Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon – Covenant Mennonite Church – November 17 2013

Text: Isaiah 65: 17-25; Luke 21: 5-19
Theme: “Be Not Afraid!” or “Choose Joy!”

On October 30, 1938, the day before Hallowe’en, Orson Welles performed on radio an adaptation of H. G. Welles’s novel The War of the Worlds. Presented mainly as a series of news bulletins, the play suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Adding to the realism was the fact that the program ran without commercial breaks. In the days following, however, there was widespread outrage in the media and panic by certain listeners, who had believed the events described in the program were real. Why not? The winds of war were beginning to blow. The stock market crash and the dirty thirties had challenged the world economy. Totalitarian governments were shaping world affairs by increasing territorial and political demands.Nations were re-arming. With their nerves already on edge, the smallest thing could set the American people off.

The future can be scary to contemplate. A day doesn’t go by without hearing a word of warning or calamity about something or other. Moral decay, environmental destruction, secularization, earthquakes, sunamis, hurricanes, typhoons, wars and the list goes on. Not only that but the older one gets, the worse, things seem to be getting. And if you probe a little deeper, you will notice that normal rank and file people like you and me are fairly fatalistic about it. “Not much to be done about it.” “I guess it was meant to be.” “What can one person do?” If it is a death, one may hear that “I guess it was their time” or “It was meant to be anyway.” And so we live our lives, expecting the worst, hoping for the best, and wondering what’s going to happen. Some claim to know what’s going to happen. Climate scientists talk about tipping points and “points of no return” when the world will become hostile toward much of existing life. Fundamentalists talk about “the end of the world” and “the rapture of the saints” who will be lifted from the earth before it is consumed by fire. For both groups there is a sense of inevitability about the future. But for many of us there is a sense of futility about doing anything. And so we grow in fear.

Some Scripture passages have functioned the same way over the years. There are some passages in Scripture which are notoriously hard to read, much less, understand. They are called apocalyptic. Apocalypse means revelation and refers usually to future-oriented Bible passages. Our text this morning is taken from a longer text, one in which Jesus speaks to his disciples about what was to happen. The present temple, a wonder of the world, beautiful now, the sign of God’s presence in Jerusalem and among his people, would be so utterly destroyed that not even one stone would be left on top of another. Jesus spoke of Israel moving toward a point of the destruction of the nation. Extraordinary events were about to happen. People would say all kinds of things about the meaning of events. But rather than offer them a blueprint about how this was to happen or what the sequence was to be, Jesus told his disciples: “Do not be terrified.” “Do not be terrified! When these wars and struggles arise, when these earthquakes, famines and plagues come, when everything seems to be falling apart, do not be afraid."

These are words for our time. Are you afraid? What are you afraid of?

Samuel Wells writes that fear isn’t itself good or bad. It’s an emotion that identifies what we love. He explains that “The quickest way to discover what or whom someone loves is to find out what they are afraid of. We fear because we don’t want to lose what we love. We fear for our children. We fear for our planet. We fear for our friends. But we also fear death. Stanley Hauerwas stated in a lecture in Winnipeg that North Americans are afraid to die. Why else are we spending so much money on health care at the end of life? He went on to say that we have changed the medical community’s emphasis from “care” to “cure.” Why? Because not only do we love life but we are afraid of losing our lives.
The disciples were not to worry about the future. When things started to happen around them, they were warned not to be led astray. They were not to make preparations. They were to expect trials and torture and perhaps death, but God would give them all they needed at the time they needed it. In other words, the disciples were to continue with their mission of sharing the good news of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into the world and calling people to become part of this good news. God would take care of the rest.
Jesus’ words hit us right where we live. We are concerned with security. Western countries have spent trillions of dollars on issues of national security. We are concerned with having enough. We look daily at the stock market quotations, the job market, prices for commodities, weather reports, and so on. We are told we have to prepare for the future, otherwise we may not be ready.
Again, Jesus’ message is very simple: “Don’t be terrified.”
And the reason we are not to be terrified is because in the end Jesus is not interested in telling us precisely what the future holds but rather Who holds the future.  And when you know Who holds the future, then you know Who holds your every moment in this present time as well.  It is this confidence that allows us to rest easy when Jesus tells us that he will be with us and will even provide us with words to say if and when the world presses in on us and persecutes us for his sake.
For those of you who could not attend and as others of you have may have read in the bulletin over the last few weeks or heard announced in church on Sunday mornings, yesterday we held our Strategic Planning Session for the Covenant Mennonite Church. We looked into the future and tried to discern where God was leading us as a congregation. We had planned for this last February at our annual meeting and over a series of different sessions, activities and time, we looked to see how we could do some forward visioning and strategizing. We found out later that our National Conference, MC Canada, and our Area Conferences, like MC Manitoba, have formed a Futures Task Force to look at the future shape and mission of Mennonite Church Canada. Circumstances have changed. The ways we have done things in the past are not sufficient to our resources or our needs. What will the missional church of the 21st century look like in Canada? What is God calling us to here in Winkler?

These are daunting questions. For some of us they are difficult to answer. Looking back we see how God has blessed and sustained us. But looking into the future is less certain. Can we trust God with the future?

In several weeks we will begin Advent. I’m sorry to bring that up two weeks early. But I was reminded of that when I saw the Isaiah text for this Sunday. Into a world in which international tension was as ratcheted as tightly as anyone could imagine in this little nation of Judah, God chose to send Jesus, not as a fully formed divinity, or a super warrior or even royalty but as an anonymous baby born to ordinary folk. God has chosen to work with weakness because in the end, it is not our strength or preparedness which will determine the success of God’s purposes but God alone who will accomplish them. Our text refers to a future much different from that of Luke’s Gospel. This text, most likely written in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem and the return from exile, shows what God ultimately will bring about.

This passage is about Jerusalem being a city of joy, its people a delight; no more sorrow, or pain; a baby will live to grow old; a hundred years of age will be a normal lifespan; one will live to enjoy the fruits of his or her own labour – houses, gardens, descendants; natural enemies will be together in peace, pain and suffering will be a things of the past. 

There are many faithful Christians who practice the faith, know the truth, keep the commandments, pursue mission in many different ways, pray for the coming of the kingdom but never display the joy. In other words, good blameless people trying to do the right thing. But some of us are so worried about being right, about doing good, that we forget about joy. We forget about living. Do we trust God with our future? Wendell Berry once stated that we should "be joyful though we've considered all the facts." We tend to think in terms of success. But that is not how God thinks. We are called to trust in the God of the future and invited to live lives which reflect joy in the face of all that appears to be otherwise. Don't be terrified? I suggest that another way of saying “Be not afraid” is “Choose joy!”

Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembrance Day - Reflections from a Conflicted Mennonite

Every year the observance of Remembrance Day becomes a time of conflicted thoughts for me. At different times in my life I have changed my views about what constitutes a Christian response to war. What is the relationship between one's country and one's faith. Having studied in the area of Christian ethics and read many books supporting one view or another over the taking up of arms for God and country, I still struggle to know and support fully what a truly definitive Christian response would be. It is easy to sit in one's armchair like I do and, in the light of historical research, pronounce past wars to be "just' or "unjust."However, I have had members of my extended family involved in the armed forces and do so because of their conviction over the rightness of their cause. Furthermore, hindsight is unhelpful and often misleading. Every war is new and exceptional and introduces evolving new circumstances to the decision.  Even then, the decision is frequently lost in the fervour and excitement of finally "doing something."

The issue gets more complicated for me as a Mennonite and especially as a Mennonite pastor. I am officially to teach and support the historical peace position of the Mennonite churches. I feel the need to ask wider questions because many questions are deemed as pertinent. To what extent should we  disavow the use of force in the course of daily life? Is the force used by the police the same as the force used by the army? Should Mennonites even become police enforcement officers? Is the decision to protect my family from a violent intruder the same as going to war? Does my country of citizenship have the right to call on me or a member of my family to protect its (our) interests, no matter what they are? If someone disagrees with the official church position on peace and joins the armed forces, what then should the church do? Does it have the right to judge? How does the church respond to those who challenge its peace position? What does it mean to be in the world but not of the world? 

Over the past several weeks, the issues of pacifism and the Mennonite peace tradition have been raised in the local media. The October 28 2013 edition of the Canadian Mennonite had as its feature article one written by Ross Muir entitled "Let Nobody Judge Them." It chronicled the ambivalent and less than forthright response of Mennonite church leaders to the thousands of Mennonites who signed up for active service in the Second World War. Closer to home, the November 9, 2013 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press ran a feature article entitled "A Soldier Shunned" written by Randy Turner which describes Winkler and some other southern Manitoba communities with significant Mennonite populations as still living with unresolved tensions between the officially pacifist churches and those of their native sons who joined the armed services in World War 2. I knew some of the men who served in WW2 and found them to be humble and self-effacing in the memory of their service. I found myself compelled to thank them for their willingness to serve and to place themselves in harm's way for their country. I saw their commitment to a cause which they saw as just and good as equally commendable and worthy of our respect.

The other side of my thoughts goes to what our place in this country represented in earlier wars and what it has become. As a Mennonite I feel compelled to be grateful to a country which opened its doors to my ancestors and allowed them to settle with many privileges and freedoms. But at what cost to our souls? Many times Mennonites have looked the other way in the face of injustice. Sometimes we were willing or unwitting accomplices. We were given land to farm but did not consider that it was taken away from others. We looked away. Treaties were broken. We looked away. Many left to serve their country in battle and we, who did not, became wealthy. The history of our country, its treatment of First Nations people and other immigrant nationalities, and its participation in the unequal distribution of resources and wealth around the world continue as a lingering legacy of our national identity. What do we remember? What are we thankful for? What are our values?

Personally, I look at Remembrance Day with sadness. To my mind, war represents the failure of humankind. To go to war with another country is the failure of politics, common sense and a common desire to live together. The recognition that we have finally come to the point where where we must kill each other represents a victory for greed, hatred and the will to power. While we may consider our cause just (or more just than those who become our 'enemies'), our history leads us to realize that one war only leads to the next. And for what? What does war achieve? In the end, nothing. Only more war. In war everyone has failed, even the churches.

In our peace churches, we have long avoided war because we said we did not want to kill. My suspicion is that, more to the point, we have not wanted to die. It is my belief that if the peace churches argue against war, they bear the greatest responsibility to work positively for peace. Just as soldiers must go into the thick of the battle where the danger is highest, we ought not to shirk from danger or difficulty. We have much to contribute. From God's call to tear down the walls of hostility between nations, cultures, the sexes, the weak, the helpless, the disenfranchised and all who are marginalized, we need to take deliberate steps encouraging justice and reconciliation between all groups. First of all, I believe that peace begins at home. And so, reconciliation should also begin at home as we seek to be reconciled to those in our churches who have chosen the military as a way of serving their country. We may not agree with each other but we should be reconciled one with another. Secondly, we must reconcile with our aboriginal brothers and sisters who still bear the scars and open wounds of discrimination and mistreatment from decades of Canadian "justice." We have taken so much and shared so little. To practice respect and to seek true justice would be a good response from all of our churches. Finally, we should be willing to put our lives on the line for peaceable solutions. While not deliberately courting danger, we must not hide from dangerous places. Peacemaking can be a dangerous business.

We should engage in truth-telling in our churches and demand it from the leaders of our country. In a world where jingoistic responses often masquerade as patriotism or reasoned thinking, I wonder whether we would recognize the truth. As has been so often the case in war and in politics, the first casualty is the truth. Our commitment to follow Jesus should include a commitment to speak and seek the truth. Pacifism should never be confused with 'passivism.'

My own experience in seeking peace has been sadly lacking. But I am reminded every year at this time that to honour our dead and to give hope to our children we must be people of peace. I cannot disparage those who go to war to protect the innocent. But it should not stop there. In a conversation with a family member over the Mennonite peace stance, I was asked whether I would refuse to go to war for my country. I said yes but I said I also hoped I would be willing to die for my country and my Master in the service of peace. I still want to believe that.