Sermon: Hope in Chaotic Times

By Sheri Hostetler

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-46

Something is collapsing. People on both the right and the left believe our political order is falling apart, which could be (depending on  your point of view) a cataclysm or the opening we need to create something more just. Just the fact that Trump could be elected suggests that something has already collapsed. At the recent Mennonite convention in Orlando, I talked to my friend Cindy Lapp, who is pastor of Hyattsville Mennonite Church just outside of D.C., and she told me that it’s exhausting living there right now. Everyone is on edge, she said, because everything is chaotic. No one knows what’s going to happen.

Something is collapsing. The ice shelves, for one. I’m sure most of you heard that a chunk of ice the size of Delaware broke off from Antartica about a week ago. We’re already seeing the affects of climate change: droughts, heat waves, extinctions, the death of coral reefs. Many see the war in Syria as caused by climate change, a portent of the societal collapses to come. On the other hand, technological developments in renewable energy and government policy are having an effect — our worldwide carbon emission levels are actually stabilizing. On the other hand, Trump! Abandoning the Paris climate agreement, gutting environmental protections, etc., etc. As one veteran climate journalist wrote this week:  “Facts don’t lend themselves to an overwhelming vision… There are two radically opposed visions of the future; [it’s] not yet clear which one will win out.” No one knows what’s going to happen.

Something is collapsing. The Mennonite church on display in Orlando is not the same Mennonite church from even two years ago. Despite the homophobia Addie and others experienced there, despite Doug being suspended from a denominational committee because he’s married to a man… heteronormativity in the church is collapsing. Pink Menno delegates were not only represented at the Future Church Summit — a several-day visioning project — they were given scholarship money to make sure they could attend. The inclusive worship service and lgbtq-friendly seminars were part of the official conference program, not shunted off into some alternate space. There was affirmation and support for lgbtq people spoken openly in delegate sessions and worship services; when those opposing inclusion spoke, they had to do so in code because they know it’s no longer cool to say it outright. These folks now feel on the defensive, which led many of them to co-opt the ideas of “safety” and “oppression”  for themselves. As infuriating as it might be to hear a straight guy say he feels oppressed because he is no longer free to voice his homophobia without it being seen for the discrimination it is, it’s also an indicator of how things have shifted.

At the same time, I confess that I left this convention feeling more dispirited than in years past. The convention was held in a newish mega convention complex that sprawls along a strip of road lined with shopping plazas, chain restaurants and entertainment complexes, all there to service convention goers who can literally walk for miles without stepping outside. It took me 15 minutes to walk from my hotel room to the exhibition hall where I spent most of my time, and for only about 200 yards of that walk did I need to go outside. Whenever I did, my glasses immediately fogged up from the humid Florida heat. Then, whoosh, I go through the glass doors and there I am, back in air conditioning so cold I can barely feel my toes after awhile. Along the convention corridors, blinking electronic billboards advertise one of the shopping venues or chain restaurants or entertainment options awaiting me along that strip of endless road.

After spending more than an hour in the exhibition hall, where I was staffing the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery booth, I’d step out into the 95-degree heat and 95% humidity to warm up. There, I would sit in what some landscape designer I’m sure considered a beautiful “outdoor environment” — the same five plants repeated over and over, fountains, perfectly oval pools — all this water that you can’t drink nor swim in — and I’d think about what wild, diverse beauty might have been there before the bulldozers came through. As I was writing this, I realized that I didn’t see one bird or hear one birdsong the entire time I was outside. The whole place seemed like some artificial world from a book of dystopian science fiction, where nature — both human and other — has been reprogrammed, contained and managed toward commercial ends. It was virtual reality without the goggles.

Then, woosh, I would go back into the exhibition hall and sit at the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery booth. The Doctrine of Discovery refers to church edicts from the 1400s that created the “deep structure” of the global capitalist world as we know it. These edicts theologically and legally legitimated the enslavement of non-Christian people encountered by the European explorers and the theft of their land. I think a lot of people of conscience have some awareness that we live on stolen land and some awareness of the death and displacement perpetrated against the Native peoples of this land in the name of “economic development.” But very few people realize that the same colonization that stripped Native people of their land and life, their culture and community, is happening right now. So, in  the weeks before convention, I wrote a new display for our Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. It’s called “Colonization is still happening.”

Do you think colonization was something that, however unfortunate, happened a long time? Think again. Colonization is happening now. Indigenous people are still having their land and resources taken from them. The new agents of colonization are not explorers, kings and queens but our global economic system.

Want to know more? Then, follow the money…

The United States Senate funds the U.S. Treasury, which funds Multilateral Development Banks (MDB) like the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, etc. These MDBs then give economic development loans to countries all over the world. Sounds good, right?

Think again. These loans come with strings attached. To get the loans, countries have to be willing to work with the banks on “reforming” laws that protect labor and human rights and the environment, reforms that cater to corporations rather than communities. For instance, Suriname (a country in South America) once had good environmental protection and labor laws. But after receiving loans from the Inter-American Development Bank, these laws were gutted. While these loans may make some people’s lives better in the short term, they often have a terrible impact on the most vulnerable people in those countries — that is to say, on Indigenous People — and on the environment. I’ll give an example of that in a second…

What does all of this have to do with us? Let’s keep following the money. MDBs sell their economic development loans to private banks, who repackage them and then sell them to financial services companies like TIAA-CREF, Fidelity, etc. Your retirement account very like benefits directly from these loans —which is to say, from the displacement, disease and death of Indigenous People. If that sounds exactly like what happened “a long time ago,” it’s because it is.

Our display featured a case study of the Doctrine of Discovery in action from Suriname. The brief version is that Suriname has minerals like gold and bauxite that governments and corporations want. Those minerals are found on the traditional lands of Indigenous Peoples. But, since they don’t actually own this land — thank you, Doctrine of Discovery! — the government of Suriname is able to sell their lands and resource rights to developers and mining corporations. Suriname uses economic development loans from the Multilateral Development Banks to, for instance, build roads so that the mining companies can get access to the lands where the gold is and bauxite are found. The government then gets a cut of the mining profits.

These mining companies use mercury to mine gold. They don’t have to; actually, there are other ways of mining gold that don’t use mercury, but they’re not using those methods. So, mercury becomes part of the rivers and streams near which the Indigenous Wayana live and from which they get their main source of protein — fish. And so now, these people are being poisoned by mercury. Remember those horrible images from Minimata, Japan from 60 years ago? Mercury does horrible things to people’s neurological systems, especially developing fetuses and infants. And here’s the thing: This taking of traditional lands and resources, this poisoning of Indigenous People is all perfectly legal. My friends Sarah Augustine and Dan Peplow and others have been trying to stop it for years, but it is hard because this injustice is baked into our global economic and political systems.

So, something is collapsing. Whole worlds are collapsing, right now, Indigenous lifeworlds, Indigenous people – this wild, diverse beauty being ground under in the name of economic development, just like the wild, diverse animals and plants and peoples that used to exist where the Orlando Convention Center now stands.

It’s wonderful that heteronormativity is collapsing in our little denomination, but then I think of ice sheets breaking off and whole People groups being decimated and I wonder if all this attention we’ve been paying to sexual orientation for decades is a function of our privilege or an unconscious way of not paying attention to the bigger collapses that have been happening that entire time. I’ve spent more of my time and energies than most pastors fighting for the collapse of heteronormativity in the church, so I will celebrate this moment and the queer kids who are alive and whole today because they are growing up in a Pink Menno church and all the wild, diverse beauty that is finding a home in our little denomination and…  still, I want to scream, at myself and the entire convention, “Wake up! Something is collapsing and it’s not just traditional marriage or the gender binary!”

I’m not sure anything the Dismantling Coalition is doing will make a difference in the halt of this collapse. There’s about 20 of us in the Coalition, representing a lot of different institutions and interests, and we can sometimes can’t agree among ourselves. About 40 people signed up to be on our mailing list at the booth during the four days of convention. We are, to be sure, “the smallest of seeds,” to quote Jesus’ parable about the mustard seed, the one that starts small and grows into something surprisingly large, something that supports and sustains life. I was reading a commentator on this verse, who said that “For those who think God is absent from the world or ineffective or impotent, the parable engages with a contrary affirmation and vision of God’s present activity and endgame. It encourages those discouraged by the apparent unchanging destructiveness of human interactions and structures.”

I think that’s actually overstating what the parable does. It’s not this triumphant “booyah” (does anyone say that anymore?) kind of parable. I don’t think it’s saying “Hey, things are really terrible right now, but chill out because God’s got this under control and we’ll win in the end.” There’s absolutely no guarantee that little mustard seed will grow into a big tree and there’s no guarantee that anything our Coalition is doing will make any difference. Because no one knows what’s going to happen. There’s no foreordained outcome here. In fact, Sarah’s “elevator pitch” to me when we were forming the Dismantling Coalition was: “Do you want to be a part of a movement that will take at least 100 years to accomplish its goal, if it does at all, and that will likely have no discernible success in your lifetime?” I said: “You really know how to woo a girl.”

Maybe what Jesus was saying was something more humble. Maybe he was saying that everything starts small and that nothing will ever happen if you don’t even plant the seed. Everything that is now big and monolithic seems inevitable but nothing is inevitable at its beginning, including heterosexism or corporate global capitalism or Christianity. (The following is from Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Harari, slightly adapted.) At the beginning of the fourth century A.D., Christianity was one of many religions in the “spiritual marketplace” of the Roman Empire at the time — and one of the smallest, most insignificant ones. “The Roman Empire could have stuck with its traditional polytheism but then the emperor Constantine, looking back on a century of civil war, seems to have thought that a single religion with a clear doctrine could help unify his ethnically diverse realm.” For some reason, Constantine chose Christianity out of all the other options — he could have chosen Buddhism or Judaism or Manichaeism or Zoroastrianism, but he chose Jesus and here we are, 1700 years later. When Constantine took the throne in 306, it you were to suggest that this little esoteric Eastern sect was going to become the Roman state religion and eventually a world-conquering one, you would have been laughed out of the room. “It would be like suggesting today that by the year 2050 Hare Krishna will be the state religion of the U.S.” Says the historian Yuval Harari, from which I took this illustration: “History can not be predicted because it is chaotic (italics mine). There are so many forces at work and their interactions are so complex that extremely small variations — mustard-seed-sized variations —… produce huge difference in outcomes.” That chaos that makes us feel so unsettled is actually the source of our hope. No one knows what’s going to happen — which means that anything can happen, some of it wonderful.

Sometimes that mustard seed grows into a really large shrub. Sometimes it doesn’t. But nothing will grow if we are not actors in history. These oppressive structures that seem so mighty and big and inevitable are actually quite collapse-able. One good tornado in Orlando and that convention center would be gone. It almost happened while we were there. These structures were built by us, and they can be dismantled by us.* I think what Jesus promises is is not the inevitability of the mustard seed’s growth but the promise that the Spirit of Life is with us in our struggle. That when we struggle against the forces of death, we are on the side of Life — Life, in all its wild, diverse beauty. That’s the Life to which Jesus invites us. It is a Life so compelling, so joyful, says the parable, that when people really see it, they sell everything to take hold of it. Amen.

*This is a direct quote from my friend, Sarah Augustine, whom I have mentioned a few times in this sermon. My many conversations with her inspired this last paragraph.

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