I have told the story before of my flirting with Buddhism in my 20’s (I loved Jesus, but needed to see other people), and how a Buddhist monk told me I was a shitty Buddhist, but that everything I was looking for in Buddhism could be found in Christianity. He introduced me to Thomas Merton, who introduced me to Dorothy Day, and then it was off to the races.
What I haven’t said is that Christianity seemed repugnant to me. I mean, I loved Merton and Day, but it was really obvious I couldn’t be Catholic. It was early days for my developing social conscience, but I couldn’t be part of a system that made sure I would never be led by women. I was really clear the Evangelicalism of my childhood held nothing for me. It was not interested in answering any of the questions I had, and their focus on the angry God who must be placated – the god who was pissed and took it out on his kid instead of on me – nauseated me.
But when I found the Mennonites, it was like coming home. As I said when I was credentialed for ministry, “It’s not so much that being Mennonite made sense to me, but rather it made sense of me.”
The other night in a meeting, I said that being a Mennonite was the last stop for me. That were I not able to be Mennonite, I couldn’t be Christian. I was on the way out the door when I found this place, and if I can’t be here, then I will keep on going.
There was a gasp in the room, a room filled with Mennonites.
Obviously, there is some hyperbole there, but the reasons I became Mennonite are still there for me:
- The centrality of the example of Jesus.
- The practice of peacemaking and non-coercion.
- The idea that God is best experienced and scripture best understood in community.
- The separation of church and state.
- Choosing the words of Jesus (specifically the Sermon on the Mount and The Sermon on the Plain) as the “canon within the canon” (to use a Lutheran phrase) instead of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
There are other reasons, but those are the main ones that drew me in. And I recognize that some of those things can be found elsewhere. I know some Baptist folk who agree with all of that, but it isn’t because they are Baptist. And I know some Catholics who would agree with most of that, but it isn’t because they are Catholic. But all of those things are pretty baked into Mennonite life and theology.
And, I will be the first to say that like pretty much everyone else, Mennonites look better on paper than in reality. Some of the most coercive, passive-aggressive folk I have ever met were Mennonites. You can find Mennonite churches with US flags in them (although, thankfully, they are rare) and some Mennonites are so desperate for acceptance by the mainstream culture they have become Evangelical in their thinking.
But none of that matters to me, because we have an obligation, when examining a system, to see what it aspires to be, rather than what its current state is. And the paper version of what it means to be Mennonite is what I fell in love with, and converted to, and the way I now understand what it means to be Christian – or put another way, I’m not interested in being a Christian who doesn’t hold those values as central to their faith, or belonging to a community of faith where those things are not central.
A friend once said he was baptist, not Baptist, and that the lower-case b was important to him. I feel the same way – I am not Mennonite ™, but mennonite. It is sometimes hard for me to stay with Mennonite Church USA, and I know that there have been times it has been hard for them to stay with me. We may not always tarry together, and I don’t judge others for having already left.
NB: The following is a sermon I delivered at Presbyterian New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs, NY on October 6, 2019.
Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church
It was a holiday weekend. Everybody was in town, and all of the shops were crowded.
And the word on the street was that the police were going to arrest Jesus. There was a warrant out for his arrest – the police had an informant who had given them the goods on Jesus, and now it was just a matter of finding him.
I find it interesting, and somewhat reassuring, that on the night Jesus knew he was going to be arrested, he decided to be with his friends. He could have run and hid. He could have left town, or hidden in someone’s attic. Instead, he had supper with the people who mattered to him.
We don’t know an awful lot about his mood that night, or what he was thinking. Thanks to a different witness to the story, we know that during dinner, a fight broke out at the table about who was going to be in charge after Jesus left.
I have to wonder if that frustrated him. I mean, over the preceding three years, they had seen the blind be given sight, had watched him raise Lazarus from the dead, had seen him tell beggars and paupers how to claim their dignity in the face of the most powerful regime the world had ever known.
And Jesus had told them that they could do it too. They could do even greater things.
Together, they had crisscrossed the countryside, telling people the Good News that the Kingdom of God was at hand. They had healed the sick, cared for the dying, gave meaning to those who had theirs taken away, fed the hungry, confronted the Powers that Be, and bore witness to the goodness of God to people who had legitimate reason to doubt that goodness.
And on the night when he is in grave danger, on the night he could have ran away, but instead decided to be with them – on that night, they are still not getting it. They are still bickering. Trying to grab power for themselves.
So, I think it’s safe to say he had to be frustrated.
We also know he was scared. The story goes that after supper was over, he is going to take his best, closest friends and go into the garden and pray – hard. He is going to fervently ask God to for this to go down any other way. He is asking for mercy, and he is so upset that he is sweating giant drops as he prays.
The New Revised Standard translation of the Bible tells us he is in anguish as he prays, but the old King James I memorized as a child said that he was in agony.
All of that had to be building up while he was eating, while he was watching the infighting and the bickering.
Frustrated, and afraid.
Judas had betrayed him to the cops – he knew that.
And then Peter. Oh Peter.
Mark Twain once said that no man was completely worthless, as he could always serve as a bad example. I feel that way about Peter sometimes.
Peter just kept going on and on about how much he loved Jesus, and the whole time, Jesus knows he is going to betray him too. Before the night is over, Peter won’t even admit he knew Jesus, let along stand up with him.
So it is in the midst of this, surrounded by fears and doubts and unworthy friends that Jesus does something both simple and yet radical.
He took the bread and the wine off the table. He blessed it. He shared it. And he told them that when they shared food with each other, they were to remember.
It was that simple. And that complex.
Because it wasn’t just about sharing food – but the sharing of the food was important. It wasn’t just about being with your friends, even though they were betraying you – but loving your friends in their failures was important. It wasn’t even about having a community that was large enough to include both a government employee and a zealot who wanted to overthrow that government, large enough to have people of various races and a wide range of educational levels – but the diversity of people at the table is important too.
No, Jesus showed them that sharing a meal with people – with people who are at odds with you, with people who frustrate you, with people who are different than you, with people who share your values but don’t always live up to them – that sharing a meal like that is an act of resistance to the Powers that seek to make us afraid of each other.
Imagine a world if we made room for meals like that to happen?
In a world like that, the supper table is an altar, and the meal spread out on it an offering of faith to the idea of a better world than the one we live in now.
* * *
My wife and I have some friends, Linda and Hank*. They are in their 70’s, and they have had a life full of adventures. As a result, they have a wide range of friends from all over the world. And when we lived in their city, so far from our own families, they sort of adopted us. A mutual friend said once that Linda and Hank collect people. And we were part of their collection.
They lived in a large old house, filled with knick-knacks from their travels – there is the ancient Turkish rug, over there the Buddha from India, the buffalo skin from the Southwest, the antique couch from Goodwill. It was an eclectic house, but in a good way.
And when we lived there, we went to their house for Thanksgiving. Everyone brought something, and just as their friends were eclectic, so was the meal – there was American style turkey and dressing, for sure, but there was also babaganoush, and eggrolls, and empanadas, and baklava. They would put out the invitation – if you don’t have a place to eat Thursday, well, now you do. Come as you are and bring what you can.
When you got there, the table was already full, but Linda would always say, ‘Don’t worry – we will make room”, and another chair magically appeared and people would scooch their chairs and now there was room for one more person at this most unlikely of feasts. By the end of the day there would be several tables added to the end of the dining room table that now extended into the living room.
And I am here to tell you, that would be the best meal you had all year, and the most diverse. The last year we were there we ate with, among others, an undocumented house painter, a professional dulcimer player, a nurse who worked on death row, a Syrian mathematician, a folk singer, and the woman who worked the front desk at a nearby retirement community.
I think of those meals often when I think about the sort of meals Jesus envisioned. A table that is full, but there is always room for more. A table where there is already plenty, but we accept what people bring with them, and we can always scooch over to make room. A table where honest conversations can happen, where we can enter as strangers but leave as friends.
It’s worth noting that such meals do not happen by accident. They never went to a thrift store without hunting for folding tables and chairs so they could fit more people. They had a huge stock of serving platters and mismatched flatware and plates. There was an intentional invitation – in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, if you had a conversation with them, you would be invited, and had a standing invitation from then on. These meals were planned to be wide ranging and inclusive from the beginning.
If we are going to have the sort of meals Jesus had, we are going to have to plan for them too. If you put it out in the world that everyone is welcome, and you really mean it, you can’t be shocked when the person who eats with you betrays you later. You can’t be shocked when one of your closest friends won’t stand with you when it counts. You can’t be shocked by who shows up.
And if you invite everyone and mean it, it means it’s Ok when the person who shows up doesn’t look like you, or vote like you, or live in a house like you, or have the same sort of manners you do. No, all you can do is scooch your chair over and say, “We will make room.”
And when we do that, the world changes. Not huge, earth-shattering changes, but in small, incremental ways, the world becomes better. We move closer to the better world Jesus imagined.
And we feel less afraid.
I don’t know about you, but from where I sit, the world seems pretty scary right now. There are days I am afraid to listen to the radio or look on social media, because I am just happier not knowing what new atrocity is happening.
When we are most afraid, when we are in anguish, when we are in agony about the future, when we are begging God to not make the inevitable happen – that is when we ought to share a meal with others, and remember.
When we share that meal, we bear witness to the Principalities and Powers that we are greater than our differences, and that while we may be afraid, we will not let that fear deter us from working to make God’s Kingdom a reality. That despite our fears, despite our frustrations, despite our bickering and infighting, we will persist in seeking the make it on Earth as it is in Heaven.
When we scooch our chairs over and make room at that massive, diverse table, we remember.
We remember that Jesus did amazing acts of power, and said that we could too.
We remember that Jesus showed love to the downtrodden, and we can too.
We remember that Jesus said the Kingdom of God is not some far off country, but that it is within us.
We remember that Jesus tried to love the Hell out of the world, and showed us that we can too.
We can go out into the world and share the good news that another world is possible,
It begins when we make room at that table.
It begins with a meal.
* I have changed names and some details to protect the privacy of folks, but otherwise, this is completely true, and those were the best meals ever.
I grew up in the Evangelical end of the Christian tradition. It is where my spiritual formation was, where I got my love for the ancient stories in scripture, where my love of hymns and potluck dinners came from, where I first became fascinated with the Jesus stories.
It’s also where I came to believe that we could change the world, that our individual actions could collectively shape and mold the world as it is into the world as God desires it to be. I still believe that.
I’m no longer in the Evangelical fold (They left me before I left them, but still) but there are lessons I learned there that stick with me.
As an Evangelical, I spent an inordinate amount of time believing that Jesus would be coming back at any moment.
After all, the Gospel of Mark says that “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And Jesus’s biggest fan Paul said “that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
So life was a lot about being ready for Jesus to come back. It could happen any day. They were not ready for him the first time, we would say, but when he comes back this time, we will be waiting.
I no longer believe there will be some second-coming, rapture type event where Jesus will descend from the sky and Christians will disappear. Partly because that is just shitty theology, but also because, well, I think Jesus has already come back.
I think Jesus came back in 1098 and died in the siege of Antioch at the hands of Crusaders.
I think Jesus came back in 1692 and was hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts.
I think Jesus came back in 1768 and died in the hull of a slave ship during the Middle Passage.
I think Jesus came back in 1859 and died being beaten by a slave owner somewhere in the South.
I think Jesus came back in 1939 and was on the ship of Jewish refugees the US turned away, and was one of the 250 from that boat who died in the Nazi death camps.
And I think Jesus came back earlier this week and is now in a detention camp, wondering where his mother is.
Actually, I think Jesus comes back damn near every day, and every single time we have the choice to welcome him and show that we were paying attention the first time.
Instead, we crucify him all over again.