Sunday, April 19, 2009

Teaching the Kingdom Not the Culture

This was a sermon preached by me at Pasadena Mennnonite Church on April 19, 2009 for Mennonite Education Sunday based on Acts 15: 22-35.


            I was reminded this week of the scene in City Slickers between Jack Palance and Billy Crystal.  In the scene, Jack Palance, the old, peaceful cowboy is riding with Billy Crystal, the high strung "city slicker" in a mid-life crisis.  Jack Palance explains as they ride that "there's nothin' like bringin' in the herd at the end of a ride."  Billy Crystal says, "See, that's great. Your life makes sense to you."   Jack Palance chuckles wryly and Billy Crystal says, "What's so funny?"  Jack Palance says, "You city folk spend 50 weeks of the year getting knots in your rope and then you expect 2 weeks out here to untie them.  Do you know what the secret of life is?" "No, what?"  "This" (raise finger)  "Your finger?" "No, one thing" "What's the one thing?" "That's what you need to figure out."

            As we look at the scripture for this morning, we notice a historical precursor to Jack Palance's speech.  The Jerusalem Council has just met to discuss and reach consensus on what cultural rules all these new Christians need to follow.  What was the "one thing" that they needed?    These were new Christians that God had decided to call, not the original Jewish Christians.  These were the outsiders, the Gentiles, US.  As the council meets they decide to simplify the rules.  Even though they couldn't get to "one thing" they did take the 160 Jewish laws and distill them down to 4 things. 

            Thinking about our life together as a congregation, I'm pretty sure many of us could say the "one thing" in our lives is Jesus Christ as a redeemer and model for our lives.  I am grateful that this is true.  It is the reason we celebrate Easter and live the way we do. How we focus on that "one thing" is something we need to discern for ourselves through the input of the community.  But as a community today, I'd like us to look further.  If our "one thing" is Christ, what distinctives make us followers of Christ? What do we have to offer to the world as Christian Anabaptists at this time in history? 

We have been asked and have asked ourselves many questions as we've worked to launch this school.  But one of the main ones is: "Why a Mennonite School in Pasadena?"  Randy and I have both been convinced that this is what we are called to, but let me give you a context from the scripture this morning and some thoughts on PMC that I hope will continue to lay a foundation for further answering that question for our larger community—"Why a Mennonite School in Pasadena?"

I'd like us to look at "Three things" together in an attempt to answer that question: 1) the treasure of our Anabaptist & PMC traditions, 2) our call to be the Kingdom of God, not the Mennonite Kingdom, and 3) a word about staying focused on that kingdom.

            First, let's look at the great treasure of our Anabaptist and PMC histories.  Over 10 years ago, I was at a PMC retreat.  As I remember it, were doing visioning and, in one exercise, we had to go to the value that was the REASON we were at PMC.  It had become clear to me that the Anabaptist values that were present at PMC were Kingdom Values.  They were a treasure that I had finally found in my spiritual quest.  As I went to the card that read something like, "The fact that PMC is Mennonite/Anabaptist," I realized that the other 4 people, standing with me in this minority position were all what we refer to as "ethnically Mennonite."  You also need to realize that, at that time, there were only 4 "ethnic Mennonites" at the church!!  I believe more of us now would identify with being Mennonite either because we attend this Mennonite church or because the values that have been preached, taught, and lived together are values that we consider a treasure. There are many things that have drawn us to PMC, some of which have been brought up on the list serve this week.  Others include: the community, times of prayer and sharing, a place to heal, the vertical and horizontal relationships that are formed, and, I'm sure, many others.  PMC is unique in the Mennonite world in the US, but we still hang on to those rich traditions of peacemaking, community, simplicity, and public witness.  Our world is hungry for these values and we have this treasure to offer.  This is part of the reason for starting the Peace & Justice Academy.  It is a new way to share our treasure with the world.  We see people looking for these values in the emerging church.  We see a new monastic movement that is based in urban centers.  We hear these values coming through in the voices of Shane Claiborne, Greg Boyd, and other young prophetic voices, including many in our own congregation.  But as the world is searching for the values that we see as Anabaptist, we need to show them that we don't live this way because "We're Mennonite" but because Christ calls us to.

            This leads us to our "second thing"-- our call to be the Kingdom of God on earth.  We believe in the treasure that we have not because they are "Mennonite Values", but because they are "Kingdom Values."   Look with me at today's scripture.  We see the "original Jewish Christians" figuring out how to catch up with God's plans to expand the Kingdom.  Previously, in Acts, God had sent Peter to Cornelius, out of his comfort zone, to share the gospel and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom.  As more and more Gentiles heard the gospel, more and more decided that Kingdom living was for them.  Everyone celebrated God's decision.  Except for those who didn't.  Some of the "original' Christians decided that Kingdom living and Cultural identity living were the same thing.  They were open to anyone God brought in, as long as they became the SAME as them.  The Kingdom of God should look like Christ.  Christ's DNA should be in everything.  As we look at our lives today, what is in them that we don't think will be in heaven?  What will be in heaven that is NOT in our lives today?  According to Greg Boyd, author of The Myth of a Christian Nation, "If it won't be in heaven, get rid of it now.  If it will be in heaven, cultivate it now."  We need to focus our lives around the Kingdom of God, everything else is just religion.  In verse 31, we read the response by Christ's followers to the Jerusalem church's ability to let "religion" go and the Kingdom of God grow:  "When its members read it [the letter], they rejoiced at the exhortation."  In The Message, it reads like this: "The people were greatly relieved and pleased."  When you are finally accepted for who you are, without needing to change, there is always rejoicing and relief!!  How do we open space for people who are different?

            The "third thing" is looking at how we keep the value of the treasure without having the treasure itself become an idol for our community.  As we interact with the world, what things are we willing to let go of?  What idols is God calling us to let go of?  As I mentioned earlier, the world is looking for what we have to offer.  Historically, the Kingdom of God has been at its best when the world is at its worst.  As $2.3 Trillion has been lost in retirement savings last year, the world faces a global recession, personal friends, family members, and those in our community have lost jobs, education funding is being cut way, and countless other frightening headlines appear daily, isn't this a time when the Kingdom of God is both appealing and reassuring.  But it is not just a "security blanket," but rather a warning and a mandate to be different than the world.  If our security is in our 401Ks and not in the Kingdom, we are no different than the world.  It is time for the Church Universal, the Mennonite tradition, and PMC to be different than the world.  If we open our doors to the people in our community, we need to be willing to embrace the cultures of those people.  We cannot, as some in the Jerusalem church did, say you are welcome if you become like us.  Christian Unity is not cultural homogeny.  We need to discern corporately and individually which things are the Kingdom Values and invite people to those, but be willing to sacrifice our cultural values, our traditions, our comforts for the sake of the things that will be in the Kingdom.  What things in our congregation, worship, or individual spiritual disciplines have become idols to us?  What things are we holding on to at the expense of Kingdom Values?

            Our "one thing" should be loyalty to Christ and his Kingdom.  As we launch the Peace & Justice Academy, we look for discernment from the community for the Kingdom Values that we want our children and all children to have. 

So, why open a Secondary Mennonite School in Pasadena, when the many of Mennonite children in Pasadena are sitting next to you and most of them are too young for high school? I can only tell you the answer for myself.  As we evaluated and discerned with our community of faith, this is what it came down to:  We, as Christian Anabaptists, have a treasure that is valuable to the larger community.  I was personally convicted, and somewhat surprised, that this was the place and time for my long-held vision to become a reality.  I had always thought God was calling me to do this when I retired.  But the time is now. God's time.  She matched me with a partner in the endeavor that complemented the skills I had been given.  Randy jokes that I AM doing this when I retire…I'm just retiring 20 years early.

As Randy and I attended the Education Leaders Gathering in Pittsburg in February, we spoke with many other school boards.  We listened to other Mennonite Secondary schools talk about their Mennonite population "shrinking" to 60%; we were encouraged by the Holy Spirit.  The message of the meeting to be bold in our distictives as Mennonite Educators was the Word of God confirming our vision.  We realized that this IS a Mennonite School.  It is an opportunity to show Pasadena the treasure of over 6000 years of Judeo-Christian history and 500 years of Anabaptist history combined with modern educational research.  But we do NOT do this because "We're Mennonite."  We do this because God is calling us to.  In a congregation gifted with so many education professionals—both as students AND teachers--- isn't it great that God has called our congregation to open a SCHOOL?   Just as the Early Anabaptists were missional to Christian Nations, we pray this school will be a light for change in our city and our world. 

As we come along together on this journey of educating our children and the children of Pasadena, let us all hold fast to our "one thing." Let us use that "one thing" in every profession we are in, to call our city, nation, and world to being part of the Kingdom of God.