peace,” were penned by Menno Simons.

ENEMY AT THE GATES

When the angry mob of peasants showed up at the gates of St. Peter’s Benedictine monastery with torches, pitchforks and swords, on a cold, dark night in Switzerland, in 1523, the abbot, Brother Michael Sattler didn’t need to be told why they were ready to sack the monastery and kill them all. They were weary of the heavy taxes which the monks were charged to collect. Despite his fear, Sattler remembered the Rule of St. Benedict which says to welcome everyone who comes to your door as though he were Christ himself. Benedict made no exception for guests with swords, torches and pitchforks. So he invited them in, fed them, heard their complaints, and knew that they were right: simple brothers of Christ were to share their wealth with the poor, not demand it from them. That was not Michael’s only misgiving about this unholy alliance of state and church. Within a short time, Michael would be found among the peasants, not as a monk meeting warlike peasants, but as a Bible teacher and pastor in the way of peace. We shall shortly hear his story.

MARTYR SONGS

In the dungeon of Passau, Southern Germany, many Anabaptists were kept for trial, punishment, and sometimes for execution. Someone must have smuggled in some paper to these prisoners, and someone must have smuggled them out, for there exists a collection of fifty-one poems and songs of theirs, made into hymns, a collection now called the Ausbund. Many of these are quite serious poems about holding up under persecution, in the face of death. Others are quite joyful celebrations of God and his faithfulness. Amish home congregations use this collection as their hymnal today. Hymn #314 in our Hymnal: A Worship Book, “The Word of God,” is from this collection, the Ausbund, with the words written somewhere between 1535 and 1545.

THE UYO STORY

Ever since the missionaries first brought the gospel to Africa, churches have also grown spontaneously among the Africans, by Africans, with African cultural characteristics. Such a network began in the vicinity of Uyo, in Nigeria, in the 1950’s. But they soon realized that they needed help in learning the Bible, and that this help would have to come from outside. So one month, the leaders of these churches decided they would be Methodists, and wrote to the Methodist mission agency, asking for Bible teachers. No response came back. Then for another month, they were Presbyterian. Again, no response. They even tried being Mormon. Still no help. Then someone had heard of Mennonites. So they wrote them. Soon, two Mennonite missionaries, Ed and Irene Weaver, appeared on their door steps, and that began a long history of Mennonite missionary work among African-Initiated churches, in countries like Botswana, South Africa, Togo, Benin and Lesotho, often on the understanding that these churches will not join the Mennonites and become Mennonite, but that they will be partners in a cause bigger than any one denomination: the kingdom of God. Such work continues to today. From this partnership comes the very last song we will sing today.

THIS IS MY TRAVEL PERMIT

In 1984, when the Derg, the Communist government of Ethiopia, proclaimed a curfew and travel restrictions, it was, in part, to keep pastors and evangelists such as Fikru Zekele from doing exactly what they caught him doing: traveling to visit and encourage the believers of the secret, underground cells of the Meserete Kristos Church, our Mennonite partners in Ethiopia. He was forced to sit across the desk from a government official, who placed his pistol on the desk top to frighten him, and who asked him, with his voice full of contempt, “Where is your travel permit?” knowing full well that he wouldn’t have one, and would therefore be liable to imprisonment or even execution? Fikru reached into his jacket, pulled out his Bible, laid it on the official’s desk, opened it to Matthew 28: 19-20 and read “’All power and authority in heaven and on earth have been given to me. Therefore, go into the world and make disciples from all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them everything I have commanded you.’ That,” Fikru said, “is my travel permit.”

by Mathew Swora

Someone Has to be First

This is the message that was delivered at Emmanuel Mennonite Church on Sunday, October 21, 2007:

I Peter 3: 8-12

8Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. 9Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 10For,
   "Whoever would love life
      and see good days
   must keep his tongue from evil
      and his lips from deceitful speech.
11He must turn from evil and do good;
      he must seek peace and pursue it.
12For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
      and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
   but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil."[a]

Who wants to be first? Sometimes that’s a scary question. As in: Who wants to be the first to fly in this new kind of airplane? It works great in all the computerized tests we’ve put it through, it held up in the wind tunnel, and it even comes with an extra wing in case one should fall off…. again. So who wants to fly in it first? Someone has to be the first.

It makes sense that test pilots get paid so well, doesn’t it?

Or who wants to be the first to try a new medication? It killed off all the dreaded fungy-bungy bacteria in thousands of Petri dishes, and twelve generations of laboratory mice have fairly thrived on the stuff, but who’s going to be the first person to actually take it? Someone has to be the first.

Aren’t you glad there are strict guidelines around human testing of medications?

In the weekly Army newspaper that American soldiers read during the Second World War, Stars and Stripes, the last cartoon on the European front, from May, 1945, shows two American soldiers in a foxhole, with a German soldier across the field from them in another foxhole, and one American says to another, while pointing his thumb toward enemy lines: “I know the war’s over, but I ain’t standing up until he does.” That cartoon only confirms how much easier it is to start a conflict than it is to stop it. But again, for peace to break out, someone has to be first to act in peace.

When the new I-35W bridge goes up over the Mississippi River, someone will have to be the first to drive all the way across it. It will probably be a public official in the course of some civic ceremony. If you don’t count the construction workers themselves. And it will be a very big event. But in all of those instances and more, someone has to be first.

The world often sees being first as foolish. But Peter considers it to be often a sign of wisdom. Everything he has said to us in the last few messages of the last chapter we have examined, is about being the first to offer and to make peace. He addresses the disciple as a subject of a worldly king and a worldly kingdom. There’s a situation fraught with the potential for conflict and injustice. But Peter’s advice is to honor and do justice by everyone, from the king to each commoner. Don’t wait to receive honor and justice before you give honor and do justice. Then there’s the matter of the disciple as a slave. Peter says, in effect, serve everyone as you would God, and be willing to suffer for doing right, not for doing wrong. Don’t wait to be served before you serve. Don’t wait for someone else to do you right before you do right. Then there’s the matter of the disciple as wife or husband in a marriage, at that time, a situation full of all sorts of power imbalances and vulnerability. Peter says, don’t wait to be treated with respect, treat each other with respect, make allowances for each other’s weakness, so that nothing might hinder your prayers together.

In today’s passage, Peter sums all this relational wisdom up, beginning with the word, “Finally…” What he’s been saying all along about all these different relationships comes down to this, in verse 8: “Finally, live in harmony with one another, be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” And that will automatically ensure you sweet, peaceful relationships with everyone, right?

Not necessarily. Not always. Peter goes on to say in verse 9, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing….” as a way of admitting that our efforts to live in harmony, empathy, love and compassion could sometimes be met with more hostility, even abuse. But again, someone has to be the first to give a blessing, and to be a blessing, whatever the history has been, and to that, to being the first, Peter says, we have been called. Someone has to be first, and that someone is the disciple of Jesus. That, we shall see, is our calling. And that, I hope I make clear, is wisdom.

If wisdom is just about getting our way in the world, and stacking the deck in our favor, so that we’re more likely to get what we want and to accomplish it with less effort and more efficiency, then some are more wise than others simply because they have more power and money than others to make things work out the way they want them to. Otherwise, the vast majority of us are condemned to be fools, simply by virtue of the fact that we have so little power or control over what others do and how they respond to us.

But we are only responsible for ourselves. Knowing that leads to the kind of wisdom recounted in a folk tale from India, about a scorpion that was stranded on a branch over a raging flood. A peasant saw it, took pity on it and reached out to rescue it and put it on high, dry ground. But as he did so, the scorpion stung him. The poison made the peasant’s hand swell and turn numb, and though he yelped with pain and anger, he didn’t fling the scorpion into the water or onto the ground to stomp on him, though he was tempted. Someone who saw this asked the peasant, “Why didn’t you kill the scorpion for stinging you while you were rescuing him? Why did you continue to carry it to safety?” The peasant replied, “The scorpion could only do what was in his nature, and I must do what is in mine.”

What was in that merciful peasant’s nature is similar to what Peter says is in our nature. Or at least in our calling. Peter says in verse 9, that we were called to bless and to be blessed. “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing,” he says, “because to this you were called, so that you might inherit a blessing.”

To this we were called: to inherit a blessing by giving blessings. The Amish of Pennsylvania showed that they understood this connection between being blessed and giving blessings in their response to the terrible and tragic shootings of their school girls in Nickel Mines last year. They immediately gathered around the family of the assailant, to share their support and forgiveness in their shared grief. And when asked why they rushed to support the wife and children of the assailant and to cry on each other’s shoulders, they alternately said, “We must forgive if we are to be forgiven,” and “We must forgive as we have been forgiven.” Their loving and merciful response to this tragedy was more about who they were, than about who the assailant was and what he did. They would not let the actions of someone else determine who they were and what they were called to do. They didn’t wait for anyone to come to them for this experience of mercy and mutual support. They went first.

I confess that I’m still getting my head around this different understanding of wisdom, that wisdom is more about being in harmony with who we are and are called to be, than it is about being in harmony with the world, getting what we want from it, and getting by with it. Or we could go deeper and say that this wisdom is about who God the Creator is and what his Creation is really, really like. If we really want to overload our mental circuits and challenge the whole idea of wisdom as just the best way of coming out ahead in any given circumstance, consider that Wisdom is also a name or a title for Jesus. And Wisdom went to the cross, rather than calling twelve legions of angels down for a pre-emptive strike against his enemies.

Paul wrote the Corinthians in his first letter to them that, “Christ is for us the wisdom of God, that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” This is similar to when Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” In Jesus we see the nature of God and the will of God for all of Creation. In him, in his life and words and work and character, we see the peace and the harmony for which and by which the universe was brought into being. In the words of Isaiah and of Paul’s letter to Ephesus, “He is our peace.”

More concretely, Christ demonstrated this wisdom, in that “While we were yet enemies [of God and each other], Christ died for us (Romans 5:6).” So God did not wait for us to reconcile with him; God, through Christ, went first.

But this understanding of wisdom and peace is older than Peter and the gospel. Peter quotes from a Psalm of David, Psalm 34, to make his point. That psalm is a wisdom psalm, coming from Israel’s wisdom tradition.

“Whoever would love life and see good days

Must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.

He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it.”

“Seek peace and pursue it,” Peter says, because that is how God is and who God is, and what God is doing in the world, through Christ and the cross. And if we bear the image of God, if we are the image of God, then seeking peace and pursuing it is true to who we are, too. This business of, “When in Rome, do like the Romans,” and “I’m not going to stand up until he does,” sounds safe, maybe even prudent, but as a way of life in the world, it requires so many violations of our true selves that it leads to spiritual death by a thousand compromises.

Those are challenging words, I know. But I have been set back on my heels this week by this very challenge in verse 11, to “seek peace and pursue it.” The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that all these years I had rarely thought of peace as something that needed active seeking and pursuing. I’ve more often thought of it as simply the absence of conflict. So if my neighbors and I never even look at each other, let alone talk, that’s peace, right?

Wrong.

Some of us might remember the John Lennon song from the 1970’s, “All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance.” It was meant as a statement against the Vietnam War. But I took it to mean that peace is just out there, waiting to show once the conflict dies down. Like its just hanging in the air like wallpaper on your computer screen, like the default mode to which everything would return if we just shut up and got along and were nice. Stop the fighting and peace will automatically fill the vacuum, I thought, as though peace is the vacuum.

But the wisdom of the Bible and of Peter’s letter says that peace is something that must be sought and pursued. It is not just the silence between the bombs and bullets; it is something active and assertive, something to be cultivated intelligently and artfully, sought and pursued continually and attentively with just as much effort and imagination and discipline as is victory on the battlefield. It often takes just as much courage and effort, because it often requires being the first, the first to bless, the first to love, the first to approach the enemy, the first to lay down his weapons. Learning how to do so is the very essence of wisdom.

This is the school in which all of Jesus’ disciples are enrolled. What I am describing is not an addition to our journey of discipleship, nor just a piece of it. It is discipleship, at least insofar as our relationships with fellow humans are concerned. Peter gives us a few practical lessons in discipleship with his advice to “keep our tongues from evil and our lips from deceitful speech,” for example, or to “be compassionate and humble.” These are essential parts and pieces of our stockpile of peace-making wisdom.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

This is the lesson of Pastor Lawrence Hart’s life. Lawrence is both a Mennonite minister and a Cheyenne Indian peace chief. From what Lawrence has shared, most Cheyenne chiefs were peace chiefs, that is, older leaders entrusted with the wisdom and the discipline for keeping the peace within the village and among the Cheyennes, and between the Cheyennes and other tribes. From so many cavalry and Indian movies and television shows we may have come to think of the Cheyenne Indians as warlike and brave in battle. And some of them were. Or at least their warrior societies of younger men were, whenever they threw off the guidance and direction of the peace chiefs.

But the peace chiefs were taught a rigorous science of peacekeeping out of their tribal traditions. It included lessons like, “even if you see your family members being attacked, you as peace chief must sit and smoke your pipe before you react.” They were not to eat until they knew that there was food enough for everyone in their village. And they were to follow up on every insult, aggression and misunderstanding between one village member and another, to resolve the grievances. Some of these peace chiefs gave up their lives in peace-keeping, marching forth unarmed to meet enemies and attackers who were approaching their village, to try and negotiate a peace and discourage the attack.

A few years ago, something happened for Chief Lawrence Hart that strongly tested his peace-making temperament and training. It was an anniversary of the Battle of the Washita, in Oklahoma, when General Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment swooped down one cold winter morning on a sleeping band of Lawrence’s ancestors, and massacred all but a few men, women and children in the camp. This has always been a difficult memory for the Cheyennes, and it didn’t strike them as particularly wise when they were invited to take part in an historical observance of the anniversary of that tragedy.

But Hart and his relatives agreed to participate on the condition that they receive back from the local museum the bones of one of those ancestors, a young boy, killed in that attack. So everything was set to go, when another group showed up on the morning of the anniversary event: a group of Cavalry re-enactors, the actual Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry, in period uniform, with replica weapons, and on horseback. They asked for and got permission to re-enact the cavalry charge that destroyed the village, shooting off their replica rifles with blank cartridges. Its hard to believe such insensitivity. And when they did so, tensions and anger were running very high among the local Indians gathered there.

The last event of the day was the burial of the bones from the museum. As the coffin was brought past the cavalry re-enactors, they snapped to attention to present arms. That irritated many of the Cheyennes even more. A moment later, a young Cheyenne woman stepped forward and put her blanket on the passing coffin. Cheyenne tradition dictates that this blanket then be presented as a gift to a visiting dignitary, to honor him or her. The Cheyenne chiefs huddled together for a moment, and in true peace chief tradition, they asked the youngest of their own, Pastor Lawrence, to give the blanket to the leader of the Grandsons of the 7th Cavalry, the very descendants of the men who had killed the person in that coffin.

The leader of the Grandsons was invited to approach the chiefs. He marched forward, snapped to attention and presented his sword. Lawrence directed him to turn around, and when he did, he draped the blanket over the officer’s shoulders. The very symbolism and meaning of this action, so many years after the massacre, moved many people at the ceremony to tears. The officer, with the blanket over his shoulder, ordered his regiment to fire the customary 21 volley salute over the casket of the massacre victim, an honor that was otherwise reserved only for one of their own. As it was a cold winter day, the ceremony ended with food and refreshments inside the museum. But there was hardly a dry eye as the descendants of the survivors on both sides of the massacre greeted and embraced each other across the gulf that had once been a racial battle zone. I don’t think that the grandfathers of either the 7th Cavalry or the Cheyenne Indians would ever have dreamed of such a powerful experience of resolution and reconciliation, made possible because someone took seriously the call to be the first, to “seek peace and pursue it,” and “to bless [even our enemies] for to this we were called, that we might inherit a blessing.”

[For the whole story on this encounter, check out the Mennonite Historical Society Archive site at http://www.mcusa-archives.org/MHB/Hart-Washita.html ]

For this is how the very Wisdom of God has come to us, as John the Beloved writes, “not because we loved God, but because God first loved us, and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice [that is, a peace offering] for our sins (I John 4:10).”

Mathew Swora, pastor

WAR WITH IRAN?

Should it come to war any time soon between the United States and Iran, the history books about that confrontation will include at least a chapter on the role of some Christian Zionists in urging this conflict on, and in giving it religious and ideological cover. Or the historians may say that some well-meaning Christians were used and manipulated by the same public and political figures they thought they were encouraging to start war between America and Iran. Some of the blame will rightfully go to the mullahs and the president of Iran for all they did to inflame warlike sentiments. But some of it will also go to some high profile American Christian televangelists and political activists who genuinely seem to think that by encouraging a pre-emptive military strike against Iran, they are blessing Abraham and his descendants and doing God’s will.

And should the unthinkable happen, and an un-winnable war with Iran be launched, unleashing an avalanche of devastating complications and consequences for generations to come, some of them easily foreseeable, future American generations will likely look upon the church and their Christian parents and ancestors and ask, as they have in Germany and Austria after the Second World War, “What did you do to prevent the war or stop it?” And if enough of us must remain silent or give excuses, or (God forbid) confess that we poured gasoline on the fire with apocalyptic glee, then the church will garner the same indifference or contempt that it does in much of postwar secular Europe today.

If that should be the case, then I, for one, want to go on permanent record as saying that I oppose any efforts to wage war with Iran, and even to threaten or encourage it. And I am not alone. The Sojourners Community of Washington, D.C., has issued its call for restraint on both sides in a statement, “Words Not War,” that can be found at  http://www.sojourners.com/index.cfm?action=action.wnw&item=wnw_main. There you will also find the story of Christian leaders, representative of not a few denominations, including the Mennonites, who have met more than once with President Ahmedinajad of Iran for some respectful dialog and some very pointed and honest challenges to his inflammatory and irresponsible statements about Jews, Israel and the United States. But they earned the right to be heard precisely because they were willing to listen, and to acknowledge the rights of Muslims and Arabs (few Iranians are Arabs, by the way) to exist in Palestine and the Middle East, as well as the Jews.

By “Christian Zionists” I mean fellow Christians, but those who justify and support the most hard line Israeli political positions and military actions against Arabs and Palestinians, even though many, if not most, Israelis might not go so far. They are absolutely right when they say that Christians in the past have too often engaged in anti-Jewish pogroms and inquisitions, that we slept-walked through atrocities such as the Holocaust, and that its time to reverse our complacency about, and our collusion with, anti-semitism. But I disagree with their implicit call to choose between loving Israelis or Arabs (many of whom are Christians) and to identify the most warlike and oppressive Israeli policies with the will of God.

Watching or hearing the sermons of the most militant Christian Zionists, like the Rev. John Hagee of Christians United for Israel, I am transported back to the 1970’s, when I was a new believer and my country was as fearful of the Communists as we are of terrorists and jihadis today. Then, as now, it was not uncommon for some televangelists, pastors and revivalists to whip up sentiment and support by whipping up our fear of enemies, who would take over our country and kill us Christians, we were told, if any softies among us would let them. Since the Vietnam War was still underway, it was allegedly God’s will that we kill the Commies since they so desperately and unanimously wanted to kill us. This call to war was all the more powerful and gripping when fed into calculations of apocalyptic scenarios from various combinations of Biblical prophecies to show why the imminent and inevitable fiery showdown with godless Bolshevism or Maoism would soon usher in the return of Christ. Hagee’s teachings and videos are full of similar charts and speculations about how war with Iran is necessary for the Second Coming of Christ.

I still believe in the real and visible coming of Christ. My reading of history and of Bible prophecy doesn’t give me much reason to believe that we humans will suddenly and smoothly evolve or progress our way out of inequality, injustice and violence any time soon. I am much more hopeful about our long-term, eternal prospects. And my faith and my Lord give me resources and encouragement to keep working toward that end in the short term. Yet should the Lord’s return be soon, and should it occur in the course of a cataclysmic debacle, I would much rather be found, in that final inspection, on the side of those who were showing love to Israelis and Palestinians equally than on the side of those who were stoking the fires of war. I would much rather be found on the side of those who were helping feed the poor and the hungry, of those who were reaching out to self-described enemies, and of those who were restraining their appetites for energy and comfort, than be found on the side of those who were pushing the pedal to the metal on the road to Armageddon.

Nor do I intend to fall again for the error of confusing fear, loathing and the “stern, impassioned stress” of war fever with a spiritual experience, as I did back when some revivalists almost had me convinced to stockpile ammunition because the Communists were coming any day now, and therefore Christ was, too. But I’m experiencing “deja vu all over again” in the messages of those Christian Zionists who are whipping up the case for war with Iran. Think of what that will do to the Iranian church, which is growing, even as the mullahs deny its existence or hunt it down.

The only experiences I recognize as spiritual anymore are those that have to do with trust, pardon, peace, mercy, reconciliation and costly, cruciform love, even for enemies who are determined to stay enemies. In the history books to come, if the Lord should tarry, I hope that Christian peacemakers—friends of Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Muslims–get more space than just a few footnotes. Better yet, may those histories never need to be written.

The Household Within the Household of Faith

The following message was delivered at Emmanuel Mennonite Church during worship, on Sunday, October 14, 2007. I welcome your comments, corrections, questions, whatever, in response.

I Peter 3: 1-7

1Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. 4Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 5For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husbands, 6like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.

7Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

One of the dangers of preaching a series through a book of the Bible is that you might run across a passage that, frankly, you may not want to preach on, and which people may not want to hear. Like the one that was just read, which has often been taken to mean, “Women, stay in your lowly, second-class places!” Or, “Women, this is the dress code we are going to enforce upon you!” That’s the history that joins us in this sanctuary like a big, invisible elephant whenever we hear these words.

Its not that we commonly hears sermons on this passage. You’ll find it missing from most Bible lectionary schedules. But a few among us grew up hearing almost nothing but this passage. It was used in a lot of more socially and culturally strict Mennonite churches to explain why women should not wear jewelry, colorful clothing, or style their hair. Because Peter seems to be saying, ‘Don’t do that.’ And this is one of the passages also used to explain why women should allegedly defer to men in everything, whenever there’s a difference of opinion, because Peter says that even Sarah called Abraham, ‘lord,’ or ‘master,’ as a sign of her obedience. Never mind the fact that Sarah was using the respectful term that people commonly used with each other at the time, something comparable to “Sir,” or “Mister,” and not the term that would be used for God. Some who grew up with such a history have done the hard labor of working through this oppressive history of abuse—abuse of women and abuse of the Bible—to claim your freedom and power and dignity and your ministries as sisters in Christ in spite of that stifling history, and I for one applaud you for it. After what you may have experienced in some churches, you worked and sifted through all that tradition about cultural conformity and reclaimed the basic, essential kernel of the Christian faith. And all of us are richer for it. I only hope that by hearing these words, you are not re-experiencing some of the trauma of those times.

But often I have found that the Bible passages that scare me most at first turn out to be among the most fruitful to consider. And I hope you find that to be the case with this passage. Sometimes some fresh and nourishing fruit pops out of a word or a phrase that is easily overlooked, a phrase that turns out to be something like a door hinge, upon which our understanding turns in a different direction. I found that hinge in verse 7 and in the phrase, “In the same way, husbands….” It obviously applies to men, not women. By the time I get done with this message, I hope you’ll see, as I have, that this passage actually says more that is challenging, restrictive and restraining for men in most times and cultures, than it does for women. And I hope you’ll see that it calls men and women to a new and different kind of relationship in Christ from the relationships that Peter’s disciples had known before they were Christians.

But to see that, you have to understand something about the time in which Peter wrote these words. Now I know that if I ever say, “The word used in Greek is…..” eyes will glaze over with disinterest. Mine do too. But I want us to remember a phrase in Latin. Its not used by Peter in this passage or anywhere else. His words are in Greek. But this particular phrase would have been in the minds and hearts of everyone hearing Peter’s words. That phrase is Pater familias. In the Latin language of the Roman Empire, it means, “father of the family.” It was a central part of the culture at that time.

If we lived in the Roman empire of Peter’s time, we would have a clear sense of what the Pater familias, or “father of the family,” was supposed to be like. The Pater familias was the oldest surviving male—Dad, or Grandfather, of an extended family. His was all the property in the family, including that of his children and even his grandchildren. His was the power of life and death over children, slaves and even his wife. Or his wives. His power was so great, so total, that if he felt that the newest child born to the family was one mouth too many, or if it was too severely malformed, he could decree that it be left outside, exposed, to die of the elements or be adopted by someone else, often by Christians. And he would be admired for such hardness, not condemned. Because you can’t run an empire on softies. If this Pater familias sounds more like a Mafia kingpin than the father you had, or married, or are, well, its no accident that the Mafia arose from the ruins of the Roman Empire.

That’s the understanding of marriage and family in which Peter wrote these words. The Roman Empire was like a family of sorts, and the emperor was the first pater familias over all the others. So lots of people have assumed that this same kind of male dominance and female subjection is what Peter was encouraging for the church. And you could take it that way, if you speed-read and sleep walk through this passage. Especially if you overlook those hinge words in verse 7, “in the same way, husbands.”

But then that whole understanding begins to break down when first we ask ourselves, Why would Peter write these words about marriage? What’s the need he’s addressing? To prove to unbelievers that the gospel is no threat to the social order and the power pyramid of the Roman empire, as some have suggested? But he’s already said so much in this letter that would anger the pagans, why would he suddenly worry about that when it comes to marriage and family? Besides, unbelievers in that time are not going to know or care much about Peter’s words, let alone read them. Rather, I think its because something has happened to his readers that has thrown the whole meaning of marriage and family up into the air and which has called into question the very relationships between men and women as they knew them before they were Christians. As we saw last week, the same thing happened with slaves, to fill them with a sense of dignity and equality with their masters. Something came into their lives which challenged the whole notion of one person dominating another in a pyramid of power going all the way down from the emperor on top to the slaves on the bottom. And I think that challenging, revolutionary thing was…….the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And now that the gospel implies that men and women, slaves and free, are equal partners in a new domination-free kingdom (as Peter says in verse 7, they are “heirs together of eternal life,”) now that a new community of mutual aid and shared dignity, called the Kingdom of God, has taken shape within the power pyramid of empire, and now that the true Son of God has appeared in the form of a slave and a subject, not a Caesar, what becomes of all these top-down relationships, like marriage and the family? Do we just pitch them out and leave our homes and wives and husbands, especially our unbelieving wives and husbands? Especially since those relationships are so shot-through and corrupted with the imperial infection of domination and abuse that we hardly know how to live within them as Christians? Somebody must have thought so, or else I can’t figure out why Peter would even address this subject. There must have been some danger, some tendency, for someone to take their new liberty and dignity in the gospel as an excuse to throw off the bonds of love and obligation and service and mutual submission that make up every family, especially when their husbands or wives did not join them in this new gospel liberty.

That point about unbelieving spouses is important. The whole passage takes on a different color when you consider that some of the women whom Peter is addressing have husbands who are not believers. He’s not encouraging them to leave those husbands, nor to browbeat them into converting, nor to disrespect or condemn them for not believing, but to love them, just because they do, and its right. And their husbands might see the gospel in action, through their respectful and considerate conduct.

Yet the very fact that these women have chosen to believe differently than their pagan husbands shows that they are not demure, passive, dominated or intimidated. All the more surprising when the Pater familias was expected to be the trend-setter and director of all things in the home. The very fact that Peter is addressing women who have staked a claim to differ from the faith of their husbands tells us that there’s something else going on here than Peter making a case for male domination.

Or take the words about jewelry and braiding the hair. A few of us here grew up with pretty strict dress codes in church about this kind of thing. Occasionally I get phone calls from people asking if we enforce strict dress at Emmanuel Mennonite Church, especially on women. And I can tell that they desperately want me to say Yes. I know what they’re afraid of: the increasingly hyper-sexualized nature of our culture and commerce, how sex is used to sell stuff, especially clothing. It bothers me too, to the point where I’m reluctant to go to the mall or the video store, they are such sexualized places. I tell these callers that we’re all for modesty, although I don’t know, at my age and weight, what all I have to be so modest about. But I also tell them that if we went beyond that and insisted on plain dress or some kind of gray fashion conformity, we would miss out on the beautiful Ethiopian and Eritrean gowns and dresses we see around here, especially for Easter. And that is why you never see those callers here, not even for a visit. Your pastor did not pass their telephone test. But I’m not going to become an officer in any kind of fashion police force. As you’ve probably noticed, I don’t always do so great with my own.

In fact, these words about dress and jewelry which some of us have experienced as controlling and oppressive, I think Peter means as liberating and freeing. Because I suspect that, for women especially, then as now, there are powerful and oppressive forces arrayed around the whole matter of appearance and dress. According to all the fashionistas in the media and the magazines and the malls, we are only as good as we look. So you can never be young enough. Or slim enough. Or “hot” enough. Or up-to-date and ahead of the fashion curve enough. And that pressure feeds into all kinds of distress around image, like self-hatred and eating disorders.

But all that Peter is saying, when he says to let your beauty be other than a matter of dress and jewelry and braided hair, is that there is a more lasting kind of beauty that matters most to the One who matters most: God. This kind of beauty is eternal, unfading, and no external things like fabric or jewelry can add to it or detract from it. In fact, this kind of beauty can grow with age. Stretch marks from childbirth and crow’s feet and wrinkles around the eyes and face from concern and caring, or from smiling and laughter, only serve as signs of this growing beauty within that is wisdom, peace and compassion. And the judge of this beauty is not any man, but rather, our God and Creator in whose image we were made, male and female, whose beauty we reflect. I would hope that all people, men and women, would find Peter’s call to this type of beauty liberating and refreshing, not oppressive.

Now if oppression and male domination were Peter’s concern, then he should have left out verse 7, where he writes, “Husbands, in the same way, be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect, as the weaker vessel, and as heirs with you of the precious gift of life, so that nothing may hinder your prayers.” And there’s the hinge on which this passage turns into something else than the weapon it has often been made into to keep women “in their place,” so called. That phrase, “in the same way, husbands,” is Peter’s way of saying, “Now men, you do just like what I’ve just suggested to your wives.” What is that? “Treat them with respect.” Respect is what Peter means by “submit” or “be submitted.” It falls way short of the holy, reverent fear that he says is for God alone.

And let’s look at that phrase, “weaker vessel.” Into that phrase has been poured a massive pile of reasonings and logic, so-called, to justify male dominance and male privilege. Women shouldn’t vote, it was once said, because they allegedly are “the weaker sex” and may vote wrongly, for emotional reasons. Sometimes I wish we did let some emotions drive more of our civic behavior, emotions like tenderness, care and concern.

But Peter’s word for “vessel” has nothing to do with being male or female, nor with emotional stability or logical ability, neither of which are the exclusive domain of either men or women. The word Peter uses for “vessel” is often used in the New Testament for “body,” as in, “the human body.” So he’s simply telling men to respect the fact that their wives’ bodies may be physically weaker, unable to beat them at– I don’t know– arm wrestling, and not abuse that greater physical strength.

Now if you’re talking about the average lengths of our lives, or about what it takes to deliver a baby, you could make the case that, in those respects, women are actually stronger vessels than men. But when you’re talking about average upper body strength, men usually have the advantage. It comes in handy for hunting and building. But unfortunately, it is also an advantage that too many men have used to dominate, intimidate and abuse women throughout the ages. And that has poisoned the well of male-female relationships for ages.

As a man, this is one thing I’ve had to come to terms with in those awkward situations, such as when I’m in an elevator and a woman gets on the next floor up, the door closes, we’re alone, and a look of fear flashes through her eyes. Or on the sidewalk in downtown St. Paul, I find that I’m walking behind a woman half a block ahead, she hears the sound of my steps, and she turns to look and see if I’m gaining on her. Again, the look of fear has actually made me stop and pretend that I really am interested in the vacuum cleaners in the storefront window. Or I’ve even crossed the street, just to prove that I’m harmless, and that I’m not going to exploit my size and strength. Okay, my relative size and strength. I’m not aware that I’m all that scary-looking. Maybe its my big hairy eyebrows.

Or maybe its just all that violent history between men and women.

All that Peter is saying, in his phrase about “the weaker vessel,” only reinforces what he says about living together in respect. Men, be aware of the intimidating and dominating power of your normally superior physical strength and don’t go there; don’t flex it and flaunt it or use it to intimidate or dominate. Be just as aware of the greater social power and freedom you often have, as men, and don’t abuse them to the detriment of your marriages and families. Accept gracefully the limitations on your power that come with living respectfully with someone who often has less physical and social power than you. Accept gracefully the limitations on your liberty that come with loving and living with someone who may be pregnant or nursing. That’s why I say that this passage may actually demand more restraint, respect and discipline of men than it does of women.

And with that we come out in a different place than when we started. All these times we thought Peter was demanding so much of women, when we see that, once he turns the tables toward men, he’s actually demanding at least as much of us men, if not more. More by way of restraint and respect. And all so that “your prayers may not be hindered.”

And with those words, “that your prayers may not be hindered,” we come to the main point of this whole passage: that there might be true spiritual intimacy between men and women, husband and wife. That the marriage and the home might even be something of a church.

Have you ever tried to pray when you were mad at someone? Or when you knew someone was mad at you? Or worse, have you tried to pray with someone whom you were mad at, or whom you knew was mad at you? It doesn’t work, does it? It doesn’t work either when your prayer partner has reason to fear you, or is treated by you as your inferior. Or when they treat you as an inferior. Prayer together—at least Christian prayer– only works when there is equality, and emotional and spiritual honesty between us.

That’s why this passage is all the more surprising for its time. Remember the Pater familias, the head of the household who was modeled after something like the emperor or a mafia don? In that day and age, it was not expected that Pater familias and the wives and women of his household would experience much of any kind of spiritual intimacy and equality. It was typically expected that men would have their own religious societies and more likely share spiritual intimacy with other men. The men in their army unit. Or the men in their business network. Women, considered as underlings, sometimes almost as property, might share spiritual intimacy with other women, women in their household, or women in their commercial networks, or in their religious societies. But it would be rare and surprising if they experienced that with other men, including their husbands.

But its what Peter expects of the church—the household of God– and of the household of marriage and family. Indeed, with these words, “that your prayers might not be hindered,” Peter has served notice of two surprising, block-busting things. The first is that, if you’re married, your relationship with God is not something separate from your relationship with your spouse. In fact, your relationship with God is only as good as your commitment to your relationship with your spouse. You can’t respect one and disrespect the other.

The second thing: By making prayer together so central to the marriage bond, Peter has served notice that the household of marriage and family is not only a part of the church, it is a church. A church within the church, a household of faith within the household of faith. We spend a lot of time and energy figuring out how the church can serve the family, when really, the family is a church within the church. And just as the wider church doesn’t work when its members are arranged from high to low in order of value and power, so the household church fails and betrays its mission if its members claim power and worth at each other’s expense.

A beautiful example of how a family can be a church is when the missionary family whom we support in India visited us a few years ago and explained that they had already planted a church in their fair city, even in a Muslim neighborhood. Because as soon as they were there and began worshiping the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and praying to him, at least in their apartment, they had effectively planted a church. Now all that remains is for others in their neighborhood to join them. And that may only be a matter of time because of 1) their prayers together, and 2) the gospel quality of their life together. And their love. You only have to observe the tender, respectful and mutually-supportive way that husband and wife and mother and father relate to each other and share their burdens to know that the church in their home is a wonderful start on a church to come.

Whether we’re married or not, the same principle still applies: as it was in the beginning, when man and woman were partners and heirs together of the Garden, each one equally a reflection of God’s image that complemented the other, so it is now and forever, that men and women are partners and joint-heirs together in the Kingdom of God, each one complementary and necessary to the other, in the church, as well as in the home that is also a church.

The Journey of Forgiveness

I don’t know what to say that can add to the following statement issued by some members and leaders of the Amish community in Nickel Mines, PA., on the recent first anniversary of the deaths by shooting of five young schoolgirls and the wounding of others:

Forgiveness is a journey….you need help from your community of faith and from God, and sometimes even from counselors, to make and hold on to a decision to not become a hostage to hostility. Hostility destroys community.”

The decision of the Amish community members to forgive has not been met with universal approval. What right have the living and the unharmed to forgive an assault against others who died or were wounded? some have asked. But it was an assault against the entire community, when you factor in the familial, neighborly, and religious connections among all the Amish of the region, even of the country. This act of corporate forgiveness is an important reminder of our connectedness and a necessary challenge to a stubbornly individualistic culture.

But the approach that the Amish take, not to allow themselves to “become a hostage to hostility,” turns that question on its head. The value of forgiveness is not only in what it does for the assailant (or in this case, his surviving family, who have received much support from the Amish) but in what it does for those who have been injured, even indirectly. While we might be able to make a legal or philosophical case for the “right” to hold a grudge or to avenge an insult or an assault, it is a right no better than one’s “right,” so-called, to hit oneself with a hammer or to drink poison. In fact, withholding forgiveness has been likened by sages to “drinking poison and hoping that someone else will die.”

Of equally stunning insight is the admission with which this statement begins, that “forgiveness is a journey,” and that “you need help.” This is a transparent and disarming admission of the fact that forgiveness has been no more automatic or easy for the Amish than it is for the rest of us. If ever we have determined to forgive someone, only to find our anger rising again and again, we are not alone. But we often differ with the Amish in this: don’t we often think of forgiveness as a destination we arrive at after the pain of the injury subsides with time and insight? The Amish, by contrast, seem to see the decision to forgive as the beginning of the journey, not its end.

And could it be that forgiveness does not always preclude anger? Rather, in forgiveness we work to transfer our grief, anger and outrage from the assailant to the assault, from the enemy to the enmity between us. Some actions are indeed worthy of great outrage and grief, some for the long periods of time that it would take to work toward resolution and healing. God forbid that we would come to any cheap and easy peace with such atrocities as what happened at Nickel Mines, or Columbine High School or Dachau. But part of that resolution and healing involves coming to see the enemy and assailant as someone in just as much need of healing and grace as ourselves, and finally even, to dare to pray and labor for his or her healing, as well as for our own. In this dark and difficult mystery we enter the very heart of God and the meaning of the cross. As Jacob said to his brother Esau, after years of bitter estrangement and separation between them, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33: 10).”

TAG! You’re IT! Our 2007 Annual Retreat

Imgp2292 Playing Tag!

(Click on pictures to make them larger.)

As this year’s annual retreat (Saturday, September 29, 2007) began, with the cold, wet wind trying to push us over, we prayed, “God, you know what the weather needs to do today; grant us wisdom to know what we need to do about it.” One thing we did was to play Tag. That warmed us up. And it demonstrated the lesson that Glenn and Gwenn Pickering were to teach us throughout the day: that living by fear, the fear of being “It,” creates distance in our relationships and robs us of all joy and intimacy. Indeed, said Glenn, our main choices in life do not come down just to good and evil, though both are real, but to love or to fear. Fear is the engine that drives evil. Love is the engine of all connection and relationships in the universe. For “God is love.”

Glenn and Gwenn Pickering were our retreat resource persons for a delightful and animated teaching session on Saturday morning. It was held at a picnic shelter at Battle Creek Park, where St. Paul and Maplewood meet. In previous years we have had weekend-long retreats in places hours away from town. But our growing size and the worsening traffic prompted us to try something in town and for one day, with no headaches over housing or long distance travel. But this being our first time in town meant that we had to settle for a shelter that was open to the elements on one side. You almost have to have the better, enclosed, shelters reserved for your great-grandchildren. Just kidding. On any other Saturday of last month, the fresh air would have been a treat. Now it was a challenge, as even full coffee cups went sailing away in the wind. No kidding again.

And still we made do, endured, and changed plans to proceed directly to lunch, then to our talent show, and then run home to warm up. The spaghetti dinner planned for that evening was enjoyed for lunch after worship the next day. All the laughter, music and joy of the talent show also helped keep us warm, just proving that more impressive than what we accomplish is what we overcome.

Enjoy the accompanying photos of some of the people who participated and helped and shared in any ways. And if you want to hear and learn more from Glenn and Gwenn Pickering, check out their website at, http://www.livingthetruth.org/aboutus.htm and learn about all the wonderful work they do with churches, families, couples and even corporations to help us get past the game of Tag, in which we run from each other and fight not to be “It,” to better ways of love and communication. For, as Glenn continually reminds us, “God IS love.”

Mathew Swora, pastor

Imgp2298 No distance here! Some of our youth and children working to stay warm.

Imgp2301 Marilyn Miller, with help from husband Ernie, oversaw the food and hospitality. Hold onto that coffee cup!

Imgp2306

Tony Schrock, em-ceeing the Talent Show, and helping his daughter, Katrina, with a reading of "Green Eggs and Spam."

 

Imgp2316 Yodahe Gebremichael sings a beautiful song of praise to Christ.

Imgp2314 Wiebe and Son (Virgil and Lucas) miming troupe.

Emmanuel Mennonite Church: a HALO-free Zone

Yesterday’s New York Times (October 7, 2007) carried an article about churches sponsoring Halo video game events as a way of bringing youths—especially young men—into church. The article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/us/07halo.html?em&ex=1191988800&en=4db9da4caaef0870&ei=5087%0A.

I have not played Halo. I’m so far behind on the digital revolution that I’ve only recently given up looking for the “Any” key. I wouldn’t even know how to install and play Halo. Not that I wouldn’t want to, I’m afraid. From my brief experience of having Chessmaster on my computer, I quickly recognized the addictive power of video games (for me, at least) and took it off, as a matter of self-defense. That I know how to do. And I didn’t need any more humiliation, even at the Easy level. I confess, as a human being of the same substance as everyone else, to the appeal of exercising power by blowing things—and people—away. Digitally, of course. All my Christian life I have been struggling to trust and cultivate another type of power than the destructive, fear-based one that the world recognizes and even worships: the power of life, love, light, the power of nurturing and embracing, even the power of simply letting things and people live, be and grow.

I have been told that Halo has relatively less graphic violence and more noble, even spiritual, elements than other shoot-em-up video games. That doesn’t say lot. Something tells me I’d better not spend time checking it out to see if that is true or not. I have people and places to nurture and only so much time to do it.

But another question comes to mind: What’s so great about getting people into a church building? Especially if all they’re doing is what they’d already do at home? If we’re sitting around blowing things and people away, even if they’re just digital things and people, how does that make it “church?” To me, its just as important to get church out to people as it is to get people into church. Christianity is at least as much about what we do in our homes, at work and in the world, as it is about the few hours a week that we spend inside a consecrated space, important as those hours are. There we gather, in part, to scatter, renewed and empowered for love.

Slowly, and only by the grace of God, are my soul and body getting rewired to experience the rush and thrill of peace and compassion that people experienced around Jesus. It amounts to swimming against the cultural current. And don’t forget, such video games were first pioneered by the Defense Department, in order to “program” soldiers to overcome their natural reluctance to shoot to kill. Now tell me that such games don’t do anything to us, other than release some pent-up aggression. Why spend any more time “hard-wiring” ourselves for destruction, vengeance and fear, when they seem to come so easily anyway? Are there not other ways to know and feel that we are truly alive, I ask, as I admire the bright yellow maple tree in my backyard, glowing in the mellow sunlight of an autumn afternoon?

Rather than telling anyone, though, not to play Halo, I will simply ask: Are there not better ways to spend the short time we have here before eternity, where we’ll see in full what we became, and live with the results forever? Look around yourself to see the answers in living faces. And are there not better things to be making of ourselves? Until the answer to both questions is No, the gatherings of Emmanuel Mennonite Church will remain Halo-free zones. Especially since we rent our space and want to stay on good terms with our gracious landlord (Luther Seminary). Now you know at least one time and place where you can come to get away from all the murder and mayhem, the shooting and the explosions.

Mathew Swora, pastor

THE CHURCH IN SLAVERY

This message below was delivered at Emmanuel Mennonite Church for World Communion Sunday, October 7, 2007, and as part of our preaching/teaching series on I Peter.

by Mathew Swora, pastor

I Peter 1: 18-25

18 "Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls."

We fought a civil war in this country over the words you just heard from I Peter, although they were actually addressed to the slaves among Peter’s disciples, eighteen centuries earlier. But as slavery and the controversy about it grew and spread in this country, people on both sides of the argument reached for the Bible to support their positions, and both found ammunition to use against each other. The side in favor of slavery used verses like the ones just heard: “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all respect….” They took that to mean that Peter, and therefore Jesus, and therefore God, had no problem with slavery, so neither should we.

The other side had arguments too, based on verses like, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and the general, all-around example of Jesus, which is pretty hard to square with kidnapping people and packing them like sardines into boats so that nearly half of them die during the voyage, all just because of the color of their skin, and then chaining them and whipping them and selling their spouses or their children away to make lots of money. But that didn’t seem to discourage the pro-slavery faction. Many major American denominations split into southern and northern groups over this issue.

Because this issue only got settled by massive bloodshed during our Civil War, with both sides quoting Bible verses to justify why God was on their side and not the other, many Americans lost faith in Christ and the Bible, and the church took a major hit to its authority and witness in this country. Because there’s so much in the Bible, and if anything in all its many pages can be used to support anything we do or want, does it finally even say anything? many people wondered.

Which is not to say that both sides of the issue were equally right, from either a a biblical point of view or a bare-bones moral one. I’m absolutely convinced that to use this passage to argue for slavery is to ignore some pretty basic rules for interpreting the Bible, indeed, for interpreting anything you read in print.

One rule is to ask yourself: What was understood by the author and readers when these words were written? What were they supposed to mean to the original audience? It would help then to know something about the time and setting and culture. Just a little digging into history shows that when you compare slavery in the ancient Roman Empire with slavery in our pre- Civil War America, you are comparing apples to oranges. Or make that a bushel of apples to one or two oranges. Because there were, in Peter’s time, many more kinds of slaves and slavery than there were in our Plantation South. I’m not saying that the slavery Peter knew was ever good or even better than what Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas opposed. But none of the slaves Peter knew was a slave just because of the color of his or her skin. Nor were all of them slaves for all their lives, nor were all of their children automatically born into slavery the way the children of American slaves were. Some slaves in the Roman empire were prisoners of war who knew, when they signed up to fight, that they could get killed or captured and enslaved. Some people sold themselves into slavery because of extreme poverty or debt, often with the understanding that they would be slaves only until their debts were paid, or a contract period of five to ten years were up. Many slaves who were put to back-breaking work in brutal, life-threatening conditions were actually criminals and convicts serving out their terms in hard labor, like members of a Georgia chain gang. Many other slaves were treated almost like members of the household. Many would be tutors, accountants, nursemaids, personal aides, but with very long and unbreakable contracts. We just don’t know for sure which of these many kinds of slaves and slavery Peter was addressing. Probably not the chain gang kind; maybe more the household servant. So it was wrong to compare those many kinds of slavery with the slavery that stained our country’s history.

But you don’t have to be a historian to know that. Just thumbing through the Bible you find these many different kinds of slavery reflected. You also find laws limiting how long someone can serve as a slave: seven years, max. Less, if the next sabbath year or the Jubilee year comes sooner, those years in which all debts were canceled and all slaves released. Rather convenient of southern slaveholders to overlook that part of the Bible, don’t you think? There are also biblical laws regulating the treatment of prisoners made slaves. And people of different races, tribes and nations are to be welcomed into the kingdom of God, not into chains and bondage. That old saw about how God supposedly wanted all Africans to be slaves for all time, because they all supposedly inherited Noah’s curse of slavery upon his son, Ham and all his descendants, requires the most tortured, self-serving kind of interpretation, that whenever I hear it, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Even if there were any speck of truth to that application of Noah’s curse, all curses are now called off in Christ, because he took them for us on the cross.

A second rule for interpreting any text is to ask yourself, What do we know about the author, his or her place, and his or her purpose? People at the top of the slave-economy pyramid were the ones trying to use Peter’s words to justify their power and privilege. But a quick reading of the Bible would show that Peter was writing from the bottom of the social pyramid, indeed, from a place that could be lower and more dangerous than that of many slaves; he was often a prisoner. That alone makes it highly unlikely that he would be trying to make a case for slave-holding and slave traders, especially the American kind. All you can say from today’s text is that Peter is addressing slaves on how to witness for Christ to their masters, whether those masters are kind or cruel. He begins by addressing all of us, slaves and free, by saying, “Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a pretext to do evil.” Then, Peter turns his attention to slaves in particular, to tell them how they too can live as though they were free, by being concerned first of all with their witness about their True Master.

And he’s not saying this just to help make their slave conditions easier to bear. He goes on to warn them that this approach could actually get them in more trouble than if they were stealing the silverware or mouthing off to their masters. He writes, “But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.” Peter is thereby warning them that by witnessing for Christ in their conscientious conduct, slaves may find themselves in great danger. But to accept that, he says, is Christ-like.

Which should warn us against ever using the Bible from a position of power and privilege to justify our power and privilege, as Southern American slave holders were doing. Contrary to things you read in books like The Da Vinci Code, the Bible was not written, pasted, and patched together by powerful, wealthy, well-connected men in gold-braided church robes and imperial armor laughing up their silken sleeves as they chortled, “This will teach them to fear us and obey us; this will keep them in their place!” Whenever such people have tried to use the Bible that way, they are playing with the very fire that has always escaped to blaze away such corruption in the church, as in the Anabaptist Reformation from which this church is descended. Such as the Abolitionist movement—against slavery– in this country with its strong leadership, often from the church, based on gospel values of equality under God.

The Bible has come to us from God, I believe, but always through the messy underside of history, written first in the blood of martyrs and the tears of the oppressed, before their prayers and their laments and their hopes and their stories– and God’s promises to them–were put in ink to parchment and papyrus. It is from that position of solidarity with the slaves and the suffering, that Peter wrote these words. And it is from that same position of solidarity with the weak and the poor and the oppressed that the Bible is still to be read and taught and interpreted and preached.

Understood that way, what Peter is saying is, “Slaves, don’t waste your sufferings and sorrows.” Since sorrow and suffering, he admits, are the slave’s lot until the day of their liberation, do not waste your sufferings on punishment for any conduct that would be unworthy of either God, yourself or anyone else, and therefore deserved, at least in the minds of your human masters, so-called. Instead, let your sorrows and sufferings be for your witness to a higher Master, your master and that of your owner, by means of something that just might scare your human masters more than do rebellion, theft or disobedience: your integrity, and your faith in God as your true master. In this way, you will witness to Christ by conduct similar to his, in sufferings similar to his.

Of course I wish that Peter had added an extra verse or two for the masters, saying, “Master, let your slaves go free and receive them back as your equals,” which Paul seemed to be saying about the slave Onesimus, in the letter to his master, Philemon. But Peter does not address slave owners in his letter, probably because there weren’t any slaveholders among his beloved and honored brothers and sisters in Christ, the way there obviously were slaves among his beloved and honored brothers and sisters in Christ. If so, that alone would say something quite damning about slavery.

Yes, the Christian slave is to remain subordinate, Peter says. Or rather, the Christian slave is to embrace and transform the subordination in which he finds himself trapped, with no human way of escape, and make of it a place in which to be a presence and a power for Christ, his true master. And not out of fear anymore. At least not out of fear of his or her human master. As I’ve said in previous weeks, the words which Peter uses for “honor” and “be subject to” as in “honor the king” and “honor everyone” or “be subject to your masters” are not the words he uses for our relationship to God. God alone we are told to obey and to “fear” as in reverent, holy awe and wonder. So by being subject, he means do what your human master says, as long as it accords with the law of God, which is love. This kind of subjection actually becomes subversive and revolutionary whenever the king or the slave holder wants and demands the “fear” and total obedience that Peter says are for God alone. That’s why my favorite Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, called this kind of subordination, “revolutionary subordination” because, “Here we have a faith that assigns personal moral responsibility to those who had no legal or moral status in their culture, and makes of them decision-makers. It gives them responsibility for viewing their status in society not as a simple meaningless decree of fate but as their own meaningful witness and ministry, as an issue about which they can make a moral choice.” Which means, Yoder says, that “there must have been something in the experience of their becoming Christians, or in their education as new members of the Christian community, or in their experience in the life of that group, which had given to these subjects a vision or a breath of a new kind of dignity and responsibility” (The Politics of Jesus, pp. 174-5) that society and slaveholders had long conspired to keep from them.

This, by the way, is how the Christian faith of many slaves in the Roman Empire was discovered and punished, like that of St. Agnes in the Fourth Century. Her master would probably have considered her a model household servant until she refused the sexual demands of her master’s son. When pressed as to why she wouldn’t give in like a slave was supposed to, she said that she was already espoused to Christ, and would do nothing to betray or dishonor him. That led to her trial and to her eventual martyrdom. She was not the only one. One pagan writer of the time wrote that his chief problem with the church and with Christians was that they were teaching the slaves to think.

This is also one way by which the gospel spread, including in Ethiopia. Two Syrian monks were captured by slave-hunters and sold there. They were bought by a highly-connected family, and under their witness they saw even the king and his royal family becoming Christians.

Where did these people at the bottom of the social pyramid, who were told at every turn that they were worthless apart from how well they did their masters’ bidding, get this kind of nerve to see themselves as slaves of God first, and to act as powerful change agents even sometimes with chains on their wrists and feet? From Jesus who, “though being in nature God, thought not his equality with God a thing to be grasped, but who emptied himself, taking on the very nature of a slave, being made in human likeness…..and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2: 6-8).” From Christ, who, Peter just told them, “committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Peter then was not asking of the slaves anything that Christ himself had not done. His main concern for slaves was the same as his advice to the free: that they model Christ in all their conduct, whatever their role, whatever the cost.

So far I have spoken mostly about the past. So what about today? I hope I’ve already shown why we can’t use these words to justify any kind of slavery, injustice or oppression. In the past some of us may have heard these words also used against labor unions or any kind of activism for a living wage, workers’ safety, labor rights and even human rights. But I only see in these words a prohibition against doing so violently, hatefully, or harmfully. In fact, I see in Peter’s words and Jesus’ example a challenge to tell the truth and take the heat as did Jesus, Peter and slaves like St. Agnes.

And now some social scientists say that today there are more slaves in the world than there have ever been in any other time in history, and not just because there are more people. That is why I have entitled this message for World Communion Sunday, “The Church in Slavery.” Slavery still takes place today in forms that Abraham and Abraham Lincoln would recognize and hate, such as in the trafficking of workers for sweat shops or the sex industry, against whom the game is so well rigged that they will never be able to work off their debts or their terms of bondage. I have to confess: I don’t know how I, from my relatively sheltered and secure life, can tell victims of today’s brutal human trafficking how to apply Peter’s advice to their situation. Our role is more about boycotting it and fighting it. And finding alternatives.

Then there are more subtle ways of being slaves. Such as in the grinding poverty of countries where the poor pay the cost of debt service for the weapons systems and worthless projects of their corrupt governments, and which other countries and lenders encourage. Though they work harder than most people and pay taxes, their labor gets no fair compensation, they get no schools, no reliable roads or bridges, no medical care and no agricultural aid in return, because so much of their countries’ budgets are going to pay for weapons and debt service. Most of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and more and more of our churches around the world, live in such conditions of slavery.

But even here, in this wealthy country, 140 years after our Civil War, we have our forms of bondage that blend into slavery. I constantly run into people who say they would gladly get a different job from the one they hate, or who would start their own businesses, if they wouldn’t lose their health insurance and end up dead, disabled, or as bankruptcy bait. Or they may work incredibly hard, yet without health insurance or even a living wage. By biblical values, any work done without just compensation, without basic needs being met, to which you are held hostage by fear of losing what little you have, would qualify as slavery.

The revolutionary submission to which Peter calls us does not mean that we simply accept oppression and slavery as God’s will, anymore than it means we rise up against them in violent rebellion, either. Once again, looking to Peter and Jesus and the early church, it means we simply refuse to be cowed into either fear or violence and that we act as the free and dignified moral agents we all are—equally–before God, that we tell the truth, that we live the truth, and take the heat, and that we start being the change we want to see. One prime example of this is the system of free health clinics connected to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Mary’s Health Clinics, which serves the uninsured and un-insurable by means of volunteer work and private donations. This fits with a long legacy of mutual aid among Mennonites and Amish, such that some congregations and conferences even pool their own money for medical needs. Right now, our denomination, Mennonite Church USA, is working on ways to pool the resources of all member churches to ensure that at least all pastors and workers are covered for medical insurance. There are already demands to expand it beyond pastors and missionaries.

And if we personally are not in such dire straits, if we are free and all our needs are met, we, as Christians, still belong to a worldwide body of Christians, many of whom suffer modern forms and degrees of slavery. God forbid that we in positions of privilege, power and prosperity, would do like the Christian slaveholders did and place our privilege, power and prosperity ahead of our solidarity with all the suffering parts of the Body of Christ. The purpose of this World Communion Sunday is to observe and to celebrate our communion and solidarity with a church still too often in chains. Sharing the bread and the cup with each other means nothing if we are not also willing to share the gifts and the substance that make the difference between slavery and labor with dignity. Every time we bring our gifts and offerings in worship, to share with others and the world, we are taking a step toward becoming the change we wish to see, toward modeling a new community which is anointed, as Isaiah said, “to preach good news to the poor……to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…..to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Isaiah 61: 1-2),” a Jubilee community with no debts, no slaves, and only One Master in heaven. That, I believe, is God’s idea of freedom.

Welcome!

Welcome to a very new blog! This is an experiment in reaching out to you, and in hearing back from you. Watch this site as it grows and develops and becomes a place of online hospitality, where you can hear our stories and we can hear yours. Our stories are about the love of Christ working in us and through us, and coming back to us through your contacts and friendships. I look forward to more sharing with you and from you.

Welcome!

In Christ,

Mathew Swora, pastor, Emmanuel Mennonite Church

A VISIT FROM AFAR/UNE VISITE DE LOIN

On the weekend of July 14-15, we at Emmanuel Mennonite Church were blessed with the visit of Siaka and Claire Traoré, of Burkina Faso. Becky and I had known them since the years 1986-88, when we lived in “The Fatherland of Upright People,” which is what the name Burkina Faso means. In those years, Siaka and Claire had just returned from seminary in Bangui, Central African Republic, for Siaka to serve the Mennonite churches of the province of Kenedougou as pastor and president of the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso. In the years since, Siaka had also recently finished a stint in the capital city of Ouagadougou, working with the Mennonite Central Committee as a resource person available to churches, agencies and governments in the areas of peace-making, mediation and reconciliation. Now they both are in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina’s second largest city, working in church planting. As of my last correspondence with Siaka, I have come to understand that there is a group now meeting, the first-fruits of what one hopes and prays will become a movement, and the nerve center of Christian leadership to come. Siaka has also taken up again his former post as president of the EMCBF.

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During their visit to Minnesota, Siaka and Claire got to see at least twelve of Minnesota’s famous ten thousand lakes. They really must come back to see the remaining 9,988 some day.

During worship that Sunday, Siaka brought the message, about the essential unity of peace and the gospel, and Claire led us, on the djembé which they gave to us as a gift (Thank you!) in a Dioula language song, “The Grace of God.” Imgp2178_4

After worship, Claire and Siaka shared their testimonies of their faith, spoke about the challenges they face as church planters and evangelists, and about their hopes for the future.

That evening, we hosted all who wished to come to greet, dine and visit with Siaka and Claire. There was more singing in Dioula, led again by Claire. Then the drum went to the Ethiopian members of Emmanuel and they blessed us with songs in their language (Amharic) and style. Thus God brought two ends of Africa together on our back porch in friendship, the joy of music, and the worship of God.

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Many thanks also to Rod Hollinger-Jantzen, the U.S. Director for Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, in Elkhart, IN., who did the lion’s share of the translating, and who drove and accompanied Claire and Siaka all throughout their travels in the U. S. and Canada. Thank you! Merci beaucoup! Aw n’i tche!

Une Visite de Très Loin

Au mois de juillet passé nous avons été bénis par la visite de Siaka Traoré et sa femme, Claire, du Burkina Faso. Nous les avons connus dans les années 1986 à 1988, quand nous avons vécu au “Pays des Hommes Intègres.” A cette époque-là ils étaients tout juste rentrés du seminarie biblique à Bangui, la ville capitale de la République Centraficaine, pour que Siaka puisse servir les églises Mennonites, dans la province du Kénédougou, en tant que pasteur et président de la dénomination, L’Eglise Evangélique Mennonite Au Burkina Faso. Il a aussi récemment passé six ans à Ouagadougou, dans les domaines de paix, de réconciliation et de médiation pour les églises, les agences et les gouvernements Ouest-Africains, sous l’agence de la Comité Centrale Mennonite. Couramment, Claire et Siaka habitent Bobo-Dioulasso, la deuxième plus grande ville au Burkina Faso, travaillant pour l’évangelisation et l’établissement de nouvelles églises Mennonites. Il y a dèja un groupement de croyants avec eux qui font les prémices d’un mouvement, un centre névralgique de dirigents à venir. Siaka a repris la poste de président de l’Eglise Evangélique Mennonite au Burkina Faso.

Lors de leur visite au Minnesota, ils ont vu et compté une douxaine de nos fameux dix mille lacs. Ils nous croient qu’il en rest neuf mille, neuf cent, quatre-vingt- huit à voir quand ils reviennent nous rendre visite.

Lors du culte, Siaka nous a porté la parole, une prédication concernant l’unité essentielle de la paix et l’évangile. Ensuite, pendant l’école de dimanche pour les adultes, Siaka et Claire ont donné leurs témoignages de leurs vies chrétiennes. Ils ont aussi parlé de leurs ministères, des défis auquels ils ont à faire face, et de leurs espoirs pour l’avenir.

Le soir, nous avons acceuilli beaucoup de monde chez nous pour saluer, pour diner, et pour bavarder avec Siaka et Claire. Nous avons chanté des cantiques Burkinabés en Dioula, avec Claire au tambour (le djembé qu’ils nous ont donné comme cadeau-Merci!). Des membres Ethiopiens d’Emmanuel Mennonite Church ont pris le tambour dans leur tour, et ils ont chanté des cantiques chrétiennes dans leur langue, l’Amharique, et dans leur style. Alors, Dieu a ainsi réuni les deux bouts de l’Afrique sur notre véranda en amitié et en la joie de la musique, de mème que dans l’adoration de Dieu.

Nous remercions aussi Rod Hollinger-Janzen, directeur du bureau Américain d’AIMM (Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission), qui les a conduit partout dans leur voyages aux Etas-Unis et au Canada, et qui a fait la plupart de la traduction pendant la visite. Soyez toujours les bienvenus!