By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
Preaching a sermon on mutual aid to a Mennonite church is like teaching a class on video games to kids who have PS4s. What exactly is there to say? We know this stuff already. We have an innate sense that mutual aid is important and we’ve been doing it, so we’re good, right? And this is supposed to be a short service, so why even preach a sermon at all?
I have asked these questions while thinking about this sermon, and here’s my conclusion. One reason it’s important to intentionally reflect on mutual aid in these times, is so that it becomes an articulated central practice of our lives together, and not just an idea we feel good about.
Here we are, on the road to Emmaus. It’s Easter Sunday, but this day isn’t called that yet. It’s two days after our beloved teacher was brutally murdered, and resurrection is the last thing on our mind. Yeshua (the Hebrew name for “Jesus”) is dead, as far as we know, and he’s staying dead. We have no reason to think otherwise, despite the fantasies of some of the women in our group.
Note: During this sermon, I will be using the Hebrew names for Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
John 20: 1-18
Easter begins while it is still dark. Before the sun came up, Miryam of Magdala sets off on foot. There’s no light yet — not enough, anyway, to know if you’re on the right path. Not enough to avoid the stones or roots you might trip on as you walk. Not enough to know if there might be danger just ahead. And in this version of the Easter story, she’s alone. A socially distanced woman, walking in the dark. That’s dangerous in any time and place. She’s probably walking fast, to avoid that danger, and to ward off the morning chill. Her feet crunch on the ground as she walks.
The following article about “Rethinking Our Growth Society” by William E. Rees, professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at the University of British Columbia, is reproduced here with the express written consent of Professor Rees. Our FMCFS Climate Action Group is studying these kinds of articles to more fully understand the predicament we are facing and possible solutions.
Why COVID-19 previews a larger crash. What we must do to save ourselves.
William E. Rees, 6 Apr 2020 / Published by TheTyee.ca April 6 2020. See https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/04/06/The-Earth-Is-Telling-Us-We-Must-Rethink-Our-Growth-Society/
As the pandemic builds, most people, led by government officials and policy wonks, perceive the threat solely in terms of human health and its impact on the national economy. Consistent with the prevailing vision, mainstream media call almost exclusively on physicians and epidemiologists, financiers and economists to assess the consequences of the viral outbreak.
Fair enough — rampant disease and looming recession are genuine immediate concerns; society has to cope with them.
That said, we must see and respond to the more important reality.
By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the fourth sermon in our Lenten series on “Spirit and Power.”
Over the last week elders have been on my mind. Elders who are made vulnerable by the spread of COVID-19. Elders in San Francisco who Faith in Action is organizing people to call. Elders in my family and in the families of friends. I’ve also been thinking of elders who have passed on and what wisdom they would have for us right now.
The title of the sermon today comes from a quote by the late Grace Lee Boggs, who was an elder and visionary movement leader from Detroit. In the midst of challenges and insurmountable odds she would say, “This is the time to grow our souls.” I feel that and I know I need that.
This sermon is the third in an Advent series on “Spanning the Space Between.”
Isaiah 35:1-10, Matthew 11:2-11
I recently saw a photograph of last spring’s “super bloom” of California wildflowers. It looked like someone took a palette of paints and dumped them over the desert hills — purples, oranges, yellows, blues. Supposedly the bloom was so colorful that it could be seen from space. To make it even more crazily colorful, millions of painted lady butterflies showed up because of the bloom, filling the skies. I had never seen anything like it, and it made me upset that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to see this super bloom in person. Because super blooms don’t come around very often! You need a long rainy season but not just that. Super blooms tend to be more super after several years of drought because some seeds need to lie dormant for awhile to truly erupt into a super bloom. As one writer said, “Hard, undesirable conditions over many years seem to pave the way for the stunning explosion of a super bloom.”
This sermon is the second in an Advent series entitled “Spanning the Space Between.”
Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
A few years back, Jennette arranged a camping trip to Lake Tahoe for our church. It had been awhile since I’d been there, and I was surprised and saddened by the sight of so many dead pine trees. Instead of seeing one long swath of green over the mountainsides, there were whole chunks of forest that were brown with dead trees, and other chunks that were a mottled mix of green and brown. In fact, tree die-off is happening all over our western forests, from the Yukon all the way to Mexico.
Why is this happening? On the surface, the culprit is drought and insects, particularly the bark beetle. As our climate warms, winters shorten and droughts in western forests intensify, weakening trees, which then makes them easy prey for the beetles. But the real culprit may actually be that there’s not enough fire. Scientists and forest managers now believe that decades of suppressing forest fires in the interest of protecting private property has resulted in forests that have too many trees in them. It used to be that fires would happen about every 10 to 15 years, which kept the forest from getting overcrowded. Such forests could better sustain periods of drought because there wasn’t so much competition for water and other resources. But suppressing fire produces too many trees that are then all more susceptible to drought and bark beetles. In addition, fire suppression paradoxically produces bigger and more violent fires because there’s so much more fuel to burn in an overcrowded forest. We need fire. It’s destructive; it’s dangerous; it’s hard to control; it’s scary. But we need it.
On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, Philip McGarvey and Tree gave reflections on what it means to live a life of trusting provision, trusting that our needs will be provided for — by the Divine, by the land, etc.
The first reflection is by Philip:
I’m writing to you from the south slope of our mountain up in the redwood forest where I’ve lived since last April. My feet are propped up on a dying madrone, and my head is leaned back against a fir. There are a lot of birds making noise today. I laid here all morning for my mind to slow down enough for words to come. I was asked to write something about land and food. It is hard for me to know what to say.
On the morning that I had set aside to begin this sermon, I kept not getting to it because I kept getting news of people dying. One was Kent Barnes’ father, who death was somewhat expected and was, in many respects, a mercy. But another one was Karen Bennett’s brother-in-law, who had gone into surgery for a minor operation and died a few days later, for reasons that are still unclear. He was 68. I had met Mike when I officiated Karen and Peter’s wedding and at the memorial service for Karen’s father. Mike was a physically big man with an even bigger presence, the kind of presence we call “commanding.” I told Karen that I couldn’t remember his face, but I remembered how much energetic space he took up during the reception after the memorial. “That’s Mike,” Karen said. And she paused. “It’s implausible that he’s not here anymore.”
I think every death is an implausibility. My experience is that even when someone dies expectedly as opposed to unexpectedly, even when you know their death is going to happen and have been praying for this mercy, when they actually die, you say to yourself, “What just happened? They were here and now they’re not? That’s implausible.”
This sermon was preached on All Saints Day.
Selections from Isaiah 40
We are made from this earth. God took the dust of the ground — adamah in Hebrew — and breathed into it to make us — adam. And one day, we return to it. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Our name — human — comes from the same root as humus, which means soil, specifically, the most fertile kind of soil made up of decomposed leaves and organisms, the kind of soil made up of dead things, the kind of soil in which something living can be grown.
To paraphrase Carl Jung, “Only that which can die is that which can be truly alive.”
On the last Sunday of October, many Mennonite churches in the United States observe Mennonite Heritage Sunday, a day set aside to remember the gifts that our spiritual ancestors have bequeathed to us. Our Anabaptist ancestors participated in one of the biggest religious, social and economic upheavals in European history. The 1500s were a time when the structures that had governed society for centuries were being actively challenged and dismantled by the masses, who were seeking to transform these economic and political and religious structures to be more egalitarian and just. It was an apocalyptic time, a time of violence and fear and hope and vision when the world truly seemed to be ending and something new truly seemed to be happening. Sound familiar?
Our social context today is similarly apocalyptic — a time of transformation, when centuries-old structure are failing and something new is desperately trying to be born. Our service today will look at how we in this church are participating in the many moments for transformation swirling around us. Kate Irick, Jim Lichti and Helen Stoltzfus will be offering reflections on that theme, which follow.
By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the fourth sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Scripture excerpts from Exodus – Joshua (see below)
We have a lot of ground to cover today so we’ll be reading excerpts from scripture throughout the sermon. The scope of the sermon is Exodus through Joshua… Suffice it to say this sermon wins the hot mess award for our series this fall.
Last week Sheri talked about the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. “Being chosen doesn’t mean that you’re God’s pampered favorite child and you can throw tantrums and steals toys and treat everyone around you like crap. It means you’ve been chosen for a divine purpose and that God has blessed you for that purpose.”