A sermon from Trevor Bechtel for Peace Mennonite Church
It’s great to be with you today at Peace Mennonite Church. I’m excited that I can be with you in this way because it’s the first time in almost a year that I’ve preached standing up! At Shalom in Ann Arbor, where I pastor, and where Joanna is preaching this Sunday our pattern has been to meet live on Sundays and we haven’t staged our worship since we are just taking up one cell on the Zoom screen. Our church has connected with Joanna a number of times over the last few years drawing on her expertise as we considered a new building and welcoming her one Sunday morning during her sabbatical. I bring greetings from Shalom and especially the Friedline family who we have welcomed since they left you.
There is an old story about a long one lane road. An Amish farmer and his friend were driving their horse and buggy along the road when they met a car driven by a cantankerous English man. The English man got out of his car and yelled at the Amish farmer to back up. The farmer quietly replied, “I’d hate to think what would need to happen if you don’t back out instead” The English man stopped in his tracks, a little bit confused while considering what to do next. After a pause he backed up his car and waited for the horse and buggy. The Amish farmer’s friend turns to the farmer surprised with his direct action. The farmer replied, “I wasn’t being direct. I would have hated to back out a horse and buggy on this road”
This story is often told to emphasize the creativity possible in non-violence. Those who expect the Amish farmer to simply give way are amused at the directness of the challenge, and those who are rooting for the farmer are impressed at how the situation is turned to the farmer’s advantage. The assumed meaning of the farmers words “I hate to think what would need to happen” in an ordinary discourse is a resort to violence, but in the farmer’s response these words are shown to be something else. Perhaps the most flamboyant explanation would be to suggest that the Amish farmer’s words are the stitching between two worlds: One where we assume aggression and one where we negotiate peacefully. This story is dependent on the difference between those worlds for its humor. It is dependent on the English man not quite knowing what the Amish farmer believes. We Mennonites especially, but I think most Christians in some way, recognize that our lives work their way out on this stitching as we interact in the public realm of police forces, government programs, and taxes on one side, and our commitments to follow Jesus peacefully, simply and together on the other. Put another way, I hope you found this story funny, but discipleship is no joke.
In my life as a church college professor– I taught at Bluffton University for 10 years–and now as a Mennonite pastor, I’m used to people not quite knowing what I believe. I’m used to this when I name my belief as Mennonite, or Anabaptist. I expect it when I name myself as Christian given how many beliefs that stands in for these days. And, I’m also used to it when I actual share the explanations of my beliefs. When I share that I’m a pacifist, people know that I’m committed to non-violence, but they don’t assume that I want all guns everywhere destroyed, including the ones the police have. When I talk about my concerns about how Christians need to have a better relationship to animals, most people assume that I’m a vegetarian, and they are surprised when I suggest that my concern for animals is one of the reasons why I eat meat. And when I talk about the ways that the church is a public and political institution, they don’t assume that I mean that the church is always calling the state to reform politics so that they are in closer alignment with the church’s vision for how the world should life together, or that the true definition of public is the one created when people voluntarily choose to ally themselves in worship.
So I’m a separatist, in that I believe in a strong separation of church and state. This is the traditional position held by Brethren, Mennonites and all other Anabaptists. I have always believed that holding to this separation brings a certain clarity of conviction, allowing me to depend on the church for guidance in how to life my life. The easy example is pacifism: I don’t spend time worrying about whether or not any use of violence by the state is justified. I know that all of it is not, even when it’s done to protect me. There can be an easy moral clarity to a position which others find extreme. This is one of the gifts of Anabaptist ways of thinking to the rest of the world. A recognition that some of the questions that others make into moral quandaries do not need our attention.
Some of this separation shows up in the Sermon on the Plain, our scripture from Luke, particularly in the love your enemy, turn the other cheek, be compassionate commands. Jesus notes that this is a way of thinking and acting that moves beyond ordinary ways of doing things to radical discipleship. This alongside his blessings for the poor, hungry, distraught, and persecuted and his cursing of the rich, full, comfortable, and praised are again the stitching between two worlds but also a clear statement of which world God favors.
But, we should remember that there is no system from radical positions. A radical position on church and state works, and it works particularly when the state considers going to war. However, there are other areas of life where it works less well. Now is one of those times. You can almost see the confusion dripping off people trying to think about how to safely reopen public spaces, like churches, after a shut down like the one we’ve experienced this year.
The most stunning example of this for me last year was in the writing of Rusty Reno. I have found his ideas about the ruins of the church very compelling. In writing that is now 20 years old he suggests that our vocation is to dwell within the ruins of the Church. That in Christ we are not called to love strength and power and beauty. That ruins are not unfit for human habitation. This book is full of words that again act as stitching between two worlds, but here very compellingly to me, the two worlds exist on top of each other and we are meant to pay attention to the simplicity of our witness. The church is the fugitive body of Christ, set up wherever the ruins of what has come before provides some shelter.
Reno is now the editor at First Things and his recent writing leaves much to be desired. But last year he wrote an horrible post about traveling around New York City and being sneaked by a friend into a hospital where he walked around without a mask, because masks are for cowards. He then doubled down on this position on Twitter. He was called out. And then, in a surprising move, he deleted his Twitter account and issued a full public apology. In all of this I am most struck by Reno’s confusion as he tilts further and further to the right and then spontaneously explodes and then realizes it.
Reno is the most stunning example of this confusion for me, but not the only one. Some churches haven’t stopped meeting in person, others are clamoring to reopen their builidings. Others wonder what’s next, and still others have closed their buildings for the foreseeable future. Part of the confusion here is that while we all think of our churches as central in our lives and worship the most important thing we do, many of us also recognize worship does not only happen on Sunday morning, or in a church building. Sunday morning gatherings have importance but after home, and work, church is a third thing in terms of time spent and that increases the danger of being physically together.
The authorities are just as confused.
States enter into lockdowns unevenly with conflicting information from mayors, governors and presidents. City councils, state legislatures and congress are all just as confused and contradictory. Here in Michigan where our Governor and some cities have been giving good scientifically based advice, there is still an exemption for religious communities.
Amidst all this confusion, I wonder, “Just what authorities am I supposed to separate from? What authorities are trying to protect me? Who in the church are we allied with as we bring hope to the world? What is that hope?
The idea that connects Reno and me, and I imagine many of you is the idea that the church is a special place, even an essential place. This radical idea is upended when I hear it in the mouths of white supremacists, but it’s not less radical. It’s a different kind of radical. The radicality of the idea is upended when I hear it on the lips of Amanda Gorman, or Joe Biden, because then the essential role that the church has is one of fitting into a state that has authority over it, not calling that state to account. The essential role that the leader of an empire has for the church is exactly the reason I am a separatist.
But I also recognize in all of this that the kind of radical thinking that makes the church it’s own authority doesn’t work particularly well in a pandemic or an insurrection. And the pattern of thinking that dissents from authority has felt more and more like a bad habit as the last year has slowly plodded on.
If radical thinking actually is a bad habit what are we to do? It seems like Jesus had exactly us in mind as he continues the Sermon on the Plain. From the blind leading the blind, to the good tree that is biologically unable to bear bad fruit, to the log in my eye, Jesus names how we know what world we are actually living in. If we are caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, comforting the distraught and defending the persecuted, and if we are humble about our doing of these things, we can know that we are living in a house built on a good foundation.
And it’s not just that we need to be humble about our own initiatives and actions. We need to assume these things about other people as well. Another powerful story about an Amish person has someone asking them, “Can I trust you” and receiving the response, “I don’t know, you’ll need to ask my neighbor”
This slipperiness applies first to us, to our actions, to our worship, to our forms of community. There are probably things we are doing wrong, and even in the things we hold most dearly, we need to recognize that before God’s judgement we will all be confused.
But another part of God’s judgement is that it is God’s. We want to have God as our judge because that is the kind of justice that cares for the injured, brings strength to the weak and watches over both the fat and the sleek. God’s judgment takes away our confidence in our own systems but it is not something to fear. We may not know where we stand and we may not know where our neighbor stands but we do know that God is just and that the judgement we receive is only going to help us enter a healing community that cares for all its members. Furthermore, our best thinking about separation in Mennonite contexts holds that separation, when it happens through shunning, the ban, a church split, or other disagreement; separation happens for the purpose of being able to come back together, with time and discernment able to heal wounds.
These words aren’t just about separating two worlds, they are about stitching it together.