This Sunday, two members — Kenda Horst and Jim Lichti — offered reflections on a lectionary passage of their choice.
Reflection on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 — Kenda Horst
First, a short preamble: After I said yes to Sheri, I sat down at my computer and, seeing the blank screen, thought to myself: “What did I just do?” That said, I actually did consider Sheri’s invitation, however briefly, before saying “yes.”
So this is the passage that I’ve been sitting with: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.
This passage reminded me of how children grow. And how I start with them as a nanny. First, simple food — like milk with infants and then you slowly build up the ability to digest other food or thoughts and ideas in this case. So when Paul is talking about how people are quarreling among the different leader in the church and being jealous of each other, this reminds me of elementary school children, who each think their way is the “right” way.
I think Paul is talking about how he and Apollo both have the same message— and that message is from God.
Which brings us to the end of this passage, where Paul starts talking about how he and Apollo both have a place in the overall growth of the spiritual person. That their message of God’s salvation and love might be told in different ways, but it is still the same message of everlasting love. Our spiritual growth is fed by many different people. We never really know whose words helped us and whose actions may influence us.
To me this is God’s grace, freely given. God’s love is freely given to each of us. We can accept it or not. But in accepting God’s freely given love, we accept that each of us has a place to be God’s servants, working together each within our own strengths. Being honored as individuals for the work we each do. Being celebrated for the gifts that we each bring to the church in this place.
Reflection on Matthew 5:21-37 by Jim Lichti
Welcome home to the Sermon on the Mount!
This phrase came to mind for me because I kind of think of the Sermon on the Mount as our “home” in the Bible. I was always told that it was OUR core passage of scripture, or at least the focal point of the Gospels for Mennonites. As a child, I even memorized the Beatitudes that start so elegantly by blessing the “poor in “spirit” and end with telling us to “let our light so shine.” That’s the first half of Matthew 5; what we’re dealing with today is the second half of that same chapter.
And as a kid, this part of the Sermon on the Mount freaked me out (maybe because it’s an example of the “solid food” that Paul was talking about in the Epistle lectionary reading for today, I Corinthians 3:1-9).
I mean, okay, it’s Jesus offering his own take on some of the commandments of the Torah. Which is why the Hebrew lectionary reading for today is Deuteronomy 30:15-20 in which the people of Israel, having escaped slavery in Egypt and having endured 40 years in the wilderness and are on the verge of crossing the Jordan into the promised land, are told that their fortunes, their futures, their lives and the lives of their descendants all depend on whether they obey God’s commandments and decrees and ordinances. There was a lot at stake.
And Jesus kind of makes the same point here. He takes some of these commandments … but then he really ups the ante. And more than that, he goes on to offer some horrific consequences for those who don’t measure up — like hell fire. So if you want to be on the safe side, which sounds like a good idea, you need to be ready to rip out an eye or lop off a hand, and Jesus asserts TWICE that losing losing one of your members is better than your whole body going to hell.
Now I was terrified of hell fire, but I also really wanted to keep all of my members. I mean, some of us here have already lost a snip of one of our members, even if the memory of that snip is buried deep in our subconscious, and I presume that at least half of Jesus’s audience was in the same boat.
I don’t know how radical Jesus’s discourse was in comparison to other rabbis of the period. But I imagine that if I had been in the crowd, I would have been nudging my neighbor and asking: “Who is this guy? Is he for real? Is he some kind of nutcase?”
And if Jesus had overheard me, I imagine him saying to himself: “Well, he’s not really getting it … but he’s more on track than he knows …”
Because the way I can get through this passage is to assume that Jesus’s key point is to remind us — rather pointedly — that false and simplistic readings of God’s commandments are all too possible. That God’s commandments are not there to make us comfortable. If and when we really listen to God’s commandments, if and when we are able to understand with our minds and see with our eyes and hear with our ears — and I don’t know how often that’s going to be, but it’s not going to be all the time — if and when we’re able to do that, we don’t know ahead of time where God’s commandments will lead us. It’s not necessarily down some secure or safe path. Which is a bewildering thought and reminds me of a question someone asked at our silent retreat last weekend: “Did anyone bring ibuprofen?” I’m not sure what I would do without ibuprofen …
Welcome home to the Sermon on the Mount.
I think that that Jesus was being both rhetorical and literal in this passage. But that is not an easy balance to hold.
And biblical literalism is a tricky topic for Mennonites. Our spiritual forerunners, the Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists, WERE accused of excessive biblical literalism, and this tendency led them down both fruitful and thorny paths. One of those paths that is still a living component of Mennonite identity emerged directly from the closing verses of today’s passage, Matthew 5:33-37: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” Dutch Anabaptism interpreted this passage as a bold command never to differentiate different levels of truthfulness but instead to adhere to a standard of truthfulness that was as absolute and pure and clean as possible at all times. This led to our principle against swearing oaths sponsored by the state that many Mennonites still adhere to today.
Now in contrast to this passage, I remember at some age, pretty young, maybe six or seven, having this sudden insight: I don’t have to tell the truth. It’s a choice I can make. This was like a revelation opening a new realm of freedom to me.
And so, one evening, I was lying on the floor watching TV, I think, with my sisters, and my mom came in an asked if I had left a mess. I think it was something on the bathroom sink or something. I don’t remember exactly. But it was me, I had left some kind of mess. And I did not want to stop watching TV. So I exercised this newly discovered freedom: I just said I it was not my mess. And she left the room. And I thought: “It worked.”
And then she came back. She was angry. Very angry. She told me that I was not being the person that she knew I was, that she had believed in and trusted, or something to that effect. And I was devastated. I ran into my room and cried and cried, very loudly, I think. I could not stop; I just kept sobbing. And at some point she came in; she didn’t exactly take back what she said, but she did say that she might have been too hard on me. I don’t think she quite knew how to handle the depth of my response.
That incident profoundly shaped my relationship to this passage from the Sermon on the Mount and the Mennonite principle against swearing oaths. I remember once having to testify as a witness in a trial about a stolen car — it was kind of complicated, but I wasn’t being accused of anything — and there were about four of us who were testifying as witnesses in some capacity. And the judge wanted to swear us all in quickly. So he kind of zipped through the “Do you swear …” thing, and the other three witnesses robotically responded “yes.” I just stood there and shook. Not for a long time. It felt like something in my the genetic framework was taking control. After a very short moment, I said, “I will affirm, your honor.”
The judge paused for just the very briefest moment, and then — rather gruffly but also not rudely — said “okay.” It was the slightest of interruptions; still, there was a passing moment when something different — something foreign to the court but something that felt precious — had entered into the courtroom.
Welcome home to the Sermon on the Mount.
Now it is also true that by that time, I had long been uncomfortable with the verbal formality of the distinction between “swearing” and “affirming.” Isn’t the simplicity of the choice of just “affirming” too secure and too safe? For example, when working at state-owned institutions, I would have to sign forms that gave me the option of swearing or affirming, and I would always affirm rather than swear. But it’s just two words; does choosing one over the other really mean anything?
During the Nazi period, at least some German Mennonites thought so. They believed it made a difference whether they swore or affirmed their loyalty to Hitler. German Mennonite leaders went to great lengths to secure this concession from the regime; it was, after all, a distinguishing feature of what it meant to be Mennonite that went back to the writings of Menno Simons himself. And at this point, it was about the ONLY Mennonite teaching that distinguished German Mennonites from other German Protestants. They succeeded with the Nazi military; they had less luck with the Nazi Party, and in 1943 Heinrich Himmler — who was a big fan of Mennonites — approved an exemption from the oath for Mennonites performing work service for the Nazi state.
Virtually all young German Mennonite men served in the Nazi military. We have no way of knowing what proportion of these men specifically requested that they might use the alternate formulation of the oath to ease their Mennonite consciences, but we know some did. And I can’t help but wonder what it meant to them. Were they moved that the Nazi state had granted this concession to their religious scruples? Did their bodies shake the way mine did when I stuck to my religious scruples in court? Did their adherence to the Mennonite principle make them all the more fervent in their loyalty to a genocidal regime, and more determined to carry out whatever task they might be asked to perform?
In commenting on this history, the German Mennonite pastor and historian Heinold Fast concluded that “[w]ith absolute truthfulness one can do good but also commit the most horrific acts of inhumanity.”
This same German Mennonite historian took upon himself a study of Anabaptist positions on the oath already during the 1960s. Heinold Fast dug past Menno Simons, because he knew that the conventional Mennonite position on oath-taking lay with the Dutch and Friesian Anabaptists. He went back further to the earliest Swiss and south German Anabaptists who were closer in time and place to the peasant rebellions that had celebrated the “common man.” These Anabaptists also refused the swearing of oaths but NOT on the basis of some pursuit of pure integrity. Starting with the Schleitheim Confession, this passage from the Sermon on the Mount was used instead to assert that the realm of absolute truthfulness lies only with the divine; thus, oaths to God may be taken, but oaths to any worldly authority must be refused. Thus, the earliest Anabaptist position against taking oaths focused not on the truthfulness of the individual Christian, but placing the authority of God above that of any authority on earth
And at that time, this was perceived as seditious. The legal framework of any town or city in this part of Central Europe depended on every inhabitant taking an oath to its laws. By refusing to take the oath, Anabaptists were unilaterally withdrawing from the legal order of their time.
So I don’t know if I know how to get us out of this mess I’ve created. Yes, it is reassuring to find Anabaptists who read the Sermon on the Mount differently and arrived at a position that we can live with and perhaps even be inspired by, but that does not erase the horror of the historical moment that a later reading of the same passage led not all that long ago. So I’m not going to end with “welcome home to the Sermon on the Mount.”
Instead, I will close by returning to the state of homelessness of the people of Israel in the lectionary reading for today from Deuteronomy 30 as they stand on “Jordan’s stormy banks.” They are about to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. And the passage reminds them that even there, in the Promised Land, they will always be facing choices. And they are eloquently called upon to “choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (verse 19).
So once the people of Israel have stepped off those stormy banks, once they have crossed the Jordan: Will they have the minds to understand, the eyes to see, and the ears to hear what it means to “choose life”? And will we?
I’m bound for the promised land,
I’m bound for the promised land.
Oh, who will go and come with me?
I’m bound for the promised land.