Author: Schertz, Mary H
Date published: November 16, 2010
Sunday, November 21
FIFTY YEARS AGO, when I was growing up as Mennonhe farm girl in central Illinois, I had Catholic playmates, but we never went to each other's churches. I could not have imagined that an international Catholic-Mennonite dialogue would lake place between 1998 and 2003. Twenty-five years ago, when I was discerning a call to teach NewTestament at a denominational seminary in northern Indiana. I still could not have imagined such a dialogue. Ten years ago, when I was beginning a sabbatical at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota and my first foray into the hospitable space of Benedictine spirituality, the international dialogue had moved from imagination into reality. But Rome was far away, and I could not imagine that this dialogue might change my life.
Yet a few weeks ago I was one of the Mennonite respondents at a Catholic-Mennonite day oļ reflection in South Bend, Indiana. Together we were studying a new letter jointly drafted by Mennonite and Catholic members of the international dialogue and addressed to the World Council of Churches' Decade to Overcome Violence. It is a remarkable document in many ways, not least because it states that "we affirm Jesus' teaching and example on nonviolence as normative for Christians." As we gathered that Saturday morning at Si. Matthew's Cathedral, speaker after speaker noted that not only the letter we were discussing but also the friendships that had taken hold among us seemed nothing short of miraculous.
For me, it is the Benedictus, Zechariah's song after the birth of his son in Luke 1:68-79. that throbs beneath, floats above and measures the cadences at the heart of what it means to be a Christian who participates in ecumenical conversation and an American who lives in a time of war. It was at the abbey, when I was praying the morning office with the monks, that the Benedictus began its slow work of formation in my life. It is with lhe Anabaptist Prayer Book (Take Our Moments and Our Days, Vol. 1: Ordinary Time), inconceivable apart from Catholic-Mennonite friendship, that the Benedictus continues to sustain me.
This hymn expresses the rigorous hope that permeates the stories of the birth of two babies in the first part of Luke. The noun salvation occurs three limes in this passage and then not again in the Gospel until the story of Zacchaeus in chapter 19. In the birth of John and the One for whom John will prepare the people, Zechariah perceives that God has visited and "made a redemption" for the people of God. God has raised up a horn of salvation, saved the people from their enemies, performed the mercy promised to the ancestors and remembered the holy covenant. In the mouth of Zechariah, the words of praise and piety become a hymn of fulfillment.
Nor should we overlook the transformation of Zechariah himself as a harbinger of the hope that he proclaims. In the opening verses of Luke 1 , Zechariah's response to the message of his holy visitor is a lack of belief that results in him being silenced for the term of Elizabeth's pregnancy. We do not know what happened in Zechariah's mind and heart during those nine long months. We do know that now, on the day of the baby's circumcision, he is filled with the Spirit and able to speak with joyous and exuberant faith.
But the Benedictus does not stand alone in the Gospel of Luke. It mirrors a text of lamentation. There is a strong resonance or'Janguage between Zechariah's song and Jesus' tears as he weeps over Jerusalem in 19:41-44. Zechariah proclaims that the Lord God of Israel has visited and redeemed the people of Israel. He characterizes the mission of his son as preparation for the day when "the dawn will break on us from on high." This "day" will give light to those who sit in darkness, and it will guide our feet into the way of peace.
In Jesus' lament over Jerusalem in chapter 19. however, the city does not know the "things that make for peace." The people do not recognize the time of their visitation. The day is not a day of light but a day of destruction. For Luke, the tragedy of the human dilemma is that people choose to ignore, resist and reject the messengers that God sends them and that they harden their hearts toward the visitor who brings peace from God.
It is hope and lament thai has brought some peace-minded Catholics and some sacramentally minded Mennonites together as what we call "Bridge folk" after nearly 500 years of distrust-our hope in the God of peace who visits us still and our lament that human brokenness continues as tribe wars against tribe and nation against nation. The technology that allows instant access to people across the globe has not discernibly helped us deal with our fear and distrust of the other. Postmodern relativism, despite its rhetoric of promise, has not measurably increased tolerance in the world. Increasingly we ask what it means to live as Christians in this post-Christian time, in a world that's endangered.
For the healing we need, we cannot do better than to rely on the ancient assurances of Zechariah's hymn. Written in a time of occupation and economic disarray that eclipses our own in its uncertainty, the hymn proclaims that we are indeed free, whatever our brokenness, to worship God without fear. As Bridgefolk attest, it is in worshiping together without fear that we find our way to sturdy and life-giving friendship.
Sunday, November 28
AS A. CHILD, I remember hearing in church about the second coming and Jesus returning. Long before the Left Behind series arrived. I heard the mournful strains of "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" around our church campfires.
One moonlit summer night on my family's farm. I woke up. Enchanted with the rare opportunity to be alone. I wandered around outside. The wind was picking up and a storm was coming in from behind the cedar windbreak. The full moon slid behind a large cloud. It was eerie - and stunningly beautiful. The storm cloud, lit from behind, had a bright center and dark edges. When it broke, the moon sent shafts of light toward the earth. I was pretty sure that Jesus would soon be riding in for his second coming and wondered what he might do if he found only one person out in the field instead of two- so I ran inside to check on my sleeping family. My siblings were all accounted for. but both parents were getting up to close windows in an entirely mundane manner. It was all the answer I required - I went back to bed.
The passage in Matthew contains several small parables of watchfulness. In the days of Noah, the people watched Noah build the ark, collect his menagerie and his family, and go in and shul the door. Yet they then went on with life - until the deluge. The other small parables are similar in tone. Two men are in a field; two women are grinding flour - one of the pair is ready but the other gets left behind.
Jesus gives the point of these parables in 24:42. Disciples should be alert so that they are not taken unaware when the Lord returns to claim his own. Disciples, he goes on to say in 43 and 44. should not be like the householder who relaxes the security of his home because he does not know when the thief might come. Instead, disciples should be like the householder who maintains the integrity of his security at all times.
Whatever role this kind of eschatological thinking played in Jesus' mind and life, or however it functioned for Matthew and his community, contemporary believers rarely find it compelling. In part our unease has to do with a destructive alliance between a politics of fear and certain religious proclivities. Even aside from that unfortunate circumstance, however, we are put off by this rhetoric and these images. They do not seem to fit well with a theology of trust and a sense of the goodness of God's creation. In fact, if these passages did not come up with such regularity in our lectionaries. many of us would ignore them.
Despite the strangeness of these texts to 2 1 st-century ears and hearts, and despite an appropriate caution born of dubious uses, apocalyptic language and eschatological ideas have a role to play in our lives as believers. One reason is that they are part of our sacred text. If we excise all the passages that do not sit well with us, we will domesticate the Bible. We will lose its capacity to be "other." to confront us. to read us as we read it. A second reason is that as we jettison this language and mind-set we largely jettison notions of decision and judgment. That's a problem. Discipleship, even in our setting of entitlement and relativism, is still a matter of commitment and a standard of judgment.
Certainly we are aware of the inadequacies and failures of earlier notions of decision and judgment. We have heard more than enough about God's awful frown. Unremitting divine disapproval is too many people's primary experience of God. Chaplains and hospice workers remind me that many Christians come to the end of life without assurance. If only coming to Jesus were not a matter of fear and all Christians could die with a sense of being wrapped in the arms of God.
The table fellowship that Jesus hosts in the synoptic Gospels is one of the primary settings of and symbols for the grace that God offers. The table is open for all- no one is coerced. The only exclusions are self-exclusions, those who choose not to come. Those who come are transformed. They leave the table as different persons with new instructions, new commitments and new relationships.
Perhaps the image of table fellowship is what finally helps us integrate the apocalyptic and eschatological imagery of the Bible with the unconditional love of God. Our response is required. Human life is not without limits. Without coming to the table and without being open to what happens at the table, we cannot participate in its fellowship. God's unconditional love and human response to that love are not oppositions but integral movements in the dance we know as grace. God's fierce beauty and ever-comforting arms are one.
Discipleship is a matter of decision and of judgment.
The author is Mary H. Schertz. who teaches New Testament at Associated Mennonite Biblical St-niinaiy and is director of the Institute ofMennonitc Studies.